Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, February 5, 2016

Answering Quora - What questions (and answers to these questions) led you to become an atheist, or to denounce your belief in religion?

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismOnce again, I'm going to recycle a Quora answer for this website. This time, the question was, What questions (and answers to these questions) led you to become an atheist, or to denounce your belief in religion? (follow the link to see other people's answers). My answer was similar to things I've said on this site before, but I do like the way this essay turned out.


I can't say there was one single question or moment of epiphany that led me to abandon Christianity, but in hindsight, I think I can identify some of the first major seeds of doubt that led me down that path.

First, let me be clear that prior to becoming an atheist, I was a devout Christian. My family went to church nearly every Sunday. I attended CCD and was an altar boy. We were active in church activities. I read the entire Bible. I prayed privately every night, not to mention innumerable small prayers throughout the day, and truly thought I could feel God's presence when I prayed. I wasn't faking it or just going through the motions. I was very sincere and earnest in my religious beliefs.

Like most Christians, I had minor doubts throughout my life, but I did my best to either rationalize them, or simply push them to the back of my mind and ignore them. I think the big moment for me came when the Intelligent Design movement was around its peak popularity. Prior to that, I'd always accepted the mainstream scientific view of the history of Earth and the rest of the universe. And I rationalized it with the Bible by assuming that the Genesis accounts were figurative, though without ever giving those accounts any real scrutiny. I naively assumed that most other Christians also accepted mainstream science, and that it was only fringe types that took creationism seriously as a literal story. It was the Intelligent Design movement that finally made me aware of the extent of creationism. And that realization made me wonder if I was being a bad Christian by accepting the scientific view of the history of the planet & the universe when so many other Christians were saying that you had to accept creationism. So, I began to research the topic from both points of view, particularly in biology. I learned a whole lot more about evolution than what I was ever taught in high school biology class, and I read various creationist websites to see their arguments. Needless to say, there's a reason why evolution is so overwhelmingly accepted in the scientific community, so this only strengthened my acceptance of the scientific viewpoint. And the outlandish and many times dishonest arguments put out by the creationists greatly tarnished the reputation of Christians in my view.

But, that wasn't enough by itself to make me leave my faith. After all, I'd already accepted the mainstream scientific view prior to that - I just didn't realize how many other Christians didn't. So, with a bit of hubris, I thought I might be able to reconcile this conflict. I decided to study the Bible even more closely to figure out the best way to reconcile it with reality, since by this point I was aware that my figurative interpretation was a bit strained. I didn't read the Bible cover to cover again, but I did focus in on certain areas, read commentaries and studies by others, and allowed myself to notice and acknowledge the contradictions that my faith didn't allow me to see clearly before. And I'm not just talking about Genesis Chapter 1 vs. science, but all the books, including the discrepancies in the Gospels. I eventually came to realize that the Bible wasn't divinely inspired, but even this wasn't enough to make me abandon my faith. After all, there's no logical requirement that the Bible has to be divinely inspired in order for God to exist. But at this point, having gone so far as to question the divine inspiration of the Bible, I was well on the path to questioning all of Christianity.

There were a few other big questions & issues that happened somewhat simultaneously with the above. The first was how the Bible dealt with homosexuality. From secular ethics, I could see nothing wrong with homosexuality. It was just something two people did that didn't affect anyone else. Further, it seems almost certain that people's sexuality is innate, and people don't choose who they're attracted to (not that sexuality is necessarily purely genetic, but some result of development that we have no conscious control over). So, if homosexuality wasn't all that wrong, and people had no choice in who they were attracted to, how could a just God condemn it so vehemently, and have commanded punishments as harsh as stonings?

Another question was the whole concept of Hell. This one actually predated my investigation of the creationism vs. reality debate, but I didn't let myself fully consider it until I was questioning everything about religion. I recall reading a book by Douglas Adams while I was still a Christian. It was after Adams had died, and I remember feeling so bad that a man that good could be suffering in Hell because he was an atheist and hadn't accepted Jesus. It made me lament all the countless others who would suffer similar fates. At the time, I blamed Adams - how could he have been so stupid as to not accept Jesus, knowing the consequences. Later, once I'd begun to question things, I wondered how a supposedly loving god could inflict that type of punishment on anyone, let alone for a crime as minor as disbelief.

And granted, those issues about homosexuality and Hell are arguments from consequences, or emotional appeals, rather than evidence. After all, there's no reason a god would have to be fair or just or loving. But they certainly made me question the traditional representation of the Christian God.

