Thursday, May 28, 2009

Eucharistic Miracle??

Are credulous people attracted to religion, or does religion make people credulous?

Manchester Faith & Culture Examiner's Dyan Puma asked "Will Atheists accept this science" where she makes the case for a Eucharistic miracle occurring and how it has been "scientifically determined".

Well, I am an atheist and a scientist in training so I will examine this case and put forward my opinion.
I would further offer that if the Atheist has not found this truth, it is either because he or she has not accepted, or does not posses, the gift of faith. But, whoever sincerely seeks to believe, will find all the evidence necessary to believe.
So first of all this is offensive. She is blaming the atheist for not coming to the same conclusion as herself. What is this "gift of faith" she talks about? Why is this gift not available to everyone? It seems insulting to suggest God gives some this gift but not all, even those who did sincerely seek to believe. (She will no doubt claim the atheist never really truly wanted to believe)

When she says "sincerely seeks to believe", she is basically saying that we should remember all the good things and those things which confirm our beliefs and ignore those things which are bad and don't confirm what we want to believe. At all costs we must not question the validity of any of these "evidences", we should just accept that they are what we are looking for.

To turn the tables on her, I'm going to claim that as a religious person she has not found the truth because she has let her faith blind her to the evidence which goes against her religious beliefs. If only she would be more critical and skeptical of her religion, then she would see the truth. She has never sincerely wanted to seek the truth because she doesn't accept evidence which goes against her belief. If only she would be more open minded.

What is a Eucharistic Miracle?
Roman Catholics believe that when a priest says some hocus pocus over some bread and wine, it transforms into the actual body and blood of Jesus. Every Catholic must truly believe it is the literal body and blood or Jesus or they are committing a grave sin. They then eat Jesus' body and drink Jesus' blood. These beliefs were formulated before the days of DNA and before science could actually tell the difference between someone's flesh and bread. Basically they believe in magic.

If we were to take any sample of bread or wine and put it under the microscope, one would not be able to tell the difference between a consecrated or unconsecrated host. (That is, we could not tell which one had been changed by the priest and which one hasn't) Catholics have gotten around this by maintaining that it really does change but not in a physical sense, but it changes in essence. This is just a fancy way of saying their initial beliefs were wrong, but because they can never be wrong they change the definition of works so that science can't prove them wrong.

A Eucharistic miracle is when the bread and/or wine (or one of them) actually physically changes. You know, it does what Catholics believe it does...

The back story

Emphasis is intentional...
A Basilian monk, wise in the ways of the world, but not in the ways of faith, was having trouble with his belief in the real presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. He prayed constantly for relief from his doubts, and from the fear that he was losing his vocation. He suffered day after day as he went through the routine of his priesthood, as these doubts continued to gnaw at him.

The situation in the world did not help him. There were many heresies cropping up all the time, which kept chipping away at his faith; some were within the church as well as from the outside. This monk couldn't help but become more and more convinced by the logic of these heresies, especially the one concerning his particular problem - the physical presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
And then...
One morning, during a very strong attack of doubt, he began the Consecration of the Mass. He used the same size host which is used in the Latin Rite masses today. What he beheld as he consecrated the bread and wine caused his hands to shake, indeed his whole body began to tremble. He stood for a long time with his back to the people, and finally turned to them slowly.

He said, "O fortunate witnesses to whom the Blessed God, to confound my disbelief, has wished to reveal Himself in the Most Blessed Sacrament and to render Himself visible to our eyes. Come brethren, and marvel at our God so close to us. Behold the Flesh and Blood of our most beloved Christ."

The host had turned into Flesh, and the wine, into Blood.
Now the final line is telling. The story goes that the host turned into flesh, but isn't this what happens every time? Well in this case it was an actual transformation, or at least that is the impression people got.

They tested the skin and blood and found, lo and behold, it was "real".
  • The Flesh is real flesh and the Blood is real blood.
  • Both the Flesh and the Blood belong to the human species.
  • The Flesh and the Blood have the same blood type, AB, which matches the blood that was identified on the Shroud of Turin. This type of blood is found in roughly 3% of human beings, but in 14-15% of those living in certain parts of Palestine and the Middle East.
  • The Flesh consists of the muscular tissue of the heart.
  • In the Flesh, the following body parts are present: the myocardium; the endocardium; the vagus nerve; and the left ventricle.
  • In the Blood there were found proteins in the same normal proportions as are found in the fresh blood of a living person.
  • In the Blood there were found the following minerals: chlorides, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium and calcium.
  • The five clots of Blood, though different in shape and size, are equal in weight. Also, one of the clots weighs as much as two, and two as much as three. Whether one clot, two clots or five clots are weighed, they always amount to 15.85 grams.
  • The preservation of the Flesh and the Blood, which were left in their natural state for twelve centuries and exposed to the action of atmospheric and biological agents, remains an extraordinary phenomenon.
Is this a miracle?

I have no doubt the flesh is really someone's heart. I have no doubt the blood is someone's blood. In fact if I never knew that "over 500 testes were conducted, all of which supported the conclusions listed above", I still would have been willing to concede that the flesh was really someone's heat and the blood is someone's blood.

Was it a miracle? No!

What I want to know is why the police were not involved. This was not a miracle. The monk decided to scam the credulous by stealing flesh from someone's heart (hopefully from a cadaver) and taking their blood. He did this to draw attention to himself, to quell the heresies and fool the credulous that his religion which he had doubts about was really true. This is a classic example of "lying for Jesus" (that is to say, for the common good, or for the glory of God).

