February 22, 2012

  • Moving to blogger.

    I was very organizationally dependent on a specific tagging system here that is completely messed up now by Xanga.  It even screws up using this blog as an archive since I can't link to tags that will consistently show all the posts under that tag.  The posts just aren't there unless I sign in, and those posts that didn't show up weren't private.  So, w/e.  

    Anyway, I'm going to "move" to blogger at http://double-woe-seven.blogspot.com/.  I use that account quite a bit to comment around the blogosphere anyway and I haven't had any problems with it.  Nothing fancy is going on over there right now, but given that The Richard Carrier Project is now public (which I've been working on since the day Obama was elected in 2008), I'll probably end up blogging contributions that supplement that inventory such as this review of the debate between Carrier and Dr. Douglas Jacoby.

    Cheers, Xanga.  But as Dr. Manhattan said, nothing ever ends.  



October 28, 2011

  • (vlogging) FOX News' "Job Gods" (in 3D)

    Thought I'd try some vlogging on youtube.  It's nice to rant n rave sometimes.  Warning:  Me uncensored.  I may even use some inappropriate language.  And sarcasm.  Loads of sarcasm.  

    Hope you don't mind crossing your eyes for the stereoscopic effect to work (here's a quick tutorial if you don't know how to look at 3D without the glasses:  http://starosta.com/3dshowcase/ihelp.html).  

    We'll call it an "in depth" rant.  ;)  Anyway, I present to you, "The Job Gods":

    Here's a motivational poster I made that I used in the video at the end:

    Feel free to stealz it, but please at least give credit.  :)


  • Does Xanga suck?

    I've been away from Xanga for a while.  I haven't been really happy with Xanga's buggy system.  Random tags show up and don't show up depending on whether you are signed in or not even though they aren't private or anything and that's really important for my organizational system.  Comments are always messed up because Xanga can't format worth anything.  The editor is always screwing stuff up in ways that are really, really hard to fix in the html coding.  This thing always double spaces when I don't want it to and there doesn't appear to be a way to turn it off.  Etc.  Maybe I just don't know how to work this thing, but it didn't use to be this tedious.  It also seems like no one even knows what Xanga is outside of Xanga and when they do they often seem to miss that you can comment without having an account.  

    Anyway, someone asked where I'd been.  I'll post some stuff that I've been up to lately.  Though I am thinking of leaving Xanga indefinitely.

May 24, 2011

  • Top Ten Reasons Jesus Hasn't Returned

    10.  Jesus stubbornly wanted to build all those promised mansions himself the old fashioned way and people had sex (despite his and Paul's vain attempts to advocate celibacy) faster than he could finish them.

    9.  Yahweh had to maintain the pretenses that no one would know the day he would return despite the endless nutcases predicting every single day for the last 2,000 years.

    8.  Turns out, Satan successfully managed to tempt Jesus in the desert and even though Yahweh had to call the whole thing off, Satan decided to keep the project rolling.

    7.  Early Christian evangelists with their magic powers made their 144,000 saint quota quite early, Yahweh made a new heavens and a new earth, and he just forgot to turn off the old ones.

    6.  Some earnest Christian teens keep begging for "just five more minutes" of sleep through every time zone for the last 2,000 years and Jesus just can't say no to such epic sincerity.

    5.  As we learned from the book of Job, Yahweh has a horrible gambling habit with people's souls, and some snarky demon in his court bet him that he would never allow his promises to look so silly if left unfulfilled for the next 10,000 years.

    4. Turns out, Christians with guilty consciences really DON'T mean it when they ask for forgiveness and then keep sinning, and Jesus still just hasn't met his quota of actual saints yet.

    3.  Though it sounded good at the time, Yahweh has been having second thoughts about that whole eternal damnation thing and decided procrastinating on Judgment Day was an adequate loophole in order to save face.

    2. The original autographs of the inerrant Bible actually said that at the end of time there would be "Star Wars" and "rumors of Star Wars in 3D" and later scribes didn't understand Jesus' lengthy digression on rotoscoping.

    1.  (and the least probable of them all!) Christianity is false.

May 14, 2011

  • (argument map) The doctrine of hell is unjust.


    The Christian doctrine of hell as found recorded in the Bible (much of it from the lips of Jesus himself, sorry Bill Maher) is a punishment that cannot possibly fit any crime committed by any finite human being on this earth in their short lifetime.  Even the worst person who ever lived who amazingly managed to do the most evil ever simply does not deserve it.  Even if humans really are totally depraved equally across the board in the most Calvinistic sense possible, the punishment still would not fit that crime (not to mention that is entrapment).  They may deserve a whole lot of retribution, but there's obviously such a thing as too much.  No Christian is going to argue that punishments don't have to fit the crime and so they have to figure out how to make those ends meet somehow.

