"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Moving to Skeptic Freethought Blogs!

Friends, I'm moving to a new site. I'll be joining my friends at Skeptic Freethought Blogs, where I am now a contributor. You can find my new site here. You will be redirected in 5 seconds. If not, click here.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Christianity Explains Too Much

This week I'm speaking in my Philosophy of Science seminar on Karl Popper's Falsificationism. Reading over the assigned reading, I've been reminded of a statement made by C.S. Lewis and I think it raises some questions about the peculiar sort of justifications given by Christians for their beliefs. Stated briefly, I think Christianity explains too much.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

How to Respond to an Arrogant Catholic Newspaper

Francis Philips recently wrote an article called "How to respond to a young friend who has come under Dawkins's spell" for the Catholic Herald. In the article, Philips presents the following sort of argument (where I'm probably being more charitable than I should be):

1. Scientism, the view that science is the only legitimate source of knowledge, is false.
2. If (1) then science cannot tell us about whether God exists.
3. Therefore, science cannot tell us about whether God exists.

In support of premise (1), Philips only offers the story of a neuroscientist who recently made a visit to Lourdes and remarked that they had not ruled out the possibility for people to have immaterial spiritual experiences of some kind (whatever that is supposed to mean).

In response, I will first discuss scientism and it's relation to theology. Then, I will discuss religious experience and whether such experiences give us good reasons to conclude that God is likely to exist. I will forego discussing whether or not Philips accurately represents the view she attributes to Dawkins*.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Was a Win for Obama Victory for Secularists?

Edit: My friend Emily Dietle has an excellent post about churches serving as voting locations that readers of this might article might enjoy.


In the wake of Obama's win, CNN's Belief Blog co-editor Dan Gilgoff is wondering whether the Religious Right's influence has waned. He describes the situation as a nightmare for many conservative Christians. "Same-sex marriage adopted by voters in some states," Gilgoff pointed out, adding, "Rigorously anti-abortion candidates defeated in conservative red states." Though Gilgoff doesn't point this out in his article, it can also be pointed out that, a recent survey indicated that around 30% of young people do not self-identify as having any sort of religious affiliation. It would seem that liberal secularists are winning.

But I don't think the case is as clear as some people would have us believe. Among states in the Bible Belt, with the exceptions of Virginia and Florida, Obama suffered losses (see the election results by state here). The same is true of the Mormon corridor, with Romney leading with a percent difference of nearly 200%. A 2004 Gallup poll reported that Alabama was the most religious state in the country, with 76% of people self-reporting as Protestant. In Alabama, Romney led by a percent difference of just over 58%. And all of the data on Creationism indicate that disbelief in evolution (and belief in a literal view of the Bible) has been remarkably stable (around 50%) since people started taking data of that kind. In fact, a recent Gallup poll reported an increase in evolution denial (though this was within the historically reported variation).

How should we understand this complicated picture, where, by some accounts, the Religious Right is getting more radical, by others they are relatively stable, and by still other accounts (like Gilgoff's) the Religious Right is losing power?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Contradictions Imply... Truthyness?

At one of the recent meeting of Free@VT, I mentioned that contradictions between Biblical accounts can actually be evidence that some of the events in the relevant Biblical account occurred. I was met with a great deal of credulity and confusion. "If there are contradictions, then, at most, one account has to be true and the other false," I remember one person stating. Another told me that he felt this criteria was deeply troubling.

The use of contradictions in making inferences of this kind might seem to raise all kinds of epistemic worries; but, properly contextualised, this actually seems reasonable.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Science & Religion Talk Slides & Notes

Last week, I spoke twice on the relationship between science and religion (one time was to the undergraduate philosophy club at Virginia Tech and the other was to a sociology class.) This is the topic that I am currently planning on writing my graduate thesis in.

Both talks were meant to be broad overviews of several different perspectives on the relationship that one finds in the literature, without actually endorsing any particular perspective (with a pro/con provided for each view.) I've been asked by multiple people to make the lecture materials (slides & notes) available. I'm uploading them here so that everyone can enjoy them.

Talk for the Undergraduate Philosophy Students
Lecture Slides

Talk for the Sociology Class
Lecture Slides

Is Atheism Growing Up?

Many active participants in the atheist movement have noted how divisive the movement has become in recent history. I don't think it needs to be as divisive as it appears to be, and I rather openly dislike that some people have pejoratively called sexual harassment policies "too divisive". Often, this language of "divisiveness" is simply used to re-assert various kinds of privilege.

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that there have been a large number of internal conflicts. For the most part, this has saddened me.

However, as Adam Lee has recently pointed out, it might not be altogether bad that these sorts of internal struggles have started. In his article "Atheism’s growing pains", which appeared in Saturday's edition of Salon, he argues that this divisive turn is necessary for the atheist movement to define itself as a cohesive political player:
In the last decade, atheism in America has risen from a tiny, demonized fringe to a serious presence in the public and political arenas...  As the atheist movement gains numbers and prominence, it’s inevitably been forced to confront questions about what it ultimately seeks to accomplish. Some in the movement favor a narrowly defined set of goals: defending the separation of church and state, keeping creationism out of science classes, protecting atheists from job discrimination and prejudice. But other atheists, while not opposing these goals, see things more broadly.  They note that the religious-right lawmakers who promote creationism and state-church entanglements are also rabidly opposed to equality or legal protection for LGBT people; try to ban abortion and contraception, or throw obstacles in the path of women seeking them; sermonize that global warming must be a hoax because God wouldn’t let the planet change that much; advocate a social-Darwinian worldview where the rich have unlimited power and the poor get nothing but societal neglect and harsh repression... there’s a growing recognition that we have problems within our own community — a realization that atheists, like every other group of people, include sexual predators, bigots and defenders of privilege, and that giving up religion doesn’t necessarily erase these harmful attitudes.

