Skepticism, Religion Archive

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: UlizaLinks.co.ke


*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.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What Really Caused the Civil War?

Civil War SoldiersI remember being taught in my history classes back in my school days that the primary cause of the Civil War was slavery. But as I got older, I saw a lot more contrarian views that said it was about other issues, like states rights, tariffs, or other economic issues. This topic has come up a lot more recently with the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and I even had a conversation with a friend who thinks the Civil War was mainly caused by tariffs. Looking at the survey results in a Pew article, Civil War at 150: Still Relevant, Still Divisive, nearly 48% of people think the war was primarily about states's rights, with only 38% thinking it was primarily about slavery.

Had I been misled all those years in history class? It wouldn't be the first time school had gotten something wrong. I decided to look into it, and what better source is there than the secession documents the states themselves wrote listing their justifications for seceding from the U.S. ? Below is a link to the full text of the secession documents from Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. These are the official reasons those states themselves gave for seceding.

Civil War Trust - The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States

If you go through and read those documents, there's one primary issue that jumps out as being repeated over and over - slavery. Even when the documents discuss states' rights, it's in the context of slave-holding vs. non-slave-holding states, or as a rationale of why the states should be allowed to secede. But if the seceding southerners themselves are to be believed, slavery was the primary reason for their secession.

Here are a few highlights from the various documents. First, here are the first two sentences from Georgia:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

Here're the first two paragraphs from the Mississippi document:

In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

South Carolina mentioned 'slaveholding States' in the first paragraph, but most of its introduction was about the states rights justification for being allowed to secede. But after that, all their reasons for wanting to leave are slavery related. Here's one of those paragraphs (note the way it callously refers to owning slaves as 'rights of property'):

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

The Texas document started off with a little background on Texas's admission into the U.S., and had a couple paragraphs about the federal government not providing sufficient security, but the bulk is about slavery. Here's an especially bad paragraph:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

The Virginia document was very short, without much justification given for why they were seceding. The first paragraph was about the extent of their justification. Note that it does specifically mention 'Southern Slaveholding States'.

The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.

Now, it's true that the full causes of the war are a little more complicated than that. While the north (i.e. the United States) was generally opposed to slavery, I'm not sure most people were so opposed that there was majority support to go to war over it. Many in the north supported the war to maintain the country. But it's rather clear that the primary cause for secession in the south was slavery.

---

As an aside, I'll mention how I personally feel about this shameful aspect of our nation's history. Although I grew up in 'Yankee' states, I have ancestors from southern states, so I have heritage from both sides of the war. And while there are lots of aspects of my heritage I'm proud of, this certainly isn't one of them. When I see the Confederate flag, the feeling I get is what I'd imagine a German has when they see the Nazi flag. Slavery was a horrible, disgraceful institution, responsible for untold suffering through this country's history, culminating in a population of 4 million slaves at its peak. That slavery was ever practiced here is bad enough, but that it took a war to bring it to an end, that there were people willing to fight to the death to defend their right to own other human beings, is simply shameful.

We shouldn't necessarily demonize the people of the past, recognizing the Zeitgeist that permeated the culture ("no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit"). But we definitely shouldn't celebrate that part of our history, with monuments and memorials to the leaders of that shameful period, nor by proudly displaying any symbols of the Confederacy. That's not to say those symbols should be hidden and forgotten about. They should be maintained in museums. Slavery and the Civil War are a part of our history, and like the concentration camps in Germany, they must be remembered to remind ourselves of what normal people are capable of in the wrong circumstances, guarding against similar atrocities in the future.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Archives

Selling Out