Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Great Agnostic

I finally got around to reading Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby.  It's an excellent history of the secular movement in America, from the founder's conscious decision to leave God out of the Constitution, to freethinkers' involvement in the American civil rights and feminist movements.  I've learned about many American freethinkers, atheists and agnostics of whom I had little, if any, knowledge prior to reading Jacoby's book. I was introduced to the great freethinking feminists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose and Lucretia Mott, whom I knew very little about before.  I learned more about Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln's views on religion.  And most significantly to me, I learned about Robert Ingersoll.

Although I had heard his name mentioned in some books and blog posts before, I didn't really know anything about him.  After reading about him in Freethinkers, and then ripping through a number of his writings and speeches, I can see why he is such a respected American freethinker.  He's probably the reason that freethinking founders, such as Thomas Paine, are so well-known today.

The follow excerpt is from Ingersoll's speech "Gods."  It reminds me that although while we atheists and secularists are often fighting against the influence of religious fundamentalists, we also have a positive message:

Notwithstanding the fact that infidels in all ages have battled for the rights of man, and have at all times been the fearless advocates of liberty and justice, we are constantly charged by the Church with tearing down without building again...
We are not endeavoring to chain the future, but to free the present. We are not forgoing fetters for our children, but we are breaking those our fathers made for us. We are the advocates of inquiry, of investigation and thought. This of itself, is an admission that we are not perfectly satisfied with all our conclusions. Philosophy has not the egotism of faith... 
We are laying the foundations of the grand temple of the future not the temple of all the gods, but of all the people -- wherein, with appropriate rites, will be celebrated the religion of Humanity. We are doing what little we can to hasten the coming of the day when society shall cease producing millionaires and mendicants -- gorged indolence and famished industry -- truth in rags, and superstition robed and crowned. We are looking for the time when the useful shall be the honorable; and when Reason, throned upon the world's brain, shall be the King of Kings, and God of Gods. 

A transcription of the entire speech can be found here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Phil Plait on Pope Benedict's treatment of atheism

Sorry for the lack of pasting lately.  I've been job hunting pretty hard in recent weeks, and haven't had much time to sit and think, let alone write.  I had planned to write a response to Pope Benedict's recent treatment of atheism on his trip to Great Britain.  Here's part of what he said:
Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”
As I said, I had planned to write about this, but then I read Phil Plait's response on Bad Astronomy, and I couldn't have done any better than he did.  Phil rarely writes directly about atheism on his blog, so when he does I usually take notice.  And this article does not disappoint.  It's the most even-handed and rational response I've seen to these comments, yet it still puts the pope in his place as an ignorant bigot.  I recommend you read the whole thing, but here's a short excerpt:
Now, I’m the kind of person whose first inclination is to give people the benefit of the doubt. So I read the whole transcript of the Pope’s speech, twice, and after thinking about it, I can’t see any way of interpreting the speech as a whole other than as him saying secularism and atheism = lack of virtue and morality = Nazism.

That is such a grossly flawed chain of reasoning that it strains credulity well past its limit. It’s hard to know where to even begin debunking these statements. Maybe to start with, Hitler wasn’t an atheist (though his personal beliefs were unclear; he used religion or the lack thereof to his advantage when needed, for exampleusing atheism as a bogeyman to rally the people against Russia). More importantly, The Catholic Church went way out of its way to support Hitler during WWII*.  [Update: Apparently, the Church's relationship with Hitler was more complicated than I first read. There was condemnation of Nazis, as well as some support. I think the best thing we can say here is that blanket statements about large organizations can be inaccurate, and need to be done with care. The history of this situation is complex.]

