Idolatry

I’ve been slowly making my way through Married to the Sea‘s archives. It’s a silly comic most of the time, but sometimes it gets political. This one reminded me of a point I like to make. It’s the 10 Commandments as a graven image that gets pushed into schools and courthouses. On top of violating freedom from government imposition of a religion, showing undue favoritism, and all that, it makes the point that the 10 Commandments is essentially an idol.

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It’s a Bird/Dinosaur!

Well, I got the recent news about that feathered dinosaur. Apparently Ken Ham and other Creationists have declared it to be 100% bird despite lacking a bony breast muscle anchor birds have and possessing dinosaur features like clawed fingers and teeth. This brings me back to a point I was thinking about including in Creationism is in a State of Chaos, though I rewrote it partway through to cover bigger issues, rather than list miscellaneous details. I’ve seen some Creationists claim that the more famous archeopteryx was all bird. I’ve seen others claim it was all reptile/dinosaur. It will not surprise me if this latest fossil triggers more flip-floppery from Creationists trying to shoehorn it into the categories they’re comfortable with.

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Creationism is in a State of Chaos

That’s the blunt truth about how I see it. I’m not talking about the political situation of various attempts to slip it into schools or its public relations, though it’s still applicable: The promoters try to gloss over the fact that it’s religious and try to make it look vaguely secular, meanwhile they can’t keep the fundie hordes from revealing the sectarian motives.

My major point is that Creationism as a hypothesis is in a state of chaos. If a person identifies himself as a Creationist, that doesn’t tell us what he believes or gives us insight into what he’s likely to believe, beyond the vaguest of details. Evolution and inflationary cosmology are better defined. I believe in those theories because of the evidence, and knowing that, you can reliably predict that I believe:

  • The universe is 13.7 billion years old. The Earth is 4.6 billion years old.
  • All life is related in a large nested hierarchy, like a branching tree. You won’t find any examples of large multicelluar organisms (like animals) that would fit in more than one branch. No cat-dog hybrids without deliberate genetic modification, for example. The closest you’d get naturally is a cat, with the genetic features that define it as a cat, that superficially resembles a dog or the reverse. The descendents of cats are still cats, though as deep time passes and modifications pile up, they may become very strange compared to our current idea of a cat. Even so, they’d still bear the molecular and morphological legacy of cathood.
  • Fossils are arranged with the oldest species on the bottommost layers of rock and the most recent on top. By comparing similar fossils up and down the rock layers around the world, we can infer relationships based on the shapes of their fossilized bones and compare these relationships with other lines of evidence, such as molecular biology, and find a consistent picture. This is what we find.
  • Most mutations are neutral, but some are deleterious, others are beneficial, and some are mixed because they affect linked traits in different ways. The beneficial mutations will generally have better chances of proliferating, while the negative mutations will more likely die out.
  • There is no “great chain of being” with humans at the top. We’re just one more successful species and there will be others, possibly including a future species descended from us. Evolution wasn’t “done” when we showed up.

These are a lot of “big picture” consensus beliefs. These are the kinds of things that experts will put into textbooks and popular science media. If someone claims to believe in evolution but asserts something contrary to these sorts of ideas, the experts would seek to correct the misunderstanding and/or challenge the dissenter to prove it with scientific evidence. And this is just the big picture stuff. There’s a massive wealth of details that have a strong consensus that remain consistent with the theories.

In other words, science has converged on these beliefs. This is what we would expect if a reliable testing method (science) was used by many different people from different backgrounds (scientists from around the world), to reach conclusions about objective reality. The history of science is one of increasing consistency and accuracy as more evidence comes to light. The consensus changes in a predictable, logically necessary manner.

Of course, there isn’t absolutely perfect agreement on all issues, but the arguments that do occur between scientists are about increasingly finer and more nuanced details. You can still find large areas of general agreement between scientists who are on opposite sides of one of those conflicts. In evolution, there are many different forces in play: Natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, and so on. Biologists of different specialties may have heated arguments about the relative importance of those factors in the evolution of a species or trait, but you can reasonably count on them to acknowledge all those forces exist.

