Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Seasons Greetings

The fine folk over at Volokh Conspiracy have authored a fascinating and insightful series of posts on the various holiday salutations we use to greet each other during this time of year, which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in the subject. 

 

Judging by the content and tone of all of those articles, I’m struck with the sense that none of the authors betrays the experience of having lived in the Bible Belt after the onset of hostilities in the annual War On Christmas.  They evidently have no sense of what it is like to live in a culture in which Christianity is so pervasive as to be taken for granted, in which people will routinely ask, by way of introduction, “What church do you attend?” and proceed to take offense if one refuses to discuss your personal religious beliefs.  The idea that “Merry Christmas” might be an attempt to subtly assert superior insider status over non-Christians doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind over at Volokh, which is particularly odd given that the authors are presumably familiar with Justice O’Connor’s reconceptualization of the constitutional disestablishment principle, “Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”  Of course, she was writing about endorsement by government officials, but the underlying social principle is surely no different in interpersonal relations than it is with official decrees.  In social situations, signals of outsider/insider status are surely more prevalent and vital than in official messages sent out scattershot by bureaucrats to no one in particular.

 

No doubt social conservatives are not following me by this point, and so I’ll try to paint you guys a thought picture which may help.  You’re in D.C. for a conference next month (what horrible timing) and some revelers on the street cheerfully wish you a “Happy Inauguration Day!”  When you pause non-responsively, they stop to carefully eye your reaction.  You try not to scowl, but as you feel your facial muscles relax, you realize that you’ve already given away your displeasure with the nation’s most recent choice of chief executive.  The revelers give you a knowing, “Ah, not one of us, what a shame for you!” look as they gambol off to make more merriment, leaving you standing in the cold, wondering why they have to be so annoyingly evangelical in their glee.  Why total accost strangers with it, presumptively assuming that their own joy is shared by one and all? 

 

I’m not saying that “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart” as Scrooge would have it, but I would like for people to consider it a sign of respectful deference to refuse to assume that everyone one meets on the streets is a coreligionist, celebrating the unique incarnation of the One True God.  If you’d bristle at being taken for a member of another faith, then you ought perhaps think twice before encouraging total strangers to rejoice in your own.  Christians, of all people, ought do unto others as they themselves would be done by.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reddest state?

I have grown weary of the MSM spreading around (like so much ripe manure) the meme that Oklahoma has taken over from Utah as the reddest state in the nation. My friends, this is simply not so.

By way of illustration, picture in your mind every McCain voter in a given state contributing a drop of red paint into a giant bucket, and each Obama voter contributing an equally-sized blue drop into the same bucket. On this theory, N. Carolina and Missouri come out as nearly perfectly purple, having almost equal numbers of blue and red voters. Washington D.C. is almost wholly blue, and the reddest state is…

WYOMING

That is right, Wyoming. For every Obama voter in Wyoming, there were two McCain voters. Oklahoma ran a close second, with a ratio of 1.91 McCain voters per Obama voter. Better luck next time, Okies. Now get back on your horses and ride herd to the nearest watering hole.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Happy Constitution Day!

For those of you hoping to ruminate on the Constitutional issues of our times with an eye to electoral politics, I would suggest taking in a few hours of Con Law from Professor Obama. I especially recommend his own model answers, if you want to see how constitutional law is really done. Enjoy!

p.s. If anyone can find anything remotely indicative of this level of thoughtfulness on such weighty matters of law and policy from the McCain-Palin ticket, please let me know.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Midwestern Tuscan Villa

I've seen beautiful villas in Europe and on the American coasts, but I never expected to find one out here smack in the middle of Kansas surrounded by endless fields, accessible only by unpaved roads.

Seriously, this was the most amazing man-made thing I've ever seen in a rectangular state.

p.s. Congrats to the groom and best wishes to the bride!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Bible Belt Redux

UIUC’s electoral projections map fairly nicely onto my Bible Belt map from awhile back.  Coincidence? 

Modeling the Electoral College

With degrees in maths and some background in mod/sim, one might suppose that I would at some point get around to mathematically modeling to the upcoming presidential election.  I’ll spare you the gory details, but the upshot of this chart is that the odds of a McCain-Palin victory are hovering below 4% as of this morning’s state-by-state polling data.  These are roughly the same odds that Obama-Biden landslide into office with over 72% of the electoral college votes.  Naturally, I am hoping for an outcome somewhere within one sigma from the median, since elections which fall well within the tails seem to smack of systemic bias.

 

Crunch the numbers, ye conservatives, and despair.

 

p.s. The math geeks at UIUC have come to rather similar conclusions: http://election08.cs.uiuc.edu/

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bidding on Biden

I hope these political futures traders know something that we don't.

Mything in Action (II)


A deeply principled man and eventual national hero is suffering horribly in a Communist prison camp, in which communication between prisoners and others is strongly discouraged.  When this particular prisoner’s spirits are at low ebb, an improbable expressionless figure appears and draws a cross in the sand, silently sharing the love of Christ.  At this point, the woeful prisoner experiences a spiritual renewal; an uplift of hope and faith which helps him to carry on until his eventual release.



Does this brief yet relatively detailed summary encapsulate a series of events allegedly experienced by Alexander Solzhenitsyn or by John McCain?  Does a complete lack of firsthand documentary evidence in the quarter-century after these events allegedly transpired cast reasonable doubt on whether they actually occurred at all?  Does the unlikely level of similarity between the two stories suggest they are not biographical but mythical?  Was this wonderfully uplifting story (like so many others) nothing more than a collection of free-floating pious fictions spread from one pulpit to the next?

