Thursday, June 30, 2011

10 Questions for Christians

I've thought a lot about how to summarize my reasons for rejecting Christianity, and decided that one way to do so would be to condense them into ten questions that Christians would be hard-pressed to answer. This is what I have so far:
  1. Do you have strong, verifiable evidence to back up the extraordinary claims your religion makes about the world?
  2. Does it bother you that people of other religions often...
    1. Believe just as strongly as you do?
    2. Cite many of the same reasons for belief that you do?
    3. Have many of the same reasons for not believing in your religion that you have for not believing in theirs?
  3. Isn't it odd that you just happened to luck into the right religion, out of thousands of potential options, especially if you simply adopted the religion of your parents and/or surrounding culture?
  4. Why would the God of the Old Testament sanction injustices such as slavery and command the genocide of entire nations—including innocent children?
  5. Why would God cause billions of people to suffer forever simply for not believing in him?
  6. If God places so much importance on belief, why did he appear only in the ancient superstitious past and give us brains that are highly prone to error?
  7. Why couldn't God just decide to forgive us without killing Jesus—and how is temporarily killing one innocent man an acceptable substitute for eternally punishing billions of supposedly guilty people?
  8. If the Bible is truly the divinely inspired word of God, why does it contain...
    1. Scientific errors about the formation of the universe, the evolution of life, and the age of the earth?
    2. Major internal contradictions?
    3. Grievous errors of history and geography?
    4. Failed prophecies?
  9. How do you explain the concept of the soul in light of mental phenomena such as split brains? If someone's left brain hemisphere believes and their right hemisphere is an atheist, where does their soul go?
  10. What specific things would convince you that Christianity is false? If there aren't any, it means that if you were wrong, you'd never know it. Do you see that lack of falsifiability as problematic?
Technically there are more than ten questions in there, but there was so much content that I needed to loosen the format a bit. Not all of them are meant to attack religious claims directly. Some are there to establish reasonable doubts and provide a starting point for skeptical inquiry. It's also worth noting that only a few of the questions are specific to Christianity; some apply to all the standard monotheistic religions, and others to religion in general.

I'm a little worried that Christians might answer flippantly if I don't provide specific examples, but I also don't want to weigh the questions down with too much text. This is still a work in progress, but overall I think it's a powerful set of questions. If a Christian really took them seriously and put serious thought into answering them, I don't see how they could come out of it with their faith intact.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The World According to Evangelical Leaders

The Pew Forum has released a survey of evangelical Protestant leaders worldwide, which includes several interesting statistics. First, their opinions of nonbelief:
  • 71% of evangelical leaders called secularism a "major threat" to Christianity—the most of any option.
  • Muslims beat out the "non-religious" in terms of perceived unfriendliness toward evangelicals, 69% to 45%. But that includes self-described agnostics and even some theists; the results would be different for atheists alone.
  • 70% have an unfavorable view of atheists—a higher percentage than for any other (ir)religious group, including Muslims.
These figures are consistent with my previous observation that atheists are the most disliked and distrusted minority in America. Now, here are some other discouraging statistics:
  • 52% of leaders think Jesus will "probably" or "definitely" return within their lifetime. Again they show that there's only a marginal difference between them and apocalyptic prophets like Harold Camping.
  • 94% believe that winning converts is essential to evangelical Christianity. Helping the needy? A still-high but much-lower 73%.
  • 92% have a favorable view of Pentacostals, the denomination most known for "worshipping God" by speaking gibberish and flailing around.
  • 84% think homosexuality should be discouraged by society.
  • 47% reject evolution entirely; another 41% insist it was God-guided.
  • 55% think that "a wife must always obey her husband." Why? Well, because God said so. Isn't that reason enough to treat women as second-class citizens?
  • 51% think abortion is not usually, but always wrong—which would include cases of rape, incest, and endangerment to the mother.
  • 84% believe they should express their political views. These are the people in positions of authority, and that means those views will inevitably rub off on their congregations.
It always amazes me when people ask why we nonbelievers can't just mind our own business and respect other people's beliefs. These statistics should make the answer obvious: beliefs have consequences. When they're false, they can cause serious harm and even warp our perception of reality. It's only natural to promote reason when this is the result of its absence.

Now that I'm done with that little rant, I'll end on an amusing note: 52% of leaders thought that consuming alcohol is "incompatible with being a good evangelical." Even leaving aside how absurd that is on its face, let's take a look at Jesus' words in Matthew 11:18-19:
"For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' But wisdom is justified by her children."
Either evangelical leaders don't know their Bible, or they genuinely don't think Jesus himself belongs in their exclusive club.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Problems with Biblical Prophecy

Christians believe that the Bible contains many instances of fulfilled prophecy, events predicted sometimes centuries in advance that eventually unfolded exactly as described. In fact, the Bible has no more predictive power than the Quran or the Book of Mormon. Its predictions operate on principles that have naturalistic explanations. I'll give a brief overview of them below, then cover some of them more deeply in the future.