    There have been numerous popular attempts to justify the unjustifiable, and I'd like to rigorously show how those attempts fail.  From mere assertions, to attacking the critic or some alternative worldview as though that makes Christianity coherent, to passing the buck in some way to humans, to giving humans some infinite quality they don't have, to appealing to some irrelevant quality that the Christian god is supposed to have, to misrepresenting the Bible, to misrepresenting the concepts presented in the Bible, and just arguing fallaciously all the way around, the doctrine is plainly indefensible.  To that end, I've used the Compendium software to argument map all of those debates and nail all that apologetic Jell-O to the wall "once and for all" (as if that were possible).

    Here is the legend to understand the map nodes (click to embiggen):

    Be sure and check out the supporting posts (which are referenced on the map itself in appropriate locations): "Does the Bible teach eternal suffering for the unsaved?" and "Is it easy to be saved?

    My recommendation, given the info overload factor, is to skim through the 30 objections and find the one you specifically care about and just focus on that particular tangent.  I will let you know if you are bumping into other things.  Start at the left of the map and follow the arrows (click to biggyfie):

    I will work with anyone who will constructively work with me to improve the map.  I'm sure there are Christians out there who are interested in figuring out how best to defend the doctrine and who wish to eliminate the bad arguments from their arsenal.  This is a two way street, since I could always get stuff wrong.  To help out, here are some suggested themes to contribute to:

    • Please let me know of other arguments from apologists not represented here. 
    • Let me know if there are better ways to put their arguments (if you think I've straw-manned anyone). 
    • Let me know if there are better responses to any of the popular arguments from other non-believers.
    • Let me know if there are better responses from other Christians who are against other versions of Christian beliefs. 
    • Let me know of any spelling or grammatical errors I may have made. 
    • Let me know if you have any organizational suggestions which might make it easier to digest. 
    • Etc.

    Oh...and please be specific.  Thanks.

    Meanwhile, I'll be chasing down every lead that I know of on my own time.  I've pulled from my own history of arguing with Christians and hit up the wiki of course.  I will be investigating the hell views of every Christian apologist who took interest in the recent popular skeptical anthology "The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails" since they are likely to do so with John Loftus' next book.  Keith Parsons' chapter on "Hell: Christianity’s Most Damnable Doctrine" in the next skeptical anthology "The End of Christianity" will be released on July 26th, 2011 and I'd like to have a final version of this by around that time.  I'll be mapping whatever responses he gets to his chapter (assuming they are novel).  Many of the books in the anti-new atheists book list are searchable through Amazon and so I will be lifting their responses to the many criticisms Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have dished out.


    Possibly the best part of this is the reaction from Christians to the answers other Christians give in defense of this ridiculous doctrine.  And one doesn't necessarily get that kind of shock without lining all the excuses up next to each other.  ;)  I've only contributed one response to the argument (see the previous argument map: Could Jesus be lying about hell?) and yes, other Christians do in fact argue all the others that are found somewhere on the map.  I'm not making it up.  Sorry. 

    I was also thinking we might print the final version out on bedsheets to perhaps sell at upcoming skeptical events (like Skepticon 4).  My significant other suggested that we call them "Pascal's Bedsheets."  Our marketing line will be, "Rest well, knowing hell shouldn't keep you up at night anymore."   I've never actually personally feared the fires of hell as a Christian or later as an atheist (since I was too intellectually embarrassed by the obvious wish fulfillment aspect of heaven, and the obvious petty hearsay threat of hell), but it is understandably a powerful influence in the lives of many believers and ex-believers.  It is also a large ripe target for critics of the religion to continually harp on as Christianity looses its grip on the culture.  And I think we should keep on that.

    If someone would like to program an iPhone app with this map for easy on-the-go argument access, that would be awesome.


April 28, 2011

  • Can you prove the external world exists?


    This series is an atheist's review of an important skeptical anthology aimed at Christian beliefs called, "The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails" (TCD), that is likely to be popularly discussed across the web.  I'll be reviewing the book in light of just about every other response to TCD on the web (pros and cons) and responding to new Christian objections as I find them.  I think this will be the best that I personally can contribute to improving the online dialogue between Christians and non-believers on popular battleground issues.

