Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Eric MacDonald: Jerry Coyne Lidless Eye Award Winner

Writing about the New York Times article The Evangelical Rejection of Reason by Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens has garnered Eric MacDonald the coveted Jerry Coyne Lidless Eye Award which, as you may know, was created to celebrate and recognize exceptional stupidity in writing about the intersection of religion and science. 

The premise of Giberson and Stephens article is sound: that the bible and science not only must be reconcilable but that we should attempt, at all costs, a rational reconciliation.

This is obvious. God is not a god of confusion.

There are two groups who join together in opposition  to this level-headed approach. Fundamentalists who say that we should never let the bible be dictated by science. And atheists, especially the so-called New Atheists. 

The opposition from the first group, the fundies, is obvious. 

The second group's opposition?--not so obvious. Shouldn't they welcome Christians who say that science is good? Shouldn't they embrace Christians who say that we may have to modify beliefs in light of science? Should they be pleased with evangelical Christians who say that evolution and not ID or creationism should be taught in schools?

You would think so, if they were rational, but often they are not. Instead they attack this group (pro-science, pro-reason evangelicals) with pit-bull ferocity. In their world, one in which no accommodation is acceptable, the most dangerous Christian is one who appears to be accommodating. Can't have that! So it is not uncommon to read someone like Coyne arguing that we pro-science evangelicals do not know our bible, and the  fundamentalist caricature is the true expression of our faith.

But reconciling the bible with science is a good thing. Demonstrating that the bible did not in fact, as was long believed, teach geocentricism--which was spurred on by the overwhelming scientific evidence for heliocentricism--was a good development, not an abandonment. It is not scripture that we modify, but fallible interpretations.

Back to award. MacDonald was vying for it from the start, but he landed it with this whopper:
There is no more scientific basis for the belief in life after death than there is for the outlandish suggestion that humans and dinosaurs once roamed the earth together. 

 The statement is trivially true. It is the implied equivalence that is monumentally stupid. This can be seen two ways. The first is by substituting other conjectures for which there is no scientific basis (if by basis we mean actual evidence.)

  • There is no more scientific basis for the belief in multiple universes than there is for the outlandish suggestion that humans and dinosaurs once roamed the earth together. 
  • There is no more scientific basis for the belief that the fundamental constituents in nature are cosmic strings (String Theory) than there is for the outlandish suggestion that humans and dinosaurs once roamed the earth together. 

The lack of equivalence can also be seen by flipping the sense of the argument:

  • There are millions of pieces of evidence (the fossil record) that men and dinosaurs did not walk the earth together.
  • There is no piece of evidence that a soul does not survive death.

So clear space on the mantle! Congratulations!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Jerry Coyne, Slug

Twice now, most recently here,  Jerry has referred to the title of my good friend Tom Gilson's blog Thinking Christian as "oxymoronic". Gee Jerry, we got it the first time. Har, har. You want to make sure that we notice you have cleverly recognized that "thinking" and "Christian" are antithetical. Thanks for using the same joke again. Just in case it was too high-brow. (Which might be true for some of Jerry's fanboys.) I can imagine you squirming in your seat and giggling as you typed it in. A second time. Dare we hope for a third?

Seriously. Is Jerry in middle school? Who could possibly think such an insult is funny or clever? It is on par with calling Dembski,  "Dumbski". Speaking of Dembski, it is on par with morphing Coyne's picture onto Herman Munster, as Dembski once did. The two, it would appear, have about the same level of sophistication in their humor.

Tom Gilson and I have experienced another aspect of Jerry Coyne's slugness first hand. Both of us can no longer post comments on Jerry's blog. Dembski, when he banned me from Uncommon Descent (for sarcastic anti-ID comments) at least had the cajones to say that he was banning me. PZ Myers, for all his faults, gives people repeated warnings and then places them in a dungeon. He posts, for posterity, the reason they were banned and, amazingly, a courtesy link to the banned person's blog, if there is one. Not Jer. When the mood strikes he, slug-like, either places a filter or simply stops approving your comments. (He may then address your last comment in an attempt to convince his fanboys that you are so devastated by his repartee that you have slithered away, licking your wounds.) 

Jerry doesn't like Tom Gilson much. I am  referring to Jer's recent post: It’s about morality, stupid: why Dawkins won’t debate William Lane Craig. It was in this post that Jerry first unleashed the devastating "Thinking Christian is an oxymoron" uber-insult.