Summary

Catholics believe bread and wine can magically turn into Jesus' body and blood when a priest mumbles some incantations over it. Of course we know that in reality this does not happen nor do Catholics really believe this because when it actually happens, it gets turned into a "miracle". It also follows that they are less likely to actually eat the flesh and blood if it was actually flesh and blood. To do so would be cannibalism and disgusting.

The fact that this so-called miracle happened when this monk was having doubts over whether or not the Eucharist actually turns into the body and blood of Jesus is sufficient reason to doubt anything special happened that day. He stole the flesh from someone's heart and took some blood to convince everyone and the heretics a miracle happened and the credulous fell for it. There is nothing scientific for the atheist to explain. It was a fraud and a scam.

How to Scientificallty Verify a Miracle

Can science say anything about miracles? Yes!

Get a priest into a room with say ten scientists. Make sure the scientists are impartial with a variety of religions and backgrounds. Make sure there are video recorders, microphones and viewers in another room to ensure impartiality.

Let the priest bring say a box of 100 wafers and say 100mL of wine. Make sure the priest does not have any blood or flesh with him. Get the scientists to verify the wafters are bread and the wine is wine.

Let the priest say his words over the wafer and wine making sure that at no time he touches anything (unless its part of the procedure) with the video recorders and observers watching him for any magic tricks.

Get the scientists to check to see if the wafters of wine have turned into flesh and blood.

Do this as many times as necessary. At any time, should the scientists verify that the bread and wine have turned into flesh and blood. It would be reasonable to conclude that a miracle occured.

Just like any supernatural test in the past - we know this will fail, and will always fail and the true believers will rationalise it and make up every excuse in the book. For those who think it will work, well James Randi will give you a million if you can prove it (why not give it to charity?).

Conclusions

David Hume would conclude that it is far more likely that this monk engaged in fraud than a miracle occurred. Given the back story, the probability of fraud is even higher. It doesn't matter how many times we study the flesh or blood.

Let me give an analogy. A magician appears to cut someone in half in a box, he spins the two halves of the box around, joins them together and the person exists the box unharmed. Studying the person who was apparently cut in half does not mean the person was really cut in half, no matter how many times you "scientifically" check them.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Response to the "New Atheists"

In 2002 Richard Dawkins presented a talk to TED called "An Atheist Call to Arms". Four years later, after Kitzmiller vs Dover (the famous evolution versus intelligent design court decision) "The God Delusion" represents the start of a movement known as "New Atheism" where atheists are called to unite under a common banner, to come out of the closet and to admit that they don't believe in any god's and everyone else should get used to it.

Four books by four authors stand as the benchmark for the tone and arguments set forth by the New Atheists.

"The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins
"The End of Faith" by Sam Harris
"god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" by Christopher Hitchens
"Breaking the Spell" by Daniel Dennett

Since then a number of other books have been published on Atheism on various specific topics including philosophy, science, New Testament scholarship, skepticism and deconversion stories/arguments.

Since then the Christian propaganda machine has been working overtime to discredit these New Atheists. I've compiled a list of books I've found on Amazon which are responses mainly directed at Dawkins, but also at the "new atheists". This list is not likely to be complete. As I find new books, I will add them to this list.

" The Irrational Atheist: Dissecting... " by Vox Day
" The reason for God: Belief in an age of skepticism " by Timothy Keller
" The Truth Behind the New Atheism " by David Marshall
" The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Science... " by David Berlinski
" The Dawkins Delusion? Atheism Fundamentalism " by Alister McGrath
" God's undertaker: Has science buried God? " by John Lennox
" The End of Reason: A response to the new atheists " by Ravi Zacharias
" God and the new atheism " by John Haught
" The Truth about Jesus and the "Lost Gospels" " by David Marshall
" The New Atheist Crusades and their unholy... " by Becky Garrison
" Answering the new atheism: Dismantling Dawkins... " by Scott Hahn
" God is no Delusion: A refutation of Richard Dawkins " by Thomas Crean
" The Twilight of Atheism: The rise and fall of... " by Alister McGrath
" Atheism Remix: A Christian Confronts the new atheists " by R. Albert Mohler
" The Dawkins Letters: Challenging the atheist myths " by David Robertson
" The Delusion of Disbelief: Why the new atheism is... " by David Aikman
" Atheism is false Richard Dawkins and the Impossible... " by Reuben Stone
" Letter to an atheist " by Michael Patrick Leahy
" I don't have enough faith to be an atheist " by Normal Geisler
" No One sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and... " by Michael Novak
" The New Atheists: The twilight of reason and the... " by Tina Beattie
" Atheist Delusions: The Christian revolution... " by David Bentley Hart
" Dawkins' GOD: Genes, memes and the meaning of life " by Alister McGrath
" The Real Face of Atheism " by Ravi Zacharias

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cullingreviewingus

I've noticed lately that the number of blogs I have subscribed to has gone through the roof (in a variety of subjects from atheism to cartoons to finance and science, etc). The same could be said of the number of YouTube channels I have subscribed too as well. Add to this Slashdot and New Scientist and it takes me a couple of hours per day to get through the "news". Because of this, I'm going to have to cull some blogs from my list...

