Archive for the ‘Debate’ Category

Bible stories and semantics

March 19, 2009

Let me introduce to you two new characters for today’s story.  First, we have Lisa, young convert to Mormonism and friend of mine from work.  Second is Beer Guy; I do not know his name but he’s a local brewster hero at the county fair, and I ask him beer questions when I see him sometimes. 

We all take the train home around the same time.  And yesterday, Lisa is telling me about her new baby niece who has not been named yet.  The two of us are talking about baby names and she says she likes Isabelle, but apparently this name is off-limits because there was a bad girl in the Bible named Isabelle. 

“Really?” I say, trying to remember the story.

“She was a whore,” my friend informs me, and I say, wait, what?  A prostitute?  “No, she was married, but she slept with Solomon.”  So, an adulterer, I say, and she says okay fine.

This wasn’t ringing any bells.  I pull out my Palm Pilot because now I am curious, and I have a searchable electronic Bible stored on it.  Then just as I’m firing the thing up, I remember: not Isabelle, Jezebel!

“Yeah, that’s it!  Jezebel!” 

And I say, “But I don’t think she was married…” I don’t know that story, actually.  So here, Beer Guy pipes up.  “Jezebel was Ahab’s wife,” he informs us.  He goes on to tell us that Ahab was an evil king and Jezebel made him even more evil. 

Now Lisa is saying, “But I thought Ahab saw her on a roof, and she was married.”

“Bathsheba!!” Beer Guy and I say.  So we tell Lisa that story to everyone’s satisfaction.  Then I give Beer Guy a high-five (I got the feeling it may have been his first high-five ever) and I grin at Lisa.  “You just got schooled in Bible stories by an atheist.”  She laughs, and we agree that that’s not fair because I grew up on Bible stories and she didn’t.

Also, there was a local atheist Meetup last night, and we had philosophical debates, and I was informed that “knowledge” is just another kind of experience; or it’s no different from experience.  I am still thinking about that one.  I am pretty sure that the discussion was about 80 percent semantics, but some people disagreed.  And I remember my brother told me that you have to define the terms of a philosophical debate first thing.  Otherwise, as I saw last night, you are arguing for 20 minutes until someone suspects we are saying the same thing with different words, and by that point, it’s too late to go back and start over because you are probably talking about something different that what you started with.  That, or, you say, “Hey, wait, this is semantics,” and the other party think you’re just saying that because you feel backed into a corner.

In other news, I have mixed plain yogurt with green tea and I am drinking it from a Mason jar.


But Richard Dawkins is so mean!

February 6, 2009

You know what is the most annoying thing about being an atheist?

There are of course the little things, like, “Evolution is only a theory,” or, “Atheism takes as much faith as religion.”

But the thing that has been taking the cake recently is the projection of bad habits and qualities onto atheists. I hear all kinds of bad things about people I don’t even know– brave atheists like Richard Dawkins who put themselves up to be a bulls-eye for any theist who ever felt ridiculed. I don’t know the guy, but every time I see him speak he seems respectful and polite. Yes, he is blunt. Don’t take it personally.

Last night I told my church mid-week group that I am an atheist. I also had to break it to them that almost nobody cares if they don’t swear or look at porn. They probably aren’t looking at you funny. And those who mind don’t matter. And if someone does give you a hard time and starts trying to tell you how bad of a person you are because of your faith, you can tell them to shut up. Really. But if it’s possible, take a few minutes to attempt a civil discussion. You’ll probably both be pleasantly surprised. Be calm. Be polite. Atheists aren’t all sneering at theists and theists aren’t all bigots. Avoid topics like abortion and gay marriage and evolution. Just get to know people.

And then, Christians, don’t sit around in your small group and talk about how hard it is to be a Christian in this godless world. It’s not that hard, really. I know; I’ve been there. I imagine it can be hard if you go around talking about how you hate the sin but love the sinner. It can be hard if you think everyone ought to respect your religion. The thing is, we don’t have to like your opinions or your God. We don’t have to tolerate your intolerance. But that doesn’t mean we don’t like you, and it doesn’t mean we can’t have a civil discussion.

I am out as an atheist to pretty much everyone I know on a first-name basis. Many of them are religious. We have not treated each other badly. We have been respectful and had some interesting religious discussions. But do you think the nice atheist they met on the train comes up at Sunday School? I think not. Then atheists all turn into caricatures of immoral, relativistic, God-hating, anti-religion infidels who think Christians are dumb and love to tell them so.

I don’t think Christians are stupid. Honestly, I don’t even think Christians are deluded. I simply think they are wrong about the existence of God.  Does that mean we can’t be friends?