 

I’d really like to believe that John McCain is a truthful fellow, but then I would have to wonder whether he has trouble sorting out his own experiences from those he has heard from some long-forgotten pulpit.

 

 

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

McCain - 21st century mythmaker?

Here is a screenshot (thanks be unto YouTube) of a message which John McCain personally voiced over and approved, wherein he is seen gazing ever so serenely upon a cross scratched in the dirt by an unknown Brother in Christ – improbably enough – a prison guard in a Communist POW camp.

Andrew Sullivan has been deconstructing this story: here and there, hither and thither and yonder, and yet again. I’ve no doubt that he will continue running this to ground (like a terrier set loose upon a wounded rat) until finally the MSM decides to “break” the story that McCain is, in point of fact, creating pious fictions out of whole cloth.

Money quote:


If McCain has fabricated a religious epiphany for political purposes, it is about as deep a betrayal of core integrity as one can imagine, and the latest example of how pernicious the religious domination of political life in America has become.


My money is on this story being a pious fiction of relatively recent vintage, cooked up in a crock pot to serve to credulous evangelical voters who believe Obama was born a Muslim and see not a hint of irony in a certain controversial magazine cover.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Motivational Thought of the Day

Mondays being such as they are, I need a little extra motivation to help me slog through it all.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday Sermon (2008-08-17)



Check out this video of Reggie "The Infidel Guy" as his guests debate whether the most important Bible stories about Jesus are worth the parchment they were scribbled upon.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Obama-Nation that Causes Desolation

Christian Newswire:

John McCain's campaign ad "The One" has generated a lot of buzz regarding the Left Behind series [pious fictionalizations of a Christian apocalypse]. Political commentators are comparing McCain's portrayal of competitor Barack Obama with the blockbuster apocalyptic series' depiction of the antichrist. But even the series authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins don't think Obama is the antichrist.

Well thank the gods someone has finally had the guts to put out a viral video implying his political opponent is the anti-Christ. All aboard the Straight Talk express!

Amoral Rovian tactics aside, this is a rather clever strategy. McCain cannot come across as convincingly born-again like George II, but he can subtly and deniably spread the meme among credulous evangelicals that Obama is the anti-Christ, “The One.” Having followed Evangelical Christian apocalypticism for years before LaHaye started “writing” his novels (the first of which I actually slogged through) I caught the undertones of this video the very first time that I saw it. Nevertheless, the video breakdown and analysis from TIME magazine notes several particular symbols and allusions which may be easily missed.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Of Bism and other -ism's

Bism is a fictional world of the unfathomable depths, where fantastical creatures lead lives barely imaginable to us surface dwellers.  So it is with almost all the other “–ism’s” which I’ve come across.  Agnosticism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, &  Egoism might make a certain degree of sense to me, but only insofar as they comport with everyday (as opposed to philosophical) pragmatism.  Admittedly, there are a few –ism’s which I don’t mind having around for the sake of recreational reading and the occasional flash of insight.

That said, I find most –ism’s abominable, execrable, irrational, onerous, & unnecessary to boot.  Slip-shod, ad-hoc, jury-rigged, super-glued agglomerations of disparate, ragged-edged ideas hanging together solely on account of the strong force of human credulity.  Sometimes, though, you just have to tack the “ism” onto a religious/political ideology just to make sense of the situation.  Hence “Islamism” to denote (radical) politicized Muslim nationalism, and “Zionism” to denote politicized Jewish nationalism.  Their goals are something like Muslim and Jewish nation-states, respectively, with some degree of argument over the extent to which the ultra-orthodox will dictate policy and personal morality.  Why, then, do we not have a widely-known term for the Christian nationalist equivalent to these ideas – Christianism!

Andrew Sullivan is leading the charge in defining and spreading this meme, and thank all the gods for him.  No doubt this term will prove much more useful than the ill-begotten “Bright” in framing the issues in important debates.

 

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Shocking Doctrine from "Mainstream" Baptists

My friend Bruce Prescott is a comrade-in-arms for whom I've great respect and from whom I've learned much over the years. I enjoy his blog and usually tune in to his radio show. However, a recent post entitled Shock Doctrine and the SBC has a few points with which I beg to differ. I’m not going to comment on Naomi Klein's book (seeing as Tyler Cowen has already published the definitive takedown) but rather on Bruce’s post itself.

First off, if you want to dress down the neo-liberal free-marketeers, Chile is not your best bet. From Wikipedia’s list of countries by GDP per capita :


Note that the only other bright-green spot on the entire continent is actually a region of France (Guyane) and thus heavily subsidized by the EU. Evidently, Chicago school thinking has not exactly chilled Chile’s economic growth and prosperity, which would explain why other South American countries are queuing up for a taste of free markets and the good life.

Secondly, this comment is too much of a gem not to lampoon:

Fundamentalism has been as disastrous to Baptist life as Friedman's economics has been to capitalism.

Replace "disastrous" with "essential" and I would heartily agree. Friedman's economics are essentially capitalism, just as Baptist life has now become fundamentalism in both theory and practice. As much as I would like Bruce's approach to theology and ethics to be mainstream among Baptists, this ceased to be the case well before Naomi Klein graduated secondary school.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Christianity, Celibacy, Pederasty

The Chicagoist:


The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago announced today that it will pay $12.7 million to settle a suit against 11 priests brought by 16 victims of sexual abuse. Over the last 30 years, the Archdiocese of Chicago has settled 250 such suits.
[
Sun Times, Tribune]


Forget about the money for a moment, if you can, and just work the math for victimhood: 250 suits / 30 years is over 8 lawsuits settled out of court per year, on average. Since such suits may bring together multiple victims and perps (as this one did) the numbers of persons abused and molested in Chicago alone may be well in excess of eight persons per year. Probably most of these were young boys, if history is any guide to broad social trends.