The first and most pervasive problem with alleged biblical prophecies is vagueness. Many events that the Bible predicts are either so mundane that they happen constantly or have no time limit and are bound to happen if we wait long enough—sometimes both. Here are a couple of examples:
  • "...scoffers will come in that last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, 'Where is the promise of his coming?'" (2 Peter 3:3-4)
  • "And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. ... For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places." (Matthew 24:6-7)
Both of these are predictions about Jesus' return to earth. They sound a lot like events that are happening in modern times, don't they? But here's the thing: they could just as easily apply to pretty much any other point in history. People have been scoffing for a good 1,900 years about the fact that Jesus was supposed to come "quickly"—and rightly so. Likewise, war and natural disasters are a permanent part of human life. Why didn't Jesus instead say, "X years from now, massive earthquakes will occur at locations A, B and C"?

Because he couldn't really predict the future. And when he tried, he failed.

Another example of vague "prophecy" is the alleged phenomenon of scientific foreknowledge. For example, some Christians marvel at Leviticus 17:11's pronouncement that "the life of the flesh is in the blood," saying that ancient people couldn't have known this without divine inspiration. Two problems: First, this would be easy to conclude simply by watching any animal bleed to death. Second, blood isn't even the only part of the body that's essential to life. One could just as easily say "the life of the flesh" is in the lungs, heart or brain.

Speaking of brains, the Bible never mentions them as the center of thought and consciousness—not even once. However, it does contain countless references to thoughts and feelings emanating from the heart and even the kidneys. It seems like if God wanted his book to be scientifically accurate, this might have been an important thing to get straight. Yet in fact, the Bible is chock full of such scientific errors.

Another problem with biblical prophecies is that many of them weren't even meant to be prophecies at all, and in fact mean something very different when put into their proper context. For example, Matthew says that after Jesus' birth, his family took him to hide in Egypt, thereby fulfilling a prophecy that said, "out of Egypt I called My Son." Not bad, right? Well, take a look at the original context:
"When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. As they called them, so they went from them; they sacrificed to the Baals, and burned incense to the carved images." (Hosea 11:1-2)
Funny, I don't remember Jesus being called Israel or making sacrifices to other gods. That's because he didn't, and this passage in Hosea is about the Israelites escaping from Egypt. Apologists try to spin passages like these as "double fulfillment," happening once in the original context and once at a later date. They can call it whatever they like, but what it amounts to is selectively reading into passages that often were never meant to be prophecies in the first place. Every bit of the Old Testament is a potential case of double fulfillment. With that much source material to work with, how could Jesus not have "fulfilled" some of it purely by chance?

There are two other ways the Bible can outright cheat to make it appear as though prophecies have been fulfilled. First let's take the previous example. Matthew's account of Jesus' flight to Egypt is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible, and directly conflicts with Luke's account. Here's what probably happened. The writer of Matthew is scouring the OT for passages about Jesus and stumbles across one where God mentions Israel as his metaphorical son. Perfect! Just replace Israel with Jesus, make up a story where he must escape to Egypt, and presto! Another prophecy fulfilled.

I'll use the book of Daniel to illustrate the second method of cheating. As it turns out, Daniel makes predictions about various wars and conquests with remarkable accuracy right up until about Daniel 11:39. The book is set as though it was written by Daniel under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar II, around 600 BCE. But based on evidence in the text, biblical scholars believe the book was actually written in about 165 BCE, and that the writer tried to pass off the book as older than it really was. The so-called prophecies described events that had already taken place.

Which brings us to our final problem with biblical prophecy: Contrary to what Christians believe, some of the prophecies in the Bible flat-out failed. Everything up through Daniel 11:39 had already happened, but from Daniel 11:40 onwards the writer genuinely does try to make predictions—and of course, absolutely none of them were fulfilled. He prophesies, among other things, that Antiochus Epiphanes would utterly conquer northwest Africa, including Egypt. It never happened. By the Bible's own standard, Daniel was a false prophet and should have been put to death.

As we've seen, there are a host of problems with prophecies in the Bible. Without exception, each one suffers from some combination of vagueness, lack of time limit, lack of indication that they were even meant as prophecy, fabrication of events, forgery produced after an alleged fulfillment, or outright failure. None of these would be present if the Bible was truly the inspired word of God.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

WEIT: What Makes a Species

The seventh chapter of Why Evolution Is True delves deeply into the nuances of the biological species concept, or BSC. This idea is fundamental to evolutionary biology, and was defined by Ernst Mayr in 1942 as follows:
"A group of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups."
By "reproductively isolated," we mean that individuals in two different species do not generally produce viable offspring. Coyne points out that there's no obvious reason that life should be divided into discrete species—instead it could have all blurred together, so that every point between, say, "cat" and "dog" was equally represented. While "God did it" would be equally compatible with these or any set of circumstances, evolution explains our specific observations perfectly.

In order for geographic speciation (the most common speciation process) to occur, a reproductive barrier such as a mountain range or a body of water must come between two groups of the same species. Once the groups are separated, genes cannot flow between them, so they start to become genetically distinct. This occurs largely due to natural selection as the groups adapt to differing environments, although the "random walk" produced by genetic drift can play a role as well. When the groups diverge far enough, the genomes of one group will be incompatible with the genomes of the other, so they remain distinct species even if the reproductive barrier vanishes.

We can use the principles in the above paragraph to make predictions that we can then go out and test. Lo and behold, what we find matches up precisely with what evolution predicts. First, we should be able to create reproductive barriers in the laboratory. And we do: groups of flies placed in different environments lose the ability to interbreed with other groups, sometimes in a year or less. One of Coyne's own experiments also showed that the more the DNA of two existing fly species differ, the more mating discrimination they exhibit and more likely their offspring are to be sterile.