    It seems that in order to deflect away from the primary skeptical charge of special pleading that atheist John Loftus' "Outsider Test for Faith" represents, Christian reviewers seemed to unanimously reach for any and all philosophical obstacles to throw in the way.  "Why are we just being critical of Christian beliefs?" so many of them asked.  Why not ALL beliefs?  To the extent this isn't a disingenuous diversion from basic critical thinking in regards to the Christian faith, we'll explore one often used example that many Christian reviewers made use of. 

    Jayman777 objects:

    Reppert notes that most Westerners are raised to believe in an external world whereas someone born in India may believe that the external world is just an illusion.  Should we not subject our Western beliefs to the OTF ["outsider test for faith"]?  Loftus begs the question when he asserts that the existence of the external world is experienced every moment we are alive.  He tries to rely on the consensus of scientists but scientists merely assume the existence of the external word, they do not demonstrate it.  This issue is a philosophical issue and Loftus cannot skirt it with appeals to probability (how could you calculate a probability in this case?).

    Paul Manata raises the same objection:

    Or, more troublesome, the counter example shows that we should have the same level of skepticism towards, say, the philosophical belief that the world is maya as we should have towards the philosophical belief that the external world exists and is mind independent.

    David Marshall didn't even seem to formulate his coverage of this issue into an actual argument against Loftus' position:

    I think Loftus is confusing a particular movie with the scenario it illustrates. It is certainly the case that some intelligent people DO take the scenario that the world is some sort of simulation seriously. One atheist philosopher, another told me, put the odds of the world being unreal at about one in five. (Don't ask me how he calculated this -- taking the rationality of his own brain for granted, still!)  I believe in the reality of the external world -- that's why I'm blogging. But Keller and Craig are right to say we can't prove it -- nor do Loftus' arguments manage the trick.

    So he pokes fun at one atheist for pulling ratios out of his/her existential arse, notes two Christians can't prove it, and then notes that Loftus can't either.  So what?  Is this where superstitious Christians are "just supposed to know" that magically their belief in a god gets them around this problem?  I want my "get out of philosophical problem free" card, too, please! 

    After John Loftus confronts jayman777's review, jayman777 replies:

    I am not denying that there is an external, material world. I am saying that your defense for the existence of an external world fails. That we perceive a world in front of us is no surprise to the Indian in Reppert’s example and thus gains your position no advantage in the debate. Unless you can provide a better argument, Reppert has shown that your own beliefs fail to pass the OTB ["outsider test for beliefs"]. If you are going to muster a better argument, I think it will have to be a philosophical argument.

    Yup.  And this isn't hard to do.  I let Loftus' somewhat lame answer slide as I read through the chapter, but atheist Richard Carrier addresses this more directly in his book, Sense and Goodness without God (page 52):

    On the other hand, if the [Cartesian] demon were really this consistent in giving us results, through which we satisfy our every goal and desire, there would hardly be any intelligible difference between what we call “reality” and the world the demon is inventing for us [or in this case an illusionary world]. As noted in II.2.1.2 (“Meaning, Reality, and Illusion”), such a construct would be reality, in every sense of the word we normally use. And since we observe some methods to work better than others, and indeed some work best of all, a Cartesian Demon would have to be arranging it this way, constructing reality for us solely in accord with a fixed plan it has chosen. In that case we have just as much reason to pursue the relevant methods for discovering that plan, and to abandon the bad ones, so we can gain the reward of a successful life experience from this mischievous demon. In other words, there is no reason to trust that any Cartesian Demon theory is true, and even if it is, nothing significant changes for us regarding method.

    That passes the Indian OTB since the persistent distinctions in our collective illusion are common ground.

    I noticed one commenter on Loftus' blog said:

    I don't think it is possible for us to know if we are brains in a vat or in the Matrix. How could we possibly know? That is also the consensus of contemporary philosophers. See David Chalmers.

    I'd like to see the references on that just out of curiosity.

    Into the Matrix:

    Manata says:

    In response to the claim that Loftus needs to take the outsider test for his belief that the external world is an illusion, Loftus says that before he takes that test the challenger must show him that his belief in a mind-independent external world is "probably false" (95-96). Loftus holds the position that the response to the person who claims that your belief could be false is, "So what? Give me good reason to believe that it is false" (96).