The post was ostensibly about why Dawkins refuses to debate Craig. As an aside, like many I am not a fan of debates. For that matter, as a presuppositionalist, I am not a big of William Lane Craig's apologetics, either.  But Coyne reports that Dawkins's reason for not debating Craig is Craig’s reprehensible defense of the slaughters ordered by God in the Old Testament.

So Dawkins won’t debate Craig because Craig defends the slaughter of the Canaanites during the conquest of Palestine.  I don’t get it—why would the fact that someone holds a position that you find reprehensible cause you not to debate them? Shouldn't it, if anything, stoke the flames of outrage and encourage you to debate? 

I say that this is an aside because it is the only on-topic (i.e., related to the title of the post) discussion Coyne provides.

You see, Coyne doesn't really want to discuss why Dawkins won't debate Craig. He sorta, kinda wants to discuss the Euthyphro Dilemma.  The old "Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?" conundrum.

And it is not even that. The actual reason for the post is nothing more than this: Coyne wants to criticize Tom Gilson who gave him a less than favorable (but in fact way too kind) review of an atrocious op-ed piece Coyne wrote for USA Today.

The USA Today piece is stupid from top to bottom, beginning with its title (which of course may not have been written by Coyne):  As atheists know, you can be good without God. This plays on Atheist Victimhood, which along with all other types of victimhood (including Christian victimhood) is an American epidemic. The title attempts to address what is never charged: that atheists cannot behave morally. Indeed, I suspect my fellow evangelicals will confirm that what their pastors complain about in the pulpit is not that atheists cannot behave morally, but rather that our behavior is not noticeably better.

Coyne's poor logic is demonstrated by the last sentence in his op-ed, which simply reiterates the title: Clearly, you can be good without God. But of course Coyne has demonstrated no such thing--all he has demonstrated (which nobody disputes) is that you can be good without believing in god. He has not established the non-existence of god, and has not demonstrated that god could never be the source of goodness for all men, believers or not. (Common Grace).

Recent studies about American students' mathematical abilities place them near the bottom in actual ability among industrialized nations. But there is good news: they are at the very top in terms of their math self-esteem. Atheist mathematician Jason Rosenhouse who, unlike Coyne, writes with intelligence and integrity, commented on this phenomenon here

What these students are to math, Coyne is to religion. He is a complete and utter idiot, yet his self-esteem regarding his religious acumen is stratospheric. The first time I realized this is when I was astounded to read that he took the proof of God's nonexistence by Epicurus (God cannot be omnibenevolent and omnipotent, ergo no god) seriously. I'm a presuppositionalist primarily because I cannot take any of the proofs of god seriously--and yet some of those constructs are superior to Epicurus' proof. Coyne can dismiss (rightly so) arguments from Aquinas on the existence of God with a wave of his hand, while at the same time write with all seriousness, and irony meter intact: earthquakes kill people, ergo no god

Speaking of irony, Jerry's little joke about "oxymoron"in a post about debating is particularly ironic. Tom Gilson, in a debate on religion, would utterly decimate poor Jerry although Jerry, blinded by his misplaced self esteem, probably wouldn't notice.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Thank You for your Social Consent

I came across an atheist blogger of whom I was not familiar. Her blog is the self-named Greta Christina's Blog

I found her short recent post, Religion Relies on Social Consent interesting.

I’ll admit this up front: her post is generic (religion) but my response will be, for the most part, specifically Christian.

One thing I didn't like in her post--but is unfortunately quite common--is the use of the Reductio ad Hyperlink argument. This is where a bold assertion is hyperlinked, giving the impression that a substantive, on-target argument awaits you on the other side. For example, she writes, about religion,
“At best it’s almost certainly wrong”.
The "almost certainly wrong" there, as here, is a link. Surely it is a scholarly article arguing convincingly that religion is "almost certainly wrong." No, it is a link to one her own posts—a "top ten list" enumerating the reasons, all very common, why she doesn’t believe in God.

She uses the Reductio ad Hyperlink argument again, here:
Religious beliefs are either unfalsifiable — in which case we should reject them on that basis alone — or they’ve been falsified. It has never, ever, ever turned out to be the right answer to anything.
The link, you may have guessed, takes you to another of her posts which does not, in fact, demonstrate that religion has never, ever, ever turned out to be the right answer to anything.

