There’s a couple of comedians over in the U.K. – Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans – who happen to be atheists that decided it was time atheists had a church of their own. So they set about creating The Sunday Assembly, a monthly gathering of atheists that’s somewhat akin to a church service without all that God nonsense. The first service was held back in January and there was a smattering of news articles about it which made the rounds back then, but was otherwise mostly ignored. I think most folks thought it was a silly idea and would fade away quickly even if 300 people did show up for that inaugural session in a deconsecrated church. The following months would see that number grow to upwards of 600 people requiring a change in venue.
Now they’re back in the news again because the assemblies have branched out to 30 other cities around the world including Dublin, New York, San Diego, and even one in Grand Rapids. The founders have set up an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to grow the organization even further (they’re at £29,556 of their £500,000 goal so far) with a world-tour to promote the idea taking place right now. It would appear they’ve struck a chord that is resonating with a lot of atheists.
Which shouldn’t be too surprising considering that a lot of atheists are, like myself, former believers. There are studies done all the time that reveal that there is no shortage of atheists who continue to attend church long after they stop believing. Some of them do it for their kids or spouse who continue to be believers, some do it because they enjoy the community and/or rituals involved, and some do it because they find the experience meaningful despite their lack of belief. Many former-believers-turned-atheists report feeling a sense of loss of community and belonging after leaving their faiths so the appeal of a non-religious substitute for that community seems like a no-brainer.
Not surprisingly, the success of this movement has attracted no small amount of criticism with some of the most pointed of it coming from fellow atheists. Take as an example this article from Michael Luciano titled Why “Atheist Churches” Are a Disaster For Atheism:
And at a time when atheists are trying to fight this mischaracterization – including in the courts– it is incredibly counterproductive for Jones and Evans to feed the misconceptions with their charade because the fact is, an “atheist church” makes as much sense as a Baptist synagogue.
Michael’s primary criticism seems to be that this movement will allow believers to claim that atheism is very much a religion because it now has a “church” and, undoubtedly, some folks will indeed try to make that argument. Of course that ignores the fact that plenty of religious nutcases already make that argument anyway including someone named Zac right here on SEB. He tried to make the argument that atheism was not just a belief, but a religion and that Richard Dawkins was our Pope. Will the Sunday Assembly contribute to that misconception? Possibly, but it’s not like it wasn’t there already so I’m not sure how much more harm it can cause.
Michael goes on to say:
Earlier this year, the duo explained their motivations in the New York Times: “[C]hurch has got so many awesome things going for it. Singing together in a group? Super. Hearing interesting things? Rad. A moment to think quietly about your life? Wizard. Getting to know your neighbors? Ace.”
Based on my own personal experience attending church, as well as other believers-turned-heretics I have spoken with, church had so few “awesome things going for it,” that we left. For atheists every religious service is predicated on a falsehood, regardless of whatever feel-good niceties may accompany its production.
The above is arguably true for a great many atheists, but not all atheists are the same. The above comes across as the No True Scotsman fallacy. Simply because Michael and some atheists he happens to have spoken with don’t think there was much that was awesome about church attendance, that doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate atheists out there who do. Plenty of atheists don’t participate in Christmas or Easter festivities, but I and many others that I know personally do. We just take out the religious nonsense from it and I don’t consider myself any less of an atheist for doing so. While I may not be all that big on the community aspects of church attendance, I can certainly see how it might be appealing to others. I don’t begrudge them their indulging in it if that’s what makes them happy.
Of course, the blame for this silliness cannot be placed entirely with Jones and Evans. Clearly they have tapped into a market of nonbelievers who for some reason still find it necessary to attend “church” to infuse their lives with meaning. It really is a sad state of affairs, as what they are aiming for can just as well be accomplished by an informal gathering at a coffee shop, bar, book club, concert, lecture, or in their own homes. For the freethought movement’s sake, I sincerely hope that the Sunday Assembly is a fleeting cultural idiosyncrasy and not emblematic of a broader trend.
Other than the idea that this will give believers an argument to claim atheism is as much of a religion as any other, Michael doesn’t do a very good job of stating why Sunday Assembly is a “disaster” for the atheist movement. Perhaps he’s right that the same results could be achieved by an informal gathering at other random places, but I’m not sure I understand why that’s an argument against the Sunday Assembly itself. If you prefer your atheist meetups at bars there are groups out there doing just that which you can participate in. Bars not your thing, there’s all manner of other atheist meetups out there to look into. Many of which seem to have similar goals to the Sunday Assembly. The only thing I can see about SA that is upsetting to Michael is that they’re using churchy terminology.
It’s also not clear that Sunday Assembly is all that formal. I’ve never been to one myself (and I suspect Michael hasn’t either), but if the YouTube video for their Indiegogo project is anything to go by then “formal” is probably not an accurate description of the proceedings. According to the About Page on their website, the three core ideas behind SA are as follows:
We are here for everyone who wants to:
Live Better. We aim to provide inspiring, thought-provoking and practical ideas that help people to live the lives they want to lead and be the people they want to be
Help Often. Assemblies are communities of action building lives of purpose, encouraging us all to help anyone who needs it to support each other
Wonder More. Hearing talks, singing as one, listening to readings and even playing games helps us to connect with each other and the awesome world we live in.