    For this thought experiment, we'll call one party Thomas Anderson and we'll call the other party Trinity.  Now, Trin and Tom both have something in common.  As Carrier pointed out above, they share the pattern  of what Tom calls "reality" and Trinity calls "the Matrix."  So they are both insiders as far as that pattern goes as I'm sure they would agree.  However Tom is an outsider to what Trinity calls "the real world."  Even if Trinity is completely confident that what she calls the real world is in fact the real world, it may not seem to make much sense for her to take an OTF (Or in this case, it would be an OTB).  We're not dealing with faith here, just her holistic past experiences of actually being unplugged and discovering an apocalyptic world that is hosting a computer simulation for most humans.  However, she can still take the test.  She doesn't need to get all indignant about it like Manata does.  It's just the fact she's going to pass so easily because she'd be using all the same standards of evidence that Tom uses for calling the Matrix real applied to her very obvious experiences from outside of the Matrix.  This is a technicality, but the point is, she can do it.  There's nothing logically impossible about it.  And more importantly, for Tom's sake, if she wants to make a more convincing argument without just unplugging him, she should be prepared to expose him to really good reasons for believing they are currently in a simulated world.  She needs to be able to look at things from his perspective and not just pretend like her assertions are going to be credible based on Tom's background knowledge.  Her reasons would need to be based on reasonable standards of evidence in that context. 

    Why is that?  Well, incidentally there's another example from the animated anthology The Animatrix.  Specifically, in "A Kid's Story," we find a young man named Michael Popper who doesn't seem to have very credible reasons for thinking he needs to wake up from the Matrix.  Is a vague mystical notion that reality isn't as it should be, having bizarre existential conversations with a random person online, and being chased through school by some government agents a good enough reason to throw yourself off of a building believing you will wake up in the real world?  Would Mike, the day before the story takes place, have a convincing case that passes an OTF if he were trying to convince another student that the Matrix is real?  Probably not.  As far as epistemology goes, being correct about the Matrix was an accident (which is what makes this segment of the movie kind of disturbing, since this is cultish thinking).  He probably shouldn't have believed it himself.  Plenty of people have all sorts of mystical notions and convoluted escapist intuitions.  And there are plenty of people online who are willing to feed your choice delusion.  Getting mixed up with the authorities for some reason or another could happen by chance.  If the Matrix is anything like the world we know, then there would be all sorts of people who believe all sorts of crazy things that go well beyond what is immediately evident to all.  Responsible people know that and are willing to re-think their grasp on reality accordingly.

    People like Manata can pretend like their convictions about Christianity are based on personal evidence that is much more like Trinity's situation than Mike's.  It's doubtful that's actually the case.  On the other hand, if I'm mistaken about that, it seems they could easily get into some convincing detail and they'd never bother appealing to anything like faith.  They would also more readily respect how outsiders should view what they say and construct meaningful ways to bridge the gap of credibility to the best of their ability.  And if for some inconvenient reason this simply can't be done, they would respect those unfortunate circumstances like rational caring people do and they wouldn't waste everyone's time arguing with assertions.  Rational, caring people conclude, "You know what?  I wouldn't believe me either if I were you." 

    The point is, the OTF still applies in either event.  Neither a Trinity, nor a Mike should have much to fear from it.  Especially, to mince analogies, if they are backed up by a loving god who likely wouldn't put them in inconsiderate epistemic circumstances to begin with.  Then again, that's why Christians have the problem of "divine hiddeness."  Maybe they should fear the OTF since they have everything to lose in the world of intellectual credibility. 


    In ordinary life, the less people can verify my own claims, and the more it would cost them if they believed me, the less I naturally expect them to take my claims seriously.  I may still have to believe my own experiences (since the real world example I'm thinking of would be unverifiable mental/emotional states that impact interpersonal conflicts) since I personally can't deny it, but I respect the fact I would be asking others to potentially go out on a limb.  That can be a struggle, but that's just how it is. Welcome to what we call reality.


April 26, 2011

  • (book review) "The Christian Delusion" - Ch. 6: The Bible and Modern Scholarship (part 4)


    This series is an atheist's review of an important skeptical anthology critical of Christian beliefs called, "The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails" (TCD), that is likely to be popularly discussed across the web.  I'll be reviewing the book in light of just about every other response to TCD on the web (pros and cons) and responding to new Christian objections as I find them.  I think this will be the best that I personally can contribute to improving the online dialogue between Christians and non-believers on popular battleground issues.

    Mainstream Scholarship Vs. Evangelical Scholarship?

    Paul Tobin, author of the 6th chapter of TCD, claims:

    A “Consensus” among evangelicals however, comes not from the result of arguments and evidence but from their “statements of faith.” In other words, such “consensuses” among evangelicals come from the unquestioned presuppositional biases.  So when Hays cites his “authorities” on the reliability of the Bible, all he is saying to the skeptic is, ‘Hey, see how all these apologists with PhD’s are using ingenious methods to defend beliefs which cannot be held without a presuppositionary belief in Biblical inerrancy!”