The second prediction comes from biogeography: species that have similar genes should be found relatively close to one another, but separated by a geographical barrier. And they are: there are seven corresponding species of snapping shrimp on each side of the Isthmus of Panama (which arose to divide the Pacific and Atlantic 3 million years ago). The same holds true for islands: we don't usually find similar species on the same small island because there's not enough isolation, but we do find them on nearby islands in an archipelago. We see this in flightless crickets, Drosophila flies, and lobelia plants. Coyne points out that this pattern is also evidence against creationism:
"After all, there's no obvious reason why a creator would produce similar species of birds or lizards on continents but not on isolated islands."
Third, we should be able to observe reproductive barriers forming and speciation occurring in the wild, albeit very slowly. The example Coyne gives is the orchid Satyrium hallackii, which for now is classified as one species. In northern South Africa they have long nectar tubes that allow only hawkmoths and long-tongued flies to pollinate them, while they have short nectar tubes on the coast, where bees are the only available pollinators. The two groups are genetically isolated, and would probably remain so even if they lived in the same area.

Satyrium carneum, a close relative of the orchid Coyne mentions
Coyne ends by covering two more complex types of speciation, allopolyploidy and autopolyploidy, which involve the accidental duplication of chromosomes. Unlike normal speciation, these processes occur mostly in plants and can result in new species in just two generations. Polyploid speciation allows us to directly observe entire speciation events in the wild, which normally take too long for this to be feasible (although a certain mosquito species is a notable exception).

What we've seen here is a powerful illustration of evolution's explanatory power and scope. The biological species concept as applied to evolution allows us to make predictions with stunning accuracy. In contrast, the creationist concept of "kinds" or "baramins" is poorly defined and grants us no useful insights into the natural world. This is what we mean when we say that evolution is science, while creationism is nothing more than Bible-based wishful thinking.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Quotable Me

Previously I posted some memorable quotes from various thinkers on religion, atheism, skepticism and other topics that I'd previously posted on Twitter. Now I've compiled the tweets containing my own thoughts on those subjects. Some of these ideas are mine, but many of them are distillations of what I've learned from reading and listening to others.

Here are some bite-sized thoughts on Christianity:
  • Even if Christianity somehow turned out to be true, 99% of Christians would still believe in it for terrible reasons.
  • To most Christians, the Bible consists of the NT and a few OT bits like Genesis and Psalms. Books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy don't even exist.
  • Why didn't God (a perfect communicator) convey criteria for salvation (the most vital topic possible) so Christians would all agree on them?
  • Early Christian sects like the Marcionists and Gnostics often viewed the OT god as a wicked tyrant. I kind of wish they'd won the doctrine wars.
  • We can't fully comprehend eternity, so no one can ever grasp just how awful hell would be, and how unjust it would be as punishment.
  • Christians ask if you think you're "good" to begin their evangelism spiel. But of course they really mean "perfect," so why not just say so up front?
  • Every believer in the resurrection should believe in UFOs: they're also BS, but at least they're based on extensive modern testimony and not an ancient book.
  • It's remarkable that the Old Testament contains so much violence and yet manages to remain mind-crushingly dull.
  • Funny how Harold Camping's explanation of May 21—a spiritual beginning of judgment—looks identical to nothing having happened at all.
On religion, God and atheism:
  • If you wouldn't accept something as evidence for another religion, don't accept it as evidence for yours.
  • Even some atheists think religion automatically deserves respect. Why shouldn't it be held to the same standard as other beliefs?
  • Vague "God hypotheses" yield no useful predictions; specific ones are easily falsified.
  • Religion offers you a cure to a disease you don't have.
  • Not only is "no atheists in foxholes" false, it'd be worthless even if true, because people are less rational in dangerous situations.
  • When people say God works in mysterious ways, they mean he works exactly as if he wasn't working at all.
  • It still amazes me that most just accept the existence of a parallel reality that overlays and interacts with the physical world.
  • I wonder how long it'd take for religion to die out with zero child indoctrination? My guess: 80% gone within 50 years, 95% gone in 100.
  • Isn't derisively declaring "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist" a tacit admission that faith is a bad thing?
  • "You're just rebelling against God!" Um... to the extent that I "rebel" against any other fictional villain, I guess.
  • I think maybe half of all religious belief would evaporate if everyone on earth had to learn about the actual psychology of said beliefs.
On evolution:
  • Creationists: if evolution violated the Second Law of Thermodynamics, then so would prenatal development.
  • I only believe in microdevelopment. Macrodevelopment from a zygote to an adult human is just a ridiculous theory!
  • "Evolution isn't science, it's not observable and repeatable!" Oh, okay. I guess we'll be throwing out forensics and archaeology too, then?
  • It would take a lot to falsify evolution—and that's fine, just as you wouldn't simply assume the theory of gravity was false if something fell up one day.
And on skepticism:
  • Possibly the most difficult mental feat is to calmly and impartially correct cherished beliefs in the face of evidence.
  • You can be biased and wrong or biased and right. Unbiased? There's no such thing.
  • Deciding if a treatment works based only on your experience is like testing it with no controls, no blinds, and a sample size of one.
  • Absolutely everyone is biased in how they take in new information. Those who don't acknowledge this can't even begin to counteract it.
  • Certainty and correctness have virtually no correlation. What's important is how you arrive at your conclusions.
  • The brain deludes itself constantly. For example: most people go their entire lives not realizing they can't see color in the periphery of their vision.
  • Confirmation bias acts like a semi-permeable membrane: it lets information supporting your conclusion into your mind, and keeps contrary information out.
  • On avoiding bias. Step 1: Gather all evidence. Step 2: Consider all evidence. Step 3: Draw conclusion. (Note: #3 comes last, not first.)
  • Don't think of dissenting arguments as obstacles to your conclusions; think of them as tools you can use to clarify your thinking.
  • Coincidences are deceptively common. In a group of 7 people, the chances that 2 will have birthdays within a week of each other is over 50%.
  • Asking empirical questions about supernatural phenomena is the quickest way to reveal their absurdity.
  • Correcting your mistakes is a greater virtue than being right the first time around.
While some people find tweeting to be a shallow form of communication, I think it's potentially very useful. It's not well-suited to fleshing out your ideas, but it forces you to take what you want to say and express it with efficiency and clarity. In the marketplace of ideas, the advantage often goes to those concepts that are can be quickly absorbed and understood. Since many people are averse to atheism and skepticism, this may help us get our ideas across before they close their minds.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Who's Really Being Persecuted?