That sounds pretty innocuous to me. They go on to be a bit more specific with:
The Sunday Assembly
- Is 100% celebration of life. We are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together.
- Has no doctrine. We have no set texts so we can make use of wisdom from all sources.
- Has no deity. We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do.
- Is radically inclusive. Everyone is welcome, regardless of their beliefs – this is a place of love that is open and accepting.
- Is free to attend, not-for-profit and volunteer run. We ask for donations to cover our costs and support our community work.
- Has a community mission. Through our Action Heroes (you!), we will be a force for good.
- Is independent. We do not accept sponsorship or promote outside businesses, organisations or services
- Is here to stay. With your involvement, The Sunday Assembly will make the world a better place
- We won’t won’t tell you how to live, but will try to help you do it as well as you can
- And remember point 1… The Sunday Assembly is a celebration of the one life we know we have
Again, this doesn’t sound like a terrible thing to me. That doesn’t stop Sadhbh Walshe of The Guardian from declaring that Atheist ‘mega-churches’ undermine what atheism’s supposed to be about.
Determined to show that those who believe in nothing are just as good as those who believe in something, the faithless are establishing a church of their own, and a mega-church at that. On the surface it seems like a rather brilliant idea. What’s not to like about beating the faithful at their own game? Apart from the one small caveat that establishing a place of worship for the faithless, even a godless one, rather negates what atheism is supposed to be all about.
Really? I must have missed that day of Atheism 101 Class wherein we were told what atheism was “all about” because as far as I know it’s only about not believing in God(s) with everything else being up to the individual to decide.
This past Sunday, the groups’ inaugural assembly in Los Angeles attracted some 400 people. Similar gatherings across the states have also drawn big crowds, bursting to do all the good stuff religious people do, just without the God stuff. As one of those non-believing types – the kind who’d be inclined to tick off the “spiritual but not religious” checkbox on a dating profile – I should fall right into the Sunday Assembly movement’s target demographic. If only the central idea of dragging atheists into a church so they can prove they are just as worthy as traditional churchgoers didn’t strike me as a bit of joke.
I’ve read through the entirety of the SA website and I can’t seem to locate the part that says the goal is to prove atheists are just as worthy as traditional churchgoers. I’ve seen a lot of stuff about providing a community to do awesome things with and love and compassion and some other vaguely hippy stuff, but nothing about proving atheists as worthy. Maybe that really is the goal of the founders, but if it is they’ve done a good job of hiding it.
She goes on to write:
I don’t mean to downplay the human need to find like-minded communities either or to explore the deeper purpose of our existence. I just can’t quite embrace the notion that atheists should be under any obligation to prove their worthiness to religious types, or that to do so they should mimic the long established religious practices that non-believers have typically eschewed.
As near as I can tell, and again I’ve gone over the website carefully, the founders aren’t suggesting that atheists are under any obligation to do jack or prove shit. Nor do they say atheists “should” mimic anything. They are saying that if some of the stuff you used to do in church appeals to you and you’d like a place to do it again without all that God nonsense then they have an option for you to explore. How is that a bad thing?
I would have thought the message of atheism (if there needs to be one) is that churches and ritualized worship (whatever the focus of that worship might be) are best left to the people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives.
Again, I must have missed that class. As far as I’m aware atheism has no message. There are no tenets, no holy book, no rites, no great wisdoms handed down from on high. From what I can see of Sunday Assemblies — and I’ll say again that I have not attended one — it’s a church only in the sense of being a gathering of like-minded people communing with each other and perhaps working towards making the world a better place. Considering that Miss Walshe goes on to say that she’s dabbled with Buddhist retreats and Hinduism meditation, both of which are ritualized in many ways, I’m not sure what her problem with SA is.
Here she tries to explain what her problem actually is:
That is why I have a fundamental problem with the so called atheist mega-church movement that Jones and Evans are spearheading. While they have every right to form congregations and get together with like-minded people and to share hugs and plan good deeds, they don’t have the right to co-opt atheism for their cause.
Ah, it’s the old THIS-THING-IS-MINE-YOU-CAN’T-HAVE-IT-CAUSE-IT’S-MINE problem. Yet again I fail to see anywhere in anything I’ve read about Sunday Assemblies that they are out to co-opt atheism for their cause. I don’t think they’ve managed to raise enough money to hire a private Atheist Mercenary Army with which to force all the atheists to attend their church and abide by their holy writ lest they be rounded up and sent off to the Atheist Gulags for reeducation.
