Open Letter to Comedy Central

Dear Comedy Central,

I think Comedy Central’s censorship of Episode 201, and now also of the Super Best Friends episode on SouthParkStudios.com is completely over-the-top and unacceptable for a reputable media outlet in the United States. Do you not see the negative societal trend that you are contributing to? If something needs to be sacred in our society, it is satire— and not any particular religion.

Robert McNally

South Park Super Best Friends

To everyone else: You can still use BitTorrent to download Episode 201 as it aired (with Comedy Central bleeping out even Mohammad’s name and Kyle’s final speech about intimidation that didn’t even mention Muhammad), and the Super Best Friends episode.

By the way, that’s Mohammad in the back row standing between Joseph Smith and AquaMan.

Comments? Send a tweet to @ironwolf or use the response form.
I can’t respond to everything, but I do read everything!

Bill Moyers Journal: The Supreme Court and Marriage Equality

The two marquee lawyers who fought each other all the way to the Supreme Court to decide whether Al Gore or George W. Bush would become President are at it again. Ted Olson is a conservative, and David Boies is a liberal. But this time they’re fighting as allies to defend marriage equality.

This is the finest discussion I’ve heard about the marriage equality issue. Moyers takes the devil’s advocate position throughout, posing objection after objection that’s been advanced by the religious right in America. Watch as these two brilliant lawyers deliver absolutely devastating rebuttals. It shows that ultimately, the only “argument” against same-sex marriage is a religious one advanced by those who would, if they could, destroy our democracy and turn it into a theocracy. With them in charge, of course.

Please, listen to this interview and pass it on to your friends. The audio is below, or you can watch the entire show’s video on the PBS web site.

Bill Moyers Journal: Theodore Olson and David Boies

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I can’t respond to everything, but I do read everything!

Ask an Atheist: What is “sin”?

Sharon asks (with my answer interspersed:)

If a person does not believe in God, therefore without even using the term God, how does an atheist explain what “sin” is?  Does it even exist in your view?

“Sin” as commonly understood is a theological concept. Non-theists such as myself do not subscribe to such concepts. Therefore, we can only really explain it in terms of what theists say it is.

If it is related to morality?  Who defines that?

If you as a theist define morality as “whatever you think God wants you to do,” then “sin” is falling short of that in any way — including (for example) failing to obey a command to destroy an enemy tribe including women and children, or refusal to strap on a suicide bomb.

From a non-theist point of view, morality (“ethics”) is a the set of principles that guides an individual’s actions with respect to others. It is not a fixed code, but a set of personal principles. Societies work because the majority of their members can broadly agree on ethical codes, but such codes can vary substantially from society to society, and there are always some percentage of overt or covert non-conformance within societies. Probably the single most subscribed-to ethical code is some variant of the Golden Rule.

Why is it that all individuals whether we call it sin or morals all seem to go against them?

Because ethics is not as simple as high-handed moralists would have you believe. The picture they paint of morality is actually a cartoonish oversimplification of the ethical considerations mature individuals need. In applying a well-developed ethical system, there are always considerations about trade-offs and cost-benefit analyses. “Doing the right thing” from one perspective can simultaneously be “doing the wrong thing” from another— this is to be expected in some cases, and there is no codified ethical system that covers every case. Ultimately it is the individual who decides, and who must live with the consequences— to themselves and others.

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What is the argument against same-sex marriage?

YouTube Preview Image

The core of her argument, from the end of the clip:

Marriage is the only institution we have that’s about bringing together the two great halves of humanity: male and female, so that children can know and be known by, and love and be loved by their own mother and father. And if the government moves to same-sex marriage— if the law teaches the next generation: “there isn’t anything unique about unions of husbands and wives” a lot of things are going to change for a lot of children. Maybe not for you and me, we’re kind of old [and for us] maybe everything will go on just the same, but marriage will change, and it will change for everyone in the state.

