Don’t say “Miracles are impossible” May 3, 2013Posted by ubi dubium in Rants, Responses.
Tags: atheism, bible, christianity, Cognitive Biases, debate, miracles, prayer, religion
Every so often, I hear a discussion or debate between a believer and a non-believer, and the non-believer will begin going on about how the miracles claimed by religion are physically impossible. How people can’t walk on water because there isn’t enough surface tension, how people can’t really turn into pillars of salt, how water can’t become wine, how people can’t actually come back from the dead, etc. Even JT, in what was otherwise a very good debate, recently used this argument.
I feel a need to point out that this is a very weak argument against theism, and that it’s an ineffective tactic for use in a debate. This is because the believer comes back with “Well DUH! That’s how god shows his power. If it was physically possible, then it wouldn’t be much of a miracle, would it?” Rather like the way a child believes in Santa, even when you point out that he really could not fit down the chimney. “It’s magic, silly.” If someone believes in magic, then no amount of pointing out how impossible it all is will change their minds.
Now I do think bringing up miracles can be a useful tactic in a debate or a discussion. But not in the context of “they’re impossible”. So here’s my version of a more useful discussion of “miracles”.
First, I think we should define exactly what we mean by a “miracle”. Some people talk about the victory of a sports team as a miracle, or the spontaneous remission of cancer, or their finding just the parking space they need right when they need it. These events might be very unlikely, but there is enough of a chance that these things would occur that we would expect them to happen every once in awhile. When I’m discussing miracles with believers, I want to rule out these unlikely but possible things as miracles. If we take a group of 100 people who have a cancer that has a 99% fatality rate and have all the members of a church pray for those people and one survives, that’s not a miracle. That’s the statistically expected result. That one person might feel like they were granted a personal miracle, but the 99 other dead people certainly weren’t.
When I’m discussing miracles, I want to discuss those claimed events that would be in complete violation of all observed natural law. Religions certainly have enough of those in their ancient books. A good example of this would be the story of the sun stopping in the sky during a battle. In reality, if this happened, that would mean the earth had stopped rotating, and then started up again later. I have not run the numbers, but I think that the amount of energy that would be required to overcome the earth’s angular momentum, and then to put it back again, would cause catastrophic damage to everything on the surface and maybe melt the earth’s crust. This is the kind of miracle I would want to discuss, literally impossible things, the sort of event where the statistically expected number of times we should ever expect it to happen on its own is “none”.
Biblegod is described as an all-powerful being who is able to do things that violate the known laws of the universe. He is protrayed as making specific local violations happen, in order to establish his existence or power, reward the faithful, or punish evildoers. The OT in particular is full of this sort of miracle. Why don’t they happen any more?
There are several possible answers I commonly hear on this:
1. They still happen, but we aren’t looking in the right way.
2. They don’t happen anymore because Jesus.
3. They don’t happen anymore because Mysterious Ways™
4. They never happened because the bible is a big book of tall tales.
So, my responses to these:
1. ” We aren’t looking in the right way.” With our modern advances, we have many more ways of observing the universe than ever before, and also more ways of communicating those results to each other. If there were genuine supernatual events happening, someone would have measured them by now, written a paper and won a Nobel. Or at least won the $1,000,000 from the JREF. But so far, the closer and more accurately we look, the more the miracles are just not showing up. We study intercessory prayer and discover that it does nothing. Amputees are never healed. People who say god talks to them are never given any accurate information that they could not hve gotten another way. I’ve actually heard believers say things like “Well, if you don’t believe, then you won’t see the miracle. You have to believe first.” There’s a name for making up your mind first, then looking for the evidence to back it up afterward: Confirmation Bias.
2. “They don’t happen anymore because Jesus.” The premise is that god doesn’t need any of that OT stuff anymore because there’s a “new covenant” and now all that’s needed is a personal relationship with Jesus. No more animal sacrifices, no big showy miracles, bacon is OK now, tattoos are allowed, all of that stuff that was so vital to keep biblegod from smiting you is now not needed anymore (although somehow homosexuality is still bad, go figure). I have a couple of problems with this. First, the NT also has miracles. People had Jesus right in front of them, and they still needed miracles, and even then most of those people did not drop everything to become followers. Thomas asked for evidence before he could believe, and he got it. Later the apostles were supposedly also working miracles to demonstrate the truth of their message. So “not needing miracles” anymore does not fly.