Mind you, I am not trying to condemn the entire Catholic religion, or even the Church (the Church then is not the same as the Church today). I am pointing out that what the Pope said in England is pure nonsense, and in fact widely known to be untrue — in fact, studies have shown that secular societies tend to havebetter moral behavior (lower homicide rates, lower infant mortality, lower STD rates, and so on). I would go so far as to say the Pope was being bigoted, equating Nazism and atheism in a way to specifically spur hatred of nonbelievers, or at least amplify mistrust. And given the Church’s support of Nazism at the time, condemning atheists for Nazism is galling.
I know that I would have been more emotional in my reply than Phil was.  And I do think that anger and disgust is appropriate in this case, and responses such as PZ's are fully justified and often useful.  But it's awesome to see such a thoroughly level-headed response have such an impact as Phil's writing so often does.  It's easy to get people riled up with emotion and vitriol, but to me, it's much more challenging to affect people with calm, reasonable argument.  Kudos Phil!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Malicious Software Warning

If you've visited here recently, it may have given you a warning that some code on the site may be malicious (especially if you're using the Google Chrome or some versions of the Mozilla Firefox browsers).  It appears to come from, which is where the Atheist Blogroll is hosted.  I've removed the blogroll marquee from my sidebar for now, so this doesn't happen again.  I don't think the blogroll actually contains anything malicious, but I won't put it back until the issue is resolved.  Sorry if the warnings caused any distress, or distrust in the site.

Steve Martin - Atheists Don't Have No Songs

GodlessGirl posted this video yesterday, and the song is now stuck, nay, entrenched firmly in my head.  It's Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers, singing Atheists Don't Have No Songs.

Seriously, how catchy is that?  I'm now going to a friend's wedding rehearsal at an Episcopalian church.  I also have a habit of sometimes singing songs out loud when I'm thinking of them in my head (without realizing, of course).  Should be an interesting night :-).  

I actually remember seeing advertisements for these shows, and being a big fan of Steve Martin I meant to find out about ticket prices when I got home.  Unfortunately I forgot about it, and I'm now even more upset I didn't go.  Awesome song.  

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Proper Response

What would happen if Pastor Terry Jones decided to burn copies of The God Delusion, instead of the Qur'an?  Anson Cameron speculates:
A spokesman for the Atheist Brotherhood in Australia was quoted as saying: ''We feel strangely unaffected and will seek revenge by raising our eyebrows and shrugging our shoulders. I've already sent Pastor Terry a message wishing him good luck with his ecclesiastical grandstanding, and I feel sure he can grab a TV slot on a Baptist network with a weekly conflagration of tomes he hasn't read and doesn't agree with.''
In Britain and France, countries that remember the Enlightenment, and in Russia, with her seven decades of secularism still befuddling her, nobody burnt Uncle Sam in effigy and mobs of unbelievers didn't riot and burn churches, nor were believers flogged or beaten. So far the body count is nil. Atheists have turned the other cheek. Christians have called this a nasty plagiarism.
We even get a fake quote from Dawkins that I think he would approve of, if I may be so presumptuous:
Professor Dawkins himself, when asked about the burning of his book, said: ''It seems a little old-fashioned and pointless to burn a book in the age of the internet. Like knee-capping a town-crier. Still, the burning of a book is as much a freedom as is the reading of one. It is, to be sure, insensitive and provocative and perhaps foolhardy. But if freedom of speech were not, at times, all of these, it wouldn't need protection by law.''
 Just in case anyone was taking this too seriously, there is a disclaimer:
*All quotes have been concocted for the purpose of clarity and truth.
Although it's satire, I'd like to think this is exactly what would happen if Jones, or anyone else, decided to actually burn atheist books.  Burning books simply makes the point that one prefers ignorance to enlightenment.  And when someone is content with their own ignorance, the only useful response is to shake your head, make a few jokes and move on.

Monday, September 13, 2010

I'm torn on this...

So it turns out that Terry Jones and his band of merry Christian followers didn't have their Quran-fueled bonfire as planned.

When I first heard the news, my first reaction was the Jones was being a complete idiot.  He already got all the negative publicity for planning such an event; to not go through with it now makes him look like a complete coward and someone who, it turns out, doesn't really believe in free speech.

However, one thing he said struck a chord with me:

"Even though we have not burned one Quran, we have gotten over 100 death threats," Jones said. "We feel that God is telling us to stop, and we also hope that ... maybe that will open up the door to maybe be able to talk to the imam." 