It’s a mystery.

January 30, 2009

Do you ever get annoyed when, during a debate with a theist, they retreat into “God is mysterious; we just can’t understand him,” when they are confronted with something contradictory or un-answerable?


So then, you say, “But you’ve just told me all this stuff about God; how can he be unknowable?  Either you know him or you don’t.”


And then the reply is, “We can only understand what he has revealed to us,” and maybe, “Humans are incapable of fully understanding the mind of god.  We’ll get to learn everything in heaven.”


And that’s pretty much a conversation-stopper.




Were you ever in conversation with a theist who tried to stump you on what banged the big bang?  “Maybe,” they say, “it was God?”


And you say, “No, look, just because we don’t know all the details about something doesn’t mean God did it.


And they respond, “But you should consider the possibility, if you are as open-minded as you say you are.”


So you say, “Of course I will consider it if we find evidence to support it, but we don’t have that.”  (Hopefully, during this discussion, you have already defined “evidence” and explained how a hypothesis needs to be testable, repeatable, and disprovable.)  “Besides, everything we know now about the way the world works was once a mystery that we solved because we found evidence.  So even if something is unknown now, it isn’t unknowable, and we will learn about it someday.”


And this may also be a conversation-stopper, though I don’t think it needs to be.  We can talk a lot more about science than we can about Heaven and where it is and how we get there and what we find when we get there.


But it occurred to me that these two arguments are very nearly the same; they both simply say, “We don’t know yet.”  If one is invalid, shouldn’t the other one be?


Plus, do we really want “conversation-stoppers”?  I’d rather end a discussion with something we agree on rather than one party slinking away wondering why they couldn’t explain the reason the other party’s logic was faulty, and then coming up with a really good reason at 3 AM that night.

The right wing

January 22, 2009

Did you ever find yourself on a conservative news site, reading the comments on an article?  Did you not feel a sort of horror that people could be so… different (to put it politely) and rude (also an understatement)?

Then did you ever comment to express your disagreement?

And how many bad names were you called?

Is it worth it?  Or is this Intarweb culture just too supportive of the people who aren’t interested in civil debate?

Alternatively, where can I find those people who are interested in civil debate?

What do you have to lose?

December 10, 2008

What do you have to lose?


After Thanksgiving, when I wrote about Pascal’s Wager, I meant to follow-up on the question, “What do you have to lose?”  Because when I set aside talk of probability and evidence for God, it was a question that gave me pause.  What, exactly, do I have to lose; why not just say, “Ah, screw it, I believe in God.”  It would make my husband happy, it would make it easier to have a social life, it might even make me happier.  Why is atheism so important?


First of all, truth is important– truth as best as we know it.  If the truth as best as I can tell is that there are no gods, then I have a duty and obligation to that.  I have a duty to hold to the truth when faced with persecution and scorn, and one might even say that I have an obligation to test it and make sure it holds up against rigorous testing and investigation (i.e., the scientific method).  Generally speaking, without truth and conviction, or at least an opinion that one prefers, I’m not sure what sort of life a person can have.


Second, what I have to lose.  My self-respect and my intellectual integrity were the major factors that decided me on atheism.  When faced with the absurdity of Christianity, I could have gone to spirituality, or Buddhism, or some similar agnostic fence-sitting position: the “Well, there might be something out there that we don’t understand” or “the source of life” or “energy” or whatever.  My dad chose that path.  He also smokes a lot of pot, though, so I don’t put a whole lot of confidence in any intellectual rigor that might be behind his spiritual life.  🙂  And that was what I couldn’t get past: my own mind, faced with the evidence, coming to a clear conclusion that I had no choice but to accept.  To betray that would be a rejection of my very self.  To try to convince myself out of a position that I feel to be true and right would be so schizophrenic!  I would have to have some serious evidence before I did such a thing– and then, being convinced by evidence, there wouldn’t be any faith or hedge-betting involved. 


I tend to think that Richard Dawkins has it right when he says that the existence of God is a scientific question; either God does or does not exist.  If a person was truly curious about God’s existence, I suppose the best course of action would be to hypothesize that God does exist, and try to disprove it.  This isn’t too hard, in theory. 


But then, consider that according to most accounts, God is invisible, unalterable, immortal, omnipresent, and all the rest, including the fact that God does not like to prove his own existence.  Fine.  But this makes God, by definition, un-testable by practical, scientific means.  How convenient.  But that wouldn’t keep you from trying anyways.


