Archive for July, 2012

Faith and evidence: how they work (or don’t)

July 31, 2012

Peggeen here.

This is about how faith works — or doesn’t — inside of religion and out of it.

Two examples. Both begin with folk tales or ancient stories — then examine how they intersect with reality.

The Cascadia Story

Scientists knew for a long time that the Pacific Northwest had characteristics of a major subduction zone — volcanoes, one techtonic plate descending under another, and so on. The one thing it didn’t have — or so they thought — was gigantic mega-thrust earthquakes.

Although other subduction zones around the world “let go” every 100-200 years, producing the world’s most catastrophic earthquakes, Cascadia (as the region is called) had been placid since Europeans arrived.

The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens was a wake-up call that inspired geologists to dig deeper. But only one, a guy named Brian Atwater, took an unusual, seemingly unscientific, direction: he listened to tales of coastal NW Indian tribes. They spoke of the Thunderbird rising, shaking the earth and raising the waters.

The myth sounded silly. But Atwater reasoned that it meant the ancestors of those Indians had endured a giant earthquake and tsunami. And he had faith (a confident guess) that, if so, he could prove it.

Off to the muddy Washington state coast he went. Sure enough, in salt marshes and tidal flats he found evidence that a spruce forest had once existed — then suddenly died and been covered in sand. Logical hypothesis: the land level had abruptly descended, sinking the dry-land trees into a salt marsh, killing them all at once. A tsunami had also swept over the trees, depositing sand. Carbon dating placed this event around 300 years ago.

I’m a skeptic. But I admit that, if I had that much information, I’d conclude with confidence that Atwater and the old tales were correct: Cascadia can produce a whopper of a quake.

But in this world, Atwater’s impressive discovery still wasn’t enough.

Across the Pacific, Kenji Satake learned of Atwater’s research and thought to himself that, while the American NW had no written records from 300 years ago, Japan had many. And if there was a monster quake in Cascadia 300 years ago, an “orphan tsunami” (that is, one not associated with any local earthquake) would have hit Japan.

Bingo. Satake found records in four Japanese cities that such a tsunami struck in January 1700. Knowing how seismic waves propagate across the ocean, it was even possible to pin down a date and time for the quake.

But you know what? That was still not enough evidence to back Atwater’s original leap of faith.

Then along came tree expert David Yamaguchi. He examined the tree rings of coastal “ghost forests” — ancient dead trees still standing. And he confirmed that, all up and down the north coast, the trees had suddenly died precisely in early 1700.

Then, and only then, could scientists accept that not only could the Cascadia subduction zone produce quakes that would be among the world’s largest, but that a quake between magnitude 8.7 and 9.2 had struck at 9:00 p.m. on January 26, 1700. That knowledge enabled Atwater and others to uncover evidence of even older mega-thrust quakes and begin to understand how frequently they occur.

Only after that much investigation could scientists and emergency planners get on with such big questions as: when might this happen again, what can modern people in cities expect, and what can we do to protect ourselves?

It began with a folktale and a leap of faith. The folktale itself is only an approximation; but by considering the tale as the first bit of evidence, truth gradually emerged.

It’s very important to understand that only after rigorous investigation with multiple confirmations would knowledgeable people accept that the Cascadia subduction zone is a powerful earthquake producer. Even after that, every bit of knowledge about Cascadia quakes remains subject to change and interpretation, based on new evidence.

The Bible Story

Now, if one pagan folk tale can, in the right person’s mind, lead to uncovering such a vital and potentially life-saving truth, surely the bible — which contains so many more stories and was created by god — can lead investigators with modern tools to even greater facts. Facts that can change our lives for the better. At minimum, we should expect the bible to lead us to facts that verify the truth of bible stories and claims.

Alas, in the best cases, decades of investigation result only in a tossup about whether a given event in the bible happened or didn’t. Some stories, like the famous walls of Jericho “tumblin’ down” may — or may not — be backed by physical evidence. But the evidence doesn’t quite reach the Atwater stage, let alone the Satake or Yamaguchi status of reasonable proof.

And that turns out to be no surprise. Because the closer you look at the bible itself, the more you discover it’s an error-laden mess and at least parts of it are outright forgeries (written to inspire or influence or control, but not based on real events).

You quickly find that whoever wrote the bible thought the value of pi was precisely 3 (and stated that repeatedly) and believed that some insects were birds that walked on “all fours” (not to mention that rabbits were cud chewers and bats are birds).

Now, Christian apologists will answer these points. And answer these points. And answer these points — often with considerable inventiveness, disagreeing with each other as much as skeptics disagree with them.

And it’s probably true that some apparent errors are mistakes of translation, not of the original language. (One does wonder though, why a god who set out to use this one, single compilation as his inerrent truth, meant to be understood by all for their salvation, never bothered keep either originals or translations lucid, coherent, and accurate.)