Jones said that his church's goal was "to expose that there is an element of Islam that is very dangerous and very radical."
He told NBC that "we have definitely accomplished that mission."
As weird as it feels to say this, it appears to me that Terry Jones is right about this one (other than the "God is sending us a message" nonsense, of course).  Jones was planning on burning some books, books that he owns, or has permission from the owner to burn.  This is met with death threats, a disproportionate response, to say the very least.  This is the hallmark of an extremist ideology.  And yet plenty of people I've talked to about this think that's OK, or at least think that Jones should not be allowed to follow through with his plan.  I certainly didn't support Jones' plan to burn Qurans, but I do support his right to do so.  What I don't support is the threat of violence or censorship against someone exercising his right to free speech, because some people might find it offensive.  Suggesting that it should be stopped is a major insult to the freedoms we possess in America.

I've heard the argument from many people that this action planned by Jones could cause our servicemen currently serving in Muslim countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, to be targeted.  The problem with this argument is that it incorrectly shifts blame.  Jones is not responsible for some lunatic attacking an American soldier, even if that person was motivated by Jones' actions.  If I were to attack a Christian pastor because I'm offended by Christians who protest outside of abortion clinics, it's not the fault of the protesters.  (Note that I'm not actually going to attack anybody, I'm using this as an example.)

People act as if what Jones is doing is worse than those who would commit violence because of it, which is completely backwards.  I understand that some people think the Quran is a holy book, but that doesn't give them the right to be violent if someone disagrees.  You do not have the right not to be offended in America; it would be impossible to have the freedoms that we do have (of speech, religion, assembly, etc.).

Although there are plenty of bleeding-heart liberals who want to believe that Islam is a peaceful religion, and those who practice violence and terrorism are not "real" Muslims, the reactions to Jones is more evidence that many Muslims are peaceful in spite of their religion, not because of it.  While violent extremists threaten Jones and his congregation, where are the moderate Muslims speaking out against them?  I've heard far more Muslims (and others) in the media act as if Jones deserves the death threats because of his actions, than those who unequivocally denounce the violent threats being levied.

And so while I think Jones is a complete loon, I also have to agree that Muslim extremism is a significant  threat, and his actions showed that.  Perhaps some will see this media circus and realize that both sides of this argument are extremist loonies, and that religious belief itself is a major contributor to all of this.

Dear Benny by Dan Bull

Rapper Dan Bull has written a number of open letters on a number of topics in rap form.  They're all quite good, and he recently wrote one to "Benny" (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI):

I like the effect of seeing the lyrics being typed along with the song. Check out his other videos here.  (I especially like his open letter to Lord Peter Mandelson)

Carnival of the Godless #147

Welcome to the latest issue of Carnival of the Godless!  And if you're new to Infallible Failure, thanks for stopping by!  We have a variety of excellent posts for this issue, so let's get right down to business.

Steve Snyder at SocraticGadfly presents Praying Glenn Beck doesn't know his Bible or Jesus, proving that Glenn Beck is a hypocrite, using one of my favorite bible verses (no, not the one with the bears, although I like that one too :-).

Archvillian at A Dark and Sinister Force for Good presents No. YOU Move! about the recent terrorist attack on the construction equipment being used to build a mosque being built in Tennessee, and Sound and Fury, about Bryan Fischer, a man would prefer we ignore the Constitution, and have our government refuse to permit mosques to be built.

Raithie, the Teenage Atheist, presents I'll make my own meaning, thanks, rejecting the theist's offer of apre-packaged meaning of life (via the god of their choice), preferring "the inter-connections of reality; your beliefs, perceptions, environment and those people that you meet and depend on."  Raithie also submitted What is God?, a look at the trouble with arguing over a word without a clear definition.  (This one also has quite an interesting discussion in the comment section, if you care for that sort of thing as I do.)

Romeo Vitelli at Providentia presents a really interesting history of comets being seen as signs of impeding doom and gloom, in his post titled Comet Crazy.

Todd from Edge of Error presents his article: Priest and Rabbi can't agree on how to disagree with Hawking, showing that even when the religious try to argue against us godless folk, they can't even keep their stories straight.

