The Stupid Evil Bastard Podcast Episode 5 is now online!

A pic of a microphone.

Blah blah blah...

It only took 11 months to get around to, but the fifth episode of the Stupid Evil Bastard Podcast is finally available for your listening enjoyment. In this installment we tackle a number of suggested topics and a shit load of tangents because that’s the way we do things around here (read: haphazard and poorly planned). Topics include Sarah Palin’s bus tour, the field of Republican presidential candidates and how Michelle Bachman makes all the rest actually look desirable in comparison, some disappointment in Obama, the Buddhist concept that there is no “self”, various TV shows we are watching at the moment, and a little something something on Patriotism in honor of the day we did the recording.

Or, more concisely, it’s an hour and a half of Dave and I rambling about all sorts of shit. As always you can either download the episode by clicking here or you can listen to it in the handy Flash player at the end of this entry. Please feel free to leave comments/suggestions/complaints/rants as you see fit in the comments. We had a blast doing it so we hope that makes it interesting for you as well.

 

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[SEB Guest Post] A Late Night Thought on Prohibitions and Rules

If you wish your prohibitions and rules to be based upon reason, then you should look more to adopting etiquettes and manners than to adopting religious morals.

The rules for which fork to use, or for what constitutes polite conversation, typically employ more logic and evidence in their creation and defense than do any church’s prohibition against using condoms or prohibition against homosexual marriages.

The Pope, for instance, employs more reason deciding when and where to spit than he does deciding the morality of divorce.

It is mere unthinking prejudice that so many people consider religious morals to be of greater weight than etiquettes and manners, for, in truth, religious morals are more often based on fluffy thinking than are the latter.

Cross-posted at Café Philos

Steven D. Hales: You Can Prove a Negative.

We’ve all heard the argument that you can’t prove a negative from various True Believers™ in Gods, UFOs, Big Foots (Feets?), etc.. It’s a common bit of folk logic, but is it true? Philosopher Steven D. Hales argues that it is not in a small essay titled You Can Prove a Negative:

It is widely believed that you can’t prove a negative. Some people even think that it is a law of logic—you can’t prove that Santa Claus, unicorns, the Loch Ness Monster, God, pink elephants, WMD in Iraq and Bigfoot don’t exist. This widespread belief is flatly, 100% wrong. In this little essay, I show precisely how one can prove a negative, to the same extent that one can prove anything at all.

The essay itself is a small PDF file and it’s an easy read worthy of a look. My favorite bit is from the summary at the end:

Meaning: your argument against aliens is inductive, therefore not incontrovertible, and since I want to believe in aliens, I’m going to dismiss the argument no matter how overwhelming the evidence against aliens, and no matter how vanishingly small the chance of extraterrestrial abduction.

Yeah, that pretty much sums it all up right there. It’s the “I DO believe in faeries! I DO! I DO!” chant in a different form.

 

Why would God bother at all?

It’s a very simple question and one I’ve asked a number of believers over the years, but have yet to get any kind of a reasonable answer. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of it’s been kicking around in my brain the past couple of days so I thought I’d take the time to write it down.

For the sake of the argument we’ll have to assume that God does exist and he has a reason for doing the things that he does. We should also try to define his basic properties; what we mean when we use the word “God.” To keep it simple let’s go with the basic assumptions present in most of the big religions:

  1. God is perfect.
  2. God is all-powerful.
  3. God is all-knowing.
  4. God is eternal.

Right off the bat with the first aspect of God we have a problem of motivation that I’ve never been able to get past. A common interpretation of the word “perfect” is: entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings, thorough; complete. A truly perfect being would need nothing and thus want for nothing and, logically, have no reason to do anything. All the usual motivations us mere humans have for doing things would be of no concern to a God. Our motivations are driven by needs, both real and perceived, and even when we claim we’re doing something for no reason that’s often not the reality of the situation. God wouldn’t need anything. Not food, companionship, entertainment, sleep, sex, or anything else.

So why would he create anything? He has no need for Heaven, angels, universes, planets, people, critters, and so on and he couldn’t possibly gain anything from the creation process he doesn’t already have because he’s perfect. If he needed any of those things or even if he just had a need to create he wouldn’t be perfect. If God has no good reason to create anything then why are we here? I recognize that this implies that God could exist and not be perfect, but most religions reject that possibility.

