Got a Question for Penn Jillette?

If you've read Penn Jillette's new book God, No! and want to ask him something about it - or if you just have a general question you've been dying to ask him - then this is your lucky day!

My soon-to-be blog home, Big Think, is having Penn back for an interview on Friday, and they're soliciting reader questions. Presumably, he'll answer some of them. If you've got a question for him, post it in the comments on Big Think (or post it here - I'll send them in to the overlords).

This one is mine:

Hello Penn,

Glad to see you’re doing this. I’ve followed you with interest for a long time – I met you after your show in Vegas a few years ago, though I’m sure you don’t remember. (I still have a picture of me and you, though!)

I just finished reading God, No!, and I was hoping you’d address a conflict I find in your thinking. From the book and from watching shows like Bullshit!, I know you’re an atheist who values skepticism and critical thinking. But in that book, you’ve also made it clear that you’re a libertarian who values a minimal state and considers it immoral to tax people for any other reason, even if the goal is something good like education or medical research.

From the work of sociologists like Gregory S. Paul, we know that religion and other kinds of harmful superstition flourish best in poverty-stricken, unstable, uneducated, grossly unequal societies. If we as a society don’t commit to educating people, to teaching them how to think, and to providing them some measure of peace and prosperity in this world, they’ll always be fearful, ignorant, and hungry for miracles – easy prey for any religious huckster or demagogue who comes along. And you know as well as I do how this threatens the well-being of the rest of us. Do you think that a true libertarian state could ever effectively address this problem?

September 13, 2011, 8:50 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink32 comments

From the Mailbag: Shedding the Burden of Suffering

Earlier this week, I got a lengthy letter whose author gave me permission to share it with you:

Dear Ebonmusings:

I gave a glimpse to your musing about the carrot and the stick - I didn't expect it to talk about morality, mainly because I realized that the latest part of my life as a christian was about pursuing a carrot and a stick.*

Allow me to share my story. Sorry if it's a bit depressing, but I can assure you that I'm much better now (and much better than before, since I embraced atheism and got rid of many prejudices and sick attitudes).

I had always been a devout Catholic. My devotion was fed in a positive feedback loop by my own spiritual experiences. I had thought God loved me and considered me so special that he had given me some visions and experiences that I read about in the works of Catholic saints. Today I just realized it was mere delusion.

Anyway. My problem was when, for health reasons, I had to leave a hellhole called seminary. I was going to be a missionary priest. I couldn't even finish the first year because there was no doctor there and I got ill more than once - worse, I lost around 20 pounds of weight from malnutrition. To make things worse, they made us work and live in very unsanitary conditions - once, the pork we were going to eat was left to rot for around three days under the sun, without us even suspecting it. I fell ill and had to take whatever antibiotics we had at hand. Eventually I got better. During the mission, I slept less than five hours a day for more than a month thanks to my brothers, who always stayed late, and I had to be the one who would wake up first to be able to take a quick shower before Mass at 6 AM. Eventually I got the flu and had to leave everything.

When I returned home, I realized my father had already given up my home to my sister who recently had gotten married and was expecting a baby. So I had to live in a little storage room that was below the ground level. This was bad because it flooded occasionally and sometimes the sewer overflowed, and I couldn't get my own apartment because I couldn't find a job.

Still wondering why God had left me in this situation, I realized I was growing older and I needed to find myself a wife - as I couldn't stand my loneliness... much less the depression that I was going through. I was tortured by my loneliness and my escapes in masturbation (which meant that I sinned)... at the same time, I was going through such horrible despair that I wanted to kill myself. But I couldn't because God would send me to hell. I begged him to kill me or give me a hand, a new room, etc.

Eventually I realized I could no longer live isolated in that room (only to come to my parents' one-bedroom apartment for breakfast and dinner), so I decided to live with my parents and sleep on the couch. There was a little problem... my dad always woke up at 4 AM and I couldn't sleep well. At one point I began dreaming about having my own bedroom. In the dream, I was so happy but I remembered it was just a dream, and I woke up crying and wanting to die.

During that year, I kept asking myself: "Why, God? Why?" Why was the question that God never answered. And I realized today that I had always wanted an answer as why God was testing me in such a horrible manner. At one point I felt abandoned, crushed and hated by God - I felt there was no other explanation.