The final issue wasn't a question about religion, but a life change for me. I became a father. I hadn't fully abandoned my faith, yet, but with the responsibility of raising my daughter, I wanted to be damn sure that I raised her properly and didn't teach her falsehoods or indoctrinate her the way I had been simply out of tradition. So, that gave me extra motivation to look deeper at religion and try to get to the bottom of it.

Of course, that's far from the full extent of the questions and issues I considered. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I'll include a link to a collection of essays I wrote during my process of deconversion, Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays. But the original question was about the issues that led me to become an atheist, and those were the initial ones that put me on the path to leaving religion behind.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Answering Quora - Thought Experiment: Pretend that the Triune God of the Bible actually exists in reality. What would such a Being owe you, and why?

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI've once again used up my lunch breaks this week writing on Quora, so I'm going to recycle an answer for this blog entry. One Quora user posted the following question as a thought experiment, Pretend that the Triune God of the Bible actually exists in reality. What would such a Being owe you, and why? Below is my response, with a few edits from my original Quora answer.


First of all, this is a bit difficult to answer because the God of the Bible isn't a totally consistent character. I mean, just in physical representation, he goes from a very anthropomorphic god with somewhat limited powers and knowledge in Genesis (he walked in the Garden of Eden and had to go physically visit Sodom to see for himself how the people were behaving), to more of a disembodied all powerful spirit in later books. He also exhibits different personality traits, sometimes being very vindictive and doling out group punishment for the sins of individuals (like the plagues of Egypt harming even the slaves, even though it was the Pharaoh who Yahweh had his disagreement with - not to mention the hardening of Pharaoh's heart to prolong the suffering), other times saying everyone will be punished or rewarded for their own actions, and other times saying it's only faith that determines our fate and not our actions at all. So, which 'God of the Bible' are we going with? And then, you have to figure out how much of God's actions/behaviors you're willing to accept as givens in answering this question.

So, let's just start out with creation (assuming a literal creation for this thought experiment). At that point, having created new sentient beings with no experiences of their own and no culture to guide them, Yahweh would have an obligation to help them get things set up. Just imagine it as a mad scientist on Earth creating artificial life and setting it loose on a deserted island. You'd expect him to teach that life how to survive, probably set them up with some shelter and tools, suggest some rules of ethics, maybe give them a constitution and some form of government, etc.

Then, I can see it going two ways, still using our mad scientist as an analogy. He could just step back and not interfere at all after that, owing them nothing, but also expecting nothing in return. He could leave these beings on their own, free to develop their society as they saw fit, modifying their laws and ethics as they developed themselves. Or, he could continue to give them a hand and advice in running things, since he has a lot more experience to draw from. But, he still shouldn't expect anything in return. These beings didn't ask to be created. He didn't do them a favor by creating them. He acted of his own accord to create them. He's the one that put them in the position of having to figure out how to live their lives.

Let's go along further with assuming that he is the intervening type. And further, that he's going to reward the people who follow the rules he laid down, and punish the people who don't. First, he would owe us ethical rules. No arbitrary rules like not wearing clothes with mixed fibers, and no cruel rules like ordering parents to stone disobedient children, or ordering communities to stone homosexuals. And the whole animal sacrifice thing would be out. (Note, read about the Euthyphro dilemma for a discussion of why gods can't dictate morality by fiat.) Second, he would owe us an unambiguous declaration of the rules he expects us to follow - nothing like the Bible with all its contradictions and translation/transmission errors. I mean, just imagine our mad scientist giving his created beings a hodge podge of rules as confusing as the Bible, written in a language other than their native language, and then going out and punishing the ones who made mistakes. It would be horrible.

Let's take this intervention further, and even though it shouldn't be the case in a fair universe, that he does expect worship, and that he's going to reward the people most faithful to him, and punish the people who don't worship him. In that case, I think he would at least owe a clear, unambiguous demonstration to every generation that he does actually exist so that we can be sure which religion to follow. If our mad scientist tried to demand worship, the first thing we'd do is consider him an amoral narcissist. But if he kept himself hidden entirely, and never made any personal appearances, or even television appearances or interviews, and then sent out secret police to find and torture citizens of his island nation who wondered whether he'd died since nobody ever saw him anymore, we'd think he was a monster.

