What If You're Wrong?

Richard Dawkins giving a lecture based on his ...Image via Wikipedia

Toomanytribbles recently shared Richard Dawkins' response to the "What if you're wrong?" question, a frequent one atheists hear from Christians. This is precisely the sort of response we should keep in mind when asked this ridiculous question. In a nutshell, there is nothing in Pascal's Wager (to which this question refers whether the one using it realizes it or not) that points to the Christian god. It is every bit as likely that the Christian is wrong about thousands of other gods, each every bit as probable as the one preferred by Christians.

Of course, it is also worth pointing out that believing in something (or attempting to convince oneself that one believes in something) in service to imagined rewards does not speak particularly well for one's level of moral development.

MS Rep. Gene Taylor Speaks Out Against Stimulus

{{w|Gene Taylor}}, member of the United States...Image via Wikipedia

Never mind President Obama's popularity or the consensus of economists throughout the political spectrum that stimulus spending is necessary. Mississippi's Rep. Gene Taylor is not so sure. According to the Hattiesburg American, Rep. Taylor said,
So far, (Obama) has ignored the problem I have worked the hardest on, the national debt. The debt has to be repaid by someone at some time, and you do have to pay interest on it at some time which is a very real payment.
While Taylor is right that the growing debt will have to be repaid, I cannot help wondering what he would suggest instead. If he has a viable alternative, I really hope he will suggest it soon.

Christian Extremist Roy Moore Running for Alabama Governor

Roy MooreImage via Wikipedia

Those of us in Mississippi often seem to wind up on the losing end of battles with Alabama over who has the biggest idiot problem (when I say we're on the losing end, I mean we keep winning these battles). But now there is news that may change Alabama's fortunes: former Judge Roy Moore of Ten Commandments monument fame is considering running for governor of Alabama.

In case you do not remember Moore and fully appreciate what it would mean to have him as governor of Alabama, Austin Cline provides a good summary here.

H/T to Dispatches From the Culture Wars

Christopher Hitchens to debate Dinesh D'Souza in Ellisville, MS

Christopher Hitchens, author of "God is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything" will be debating Fundamentalist, and current darling of the Religious Right, Dinesh D'Souza at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, MS on Monday 20 April.

Tickets are free, but limited. You can reserve your tickets here. I read somehting somewhere that mentioned they would be available for book signings after the event, but can't find that now. In any case, I'll be there with my copy of God Is Not Great and a couple other of Hitchens' books that I own just in case.

God made the curvy lines.

Image via Wikipedia
Growing up, I was in the Boy Scouts. In learning about orienteering and map reading, I was taught this simple rule:
Humans made the straight lines. God made the curvy lines.
While this advice may be good for differentiating man-made and non-man-made features on a map, it assumes everything was designed by either humans or a god. What if we discover that something was developed through purely natural processes? It might change the advice to this: "Humans made the straight lines. Everything else is yet to be determined." While this is a better statement, it doesn't role off the tongue like "God made the curvy lines."

A recent commenter asked this question, which I believe deserves its own post:
What would it take to convince you that something was intelligently made? What is your standard to judge between what is natural and what is intelligent? If you do not have a standard to judge, then how do you eliminate intelligence as an explanation?
Let us consider an Object A. Object A fits in my hand, looks like a duck and it appears to be made out of wood. I picked it up at the county fair for $5. A man with a long beard and a knife tells me, "I whittled that myself." I don't have a reason to doubt the man, so I believe him. I could be truly skeptical and ask the man to carve another wooden duck in my presence. That would certainly convince me that it was intelligently made.

Ray Comfort once held a copy of the Mona Lisa on national television and said that a painting must have a painter. I guess this is true if your definition of "painting" requires a painter. Nobody alive today had any contact with Leonardo da Vinci, but it could be shown that the Mona Lisa really was a da Vinci painting by comparing it to other works by da Vinci. Sometimes it's not as simple. Jackson Pollock dipped a paint brush into a can of paint and flung it at a canvas repeatedly. If I were to knock a paint can full of brushes off of a table and onto a canvas and through happenstance created an identical image to that of a Jackson Pollock painting, I still just created a mess. Two identical images were made, but one was deliberate work of art and the other was an accident. Determining whether a painting was intelligently made should not be limited to the narrow examination of a single painting, for we might deceive ourselves. (Let us not confuse our own physiology as products of an accident. We are products of evolution, which is not an accidental process.)

William Paley described a hypothetical event where he was crossing a field and spotted a rock. The rock was unimpressive, so he quickly moved on. But then he spots a watch. A watch is a complex device used for precision timekeeping, it has a clear purpose, and thus it must have a watchmaker. Our world is filled with complex organisms, each with their own subsystems, and those subsystems have outlined purposes. By using the same reasoning, we must all be intelligently designed. We are left to wonder why Paley failed to see the evidence for design or purpose when examining the rock.

The watchmaker analogy is still alive today in the form of the Intelligent Design movement. In part 5 of the popular 12 part series on Christian epistemology, "The Truth Project", Dr. Del Tackett teaches that Paley's watchmaker analogy is a convincing alternative to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Dr. Tackett failed to notice that it even convinced Charles Darwin at one point. Darwin once remarked that this was the best argument available for the existence of God, but that was before he wrote "On the Origins of Species."

But why would Darwin eliminate intelligence as an explanation for the origins of species? Simple: he conceived an alternative idea, tested it, and it worked. His hypothesis was that organisms slowly change across generations, and these generational changes eventually give rise to new species. He tested his hypothesis repeatedly using plants and animals, then he refined this new theory till it could be defended in the public eye. Darwin's idea was not a thought experiment such as Paley's watchmaker analogy; it was theory that had conclusive supporting evidence. Darwin ruled out intelligence through experimentation.