Columbus Day... I mean, Native American Mourning Day

"In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He had three ships and left from Spain, he sailed prepared to exact some pain. He brought lots of men who were looking for gold, the real history is different from what you've been told. These greedy men brought diseases and violence in their waves, then turned the proud natives into their slaves. The natives were murdered and tortured, far from being his fans, since he was only focused on finding riches and conquering their lands."
David Shelby

"Fighting over God's Image" at New York Times

Columnists Edward Blum and Paul Harvey have posted a fascinating (but short) look at the history of American artistic blasphemy in the New York Times. The article covers large territory in a short space, but should serve as an excellent place to start discussion on this topic. In the wake of the Islamic world's uproar over defamatory depictions of Muhammed, it serves us well to note that our own culture is not exempt from similar uproars:
More recently, there have been uproars over the Nigerian-British painter Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” and the New York artist and photographer Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” Mr. Serrano’s image of Jesus on the crucifix, submerged in the artist’s own urine, roused a crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts in the late 1980s. Mr. Ofili’s painting of a dark-skinned Madonna with photographs of vaginas surrounding her enraged Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. The mayor, who mistakenly claimed that elephant dung was smeared on the image when it in fact was used at the base to hold the painting up, tried to ban it from being displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, in 1999. (One upset Christian smeared white paint over it.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Lesson of the Rapa Nui

In the South Pacific, there is a small island about twice the size of Manhattan. Looking over this landscape, are a number of stern, solemn faces. The story of these faces is whispered by the ghosts of history, if only we would listen.

Death came to the Rapa Nui as a slow and eventual decline. The food was running scarce and the forests were disappearing without coming back. We can imagine a long gone population crying out over the island's rolling hills. "Why have the gods forsaken us?" they would have cried, "Have they forgotten us? Have they abandoned us? We cut down the trees; we make the stone statues; why has their presence left our people?"

Even as the stone faces, imbued with sacred significance, were placed along the coast, looking out over the distant oceans, the gods still did not return to the Rapa Nui.

For the gods did not exist and never did. Instead, the Rapa Nui brought about their own demise by pleading with their imaginations and depleting the only resources available on the island. Having ravished the forests, there was nothing left with which to construct boats. No way to leave. Instead, they were trapped with their own poor decisions, based on fantastical illusions that should have left them long before.

Easter Island should be a reminder to all of us that ill-founded beliefs can cause harm. Let us learn from the lesson of the Rapa Nui.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

[Purported] Anti-Gay Hate Crime at Lancaster High School in California

Edit (Sep 29):

I am shocked as to how much interest this post has generated on my blog. For a little blog like mine to have generated so much traffic on an issue that I am not particularly connected with is fascinating.

To be clear, I first found this story in a Facebook post and simply wanted to share what little I could find about it. Over night, it generated more traffic than any story I'd ever run on here.

For those too lazy to click on links, Snopes.com has now identified the rumor reported here as "probably false". The actual case seems to have involved a high school student who misidentified a female student as male and had a physical altercation with her. However, I am astonished by the number of people who have tried to excuse his behavior by saying that "he didn't know it was a girl". Even supposing that this student had beaten up a male student that would not excuse his actions. It's unclear as to how much of an asymmetry was involved with the altercation, but numerous reports indicate that the boy did a lot more damage to the girl than she did to him. Provided that this is true, there are still issues worth talking about here.


A user has posted the following on the Facebook group Gender Queer Atheists:
Yesterday a 17 year female , who attends Lancaster High School in California, was beaten by a football player, on school grounds, for being gay. After receiving over a dozen blows to her jaw, head, eye and head, all he received was a 5 day suspension by the Lancaster School District. She suffered from a fractured jaw and multiple concussions to the head and the Deputy Sheriff advised her mother to re-think her wanting to file charges against the football player because her daughter pushed him back. The school ended up documenting "assault" charges on the victims school file, NOT the football players!!! To make things worse, the Deputy Sheriff warned the victim, by saying, "Just so you know, if you file charges against him, I'm taking his side." We're attempting to raise awareness and bring this story to light because Lancaster High School is trying to sweep this "Hate Crime" under the rug! Like if you care and please forward to everyone you know. FYI : CBS, KCAL 9 news are running the story tomorrow at 10pm.

 Edit 1: It has come to my attention that many do not think this to be a hate crime. It's possible that this wasn't an anti-gay hate crime and that, as some claim, the female student was mistaken for a male student and that he was acting in self defence. I fail to see how that resolves anything. The asymmetry in the force used between the two individuals is astonishing; the fact that the girl ended up with the amount of damage that she did, while the boy ended up with so little, means that he used excessive force. That puts this beyond the realm of self defence. The fact that he is not being prosecuted for excessive force speaks to privilege (presumably due to his elevated status as a student athlete), even if it's not heterosexual privilege.

Edit 2:  The genders of the two individuals should not matter. A male student should no more beat up another male student than beat up a female student.

Edit 3: It has additionally come to my attention that this event is not very well confirmed. Please check the relevant snopes.com site often for updates on this situation.

