Sunday 29 April 2012

Burnee links for Sunday

A duty to raise a new generation of bigots | Butterflies and Wheels
Everyone I know who's aware of this thinks it's an abomination.

I propose that states seize all the Catholic schools | Pharyngula
Who will rid us of these meddlesome priests?

Four Dollars, Almost Five: Analyse religion, and you'll reject it
Obvious, perhaps; but then, the analytical amongst us will still insist on looking at the evidence.

Donohue’s success | Butterflies and Wheels
Perhaps a better name for the League would be "Catholic Hubris".

The Consolation of Philosophy: Scientific American
The philosophy of nothing. Philosophers and theologians objecting to Lawrence Krauss's definition of "nothing" cannot have it both ways. If they maintain that Krauss's "nothing" is not really nothing, then they must admit that their definition of nothing cannot contain a god. If God is eternal, then their idea of "nothing" is an impossibility — and they should therefore stop complaining about Krauss not addressing it.

Of hats and horses

It is always amusing to hear some of the language that non-Christians, and especially atheists, use in their assaults on the Christian faith and defenses of their own position.
Thus begins a post by Chris Bolt at Choosing Hats. Interesting to see that “Christianity is a Man-made Religion”— the title of the post — is considered an assault, when it's no more than a statement of belief — an interpretation of reality, based on the available evidence.
Presumably the atheist thinks it is somewhat problematic and perhaps even insulting to the Christian to dismiss his or her position as “man-made.” We can set aside the obvious “problem” with using “man” this way in the current academic climate. We can also set aside that the unbeliever almost always merely asserts without argument that Christianity is man-made. We may then note that the statement as it stands is no insult or argument against Christianity anyway, for there is a sense in which Christianity is man-made. The Bible, for example, was written by men. But it does not follow that it was not also God-breathed.
Presumably? Why presume, when one can ask? I'll save Chris the trouble and state that no, saying Christianity is man-made is not meant as an insult. It is, however, problematic more than somewhat, in that there's a lack of evidence for Christianity being other than man-made. (This is most clearly embodied in the statement, "Man is made in the image and likeness of God," when an impartial observer of Christianity can see that the reverse is obviously the case.) Chris then switches horses to claim that an accusation of being man-made is not, in fact, an insult or an argument anyway, but switches back again to use "man-made" as an argument against atheism. It's all very confusing:
But turn the apparent attempt at an objection around. What is it about unbelief and atheism in particular that is not man-made? Logic is generally considered conventional. It is man-made. Science is one of the greatest tools for advancement that the human race has ever devised. It is, of course, man-made. Morality is often thought to be subjective. It is man-made. And even where different approaches to logic, morality, and science appear in the atheist bag of tricks they are ultimately reducible to the allegedly autonomous subject. Take away autonomy and you do not have atheism anymore. Everything in atheism is made up. By definition.
Most of that could be true, but the last two sentences don't make sense. The definition of atheism I use is "lack of belief in a god or gods". There's nothing to make up there. My atheism does of course imply more than just a lack of god-belief; my worldview, based on lack of such belief, involves founding my beliefs about the real world on what I can reasonably infer to be an accurate representation of that reality. This is the exact opposite of making stuff up.
Of course the immediate response is that the empirical world somehow dictates our logic, science, and morality to us. But the view that the empirical world speaks to us in such a way that our thoroughly theory-laden approaches to knowledge do not come to bear upon our understanding of it is helplessly naïve. Atheists are out to set us back hundreds if not thousands of years with that ridiculous suggestion!
Methinks the godly are too tied up in notions of diktat to appreciate that the empirical world is not in the business of dictating to anyone — in logic, science, morality or anything else. I, on the other hand, do indeed appreciate that I'm a product of my environment, and it behooves me to be mindful of my evolutionary heritage.

Chris's next few paragraphs delve into a series of strained analogies that I can't be bothered to unravel, save to suggest a fable of my own: when Chris and his PA ilk eventually get to Heaven they'll find it's a very small place bounded by an unscalable high wall, which God has built around their particular patch of Paradise to fool them into thinking they're the only ones there.*

*Not a statement of belief.

New Testament canon — a boat that must not be rocked

Craig L. Blomberg continues his exposition of scriptural arbitrariness with "What Should We Think About the Coptic Gospel of Thomas?" — chapter 48 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God.

