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.

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.

Why be moral?

Suppose you think it is immoral to do X (fill in the blank with something you think is immoral) but you are actually a bit tempted to do it. Why refrain?

A) Because doing so makes the world a better place to live for me and others whom I care about.

B) Because an authority figure (worldly or otherworldly) may well catch me and punish me.

C) Because it is (objectively) right to refrain, and I prefer doing what is right.

If you picked (C), why do you prefer doing what is right?

His Panic is Manic

My father (and his fellow Birchers and Minutemen) warns that the Mexicans are swarming through the Rio Grande and bringing an inevitable wave of Hispanic culture and cuisine with them. I was skeptical of such claims until just now...

Here they come - speeding on I-35N - with TX plates! How many illegals do you suppose they fit in a van like this?

¡Dios mio! Hopefully the GOP will find a way to send these huddled masses back. We can't just be giving away freedom to everyone, it's a limited commodity - like real estate and heiresses.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Mulatos, multiculturalism & morals


Two-thirds of a multi-racial nuclear family

Finished both of (soon-be-President) Obama's books over the weekend and I'm more confident than ever that he is the man for the job. I was particularly impressed with Obama’s express understanding of multiple cultures alongside an implicit rejection of multiculturalism. Barack can feign a decent inner-city brogue, as well as a passable Kenyan accent, but he makes it clear that despite (or perhaps because of) his experience with various cultures, he himself affirms distinct moral preferences (e.g. monogamous fatherhood) which may well run counter to those accepted in other cultures.

In the course of both books, you get the sense that Barack Obama has carved out for himself a individual identity in which widely and dearly held ideas of race and culture are subordinated to quintessentially American values which he is willing to defend and expound openly - even at the risk of castration from the Old Guard. It may be that only one with direct blood ties to black and white families can so audaciously hope to transcend race and culture successfully on the national stage.

That is not to say that such ideas are novel. This week, I'm delving even further into difficult questions of race and culture with Thomas Sowell's Black Rednecks and White Liberals. From what I've seen thus far, it is going to be an absolute romp compared to his (far drier) books on beginner/intermediate economic theory. Certainly it does not lack insight or originality. The idea that inner-city "ghetto" culture was transplanted from Southern "redneck" culture, which in turn was transplanted from the northern hill country of Britain certainly resonates and no doubt touches nerves on both sides.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sunday Sermon (2008-07-13)





Skipped church this morning in order to become a bit more enlightened on science education. Enjoy!


Saturday, July 12, 2008

That Infamous Engine of Grief (III)

Wasn't so long ago (only three or four generations back) when the local churches satisfied themselves with symbolic homages to death by torture which were only seven bricks across!

Now that's a far cry from our more modern emphasis on great monuments which can be easily seen for many miles in any direction. Why the churches have turned the volume up so much of late?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Ought/Is & Subject/Object distinctions

Can we move from an "is" to an "ought" - from some set of objective truths to some set of subjective reasons to act in a given way? In my view, theists and atheists are equally over the barrel on such questions.

Theists (especially traditionalists) often claim that divine commands are objective in the sense that they do not vary from person to person or by time and place, but this sort of objectivity does not help one get to an ought without adding in certain assumptions such as one ought to please the gods for reasons X, Y, Z. Inevitably, such reasons must be rooted in the subjective desires of particular moral subjects in order to provide people with a good reason to act as they ought. This might help explain why so many mythologies have created incredibly paradisaical and/or shockingly horrific settings for life after death. Ordinary earthly carrots and sticks just weren't enough to make divine commands relevant in the here and now.

Atheists (particularly moralistic humanists) also have to make unjustifiable assumptions about empathy or compassion and have faith that other people are motivated by the same concerns that they are. Since private charities aren't exactly raking it in - compared to, say, Hollywood studios - this is not exactly a winning bet. Probably people are more concerned with their own happiness than with an idealized and universal sense of empathy for fellow humans.

Ultimately, there is no way to answer the question "Why ought I act or refrain from acting in this way?" without referring back to one's own subjective desires. I sincerely hope that your own desires are guided by empathy and compassion, but if they aren't, well, about all I can do is have you shot.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

On whom one ought to indenture

Atheists can have good character after all!
[see original letter for full context]

Consider for a moment the implications of the letter excerpted below. Not only was the illustrious Father of our Nation willing to hire indentured Germans of any religion or none (thereby giving them the opportunity to become American citizens) but he also recognized that personal disposition and moral character are attributes wholly independent of one's particular religion or sect.