My other problem with this is that biblegod is supposed to be a perfect being. So, a perfect being who used to show off all the time but now doesn’t? A perfect being who used to throw temper tantrums if people were wicked, flooding the earth or swallowing them up with an earthquake or a fish, but now he’s apparently had anger management lessons? Why would a perfect being change? Why would a perfect being ever need to change the rules? He used to be all jealous and badass and smitey, and insisted on strange pointless rituals and demanded the smell of barbeque, and now he just wants to live in your heart and help you find your keys? This makes no sense at all.
3. They don’t happen anymore because Mysterious Ways™. “God has a plan and we can’t understand it. He’s just so far above us that we couldn’t begin to comprehend him. We just have to trust.” This one is a cop-out. If biblegod is so frikkin mysterious, then how do you claim to understand anything about him at all? Yet preachers get up and say: “I know what god wants, he wants you to think a and b and c, never think d or e or f, and you must hate x and y and z because he does. I assure you that if you believe exactly what I tell you this book says, you’ll be doing exactly what he wants. He loves guns, he hates gays, he will rain down blessings if you say this particular prayer, and he wants you to give me at least 10% of your money.” This version of god is not mysterious in the least! If he’s so mysterious you can’t understand him, then he’s mysterious enough that the preachers don’t understand him and the prophets didn’t understand him either. If you use “Mysterious Ways™” to explain theological problems away, then you need to stop trying to convince people that you understand anything about your god.
4. They never happened because the bible is a big book of tall tales. People tell impressive stories around the campfire, later other people write them down, and then years later other people think all that stuff was supposed to be real. Yeah. This is the only one of the options that really makes any consistent sense.
Does anybody else have any other explanations they’ve heard from believers for the absense of modern miracles?
A different kind of marriage equality April 13, 2013Posted by ubi dubium in Rants.
Tags: atheism, clergy, law, marriage, marriage equality, religion
So, with all the progress being made toward removing the barriers on equal access to getting married, there’s a different sort of barrier that’s mostly still up: restrictions on who’s allowed to conduct marriage ceremonies.
In general, clergy members can get approval to do marriages. In Virginia, if they are a member of an in-state church, they have to apply, and fill out all kinds of details about their education, classes, church structure, etc., and then they are approved to do as many weddings as they want. Here’s an application for this from Fairfax County, Virginia, website.
It includes questions like this:
2. Describe in detail your credentials for being a minister (i.e. schooling, degree, seminars, etc.)
4. How do your responsibilities differ from those of the members of the organization?
5. List the privileges and benefitsderived from your ordination (i.e. perform baptisms, authority to preside over services, etc.)
Clergy from out-of-state churches can apply for a one-time approval for a particular wedding.
So what about religions with no ordained clergy? And how about all of us non-religious people?
Like out-of-state clergy, one-time approval for a particular wedding is available, BUT the celebrant has to also pony up a $500.00 deposit. What???
How is this fair? If you bring in a clergyman from some minor religion from somewhere far away, they pay no deposit, but if you have no official clergy there’s a $500 deposit??? I’ve lived in the state practically my whole life, have been a notary for many years, and yet they would force me to put down a deposit because they would not trust me to send the paperwork in afterwards. But somebody who’s “clergy”, like Fred Phelps, they’d trust him?
Recently, the Sikhs, who have no ordained clergy, sued over this very issue, and I’m glad to say that they won:
But that still leaves the unaffiliated out in the cold. It’s apparently not possible, at least in this county, for us to get a permanent authorization to celebrate marriages. So my spouse, who is already a judicial officer for the state, could not get a standing authorization for celebrating weddings and would have to pay a deposit every time.
I obviously have a problem with this. Part of my problem is that it’s getting the state too involved in deciding on what counts as a religion and what doesn’t. (I’m an ordained Pastafarian minister, and perhaps someday I’ll test out seeing if the state will approve me as clergy.) But my biggest problem is that there really isn’t a need to single out clergy as more qualified than anybody else to conduct weddings. There could just be one procedure for qualifying as a permanent celebrant, including a test on the paperwork rules, and clergy would have no special preference on this. All temporary celebrants would post bond, clergy or not. That would be fair to everybody, and no more discrimination questions or lawsuits.