The answer appears to be, "Whatever you'd like to think." Again Blomberg demonstrates the circularity of deciding what is or is not canonical. The Gospel of Thomas is taken to be "true" where it exhibits a measure of agreement with the so-called canonical gospels, and contentious where it disagrees. This inevitably makes the Gospel of Thomas not much use to anybody, because if it's only true where it agrees with the other gospels, and false otherwise, it doesn't add anything. If biblical scholars have already made up their minds, why should they give any attention to something that contradicts what they already know? This is the very essence of confirmation-bias and cherry-picking. It's as if the scholars know what the story in the New Testament is supposed to say, and therefore anything that doesn't agree with that story is excluded. If you cut out the stuff you disagree with, you will by definition be left with things you agree with. This is scholarship? Whatever else it might achieve, this doesn't inspire confidence in the Bible as a historical document.

The Bible says some outlandish things, to be sure. It may have been merely politic, therefore, to reject Thomas as a gospel that might push the entire collection over the edge of credibility:
Thomas, or Gnosticism more generally, can at first glance appear more "enlightened" from a modern (or postmodern) perspective than parts of the New Testament. But if one is going to accept a Gnostic world view, one has to take all of it. And the final saying of this enigmatic Gospel has Peter telling Jesus and the other disciples, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus replies, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven." Modern appropriations of Thomas seldom incorporate this perspective! Indeed, Thomas can appear superior to the canonical Gospels only by highly selective usage of its teachings. Despite what some may claim, it does not open any significant window into first-century Christian history and origins, only into its later corruption.
At the very least, I can't see that running well with the "women bishops" faction.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Burnee links for Thursday

Mostly Ophelia and PZ today...

Bullying is healthy | Butterflies and Wheels
What?! Bullying by definition is a bad thing. It should be stamped out at source instantly. It's unbelievable that there are people and organisations that condone bullying in any circumstances.

Who needs a $30,000 watch? | Pharyngula

Sunday Sacrilege: Bad without god | Pharyngula
PZ Myers expands on his Reason Rally peroration.

What you need to know | Butterflies and Wheels
"A reader sent me a link...." That was me.

Catholic church urges pupils to sign anti-gay marriage petition | World news | The Guardian
Disgraceful. Are there no depths to which this corrupt organisation will not sink?
A CES spokeswoman said: "We said that schools might like to consider using this [letter] in assemblies or in class teaching. We said people might want to consider asking pupils and parents if they might want to sign the petition. It's really important that no school discriminates against any member of the school community.

"Schools with a religious character are allowed to teach sex and relationships – and conduct assemblies – in accordance with the religious views of the school. The Catholic view of marriage is not a political view; it's a religious view."
I suggest that the "CES spokewoman" might want to go boil her head. Claiming your prejudice is your "religious view" doesn't give you any kind of exemption from the law. Do you get that? Yet?

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Heard the one about sharks not getting cancer?

Back in March Ben Hardwidge gave an excellent talk on shark conversation at Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub. The audio is now available:

The "Sharks Don't Get Cancer" Myth

(For copyright reasons the videos — or rather the audio thereof — is not included in the recording, so if you get the chance to see Ben give this talk at your local SitP I'd recommend it.)

Thursday 19 April 2012

Burnee links for Thursday

Morality, meaning, hopelessness | Andrew Copson
Andrew's point about a shared definition of morality is relevant to the "moral argument for the existence of God" that's trotted out with monotonous regularity by certain religionists who accept only one definition. We need to make the alternative, humanist, definition more well known.

Victor J. Stenger: Nuthin’ To Explain | Talking Philosophy
I'm with Stenger (and Krauss) on the matter of "nothing". Some have objected to Krauss's book A Universe from Nothing on the basis that the "nothing" he talks about isn't really nothing. But the "nothing" his detractors talk about isn't actually possible — their "nothing" is entirely conceptual like "infinity", and of little practical use. Krauss's "nothing" is therefore the one we should be investigating.

Publication Day | Professor Bruce M. Hood
I shall definitely buy The Self Illusion — I just haven't decided yet on the Kindle version or the paperback.

Speaking truth to apologists | Pharyngula
This is about Jerry Coyne's new paper,"Science, religion, and society: the problem of evolution in America" — not freely downloadable yet, but PZ Myers obviously has access and is therefore able to comment on it.

Dear daughter… | The Murverse
Mur Lafferty writes to her daughter. It strikes a chord as I'm currently reading Does God Hate Women? by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom.

Sunday 15 April 2012

An arbitrary collection of texts becomes "canonical"

The New Testament is a collection of books written at different times by apparently different people. (As such, by modern literary definitions it's actually part "collection" and part "anthology".) The collection has not always contained the same books, and in "The New Testament Canon" — chapter 47 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for GodCraig L. Blomberg explains how things have changed since it was first "collected".

