Sunday, February 28, 2010

Even my kids get it

Need to give a little background. I grew up attending Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Christian Elementary, etc. Meaning I’ve been well-versed in the Bible [pun intended.] We were often taught lists. The books of the New Testament. The Books of the Old Testament. The 12 Disciples.

And of course…the Ten Commandments. I don’t remember learning the Ten Commandments—in my memory I have always known them. If you ask me what they are, I will rattle them off. I just…know what they are. Hardly think about the reasoning behind their origin.

My two youngest, on the other hand, were not raised in that environment. They know the Ten Commandments exist, and that there are ten…but not what they are. Yesterday they were watching The Prince of Egypt --story of Moses. It starts off, of course, with the Hebrews in slavery and shows scenes of them being beaten, harassed, whipped, and mistreated. As my children love to talk through a movie, their condition was mentioned with comments like, “That was bad, right Dad?” and “Moses is sad because of how his people are being treated.”

Later they had this interesting conversation:

Daughter: When does God give Moses those…things?
Son: What things?
Daughter: Those ten things.
Son: You mean the Ten Commandments?

Daughter: Yes…what are they?
Son: Oh, they’re laws about what we shouldn’t do…like stealing…and killing…
Daughter: And slavery?
Son: Oh yes…and slavery.

How simple. How obvious. They had just watched how bad slavery was for the Hebrews, so if God was going to give a set of rules, surely he would include one against slavery.

The God of the Golden Rule would take the Israelites out of slavery and say, “You didn’t like being slaves, so do unto others what you would have them do to you. Don’t have slaves.”


Even children get it.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

How to Make a Militant Atheist

Julian Baggini (author of A Very Short Introduction to Atheism) defines Militant Atheism to be:

Atheism which is actively hostile to religion I would call militant. To be hostile in this sense requires more than just strong disagreement with religion—it requires something verging on hatred and is characterized by a desire to wipe out all forms of religious beliefs. Militant atheists tend to make one or both of two claims that atheists do not. The first is that religion is demonstrably false or nonsense, and the second is that it is usually or always harmful.

Apparently pointing out the falsity of God-belief within a ritualistic scheme…for an atheist…is somehow…wrong. I am uncertain how one manages to avoid lying if they hold God-belief is incorrect, but must say the opposite; apparently that is one requirement to avoid the label of “militant atheist.”

Secondly, we must be silent as to people flying planes into buildings, or beating your child with a stick or starving a one-year-old to death for not saying “Amen.” We should keep quiet regarding the misogyny, homophobia and intolerance for differing ideas that has historically pervaded religions.

If this is “Militant Atheism”—it would seem the solution is simple: Demonstrate God-based religion is true or show that it is usually beneficial, and there would be no need for militant atheists. *snickers* Good luck with that!

But I don’t want to focus solely on what militant atheism is, nor what it should be, nor whether it shouldn’t be. I wanted to explain why I am…well…I dare say a militant atheist.

There is an oft-told practical joke where an office group picks one particular victim, and for the entire morning, no matter what he says, the people react as if he is being outrageously angry.

Victim: Good Morning!
Prankster1: Easy…calm down, Victim.

Victim shrugs: How’s the coffee?
Prankster2: Hey, don’t yell, simmer down.
Victim: But I’m not yelling.
Prankster2: [backs away] I didn’t mean to get you so upset.

Of course inevitably this becomes self-fulfilling when the Victim really does become angry because no one believes he is not angry, yet he keeps being told he is angry.

Haven’t we entered the same routine?

Christian: Why did you become an atheist?
Me: Because the evidence fails to persuade God exists.
Christian: Nope—because you want to sin.

Me: No—really! I looked at this argument and those proofs and I am not convinced.
Christian: Nope. Sinner.
Me: O.K., then—what sin is it you are claiming I am doing?

Christian: Oh, I don’t know THAT. It must be some secret sin.

Like the victim in our office prank, I am baffled by the opposite reaction to what I am saying. Over and over we hear the same tired canards:

“Evolution is just a theory.”
“Darwin recanted on his death bed.”
“Somebody somewhere once said Hittites didn’t exist, and it turns out they did, so we can’t trust archeology when it fails to support what I want to hear.”
“The fool says there is no God.”

And for every Christian we patiently explain the problem, the next day a new Christian joins in and says, “It must be true ‘cause the Disciples wouldn’t die for a lie.” And we go through it all over again. Only to hear Steven Baldwin say, “If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes?”

At some point we must look at the whole system and speak out. Look, if a local school was failing the vast majority of students, we would immediately think, “There is a problem here. Something must be wrong; this situation needs to be addressed.” Yet it is as if those questioning militant atheism proclaim, “Hey! Here is a student who obtained all A’s and here is a student who received a B or two. You cannot incriminate the entire system when we have these few standouts.”