George Washington, in a letter dated 24 March 1784:

I am informed that a Ship with Palatines is gone up to Baltimore, among whom are a number of Tradesmen. I am a good deal in want of a House Joiner and Bricklayer, (who really understand their profession) and you would do me a favor by purchasing one of each, for me.

I would not confine you to
Palatines. If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews or Christian of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.

I would however prefer middle aged, to young men and those who have good countenances and good characters on ship board, to others who have neither of these to recommend them, altho, after all, the proof of the pudding must be in the eating.
If only our modern politicians were so enlightened!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Theistic certitude vs. Infant mortality


Even more interesting data coming out of the new Pew Forum study.

Turns out there is a bizarre and striking degree of linearity between the likelihood that some people will die young (x-axis) and the degree to which survivors definitively affirm the existence of a god (y-axis). Evidently, the evidential argument from evil is losing against an inherent urge to make sense of the world, or rather to declare that the world ultimately makes sense.

Why is god dying where the babies aren't?


Shout out to my home-girl


It's been 12 wonderful years of marriage (not to mention 5 turbulent and emotional years of dating). All my love!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Americans hostages freed!


I cannot believe we missed this aspect of the hostage story which has been circulating for a few days now. These guys deserve to a hero's welcome as much as any soldier, regardless of the fact that they were putting their lives on the line as civilian contractors. Marxist guerrillas are terrorists too, and those working against them every bit as heroic as our uniformed troops in the Middle East.

Sunday Sermon (2008-07-06)

Today I'm watching a lecture given by Sam Harris at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Here it is on Google Video:
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3884451176644991836

Here it is on You Tube:
http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=sam+harris+aspen&search_type=&aq=f

Here is the first segment for your intellectual titillation:

Friday, July 4, 2008

Two fingers to the monarchy!

Sometimes, when I'm sitting through a seemingly endless parade of patriotic people and banners and flags, I think about nationalism and chauvinism, and all the suffering and woe that such thinking has wrought, and I despair.

When I'm tempted to let pessimism and cynicism get the best of me, though, I just think to myself, WWJD?


"What was Jefferson doing" when he penned the Declaration of Independence, and "Who was Jefferson dissing" when he did so? Looking back on it now, most of the grievances seem rather antiquated and a few actually sound a bit petty. If you stand back, and take in the entire document, you see that almost all the particulars are really just a way of demonstrating the absurdity of monarchy without democratic accountability. Life, liberty, and prosperity are our axiomatic values, shoving off the yoke of autocracy is only the first step in making those abstractions into practical realities for all Americans, and eventually, everyone else.

Granted, revolutionary war should be a painful last resort, but some things really are worth fighting and killing for:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

On that note, here's wishing you all a happy 4th -- now let's go blow some stuff up!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Reading this month

I've decided to spend my copious spare time in July reading the memoirs, ideas, and hopes of our next president, or rather, listening to the author reading it to me while I try to keep my car riding along an appropriate path.



Believe you me, there is a little extra 'oomph' in hearing the Senator from Illinois read these passages aloud for himself, especially in Dreams from My Father, where the author/narrator's emotive inflection really helps you get a richer sense of the original intent behind the text.

I'll post up favorite quotes and puzzling snippets in the comments throughout the next few weeks.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Pusillanimous parishioners perpetuate preachers' primitive propriety

Here we go again with the new Pew Forum study data. (No, I’m not trying to get a job at Pew.)

[Click on image for full-sized graph]

Here are the propositional claims tested in this particular part of the study:

  • Abortion should be illegal in all or most cases
  • Homosexuality is a way of life that should be discouraged by society
Note that the scatter-plot is very nearly linear, as one might not necessarily expect given the relative dearth of homosexuals hanging about the abortion clinic. Perhaps these answers are highly correlated because these seemingly distinct issues address essentially the same fundamental moral question in two different contexts:

Should adults be allowed self-determination over their own bodies when it comes to matters of sexuality and reproduction?

It is becoming alarming clear that certain faith-based groups are far more interested in following ancient dogmas instead of following our national ideals of personal liberty and autonomy.

