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Box of Apologetics June 8, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
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Every Monday I listen to the previous Sunday’s broadcast of The Atheist Experience.  And generally the show is a lot of fun, lots of promotion of critical thinking and jousting with theists.  My favorite host is Tracie Harris, who just hits it out of the park, and it’s pretty satisfying when Matt Dillahunty hangs up on an annoying troll.  But lately I have been getting frustrated when some apologist calls in with their favorite clever twist on some tired old apologetic, and they proceed to argue in endless circles, because they just have to “get the atheist to admit that they are right”.  These calls tend to go on way too long and almost never accomplish anything.

I’ve realized that if I were hosting the show and one of these guys got going, that there is something specific I would want to say to them.  But since that’s unlikely ever to happen, I’ll just say it here instead:

“Hey Mr. Apologist!  Before you begin on whatever clever argument for god you are about to present, I need to ask you three background questions.  So, for the time being, instead of discussing it right away, we’re going to put your apologetic in a box.

This Box.

“We’re not going to unpack it just yet.  Not until I find out a few things about the person I am talking to.  First I need to ask you when you first started believing in god.”

(A typical theist will probably tell me that they have been a believer their whole lives, or from when they were very young.)

“OK.  And when did you first learn this argument you are about to present?”

(Let’s assume they tell us about the book they read in high school, or the class their church had recently, or some such.  It’s not likely that they learned a complicated argument in their earliest Sunday School classes.)

“All right.  And finally, suppose that your apologetics teacher (or Pope, or whoever is an authority for your sect) came to you and said ‘Dude, we found a flaw in this particular argument.  It doesn’t actually prove the thing it’s supposed to prove.  You have to stop using it.’  If that were to happen, would you still believe in god?  Would you have to reconsider anything about what you believe, or would you still believe exactly as you do now?”

(I would expect that a typical True Believer™ would declare that their faith would continue to be steadfast in that case.)

“OK, so let me review what we’ve learned about the argument in this box.

  1. It’s not what initially persuaded you to believe, because you didn’t have it at that time.
  2. It’s not what’s keeping you in your faith, because you would still be a believer even if you lost what’s in the box. 

SO, what that tells me is that we don’t actually need to open this box at all!  The question for callers is “Tell us what you believe and why.”  And we have just established that the argument in this box is not really part of your “why“.  So we can throw out this box unopened.  It’s not relevant.

“Here’s the box we ought to open up:

“What we should be talking about are the real reasons that you believe.   What initially persuaded you to start believing?  What things are so central to your beliefs that you would have to rethink your entire belief system if they were discredited?   I don’t know what’s in this box for you.  Maybe it’s things like ‘trust in your teachers,’ ‘personal experience,’ ‘clerical authority,’ or ‘biblical infallibility.’  Maybe it’s something else.  We won’t know until we start unpacking it.” Those are the interesting and useful discussions to have, not these circular apologetic word games.

If I ever were in the position similar to the hosts on TAE, I think that I would have to label some real boxes to use as visual aids.  Because, unless a caller says that their argument was specifically why they started believing, or that their faith would collapse without it, there’s no way that I would want to waste my energy listening to their endless philosophical wanking.  I have better things to do, like watching paint dry.

Evangelists and the Reason Rally, Third Epistle June 2, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events, Rants, Responses.
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One more of these before the Rally.  Again, as a reminder, these are some of the things that I would be saying to Ray Comfort’s specially trained group of 1,000 evangelists, who were going to descend on the Reason Rally en masse until they found out they needed a permit and would have to demonstrate at the other end of the Mall.

reason rally preachers

Ubi Dubium’s Third Epistle to the Evangelists

“OK, Mr. Preacher.  I think I’ve made it clear that all the stuff you have carefully learned from Ray on what to say to atheists is going to accomplish exactly nothing as far as converting anybody.  Any of you who have tried this kind of the thing on us in the past should be well aware that it will not be producing the promised results.