Yes…Yes, I can. The vast majority of Christians I associate with do not study opposing views. They hardly study their own beyond what they learn in Sunday School. They don’t read books on evolution. They don’t read books on Textual Criticism. They don’t read cosmology, archeology, botany, geology… they read Bibles, Bible study guides and books giving advice based on the Bible.

And they sure haven’t read Baggini’s Short Introduction to Atheism.

Is the appropriate approach to be silent in the hopes of an anomalous Christian who has studied evolution? Or should I point out the errors? See, I may appear militant against the vast majority of Christians I interact with, because I respond to the errors given by this majority!

Further, I also see a great deal of harm within religions. When I point out the Pat Robertson’s—I am told, “He doesn’t speak for my belief.” I cringe at tales of cover-ups regarding Priest and Pastor indiscretions. “They aren’t true Christians.” I am horrified by the practice of Sharia Law in many countries. By the infighting between Christians and Hindus and Muslims in India.

Yet I don’t have to listen to the evening news to see the offenses of religions. I watched the back-biting and in-fighting growing up. I saw the use of belief as a weapon to diminish others. Watched terrible behavior excused as “wrestling with sinful nature” if the person is part of the accepted crowd, yet other people demonized for less because they were not.

I’ve watched families, friends and relationships torn apart over religious differences. Where each justifies and rationalizes ostracizing the other. Where the poor are only helped upon receiving the appropriate recriminations. Where the sinner must cry and beg and demonstrate how truly terrible they are to make the Christian feel self-righteous before handing out pittance charity.

If churches are so beneficial—why is it the LAST place people want to go for assistance?

Shouldn’t we be speaking out against such things? We should be addressing the wrongs committed in the name of religion. We must point out the errors in knowledge, the lack of study in those professing to hold truth in the form of a God.

And we are told by many theists, “Oh…that isn’t MY church. That isn’t MY religion. Those aren’t true Christians.” Yet this is exactly the problem. Because they have no means to explain who IS a true Christian, or method to verify which is the correct God, all they can do is cluck their tongue and say, “Tsk, tsk.” They think it’s wrong…sure…but their God is silent as what to do. They don’t want to say they hate it—that language seems so strong in the face of God’s stillness in action.

Blame the atheist for daring to say, “I dislike that. I dislike that a lot! In fact—I hate it.”

I am wrong for being “on the verge of hatred” for these actions? Really? Well…if that makes me a militant atheist, I proudly wear the label.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Women at Empty Tomb

We often hear the criteria of “embarrassment” being utilized when attempting to determine a claim’s historicity. The idea being, if the statement was not general knowledge and embarrassing to the person writing, it is more likely to be historical.

For example, if I wrote an autobiography and admitted cheating during law school, this would have a greater probability of being historical as it is embarrassing and not general knowledge. Obviously what is embarrassing to one person may not be to another. My admitting to an affair would fulfill this criterion, whereas an NBA player’s claim may not. My admitting to voting for Obama may not; if Rush Limbaugh admitted to doing so—it is very likely to be true.

It must be a claim against my self-interest. My profession of you having an affair would not be embarrassing at all. Especially if I did not care for you.

Additionally, a person may be forced to admit something not true, simply because it is already generally assumed or stated, and to disclaim it takes more effort than embracing it. Therefore, we need three criteria for embarrassment:

1) Stated by the person whose self-interest would be harmed;
2) Derogatory or disfavorable to that person or their interests;
3) Not previously made generally known.

We often see Christian scholars utilize this method when defending historicity within the Gospel accounts. I want to focus on one such claim—the women at the empty tomb.

The earliest account we have is Mark 16:1-8:

Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, "Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?"

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away--for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples--and Peter--that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you."

So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

I will let William Lane Craig explain why this fits the embarrassment criterion:

Given the low status of women in Jewish society and their lack of qualification to serve as legal witnesses, the most plausible explanation, in light of the gospels' conviction that the disciples were in Jerusalem over the weekend, why women and not the male disciples were made discoverers of the empty tomb is that the women were in fact the ones who made this discovery. This conclusion is confirmed by the fact that there is no reason why the later Christian church should wish to humiliate its leaders by having them hiding in cowardice in Jerusalem, while the women boldly carry out their last devotions to Jesus' body, unless this were in fact the truth.

In a debate, one might succinctly respond, “Mark enthusiastically embraced role reversals. He had the foreigners Pilate and the Centurion unwittingly recognize who Jesus really was; whereas his own people—the Jews—did not. Mark wrote of Jewish Religious leaders accusing Jesus of being the Messiah—and He was!—whereas his disciples were the ones betraying him to the executioner! Mark would like nothing better than have the lowest in the Jewish society play the greatest honor of discovering the empty tomb.”

There is much more to unpack, but when pressed for time, this concisely states the response.

The first question is whether this would be against the author’s self-interest. This is written by the Gospel of Mark’s author. (I will call him Mark for convenience.) The only possible candidate for an older record is 1 Corinthians 15, and that makes no mention of a tomb, let alone its whereabouts or discovery. This is our first record of occurrence.