Christians in America often talk about how they're being persecuted, how they're under attack from our culture on all sides. It's a bit hard for me to sympathize with them, given that the proportion of Americans who are Christian is 78%.

Generally when U.S. Christians say they're being "persecuted," they mean that someone disagrees with them, or that they're being portrayed in anything less than a positive light. But there's no indication that such opinions are widespread, or that they often lead to negative actions against Christians. So what group is most hated and distrusted? It's not Jews, Muslims, or even homosexuals.

It's atheists.

And unlike Christians, we have the data to back up this fact. Here are a few statistics that provide just a glimpse into the prejudice nonbelievers face:
  • 39.6% of Americans say that atheists "do not at all agree with my vision of American society." The second highest group was Muslims, with 26.3%.
  • 61% of Americans say they'd be less likely to vote for an atheist presidential candidate, and 53% would refuse outright even if they were well-qualified. In this regard, being an atheist is significantly worse than having an affair, being gay, or having never held elected office.
  • 47.6% of Americans say they would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist. The rate for marrying a Muslim was 33.6%; for marrying a conservative Christian it was 6.9%.
  • 58% of Americans don't believe it's possible to be a moral person without believing in God.
  • 61% of Americans say atheists have a negative impact on American culture. Coming in at a distant second with 39% were... Scientologists. Yes, atheists scored far worse than a litigious, psychiatry-hating, power-mad, space operatic cult.
  • 52% of Americans have a "mostly" or "very unfavorable" view of atheists. The figure for evangelical Christians: 18%.
Clearly American sentiment toward atheists is overwhelmingly negative, but we can also look specifically at how they're treated. For instance, the Boy Scouts accept members from all religions, but don't allow atheists or even agnostics as scouts or group leaders. Religious people often make the baseless claim that "there are no atheists in foxholes"—and people don't take too kindly when atheist veterans make themselves known. Former President George H.W. Bush allegedly said he didn't think atheists should be considered American citizens. This article includes plenty of other injustices against nonbelievers, some of them downright astonishing.

The most notable and recent example of an atheist being persecuted is the case of Damon Fowler. He's a former public high school student who objected to having a school-sanctioned Christian prayer at his graduation ceremony. He was threatened, his parents kicked him out of his home, and the school decided to give the middle finger to church-state separation and go right on ahead with that prayer. In response, atheists online raised over $30,000 dollars to help pay his college tuition.

Often times even government institutions assume a belief in God. In some areas, only religious clergy are allowed to perform marriages. Religion is sometimes given special treatment in the military. In courtrooms, people are asked to swear on a Bible to tell the truth "so help you God." According to the Pledge of Allegiance (since 1954), we're "one nation under God." And "In God We Trust" is printed on our very currency. Who is this "one nation," and who is this "we"? These terms ought to refer to every American citizen. Why don't they include atheists?

Despite the fact that atheists are the most widely disliked major group in America, there is a silver lining. First, the percentage of people claiming no religion jumped from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008. (This admittedly includes non-religious theists, but the percentage of self-identified atheists has similarly increased.) And second, research has shown that as the number of atheists in an area increases, religious prejudices against them in that area are reduced—and it's not just a correlation, but a causal link. As atheists slowly become more prominent, they will eventually be more accepted as well. It's only a matter of time.

Monday, June 13, 2011

My Current Dilemma

Alas, the time for wearing
funny hats is over. Now
real life kicks in.
Last Saturday I graduated from college, and now I enter a period of uncertainty. As uncomfortable as it makes me to say it, my life so far has been a sheltered one, and I don't feel at all prepared to bear the full brunt of the real world. I'm still not totally sure what I want to do as a career, and I still depend a great deal on my parents for both financial and emotional support. At the same time, though, I don't feel like I can spend much longer living under their roof while keeping my atheism a secret from them. While I can fake a Christian outlook as well as anyone, I consider my current double life to be both ethically dubious and emotionally draining.