And now, back to Creationism. If I stumble on some Creationists while web surfing, I have much less confidence in my ability to predict their answers to important questions about cosmology and the history of biology. There are a lot of mutually exclusive claims, and skimming the well known Talk Origins’ Index to Creationist Claims brings up a lot of them. I’ll point out that the page was last updated in 2006, and I can’t think of anything about Creationism that would necessitate further updates. Let’s go over a few examples:

Age of the Earth: Answers range from about 6,000 years to 4.6 billion. This is one of the bigger divides in Creationism: Young Earth Creationists (YEC) and Old Earth Creationists (OEC).

The age of the universe and distant objects: This is one of the classic things Young Earth Creationists have to come up with an explanation for. Their problem is that they’ve come up with multiple explanations and there’s no clear favorite. How did the light from those distant stars get here? Some say their god created light that was already en route to Earth. Others say the speed of light used to be much faster. In the ancient days, stars were holes in the sky, rather than distant fusion reactors. Of course, another popular answer is that the evidence for the distance of those objects is all a hoax perpetuated by a satanic worldwide conspiracy.

Radiometric dating: One of the core premises (which is backed by all the evidence thus far) behind radiometric dating is that isotopes have a consistent half-life and thus a predictable rate of decay that can be used to measure the age of something. Creationists sometimes try to get around this by asserting that the rate of decay used to be much faster. (Which would mean a lot more radiation in those days.) Others say the universe was just created with the isotopes and decay products in just the right proportions to give the appearance of age. And, of course, there’s the conspiracy assertion.

Fossils: Some say they’re distributed by the animals’ abilities to flee from the rising flood waters at the time of Noah, and altitude of habitat. (They’re not.) Others say they were somehow filtered by complexity by the flood waters. (They’re not.) Some say their god created the fossils to test faith and to troll scientists with the deception. Others say the devil made the fossils. Others say scientists planted the fossils.

Noah’s Ark and genetic diversity: Some claim that Noah brought aboard a few vaguely defined “baramin” animals that then evolved and speciated at super speed, somehow acquiring diversity that would be absent from such a genetic bottleneck. Some say some animals survived by living on floating islands of plant matter, lowering the demands of the Ark. Some say the dinosaurs were on the Ark. Some say the dinosaurs were left to drown. Some say there were no dinosaurs in the first place.

Noah’s flood and the source of the water: Vapor canopy. Comets. Hydroplate. Runaway Subduction.

I could go on and on if I really wanted to go over all the crazy Creationist ideas I’ve read about over my years as a skeptic. It’s even common to see a Creationist change their beliefs repeatedly over the course of a conversation as they’re criticized. This tells me that Creationists either don’t think about the implications of believing contradictory ideas and/or that they’re just trying every alleged “zinger” in their playbook to justify their dissent from the scientific consensus, as dictated by rhetorical convenience, rather than logic and evidence. There is no Creationist consensus beyond a few bare bones. Creationism is still at the mercy of the chaotic whims of fashion.

Single & Loving It

One issue that’s starting to come up a little more often for me is marriage. Not in my personal life, but in my net life. Ed Brayton over on Dispatches occasionally responds to fundies and the like who whine about people who don’t immediately marry, and I occasionally run into trolls who implicitly or explicitly argue that being unmarried means you’re an unlovable loser who doesn’t matter and doesn’t contribute to society.

I’m on the borderline between hetero and asexual. I could be an asexual who’s hetero-curious or a hetero with a naturally low libido. I’m not sure which way to split the hair. Add in the social issues that come with Asperger’s for extra fun. Whatever it is, I’m just not strongly inclined to go looking for Ms. Right, though I don’t rule out the possibility that I might stumble on her. I’m glad I have understanding parents who haven’t been pushing me to get married. It’s not something I would want to force. I think marriage is supposed to be about genuine love and respect, not a forced duty to someone else’s wishes. Society’s drive for white picket fences and 2.5 children be damned, this is about what individuals want in their lives.