The second attribute of God invites all manner of logical paradoxes. Most folks interpret all-powerful to mean that God can do anything which invites classic questions like, “Can God make a stone so heavy he can’t lift it?” The obvious answer being no which means that there’s a limit to God’s power (it’s a limit on what he can do and thus not all-powerful) and at the same time if he could do it then there would still be a limit to God’s power (a limit to how heavy an object he can lift, but not how heavy he can create). Of course that assumes that God has a physical form to lift things with, unless you assume he does his lifting by some other means (telekinesis perhaps?), and the further your pursue that rabbit the deeper you’ll find the rabbit hole goes. Of course it’s a moot point in the face of attribute one which removes any need to create a heavy stone and then try to lift it. Still you can have a lot of fun thinking up various paradoxes like “can God get lost” which ties into aspect number three as well as two.

Speaking of the third attribute, this introduces yet more motivation and paradox problems. Most of the big religions consider all-knowing to mean that he knows everything there is to know from the past, now, and the future. Ask how this is possible and the most common explanation you’ll get is that God exists outside of the universe and thus can see the whole thing from beginning to end. The obvious logical contradiction this causes is in regards to free will. Most of the big religions believe that you have free will, but they also believe that God knows everything you will do before you’re born. God, being all-knowing and perfect, can’t be wrong so logically you have to live out the life that God knows you will live which means that you don’t really have a choice and thusly don’t really have free will, but the believers will insist that you do because otherwise you can’t be held accountable for your actions by God. It’s a paradox and one that people will happily argue with you about until you’re blue in the face without ever grasping that it’s a paradox.

But assuming for the moment that God went ahead and created everything for no reason and assuming that it’s possible to have free will in spite of God knowing ahead of time what you’re going to do, the fact that he’s all-knowing still makes the exercise pointless. Before God created even the first elementary particles for the first atoms at the very start of creation he already knew how it would all play out in the end. Again this begs the question of why even bother if it’s all just going through the motions? What does God gain from this that he wouldn’t have already had if he’d not done anything at all? Again, by definition, God doesn’t need anything and is complete unto himself. What value could an exercise like reality hold that would motivate a being who doesn’t need any of it to be complete?

The fourth attribute is an interesting one because it’s hard to really wrap your head around the concept of forever. We are finite beings and everything we see around us is also finite. Though bits of reality have mind bogglingly long existences that they may as well be infinite as far as the length of our puny lives are concerned, the point remains that everything appears to have a beginning and, at some point, an end.  The universe itself is finite as far as most of the big religions are concerned. It has a beginning and will have an end and while the length of its existence is beyond human comprehension it’s also ridiculously short in comparison to “forever.” Which brings us once again to asking why God would bother? Consider that God may have existed for countless eons compared to the universe (though most would argue that time is meaningless where God resides) and will continue to exist for countless eons after the universe is gone. What does he gain with the relatively short experiment with reality that he wouldn’t have had prior to it? Being perfect he doesn’t need anything and he was perfectly comfortable with existing on his own for, if you’ll pardon the pun, God knows how long prior to bothering with creation and he’ll continue to exist – unchanging by most religion’s definition – long after the universe has gone the way of the dodo. Reality is a pointless exercise on that time scale.

All of these problems are before we even start in on what reasons a particular religion’s take on God might have for the various rules and regulations he’s laid down, which, when you consider the source, are almost entirely arbitrary. These questions imply a single God, but most of them apply to religions with many Gods as well. Perfect beings, as a whole, would have no motivation to do anything. That’s the sort of thinking I do when my brain gets going.

I’ll never understand modern art.

I like to think I’m a fairly sophisticated fellow, but there are certain topics that make me feel like a Neanderthal. Fashion is one of those topics and the other is modern art. Take, for example, the following picture of an art “installation” that is up for the 2008 Turner Prize:


Click to embiggen!

Cathy Wilkes, 42, is a Glaswegian who gathered together a television, a sink with a single human hair and a pram and titled it She’s Pregnant Again when she represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2005.

This time, she has placed a mannequin on a lavatory next to two supermarket check-out counters. Four horse-shoes and bits of discarded wood dangle from wires attached to the mannequin’s head. They appear to bear no relevance to the check-out counters on which the artist has arranged bowls and spoons, as well as empty jars with the remnants of food. Scattered across the floor are piles of tiles and broken pottery in a plastic bag.