This fear-mongering “argument” sums up just about every position I’ve heard against same-sex marriage. Yet, it is full of inconsistent and vague assertions, the most glaring being that the sole purpose of marriage is for children. Yet, many people get married with no intention of ever having children. If marriage is all about children, then why don’t we only make marriage available to couples of child-bearing age who sign affidavits that they intend to have children together? The answer is that we don’t do this because marriage can be about many things that may (or may not) include love, companionship, division of responsibilities, legal benefits, and yes, even children. To insist that the law allow older or infertile couples to get married, or that the law allow couples with children to get divorced, and to simultaneously insist the law prohibit same-sex couples from marriage with only an incoherent, mealy-mouthed, “a lot of things are going to change” for your point is the height of bigotry and Orwellian double-think.

And if you agree with her, and want to claim that she just ran out of time, please state your most compelling rational argument against legalizing same-sex marriage in the comments. No, I don’t accept purely faith-based arguments as rational. You’re playing with the big boys here, so tell me: what are the negative consequences for society if this became legal everywhere?

Comments? Send a tweet to @ironwolf or use the response form.
I can’t respond to everything, but I do read everything!

Ask an Atheist: What Do We Call Ourselves?

In this thread Lisa writes:

I’ve been reading through some of your very interesting blog. We come from similar religious backgrounds, and appear to have grown into similar conclusions.

I’m curious though…once I got over the self-imposed stigma of how horrible it is not to be a Christian and was able to admit to myself that I’m not, I struggled with what to call myself. Sometimes I think I believe there’s a god, but it almost seems like more of a leftover habit than something I really have a strong belief in. Mix in a little bit of “well, *something* has to explain the unexplainable things I’ve witnessed in my life” and there you have the extent of my definition of god.

So…how do I label myself? It’s not really important to me, I don’t really feel the need to fit into a nice, neat category (conversely, I’m kind of happy that I don’t…I’m me, not anyone else). However it would be nice to have a term that at least somewhat quickly conveys to others what I believe without having to have ready-made flyers on the subject to pass out to people. *grin* I settled on calling myself an agnostic because while I don’t necessarily believe in a specific entity (like the god we were taught about in WCG), I do think it’s possible there’s something greater than we can see out there (in the sense that I don’t think it’s *im*possible). I could be misinterpreting, but my impression is that you believe something similar. So I’m curious as to how you came to identify yourself as an atheist (which to me conveys devout *dis*belief in a god) rather than an agnostic (which to me comes closer to conveying “I don’t necessarily think that there is, but I could entertain the possibility that there *could* be and I just haven’t been presented with the proof”). Perhaps it’s just differences in interpretation.

Lisa,

All “a-theist” means is “without belief in a god.” People also tend to divide atheism into categories like “weak” atheism, “I see no evidence for a god, hence I don’t believe,” and “strong” atheism, “God is disprovable, or makes no sense, and therefore is provably non-existent.” Agnosticism, on the other hand, is usually taken to mean either, “I have no evidence one way or the other, so I remain without a belief one way or the other,” or the stronger form of agnosticism, “I do not think it is possible for anyone to have knowledge of a god.” So it’s important to ask a person what they mean when they use these terms.

The interesting thing is, these terms are really not mutually exclusive. I can be a weak atheist with respect to certain claims, and a strong atheist with respect to others. I can have no knowledge of any god and hence call my self “a-gnostic” (i.e., without knowledge.)

So I will use these more specific terms when it makes sense to do so. I often use the label atheist specifically because the label is unjustly stigmatized in our society and needs to be reclaimed. I also call myself an infidel, a skeptic, a nullifidian, a secularist, or simply a non-believer. Each of these labels has a different “angle” on my worldview, and they each come in handy on various occasions. One umbrella term you might find attractive is freethinker, a fairly old word with a rich history.

And when none of these labels are relevant to the conversation, I’m just Robert.

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On My Non-Belief, Part 4

My current e-mail debate continues.

The bottom line to all of this remains that at the end of all investigation and study both of us are required to take a leap of faith to BELIEVE what we believe.