And if god meant the Old Testament to be his inerrant word, why is it that some books of the OT were edited numerous times — apparently to make the bible’s god (or gods) conform to the views of changing human power structures?

Did god goof the first time? And the second?

Some of the events described were written hundreds of years later by people who had only mangled knowledge of history and whose “facts” were about as reliable as those you’d find in a Harry Potter book.

The more you dig, the more evidence researchers uncover, the more deeply scholars explore, the more absurdities, unliklihoods, hinks, outright forgeries, and come to light. For instance, of the 13 letters in the New Testament once believed to be by Paul, evidence has now shown that six are probably fakes. For instance, scholars know that the writing style isn’t Paul’s, and/or that the cultural references in some dubious epistles are from dates long after Paul’s death, and often the opinions don’t even match Paul’s.

Most scholars also believe that Peter didn’t write 1 or 2 Peter. And few people even pretend any more that the gospels where written by actual disciples of Jesus (or Paul) named Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

It appears that, as differing factions tried to take over Christianity in its first centuries, various agenda-driven people pretended their own words were those of Peter or Paul or other Christian luminaries in order to give the apostles’ authority to their own viewpoints. That’s forgery, impure and simple. And despite what some Christians like to claim, there was never a time in human history when forgery wasn’t considered dishonest and contemptible. There were just times when it slid by because it was hard to detect — and times when forgeries were very deliberately propagated because a particular forgery fit the prejudices of men in power.

And contradictions? The OT isn’t alone in being filled with hinks. The New is also loaded with wildly basic ones and the Christians’ answers become ever more inventive. (While also, as usual, ignoring important details; did Judas buy a field or throw his blood money into the Temple?)

Any skeptic can go on, pointing out errors, inconsistencies, absurdities, cruelties, and other hinks in the bible. And Christian apologists can go on coming up with highly inventive and sometimes partially plausible explanations.

But the bottom line is that when something is true or even contains a grain of truth, the closer you look, the more you examine the evidence, the more you confirm that truth.

The closer you look at the bible, the less the evidence holds up. Desperately elaborate (and incomplete) explanations do not cut it. If a ridiculous tale like that of the Thunderbird can hold a core of scientifically verifiable truth, then why is it that the closer we look into the bible, the more we see errors and outright fraud, rather than verification of its accuracy? Because the stories of the bible aren’t even authentic folk tales, let alone authentic writings of an all-knowing being.

We can begin with faith. But when real evidence contradicts faith, then faith is mere delusion.

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I need what?

July 31, 2012

Believe it or not, but this is completely unrelated to the other activities from the past weekend.  Once again I am told I “have to have faith“.

No, I don’t.  I don’t want faith.  I prefer reality, thankyouverymuch.  I can get confidence, which when applied to reality looks a lot like faith, but it isn’t.  It is based upon past experience and- well, you know, reality.  That is not faith.

Faith, as the believers shovel it out, is based upon nothing but hope.  Hope that is backed by nothing more than cherry-picking the Bible, subjective experiences that the believer can’t otherwise explain, and a desperate desire to hop on a bandwagon and belong.  I don’t need that, and I resent being told that I do.

Random Brain Droppings

July 30, 2012

I have unlimited religious tolerance, but I have finite religious patience.

And my patience is running out.

I survived the reunion, and managed to keep my good humor in the face of an unending assault of religionism.  But it was by the skin of my teeth, no thanks to my dad.

I was peaceably sitting at a table after finishing my meal, watching the kids play, when my dad sat down.  No problem.  But then he invited a passing relative to sit with us.  This guy started his own church years ago because he couldn’t find one that suited him.  Not sure how that turned out.

Anyway, after the guy has sat, my dad jokes that this table is reserved for libertarians.  I said that I suppose they should both leave.  I said it with good humor.  So the other guy says “What’s that?”

My dad says I should tell him.

I said I was really trying to just enjoy the day instead of finding (more) things to disagree on.  So the guy says “Around here, we hang libertarians”.  I said “Libertarians shoot back”.  He just sat there.

The my dad goes into some story about Bill O’Reilly shouting down John Stossel, and saying that Stossel needs my help.  Yeah…  The only “help” he needs in that instance is to not agree to go on a program where the host talks over the guests, out of fear that someone might hear them and realize that Old Bill is a lying, authoritarian sack of…. aaaanyway…

Then the other guy starts saying that the person he really likes to watch is Mike Huckabee.  Great… here we go.

He said that he loved it when Huckabee had an atheist on his show who was protesting crosses being put on the World Trade Center site.  Huckabee says that they are symbols of “our Christian Nation” or somesuch drivel.  He says “What’s the atheist symbol?”  And the guy was (according to the story), stumped and couldn’t answer.