Edit 4: The local PD has released a press report.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Election 2012

Watch Romney tell a gay veteran that his spouse does not deserve basic human rights. To his face.

However you feel about economics, foreign policy, or anything else, please understand that one political candidate supports gay marriage, while another does not. That one political party has had major representatives publicly support the rape of women at abortion clinics, while another party has condemned such practices. Please understand that one party uses a particular form of conservative, fundamentalist Christian Protestantism to further their cause, while the other hardly ever mentions religion. Please understand that one party is openly racist, misogynistic, homophobic and the other is not. One candidate doesn't always come through on his election promises but the other is on the wrong side of history.

I know precisely who is getting my vote. I cannot sit by while bullshit like this happens in our country.

Monday, September 10, 2012

What a Douchey Ad

Warning: The following ad is highly rage inducing...

(Thanks to my friend Jessie for bringing this to my attention.)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Feminist Resources... For Men

I put together a bunch of Feminist/gender issue articles/papers for a male friend of mine. I figured that I'd share it here on my blog so that everyone could have access. I put these resources together specifically for men, like myself, who are interested in Feminist issues and in being a Feminist.

Of Dogs and Lizards: A parable of privilege, concerning a dog and a gecko.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack: The classic article on privilege.

The Question: A moving article on the privilege blindness of men. It really brings a point home which is probably trivially obvious to female readers.

Feminism 101:The ultimate Feminist resource for those of us to whom this does not come naturally.

Derailing For Dummies: This is a parody; don't do the stuff on here, but spend some time thinking about why it's bad.

Terms related to gender identity, orientation, etc: Because definitions matter.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Are There No True Christians?

Edit: Join the Reddit discussion here!


Christian apologist Ray Comfort often claims that there are no true atheists. He seems to claim this simply because, as he would state it, no one could ever know for sure that there is no God. Therefore, he insists that all people who self identify as atheists are actually agnostics. And, further, that agnostics are "ignoramuses" who wish to avoid personal responsibility for their sins (from here):
The professing atheist is what is commonly known as an 'agnostic' - one who claims he 'doesn't know' if God exists. It is interesting to note that the Latin equivalent for the Greek word is 'ignoramus.' The Bible tells us that this ignorance is 'willful' (Psalm 10:4). It's not that a person can't find God, but that he won't. It has been rightly said that the 'atheist' can't find God for the same reason a thief can't find a policeman. He knows that if he admits that there is a God, he is admitting that he is ultimately responsible to Him. This is not a pleasant thought for some.
I'll leave it to others to discuss why Comfort is, at the very least, deeply question begging. However, I have recently worked out an argument for the proposition that there are no true Christians. I don't know if this argument really works, but I think it does raise a number of interesting questions.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Religious Conservative's Alt Universe

Welcome to the bizzaro world of the religious conservative! In this magical wonderland:

1. The Earth is definitely less than 10,000 years old. In fact, God probably made it on October 22 at 10am in the year 4004 BC.
2. The Founding Fathers were deeply Christian and believed in an orthodox, Evangelical Protestant version of their faith. Also, the Founding Fathers and the Pilgrims were totally the same dudez.
3. Our country was founded as a Christian nation. In fact, everyone was Christian until those damn Hippies in the 1960's came around (or maybe it was secret Communist nasties. Or possibly the Jews.)
4. Female anatomy involves various secretions and other gadgets to make sure that a woman couldn't get pregnant from rape.
5. There are no actual atheists. People who say they don't believe in God are just liars who have rejected God because they want to do whatever they want. Like take lots of drugs, sleep with prostitutes, and build Mosques. Which leads us to...
6. President Obama is a Muslim atheist socialist fascist. He's somehow figured out how to be all four at the same time.
7. All evidence that (1)-(6) are not only demonstrably false but largely don't even make conceptual sense (I can't even parse (6) for example) is just a massive liberal conspiracy.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Tale of Two Endorsements

/ Last night, during a late night party at a friends apartment, I came to learn that one of the individuals I was speaking to is a conservative Southern Baptist. The conversation was already focused on religion and I was easily slipping into "Instructor" mode. As the Baptist began to tell me about his views, I asked him how he felt about Separation of Church and State.

Very quickly, the response came that our country was "founded as a Christian nation" and that Christians were under attack.

This was the typical sort of rhetoric that one hears from the Religious Right as of late.

Of course, I explained that our country was founded neither by Christians nor by atheists, but by Enlightenment era Deists who largely rejected the religious Orthodoxy of their day. That Jefferson did distribute a version of the Bible, but it was a version stripped of supernatural claims and made Jesus into a philosopher. I carefully noted that the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by several of the Founding Fathers and ratified by Congress, states explicitly that we are "in no sense a Christian nation". And that Benjamin Franklin stated that light houses were more useful than churches.

I also began to explain two different kinds of endorsement.

"I've been working on this situation in Roanoke," I remember beginning. "The Board of Supervisors there has been opening their meetings with a prayer. As the law is currently understood, this is illegal."

"Prayer is illegal?" he responded incredulously.

"No, that's a common misunderstanding. Anyone can pray anywhere; it's not illegal. What is illegal is government endorsement of prayer."

This misunderstanding -- that there is a distinction between government endorsement and personal endorsement -- is one of the most pervasive and dangerous equivocations to be heard from some religious conservatives. Certainly, not all religious conservatives make this mistake, and there is a long tradition in some Baptist denominations of defending the Separation of Church and State. As I related to my fellow party goer, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is led by Baptist reverend Barry Lynn.