My parents and sister are fairly fundamentalist evangelicals. On a 1 to 10 scale (1 being casual, non-churchgoing Christians, 10 being full-time missionaries or Pat Robertson) I'd rank them around 7 or 8. As far as I can tell, they're young earth creationists, biblical inerrantists, and believe the rapture may well occur in the next few decades. They're not universally extreme—they don't constantly attribute every event to God or Satan, for example, and they seem at least somewhat ambivalent on the gay marriage issue—but they're definitely more entrenched than the average American.

My sister is heavily indoctrinated via both church and school, and was even the head of her school's "Know Your Faith" club last year. She would put up the best apologetics of the three, but on the other hand, she's generally a rational and reasonable person when it comes to non-religious topics. My mom was raised Pentacostal and is pretty devout. I think she would be the most emotional about my deconversion, and I can't say I'm optimistic about her openness to reasoned arguments. My dad is a convert from Judaism, and he doesn't seem to know all that much about his new religion. Although I'm far more familiar with Christianity, he can debate a point well and tends to be stubborn when he thinks he's in the right.

One of my main problems is that I have virtually no concept of how my family will respond to the idea that a close loved one is an atheist—just about the most foreign, backwards and frightening kind of person you can be. I'm very close to all three of them, but I've never been had any really serious conflicts with them before. No failing grades, arrests or drunken parties. This is bound to come as an absolute shock for them.

So how will they react? I know they'll be upset no matter what, but aside from that, their potential reactions range from mild discomfort to constant attempts at reconversion to kicking me out and effectively disowning me. I don't think either the first or the third is very likely, but again, I've never been on bad terms with them, so I don't have much of a point of reference. I'm also not sure how to break the news to them. Should I sit them down all at once or individually? Should I do it in person, or would writing a letter be less aggravating? I've done some research, but I haven't found any solution that appears to be significantly more successful than the rest.

From what I've read, it sounds like I should hold off on laying out the specific reasons for my unbelief, as they may take those as a personal affront. It's hard, though, because I cringe every time I hear one of them make a derisive comment about evolution or parrot a Bible story without considering its morally repugnant implications. I can't stand the idea that the people I love—people who are otherwise intelligent, wonderful human beings—can display such ignorance in certain areas. I want to educate them, to enlighten them. I imagine a day when we look back and laugh at the things they used to believe, and it pains me that such a day will almost certainly never come.

I've been putting off the announcement of my atheism for a long time, and I'll probably continue to do so for at least a little longer. It's without a doubt the deepest struggle I've ever gone through. The fact that religion has the ability to cause such anguish and uncertainty even in nonbelievers, to potentially rip close-knit families apart, only causes me to oppose it all the more.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Death of Pascal's Wager

Pascal's Wager (see also these entries) holds an unusual position within theological discourse: it's not argument for the existence of God, but rather an argument specifically for belief in the existence of God. It was formulated by the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal, and it goes roughly as follows:
If you believe in God and you're right, you gain everything (heaven). If you disbelieve in God and you're wrong, you lose everything (hell). Therefore, any rational person should choose to believe in God.
Though it may seem like an effective argument, the Wager is in fact riddled with problems. The most basic of these is that we don't choose what we believe. Sure, some people do come to believe in God, but this happens as a result of some perceived evidence or a powerful wave of emotion, not through sheer force of will. I cannot simply choose to believe to believe in God any more than I can choose to believe that two and two make five. This one fact is enough to completely demolish the Wager as most people describe it.

Even if we could just choose to
believe one of these horses will
win, how would we know which
one to pick?
The next problem is that even if we could choose to believe, it's not at all clear which god we should choose. Pascal was arguing for the Catholic version, as though the choices were Catholicism and atheism. But what about the gods of Islam or Mormonism or any of the countless other mutually exclusive, infinite-stakes religions? We don't even have to limit ourselves to the gods proposed by major religions, so the possibilities are literally endless. How, then, could we even begin to choose?

Perhaps we can still salvage the Wager by reformulating it to take these issues into account. So we can't just choose to believe, and in any case there are limitless candidate gods to choose from. But the possibilities of infinite reward and punishment are still there, and it seems like we should respond to them somehow. Maybe we can instead reach the following conclusion, which I'll call Pascal's Imperative:
In order to seek infinite reward and avoid infinite punishment, a rational person should spend every possible moment of their lives seeking sufficient evidence to genuinely believe in whichever god is most likely.
This formulation looks very promising at first: it promotes genuine belief and doesn't create a false dilemma by referring to only one possible god. But the Imperative runs into serious problems of its own. One possibility is that the most likely god is one that sees the Imperative as cowardly, one who punishes us for living in constant fear of such an unlikely circumstance as hell. This god seems at least as likely to me as any of the standard ones—perhaps even more so.

Other objections have to do with the counterintuitive nature of infinity. First we have the strong atheist's objection: maybe we can say based on logical disproofs that the probability of a god existing is either zero or infinitesimal. This would cancel out the infinite reward and punishment; multiplying ∞ by 0 or 1/∞ means that our expected value for believing is undefined and thus unknowable. (Although we should consider meta-probabilities as well: it's quite possible that the strong atheist is mistaken about the soundness of his disproofs and so is underestimating the probability of a god.)