Of course it is not only religious believes that are unfalsifiable. I have pointed out before you can, on lucky occasions, encounter internecine warfare on the atheist uber-rationalist sites over questions like "Is animal testing ever ethical?" Or heated brouhahas on gun control, veganism or (perhaps especially) libertarianism. When one atheist uber-rationalist argues with another over animal testing it is because in their "hearts" one holds belief A, that people have no more value than, say, a lab rat, and the other holds belief B that people are at least slightly more valuable than lab rats. Beliefs A and B are unfalsifiable beliefs--not based on rational thinking (othewise they wouldn't disagree!) but on irrational presuppositions that they obfuscate by calling them "values"--which are of course indistinguishable from religious beliefs. Pot. Kettle. Black.

Now, as to Greta Christina's thesis, which she has been “kicking around for sometime,” it is this: 

Religion cannot stand on its own—it relies on social consent. Remove the social consent and religion, it is be believed and hoped, will collapse under its own weight. She tells us:
So those of us who think religion is a bad idea — mistaken at best, flat-out harmful at worst — have to deny our consent.
Let us examine how the consent is to be denied. How does Greta Christina argue that religion is perpetuated?
It perpetuates itself through people not asking hard questions
Well, if this is true you have to blame the gnu atheists--because they ask the least challenging, and most utterly boring questions. Ever. For example Dawkins's seminal question of religion is: if god made everything, who made god? Still, if they did ask good questions, I doubt it would have the desired effect. Because the old atheists, like Betrand Russell, did ask hard questions. Yet it did not seem to harm Christianity or "deny consent" when there were smart atheists asking hard questions. On the contrary I would say it strengthened Christianity by forcing self-examination. No need to be a Berean when, say, PZ Myers's intellectual contribution, in terms of challenging Christianity, is to take pictures of communion wafers in a trash can. Russell caused Christians to dig into the bible to address is criticisms. Myers and the gnus cause us to scratch our nether regions and click on to search for something, anything, interesting. Continuing:
It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that asking questions about religion is sinful and will result in punishment, and that trusting religion without evidence is virtuous. 
Examples please? I have never witnessed, in either evangelical Protestantism or Roman Catholicism, any  admonition that asking questions is sinful and will result in punishment. Indeed, building on the point above regarding the failure of gnu atheists to ask anything challenging--the difficult questions for Christianity are asked by only one group: Christians.

The second point is also wrong. At least for Christianity. It--understandably because almost all atheists get this wrong--treats faith as something that one musters up and is therefore virtuous. The bible, of course, teaches that such a notion is utter nonsense:  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8) Faith, in and of itself, is not virtuous. It's a gift.

But even if it were true--where does social consent come in? Are you graciously allowing us to have faith? What action would you take that would result in a denial of social consent if this entire point were true? 
It perpetuates itself through dogma saying that joy and meaning and morality can only be found in religion, and that leaving religion will automatically result in a desperate, amoral, pointless life.
Actually I never was taught that morality is found in religion, even Christianity. Religion is man-made. Religion can't do squat. Instead I have always been taught that God provided a moral compass for all people. So unbelievers and believers, given that the source of their morality is the same (God, not religion) have, to first order, the same morality. Nor have I ever heard that leaving Christianity will automatically result in a desperate, amoral life. On the contrary, what is common to hear in a Sunday sermon is an admonition that our behavior is indistinguishable if not worse than unbelievers--who often live admirable lives. 

As for pointless--I'll concede that point.

But again even if it were true--where does social consent come in? Would you make it criminal for us to argue that morality comes from religion? What act are you proposing to counter this form of perpetuation?
It perpetuates itself through parents and other authority figures teaching it to children, whose brains are extra-vulnerable to believing whatever they’re taught.
And what do you propose? That it is illegal to teach your religion to your children? If so, would you stop there? Or would other ideas that parents indoctrinate their children with come under review? Children adopt the politics of their parents too. I adopted my father's Ayn Randism (Objectivism). Until such time as I jettisoned it--about the same time many of the kids of religious parents were walking away from the faith of their parents. Could parents teach their kids to be Objectivists? Communists? White Supremacists? Vegans? Meat lovers? 

It is true that my child-brain was vulnerable and readily aligned itself with my father's politics. But it didn't stick. God or evolution (or both) seems to have wired people to, as they approach adulthood, start thinking on their own. That may be why in any given church you will find a great diversity of pedigree. Some come from religious families. Some, like me, from non-religious families. Some kids stay in the church. Some leave. 
 It perpetuates itself through social and even legal protections that keep religious leaders and organizations from suffering consequences when they behave despicably.
It would be hard to argue, especially given the scandals in the Catholic Church, that there is not some truth here. However if the solution is to vigorously enforce all laws, and to exact appropriate punishment for any member of any church that commits a crime, and to punish the church officials who cover up such crimes--there were do I sign the petition?  
 It perpetuates itself through religious communities and support systems that make believing in religion — or pretending to believe in religion — a necessity to function and indeed survive. 
My counter to this is that I have the greatest job in the world. Tenured professor. And most of my colleagues are atheists. Many are vocal. In the bible belt. They seem to be doing quite well. I don't see the evidence for your claim.