Nonetheless, this confusion is so common and so pervasive that I decided to write a blog article explaining it.

Government endorsement of x occurs whenever the government shows favouritism or preference for x over alternatives. There are some kinds of government endorsements which are not presently illegal; for example, a town government can endorse an electric company for the distribution of power to its residents. The government can endorse having a police force for the protection of its citizens and it can endorse its own laws.

However, at present, the United States government cannot legally endorse one religious perspective over another or over irreligion.

When the Roanoke Board of Supervisors sets aside meeting time to have a specifically Christian prayer, that's a direct endorsement of Christianity. It makes non-Christians feel unwelcome and is deeply exclusive. Additionally, it signals to the local Christians that their variety of religion is privileged by their government. The action reinforces divisions on the behalf of both Christians and non-Christians.

However, if an individual Board member quietly prays to him or her self at some point during the meeting, that's not government endorsement. That's personal or individual endorsement. It shows that he or she, as an individual, is a Christian, not that the government is affiliated with any particular religious perspective.

As far as I am aware, and contrary to the rhetoric of the Religious Right, no one has ever tried to get prayer removed from the public square. Instead, it is the unnecessary and illegal entanglement of government with religious viewpoints that people have fought against.

One often hears that disentangling the government from religion involves the creation of an atheistic government. But this is just patently false; what we want is a government that is neutral with respect to religion. We're not calling for "There is no God" to be emblazoned on our currency. We are not asking for our national motto to be changed to "In Reason, We Trust". Nor are we asking for government meetings to open with recitations from Dawkins' The God Delusion.

We're simply asking that the government not take sides in these issues.

Libere is a Proud Supporter of A+

From Jenn McCreight's suggestion to create "Third Wave Atheism" -- what has been termed "A+" -- I would just like to state the full support of this blog for A+.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Diatribe on Genesis

The literal interpretation of Genesis isn't just bad on scientific grounds, but it is also bad on theological grounds. Genesis, like the rest of the Old Testament, is a rich, interwoven tapestry, each containing many, many ancient voices singing out their praises for Yahweh, Elohim, and His kingdom. We have here recounted the folkloric traditions of the Israelites, their stories of origination and a narrative of their struggles with the divine presence.

If one reads Genesis as literal truth, then one misses the point entirely. The first few chapters are a story of a movement from some naive, remembered past, a golden age of prehistory, in which some (if not all) of the ancestors of the Israelites apparently occupied an area in what was to become southern Mesopotamia (which is the location indicated for Eden in Genesis chapter 2.)

Having overcome that naive existence, and wandering forth into what would have seemed a more civilised era, is represented in the eating of the apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

It is this advancement of knowledge which simultaneously brings them out of a golden era of naivety and into the more modern era. When the culture diverts from that naive golden age, with the advancement of knowledge, a severe price is paid -- one can never return to the garden.

Lessons have been learned which cannot be undone. This is represented with the placement of cherubim (mythical creatures which are part eagle, lion, and human) and a flaming sword, to gaurd Eden from ever being entered again. This is not meant as a literal history, but it is meant to contain deep Truths. It disheartens me to see that some of the people who hold this book so highly are so woefully ignorant of its content, and the lessons that may be gleaned from it.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Kansas Doctor's License Revoked for.... Not Forcing a Ten Year Old Rape Victim to Give Birth

I don't understand people.

I really don't.

A ten year old girl is brutally raped by her uncle. The girl is then apparently taken to a physician who performs an abortion. The physician is Dr. Ann Neuhaus, whose colleague was brutally shot to death while attending church for performing abortions.

The not-so-unbiased Kansas Medical Board is partially composed of members of Operation Rescue, a Conservative Christian organisation that has been tied to the murder of at least one medical doctor in the past and is labelled as a "domestic terror" group by many. In fact, the murder which Operation Rescue was tied to was of Dr. Neuhaus' colleague. I'm not kidding.

Not surprisingly, the Board has gone to great lengths to attack Dr. Neuhaus, including stripping her of her medical license.

Angry?  Want to do something about this? I'd recommend donating to Planned Parenthood.

For more information, you can read the articles at Addicting Info, care2, and RH Reality Check.

Show that Science is a Priority -- Sign the APS's Petition

This afternoon, I received an e-mail from the American Physical Society (APS) alerting me to some troubling events in Congress. The APS is concerned about a large number of budget cuts in the Federal government which are likely to negatively affect scientific research and has created a petition in protest. In the United States, scientific research is often funded, in part or full, by the Federal government. Corporations are unlikely to take the sorts of risks involved with certain kinds of R&D; nonetheless, this kind of research is beneficial to all of us.

The Federal funding of scientific research is largely motivated the same way that government maintenance of public parks and roads is motivated. As in the Tragedy of the Commons, single individuals cannot be expected to be motivated to maintain parks or roads even though it would be directly beneficial to all of us; corporations performing simple cost benefit analysis will often quickly find that it is cheaper for them to simply dump trash in the park, as opposed to cleaning it. Similarly, the kinds of pure scientific research that delivers insights into how the world works -- which historically have given us the computer, the atomic bomb, the Internet, transistors, radio technology, and so on -- are often very poor investments for corporations. Federal funding of scientific research, often performed at university laboratories, is crucial for our country's continued advancement.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

James Croft Interview, Part 2

Part 1 is available here.

Chik-Fil-A & Intolerance

I keep seeing people trying to defend Chik-Fil-A by saying that we have freedom of speech and of belief in this country.