You may hear claims there was a pre-Markan source, or this was consistent with oral tradition—but without those sources, we must work with what we have. [We often hear claims the persons writing these accounts would dare not make untruths, because they would be “checked out” by readers, looking to confirm what was said. Nonsense. In 2010, we have amazing resources to check out claims, yet we still receive mass e-mails about dead people removing religious broadcasting and people are too lazy to check out the truth for themselves. Indeed, the only thing access and technology has done is speed myth and legends spreading! Additionally in Galatians 1:6 (50 CE) Paul is concerned about how quickly the people were turning away to “another gospel.” Apparently they were NOT verifying Paul’s statements or fact-checking what was said.]

According to Papias (circa 130 CE), Mark was Peter’s companion, and wrote down what he remembered Peter had said. Unfortunately, Papias does not tell provide a source for this claim, and appears to be defending Mark against attacks as to its authenticity. Scholars have retreated to claiming a Peterine influence at best, rather than Peter being the sole source of the Gospel.

Which raises the interesting issue—was Mark writing FOR Peter, or AGAINST Peter? Many Christians envision an early church that was united in thought, deed and doctrine throughout the First Century. Perhaps a minor difference between immature and mature Christians or how to integrate Jewish practice with gentiles joining this new faction.

However, Paul states in 1 Corinthians1:11-12, less than 20 years after Jesus’ death, “For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’” Paul is concerned about growing factions, following individuals—this is not the description of a united church body!

In fact, the New Testament is replete with edicts against those causing divisions. See Rom. 16:17, 1 Cor. 11:18, Jude 19. We must address whether Mark was within a division against Peter.

Mark indicates Jesus changing Simon’s name to Simon Peter or Simon Petras--meaning “rock.” Mark 3: 16. Mark’s first recorded parable recounts is the famous parable of the sower—who throws seed in four spots—the wayside, the stony ground, among thorns, and on good ground. Mark 4:1-9. Jesus later explains (with a note of exasperation towards the disciples) these are descriptions of people who receive the word. 4:13-20.

Follow the description of the seed on stony ground: “Immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up, it scorched and because it had no root, it withered away.” (4:5-6). Jesus explains these people, “These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word's sake, immediately they stumble.” (4:16-17)

This is an apt description of Peter! At the Last Supper, Peter says, “Even if all stumble, I will not.” (14:29) Of course we know Peter ends up denying Jesus once the heat is on, and the Gospel of Mark leaves Peter with a third denial and weeping. (14:72)

Mark writes that Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah (8:29) yet almost immediately, Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him the equivalent of Satan. (8:32). At the transfiguration, Peter is described as afraid and makes a suggestion Jesus politely ignores. (9:5-6) Jesus asks Peter, James and John to be with Him when he prays in the Garden before His crucifixion, and the three fall asleep. Who does Mark indicate Jesus rebukes for it? Peter (14:37)

Given the choice between whether this is a polemic for or against Peter, a straight-forward reading would be it does not paint a favorable picture of Peter. Even Christians recognize how badly the disciples are portrayed and fashion defenses to explain it.

If we are looking for the simplest explanation, here is the situation:

1) There were factions within the church prior to Mark being written.
2) Mark displays characteristics indicating other influences besides Peter.
3) The disciples—especially Peter—are portrayed extremely poorly

The expedient conclusion is that this is written AGAINST Peter—not in support of Peter. Therefore having someone other than the disciples discover the empty tomb supports the theme of writing against the disciples. It fails the first requirement in that Mark is not supporting the Disciples’ self-interest.

But we can’t stop there. Even assuming the Gospel is written against one Christian faction (the Peterine group), the question can still be raised, “If Mark was making up the tomb discovery, then he would have men make the discovery to bolster the story, rather than use women who were of lower social caste and not used as legal witnesses.” Rather than use the disciples, Mark would have utilized other men.

There is a bit of bait-and-switch happening here. Notice the first clause—the initial premise, “IF Mark was making up the tomb discovery…” The problem I often see, when this is raised, is that the Christian first addresses it as if Mark was making up the story, but then uses Mark as historical fact. No, no, no—if we are going under the presumption Mark is making it up, we must address it as if Mark was making it up!

In other words, the Christian claims, “Why would Mark make up women?” after claiming Pilate did this, and Joseph of Arimathea did that, and the Jewish leaders did this…and so on. The better question is where did history stop and myth come in? If we are looking at Mark making up the women—where else can we look to see if Mark made up part of the story?