For the last thing I'm going to consider, let's take this punishment further - not just the finite punishments of the Old Testament God, but the eternal damnation to Hell of the New Testament God. First of all, I'd say that we were owed not to have to worry about a punishment like that to begin with. It's barbaric. If our mad scientist wanted to pull out the nuclear option on his private island, banishment would seem to be enough, rather than actual torture. And there's no need for a dichotomy. If he wanted to reward especially good beings, he could give them special treatment without actually punishing all the rest. If God were real, and heaven were only for his most faithful, I think we'd be owed at least a third option in the afterlife of mere existence without the torture of Hell, or even a fourth option of simply ceasing to exist, which would still be preferrable to eternal torment. And why would a punishment have to be eternal, anyway? And like before, assuming this is all real, I think we'd be owed clear, unambiguous evidence that Hell is a possible fate awaiting us, not just some myth like so many other myths in human history (like trying to learn the trials described in the Egyptian Book of the Dead so we'll be prepared for that possible afterlife).

To sum up, if there actually were a creator god, once he (he and not she because it's the Biblical God) made sure society was up and running, I don't think he'd really owe us anything, but I don't think he could really expect people to owe him anything in return. Assuming he was going to demand worship and dole out rewards and punishments, especially a punishment as barbaric as Hell, I think he'd owe us clear evidence of his existence, and clear documentation of his expectations and rules. Basically, he should act like a decent, ethical being.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Response to Ben Carson's Creation vs. Evolution Video

Note: for a list of all my Carson related entries, go here.

Ben CarsonThis is my third entry inspired by a speech Carson gave a few years ago, but was just posted to YouTube in June of this year. The first entry was Ben Carson Being Noticed by Popular Science Writers, where I mostly described popular science writers' reactions to the video. Then next entry was Yet Another Look at Ben Carson's Views on Evolution - His Creation vs. Evolution Speech, where I mostly explained why this speech made Carson unfit for the presidency. But I didn't really rebut Carson's misinformation in either of those entries. I merely stated how wrong he was, without demonstrating it. That actually was on purpose, since as I wrote in that second entry, "I'm tempted to go into a point by point refutation of Carson, but there are so many falsehoods and misunderstandings, it would make this post extremely long." But, since I know not everybody studies evolution as much as I like to, I realize that not everybody might understand just how wrong Carson is in this video, so I have decided to do a more detailed rebuttal to his claims. Even ignoring politics, this is an opportunity to educate people on some common creationist misconceptions. Like I expected, this has made for a very long post.

First, just to repeat a theme I've written in both of those previous entries, the aspect of this video that's so damning of Carson isn't merely his ignorance of evolutionary theory, but that he was unable to recognize his own ignorance on the issue, and that despite this ignorance, he was arrogant enough to give a prepared lecture to a crowd of people. As I wrote in the second entry, "Most of us are ignorant about a whole range of issues, but we don't go around giving speeches about those issues." How can we trust Carson to recognize his own limitations?

I know this is a long entry. In fact, some individual answers could stand as their own entries. But I decided to address Carson's mistakes on evolution comprehensively, and he had so many mistakes. On the plus side, many of these mistakes are common creationist mistakes not limited to Carson, so addressing them comprehensively does offer an opportunity to educate others. But, if you want to just skim over this entry and only read the portions that catch your eye, that's understandable.

To keep this entry from growing even longer than it is, I mostly limited myself to discussing evolution, even though Carson discussed a few more topics. However, a few of his statements on those other topics were just too tempting to pass up, so they're discussed here, too.

Continue reading "A Response to Ben Carson's Creation vs. Evolution Video" »

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Thoughts on the Removal of the Okalahoma Ten Commandments Monument - From Cowboy Churches to Silly Memes

Ten Commandments Monument RemovalIt's been a few weeks now since the monument of the Ten Commandments at the Oklahoma Capitol has been removed. But a story that just made the headlines here locally has reminded me of it, Local pastor plans to deliver Commandments on horseback. That's right. A pastor from Wichita Falls, John Riggs, upset by the Supreme Court decision that the statue must be removed, is going to personally deliver a hand-held sized granite tablet to the governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, who herself opposed the removal of the monument. Apparently, Riggs thinks that Christianity is under attack in the U.S., that "The ACLU is trying to wipe it out." Riggs "never thought we would have to defend our Christianity, especially here in the Heartland. It's a sad day in America." Yes - it's terribly sad when the Supreme Court upholds the First Amendment's establishment clause, and doesn't let politicians impose their religious beliefs on their entire constituency.

