Monday, February 10, 2014

Why Do They Bother?

On a recent Facebook thread, someone asked:
"If one is to accept that atheism is non-belief and is not a religion, then why do many self-proclaimed atheists expend so much time, energy, and money in the attempt to ridicule, inhibit, and oppose persons who do wish to make a public display of their faith. As many of you profess there is no God online, in advertising, etc. you are making a statement of faith since none of you can prove your assertion....silent regret for the waste of the believers would be more appropriate expression for true non-belief. I believe in God, but regret for the choices others make is my only action, so long as no force is employed to coerce peoples beliefs. I do agree that religion and lawmaking have no place together. Theocracy is the absolutely worst form of government."
This is my response:

I have to object to your thesis statement. Atheists do not spend time, energy and money in the attempt to ridicule, inhibit and oppose persons who wish to make a public display of their faith. People can make any display of faith they like, *on their own property*.

When my tax dollars are involved--say, with a court house, a public school, or a city hall--then that property is *our shared* property. Using public (tax supported) property for religious displays is a de facto endorsement of what is being displayed, just like displays for DARE or the Red Cross are endorsement for those activities/organizations. Unlike DARE or the Red Cross, tax-supported endorsement of a specific religion is prohibited by law.

The public displays, like a nativity scene on the city hall lawn--like the battle currently waging in Oklahoma--may seem trivial, but they contribute to an environment that leads some to believe that legislating based on their Christian faith is okay because everyone is on board. Having the ten commandments at the courthouse perpetuates the false notion that many of our laws are already based on the Bible, so why not a few more?

The central point of misunderstanding on this point is the "a fish doesn't notice the water" effect. Because the majority are Christian, and Christian language and symbols are everywhere to be found, nobody blinks at the suggestion that schools should have mandatory prayer or the ten commandments posted in classrooms. That is why I always ask people to put the discussion in a Muslim context. Imagine that some group or legislator wanted to put verses from the Quran in public schools? Or above the entrance to the courthouse? That's usually when people start to see that, "No, this doesn't belong here."

You say that theocracy is the worst form of government. I couldn't agree more. Theocracy starts small; it creeps into government by inches. It starts with teaching creationism in schools, progresses to local and state "blue laws" like those in the article, and culminates with tremendous medical breakthroughs (like stem cell research) being impeded, political candidates having to profess some stripe of the Christian faith to get elected, and presidents having weekly conference calls with evangelists and going to war because God told them to.

Believe me, I would rather not burn the mental fuel to keep arguing this point. Frankly, it irritates me that I have to in 2014. I do not expend any energy arguing about astrology, numerology or alchemy. But astrologers, numerologists and alchemists are not trying to get their beliefs taught in public schools, nor are they trying to shape legislation. Some Christians are trying to do these things, and it must be opposed, not just for non-believers, but for all minorities. One day, Christians may be the minority, and then they will appreciate the efforts of non-believers who struggle to keep government separate from the majority religion.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Nye vs. Ham: Science with a Side of Bacon

Like many people, I watched the three ring circus that was the Nye vs. Ham "debate" at Ham's House of Horrors, a.k.a. the Creation Museum, last night. Here are my impressions.

I thought Ham came out of the gate much stronger than Nye did. Even though his arguments were hollow (he didn't really make arguments, he just showed video clips of a bunch of scientists who also happen to be Creationists--not one of them a biologist), he had a smooth, watchable presentation. Nye, being the stranger in the strange land, tried to warm up the audience with a little story about bow ties, which fell with a more hollow thud than the Broncos at the Super Bowl. (I made a sports reference!) The crickets in that room were deafening.

From that point on, however, the balance quickly began to shift. Nye got a head of steam going, and his normal ebullience and enthusiasm for science asserted itself. Once he found his footing, he was "in it to win it." For his part, Ham seemed to have shot all of his ammo in the first volley. He was clearly on the defensive for the remainder of the debate. His pretense at scientific inquiry quickly collapsed like the facade it was under Nye's withering fire of questions.

Nye steered clear of getting bogged down in theology, preferring instead to stick with the science. Some people on Twitter were not satisfied with that, and wanted him to go after Ham about elements like Noah's supposed age at the time the ark was supposed to have been built (600 years old!). I, for one, think it was the smart play to stick with the science. While the pair were in Ham's turf physically, Ham made the crucial mistake of wading out into Nye's turf rhetorically. He attempted to parse and redefine terms, claiming that they had been "hijacked" by secularists. What this really meant, of course, was that he couldn't twist and bend science to fit his theology as is, so he needed to change definitions and move goal posts (what is it with the sports references in this one?) to make it fit, and Nye called him on it. Nye was also quite conciliatory to people of faith, reiterating that these extreme views were Ham's own convoluted construction, not the views of most of those scientists who also happen to be Christian. Science, he said, works very differently "outside" (as in, anywhere but within the walls of the Creation Museum).

Ham's approach to the debate was threefold:

- "You weren't there": Apparently, if you didn't directly witness something, you can't say for sure what happened. It seems that inference and deductive reasoning aren't a thing in Hamville. Several clever people on Twitter pointed out that Ham wasn't present for the writing of the Bible or the crucifixion of Jesus, so how can he know they happened?