Then we can test the claims of various religions to determine whether or not they are accurate; for this, history, logic, and archaeology would be useful.  But even that would not prove God’s existence since the veracity of certain claims does not establish the cause of those claims.  Once you’ve exhausted all those means of discovering God, you can begin to interpret the data and determine whether God 1) probably does or 2) probably does not exist.


That was a really long way to say that I’ve come to the conclusion that God probably does not exist.  This is not the final word on the matter; I’m not closed-minded to arguments or evidence.  But for me to abandon my conviction for no better reason than fear of my soul’s eternal suffering would be to give in to intellectual terrorism.  And I have a no hostage policy.


Besides… who’s to say I have a soul, anyways?  How can I possibly survive my own death?  I am conscious; but does that mean I existed before I was born?  Based on my understanding of the soul, it is basically the claim that there is an ultimate Alice that is manifesting itself in this body.  Is that really necessary?


Think of this.  I suffered from mild depression recently.  I wasn’t responding to life the way I usually did.  I didn’t see that something was wrong, until one evening, when I found myself thinking about death.  This made me realize, “Whoa!  This isn’t me!  Why am I so down lately?”  I was seen by a doctor and prescribed a low-dose of anti-depressants.  And within six hours of my first dose, I felt like my normal self.  What a relief!  But isn’t it a little disturbing that so much of one’s identity is dependent on and alterable by chemistry?  Doesn’t that seem like evidence against the idea of a soul?  If I have a soul, what do you suppose the drug did to it?  As for people who undergo brain surgery and lobotomies and whose personalities are permanently changed, what has happened to their soul?  Does an amnesiac have a soul?  Where is a brain-dead person’s soul; is it in the afterlife or is it hanging around in the body waiting for the body to die?  What does a soul do? 


Anyways, I will be seeing a counselor and working on myself so that I don’t have to be medicated.  I’d rather understand what is making me depressed and work on changing it than go on living a medicated life where I continue to ignore whatever is wrong.


So perhaps it is my separation from God that is making me depressed, and if I go back to Christianity, I will cheer up again.  I know my husband thinks so.  But if so, why is it then up to me to betray my self and go back to God like everything is okay?  In other words, if God really wants my belief and service, couldn’t he give me a little hint?  Would I really benefit by believing in God against my better judgment?  And if so, how would that be different from living a medicated life in ignorance of what my issues really are?


So the short answer to the question, “What do I have to lose?” is: my self-respect, my identity, my ability to trust myself, and my intellectual integrity.

Pascal’s Wager

November 29, 2008

If there’s anything that I dread, it’s having to memorize something.

Also, I really resent being challenged by an older male, especially Christian.  By this I am referring to a religious challenge, which I can generally handle.  But it has been imprinted on me that the older male knows more and is someone to be deferred to, especially in spiritual matters.  It doesn’t always happen that I feel like a deer in the headlights just because someone is asking me a bunch of questions.  I can explain why I don’t believe in gods.  But I’ve never had someone come up to me and, knowing I am an atheist, just say, “What about Pascal’s Wager?”  It put me off stride.  Mostly because, as I said, I hate memorizing things, and while I had studied Pascal’s Wager and rejected it (many times), I had not prepared a defense; and in this case, it was an older, intelligent, Christian, male friend who was asking me.

Hell, I rejected the validity of Pascal’s Wager even when I was a Christian.  It’s basically a logical magic trick as far as I’m concerned– it’s too easy, and anything that seems too easy is suspicious to me.  And when someone throws me an argument that seems suspicious, I am never sure how to respond, especially when it is someone that I generally respect and when the topic is one that I am not ready to debate.

So Pascal’s Wager makes the claim that it is only logical to believe in God because if you do believe and he doesn’t exist, then you don’t lose anything.  But if you do not believe and he does exist, then you go to Hell.

So here I am, ambushed (in a well-meaning, friendly debate sort of way) by an argument that sounds suspicious to me and I can’t articulate why.  Plus, my friend is a pretty smart guy and I was surprised that he thought Pascal’s Wager was so good when I had thought it was weak at best.  So that threw me off, too.

I start by trying to make my friend define God, and he evades this (I don’t remember how he did this, the clever bastard).

I end up agreeing, for the sake of argument, that it’s a 50-50 chance that there is a God– which I totally think is false, but  I could not come up with a reason off the top of my head (see above about memorizing things).  So then, my friend asks simply, “Why not believe?”

“You’re assuming I could just make myself believe,” I say.

“Oh, but you can make yourself believe; it’s easy,” my friend says, and something about cognitive dissonance.

I get more suspicious and I say, “even if I could make myself believe, I still don’t have a reason to believe– or a God to believe in, technically.” 

“Just any God,” my friend says, and I say “fine, just any God.”

