Saturday 26 September 2009

Burnee links for Saturday

Burnee!A Tale of Two Atheists
An unexpected assessment of a recent (invited) clash of opinion in the Wall Street Journal. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, clearly realises the difference between someone who uses language to explicate, and someone who uses it to obfuscate.

Lord Falconer suggests Archbishop of Canterbury’s stance on assisted suicide lacks Christian compassion - Telegraph:
"Dr Williams issued a rare joint statement with the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, and the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, stating their opposition to any change in the law on assisted suicide before Lord Falconer’s failed amendment. They spoke of their fears that vulnerable people would feel under pressure to end their lives and relieve the burden on family if assisted suicide were decriminalised."
It seems to me that these religious leaders aren't against assisted suicide because of some pious concern about putting the vulnerable elderly under pressure - they're against it because suicide is a "sin".

St Therese of Lisieux: come out, atheists, and fight | Matthew Parris - Times Online
As someone who has a professional interest in these relics, or rather in the reliquary containing them (or rather, in the stand on which the reliquary sits in one particular Roman Catholic Cathedral), I too find the whole charade patently ridiculous. (I've not seen the actual stand itself, and the reported long queues mean I probably never will....)

Ways of Knowing : EvolutionBlog
Are there different kinds of truth? As with a lot of discussion, it helps if the participants are using terms in the same way.

Unscientific America: Mooney & Kirshenbaum reviewed in BMJ
The reaction to M+K's accommodationist tome has been overwhelmingly negative (among those whose opinions I value).

Greta Christina's Blog: How Dare You Atheists Make Your Case! Or, The Fisking of Armstrong, 123
More plain speaking from Greta Christina - which is particularly appropriate given that this is a critique of Karen Armstrong, who's writing appears to be deliberately geared to impede communication rather than facilitate it.

Andrew Sullivan’s mushy theodicy « Why Evolution Is True
Jerry Coyne cuts through the mush. Once more I'm reminded why I'm on the side of Coyne, PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins regarding "accommodationism".
(via Pharyngula)

Monday 21 September 2009

New episode of Skepticule now available

Skepticule-001-20090920 is now posted.

Subscribe now!

Sunday 20 September 2009

Is it worth arguing with theologians?

Over at Daylight Atheism there's a discussion about original sin. This is one of those fascinatingly odd ideas of Christianity that defies logic, though it's endlessly debated by earnestly learned theologians. I piped up in the comments to the effect that I didn't see the point of the discussion, and was roundly rebutted. Such debates can be interesting in a "let's see how far we can get with this puzzle" kind of way, but I don't see how they could sway those taking part. People who are prepared to argue at length about these issues are probably already fairly entrenched in their views.

Maybe the idea is to say something like "OK, let's for the sake of argument assume that God exists, and explore the ramifications of that assumption." But in what way is pointing out the logical inconsistencies of those ramifications likely to lead theists to question the initial assumption?

Let's assume for the sake of argument that there are fairies at the bottom of my garden. What is the point of discussing what they eat in the winter or how long it takes to dry off the dew from their wings in the morning before they are able to fly? Can you really have a useful discussion with someone who believes they have rational answers to such questions?

My fear is that by conceding the initial assumption, albeit temporarily, we also concede the legitimacy of the subsequent arguments, when such legitimacy is clearly unwarranted.

I'm an equal-opportunity sceptic. My stance is that we should deal even-handedly with creationists, alt-med proponents, psychics ... and theologians. It was pointed out to me, however, that though the participants of such discussions are unlikely to be persuaded from their respective positions, it is likely that there are others observing the discussion, and therefore it's useful to pursue the arguments for the simple reason that many agnostics - and even firm believers - have come to doubt their previously unchallenged beliefs by hearing them questioned.

This fits with my established opinion that religious fundamentalists (creationists, for example) should be publicly challenged because it alerts the religious moderates that nonsense is being promulgated in their name. So in response to the question posed in the title of this post, I hereby revise my answer to "yes".