“So the question is:  Why do you guys do stuff like this?

“Now I can’t claim to read minds, or know your beliefs better than you do.  But I have some hypotheses about what is actually going on that I’m going to suggest.  If any of the preachers who were actually going to go to Ray’s event want to comment here on these ideas I’d be happy to discuss them.

“An obvious answer is that their bible tells them to go “preach the gospel.”  But there are certainly easier audiences out there, ones that will give more “bang for the buck” as it were.  Even a college campus is more receptive than a crowd of thousands of atheists, and there’s a better chance of actually making converts.  I know people like a challenge, that’s why they do crazy difficult things like climb Everest.  But do you throw yourself at Everest if you know there’s zero chance of success?  So that can’t be all there is to it.

“Another thing that I see is that True Christians™ always seem to want to be seen to be accumulating “cosmic brownie points” with their god (or “treasures in heaven” if you want a nicer term).  Every opportunity for a public display of piety, or to throw a bible verse into an email, or to preach at somebody is a chance for a shout out of “Hey god, look how devoted to you I am!”  I rarely see that kind of thing from mainstream christians, they usually take the bible verses about not showing off their piety in public more seriously (see Matt 6:5).  It usually seems to be those of the fundigelical variety who are intent on making as big a public display as possible.

“But I think that even more than displaying their devotion for god, I think in many cases they are displaying their loyalty to each other.  I’ve talked about the idea of “honest hard-to-fake expensive symbols of commitment” before.  (And I still am looking for a better name for this idea, if anybody has one.)  This is the thing you do that is difficult, or time-consuming, or expensive, or personally embarrassing, or all of those, and is also completely pointless.  You would never do it except for the purpose of getting another group or individual to accept you as sincere.  Among the many things that would fall in this category are Mormon missions, gang tattoos, big diamond engagement rings, fraternity hazings, and tithing.  The bigger the gesture you make, the more you are telling your group that you are a devoted member.  And for a group where preaching is a show of loyalty, what bigger gesture can you make than to spend money to travel to another city, and preach in front of a guaranteed hostile audience?  I think going off to DC to do this is  a sure way to gain status and trust from the congregation back home.

“I’m thinking there may also be an element of territorial marking involved as well.  The atheists are meeting on the National Mall, in public, specifically to challenge christian dominance of politics and government in the country.  If the christians just allowed that to happen without getting involved, it would be a big event that was all about the heathens, and not about them. Perhaps they felt a need to take ownership and put their mark all over the event as much as possible, to reclaim this piece of the public attention “turf” for themselves.  Being relegated to the other end of the Mall just would not accomplish this goal at all.

“Those are my ideas so far.  It’s possible I’m completely wrong (which is something you never hear an evangelist say).

Thus endeth the Third Epistle.


That’s all for now.  If I have any interesting encounters at the Rally, perhaps I will have a follow-up.

Evangelists and the Reason Rally, Second Epistle June 2, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events, Rants, Responses.
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Continuing on with all the things I wanted to say to Ray Comfort’s god squad that was supposed to show up at the Reason Rally to save our souls and stuff.

Ubi Dubium’s Second Epistle to the Evangelists

“OK, now Mr. Preacher I’d like to talk about the content of some of your preaching, but probably not in the way you expect.

“You’ve probably spent a lot of time learning all kinds of apologetics.  Endless arguments against evolution, and lots of arguments for the existence of god that go along the lines of “first cause” and “everything can’t come from nothing” and so on.  You’re prepared to go into those arguments at great length, and expect me to spend a lot of time rebutting you on them.

“Well, I’m not going to bother doing that.  Surprised?