I sought help which didn't come. Even after being able by mere chance (actually, the landlord increased the rent and some neighbors had to leave, so we moved to a two-bedroom apartment) to finally get my own bedroom, my bitterness hadn't gone away. I kept asking for and expecting a compensation for all my undeserved sufferings. They didn't come.

A believer's life on Earth is always carrying a burden of suffering... seeking a carrot named "help" with a stick named "Faith". In my case, if I ever dared to question God's infinite love, or even his existence, I would doom myself to hell. I couldn't even curse his name (in fact, I haven't, even as an atheist - except that claiming that he doesn't exist might be cursing him). So, I was doomed to suffer if I challenged ("tempted") God, and I was doomed to suffer and wait hoping God would be compassionate towards me otherwise. Also, because I was such a sinner, I felt that God was punishing me and I couldn't get any help.

This is what I wanted to share. Faith is evil, it forces many unnecessary sufferings on people who seek divine help that will never come, instead of seeking the help of our fellow humans and realizing that if you don't help yourself, nobody else will.

Finally I would like to thank Reddit for sharing so much insight on life and helping me realize there is no God. It's been a liberating experience.

Please feel free to post this on your site, as long as my testimony remains anonymous.

Thank you for listening.

* In a follow-up e-mail, he explained: "One note about my testimony... it wasn't a carrot and a stick used to hit (as in reward / punishment), but a carrot hanging on a stick. This is why I called the stick 'faith', and the carrot 'happiness'. You try to move, but the stick moves with you. You cannot get the carrot until you finally get rid of the stick (the faith)."

July 15, 2011, 6:24 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink8 comments

From the Mailbag: Deconversion Saturday

It's not every day that I get awesome letters like the one I posted last Saturday, but this makes two weeks in a row now. If this keeps up, I may have to make it a regular feature!

This letter is from a commenter who's posted here in the past as 5acos(phi/2). Although it's from a country I don't have first-hand experience of, it has a lot in common with the kind of letters I get more frequently, just with a different set of culturally dominant religious beliefs in place of Christianity. It just goes to show that religion causes the same kinds of harm wherever and whenever it becomes the dominant political power in society, and that every society has a need for secularism. Thankfully, it also shows that every society has skeptics and freethinkers to hold the torch of reason up high!

Hello Adam,

I noticed your latest mailbag post and felt compelled to finally write you a thank you note and share my story, after I have been lurking on your site for so long. Unlike other great personal stories that have been posted on your blog, I think mine is in no way emotionally moving, but I suspect that you might find it a bit unusual considering the context of your site.

I come from Thailand, where the majority of the population identify as (Theravada) Buddhists, and so did I. So by definition, I have never been a theist, nor did I know what it is like to live in a theist-dominated country. And although everyone in my family is a Buddhist in name, we lead a mostly secular lifestyle. Nevertheless, I was not a skeptic - I accepted things that were taught to me without much questioning, and though I questioned and rejected some fantastical claims, I still occasionally fell prey to some of the benign ones.

Before coming across your site, I have already rejected or treated as allegory most of the absurd claims that are rampant in my society, such as reincarnation, karma, the Hindu gods that Thai people still worship, etc. But I did not take the next step to declare myself nonreligious, nor did I feel the need to do so. Being used to a secular life, religion simply was not a big issue to me. I still went along and participated in Buddhist ceremonies and prayers when it would seem rude not to.

Then one boring day at work, I stumbled upon your "Carrot & Stick" essay after clicking through a few links on morality without religion. I found your argument extremely compelling, and by the end of the essay I had crossed over the fence to nonreligion. I then continued reading further into both of your sites, and then I perused the links to discover other atheists' and skeptics' sites, as well as ScienceBlogs (long before "PepsiGate"), and have diligently followed them until today. I have learned how to truly think critically. I have learned what the scientific method really is when school have failed to make that point clear to me. It was perhaps only a chain of coincidences, but you were my gateway to science and skepticism.

