Tags: apologetics, atheism, Cognitive Biases, critical thinking, Daniel Dennett, DarkMatter2525, god, horses, MLP FIM, My Little Pony, ontological argument, Pinkie Pie, religion, use-mention error
I remember reading a discussion from Daniel Dennett some time ago about the idea of a Use-Mention Error. I don’t remember where that was, or I’d link to it. This idea has been whirling around in my mind lately because of several discussions I’ve seen. The most recent was a lengthy attempt by a theist caller to philosophize a god into existence on a recent episode of The Atheist Experience, but I’ve also read many theist comments about how, even though some particular dogma doesn’t make sense, they still have a close personal relationship with god in their hearts. And I just want to scream “BAD ARGUMENT!” at them.
The easiest version of the Use-Mention Error is when somebody confuses a thing with the term for that thing. Daniel Dennett’s example goes something like this: (more…)
Misspelled Memes December 6, 2014Posted by ubi dubium in Humor.
Tags: atheism, blond, christianity, dinosaurs, faith, meme, religion
Some years ago (about seven, I think) Hemant had a humor contest on Friendly Atheist. The challenge: create a Demotivational style poster based on a slight misspelling of a religious term. I took a stab at it and got a couple of winners in the results, which was cool. I realized the other day that I hadn’t posted them on this blog yet, so here they are:
(Since I’m blond myself, I think I can get away with the blond joke.)
Pie! November 27, 2014Posted by ubi dubium in Wow.
Tags: apple pie, pie
Sometimes I get discouraged, reading all those great bloggers out there and seeing all their accomplishments, advanced degrees, and professional experience, and I don’t have any of that. I don’t teach science to kids, I haven’t made a great discovery, I’m not an experienced speaker, sometimes my life seems pretty ho-hum.
But last night I made this, and it came out perfectly, and I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself right now.
It sliced well too, and we served it with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. Needless to say, it’s gone now.
Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Conspicuous Consumption November 17, 2014Posted by ubi dubium in Rants.
Tags: Angry Jesus, atheism, Basilica, Catholic, church, Mosaic, religion, Shrine, stupidity
I spent part of this past weekend at an event at, get ready for it, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. No expense has been spared in making this the most ostentatious show of piety possible. This is one of the largest churches in the world, built in a Byzantine style with small windows and lots of domes, and the interior is completely covered with expensive polished marble, and mosaics.
And not just your average mosaics, either. For a lot of them, the background is done in clear glass backed by gold leaf, so that it glitters. The place full of nooks and chapels, each of which has some statue or icon or glittery mosaic, and the open spaces are likewise filled with statuary and memorials. (And places where you can pay to light candles. In the center of the basement is a big rack where they ask $4.00 to light one candle.) There are walls full of engraved names of the people who donated money to build this thing.
The people around me were Oooohing and Aaaahing about how pretty and impressive this place was. Since I was a guest there, I did a good job of holding my tongue, but I just wanted to scream. Or maybe hurl. Or both. Here’s a religion where the founder made a point of being humble, told his followers not to make a show of public prayer, and to sell all they had and give it to the poor, and this is what they build? A monument to the wealth of their bureaucracy? All the time I was there, I kept thinking “They could have spent a tenth as much, built themselves a really nice church, and then spent the rest on low-income housing. Or feeding the poor. Or buying a mosquito net for every person in Africa, with enough left over to, I don’t know, cure AIDS or something.”
Right at the front of the church is a huge mosaic of Jesus. Not the normal catholic Dead Jesus on a Stick. Not comforting Good Shepherd Jesus welcoming believers into paradise. No, this is Angry Nordic Flaming Jesus! This is what stares down on the congregation:
That mosaic can best be appreciated in context – here’s what it looks like from the seats:
Now my general opinion of gods is that they are projections of the human ego, ourselves – just bigger and more powerful. That’s why they have wants and needs, and why their opinions line up so neatly with what their followers already think. Then we build big pointy temples to them to glorify our egos, often as if we’re compensating for something. The men (and I’m pretty sure it’s men in this case) who built this monstrosity certainly seem to have a lot to compensate for!
There was one mosaic that I didn’t completely hate. I think they meant it as “The creation of the world”, or some such, but I’m going to call it “The FSM Drops the First Two Strippers into the Beer Volcano.”
Jared Diamond on Religion October 25, 2014Posted by ubi dubium in Books, Brain Glitches, Responses.