Anyway, here are the blogs about Atheism I frequently visit and a general review of them.

Continually Updated
Pharyungla
Goes without saying really. PZ is an Internet star (is this an achievement?) and outspoken atheist in the mould of Richard Dawkins. This is atheist blog central. At first I found the blog to be annoying because there were so many posts each day - but now I enjoy the many musings and its the first stop in getting atheist news. PZ's character and intellect make this a good blog to visit. Plenty of Christian trolls to feed.

Friendly Atheist
The guy who sold his soul on EBay has a book and a blog. Hemant is an ex-Jain and has a unique perspective on atheism in America. Just like the name of the blog suggests - his posts are always cordial and friendly. Sometimes Friendly Atheist is ahead of PZ in news - sometimes he makes the news. Has become a favourite of mine. Not that many Christian trolls.

Unreasonable Faith
Daniel Florien's blog is similar to Friendly Atheist with news, videos, opinions, unique ways of looking at things, etc. Not that many Christian trolls but the comment section can have a lively discussion.

The Atheist Experience
The blog of the stars TV Show (Channel FFreeThinker on YouTube). There is usually an extensive post or two from ex-Christians and others who tackle the nuts and bots of the culture wars and Atheism versus Theism debate. Considering they are based in Texas, this is ground zero to the next Intelligent Design versus Evolution battle in the classroom.

Debunking Christianity
John W. Loftus's blog based on the book "Why I became an atheist" tackles many aspects of Christianity. The level of discourse is always intelligent and the guest bloggers always add something extra. Debunking Christianity is a troll magnet, thanks to John's personality, the title of the blog and presence on TheologyWeb.

Frequently Updated
Common Sense Atheism
Luke is a young athiest who goes to great lengths to provide respect to Christians, Christian Philosophers and Religious Studies and presents them to lay people in an accessible way. The most valuable resource on this blog are 400+ atheist/theist debates and his continual reminder that even atheists are prone to not using common sense or rationality. Christian trolls are generally respectful.

Evaluating Christianity
A lawyer evaluates Christianity. I find it always interesting to hear the viewpoints of different atheists in different professions and why they reject Christianity. As a scientist its interesting to hear an intelligent perspective from a lawyer. Has quickly become a favourite of mine.

Moderately Updated
Kelosophy
Fellow Australian. The atheism movement isn't as prominent (or needed) here in Australia but its good to hear from a fellow Aussie who shares similar views and can express it intelligently.

Good Reason
Fellow West Aussie and member of the UWA Atheist and Agnostic society. Interestingly - an exmormon.

ex-apologist
I found this blog when reading up on religious philosophy. I have found it to be a good source of philosophical arguments against theism.

Infrequently Updated
Failing the Insider Test
The guy who wrote this blog made a few posts on a Facebook Christian/Atheist discussion. I enjoyed his intelligent and thoughtful (although infrequent) ideas about how as a theist, Christianity didn't pass the "insider test". The quality of posts make up for the lack of posts!

Richard Carrier Blog
Richard Carrier rarely updates his blog. Can sometimes be a source of great gems, but otherwise few and far between. If you like the work of Carrier, you can find some of his early thoughts here.

Steven Carr's Blog
I like Steven's style and his writings. Usually says the same things over and over again because his critics cannot answer them.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Plantinga-Dennett Debate Review, Review

I may give my own take on the Plantinga - Dennett "debate" or exchange later, but for now I am going to review a review of this exchange. This review was what lead me to listen to the debate so I could judge for myself. By the way, this is going to be somewhat of a rant...

As a person with short hair, even I couldn't help pulling out my hair out at this debate review of the Plantinga - Dennett exchange which can be found HERE.
I prefer to remain anonymous for various reasons, in particular because I am inclined towards Plantinga's position over Dennett's and were this to become well-known it could damage or destroy my career in analytic philosophy. This is something I prefer not to put my family through. I almost didn't publish these comments at all, but as far as I could tell, this would be the only public record of the discussion.
Actually Sir, I can see why this review could destroy your career in analytic philosophy and it has nothing to do with the fact that you are a theist. (By the way, nice way to play the "persecuted" Christian card...) I would say it is because you have problems grasping simple comprehension and concepts which should be obvious to any philosopher. (Or heck, layperson!) You take great joy in attacking Dennett, yet seem oblivious to what he is actually saying. I would venture to say that people such as yourself and your fellow Christian well-poisoners are damaging American Philosophy (I say American because its an American phenomenon) because of your inability to consider the potential falsity of your position. (Yes I understand that you might feel the same way about us secularists, but at least we are "allowed" to consider positions which go against what we believe)
It is perhaps the first time in centuries that Christians have been such a high concentration of professional philosophers.
Am I surprised the well-poisoners are entering philosophy? No, because they tried and failed to get in the front door of science with the likes of Intelligent Design, so now they are going around the back to "destroy" methodological naturalism and the scientific method. As a scientist I must cackle (in a mad scientist kind of way) because science was founded on theistic beliefs and philosophy and has eroded them ever since. Modern theistic philosophy is required because of this and I see "professional" theistic philosophers such as Craig, Van Inwagen and Plantinga as being "science deniers", who pick and choose the bits of science (or pseudoscience in the case of Intelligent Design) which support their positions.
Dennett has arrived and is setting up his equipment. It seems appropriate somehow that Dennett would be using technological equipment where Plantinga gives a more traditional sort of talk.