In point of fact, comparing the Sunday Assembly’s approach to organizing atheists (which is what they are doing) to another attempt at doing so seems an apt thing to do. When the folks behind Atheism Plus launched their effort to bring together like-minded atheists to push for social justice issues there was quite a bit of talk about them doing exactly what Miss Walshe is accusing the folks behind SA of doing in terms of trying to co-opt the movement. When Jen McCreight wrote her infamous entry that launched Atheism Plus titled How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy’s Club & Why It’s Time for a New Wave of Atheism she made it quite clear that the goal was to redefine the atheism movement:
I don’t want good causes like secularism and skepticism to die because they’re infested with people who see issues of equality as mission drift. I want Deep Rifts. I want to be able to truthfully say that I feel safe in this movement. I want the misogynists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and downright trolls out of the movement for the same reason I wouldn’t invite them over for dinner or to play Mario Kart: because they’re not good people. We throw up billboards claiming we’re Good Without God, but how are we proving that as a movement? Litter clean-ups and blood drives can only say so much when you’re simultaneously threatening your fellow activists with rape and death.*
[...] The Boy’s Club may have historically ruled the movement, but they don’t own it. We can.
It’s quite clear that her goal is to weed out the folks she considers “bad” from what she views as “her” movement. This was repeated by other early adopters of Atheism Plus such as Richard Carrier who wrote:
There is a new atheism brewing, and it’s the rift we need, to cut free the dead weight so we can kick the C.H.U.D.’s back into the sewers and finally disown them, once and for all (I mean people like these and these). I was already mulling a way to do this back in June when discussion in the comments on my post On Sexual Harassment generated an idea (inspired by Anne C. Hanna) to start a blog series building a system of shared values that separates the light side of the force from the dark side within the atheism movement, so we could start marginalizing the evil in our midst, and grooming the next generation more consistently and clearly into a system of more enlightened humanist values.
If you’ve never read his whole article then it’s worth doing so. Whether you agree or not with Carrier’s opinion on what constitutes a good atheist vis–à–vis a bad atheist, it’s clear that he thinks Atheism Plus should come to dominate the atheism “movement”, inasmuch such a thing exists. Carrier’s remarks in particular were seen by many in the atheist community as a you’re either with us or against us and if you’re against us we’ll do everything we can to kick you out of the movement polemic that turned off a lot of otherwise sympathetic people. So much so that no less than Jen McCreight herself repudiated his comments:
Which I find interesting as he didn’t really say anything she hadn’t suggested herself in her original blog entry about it. Atheism Plus was the next chapter in what some would consider the growing schism in the atheist community online that started with the ElevatorGate incident. The whole thing got so stupid that it caused me to stop reading a lot of atheist bloggers I respected on both sides of the “debate” because they spent most of their time trash talking the other side.
In comparison the Sunday Assembly folks don’t seem to me to be attempting to do anything other than offer folks who miss the community of their old churches someplace to experience it once again without all the God nonsense. How Miss Walshe sees that as co-opting is beyond me. She concludes her article with the following:
I’m sure the Sunday Assemblies have the potential to benefit many people and will fill a void for anyone who likes the idea of being part of a community. But if faithlessness ends up becoming a quasi-religion with its very own church, where are the true atheists – the ones who don’t feel the need to join a congregation or to sing and hold hands to show the world we’re good and worthy – supposed to call home?
Again with the idea of “True Atheists.” If someone attending a SA event doesn’t believe in Gods then how are they not a True Atheist? Again I’ll ask: Does the fact that I put up Christmas lights and a Christmas tree and eat Christmas dinner and exchange Christmas gifts mean I’m not a True Atheist in her book? I don’t believe in Gods, but I do enjoy Christmas rituals and can even find beauty in Christmas songs such as O’ Holy Night. If Miss Walshe doesn’t want to attend an atheist “church”, but still wants someplace to call home then why doesn’t she look into any of the other atheist events I mentioned earlier in this essay? Does she think every atheist out there is going to fall under the siren song of SA such that all those other events and meetups all dry up and blow away?
Personally, I’ll probably not become a member of a Sunday Assembly if one sets up shop nearby (Grand Rapids is a helluva drive from Ann Arbor even if it is only once a month), but that’s just me. I’ve only ever attended one meeting of a local Skeptics in the Pub. I didn’t have a problem with the group, I’m just not the sort of person who attends events like that regularly.
About the only real problem I can foresee with SA is the same problem that crops up in any grouping of people once it gets large enough. The seemingly inevitable power struggles that occur between competing visions of what said group is supposed to be about. No group is immune to it and the bigger a group gets the more likely it is to fall victim to it. We see it in politics, religion, World of Warcraft clans, and any number of online communities. The atheist movement is experiencing it just as the video gaming community is (and often over the same issues) just as the Republicans are and as the Democrats will (as they have in the past). That’s just human nature I suppose, but to claim that Sunday Assembly is a “disaster for atheism” or is “co-opting the movement” just isn’t supported by what I’ve seen of it so far. Compared to Atheism Plus I’d go so far as to say it’s relatively harmless to the greater movement. And if it makes some folks happy then what the fuck is the problem?