Thanks to you, the other bloggers, and the Internet, I have come to realize that there are so much brilliance in the world, but also so much insanity. I read about the religiously-driven conflicts in the US with amused curiosity like I would observe an alien life form, but it was not long before some parallels are drawn. I realized that my country is also full of craziness, from the mostly harmless astrology to the Dhammakaya Movement, our Buddhism-flavored counterpart of the Church of Scientology, but the most fearsome and influential of all are the ultra-loyalists. They are, in many aspects, the Thai equivalent of the American religious right. Politically powerful and active, they may not oppose science, but they do try to support absurd political agenda and silence dissenting opinions, and at least for a while they infected most of our brainwashed middle class, including myself. I also have to thank someone else for deprogramming me, but it was no less helpful to read about similar conflicts from abroad, which I could objectively evaluate and compare.

Thanks to you, I am now a skeptic, and I will try to spread rationality into my part of the world.

April 9, 2011, 10:40 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink8 comments

From the Mailbag: Deconversion Saturday

Out of all the correspondence I get, occasionally there's a letter which repays, many times over, all the effort I've put into writing for my websites. This is one of them, which I'm sharing with the author's permission:

Hello Adam,

I wanted to drop you a note to let you know how much your writing has influenced me. I left the church I had been raised in about four years ago and spent about a year studying various religions before looking into atheism. It was very difficult for me to be asked to defend my atheism to friends and family (who had spent decades studying their own faith) when I was still trying to figure out exactly what it was myself.

I found your website about a year ago through a link to "How to Convert an Atheist." I read your essays and have begun working my way through the "Must Read" posts on your blog. Your writing has helped me so much. I can coherently explain and adequately defend many of the ideas that were so new to me so recently because of you. I wanted to thank you for posting such wonderful thoughts on such a wide variety of topics relevant to atheism.

Thank you so much,
Jessa Jackson

From a follow-up letter, Jessa adds:

I was raised Mormon. My family has been in the church for generations (seven on my mother's side), my father is a bishop, I spent most of my childhood in Utah, attended four years of early-morning seminary in high school and went to BYU. So, yeah, I was very Mormon.

As frustrating as it is to debate true believers, as much of an uphill struggle as it seems to be at times, our efforts do make a difference. There are people who can be reached, and who will be better off for it. Don't ever doubt that!

April 2, 2011, 8:53 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink9 comments

From the Mailbag: Atheism in Nigeria

I've said in the past that the internet is an incredibly beneficial invention for atheists, since it provides a truly global platform for speech. Sometimes, you get a potent reminder of just how true that is. A few days ago, I got an e-mail from a young man in Nigeria - about the same age as me, in fact - who recently became an atheist. I invited him to tell us his story, and he agreed. The following e-mail is reprinted with his permission, and I think you'll agree that it's a powerful and deeply moving testimony.

I was barely 13 when my father fell sick. He was an ex-soldier, retired after sustaining serious bullet wounds during the Nigerian civil war (1967-70). I grew up to witness how he used to complain about body aches and so on which they said was a consequence of some 7 bullets still in his body (it was on the x-ray) resulting from the haphazard treatment one gets during a war. When he eventually fell sick in 1996, it was like we were waiting for that moment: He never fell sick - as much as I can remember. This happened 1 year after he got separated from my mum for no apparent reason. Although he later claimed he was suspecting her for sleeping around with church members, this I knew was not true. I know my mum, she was a good christian, a righteous one - in my own sense of the word. Unlike my father, who as far as I can remember, never went to church. He was popularly known as a church critic (though he believed in god), my mum was a sunday school teacher ever since before I was born and she still is.

I was the only one at home when my father's health suddenly failed: my siblings were either in boarding schools or something. We were surviving through his little pension and my mother's peasant farm. We were ignorant about the hospital. But even if we weren't, it wouldn't make much sense because here, instead of a doctor confessing he lacks the professional skill applicable for an illness, or no appropriate equipment, he would simply advise you to go home and consult a herbalist, unprofessionally claiming that "this sickness is not a hospital type."