This is a common tactic among apologists: prevarication over words like “faith.” The sort of faith spoken of by “the faithful” when they speak of “faith in Jesus” is not the same “faith” we have in our friends, or in our ability to cross the street without harm. The Bible says “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) This is entirely at odds with the empirical methods by which we live our lives and conduct science. I do not put on a blindfold and say a prayer before I cross the street: I look both ways. This is not relying on the “evidence of things not seen.” To insist that “everyone has faith” is to evacuate religious faith of any special qualities, and reduce it to the same mundane inductive power all animals possess. What then, is the purpose of your scripture?

I do not “have faith there is no god” in the same way that you “have faith there is a god.” You would not speak of your having faith there are no fairies at the bottom of your garden. You would not speak of having faith that Zeus is nothing more than a myth. For me, atheism is not a creed based on faith, but a provisional stance based on lack of positive evidence for a particular god. It is the same stance I (and probably you as well) hold towards fairies and other ancient myths.

My mind is not closed. Take the Bible and throw it out. Take Christianity and throw it out. None of that has any meaning or merit without the presence of God. I have chosen to believe in God versus no God.

And I have chosen to not believe in entities for which I have insufficient evidence. How shall I decide between God and no God? If you have just thrown out the need to consider the Bible and Christianity, then there is certainly no urgency, for it is the Bible and Christianity that “put the heat” under believers not only to get themselves saved from damnation, but also to proselytize and apologize others into the faith, as you are attempting to do with me. Without those metaphysical imperatives, then God becomes just another abstract theoretical force of nature, and then what is the point of this conversation? Do we need to have long philosophical conversation about whether the Higgs boson exists? Scientists debate this, but they also perform experiments to test their conjectures about nature.

I have chosen to believe that there is something past this life versus nothing. This is not fanciful thinking without any evidence. This is based on my own reasoning and thoughtful reflection on the information I have been present through education and study.

Then by all means stop preaching your faith and let us discuss specific items of evidence: you have repeatedly said you have evidence, and now I have repeatedly asked you to bring it forth.

Read up on current scientific evidence with an open mind. Try not to be predisposed to no possibility of God.

I will remind you that I grew up as a believing Christian in the same denomination you grew up in. I was in no way “predisposed to no possibility of God.” If anything, I was predisposed in the opposite direction. I spend several hours each week listening to news of science, as well as discussions of philosophy, ethics, current events, and even biblical research. Do not treat me as if I am ignorant.

Thoughtfully consider all of the untold discrepancies and enormous leaps forward on theories that are based on ZERO scientific evidence.

If the discrepancies are “untold” (and so far you certainly have not “told” any of them to me despite my entreaties) then how can I consider them? Or if you mean “untold” in the sense of “plethora,” then this task should be easy: please, bring your compelling items of evidence forward! Give me an example of a standard scientific theory that is based on “ZERO scientific evidence,” and include references so I may investigate.

Have you considered the mathematics required for the typical theories regarding the universe, nature, etc. For all of the universe to have just happened, based on mathematical probability, requires so much unfounded faith its almost beyond reason.

I do not claim that the universe “just happened.” Where I have insufficient evidence I make no claims at all. On the other hand, you claim that a particular God who started a particular religion is responsible for it all. How do you know this? You just threw out the BIble and Christianity above! You are making the positive assertions, not I, and thus the burden of proof rests with you. In our conversation, I have not once said, “There is definitely no God.” In fact, I have gone to some lengths to make it clear that my stance is provisional. I can only assume you are arguing against a straw man.

You have chosen to believe that there is no God. Why?

For the same reasons you do not believe in Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just believe in one less god than you do.

As I said above, toss out Christianity. Just look at all of the scientific evidence with an honest open mind. You asked me a question before regarding what would it take for me to believe there was no God. What would it take for you to believe that there could be or is a God?

As I said in a previous exchange, I have considered this question deeply. In fact I published the answer long ago in my essay Ten Christian Lunacies (pay particular attention to point 9, but please read the entire essay.)

I’d like to point out that I have asked you the complementary question first, and you have said you have considered the answer, but you have not so far provided it for my consideration. So I’m asking again: please let me know how weak the evidence has to be before you will consider becoming a provisional non-believer? If no amount of weakening of the evidence would convince you to shift your stance, then I submit to you that it is because of your religious faith— a faith that I do not have. My stance shifts based on the evidence: I was once a Christian, and in my essay I outline how I could become one again. How could you ever become a non-believer? Thanks to your faith, you can’t.