Friday 18 September 2009

"Religion and the Web" - BBC Radio 4, 2009-07-20

Beyond Belief is a long-standing BBC Radio 4 series, hosted by Ernie Rea, dealing with the religious interface with the everyday. Back in July it covered the internet:

The audio is available on iPlayer:

The first half of this 28-minute radio programme consists of various pro and con arguments about internet social networks, which mostly come down to "The internet isn't real!" (and therefore of little use in relationships). In particular the seminarian from Colorado seems to take the view that the internet is no good because it wasn't mentioned in the Bible, quoting a verse from John that he interprets as valuing face-to-face communication over writing letters. (Er... tell that to St Paul?)

But he misses the point. The internet is not something wholly different and "evil", it is merely an extension of previous media and means of communication. As host of The Rev Up Review podcast I contacted many people in the United States by email, instant messaging and Skype - people I am unlikely to have contacted otherwise. They would have been effectively out of my reach here in Portsmouth, UK.

Were these relationships of any less value that face-to-face ones? Perhaps. But in 2007 I flew across the Atlantic to attend a convention, and I met them in person, face-to-face. So these particular "internet" relationships are now exactly equivalent to "real life" relationships. Without the internet, however, they would almost certainly never have existed.

Listeners beyond the reach of iPlayer can download the mp3 audio from RapidShare:

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Burnee links for Tuesday

Hot stuff!Sex, flies and videotape: the secret lives of Harun Yahya | New Humanist
Creationists generally seem to be ignorant, deluded or disingenuous. Here's one who is deeply sinister.

Saving gods by making them even emptier of meaning : Pharyngula
PZ Myers muses on Karen Armstrong versus Richard Dawkins, and comes out with this great quote: "Science gets the job done, while religion makes excuses." I hear PZ is writing a book; let's hope we don't have to wait too long for it.

Creation Science Movement: The Vital Green-chlorophyll a 'tiny mutation'
"Its [sic] a world of complexity beyond my ability to follow, with many highly complicated interactions between enzymes and structures all of which have to be perfect for any of the others to make sense and for the whole to function" (my emphasis). Therefore Goddidit.

What If I Took My Students on a Field Trip to Get Debaptized? | Friendly Atheist by @hemantmehta
I live in the UK; the shenanigans perpetrated by the American religious never cease to amaze me.

Creation Museum Part 1 | Rationality Now
Here's Dan Gilbert's thorough report and analysis of Kentucky's Creation Museum (without the distraction of a 300-strong horde of atheist students).
"The Creation Museum makes it very clear that Noah took dinosaurs onto the ark. They’re very clear that dinosaurs lived with humans. They’re very clear that they really have no concept whatsoever of science… or reality. They are, however, exquisite craftsmen who make awesome dioramas."
Dan's photographs are small on the blog, but you can click on them to see them in hi-res (and well worth the clicking).
(via Friendly Atheist)

Tony Blair “profoundly wrong” to imagine religion as a peacemaking tool | National Secular Society
Tony's at it again, saying that if religions tolerate each other, peace will ensue. But how likely are religions to do such a thing? Not at all likely, given the lessons of history.

Greta Christina's Blog: Atheism and Patience
Why atheists must not tire of responding to the same old arguments they've heard time and time again.

I’m not a skeptical celebrity, how can I be involved? - Rational Moms
Useful advice and encouragement from Laurie T.
(via Bad Astronomy) | News Detail | The Greatest Showman on Earth
A creationist reviews the Times' extracts from Richard Dawkins' new book.

Thursday 10 September 2009

AfF #7: Argument from Scripture

(Click here for Arguments for Fred #6)

God exists because it says so in the Bible. How do we know the Bible is true? It says so in the Bible. But that's circular reasoning! How do we know it's circular reasoning? Because the laws of logic say so. How do we know the laws of logic are true? Because the laws of logic say so. But that's circular reasoning!