As my father's health condition worsened, I cooked his meals from the food stuff my mum will never hesitate to provide, bathed him, changed his clothes - you may not be able to imagine how it was for a 13-year-old child caring for an ailing 70+ year-old father. I'm not trying to be emotional or something, you know, I don't even like being sentimental. Neither am I trying to convince any one on why I rejected the god belief: no, I just don't want to pretend I do. That's it. After weeks with little or no medication, my father's brothers decided to take him to a witch doctor, carrying along my cousin Esau (6-7 yrs old). Two days later they returned with the news that the boy said he saw my mum and my 3 sisters in the calabash (you might be familiar with this type of cases). Indicating they are witches, geting at my dad through me as their agent.

This story was spreading around the village (Raba) without us having an idea about it for some time until - I can't remember how it came to us. Everywhere I go people gave me a look that told me my presence was not welcomed. I would lock myself in my room weeping. Wondering how it came to this, I was confused. One night (past 1:00am) I sneaked out of the village into the forest. Looking for an explanation, I wanted to talk to god. I thought: God doesn't want to appear in public but to a young innocent boy? I thought he would; I read about such things in the bible! At about 1 and 1/2 km from the village, I stood in the footpath and called out to 'god!', crying, I was so loud that my entire body vibrated. But all I had in response was the silent echo of my shrill voice and the distant hum of forest creatures. I wanted god to let the people know I didn't do it. But he disappointed me! I slept under a tree waiting for him all night. In the early hours of the morning, I walked back home so dejected.

In god's absence, my mum was my comforter, with her bible quotations and godly promises which I came to despise. I was never satisfied but pretended I was just to keep her from worrying about me. The day my father died I was the only one with him, my mum and sisters never visited for fear of further accusations (we used to be a happy home). Past 4:00am, I was in his room (his brothers abandoned him when they realised they couldn't help him with their witch medications). I never knew how it was for one to be dead but I knew something was wrong. I ran to my mum's house and described the situation. She started to cry but refused to come with me saying I better let his brothers know about it quickly. Later, he was confirmed dead. He was buried and forgotten.

People saw me as a witch and it bothered me. I became involved in church activities; bible recitation competitions, choir, boys brigade, youth evangelism and and so on: I tried to please god according to how it is said in the scripture. Leaving my mum behind, I moved to the city (Minna), got a job and made new friends. My new pastor seemed to like me; I was upfront, always willing to volunteer. I'm sensitive to lies and I always oppose deceit. I became a sunday school teacher yet, I couldn't reach god, nothing to prove 'he' really cares or tell the people I was falsely accused ('cos that's primarily what I labored for; to clear myself of all charges). Instead, those who seemed to sympathize with me concluded I was seeking for forgiveness. I figured out they pretend to love me but actually don't trust me (once a witch always a witch). And actually as my late father use to say: "only the guilty goes to church" (as in "only the sick goes to the hospital"). I had a series of unbelievable experiences in my quest for "supernatural" evidence. Not to mention how I slapped the chief of my village (the case is presently in court). As my faith dwindled further, I left the church and joined the Jehovah's Witnesses. For 3 years, though they seemed better than my previous churches in terms of response to questions, I was never satisfied. So I quit.

Then, on my own, I felt free to explore my psyche and solve my problems my way. I have 6 million reasons for why not to believe in god anymore but I have virtually none to do the opposite, however, I wanted to know how other people beyond my community view this things so turned to the internet. About 4 months ago I hit Ebon Musings. I read "A Ghost in the Machine" and I couldn't believe what I saw. It felt like the end of the road. You know why? My father was acting exactly the way it was described in the "alien hand syndrome"! At times he would ask me to bring him a cutlass to "chop off this stubborn hand." Each time he wants to eat I had to hold the left hand to stop it from spilling over his meal - oh my! I simply couldn't contain myself, I was so excited: to realize I belong to a community, a people who knows I didn't do it. At the time I was made to understand life had shut down its ears from me, suddenly I bumped into aliens like me - no, I no longer feel like an 'alien', I think am the rightful owner of this beautiful green planet. I feel pure and free untrammelled by religious nonsense. I'm human! I'd stopped worrying, I no longer had to shut myself crying my pains out. Now I close my eyes in tears with a smile on my face; someone, finally, can hear me - at last I found "god" - someone who can materially answer my basic questions that gave me the real meaning of life. Thank you very much.