(Yes, I know this is a small issue compared to getting gay marriage legalized. But it’s one example of the tremendous privilege that religion has in the US today.)
Better Friday! March 29, 2013Posted by ubi dubium in Events, Humor, Rants.
Tags: atheism, Catholic, Christian, Friday, FSM, Holidays, Pastafarian, religion
Well here it is “Good Friday”, the day that xians are supposed to spend moping around all day being so very very sad that Jesus had been killed. As a churchgoing kid, I never understood this idea or the name. If this sacrifice was supposed to be god’s plan for saving everybody, why were people acting so sad about it? And if everybody is so miserable, why is the name “Good Friday”? What’s so “good” about it?
Well I’d just like to remind all you christians out there that for us Pastafarians, today is also our High Holiday. Yes, more important than Ramendan, a bigger deal than Pastover, more significant even than Talk Like a Pirate Day. Today is the highest of all Holidays, FRIDAY!
Yes, Friday. Every single Friday. And you should celebrate it by goofing off, eating pasta, not giving up anything, and doing things you enjoy with the people you love. Services will be held at the Olive Garden, with an all-you-can-eat communion that beats the heck out of anything the Catholics are serving. You don’t even have to be Pastafarian to celebrate Friday. Just focus on living this one life that we know we have with kindness and love and passion, instead of focusing all your time and energy placating a god who might not be paying attention, or might not even exist.
Conclave evidence March 16, 2013Posted by ubi dubium in Humor, Rants.
Tags: atheism, Catholic, challenge, evidence, pope, pope resigns, religion, Vatican
Religious people often accuse atheists of being “closed-minded”, claiming that we wouldn’t believe in their god even if they showed us evidence. I’d be perfectly willing to reconsider my position on the subject, if any solid evidence were ever provided. The problem is that they have an entirely different standard of what evidence is, and how much evidence is enough. Their god-claim is an extraordinary claim, and as such requires extraordinary evidence to support it. Their usual routine of “Look at how complicated the world is, I have a holy book, and I feel it in my heart” just doesn’t fly with me. But there are things that I would consider as good evidence pointing to a god, if they ever happened. But they don’t.
The recent conclave was a great opportunity for a god to give the whole world evidence that he actually existed. We had a bunch of powerful men running a corrupt institution, who were meeting to select a new leader who will protect and defend that institution from all outside threats. If there were no god, what we would expect is that these hard-liners will select a hard-liner from among their number who will continue running things just as they have always been. (Which is what always happens, and did again this time). But if these men actually had the kind of close link to a god that they claim they do, and if they were actually trying to listen to and obey the will of that god, then this would have been a great time for a god to produce an entirely unexpected result, and get the attention of the whole world.
Scenario One: Cardinals emerge from conclave: “We’ve had a clear message from God that none of us is qualified to be Pope. We’re all too involved in scandals and we’re totaly corrupt. The next pope is to be chosen by popuar election, and present clergy are ineligible to run.” This woud get my attention.
Scenario Two: Cardinals emerge from conclave: “God told us not to elect any more Popes. We’ve all been ordered by God to sell the Vatican, give all the money to the Red Cross and Planned Parenthood, disband the College of Cardinals, and then retire to a monastery.” This would really get my attention. I might start to think there actually wassomething to this god stuff if something like that happened.
White smoke from the chimney (because if the Cardinals were actually guided by god, there would never be a need for any other kind).
Cardinals emerge onto the balcony and one steps to the mike.
“Erm, hello. Yes…well…the thing is… Um…well, we were expecting that God would lead us to elect a Cardinal as our next pope. But we all had this vision first thing this morning. Every one of us. And then the jam in our breakfast oatmeal kept swirling around to form a name. There was a face on each of our pancakes too, and it was all the same face, a face we recognized. We thought, ‘This can’t be right! We’re supposed to select a Cardinal! We’re supposed to select a clergyman! We’re supposed to pick a Catholic! We’re supposed to pick a man!’