News flash: Freedom of belief, speech, etc, are not freedom from ridicule or contempt. When I am accused of being intolerant to those who are intolerant, I have only to say that, "Yes, I am precisely that."

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Atheists Help Theists?

I recently found a user on reddit named anonoman925 who gave a particularly poignant description of the origins of his atheism. I asked him if I could reprint it on my blog and he gave me full permission.

The post was in response to a user who described
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook's view that atheism helps theism (available here.) Why? User taqwacore describes:

According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook atheists only deny one of man's many images of God. Since any man-made image of God can be considered an idol, Kook held that, in practice, one could consider atheists as helping true religion burn away false images of god, thus in the end serving the purpose of true monotheism.
In response, anonoman925 said:
I keep coming back to this experience as this is the most poignant experience in my life i can point to to pin point my Atheism.
Every Xmas up to 5 yrs old I believed in Santa. Close to Xmas my parents would use Santa as a tool to check my behavior. Santa was always watching me. I could almost feel him shaking his head in dismay when I did something out of order. Close to my 6th Xmas, my parents came out with it, and that feeling disappeared. And reasonably with it, so did Jesus. However, not believing in Jesus meant burning in hell (the message I inherited). So I struggled to ..."bring back that lovin' feeling, though it's gone, gone, gone, whao--ooooo".

So what the fuck does this mental scaring have to do with Atheism supporting Theism? Pretty soon you peel so much onion, there's no onion. When you have nothing left in your hands, tears in your eyes, and a distinct offensive smell - you find that all you have IS your hands.

The peels dry and fade, the tears are a memory, and the smell is recalled during outings; I remember when I was done all I had was me.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Adventures in Prayer Land, Part 3

This is part 3 in a 3 part trilogy. Part 1 is located here and part 2 is here.

At dinner, I ate a delightful Philly steak sandwich and was entertained by conversation with members of SHOR. Returning to the hearing room, I handed a yellow piece of paper indicating my interest in addressing the Board to the county clerk, who has a desk to the left of the Board members'. Alex, a tall lanky member of SHOR, did similarly.

At the start of the evening's meeting, it was announced by the Chairman that the Board members would again be entering a closed, executive session at the end of the meeting. While myself and others had been at dinner, the Board had been in closed session discussing, amongst other things, the prayer. Part of the schedule for their closed session reads:
Section 2.2-3711.A.7. Consultation with legal counsel and briefings by staff members pertaining to probable litigation, namely, sectarian prayers and the Freedom From Religion Foundation correspondence.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Adventures in Prayer Land, Part 2

This is part 2 in a 3 part trilogy. Part 1 is located here. Part 2 begins with the afternoon public comment speakers.

Ms. Linda LaPratt was the first person to speak and would be the first in a long line of people to defend the prayer. She began by noting that a large number of  government bodies open with prayer. She continued by citing the Virginia Religious Liberties Statute and claimed that the Board does not endorse any given religion. However, she voiced a concern that the Board listens more often to outsiders than to insiders and that the "majority of insiders want prayer to remain."

Adventures in Prayer Land, Part 1

This is part 1 in a 3 part trilogy.

I posted about the event I had just attended to the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech facebook page. I mention that one of the Board members stated "Can I get an 'amen' on that?" and my friend Zack responds, "Please tell me that was videotaped. The FFRF could play that tape and close their case."

And so ended my day's adventure.

Statement to the Roanoke Board of Supervisors

I previously blogged about the situation with the Roanoke Board of Supervisors here. This evening, I attended one of their meetings and gave a statement. What follows is that statement. I will shortly be updating the blog with a full summary of today's events, but I wanted to make sure that I got out this information very quickly. For the audience, imagine a room full of angry Baptists (and some Catholics apparently.)

Statement to the Roanoke Board of Supervisors, July 24, 2012

Good evening mister Chairman and Members of the Board.
My name is Dan Linford and I represent Freethinkers at Virginia Tech, a student group with more than 200 members. Last time I checked, we actually had around 208 members.
I am joined today by my colleagues from the Secular Humanists of Roanoke.
As the Board of Supervisors, I do not need to remind you that your duties include upholding the constitution of the United States, of the state of Virginia, and all of the laws of the city of Roanoke.
Seperation of Church and State is a deep part of the heritage of Virginia, inscribed there, in the state constitution, by Thomas Jefferson in 1786.
The Virginia state constitution contains the "Statute for religious freedom".
Mr. Jefferson realised, correctly, that the entanglement of religion with government corrupts religion and adulterates government.
Therefore, I encourage you to remove the prayer from your proceedings.
Thank you.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Humanist Poem

I sit watching the clouds.
Laughing at the melancholy absurdity of life,
Sepulchral visions fill my mind of my future fate.
Oh what silly creatures are we,
That exist as mere flickers and for a short while.
Live each moment,
For there will not be another.

Men Assault Woman and Carve Message in her Flesh

I can't bring up the words to describe this. For that reason, I'll quote a news story from gawker.com:
According to the victim, three masked men broke into her home yesterday morning and tied her up with zip ties. They then proceeded to carve the word "dyke" into her skin and spray painted "we found u dyke" on her basement wall.
"They put gasoline on the floor and they lit the match. I think the intent was to burn her," said close friend Erin Thompson. "Then they left and she managed to get out. She was still bound, so she was crawling on her hands and knees, and she got out the back door."
The unnamed woman, who was naked and bleeding, managed to make her way to her to the home of neighbor Linda Rappl. "I was in shock," Rappl told CNN. "She was naked, her hands were tied with zip ties. All I could see was a cut across her forehead and blood running down.
It really, really upsets me that someone brought together a plan to bring this to fruition. That they must have planned for quite a while in order to execute this. That no part of their being told them to stop. The kind of dehumanisation of another person that this involves is chilling.