Still, I'd like to know, once again --what do you propose?
So those of us who think religion is a bad idea — mistaken at best, flat-out harmful at worst — have to deny our consent.
But how? Most of what you described is self-perpetuation. All I can see for you to do, given you list of what perpetuates religion is:
  1. Get the gnus to do something useful beyond self-aggrandizement and preaching to the choir
  2. Criminalize teaching religion to your children
  3. Prosecute criminals and those who harbor them in the church
Is there something I missed?

Based on this essay, I won't lose any sleep over a denial-of-consent attack.

I actually missed the end of her post. There she writes that denying social consent is one of the biggest reasons for atheists to come out of the closet. Somehow this, in and of itself, denies social consent. I don't see how, but I am all for atheists coming out of the closet. The numbers of self-identified Christians in the US is absurdly high. No doubt a great many of them are closet atheists. It is a win-win if they would come out of the closet. Atheists masquerading as Christians because of family or peer pressure is no good for anyone. So I completely support her call for more atheist billboards, clubs, etc. Anything that reduces the stigma of being an atheist.

The difference is that she thinks this would hurt the church (religion), whereas I see it as an invaluable service to the church. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Jerry Coyne Lidless Eye Award

We are pleased to announce the Jerry Coyne Lidless Eye award, which will be given, as appropriate, to celebrate and recognize exceptional stupidity in writing about the intersection of religion and science.

The inaugural award goes to, of course, Jerry Coyne. We do feel the necessity for making a solemn promise: while he certainly provides more than enough material, we pledge that the award will not always go to Jerry Coyne.

But today it does.

Today he attacks the Washington Post writer Charles Krauthammer. The title of Jerry’s post is “Charles Krauthammer gets science wrong.

Krauthammer writes about the buzz over the faster-than-light neutrinos. 

Here is what Jerry quotes from Krauthammer’s article:

Krauthammer : “The world as we know it is on the brink of disintegration, on the verge of dissolution. No, I’m not talking about the collapse of the euro [describes more political turmoil]
I am talking about something far more important. Which is why it made only the back pages of your newspaper, if it made it at all. Scientists at CERN, the European high-energy physics consortium, have announced the discovery of a particle that can travel faster than light.”
And here is Jerry’s criticism:
Jerry: "This is of course an exciting finding, one that could possibly revise all of 20th century physics.  The likelihood is, though, that’s it’s wrong, and even the scientists who found this have strong doubts about its veracity and have called for replication.  In a move that would do credit to a creationist, though, Krauthammer uses this doubt as an attack on scientists themselves—that our doubt comes not from the confidence that has accrued, though experiment and observation, to Einstein’s theory, but from scientists’ dogged refusal to even consider that relativity might be wrong, leading to their conclusion that the experiment itself must be wrong". (Boldface added)
What a sleaze you are, Jerry. A sleaze that would do credit to Duane Gish. Where has Krauthammer "attacked" scientists? He has not. Not in what you quoted, and not in the complete article. We continue:

Krauthammer : "The implications of such a discovery are so mind-boggling, however, that these same scientists immediately requested that other labs around the world try to replicate the experiment. Something must have been wrong — some faulty measurement, some overlooked contaminant — to account for a result that, if we know anything about the universe, is impossible.
And that’s the problem. It has to be impossible because, if not, if that did happen on this Orient Express hurtling between Switzerland and Italy, then everything we know about the universe is wrong. 
. . . This will not just overthrow physics. Astronomy and cosmology measure time and distance in the universe on the assumption of light speed as the cosmic limit. Their foundations will shake as well.
It cannot be. Yet, this is not a couple of guys in a garage peddling cold fusion. This is no crank wheeling a perpetual motion machine into the patent office. These are the best researchers in the world using the finest measuring instruments, having subjected their data to the highest levels of scrutiny, including six months of cross-checking by 160 scientists from 11 countries.
But there must be some error. Because otherwise everything changes. We shall need a new physics. A new cosmology. New understandings of past and future, of cause and effect. Then shortly and surely, new theologies.
Why? Because we can’t have neutrinos getting kicked out of taverns they have not yet entered."