The Barefoot Bum from The Barefoot Bum writes Why the stupid?, about the lack of "sophisticated" theological arguments, even among respected academics, and what the debate between atheists and theists is really about.  He also presents Agnosticism, looking at the different varieties of agnosticism, and the philosophical implications thereof.

Arizona Atheist from ARIZONA ATHEIST presents his long and detailed review of The Evidence Bible by Ray Comfort, called Taking The Way of the Morons (master) to Task: The Evidence Bible Demolished.

That concludes this edition of the Carnival of the Godless.  Thanks for reading, and a special thanks to all who submitted articles!  Submit your blog article to the next edition of Carnival of the Godless using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page. The next CotG, on September 26th, will be hosted by Wheat-dogg's world.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Reminder: Carnival of the Godless this Sunday!

Just a reminder that I'm hosting the next Carnival of the Godless this Sunday, September 12th. If you are an atheist blogger, or know someone who is, and would like to submit an article, make sure you do so soon!  I'm looking forward to reading all the new posts for this week's issue.

Jehovah's Witnesses Are Hypocrites and Cowards

Tip of the hat to Phil at Skeptic Money for the new issue of Awake! (link to pdf), a magazine published by Jehovah's Witnesses:

Apparently I missed that march.  How come no one told me?!

The kicker is this sentence:
 A NEW group of atheists has arisen in society.  Called the new atheists, they are not content to keep their views to themselves.  Rather, they are on a crusade…
Yes, because when I think of JW's, I think of people who keep their views to themselves.  Shame on us atheists for not following their example.  I can't believe a JW actually wrote that seriously.  Maybe it's a clever Poe?

We also get the standard false dichotomy of chance versus design (which Dawkins has refuted over and over again, for a decade or so now), using the peacock mantis' eye

The peacock mantis shrimp, found on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is equipped with the most complex eyesight in the animal kingdom. “It really is exceptional,” says Dr. Nicholas Roberts, “outperforming anything we humans have so far been able to create.”
Consider: The peacock mantis shrimp can perceive polarized light and process it in ways that humans cannot do. Polarized light waves may travel along a straight line or rotate in a corkscrew motion. Unlike other creatures, this mantis shrimp not only sees polarized light in both its straight-line and corkscrew forms but is also able to convert the light from the one form to the other. This gives the shrimp enhanced vision.
DVD players work in a similar way. To process information, the DVD player must convert polarized light aimed at a disc into a corkscrew motion and then change it back into a straight-line format. But the peacock mantis shrimp goes a step further. While a standard DVD player only converts red light—or in higher-resolution players, blue light—the shrimp’s eye can convert light in all colors of the visible spectrum.
Researchers believe that using the peacock mantis shrimp’s eye as a model, engineers could develop a DVD player that plays discs with far more information than today’s DVDs. “What’s particularly exciting is how beautifully simple it is,” says Roberts. “It works much, much better than any attempts that we’ve made to construct a device.”
What do you think? Is the remarkable eye of the peacock mantis shrimp a product of chance? Or was it designed?

Apparently they think that if a human couldn't make the eye, it couldn't have come from evolution and must have been designed.  How humble of them...

I remember the time I was given a copy of Awake!  I was at a train station, and a woman asked me if I was concerned about global warming.  I said yes, and she told me to read this magazine about it.  At the time, I had never heard of Awake! before, so I had no idea I was being proselytized to.  I read a bit, noticed all of the religious language and bible verses, and realized what I had actually been given.  I took a quick look online and learned that it was a JW magazine.

After thinking more about the interaction with that woman, I started to get really angry.  Not because of her specific religious beliefs, but because she didn't even have the decency to be truthful to my face.  She  was a coward, handing me some piece of paper and running away before I even had the chance to ask her about it in more detail.  What happened to the stereotypical Jehovah's Witness; the one that came to your door, and to your face told you who they were and what they believed?  I may disagree, but at least they are being honest with me.  Do they still do that?  I've never seen one, but perhaps there are some that still do.