I can appreciate the nude mannequins, but I have no clue what the artist is trying to say with that piece other than perhaps “look at what I can get away with calling art!” It’s interesting in a “uh… OK” sort of way to me, but I see no deeper meaning in it. Which probably explains why I’m not an art curator:

Sophie O’Brien, one of three Turner Prize curators, saw deep meaning in the installation, explaining that the artist was “searching out the language of objects – things we overlook in our daily life” – and making us look at them with “fresh eyes”. She claimed that the artist had placed each found object with extreme precision.

*Squinting at picture closely* Really? OK, if you say so.

When she says the artist placed each object with “extreme precision” I get this mental image of her standing there with a slide ruler, a protractor, and lots of string measuring out precisely where each object should go based on some obscure algorithm she pulled out of her ass. I can’t help but wonder if such levels of precision are really necessary for such an installation. It was all for naught in my case, though, as I’m not seeing anything new about the objects in question.

Her colleague, Judith Nesbitt, the Tate’s chief curator, added: “It’s as if the narrative has been stripped away. You’re left trying to make sense of the objects to each other and to ourselves.”

OK, I’ll agree with that much. I am left trying to make sense of the objects in relation to each other. I still don’t get it.

I mean I can see where a certain amount of skill is involved in something like this. It’s just that the skill in question has less to do with the art itself and more to do with her ability to smooth talk people into thinking it’s art. I can admire that skill, but I’m not convinced it’s art as a result. Perhaps that’s a side effect of my natural cynicism about people and the bullshit they tend to spread. On some level I’m envious because it seems like a good way to earn a living if you can pull it off.

The one part of the exhibit I think is neat is the nude mannequin sitting on the toilet. It’s just weird enough to appeal to me, though it would be better if it didn’t have the random bits and bobs dangling off its head. Just a nude mannequin, posed in the casual way that it is in the picture, with perhaps the nurse’s hat, sitting on a toilet, would be something I could appreciate a great deal. Not because it’s art, but because it’s funky and makes people wonder what kind of drugs you’ve been indulging in.

I actually own a male mannequin head and torso myself. I picked it up back in my early twenties the first time I worked for a Meijers store in Waterford Michigan. They were throwing it out as the trend at the time was away from semi-realistic mannequins to the trendy partial mannequins minus arms, legs, heads, etc. that are used in most stores today. It wears one of the last of the Les’s Place t-shirts I had made up in the mid-80’s in honor of the BBS system I used to run. It doesn’t have any arms or lower half of its body and no hair. I call him Ralph and he usually wears one of my hats when I’m not wearing it.

He’s currently sitting on the floor of the living room in front of the sliding glass door because I’ve not figured out where I want to put him yet, but I’m leaning towards having him stare up out of the basement window once we get a storage rack in place down there for him to sit on and to hold all my spare computer parts. He’d almost never be seen except for the occasional nosy person who happens to spot something odd in the basement window. When we lived in the apartment in Canton he sat on the half-wall that divided the stairway from the living room staring down at anyone who came in the apartment. The first few times you’d come in he’d scare the shit out of you, but after awhile you’d forget he was even there. I could always tell when the maintenance people were coming in because he always startled them.

I loved that. But that’s not art. That’s me just being funky. I can appreciate funky.

SEB Mailbag: “You have won, its time to move on and deal with greater questions.”

Got the following missive this morning:

From: John Kraft
Subject:  Give up materialism

Taking comfort in religious peoples misunderstandings is not noble or intelligent Its simply selfish.  It is like making fun of a child for not understanding that which adults do.  By continually trying to show how dumb these people are you are being locked in to a lower debate and a lower understanding.  You have won, its time to move on and deal with greater questions.  There is nothing satisfying in telling others how they are wrong.  It is better to understand how you yourself are wrong, and in this way come to understand what is right.

Here’s my reply:

    John,

    A good portion of the problems I often point out go well beyond being simple misunderstandings on the part of the True Believers. Too often they enter into the realm of harmful, not only to the believers themselves, but to those around them as well. The Muslim girl who’s father and brothers kill her because she had the audacity to develop a crush on an American soldier. The young girl who dies from diabetes because her parents decided to sit around and pray for her instead of seeking reasonable medical treatment. Those aren’t misunderstandings, those are examples of idiocy run amok.

    Do I sometimes poke fun at otherwise harmless believers? Yes I do. The thing you seem to forget is that these people aren’t children, they’re adults and they should know better by now. There’s no real debate to be had here to begin with. Most of the True Believers are impervious to reality and will continue to cling to their delusions no matter how good of an argument you present to them. Ridicule is one of the few things that seems to sink in with them.