All perfectly acceptable for a popular piece. Indeed the ramifications if the result stands are staggering. Robespierre Jerry, however, sees sinister, apostate forces at work:
Jerry: "This all sounds good to the non-scientist, and yes, we scientists suspect that something was wrong with the CERN experiment, but Krauthammer is right for the wrong reasons."
Yo Jerr, the piece is intended for non-scientists. It should sound good to them. Note that as even Jerry admits,  Krauthammer is correct, just not correct with sufficient piety. In Jerry's Sermon on the Mount, Jerry says: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not write inaccurately.' But I, Jerry, say to you that everyone who writes with non-Coyne-esque motivations has already committed plagiarism in his heart. " 

The pulling stuff out-his-butt continues:
Jerry: "We are doubtful not because we desperately need to cling to a paradigm that has seemed successful, but simply because overthrowing such a paradigm requires very strong evidence.  Scientists love findings that overturn what we thought we knew, for that opens up whole new areas of research and understanding. It’s what keeps us interested in the world. But before we put what we thought we knew into the dustbin, we must be very careful."
And where did Krauthhammer suggest that scientists are desperately clinging to paradigms? He didn’t say it—and if he had, he’d be partly right. Can you say “steady state universe”? Can you say “String Theory”? Yes, we require strong evidence to overturn a prevailing theory (Krauthhammer does not say otherwise--again Jerry, what a sleaze you are) but it is also not unheard of for some to hold on to cherished theories far beyond their expiration date. Fortunately the discipline is always more than the sum of its parts, and progress and peer-pressure will (usually) wear down even the most vested and stubborn. All of which is not relevant, were it not for Jerry’s paranoia/dishonesty, because Krauthhammer did not write what Jerry claimed.

Jerry: Krauthammer’s editorial, which sounds so reasonable, actually profoundly mischaracterizes the nature of science.
It sounds reasonable because it is. (Well actually it is kind of boring—but it is not unreasonable.) And it absolutely does not mischaracterize the nature of science. Let alone "profoundly" so. 

But all this was just bluster. The true stripes are about to be revealed:
Jerry: And I think he’s saying these things because he’s trying to diss scientists as adherents to a form of faith.  Ten to one he’s either religious or an accommodationist. (I’m just guessing here; I have no idea.)
There we have the lidless eye! Nothing can escape Jerry’s fixed stare of orthodoxy. This is what Jerry wanted to say. This is his main point. The rest was just a very weak setup so that this last paragraph would appear to have legs to stand on. Fail. Ten to one Jerry is mendacious.  (I’m not just guessing here, the evidence is clear.)

The Lidless Eye is an appropriate name for the Jerry Coyne award. Like a John Bircher, Coyne sees his accommodationist  bogeymen hiding under every bed.

UPDATE: It is always amusing to look at the commenters on Jerry's posts, many of whom try to outdo one another in their efforts to seek his approval. A few of the numerous chowderheaded comments:

"Krauthammer is a devoted follower of a faith-based ideology, conservatism, and is therefore incapable of comprehending science, which is neither faith-based nor an ideology."
"This is too familiar
Something happened that science didn’t predict. Therefore science is wrong and evolution is refuted. Therefore ID and creationism are true."
"Krauthammer absolutely knows he’s lying about science." 
Krauthammer is, I gather, a conservative. But the problem for these Coyne-Lemmings is that he also is a non-religious Jew who has written forcefully against creationism and Intelligent Design. These pinheads simply followed Jerry's lead: Jerry sez this be a bad man, so surely he is a Templeton Prize winner and an ID super-advocate and a god-bot.

But fittingly the dumbest comment is from Jerry himself. A rare dissenting commenter slipped through Jerry's nixplanatory filter and asked
So where is the science that Krauthammer got wrong?
To which the Jerr replied:
I didn’t say he got the science wrong;
Um, Jerry, you might want to check the title of your post.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Law, Lesson 2: What is the Question?

We start here with a lighthearted verse:
13 “‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. (Lev 20:13)
Fast-forward to the 21st century and you have the repulsive Westboro (unfortunately) Baptist Church. And their loathsome (worse than unfortunately) Calvinist pastor, Fred Phelps.

Phelps and his sheep use Lev 20:13 to justify all manner of attacks on homosexuality and anything they see deriving from our nation's tolerance thereof. This leads them to, most notoriously, protest at the funerals of fallen US soldiers. In order to justify their noxious protests they somehow connect the dots from our ignoring Lev 20:13 to the American military.