Because I cannot muster the words to describe this, I will simply quote Sarah Hamilton's Facebook status, which originally brought this incident to my attention:
Hey, so. Let's suspend all opinions and debate over gay marriage for one second, because this greatly transcends the issue. If anyone on my list thinks it's okay to treat someone like this or wants to try and justify it, please just...go. I won't make a fuss, I won't yell at you...just, leave my friends list now. This is unspeakably awful. This is not okay. This is the anti-okay. This makes me so angry. This is not how we treat our fellow human beings.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bible Replaced by "50 Shades of Grey"?

At one hotel, the hotel Bible has been replaced by the erotic novel 50 Shades of Grey. The Telegraph reports:
Mr Bartholomew, who runs the 40 bedroom Damson Dene Hotel, Crosthwaite, has placed the erotic best seller on the bedside cabinets of both male and female guests.
A copy of the Gideon Bible will be retained for those who want it - but they will have to request it at the reception desk.
His argument is that the Bible is also full of references to sex and violence and that the best seller is a much easier read.

Letter in Roanoke Times: "In America, religions thrive"

As a comment on the situation in Roanoke, Virginia, I submitted a letter to our local paper The Roanoke Times. Today, that letter was finally printed. I am reproducing it here in full:
In America, religions thrive
The Roanoke County Board of Supervisors has long held a sectarian prayer at its meetings. This practice has been challenged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of a local complainant ("Group targets prayer at meetings," June 24). At a recent rally, it was expressed that the FFRF was assaulting the religious liberties we value so deeply. But are they?
A little more than half the population of England declares religious affiliation, while in the United States only 15 percent declare no affiliation.
However, there is no separation of church and state in England.
The Anglican Church is deeply attached to the government, with positions in Parliament, religious instruction in schools and anti-blasphemy laws on the books. Why are there so many non-believers in England?
"Separation of church and state" are dirty words to some believers, but entangling government with religion damages both.
This is why many English citizens view their Anglican Church as an outmoded institution.
Meanwhile, American religion is strong, bold and diverse.
This is precisely because we don't entangle our government with our churches.
Protect religious freedom — ask the supervisors to stop breaking the law and end their sectarian prayer practice.


Friday, July 13, 2012

And I Thought Giles Was Bad....

Hemant Mehta just blogged about a situation in Georgia, where Houston county schools were caught violating the constitution several times over. In most cases that I've read about, there were only one or two claimed violations of the constitution. According to the FFRF's press release, Houston county schools has violated the law in an extraordinary number of different ways:
• Prayers at other school events, such as assemblies, ceremonies, and school council meetings.
• Administrators encouraging teachers to pray.
• Teachers admitting, with pride, that “we (the teachers) did hold hands and have a prayer around the kids. It was lovely.”
• School alma mater songs endorsing religious belief over nonbelief.
• An HCS recommended “Summer Reading Program” including the violent Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye which has been accused of being anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. The school described the books: “Jesus Christ has set up his perfect kingdom on earth. Yet evil still lurks in the hearts of the unbelieving.” Recent studies show that 25 percent of people under 30 are nonbelievers.
• Religious imagery, such as bible quotes, on school walls and websites.
• Schools partnering with churches in close and troubling relationships.
• Mandating attendance at religious ceremonies such as baccalaureate services.
Based on my previous reading on situations like this, a lawsuit will likely result. And Houston county schools will undoubtedly lose, taking money away from their students. As Hemant notes, if the school district were smart, they'd stop with this altogether. On the other hand, if the district were smart, they wouldn't have egregiously violated the law in this way in the first place.

I have a friend who is a high school teacher and I asked her how she felt about the situation. She stated, "being in an environment as you described would make me very uncomfortable. I think that folks in school should be free to share their beliefs if they have them, but there is a very fine line between expressing your beliefs and imposing them on others. If people can't do one without the other, than they shouldn't be talking about it in school." She also stated that, "And no one has money to spare to fight a lawsuit, that is true."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sectarian Prayer at the Roanoke Board of Supervisors

The Roanoke Board of Supervisors has been having an illegal sectarian prayer at the beginning of their meetings for decades. The issue here is the explicit mention of Jesus in the prayer; according to a lawyer I spoke to from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), legally, the Board can have prayer at their meetings so long as it's not a prayer from a specific religious persuasion. Of course, he also mentioned that this is not their preferred solution.

The FFRF has sent a letter to them indicating that this needs to stop. This situation is very similar to what happened in Giles, and it would really behove us to be involved. To read more about this issue, please see this excellent blog post at Cornelioid or the press release that our student organisation released (and I wrote using instruction from the CFI leadership conference I recently attended.)

Mathematical Proof that God Does Not Exist?

I was recently scanning through my copy of The Cambridge Companion to Atheism and came across what purports to be a proof that an omniscient being cannot possibly exist. Since God is traditionally considered to be an omniscient being, this essentially amounts to a proof that God does not exist.