Well, guess what overly-delusional guy- atheists don’t need a symbol.  I don’t have a trademark for my own car company because I don’t own a car company.  Atheists use many cute symbols to communicate our amusement at stupid delusionoids, like you, but none of those is “the atheist symbol” like your pathological attachment to a device for capitol punishment (One you don’t ever represent accurately, by the way).

Christians are really stupid about the things that make them Christians, which brings up another point:  Everyone is stupid about something.

You could say, with good reason, that I am stupid about my love life/sex life.  Yes, stupid.  But I know it.  I don’t deny it.  I am also stupid about some other things.

But, Christians wouldn’t BE Christians if they weren’t really stupid about Christianity.  And they don’t even know they are being stupid.  They are unaware.  They can be really smart in every other aspect of their lives, but they have a gaping hole in their brain that allows them to be Christians.  They have to cherry pick the Bible.  They have to ignore science and reality.  They have to make up evidence out of thin air to support their beliefs.  This isn’t “smart”.

Days of God and State

July 29, 2012

I could scream.

I am enduring a couple of days of unending state worship and religionism.  I am still smiling on the outside.

Yesterday this town had its yearly festival.  US government flags were flying everywhere.  Police and military paraded past so that we could fawn over their “service” and “sacrifice”.  The National Anthem was sung.  I ignored it and just kept on walking- at risk of life and limb.

Yeah, I realize I could be attacked for not worshiping the popular gods.

Every other vendor was selling religious-themed crafts.  (No, I didn’t join them to peddle the nasty little things I have helped create.)

Now, today, I get to go to a family reunion and hear relatives getting positively orgasmic over what god has done to.. oops, I mean “for” them in the past year.  And I’ll endure the big hand-holding circle jerk prayer that accompanies these events so that we can pray away any chance of food poisoning before we begin to ingest the feast.

At this reunion will also be a person who has used his god and his nationalism and his love of The Law as an excuse to do me financial harm.  I’ll ignore him as much as possible, even though he is a VIP at these gatherings.  Wait, he is a VIP to me, too.  A “Vermin In Pants”.

I’ll probably survive, but I won’t enjoy it.  Anyone want to go in my stead?

 

Some people need to look in a mirror…

July 26, 2012

There’s a piece of property just down the road where the owner has a couple of billboards.  The big professional jobs.  He uses them to promote “conservative” Christian ideas.

The newest message on one of the billboards says something about:

God is Love.  The Islam god, Allah, the Quran, and Sharia Law call for unbelievers to be killed.  But the Christian God…

Wait just a cherry-pickin’ minute here… what is it again that the Christian god does to unbelievers?

Killing a person for non-belief is bad enough, it our real world.  But if the magical mystical land beyond death were real, then throwing non-believers into a lake of fire where they could roast in horrible agony for eternity x eternity- trillions upon trillions of years, where a googol-plex of years wouldn’t even count as a molecule of the first letter on the title page- is immeasurably worse.

Examine your own beliefs before you start criticizing the beliefs of others.

Ricky Gervais on Noah’s Ark

July 23, 2012

Tried to embed the video, but WordPress wasn’t having it. So sailing off to YouTube we go: Ricky Gervais on Noah’s Ark.

Whotta hoot. Wouldn’t have pegged Gervais as a good little Sunday School boy.

Language NSFW.

The mind of god

July 23, 2012

Peggeen here with another puzzler I’ve found when talking with xtians.

The Christian knows the nature of god. God is all powerful. All merciful. All seeing. All knowing. Is present everywhere. Is the pure essence of love.

The Christian talks with confidence about god’s actions. God protected me from that speeding car. God drowned New Orleans for its sins. God made sure that man was there to help me change my tire. God inspired the founders of our country. Etc.

The Christian is certain of what god wants. God wants us to love him. God wants us to accept the sacrifice of his son. God wants us to go to church on Sunday. God wants us baptized by immersion not sprinkling. God wants us to stone homosexuals to death or smite his enemies. Whatever.

The Christian receives direct messages from god: God told me to go check on my friend’s welfare. God told me he wanted me to become a missionary. God told me not to go the football game. God told me to take that job.

But … ask one single question that isn’t in The Christian’s repertoire of prepared Q&A … and all of a sudden: “Oh, the mind of god is unknowable …”

The mind of a Christian

July 22, 2012

Peggeen here. In choosing the title “The mind of a Christian,” I don’t mean to imply that all xtians think alike. Obviously they don’t. But after the many years in which I was first a desperate, dedicated seeker of god’s will, then an increasingly hardcore skeptic, I’ve become convinced there is some fundamental difference between my brain and the brain of every xtian I know.