- "These people are scientists who believe in Creation": Who give a shit? The fact that he was able to trot out a handful of scientists who happen to believe what he believes is meaningless. He himself inadvertently acknowledged this later in the debate when talking about evolution, stating that just because the majority of people believe something, that doesn't necessarily make it true. He also accused scientists of making a lot of "assumptions." Irony, party of one, your table is ready.

- "There's this book...": Predictably, Ham did what his ilk always do in these debates once the evidence starts piling up: he ran to the Bible to prove the assertions of the Bible. As the evening progressed, he reverted to this so often that by the end, he may as well have just stood mute, pointing at a Bible.

Though I think he allowed himself to get sidetracked at times by his enthusiasm, Nye still managed to very effectively turn Ham's argument around and convey the ethos of the scientific worldview. While Ham tried to highlight those things that science does not yet have an answer to as weaknesses, Nye played them up as strengths, explaining that the mystery of what is unknown is what drives scientists to search for answers. While Creationists are content with the "answers" in Genesis, scientists are driven to explore the unknown for real answers.

That was one of the two best arguments of the night. The other was in regard to the predictive utility of science, which Nye drove home with a jackhammer, and to which Ham had no response to at all.

Science, because it is based upon observation, evidence, and testing, has the capability of making falsifiable predictions. The ability to make accurate predictions about future events is part and parcel of science, and it is something that Creationism cannot do. That is the glaring hole in the argument for Creationism as a "science": it only purports to explain the past, and cannot be used to predict the future. This shows Creationism and the entire project of apologetics for what it truly is--a desperate attempt to square Biblical fairy tales with scientific reality in a hopeless bid for legitimacy.

The best part of the entire debate was the audience Q&A. The majority of the questions were directed at Ham, challenging him to explain and defend his views. By far the best question was whether Ham takes the entirety of the Bible literally, including stoning people for certain offenses. Ham did a tap dance that would have been the envy of Fred Astaire, and you could practically see steam coming out of his ears as he stumbled through his answer. He actually question what the questioner meant by "literally." It had a very Bill Clinton-esque "it depends on what your definition of 'is' is" feeling to it, and it was positively delightful to watch him twist and thrash like a marlin on the end of a hook.

In conclusion, this was far more entertaining than I thought it would be, with Nye being much more tactically savvy than I expected, and Ken Ham imploding far more spectacularly than I dared hope. I doubt that this debate changed anyone's mind, but Nye came into Ham's own house and made him sweat, and that was pretty satisfying. Now, of course, we get to watch the aftermath, as Ham fiercely tries to untie some knots and spin the event into a win. And so it goes...

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Happy Birthday, Ayn Rand

I was libertarian leaning before reading Ayn Rand, though I had seen many clips of her on YouTube and really liked her. I can honestly say that reading Atlas Shrugged really pushed me over the edge. It is not the easiest read. In terms of pleasure reading, there are other novels that I have liked far better. But it is the most important novel I've ever read, and I know it's the same for a lot of other people.

Reading Atlas Shrugged seemed like a sort of rite of passage for people with my thinking, and when I finally got around to doing it, I understood why. It was nothing short of astonishing. The parallels between the novel and current day reality are crystal clear and unmistakable, unless you've been asleep the last ten years. I could not believe this thing was written back in 1957, and not the year I read it (2009). I am not religious or supernaturally inclined in any way, so I'll have to attribute it to her astute observational skills when I say that Atlas Shrugged is a bona fide work of prophecy. It's not a stretch to say that Star Trek predicted a fair amount of the tech we use today. Atlas Shrugged does that for society: it predicts our society's dualistic mentality--the struggle between makers and takers, between entrepreneurs and the class envy hustlers who would tear them down.

So many times, I found myself nodding furiously, saying, "YES! That is exactly what's going on right now!" I can very easily see a day, not far off, where some corollary to the "Anti Dog-Eat-Dog" legislation of the novel becomes a sickening reality.

Rand didn't want Atlas Shrugged to be a work of literary prophecy. She wrote it so that it wouldn't
come true. It was intended to be a parable, a warning about turning our lives and our freedoms over to a technocratic, paternalistic bureaucracy through class envy, and through svengali politicians who manipulate our emotions, stoke our irrationality, and ply us with offerings from the fruits of our own labors, stolen and handed back to us like some kind of gift. Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand standing on the road with a lit flare, trying to tell us that the bridge ahead has collapsed. Just as she feared, we are driving right by her, dismissing her as a crank and reassuring ourselves that all will be well as we speed toward the chasm.

This is not to say that Rand was perfect by any means. As has been extensively documented elsewhere (so I won't retread it here), she failed to live up to her philosophy in some ways. Though she was vehemently anti-religion, she herself became the center of a creepy, quasi-religious, L. Ron Hubbard-esque cult of personality. Like any artist, she was tortured, hypocritical, and downright bizarre in some respects.

Nevertheless, her art and her philosophy are too important to be ignored, particularly in the world of today, where our lives increasingly imitate her art, and the world we inhabit slowly blends with the world she feared. There is a reason that Atlas Shrugged continues to inhabit the bestseller list more than fifty years later, and when you read it, you'll see why.
"Man, if he chooses his ideals rationally, can and must achieve them. Here on earth, in reality, there are no unreachable heights for man; there are no unrightable wrongs."