Skepticism, Religion Archive

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Old Testament - It's a Bit Strange

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismThe longer and longer I'm outside of Christianity, the more and more absurd it all appears. A friend of mine directed me to the following article the other day: 11 Things The Bible Bans, But You Do Anyway. It's what has become a somewhat typical list of some of the rules given in the Old Testament (OT) that are no longer followed by Christians, as a response to Christian cherry-picking of OT rules to condemn practices they don't like. Several Christians left comments to that article explaining that Christians were no longer obligated to follow OT rules because of the New Covenant with Christ.

On a certain level, I'm glad that Christians use this New Covenant rationalization. When you read the rules from the OT, some are truly horrendous. Consider Deuteronomy 21:18-21, which explains that "stubborn and rebellious" sons should be stoned to death, or Exodus 21:20-21, which explains how it's okay for someone to beat their slave since the slave is their property (they just shouldn't kill the slave), or Deuteronomy 22:20-21, which decrees death by stoning for girls not being virgins, or from that same chapter, verse 28, which describes a woman as a piece of property that a man can buy from her father. I could go on, but that's not the point of this essay. I'm glad that most Christians recognize these rules as immoral, and try to distance themselves from them with the New Covenant (in the modern industrialized world, at least - witch hunts are still tragically common in some parts of the world in accordance with Exodus, 22:18 or Leviticus, 20:27).

But invoking the New Covenant leaves a major issue unresolved - what type of a god would have created those horrendous rules to begin with? They're certainly not representative of a loving, forgiving god like most Christians profess to believe in.

I've seen various rationalizations from Christians for why OT rules were so much different than the New Covenant. One of the more common, ignoring the barbaric commandments and focusing on dietary rules, is that they were for the benefit of primitive people that didn't have as complete an understanding of the world as we do today. Here's one such example, The Dietary Law Today. The first objection is that these rules weren't as beneficial as some people would like to believe. Sure, pork can be contaminated with trichonosis, but meat from 'clean' animals can also be infected with parasites, and even a head of lettuce can be infected with E. coli. The risk is not so much in the specific types of food, but in the preparation. A better guidebook would have given directions to properly clean and cook food.

A bigger problem with the above rationalization, and with several other rationalizations concerning the OT that I'm not going to discuss here, is when you look at it in a larger context. Barring what some fundamentalists might say, the Earth is a few billion years old, and humans have been around for a hundred thousand years or so. The various books of the OT were only written on the order of a few thousand years ago (give or take for the different books). And the Hebrews certainly weren't the only people living at the time. So out of all the peoples that have lived over the millenia, God supposedly revealed himself to one small group, and gave them rules that applied only to them, but that none of the surrounding societies adopted. Obviously, given the successes of Egypt and Rome, it's not as if OT rules gave the Hebrews any earthly advantages over other peoples. It's not as if Romans were dying from food poisoning at much higher rates than Jews, allowing the Jews to conquer the Romans. And then, just a few thousand years after dictating all these specific but seemingly arbitrary rules, God just comes along and says that they're not important anymore. And by the way, all you Gentiles that never followed the rules to begin with, you can now become Christians and get into heaven, too.

So, the Old Testament just really seems strange. Aside from the utter immorality of the rules, it just seems so bizarre that a god would impose those types of rules for such a short period of human history, isolated to such a small group of people, only to later say that they didn't apply anymore.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Roots of Morality

I don't often have posts that are little more than embedded YouTube videos, but this one was too good to pass up. A few months ago, Frans de Waal gave a TED presentation: Moral behavior in animals. I'd highly suggest following that link to watch his full presentation, but one of the videos he showed has been pulled out into it's own YouTube video. The video is of an experiment with capuchin monkeys. These monkeys had been trained to return a rock that a researcher gave them in exchange for a treat. It's important to note that capuchins like certain treats more than others. A piece of cucumber is decent, but they really like grapes. I suppose it would be like the difference in getting a piece of hard candy from your grandmother vs. crème brûlée in a 5 star restaurant (or substitue according to your tastes). In this particular experiment, there were two monkeys involved, each in a separate cage, but adjacent to each other so that they could see each other. The first monkey returned the rock to the researcher, and received a cucumber in return as a treat. The second monkey returned the rock to the researcher, but received a grape in return, which the first monkey clearly saw. Next, the researcher went back to the first monkey, and again gave it a cucumber in return for the rock. Watch the video below to see the monkey's reaction.

This may not be a full sense of morality as developed in humans, but it's certainly a part of it - recognizing an unfair situation. It amazes me just how human like the monkey's reaction is. It reminds me of how a young child with poor impulse control might react.

Now, I know there are dangers in over anthropomorphizing, but really, when we're so closely related to an animal, doesn't it make more sense to think that their thought processes are at least similar to ours, rather than thinking that humans evolved all these brand new and novel characteristics in an evolutionary blink of an eye?