Following along with the text, I will proceed with a reductio proof that omniscient beings cannot logically exist. Assume that there is an omniscient being. Such a being would, by definition, know the set of all truths. Therefore, there must exist a set of all truths; call this T. Now, consider the power set of T (the set of all subsets of T); call this PT. By Cantor's theorem, PT will always contain "more" members than are in T (technically, the cardinality of PT will always be greater than T.) But for each member x of PT, there is at least one propositional truth; namely, that x is in PT. So, there must be some truths which are not in T. Therefore, T cannot be the set of all truths. This is a contradiction -- and we must conclude that the set of all truths does not exist. This implies that omniscient beings cannot logically exist.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Circumcision and the Is/Ought Dichotomy

Human beings do a large variety of very strange things with sexual organs, either our own or those belonging to other species. Consider that we often give the severed sexual organs of various plants to our significant others, the predilection that some have for rocky mountain oysters, or the rather severe taboo on displaying these parts (on humans) that prevails in many Western societies. We use the term "private" to describe such parts, owing to the cultural mandated ban on public exposure. There are certainly very good explanations for all of these behaviours. Many of those explanations are evolutionary in character and some have only been recently understood.

The cutting of genitalia, especially in the very young, is a cultural practice that is widespread amongst Abrahamic religions. It is yet another behaviour that admits an evolutionary explanation as Connor Wood explains on his blog Religion and Science:

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Science, Religion, and Culture Library

This is our newly formed "Science, Religion, and Culture Library" here at Virginia Tech. It was formed through a partnership between Freethinkers at Virginia Tech and the Virginia Tech Interfaith Initiative. We are currently looking for donations to expand our collection, so if you would like to make a donation, please contact me.

Monday, June 18, 2012

What's the Relationship between Science and Religion?

There's a debate currently going on at the Huffington Post, with user feedback, on the relationship between Science and Religion. Instead of providing commentary directly on that debate, I thought that I would take some time to outline the four basic views that philosophers and historians have had on the science/religion interaction. This is not meant as an argument for one view over any other, but as an educational outline of the way philosophers have treated this distinction. The four basic views are:

1. Conflict (the Draper-White Thesis)
2. Dialogue
3. Independence (NOMA)
4. Complexity

Well, this is rather unexpected....

I've been following Leah Libresco's blog "Unequally Yoked" for quite some time. Originally, her blog fascinated me because she was an atheist, dating a Catholic, who was responding to a lot of religious literature. At the time I started reading her blog, I was an atheist, dating a Christian, who had just started writing a blog responding to a lot of religious literature. I felt like I could relate to her blog more so than some of the other blogs I had been reading. Since then, myself and the girl I had been dating broke up; Leah and her guy apparently split, too. Still, I kept reading her blog because it provided an interaction between atheism and theology that few blogs focused on. It also had the Ideological Turing Test, an experiment I thought was just really cool.

This morning, Leah announced that she just wrote what would be her last blog entry for the Patheos atheism portal. She apparently decided that her conception of Morality was really best characterised as a Person, and that thought best captured in Catholic doctrine. In other words, she has gone from being an atheist blogger to Catholic. Her new blog will be on the Patheos Catholic Channel.

Still, I will continue to read what she writes. It will be fascinating to see where she goes on this journey. And I wish her all the best in that journey.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Christians Can Change Their Minds on Homosexuality?

My mother recently sent me a Huff Post article on Facebook entitled Christians Can Change Their Minds on Homosexuality. Of course, this is a topic I've blogged on recently here and here. Nonetheless, I decided to write a response. What follows is an edited version of my response to that article:

Thursday, June 14, 2012

When Theists Decide to Love the Gays....

Woman's suffragist Susan B Anthony once stated, "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires." Here I would like to discuss something very different from what Anthony had in mind; when religious people put into the mind of God a view that I agree with.

Recently, more than 120 religious leaders gathered at a Methodist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to form a group called Clergy United for all Families. This is a group that defends the equality of marriage for all people -- a goal that I emphatically defend as well. However, despite the large amounts of approval I have for this, I have some misgivings as well.

Friday, June 1, 2012

"Do you think seeing is required for believing?"

I recently came across a thread where, in response to someone asking for empirical evidence for the existence of God, a theist responded:
So are you saying seeing is required to believe in something?
I am really tired of seeing people equivocating between seeing and empirical evidence.

Empirical evidence is not, and never has been, the same thing as “seeing”. I can see something without having empirical evidence for it. For example, people have visual hallucinations and dreams. With the use of drugs, we can artificially induce all kinds of visual stimuli without something (other than the drug and it's interaction with one's brain) actually being there. In fact, even viewing a movie involves seeing things which, in some sense, have never actually existed*.

Additionally, we can have empirical evidence for something without seeing it. I’ve never seen what a sunrise looks like from the surface of the planet Mars, but we have good empirical evidence that it occurs. Likewise, I’ve never seen a capybara, but I have strong empirical evidence that capybaras really are rodents indigenous to South America. Giant squid have never been directly observed while alive, but that we have giant squid carcasses is good evidence that there are also living giant squid. For an even stronger example, I’ve never directly seen an electron, but we have good empirical evidence for their existence.

It’s certainly not required that we see something to believe in it, at least not in the sense of logical necessity. It’s also not necessary that we have empirical evidence for it.

But there is something else which is true. For the proper epistemic grounding of a wide range of claims**, empirical evidence may be required. And if we are cognisant of this detail, we may find ourselves unable to wilfully change our minds on a given issue without proper evidence. Otherwise, we’re just being gullible.