Does the above place the Bible on a par with the laws of logic? No, because the "God exists because it says so in the Bible" argument is invoking the laws of logic, while the initial accusation of circular reasoning does not invoke the veracity of the Bible. The two arguments are not equivalent, because one is internally consistent (the laws of logic say that circular reasoning isn't proof of anything) while the other (the veracity of the Bible) must rely on something external to itself (the laws of logic):
"It's okay to use circular reasoning to prove the truth of the Bible, because reasoning itself is circular when it says circular reasoning doesn't prove anything."
Clearly a tu quoque argument par excellence.*
*Why use only one language when you can use three?

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Why do people laugh at creationists?

This is a selfish blog-post on my part. I simply wanted this series of Thunderf00t's videos in a convenient, easily accessible place.

Sunday 6 September 2009

New podcast: Skepticule

I hearby announce the launch of my new podcast, Skepticule, which will be a series of irregular episodes no more than 20 minutes long, addressing areas similar to those addressed here at Evil Burnee, but in audio form.

The podcast has been submitted to iTunes and I hope it will be listed soon. Meanwhile you can subscribe manually in iTunes or any other podcatcher using the following feed address:

The Skepticule podcast blog-page is a little rudimentary at present, but I hope to tidy it up soon, along with adding a flash player to allow streaming of the latest episode. Meanwhile the "zeroth" episode is available for direct download from the site, or by using the link below:

Burnee links for Sunday

Burnee!Tony Blair: Without God's Truth at its centre, no community can fulfil its potential - Commentators, Opinion - The Independent
This is all faith and fuzzy feeling - isn't it all terrible, if only we could have more God, everything would be fine and dandy. Sorry Tony, this is more than usually muddle-headed. Anyone (the pope included) who claims that atheists are to blame for global warming is simply not thinking straight.

NSS supports Penn & Teller’s right to attack the Vatican on TV | National Secular Society
Penn & Teller's half-hour show on the Vatican is indeed hard-hitting, but someone needed to do it. The Catholic League, in the person of Bill Donohue, is veritably frothing at the mouth over it. But he doesn't speak for all Catholics, let alone the Vatican itself, from whom we have yet (2009-09-01) to hear on this subject.

Secular kids' camp in Collin County aims to provide questions, not answers | News for Dallas, Texas | Dallas Morning News | Religion | The Dallas Morning News
Now that we have one (or more) of these camps in the UK, there's a chance that we might soon overtake the US in the number of them, given the relative un/godliness of the two nations.

"There must be a reason" : Respectful Insolence
Insightful blog-post on why some people cling to certain beliefs despite ample evidence that those beliefs are incorrect - based on a recent research paper.

Greta Christina's Blog: Decisions Are Made By Those Who Show Up: Why Calling Congress Isn't A Waste Of Time
How to be a political activist . . . or, stop grumbling and attempt to make a difference. Sound advice, in two consecutive posts.

BHA objects to accreditation of creationist qualifications
Creationists claim that the existence of the Loch Ness monster disproves evolution. Wait, did I miss something? Did Nessie give a press conference?

Italy ok's abortion pill despite church opposition | International | Reuters
Notice how when opposition to the RU-486 pill on religious grounds fails, the Vatican (or its unofficial spokesperson) switches to saying it's not safe. This is is the same as when the pope claimed that condoms contribute to HIV deaths in Africa. If the original argument doesn't sway people, invent something else that might. Unfortunately (for the Vatican) the reasoning behind the fake argument is just as transparent as the dogma-based argument.

Students must learn about other religions: judge -
An upright judge, a learned judge!

My Admittedly Acerbic Observation... - JREF
The Amazing One adds his (considerable) voice to the godless condemnation of Pope Benny's latest.