“But why,” I continue, “Would God want me to be a hedge-betting fence-sitter?  How is that what God wants?  Why would that get me out of Hell?”

But at this point my friend starts to look a little frustrated.  I think it’s because he thought it was a simple argument, but I wasn’t buying his premises (or lack thereof), and he thought the math was easy.  So, why not believe? 

To him, this was like a game where there are 50 cards, 1/2 red and 1/2 blue, and you’ve got a 50-50 chance of guessing the right color of a card you pick at random.  But then you learn that you have to bet your life on being correct, and if you bet your life on blue but it turns out to be red, you are tortured forever; but if you bet your life on red and it’s really blue, you just fall asleep forever and never wake up.  So obviously, red is the only logical bet.  Anything else would be basically insane.

To me, it’s more like a game with a hundred cards, but God is holding all of them.  I ask him to show me the cards so I can understand my odds better, but he refuses.  And then tells me to guess which card he’s holding right now.  And then he disappears forever.  But I know I have to guess the right card before I die or else he will torture me forever.  So I can choose: either guess a card and hope it’s right, or say to myself, “That’s can’t be right.  The odds are too low of me picking the right card, I can’t believe God would do that to me!  It’s much more probable that I dreamed the whole thing.”  And then!  I have another dream (?) where someone tells me, “There’s a trick to beating God at his game!  All you have to do is say, ‘That one,” and it counts for all the cards and God won’t torture you forever!”  And when I wake up, I have to choose between saying “That one!” or “I need to quit eating Chinese food before I go to bed.”

Got it?  Good!

At this point the conversation took a turn because I started to talk about evidence as opposed to faith, so we started talking about how we could quantify and test God (or, more accurately, test the claims of religion).

But back to Pascal.  There’s only one thing his Wager assumes, and that is this: that the sort of God we are talking about will send everyone to Hell who does not believe in him.  That is counter-intuitive enough to need some supporting evidence and make God’s existence less likely.  If he sends people to Hell for being bad people, that makes sense, and then we wouldn’t need to believe in him.  But let’s take Christianity, and this God who cannot forgive the sin of disbelief even though there is no way to prove his existence.  Going into a bit more detail, we see that we all have the sin of disbelief or doubt because of Adam and Eve’s sin.  So not only are we punished (eternally) for something they did, but God directly caused them to do it because he is knows everything and therefore knew they would do it, and he made them curious and doubting regardless.  There was only one way this could go for Adam and Eve, and now everyone has to make this Wager that God will be impressed enough by our response to the mere threat of Hell (again without evidence).

Do you know how much everything in me rebels against the idea of a God who will torture me eternally because I can’t believe he would be willing to torture me eternally?

Enough to make me call myself an atheist, that’s how much.

Now, just a God related to no religion, a watchmaker God who doesn’t do anything or Spinoza’s God who does not exist outside Nature and Physics, is easy to say, “Fine, I can see how maybe that exists,” but there’s no point.  He won’t be offended if I don’t confess, he doesn’t demand any worship or acts if I do believe, so I can get on with my life.  It’s more-or-less atheism with a touch of agnosticism.  That’s close to the 50-50 sort of God.

But the one who knowingly sets in motion a chain of events that will damn my soul to eternal suffering– that makes me suspicious.  And when I get suspicious, I only want to say two words: “prove it.”  At this point statistics don’t convince me, and “Why not believe?” is not the right question.  The right question is, “Why believe?”

Because there’s still the problem of Hell and why God would condemn me to it; and if free will is so great, why would it send me to Hell; and if there is free will in Heaven, can people there sin and get sent to Hell; and if not, why couldn’t God make this world with no free will and just populate Heaven without making Earth at all?

Let me just say here that I’m sure you can come up with an internally consistent answer.  But the more explanations there are, the more unlikely it is– unless you have evidence.  And not just evidence that your religion’s claims can be verified, but evidence that your God is real.  Because if he’s not real, and I believe in him just in case, and if he puts me in Heaven just because I was afraid to go to Hell, I’m not sure that’s the sort of God I want to be spending eternity with.

Think about it.

More on swear words

October 20, 2008

One of my coworkers is a polite Christian lady, and she generally doesn’t swear around me (she censors herself).  So I have been teasing her lately about how she can swear or burp or whatever around me.  And then I told her about how I said a new swear this weekend when a large spider crawled out of my dirty laundry pile (shut up!) and startled me.  I said, “Christ!”  And then I laughed because I’ve never said that before.  So when I finished my little story, my coworker (who knows I am an atheist) said, “See, you still call on him.”