November 12, 2010, 6:48 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink16 comments

Another Response to the Theist's Guide

I've received another response to my essay "The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists". This response, which can be viewed here, comes by way of an author calling himself Roq.

I am, at heart, a simple person, so it'll only take one thing for me to become an atheist.

When science can create a mass hallucination in a group of fifty or more people where the generalities all line up. They get extra bonus points if they can do it without drugs.

I'd like to congratulate Roq for coming up what is, I think, the very first answer to my challenge that consists entirely of a clear, empirical, achievable standard. Bravo to him! I respect anyone who has the courage to put their beliefs on the line in this way - it's a standard of intellectual honesty that relatively few people are able to meet.

While I'm not rejecting Roq's proposal, I do want to discuss the assumption that apparently lies behind it: that if fifty people all agree they saw something supernatural, this is sufficient evidence that something real must have occurred, and that their vision should be trusted, at least in the basic details, in the absence of evidence otherwise. There are three points that bear on this.

First: the self-selection issue. Creating a hallucination in a group of fifty people randomly chosen from the street isn't necessarily going to be the same as creating one in the group of fifty that launch a new religion. If susceptibility to hallucination is like other human characteristics, it runs in a spectrum from more to less susceptible. It may be that religions tend to get started by the people at the farthest end of the bell curve, the ones who are most liable to hallucinate, precisely because those people tend to seek each other out and congregate in an attempt to explain their experiences.

Second: the peer pressure issue. What really counts as a hallucination? If there's a large group of people and only a handful have the same hallucination, but the rest convince themselves that they saw it to go along with the group, does that qualify? This is just what happened in the famous Asch experiment on social conformity, where people are easily swayed into giving an obviously wrong answer when they see others do so.

Third: the retransmission issue. Rumors tend to evolve as they spread, as people misremember and unconsciously add details that make the story more impressive in the retelling. It takes surprisingly little time for this to happen - it can even happen to eyewitnesses. In his book UFOs, Ghosts and a Rising God, Chris Hallquist quotes the Christian magician Andre Kole:

I enjoy listening to people try to describe some of my illusions. Once when I was in Madras, India, I appeared to cause my daughter to float within the framework of a large pyramid. The next day, a waitress excitedly told me what some of her customers had said about my show. According to them, I had not only levitated my daughter, but I also had caused her to float out over the audience, turn in a large circle, and do several impossible gymnastic feats.

Did Kole's audience have a mass hallucination? Or did some people hallucinate or misremember what they saw, being more prone to it than others, and then were insistent enough to convince people who didn't have the same experience, with the story growing and changing further in the telling? I tend to think it's the latter - and I think a similar combination of factors is probably at work in the origin of most religions, as opposed to a singular event where a large group of people all have the same hallucination at the same time.

Still, I think Roq's standard is basically a fair one, and I applaud him for it. What do you have to say, readers - do you know of any experiment that could give him the answer he seeks?

September 25, 2010, 4:12 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink34 comments

Two Responses to the Theist's Guide

Earlier this month, Greta Christina published a piece on AlterNet, based on my essay "The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists", that listed things that would convince her of God's existence. She also repeated the challenge I posed to theists - prove that your beliefs are falsifiable by posting a corresponding list of things that would convince you to become an atheist.

The AlterNet post got hundreds of comments, and netted a total of two responses. In this post, I'll briefly analyze them both.

First, there's this essay from Verbose Stoic. I left a comment on his site which is reprinted below, with minor edits:

I've reviewed this list, and I think that rather than meeting my challenge, it emphasizes the point I sought to make by raising it: for most theists, belief in God is a deliberately unfalsifiable construct that bears no relation to the real world.

Your first criterion is that you would accept it if your definition of God was shown to be self-contradictory – but you've more or less said that in that case, you would just change your definition and continue believing. Also, it's not clear to me why mere logical consistency should be your standard for believing. There's an infinite number of self-consistent, non-contradictory entities that nevertheless don't actually exist – unicorns, leprechauns, minotaurs, mermaids, and so on. Why should God be treated according to a different standard?