2:20 pm - Plantinga enters. The tension between the titans fills the room.

2:21 pm - No immediate greeting between the two figures. Dennett stares at his computer. It is awkward.

2:25 pm - Still no eye contact. Both figures appear uncomfortable. I'm probably reading into their body language, but they seem to realize that something hangs on the match.

2:27 pm - Plantinga attempts to make eye contact with Dennett. Dennett still refuses.

2:29 pm - Dennett and Plantinga make awkward attempts at conversation. Dennett still seems uninterested. I wonder what this foreshadows.

Dennett notably doesn't clap for Plantinga.

2:35 pm - Plantinga begins to speak. He looks like Abraham Lincoln. Dennett looks like Santa Claus. Feel free to imagine these two as those characters.
Juvenile...This reviewer is clearly trying to paint Dennett as "hostile".
Plantinga seems more concerned with careful, methodical, clear philosophy, Dennett with exciting, compelling, shocking ideas.
Um...what? Plantinga is the one with shocking ideas, such as the next one...
He [Plantinga] even mentions that outrageous (to the naturalist) idea that the demons are part of the errors in human development. Dennett is clearly stunned and amused. He probably thinks Plantinga's claims are insane or at least silly. Plantinga's orthodoxy is completely unabashed. It is commendable that he is wholly without embarrassment, something rare for a modern Christian. Perhaps it signals an attitude to come.
Not being embarrassed about positing demons as part of the errors in human development?!?!
The Christian doesn't have to change her views according to current science.
If I could sum up Plantinga's argument in one sentence, it would be that.
Dennett is shaking his head and continues to appear amused. Imagine Santa with a sense for the absurd and ironic and a strong snarky streak. Less appealing, admittedly, but still an interesting character.
The lame insults continue...
Dennett claps!
If this doofus didn't include the exclamation mark, I wouldn't have complained, but I see this as indicative of the overall tone of this review. Dennett the snarky, mean spirited, atheist devil against warm, inviting Plantinga who stands up in the face of evil unabashed with his Christian orthodoxy. Style over substance, Aristotle over Plato. It gets worse...The next part takes place during Dennett's rebuttal/commentary.
Contemporary evolutionary theory can't rule out ID. "Except on grounds that it is an entirely gratuitous fantasy." Is the punchline an insult?!
Yes Sir, it is an insult - and the fact that you did not "get it" speaks volumes. As a follower of Plantinga, this does not surprise me! Dennett obviously explains this...
Sure, the intelligent theist can keep going on believing. He calls theistic belief a fairy tale. Now he's getting explicitly insulting. He thinks theistic belief can corrupt our common epistemological fabric and involve theism into politics.
He was correct and his examples were appropriate.
He shows a slide mocking the eschatological views of Christians.
What is not to be mocked about those who take the view that the world must end, and end in the most bloody and violent terms possible - AND - who seek to self-fulfill this prophecy?
He calls theism an unrespectable position, and compares it to astrology. He says it is irrational and doesn't deserve respect.
Yes he did "compare" but he didn't say they were equivalent. He was equating the effects of fantasies (such as astrology) on our epistemological fabric and noting that astrology is mild whereas public policy can be based on the fantasies of theism.
He compares theism to holocaust deniers and things have gone off the rails. This is outrageous.
He compared them because holocaust deniers do affect the epistemological fabric of society! The whole point he was trying to make is that there are many fantasies, some mild and can be tolerated (astrology) and others toxic (holocaust denialers, "Obama is the anti-Christ"ers) all of which can be entirely consistent with what we observe in reality...this does not make them true, nor beneficial to society. If we are to accept Plantinga's special plea for the acceptance of theism, the floodgates open to all sorts of unverifiable claims, some benign, some toxic. If the author spent less time being offended and more time understanding he would see that Dennett "won" this point by showing the absurdity of Plantinga's appeal.
All Plantinga must do to beat Dennett now is to reply with grace. For Plantingian dry wit, this is easy.
And there we have it ladies and gentleman...All you have to do to show Christianity is true when an argument has been shown to be fallacious - you just have to reply with grace...
"Is Plantinga's theism in any better position than these other fantasies?" He's going to create a Plantinga-guided natural selection. It is hard to explain, but the argument basically mocks Plantinga. I am incensed. The response is a long string of insults, and little more. This is pathetic. I had more faith in Dennett. He is just making the Flying Spaghetti Monster argument and getting laughs from real, intolerant jerks.
Now I can tell the reviewer has lost all sense of objectivity and his mind has closed up tight completely impervious to what Dennett was saying, and all he can hear are "insults". What Dennett did was to cleverly use Plantinga's argument and show that it is just as valid if we posit that the intelligent designer or intervener was Superman. Yes it was a "Flying Spaghetti Monster" argument, and yes, it is a valid counter-argument.
It is going on and on. Sigh. I wanted this to be interesting! Dennett does not understand what a disservice he does his cause by not taking his smartest opponents seriously. He will lose thoughtful acolytes as a result.
His "smartest" opponents are only working within a specific framework that they themselves have decided to snooker themselves into. Many secular philosophers understand this. If you cut one of your own legs off, don't be surprised if you cannot compete with the two legged runners. It is perhaps cruel of us to make fun of the one legged runners, but the one legged runners were arrogant and presumed they could run as faster and some even said they would be faster than the best two legged runners. (Think of one leg as "there is a God" and the other leg "there is no God", and that by working together they can be better than if one leg was removed - which goes for either side...)
Dennett has made himself extremely vulnerable because he is mocking Plantinga, who is arguably one of the finest epistemologists of the last fifty years.
I think the reviewer has placed Plantinga on a pedestal in his mind and is let down that Dennett doesn't want to play according to his rules.
Plantinga can't champion Behe and Dennett is going to mock him. I thought so.
And? What do you expect? Plantinga decided to base an argument on Behe's discredited work. What does that tell you about the effectiveness of this line of argumentation on someone who advocates science as a tool for knowledge? Any argument which involved the flatness of Earth would also be a ridiculous line of enquiry and would be concerned more with fantasy (some other world) than reality.
Dennett recounts Plantinga and Peter Van Inwagen's invitation to debate Behe in 1997. He is seriously mocking not only Plantinga but Van Inwagen as well. He thought the Behe book was a joke and this made Plantinga and Van Inwagen look bad.
The guys who cut their leg off found a wheelchair but were disqualified because it goes against the rules.
For those on the fence, they will likely think Dennett is being a serious jerk.
I agree that Dennett was going after Plantinga with all guns blazing. This isn't a tea party, its supposed to be a serious philosophical conference and discussion. Dennett however treated Plantinga's arguments as seriously as was warranted, and I have a feeling the reviewer has some left over hostility from the previous point.
Again, all he needs to do is judge that the probability of cell complexity is higher on theism than naturalism. It appears that Dennett's reply is that Plantinga has no justifiable method of making the relevant probability judgments. There's a subtle implication that because Plantinga isn't a scientist he should shut up.
Give the boy a prize he has finally figured it out. How can these theologians perform arm-chair navel-gazing science? Until they get their hands dirty in the lab, they are not in a position to judge these things. (Especially considering they are naturalism denialers) To make these proclamations still requires them to stand on the shoulders of scientific giants. Its one big argument from personal incredulity. "*I* don't see how its probable, therefore its not probable."