In another article, Cowboy Church takes 10 Commandments to Capitol by horse, Riggs further explained his motivation.

We're going back to the grassroots, because it's not easy, but we want people to know we need to go back and not forward. Go back to things we've left behind, which is primarily one nation under God.

I understand nostalgia, but one thing our country doesn't need to do is go backwards, turning back all the progress that's been made. When the country was founded, women couldn't vote, while black people could be owned as property. After the Civil War, at least slavery was illegal, but Jim Crow laws kept black people disenfranchised for generations. It wasn't until the '50s and '60s that the Civil Rights Movement finally got these laws overturned. Universal women's suffrage wasn't enacted in the U.S. until 1919 - over a century after the ratification of the Constitution. And it's only been this very year that marriage equality has been extended to homosexual couples. And that's not even addressing issues like poverty rate, violent crime, literacy, or any other host of factors that show that the modern day U.S. is a much better time to be alive for most Americans. Progress isn't always inevitable or smooth, and there are troubling trends right now that do need to be addressed (like income & wealth inequality), but at least that progress has happened.

Well, Briggs and the others traveling with him plan to make it to Oklahoma some time tomorrow. We'll see if they make any more headlines.

Related to this monument removal, I saw a really bad 'meme'* the other day on Facebook. I now forgot whose Facebook feed I saw it on, but I came across it again on Ed Brayton's Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Here it is:

Stupid Meme

That image would have it seem that in the name of secularism, the U.S. is destroying religious iconography in exactly the same way as radical Islamists are destroying iconography from other religions. What that meme conveniently leaves out is the same scene from just a bit later:

Ten Commandments Monument Removal

Those damn destructive secularists seem to be taking awfully good care of that religious monument. And according to the New York Times article from which that picture was taken, the monument is currently standing, intact, just a few blocks away.

The meme also leaves out the history of this particular monument. It wasn't installed until 2012**, when the lawmakers of Oklahoma already knew it was controversial and that they'd likely face legal challenges. It's not some timeless artifact, but a very recent breach of the separation of church and state.

Anyway, I'm glad the monument was removed from public property, and I'm glad it was done in such a way that the people who like the monument can save it and put it up somewhere else, as long as that somewhere else is private property, not government property.

Thumbnail Image Source:

*The scare quotes around meme are because I prefer the original definition of the term coined by Dawkins.

**Actually, the monument being removed is a replacement, installed in 2014, after the original was destroyed when a man crashed his car into it. Of course, it should go without saying that even though I disapproved of the monument in the first place, I strenuously disapproved of somebody intentionally destroying it.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Ben Carson Being Noticed by Popular Science Writers

Ben CarsonI've been pointing out Ben Carson's anti-intellectual stances in regards to science for a while, now (you can see all my Carson entries here). But just recently, he seems to have caught the attention of many popular science writers. This seems to have a lot to do with a recent YouTube video, which I've embedded below. More specifically, it seems to have a lot to do wtih a Buzzfeed article commenting on the video, Ben Carson: Big Bang A Fairy Tale, Theory Of Evolution Encouraged By The Devil. The video is a speech Carson gave back in 2011, but which was just uploaded this year. It was posted by Adventist News Network, who pretty much agreed with everything Carson was saying. In other words - as bad as the video makes Carson look, they weren't intentionally trying to embarrass him.

I've seen a spate of articles and blog entries about Carson recently that seem to coincide with that Buzzfeed piece. The most prominent article was in The New Yorker, and was written by Lawrence Krauss, Ben Carson's Scientific Ignorance. Being a physicist and cosmologist himself, Krauss commented mostly on Carson's mangling of the Big Bang theory and the history of the universe. Here's what Krauss had to say after quoting a particularly bad series of statements by Carson.

It is hard to find a single detailed claim in his diatribe that is physically sensible or that reflects accurate knowledge about science. His central claim--that the second law of thermodynamics rules out order forming in the universe after the Big Bang--is a frequent misstatement made by creationists who want to appear scientifically literate. In reality, it is completely false.

Krauss went on to address many of Carson's erroneous statements, giving real explanations for many of Carson's misunderstandings. Towards the end of the article, Krauss moved past simply correcting Carson, and presented some commentary that I agree with completely:

It is one thing to simply assert that you don't choose to believe the science, in spite of a mountain of data supporting it. It's another to mask your ignorance in such a disingenuous way, by using pseudo-scientific, emotion-laden arguments and trading on your professional credentials. Surely this quality, which reflects either self-delusion or, worse still, a willingness to intentionally deceive others, is of great concern when someone is vying for control of the nuclear red button.