Tags: atheism, books, christianity, Commitment Badges, Jared Diamond, religion, traditional societies, tribal societies
You may be familiar with author Jared Diamond from his famous work Guns, Germs and Steel. I love that book, and I think it’s a classic. Well right now I’m reading his more recent book The World Until Yesterday – What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? In this book he looks at existing hunter-gatherer and tribal societies in some depth, with chapters on different aspects of how they function. He then compares them to our modern culture, to see if there are any useful lessons we can take from them about how we might do those same things better. He analyzes topics like child-rearing, violence, treatment of the elderly and language.
But what surprised me was the chapter on religion. Hidden toward the back of this book is probably the clearest and most concise discussion of the phenomena of religion that I have ever read, and I’ve read quite a lot on this subject. Since this chapter was so good, I’d like to try to present a summary of it here. (Some of this summary is passages lifted directly from the book, some is my attempts to summarize and bring in ideas he presented in other chapters.)
He starts with the puzzle of religion, that all traditional societies appear to have it, or something like it, even though it sometimes incurs a large opportunity cost of time and resources that could have been devoted to other activities. He posits that there must be some advantage to these societies in having religion, otherwise they would have been out-competed by other groups who didn’t have it. So there must be some kind of useful function to religion, which is what he spends most of the chapter looking at.
But first, there is the initial problem of defining “religion”. He gives a list of 16 attempts at a brief definition, from dictionaries, Wikipedia, and various authors, none of which really agree and none of which seem to really do the job. He then proceeds to do a much better job of defining religion by listing five attributes religions commonly have:
- Belief in the supernatural
- Shared membership in a social movement
- Costly and visible proofs of commitment
- Practical rules for one’s behavior (“morality”)
- Belief that supernatural beings and forces can be induced to intervene in worldly life.
Not everything that we would classify as a religion has every one of these, but they all definitely must have most of these, and must have the second item to qualify. One guy believing stuff all by himself does not make a religion. (I would have put that attribute first on the list!)
Here are the seven functions he identifies religion as having:
- Defusing anxiety
- Providing comfort
- Standardized organization
- Political obedience
- Codes of behavior towards strangers
- Justifying wars
Before I continue with this chapter summary, I need to backtrack a little. In this book Diamond discusses four different types of human societies, and I need to define those briefly for the rest of the discussion to make sense.
- Bands: Groups of a few dozen individuals, usually one or a few extended families. Often nomadic, hunter gatherers, or perhaps garden farmers. Low population densities. Everyone knows everyone else, no formal leadership. No formal political leadership or economic specialization. Egalitarian.
- Tribes: Groups of up to a few hundred members, but still small enough that everyone knows everyone else. Usually farmers or herders, often sedentary. Leadership is relatively informal, there may be a “big man” who functions as a weak leader, leading by persuasion and personality. Relatively egalitarian, only weak economic specialization.
- Chiefdoms: Groups of up to several thousand, too many for everyone to know everyone else. Formal leaders assisted by non-specialized all-purpose officials. Economic specialization. Institutionalized inequality. Redistribution of resources (taxes).
- Nation-States: Populations from tens of thousands up to millions. Food production only requires a small percentage of the population; most people are specialists of some kind. Police, laws and moral codes. Formal leadership, specialized bureaucrats. Economic and social inequality.
I’ll try to sum up his discussion of each of the functions of religion, and include my comments.
1. Explanation: This one’s pretty obvious. Humans want causal explanations for everything, and if we can’t figure one out, we’ll make one up. This is a byproduct of tour need for pattern recognition, and the need to assume an active agent when we don’t know the cause of something, because the cost of missing when someone means you harm is very high. It’s very satisfying to think you have an explanation for everything, so once a supernatural belief becomes established it’s very tenacious. As our society has progressed from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states, and our ability to figure out the actual answers has increased, this function of religion has diminished. (I don’t see how this function of religion could give an advantage to a group possessing religion over a group without it. To me, this function is really more of mental malware, with no survival value. It’s more of a reason why people personally like having religion.)