Just like no lay-person can estimate with high precision whether or not a bridge will fall down, under what conditions and when, no lay-person can judge the probability of the likelihood a cell could have resulted from naturalism. You need to get your hands dirty - ironically in a field where the majority are secularists. Picking the discredited work of a person who even has a disclaimer attached to the universities website is NOT how science is done, and supports Dennett's claim that Plantinga cannot base his probabilities on anything meaningful.
Dennett has effectively made the discussion ideological.
Science versus fantasy. How is Plantinga's work any less of an ideology? Remember the Wedge Strategy...
but I am still open, though a bit upset by Dennett's truly nasty comments.
Objectivity was lost a long time ago.
Dennett is ending with a joke. He is now going after the Christian fish. It is clear that something terrible is coming.
Cause Dennett is "teh Devil" right?
"Destroy the author of things to discover the nature of the universe."
...
Basically, he is talking about murdering God. Dennett has revealed a deep wickedness in his character. I will never take him seriously as a philosopher again.
Oh boy...Murdering God?? He is no more murdering God than Nietzsche when he said "God is dead". Dennett's point is crystal clear. If we want to move on to discovering the nature of the universe, either from a scientific or philosophical point of view, then we should discard the fantasies of the past. The fact that this reviewer thinks that it is a "wickedness" says something about the nature of the reviewer and their lack of ability to comprehend what someone is saying. I also wonder why whether someone is "wicked" or "nice" is a conditionality to taking them seriously?

Conclusion

I have a feeling this secret undercover reporter is not a philosopher at a secular university who must surpress his name for fear of losing his job. I actually think its more likely that this person is a random bible believing Christian who judges an argument based on the character of the person presenting it, rather than on the value of the truth itself. If this person is a philosopher, then I have nothing but contempt for them for losing their objectivity, missing many crucial points and getting emotional and substituting an argument with an appeal to authority. The obsession of the reviwer with the character of Dennett reveals that he wants any excuse to not listen and dismiss Dennett's arguments, like so many closed minded people who focus on anything other than the argument at hand.

Blog Comments
This was an honest and frank review of the debate by a Christian left in the blog comments.
If Plantinga can't defend the relevance of the arguments he's making for the whole discussion then what good is it to bother to make the argument.
...
Is Dennett really misrepresenting the project of scientific inquiry or are we Christians really unwilling to admit that the strictness of scientific method and practice makes us appear more like fideists by our own agendas to understand the universe?
...
I can't blame the atheists for their tactics if we're not going to make a choice between offering a solid defense or admitting and being willful participants in a brand of fideism.

- Blake

Reincarnation, Castes and Sin

I was reading through a Protestant versus Catholic debate over at the CARM discussion forum (Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry) when I found this quote from a Christian regarding original and generational sin.
Infants might not commit too many sins, but have inherited generational curses, which are judgements that are passed on to individuals because of sins perpetuated in a family in a number of generations. Generational curses are similar to original sin curses because they can be passed down on a generational basis. They differ in that generational curses do not impose eternal judgement. They bring judgement or bondage during an individual's life, reducing the quality of life, until that individual addresses the sin issues that put the curses into place.
This is similar in spirit to the beliefs of Buddhists (Tibetan or otherwise) who believe that if someone is born (reincarnation) into a lower caste, they deserve it because of some indiscretion in a previous life. Conversely if someone is born into a higher caste, they deserve it because they were wronged or were good in a previous life.

