Month: June 2013

Secular Humanists Don’t Give? Joe Klein, Dale McGowan, and the Kiva Leaderboard

Atheists Don't Give?

When the set of devastating tornadoes struck Oklahoma not too long ago, I sent out an email to my coworkers directing them to four reputable organizations they could donate through (on the advice of this article). These included the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army (though if I’d known this then, I probably would have left them out), Operation USA, and the Oklahoma Baptist Disaster Relief. I personally donated through the Foundation Beyond Belief because I had been alerted to the fund earlier that morning via the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

Only a few days ago, respected Time Magazine journalist Joe Klein wrote an article called “Can Service Save Us?” and insinuated that secular humanists did little to aid relief in the area:

“…But there was an occupying army of relief workers, led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country — funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals — and there in the middle of it all, with a purposeful military swagger, were the volunteers from Team Rubicon…”

This comment was rightly ridiculed by representatives of the many thousands of secular humanists who had donated their time and money to disaster relief in Oklahoma, and elsewhere around the country both in the recent and distant past. Dale McGowan, executive director of the Foundation Beyond Belief, has written a marvelous response to Joe Klein in the Washington Post, which you can read here.

But what I found most telling was something in the comment section of McGowan’s article. A user casually pointed out the current team giving standings on Kiva, the popular micro-lending site. Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, and Freethinkers are by far the most generous lenders, currently outpacing “Kiva Christians” by approximately $4 million. Come on, Christians, are you perhaps forgetting Matthew 19:21 (or am I overlooking a conflict with Exodus 22:25…it’s difficult to keep these straight, no?)?

If you are someone who needs God to be a good person, that’s terrific – just don’t go around assuming everyone else does too.


Kevin Padian discusses common misconceptions about evolution

Jerry Coyne shares Kevin Padian’s new paper (available for free) on some of the most common misrepresentations of evolution and how to avoid them…

Why Evolution Is True

If you teach evolution, or like to read about it, there’s a new paper you should read by Kevin Padian in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach(free download; reference below). It’s a discussion of misrepresentations about evolution that occur not only in popular science writing, but also in textbooks. As president of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), and a respected paleontologist at Berkeley who works on the evolution of birds and flight, Padian carries considerable authority in this area. And indeed, his points are generally good. In fact, I was embarrassed to see that I’ve been guilty of some of these misrepresentations, for which I’m sometimes called to account by readers here.

I do have a couple of disagreements with Padian’s points (more below), but on the whole they’re solid and worth absorbing.  Here are some that I agree with, or at least don’t strongly disagree with:

View original post 2,184 more words

On Correcting Bookstore Mistakes – Intelligent Design is Not Science

A few days ago, I took a trip to a small town in central Texas and, as is habit, stopped by a local bookstore. I was a little shocked (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) to find two fringe “science” books displayed prominently near the door: Stephen C. Meyer’s recently released “Darwin’s Doubt” and physician Eben Alexander’s “Proof of Heaven“. The rest of this particular bookstore’s science section, meanwhile, was suspiciously weak, relegated to one small wall of five shelves and containing only three or four volumes on Darwinian evolution. The Christianity section, meanwhile, stretched across six aisles.

Meyer’s book, which I have not read, apparently advocates for Intelligent Design (a movement that should be categorized as religion, not science – see overview here, description of the Discovery Institute’s “wedge strategy” here, and if you have lots of time, a fantastic PBS documentary on the controversy here). Alexander’s book, “Proof of Heaven” is even more offensive as a representation of responsible science. You should first read his account here (he, like many others, had a NDE, or near-death experience, that he says proves consciousness exists outside the brain) and then read Sam Harris’ response here, which rightly decimates such a stupendous claim. The two most important points to remember – being a neurosurgeon doesn’t mean you actually understand neuroscience all that well (cutting brains is not the same as studying them), and being highly educated doesn’t mean you have much critical thinking capacity (since he wrote a book, he apparently emerged from his COMA, so isn’t it much more likely he had his NDE as he was regaining consciousness, and not while completely “brain-dead”?).