2. Defusing Anxiety: People turn to religion to deal with problems and dangers beyond their control. By engaging in a ritual of some sort, people feel as if they have done something of use in a situation where they are actually helpless, and are able to suppress their anxiety and function more normally. People almost never turn to ritual when it comes to everyday predictable things. As an example, he talks about a fishing village in the South Pacific, where they fish both in the open ocean and in a quiet lagoon. The lagoon fishing is safe, easy, and has predictable yields, while ocean fishing is dangerous and unpredictable. These villagers do not invoke magic for lagoon fishing, but they do magic rituals before heading out on an ocean fishing trip. This function has also decreased as our societies grew, because people were able to take control over more and more of their environment. (I can see how this function would confer a survival advantage to small groups. A village full of confident people would certainly have an advantage over a village full of fear and anxiety. Even if that confidence is unwarranted. )
3. Providing Comfort: Religion can function to provide comfort, hope and meaning when life is hard. It lets people explain suffering and death, and attribute some meaning to all the crap that life throws at you. This function may have increased over time: as people settled into agriculture and larger social groups, in many ways life actually became harder. Nutrition was worse, disease became more prevalent, family sizes grew, and leisure time decreased. Even today the more marginalized and underprivileged modern social groups are, the more religious they tend to be. (This may also be part of the explanation of why women tend to be more religious than men – their lives are often less under their own control, and religion can give them the illusion that they are in control of something. I think this function is possibly just a part of the Defusing Anxiety function above.)
4. Standardized Organization: This isn’t really a function of religion for bands or tribes, they don’t need it. They have no full-time specialists, and no surplus available to support full-time leaders or large public projects. As Chiefdoms arise there is a need for such things, and religion is a useful tool for accomplishing this.
5. Political Obedience: A necessary part of organizing a large society is collecting resources to use to support the full-time leaders, construct public works, or support armies. How do you get the people to obey the rulers and give up part of their production? Again, religion is a really good tool for this – if the King is chosen by the gods, or is related to the gods, or is a god himself, then with an organized religious system supporting him he can ensure obedience and payment. This function has decreased in modern nation-states, politicians now don’t usually invoke a deity to get people to pay their taxes or obey laws.
6. Codes of Behavior Towards Strangers: At the band and tribe level, everyone knows everybody else, and what their relationships with those people are. Not only with members of his own tribe, but with the neighboring tribes as well. There’s no standardized moral rules, only a network of useful relationships. There is no standard as to how you behave toward people you don’t know, partially because meeting a stranger is very rare. Any stranger is from outside a person’s circle of known relationships, and may well be an enemy, or at least a threat. The response to a stranger may be to try to kill them or to run away. But when chiefdoms emerge, a new problem arises: there are now members of your group who you do not know, but whom you must not treat as enemies; group stability depends on this. So now it’s necessary to have a formal code of behavior for how you treat members of your own group. So religion takes on a new function, with a code of behavior supposedly handed down by the gods, with divine punishment threatened for those who break them. This function has also decreased in modern secular nation-states, our laws no longer invoke the wrath of god as a deterrent.
This is also the religious function that makes costly and visible proofs of commitment valuable. Since you don’t know everybody in the kingdom, how can you tell who’s part of “us” and therefore must be treated well, and who’s part of “them” and can be safely mistreated? Who can you trust to have your back and who might be a spy? It’s useful if there’s some way to tell who’s a friend, and if it’s a way that’s unlikely to be faked so much the better. Sure, an outsider might say a few prayers, but will he grow his hair, wear tassels, abstain from pork, make all the temple sacrifices and cut a piece off of each of his sons (ancient Hebrews)? Will he wear magic underwear, learn secret handshakes, give 10% of his income and devote two years of his life to missionary work (Mormons)? Other examples include permanent bodily mutilation, long expensive pilgrimages, and publicly espousing rationally implausible beliefs. (I think this idea of commitment badges is probably worth its own book, and I’ll probably be blogging more about it in the future. For instance, I think that Ken Ham’s Creation Museum is an excellent example of believers making a costly and visible proof of commitment.)
7. Justifying Wars: This is also a new dilemma faced by growing societies. In bands and tribes war is always personal, and religion generally does not come into it. Each combatant knows exactly why they wish to attack the members of the other group, and there are no laws to restrain violence and retaliation. But as chiefdoms develop this also must change. A person spends their life being told that it’s not OK to kill strangers or steal their stuff, because the gods say so. How can a state persuade the population that “Thou Shalt Not Kill” actually means “Thou must kill, under the following circumstances” without getting its soldiers hopelessly confused and prone to kill the wrong people? But by using religion, this can be resolved, by declaring that all other religions are wrong, and that it is just and right to kill their adherents. Societies of religious fanatics are very dangerous to those around them, from biblical Old Testament genocides to modern terrorists. The survival advantage of having an army who believes they are doing god’s work is very clear. Modern secular states no longer need to invoke “god wants you to fight”, but in many societies today it’s still being used.