I'll note that I first saw this on Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True. Follow that link to read some good discussion of the video (along with some rather close minded remarks by one particular commenter).

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Tongue in Cheek Look at Christianity

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI've grown accustomed to certain arguments that some Christians use against atheism. I've given serious responses to a few of them, such as the page, A Brief Introduction to Non-Belief. This blog entry is not serious. I figured I'd turn some of those arguments around and give Christians a taste of the same treatment. So, if you're a Christain reading this, and think that this doesn't truly represent you, keep that in mind the next time you hear somebody making similar arguments about atheism.


As far as religions go, Christianity is a horrible basis for morality. Just consider Romans 3:28, "So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law" (NLT), or Romans 10:13, "For "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (NLT). I've actually seen people use this argument in comment threads, and heard it from Christians in person. It removes all accountability for our actions. In effect, Christianity becomes the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free Card.

Now, I know that as an atheist, I don't think there's any justice on a cosmic scale. But Christians believe in a being with the power to hand out judgment, and who actually will reward or punish people for eternity. Yet, this being bases the outcome solely on belief in a 2000 year old story. No matter how horrible of a person you are, as long as you repent before your death, you'll make it through the pearly gates. Conversely, no matter how much good you did in this world or how many people you help, if you're skeptical on religion, you have an eternity of fiery pits and gnashing of teeth to expect in the afterlife. In other words, there's no motivation to actually be a good person. (more info)

Sanctity of Life

Things are only valuable when they're limited. Gold is a valuable metal because there's so little of it. Lead is practically worthless because it's so abundant. According to Christianity, the length of this life is not even a drop in the bucket compared to the eternity of the afterlife. How valuable can an earthly life be if everybody just gets to go on to eternity once they die?

Meaning of Life

This goes back to the morality discussion. If we're only judged for eternity based on whether or not we accepted Jesus, what meaning do any of our other actions have? Granted, they may have a personal meaning to you, but not to the great cosmic rule giver. And if your actions only have personal meeting, then congratulations, you're now in the same boat as us atheists.

So, that's it. If, as a Christian, you disagree with this, bear it in mind next time you see a strawman argument against atheism.

On a related note, here's a humorous list of 281+ Tricks to Irritate an Atheist.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam

BlackboardI recently received an e-mail with the subject line, '1895 8th grade final exam'. It supposedly showed how inadequate our modern education system is compared to that from a century ago. So, I took a look at it, and found the whole thing a little dubious.

Here's the introduction from the e-mail.

Subject: 1895 8th grade final exam

Take this test and pass it on to your more literate friends..

What it took to get an 8th grade education in 1895...

Remember when grandparents and great-grandparents stated that they only had an 8th grade education? Well, check this out. Could any of us have passed the 8th grade in 1895?

This is the eighth-grade final exam from 1895 in Salina, Kansas, USA . It was taken from the original document on file at the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society And Library in Salina, and reprinted by the Salina Journal.

Let's leave all the subjective statements aside for now, and first determine whether this is actually a legitimate test that was administered to 8th graders in 1895. As it turns out, it is a real test from 1895, but it's not certain who it was intended for. As is claimed in the e-mail,the Smoky Valley Genealogical Society does indeed have a copy of the test. They have a transcript of the exam online, at the bottom of which they print the following claim:

The following document was transcribed from the original document in the collection of the Smoky Valley Genealogy Society, Salina, Kansas. This test is the original eighth-grade final exam for 1895 from Salina, KS. An interesting note is the fact that the county students taking this test were allowed to take the test in the 7th grade, and if they did not pass the test at that time, they were allowed to re-take it again in the 8th grade.

So, the Smoky Valley Genealogical Society at least believes that the exam was for eighth graders.

Truth or Fiction has looked into this claim as well. They have even posted some photos of the exam on their site. As they point out, nowhere does the exam indicate who it was intended for. As the authors of that site point out, many of the questions actually seem oriented more towards teachers than students.

Snopes also took a look at this exam. While they didn't confirm or debunk whether this particular exam was for 8th graders, they did show an example of a different exam from that era that was definitely intended for teachers, which seemed remarkably similar in scope and difficulty to the exam in question. They also included quotes from the administrators of that other exam, indicating that it was a bit difficult, and that teachers didn't do so well on it.

So, if I had to bet, I'd wager that this exam was intended for teaching candidates, not students. However, there's no way to tell for sure right now, so let's move on.

For the sake of argument, let's just assume, as the e-mail claimed, that this was an 8th grade final exam. How does it compare to a modern day education? The Snopes link above actually did cover this question pretty well, but having a daughter who just completed 7th grade, I think I'm in a good position to offer a closer perspective.