*Note that in both hallucinations and in the case of cinema, you are actually seeing something that exists. With the hallucination, you are seeing a real hallucination. And in the case of cinema, you are seeing a real movie. But Darth Vader presumably does not really exist, even though you can view a representation of him in Star Wars. In that sense, in which you could be mistaken about what you think you are seeing, you can see something that does not really exist.

**This surely cannot be true of all claims. If it were true that all claims required empirical evidence, we'd find ourselves in an infinite regress. Why? Because every proposition a would need to be justified by another proposition b, itself justified by a third c, and so on. By having certain kinds of reasonably basic assumptions that can be agreed upon by all relevant parties, we can cut off this infinite regress. That may not be a satisfying solution, but the only alternative is strong philosophical scepticism; i.e. the position that we cannot know -- or even infer -- anything at all. It may be additionally argued that some propositions are best justified in non-empirical ways. For example, mathematical propositions are, arguably, best justified in virtue of a mathematical proof. Our internal emotional states are perhaps best inferred by internal reflection rather than empirical investigation of the world external to ourselves. Additionally, David Hume's famous "is-ought" dichotomy gives us strong reason to think that empirical investigation is incapable of fully answering moral questions; empirical investigation can allow us to infer what is, but not what we ought to do.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ten Commandments Taken Down in Giles, Va

I've previously blogged about the situation in Giles County, Va, concerning hanging the Ten Commandments in the school. There's been a new development in the case that I wanted to state here. According to the Roanoke Times:
The board voted unanimously to replace the commandments with a copy of a page from a history textbook that mentions the Ten Commandments in conjunction with American government and morality. The commandments themselves do not appear on the page; they are represented by a drawing of two tablets.
I've read a photocopy of the  new document. It does detail that our system of government was influenced by Enlightenment thought and by Greco-Roman systems of government. I applaud both of those features, commonly denied by the Christian Right. Strangely, when discussing the Enlightenment influences, the document only references John Locke and Montesquieu. There are several others that would likely be worthwhile to mention -- Voltaire and Rousseau being perhaps obvious examples. Nonetheless, not everyone could be covered in the small space and perhaps this omission could be excused.

Church Apologises For Homophobic Discrimination?

It recently came to my attention via the "Gender Equality" Facebook group that a church put up a billboard in North Carolina condemning the denial of rights and inequality to homosexuals in the "name of God". Here's the billboard:

Hemant Mehta, of "Friendly Atheist" fame, is worried that this might be a meaningless gesture. Does this group still believe homosexuality is a sin? Do they support same-sex marriage?

If the answer to these two questions are "yes" and "no", Hemant says, there is nothing to get excited about here. But I think there's an additional issue worth considering. What follows is an edited version of a message I left on the Gender Equality group's page (posted here).

Sunday, May 27, 2012

What God Would Fancy

A number of Christians (or otherwise religious people) are astounded at how well designed our universe appears to be for human life; that God must rather like us for making a universe like ours. Well, I don't think this is right at all; as far as I can tell, if God exists, He rather fancies diffuse clouds of hydrogen gas.

Edit: Apparently, I'm not alone in this thought. Philosopher Brad Weslake of the University of Rochester sent me this quote from J.B.S. Heldane: "The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other, for the simple reason that there are nearly 300,000 species of beetle known, and perhaps more, as compared with somewhat less than 9,000 species of birds and a little over 10,000 species of mammals. Beetles are actually more numerous than the species of any other insect order. That kind of thing is characteristic of nature..."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

"In God We Teach" Documentary

I recently came across a documentary entitled "In God We Teach". It's absolutely fantastic and well-balanced, though I would have liked to have seen a little more information about the legal issues involved. The documentary covers the events at a high school in Kearny, NJ, involving an Establishment Clause lawsuit. The documentary is free for non-commercial use and is available on YouTube. For those who have followed a number of these kinds of cases in the past, the events will probably seem all too familiar (it's strikingly similar to what we've seen in Ahlquist v Cranston, Damon Fowler's situation last year, and the on-going litigation concerning Giles County, Virginia.) Take a look:


You can access the website for the documentary here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"But I have faith!"

I recently came across this article by Charlie Glickman. Glickman's post is about confronting religious people vis a vis their religious views and how one should properly approach such an affair. He writes that we should engage with respect to the believer, not necessarily with respecting the beliefs of the believer. I agree with much of what Glickman wrote and this is a topic that I've frequently commented on.

However, in the comments section, a user named Dawn Fortune writes:
I like the idea of challenging ideas and of challenging beliefs, and of questioning both without ridicule or shame, but I think what is missing is an understanding that matters of faith are that: matters of faith, and not all can be measured, quantified and duplicated using scientific method. Also what must be kept in mind is that faith is enormously important for a lot of people, and some traditions have doctrine that calls questioning of those beliefs an exercise in sin to begin with.
This reminds me of a common exaltation I've heard from religious believers: "But I have faith!" There are so many things wrong with this....

Friday, May 11, 2012

Giles County Revisited

In Giles County, Virginia, the Ten Commandments have hung on the school wall since April, 1999. The ACLU and the FFRF are now suing Giles County Schools, on behalf of a local anonymous resident, to have the Commandments removed. Liberty Council, a non-profit, Christian group of lawyers associated with Liberty University, are defending Giles County Schools. I have previously argued, in an Op Ed in the Roanoke Times, that there are theological, legal, and historical reasons that the Commandments should be removed. Here, I will give further analysis of the case in light of previous legal precedent. And I will explain why many of the supporters of the hanging of the Commandments are making their case more difficult for themselves. Additionally, I will discuss some developments since the appearance of my Op Ed article.