    When the secular humanists, atheists, and freethinkers are in the majority in this country then perhaps I’ll concede that it’s time to move on from my puerile antics, but until then…

    Les

God vs. Science.

Someone sent me a link to this blog entry at some random weblog that appears to be a new variation on the popular Evil Atheist Professor versus the True Believer student chain letter that’s been making the rounds for years. Previous versions were much shorter and attributed the student as being Albert Einstein, but this version has replaced making the student someone famous with making the fiction considerably longer. This isn’t the only blog with this email up as of late and just about every site that has it marvels over what a great bit of logic it is.

Well I’m hear to say it’s a load of crap, but first I should start by relating the sad story in question:

A science professor begins his school year with a lecture to the students, “Let me explain the problem science has with religion.” The atheist professor of philosophy pauses before his class and then asks one of his new students to stand.

“You’re a Christian, aren’t you, son?”

“Yes sir,” the student says.

“So you believe in God?”

“Absolutely.”

“Is God good?”

“Sure! God’s good.”

“Is God all-powerful? Can God do anything?”

“Yes.”

“Are you good or evil?”

“The Bible says I’m evil.”

The professor grins knowingly. “Aha! The Bible!” He considers for a moment. “Here’s one for you. Let’s say there’s a sick person over here and you can cure him. You can do it. Would you help him? Would you try?”

“Yes sir, I would.”

“So you’re good…!”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“But why not say that? You’d help a sick and maimed person if you could. Most of us would if we could. But God doesn’t.”

The student does not answer, so the professor continues. “He doesn’t, does he? My brother was a Christian who died of cancer, even though he prayed to Jesus to heal him. How is this Jesus good? Hmmm? Can you answer that one?”

The student remains silent.

“No, you can’t, can you?” the professor says. He takes a sip of water from a glass on his desk to give the student time to relax.

“Let’s start again, young fella. Is God good?”

“Er…yes,” the student says.

“Is Satan good?”

The student doesn’t hesitate on this one. “No.”

“Then where does Satan come from?”

The student falters. “From God”

“That’s right. God made Satan, didn’t he? Tell me, son. Is there evil in this world?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Evil’s everywhere, isn’t it? And God did make everything, correct?”

“Yes.”

“So who created evil?” The professor continued, “If God created everything, then God created evil, since evil exists, and according to the principle that our works define who we are, then God is evil.”

Again, the student has no answer. “Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things, do they exist in this world?”

The student squirms on his feet. “Yes.”

“So who created them?”

The student does not answer again, so the professor repeats his question. “Who created them?” There is still no answer. Suddenly the lecturer breaks away to pace in front of the classroom. The class is mesmerized. “Tell me,” he continues onto another student. “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, son?”

The student’s voice betrays him and cracks. “Yes, professor, I do.”

The old man stops pacing. “Science says you have five senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Have you ever seen Jesus?”

“No sir. I’ve never seen Him.”

“Then tell us if you’ve ever heard your Jesus?”

“No, sir, I have not.”

“Have you ever felt your Jesus, tasted your Jesus or smelt your Jesus? Have you ever had any sensory perception of Jesus Christ, or God for that matter?”

“No, sir, I’m afraid I haven’t.”

“Yet you still believe in him?”

“Yes.”

“According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your God doesn’t exist. What do you say to that, son?”

“Nothing,” the student replies. “I only have my faith.”

“Yes, faith,” the professor repeats. “And that is the problem science has with God. There is no evidence, only faith.”

The student stands quietly for a moment, before asking a question of His own. “Professor, is there such thing as heat?”

“Yes,” the professor replies. “There’s heat.”

“And is there such a thing as cold?”

“Yes, son, there’s cold too.”

“No sir, there isn’t.”

The professor turns to face the student, obviously interested. The room suddenly becomes very quiet. The student begins to explain. “You can have lots of heat, even more heat, super-heat, mega-heat, unlimited heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat, but we don’t have anything called ‘cold’. We can hit up to 458 degrees below zero, which is no heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold; otherwise we would be able to go colder than the lowest -458 degrees.”

“Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-458 F) is the total absence of heat. You see, sir, cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat we can measure in thermal units because heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.”

Silence across the room. A pen drops somewhere in the classroom, sounding like a hammer.

