Archives March 2013

Christians Are Better than Their Religion

I had a lengthy discussion with one Nathanael Brown. (I’m sorry that the discussion is disordered, that you have to read it bottom to top, and there isn’t good threading. Blame Twitter.) Since this started in the context of demonstrations on the National Mall, both for and against, about whether the Bible’s rules about marriage and divorce should be written into US law.

He allowed that US law is not the same as God’s law, but with a caveat:

So I used Jeff Dee’s approach and asked what that meant: specifically, whether this was a threat, and what will happen to me after I die if I don’t accept Jesus. Would I be sent to hell, and would there be suffering?

He was very reluctant to answer directly:

I kept asking, and he kept ducking the question, hiding behind such fig leaves as Bible quotations and


In short, Nathanael came across as very reluctant to either face up to the ugly side of his belief, or either defend or condemn the “worship or burn” system. The closest he came was when asked why he’s not condemning God’s threat, when he’d surely condemn a mugger’s “your money or your life”:

I’m pretty sure that at some level, he recognizes that some Christian beliefs are immoral: that it’s not right to torture people, especially forever, especially for a “crime” as minor as not believing in a god for which there’s no good evidence. That just ain’t right. But at the same time, I’m guessing that he’s been brought up to believe that you’re supposed to believe these things, and to believe that they’re good; that you’re not supposed to question God or the Bible, and you’re certainly not supposed to think any of it is wrong.

This is the sort of thinking that leads people to defend genocide, and I can only hope that Nathanael eventually grows out of his mental prison and starts examining his beliefs honestly and critically.

I’m convinced that he’s better than his god, as are the vast majority of Christians. But he just won’t let himself realize that.

What If You Meet God When You’re in Trouble?

I was recently asked, what if I got in an accident, and while I was lying in the emergency room, I saw God. Or what if a loved one got hit by a bus, and God appeared while I was waiting for the ambulance to show up. Would I believe in God then?

I might. But it would be for the wrong reasons.

Basically, this is a variant on “There are no atheists in foxholes“, in that it’s a type of conversion that occurs when one is in trouble.

The thing is, I want to know the truth about whether there are any gods. Which is to say, I want to have good reasons for what I believe on the topic. But what it boils down to is, how can I figure out whether a given proposition is likely to be true or not?

So the “will you believe when you’re in trouble?” argument is “Oh, sure, you don’t believe in God now when you’re in your right mind and thinking straight. But what if you get a revelation while you’re stressed, harried, and/or aren’t getting enough oxygen to the brain? Then would you believe?” I don’t think I need to point out the flaws in this argument, when it’s put this way.

I mean, if I suddenly started hearing the voice of God, I like to think that I’d go to a psychiatrist to see whether a dose of Thorazine can make him shut up: the simplest explanation for my hearing voices would be schizophrenia, not the all-powerful ruler of the cosmos taking a sudden interest in my life.

But what if God exists, and only appears to people in dire need? In that case, I might not be thinking straight at the time of the revelation, but I could still look back on the events afterwards and see whether I still have good reason to believe that the god I met was real. If all I got from the vision of god was platitudes like “it’ll be okay”, the simplest explanation would be that I hallucinated the event, perhaps from stress. That goes double if the god didn’t speak in audible syllables, but were simply a wordless voice in my head.

But okay, what if God gave me verifiable information that I couldn’t have come up with on my own, like “your girlfriend’s been shot; she has a .22 caliber bullet lodged between her third and fourth lumbar vertebrae, on the dorsal side”? (Feel free to come up with a better example.)

For one thing, I’d want hard evidence that this is really what happened. Human memory is notoriously unreliable; I’d trust video recordings and photos a lot more than my recollection. I’d want to see video of me telling the EMTs in the ambulance that there’s a bullet lodged between the third and fourth lumbar vertebrae, or at least an EMT report with “bystander says that…”, followed by X-rays or a doctor’s report that confirms what I said. The more specific the “diagnosis” from revelation, the better. Of course, even if we could establish that I somehow received information through mysterious channels, that still wouldn’t establish that it was a god who gave it to me (as opposed to, say, telepathic aliens, or whoever’s monitoring the Matrix-like world that I inhabit).

But if, after a few years, I started telling the story of how God told me where the bullet was, and I told the EMTs, the simplest explanation would be that I was misremembering: perhaps “God” had simply told me that “it’s going to be okay”; then at the hospital I saw the X-rays showing the bullet; and after a few years, my mind conflated the two events to make the event seem more astounding than it was.

Now, some people may say, “well, if you demand that much evidence, then of course you’re never going to believe in God!” But I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. I bet that a lot of the people making this complaint wouldn’t believe in unicorns just because they saw one at a time of stress. And say what you will about unicorns, but they’re more plausible than gods, since they don’t violate the laws of physics.

So really this last argument comes down to “I can’t muster the evidence that would convince you, so you need to lower your standards, because you really ought to believe in God.” Sorry, but no. I try to keep an open mind, but as the saying goes, if your mind is too open, people will stuff it full of garbage.

Flaming Telephone

(Note to people reading this in a future when they’ve grown up never using a telephone for voice communication with another human: we used to have a game where a message would be distorted by serial whispering, and we found this amusing.)