What he writes may be a fair account of the changes over two millennia, but it's not of much consequence. None of what he writes says anything about whether on not any particular book should or should not be included. None of it is evidence. The whole enterprise seems to be no more than a series of arbitrary assertions — if not by Blomberg then by those he cites.

An arbitrary assertion begins Blomberg's second paragraph:
It is true that God's law and God's word last forever.
Aside from the irrelevance of such an unsubstantiated statement, it illustrates a mindset that's not geared towards persuading an unbeliever. Later on in this three-page chapter — after discussing why the books are in a particular order (again mostly arbitrary, it seems) — Blomberg gives criteria for deciding what's in and what's out:
Indeed, three criteria prevailed for sifting the canonical from the non-canonical. First and foremost was apostolicity—authorship by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle—which thus, for all practical purposes, limited the works to the first hundred years or so of Christian history. Second was orthodoxy or non-contradiction with previously revealed Scripture, beginning with the Hebrew Scriptures that Christians came to call the Old Testament. Finally, the early church used the criterion of catholicity—universal (or at least extremely widespread) usage and relevance throughout the church. This excluded, for example, the Gnostic writings, which were accepted only in the sects from which they emanated.
Here we see the rôle of tradition contributing to arbitrariness. "Second was orthodoxy or non-contradiction with previously revealed Scripture..." So it's an accident of chronology that determines the running here. The problem is that it's begging the question: trying to decide what should be in scripture by referring to scripture itself.
While Catholics and Protestants to this day disagree on the canon of the Old Testament, both branches of Christianity along with Eastern Orthodoxy agree on the contents of the New. For sixteen centuries there has been no significant controversy within Christianity regarding the extent of the New Testament canon. Christians are on solid ground in affirming that these twenty-seven books belong in the New Testament and that other ancient writings were excluded for good reason.
Depends what you mean by good, I suppose — not that it really matters.

Engage with PA BS? No thanks.

There's a reason practitioners of presuppositional apologetics (PA) use the word "presupposition". They presuppose not only the existence of the Christian God (which to an unbeliever is a frankly laughable methodology), but also that logic and reason are in some sense supernatural or "transcendent". That's why PA is based on the TAG — the transcendental argument for God.

The presuppers admit their argument is circular, but claim everyone else's is circular too, challenging people to account for their ability to reason, but without using reason to do so. Another ploy is to demand people explain how it is possible for them to know anything, if they don't claim to have absolute certainty: "Is it possible that you could be wrong about everything you claim to know?" Any claim that absolute certainty is impossible is met with "Are you absolutely certain of that?" — to which the answer, logically, is no. It all boils down to basic epistemology: how do you know anything?

At bottom, the only thing that anyone can claim to know with anything approaching certainty is that "thinking" is going on somewhere, somehow — because the acknowledgement of that fact is simultaneously its demonstration. Beyond that, we have only inferences from our perceptions to guide us in assessing the reality of the external world.

We could indeed be wrong about the external world, and it seems likely that we have been wrong about it in the past and to a certain extent remain wrong about it in the present. But we use our perceptions to build mental models of reality that appear to be largely self-consistent. This doesn't of itself make the models "true" — in the sense of being accurate representations — but Okham's razor demands that we do not multiply entities unnecessarily. Okham's razor is also why we do not unnecessarily posit supernatural agency in the absence of evidence for such agency.

Similarly, if we hypothesize that we are living in the Matrix — which is a possibility that cannot be definitively refuted — we have multiplied entities unnecessarily in order to explain our perceptions: we have the world as we perceive it (which gives us the illusion of reality) plus the world of the Matrix in which our reality is but a simulation. Our mental models fit both these "realities", and Ockham's razor should encourage us to discard the one that includes the superfluous entity. (It doesn't stop with the Matrix — the world of the Matrix could itself be a simulation within another world, which could be a simulation within yet another ... and so on. Ockham is our essential friend here.)

Parallels can be drawn with the Christian theistic worldview, in which we have the world as we perceive it, plus the world containing such additional entities as God, the Devil, angels, demons, miracles, Heaven and Hell. The world "as we perceive it" does not include these additional entities, because they don't actually impinge on our senses (that is, there's no evidence for them), and so positing them as part of a worldview is a gratuitous violation of parsimony — to which Ockham shall apply his blade.