“What about darkness, professor. Is there such a thing as darkness?”

“Yes,” the professor replies without hesitation. “What is night if it isn’t darkness?”

“You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is not something; it is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light, but if you have no light constantly you have nothing and it’s called darkness, isn’t it? That’s the meaning we use to define the word.”

“In reality, darkness isn’t. If it were, you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?”

The professor begins to smile at the student in front of him. This will be a good semester. “So what point are you making, young man?”

“Yes, professor. My point is, your philosophical premise is flawed to start with, and so your conclusion must also be flawed.”

The professor’s face cannot hide his surprise this time. “Flawed? Can you explain how?”

“You are working on the premise of duality,” the student explains. “You argue that there is life and then there’s death; a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, science can’t even explain a thought.”

“It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the opposite of life, just the absence of it.”

“Now tell me, professor. Do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?”

“If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, young man, yes, of course I do.”

“Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?”

The professor begins to shake his head, still smiling, as he realizes where the argument is going. A very good semester, indeed.

“Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you now not a scientist, but a preacher?”

The class is in uproar. The student remains silent until the commotion has subsided.

“To continue the point you were making earlier to the other student, let me give you an example of what I mean.”

The student looks around the room. “Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the professor’s brain?” The class breaks out into laughter.

“Is there anyone here who has ever heard the professor’s brain, felt the professor’s brain, touched or smelt the professor’s brain? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science says that you have no brain, with all due respect, sir.”

“So if science says you have no brain, how can we trust your lectures, sir?”

Now the room is silent. The professor just stares at the student, his face unreadable.

Finally, after what seems an eternity, the old man answers. “I guess you’ll have to take them on faith.”

“Now, you accept that there is faith, and, in fact, faith exists with life,” the student continues. “Now, sir, is there such a thing as evil?”

Now uncertain, the professor responds, “Of course, there is. We see it everyday. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.”

To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”

The professor sat down.

This students statements are true, can you or can you not make night darker?

Is it possible for it to get colder after absolute zero -458 degree’s F.

Can you feel,taste,see,hear,or smell your brain,

If anyone can contest this please do.

So I did. I left the following comment at the blog I pulled this from and, as it’s rather lengthy and there’s a good chance the site owner will just delete it outright, I thought I should post it here as well.

Here’s my reply:

It’s a fictional story that’s been attributed to any number of people including Albert Einstein, but has no basis in reality. It’s also a very flawed argument that’s only really impressive to the scientifically illiterate. It’s kind of sad to see it making the rounds once again, but at least the latest incarnation isn’t attributing it to Einstein.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem with this entire argument: The Christian God is supposedly omnipresent therefor if God is literally everywhere how can there be the absence of God anywhere? This is a fatal flaw to the Absence of God = Evil argument. Additionally there’s the problem with the simple fact that many believers commit acts of evil in spite of their belief in God and often because of their belief in God. This would also be an obstacle for the evil = absence of God argument.

Secondly it relies on conflating two different meanings of the word faith. Namely the faith required for something that’s pretty well established—the fact that the professor does have a brain—versus the faith required for something with absolutely no evidence—the existence of God. In the former there are any number of ways to prove the existence of the professor’s brain, some of which would be extreme but definitive (open his skull and look), but a simple cat scan should suffice for most people. The existence of brains is so well established, in fact, that most Christians wouldn’t be stupid enough to question that reality in the first place.

In comparison you’d first have to nail down exactly what you mean by the word “God”, because even among believers of the same religion there’s often a difference on opinion about the nature of God, before you could even begin to try and establish whether or not it would be possible to determine if he exists. Clearly the type of faith it would take to believe in such a being is miles beyond the faith it takes to accept our lowly professor as having a brain without resorting to cracking his head open to check, though that would at least be possible if it had to come to it.

This particular version managed to work in the anti-evolution angle as well though that too is a flawed and incorrect argument. Evolution has been observed in both simple lab experiments and by studying fossils from antiquity. That is an entire argument unto itself, however, and more time than I wish to expend at the moment.

Furthermore the definitions for heat/cold and light/dark demonstrate that the author of this fiction has only a limited understanding of the concepts he’s writing about. The whole paragraph where the student explains the concept of heat is wrong, but most people aren’t scientifically literate enough to grasp that fact. They just see a lot of scientific words and their eyes glaze over and they think something really intelligent was said.