So we took our ballots, and we each wrote down the name of a Cardinal, and the ink actually moved on the page to spell a different name. Every ballot! Cardinal Dolan here even filmed it on his cellphone, just to be sure. We’l post it on YouTube later today.
Here’s your new Pope. Chosen by God, this was totally not our idea:
Habetis Papam March 13, 2013Posted by ubi dubium in Rants.
Tags: Catholic, pope, pope resigns, religion
So, a 76-year-old Argentinian homophobe who probably collaborated with a brutal military Junta is pope. yay.
Good things – he’s not European. If the Vatican is ever going to adapt to the future, they’ve got to be willing to change things. So I guess this is a change.
He prefers living simply and supporting the poor. Good there. Maybe he can sell off some of the Vatican’s enormous wealth and do something better with the money. I’m not holding my breath, but I’ll be pleased if it happens.
He’s already pretty old. So the Vatican will probably have another shot at getting this right soon. (Remember John Paul I? Me neither.)
Except, no they won’t. They’ll never appoint a true reformer, because they always pick one of their own. The vatican is a corrupt organization, answerable to no-one. The rich and powerful heads of this organization, who also answer to no-one, have gathered and selected one of their own number to be capo. This man will appoint the new cardinals, and the circle of corruption will go round and round. Maintenance of their hierarchy and power is always going to be put before the wellbeing of their “flock”. None of them are ever really held accountable to the catholic people who provide their power base. The only recourse that catholics actually have is to walk out of their churches and stop giving them money. If they vote with their purse-strings, the hierarchy will have to listen. But with a billion catholics in the world, it will take a lot of independent-minded catholics to make much of a difference, and we know how much the church encourages independent thought.
In other news, apparenlty the Vatican recently bought Europe’s larget gay bathhouse! (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/as-cardinals-gather-to-elect-pope-catholic-officials-break-into-a-sweat-over-news-that-priests-share-23m-building-with-huge-gay-sauna-8529670.html) The building apparenlty also houses 19 Vatican apartments, including the 12-room apartment of Cardinal Ivan Dias. What a convenient location! I wonder what other fun stories are going to crop up next. I’m waiting for the thing to come out that’s so bad that Ratzinger resigned to avoid dealing with it.
Thoughts on Madame Bovary March 12, 2013Posted by ubi dubium in Books, Responses.
Tags: books, Madame Bovary
Spoiler alert, of course.
So, continuing my project of listening to classic books on CD during my commute, I’ve just finished Madame Bovary. And I’m glad to be done with it, actually. I found this one of those annoying books where I just want to shake the main character and yell “stop it!” Kind of like most of the Anne Tyler books that I’ve read.
Actually, the Veggie version, Madame Blueberry, isn’t all that far off. It needs just a few small additions to match perfectly. So add in that Madame Blueberry was having an affair with Archibald Asparagus and also Scallion #2, the lawyers from the Stuff Mart show up to repossess all her stuff, and then finally she throws herself in a juicer, and it would be pretty much the same.
Emma Bovary is selfish, useless, oblivious, and did I mention selfish? Yet I think I see the deeper levels that the author was getting at. Emma gets into such trouble because she’s bored. Bored, bored, BORED! And why is she bored? Because she literally has nothing useful to do, no responsibilities, no way to establish a purpose for her life.
She’s the wife of a country doctor in the middle of the 1800′s. As such, she’s socially not lower class. As such the expectation is that she will have a reasonably nice house, a housemaid to take care of all the cooking and chores, and a nurse to take care of raising her daughter. But as her husband is not a landowner or merchant or other wealthy man, she has only just enough money to support this lifestyle, with nothing left over. She’s been raised with the education expected of someone of this social standing – piano, embroidery, drawing. But since she’s reasonably intelligent, just sitting around the house all day looking decorative, and doing the things available to fill her time leaves her bored out of her mind. So she takes up reading romance novels, and longs for the life of excitement and adventure they hold, and moons around the house all day feeling sorry for herself.