If you want to be married and have kids, go ahead and do that, but do it because it’s what you want and let me do what I want without being shamed for who I am. I do have a romantic side, but it’s like that idea of being “in love with love.” I think people who love each other should be free to celebrate their love. I like the idea of a couple who love each other making it work against the odds, and I’d be glad to help them. That’s one big reason why I’m pro-LGBT rights. Why should the heteros be privileged?

By the way, I think we should consider adding an A to LGBT. I think I might try doing that and see how well it goes. I had it relatively easy, but I still see some discriminatory attitudes against asexuals. One of the big ones I see is the assumption that relative disinterest in the opposite sex means homosexuality, which lets us have our turn at being targets for the same bigots.

One thing that really hurts are the people who cheapen marriage by making it about reproduction. First, our planet is suffering from human overpopulation. Reproduction isn’t an absolute duty because of that. Having a proportion of non-reproducing individuals seems like the most civilized way to lower the population, especially if they’re already disinclined towards reproductive forms of sex. Second, we’re k-type reproducers. We have relatively few offspring, but invest heavily into making those offspring successful. There’s more to the reproductive success of a species than simply popping out more babies. Non-reproducers like me can still contribute to the human infrastructure we call civilization for the next generation’s benefit.

Some trolls pull out the “if everyone did it” canard, which is quite moot. We aren’t trying to talk hetero couples out of having kids. We aren’t claiming there is One True Way to Live like these trolls are. Humans are naturally diverse and in large societies we naturally end up specializing. If everyone was a farmer, we’d have no scientists, no factory workers, no doctors, and so on. So what? No one’s proposing that everyone be a farmer. I’m not proposing that everyone should be a bachelor. And in this case, it’s not like a profession. You can change your profession. You can discover that you like a different line of work you hadn’t considered. You can get bored with your current profession. Sexual orientation isn’t so easy to change. As I see it, heterosexuality is the most common orientation, and it’s not going to die out just because we let same-sex or transgender couples marry or let asexuals stay single. We just want people to recognize that the other options are acceptable and they shouldn’t be stigmatized. They’re not objectively better or worse, just different, and it’s up to the individual to decide what best fits him.

Settling for Second Worst

That phrase popped into my head just now to describe an argument that’s popular with religious fundamentalists, misogynists, and other assorted trolls.

One example that’s been in my blogosphere is Amanda Todd, and how a guy calling himself The Amazing Atheist demonstrates that you don’t have to be religious to be an asshole. Amanda was driven to suicide by an online stalker, but apparently we shouldn’t feel sorrow because she had it better than women in radical Islamic countries.

A similar attitude from the opposite direction is an argument from Gary Bauer that feminists should pipe down because they’re better off than Malala, who was shot by the Taliban for advocating women’s education. In another example, a number of bloggers were criticizing an unconstitutional heavily Christian school district, and a troll came in to ask if we’d prefer the school to be heavily Islamic, as if there were only two choices.

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This is Getting Annoying: Zehnder and Frey’s Defenders

[Possible trigger warning.]

I got a bit of a traffic spike from people visiting my short link-post about Zehnder and Frey, presumably because I somehow got high on the search engines despite the post being little more than a link to PZ’s article. That traffic brought with it the expected trolls. These trolls can’t seem to grasp the point, and they’ve manufactured their own false controversy to ignore the real issues. I’m also suspicious some might be engaging in copypasta since the hit-and-runners generally seem oblivious to what’s really been said in earlier comments.

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That’s a New One on Me

Via The Uncredible Hallq, I bump into a new argument. Or maybe it’s just the first time someone made it explicit instead of implicit:

William Lane Craig claims that atheists agree with him that, “if the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.” It seems to me a pretty clear example of Craig’s tendency to falsely claim his opponents agree with him, but there’s one way of defending Craig’s claim that I know occurred independently to both me and at least one other person: invoking material conditionals.

His post goes on to explain the twisted logic Craig might be using with material conditionals to make this assertion.  If he does mean it the way Hallq illustrates, it really strikes me as part of the dark side of a philosophy education: Using context-heavy, narrow definitions of words and equivocating them with similar phrases as they’re used in casual language.