But what about Lev 20:13? It is certainly a commandment from God. And, it appears, a lasting (as opposed to a one-off) commandant intended to stand for at least some duration (how long?).  And God is not making an exception--it is not situational ethics as discussed earlier. God is not saying: do not summarily execute practicing homosexuals *unless* they are overly flamboyant and flaunt their proclivities and corner the market on nice city apartments. Furthermore, as will be relevant for later discussion, the commandment appears to be, or at least is arguably, moral in nature as opposed to civil or ceremonial. A plain reading of Lev 20:13 is: Homosexual activity is immoral to the point of being an abomination. Kill them

If the problem for us is not apparent, atheists are ready, out of the goodness of their hearts, to put the issue into stark relief. In my post Internet Atheists Facts O' Fun I enumerated some laws of internet atheist apologetics. One of these laws was The Law of Bright Darkness:
The Law of Bright Darkness: The worse the behavior of a Christian, the more honest the Christian is. For example, this comment from a reader on Ed Brayton's blog :
 If you really want to see the most honest adapation [sic] of what the bible and Christianity really stands far if you follow the most literal interpretation of the bible, go to Phelps.
What this atheist commenter is alleging is that Phelps is more honest than the rest of us. The rest of us are so-called "cafeteria Christians." We, à la carte, pick and choose from the Old Testament what verses we like and let the inconvenient verses sit untouched well beyond their expiration date. According to this commenter (who is merely representative) we should call for the death of gays, blasphemers and disobedient children--were it not that we, unlike Phelps, are too cowardly and not true to our faith. The intent of the commenter, if it is not obvious, is not to redirect our faith but to demonstrate how hateful Christianity is.

As an  aside, atheists will bristle if you say "Phelps is not a true Christian!" This will immediately earn you a charge of having committed the dreaded "No True Scotsman" logical fallacy:

Alice: All Scotsmen enjoy haggis.
Bob: My uncle is a Scotsman, and he doesn't like haggis!
Alice: Well, all true Scotsmen like haggis.

(It can be, be needn't be, a legitimate charge--but almost never is it legitimate as atheists use it. They tend to use it as misapplied rhetorical language obfuscating their true position: anyone who claims to be a Christian, is. Legitimate examples of the fallacy are, alas, easy to find in the family: I don't see how you can be a Christian and yet believe that the earth is billions of years old.)

The fact that if we say Phelps is not a Christian1  we are committing a logical fallacy while an atheist can say Phelps is a truer Christian than we are without his irony meter exploding--well it is consistent with the fact that atheists have been given a sort-of blanket immunity from the No True Scotsman charge. All this is codified in three additional laws of internet atheism:
The I-Say-Therefore-I-Am Law: Questioning the sincerity of self-identified Christians such as Fred Phelps (or the Big H—-you know, that guy with the funny little mustache) is immediately dismissed as a No True Scotsman Fallacy. The definition of a Christian is: "anyone who claims (or ever claimed--if no explicit renouncement is available) they are a Christian."
Exception to the I-Say-Therefore-I-Am Law: Anyone questioning the atheism of an inconvenient self-proclaimed atheist (such as students who gun down their classmates) is granted blanket immunity from the No True Scotsman Fallacy. It's only fair. 
The Ipso Facto No Atheist Is That Bad Law: Stalin and Mao were not atheists. They were demigods of the religions Stalinism and Maoism. We know this because mass murder on such a scale can only be committed by religionists.
Now, hilarity aside, we must ask ourselves the question: was that commenter correct? Does he have a point? Should we be calling for the death of practicing homosexuals? And if not, why not?--and why not biblically, not just "because people would not like us."

Some Christians, in fact, agree with the commenter. Most of us do not--but we may not how to make the argument scripture based rather than emotion based. One of the goals of this course will be to equip us with the tools to a) tell the commenter he is full of crap, which he is, and b) to back up that charge.

1 I for one would not say that Phelps is not a Christian. Instead I  would say this: showing no perceptible fruit, the basis upon which we who claim the title Christian are supposed to judge one another, I refuse to regard him as a Christian and instead, as instructed, consider him worse than an unbeliever. If he came to my church (other than for repentance) I would not serve him communion, and would in fact toss his Ichabod-Crane-like skinny ass out of the building.

Friday, October 14, 2011

New building on the way

Virtually every building on our stunning campus is new.
Alas our building, which houses computer science, computer engineering, physics and my new department, mathematics, is the last old, decrepit academic building. It's a bit like the movie Up, where the old house was surrounding by shiny new buildings.

But no worries! the new building, Luter Hall, has broken ground and will be ready for Fall 2013. I'm sure you'll want to follow its construction here on the Luter Cam.