    I noted the disadvantage that conservatives have when it comes to this topic in my previous post and tried to explain where I thought Tobin was coming from with his chapter.  The Triabloggers have come up with a number of weaker arguments in response (which we'll get to in a moment), but Jason Engwer, for example, admits:

    Saying that an Evangelical position is a minority view today has some significance...

    Because basically that means as far as the popular literature goes, that scholars need to work out their issues amongst themselves and leave us out of it.  If that puts "God's people" in an inconvenient position, maybe the Christian god should have thought of that before decreeing or allowing otherwise. 

    Jason Engwer's "Majority Appeal: Dismissing Evangelicals Because Of Their Minority Status"

    Engwer continues:

    ...Tobin's atheism or Price's view that Jesus didn't exist. If modern unpopularity is bad, how much worse is an unpopularity that's lasted even longer?

    A.  Humans are not experts on metaphysics and so an unqualified human consensus on the god question is irrelevant (should we ask humanity at large and throughout history about multiverses, too?). 

    B.  Price's views that Jesus didn't exist are not the topic of TCD and surely he'd admit that he has a job to do in terms of attempting to convince the scholarly community his position is correct. 

    C.  That one heavily mythologized historical figure was slightly more mythical is a much smaller qualitative deviation from the mainstream than trying to defend that Jesus was actually a god and had superpowers and that the Bible is inerrant. 

    D.  The duration isn't necessarily as important as the plausibility of a quality consensus.  Historical tools have vastly improved in just the last 50 years and we can say much the same for the sciences in general in the last 200.  A modern consensus on the shape of cosmology is going to count a lot more in just the last few years than anything said 500 years ago even if that view lasted for 3,000 years.  We have satellites.  They lose. 

    Engwer continues:

    Richard Carrier's view of the genre of Mark's gospel, for instance, has been unpopular in Biblical scholarship...

    In that link, Engwer cites Charles Talbert who is actually a scholar that Carrier often cites to support his views on the genre of the gospels.  The gospels can be mythological biographies. Carrier doesn't dispute that.  I didn't realize we needed a century or so of conservative scholarship to tell us that the gospels narrate the life of Jesus, but okay... 

    I wonder how long it will take before it is admitted by evangelicals they narrate obvious mythical elements as well.  **holds breath**

    Engwer says:

    ...it's even more significant that his view was unpopular among the ancient sources who addressed the subject. Similarly, Tobin makes much of modern scholarship's doubts about Luke's census, yet the census account seems to have been widely accepted in antiquity. (For a discussion of the significance of those ancient sources, see my series of posts here.) Or when both the ancient Christian and the ancient Jewish sources seem to agree that Jesus' tomb was found empty after His body had been placed there, why do critics like Tobin reject that ancient consensus? Why should we think the sort of highly speculative objections they propose weigh as much as or more than the agreed testimony of ancient Christian and non-Christian sources, who were much closer to the event in question?

    Ancient people weren't necessarily in a position to know better than we do and sometimes we know a lot more than they did.  I can Google more ancient documents in a second than most ancient people would ever even know existed.  Any given early Christian may not have even been aware of the entire NT and so on.  When you don't know any better, you are bound to take arbitrary premises for granted if they didn't have any particular reason to challenge them.  That doesn't really mean anything. 

    And in fact, skeptical anthologies like "The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave" are still doing that today.  Though you'll find apologists like Steve Hays continually baffled throughout his book long review that skeptics are arguing through layers of ambiguity with various types of provisional conclusions that don't necessarily have to all go together. 

    I feel compelled to go so far as to say (in my unqualified opinion) that in all likelihood all skeptical theories are wrong.  I certainly haven't read everything, but from what I have read I get the distinct impression that everyone is arguing in a vacuum of ignorance.  I don't think we do know what happened at the origin of the Christian religion.  It seems likely that most scholars are taking for granted various premises that they don't have a good reason to challenge (out of ignorance) and applying their methods as consistently as they can from there.  The problem is that pretty much none of the source material is that trustworthy and trivial "naturalistic" things are just as easy to invent as mythical things.  I can tell you that I'm holding a ray gun and a baseball bat.  Incidentally both claims are false even though baseball bats exist and I own some.  History isn't necessarily obligated to put a big red arrow over every mundane thing that seems plausible at face value but is nonetheless wholesale invention for who knows what reason.  There may also be some unknown chunk of significant information we don't have.  Who knows.  I can easily quote Steve Hays jumping at any chance to point out the likelihood of a Jewish cover up of certain Christian evidences to save face.  Of course, earlyish Christians would NEVER have any similar motive to do the same.  *eyeroll* 

    We don't know what we don't know and even the best "most probable" skeptical case from our vantage point may well be incorrect. 