Now, what is it about a profession which requires and enforces celibacy that attracts pedophiles? Wait…now that I think about it, who else is most likely to consider celibacy an employment benefit rather than a cost? Who else but would-be pederasts find their own sexual impulses so repugnant as to crave enforced celibacy? Necrophiliacs, maybe, but their victims almost never sue.

Saving the Planet

Just when you thought Sally Kern has wrapped up the award for greatest confusion between politics and piety:
"[Pelosi] is committed to her global warming fanaticism to the point where she has said that she's just trying to save the planet. We all know that someone did that over 2,000 years ago, they saved the planet -- we didn't need Nancy Pelosi to do that,"

- Michele Bachmann, quoted by TPM
Thank you, Minnesota. Nice to have the national spotlight off Silly Sally, if only for bit.

Tues. Tee


I hope someday to find an agnostic IDist who is angered (or at least discomfited) by both of the implications of this shirt. Most people I know do believe in some sort of god & some sort of biological evolution, so this shirt shouldn't piss people off too often.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin

Today I finally got a hold of a recording of The Genius of Charles Darwin from BBC 4.   Here is the most depressing segment of the show, although it is somewhat cheering to me personally to see that evidence-resistant religious indoctrination is a problem even in London.  Makes me feel a bit better about sending my children to the local public schools.

 

Money quote:


Charles Darwin's Origin of Species is one of the most precious books in the entire library of our species.  This book made it possible no longer to feel the necessity to believe in anything supernatural.  It completely revolutionized the way we see ourselves, the world, and our origins.


 

Reading This Week - Lewis Black

After several weeks of straight non-fiction, I deserve a little break. Lewis Black combines humor, satire, biography, and vitriol in this takedown of mainstream religion. This book is sort of like the experiencing the Four Horsemen on laughing gas and MILF-weed. I was going to read C.S. Lewis again this week, but decided that yet another series of supercilious sermons laced with Gordian-knotted illogic would just be too depressing.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Pray for Rain



I approve this message. If only the radical right would stick to influencing politics through ineffectual prayers, we'd have no need of Americans United or any other church/state watchdogs. Wooo!

Sunday Sermon (2008-08-10)


Daniel Dennett gives the definitive talk on infectious ideas.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Friday Fishbait - Darwin (Original)



My original Darwin fish sticker (not pictured) has since evolved into an FSM but the original is still the most potent and on-point.

Why Darwin of all the freethinkers who might serve as a counterpoint to Jesus?

Probably one reason is that Darwin has allegedly made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. More importantly, though, other great men of scientific progress (e.g. Galileo, Einstein) are no longer enduring a sustained attack upon their breakthroughs by those who sport the original (ΙΧΘΥΣ) fish. The opponents of Christian Nationalists are more reactive than progressive, striving to hold the line (e.g. on science curricula and textbooks) rather than push the envelope.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Sally Kern: God Warrior

While the Wikipedia entry for God Warrior is already taken by a woman widely known for her paranoid delusional ranting against non-Christians, Oklahoma’s own hometown heroine is not to be outdone. Yesterday Sally Kern lit up the AP wires once again on account of her militant message of ‘Judeo-Christian’ values; values such as intolerance, homophobia, islamophobia, reintegration of church and state, and the deference of all upright citizens to an apocalyptic ethical scheme spewed forth from a homeless street magician and motivational speaker with pretensions to greatness.

So, where exactly does one volunteer to stump door-to-door for Ron Marlett?

Ontological Argument for God

This is my very favorite argument for God, because it is so wonderfully sophistic, solipsistic, and (in later formulations) linguistically slapstick:

  1. If God is defined such that God exists, then God really does exist.

  2. "God" is defined as a being which, among other things, exists (necessarily)

  3. Therefore, God exists.

Given the tenuousness of the first premise, I really don't think we ought to waste loads of time on this one.

Clasping hands (if you've got them)



I know the perfect prayer for demonstrating the unquestioned divine power of whomever those calling themselves TheCall believe they are ringing up:

"Lord, heal our amputees!"

As it happens, American evangelicals strongly supported Gulf War II, and so it is only fitting that they should use their influence with the Creator of the Cosmos to help ameliorate some of its consequences.

So, Lou Engle, if you really believe “There are moments in history when a door for massive change opens” why don’t you prove it by opening wide the handicap accessible doors? Show us what your God can really do! I will personally repent and become an itinerant evangelist if only you can get God to grow back a few dozen limbs. It’s not much to ask, just a few veracious and verifiable miracles.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Most Dangerous Hypocrite

Does our society suffer more on account of “hypocritical pretenders to religion or by the openly profane?" Given the relatively recent resurgence of the religious right in all branches of government, this question is no less relevant now than when it was originally posed.

Here are a few (mildly paraphrased into modern English) of Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts on the matter, excerpted from Albert Henry Smyth’s collection of Franklin’s writings:

[A] public hypocrite every say deceives his betters, and makes them the ignorant trumpeters of his supposed Godliness: They take him for a Saint, and pass him for one, without considering that they are (as it were) the instruments of public mischief out of conscience, and ruin their country for God’s sake.