So, for any Craig fans who might show up, here’s my position on the issue, intended to be interpreted in relatively casual language:

  1. I don’t know if the universe has an explanation for its existence.
  2. If the universe does have an explanation, it seems likely to me that there is a very large set of possible explanations, including ones people have yet to imagine and ones we’re simply incapable of imagining.
  3. Gods are one possible explanation, but I have no reason to believe they are probable as an explanation.
  4. If I had to gamble on one explanation, I would listen to cosmologists and scientists in related disciplines and base my guess on their input because they are generally more aware of and responsive to new evidence and hypotheses. I would ask critical questions in my inquiries to spot possible fallacies and contradictions to the best of my ability. The critical questions are intended to determine which of their hypotheses is most consistent with the available evidence and if their inferences from that evidence appear reasonable.

I am a counterexample to what Craig appears to be asserting: I am an atheist who has no favoritism towards theism as the explanation for the universe, if there is such an explanation. If there is an explanation for the universe’s existence, given the very large range of possibilities that come from the data shortage, I would say it’s not likely to be a god or gods, and even less likely to be Craig’s specific god hypothesis. This is, as far as I can tell, a mainstream position among atheists.

The Utter Moron’s Guide to Freedom

Fair warning / disclaimer: This post is going to be US-centric, since it invokes themes involved with the First Amendment to the US Constitution. I sincerely believe every government should provide similar rights and I give a thumbs up to the governments that agree with me. And yes, I know the US is far short of perfect in its record of living up to the principles behind the First Amendment, especially for religious freedom. This post is largely intended to counteract common ideas used to subvert these freedoms while invoking their name.

Freedom of Speech/Freedom of Expression:

You are, for the most part, free to say whatever you want without fear of the government punishing you for doing so. The exceptions include things like violent threats, slander, libel, and fraud.

This also means I am free to say what I want, including what I think about something you said. If you say something, I am free to say your expressed ideas are false, idiotic, or bigoted and my reasons for thinking so. This is not “censorship.” This is not “silencing.” This is criticism. If someone criticizes you, it does not prevent you from speaking your ideas. My freedom of speech does not conflict with yours. My criticism did not and does not prevent you from speaking, but it might convince people to make the choice not to listen to you. You are not entitled to a captive audience. If you don’t want your ideas to be subject to criticism, free speech is your enemy, not your shield.

Freedom of speech does not grant immunity from social consequences of your speech. If you say something many people find reprehensible, private citizens remain free to publicly criticize you, shun you, ignore you, ridicule you, boycott products you sell, or other legal actions to make life harder for you, so long as they don’t cross legal lines. You are not entitled to be popular or even liked. You are not entitled to control how other people feel about you. You are not entitled to control what people say about you. You are not entitled to customers.

Freedom of speech does not give you the right to every platform. For example, if someone working for a television network says something reprehensible on air, that network can choose to disassociate itself with that person by canceling his show, within the limits of their contracts or by putting up a disclaimer stating that his opinions do not necessarily reflect the network’s. The speaker’s right to free speech is not reduced because a platform chooses to withdraw the use of their media. The speaker still has numerous options for expressing his thoughts, from using his own voice, writing a blog, or publishing a book. He is not inherently entitled to the television network’s resources if they don’t want him to use them. He does not get to control the network’s decision whether or not to associate with him.

Freedom of Religion:

The United States government is, in principle, prohibited from respecting or endorsing an establishment of religion. This is supposed to mean that there can be no official government religion in the US and no government favoritism that can be abused. For practical purposes, this even excludes the possibility of endorsing atheism. Government endorsement can be and is often construed as authoritative. This means that people of the endorsed belief can feel they have authorization to unfairly wield government power in the name of their belief. This also means that people of a minority belief can be intimidated by the threat of government force and be discriminated against. Even the fear of possible discrimination is destructive because it discourages the free and open discussion of ideas. The separation of church and state exists to protect individuals from having the government impose an unwanted religion on them or on children who aren’t old enough to make an informed decision. It’s for everyone’s protection, including Christians, since there are some regions where a non-Christian religion is the majority belief. If Christianity is allowed to become the state religion, the question will likely become “which Christianity?”, leading to discrimination against Christians for being the “wrong” denomination.

