December 17, 2007

Deeply Held Values

I was thinking about all the protest that has been going on over the movie of The Golden Compass this morning.  I saw the movie and rather liked it.  I didn't think that any anti-Christian themes that may appear in the books (I can't say that they're there as I have not read them.) were at all apparent in the movie.

But I was thinking about how Christians are all aflutter about these books and the movie because they feel that it is an affront to their deeply held values.

I've heard a couple of people mention protesting the Chronicles of Narnia but I've not heard of them coming to any thing.  I suspect that this is because most people probably regard such protests as a bit silly and I can't really complain because the atheists aren't as well organized as the Christians. 

Christians may do as they please with these sorts of protests.  No one need listen nor need anyone keep silent if they wish to mock, deride, criticize such protests.

I do think it's all a bit silly.  The Christians protest this, the Atheists protest that, the Zoarastrians are constantly in a tizzy because no one but Sanjaya is paying any attention to them.

And the whole time it's for the children.

I don't know what people think children are, but it takes quite a bit more than a CGI talking polar bears and lions to brainwash them.

Regardless of your position on these things, if you have babies, you need to understand that in our "pluralistic" society your children will encounter all sorts of ideas.  I would prefer to keep them away from Sanjaya, but that's next to impossible.

As a parent, it's your job to teach children how to sort through all of this stuff and you can't do that by isolating them from it.

The part that I think may be most difficult for parents to accept is that even if a child is taught all the right ideas, it's up to the child to follow them.  Children are ultimately responsible for their own minds and decisions.

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December 16, 2007

Book Review: What's So Great About Christianity

I've finally finished reading Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity. The last couple of chapters were a real struggle for me because they consisted of D'Souza's list of things he believes are practical benefits of Christianity and his invitation to join the club.

You can read some of my pre-emptive remarks on the book in earlier posts:

Before I get into the meat of things, I have one petty complaint about the book: D'Souza's endless and repeated self-applauding, like, "I've taken the strongest arguments of so-and-so about such-and-such and proven that they actually support Christian thought" and "I've confronted the most substantial arguments for yadda yadda and destroyed them thoroughly in the name of God."  If Hume is the strongest argument against miracles, then we'd all be in big trouble, but dude, my blog has stronger arguments on it than that, so settle down.

Anywhoodles...

The book is well composed to its ends and employs rhetorical devices cleverly and to their greatest effect.  I would like to try and insult the author by saying no intelligent person would believe the things he's written here, but that would be untrue.

D'Souza has here composed a book that will aid many Christians in the current struggle against the New Atheists.  He presents them with historical perspectives (not always accurate or well-grounded in historical context, but still persuasive to people who aren't inclined to research such things), philosophical arguments from big names in philosophy like Kant, Hume, Plato, Russell and more. (It will surprise no one that D'Souza is a platonist.)  And he presents many twisted practical arguments for Christianity and against atheism.

Among his many specious claims and arguments are that:
  • Western civilization as a whole and America, specifically, came about not merely because of Christianity but exist only because of Christianity, that "rationalistic" thought nor any other religion could have birthed these things.
  • Not only that, but science and rational thought in itself is an extension of Christian theology.
  • History shows that atheists and atheist philosophy are responsible for greater suffering, death, and destruction than religion.
  • He argues that atheists are moral degenerates who close their eyes to the truth of Christianity out of a desire to satisfy perverse sexual urges and live a life of hedonism.
The book is so staggeringly audacious that I think it is impossible for a person to compose such a volume and also be conscious of the level of dishonesty and untruth his arguments contain.  No, D'Souza really believes it when he presents the arguments which compose the objectives of his book:

  1. Christianity is the main foundation of Western Civilization, and the root of our most cherished values.
  2. The latest discoveries of modern science support the Christian claim that there is a divine being who created the universe.
  3. Darwin's theory of evolution, far from undermining the evidence for supernatural design, actually strengthens it.
  4. There is nothing in science that makes miracles impossible.
  5. It is reasonable to have faith.
  6. Atheism, not religion, is responsible for the mass murders of history.
  7. Atheism is motivated not by reason but by a kind of cowardly moral escapism.
(pp xvi - xvii)
The weakest chapters in the book are the parts dealing with his arguments for the existence of God.  There he presents many of the standard theist arguments that have been slain numerous times.