Proof of Heaven?

Bookstores have no obligation to maintain a balanced inventory of material. They are businesses that need to cater to customer demands in order to make a profit and survive. But I can’t help feeling sad that customers in this particular location (and probably numerous others throughout the country) are in some way being cheated out of access to proper science and instead being fed garbage.

I did the only thing I could think of – moved Meyer’s book out of the thin science section and put it where it belonged, in the middle of the Christian apology aisle (well, it was more of a wing).

Debating Evolution Skeptics on YouTube (with a little help from Stephen Jay Gould)

Evolution untenable?

Evolution untenable?

I get a bit worked up about evolution deniers. So much so that I spend much more time than I should engaging individuals in online discussions and forums, who, for whatever reason (okay, the reason is always religions) deny evolution. Without a doubt, they get most upset when I use the word “fact” to describe evolution by natural selection.

“Isn’t that very unscientific of you, to say evolution is a fact? It is just a theory after all.”

Well, yes and no. That last sentence betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the what a scientific theory is, relative to other types of “theories”. A scientific theory is a very specific thing, it’s not the same thing as a theory about who killed Kennedy or a theory about who will win the Superbowl or even a theory about market behavior in economics. A scientific theory is an idea that has broad explanatory power, has been tested and verified by different objective observers, is consistent with other bodies of scientific knowledge, and explains particular facts. Facts, in turn, are just things that happen: e.g., apples fall when you drop them, humans evolved from apelike ancestors, the earth is an oblate spheroid. Scientific theories explain these facts – the theory of gravitation in the first (and last) instance, and Darwin’s theory of evolution in the second. It is possible these theories will be modified in the future, as Newton’s was by Einstein, but apples will still fall and humans will still have evolved from apelike ancestors – the facts don’t change.

A few individuals seem to be under the impression nothing can be proved or rightly called a “fact”. These people are playing a game with semantics. In any real sense, evolution is a fact, and descent with modification (Darwin’s preferred term) is the profoundly powerful theory that explains it.

If I could ask the American public to sit down and read one essay, it would be the late and inimitable Stephen Jay Gould’sEvolution as Fact and Theory” – he says everything I just have with much more eloquence. Go read it, and consider offering it up the next time you’re spending too much time in a debate on YouTube.

Watch Where You Give: The Salvation Army and Homosexuality

I hate to admit this, but I’ve had a serious case of “head in the sand” about the Salvation Army. I have always known that they are an organization based on Christian principles, having volunteered with them several times over the last few years, but I had no idea they held such a fundamental stance on homosexuality.

The article below brought it home, with Major Andrew Craibe, a Salvation Army Media Relations Director in Australia, essentially agreeing that homosexuals should be put to death (because, you know, it’s what Scripture says). He did this on the record, folks! I’ve never heard such an ignorant remark from a major charitable organization like SA. I immediately rushed to investigate whether this was the view held by the organization as a whole, and luckily it wasn’t (see this HuffPo article which is a little better researched than that below), but their stance is still remarkably benighted.

I will no longer be volunteering with the Salvation Army, and am tempted to stop my donations altogether as well (yes even in the red buckets during Christmas). Plenty of organizations with more humane philosophies can meet the same needs and I don’t want my cash spreading hate or intolerance in any way.

FULL ARTICLE HERE: “Salvation Army Says, “Gays Need to Be Put to Death”

The Blind Men And The Elephant – Reblogged from The Rookie Theologian

Re-posting an interesting article from this blog that highlights another example of Matt Chandler’s skilled rhetoric and deceptively poor logic. Again, this is why I think Chandler is dangerous – he’s sophisticated and entertaining enough to maintain credibility with his congregation (you can just imagine his parishioners nodding their heads in agreement during the referenced sermon), but not quite smart enough to well…reason effectively. I’m not qualified to comment on the weaknesses or merits of his personal theology, but I suspect it has its problems too (if he can make such glaring logical mistakes like in the post below and in this video, how can anyone trust him to interpret the Bible?!?)

