Monday, February 27, 2012

Clinging to minor points

   One thing that I have occasionally noticed in dealing with religious people is they will cling on to minor trivialities. The purpose of this seems to avoid discussing the major point, which I suspect to be an area of discomfort for the believer.
   One of the first times I noticed this occurred nearly two years ago now. In the discussion, I brought up a point made by Julia Sweeney where she observed that a common tactic cults use is to get people to abandon their families and what do you know?!? There is a verse in the New Testament where Jesus tells his followers they need to abandon their families to follow him. The Julia Sweeney quote is as follows:
In Luke, Chapter 14, Jesus says, "Anyone who comes to me and does not hate father and mother, brothers and sisters, wife and children cannot be my disciple."
I mean, isn't that what cults do? Get you to reject your family in order to inculcate you?
   The Christian that I was having the discussion with, instead of addressing the main point, drug the conversation over to whether or not that translation was correct. He wanted the translation to be "love less" instead of "hate". It baffled me why he was so insistent on that, and I admit I failed to keep the conversation under control after that. He eventually claimed I was closed minded for not accepting the translation he wanted. That stunned me, too. I really didn't care one way or the other about the translation because I failed to see how it changed the main point. About the only difference that word change would make that I could see would be to change the emotional overtones, but such a change would not void my point.
   As far as why I bring this up now is because I saw a similar example within the last week. Cenk Uyger of The Young Turks went on a rant mocking the Mormon church for baptizing Anne Frank. See the video here.
   At the time I viewed this video, one of the top comments (though not very highly rated) was from someone claiming to be a Mormon and they said they had lost respect for Uyger for suggesting that the Mormons chant when performing baptisms, pointing out they must have missed that memo (or lesson...I can't remember the exact word used). But if you watch the video, Uyger himself admits shortly after he made his mocking chanting noises that he didn't know if the Mormons actually chanted and pointed out that it didn't matter. The important point was that the Mormons baptize dead people and that is loony.
   Yet, the commenter decided to focus on this suggestion that Mormons chant when performing baptisms. I could understand if they felt offended that Uyger mocked their religion, and that's probably the real reason the commenter had "lost respect," but this was not given as the reason. Instead, the commenter attacked those remarks as if they had been reported as fact.
   The last thing I wish to say before closing is that I'm not sure the believers even recognize when they are making much ado about nothing. I suspect they are just grasping for straws, so to speak, seeking out any point of disagreement on which they can object. Their problem is that the points they find are minor to the point of being insignificant. Yet, they have to defend their faith, so defend it they will, even if the only person who can be convinced of that defense is themself and they make fools of themselves to everyone else.
   To the skeptics reading this, if you see a theist attempting to distract away from your main point by objecting to trivialities, call them out on it and do so quickly. You can do so politely by asking them to explain how that changes the main point or you could be blunt. But if you don't call them out, they'll think you to be the fool. To the theists reading this, if you can't object to the main point, then consider conceding that point. Objecting to trivialities only makes you look like a fool, as well as verifying to the skeptic the stupidity of religion.

   Before I got around to finalizing this for posting, I encountered a similar example today. This time in politics. I stumbled mid-conversation on a comment board and the discussion was about oil subsidies. One of the people in the discussion was claiming that the oil industry does not get subsidies; they get tax incentives, which this person claimed are different. The poster referenced some conservative blog for the definition that defined a subsidy as a direct payment. As tax incentives are not direct payments, then they can't be subsidies. The implication of this seemed to be that one can then ignore anyone who suggests that the oil industry no longer receive subsidies because they have revealed themselves to be uninformed on the issue, thus making their perspective invalid.
   The problem here is that many people do not use such a strict definition of the word "subsidy." In fact, if you Google the definition, you will likely find that many definitions do not say a subsidy has to be a direct payment. Therefore, if a subsidy can be an indirect payment, then a tax incentive can count as a subsidy.
   Once again, as with the religious arguments, we have someone who likely does not want to defend their position fairly, so they make a deal out of smaller points; in this case, the poster made an issue out of semantics. Much like how the Christian insisted that people use his translation of the Bible, this poster appeared insistent that people use their definition of "subsidy," ignoring the arguments of those who would dare use a different definition.
   I will add that if this poster wants to personally use a definition of the word "subsidy" that only allows for direct payments, that's fine. As an atheist, I see many people use a definition of the word "atheist" with which I disagree, and I have had to correct people many times, so I can appreciate arguing for better definitions of words. What I and this commenter do not get to do, though, is expect or insist that everyone else use that definition and dismiss the arguments of anyone who does not use our personal definitions. We must argue from what we understand their meaning of the word to be and must ask for clarification if that meaning cannot be determined.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Pascal's Wager

This is a supplementary post of my breakdown of the book "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist." Related posts can be found by clicking here.