For instance, D'Souza argues that the design of the universe reveals that there is a creator, but he fails to comprehend the axiomatic nature of identity and posits the existence of a Creator that lives outside of existence in a realm where identity, non-contradiction, causality and all other necessary aspects of reason and existence apply.  And he says it with a straight face.

I also found his argument for the rational underpinnings of faith to be very weak as well.  He basically rehashes Pascal's wager and asks his readers to accept his assertion that having faith in real life won't hurt much.

On similar grounds, his defense of the possibility for miracles is just bizarre to me. It goes like this:

  1. A miracle is a violation of the known laws of nature.
  2. Scientific laws are on Hume's own account empirically unverifiable.
  3. Thus, violations of the known laws of nature are quite possible.
  4. Therefore, miracles are possible.
(pp. 182)
The insertion of the word "known" in his first premise is the key to this whole thing.  Basically, if you don't know how something works, and it does something you don't expect, then that is what D'Souza calls a miracle.  The argument has a lot in common with Clark's Third Law, which I've discussed before. Given that no one really accepts that definition of a miracle and that honestly conducted science does not turn away evidence  based on the conclusions they draw, I doubt that Christians will even present those arguments for debate.

I had to say "honestly conducted science" above because D'Souza casts aspersions on the the character of atheists all the world over saying they are dishonest moral relativists and suggests that atheist scientists would reject evidence that runs counter to an established law.

And I don't even want to get into the revisionist perspective on history D'Souza presents throughout.

The irony is that he actually mentions Ayn Rand at one point in the book, but he doesn't seem to consider her arguments at any point.  The way he describes atheists as an undifferentiated whole is the same thing he complains about when atheists refer to Christianity as just another religion.

But I didn't start writing this post to do a complete and thorough listing of all the logical fallacies and errors in the book.  That would take another whole book in itself.

This book is persuasive.  The book does have certain authorities on its side, particularly in the realm of philosophy where heavy-weights like Plato and Kant do make arguments that support Christianity.  These are the philosophical forefathers of mainstream thinking in both secular and religious circles.  And that is what makes this book particularly dangerous.  D'Souza has performed a bit of philosophical judo here, using the weight of many of the New Atheists arguments against them.

I recommend it for atheists only and not Christians.  Not because I can't dispel any of the foolish arguments in the book, but because Christians can't and so this will just add to the growing momentum religion has in our culture today and the New Atheists do need to see where they're going wrong.

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December 11, 2007

Nope. No Theocrats Here

Thanks to Joe.My.God. my brain is on the verge of exploding.  Actually, it's nothing he did, really.  He just pointed out House Resolution 847 which is sponsored by Republican Steve King of Iowa.

H. Res. 847: Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith

Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith.

Whereas Christmas, a holiday of great significance to Americans and many other cultures and nationalities, is celebrated annually by Christians throughout the United States and the world;

Whereas there are approximately 225,000,000 Christians in the United States, making Christianity the religion of over three-fourths of the American population;

Whereas there are approximately 2,000,000,000 Christians throughout the world, making Christianity the largest religion in the world and the religion of about one-third of the world population;

Whereas Christians identify themselves as those who believe in the salvation from sin offered to them through the sacrifice of their savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and who, out of gratitude for the gift of salvation, commit themselves to living their lives in accordance with the teachings of the Holy Bible;

Whereas Christians and Christianity have contributed greatly to the development of western civilization;

Whereas the United States, being founded as a constitutional republic in the traditions of western civilization, finds much in its history that points observers back to its roots in Christianity;

Whereas on December 25 of each calendar year, American Christians observe Christmas, the holiday celebrating the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ;

Whereas for Christians, Christmas is celebrated as a recognition of God's redemption, mercy, and Grace; and

Whereas many Christians and non-Christians throughout the United States and the rest of the world, celebrate Christmas as a time to serve others: Now, therefore be it

      Resolved, That the House of Representatives--

            (1) recognizes the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world;

            (2) expresses continued support for Christians in the United States and worldwide;

            (3) acknowledges the international religious and historical importance of Christmas and the Christian faith;

            (4) acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States and in the formation of the western civilization;

            (5) rejects bigotry and persecution directed against Christians, both in the United States and worldwide; and

            (6) expresses its deepest respect to American Christians and Christians throughout the world.
Who out there still doubts that there are people who wish the United States to be a "Christian nation" in custom, name, and law?