Second, there's the problem of mixed strategies. Suppose we follow the Imperative and end up believing in some god Q, and our expected value is infinite. Now, what if instead we flipped a coin, and only chose to follow the Imperative which would lead us to Q if it came up heads? One half times infinity is still infinity, so our expected value remains the same. And in fact, it turns out that we could basically do anything—even explicitly try not to believe in Q—and our expected value would still be infinite. So what's the point of following the Imperative at all?

Finally, there's a similar issue stemming from what's called the St. Petersberg paradox. Imagine that you have the option of participating in a game where you have a 1/2 chance of earning $2, a 1/4 chance of earning $4, a 1/8 chance of earning $8, and so on. Your expected return would be:
(1/2 x $2) + (1/4 x $4) + (1/8 x $8) + ... = $1 + $1 + $1 + ... = $∞
If it's always rational to maximize your expected return, you should be willing to pay any finite sum of money to participate in this game. But in reality, virtually no one would want to pay more than $30 or so. It seems that decision theory may break down somehow in extreme cases like these, and the same logic applies to Pascal's arguments.

Pascal's Wager fails on multiple levels, and it still fails even when we try to resurrect it in the form of Pascal's Imperative. As tempting as the logic may be, we're not justified in using the infinite incentives of heaven and hell to draw definite conclusions about how to approach theological questions.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

JI: Failed Prophets and Historical Methods

Last time I covered Ehrman's examination of the biblical and extrabiblical evidence for a historical Jesus, which turns out to be generally sparse and unreliable. Now I'll go over what he thinks we can know about him. He says that the parts of our sources that meet the criteria of biblical scholars are the parts that portray Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet rather than God incarnate. Jesus' mission was to get people to repent before the impending arrival the Son of Man, who would bring judgment upon the earth. Ehrman emphasizes that this is not a controversial idea, but rather one that is widely taught even in seminaries.

The earliest sources for Jesus, Mark and Q, contain numerous references to a coming judgment and the Kingdom of God. The examples Ehrman gives are Mark 8:38-9:1, Mark 13:24-30, Luke 12:39-40, Luke 17:24-30, and Matthew 13:40-43. These passages provide multiple attestation to the idea that Jesus spoke of imminent judgment. This message was common among prophets of the period—and most significantly, it was John the Baptist's message as recorded in Luke 3:7-9. Of course, judgment didn't come, meaning that Jesus' prediction failed like so many others before and afterward.

There are also some teachings that Ehrman thinks meet the criterion of dissimilarity, meaning they "cut against the grain" of what Christians would make up about Jesus:
  • In Mark 8:34-38, Jesus seems to distinguish himself from the Son of Man—something a Christian writer probably wouldn't have done.
  • In Matthew 19:23-30, Jesus says the disciples will sit on 12 thrones to judge Israel, evidently including Judas. Ehrman doesn't think the author would include this embarrassing mistake unless Jesus really said it.
  • In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus explicitly says that people would go to heaven or hell based on their deeds—directly contradicting the later doctrine of faith-based salvation.
Virtually everything Jesus does in the gospels carries undertones of his apocalyptic message. His moral teachings were meant to get people in line before judgment arrived. His baptism from John the Baptist was an endorsement of John's apocalyptic views. His alleged healings and exorcisms were meant as a precursor to the banishment of suffering in the Kingdom of God. His overturning of the money changer's tables (or "cleansing the Temple") was meant to symbolize that the Temple would be destroyed when the Son of Man came.

Ehrman ends the chapter with an explanation of why the historical method can't be used to determine whether a miracle such as Jesus' resurrection occurred, regardless of the circumstances:
"If historians can only establish what probably happened, and miracles by their definition are the least probable occurrences, then more or less by definition, historians cannot establish that miracles have ever probably happened."
He stresses that historians don't say a miracle didn't occur, but only that if one did, it could not be determined historically. Then he goes on to give a possible explanation for the alleged resurrection: perhaps the body was stolen by a few of Jesus' followers (only Matthew says guards were posted at the tomb), and some of the disciples had visions of Jesus appearing to them. An extremely unlikely scenario, he says, but one that is by definition far more likely than a supernatural alternative.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Slavery in the Bible

Although the Bible discusses slavery on many occasions, it never actually condemns the practice. Christians sometimes claim that slavery in the Bible was more like servanthood than what we think of as slavery, but this is simply untrue. Servants are not held against their will, they are not property, and they most certainly are not beaten:
"Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property." (Exodus 21:20-21, NIV)
Under Old Testament law, masters were allowed to beat their slaves. Viciously. Ruthlessly. The slave could be collapsed on the ground, covered in welts and bruises, moaning in agony... but it didn't matter, as long as they recovered within two days. And here's the kicker: as brutal and horrible as such a beating would be, the NIV (which sometimes tries to "soften" unpleasant passages) is actually the best-case translation. Many of the more literal translations instead say that if the slave remains alive for a day or two, there is no punishment. In other words, the master would get off scot-free as long as the slave clung to life for one or two days before dying.

Christians rationalize this system by claiming that God was "working within" an imperfect Israelite culture. They apparently forget that God is supposedly omnipotent and could easily have outlawed such a practice if he wanted to. He imposed hundreds of other laws in the Old Testament, whether the Israelites wanted them or not. He God could easily have done the same with the abolition of slavery, and certainly didn't need to let the extreme cruelty described in these passages go unpunished.