The author contends that “heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy” and that is flat out wrong as heat is actually the transfer of energy caused by a temperature difference. If two systems are not in thermal equilibrium with each other then heat transfer will occur with the flow going from the higher temperature system to the lower temperature system until thermal equilibrium is obtained. Or, in other words, if one system is hot and the other one is cold then heat will transfer from one to the other until they are the same temperature. The statement that we can have “super-heat, mega-heat, unlimited heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat” is just nonsense. The author is conflating the word “heat” with the word “hot” the latter of which is, like “cold”, a relative term describing the temperature of an object in relation to something else.

So too the author goes on to demonstrate only a partial understanding of light and dark. He starts by conflating the scientific definition of light, which includes the entire electromagnetic spectrum, with what is known as “visible light.” What we refer to as dark is actually just a low level of visible light, but not the absence of light as is claimed in the text. Even in the total absence of visible light all objects will continue to give off infrared and gamma radiation due to heat transfer and as such there is no absence of light at all even though you can’t see. A simple pair of infrared goggles is all it takes to see in the darkest of environments. In order to remove all light you’d have to remove all energy (absolute zero) which isn’t possible to do outside of the realm of theoretical mathematics.

So the answers to the questions at the end of this missive end up as follows: Yes, you could make night “darker” by blocking out more and more of the electromagnetic spectrum. No, you can’t make something colder than absolute zero because that’s the point when a system has no energy. For that matter it’s not possible to reach absolute zero either, though you can get close and matter starts to do some funky stuff at those temperatures. Yes, you can feel, taste, see, hear, and smell your brain if you really wanted to, but some of those would be messy and probably leave you damaged in the process. For some folks, though, it might be an experiment worth undertaking.

Please feel free to chime in with any other flaws you find in either the original story or my rebuttal.

Grounding for atheist ethics

I found an Interesting discussion on the blog Puritan’s Sword.  Rather than an inane, emotional discussion “from the heart”, the Christian owner of the blog has engaged a couple of atheist guests in a debate that at least attempts to be reasoned.  My favorite atheist guest there so far is “Jody” with her charming short story on using the bible to consider child murder.  The original post was in January, but it’s not obvious to me how old the comments are, so the discussion thread may be quite cold now.

Nonetheless, the blog owner “Bob” at one point responds to Jody that while the Golden Rule may have predated Christianity (and presumably he means Judeo-Christian theology), it was arbitrary and had no grounding until recognition of an absolute moral foundation such that an existent God brings.  I thought that was at least a newer rebuttal to the ethics-must-originate-from-God-no-they-predated-it argument.

As an intellectual argument, atheism is at a disadvantage here.  Strictly speaking, atheism is the lack of belief in a deity: a-theism.  So an atheist isn’t, per se, a belief but only a rejection of a set of beliefs.  Indeed, once you’re past the we-reject-supernatural-hocus-pocus aspect, atheism ends.  It is not an ideology or ethical foundation.  As an atheist you are free to build up from a blank slate to form whatever ethical structure works.  Most modern atheists focus on science and rigorous philosophical study to establish a set of beliefs, but a secular ethical foundation is fairly scattered across various atheists.  So, from the other side, the theists point of view, atheists lack an ethical structure.  We don’t necessarily, but we aren’t mandated one either.  There is a book I haven’t read for some time called Ethics Without God by Kai Nielsen, but I don’t recall a direct rebuttal to this point, though he allows possibilities for various belief systems. 

Ergo, atheists are, at first, amoral.  That is, since atheist is only AGAINST something, it remains to be said what an atheist is FOR.  This is complicated in that it is anarchy.  Since atheism is a blank slate, by definition, we individually are free to choose independent moral codes, should we even choose one.  Atheistic groups such as Secular Humanists do attempt to build up a new belief system from the belief void of atheism, but we are labeled as atheists not as humanists.

Now I have a fairly strong sense of right and wrong.  Whether I argue them from habit and custom, from intellectual consideration, or simple social contract, I wouldn’t describe myself as amoral nor would most people I think that know me.  Yet, I have no basis on which to say another atheist does have a moral code.  I am not troubled by this because I expect that, like me, other atheists are not JUST atheists:  we bring other dimensions and conclusions to the table.

In short, is the notion of a golden rule arbitrary and without intellectual basis if it doesn’t have an axiomatic basis such as theistic belief? 

Progress:  Man’s Greatest Mistake

[Ed’s Note: The following was sent to me in an email by Doug Soderstrom, Ph.D. as a possible submission to SEB. I present it to you in full and unedited for your consideration.]