Meanwhile, your second criterion is so vague as to be useless. You just say "prove that there exists something that is incompatible with the existence of God", without any explanation of what that thing might be or how one would go about proving that it exists. You cite the problem of evil as one potential example, but clearly you're already aware of the problem of evil and don't consider it a persuasive disproof of God, and you don't explain why not or how it would have to be different for you to accept it as such.

Ultimately, you conclude that probably nothing would ever convince you of God's nonexistence ("The qualities of God are such that such disproofs just don’t work", and "my agnosticism makes me skeptical that they would ever work"). That, of course, is exactly the point I wanted to make by writing my essay in the first place. Belief in God is unfalsifiable, not dependent on any evidence in the world, which means, as Sam Harris has said, it's not really a belief about the world at all.

There's also this post, from "allthedeadheroes". My reply, originally sent via e-mail:

I have a couple of comments on this:

1. You said you would give up your belief if you received "Objective evidence that contradicts my theory of God." But you also said that your belief can explicitly accommodate everything science discovers about the world. Would you therefore agree that this criterion is impossible to meet? If not, what sort of evidence would qualify as contradicting your theory of God?

2. You also listed, "Proof that my subjective beliefs were in some way bad for me or the people around me." Would you consider it harmful to encourage people to come to conclusions about what exists in objective reality based on their subjective feelings and sensations? Because I certainly do. That same method of decision-making is what results in people believing that God wants holy war and theocracy, that he commands the oppression of women and gays, that he condones faith-based opposition to science - all because they "feel" strongly that this is what he wants of them. To put it another way, how would you address the issue of people using your same method - that of subjective feeling and experience - to come to entirely different, and undeniably harmful, conclusions?

What's notable about both these replies, which I think stands in sharp contrast to Greta's essay and mine, is how noticeably they avoid contact with the evidence. They're based on definitions, subjective experiences, moral beliefs, philosophies - anything but the facts of the world. They'll go to almost any length rather than make a clear evidentiary commitment to give up belief in God if some concrete, objective criterion is satisfied.

This is all the more noteworthy because, if these beliefs are rationally founded in the first place, it ought to be very easy for a theist to explain what would convince him to give them up. It ought to be a straightforward matter of applying the argument to the best explanation, as I explained in a further comment on Verbose Stoic: is relatively easy for an atheist to say 'If this happens, I’d believe in God' because they can point to an event and use it as a positive proof. That doesn't happen for the negative side of the ledger."

I don't agree that theists have a harder time than atheists in outlining what would change their minds. If you agree that evidence is the link to truth, then it seems to me that this task could be accomplished fairly easily: explain what evidence convinced you to believe in God, and then explain what further evidence would overturn your initial conclusions.

As an analogy, let's say I believe in Bigfoot. Let's also say my belief is premised on several different lines of evidence: videos of hairy man-shaped creatures in the woods, plaster casts of giant footprints in mud, and the testimonies of several eyewitnesses who claim that they saw an anthropoid beast lumber out of the forest and into their backyard.

Now let's say the man who shot that video came forward to confess it was a hoax, created with the help of a friend, and produces a receipt for a costume shop dated the day the video was taken. Let's say he produces clay sculptures of feet that fit the casts that were earlier produced. And let's also say the house where the eyewitnesses live is proven to have been contaminated with ergot mold that would have produced vivid hallucinations in anyone living within.

Clearly, in this case, I no longer have reason to believe in Bigfoot. Every strand of evidence that links my belief to objective reality has been severed, and new evidence points to a better explanation that accounts for the prior evidence more convincingly than my former belief did. Now, I might continue to believe in Bigfoot regardless, asserting that the creature could still exist despite the failure of all the evidence. But, I hope we can agree, that would be irrational at that point.

I'm not suggesting that belief in God could only be overturned by the discovery of a deliberate conspiracy to deceive humanity. But I can readily conceive of the discovery of lines of evidence - in fact, I would argue that such evidence has already been discovered - which adds up to the same result. If you think the theist has the harder task here, I'd venture to say that it's merely because theists, having constructed their beliefs so as to make them immune to disproof, are naturally at a loss when asked what would in fact disprove them.