Her husband adores her, and sees none of her faults, but is probably the least exciting man in the world. (He reminds me of Roxie’s long-suffering husband in Chicago.) He’d do anything he could to improve her life, but she won’t ever tell him what’s wrong (which is why I wanted to grab her and yell “snap out of it!”). So, worried about her nerves, he moves her to a quieter village because he thinks it will make her feel better. Wrong answer! She winds up having a couple of affairs, spending far too much money on luxury furnishings, racking up enormous debts, hiding it all from her husband, and then taking poison when she can no longer hide what she’s done.
She’s so self-centered that I was pleased when the author got around to polishing her off. But she was also trapped, with almost no options available to her that would befit a “respectable lady”. If she were lower class, she would not have been able to have servants, and would have been keeping house and raising her child herself, which would have eliminated at least some of the boredom. With her actual income, but minus the social expectation that fine ladies must have servants, she could have taken on more of the household work herself (if she could figure out how), spent less on servants, and used the money saved to go to the theater, buy a little of the nice “stuff” she coveted, and generally add a little more excitement to her life. More money would have allowed her to throw fancy parties, travel, and generally live the life of excitement she wanted, but there was no prospect that her husband would ever produce that kind of income. She had no useful skills such that she could pursue a career to generate her own income, and even if she had it would probably have been just as scandalous for her to do that.
So I see this book as an indictment of a social system that relegates women of Emma’s social status into being ornamental and idle and completely useless. I’m glad to have read it, but I can’t say I really enjoyed reading it.
Mission Impapable? February 25, 2013Posted by ubi dubium in Humor, Responses, Uncategorized.
Tags: Catholic, pope, pope resigns, silliness
Pope Benedict’s decision to live in the Vatican after he resigns will provide him with security and privacy. It will also offer legal protection from any attempt to prosecute him in connection with sexual abuse cases around the world, Church sources and legal experts say.
“His continued presence in the Vatican is necessary, otherwise he might be defenseless. He wouldn’t have his immunity, his prerogatives, his security, if he is anywhere else,” said one Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Reeeaaalllyyy……? Here’s what I’d love to see:
Good morning Mr. Phelps….
The man in the photo is Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, once the head of a major international criminal syndicate. There are charges for conspiracy, racketeering and money laundering pending against him in several countries. Now retired, he has gone into hiding in a small principality within Italy that has no extradition treaties with any other country.
Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to get Ratzinger to voluntarily step outside the boundaries of this country , so that he can be arrested by the Italian authorities and extradited to stand trial. As always, if any of your team is caught, killed, or excommunicated, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-desctruct in ten seconds. Good luck Jim.
Translating the Pope February 14, 2013Posted by ubi dubium in Rants, Responses.
Tags: Catholic, pope, pope resigns
Speaking on Ash Wednesday, his popeness said this:
“ …so that we can reveal the face of the Church and how this face is, at times, disfigured. I am thinking in particular of the sins against the unity of the Church, of the divisions in the body of the Church. Living Lent in a more intense and evident ecclesial communion, overcoming individualism and rivalry is a humble and precious sign for those who have distanced themselves from the faith or who are indifferent.” http://catholicexchange.com/the-last-homily/
Translation from religion-ese into actual language:
“You people are having your own thoughts!! STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!!! You’re only supposed to think what I tell you to think. You’re making us look bad!!!! (And by “us”, of course I mean “me”.) No more thinking, and I mean it!”
(And the expected response in 3…2….1…..)
The Pope Quits? February 11, 2013Posted by ubi dubium in Rants.
Tags: Catholic, pope, pope resigns, sith lord
Seriously, he’s stepping down?
Who does he think he is – Sarah Palin?
Hey Joe, did you forget the job contract on this? You get to be “king” of the Vatican, live in unimaginable weath and splendor, have enormous power, order around a billion catholics, and have people grovel at your feet all day. But the catch is that you have to do this until you die, no matter how sick you get. Seems a fair trade-off. If you can condemn millions of Africans to an agonizing death from AIDS by telling them not to use condoms, then you can just stay on the job from your sickbed!
The last pope to step down was in 1415, and he did it to end a schism, not because he didn’t feel like being pope anymore.