    Engwer says:

    Tobin keeps criticizing Steve's citation of Evangelical scholars, but Steve hasn't just cited Evangelicals. Since Steve cited C.E.B. Cranfield, who wasn't an Evangelical, Tobin responded by categorizing him as a "theologian". Apparently, that's Tobin's way of trying to lessen the significance of a non-Evangelical scholar. If he can't dismiss that scholar as an Evangelical, an "apologist", etc., he labels him as a "theologian". But how often has Tobin referred to his own sources that way? He dismisses Cranfield as somebody "whose understanding of the historical method is suspect". Compare Cranfield's credentials to Tobin's. And what about other non-Evangelical scholars who disagree with Tobin? I cited the example of Raymond Brown in my response to Tobin in chapter 6 of The Infidel Delusion. Other non-Evangelicals have disagreed with Tobin's view of the infancy narratives as well, such as Ethelbert Stauffer (Jesus And His Story [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960]), Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, and Joseph Kelly. In fact, as I pointed out in The Infidel Delusion, Tobin's skepticism about the infancy narratives is so radical as to place him in disagreement with the vast majority of modern scholars. If you go to Tobin's web site, you can find more examples of his disagreements with many non-Evangelical scholars. 

    I'm assuming that most of Tobin's positions represent the mainstream conclusions and so it would appear that these oddball instances (assuming Engwer is correct) really don't matter.  If Tobin was smarter, he'd have simply ran the ball right down the middle aiming purely at public education of what properly represents modern scholarship (similar to what Bart Ehrman seems to do) rather than bothering with pet theories he doesn't seem qualified to defend.  Oh well.  We'll see how that goes later in this series on chapter six as we sort through all the details.

    Engwer says:

    Tobin frequently claims that a position is held by a majority or represents "mainstream critical scholars", for example, without presenting any documentation for that conclusion.

    That is a problem.  *shrug*  Tobin could certainly have exercised more care with his "scholarly majority heuristic."   It seems his case is still stronger here.


    Engwer seems only to have waived a bit of dust up in the air.  Not that impressive.  If I'm an average Christian or nonbeliever there's really no reason to be confident about the conclusions of conservative scholarship (over the mainstream) I'm never going to have a chance to dive into and rigorously sort out. 

    Steve Hays is up to bat next on the same issue. 


April 25, 2011

  • (book review) "The Christian Delusion" - Ch. 6: The Bible and Modern Scholarship (part 3)


    This series is an atheist's review of an important skeptical anthology critical of Christian beliefs called, "The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails" (TCD), that is likely to be popularly discussed across the web.  I'll be reviewing the book in light of just about every other response to TCD on the web (pros and cons) and responding to new Christian objections as I find them.  I think this will be the best that I personally can contribute to improving the online dialogue between Christians and non-believers on popular battleground issues.

    Where was Paul Tobin coming from with his chapter in TCD?

    In part one of Tobin's response to The Infidel Delusion (TID), he says:

    The main thesis of my original article in the book The Christian Delusion is that the fundamentalist/evangelical position on the Bible is not reflected by modern mainstream Biblical scholarship, historical research and near eastern archaeology.

    In part three of Tobin's response to TID, he says:

    ...in mainstream biblical scholarship, [...] debates and differing positions are taken based on how each scholar marshals the evidence. When a consensus is reached by such a boisterous group of scholars–it tends to mean that the evidence for such a consensus is strong. Thus when we say that 80% to 90% of such scholars agree that the pastorals were not written by Paul, we can be certain that the reason for such a consensus must be compelling.

    That makes enough sense to me.  What should we do with this information?  Remember, atheist contributor Richard Carrier had said

    John Loftus contextualizes all of this by reiterating and defending his Outsider Test for Faith, [...]  It's the lynch pin of the whole book, the fulcrum on which every other chapter does Christianity in.

    So how do we apply the OTF to Tobin's chapter?  Similar to dealing with the modern scientific consensus on miracle claims, in terms of scholarship on the vast majority of issues, we'd accept the claims of the consensus of experts and move on with our lives.  This allows Tobin his general assert-a-thon to function well enough in context of the argumentative continuum of TCD.  For those Christian reviewers who will insist that Tobin would need to respond to all of their objections to part 1 to make this stand, please note, I've done exactly that

    In terms of description, I don't think anyone can contest what the mainstream scholarship generally entails.  For example, Christian reviewer Jason Engwer seems to take this for granted when he says:

    Today's conservative scholarship often holds views that were majority positions previously, even though they're minority positions today.