* * *

[T]he most dangerous Hypocrite in a Commonwealth, is one who leaves the Gospel for the sake of the Law: A Man compounded of Law and Gospel, is able to cheat a whole Country with his Religion, and then destroy them under color of Law: And here the Clergy are in great Danger of being deceived, and the People of being deceived by the Clergy, until the Monster arrives to such Power and Wealth, that he is out of the reach of both, and can oppress the People without their own blind Assistance."

I wonder what Franklin would say to Huckabee's grassroots groundswell, or Obama's faith in faith-based programs, or McCain's explicit conflation of Church and State?

Where your Google Hits Are, There Your Treasure Shall Be

Googling (as opposed to just having a go ogling) the Uncommon Descent blog reveals an interesting trend…

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Tues. Tee

Now that the possibility of salvation for unbaptised infants is accepted by most (not all) Catholics, and since Protestants generally already hold this view, it would seem that the vast majority of devout pro-lifers (as they like to call themselves) here in the U.S. assent to the idea that aborted fetuses probably pass directly into a beatific state rather than being damned to hell or resigned to limbo.

That said, one must wonder why our anti-abortion activists are so actively anti-abortion. What precisely is the spiritual harm done when a child is denied to opportunity to grow up, reach the age of accountability, reject the gospel, and be damned to hell? Given Jesus’ pronouncement concerning the narrowness of The Way, one might well conclude that the aborted children stand a far better chance than those born into this world, especially those born to those mothers who are persuaded or coerced into foregoing abortion.

Perhaps I ought to wear this shirt to the next Operation Rescue rally just for the sake of polling the people and getting a few choice vox pops on these matters, eh no?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Theistic certitude by state


Reading this week - St. Paulos the Apostate's Letter to the Americans


John Allen Paulos is witty and often humorous in his presentation and deconstruction of common theistic arguments. At times, though, he oversimplifies and understates the difficulty of the subject matter (surfacing from philosophical depths up to the shallows inhabited by the likes of Ray Comfort, Kirk Cameron, and the Rational Response Squad) presumably because his editors overemphasized the art of underestimating the understanding of literate laity. To each his own, though, and surely Paulos can do no worse than Dawkins when it comes to armchair theology.

GOD "BLESS" AMERICA

What is the deal with Christian Nationalists and the flagrant abuse of scare quotes? Seriously, guys, if you are want to emphasize a word, please use italics or boldface or underlining, or some combination of these legitimate techniques. This really oughtn’t be so hard to grasp.

Moreover, why do these right-wing-nuts believe America should be blessed rather than damned? Either the Haggard/Dobson/Falwell crowd is correct in claiming the nation has turned its back on God (making Jeremiah Wright’s jeremiads right, and properly prophetic) or else America is on the narrow path and warrants divine blessing rather than cursing. Either we are minding god or we are damning our country, but (for the love of god and country) please make up your damned minds!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sunday Sermon (2008-08-03)

"Queerer than we can suppose" with Richard Dawkins

Friday, August 1, 2008

Friday Fishbait - FSM

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is quite possibly one of the rarest and most controversial of the Endangered Species in the context of the Fish Wars.  Here is our fundamental creed:

Let us remember that there are multiple theories of Intelligent Design. I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was He who created all that we see and all that we feel. We feel strongly that the overwhelming scientific evidence pointing towards evolutionary processes is nothing but a coincidence, put in place by Him.

In His Most Noodly Name - rAmen!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bonus fishbait!

Friday Fishbait will feature an ever-growing collection of snapshots of and commentary upon the ongoing fish wars and new origins of species competing therein.

The excerpted photo of tennis star Ashley Harkleroad will not be featured as fishbait, but I just had to point this out to those of you who are not Playboy subscribers. Yes, it is a Jesus fish, and yes, it has a certain resemblance (and proximity, in this case) to a fertility icon used by heathens and cartoonists alike. Perhaps most notably, this symbol was once appropriated by the Church of the Ultimate Naked Truth, a formerly funky but now-defunct organization which generally avoided acronyms.

Hard-Core Latter-Day Anti-Federalists

道 (Đạo)

In The Abolition of Man C.S. Lewis has staked all on the assertion that what he terms the Tao (i.e. "Natural Laws" of ethics, doctrines of objective value) cannot be deduced or shown to be correct via any process of ratiocination.  Lewis claims that "I am not trying to prove [natural law's] validity by the argument from common consent. Its validity cannot be deduced. For those who do not perceive its rationality, even universal consent could not prove it."

This sort of talk is absurd on its face.  Either morality is teleological, or it is not.  If not, an apologist such as Lewis cannot hope to have a theistic account of the Tao.  If it is, we may talk about moral ends and ethical means and thereby reason out (logically and empirically) which rules are the most efficient means to those moral ends which we desire, either for their own sake or for the sake of obeisance.

Every ethical exhibit, each Earthly exemplar, one and all empirically explicable!  The question one must ask is "What would happen if metaphysical materialism was really true, and the Tao naught but natural phenomenon?"  Put another way, which particular moral rules would emerge organically as families, tribes and societies adopt rules motivated by their natural desires and common goals, e.g. prosperity for their kin and kith, woe unto their enemies.  Lewis fails to even pose such fundamental questions because he assumes the Tao to be transcendently intelligently designed from the word go, rather than an emergent property of rational agents having increasingly complex social arrangements.  Thus, Lewis begs the most interesting question which he could well have posed, that is, "What is the best explanation for the cross-cultural prevalence of certain moral principles?"

Thus, we see another great thinker stymied by making the design inference too easily and too early.  In the end, Lewis has served as "only one more obscurantist," come to entreat us back to traditional morality without properly investigating either its sources or limitations.