This story on Phil's blog got me thinking more about something Hemant at Friendly Atheist wrote about being an outspoken atheist:
When the topic of gay marriage came up, my friend and I had a similar exchange. She believes GLBT people deserve equal rights. She thinks it’s absurd that anyone would oppose gay adoption, gay marriage, gays in the military, etc. But that’s about the extent of her activism.
I’m not gay but I understand the injustice that’s currently taking place in our society and I want to help fix the problem. For the life of me, I can’t understand how anyone could possibly say, “Yeah, gay people should be allowed to get married, but I’m not going to argue with someone who disagrees.” 
So what, you’re just going to stand there and do nothing?! 
How dare some Christians get away with thinking that their relationship is more meaningful than a gay couple’s? Or that their love is deeper? Or that it alone deserves official recognition? 
How could anyone sit on the sideline while this debate gets played out and just shrug it off without saying anything?
Hemant finishes the post with:

I can’t just sit back if I think they’re being irrational. I might not have arguments with every religious person I meet just because the person prays to a god, but if the topic comes up, I’m not about to let it slide.

And I have a lot of respect for anyone else who does the same. 
which actually got me really fired up about logging again, especially since I've had so much trouble getting back into writing regularly since I moved back to Long Island.

And after thinking about my experience with the Jehovah's Witness woman, I realized that its not even enough to just express your opinions, you need to do it openly and honestly.  That's why I don't blog under a pseudonym (although I understand that's not an option for some; I'm lucky enough to have fairly liberal-minded family and friends, and don't feel much personal persecution for my beliefs.  Many others wouldn't be as lucky as I am).

Being willing to openly express my beliefs and opinion gives my message a power that the JW woman's message did not.  It means I have to be open to the possibility that others will publicly disagree with me.  That's not always easy, but it's necessary if you really value the truth.  Lucky for JW's, the truth doesn't seem to be too much of a concern, and so they will continue to be ignorant cowards.

And so like Hemant, I want to say that I respect anyone willing to openly express their opinions honestly, and allow others to express theirs.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Eureka Live Debate with Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins and Ruth Gledhill recently debated on whether science makes the role of God redundant.  You can get the transcript here.  

It's a good discussion in that Dawkins shows, once again, how ridiculous some of the theist's claims are when they try and merge belief in God with our own scientific understanding of the universe.  Unfortunately, it is in a god-awful chat format, and each participant is trying to respond to questions asked by both the moderator and their opponent from three or four chat topics ago.  That would be bad enough, but there are also comments and questions posed by others, turning the whole thing into a giant cluster-fuck of rapid fire questions for both sides, making it look like both of them can't handle the debate.

It's unfortunate, because Dawkins does an excellent job answering most of the questions asked, and goes on the offensive very effectively.  But no one would know that, because unless you're going to scroll back and forth through the chat to figure out what each person is responding to, it's impossible to figure out what they're talking about.

Note to atheist debaters: DON'T DO THIS ANYMORE.  I honestly think this format isn't convincing, and in fact it probably puts us at a disadvantage.  Theists have quite a knack for talking about irrelevant nonsense in debates, but it often sounds good as a one-liner (I believe Dan Dennett calls these sayings "deepities").  And if you can't nail them on it, it sounds as though they are making a coherent, interesting point.  In one example, Gledhill is talking about choosing to believe something, and Dawkins calls her on it, saying:

Either the evidence supports something or it does not. Choice shouldn't come into belief
To believe P is to think that P is true. The only good grounds for thinking P is true is that there is some evidence for P.

Gledhill responds (either to Dawkins or to someone else asking a question, it's difficult to figure out which):

Sometimes, you don't have much choice, admittedly. But I don't see why you should regard such a choice as not possible.

This is obviously nonsense; Dawkins just pointed out why.  But it sounds reasonable.  By saying "You don't regard this as remotely possible, but I am not willing to be that absolute," she takes a middle ground. This tends to seem more reasonable, unless of course there is an argument against it, such as Dawkins' earlier response.  She never addresses Dawkins actual argument against choosing to believe something.  But if she keeps saying the same nonsense, and Dawkins gets caught up responding to other lines of questioning, it appears as though he is giving up, perhaps even conceding defeat.  