The SEB Mailbag isn’t as active as it used to be, but then neither am I. Every now and then I’ll get a missive from some good natured person who is worried about my eternal soul. I got one such email this morning and I thought I’d present it as a good bad example of attempting to convince someone to believe in Jesus. Note: I’m not naming the person who sent it because it was an effort at good will even though the subject line read “hate mail.”
Here it is in its entirety:
God so loved you that He now even give you the chance again to call upon His Son Jesus Christ Name just to give Him a chance in your live. You are going to stand in any case in front of Him one day. Jesus loves you and that is why I also love you, please give Jesus a chance. Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device
First off, thanks for taking the time to sit down and compose such an amazing argument on your Blackberry. It shows just how shallow your concern for my soul really is that you couldn’t be bothered to make sure it was completely comprehensible or required more than two thumbs to type.
There’s three statements in this argument which we’ll breakdown one at a time starting with that first attempt at a sentence:
God so loved you that He now even give you the chance again to call upon His Son Jesus Christ Name just to give Him a chance in your live.
It’s not entirely clear what you’re trying to say, but my guess is that in spite of all the terrible things I’ve done in my life I still have the opportunity to ask God to let Jesus into my heart blah blah blah and I should just give Jesus a chance.
As I said in the reply I sent you, what makes you think I haven’t given Jesus a chance? Anyone who spends any amount of time reading my blog (particularly under the About Me category/tag) will know that I used to be a pretty faithful Christian in my youth. Up until I read the Bible from front to back and found myself with a whole host of questions that the clergy in my life couldn’t readily answer. My faith was never at question until I started to seriously study the Bible and then the folks who should have reasonable answers to my questions instead told me to try not to think so hard about it. During that time I prayed to Jesus quite a bit. I’d say I gave him more than enough chances over the years and, even now, I’m totally willing to be convinced that he does exist and gives a shit about my well being, but so far I’ve yet to see anything that would lead me to think that that’s the case.
Surely if Jesus does exist and does want me to believe in him he’s more than capable of providing me with ample reason to accept both of those facts. The fact that he hasn’t implies that he either doesn’t really give a shit or, more likely, doesn’t exist to give a shit. I’m still open to the possibility, but I’m not going to believe without good reason to do so.
You are going to stand in any case in front of Him one day.
This statement only makes sense if you accept that Jesus does exist. To someone who doesn’t believe that to be true it’s just silly. You may as well argue that I should continue to leave out cookies for Santa Claus because someday I’ll meet him and he’s going to want to know why the fuck I stopped doing that.
Before that statement would have any meaning to an atheist you’d have to have a reasonable argument for why a God of any kind might actually exist and then you’d have to have a reasonable argument for why your particular God exists and how you have any clue what-the-fuck-ever what he wants from his creation. In short, you’re a long way from a point where that statement would be even the tiniest bit effective. You need to remember that you’re talking to someone who doesn’t believe in God(s) of any kind. Saying that they’ll have to stand before one of them someday is just a form of veiled threat that is hard to take seriously when you don’t believe in the thing you’re being threatened with.
Jesus loves you and that is why I also love you, please give Jesus a chance.
So, in other words, the only reason you give a shit about me is because you believe God wants you to. That implies that without said God you wouldn’t have any concern for my well being at all. Christians like to toss around the word “love” quite a bit, but I worry that they don’t fully understand its meaning because all too often what they say they do out of love doesn’t feel all that loving to me.
Maybe I’m too cynical, but often these sorts of pleas from believers to “give Jesus a chance” feel less like they’re about any genuine concern for my soul and more about the believer’s attempts at scoring brownie points with their God. Seriously. This email is a half-assed attempt at spreading the word that is the minimal effort required so that once they’re standing in front of their God and are asked why they didn’t convert more people they can shrug and say “Hey, I tried, but the assholes wouldn’t listen to reason!”
You’d think that if they were really serious they’d take the time to get know someone and try to understand their viewpoint before trying to convince them to change them. That takes an investment of time and energy that most Christians just aren’t interested in devoting to the cause. Instead it’s much easier to toss out short, three sentence “arguments” that they must know have no hope in Hell of being convincing to anyone who doesn’t already believe in their God. Go ahead and wipe your hands on your pants ’cause you’ve fulfilled your Christian requirements.
I’ve thought about the existence of Gods and the afterlife for many, many years so it would take a pretty amazing argument — or an act of Jesus himself — to convince me to believe. So I’m not surprised that most Christians wouldn’t want to invest that amount of time and energy into convincing me. Which is fine as I’m not overly concerned that I might be wrong, but if you’re going to bother then at least put some effort into it, eh?
I had a crapload of people email me this link to an article titled: ‘Angel’ priest visits Missouri accident scene. It tells the story of 19-year-old Katie Lentz’s horrific accident that left her trapped in her car as emergency workers struggled with failing equipment in their attempt to free her.
With time running out the firemen decided on a risky move that might result in Katie’s condition going from bad to worse:
That’s when Lentz asked if someone would pray with her and a voice said, “I will.”