So what’s actually going on here? Can it be that the bad press has finally gotten too overwhelming? It’s becoming increasingly obvious that he knew about all the pedophilia and other abuses going on in the Catholic Empire, and has for a really long time. It’s apparent he was deeply complicit in the cover-up. As I saw on a comment this morning, he’s not the Sarah Palin of religion, he’s Richard Nixon.
But what I think actually is going on is his last grab at power. Since a pope serves until he dies, the one thing he never gets to do is choose his own successor. Even if he were to let the cardinals know his preference for a successor, he’s gone by the time they choose. So there might be a chance that they would actually pick a decent person who was more concerned with the wellbeing of humans than in the power and public image of the catholic bureaucracy. (A small chance, but a chance). If Ratzo hangs around he gets an opportunity to push the cardinals to select another Sith Lord and keep the church securely on the Dark Side of the Force.
Will he be allowed to attend the conclave? I hope not, but there’s really no precedent for this, so this will be interesting to watch.
Project Runway – the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action January 28, 2013Posted by ubi dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: Cognitive Biases, Dunning-Kruger, fail, overconfidence, project runway
I just caught the first episode of Season 11 of Project Runway, and we started right off with a great example of a Cognitive Bias; The Dunning-Kruger Effect.
This is one of the scarier biases out there, upsetting enough that I don’t do a class on it when I’m teaching kids about Brain Glitches.
Basically the bias is this: Less qualified people tend to be overconfident in their abilities. More highly qualified people will underestimate their abilities. Studies have shown that, when measuring expertise, people in the lowest quartile:
- tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
- fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
- recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill
When we need help with some area that we are unfamiliar with, we naturally like to feel the person we are relying on is capable, we need that reassurance. But if that person says ”Oh, yes, I’m a total expert in this field, you can trust that I can do this!” then it’s less likely that they really know what they are talking about.
So now to the first episode of Project Runway. I’m something of a Project Runway geek, I must admit. As much as I dislike all the reality show gossip and trashtalking they include, I really enjoy seeing the challenges thrown at the designers, and the different ways these very creative people approach these challenges. (I even sent in a suggestion for a challenge once, the mother-daughter challenge, which they used almost verbatim!)
The challenge this time was to create a garment inspired by New York, which is a very wide-open challenge, and lets the designers really show the judges their skill and design aesthetic. They had one full day to work, and then a couple of hours the next day to finish up. One designer, Emily (from Falls Church) in her “talking to the camera interviews” said, essentially, “The other designers can just pack up and go home now. I may be only 24, but I’m really good and super talented and I’m going to win this”. Uh-oh, you can see what’s coming.
Jump ahead to one hour before the end of the first day. Emily has only a partial muslin pattern made for her outfit, and nothing of the actual garment even begun. By PR standards, this is a major warning of a trainwreck to come. The next morning she quickly puts together some sort of organza bib thing using hot-glue, and one of her teammates kindly whips up a quick mini skirt so her model will not walk the runway naked.
The judges quite correctly call this one of the most unfinished garments ever to be shown on the show. Emily is out, and justly so.
So what happened here? From her portfolio, Emily obviously has some skill and talent. So perhaps she has no time management ability? Or perhaps she has never tried to make a garment under the time pressure of this kind of challenge? Does being on camera make her nervous enough to choke?
I thought about what I would do if I were going to go on PR myself. (My sewing skills are not actually up to that standard, so that’s not really under consideration. It takes me a whole evening just to make a simple pair of pants from a pattern.) I’d certainly spend at least a day at Mood beforehand, going through every shelf of fabric and making mental notes about what fabrics they have where, so I could find exactly what I want right away. I’d study all the recent shows from the major fashion designers so as not to inadvertantly copy them. And I would not even consider trying out for the show unless I had tested my ability to be handed a challenge and make an original garment in a single day. If I couldn’t do that, in a room full of distractions, I’d have no business going on this kind of show.
Some seasons it seems like the producers have deliberately chosen to include an unqualified designer just so they can be out first. Somebody really interesting, or totally off the wall, or a complete space cadet, but with little enough sewing skill that they are likely to crash and burn right away, so none of the really talented competitors have to be the first one out. I don’t think that’s the case here, though. I think she just overestimated her ability, and that’s something sadly happens all the time.
The person who says “Trust me, I’m an expert” is often the last person you should trust.