Christians also try to justify OT slavery by claiming that it was only a temporary condition, but this applied only to non-Israelites:
"And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have—from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. Moreover you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigor." (Leviticus 25:44-46)
And while Israelites can normally be enslaved for "only" 6 years, OT law also provides a loophole that lets Israelites enslave each other permanently. Exodus 21:2-6 says that if a master gives his slave a wife, who then bears that slave's children, the wife and kids belong to the master. If the slave wants to stay with them, he must become a slave for life. The master is essentially holding the slave's family for ransom, and all of this is blithely endorsed by the Bible.

Jesus also implicitly endorses slavery by discussing its cruelty without condemning it. He says in a parable: "And that servant who knew his master's will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes." (Luke 12:47) While the morality of slavery was the not the point of the parable, the fact that he let this cruelty pass without comment speaks volumes. And then there is this passage:
"Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God." (I Peter 2:18-20)
In other words, the slaves get no credit for enduring beatings if the punishment is "justified"—and regardless of how harsh their masters are, slaves should not try to escape from them. Imagine how slaves in the old South and elsewhere in the Americas felt when they heard this passage (and they probably would have; Christian slave owners often used the Bible to justify slavery). Many slaves who would otherwise have escaped probably continued to suffer due to the influence of a bronze-age book.

Bible says: If this slave is being beaten for his faults... well, that's just to be expected.
But either way, he should lay there submissively for the sake of pleasing God.
In summary, biblical slaves are nothing like servants. According to the Bible they are property, they can be held for life against their will, they can be violently beaten, and they are not to run away even when they are mistreated. This is not a matter of differing cultures, and apologetic claims to this effect would be hilarious if they weren't so despicable. Slavery is undeniably a grossly immoral practice, sanctioned and regulated by the Bible.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Common Sense Atheism

I've already mentioned a few atheism blogs that I'm a big fan of. Another of these Common Sense Atheism, written by Luke Muehlhauser.

There are a few things I especially like about CSA. Luke is always extremely rigorous and thorough, both when making his own arguments and picking apart opposing views. He's first and foremost a philosopher, which distinguishes his blog from many of the others out there that tend to focus more on science and current events. (He spends an enormous amount of time on the writings of thinker Eliezer Yudkowsky.) And while he covers a lot of pretty technical stuff, he generally explains it at a level that the lay person can understand.

Another thing I like is that Luke tends to be incredibly even-handed. If he thinks an atheist is wrong about something, he will not hesitate to say so. For example, he argues that some atheists are biased toward not wanting God to exist (although theists are in the same boat). He also says that atheists lose debates not only because they fail rhetorically, but because they make bad arguments and misunderstand the opposing position. I don't always agree with him, but I'd be hard pressed to accuse him of showing any significant bias.

I've been listening extensively to Luke's podcast Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, in which he interviews a variety of philosophers and apologists on topics such as theology, science and morality. It's highly informative, and the discussion is always polite even when the viewpoints get ridiculous. Luke is also an advocate of an secular system of objective morality called desire utilitarianism (or desirism), and I'm currently listening to his other podcast, Morality in the Real World, covering that topic.

Sometimes I feel like CSA focuses a bit too much on abstract topics that are somewhat far removed from atheism-related subjects. Overall, though, I appreciate Luke's thoughtfulness and his ability to delve deeply into theological arguments within the accessible blog and podcast formats.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Inerrant Word of George Lucas

People make mistakes. It's not surprising, then, that we find continuity errors, typos and bad information in the works of fiction they create. But fans don't like to admit that these errors exist. It ruins their suspension of disbelief, reminds them that the worlds they so admire don't ultimately align with reality. So what do they do? The less devoted among them simply accept the problems and enjoy their books and movies anyway. But the most fanatical enthusiasts force themselves to come up with an explanation—anything that will ease the cognitive dissonance and let them imagine their world as a cohesive whole.

Case in point: Star Wars. George Lucas, like other human beings, makes mistakes. Here's Han Solo describing his ship in Episode IV: A New Hope:
"You've never heard of the Millennium Falcon?...It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs."
Here's the problem: a parsec is equivalent to about 3.26 light years or 19 million miles; it's a measure of distance, not time. It makes no sense to say you got from point A to point B "in less than" a certain distance. Lucas has plainly made a mistake here. Perhaps he was drawn in by the science-fiction quality of the word, or interpreted the "sec" portion to mean "seconds." In any case, there's no getting around this. The Stars Wars canon has been shown to contain errors.

Or has it?

For the real Star Wars fanatics, this anomaly absolutely requires an in-universe explanation. Here's what they came up with. The route of the Kessel Run goes through the Maw, a dangerous cluster of black holes. Slower ships must take a more circuitous route to avoid being sucked in, but the Millennium Falcon is fast enough that it can veer closer to the black holes, thus reducing the overall distance needed to complete the journey.

It kind of makes sense, although it's still a stretch. The dialogue still sounds awkward, and there's just no reason not to express the duration of the journey in terms of time. The black holes may even have been invented just to resolve the error. For Star Wars fans, though, this explanation is good enough; they can continue accepting this universe as internally consistent. And that's fine: it's all in fun, and there's no harm in continuing to suspend disbelief as long as you understand that it's all pretend.