The silver-haired priest in his 50s or 60s in black pants, black shirt and black collar with visible white insert stepped forward from nowhere. It struck Reed as odd because the street was blocked off 2 miles from the scene and no one from the nearby communities recognized him.
“We’re all local people from four different towns,” Reed said. “We’ve only got one Catholic church out of three towns and it wasn’t their priest.”
Reed and the other emergency workers were on their knees. The priest of about medium build, maybe 6-feet-tall, stood above them.
“This priest approached Katie and began to pray openly with her,” Reed said. “He had a bottle of anointing oil with him and he used that.”
The firemen sat the car upright and Katie’s vitals improved and another team showed up with new equipment that allowed them to free her from the wreck. That’s when Reed went to thank the priest, but he was gone! Even more bizarre, the priest didn’t show up in any of the photos taken at the scene!
“I have 69 photographs that were taken from minutes after that accident happened — bystanders, the extrication, our final cleanup — and he’s not in them,” Reed said. “All we want to do is thank him.”
The most logical explanation folks could come up with? Angels!
“I think it’s a miracle,” Reed said. “I would say whether it was an angel that was sent to us in the form of a priest or a priest that became our angel, I don’t know. Either way, I’m good with it.”
Carla Churchill Lentz, mother of the teen who was critically injured, said emergency workers have told her there is no way her daughter should have lived inside such a mangled car. Of the priest, she said, “I do believe he certainly could have been an angel dressed in priest’s attire because the Bible tells us there are angels among us.”
At least one of the folks who emailed me the article asked how this could be possible? I replied that it’s likely it was just a normal, human priest that no one noticed approach or leave because they were busy working on the car and keeping Katie alive. But what about the photos, they asked. Simple: The priest wasn’t in front of the camera when the photos were taken or was obscured by the people surrounding him. In an emergency situation people’s attention tends to be highly focused on the problem at hand making it easy to not see a lot of what’s going on around them.
As it turns out, that’s pretty much what happened:
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The mysterious priest who gave anointing to a Missouri woman trapped in her wrecked car has been identified as Father Patrick Dowling of the Diocese of Jefferson City.
[...] Father Dowling was driving by Center, Mo., while on his way back from offering Mass in Ewing. A native of Ireland, Father Dowling was ordained a priest for the Jefferson City Diocese in 1982. He currently serves in prison ministry, and also ministers to the Spanish-speaking population of the Diocese of Jefferson City.
Though the highway was blocked off, Father Dowling revealed he “did not leave with the other cars.” After parking as close as he could to the scene of the accident, he said he walked the remaining 150 yards.
“I asked the sheriff if a priest might be needed,” he said.
“When the young lady asked that I pray her leg stop hurting, I did so. She asked me to pray aloud, and I did briefly,” he said.
Father Dowling added, “The rescue workers needed space and would not have appreciated distraction. I stepped to one side and said my Rosary silently until the lady was taken from the car.”
At which point the priest walked back to his car and left. Nothing all that mysterious about it. He happened to be passing at the time and he stopped and offered a prayer to someone in need. The only thing amazing about it is how quickly people made the jump to a supernatural explanation. Eyewitness accounts are bad enough when folks aren’t under a lot of stress and they only get worse in the heat of the moment.
In a continuing effort to answer the question of “what’s the harm if someone thinks gods are real” I’ll often argue that accepting that idea implies accepting all the other baggage that goes with it such as angels and demons. This can be a problem when, say, a mother suddenly decides that her 5-year-old son has been possessed by demons. When exactly that happened down in Texas it didn’t turn out well for the son:
Magnolia police said Spurlock slashed her son’s throat from ear to ear and stomped on his head and chest. His chest cavity was crushed.
The boy, Michael, is in a medically-induced coma with life-threatening injuries. He is in stable condition at Memorial Hermann Hospital.
“She informed us she was trying to rid him of his demons,” Detective Brian Clack said.
According to investigators, Spurlock is very religious. Her Facebook account is filled with Bible verses and religious pictures.
“She stated they are a Christian family. She was reading the Bible with him and realized he was infested with demons and had to get rid of the demons,” Clack said.
The article doesn’t say, but presumably the mother will undergo psychiatric evaluation on the assumption that she’s mentally ill. Again I have to point out that anyone who claims demons are real and working to ensure a person ends up in Hell shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that this woman is nuts. Sure, you can quibble over her methods, but who are you to say he wasn’t infected with demons?
It’s all fun and games believing this nonsense until someone acts upon it. Then everyone carries on about how obviously that person was crazy all the while ignoring the crazy ideas they’re spewing themselves.
Avondale police say they arrested a man Monday afternoon who allegedly started a fire in his bedroom closet while his roommates were home because he was trying to rid his room of demons.
Adam Glenn Hamilton, 30, was walking around the home near 120th Avenue and Tonto Street in Avondale reciting Bible verses before he started a fire in his bedroom closet with paint thinner, according to police documents.
Two of Hamilton’s three roommates were home when he started the fire on July 20. He told police he was going to tell them about the fire but forgot, according to the arrest report.