Here is the money-quote from the report synopsis:

The connection between religious affiliation and politics appears to be especially strong when it comes to certain issues, particularly those that have been at the forefront of the “culture war” controversies of recent years. Some religious traditions, for instance, are overwhelmingly opposed to abortion; seven-in-ten Mormons and six-in-ten members of evangelical churches (61%) say abortion should be illegal in most or all circumstances. On the other side of the issue, six-in-ten members of mainline churches (62%) and seven-in-ten of the unaffiliated say abortion should be legal in most or all instances. A similar divide exists on the question of whether homosexuality is a way of life that should be discouraged or accepted by society.
This accurate assessment should scare the living shit out of you all. Rather than listen to their own consciences and reason out the ethics of victimless crime for themselves, religious believers in our free and secular society most often rent out their moral faculties from a handful of poorly-educated public speakers who fill their heads with Bronze-Age ethics. This would be downright pathetic if it weren't so effing infuriating.

Now, I don't have a womb and I'm not into men, and hence my own personal liberties are not directly tied in with the political fate of those who find seminal fluid less revolting than I do. That said, these are not matters of personal taste but public policy issues, and it should be blindingly clear that the tyranny of the majority can turn its spiteful venom upon anyone, at anytime, for any reason or none. Accordingly, we freethinkers must make our stand against those who stand against personal liberties in any form. Now, thanks to the Pew Forum, we have now a clearer idea of those against whom we struggle. Onward, non-Christian soldiers, to the culture war!

Founders, Framers, Freethinkers

Which of America’s foundational figures are those most worthy of close examination? Joseph J. Ellis has expounded upon the emergence of those heroic figures who originally “deserved to be inducted into…the American pantheon.” (Passionate Sage, p. 212) starting of course with the apotheosis of George Washington followed by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Later, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin were joined to the constellation of great American luminaries, even as the first generation of founders passed from life into living memory. These six figures, commonly considered the most influential and defining figures of the founding/framing generation, are the primary subjects of a book by Brooke Allen titled Moral Minority – America’s Skeptical Founding Fathers, which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in the emergent mythology of Christian Nationalism. Contra Novak, these six men were those most prominent in the American pantheon (among scholars and laypersons alike) for generations before Allen was born, rather than hand-picked by her on account of confirmation bias. These six men are those whose lives and characters are most apposite to the question of whether this nation was founded on secular or sectarian principles, regardless of how Allen or Novak happen to feel about them.

If one takes the time to “go back to primary sources,” as State Rep. Sally Kern has so often recommended, one will find that not one of these men was a professing Christian during the time of the national founding and constitutional framing. Indeed, only one of them turned back to Christianity in the twilight of his life, that is, Alexander Hamilton. This is unsurprising to those who study American history, since of all the great luminaries of his generation Hamilton was the most comfortable with the idea of a strong authority concentrating power at the centre of things and having dominion over all aspects of life. To a Jeffersonian, these are fighting words, but Hamilton was not among those devotees of liberty who considered John Locke a far greater man than Julius Cæsar.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

That Infamous Engine of Grief (Part II)


Here stands another great homage to an ancient engine of grief, keeping watch over the east side of town some 8¼ miles across town (as the crow flies) from our other great cross.

As it turns out, the background story behind this particular cross is rather more Machiavellian than one might have reasonably supposed. City council intrigue and church electioneering, and other such antics at the crossroads between church and state, that is, Interstate-35 and Old Route 66.

p.s. A shiny new John Adams dollar to whomever digs up the "engine of grief" quote in its original manuscript form. Thanks!

Podcasting the Anglosphere

One of the absolute greatest things about the synergy of fairly new digital technologies (WWW sites, RSS feeds, mp3 podcasts, & etc.) is that the new media are truly trans-global for the first time ever, one's ability to imbibe global media is limited only by one's spare time and the number of languages which one comprehends. Like far too many of my countrymen I am more-or-less limited to my native tongue, but then again, the anglosphere is a pretty big place.

I know this very point has been made over and over again by the tech-heads over at 2600, Wired, and Boing-Boing for years, but I've yet to see many people really take advantage of the potential of these new developments. Most folks are still listening to (relatively) local programming on AM/FM/XM.

In an effort to spread the digital gospel, let me share with you just a few of my favorite weekly radio shows on the subjects of religion, politics, and ethics:

Religious Talk (USA)
Everyday Ethics (UK)
Sunday Night Safran (AU)

Let it not be said that the evitable 1½-hour daily commute is entirely accursed, for now (by the Grace of Man) we have the blessing of digital radio. Yea, verily.

Of course, every blessing comes with a corresponding curse (thus saith the Lord) and the flip-side of our wonderful worldwide web of new media is the creation and propogation of pan-Islamic jihadist media. Allahu akbar!