Xtians might say that fundamental difference is simply that they have faith and I don’t. But to me the difference is that every xtian I’ve ever known has a much lower standard for evidence than I do.

I’ll probably write more about this over time. But here’s a case in point.

A news site I visit has a section on religion. One day last week I spotted an article headlined “What is prayer and how does it work?” Clearly, with a headline like that, the article is meant not for long-time Christians, but for the rest of us — unbelievers or newcomers to the faith. So I clicked.

… and felt as if I were reading a foreign language.

For one thing, the author never did fulfill his promise to say how prayer worked. There was not a word about that. He did, however, keep his promise to tell us what prayer is. Sort of. He said that prayer is “a conversation with god.” Then he just went on with no further explanation.

Huh?

I may be simpleminded, but to me a conversation is this:

Person A says something.
Person B replies.
Person A responds to that.
Person B responds to that.
And so on.

A “conversation” isn’t when I say something and the person (being, entity, whatever) keeps maddeningly, determinedly silent. A “conversation” isn’t when I ask something, then weeks, months, or even years later experience something vaguely related to that and say, “Oh, look! He answered!” A conversation is inherently a back-and-forth exchange in which each party communicates in common language with the other.

The writer obviously believed otherwise. But he felt not the slightest need to offer evidence.

The writer also noted — and also without explanation — that god had “challenged” him to simplify his prayers.

So there I am again. Readers are expected to believe that the all-powerful creator of the universe personally communicated with this guy about his prayerstyle. The writer didn’t claim to see a burning bush or hear a thunderous voice issuing from clouds (and I think he’d have at least mentioned if something like that had happened). We’re left with absolutely no idea of how this incredibly important challenge was issued. We’re certainly not offered even a speck of evidence to back the author’s bland contention that the challenger was the Almighty god himself.

And remember, this was an article that purported to be schooling folks in the basics. But right from the get-go we’re expected not to ask questions, not to expect evidence, but just believe.

This is the place — one of the places — where I butted my head again and again against the concept of religion before finally giving up. I don’t expect anybody to “prove god.” But I do expect them to provide credible evidence, stated in a framework of logic, for any claims they make.

I accept that god, if he existed, would be beyond mere human logic, facts, and reason. However, no god worth his salt would be beneath logic, facts, and reason. No god worth worshipping would expect me to just shut up and pretend I don’t notice flim-flammery, intellectual dishonesty, dubious claims, or unbacked “facts.”

Some of my favorite (not) Christian contradictions

July 20, 2012

Peggeen here. These are some of the most frequent or most mindblowing contradictions I’ve encountered in talking with Christians:

  • If your friend’s child dies, it’s “because god wanted another little angel in heaven.”* If your enemy’s child dies it’s “because god is punishing him for his evil.”
  • If your cancer goes into remission it’s “because I have faith.” If your cancer returns, it’s never “because I don’t have any faith.”**
  • Conversation: “Why didn’t god stop the 9/11 hijackers?” “Oh, you wouldn’t want god to interfere with free will would you?” “So you’re telling me he stood by and let the freewill of 3,000 victims be absolutely wiped out in order to preserve the freewill of 19 hijackers?” [… crickets …]
  • I used to ask hard, but very sincere, questions of Christians. I really, deeply longed to know what god wanted, and how others had the secret of “finding god” when, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t. When the answers were unsatisfying (or, from the Christian’s point of view, when I was “too stubborn to hear the truth”), the conversation would often conclude with the believer saying to me, “God can’t get through to you when you’re resisting so hard!” Wait. Hold on. You’re telling me that I am so strong that the all-powerful god, the god whose fondest wish is to bring me into his fold, the god who is trying his all-mighty best to get through to me, cannot penetrate past my doubts? Wow. I should hire myself out to halt volcano eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Because if l’il ole’ me can thwart the most fundamental power of the Almighty without even trying, surely I can stop such minor, localized works of god.

    * Sometimes it’s “because god is testing your faith.” And indeed you should question your faith when dealing with a being who would torture a child merely to conduct a test whose outcome he, being omniscient, already knows.

    ** Although, of course, if your enemy gets cancer, it’s probably “because he didn’t have any faith” or ye olde “because god is punishing him for his evil.”

Keeping my worlds from colliding

July 20, 2012

I was recently asked why I keep this blog separate from the rest of my life.  There are a couple of reasons.

First: I have run into problems with relatives (not with friends, though) when they read my opinions on religion.  It even caused a near-disaster on one occasion.

Second: It distracts some people from everything else I have to say.  Christians are like parrots, and my non-belief is like a very shiny object.  Once they see it they can’t see anything else.  They just keep pecking at it, chewing on it, and toying with it.  I’m not sure what they expect to happen, but the result is that it is the end of communication as far as they are concerned.

So, I try to keep my worlds from colliding.