Catholic League: For Religious and Civil Rights
One of the blurbs on Bill Donohue's new book, Secular Sabotage: How Liberals Are Destroying Religion and Culture in America:
  • “Wake up, America! The secular minority has cut the brake cables on America’s In-God-We-Trust-Mobile™! Not even all 43 of our Christian presidents can save us now.” – Stephen Colbert, host of “The Colbert Report”
(Via @mightymur on Twitter: RT @mattstaggs: Apparently Catholic League pres Bill Donohue doesn't know Colbert is a satirist.)

Daylight Atheism > Original Virtue
A discussion of "original sin". Fascinating stuff, but I question its purpose.

Saturday 5 September 2009

AfF #6: Fine-tuning Argument

(Click here for Arguments for Fred #5)

The fine-tuning argument is actually part of the teleological argument.

The way the universe is arranged, from the micro to the macro, is just so. It turns out that everything is just right for intelligent life on Earth. This is so amazingly improbable it must have been done on purpose.

Actually no. Look at the size of the universe (in particular, look at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image). Compared to the size of the universe, life on Earth is an invisible dot on an invisible dot on an invisible dot on an invisible dot. What kind of intelligent creator would make something so mind-bogglingly vast, just so that an infinitesimal part of it could develop intelligent life, while the rest of creation remains – to an almost universal degree – dispassionately deadly? Only an incompetently wasteful one.

The reason why the universe appears fine-tuned to us is that we are a product of it. If the universe were "tuned" differently, we would be different (probably utterly and incomprehensibly different).

Some people invoke the idea of the multiverse – a possibly infinite number of universes, all slightly different, existing in parallel, and unable to communicate with each other in any way. This hypothesis may be useful as a thought-experiment, but it's unfalsifiable, so of little practical utility. The idea is that there are so many of these parallel universes that all combinations of the values of physical constants will exist, somewhere, however improbable. We just happen to be living in one that contains at least one planet suitable for the evolution of intelligent life.

Here's Douglas Adams on what has become known as the Anthropic Principle:
"...imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in - an interesting hole I find myself in - fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise."
(From Biota)
UPDATE 2009-09-10: Click here for AfF #7

Friday 4 September 2009

When "The Bible tells us..." is legitimate

I have to admit that when a Christian evangelist begins a sentence with "The Bible tells us..." I tend to tune out, because inevitably the Bible is being quoted as a source of incontrovertible truth, and personally I've seen no compelling evidence for this belief.

Writers like to quote other writers. Someone once complained that they really didn't see what was so great about Shakespeare, because all he had done was take a stack of famous quotations and string them together. We quote other people when when we think they have a unique way of saying something, or when the quote seems particularly apt. So why reinvent the wheel?

The Bible is full of quotations - by which I mean it is oft quoted, but not necessarily as inerrant truth. One of my favourite put-downs comes from two different places in the Bible:
"And [Judas] went and hanged himself." (Matt 27:5)
"Go, and do thou likewise." (Luke 10:37)

Thursday 3 September 2009

This is All Dawkins's Fault! - Jason Rosenhouse, Evolutionblog

The ridiculous fracas over the mention of "evolution" on the shirts of a school marching band has been all over the blogs, but Jason Rosenhouse has, I think, the most ironic take on it:

My friends, there are certain times in your life when you are simply forced by events to reevaluate everything you believe and hold dear. For me, now is such a time. I have argued at length that the aggressive tone of the anti-religion books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens does not hurt the cause of promoting good science education. That position is no longer tenable, in light of events coming out of Sedalia, Missouri:

The shirts, which were designed to promote the band's fall program, are light gray and feature an image of a monkey progressing through stages and eventually emerging as a man. Each figure holds a brass instrument. Several instruments decorate the background and the words “Smith-Cotton High School Tiger Pride Marching Band” and “Brass Evolutions 2009” are emblazoned above and below the image.

What surprised me about this affair is the assumption by certain people that the mention of "evolution" is somehow a religious issue.