Whenever you introduce confusion into a discussion or debate, it is always going to hurt those with the more reasonable position.  If you require yourself to make reasoned arguments, it takes time to formulate a line of reasoning for your position.  If, however, you're willing to play word games and make your answers sound good, it is much easier to obfuscate your lack of a rational basis to stand on when you aren't called to task.

So seriously, don't do this anymore.  It's at best incoherent, and at worst it gives people who are willing to spout meaningless deepities the upper hand.  

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Amazing Atheist on The Ground Zero Mosque

One of the best atheist videos on YouTube I've seen in a while:

Unfortunately, I have to agree with him on Pat Condell.  I've always enjoyed Pat's videos, but I think he's been becoming less reasonable recently, and his focus on how evil Islam is might be clouding his judgment.

Anyway, great video.  Now I need to find out where he shot that...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Thoughts on Burn a Quran Day

I know I'm a little bit late to the party here, but Burn a Quran Day is coming up on September 11th, and I wanted to get my two cents in.  A number of atheist bloggers have commented on the event, and to be honest, I don't really understand many of their reactions.  As an example, here's what Hemant at Friendly Atheist had to say about it:
Leave it to Christians to teach the world how to show love.
To mark the anniversary of September 11th this year, the non-denominational Dove World Outreach Center church in Florida will host an “International Burn A Koran Day.”
Pastor Terry Jones says he got the idea from “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” and that since the announcement was made, people have been sending him copies of the Koran for the event.
It’s amazing: I don’t care for the Koran. I think people have the right to burn their own books. Yet you put it all together like this, and I feel disgusted. 
Many other atheists had similar feelings about the event.

I understand that burning books has a negative connotation, because it is often used to signify rejecting knowledge in favor of blind faith.  But that's not the message here.  Again, the message is that Islam is false, and that it is a violent religion.  I may think that these Christians are being hypocritical given the god awful stuff in the book they are so keen about being sacred, and I certainly don't agree that the Quran is sending people to hell.  But I don't disagree that the Quran is just a book, and has caused a lot of problems in the real world.

Ginx at Anything But Theist made a good point about book burning, that made me really think about my position:

At the core of my ideology is to add more to the world. Even if I could erase all religious texts on Earth, I wouldn’t. It would make the world less rich. We should be adding more to our base of knowledge, not trying to redact it. Book burnings are censorship, an attempt to physically destroy knowledge (though it is merely metaphorical in this instance, because they are only burning a few of the billions of copies of the Quran that are in existence).

However, I think there is a relevant counter-example.  Most of you probably remember Crackergate, when P.Z. Myers desecrated a Catholic Eucharist by putting a  nail through it, and throwing it in the trash.  But what you may not remember is that along with the cracker, P.Z. also threw away pages he ripped out of the Quran and The God Delusion.  In his words:
By the way, I didn't want to single out just the cracker, so I nailed it to a few ripped-out pages from the Qur'an and The God Delusion. They are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything.

I don't remember any atheists getting upset about this when P.Z. did it.  I certainly wasn't; I agree that they are not sacred, as nothing should be.  So destroying books doesn't seem to be all that offensive, if we happen to agree with the message.  And while I may not agree with the Dove World Outreach church, I don't think this protest of Islam is any more offensive than Draw Muhammad Day was, with regards to what is being done.  While I'm not going to get involved with an event sponsored by some looney-tunes Christian group, it's not something I'm upset about either.

** I should note that Ginx also said:
"But you know what? To stop a book burning from happening is also censorship. The only time I would physically want someone to step in is if an angry mob descended upon a library with torches, and this is clearly a bring-your-own-book burning. You can do what you want with a Quran you own."
And I don't believe any atheists want to stop Dove outreach from expressing their opinions about Islam and Christianity. I also don't mean to single out Hemant's post; he's just the most well-known blogger than presented a very common opinion about the event, and it was his post that got me thinking about all of this. I still love you HM!