You have the right to believe what you want. You are not entitled to impose your religious beliefs on others through government actions. You are not entitled to have the government proselytize on your behalf. If you work for the government, you are not entitled to use your position to endorse a religion. If you are a public school teacher, you are not entitled to lead your students in prayer, especially since children are easily manipulated or intimidated by authority figures. This is made worse by the fact that students are a captive audience since school attendance is usually compulsory. Leading a prayer also often unnecessarily forces a student of different beliefs to choose between the risk of bullying because of his non-participation or to go through the motions against his will. Neither of these is conducive to a nurturing learning environment and undermines the student’s ability to trust the government. How can a student believe the government will respect his rights if it shows open contempt for his autonomy of belief?

As a private citizen, you have the right to pray and not be discriminated against for that decision. As a private citizen, I also have the right to not pray and not be discriminated against for choosing non-participation. Students have the right to pray on their own private initiative, so long as they do not disrupt school activities. Many people assert that students’ right to pray was taken away. This is a lie. The precedent is that public school teachers are not allowed to initiate prayers while presenting themselves as a teacher because doing so would constitute a government endorsement of and favoritism toward a religion.

You have the right to display the Ten Commandments or large crosses on your property, within the limits of building codes, safety codes, and such. This includes displaying them in a fashion that is highly visible to the public. You are not entitled to have the government display religious imagery on government ground. Atheists are not in favor of prohibiting religion from the public sphere, because doing so would likely lead to the prohibition of other ideas, including our own, especially since atheism is currently an unpopular belief. We want the government to respect it’s prohibition on endorsing religion.

You have the right to build a church using your private resources, fitting within zoning laws and building ordinances. For the same reason, Muslims also have the right to build a mosque using their private resources under the same laws and ordinances. If Muslims building a mosque near the World Trade Center site hurts your feelings, too bad. Your hurt feelings do not allow you to impose your will on the mosque builders. They are within their human rights to carry out legal religious acts like building a place of worship. We shouldn’t make an exception to basic human rights just because someone’s feelings might get hurt.

Rights in General:

The United States was not established to be a mob rule anarchy. It was established to be a constitutional democracy. People shouldn’t be allowed to vote to take away a minority group’s rights. People shouldn’t be allowed to vote to take away an individual’s rights. Allowing the majority to vote away one person’s rights means that they’re no longer rights, but a privilege granted at the whims of popularity and fashion. The majority rule must give way to the basic rights of the individual and the minority, otherwise it sets a precedent for removing our freedoms altogether. Everyone is a minority in one issue or another, and it’s naive to think that making an exception to discriminate against one minority can’t be used in the future to discriminate against you.

Religious Identity and Character

A quote provided by Sastra that inspired this long, wandering post:

This idea that it’s “intolerant” to say that people are wrong in religion is based on the belief that religion = identity. In a faith-based system, you don’t believe what you believe because you drew an objective conclusion from evidence available to all. Given a fair argument, you’d gladly change your mind. That’s reason, and it puts people on the same ground.

Instead, you believe what you believe — you draw the conclusion you do — because you are NOT being objective. You are being the subjective you, at your best, passionately involved and eagerly “seeking” the spiritual answer that Those-Like-You look for and find … and Those-Who-Are-Not-Like-You do not. You leave off the common ground of inquiry and enter into a mythological narrative in which you are the small and humble hero. By being religious, you are expressing the deepest and most important aspect of who you are on your journey to the purpose of life.

Within this framework, being wrong means that YOU are wrong. Not your conclusion. You, personally. I think that’s why there’s often this tacit or not so tacit pact among the religious to treat criticism like bigotry. As they see it, you’re saying that there’s only one right way to be a human being: they ought to be like you. Trying to change their view is an attack on their right to exist.

That’s a big attitude problem with fundamentalism. I’d say it’s also a big problem in politics, too. Far too many people seem to place group membership as the core of their identity. It doesn’t help that many of these groups reinforce the vice by hinting at or outright saying that the individual is worthless without their support.

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