Here’s the part I don’t understand. Isn’t Hell supposed to be all fire and brimstone and shit? If so then wouldn’t demons be well accustomed to that environment? How then does setting your closet on fire solve the problem of a demon infestation? You may as well be making them a nice, comfy bed to sleep in.
For his part, Hamilton suffered some burns on his feet and was taken to a mental health facility. Not sure why anyone would think he might be crazy. If you accept that things like God and Satan and Heaven and Hell and angels and demons are real things then surely you have to accept the possibility that some of them are occasionally setting up shop in people’s closets.
The Catholic church made headlines yesterday by announcing that you can cut down your time in purgatory by following the Pope on Twitter. Or at least that’s what you might think if you went by the headlines alone.
Apparently this new method of granting indulgences is tied into the upcoming Catholic World Youth Day, in Rio de Janeiro attendance of which is grounds for indulgences for the participants. The Church realizes that not everyone can afford to attend the week-long event, but they still want to be able to offer the same purgatory time reduction to those poor folks so they’ve turned to social media:
Mindful of the faithful who cannot afford to fly to Brazil, the Vatican’s sacred apostolic penitentiary, a court which handles the forgiveness of sins, has also extended the privilege to those following the “rites and pious exercises” of the event on television, radio and through social media.
“That includes following Twitter,” said a source at the penitentiary, referring to Pope Francis’ Twitter account, which has gathered seven million followers. “But you must be following the events live. It is not as if you can get an indulgence by chatting on the internet.”
Got that? You’ve got to be paying attention if you want the indulgence. Simple clicking the Follow button on the Pope’s Twitter profile ain’t gonna work.
“You can’t obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine,” Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the pontifical council for social communication, told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
Which is a pretty funny thing to say because at one point in time that’s pretty much how indulgences worked. Except instead of shoving money into a vending machine you just shoved it into your local priest.
Never let it be said that the Catholic church isn’t hip with the kids these days. Worship via social media is about as hip as you can get! What they don’t want you to know is I can offer you the same deal and you don’t need to follow me on Twitter or anyplace else. Hell, you don’t even need to ask me for the indulgence. There’s no such thing as purgatory so there’s nothing to need an indulgence for.
But don’t tell too many people. The Pope needs to get his Twitter follower count up somehow.
I already shared this on my G+ account, but it was too amusing not to share here.
It appears that Clay Kraby of Reasonable Theology isn’t too happy with the rebuttal I wrote of his Four Miracles of Atheism article. He hasn’t approved the pingback to his article on his blog so I left a comment about it on his Reasonable Theology G+ page and now it appears he’s blocked me from following him on G+.
Below is a screenshot of the RT G+ page in two browsers. I’m signed in to Google+ on the left and not on the right. Notice anything different between them?
Yeah, there’s a distinct lack of content on the side I’m logged in with. I’m not surprised, just amused. I bet if I were to comment on his Facebook page I could get myself blocked there as well. To his credit he hasn’t deleted the comments I made on one of the entries on his G+ page, but he certainly doesn’t seem to want me to keep up with any other bullshit he’s shoveling. I hear this works pretty well too:
In a blog post last December (which I just stumbled across on Twitter) by Clay Kraby over at Reasonable Theology the argument is made that atheists take some things on faith. While that’s almost certainly true, the four things they cite as prime examples aren’t very good ones. They refer to these examples as The Four Miracles of Atheism:
For the purposes of this discussion, we will define a miracle as an event which occurs outside of the natural order and cannot be repeated or explained by the scientific process.
OK, we can work with that definition.
Consider the following four miracles which must be accepted by the atheist in spite of scientific evidence to the contrary:
1. Getting Something from Nothing. There has never been an observed example where something was created from nothing. No person would attempt to build something without materials, and there is no theory outside Big Bang cosmology which reaches this conclusion without ridicule from the scientific community
It’s a common misunderstanding of the Big Bang cosmology to claim that prior to that event there was “nothing” and that “something” came from it. The theory makes no such claims. If you trace time backwards to the Big Bang you end up with a singularity. That’s not nothing, but something. In fact, it’s everything. All scrunched up into one mind bogglingly small point of energy. The law of energy conservation tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form. Which is pretty much what the Big Bang was. Now it’s true we’re not entirely sure why it expanded and became the Universe and that’s in part because a lot of the math involved starts to break down the closer you get to the singularity, but the theory doesn’t say the Universe came from nothing.
As for there never having been “an observed example where something was created from nothing”, well, that’s not entirely true either. One experiment that made use of the the Casimir effect resulted in photons spontaneously appearing in empty space:
Quantum physics explains that there are limits to how precisely one can know the properties of the most basic units of matter—for instance, one can never absolutely know a particle’s position and momentum at the same time. One bizarre consequence of this uncertainty is that a vacuum is never completely empty, but instead buzzes with so-called “virtual particles” that constantly wink into and out of existence.