Let’s look at an example. Mark records a person, Joseph of Arimathea—a Sanhedrin member—requesting the body of Jesus. Joseph then performs burial rites and places Jesus in a tomb. (Mark 15:43-46)

[A minor excursion here is helpful to demonstrate how myth development is demonstrated in the gospels. In Mark, Joseph is a council member, “waiting for the Kingdom of God” and puts Jesus in a tomb. Matthew removes Joseph’s status as a Sanhedrin member, refers to him as a rich man, but now Joseph has become a disciple of Jesus, and Jesus is laid in Joseph’s personal tomb. (Matthew 27:57-60) Luke reinstates Joseph as a council member, adds he was a “good and just man” as well as indicated Joseph dissented from the conviction of Jesus. Luke states the tomb had never been used. (Luke 23:50-53) John also agrees the tomb has never been used, agrees with Matthew (against Mark and Luke) that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, and adds Nicodemus as a co-conspirator with Joseph. (John 19:38-41) By the Gospel of Peter Joseph was both a disciple of Jesus and a friend of Pilate. Peter indicates it was Joseph’s tomb, and it was in a Garden named after Joseph! Celtic myth eventually claimed Joseph held the Holy Grail when it collected Jesus’ blood.]

Curiously, Joseph of Arimathea appears for this one part at the end of Act III, and then disappears from the scene. We haven’t heard of him before; we hear nothing of him after. Even when the early church interacts with the council, we hear nothing about Joseph of Arimathea. (Acts 5:34)

Mark also indicates that after Sabbath, women came to the tomb to anoint Jesus with spices. Mary, the mother of James, Mary Magdalene and Salome. (Mark 16:1) Although this was normally done at the burial (John’s Gospel does included it), it is possible to be done again. Note, like Joseph, the women have appeared for the first time by name at the crucifixion (Mark 15:40, 47)

What is more important are the names. In first century Palestine, burials and tombs were family matters. A person would be buried in a family tomb; the family was expected to perform the burial rites. Mark is writing a story of abandonment. Christ has already predicted all will abandon him. (Mark 14:27) Who would be expected to normally bury Jesus? His father, Joseph, and his mother, Mary.

Mark is deliberately emphasizing Jesus’ own family abandoning him in the end. In case we are too thick to get it, he introduces “Joseph of Arimathea” to play the part of Jesus’ father Joseph, and two Mary’s to play the part of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Not convinced? What are the chances Joseph, Jesus’ dad, is unavailable and the name of the person who is available also happens to be named Joseph?

Or that Mary, Jesus’ mother, is not available, and another Mary prepares to perform the rite. A happy coincidence? How far will that coincidence stretch? Mary, the mother of Jesus, has sons named James and Joses. (Mark 6:3) This Mary also has sons named James and Joses. (Mark 15:40) Could Mark make it any more obvious? Like Joseph of Arimathea, Mary(s) appear, act their part and disappear.

Not coincidentally, failing to obey Jesus’ last command to inform the Disciples (Mark 16:7-8), making the abandonment of Jesus complete by all persons.

This is a strong example Mark’s author was deliberately modifying facts…making things up…to make a point. Mark loves to use the unexpected—role reversal. We see this theme replete through Mark.

What better example of this, then the statement, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”? (Mark 10:31) Again, in case we miss the point, Mark tells the tale regarding the sons of Zebedee desiring a place of honor, and Jesus saying they must be servants first. (Mark 10:37-44) Or the disciples turning away children (considered extremely low status in first century Palestine), and Jesus saying, “No—the children get to see me.” (Mark 10:13-16)

The centurion—a foreigner, not a God-fearing man—is the person who declares Jesus the son of God. (Mark 15:39.) (For even a deeper look at the irony here, it is likely the Centurion was saying this mockingly: “This was the son of God…and I’m the queen of Spain!” Yet he was actually correct. Another level of role reversal—saying the right thing, thinking he was wrong. If you believer I am taking this too far, remember the soldiers clothing Jesus with a purple robe and giving him a crown of thorns. (Mark 15:17) Even Christians agree an ironic statement was being made there.)

The accusation against him from the Romans was that he was “King of the Judeans.” (Mark 15:26) A sign meant to be mocking, but again turns out to be true. Jesus tells his followers to “take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34; 10:31) yet it is a non-follower—Simon of Cyrene—who is compelled to carry the cross. (Mark 15:21) The named “Simon” playing the role of “Simon Peter” is another coincidence…or is it?

Finally, we should consider how Mark treats females. The person receiving the highest praise within Mark (in fact the only person to receive solely praise) is a woman—the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany. Mark 14:3-9. (Again, note the ironic role reversal that Jesus indicates she will always be remembered, yet her name is not given.)

Mark treats favorably the woman who touches Jesus to heal her blood problem (Mark 5:25-34) and the Greek woman requesting healing for her daughter (Mark 7:25-30)

So this is what we have:

1) An author who enjoys irony and role reversal,
2) An author who treats women favorably,
3) An author manipulating names to make a point, (Joseph/Joseph. Mary/Mary)
4) An author intending to make a specific point. (Complete abandonment.)

Why wouldn’t Mark use females to discover the empty tomb? It makes sense in light of the themes running through this gospel.

