Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, February 9, 2018

Response to Email - The New Lord's Prayer

Praying HandsI recently received the type of chain email that I couldn't resist responding to. It was titled "new Lord's prayer....awesome", but it was really a play on Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, not the Lord's Prayer. At any rate, it was all about how students supposedly aren't allowed to express themselves religiously in schools any more (and for good measure it threw in some of the sinful things they are allowed to do).

Just to give a taste, here is the first stanza of the poem. The full email can be found below the fold.

Now I sit me down in school
Where praying is against the rule
For this great nation under God
Finds mention of Him very odd

This poem simply doesn't reflect the law. Here's an article from the Washington Post explaining the issues:
Can students pray in public schools? Can teachers say 'Merry Christmas'? What's allowed -- and what's forbidden.

For something more official, here's the guidance from the U.S. Department of Education:
Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools

In fact, here's a short excerpt from the DoE page:

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer. Accordingly, the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by private individuals, and the line between government-sponsored and privately initiated religious expression is vital to a proper understanding of the First Amendment's scope. As the Court has explained in several cases, "there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect."

In shorter terms, teachers, principals, and other government employees can't push religion while on the clock and representing the government (though they're free to do so on their own time), while students are perfectly free to exercise their religious rights, including praying or reading the Bible.

Invariably, there will be isolated incidents of schools not understanding the law and restricting students' rights, but these are usually curtailed pretty quickly. Multiple examples can be found on the ACLU's website. It's just that cases of government employees overstepping the law by improperly endorsing religion are far more common than government employees overstepping the law by restricting the free practice of religion.
ACLU Defense of Religious Practice and Expression in Public Schools

I'd also note that events like See You at the Pole are not rare. You can go to their Facebook page to see photos of students from all across the country gathering to pray on school campuses. Here are some photos specifically from Old High here in Wichita Falls. And here's a photo from my high school Alma mater up in 'liberal' Maryland. And on a personal level, at all of the high school graduations I've been to in recent years for nieces, nephews, family friends, and my daughter, there's always been at least one student speech religious in nature or including a prayer.

Finally, here's an open letter from an evangelical Christian as food for thought (on World Net Daily of all places), Why I'm Against Pre-Game Prayers. Basically, he was in a community where Buddhism was the predominant religion, so a Buddhist prayer was recited at the Friday night high school football game. It gave him a completely different perspective on what it's like to not be part of the majority religion when prayers are offered at public school events.

Image Source: Wikimedia

Continue reading "Response to Email - The New Lord's Prayer" »

Friday, September 29, 2017

Creationists' Weird Concepts of Hyper-Evolution

Note: This entry adapted from Quora.

While some creationists may be of the sort convinced by the saying, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it," many more want to show that the their beliefs are rational and supported by evidence. In this search for rational explanations, many of the more intellectual creationists actually do accept evolution in certain forms, though they'll often refuse to say so. For example, here's an example from Answers in Genesis, Speciation, Yes; Evolution, No. The title says it all. The writer comes out and says that certain phenomena that are part of evolution actually occur, but then denies that this is 'evolution'.

It even included this figure:

AiG 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source: Answers in Genesis, Click to embiggen

It looks almost like the branching pattern you see in mainstream biology textbooks, with the big difference being that they've decided to stop going back any further than the 'kinds' that were created in the Garden of Eden.

In fact, for creationists who take the Noah's Ark story seriously, and have given any thought at all to what it would take to fit representatives of all the world's animals on the ark, it becomes very obvious that there's no possible way to fit every single species. So, they focus on the word 'kind', claiming that kind is more akin to families instead of species, and that Noah only had to take representatives of the different kinds. Then, once the flood waters dried up, the descendants of those rescued animals would go on to 'adapt' (not evolve, of course) into many new species.

Here's another example from Answers in Genesis, this one from the page, Reimagining Ark Animals.

AiG - Cat 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source: Answers in Genesis, Click to embiggen

Yes. Creationists are proposing that all living cats have a common ancestor.

And here are a few photos people took at The Creation Museum:

AiG Horse 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source:, Click to embiggen

Image Source: - Creation Museum Part 5

AiG Dog 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source:, Click to embiggen

These particular creationists are proposing some rather large 'adaptations' over the generations.

Granted, it does get a little hard to explain creationist rationale since it's not always fully coherent. For example, in that first article I linked to (Speciation, Yes; Evolution, No), the writer says that this type of adaptation is possible thanks to a large gene pools with already existing variation. In fact, I'll include one last figure to show the claim:

AiG 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source: Answers in Genesis

And creationists are very fond of saying that no new information can be created through genetic mutation. But look at the types of adaptation Answers in Genesis was proposing for all those animals after the flood. Even with clean animals that had 7 pairs instead of just 1 pair, there's no way their genomes would have had all the variation necessary to produce the varied offspring Answers in Genesis is claiming. And the time scales they're proposing (remember - the flood was only a few thousand years ago) are far more rapid than anything from actual science. It's almost funny that the creationists who deny 'evolution' so vehemently, go on to propose this type of hyper evolution.