These virtual particles often appear in pairs that near-instantaneously cancel themselves out. Still, before they vanish, they can have very real effects on their surroundings. For instance, photons—packets of light—can pop in and out of a vacuum. When two mirrors are placed facing each other in a vacuum, more virtual photons can exist around the outside of the mirrors than between them, generating a seemingly mysterious force that pushes the mirrors together.
This effect was predicted back in 1948 and the experiment has been repeated numerous times. There’s some debate on whether it’s truly something from nothing, but it’s certainly a good candidate.
These are both very high-level simplifications of the science. If you’re interested in a more involved explanation then Lawrence Krauss’ book A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing is worthwhile reading. Or you can check out this lengthy talk he gave about the subject on YouTube:
The upshot is, given the law of conservation of energy, there’s really no need for faith that something came from nothing because that’s most likely not what happened. Even if it was what happened there are already aspects of Quantum Mechanics that would allow for it.
You’ll note that Kraby doesn’t bother to provide any of the “scientific evidence to the contrary” that something from nothing is impossible, he just says it’s a problem and assumes you agree with him. He makes the clever remark that no person would attempt to build something without materials and yet that’s precisely what his god must have done by sheer will alone if it is the creator of the universe and everything within it. That apparently isn’t a problem for Kraby in spite of the fact that it would be infinitely more magical than a universe just popping into existence on its own. Certainly we don’t have the full picture nailed down just yet and it’s possible we may never be able to fully explain how the universe came to be, but that doesn’t mean “goddidit” is the correct answer by default.
2. Getting Life from Non-Life. Even if naturalistic causes could have created the universe, it would still be necessary for non-living material to become living. This is also an unproven (and impossible) feat which must be accepted when denying the existence of God.
There’s really no need for faith in this either because it’s pretty self-evident that life had to arise at some point or we wouldn’t be here to discuss the issue, but let’s carry on and show the flaws in this argument.
The first problem with this argument is that it assumes there are only two possibilities: Either something is alive or it isn’t. Reality isn’t black and white. Things aren’t just alive or not-alive. Rather it’s more of a continuum from non-life to life. The more simple an organic form is the more blurry the line between life and non-life becomes.
For example, most folks consider viruses to be living things, but they really straddle the line between living and non-living things. One of the traits of life is the ability to reproduce and viruses can’t do that on their own. They have to invade living cells and hijack their systems to reproduce. Nor do viruses have any metabolic systems. Yet they do have genes and can evolve. They blur the line between living and non-living and support the theory that life could have started as self-assembling organic molecules.
Then there are Prions. These are small bits of misfolded proteins that aren’t alive in any sense of the word. They don’t contain any nucleic acids, they don’t have a metabolic system, nor genes, or a cell membrane, yet they have the ability to infect you and kill you. They are the cause of Mad Cow Disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in cows (natch) and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease in humans. They do this similarly to viruses by hijacking the functions of living cells to reproduce. As they reproduce they form a plaque known as amyloid which literally drills holes in your brain (making it spongy, hence the name) destroying you slowly over the course of decades. The odd thing is, these proteins are already in you, though not in the misfolded manner that causes disease. You’ll find the normal form in the membranes of your cells. They are a part of your cellular system, but they are not alive in themselves.
Kraby says that life arising from non-life is unproven and impossible without providing anything to back that claim up. Life is just a chemical process and spontaneous chemical reactions happen all the time — not to mention molecular self-assembly. Not only is there evidence that life came from non-living molecules, but scientists have been getting closer to creating artificial life with each passing year. In November of 2011 Martin Hanczyc did a TED talk where he showed the results of his experiments with protocells. Bonus: He also talks about how life is a continuum:
For being non-living, those protocells sure do look alive. Which is pretty impressive when you consider how simplistic they are compared to your standard human cell or even your average bacteria. Just with these basic chemical molecules there’s already lots of life-like activity taking place. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine how this could be a possible beginning of all life.
3. Getting Order from Chaos. The Laws of Thermodynamics tell us that all things tend towards disorder, not order. Left to themselves buildings crumble, gardens are taken over by weeds, and living material decays. If unguided natural causes produced the universe (from nothing) and produced life (from non-life) these processes would necessarily go against observed scientific principles in order to produce the complexity, beauty, and order that we observe in the world around us.
Ah yes! The Second Law of Thermodynamics! Always a favorite of the apologist crowd though they never seem to make use of the First Law of Thermodynamics or the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics (yes, there is a Zeroth Law). It always amuses me how readily theists will accept a scientific theory if it allows them to refute a different scientific theory they don’t like. It’s a shame so many of them don’t understand what it really says.
The first thing they don’t understand about the Second Law is that it isn’t about order or chaos, it’s about heat:
Second law of thermodynamics: Heat cannot spontaneously flow from a colder location to a hotter location.
The second law of thermodynamics is an expression of the universal principle of dissipation of kinetic and potential energy observable in nature. The second law is an observation of the fact that over time, differences in temperature, pressure, and chemical potential tend to even out in a physical system that is isolated from the outside world. Entropy is a measure of how much this process has progressed. The entropy of an isolated system that is not in equilibrium tends to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium.