The Christian scholars claiming differently are using a modern thought process (“If I were making up the claim, I would do it this way…”) without looking at it in the Gospel writer’s framework.

As Matthew and Luke utilized Mark for their stories regarding women encountering the empty tomb, these are not independent statements and need not be addressed once Mark’s position is clarified. John appears to incorporate Mary Magdalene being at the tomb, perhaps through oral transmission of the story initiated in Mark, but differs greatly on the details.

When Mark is reviewed as 21st Century courtroom testimony, we might wonder why, if he was making it up, he would use woman at the empty tomb. When Mark is reviewed within its own writing, in its own time, we wonder why he would use anyone else.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

It is your fault; not God's

Hollywood fails to adequately demonstrate the tension that can exist between a lawyer and a client. Only certain personalities have the propensity and wherewithal to pursue litigation. And if they are willing to sue another person; they are certainly willing to sue me if I screw up their case.

Additionally, the client is firmly convinced regarding the absolute justice of their position, and no judge or jury would ever rule against them. If it does occur, the client looks for a reason why-- the lawyer can be an easy target. They think, “Surely the only way the case was lost was by deliberate legal malfeasance!”

This is not something they teach you in law school. You learn it by trial-and-error. You learn it by the client storming in your office, breathing threats and refusing to pay their bill. Each lawyer eventually adapts a means throughout the litigation to reduce this client tension as much as possible.

One lawyer who I worked with on a few cases (friend of the firm) had an approach that was…to say the least…unique. The first time I saw it, I was shocked. Our respective clients were being sued--he represented one defendant; I represented the other. Once his client completed his testimony, he asked his lawyer (as is common), “So how did I do?”

This lawyer let loose a string of obscenities. “That was the WORST testimony I have ever seen. The judge was ready to toss you out of the courtroom. I couldn’t believe you answered those questions that way; didn’t you see me shaking my head? Didn’t you see the look on my face?

“I only hope I can salvage something out of this train wreck you delivered me. Maybe we can hope the judge will give you sympathy for being so stupid.”

Now the client is shaking in his shoes. He’s never testified before; he doesn’t sit through courts day after day. He figures he completely destroyed his own case. I was sitting there thinking, “His testimony wasn’t that bad. Not perfect; only professional witnesses give perfect testimony. It wasn’t the harpooning this lawyer is playing it to be.”

But I understood why this lawyer was doing it. See, if you tell a client their testimony was fantastic and great and wonderful, and eventually lose the case…well…it can’t be the client’s fault, right? They were told by a professional litigator that their testimony was the greatest thing since the invention of the wheel, true? So they start to look for something else being the fault, which can often be the lawyer.

Further, if you win the case, it makes the lawyer look like a hero. They salvaged the wreck handed to them by the client and saved the day. The client ends up thanking the lawyer profusely for rescuing the case.

It makes a win-win for the lawyer. Lose—blame the client. Win—take the credit. The second time I saw this lawyer do the same thing, I was not surprised.

This is symmetrically analogous to how many Christians treat their God and non-believers. It is the non-believer’s fault for not being persuaded there is a God. We’re told we have a bias—our fault. We’re informed we want to sin—our fault. We’re told we ignore evidence, or make it too hard for the theist, or don’t have the right faith—our fault.

We’re told we read the wrong books, or the right books but the wrong way—our fault. Yes, this is mostly done to bolster the prejudices of similarly situated believers. To allow one believer to gloat with his/her fellow believer about how wonderful they are as compared to the non-believer. Yet a minor part is done to guilt the non-believer. Make them think they are doing something “wrong.” To make them look for salvation for screwing this up. Look for help through the believer.

Oh, the Christian may say, “I only want them to find God;” nevertheless, by repeating it directly to the non-theist they hope they get to be a tiny portion of saving the non-theist’s day. A tool obtaining credit for notching up another for Jesus.

Yet think about it…why does a God need the Christian’s help? Why is it the only proofs of God are fallacious arguments based upon flimsy propositions? In fact, if God was readily evident, why do we need all these proofs; wouldn’t one be sufficient? Why must the theist build their case on assumption over assumption?

We agree with the theist a God could easily demonstrate itself. It doesn’t need humans, or subtitles of writings, or vague prophecies twisted into supposed fulfillments. Appear to people and talk with them. Demonstrate a miracle. Performing psychic mind tricks. Win a million dollars through Randi’s challenge. One could think of a myriad ways in which this could be done.

Christians recognize this. They must, because they fashion excuses for why God isn’t doing it. One excuse is that not knowing another person is an integral part of a relationship. Another claims it is Pride, rebellion and it wouldn’t make a difference anyway. There is always the old stand-by: “It would violate our freewill.”

While we could tear into the speculative unsubstantiated nature of these defenses, the reason I bring them up is to point out even the Christian sees this as a problem. They are busy creating conflicting resolutions—they sure must see it as a problem!