Diamond’s conclusion about the future of religion is that functions 1 and 4-7 are likely to continue to decrease, but that 2 and 3 are likely to persist.
I’m not sure I’ve done justice to this chapter (I’ve omitted his discussion of the relevance of the evolution of electric eels, for example), but the way he presents these ideas was just too good not to make an attempt. I really recommend this book, and not just for this chapter. I’ve been reading a library copy, but it’s going on my list of books I need to own.
Marking Territory, making a meme October 23, 2014Posted by ubi dubium in Humor, Rants.
Tags: atheism, christianity, church, prayer, religion, territory
I’ve been playing around with this idea for a meme, but I’m not sure I have the text just right. I want to give this the right punch, and be clear with the message I am sending.
Here’s what I have so far, and I’d love suggestions if you can think of better captions for this, or any other revisions this needs.
That one spooky thing (wrap-up) October 14, 2014Posted by ubi dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: atheism, Cognitive Biases, critical thinking, evidence, JREF, Skepticism, supernatural
OK, time to wrap the series up.
When you’ve deconverted from religion and superstition, and decided to live a life based in reality, what do you think about that one strange thing that might have once happened to you? That thing that keeps you convinced that there’s a supernatural realm out there somewhere?
Before you can decide that it’s actually “supernatural”, you really need to consider the following alternate possibilities, which I’ve discussed in earlier posts:
- It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you (Part 1)
- It’s technological (also Part 1)
- It’s somebody deliberately tricking you (Part 2)
- It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above (Part 3, 3.1 and 3.2)
- It’s “supernatural”
So, when you are thinking of that thing you once saw, before you conclude it was an actual “impossible thing”, first you need to run through a serious thought process about it. Could you have mis-perceived it initially? Or filled in mental gaps based on what you expected to see? Did someone have something to gain by tricking you? And have you embellished your memory over time, to the point where what you remember now really might not be what you saw initially?
Suppose that you have run through all those possibilities, and still have not come up with a plausible explanation. Then you are left with two possibilities that I can think of. Either it actually fell under one of the above categories but you couldn’t figure it out, or it was ‘supernatural”. (Remember probability, which of those is most likely?)
So, finally, if you have still come to the conclusion that the thing you saw might actually be supernatural”, we have the problem of defining that term. Like “spirituality”, it’s a word that people throw around all the time, but when asked for a straightforward definition, they either can’t define it, or define it in terms of other vague undefined concepts, which isn’t helpful. Here’s my working definition of “supernatural”: We live in a four dimensional space-time universe of matter and energy, governed by predictable physical forces. That’s the “natural world”. “Supernatural” would be something that is not that, either wholly or in part.
For us to detect something “supernatural”, it would have to have the ability to interact with our physical world in some way. Even if that’s just deflecting some photons, or causing an EM disruption, or just planting a thought in somebody’s brain, all of those things are interactions with our physical world. Any being that is completely unable to interact with our world would be totally undetectable and therefore irrelevant.
To be sure that something is really supernatural, you’d have to examine it in a way that eliminates all of the other possibilities we have already discussed. Since the real world is so messy, the best way we can be sure is to do carefully controlled examinations, where we reduce the variables down to just the thing we are examining and eliminate cheating. Of course, a fleeting “ghostly vision” isn’t going to be easy to catch in a lab experiment! Lots of investigators have worked to pin down something “supernatural”, to where we could get a look at it, and actually say something coherent about it. Alas, the better the controls are on your experiment, the more the “supernatural” aspect goes away. The JREF has had a standing ONE MILLION DOLLAR prize to anyone who can demonstrate something supernatural under conditions controlled to eliminate cheating and wishful thinking. So far no one has even passed the first round of tests. Does this mean there isn’t any such thing? Well, no, but given the results so far, I’m not holding my breath.
Bring a Church Bulletin, get a discount! October 12, 2014Posted by ubi dubium in Humor.