But even with this hyper evolution, creationists claim that adaptation can only go so far, and that animals of a certain kind will only ever go on to have descendants of the same kind, as if there's some kind of magic stop sign in the genome.

Anyway, many creationists don't actually deny certain evolutionary principles. In fact, many creationists amp those principles up to 11 to deal with other inconvenient facets of creationism. But, they'll steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that it's 'evolution'. I mean, one breeding pair of cats evolving into lions, tigers, ocelots, bobcats, jaguars, and all the other cats in a mere 6000 years is perfectly reasonable. But a common ancestor between cats and dogs would just be silly.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Parable of Puppies and God

PuppyImagine that you have a puppy that you know likes to chew on garden hoses (yes, that's personal experience). You've tried training him, and maybe he's even been getting better, but you know he's still not perfect. Well, you've been using the hose for a day's worth of chores in the back yard. And when you're all finished up with the chores, you see the hose laying out, and it crosses your mind that if you leave the puppy unattended in the backyard, there's a good chance he's going to chew on the hose and ruin it. But you're tired and don't really feel like rolling up the hose, so you take your chances. You go inside to relax in the a/c and have a beer or two, while you leave the puppy playing outside. Well, later that night, you go out to find the hose destroyed because the puppy chewed on it. Is the puppy really entirely to blame for the situation? Sure, what he did was wrong, and he was disobedient to the way you'd been training him. But you knew that was one of the puppy's shortcomings, and you left the hose out there, anyway. The whole situation could have been avoided if you'd just put the hose away and not tempted the puppy.

The Bible tells the story of an all knowing and all powerful god, who created a garden of paradise with everything every creature would ever need. And he created humans, knowing their faults even better than you knew the puppy's (faults that he must have created on purpose, since he is, after all, all knowing and all powerful). And then, this god put the one thing that could wreck the entire situation right in the middle of the garden - the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And then, he just tells these innocents not to eat from it. Hell, he hadn't even given his newly created humans any sense of good and evil, because they could only get that by eating from the tree. He didn't even put a fence around it! Oh, and he also created a serpent that he must have had a good idea would try to tempt his humans.

So, the 'unexpected' (cough, cough) happened, and the humans were tempted into eating the fruit of this tree. And God found out. Now, if you found a ruined hose that your puppy had chewed, you might be tempted to scold him or yell at him. But you sure as hell wouldn't physically injure the dog. But what did God do? He cursed ALL women, not just the one who ate the fruit, to have painful childbirth, and to be ruled over by their husbands. And he cursed ALL men to endless days of toil. And, he kicked humanity out of the garden. And according to certain fundamentalist religions, the Fall precipitated all manner of other negative consequences on the whole universe. And remember, this was supposed to be an all knowing God. So, unless he was completely incompetent, it seems like he was setting Adam and Eve up for failure on purpose.

And it doesn't get any better. Throughout the rest of the Bible, there are all types of other examples of this character acting cruelly - the massacre of Noah's flood, the plagues of Egypt (remember, God himself hardened Pharaoh's heart on several occasions to prolong this suffering just so that God could show off - and he punished all Egyptians, even their slaves), Job, the genocides when the Israelites conquered the promised land, and worst of all, Hell to punish souls for eternity for finite sins.

In the Bible, God is always the source of the worst suffering and atrocities in the stories. Sure, the stories are told from the point of view of people afraid of that god and groveling lest they suffer even more, but it's pretty clear who the Big Bad is. From a reality viewpoint, I'm not mad at God, because God's not real. But in the framework of the fictional stories written about him, God's the villain, and you would like to see him get his comeuppance (which, thanks to another fictional story, His Dark Materials, we do finally get to see).

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


This entry was adapted from a Quora answer, How mad are atheists at God, on a scale of 1 to 10?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Responding to Article - Atheists Aren't Dogmatic

eSkepticThe latest issue of Skeptic magazine had an article with a few things I disagree with. Skeptic recently shared the article in their eSkeptic section, so you can read it even if you aren't a member of the Skeptics Society. Here's the link:

The Three Shades of Atheism: How Atheists Differ in Their Views on God

The authors conducted a survey to try to help categorize atheist beliefs and the percentage of atheists with those beliefs. They came up with 4 categories to characterize atheist responses. Unfortunately, I think their categories are flawed.

Gnostic-Atheism: Any explicit or implied characterization of the participant's position as certain or definite.

Agnostic-Atheism: Any effort made to distinguish between a "belief" and "knowledge" position; or participants who indicate that they are open to evidence: they describe their belief as malleable and open to changing based on new information, evidence, or "proof."

Ambivalent-Atheism: Any use of the phrase "I don't know" or "I am not sure," or similar characterizations of belief, without further explanation.

Other: Any statement that does not fit the criteria of the other categories.

The problem is, their definitions for 'gnostic-atheism' and 'agnostic-atheism' aren't mutually exclusive. You can be certain of something based on all the evidence you've seen so far, but still open to changing your mind if new evidence comes to light. I discussed this in detail in my essay, Confidence in Scientific Knowledge, so for this entry, let's just look at a few other knowledge claims as examples.