    Practically speaking for most of us, that really should be the end of the debate.  In this sense Tobin wins all 36 points even if he deviates somewhere from the general consensus or states things wrong.  How can non-scholars hope to do better or be more responsible with the many issues brought up in this chapter and in hundreds if not thousands of scholarly books on the many complicated historical and archeological subjects?  We can't hope to be experts on this, or on physics, philosophy, and whatever other major subject that a "personal" relationship with God would force us to engage to know that we aren't delusional.  You might say, "That's unfair," but then again was it really fair for God to burden people with ancient hearsay that most scholars don't believe stands up to scrutiny?  Even prominent defenders of Christianity like William Lane Craig note the obvious ridiculousness of this situation for ordinary people:

    Some of you are thinking, “Well, goodness, if believing in God is a matter of weighing all of these sorts of arguments, then how can anybody know whether God exists? You'd have to be a philosopher or a scientist to figure out whether God exists!” In fact, I agree with you. A loving God would not leave it up to us to figure out by our own ingenuity and cleverness whether or not he exists. Rather a loving God would seek to reveal himself to us and draw us to himself. And this is exactly what Christian theism teaches. Jesus of Nazareth said, "If any man's will is to do God's will, then he will know whether my teaching is from God, or whether I am speaking on my own accord" (John 7.17). And Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit of God would be given by him to convict and draw persons into loving relationships with himself.  [emphasis mine]

    Naturally we've covered the legitimacy of the inner witness many times before in this review series (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).  In short, how can Christians be sure their god-feelings are not just subjective reactions to provocative theistic ideas or are any better than contrary subjective inner feelings from other denominations and religions?  And if we have to marshal all the evidence to responsibly sort this mess out, then we're right back to how ridiculous a situation that is.  Craig is kind enough to sabotage himself in this way:

    Of course, anyone (or, at least any sort of theist) can claim  to have a self-authenticating witness of God to the truth of his religion. But the reason you argue with them is because they really don't: either they've just had some emotional experience or else they've misinterpreted their religious experience. So you present arguments and evidence in favor of Christian theism and objections against their worldview in the hope that their false confidence will crack under the weight of the argument and they will come to know the truth. (This also is what the atheist should do with me.) [emphasis mine]

    [note:  A youtuber named antybu86 does a great job of pointing out Craig's general circularity on all his major arguments.]  I also pointed out to Steve Hays that the arguments he appeals to from the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology to show that religious experience would suffice for ordinary people also only fall into the category of compatibility with other theistic arguments that have to actually succeed.  So Christian epistemology is drowning in its own epistemic irresponsibility (and see my my argument map here that defends naturalistic epistemic duties and that entire tangential debate between Hays and myself, since Hays would surely take us right back there). 


    Now, perhaps the current consensus of Biblical scholarship happens to be wrong.  Certainly as many have pointed out, various contributors to TCD hold some minority positions on various issues.  In all likelihood every scholar in every consensus holds at least some minority views on some issues.  They all should know they have a job to do, an uphill climb so to speak, if they expect those minority views to be taken seriously on whatever those issues are.  Are the serious Christian thinkers among us doing that?  Or more importantly, in a book like "The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails" do nuances like that even really matter in the face of the strength of the basic criticism presented?  If conservatives don't want liberals to be able to appeal to their bias, why should conservatives get to appeal to theirs to blow off mainstream scholarship?  If it comes down to the arguments, where does that leave the average believer who is in over their heads? 


April 24, 2011

  • Opening words at Ethical Society


    The Ethical Society I go to asks different members to do the 5 minute "opening words" to each Platform on Sunday.  Incidentally I happened to be asked to do the Easter version.

    Good morning. My name is Ben Schuldt. I’m thirty years old and I’ve been a member of the Ethical Society since near the beginning of last year. I’m now running the monthly forum, Responsible Public Debate during the school season, where we promote respectful dialog between competing perspectives on important issues in our culture.

    I’m a former Christian fundamentalist. I was raised in a moderate Lutheran household and started taking the religion seriously of my own accord at age 16 through the young earth creationist literature. At age 22, I discovered that a different Christian denomination, Eastern Orthodoxy, was more convincing to my sensibilities. But in the transition between denominations that scorned each other’s religious conventions almost equally and oppositely in terms of divine justifications, I found myself in mid-air with no Christian net. Their criticisms of each other made too much sense. Further, I was coming of age and making difficult life choices that impacted people I cared about. The ideologies and the belief system had significant implications in those decisions and the level of actionable conviction certainly wasn’t there. In some senses, you could say, it got real.