So why am I being yelled at? Why am I being told it is my fault when we both see the elephant in the room—that any such God could easily demonstrate itself. Doesn’t God shoulder some of the responsibility?

The more I am yelled at (figuratively speaking, of course), the more I think about that lawyer. Is the Christian covering up for their God-concept’s inadequacies? See, it is much the same win-win situation from the Christian’s standpoint. If I am not convinced—it was my fault; if I am, it is to the believer’s credit…er….*cough, cough*….”God’s credit.”

Friday, February 12, 2010

What method do we use to make determinations about God?

We have been having a discussion with Ten Minas Ministries regarding methodologies, specifically scientific method. It appears to boil down to this: If the theist agrees the scientific method is not able to make supernatural determinations—what method does the theist propose to use instead?

Ten Minas Ministries responded with a comment that needs some unpacking:

I propose that we test a theory. I observed in the past that when Mr. X was exposed to phenomenon A, he responded with reaction 1. So I want to perform an experiment using the scientific method. I expose Mr. X to phenomenon A again, testing to see if yet again he will respond with reaction 1. But low and behold, this time he responds with reaction 2. When I do the experiment again I observe reaction 3.

The scientific method cannot test intelligent agents because an intelligent agent can choose to react differently. That is why the scientific method is ill equipped to test claims of supernatural intelligence like the Christian God. That is why there are other disciplines like sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc. It isn't a cop out. It is a common sense limitation of the scientific method. It was never intended to measure intelligent reactions.

Not a single one of you relies upon the scientific method for every bit of knowledge in your life. Contrary to what the Barefoot Bum said, the scientific method is not simply "the method of drawing conclusions from evidence." Yes, it is one method of drawing conclusions from evidence, but so is philosophy. So is sociology. So is historiography. The scientific method employs experimentation. Therefore, if the question you are investigating is not subject to experimentation the scientific method is useless.

You do not conduct an experiment to decide whether or not it is probable that you will be struck by a car before you cross the street. Yet you certainly "know" that if you step into oncoming traffic you will end up in the hospital or in the grave.

Dagoods says the theist does not propose a method. Yet I just proposed an alternative method in our discussion on my blog. I specifically mentioned utilizing the methodology of philosophy, which involves applying inductive or deductive reasoning to agreed premises.

Sometimes the theist feels like we are banging our heads against the wall. We are told we are not providing a methodology, so we provide a methodology only to hear the atheist repeat the same accusation. We are told that we do not provide any reasons for inserting God but simply arbitrarily assign a "God of the gaps." So we provide our reasons only to have the same accusation repeated over again. We see the atheist repeatedly refusing to accept any methodology other than the scientific method all the while refusing to admit that for the vast majority of knowledge they have arrived at in their lives they did not use the scientific method. Then if we get frustrated by the virtual ignoring of everything we say, the atheist declares triumph by claiming that the theist has no answer for their arguments.

Repeating the same thing over and over again does not make it true. There is little else I can say to respond to your points other than to say that theists have proposed alternative methodologies over and over again. Ignoring them does not make this any less true. The theist repeatedly provides reasons why they fill these gaps with God. Again, ignoring these reasons does not make your argument true.

If we are proposing an “alternate” to the scientific method; I think it important to first know what we mean by “scientific method.” How would you know you took an “alternate route” if you didn’t know what the original route was?

The Barefoot Bum recognized this issue and specifically asked, “What do you think scientists mean by “the scientific method.”?

Wikipedia defines it as: “To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses .“ or “A method of discovering knowledge about the natural world based in making falsifiable predictions (hypotheses), testing them empirically, and developing peer-reviewed theories that best explain the known data. “

Another ‘net resource states, “A process that is the basis for scientific inquiry. The scientific method follows a series of steps: (1) identify a problem you would like to solve, (2) formulate a hypothesis, (3) test the hypothesis, (4) collect and analyze the data, (5) make conclusions.“ Merriam-Webster defines it as, “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses “ Ten Minas Ministries gave similar definitions here.

We see a common theme running through these descriptions: Testable hypothesis, data observed (at times through experimentation,) and a theory best explaining the known data. It should be noted this is an ongoing process in that the resulting theory becomes the new hypothesis, and new data may require an additional revision (or even complete elimination) of the new hypothesis.

We quickly realize why the scientific method is not utilized by the theist, as by definition supernatural is outside the natural realm, and is therefore untestable, unobservable, and unverifiable by the only means at our disposal—the natural world.

Ten Minas Ministries appears to propose two solutions to the theists’ problems in this regard:

1) Scientific method is insufficient to make determinations when intelligent agents are involved; and

2) Philosophy is an alternative method;

Dealing with the first he uses the example of phenomenon acting on an individual, who may exhibit different reactions. Because of these different reactions, Ten Minas Ministries claims scientific method is unusable. This is not true at all. In fact we use the varying reactions to make statistical determinations, through the scientific method.