Abraham of Ur, Deanna of TX

Illustration by Barry Moser


If you came upon Abraham of Ur just about to slay his son, would you talk him out of it?

If you intruded upon Deanna Laney just before she murdered her sons by stoning, what would you do?

From a Judeo-Xn-Muslim perspective, how can one claim that only one of these people acted rightly? For that matter, how can an unbeliever morally differentiate between them, if at all?


If we can all agree that the free excercise clause does not extend to murderous acts of filicide, what should we do with people like Abraham and Deanna?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Progress in Religious Liberty

James Madison, in a letter to Edward Livingston dated July 10th, 1822:

Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, & the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Govt. & Religion neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded agst. And in a Govt. of opinion, like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness and stability of the general opinion on the subject. Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.

Here is the part to bear in mind when imparting the profundity of the founders to future freethinkers:



Perfect separation! Not partial separation, not merely neutrality in funding various religious programs, but perfect, utter, absolute separation between affairs of state and church.

How sublime!

Big-screen savers of souls

We've all heard the family-values crowd grousing about Hollywood filth, that "American business that drops metric tons of toxic waste on your country and in your homes." Glorification of non-marital sex, non-martial violence, non-Martian aliens, etc. Mostly, I trust my children to know that what goes on screen does not pass muster in real life. Except, of course, when well-nigh everyone else in society buys into the very myths and memes made manifest in movies.

Case in point, the semi-final scenes of Shrek the Third, in which Puss and Donkey have their souls magically swapped by a magician. What is a metaphysical materialist to do?

NBA OKC - Go Prudents!

http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/29/go-prudents/

We really could do far worse than “Prudents” for a team name. I’d recommend “Efficient Breachers” for those law and economics wonks out there.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tues. Tee

This one reminds us all of an important truth:



The unfortunate truth here is that even we hardcore separationists can narrow the scope of our thinking to the exclusion of other equally legitimate concerns, such as freedom from non-sectarian authoritarianism. Mao and Stalin managed to crush liberty without help from the churches.

Of course, the flipside is that there is no freedom so self-evidently precious that the rabbis, priests and mullahs have not attempted to squelch it in the name of piety.

Woo!

Did I miss the meme machine memo?

Most every blog I view is working “woo” into the brew:

What gives here? Terms like “pseudoscience,” “quackery,” and “mysticism” going out of style? Has the single-syllabification which afflicted the legacy media years ago now striking even the best and brightest of the blog-o-sphere?


FYI: “Woo” is authoritatively defined at the Skeptic’s Dictionary.

One of these things is not like the others

Amaterasu, Baal, Cronus, Dagon, El, Freya, Gaia, Hathor, Isis, Jupiter, Krishna, Luna, Marduk, Nyx, Osiris, Poseidon, Quetzalcoatl, Ra, Sol, Thor, Uranus, Vishnu, Wotan, Xenu, Yahweh, Zeus.

To be a right and proper agnostic (without slipping into dogmatic atheism) must one allow for the possibility that any of these might yet exist and wrestle amongst themselves for the souls of men?  Is it enough that the question of the existence of one or another unnamed god(s) is left open for further investigation?  For that matter, it seems a bit odd to me that the deistic gods of Paine, Spinoza, and Einstein are not given a proper name or even a consistent label.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Reading this week - C.S. Lewis

This week I am reading The Abolition of Man and The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, on the suggestion of a friend. The latter book I’ve read at least once or twice before, the former I cannot now recall. Non-fiction and straight apologetic does not seem to stick in my mind so well as mythic stories – and doubtless I am far from alone in this respect.

I have previously found Lewis’s vision of the afterlife quite compelling, all the more so because his collection of archetypal dramatis personæ so perfectly recapitulates the various sorts of persons with whom we are familiar, for better or worse. It will no doubt feel bizarre to once again experience his imagery and metaphors from the perspective of a freethinker. No doubt our lot are at least loosely caricatured at some point in the narrative.

A Minor Case of the Mondays

I was draggin a bit this morning, coming off an enjoyable weekend to find myself back in the laborious data mines.

Thankfully, Brent Rinehart’s campaign comics have brought a smile to my face and many stifled laughs to my dreary cubicle. Thank you, Brent.



Sunday, July 27, 2008

Darwin, Provine, Mirll

A workmate of mine who writes (better than I do) largely upon topics of mutual interest has recently taken apart Will Provine's list of inconvenient truths which are alleged to follow from Darwin's theories:

  1. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature.

  2. There are no inherent moral or ethical laws, and thus no absolute guiding principles of human society.

  3. Human beings are complex machines, which become ethical persons by means of two primary mechanisms: heredity and environmental influence.

  4. When we die, we die, and that’s it.

  5. There is no such thing as free will.
I would argue that each and every one of these propositions, meaningfully and sensibly construed, must be false (or at least questionably ill-defined) if Darwin was right about how life on Earth came to be, and if the metaphysical materialists are right about the nature of Nature.

1. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature.

We can all agree that purpose and intention are subjective phenomena which can only exist in the mind of a conscious being, one capable of ruminating upon as yet unfulfilled desires. If Darwin was right, then purposive principles are adaptations which exist in any creature with enough of a neural network to process sense data and act thereupon. For example, my dog intends to catch the bunny in my neighbor's yard, and he takes actions so as to fulfill his purposes.

If Darwin was wrong, and the theologians correct, animals are no less purposive and nature per se is no more so. Supernatural minds are another matter entirely, perhaps best addressed by philosophers and theologians than naturalists and biologists. That said, perhaps supernatural minds have their own purposes for nature, but even natural minds do that.