    I felt it necessary to start from scratch with what I believed, an intellectual resurrection if you will, determined to take my skeptical thoughts equally seriously and be willing to ask any question and live with the best answer I happened to have available regardless of whatever ideology that happened to be in favor of. I’ve never seriously regretted that and it opened up a whole new world of explanatory success I could not abandon.

    I’m a proficient blogger online and I know how difficult worldview transitions can be and how complicated the many big grand issues we little humans have to wrestle with thanks to the peculiarities of our culture. It seems to me a type of calling that there ought to be people with some experience out there on the non-believing side of things (or the pro-reality believing side of things) to help the next generations of folks over and through those hurdles even if the culture at large does not change. And so that’s what I try to do.

    Incidentally a particular hot-spot of debate that comes up between Biblical Christianity and Metaphysical Naturalism is the historical evidence surrounding the origins of Christianity, specifically the stories about the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament and whether there’s any good reason to believe they happened in any way resembling what is told. I have many online writings about that and much more forthcoming as I review some popular literature on the subject and attempt to condense that conversation between educated skeptics and believers into something we can all follow.

    It’s a little perplexing from the get-go why this convoluted historical inquiry would be necessary from a divine perspective. We’re not all historians and certainly very few people in history have even had the opportunity to attempt to sort these issues out. Layers and layers of ambiguity resist clarity. History is a poor carrier for miracle claims and realistic levels of confidence.

    I also find compelling the arguments from evil against the existence of a divine good shepherd of our souls, and so the Christian Easter for me is a bit of an ideological slap in the face. Jesus has an unverifiable bad weekend once and somehow that’s supposed to make up all the negligence for the rest of history. If that sits well with a sizable portion of this country, then I would say that perhaps they need a resurrection of their own when it comes to their humanity and their conscience.


    I had a lot more to say, but trying to be on topic rather limited the scope.  Oh well.  Next time.


April 22, 2011

  • (argument map) The Dubious Doctrine of Hell


    [Please, note that updates to this map will be posted here: "(argument map) The doctrine of hell is unjust."]

    So last week I was listening to Alpha & Omega Ministries' James White give his very Christian thoughts on the William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris debate.  White presented a number of amazing misrepresentations of Harris' views, made huge accusations against Harris' character based on circumstantial evidence, and gave many standard "not my religion" objections to what he called Harris' "red herring" rebuttals in the debate.  This isn't just "off topic" for White, but also even if it were the topic White wants to think Harris has misrepresented various aspects of Christian doctrine (not all are covered here though). 

    So this inspired me to revisit my old post, "The Dubious Doctrine of Hell" and generate a comprehensive argument map with some updated arguments (Actually, I did the vast majority of it from memory, but it parallels the content from that post and I double checked some things to make sure I remembered my talking points).

    Anyway, the basic premise is that the doctrine of hell is a punishment that does not fit the crime no matter how you cut the cake.  Christians preach a just god and hence their moral paradigm and their worldview are incoherent.  Most Christians if they accepted that conclusion would not remain Christian even though technically speaking, there could still exist an extremely powerful unjust god or forfeit Biblical inerrancy or something.  I state that argument in the "popular" sense so that all the cliche' responses to it from Christians can "correct" the argument and then I can show how those "corrections" don't amount to anything more than quibbling. 


    Feel free to update me with more of those delightful nuances (or spelling corrections, etc.) in the comments.  There will be no "not my religion" excuses, but I'm sure there's more twists and turns to add.

    I really like the longest tangent there that cuts through the majority of the map since the end summary basically gets to add up a long list of improbable, unproven, and suspiciously ad hoc excuses that it would take to make the doctrine of hell morally plausible.  Basically god's perfection and goodness amount to his omnnipotent arms being mysteriously tied behind his immaterial back.  My old post is an extremely long and thorough reaming of the doctrine from every conceivable angle I could think of at the time.  I recall being baffled at many of the things various Christians were offering up in defense and I even took an informal poll at work to find out if it was true that people would really value eternal torment over non-existence.  Sometimes it really seems like Christians will gnaw off their own philosophical foot like a wolf caught in a trap before they'll doubt their religion.  As far as Biblical arguments from evil go, the doctrine of hell is probably the biggest thorn in the side of mainstream Christian culture from a PR perspective and merits rigorous articulation to nail all that defensive apologetic Jell-O to the wall. 


    There are two "link nodes" on the map ("Does the Bible teach eternal suffering for the unsaved?" and "Is it easy to be saved?") that have been posted.  There are six links to other maps that I'll get around to posting eventually.