Take the phenomenon of my cutting off another car in traffic. Now look at a number of proposed reactions from the driver I cut off:

1. She does nothing.
2. She honks her horn.
3. She gives me the finger.
4. She strikes my car with her own.
5. She gives me a three-week paid vacation to Tahiti.
6. She develops pancreatic cancer.
7. Her car turns into a DeLorean Time machine.
8. She obtains the ability to shoot laser beams from her eyes.

Every single person, in reading this list, makes an assessment as to each reaction’s viability. Why do we immediately eliminate DeLorean’s and laser beams? Because our own observations, other observations we read, any test we perform all results in no DeLorean’s and no laser beams. We may not consciously be using the scientific method—but that is exactly how you immediately eliminate those possibilities.

We can go further. By observing and collecting data, even though horn-honking, finger-giving and car smashing are possibilities, we can make statistical determinations as to the likelihood of each. Yes, an individual CAN decide to smash my car, but my experience, one could say my numerous experiments in this field, indicate this possibility to be so low, I decide to do it anyway.

Curiously, Ten Minas Ministries uses the example of stepping into oncoming traffic, and how we do not experiment this, yet we know we will be seriously injured if we do so. I am not certain what he means that this hasn’t been experimented. We may not have personally done so, but we read and see pictures and video over and over and over demonstrating in the fight between pedestrian and automobile—automobile wins. Every time. I don’t have to personally experiment every claim—I can use the experiments of others.

I am seeing a confusion over the term “experiment”—it is being narrowly defined to include replication of the exact theory proposed. In other words, to experiment whether I will be injured if I walk in front of a speeding car, I must personally do so, rather than view the experiments of others.

I would disagree the scientific method is so narrowly defined to a certain person in a certain situation MUST obtain a certain result, only through experimenting that exact situation. If this is what Ten Minas Ministries is proposing, we are certainly coming at it from two very different foundations.

Continuing in my thread, he uses a few examples that further demonstrate this possible confusion. For example he indicates historical determination is outside scientific method, stating, “We cannot conduct an experiment to determine whether or not Nero truly was emperor of Rome...” I am uncertain what he means by “experimentation.”

Using the scientific method, we look first at the hypothesis: “Nero was Emperor.” We look at the data—historical books, coins, statutes, opposing opinions, world results, etc. We can “experiment” (loosely) by comparing other leaders and other results and see the same consistent results. Other leaders have coins. Other leaders have statutes. Etc. And again, even under this method, new data could cause a change in hypothesis.

Look at this another way. We cannot replicate the Big Bang. Does this mean we are not using the scientific method to determine its existence, because we cannot “experiment” by creating another Big Bang? We cannot experiment with a non-heliocentric solar system by making another solar system. We cannot experiment with making stars go super-nova—does this render such determinations outside scientific method?

Vinny made a similar observation when it comes to history.

I was surprised Ten Minas Ministries differentiated certain fields as being outside scientific method, such as psychology. Actually, there is experimentation and data observation—any person familiar with such things as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) or the whole battery of neuropsychological testing understands the use of scientific method in this field. Granted, it is not as precise or studied as other fields such as chemistry—but that does not remove it entirely from scientific method. Sociology can use experimentation.

There is debate whether Anthropology uses scientific method. Notice though, in that debate is the proposed alternative method is defined and addressed.

What is the proposed alternative method given here? “Philosophy.” Philosophy is the search for knowledge. It may inspect how one goes about that search, or what one utilizes. I am uncertain, though, what is meant by “Philosophy” as a method. I know you may feel as if you are beating your head against a wall, but I am truly stumped by what you mean as “philosophy” as an alternative method.

We seem to be in agreement in definition and understanding regarding “scientific method.” Both your definition and the others I found lay out certain steps that appear pretty clear.

What “steps” are proposed in the method of “philosophy”? It’s like saying, “we use the method of communication” which is really no method at all, merely the only way we can relate an idea to another human. What is the method of “philosophy”—can you describe it in alternative terms to scientific method?

Ten Minas Ministries, I agree whole-heartedly none of us use the scientific method for every bit of information in our lives. We are influenced by culture, upbringing, unique situations, etc.

This is exactly the point of this whole exercise! We recognize our own tendency to, even unknowingly, insert our own bias in determining. We want--we really, really want--that person to be a wonderful spouse, so we overlook and rationalize away the fact he is a convicted wife-beating deadbeat. “He’s changed.” We ignore the statistical evidence against it.

This is why I harp on method. To remove the very problem you identify. If we stick with the method, we can both recognize such bias and remove them from our determination.

I may want the canonical gospels to be historically accurate. I may really, really want it. In recognizing that desire, I realize the bias will impact my study. They may still be historical; they may not. I look for a way to root out such bias by creating a consistent method whereby the possible outcomes are: historical, partly historical, not at all historical or unknown. Only by sticking with the method can I hope to remove my bias—even if (and ESPECIALLY if) the results are not my desire.

