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.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cause the Bible tells me so...

At the debate last night a nice young fellow whom I've met on occasion claimed that naturalism is false because the Bible is true, and that he knows this because the Bible tells him so in 2 Timothy 3:16. Okay, supposing that Paul was inspired by God to relate the divine truth that "all scripture [is] given by inspiration of God, and [is] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" this naturally raises the question of what exactly Paul meant by "all scripture" when he wrote it.

One might reasonably suppose that Paul meant just what any other first-century Pharisee would have meant, the Scriptures were those found in the TANAKH, and perhaps bits of the deuterocanonical writings (Tobit, Judith, Baruch, etc.) as well. This seems like a perfectly acceptable interpretation to me, but it fails to cover the Christian Scriptures, most notably the epistles of Paul.

Another view would be that Paul was prophesying about a canon yet to come, a collection of scriptures which would eventually become the accepted standard throughout the true church. If so, when and where exactly did this collection come into being as a distinct collection of books? Moreover, how long did Christians have to muddle through without a full set of authoritative writings, unadulterated by heretical apocrypha?

Perhaps the Council of Laodicea settled the matter, but it was only a relatively local synod and I doubt Christian apologists would care to argue for the inclusion of the Book of Baruch along with the exclusion of the Apocalypse of John. Perhaps the Council of Trent settled the matter, but I doubt that anyone outside of the Roman tradition really cares to defend that position.

The question remains: where, when, and how was the intended meaning of "all scripture" written in 2 Timothy 3:16 revealed, and to whom? Did Paul know it? Marcion? Origen? Athanasius? Luther? Calvin? Bueller?

Monday, March 16, 2009


The National Day of Prayer looms less than two months off, and I find myself wondering whether the local freethought community really cares about it one way or another.  We came out strong against government-endorsed  prayer rallies back in 2002, protested in large numbers in 2003, and then got all interfaith about it in 2004.  Back in 2005, we came out in force to support Americans United for Separation of Church and State, at a rally which featured the historical principle of separation as its central message, and the Rev. Dr. Barry Lynn as its keynote speaker.  Our designated spokesman was also given an opportunity to make a short speech that year, in deference to the principle of inclusiveness and in defiance of the typical framing of the event, thereby prompting this mostly inaccurate and mildly humorous satirical bit of Chicken Fried News in the local weekly.

Ever since the high-water mark of 2005, we freethinkers have been increasingly sidelined as two kinds of believers flock to the State Capitol to rally for prayer: conservative Christians crying out for authoritarian orthodoxy and intemperate intolerance on the interior, and progressives preaching exuberant exhortations of ecumenism on the exterior.  Oklahoma City’s dichotomous celebration has become an almost picture-perfect parable of political parochialism, insiders hosting high-ranking politicians endorsing a narrow message of Christian Nationalism and evangelical orthodoxy, while those on the outside gather together a motley assortment of minority faiths and retired or term-limited politicians who try valiantly to foster a spirit of interfaith dialogue.  It may be somewhat disheartening to attend both events, as it tends to give one the sense that those on the inside are more numerous, well-connected, and just plain on fire about taking Oklahoma back from those of us who would tolerate diversity of thought and freedom of conscience.

That said, the question facing us this year is whether we will once again join in with an interfaith prayer rally which has arguably strayed from its roots as a celebration of separation, or will we return to our roots as a group which protests public prayer proclamations and celebrations as a massive waste of time and taxes?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Richard Dawkins at OU

Richard Dawkins demonstrates the proper approach to climbing
 'Mount Improbable' to a roomful of British youngsters.

Went to see Dr. Dawkins last night at OU, with a friend from Edmond.  The lecture was mostly about how genes have unconsciously engineered living beings to pursue purposes which are ultimately beneficial to the genes ancient 'purpose' which is of course to make more copies of themselves.  The lecture in and of itself was mostly straightforward mainstream biology, with a few especially interesting examples thrown in as slides.  Without knowing about the speakers' background as an outspoken proponent of freethinking as opposed to indoctrination, one would have had some trouble understanding why a biology professor, even one with such a mellifluous voice and well-prepared slides, could manage to pack out a fair-to-middling-sized athletic arena.  

Which brings me to the crowd.  Where exactly did these people come from and why do they seem so eager to clap whenever the speaker makes a witty jab at faith-based thinking?  Judging from the few with whom I spoke personally, they came from universities throughout Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, really just about everywhere within driving distance.