2. There are no inherent moral or ethical laws, and thus no absolute guiding principles of human society.

This assumes that we might reasonably state (a) what constitutes a moral law, and (b) a sense in which such laws might inhere in someone. If moral laws are construed in a utilitarian fashion, then a moral rule is that which (given the current state of society) generally leads to greater human happiness within a given society. Some rules are clearly better than others, judged by this standard. For example, "thou shalt not murder, except those who commit adultery, blasphemy, or calumnious derogation of elders" obviously leads to worse outcomes than a more general prohibition upon murder.

If Darwin was right, moral rules are created by humans, for humans, and solely for those of us humans living amongst other humans. Robinson Crusoe has no need of ethical precepts, only pragmatism. If secular ethicists in the tradition of Bentham and Mill are right, those moral rules which best maximize tangible benefits to humans are objectively superior to other moral rules. Such rules are inherent in the nature of things and persons, and cannot be changed as the result of human or divine whim.

Our theist friends may object that this isn't quite so satisfying as moral laws which are inherent to the cosmos as a whole, or to its creator, but they are inevitably impaled upon the horns of Euthyphro's dilemma. Either the gods decree the moral laws because they are objectively good and true apart from the gods subjective preferences, or the gods moral commands are subjective after all. The subjective preferences of very powerful immaterial magical minds are no less subjective, for all that.

3. Human beings are complex machines, which become ethical persons by means of two primary mechanisms: heredity and environmental influence.

Just a bit of a quibble here - heredity and environment are not separate mechanisms other than in our minds. Heredity without environment is naught but useless strands of lifeless data, and environment without heredity proves equally lifeless and uninteresting. These mechanisms are complementary and inextricably interrelated, and can only be separated from each other conceptually and even then only somewhat arbitrarily.

It might well be asked, though, what other mechanisms might possibly engender ethical thinking and still be worthy of the “mechanism” moniker?

4. When we die, we die, and that’s it.

Not at all. If we have lived well, we will leave behind a plethora of lives we have touched for the better. If we have lived poorly, our selfishness and misanthropism will live on in those we have harmed. Jenner and Salk save lives to this day, while Mohammed and Qutb have left another (qualitatively different) legacy to humankind.

Moreover, assuming Darwin was right, many of us will leave genetic legacies for future generations to build upon. Granted, though, even the apes, bonobos, and chimps can make this boast (if boast they may).

5. There is no such thing as free will.

How does this possibly follow from Darwinism, either broadly or strictly construed? Can primates not make uncoerced choices?

Apart from (im)moral creatures living within constrained natural environs, how can the problem of coercion arise in the first place? Put another way, will there be any coercion in heaven? If not, the idea of free and unfree choices makes perfect sense down here in the material world, but not necessarily in the spiritual realm. How then must one invoke gods and spirits in order to make sense of the idea of freedom?


In sum, one can accept common descent, random mutation, and natural selection without believing that any of William Provine's assertions. Far from being "the core beliefs of the faith, made by a member of the faithful" they are merely speculations made by one with far more expertise in science than ethics and metaphysics. If charitably interpreted, they are trivially true. However, if these five assertions are seriously considered, they are too fraught with ill-begotten metaphysical baggage to hold water of any significant depth.

Sunday Sermon (2008-07-27)



I dare you to find something true and uplifting in this speech by State Representative "Silly Sally" Kern.

Hint: Around 28 mins into the speech.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

What Would Jesus Discharge?

"I came not to send peace, but a sword." - Jesus


Remember that 1996 big-screen adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, featuring Danes, DiCaprio, Leguizamo, and a host of lessers stars waving stylized, chromed-up "SWORD 9mm" guns about?

It sets one to wondering, if the gospels were to be revisioned in modern settings, as so many of Shakespeare's plays have been (usually not to the best possible theatrical effect) what sort of martial metaphors would Jesus use?

Would Matt 10:34 read "I came not to make peace, but with a Peacemaker." Would Luke 22:36 be revised to say "But now if you have a purse, take it, and stash your handgun therein. If you don't have a handgun, sell your cloak and buy one."

In any event, one certainly gets the sense that Rep. Sally Kern is keeping Jesus's most martial metaphors in mind, taking them to heart, and even to work. I sure hope Jesus didn't say anything about killing gays for god or for sport.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Friday Fishbait


This one is for those or us freethinkers who don't want to focus too narrowly on just one 19th century naturalist.

Of course, science isn't an icon for worship so much as an unflinching approach to reality.

Also, why does it have to glorify rocket science? Moon rocks and ICBM's aren't exactly the greatest of humankind's achievements, eh no?

That Infamous Engine of Grief (IV)


Here is another local monument within the outer limits of the OKC metro area.


I find myself wondering whether such massive structures should be considered "graven images" under Mosaic Law. Any Bible-carrying Decalogue-expert fundies gathered hereabouts?


I also find myself wondering whether Xn's believe that there is something particularly special about the cross itself. Would a Messianic sacrifice count for less if an incarnate deity died of, say, TB or AIDS? How about old age? If not, what precisely is the magical mysterious property ascribed to death by torture?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Suicidal ideology and imagination


Evelyn McHale - Original Suicide Girl
Photo by Robert Wiles

An old friend once opined that if he stopped believing in God, he may as well off himself ASAP. My reply was admittedly rather weak, I could not think of any reasons to go on living that were not completely subjective, and who was I to tell him that life is worthwhile? In the end, I fell back on the argument that he had no idea what lay in his future and that it might not be rational to attempt a forecast based on only a couple decades of data.