So apparently Thomas Nagel, who’s an honest-to-Cthulhu serious philosopher, published a book last year called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False“.

Here’s what Brian Leiter and Michael Weisber wrote in their review in the Nation, on Oct. 3:

Nagel now enters the fray with a far-reaching broadside against Darwin and materialism worthy of the true-believing Plantinga (whom Nagel cites favorably). We suspect that philosophers—even philosophers sympathetic to some of Nagel’s concerns—will be disappointed by the actual quality of the argument.

Here’s how Steven Pinker linked to Leiter and Weisber’s review, on Oct. 16:

Here’s how the New Republic reported Pinker’s tweet on Mar. 8 (five months after Pinker tweeted):

[…] Steven Pinker took to Twitter and haughtily ruled that it was “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Fuck him, he explained.

And here’s how Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent links to the New Republic, today:

The New Republic reports that Pinker has taken to cyberspace to stir up the Darwinist mob against Nagel. Every whiff of heresy against the true faith must be ruthlessly stamped out. Torquemada had his Auto-da-fé. Pinker has his Twitter account.

With journamalism of this caliber, I wouldn’t be surprised if UD responded to this post by saying that I set babies on fire. After eating them.

But remember: it’s the atheists and Darwiniacs who are “shrill” and “strident”.

The Selectively-True Scotsman

BillDo has been on a tear lately against surveys, seeing as how a few of them have been released lately showing that as it turns out, the Catholic rank and file are nowhere near as reactionary as the funny-hatted hierarchy, or as he would like.

I suppose he could have just pointed out that the Catholic church is not a democracy so sit down, shut up, and let the higher-ups tell you what God wants, but I suppose even he realizes that won’t go over well in the 21st century. So instead, he points out the differences between people who attend church services regularly and those who don’t. I guess this is like saying swing voters are more favorable to immigration reform and gay rights than people who consistently vote straight-ticket Republican, and therefore the GOP needs to double down on its anti-gay plaform planks to remain relevant. Or, to put it another way, I don’t know what his reasoning is.

At any rate, it’s clear that he doesn’t care for self-identified Catholics who don’t go to church every Sunday:

Whether someone who “attends Mass a few times a year or never” can be considered Catholic is debatable

(from here)

This takes on added significance when we consider that 4 in 10 of the Catholics sampled do not practice their religion (28 percent go to church “a few times a year” and 11 percent say they “never” attend). That these nominal Catholics are precisely the biggest fans of gay marriage is a sure bet, though the poll fails to disclose the results.

(from here.)

So take note, Christmas-and-Easter Catholics: you’re not true Scotsmen Catholics.

But wait, what’s this?

Catholics make up anywhere between 70 and 78 million Americans

70-78 million out of a population of 315 million is 22-25%, well in line with other surveys of American religion that I’ve seen. But shouldn’t BillDo’s number be 40% lower than mainstream pollsters’, since he doesn’t consider infrequent mass-goers to be True Catholics™?

Surely this can’t mean that he’s happy to count mere “nominal Catholics” when he wants to show off the size of his tribe. We know this can’t be the case because hypocrisy makes Baby Jesus cry. So there must be some other explanation, like anti-Catholic bias among pollsters or something.

Update, Mar. 25, 2013: Carmelita Spats tells me how she tried, and failed, to be excommunicated from the Catholic church, on the grounds that a) she’s an atheist, and b) she had an abortion. But apparently even that’s not enough to be taken off the rolls.

Da da da

Today is National Grammar Day, but rather than rail against common misuses of the English language like the insufferable language snob that I am, I thought I’d mention a peculiarity of language that I happened to notice.

The German word “da” means “there”, as in “Mein Bier ist da” — “My beer is right here”. In this sense, it refers to a location.

But in certain other combinations, it refers to a noun: “dagegen” means “against it” or “in contrast to it”. It literally means “that-against”. “DafĂĽr” means “for it”.

So sometimes “da” refers to a location, and in at other times it refers to a “thing”. I put “thing” in scare-quotes because the object that a da-compound word refers to need not be an object made of atoms: one of the examples linked to above is “Haben Sie etwas dagegen, wenn ich rauche?” — “Do you mind if I smoke?”. Smoking is an activity, not an object, but our minds still treat it in many ways as an honorary object.

In fact, I can imagine an evolution of language in which “da” started out referring to a location, perhaps a location being pointed to, later came to also represent the thing in the location being pointed to, and eventually came to encompass honorary nouns.

But before we go pointing fingers at those silly Germans da, it’s worth pointing out that “there” — the English word for “da” — is similarly schizophrenic: it usually refers to a location, as in “I live in that house there”, but sometimes, in combinations, it refers to the same kind of “thing” as in German: “therefore”, “thereof”, “therewith”, and so forth.

In fact, the most common English example of this location/thing oddity is “wherefore”, in Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet says, “O Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”.

Wherefore” has “where” in it, which makes people think Juliet’s wondering about Romeo’s location. But actually it means “why” or “for what reason”. She’s asking why Romeo is Romeo, as in “of all the guys I could have fallen for, why did it have to be Romeo?”

Okay, so I couldn’t help myself and snuck in some grammar-railing there at the end. I warned you I was a snob.