On the surface it appears to be a rather benign belief however behind these unprovable dogmas lies injustice and inequality. To compound the misery of being born into the lower class, one is subjected to extra punishment because they obviously deserve it...Thus gives slave masters the rite to beat their slaves should they try to escape or rebel.

One can see why these beliefs became influential - like many unfounded religious beliefs, they are good for the control of the populace and keeping the status quo in favour of those born with a silver spoon in their mouth.
Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” - Seneca
Perhaps most disappointing, this isn't something that was left in the past but was present in Tibet circa 1950. This is what bothers me about the "Free Tibet" movement. Do they understand that it was actually really bad for the lower class before China "liberated" them? (Not that communistic China with religious intolerance is necessarily better) Are they just returning the power to those who never deserved it in the first place, those who believe they ought to be in power through divine rite? One can only hope that the Dalai Lama has used his time in exile to Westernise himself and strive for a progressive Tibet, should China ever allow secession. However I very much doubt China will relinquish Tibet unless a Soviet style collapse occured - in other words, very unlikely.

As a final note I don't find it surprising that those who hold onto these beliefs and vigorously defend them are the ones who were born on the right side of the ledger. Golden rule be damned!

Friday, May 15, 2009

True Scotsman?

I've noticed in discourses between ex-Christians and Christians the following sometimes takes place...
Ex: I used to be a Christian, but I no longer believe.
C: So you were never a true Christian?
Ex: I used to believe I was.
C: Clearly you were never a true Christian because true Christians are once saved, always saved.
Ex: But I used to believe I was.
C: But you are not now, hence you were never a true Christian.
Ex: That's an example of a "No True Scotsman" fallacy.
Is the ex-Christian right here or is there something he is missing?
I believe it depends on which type of Christianity we are talking about here.

For Calvinists the Christian is correct here but they are speaking a different language. For Calvinists if you are not a Calvinist at death, then you were never meant to be saved. If you are a Calvinist at death then you were always meant to be saved. The confusion comes about because Calvinists do not advocate Free Will, therefore before time, God had chosen who were the chosen ones and who were reprobate.

Therefore it is reasonable for the Calvinist to state that an ex-Christian was never saved because they fell away. This of course neglects the possibility that the ex-Christian might come back to their faith - in which case they were meant to be saved, etc ad nauseum.

So if someone pulls the "once saved, always saved line" or the No True Scotsman - chances are they might be a Baptist or any protestant sect which relies on the teachings of John Calvin.

Heaven

Revelation 12:7,8
7 And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.
8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven.
Based on Genesis 1:1, I could perhaps reasonably presume that the angels were created along with heaven (and the earth). If they were created earlier or later this would not invalidate my argument - but I believe its reasonable to presume they had to have been created. I would also like to presume that the devil was not created evil but became evil through his own free will. If the devil was created evil, this means God creates evil things.

Why then did the devil go against God and wage war in heaven? This question, when taken to its logical conclusion will form the thesis behind my belief that heaven is nonsensical.

What is heaven?

Despite heaven as being the goal for most Christians, not much is known about what to expect, what the rules are, etc. The bible is very vague on these matters, but it gives the overall impression that heaven is a "good thing" and worth aspiring to (as opposed to hell with its fire and distance from God, the latter being inconsequential to those who do not believe). The characteristics appeal to our emotions that we wish to meet those we love in the next life and there will be no suffering or injustice. Could the reason why the specifics of heaven are not known be because God doesn't exist and heaven is wishful thinking?

Like many other theological constructs, we have no physical or accessible evidence of heaven so one has to take these issues on faith. I have no reason to believe mere wishful thinking is enough to make something real, otherwise contradictory wishes could not be separated as true versus false. A Christian believes and wishes heaven exists, a Buddhist believes and wishes reincarnation occurs after death. Given this, I cannot believe in heaven as an atheist.

Can I Speculate?
Even though I do not believe in an actual heaven, I wish to speculate on some characteristics that it might have. Is it possible to discuss something one does not believe actually exists? I believe so, I can discuss an imaginary animal (say a dolphin which has evolved intelligence) and state its characteristics (DNA, large brain, ability to communicate) despite my knowledge that it does not exist. In my opinion these speculations are reasonable.

We know these games of speculation occur in works of fiction and fantasy. Many role players have guidelines associated with characters of which people agree are not real. I have even been witness to many heated conversations over these invented characters. Therefore I am justified in believing one can use logic and reasoning in speculating on fictional or fantasy worlds - including heaven (regardless of its existence).

Reasonable Assumptions
I would like to propose the following propositions associated with heaven which I believe are reasonable.
  1. Free will exists in heaven
  2. Humans have free will in heaven
  3. Heaven will last forever
  4. Hell is the opposite to heaven
  5. The devil cannot reenter heaven

Justifying These Assumptions

Free will exists in heaven
Free will must exist in heaven otherwise the angles and Satan could not have rebeled against God unless they were designed to rebel against God. So free will exists in heaven unless God creates evil beings - which goes against the common characteristics of God.

Humans have free will in heaven

If humans did not have free will in heaven, the following would follow.
  1. Free will would be contingent on the human body (it seems odd to give us free will in this life and deny it in the next).
  2. We would be merely robots in heaven.
  3. Free will is better than no free will, therefore heaven would be worse than this life.
I therefore believe free will in heaven is true.