Cold rationality aside, perhaps the beauty of living is in the mind of beholder.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Question with boldness!

When the door-to-door Baptists came to my porch last weekend, I tried to explain why we are no longer their coreligionists. Alas, I neglected to mention that my own apostasy was primarily the result of following the path laid out by Thomas Jefferson some centuries earlier:

Full original page image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Transcribed letter courtesy of UVA’s Electronic Text Center


Here is the keynote excerpt:

[S]hake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear. You will naturally examine first the religion of your own country. Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature does not weigh against them. But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from god. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature…

Honestly, I cannot fathom why my evangelical friends and neighbors continue to insist that they are honoring our Founding Fathers by narrowing our national discourse to the confines of ancient monotheism. Thus far we have seen George Washington heartily approving of atheists, John Adams marginalizing the central dogma of Christianity, and now we have Thomas Jefferson encouraging the widest possible scope of rationalist freethinking upon one of his protégés, even to the point of deliberately courting atheism. Can the narrative possible get any worse for those (e.g. John McCain) who claim that America was founded as a Christian nation?

You bet it can! James Madison is up next.

Cambridge prof's strong gesture against intellectual isolation in ivory towers


Alan MacFarlane gives ignorance the finger

My favorite living Cambridge don is giving away free lectures on DSpace. These are mostly in mp4 and will therefore load directly on to an iPod or iPhone.

Some of these lectures are particularly enjoyable if you are a student of human behavior or law, and I'd say it is difficult to fully comprehend the one without the other.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tues. Tee - Sleeping In


People too often ask me how I can live without knowing that one or more gods smile down upon us poor blighters down here in the earthly muck, promising all manner of otherworldly rewards if we live lives according to one or another of the very many alleged divine revelations which we have floating around here.

As one bright and articulate blogger recently put it, if naturalists are right "there’s no Heaven or Hell, no afterlife, and no real purpose in living; we just live our pitifully few years on this Earth, then we die, and that’s that."

All points taken (and most conceded) - but has he really considered that we naturalists get to sleep in on Sundays? That strikes me as important somehow. Perhaps not cosmically important, but who says "purpose in living" has to be something we don't get from what we do while we are yet living?

Red State Cultural Planning Bureau


Notice how the awning is eerily unfamiliar to those used to seeing Falcone's in its original undomesticated state? There is a reason for this, and you can read all about it at The Mattatarian and Selfish Reasons. The best part is where our homegrown kultur polizei (Suzy Thrash, Ingrid Young, and Lydia Lee) are banned from the premises for legally enforcing their own xenophobia down the throats of all Edmondites. Well, maybe some of the locals were more than happy to swallow their drivel, but its too revolting for me to stomach.

How is it that these hardcore GOP'ers are all about free enterprise and competition until it waves the wrong flag? You can bet your sweet peppers that had the restaurant requested red, white, and blue (instead of green) colours they'd have gotten it through the central bureaucracy no problem. Of course, then the cuisine would suck wildly (hot dogs and hamburgers) but at least they would have the decor right.

All that aside, I would encourage pizza lovers everywhere to be true patriots and fight hometown fascism by patronizing this establishment. Your taste buds will love you for it!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Reading this week (2008-07-21)

This week I'm rereading a fascinating book which popularizes econometric techniques as a means for studying various psycho-socio-economic problems from a perspective which provides new and surprising insights.

Some of these insights might have public policy implications, most particularly and controversially the argument that abortion prevents violent crime - with a two-decade time lag.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sunday Sermon (2008-07-20)

Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God as presented at TED.com



Left wanting want more? Go get some!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

If only...

I hear that they are razing the old convenience store up the street to put in yet another house of worship - in a town where we seem to have more churches than petrol stations. I implore all the gods that actually answer prayers to grant me just one wish:


Oy, that would totally rule! A place where all members of the agnostic front can openly gather together and discuss the joys of fallibilism as a pragmatic philosophy, without all the ritual trappings of unitarianism. I suppose we can start off with a good old fashioned agnostic tent revival and build up from there.


Photo credit:
Mayhem

Missionary Baptists


Usually we get evangelists from culturally marginal religious movements at our door - Baha'i, Mormons, JW's etc. but today we got Baptists. No kidding, an entire family of remarkably outgoing door-to-door Baptists, right here in Edmond, spreading a gospel message that most everyone around here has heard many times over by the time they've reached the "age of accountability" - whatever that might be.

Naturally, I invited them in for a cool drink and a few hours of theological talk and debate. Turns out they are a fair bit more hardcore (at least dogmatically) than any Baptists I've met in real life. I've heard much online from the KJV-only folks but I certainly never expected them to alight upon my doorstep, kids in tow.

While no one managed to win anyone over (of course) I tip my hat to those who take their spiritual beliefs seriously enough put them into action by sallying forth and engaging total strangers in
difficult questions of faith. Certainly this is not something that we agnostics and freethinkers are likely to attempt, except perhaps as a spoof.

They really seem like nice folks, though. I'd bet they would make decent unbelievers. We really should invite them out for pizza and blasphemy sometime.


Photo credit:
Thomas Hawk



Friday, July 18, 2008

Friday Fishbait - Always a bigger fish




Came across this little gem this afternoon on the way to the $.99 margaritas and Tex-Mex.