“Let’s look at the bigger picture here.  Suppose that by some really amazing insight you were able to show that evolution wasn’t happening, and that it’s not responsible for the diversity of life on earth.  Well then SO WHAT?  All you would have done is get us back to a position of “I don’t know”.  And if you understand the fallacy of the argument from ignorance, you’ll see that “I don’t know” does not justify jumping to a conclusion of biblegod and Jesus and Noah’s ark and talking snakes.  You still need positive evidence to justify those beliefs, and knocking down evolution, or any other science you happen not to like, does nothing to establish the truth of your dogma.  You need positive evidence, not just an attack on what you see as the alternative.

“And let’s look at those “first cause” arguments.  “Something can’t come from nothing.”  “The universe is too fine-tuned not to have been designed on purpose” and so forth.  Suppose you were successful in making those arguments.  Again, SO WHAT?  The best you can do from winning all those arguments is a vague deism. But deism isn’t what you are trying to sell me on, is it?  Even if you establish that there had to have been some kind of mind behind the creation of the universe (which I’m not actually buying), you have done nothing to show that your religion is true.  Your creator god could be one that created the universe and then died, or left, or one that just  churns out universes all day and doesn’t care what happens to them, or one that became the universe instead of making it, or one that created the universe for some other purpose and we’re just a side effect, or any number of other possibilities.  Winning your “first cause” arguments still do nothing to get you to a conclusion of biblegod and Jesus and Noah’s ark and talking snakes.  “Look at the universe, therefore Jesus!” makes no more sense than “Look at the universe, therefore Muhammad!” or “Look at the universe, therefore Krishna!” or “Look at the universe, therefore the Flying Spaghetti Monster (pesto be upon Him)!”   If what you are presenting isn’t evidence that’s specific to what you are actually selling, then don’t even bother.

“And finally, Ray has probably taught you all kinds of rhetorical tricks to try to trick people into saying that they need god:  “Have you ever lied?  Have you ever stolen anything?  Then you’re a liar and a thief!  And therefore a SINNER!”  I have two things to say about that.  First, any god that would need his preachers to trick people into belief is a pretty pitiful god in my book.  And second, Mr. Preacher, have you ever lied about anything?  I bet you have!  And you know what that makes you?  A LIAR!  You’ve learned your craft from Ray Comfort, and I’ve certainly heard him tell lies.  And if you believed that you could bring somebody to Jesus and save them from the eternal fires of Hell by lying to them, would you do it?  I bet you would!    In which case, Mr. Preacher, that makes you a liar for Jeezus who is not entitled to be up on that soapbox.  Get off that high horse, knock it off with the clever trickery, and actually talk to us and pay attention to what we have to say.  Find out why it is we don’t believe your message, even though we live in a country saturated with it.   Listen before you talk.

Thus endeth the Second Epistle.

(Stay tuned, still more to come.)

Advance Book Review: Faith vs Fact March 29, 2015

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books.
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I was fortunate enough to win an advance copy of Jerry Coyne’s upcoming book, Faith vs Fact, from Goodreads.  Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, the author of the book Why Evolution is True, and blogs copiously at his wordpress blog, likewise named Why Evolution is True.

The full title of the book is Faith vs. Fact, Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.  Spoiler – Fact wins!  (Although, if you are familiar with Coyne’s writing at all, that’s not really a spoiler. Regular readers of Coyne’s blog will find no surprises here.)  This book is a clear and carefully constructed outline of the conflicts between science and religion, written from the point of view of a strong advocate for science. (more…)

Use-Mention Errors, or, My Close Personal Relationship with Pinkie Pie February 5, 2015

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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 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…)

Something from Nothing? May 5, 2012

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants.
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First the backstory.  My spouse (Ubi Dubius) has a Fundamentalist brother (who I will call Ubi Credulus).  For some time this brother had been giving us increasingly preachy xmas presents.  There had been VeggieTales videos for the kids (see my previous post about that) a copy of The Passion of the Christ, a slipcased beautifully bound copy of Bishop Ussher’s book, that sort of thing.  At the same time I had been sending their family pieces of religious jewelry for their kids that I had been given in my childhood.  When he asked if I shouldn’t be giving them to my own kids, I said that it would not be appropriate, and then quickly dropped the conversation.  I was hoping to make our position clear, while also making it clear that I did not want to get into a lengthy conversation about it.