July 24, 2010, 10:11 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink134 comments

The Catholic Church Asks Me for Money

One of the downsides of giving money to charity is that some of the groups I give to resell their donors' names and addresses. As a result, I get an amazing quantity of mail, most from groups I've never heard of, begging for money. It comes from an incredible range of organizations - symphonies, museums, political campaigns, environmental groups, humanitarian groups, animal rights groups, and more. Since I plan my giving in advance and don't respond to random solicitations, I throw these all out. I feel bad about it, especially since most of them are groups I'd like to support, and I deplore the waste of money that goes into sending all this junk mail - but I can't possibly respond to so many.

That said, I'm not upset about having cost the sender of this letter the price of postage:

Obviously, they had no way to know who they were reaching. Equally obviously, the assumption that the recipient is Christian is just a marketing tactic, designed to make the strongest possible impression on people who do fit that description. I'm not offended by that. (Although I think the "angel medallion" - a cheap plastic trinket - suggests that they're targeting the less educated and more superstitious among their potential donors who'd be more likely to believe it has magic powers, similar to the classic Jesus prayer rug scam.)

What offends me more isn't the message, but the organization behind it. Whatever humanitarian work CRS performs, it's more than counterbalanced by the real and serious harm that Catholic teachings do: teaching medieval, misogynist notions of female inferiority; exacerbating poverty, overpopulation and AIDS by opposing contraception; opposing abortion even for raped children, or when the alternative is the near-certain death of the mother; battling tenaciously against civil rights for gay and lesbian couples; trying to dictate to parishioners how they should vote; trying to stifle life-saving stem-cell research; and last but certainly not least, the conspiracy of silence among the hierarchy to protect and shelter child rapists and abusers worldwide. There are plenty of secular groups that do just as much good for the needy without spreading these poisonous memes.

It goes without saying that the Catholic church won't get any money from me. But since they took the time to contact me, I think I owe them the courtesy of a reply. Although the envelope is postage-paid, I'm not going to do anything immature like mailing it back attached to a heavy object. But since the letter specifically invites a response, I am going to send it back with a message explaining why I'm not enclosing a donation. My only dilemma is what to write in the limited space provided. Ideally, it should be irreverent, memorable, and to the point. Any suggestions?

June 4, 2010, 6:01 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink31 comments

An Unserious Response to the Theist's Guide

I've received another response to my essay on Ebon Musings, "The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists", which challenges theists to explain what they would accept as proof that their religious beliefs were mistaken. For the record, I'll point out that this essay has been publicly available since June 2001, almost nine years, and in that time - counting the response just received - I've gotten a total of three replies.

What's ironic is that this latest response underscores, rather than contradicts, the point I originally made in my essay which explains why I posed this challenge:

Many theists, by their own admission, structure their beliefs so that no evidence could possibly disprove them. In short, they are closed-minded, and have been taught to be closed-minded.

This is a perfect description of the latest response. Its author, though he puts on a pretense of open-mindedness, has offered terms that are purposefully designed to be impossible to fulfill. His response is therefore made in bad faith and is not a serious answer to my challenge, but I'll analyze it anyway, the better to show how the theist mindset works.

Here is how he begins:

To convince me that God doesn't exist, please come up with an alternate explanation for the existence of every single physical particle in the universe. Everything - down to the minutest sub-atomic particle known or surmised presently, to everything yet to be discovered in the future - must be accounted for up-front each with its own individual explanation. Since we can not assume that an agent that has one address, so to speak, like a Supreme Being, will organize and order our material universe, so any convincing explanation of existence must, out of necessity, account for each individual particle in the universe separately and distinctly, each one by itself.

The observable universe has on the order of 1080 - that is, 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 - subatomic particles. For each one of these, this person demands an individual, separate and distinct explanation. Obviously, this task could not be accomplished in the lifetime of a human, or, for that matter, in the lifetime of the universe. And even if we somehow had the resources to attempt this, most of the explanations this person demands would require historical facts that are irretrievably lost to us. Atoms don't accumulate evidence about their past history; how in principle could you ever find out that iron atom #7,128,462,971,394 originated in the supernova of this star and not that star?