In the beginning the Earth was without form, inanimate objects lay dormant, chemicals worked their magic; then the miracle of a single cell, and life began to evolve.  Individual cells grouped themselves accordingly, and then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, life gave birth to awareness, a consciousness that soon began to turn inward upon itself, a self-reflective tour de force, the commencement of an ever-evolving, always-expanding, mind, one that would soon turn “the stolen fruit of the Tree of its own Knowledge” against the very breeding ground of its own birth.

Assuming that the Earth had been given to him, that this “marvelously blue-marbled island in the sky,” this, as yet, “unformed glob of clay,” was his to shape as he saw fit, man declared that he would take possession of the Earth, that from this time forward he would dominate the planet, that he had surely been given the supreme right to tinker with Eden, to exploit, to extract, even to gouge from its very bowels anything and everything that might serve to give him comfort, anything that might make it possible to add a few precious years to that of his life, anything that might enable him to postpone the inevitability of an appointment with death………. and that he would do such a thing in a manner that would preserve the integrity of the planet, protect the fountainhead, the source of every breath that he would one day breathe.

First was the cerebral gift of prehension, an outer coat of brilliance, enabling man’s mind to think, even to reason.  Then as man began to associate with others, he would share what he had learned about the world around him; thus an accumulation of knowledge. Not that such could have been avoided, since the survival of the group depends upon the parceling of information.  Then, as life would have it, knowledge began to be arranged and then even codified in such a manner that science became a reality.  Accordingly, there were those who realized that science could be applied, that science could be used in such a manner as to improve the plight of man; hence the rise of technology.  However, given man’s propensity to enrich himself, no doubt, a natural tendency to hoard food, money, or whatever (an apparently inevitable breach of human character referred to as greed), one must wonder if there would have been any who might have been willing to share the results of an inventive mind with others while not expecting a fee in return?  Thus, the advent of business (home-bound trades, the local store, partnerships, associations, companies, syndicates, cartels, and eventually the rise of transnational corporations), a nearly unquenchable desire for men to make as much money as possible in that of one lifetime which unfortunately led to a manifest disregard for the needs of “Mother Earth,” a self-serving choice to allow the byproducts of personal gain to pour out onto the land, into the sea, and throughout the air, recklessly destroying the very Eden of man’s birth.

Although I am sure there are many factors that have given rise to progress (developments that have enabled life to be a bit more pleasurable, those that have reduced the poverty and pains of life, along with man’s natural need to create), I have come to the conclusion that the primary cause of, the fundamental catalyst for, progress is nothing more than a rather simple fear of death, a determined attempt, on the part of man, to add a few more years onto life, an indigenous effort to postpone the inevitability of one’s own death.  Really now, except for those who are terribly depressed or are experiencing horrible physical pain, who is it that would not like to extend the extent of one’s stay on Earth before being forced to “give up the ghost?”  But…… at what cost?  And herein lies the problem, a bafflement for that of man; a conundrum so difficult to understand that it has become nearly impossible for man to realize that progress, the mantra for the forward movement of life, an addiction to the fruits of his own labor (cars that speed us on our way through life, asphalt highways that snake their way through the landscape, cities filled with cement parking lots, plastic gadgets, gismos, even nuclear bombs ready to put an end to life on Earth), has become a corridor, a conduit, leading the way toward the eventual destruction of life on Earth.

How utterly amazing, in attempting to distance himself from that of his own mortality, man, after all these years, has finally managed to construct “a tower for the Babel of his own destruction”……… the one sure way for him to die!

Perhaps we, as a race, have reached a time that demands that we face up to the fact that we have lost the right to “have our cake and eat it too,” that we comprehend how terribly foolish we have been, that we realize that having once been allowed to roam the pharmacopoeia of valleys prepared for man, a blind devotion to the “golden calves” of our times, things made by the pride of our own hands, has placed us upon a course that is leading to ruin, the destruction of an Eden no longer fit for life!