I realize that a resolution is not a law and that this does nothing to pro- or pre-scribe the behavior of American citizens, and resolutions like this have probably been introduced from time to time, but that doesn't make it any less absurd and wrong.  It is still an act of Congress that stands as an official recognition of a religion -- something you would think would be forbidden by even the shallowest reading of the Bill of Rights.

This is outrageous.

If you're one of these people who still refuses to recognize the growing influence of religion in American politics, you are evading reality in the worst way.  Not only will your evasion cost you your liberty, freedom, and happiness, you are abetting the criminals who would do the same to us all.  You are complicit in this treason.  Take heed.

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December 08, 2007

Probability and Why Christians Really Shouldn't Gamble

There are a lot of people out there who look out at the universe and feel compelled to explain how it is possible that everything is just so perfect for human life.  They think to themselves, "The odds that this perfect environment would arise out of change are so slim as to be considered impossible."  If the person thinking this is a Christian, they use this as proof for the existence of God.

This represents a very fundamental misunderstanding about what probability actually means.

Dinesh D'Souza makes his ignorance of probability even more obvious by presenting us with a similar example:

Imagine if I find a coun and begin flipping it and every time, it comes up heads.  I try this ten thousand times, and it never fails to show me heads.  There are two possibilities.  The first and obvious one is that the coin is rigged in some way; somebody "fixed" it to come up heads every time.  There is also a second possibility.  Perhaps there are an infinite number of coins in circulation, and given infinite tossing and infinite time one set of tosses was bound to show this result.  Now which of these two explanations should a rational person choose?  Occam's razor says choose the first one.
Actually, there is a third possibility that D'Souza hasn't mentioned here: coincidence.  (He discusses it indirectly in an earlier chapter because he is more satisfied with miracles than simple statistics.) If the coin is not "fixed" then the explanation for it continually coming up heads is the fact that every toss has the exact same odds of coming up heads: 50%.

I am NOT suggesting that there is a 50/50 chance of ten thousand coin tosses coming up heads is the same as the odds that someone has rigged the coin tosses.  I'm saying that each individual toss as a 50% chance of coming up heads, so just because you've tossed the coin 9,999 times does not mean that it is less likely to come up heads on the ten thousandth toss.

I don't know enough about string theory to say whether or not there is any evidence to support it, so for the sake of this discussion I agree that parallel universe theory is little more than an arbitrary assertion.

But if we're applying Occam's Razor to coin tossing in the strictest sense, then we would lean toward the coincidence theory over the rigged coin theory because a coincidence requires no further explanation than the simple fact that it is entirely within the realm of possibility that tossing a coin ten thousand times will come up heads every time.  The rigged coin theory requires that and a person leaving their rigged coin around for someone to find and you not having observational powers strong enough to observe the discrepancy and no curiosity to cause you to attempt to thwart the trend yourself even after 9,999 tosses.  I mean, what kind of thick-headed idjit are you, tossing a coin around like that so much?

Furthermore, Occam's razor isn't actually a proof of anything.  It's just a rule of thumb that advises us when all the evidence supports two hypotheses equally, we should accept the hypotheses that requires the least number of "moving parts," if you will.  It does not exclude the alternative hypothesis as a possibility.

So, let's say that you go into a lab with your coin and you weigh it and test its balance and find that it is a perfectly balanced coin.  You eliminate the possibility that it is rigged.  To paraphrase Mr. Spock, when you've eliminated all other possibilities, the remaining explanation -- no matter how improbable -- is the truth.  So, you'd say it's a coincidence, you would not leap headlong into a hypothesis about an invisible, intangible, immeasurable, ineffable, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, supremely benevolent, perfectly good entity of origins as unknown as its exact nature who likes to cheat at coin tossing.  That hypothesis makes even less sense than the parallel universe thing, I think.

But explaining a coin toss is not the same as explaining how existence came to be in its present state.  Coins exist in a context where a person could rig them to always come up heads, but they might also just come up heads ten thousand times in a row.  The universe does not exist in an analogous context.

As improbable as it may seem that the current state of the universe is perfect for life, improbability is not precisely the same thing as impossibility.  Infinitely small odds are still infinitely better than no odds at all.