Utilize your logic and reason. Science says that things progress forward.

Scientific knowledge progressively increases as scientists do their work, but science says nothing about the general “progress of all things.” History says certain things sometimes progress in certain dimensions under certain circumstances, but the history of the Earth also shows us mass extinctions that can hardly be thought of as “progress forward.” The idea that “things progress forward” is an ideology, not science.

We as human beings are the most advanced form of life that we know of.

Again, you are engaged in oversimplified thinking. Humans are not as strong as elephants, nor as fast as cheetahs, nor as good at climbing as monkeys. Those species are all much farther “advanced” than we are along those dimensions. We are (in general) smarter: that is our survival advantage.

Based on the scientific theories of evolution this means from chaos can order. From the simplest life came the most advanced. This sounds good but the scientific evidence indicates that the universe and nature are slowly decaying and slipping into chaos not order. And the billions of years response is very weak and shows a lack of any substantial factual evidence.

I’m not sure what you mean by the “billions of years response.” In an earlier exchange you indicated you accept evolution but are you arguing for a young universe?

I understand the long-term implications of the thermodynamics of the universe. I also understand how complexity can increase in a non-closed system such as the Earth, which gets energy from the sun— until it burns out. So what? Why does this have implications for your faith? It has none for mine.

What about the speed of light? There is new evidence that is indicating that the speed of light is slowing down. If this is true then a great deal of our theories will need to be re-thought.

I’d like to see some mainstream scientific references showing the evidence for this. But again, whether this is true or not, I see no advantage to apologists for any god or faith. If the universe were clearly in a “steady state” and not winding down in various ways, apologists would attempt to use that fact to their advantage as well.

What about the geological record? We have assumed for years that the fossilization process takes millions of years yet we have witnessed that process in a cataclysmic event speeded up to just taking decades.

Again, you neglect to state the implications. So what if this is true? Are you arguing for a young earth?

How about the very foundation of science. A chemically based universe. Some scientists are thinking that might be wrong and we are actually an electrically based universe.

Please take what I am about to say in the spirit it is intended, because I do not intend to sound insulting: either you have no idea what you’re talking about, or you are not doing a very good job at expressing your knowledge. Basic atomic theory describes the structure of the atom and the differences between the atomic elements, and how they, singly and combined as molecules act and interact in what we call “chemical reactions,” and how various particles of atoms are charged, and how the flow of electrons from one place to another is what we call “electricity.” I have never heard talk of a “chemically-based universe.” This is just not a term that ever comes up in science. So please provide references for me to examine, or I am left clueless as to where you are getting your ideas.

In any case, I still fail to see your point. Do you want me to admit that science doesn’t know everything? Fine: science doesn’t know everything, and perhaps cannot know everything. Where does that get you? Perhaps we live in an ultimately unknowable universe. This does not diminish the value of what humanity has learned through science so far. If someone wants to have religious faith in knowledge that lies beyond the ken of science, they are welcome to do so. But Christianity, which is ultimately the point you’d like to get back to (isn’t it) makes particular metaphysical claims over my life and happiness for which I demand reasonable evidence. And so far you have provided nothing but ill-informed disparagements of science.

I am not a skilled apologist but I am trying. I just want to reiterate that my fork in the road came from concluding that the universe and everything in it requires God. The mathematical possibility for all of this just happening is so remote that it makes winning the lotto everyday for the rest of your life look like a sure thing.

Perhaps, but appealing to “God” gets you nowhere here too, because I can simply ask, Why does God exist? What are the odds of something like God existing over his not existing? And, if our physical universe requires a creator as you believe, why does that creator not require a creator himself? It is here that the principle of parsimony, also known as Occam’s Razor comes in handy. Unless there is compelling evidence to require a god over no god, then it is better to provisionally accept the idea of no god— for the exact same reason we live as though there are no fairies in the garden. And even if I granted the idea that there must be a god of some sort, unless there is compelling evidence that that god must have the traits ascribed to it by a particular religion, it is better to reserve judgement about which religion’s god (if any) it is. In any case, you have not shown why I should grant that there is any god, so it remains pointless to discuss which religion’s god prevails.