I know you feel as if you are beating your head on a wall, but I truly do not see what method you are proposing, in lieu of scientific method. What steps are you saying we take in a “philosophical” method?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

What is the Problem with ‘”God of the Gaps?”

Over at Ten Minas Ministries I had a discussion regarding the old complaint of naturalistic bias when skeptics look for solutions. I mentioned the historical incidents where supernatural explanations were given (lightning, season change, disease transmission) as no natural explanation was known at the time, only to have later discovery determine there were natural, non-supernatural explanations.

This generated a response of how theism is not “God-of-the-Gaps” and how naturalism is limiting itself by not looking at all solutions, etc., etc., etc.

It is interesting how the modern theistic apologist disdains “God-of-the-Gaps;” holding their nose with one hand, and holding the argument as far away from them as possible in the other. But in the very next breath, tells us if we have a “gap” in our knowledge, we should consider the possibility of God as a resolution to that gap.

Is it just me, or is that incongruous?

Look, we all draw from a limited number of possible solutions, based upon past study and experience. If I had a fender-bender this morning, and was looking for a solution, I would look first to certain possibilities. I would not consult my astrological chart or horoscope to see its input. I would not consider it a government plot to put location devices on my car at the repair shop. I would not consider it karma for having too rich a dinner the night before.


Isn’t the answer simple?

Because I am not persuaded by astrology. I am not convinced there is a government conspiracy. I do not believe in karma. I don’t look for solutions in things I am not persuaded exist. It seems perfectly understandable why a person who did believe in astrology would look to their horoscope later, searching for possible meaning regarding a traffic accident. It is one tool in their toolbox of solutions.

Likewise theists believe in a God. Many brands of Christianity believe in a God who is extremely and actively involved in worldly affairs. We know this because they pray to this God to provide healing, and safety (from such accidents) and jobs and family and love and….you get the point. We know this because they thank this God for getting the healing, the safety, the jobs, the family…

“God” is a tool in their toolbox of solutions. One only need a few Christian facebook friends who update their status to see just how much they think this God is part of the world. So why wouldn’t they employ a God-of-the-gaps?

Think about it—the Christian believes in this awesome creator, power, infinite, unique being that makes a universe with a blink of a thought. We don’t have a solution to how non-life developed into life. It seems perfectly reasonable for the theist to reach in their toolbox and find a ready-made tool to solve the immediate problem—God. (And yes, this sets the problem back one step, leaving us with other issues. But to a theist, this solves this issue at the moment.)

Why do bad things happen? To a Christian, they can readily use the tool—“God.” To an astrologist—stars out of sync. To a scientologist—bad thoughts. Each use means they believe exist.

What baffles me is when Christians do not understand why I fail to use such a tool for a solution. Hello….”atheist?” In order for me to look for a supernatural explanation, I must first be convinced there IS a supernatural! Imagine a co-worker telling me, “Oh, I know why you had a car accident—I looked at your horoscope.” Why is that not convincing to me? Why is that not convincing to the Christian? Because neither of us believe astrology!

Christians claim we are limiting our options by not looking for supernatural resolutions. Er…so what? Don’t we all do that? Don’t we all limit our options by removing solutions we do not think exist or think so unlikely as to not be worthy of consideration?

With me, many Christians limit their options by removing homeopathy from their toolbox. They go to an M.D. with me. They remove vaccine-deniers. They remove alien interventions and abductions. They remove ESP, new age candles, horoscopes, feng shui, bad karma, dowsing, magnetic bracelets, bag bomb, and hosts of other crazy possibilities from their solutions.

For the same reasons I remove the tool labeled “God.” Now the Christian gets excited: “Wait a minute—you are limiting possibilities.” Yep.

Why should this be a surprise? Remember—The Christian doesn’t like God-of-the-Gaps. The Christian doesn’t like inserting “supernatural” when a natural solution is not currently known. If they find such a solution repulsive…who am I to argue with ‘em?

Monday, February 08, 2010

DagoodS v The Barefoot Bum

I recently wrote a blog entry discussing oppositional positions in partisan situations. The Barefoot Bum disagreed with me in the comments, as well as his own blog entry here and an additional note on an example here.

There are many points I agree with The Barefoot Bum, some I still do not. I agree we cannot object to an oppositional approach within an adversarial or partisan system—indeed, he is quite correct that is the inherent reason the system is adversarial. It is necessary within the definition.

My point was not that we should “all just get along” and eliminate partisan politics—rather, the point was to avoid maintaining partisan acrimony, solely to maintain an adversarial position. Simply to be able to say, “We are not ‘them.’”

I have written and re-written a response numerous times, and it never quite seems to say the thoughts pounding in my head. Perhaps, in the end, I see this partisanship adopted too readily. Rather than rise above mindless disagreement, and learn why it is we object to the other side’s position, or learn why we support our own, I see too many people concede their arguments to “I disagree because the other side says it.”