Tags: atheism, bulletin, christianity, church, Church Bulletin, discount, FSM, Pastafarian, religion, stupidity, Sunday
Every so often, I’ll see a story about some business or other offering a discount or a free ticket on Sunday, if you bring your church bulletin. Of course this discriminates against people who don’t go to church. And every time I see one of those stories I think “There really ought to be a church bulletin that non-church-goers could just pull up online, insert their location and date, print out, and get those same discounts. I should do something about that”
Well, I’ve finally gotten around to doing something about that. I’ve created a Pastafarian Church Bulletin, and included as many of the regular churchy elements as I could think of, including cheesy clip-art and Latin mumbo-jumbo. This is a fillable .pdf form, so you can put in your City and State, and the date. Print it double sided (flip on short end if your printer can do 2-sided printing) and fold it in half, and you’re ready to go. (Use pastel colored paper if you have it!)
Fillable PDF: FSM Church Bulletin
Here’s a preview of what it looks like:
If you use this anywhere and get a good reaction, please let me know!
I love Cake Wrecks October 3, 2014Posted by ubi dubium in Humor.
Tags: balloons, Cake, Cake Wrecks, fun, Guilty Pleasures, pumpkin, Redskins, Wrecks
OK, I have to admit something. Even with all of the serious blogs that I follow, every morning I have to see the new post at Cake Wrecks.
Whenever I feel inadequate, I just look at the parade of misspellings, ineptitude and bad communication there and I feel much better. So in loving tribute, I present a few wrecks I have found myself.
When I’m out shopping with my daughters in a store that has a bakery, they always make sure we stop by the cake display, looking for wreckery. And surprisingly often we find it! My phone’s battery is none too reliable, so I don’t always manage to get photos, but I caught a couple yesterday.
It’s the season for bad pumpkin cakes, and this one did not disappoint:
I think it’s trying to escape over the side. Are those tentacles?
And balloon cakes so often come out badly. They look like sperm, or deflated sacks, or just blobs of icing. But this is the first time I’ve seen balloons with nipples:
And my spouse caught a few photos for me last fall. These might be good enough for the real Cake Wrecks, so I sent them in. (Fingers crossed that they get used someday.)
Rah Rah Rah! Go Washington’s local NFL team! The name’s not so offensive if you spell it this way, right?
Is this the direction their season is going to go? Am I looking at this right?
And check out those yard lines – how hard is it to pipe a simple line?
And my favorite:
This just has so much going on. It’s shaped like a football, nice touch, but how old is this cake that the icing could crack open like that? And then of course the team name is misspelled twice, just in case you missed it the first time. And I think that those stripes on the end are supposed to be the team colors of burgundy and gold, but all I see is bacon. Cake with bacon.
None of these quite make me laugh as hard as Falker Satherhood, but they’re not bad considering the sample size I have to work with.
Dorothy and Buzz August 29, 2014Posted by ubi dubium in Responses.
Tags: atheism, Buzz Lightyear, christianity, Dorothy, Evangelists, Godless in Dixie, Neil Carter, Toy Story, Wizard of OZ
For a long time I’ve used this movie scene as an example when discussing deconversion:
Once Dorothy has seen through the humbug, she can never go back to believing in the “Great and Powerful OZ”.
But Neil Carter, over at Godless in Dixie, has posted another movie reference that I really liked:
As good an example as The Wizard of OZ is, Toy Story and its sequels might be an even better (and more current) example. Please go read Neil’s excellent post, it’s really a keeper.
I especially like this scene from Toy Story 2, when Buzz encounters a “true believer””
Buzz Lightyear #2: Buzz Lightyear to Star Command. I have an AWOL Space Ranger.
Buzz Lightyear: Tell me I wasn’t this deluded…
Buzz Lightyear #2: No back talk! I have a laser, and I will really use it.
Buzz Lightyear: You mean a laser that’s a lightbulb?
Buzz Lightyear #2: Has your mind been melted? You could have killed me, Space Ranger! Or should I say, “traitor?”
Buzz Lightyear: I don’t have time for this…
Evangelists, when you show up trying to tell me for the umpteenth time how special your relationship with god is, that’s exactly how I feel. You aren’t a
Space Ranger messenger from the almighty, you aren’t locked in an epic battle with the Evil Emperor Zurg Satan, you don’t have a laser magic book with all the answers, you can’t fly heal people through prayer, you are a TOY regular person like the rest of us!!!!