When the building opens, I will go to the biology, chemistry and psych departments, which are in the brand-spanking-new building (Forbes Hall) that just opened this semester and ask: "How can you stand being in this old, out-of-date facility?" Can't wait!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Jerry shoots and scores!

Jerry, puffing himself up for winning a debate, writes
"As to why the universe is comprehensible, well, I fail to see how that provides evidence for God.  In fact, if there were a theistic God—and Haught is indeed a theist who thinks that God intervenes in the world—I would expect the universe to be not comprehensible"
Here we find two thoughts, illogically strung together. But both follow the standard "proof by the fact Jerry sez so." We are familiar with this construct:
Q: Science and Christianity are incompatible because: 
A) It has been demonstrated that peer-reviewed publications from believing scientists are detectably "different" from those of atheist scientists. A clever person can detect which papers in, say, Phys. Rev. Lett. are published by believers masquerading as scientists.
B) Theists must allow "it was a miracle" as an explanation for anomalous data. They say they don't--they say that they follow the scientific method--but we know what they are really thinking. 
C) Certain experiments are simply impossible for theists. Which ones are unimportant--some just are.  
D) Only faitheists and accomodationists disagree, and we all know that they are big fat dummies.
E) Jerry sez so. Oh, he throws about words like "epistemology" but the bottom line is: Jerry sez so.
The correct answer, of course, is E.

So here Jerry writes: 
As to why the universe is comprehensible, well, I fail to see how that provides evidence for God.
Now of course the comprehensibility of the universe is not direct physical evidence for god or anything else. But one can argue that of all we know about the universe it is the best apologetic for God. Better than anything ID has mustered. I wrote about that here, in The Unreasonable Success of Physics. In that post I quote Feynman, commenting on the success of science:
What is it about nature that lets this happen, that it is possible to guess from one part what the rest is going to do? That is an unscientific question: I do not know how to answer it, and therefore I am going to give an unscientific answer. I think it is because nature has a simplicity and therefore a great beauty. Richard Feynman, "Seeking New Laws," pp. 143-167, in Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, New York: Modern Library, 1994. Quote is from p. 167.
Feynman recognizes that the success of science is due to something metaphysical: nature's simplicity and beauty. Others recognize it as exactly the kind of universe that God created and told us he created. We see it as prima facie evidence or at least faith affirming.

Not the Jerr. The  Jerr goes on:

In fact, if there were a theistic God—and Haught is indeed a theist who thinks that God intervenes in the world—I would expect the universe to be not comprehensible"
Thank you Jerry. Inventing a view of god that is incompatible with the universe and then declaring victory because god and the universe are incompatible is surely a scholarly approach worthy of emulation. Well played, sir.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


I am in the process of delinking blogs that removed their link to here. (My view of links has always been one of mutual courtesy, not an endorsement). If you want to reestablish links, let me know.

The Law, Lesson 1: Absolute Truth

In John 18:38 Pilate, interrogating Jesus, asks “What is truth?”

Interestingly there is no agreement as to whether this question was asked in earnest or was asked dismissively. Was Pilate asking a deep question, hoping to connect with Jesus, perhaps to understand him better? Or was he dismissing the concept of truth (“Bleh. What’s this truth thing anyway?”) in a well-meaning attempt to advise Jesus to say anything to save himself? Nobody knows.

The great biblical commentator Andrew Lloyd Webber believed Pilate was asking a serious question. To drive home the point he took poetic license in his opera Jesus Christ Superstar and put these words in Pilate’s mouth:
 And what is 'truth'? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?” 
Here Pilate, insightful at least in Webber’s mind, connects truth with unchanging law. We shall ponder that connection as well. Is God’s law a representation of the truth? Of absolute truth? If the truth is unchanging, does that mean the law is also unchanging? Can the law ever change?

Lest you think this is unimportant, this entire course can be summarized by the question: can the law ever change, and if so which laws?

We have to, in fact, get past the trivial

Absolute Truth → Unchanging Law

or this will be a very short course indeed.

We begin in everyone’s favorite book, Leviticus:

 3 “‘If the anointed priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, he must bring to the LORD a young bull without defect as a sin offering for the sin he has committed. 4 He is to present the bull at the entrance to the tent of meeting before the LORD. He is to lay his hand on its head and slaughter it there before the LORD. (Lev 4:3-4).

We could use many other verses to make the same point. But the bottom line is that in the Old Testament God commanded:

If the people/priests sin, there must be an animal sacrificed.