Heaven will last forever
Hell is the opposite to heaven

I believe these to be obvious and does not require justification.

The devil cannot re-enter heaven

This one is harder to justify. It may be that the devil can choose to re-enter heaven but chooses not to. It could be "in the nature" of the devil to resist God. If the devil cannot choose to re-enter heaven, one might argue that he doesn't have free will (in the same way God cannot will to do evil). Given I don't find the Christian notion of evil to be correct - its hard to formulate this in a sensible way...

Using These Assumptions

It should be possible using simple statistically analysis to construct a model of the number of people in heaven at any given time. For a sufficiently large number of people or souls in heaven, we can approximate it as continuous rather than discrete.

N(t=0) = N0

For the non-scientists out there, this statement just says that the number of people in heaven at the start is some value N0

If we assume that when t=0, no more souls are created and all souls which have been created are either in Heaven or Hell, then

Ntotal = Nheaven + Nhell

Which is the law of conservation of souls.

After some time t, we expect some people to have used their free will in heaven to leave and follow Satan. Lets say there are L number of people who do this.

N(t) = N0 - L

Although it is not possible to estimate how many people this would be, based on a simple population dynamics argument, we can assume a proportion of people per unit time will leave or disobey God.

In mathematical terms, this represents a first order differential equation of the form

dN/N = - R dt

Where N is the number in heaven and R is the proportional rate loss of souls in heaven per unit time. For example, if there were one billion people in heaven, and one million souls left in one millenia, the rate would be R = 0.001 people per millennia.

Solving this differential equation with the initial conditions gives us the result

N(t) = N0 Exp(-R t)

Which is a simple exponential decay function. (Think radioactive decay)

Given heaven lasts forever, we can see from the population function that the population of people in heaven will tend to zero as the time t goes to infinity.

Potential "Outs"

Lukeprog over at "Common Sense Atheism" presents a four part series on "Escaping Hell"
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Conclusion

If heaven was one-way, which is to say, you may only enter once and it is possible to leave then it stands to reason, by simple population dynamics that over time, heaven will be devoid of all humans or any souls which have free will. I therefore conclude that this concept of heaven to be absurd and it would be more logical to allow people to re-enter heaven or escape hell.

Why Loftus Should NOT Debate Craig

I'm a huge fan of John W. Loftus and think he brings more to New Atheism than the four horseman combined. In fact I would like to see more of Loftus around the place. Why Loftus is not as big if not bigger than Hitchens is beyond me. However I am weary about his campaign to debate William Lane Craig.

I could be wrong about this but I see no indication that he is ready to debate Craig. I don't doubt he has the arguments, I doubt he has the most effective message delivery. The recent Carrier v Craig debate was a huge let down. I knew Carrier had good arguments but failed to deliver on the night and given that there was a lot of hype surrounding the debate, it was a disappointing affair. I wonder if Loftus v Craig will turn out the same way?

Has Loftus read every Craig debate? Has he formulated a response to all of his boilerplate arguments? Has he done so in a convincing fashion which will enable him to "win" the debate. Is Loftus even interested in winning the debate or just presenting a case (aka Carrier)? What in Loftus' own book or internet postings could be used against him?

Don't get me wrong - I wan't Loftus to win, just like I want my sports team to win, but if he's spent his winter sitting on the couch and snacking on fast food, I wont be expecting him to run a marathon come summer. Take Kagan v Craig, Kagan has spent his life learning and teaching secular ethics and spent the entire Q & A effectively "schooling" Craig. Is Loftus in the same league?

I also question the debate topic "Is Christianity more probable than atheism?". I can almost imagine it now. Loftus gets up there and presents a plausible and rational account for the reasonableness for atheism and Craig responds by using a multi-part Bayesian analysis of the probabilities involved (aka Ehrman v Craig). Loftus then wastes all his time picking apart the tortured logic, or avoids the issue, either way he will be on the back foot defending and playing into Craig's plan. Game over.

Mr Loftus, prove me wrong Sir.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Faithful Poor

Statistics
From a recent Pew Forum survey:
Two thirds of Americans who earn under $30k per year pray daily, on the other hand just under half of rich people who earn under $100k per year pray daily. The correlation is consistent throughout the data. The poorer you are, the more you pray.

Shouldn't the rich thank God every day that they are rich? And shouldn't the poor to be annoyed at God that they are poor? Or perhaps one could equally make the case that the rich feel that they don't need God, whereas the poor are constantly hounding God hoping he will make things better for them. Considering that Church's get better attendance during recessions, I would favour the latter. Average people are likely to pray for selfish reasons - so that things are better in their own life. (I'm sure there are more plausible explanations too)

When I was younger and believed what I was taught about the Bible and God, I never prayed to God asking for things because I was taught that is not the way God works. Prayer was used for thanksgiving, and we were to "ride it out" until the end of time, or when we die, and after that we get a new Earth, a new Eden.

Why Christianity is Successful
I see the story of Jesus as a battle-of-the-classes story. Under the Jewish system, God was for the Jews and in particular the priests who were often wealthy, holier-than-thou people who had the keys to God. When Jesus died, he took God and gave it to everyone, Jew and Gentile. He also took the power away from the priestly class and gave it to the people. The irony being that hundreds of years later the Roman Catholic Church came along and resumed the class distinction. This is one of the (many) criticisms Protestants have against Catholics in that they have become that which Jesus taught against.