The central foundation of PA, and its fundamental misconception, is the matter of absolutes. The TAG is based on absolutes and that's why it fails. Logic and reason are not absolute, objective entities existing "outside" of the Universe — they are intrinsic to existence, to cause and effect, and therefore to ask someone to "account" for logic and reason without "using" logic and reason is like asking someone to describe something without using adjectives, or to speak without speaking, or to think without thinking. The point here is not that these things can't be done — the point is that they're not necessary.

Control your nocturnal fictions? Dream on...

I tried it. The instructions say it may not work first time, and you might need a few nights for it to kick in. Is five nights enough? I've no idea, because the app — whatever it's actually supposed to do — doesn't do what it claims. Whether this is because the app is buggy, or because the developers and promoters are being less than honest about its purpose, I've no way to tell. But given that it's promoted by Professor Richard Wiseman, well known for conducting psycho-social mass experiments that aren't entirely what they seem, I feel justified in being a little bit suspicious.

The idea of controlling your dreams using a free iPhone app is a pretty cool one. Dream:ON is claimed to monitor your movements while you're asleep in order to assess what type of sleep you're having, and 20 minutes before the time you've already told it you want to wake up, it will play a "soundscape" at a volume low enough not to wake you but loud enough to influence your dreaming — assuming it has already verified that you are still in the type of sleep when dreaming takes place. It claims that if you begin to wake up during the playing of the soundscape it will lower the volume. An alarm will sound at your preset time and you can then type in some notes to describe your dream. You can also review your sleep pattern for that night.

Great idea — poor implementation. By which I mean, it doesn't work.

I tried it for five nights, and each morning I was awakened by the soundscape itself, and a minute later the alarm sounding, all 20 minutes before the preset time. The app seemed to successfully graph my movements, to show me how long it took me to fall asleep, and the times I was in light sleep as opposed to deep sleep during the night, though it appeared oblivious to the times I actually awoke and got out of bed. As for influencing my dreams — nope, it didn't.

Here's the video:

I quite like the idea of being an experimental subject for a project of this kind, but I'm less enamoured of being used as test subject for obviously buggy software. So I won't be using this app again, unless or until the bugs are ironed out.

Burnee links for Sunday

National Secular Society - Prime Minister’s dissembling, hypocritical and disingenuous speech to religious leaders
Has David Cameron been dangling the carrot, merely to whip it away at the crucial moment?

Sunday Sacrilege: Sacking the City of God | Pharyngula
God-botherers will have a field-day with this — PZ's speech to 4,000 at the Global Atheist Convention. Let 'em.

Free will or not free will? | Talking Philosophy
Russell Blackford on free will books.

Jerry Coyne on free will | Talking Philosophy
Russell Blackford on Jerry Coyne on free will. This is the first of Blackford's reviews of several articles on the subject — see his post for relevant links. (Is free will the next hot topic, now that morality has been thoroughly thrashed around?)

What should a book be these days? (Review of Why Are You Atheists So Angry?) | The Uncredible Hallq
Another review of Greta Christina's new book, plus some ruminations about writing. All good stuff.

(Some of these links are old ones, gleaned from a hasty catch-up of blogs I'd let build up in Google Reader.)

Tuesday 10 April 2012

An unreliable assessment of the reliability of the Gospels

In Craig L. Blomberg's "The Historical Reliability of the Gospels" — chapter 46 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God — one can almost sense the rose-tinted spectacles through which the author apparently reads his Bible, carries out his research and writes this essay on how he really, really wants the Gospels to be true, and how everything discovered about them confirms that they are indeed true, or are probably true, or more likely true than false, and how any evidence that suggests the Gospels are "unreliable" cannot itself be relied on because it has come up with the wrong answer.
Can the major contours of the portraits of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels be trusted?  Many critics would argue not.  The Jesus Seminar became the best-known collection of such critics during the 1990s as they alleged that only 18 percent of the sayings ascribed to Jesus and 16 percent of his deeds as found in the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, plus the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, bore any close relationship to what he actually said and did.  At the same time, a much more representative cross-section of scholars from about 1980 to the present has inaugurated what has come to be called the Third Quest of the Historical Jesus, in which a greater optimism is emerging about how much we can know, from the Gospels, read in light of other historical cultural developments of the day.
I can't help wondering what this "much more representative cross-section of scholars" is representative of. Most likely it's representative of scholars who believe the Gospels are reliable. The fact that Blomberg states that "a greater optimism is emerging" shows that he's not assessing the evidence from a neutral standpoint. I accept that he has a view on the matter, but his phraseology here indicates he's in the grip of confirmation bias.