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On My Non-Belief, Part 3

Continuing excerpts of my current e-mail exchange.

One of your major appeals is to the authenticity of the Bible. You say,

There have been no scientific discoveries or scientific facts that have conclusively proven any statement in the Bible to be false.  It has proven to be the most accurate ancient historical document.  It is considered to be 97% or more accurate today compared to the original writings.  There has never been an archeological find that has proven anything within the Bible to be false.

Even if I grant every one of those points for argument’s sake, they amount to an argument from ignorance. (i.e., “no one has conclusively proven anything in the Bible to be false, so it must be true!”) The fact that the Bible as testimony of a divine personal Creator with a plan for Humanity’s salvation is central to its meaning to Christians, but the mere fact that it mentions places that actually exist (or existed) in no way establishes divine provenance, and the burden of proof for that is clearly upon those who wish to hold the Bible up as authored (or even “inspired”) by a god. On the other hand, I think I can show you examples where the Bible indeed makes false statements about scientific facts (“facts of nature”), where God could easily have not only included correct information, but actually could have included scientific information of such startling correctness that its final verification could only take place using modern scientific methods. Yet the facts of nature we do find in the Bible are either mundane and easily known by primitive lights, or thuddingly inaccurate. While this does not disprove the Bible’s divine provenance, it certainly lends it no support and raises the additional question of God’s many missed opportunities.

I question the standards by which you call the Bible the “most accurate” historical document. What does “accuracy” mean, and how do we judge it? There is textual accuracy, which you place at “97% or more,” but that can only refer to the fact that modern textual scholars have laboriously cancelled out thousands of errors and interpolations introduced by copyists, by comparing the many variant copies we have, none of which are “original.” But that in no way eliminates the possibility that uncounted errors and interpolations remain (indeed there are swaths of the canonical New Testament that are nonetheless widely considered to be interpolations,) and it says nothing about the veracity of the actual testimony of the text itself. Even after all the corrections, the result shows all the signs of folkloric origin, including texts incorporating other pre-existing texts, the inclusion of elements drawn from ancient pagan traditions that would have been widely known at the time, and various embellishments characteristic of “tall tales.” For example, the New Testament tells of major and widespread miracles that would reasonably have been noticed and recorded by secular sources of the time, and we find absolutely no mention of them anywhere outside the evangelical documents. The apocrypha are similar in nature, but were deemed by later church fathers to be too contradictory to be included in the canon. But the canon has its own problems: a simple example that had a strong impact on me when I first understood it is the two discrepant stories of the death of Judas Iscariot. Other glaring problems are the two discrepant genealogies of Jesus and the myriad conflicts in the various accounts of the so called “Easter” story (i.e., the time from Jesus’ resurrection to his ascension.) There are hundreds more, major and minor. I am fully aware of the many, many attempts to harmonize these and many other discrepancies throughout the whole Bible. Amazon.com lists no less than 24 books purporting to “harmonize the gospels,” But unless they all say exactly the same thing, perhaps we need a book entitled, “A Harmony of the Harmony of the Gospels?” And the gospels are only four of the many books of the Bible! In my experience, all the “explanations” for these discrepancies I have studied come off as desperate attempts to save a primitive world view by sacrificing intellectual integrity, and they also end up raising more questions than they answer. On the balance, for me the theory that it is a work of folklore written, compiled, edited, and canonized solely by humans— to human ends— has far more explanatory power than the theory that the Bible is a work inspired by a god.

You say,

Science has, to date, presented two possible scenarios for how life began:  Spontaneous Generation or through the Will of an all powerful being, God.  Science has also determined that Spontaneous Generation is impossible.  This allows any rational and honest human being to deduce that at this time, there is only one scientific possibility for life, GOD.

Science is an investigation into the nature of the universe. And I agree that if God is part of what exists, then God is a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry. Moreover, those of faith make real-word claims about their deity(ies) that if true would have real-world impact on other people. But is what they’re claiming really scientific?