No longer is it possible for rational man to deny that global warming (the ongoing demise of the world’s glaciers, the rising of the Earth’s seas, the progressive shutdown of the North Atlantic Ocean Current leading to the possibility of another ice age, the destruction of life in the sea, changing weather patterns, drought, floods, famine, starvation, the displacement of entire populations of people, and the eventual inevitability of world war) is a reality, that the intractable desire to consume more and more things has become that of our own worst enemy.  Although I am convinced that there was no way for anyone to have known that our capacity to reason would have led to a world tittering on the brink of destruction, I submit that we, as rational beings, take responsibility for having chosen to have laid waste to the Earth. I suggest that we need to “tighten our belts,” that we realize that we must learn to live with less, that if we, as a race, are to retain a degree of dignity we have no choice but to face the fact that no matter how much we have learned, how many discoveries we have made, how many things we have managed to assemble, it is all for naught if we end up destroying the Earth.

I ask this question: What will historians (if there are any who manage to survive) say about a race who so effectively managed to lay waste to the planet?  Will they perhaps come to the conclusion that progress was a terrible mistake, that it would have been much better if man would have learned to have lived with less, learned to have lived with what God originally provided, been willing to exchange a shorter span of life for that of a no doubt pristine world…….. if man would have had the wisdom to realize that life is best measured not by how long we live, but rather by how well we have learned to live?

Doug Soderstrom, Ph.D.
Psychologist
gdsoderstrom@yahoo.com
December 6, 2006

NRO’s John Derbyshire no longer calls himself a Christian.

Not being of a Conservative bent myself I don’t make a habit of reading National Review Online unless I catch wind of them having a particularly interesting or outrageous article. This one falls into the interesting category as it’s a FAQ of sorts put together by columnist John Derbyshire in which he explains his religious views:

Q. Do you believe religion is good for people?

A. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? I thought so for the longest time. All those Golden Rules, those injunctions to charity, compassion, neighborliness, forbearance, and so on. Not only does the proposition seem obvious in itself, but we all know people whose lives were messed up, but were then straightened out after they got religion. I know one and a half cases — I mean, two people this happened to, but one of them relapsed after three or four years, and last I heard she was in worse shape than ever.

On the other hand, some religious people are horrible. This past few years, working at National Review Online and fielding tens of thousands of e-mails from readers, I’ve had my first really close encounter with masses of opinionated Christians of all kinds. A lot of them are very nice, and some are very nice indeed — I’ve had gifts, including use of a house one family vacation (thank you, Pastor!) — but, yes, some others are loathsome. I get lots of religious hate mail, some of it really vile. Often this is in response to something I have said, which I suppose is fair enough, even if not a particularly good advertisement for Christ’s injunctions about meekness and forbearance. Often, though, these e-mails come in from people who are not reacting to anything in particular, they just want to tell me that I am not religious enough to suit them, or to call myself a conservative, or to work at National Review, or to live in the USA, or (though this is very rare) to live at all. Half a dozen times I’ve had readers express these sentiments using four-letter words of the taboo variety.

The usual response to all that is the one Evelyn Waugh gave. He was religious, but he was also a nasty person, and knew it. But: “If not for my faith,” he explained, “I would be barely human.” In other words, even a nasty religious person would be even worse without faith.

I have now come to think that it really makes no difference, net-net. You can point to people who were improved by faith, but you can also see people made worse by it. Anyone want to argue that, say, Mohammed Atta was made a better person by his faith? All right, when Americans say “religion” they mean Christianity 99 percent of the time. So: Can Christianity make you a worse person? I’m sure it can. If you’re a person with, for example, a self-righteous conviction of your own moral superiority, well, getting religion is just going to inflame that conviction. Again, I know cases, and I’m sure you do too. The exhortations to humility that you find in all religions seem to be the most difficult teaching for people to take on board. Mostly, I think it makes no difference. Evelyn Waugh would have been no more obnoxious as an atheist.

And then there are some of those discomfiting facts about human groups. Taking the population of these United States, for example, the least religious major group, by ancestry, is Americans of East Asian stock. The most religious is African Americans. All the indices of dysfunction and misbehavior, however, go the other way, with Asian Americans getting into least trouble and African Americans most. What’s that all about?

In the end, I think I’ve now arrived at this position: An individual might be made better by faith, or worse. Overall, taking society at large, I think it averages out to zero. But then…

It makes for a fascinating read as John ends up not quite being an unbeliever—he considers himself a Mysterian—but he’s certainly among what is commonly known as the irreligious, which includes us atheist types. In other words, he’s the sort of believer (to use the word loosely) I’d consider an ally and any disagreements I’d have with him would probably be largely over politics as opposed to religious viewpoint. At the very least his presence there raises my opinion of NRO a decent amount.

Found via Debunking Christianity.