Once in an appearance on Donahue, I think, Ayn Rand was asked about the apparent orderliness of the universe, to which she responded by asking what a disorderly universe would look like.  I find myself asking a similiar question here and someone actually wrote a book about that.  Martin Rees wrote Just Six Numbers.  If certain aspects of our universe were not the way they are, then life would not exist in the universe. 

Such a silly way to spend time, I think.  If I hadn't put my shoes on this morning, then my feet would have been very cold on the way to the subway station.  It's AMAZING!  If things weren't the way they are, things would be completely different.  The philosophical atmosphere of our culture is such that it takes advanced degrees in physics and astronomy to make that observation.  Someone bring me my resume!

We should not be surprised that D'Souza would spend so much time on such simple concepts, though.  That man cannot even grasp the axiomatic quality of identity.
Moreover, the atheist viewpoint cannot explain the profound lawfulness of nature itself.
Apparently, he is mystified by the fact that electrons behave like electrons.  We shouldn't be surprised that he is mystified by how a tossed coin might come up heads.

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December 04, 2007

God Hates the World

Found this over at Joe.My.God. Apparently, it's been out there a while. I think it's hilarious, so I'm sharing it with you.


My favorite line is, "You'll eat your children."  And the little girl at the end is the best. She looks so cute while singing that horrible song and then she smiles and her face smooshes into a demonic little grin.

I occurs to me that I should point out that these are not the people we need to worry about.

I wish all Christians, Muslims, Pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, whatevers were the most extreme form of their religion they could be. If they were, then religion would not be very popular.  There would be little worry that you're going to meet one of these lunatics on the street.  We wouldn't have to worry about "faith based initiatives" in Washington.

The dangerous form of religion is the moderate, middling form of religion that anesthetizes people's minds to the idiocy of faith.  It's that pattern of thinking that leads us into theocracy, not the crazies singing "God Hates the World."

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December 02, 2007

Mere Presumption

I started reading Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity today, which begins with a challenge to believers and non-believers.  Believers are asked to confront and challenge secularists.  At the end of this introduction, he writes:

If I may address unbelievers directly for a moment, I hope that you will not read this book merely as an intellectual exercise.  It seeks to address practical problems that we all face in life.  You, like many Christians, live in a split-screen world.  You are, I suspect, a Darwinian in your science and an anti-Darwinian in your morals.  You revere science and reason but wonder if they give you a full grasp of the world.  You are a rationalist at work and a romantic in your personal life.  You have  been engaged in the pursuit of happiness for a fairly long time; ever wonder why you haven't found it?  How long do you intend to continue this joyless search for joy?  Older societies had much less and felt abundant; why do you, in the midst of plenty, continue to feel scarcity pressing down upon you?  No doubt you, like the believer, know that every breath you take fends off death.  Clearly this is something for which you should prepare, but have you?  Death forces upon you a choice that you cannot escape.  You must choose God or reject Him, because when you die all abstentions are counted as "no" votes.  So if you are wondering if this book is an invitation to convert, it is.  I hope you will read it as if your life depended on it, because, in a way, it might.

(pp vxii)
Obviously, he's never met an Objectivist.

I can't help but laugh at the absurdity of that passage.

At first, I was indignant.  I mean, how dare he impugn his readers' integrity like that?  What's worse, he goes on to presume a bit psychologizing.  But I recognized immediately after that he was merely baiting challengers.

And I don't know about you, but I prepare for my next breath by not putting plastic bags over my head.  I mean, we've all seen the warnings.  Plastic bags over the head is bad.

I mean, he couldn't possibly be talking about death.  That would be morbid and would make this book a very long and tortured advertisement for life insurance.

I just saved a ton of money... but not SO much money, cuz instead of just going to Geico, you have to spend $30 on this book.

I'm struck, though, by the implied agnosticism at the end of the passage, though.  My life MIGHT depend on it?  Well, then it also might not, right?

I happen to know that my life does, in fact, depend upon rejecting all silly ideas including that of god, miracles, and the supernatural.

Joking aside, I am expecting a lot out of this book.  Unlike the other Jesus books I've been reading, I expect this one to be written more clearly, more aggressively, and with better arguments.  We'll see!

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