   Pascal's Wager is often presented to atheists by Christians (even if the don't know there is a name for it). It's a lousy argument for belief. The basics of the argument are as follows:
Pascal's a suggestion posed by...Blaise Pascal that since the existence of God cannot be proved (or disproved) through reason, but since in his view there was much to be gained from wagering that God exists (and little to be gained from wagering that God doesn't exist), a rational person should simply wager that God exists (and live accordingly).
And the logic breaks down as follows:
  1. "God is, or He is not"
  2. A Game is being played... where heads or tails will turn up.
  3. According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
  4. You must wager. (It's not optional.)
  5. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
  6. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (...) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.
   I can go ahead and grant the first four premises for the sake of argument, as it is the fifth premise that is deeply flawed. Pascal is assuming that, if God exists, (1) you will be rewarded with an infinite afterlife if you wager that God exists and (2) you get nothing if you wager that God does not exist. It is interesting because he claims that God is unknowable, yet he assumes he knows the results for believing. This is absurd. Atheists, therefore, have been known to suggest that if a god exists, it rewards people for being skeptical over being gullible; in other words, there is reward for wagering that God does not exists but not for wagering that God does exist. Just changing that assumption reverses the recommended wager. This is why Pascal's Wager is ultimately useless in regards to the existence of a god.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Face, meet Palm - Of Course Theology Matters!!!

   On Monday, January 30, 2012, Frank Rich, "New York Magazine`s" writer
at large, appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show. He about left me pulling out my hair after some of the stupid things he said. Here is the video for reference (you can skip ahead to at least the 2:00 mark). Below, I'll be covering parts of the transcript that disappointed me.

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MADDOW: You raised some important political questions that could be asked about the Mormon Church during his times as a leader there. Important questions about women in the church, about African Americans in the church, of course, very difficult history in the Mormon Church, being barred from the priesthood on the basis of race, until later than you think that could be possible at a time when Mitt Romney was already a leader in his church.

Is it not just a fear of religious bigotry that people may find his religion objection or strange in some way, by that there are hard political questions that there may be difficult political answer to about his time?

RICH: I think there are. I think the theological questions don`t matter, every religious is entitled to its own theology. And they all have their idiosyncrasies, God knows, only God knows.

But the truth is the Mormon Church has been a player in various things, campaigned against equal rights amendment for women, institutionally, very slow in civil rights. In 1978, that`s how long it took for blacks to get full equality in the Mormon Church.


RICH: And then there`s the gay part of it, because we know that the Mormon Church drummed up more than $20 million to put over Proposition 8 in California two years ago. We know -- a few years ago. We know also that 80, 90 percent of the volunteers who organized that juggernaut were Mormons.

So, that`s a big player in an important political issue that affected the law in the state of California. Where was he as a contributor and leader?
   Emphasis mine. Right here...this is what caused me to really blow up. How can Frank Rich not think the theology matters? Do you know why the Mormon Church has been so bad about civil rights? I'll give you a clue: it's eight letters long and starts with a 't'. Yeah, it's because of their theology. Now, I'm not an expert on Mormon theology, but it is my understanding that black people, for example, are black because God has placed a curse on them—I think for some "sin" their ancestors committed years ago—according to Mormon theology. As for women, I've heard there are a number of sexist passages in the Book of Mormon. I don't know what Mormon theology says about gays, but I doubt it has anything kind to say. So, when you know (or at least have a basic understanding of) the theology, these things are not surprising at all. These political actions taken by the Mormon church stem from the theology.

   Furthermore, liberals frustrate the hell out of me when they justify protecting stupid ideas by pointing out that essentially everyone has some stupid unfounded idea, or "idiosyncrasies" in this case. Whenever I see such statements, I read them as "I don't like having my beliefs challenged, so I won't challenge yours." The somewhat odd thing about this is that Frank Rich still criticizes the Mormons for acting on their theology, yet claims the theology doesn't matter. This is like saying we need to treat the symptoms of a disease instead of the disease itself. This makes no sense when you have the capability of treating the disease. It makes sense, though, when you realize the liberal Christian is infected with the disease, too, and that the disease is caused by a parasite that prevents the host from discarding the parasite. (For more, see PZ Myer's religion as a parasite analogy.) Take a hint liberal Christians—if you want this bigotry to ever completely go away, you have to criticize the theology that justifies such bigotry.