One note before looking at the questions - another site, Digital History, has gone through and answered everything. However, their answers are rather brief, sometimes incomplete, or not necessarily responding to what I'd imagine the exam was actually referring to. So, I've include a bunch of links below to more information responding to most of the questions.

Let's start off with the grammar section.

8th Grade Final Exam: Salina , KS - 1895

Grammar (Time, one hour)
1. Give nine rules for the use of capital letters.
2. Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications.
3. Define verse, stanza and paragraph
4. What are the principal parts of a verb? Give principal parts of 'lie,''play,' and 'run.'
5. Define case; illustrate each case.
6 What is punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of punctuation.
7 - 10. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

First, here are links to give you answers to each of the questions: Capital Letters, Parts of Speech, verse, stanza, paragraph, verb parts, grammatical case, letter case, Punctuation.

Some of those might sound a little difficult at first blush, but once you look into the actual information that they're asking for, it's pretty clear that most of it is common knowledge, even for 8th graders. For example, if it was a multiple choice test, and it asked you to pick the option with the correct capitalization of a title, most people would probably get it right. Likewise for correct uses of punctuation, or verb tenses (parts).

And while grammar is important to a well rounded education, I do think people put too much emphasis on the rules being hard and fast, when really, they're just a description of how language is used by the people speaking it. Languages have survived just fine for thousands of years without scholars telling us not to split infinitives or use prepositions at the end of sentences. I've written about this before in Grammar Police, and SMBC covered it more humorously here.

Next is arthmetic.

Arithmetic (Time,1 hour 15 minutes)
1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
2. A wagon box is 2 ft. Deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. Wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
3. If a load of wheat weighs 3,942 lbs., what is it worth at 50cts/bushel, deducting 1,050 lbs. For tare?
4. District No 33 has a valuation of $35,000.. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
5. Find the cost of 6,720 lbs. Coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft.. Long at $20 per metre?
8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance of which is 640 rods?
10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt

I'm not going to work out the answers, but here are links to information necessary to figure out the answers: Arithmetic Operations, Unit Conversion Tables, Compound Interest.

This section is little more than unit conversion, and it's the only math in the whole test. There's no algebra, and only basic geometry finding areas of rectangles. No probability, either. My daughter's math education has far surpassed what's in this test, and she's only in 7th grade.

U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes)
1. Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided
2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus
3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
4. Show the territorial growth of the United States
5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas
6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Lincoln, Penn, and Howe?
8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, 1865.

Here are the links to get the answers: U.S. History, Columbus, American Revolution, Territorial Growth, Kansas History, Civil War, Morse, Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Lincoln, Penn, Howe, 1607 - Jamestown, 1620 - Plymouth Colony, 1800 - Jefferson Election?, 1849 - California Gold Rush, 1865 - End of Civil War.

The U.S. history doesn't look too bad. I think my daughter would do decently on it. If it was more Texas centric instead of Kansas centric, she'd do better.

The orthography is section is pretty obscure.

Orthography (Time, one hour)
1. What is meant by the following: alphabet, phonetic, orthography, etymology, syllabication
2. What are elementary sounds? How classified?
3. What are the following, and give examples of each: trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals
4. Give four substitutes for caret 'U.'
5. Give two rules for spelling words with final 'e.' Name two exceptions under each rule.
6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling. Illustrate each.
7. Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a word: bi, dis-mis, pre, semi, post, non, inter, mono, sup.
8. Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: card, ball, mercy, sir, odd, cell, rise, blood, fare, last.
9. Use the following correctly in sentences: cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane, vain, vein, raze, raise, rays.
10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication.

Here are links to get some of the answers: Alphabet, Phonetics, Orthography, Etymology, Syllabication, Phonemes, Trigraph, Subvocalization, Diphthong, Cognate words, Linguals, Caret U, Silent letters, bi / bi, dis, mis, pre, semi, post, non, inter, mono, sub/sup, cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane, vain, vein, raze, raise, rays,

Some of this is pretty specialized, and probably difficult for most people. But out of the whole exam, this is the only difficult section.

On the other hand, Orthography must have changed in the past hundred years, because I had difficulty even finding some of the things these questions were referring to. For example, I'm pretty sure that the 'subvocals' I found is referring to something different than this exam, and I couldn't find any references to cognate letters that weren't references to this exam. So, it would be hard to fault modern day 8th graders for not knowing outdated terms.

And the final section, Geography:

Geography (Time, one hour)
1 What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas?
3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?
4. Describe the mountains of North America
5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia, Odessa, Denver, Manitoba, Hecla, Yukon, St. Helena, Juan Fernandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco.
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S. Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.
8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give the inclination of the earth.

Here are the links to get the answers: Climate, Kansas Climate, River Uses, Oceans, Mountain Ranges of North America, Monrovia, Odessa, Denver, Manitoba, or Hekla, Yukon,, Juan Fernández Islands, Aspinwall, Orinoco.