  • I am certain the Earth revolves around the Sun. However, if somebody showed me convincing evidence to the contrary (and it would take a hell of a lot of evidence at this point), I could be convinced to change my mind.
  • I am certain that the American Revolution took place in the late 1700s. However, with sufficient evidence, I could be convinced to believe that all of our history books were wrong.
  • I am certain garden fairies don't exist. However, I could be swayed by convincing evidence.

As long as we're using language in the normal way, 'certain' just means very, very high confidence. And there are lots of things were reasonably certain about, but could be convinced to change our minds on given sufficient contrary evidence.

The conclusion was especially galling:

Gnostic-theists would be individuals who equate their beliefs with facts, dogmatically insisting that they have positive knowledge of God's existence. Agnostic-theists would be individuals who accept the distinction between belief and knowledge, thereby demonstrating a degree of skepticism about their own position, and would indicate that their belief is based on faith, intuition, or an interpretation of natural phenomena. A 5-level, bipolar scale relating theistic and atheistic beliefs would be:
  1. Gnostic-Atheism
  2. Agnostic-Atheism
  3. Nonbelief
  4. Agnostic-Theism
  5. Gnostic-Theism

The scale represents maximum darkness at both ends, the domains of dogmatic thinking. Maintaining a skeptical attitude toward one's own beliefs can be a challenge but, as the achievements of science have shown, it is a better route to enlightenment.

Were any of my previous examples 'dogmatic'? Is it dogmatic to be certain the Earth orbits the Sun? Is it dogmatic to be certain that fairies don't exist? Is it dogmatic to be certain that leprechauns aren't real? Is it dogmatic to be certain magic unicorns are just fantasy? Why, out of all the mythical and imagined possibilities dreamt up by humans, do gods get treated differently, and why does saying you're reasonably certain that gods don't exist get you labeled 'dogmatic'?

Image Source: Skeptics Society eSkeptic


Related Reading:
Answer to the Question - How sure are you that your atheism is correct?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Response to E-mail on the Pledge of Allegiance

I recently received an email forward with the subject, 'THIS SHOULD NOT BE TOLERATED!!---WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE!!!...' It was about Congressman supposedly refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, with the writer outraged, and proposing that those Congress members weren't fit to serve.

I couldn't resist replying. So, here's the original email and my response. Note that I cleaned up the text formatting a bit (it was large, bold, and multi-colored), and reduced the image size (though you can click on it to get the full size version, if you're really that curious).

The Original Email

If they won't stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance,

In my opinion...they have no place in our Congress!...

New York state senators protesting session
Any member of the house or senate that refuses to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in the Chambers should be escorted out by the Sergeant of Arms until they comply If your allegiance is not with this country and our flag, just who is it with?

Why don't we ask someone like Minnesota's Muslim congressman Keith Ellison!

Let's cut off their pay -- and all benefits. Give the ingrates two days to decide to retire or be impeached!

The Facts:

  • That's a photo from the New York State Senate, not the U.S. Senate or the House.
  • The photo is from 2009, not recently
  • The seated state senators were protesting the session itself, and the political wrangling that had led to it, not the Pledge
  • The seated senators normally stand for the Pledge during normal, non-controversial sessions

My Commentary:

This photo doesn't have much to do with the commentary in the email, but I'll still add my two cents to that commentary.

I see this issue from multiple sides, and I'm kind of conflicted, myself. On the one hand, I'm note a huge fan of the Pledge to begin with. Forced loyalty oaths are for totalitarian governments, not the land of the free. Besides, Congressmen and Senators already take an oath when they first take office. If they're honest and will support the country, one oath should be enough. If they're not honest and patriotic, it doesn't matter how many times they repeat the Pledge - it's just empty words.

On the other hand, the Eagle Scout in me does get upset when people disrespect symbols of this nation. But then I go back to recognizing that everyone has their First Amendment rights to express themselves however they want. I mean, I just recently saw the clip of Donald Trump hugging an American flag at a rally (The Hill). And I'll be honest, it infuriated me. Talk about disrespect. He was treating the U.S. flag as a prop, not as a solemn symbol of our nation and all those who have fought and died to defend it. Has he ever even read the Flag Code? But, that's still his First Amendment right. I'm not calling for Trump to be impeached because of that sign of disrespect. So even if Congressmen and Senators (or Colin Kaepernick) decide to sit during the Pledge out of a principled protest, that's their First Amendment right, and I'll defend their right to do so.

And frankly, I have no idea why Keith Ellison was mentioned at all. He wasn't in the photo, and I've never heard of him refusing to stand for the Pledge. Was it merely because he's Muslim?

Short version: I'm not a huge fan of the Pledge, but as long as it's a custom, I would prefer that Congressmen and Senators stand and recite the Pledge appropriately. But if they decide to sit out of principled protest, that's their right to do so, just as it's Donald Trump's right to disrespect the flag by hugging it. And I'm not about to grant either party the right to start forcefully removing members of the other party because they deem them to be insufficiently patriotic.


Selling Out