Post starts now (click the link below to read in full):

The Blind Men And The Elephant

The Neo-Calvinist preacher Matt Chandler, who belongs to the same doctrinal camp as Mark Driscoll and John Piper, is responsible for this video. But before I get into discussing the video’s content let me first say that while Chandler and his cohorts may lay claim to “bare-bones Gospel” theology, what they proclaim is just as much a culturally and historically derived variant of Christianity as any that can be found in the theological marketplace of Protestantism. They all claim that their orthodoxy and orthopraxy parallel that of the early Church in Pre-Constantinian Christianity, but this is simply not the case. Chandler, Driscoll, and Piper all adhere to a denominational form of Christianity that is the product of thousands of years of religious evolution. Unfortunately, these men are some of the loudest voices representing Christianity in America. It is important that we remember that they do not speak for all of Christianity, but only a single form of it. With that being said, let’s move on to the video.

The video is called “The Elephant and Blind Men Contradiction.” As its name suggests, the video is Chandler’s response to The Blind Men And The Elephant, a parable by John Godfrey Saxe, which addresses the mutually incomplete and imperfect understandings of God in the world’s enduring religious traditions. Chandler’s claim is that there is a philosophical contradiction in the parable that undermines its central message. What I am going to do here is argue for the parable’s philosophical validity.

Here we go…

continue reading at: The Blind Men And The Elephant.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Destructive Power of “Maybe Not”

I came across another interesting Sean Carroll video today (watch here) on the strengths and weaknesses of God as a theory (not a purely scientific theory either, but simply an “idea about the universe which may or may not be true”). Carroll briefly covers the Kalam Cosmological Argument, a deductive attempt to prove that some sort of prime-mover or first-cause was necessary to create the universe. I last saw this argument while attending a Reasonable Faith seminar in Dallas entitled “Does Science Bury God: A Refutation from Physics”. Here it is in full (there are various forms):

Modern rendition of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Modern rendition of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Now, the first thing to note is that this argument is not a refutation from physics. That’s because it’s not physics – it’s metaphysics. The second odd thing is how often this argument is still used. It’s been so badly beaten by so many people that I’m a little confused  as to why it keeps getting offered (most notably and skillfully, or greasily, by William Lane Craig). You don’t have to be a professional philosopher to refute it, but Carroll offers you the easiest way:

Just look at the first premise and say, “maybe not.”

It certainly has not been proven that everything which begins to exist must have a cause. Lots of things do, but if experience has taught us anything it’s that our observations are limited and generalizing can get you in trouble, especially in areas you cannot conceivably test (such as the rather broad spectrum of “everything”). As soon as one premise fails to be completely established, the deduction fails and the argument is of little use. There are obvious additional flaws as well – namely that most theologians will exempt God from the first premise (saying something like, well, He didn’t begin to exist, He always existed, and therefore doesn’t need a cause) but that begs the question and assumes the conclusion the argument is setting out to prove.

Then of course there do seem to be examples in physics of things coming into existence without causes – see Victor Stenger. The verdict’s still out on the the universe having a beginning (that is, there are scientifically consistent models describing situations in which the universe does not have a beginning). And, just for kicks, even if we were to accept the premises as all true, it wouldn’t get us any particular God. You would still have all the work ahead of you to demonstrate the truth of Judaism or Christianity or Islam or any tiny, single, pitiful attribute of any creator.

How would the Kalam Cosmological Argument look using the scientific ethos? Simple:

  • Everything which begins to exist might have a cause
  • The universe might have begun to exist
  • Therefore, the universe might have a cause

Well. Waters it down a bit, no?