   Looking through the transcript, I noticed something else I find objectionable: "So, just like sexual orientation, religious orientation, it is a part of your being." Yeah...except people are stuck with their sexual orientation; they can, however, change their religious orientation. Or does Frank Rich think sexual orientation is a choice?

But still that is weird to talk movingly about something that never happened.
   Yes, I find the way people cry over Jesus quite weird! (OK, this comment is off topic, but I had to say it.)

So, they are sort of kidding themselves and I think it would humanize
him to talk about his faith, given his importance to it and its importance
to him, and to be candid about where he agrees, disagrees, not about
theology, not about their view with the Bible, not about Joseph Smith, but
about 20th and 21st century politics in America.
   When I had heard this live, I had interpreted this slightly different. Now I am not sure how to interpret it. I'm curious as to why he's talking about the Bible. Because, I agree there. I don't really care about their view with the Bible! Nor the Koran. Nor the Bhagavad Gita. These are not the Mormon holy book. Their book is called The Book of Mormon. Does Frank Rich not even know what the Mormon holy book is called?!? I find it hard to believe he is that ignorant...but, then again...

   At any rate, in regards to Mitt Romney, it is important to know where he stands on Mormon theology and whatnot. Again, it's because the theology influences people's actions. So, if we know what Romney thinks about the theology, we can then better predict his actions as President. If Romney agrees with much of Mormon theology, then we have a problem. Furthermore, if Romney's view of "20th and 21st century politics" includes that there should not be a separation of church and state, then this becomes a serious problem.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Can you name all the fallacious arguments in this video?

I found this video in my list of recommendations. Watch it for yourself, and see if you can find all the flaws. I'll reveal what I found below the fold. If anyone sees any that I missed, let me know in the comments!

0:46 — "I'm not an astronomer; I'm a theologian."
He appears to be humbling himself. Watch for him to later boast about the intelligence of other people later one to set up a "Look at how this dumb theologian outsmarted all those intellectual elites!" argument from authority.

1:00 — "I want your guy—your astronomer to go first."
He wants to be able to ask the astronomer questions, but not the other way around. It may be that he is trying to dodge any uncomfortable questions, using the "I'm just a dumb theologian" excuse as his cop out. Turns out to not matter anyway as the astronomer can't attend.

1:48 — Something about Romania dying in the hard communist area. "I was like the lamb thrown to the wolves."
He's trying to give the impression that he was speaking in front of a bunch of atheists, because communism is often—incorrectly—associated with atheism. (Communism is more anti-church, especially toward church involvement in the State, than atheistic anti-theistic.) The fact is Romania is quite religious today, with Wikipedia reporting that 86.7% of the population identify as Orthodox Christian. This would not have been the hostile territory he claims (unless huge chunks of the population converted because of his presentation...yeah, I doubt that). Again, I am suspicious about this being part of a setup for an argument from authority.

2:30 — "You know the Bible says that God will give you answers you've never thought about before."
I smell bullshit. By which I mean I suspect him of blatantly lying here. It depends on what the argument is. If it's one I've heard before, then likely this claim is total bullshit. (You could argue that if I've heard the argument before, it's because the people I heard it from got it from this guy...or the chain of people it went through leads back to this get the idea. Or maybe the argument is older, but he'd never heard of it. It's possible, but my experience with apologetic theologians is that many of them have pretty much the same arguments, probably due to borrowing from each other.)

2:46 — "This is one of the most prestigious universities..."
Yep, here comes the boasting.

3:10 - 5:15 — Argument summary: The knowledge base of even the smartest people on earth is really tiny. God could just be outside that knowledge base.
This argument is a prime example of the argument from ignorance. The argument is essentially saying, "You don't know enough to disprove God!" (Or, at the minimum, "You don't know enough to say God doesn't exist!") If you don't understand why this is a fallacy, the problem is this argument can be used to justify just about anything!For more, see my post on what's possible.