Issac Newton was one of the greatest thinkers to ever exist, yet he still advocated Intelligent Design. Let us be reminded that Newton invented calculus because existing mathematics failed him when trying to understand gravity. Newton saw only natural forces at work when trying to explain the speed at which objects fall to the ground, but then he saw the God of the universe when trying to explain the revolution of planets around the Sun. The only way the planets could orbit was through the power of God. When a different scientist, Pierre-Simon Laplace, created the necessary mathematical models to explain the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter, he was asked why there was no mention of God in any of his explanation. His reply: "I have no need of that hypothesis." Laplace ruled out intelligence through experimentation.

Science works through the "law of parsimony", which is often called "Occam's Razor". Among two or more plausible explanations, the simplest explanation is usually right. In the context of the original question, this is a debate between a natural explanation and supernatural explanation. Natural explanations can be tested and repeated independently and we can be intensely critical of the procedures and results. It is much harder (some say impossible) to examine the supernatural with a critical eye, which is why all supernatural arguments can safely be ignored. Carl Sagan says that we should give supernatural explanations the Scottish verdict of "not proven".

My standard for ruling out intelligence is through experimentation. I advise you, the reader, to accept the natural explanations when there is supporting evidence and withhold judgment when there is not. This skeptical outlook is partly the reason why I am an atheist. Thank you for your question.

Part of this post was derived from a talk given by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Jesus: Still Relevant in Mississippi?

Baptism of Jesus (Bogojavlenie, ortodox icon)Image via Wikipedia

Since starting this blog, I have viewed our primary mission as being one of providing information and resources to atheists living in Mississippi. I knew what it was like to feel that I must be the only atheist in the state. As I discovered that this was far from true, I realized how powerful it could be to simply show others that they were not alone. Without any formal atheist organization in our state, I thought I would do what little I could provide Mississippi atheists with a hub from which to learn about the various atheist groups and atheist-relevant news in our state. An important part of this mission includes exploring the nature of the thoroughly Christian environment in which we find ourselves. In this post, I'd like to use a recent article in the Hattiesburg American to explore the question of Jesus' relevance in Mississippi today.

Admittedly, this seems like a ridiculously easy question to answer at first glance. Of course Jesus is relevant in Mississippi. We are not only the most religious state in the U.S., but Mississippi atheists often feel surrounded on all sides by not just Christians but fundamentalist Christians! But the question was not whether Christianity is relevant but whether Jesus was relevant.

According to this odd article in the Hattiesburg American by freelance writer Rodney Sessions,
The messages found in His stories have traveled across the centuries, and the morals therein are as clear and relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago.
Sessions clearly assumes that the existence of Jesus is historical fact. He is evidently unaware of the scholarship questioning this assumption. But far more important, Sessions also appears to assume that the accounts of Jesus contained in the Christian bible, accounts which are quite variable themselves, are somehow accurate.

Setting aside the fact that inconsistent accounts cannot all be simultaneously accurate, the consensus among biblical scholars is that the Christian bible was written well after the time period in which Jesus supposedly lived by authors who had never met any such man. Thus, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that the stories attributed to Jesus were anything other than myth. An influential myth to be sure, but myth nonetheless. In fact, little about the Jesus myth was particularly original.

What about the character of Jesus which Sessions repeatedly praises? Set aside the questions about whether any such individual ever lived and the inconsistencies present in how he is described in the Christian bible. Even focusing on what the Christian bible does say about him, there are important questions about the nature of the teachings attributed to him.

To his credit, I think Sessions realizes that the relevance of Jesus depends upon faith. Given that we now know some of the biblical claims about Jesus were blatantly false, I suppose he has little choice.
I think faith is a very personal thing. I think each one of us must decide what we believe. I think each one of us must develop our own relationship with our faith, our beliefs, and our God.
Setting aside the fact that many Mississippians are perfectly content to live happy and productive lives in which they need no supernatural agents, Sessions is right. Each of us does decide what we believe. For some of us, it is preferable to live in the real world than to participate in the maintenance of one we suspect to be false. For us, the relevance of the Jesus myth lies primarily in the disdain and hatred we receive from many Mississippians calling themselves Christians.

Obama: U.S. Not Christian Nation

Breaking news today. During a speech in Turkey, President Obama confirmed what many in the reality-based community have long known: the United States is NOT a Christian nation. Here is the video:

"Jesus is Christmas" in April

Christmas tree 2005 croppedImage by ndrwfgg via Flickr

One thing I see plenty of in Mississippi is pro-Christian slogans on signs, billboards, bumper stickers, and the like. I was driving to work just the other day and found myself behind a truck with a bumper sticker I hadn't seen before. It simply said, "Jesus is Christmas" and had a picture of a decorated Christmas tree. Based on the visible wear, it was clear that the sticker had been on the truck for some time. What sort of person would drive around with a Christmas sticker on their truck year round? And what a bizarre statement!

Is there anything that isn't Jesus to Christians? If not, isn't the claim that one has a personal relationship with Jesus awfully similar to saying that one has a relationship to oneself?

I wonder if the driver of this truck thinks about Christmas year round. I wonder if he feels that he is occupied with some sort of war where evil atheists are attempting to destroy his holiday. Or maybe he does not think about much at all. Perhaps the sticker is there because his church or Fox "News" told him that he should affix it to his car.