Clearly, the bigger fish is consuming the smaller fish and integrating it into itself. Metaphorically, Darwin's theories are being absorbed into a larger truth. This may be the idea that the "Infinite is free to create all the processes of the finite order to accomplish the purposes of Eternity" as posited by Bruce Prescott (in a simply sublime posting which will undoubtedly annoy Christians and Infidels alike) or it may be that Darwin's ideas had to be absorbed and subsumed by other scientific ideas to form a new evolutionary synthesis. Both of these ideas are stimulating and worthy of discussion.

Alternatively, this sticker could indicate merely that the driver likes to think of himself as a bad-ass super-predator, destroying his ideological enemies with the cold-blooded efficiency and ruthlessness of a shark. Of course, such an interpretation seems a bit uncharitable, but perhaps not inapt. We've seen how these LifeChurchers (TM) drive about town, and if the leaden shoe fits...





"GOD" BLESS...AMERICA!

If I have only one pedantic pet peeve on proper writing, it is the confusing misuse of punctuation, such as using scare quotes for emphasis or perhaps using ellipsis for mock suspense. America! Whoa...I didn't see that coming.

If I've one pet peeve pertaining to piety, it is invoking one's "god" (whatever that term means) to smile down beneficently and solely upon your own nation. Ugh.

Do theists really believe that than an all-seeing, all-knowing, immaterial magic mind which transcends space-time itself really cares overmuch about national borders? Did the colonial-era cartographers who arbitrarily sliced up the Middle East (among other bits of the globe) change the way the "gods" treat those people? Did the Louisiana Purchase commingle the divine wrath or favor of those in the original colonies with those living in the untamed wilderness?

If such questions give pause, one should consider the reflexive and unthinking credulity in implicit in calling divine blessings down upon the nation in which you happened to grow up by praying to the god that your parents taught you never to question. If you grew up in Persia, you'd be calling down Allah's curses against us even now, and your faith would be no less unshakable nor more grounded in fact. As Will Rogers said "It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so."

Photo credit:
daveknapik

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Eponymous post

Some of you have noticed that I'm neither agnostic, nor popular, nor a front. So I talked this problem over with an old friend who was once the Lord Privy Seal, and he said people should stop taking things so literally.

Okay, then. A "popular front" is a broad coalition of persons (usually left and center-left) who oppose the powers-that-be. In this case, I side with all those who oppose the earthly powers-that-be who are in power solely because they have convinced the masses an invisible immaterial magic mind demands their homage.

An "agnostic" is, in my book, one who disclaims knowledge of the supernatural in general and revealed knowledge in particular. For more details on the nature of philosophical agnosticism, I recommend Leslie Stephen:

The Agnostic is one who asserts what no one denies that there are limits to the sphere of human intelligence. He asserts, further, what many theologians have expressly maintained, that those limits are such as to exclude ... ' metempirical ' knowledge. But he goes further, and asserts, in opposition to theologians, that theology lies within this forbidden sphere.

Meta-empiricism, of course, is a realm in which religious "gnostics" claim to obtain knowledge from beyond the material world which is observable to us all. This is the realm from which priests and their defenders (e.g. Plantinga) claim to be directly apprehending supernature.

An agnostic popular front, then, is a collection of persons who jointly oppose priestcraft, that is, the practice of deluding people into thinking special knowledge of the divine is given to a select few, who neither produce nor exchange nor manage anything of value, but survive solely by the largess of those who are bilked into sacrificing their own temporal well-being for the sake of a coupon which can only be redeemed (if at all) after their own funeral. Such a blatant scam makes even life-insurance seem like a good bet.

One need not be an atheist (or even a freethinker) to oppose priestcraftly gnosticism, one need merely stand against those who claim themselves especially entitled to heavenly revelation or earthly tithes.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Operation Infinite Justice

An excerpt from the diary of John Adams:

February 13, 1756
Major Greene this Evening fell into some conversation with me about the Divinity and Satisfaction of Jesus Christ.

All the Argument he advanced was, "that a mere creature, or finite Being, could not make Satisfaction to infinite justice, for any Crimes," and that "these things are very misterious."


Here we have a luminous thinker and future founding father privately recording his impression of Greene's argument in favor of the "Divinity and Satisfaction of Jesus Christ," that is, the Christian doctrines that Jesus was God (in some mysterious sense) and that Jesus died so as satisfy the "infinite justice" of God as to the many and various crimes of humankind. Greene's argument is one formulated originally by St. Anselm and which apologists use to this day.

What did Adams think of the idea that Jesus was in fact an incarnation of deity, sent to earth in order to vicariously satisfy God's "infinite justice" by sacrificing himself on the cross?


"...thus mystery is made a convenient cover for absurdity."

Absurdity, indeed! The idea that a supremely wise and benevolent deity finds himself incapable of forgiving his own creatures without first having the satisfaction of killing himself (in human form) in order to slake his own sense of honor/justice/blood-thirst buggers the mind and beggars all imagination. It is no great surprise, then, that the practitioners of preistcraft have tirelessly endeavored to cover up the absurdity of their position with the blanket claim that such things are so very mysterious as to be beyond our impoverished mortal ken.

Scholars of the Adamses have noted many positive comments on the Christian religion, and there can be no reasonable doubt that he and Abigail held a positive view of the virtues of public piety and the ability of religion to promote morality. That said, one should always be careful not to imply that he held to an orthodox and traditional view of Christian dogma.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

42

Forty-two is the answer, but what was the question?

How many youths were mauled by bears when Elisha called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD? 42

According to Gallup polling, what percent of Americans believe that "people on this earth are sometimes possessed by the devil." 42%

What is the angle between a rainbow and the horizon? 42°

How many posts on this blog, thus far? 42.