Other than questions 5 & 6, this looks like stuff my daughter has covered already in school.

Notice that the exam took FIVE HOURS to complete.

Gives the saying 'he only had an 8th grade education' a whole new meaning, doesn't it?!

No wonder they dropped out after 8th grade. They already knew more than they needed to know!

No, I don't have all the answers! And I don't think I ever did!

Have fun with this...pass it on so we're not the only ones who feel stupid!!

That's it? Where's the science? Or the world history? Or government? Or art? Or literature? Or questions on how to do research? Or as I pointed out in the arithmetic section, where's the higher math? My daughter has had a much broader education than the hypothetical one from this test, and she won't finish with 8th grade for another year (and this is Texas, which doesn't exactly have a stellar reputation for education).

So, even if this was a real test for 8th graders from 1859, it doesn't reveal a dumbing down of education for modern day students. That's really no surprise, though. Just read books that describe schooling from that era, like Tom Sawyer, or Anne of Green Gables. I don't think anybody reading those books would wish for a return to that type of education. If anything, I think this exam shows just how good a modern day education is.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Theistic Evolution vs. Intelligent Design

Theistic EvolutionI must be getting old - I'm becoming forgetful. Jerry Coyne recently wrote a post titled Does theistic evolution differ from Intelligent Design?. I left a comment on his site, and had already started to write a blog entry expanding on that, when I came across an old entry of mine that said almost exactly what I was planning to write, Difference Between ID Proponents and Theistic Evolutionists. Oh well, since I already have some of this written, I might as well go ahead and post it so as not to waste the effort.

Coyne stated his position right in the introductory paragraph.

My answer is that these two brands of bad science elide seamlessly into one another, with no sharp line to demarcate them. Nevertheless, I don't call people like Francis Collins advocates of ID simply because that term conflates them with the hard-core, get-in-your-school adherents of ID who populate the Discovery Institute. But let us remember that this is a quantitative and not a qualitative difference.

He went on to write in his penultimate paragraph:

If you think that an intelligent god intervened in the process of evolution, especially to ensure the appearance of human beings made in that god's image, then you're advocating intelligent design. If you accept even a little bit of divine tinkering in the evolutionary process, you're not standing on some inclusive middle ground--you are, as P.Z. Myers said, halfway to crazy town.

I understand that both concepts are related, and maybe there is a grey area in between them. But I think there is an important difference between the two positions. To a proponent of theistic evolution (TE), if you take away God, evolution continues to work, you just may not end up with humans. To a proponent of Intelligent Design (ID), if you take away God, evolution is vastly different, without any complex structures. In other words, a TEist accepts all the evidence for evolution, but adds in an extra mechanism on top of it to accommodate their religious belief. An IDist rejects all the evidence for evolution, and invents a mechanism to replace it.

Part of the problem is that ID is so poorly defined. But even someone like Michael Behe, who accepts a bit more of the evidence for evolution, still accepts irreducible complexity, and believes that some features of organisms just couldn't have come about without divine intervention (or alien intervention, if the less honest press releases from the Discovery Institute are to be believed). And if you look at something like the ID textbook, Of Pandas and People, it reads like straight up creationism. Here's a passage from page 22 of that book that I've quoted twice before on this blog.

Instead, fossil types are fully formed and functional when they first appear in the fossil record. For example, we don't find creatures that are partly fish and partly something else, leading gradually, in the dozens of characteristics which they exhibit, to today's fish. Instead, fish have all the characteristics of today's fish from the earliest known fish fossils, reptiles in the record have all the characteristics of present-day reptiles, and so on.

And here's another one from page 25.

There is, however, another possibility science leaves open to us, one based on sound inferences from the experience of our senses. It is the possibility that an intelligent cause made fully-formed and functional creatures, which later left their traces in the rocks.

And as I pointed out in that previous post of mine, what else can you expect of a theist? They see God's intervention in everything, from the weather to diseases to coin tosses. Why would they leave evolution out?

I also disagree with Coyne implying that because the two positions "elide seamlessly into one another, with no sharp line to demarcate them", that they shouldn't be considered as different. The same argument can be made for many things, from colors, to night and day. I'm especially surprised at an evolutionary biologist using this argument*. If you could get in a time machine and see every individual in the lineage from one of our ancestors from 6 million years ago to today, you'd never be able to pick out just exactly when one species transitioned into another. But I don't think anybody would try to argue with the fact that we're a different species than that 6 million year old primate.

So, while TE and ID may be related in that they both see the hand of God influencing the history of life on the planet, there is enough of a distinction between the two positions to merit separate labels.

*Don't take this as an attack on Coyne. I have great respect for the man, read his blog website almost daily, and think his book, Why Evolution Is True, is possibly the best introduction to evolution for people who don't know much about it.


Selling Out