5:16 - 6:40 — Two alternatives summary: one is you live and you die, second is there is a loving god who takes care of you, especially in the afterlife.
Once again, the fallacy is made blatantly obvious to those who know their fallacies. This is the false dichotomy. Why do those have to be the two choices? What about a third choice? Maybe there is a God, and he does indeed have happiness awaiting for say 72 virgins (Islam) that will do my bidding. Plus, I get to have an awesomely ripped physique...and, yes, a huge penis. (And for the women, gays, bisexuals, etc, you get whatever it is you want for sexual pleasure.) Maybe I can get my own planet to rule over (Mormonism)! In short, it's the ultimate fantasy land* (and if you're not big into sex, I'm sure there could be something else nice waiting for you). If I had that as a third option, guess which one I'm going to choose? Yeah, that third one. This is, of course, why he is sure to stress that these are to be your only two options. His argument (for Christianity) clearly breaks down once you start allowing for more choices.

* Joking aside, the point is that I can (1) imagine an afterlife more appealing than the Christian version and (2) there are other religions already in existence that have a more appealing afterlife!

Now, I also have some issue with his hypothetical in saying "if they are both believable" (6:06, 6:34, more). Well, what makes them believable? Are they believable simply because they could be outside our knowledge (his previous point)? They can't both be believable based on supporting evidence, since they contradict each other so much! So, if ignorance is what makes them believable, then we have a lot of options to choose from, as I pointed out in the last paragraph.

His objective, though, is most likely to get people to investigate into whether or not Christianity is actually believable. (Evidence to support this is found later at 7:06 in which he says to the audience "So what you really are is seekers.") This is also why he must limit your options to two; he doesn't want you to go out and investigate those other religions! You are to only investigate Christianity! If you don't, you might find reasons to find those non-Christian religions "believable," too.

The next point I have to make is I found it interesting that he noted (5:43) the problem of evil in his second choice, but brushes is aside like it's no big deal. Then again, when you promote ignorance itself as being no big deal, this becomes relatively easy.

For my final point, he suggests that atheists—since the first choice is obviously supposed to represent atheism—don't understand pain and suffering (6:10). Sorry, the problem of evil does not apply to atheists. It's easier to understand pain and suffering when you realize we live in, though this is an oversimplification, a dog-eat-dog world. Furthermore, I'm not going through life alone (6:14); I have family and friends. I'm doing just fine, thank you. (He may mean alone as in "without God," but that would mean he's presuming his second option is already the desirable option, which makes this an unfair choice.) The whole point here—and likewise with option two being a "loving god"—is to make an appeal to emotion, making the first option as undesirable as possible while making the second option sound quite appealing.

6:44 — "...because an atheist says, 'I know God doesn't exist'"
Face, meet Palm. I get tired of correcting theologians on their straw man. I'll just direct you here.

6:59 — "...because an agnostic says 'God may not exist, but I don't even care if he does or he doesn't.'"
Actually, that describes an apatheist. I'll grant him that I've seen a number of apatheists declare themselves to be agnostics, though. (Which may be an indicator that they care juuuuust enough to where they don't want other people to think of them as someone who doesn't care.) At any rate, an agnostic is someone who thinks a deity is unknowable. In practical terms, this can even just be an admission of having an insufficient knowledge base. Again, I'll direct you here.

The rest of the video is basically just preaching...and impressing the audience with how these supposed atheists came up to collect Bibles afterward (assuming that part of the story is true), thus completing his argument from authority. ("My argument was so impressive, it got intelligent atheists to rethink their stance on God!") More importantly, I do want to go back to a question I posed earlier, which would be the one regarding whether or not I've heard the argument before*. I have. Well, particularly the one about God being outside the knowledge we have. I do seriously doubt he was being honest in his claim that he had never thought about that before.

* This one was slightly better formed than when I've heard it previously. There, the argument revolved around the idea of the universe being large. That was just silly; if the person making the argument found reason to believe in God, then I only need to look where they did. And I assure you, they didn't look beyond this planet. So, at least this guy focused only on earth-based knowledge. Ultimately, it's still the same fallacy, but just not to the same degree of absurdity.

So, let's review. How many fallacies did I find?
  1. A veiled argument from authority sprinkled throughout the video.
  2. A blatantly obvious argument from ignorance.
  3. A blatantly obvious false dichotomy.
  4. Typical Christian propaganda that appeals to emotion.
  5. A straw man (misrepresentation) of what atheism and agnostism are.