But what about biblical inerrancy, which unlike the previous example has serious effects on reality? Take the fervor for a believable Star Wars universe and multiply it by a thousand. That's the magnitude of motivation Christians have for maintaining the Bible's internal consistency. And like Star Wars fans, they will cling to any ad hoc explanation, any interpretation of language or history that will preserve their dogma. Often their excuses are significantly less convincing than the example above. But when you have such low standards for accepting explanations, inerrancy is no longer an impressive feat. You can apply the same principle to any work of fiction—be it Star Wars films or the Quran—and get the same result.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Christianity as a Meme

"Yo dawg, I herd you like DNA, so I
put DNA in your DNA so you can
replicate while you replicate."
OK, no more internet memes now.
Any idea or fact can be thought of as a meme: a unit of information that can be transferred from one mind to another. Like living organisms, memes can self-replicate (by transferring to other minds), mutate (by modifying the idea), and undergo natural selection (since memes that self-replicate well survive, while others die out). Memes are often compared to viruses, but this doesn't imply that they're false or in any way bad. However, a well-adapted meme will spread easily through a population regardless of whether or not it's true.

Religions often have many of the traits associated with extremely powerful memes, and Christianity is no exception. Below I'll explain what these traits are, and provide Bible references to show how they're encouraged within Christianity. I'll start with "vertical" meme transmission—from parent to child. Memes will of course spread better if parents produce more offspring for those memes to transfer to. And here's what Genesis 1:28 says:
"And God said to them [Adam and Eve], 'Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it."
Many Christians have taken this to heart and produced more offspring than they would have otherwise. An extreme example is the Quiverfull movement, in which having many children is strongly encouraged. Then there's the ability of parents to pass memes on to their children. Christianity is as good at this as any religion out there. Here's Proverbs 22:6:
"Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it."
There's nothing wrong with this sentiment per se, but within Christianity, "the way he should go" is always going to be Christianity. In fact, this was my school's Bible verse of the year in sixth grade. And it's almost always true that children "will not depart from" the religion they've been taught; I'm the exception rather than the rule.

Next up are the "horizontal" aspects of meme transmission—that is, from person to person outside of parent-child relationships. Proselytizing is an integral part of many branches of Christianity. Here's Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20:
"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you."
The Great Commission encapsulates horizontal meme transmission perfectly, and it takes a salient position at the end of both Matthew and Mark. And because it's such a prominent part of the worldview, missionaries are compelled to travel all over the world converting people to Christianity. Even my sister recently shared the gospel with strangers in our area as part of a school project.

Another horizontal trait is the ability to suppress other competing memes. There are plenty of extreme examples in the Old Testament in which the Israelites massacred unbelieving nations. Deuteronomy 20:17-18 provides a good summary:
"You shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you, lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God."
Of course Christians don't perform similar slaughters in modern times, but there are plenty of other historical examples, such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. And in Galatians 1:8, Paul expresses a highly diluted version of the same general sentiment:
"But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed."
Here Paul takes the groupthink, us-versus-them mentality to incredible extremes: absolutely any idea that doesn't fit with established dogma is to be shunned, and even the most trustworthy sources become "accursed."

An effective meme should also give people strong motivations for adopting the beliefs in question. And what motivations could possibly be more powerful than the promise of eternal salvation and the threat of eternal damnation? This is Romans 6:23, a verse that Christians regularly use when trying to convert people:
"For the wages of sin is death [i.e. hell], but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
It's hard to pass up a gift like that. Christianity is so deeply imbued with incentives that even I, as an atheist, occasionally feel drawn to it. Even though I know full well how unlikely it is that Christianity is true, the speck of possibility that I could be tortured forever is enough to send a chill down my spine and make me think, "Maybe I should look at this one more time, just to be sure." The pure, raw psychological power this meme wields is downright unfair; it games the system by playing with infinities.

Going hand in hand with this is the characteristic of giving the meme carriers a desire to continue holding that meme as long as possible. The Bible continually emphasizes perseverance in belief as a great virtue. Here are Proverbs 3:5-6 and 1 Corinthians 15:58:
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths."
"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord."
With a mentality like that, how could a sincere believer possibly be persuaded away from their position? The only way to even begin questioning the Christian worldview is to "lean on your own understanding." By cordoning off rational inquiry, the meme's fate is completely secure.

Finally, there's the one trait I don't have a verse for: cultural pervasiveness. While this didn't apply to early Christianity in the Roman Empire, it certainly applies to modern-day America. About 78% of Americans are Christians. Countless biblical phrases crop up in everyday language: "Pearls before swine," "my cross to bear," "an eye for an eye," "faith can move mountains." Even many of our names come from the Bible: My first and middle names are Timothy Joseph, and there are even people named Jesus and Christian. But most importantly, the Christian message of redemption and salvation is ubiquitous in western culture (the Christ figure character trope is a good example). Thus, the meme makes more sense to us and can keep its stranglehold far better than if we were being presented with it anew.

I should emphasize again that Christianity's extraordinary capacity for self-replication does not in itself imply that Christianity is false. However, it does offer a perfectly adequate explanation for why so many people believe in it, even in the face of strong evidence. In contrast, all religious people can offer as to why atheists don't believe are unsupported accusations of denial and rebellion against God. The belief we observe in the world makes sense whether or not those beliefs are true. But for the unbelief we see, the best explanation is that despite all the protests to the contrary, we really don't have sufficient evidence for God.