In his opening remarks, prior to the lecture proper, the good Dr. roundly ridiculed certain local politicians, while making it clear that he understood that quite a few of us are not reactionary regressionists, we just happen to live here.  The crowd went absolutely apeshit crazy, rock-and-roll arena style.  I've occasionally seen people get this excited in the context of a large field house, but never in the absence of some sort of playoffs.  Really, it felt a more like a mega-church in the middle of a revival sermon than a gathering of science-minded people for a lecture on purposiveness and intention as evolutionary adaptations.

In truth, the experience was a bit of both.  I got the feeling that most of the people there were at least passingly familiar with the details of evolutionary biology, even the gene-centered selective theories popularized by Dawkins, but they came mostly for the sense of solidarity engendered by filling a room entirely with people who prefer scientific free inquiry to faith-based indoctrination.  This was especially noticeable whenever Dawkins made his characteristically biting remarks condemning those who hope to inject religious dogma into science classrooms.  From the response, you'd expect the whole room was filled with frustrated young grad students, biology post-docs, and maybe a couple hundred of those scheming secular humanists that I keep hearing about on the John Birch website.

I still think Dawkins is a bit naive about the propriety of addressing metaphysical arguments with materialistic premises, but for all that, he proved a very persuasive and entertaining speaker.  Perhaps Matt Stone and Trey Parker were a little too hard on him, after all.


Via ERV, we have the antics of another Oklahoma lawmaker who appears not to know what country he is living in, nor why we enshrined free speech into our state and federal founding documents.  Hint: It was not to protect popularly supported and unoffensive speech.

Rep. Thomsen claims that he wants OU to "engage in an open, dignified, and fair discussion of the Darwinian theory of evolution" but endeavors to suppress controversial speech like that of Richard Dawkins, because it is "contrary and offensive to the views and opinions of most citizens of Oklahoma" and therefore not fit for debate. 

Open and fair discussion of the theory of evolution must address the entire range of thinking on the subject, from creationists like Phillip E. Johnson, Casey Luskin, and William Dembski, to moderate scientists like John M. Lynch and Michael Ruse, and yes, even hard-line naturalists like Richard Dawkins. Every one of these people have spoken on the topic of evolution at OU, except the last. Why single out his particular views for special treatment if one truly believes in a free and open debate of all sides?

The conclusion is obvious and ineluctable: HR1015 is naught but thinly veiled theological protectionism masquerading as academic freedom.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Debit Card Fraud and the Joy of Banking

Today I withdrew a rather hefty sum of cash from my account with a certain Fortune 500 financial services company which specializes in banking, investing, and insurance for people that serve in the United States military, and moved it into a local bank instead.

Here is the story. The bank was made aware of a breach of security involving their customers debit cards, and accordingly they mailed out replacement cards. As responsible and prudent individuals, we promptly activated our new cards and shredded our old ones. At this point we (quite reasonably) assumed that the bank would deactivate the old cards, since its only conceivable use at that point would be by criminals who were hoping to fraudulently benefit by directly accessing my bank account using a counterfeit debit card.

About a week later, shockingly enough, someone used a copy of my wife's debit card to charge around $600 at a couple of locations in and around Montgomery, Alabama. As it turns out, despite being on notice that the cards had been compromised and that we had received and activated our new cards, the bank LEFT THE OLD CARDS ACTIVE, even for face-to-face (card present) transactions. They claim to have done this on account of the possibly of recurring automatic payments, but the last I checked those cannot be accomplished via card present transactions, so I am forced to conclude that they are just being lazy.

My advice? Bank locally. If you are going to have to bitch and grouse at great length about your bank losing your money and then making you bear the risk of the loss during the interim period during which their fraud analysts think about possibly getting around to dealing with problem and restoring your stolen money, you may as well have the pleasure of doing so in person. It is far more satisfying and effective that way.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Of Plymouth, Puritanism, and Pluralism

The Opinions (Right or Wrong) of Lee Malatesta: Freedom of Religion in the Myth of the Pilgrims

My old friend Lee has written up an insightful post on the tension inherent between the religious devotion of Puritanism and the ethics of religious pluralism and liberty of conscience, in which he debunks yet another bit of patriotic mythmaking, one usually directed as those whom we do not deign to disabuse of certain happy notions peculiar to the young and inexperienced.

I have no criticisms (which may come as a shock to Lee) and only three useful notes to add:
  • Of Plymouth Plantation is available in full at Google Books. Enjoy!
  • An Underground Education by Richard Zacks has a relatively concise overview of religious persecution practiced by the Puritans, starting on page 228.
  • Martha Nussbaum on Roger Williams. A far more worthy figure upon which to construct a national myth of religious liberty is, of course, Roger Williams. This podcast is a lecture from an eminent scholar at the University of Chicago Law School, in which she explains the roots of our distinctively American tradition of religious liberty for all citizens.