What made Jesus different is that he came from a lower class family (a carpenter), hung around with nobodies (fishermen, prostitutes, etc) and was persecuted by "the man" and later killed only to defeat them all by rising again after three days, giving God to all peoples. Couple this with the promise of everlasting life in heaven and one can see why those who suffer the most in this life (such as black female poor people - the group with the highest levels of faith) have a greater propensity to believe.

Moral Hazard
One of the goals of the "New Atheism" is to show the world that atheists are not inhuman monsters and are generally smart, normal people, the type who you would let you child marry or let run the country for you. By doing so there are going to be many who will be "atheist evangelists" who will actively try to "deconvert" Christians from their "delusions".

In "Breaking the Spell", Daniel Dennett asks the question whether we should study religion as a natural phenomenon. Considering anthropologists have already been studying religion one might forgive Daniel and assume he was talking about taking it mainstream and in the process knocking down the sacred cows, aka PZ Myers and anti-compatiblism. (Which is to say the results of science cannot be logically reconciled with religion).

So how can we white intelligent rich males (the main atheist demographic) encourage the black disadvantaged poor female (the main Christian demographic) to give up what might be their only crutch in life? One might argue that by doing this, we are doing her a disservice. On the other hand, perhaps this is the only way to stop the cycle of suffering? To the atheist its clear that Christianity has been a strong influence which has kept women's equality down all these years (although to be fair, the same goes for most religions) and which has fuelled the divide between races and the haves and have-nots. Yet on the other hand, it is Christianity which offers hope to those oppressed!

The Solution
I believe the easiest solution is to give everyone a decent secular education. A smart society is going to function better, will be richer, and will favour disbelief over belief. I don't mean that we should actively teach anti-religion, but instead we should do what Daniel Dennett advocates and teach religions in a fair way (that is to say, show the students the different beliefs of the world).

The great thing about this solution is that we are fairly confident it already works and does not require force, intimidation or brainwashing. The only people who would object to this are those who believe it's easier to control a population who do not think for themselves...

Friday, May 8, 2009

They Would Not Have Died For A Lie?

It is often claimed by Christians that the apostles of Jesus were martyred for their beliefs and because they did not recant, they truly believed what they were preaching, that is to say - they were not making it up, they did not lie.

There are a number of problems with this claim

1) There is very little evidence that Jesus' apostles were martyred.
2) If they were killed, we may not know why they were killed.
3) If we knew why they were killed, this doesn't tell us about which belief they died for.
4) There are numerous parallels with other people dying for their beliefs.
5) All we are left with is the impression that they really believed something, but that does not make it a physical reality.

There is very little evidence that Jesus' apostles were martyred.
It is generally accepted that the stories of Jesus' apostles being martyred are "traditions" with a few exceptions. Some of these traditions contradict each other with some apostles being killed in different locations. Many traditions only start to appear in the written record hundreds of years after the events with no contemporary or near contemporary accounts. This makes the reliability of the traditions suspect. Many Christians parrot these claims without understanding the lack of evidence for this belief and if they are to use it as an argument in favour of their belief, they are merely repeating legends thought up to make Christians feel good about being persecuted.

If they were killed, we may not know why they were killed.
Let us presume for the moment that some early Christians were killed of their beliefs. We may not know the circumstances behind their arrest, trial and execution. Christians were persecuted for going against Jewish and Roman laws and customs. We do not know if they had any opportunity to recant their beliefs before being killed. To say they were martyred for going against the laws of the land does in no way bolster the validity of their belief than does a political protester.

If we knew why they were killed, this doesn't tell us about what belief they died for.

Let us presume that they were killed for preaching Christianity. This doesn't tell us which version of Christianity they died for. Were they preaching a bodily risen Jesus as represented in the gospels and orthodox Christianity, or were they preaching a non-bodily risen Jesus as implied in the letters of Paul, or perhaps they were Gnostic's? For all we know they could have died preaching something which is completely different to what modern Christians now believe. This would render their death in vain and would give no validity to orthodox Christianity.

There are numerous parallels with other people dying for their beliefs.

Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism was persecuted for his beliefs yet did not recant. Does that mean he was telling the truth? (I'm sure most Christians agree that he was a false prophet, some even believe he was intentionally dishonest) We also know people are willing to die for their beliefs about being abducted by UFOs. In most cases I have no doubt people really truly believe what they are spouting, but this gives no validity to the truth claims behind this belief.

All we are left with is the impression that they really believed something, but that does not make it a physical reality.
We know modern Catholics believe Jesus is really present in the Eucharist, yet there is no physical evidence this is the case. Given that, would a Catholic who is willing to die for their belief in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist lend validity to the actual presence of Jesus in the Eucharist? In fact, if an aspect of a religion requires faith, even faith in things believed but not seen, then we should expect that there are devout people who are willing to die, an ultimate test of their faith, which wouldn't be too much of an ordeal considering they are promised heaven on the other side.

Conclusion
Given the lack of evidence we have, we ought to be sceptical of the claims that Jesus' Apostles died for their belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus. As arguments for the validity of Jesus' resurrection go, this argument is one of the least arguments I find convincing - firstly because there is little foundation in evidence and secondly because it doesn't reveal to us anything other than establishing that they believed what they preached - which many people do not doubt. (Which would technically render this argument a straw man because people don't really believe they were liars)