 Well, we finally had to do something when he gave us a copy of Expelled.  Was he being deliberately insulting, or just clueless?  Ubi Dubius and I had a talk about it, and decided that we really had to return the gift to him, quietly and without a big scene.  Which we did.  But that prompted an email exchange between my spouse and Ubi Credulus that went on for quite awhile.  He threw out a lot of the classic Fundie challenges, the ones that they think are so great, but that absolutely fail when used on an actual unbeliever.  (I think there was a fair amount of cut-and-paste there, but perhaps he was just regurgitating all the apologetics he has been fed.)

 This is an excerpt from one of Ubi Credulus’s messages:

 When a person with a naturalistic point of view entertains the idea that an intelligence is a valid cause of the universe they are no longer naturalistic, by definition, and therefore they are prohibited from entertaining it... 

If everything came out of nothing then the nothing wasn't nothing... it was something.  All that matter had to come from somewhere.  What scientific theory can you reference to show there wasn't a cause?  Empirical evidence has never found a case for something that has begun to exist without a cause.

Ubi Dubius did a very nice job in a reply email of addressing the fallacy about “prohibited from”, and the old first cause argument. So I won’t tackle those now.  Maybe another time.

What I wanted to talk about this was this false assumption that I hear all the time:  “You atheists think everything came from nothing, so your belief is even sillier than ours.”  So I wanted to talk about this “nothing” that it’s claimed we believe in.

 First, we have  no examples of “nothing” that we can possibly study.  Every part of our universe, even those parts that look like empty space, are full of something.  Cosmic background radiation, electromagnetic and gravitational fields, the constant neutrino flux, (and maybe dark matter/dark energy, I lack the expertise to have an opinion on that,) everywhere in our universe there is too much something.  So there is really no way that we can say anything about “nothing”.

 There is another thought that I have had for several years, and I just saw Lawrence Krauss quoted in the latest Scientific American, that perhaps “nothing” is not even stable.  Perhaps it’s not at all ridiculous to have something come from nothing.  We don’t know, and we don’t currently have any way of finding out.

 And I would not say that I think the universe popped in out of nothing.  I think that about 13.7 billion years ago a small singularity rapidly expanded into the space-time universe we have now.  That’s where the evidence points.  What came before?  Well, if time as we know it also started at this singularity then “before” has no meaning in this context.  But putting that aside, can we talk about something “outside” of that singularity that might have caused it? 

 Sure we can speculate, but until we have some way of gathering evidence and testing hypotheses we can’t really have any real answers.  Maybe there are a lot of universes.  Maybe they naturally bud off each other.  Maybe a universe is some sort of vacuum fluctuation. Maybe the singularity was from a previous universe that contracted, so we have a sequence of “big bangs” each followed by a “big crunch” and another “bang”. All cool ideas, but I have insufficient reason to “believe” any of them yet, because we don’t have any information to lead us to which one, if any, might be true. “We have no information” does not justify jumping to a conclusion of “therefore god”.  That’s the “god of the gaps” argument, which fails as usual.

 But not having the right answer does not mean that we can’t rule out a bunch of wrong ones.  I can be confident the universe wasn’t the work of the Invisible Pink Unicorn or the sneeze of the Great Green Arkleseizure.  It wasn’t Leprechauns either, or Ptah, or Odin, or Zeus.  And it wasn’t the war totem of a tribe of Bronze-Age mideastern goatherders.  And I don’t care if those goatherders wrote a book that claimed they knew the right answer, they didn’t.

 I don’t believe “everything came from nothing”.  I think we don’t yet know where everything came from, and I’m OK with not knowing.  I prefer having an interesting mystery to investigate rather than devoting my life to a bunch of wrong answers somebody made up thousands of years ago.