On his website, Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne wrote his own entry on Carson, Ben Carson on evolution: an ignorant (or duplicitous) Presidential candidate. Coyne himself is a biologist, and so the bulk of his article was devoted to correcting Carson's untrue remarks on evolution. He did offer a bit of commentary, though such as his introductory paragraph.

I don't care how good a surgeon Ben Carson was (and he was reportedly a terrific one), he's still pig-ignorant when it comes to evolution, geology, and cosmology. And that ignorance--regardless of whether he doesn't know the facts, knows them but eludes them and is lying for Jesus, or truly believes that the facts support creation ex nihilo--makes him unqualified to be President. For the first possibility means he's uninformed (especially as a doctor); the second means he's dishonest; and the third means he's blinded to reality by his fundamentalist faith, Seventh Day Adventism.

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy also got in on the act, writing Ben Carson: Evolution is Satanic and the Big Bang Is a Fairy Tale. Here was the introduction to his article.

At one point in time, GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson may have been best known as an excellent, even groundbreaking, neurosurgeon. In recent years, though, he's done everything he can to throw that reputation away.

Plait had references to a lot of Carson's statements, not just the 2011 speech, as well as a lot of information refuting Carson's claims. Of course, being the Bad Astronomy website, Plait focused on the Big Bang, but he also spent a bit of time on evolution. After explaining how he tries to be polite when dealing with rank and file creationists, Plait went on to say this.

I take a different stance when it's a politician who espouses these views, especially when he's running for the highest office in America. If someone wants to run this country, then he better show that he has a solid grasp on reality. Dismissing and actively denigrating strongly understood science--whether it's astronomy, biology, or climatology--is at the very least cause to dump him.

Although he can be a bit brash for many readers, I'll also mention P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula, who wrote You don't have to be smart to be an MD. He wasn't insulting medical doctors in general, but making the valid point that expertise in one field, even particularly noteworthy expertise like Carson's in pediatric neurosurgery, doesn't translate to expertise in other fields. Here were Myers' closing remarks.

Being a neurosurgeon doesn't preclude being knowledgeable, but clearly we have to overcome this bias of using an MD degree as a proxy for intelligence. / Fortunately, Ben Carson is working hard to demolish that preconception.

I know I've been writing quite a bit about Ben Carson recently. But now it seems that notable science writers are starting to pay more attention to him, as well. So, if you want to see what other people have to say about the man, as well as corrections to his mangling of science by people actually in the fields he's criticizing, go read those articles.


Added 2015-10-02: I finally took the time to watch that whole video embedded in this post, and not just rely on the excerpts that other people have provided. Wow. And I do mean wow. I'd read short interviews of Carson's beliefs on evolution, and some of the comments he's made, but they don't illustrate the depth of his ignorance and arrogance like this video. This was a 40 minute speech, a prepared speech that he had time to research, where he knew the topic ahead of time. This was not an off the cuff remark, or an answer to an interview question he wasn't expecting. This was a neurosurgeon, with the respect that goes along with that profession, giving a presentation to an entire crowd of people. And this speech is what he came up with.

His misunderstandings and ignorance of evolution are absolutely appalling, worse than I would expect from a high school biology student. So many of his misconceptions could have been cleared up just by reading a popular introduction to evolution, like Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, or Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. If he was too cheap to buy a book, he could have gone to the Internet and sites like The TalkOrigins Archive. His misunderstandings of astronomy and cosmology were equally egregious, not to mention his mangling of a few other topics he brought up.

Now, this type of ignorance on its own is forgivable in most people (though I would expect a surgeon who had to study biology to be a bit more knowledgeable, and I'd certainly expect presidential candidates to have good enough educations to understand basic science). What makes it so bad in Carson's case is that despite his dreadful ignorance, he was still arrogant enough to give a 40 minute speech to an audience who trusted that he was knowledgeable on the topic. That attitude on Carson's part is the worst part of this. Most people are ignorant about a whole range of issues, but we don't go around giving speeches about those issues. And if we were invited to talk about something we didn't know about, we'd at least do some research on it. It just boggles the mind that Carson felt he was qualified to speak on a topic about which he is so obviously completely ignorant.


Selling Out