Today, of course, Christians sacrificing an animal as an attempt to deal with sin would be considered an abomination. What was moral has become immoral. What was right has become wrong. So in this case, at least, the law has surely changed—setting the precedent that laws do change. The question of law-changing, it appears, will not be the of the trivial yes/no end-of-the-story variety but the more complicated: which laws change?

But our concern at the moment is for "absolute truth". In agreeing that the law (at least some) can and has changed, we are left with the question: Have we then  sacrificed absolute truth?

The answer is a resounding “no”. However, to appreciate that answer we may have to revise what we think of as absolute truth.
Moral Absolutes and Situational Ethics

Most Christians take the view: 

Moral Absolutes: good
Situational Ethics: bad

But this is due, I believe, to a kind of false dichotomy. That is, it is perceived that Moral Absolutes and Situational Ethics are in conflict.

Now, contrary to this popular Christian belief, not all moral decisions are absolute. There most certainly are situational ethics in Christianity. Jesus tells us that the Sabbath was made for man, not vice versa. Even the most fundamentalist Christian denominations that take the position that you should not work on a Sunday1 will say: "No working on Sunday unless, um, you have to." Much of the Mosaic law reads like precedent setting, situational specific, case law: "You may not, willy-nilly, kill your neighbors ox! Unless your neighbor's ox was a serial offender of the goring variety, then you may kill him. The ox, that is." 

So the bible is chock-full of situational ethics, not the most pleasant of which is: killing people is wrong, unless God commands you. I am thinking here, of course, of the conquest of Canaan. Now, I believe you can make a more than compelling case that the conquest of the Holy Land was a one-time event in God's redemptive plan and we have reason to expect that God will never command us to annihilate anyone, and we are certainly under no standing orders to take anyone's life or property, but nevertheless the point remains: it is absolutely wrong to commit murder, and yet Joshua was not sinning when he engaged in genocide.

There is no way for a Christian who holds to the simpleminded relationship: moral absolutes are the opposite of situational ethics to reconcile this tension. That is because in my opinion they misunderstand moral absolutes.

They're not in tension. We just need proper definitions:

Wrong Definition of Moral Absolute: If God and any point says it is wrong to commit act A, then it is always wrong to commit act A. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Correct Definition of Moral Absolute: if it is wrong for one person to commit act A in situation S, then it is wrong for any person to commit act A in the same situation S.

The latter definition preserves the proper Christian aversion to moral relativism. In the same situation, it cannot be morally wrong for one person to behave in a certain manner while, for whatever reason, it is morally acceptable for another. Moral absolutism is preserved over moral relativism. At the same time, situational ethics may and indeed must be considered. 

Suppose, for the sake of argument, we return to the common (but not necessarily correct) church teaching that is situational ethics par excellence: it is not permissible to work on Sunday, unless it is a work of necessity. (Again, I'm not arguing whether or not this is the correct view of the day of rest. That's a separate topic. I'm just using it here as an example.) In these terms it would mean:
  • Working on Sunday is, to first order, wrong.
  • Working on Sunday, if is not a work of necessity, is absolutely wrong.
  • Working on Sunday, if it is a work of necessity, is acceptable—and it is an example of situational ethics.
  • Working on Sunday, even if it is not a work of necessity, is permissible for some as long as they don't feel guilty about it is an example of moral relativism, and is wrong.

Of course, some of the ethics are not situational, but absolute. These are the apodictic laws. Apodictic laws are universally binding principles that tend to use the familiar "you shall" and "you shall not" form:
3"You shall have no other gods before Me. 4"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. (Ex. 20:3-4)

Clearly these are not conditional laws, but rather universal absolutes. There is no condition that, if it is met (or if it fails to be met) would allow a person to have another god before God. Under all circumstances, we shall have no other gods before God.

Yet even then, when there is no possibility of dispute, we will find dispute. In particular we will face a tricky question: although apodictic laws are absolutes, can they be nullified in the sense that they are replaced by a fuller revelation of the law? In the same sense that the absolute truths of the proto-gospel and the absolute truths of the messianic prophecies are replaced by the fuller revelation of the finished work of Christ, is it possible that the apodictic laws, though absolute, can be replaced by something better? Are they types of the true law. 

A secular example would be, suppose this law:

was replaced by this law:

Was the first absolute, and yet nullified and replaced by the second?

We shall ask such vexing questions.

1 We make no comment at this point about whether it is proper for Christians to work on Sunday. It is just an example of where situational ethics can be found even in those denominations that would be most violently opposed to the idea.