A scientific hypothesis must be testable under controlled conditions and repeatable by others, or it is not a hypothesis, and not scientific. While it’s true that the term spontaneous generation is an obsolete hypothesis, this is because it has been tested, and found to be false. Abiogenesis is not the same thing as spontaneous generation, and it is currently being explored. I think it likely that ways will be found to conclusively test it. The mere fact that we do not have a complete working theory of the origins of life says nothing in favor of any competing conjecture, including the Christian creator God, any more than the lack of an understanding of the electrical nature of lightning supported the existence of Zeus. Even if the idea of abiogenesis ultimately fails, that fact would still not support the idea of God. To do that scientifically, controlled experiments must be constructed to test the God hypothesis, and the results of those experiments must be repeatable. I know of no such studies, and the ones I do know of that could have lent some support to the God hypothesis have been inconclusive at best.

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On My Non-Belief, Part 2

A second excerpt from my ongoing e-mail exchange.

We agree that evidence is important when deciding one’s world view. As you know, I was once a Christian believer, and now I am not. Obviously, that says something about me. To me, it says that my world view is flexible, conditioned on the evidence. I gave deep consideration to the evidence I found before I gave up religion, but I have also given serious consideration to the sort of evidence I would need to see in order to become a believer again. In the various conversations I have had with Christians, I have heard a lot of talk of respect for evidence (and the evidence-based methods of science and historical scholarship) but a generally low level of consideration for the standards of evidence that would be necessary to actually shift one’s world view. So one of my “standard” questions in theological conversations that I now put to you is: What is your standard of evidence for being (or remaining) a believer? Have you deeply considered what sort of evidence you would need to shift your world view? More to the point: how weak would the evidence for your religious beliefs have to be before you would shift to a provisional stance, (i.e., they only might be true.) I point out that Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most prominent atheist, in his book The God Delusion, titles the pivotal chapter of that book, “Why there is almost certainly no God,” (emphasis mine.) This is an example of a provisional stance. Dawkins may personally find the idea that God exists to be highly unlikely based on the evidence he has considered, but qualifies that statement to acknowledge that there may be compelling evidence in the opposite direction of which he is unaware. This stance is markedly different from that typically seen in the believer. Can you in all honesty utter the statement, “There is almost certainly a God.”? The infinite weight that Christian dogma places on attestations of faith, even in the face of doubt (“Lord I believe, but help my unbelief!”, Mark 9:24) and the utter contempt it places on unbelief (“The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There are none that do good.”, Psalms 14:1) means that most Christians are indoctrinated to recoil from a truly open examination of their beliefs. I have found that this presuppositionalism is the single largest barrier to having useful dialogs with believers.

You compare public education about science to Christian education in theology. I agree that “science” can be taught and defended as dogma. In this case I prefer to use the term “scientism,” because science as scientists understand it is not dogmatic— it is evidence-based, which is the antithesis of dogma. The major theories of science (gravitation, relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, etc.) are often pointed to by religious believers as dogma. However, they are not— the difference being that dogma is not testable nor quantifiable, while scientific theories emphatically are. In fact, the history of science is replete with theories that have been overturned in the light of new evidence and the emergence of more powerful (i.e., predictive) theories. Even common GPS devices we use in our car must make corrections based on the Theory of Relativity, lest they become inaccurate. Back to the point: I certainly acknowledge that some schools are more effective at teaching science than others. But you also gloss over a huge amount in your comparison: which schools (high or low) teach which “scientific truths” wrong, and in what way? The blanket comparison you make seems more like a rhetorical device than a way of advancing the conversation.

In the lower grades, science education is intended to do three things: 1) present some of the major findings of science, 2) develop an appreciation for the methods of science, 3) increase awareness of how science has impacted our lives. When done correctly, this should not leave the student with the impression that science is an impenetrable mystery guarded by a jealous and powerful priesthood who hand down unquestionable dogma, but rather an open inquiry into nature. Of course, how well public schools achieve the goals of science education is a quite separate issue from the goals of science education themselves, and the goals of science itself.

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I can’t respond to everything, but I do read everything!