In classical thermodynamics, the second law is a basic postulate applicable to any system involving heat energy transfer; in statistical thermodynamics, the second law is a consequence of the assumed randomness of molecular chaos. There are many versions of the second law, but they all have the same effect, which is to explain the phenomenon of irreversibility in nature.
The second thing they don’t understand about the Second Law is that little bit I put in boldface up there: It only applies to isolated physical systems with no external source of energy. The Earth, where abiogenesis and evolution have taken place, is not an isolated physical system. It has an external source of energy. You may have heard of it. It’s called The Sun. All life is possible because of the sun inputting energy into earth’s natural systems allowing for local increases in order that allows things like people to exist.
But, you might say, the Universe is a closed system with no external source of energy and it started in a high entropy state, but went on to form galaxies and stars and DVD rental kiosks. All highly ordered (low entropy) things. Doesn’t that violate the second law? Thanks to inflation the answer is no:
The Big Bang seems, at first glance, to violate the second law. It starts off as a dense almost perfectly homogeneous gas (thus at almost maximum entropy) and then seems to separate into clumps that formed stars and galaxies. Hasn’t order increased and thus the entropy decreased, and since the universe is a closed system, hasn’t this violated the second law?
The solution here is that because the universe is expanding it keeps getting shifted out of equilibrium, and in the drive to reach a new equilibrium state, you can get pockets of order occurring without violating the second law, because the maximum allowable entropy also keeps increasing.
In more technical terms, if we consider the universe to be a sphere of radius R that is increasing, the maximum allowable entropy increases as the square of R, while the actual entropy of the universe increases less rapidly, only linearly with R. Thus even if the initial universe was at maximum entropy for its size, as the universe expands its entropy can increase while still being easily able to accommodate the increasing order we see. In fact, calculations done assuming that there exist ten planets per star, 100 billion stars for every galaxy and 100 billion galaxies (which are our best current estimates) show that the ordering of the planets produces changes in entropy of only one part in 1011 of the total current entropy. Victor Stenger (Has Science Found God?, 2003, p. 152) summarizes the situation:
No violation of the second law of thermodynamics was required to produce the universe.
It’s clear that Kraby, like most apologists who try to use the Second Law to disprove other theories they don’t like, doesn’t have a firm grasp of the subject. That’s not a criticism. Thermodynamics is a complex subject that involves some serious math and can be difficult to follow, but it helps if you actually read what scientists have to say about it and not other theists.
Finally we come to his last so-called atheist miracle:
4. Getting the Immaterial from Physical Matter. If nothing was able to produce everything, non-life was able to produce life, and chaos was able to produce order the atheistic worldview would still encounter an insurmountable obstacle. No matter how organized, it is impossible for physical material to produce the immaterial realities of human consciousness. Our morality, beliefs, desires and preferences all exist outside of mere physical matter.
Kraby is making a pretty big claim here without providing anything to support it and it’s just flat out wrong. Our morality, beliefs, desires and preferences certainly do not exist outside of mere physical matter. They’re all contained within the human brain along with the rest of your personality. This is easily provable by studying people who have had a traumatic brain injury. There are literally thousands of documented cases of people developing whole new personalities, beliefs, desires, and preferences after brain injuries. Sometimes the changes are minor and sometimes they result in what could be said to be an entirely different person depending on how much damage there is and where in occurred. Passive people become violently aggressive (and vice versa), chaste can become hypersexual, introvert can become extrovert. One of the most famous examples is Phineas Gage whose personality changed dramatically after a tamping rod was propelled through his brain in an explosion. Even your beliefs can be changed by a TBI.
“You” do not exist outside of the confines of your brain and you can even change your personality without a TBI. Drugs are a common way to modify your personality in major and minor ways. People drink alcohol because it lowers inhibitions which results in them taking risks they probably wouldn’t if they were sober. Drug abuse can permanently alter your brain chemistry and, thusly, who you are.
Kraby concludes his little essay with the following claim:
Each of these examples go against the natural order and could be labeled as miracles. Naturalistic worldviews such as atheism, evolution, and neo-Darwinism regard this evidence for God with what Dawkins would certainly consider an unscientific approach: each item must be taken on faith.
As I’ve demonstrated, none of these goes against the natural order in any way nor do they require any faith to accept. We don’t have all the pieces to all the puzzles just yet, but what we do have points to very real and very natural processes that can be understood without invoking the supernatural. Again, even if it turns out that these theories are incorrect that doesn’t mean the only other explanation is “God”. It would be nice if Kraby could provide some reasons why a god is the explanation for these “miracles” beyond the implication of well what else would it be?
Kraby has demonstrated some startling ignorance of the topics he puts forth and provides nothing to back up the claims he makes. This could be avoided with just a little study outside the realm of Creationist websites. There are a number of good books from well respected scientists covering these topics in-depth that are still quite readable by the layman. All in all this was a pretty piss-poor argument. Hopefully the next apologist will do a better job.