I said, “Jesus is a spider?” and went on walking back to my cubicle.


I should have said, “What do you mean?”  But I’m not a fan of starting religious arguments with anyone, much less a person I spend 40 hours a week with.  But seriously, what does she think it means that I use religious profanity?  Does she file that in the “even atheists know there is a god, they just deny him” proof of her deity?  I guess that would go something like so:


1. When people are scared or startled or worried, they often blaspheme.

2. Therefore, God exists.  


This reminds me: my husband gets quite angry when people point out how much evil is done in the name of religion, or when people refuse to acknowledge all the good that religious people do.  What he doesn’t understand is, even if Christians do a lot of good, that doesn’t make it true– and of course conversely, just because Christians often do bad things, that doesn’t make it false.  It means that various people are good and bad for various reasons.


I guess my point is that Christians use very strange things for evidence of their faith, even while they insist that evidence is unnecessary. 


Like a few weeks ago when someone tried to tell me that everyone has faith, for example faith that there is a New York even though I haven’t been there.  And when I pointed out that I could go to New York and come back to prove it (not my only argument), he said the Apostle Paul ascended into the third Heaven (or some other integer, I forget) and came back, which proves there is a Heaven.


You see why I don’t generally get into arguments about religious things?  I don’t even know where to start when someone says something like “third heaven” — and this is someone from mainstream Christianity!  I thought there wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard of.  Which only goes to show you.


I’m not sure what it shows you, but it certainly doesn’t show you that there is a Heaven, or that Christianity is true, or that I believe Jesus is the Son of God sent to save my soul from eternal torment, or that there is a place of eternal torment, or that there is a soul.


Jesus Christ on a bike! 

How to annoy an atheist

August 6, 2008

How to annoy an atheist, or, how to bring a friendly conversation between theist and non-theist to a halt (at least temporarily).

Method I

Say, “evolution is just a theory.”

A scientific theory is not a wild guess, or something that was come up with after too much to drink.

A scientific theory is supported — or if not exactly supported, it is not falsified by — all the evidence. That’s right, all the evidence. It might seem a little crazy, it might not make sense (especially to a layperson), but unless you are also ready to discard the theories of gravity and muscle contraction, as well as discoveries of modern medicine like chemotherapy and blood pressure medication, you’ll not want to be discarding evolution. At least not with a lame statement like “it’s just a theory.” The statement is not an argument; it only shows your ignorance.

Method I and a half

“There is no proof for evolution.”

That is correct. Proof is a mathematical term. When you’re talking about science, you’ll need to use terms like “evidence” and “falsified” and “objective testing.”

For example: “In the last 200 years, evolution has not been falsified by any evidence,” or, “There is no objective test that could falsify intelligent design; therefore, it is not a scientific theory.”

Method II

“Atheism is a faith.” — or “way of life” or “philosophy.”

The first response to this statement could be, “Oh really? How?” (And you could also try, “Trust me; I think I’d know what atheism is, being that I am one.”) This is good because then the other party will tell you why they believe it, and this will make it easier to offer a rebuttal. I’d wager, though, that in many cases, a theist may not be able to explain the “faith system” of atheism– because there is not one. They may try to connect atheism with certian philosophies, such as communism, or they may associate atheism with acts of certain dictators and mass murderers. But they would benefit from the gentle reminder that atheism, in and of itself, is nothing more than a lack of faith in gods.

It bears repeating: Atheism is a lack of faith in gods. Nothing more.

I believe in no Gods, therefore, I am an atheist. This may lead me to actual philosophies, but whatever follows is not atheism. Does this make sense?

Atheists may also be humanists, socialists, democrats, anarchists, nihilists, Jews… but those are in addition to atheism, and even if correlation could be found between atheism and certain philosophies, that does not mean there are causations or other stronger links. But by saying there may be “links,” you acknowledge the implication that even if atheism is linked to certain philosophies or behaviors in an individual, it is separate from them.

I can kill you and say it is because I don’t believe in God; that makes me a murderer and an atheist. But I can also treat you according to the golden rule and say I am an atheist; that makes me a good neighbor and an atheist. Now why should we link the murder and not the moral behavior to the atheist?

Because it is simpler to say that theists are moral and atheists are immoral? Christians also murder, and Christians also treat others as they would wish to be treated.

I would argue that humans behave civilly to each other because we are civil, social creatures. And we behave selfishly and hurt others because we are selfish, independent creatures. We are complicated and our brains are a big mess of conflicting thoughts and desires. We have a desire to “sin” and we have a desire to do good. It’s all there. I believe people should be celebrated and rewarded for their goodness, not for conforming to the local demands of religion.