My respondent has numerous other demands, most of which are equally unreasonable, but I won't belabor the point. His entire lengthy essay was a waste of his time to write; it's just a roundabout way of saying, "Nothing could ever change my mind about the existence of God." Why he didn't just say that, I don't know - unless it makes him feel better, soothes his cognitive dissonance, to be able to tell himself that he's offered an "answer" to my challenge and therefore isn't closed-minded. His essay suggests as much:

Now Mr. Atheist has noted that some people have rigged the conditions under which they would give up religion to be so impossible that, of course, their beliefs could not be touched. Now I'm not into those kinds of games.

Needless to say, I don't intend to permit him that false comfort, which is why I'm calling his sophistry what it is. His "challenge" is designed to be impossible, and he's well aware of this. He's dishonestly playing the very same kind of game he claims to deride. Too bad for him that I don't intend to indulge him in it.

It's no surprise, also, that his ludicrous standard of proof for atheism is not one he ever applies to his own beliefs. Does he require an individual, separate and distinct explanation of how and why God manufactured every proton, electron, photon, quark and graviton in the cosmos? Of course not. For him, as for most believers, "Goddidit" is a perfectly sufficient explanation that requires no further detail or supporting evidence. Of course, when dealing with scientists, they demand meticulous proof, every step checked and triple-checked, every single bit of relevant data unearthed and supplied, every possible alternative hypothesis conclusively disproven with mathematical certainty. If they applied anything near this level of scrutiny and hyperskepticism to their own faith, they'd long since have become atheists!

My correspondent also thinks he has something to offer that would satisfy one entry on my list of convincing proofs for theism. I'll consider his evidence in a followup post to appear shortly.

April 28, 2010, 8:51 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink27 comments

From the Mailbag: Racist Loonball Edition

Every so often, I get a letter I just have to share - whether because it's so eloquent and insightful that I want more people to read it, or because the author deserves to be roundly mocked by as many people as possible. Here's an example of the latter.

I got this e-mail the other day. It starts out as seemingly thoughtful praise from someone who's obviously taken the time to read my website; then it abruptly takes a different turn:

Dear Ebon Musings:

Your front page essay is beautifully evocative; thank you. (You might want to change the word "miniscule" to "minuscule," however.)

Your passage "From the sky at night, our planet is covered by a spiderweb of glowing lights, testament to our ability to invent and innovate...." was particularly thought-provoking. There are places on the planet, semi-continental in scale, where the human population is quite high, yet the face of the land is almost bereft of light. Satellite imagery makes this quite clear. It is very dark there. The inescapable conclusion is that human evolution has not proceeded equally on every continent.

Of course, it's very "politically incorrect" to notice this fact, as James Watson discovered. But I suppose I can discuss it with you, since you, as the author of the Ninth New Commandment, would find the very concept of "political correctness" to be repugnant.

With all good wishes,

Kevin Alfred Strom.

OK, here's all you need to know about Kevin Alfred Strom: He's a neo-Nazi, an anti-Semite, and the former head of a now-defunct white supremacist group called National Vanguard. He's also served time in prison after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography. (If you read his website, which I won't link to, you'll find a long screed in which he vehemently asserts his innocence and blames the charges on a vast conspiracy of enemies who've persecuted him for no good reason.)

So much for Mr. Strom's résumé. The only question I've got is: What makes this Nazi cretin think I want to be his friend? Seriously, is there anything on my website that might have had even the slightest possibility of giving him the mistaken idea that I have any sympathy whatsoever for his ideas? Or is it just that racists are so desperate to find support for their views that they can delude themselves into seeing it even where it doesn't exist?

In a way, it almost makes me feel sorry for him. (Note: I said "almost".) I'd imagine that most racists are deeply miserable and desperately lonely people - and Strom's child-porn conviction has probably alienated him even from other racists. Reaching out to some random stranger on the internet, in the hope that he'll be sympathetic to you, is the kind of thing a person might do under those circumstances. But I must admit that, given the circumstances, I enjoy dashing those hopes. I view all racists as beneath contempt, and I have special scorn for the ones, like this one, that lie and distort evolution in the vain hope of finding scientific validation for their bigotry. Nothing pleases me more than the knowledge that Mr. Strom and his kind are a dying breed.

April 3, 2010, 7:48 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink38 comments

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