He goes on to reiterate a claim that has appeared previously in Evidence for God — that the sheer number of copies of manuscripts counts towards their accuracy, which simply (and obviously) isn't the case. If I have an unreliable document and photocopy it a hundred or even a thousand times, the reliability of that document remains unchanged.

Blomberg also mentions archeological evidence, but this was dealt with in the previous chapter and is similarly unconvincing — or irrelevant — as far as the supernatural claims of the Gospels are concerned. He then discusses the differences between the Gospel accounts, attempting to have his cake and eat it. Where they agree, the Gospels demonstrate their reliability. Where they disagree, that's entirely what he would expect, given their mode of transmission. On the one hand we have variations due to the vagaries of the oral tradition, on the other we have remarkable veracity due to the reliability of the oral tradition.
But first-century Judaism was an oral culture, steeped in the educational practice of memorization.  Some rabbis had the entire Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) committed to memory.  Memorizing and preserving intact the amount of information contained in one Gospel would not have been hard for someone raised in this kind of culture who valued the memories of Jesus' life and teaching as sacred.
I dare say a scholar or rabbi could have done this, as I'm sure could Derren Brown today. But the people who are alleged to have performed this feat of recollection were not known to be rabbis or scholars. Matthew, we are told, was a tax-collector, or maybe a publican, Mark was possibly Jesus's half brother. John was a fisherman, and Luke may have been a "compendium" character used for narrative effect and who never actually existed. Not that we even know that the Gospels were authored by the men whose by-lines they bear. Given what little we do know of these characters, therefore, it's stretching a point to suggest that the reliability of the Gospels can be founded on feats of memory the authors were unlikely to be able to perform.

Taking all the above into account, it would appear that the historical reliability of the Bible can be reliably assessed as "not reliable".

Monday 9 April 2012

Skepticule Extra 23 available for your listening pleasure

Skepticule Extra 24 will be recorded tonight, if all goes to plan. But while you're waiting for that one to go live, listen to our previous show!

Skepticule Extra 23 features a surprise guest (at least, it's a surprise if you can't be bothered to check out the shownotes, or if you skip over the intro).

Lots of meat in this episode: 9/11, ID, dowsing for a million dollars — along with plenty of other delights...

A Thought for the Day — any day soon, please?

Evan Davis, one of the hosts of Radio 4's morning news radio show, The Today Programme, shared his views about Thought for the Day in a brief profile article in the Independent recently, subsequently picked up by the British Humanist Association, which has long been campaigning for the daily four-minute slot to be opened up to non-religious speakers:

Today programme host: ‘Thought for the Day’ should have secular voices

This is so obvious it should have been done years ago, but the BBC have a blind spot about their religious programming. They even claim that the "faith" content of TftD is balanced by the "non-faith" of the rest of the Today Programme. It's just part of an insidious insistence that morality is the exclusive preserve of religion, which is not only false but profoundly so. An excellent case can be made that religious considerations of moral questions are inherently lacking in morality, and that the only truly "moral" approach to such questions is a secular humanist one.

Nelson Jones (aka "The Heresiarch") took up the matter in New Statesman:
New Statesman - God's Morning Monopoly a comprehensive overview and a reasoned argument that, today, thoughts don't have to be religious.

New Humanist chimed in with the following:
New Humanist Blog: Time for atheists on Thought for the Day?
Not just time. It's long overdue.

Guy Stagg
So far, so unanimous. But then Guy Stagg penned this staggering drivel in the Telegraph:
Secularists on Thought for the Day will expose the loneliness of atheism – Telegraph Blogs
(Via HumanistLife.) 

There’s so much wrong with Guy Stagg’s article one hardly knows where to start. We'll try the beginning:
Evan Davis has called for Thought for the Day to be opened up to secular contributions. The Today programme presenter thinks that the show is discriminating against the non-religious. Davis probably thinks this would strengthen the role of secularism in society, but in fact the opposite is true.
Naked assertions do not an argument make.
Thought for the Day is one of the better things about the Today programme. In comparison with some of the indulgent and irrelevant slots that fill up the three hours, Thought for the Day is consistently focused and intelligent.
Stagg obviously misses the ones I hear, which are mostly woolly and platitudinous.
What is more, as most atheists recognise, faith has plenty of lessons for religious and non-religious alike.
Secularism has plenty of lessons for people of faith (and no faith), so let's hear some of those too.
Finally, Radio 4 gives lots of space to secular contributions – a few minutes of God in the middle of the morning is hardly a victory against the Enlightenment.
But this is exactly the point — where else in the Today Programme's three hours can we hear secular views on ethics and how-we-should-live? Restricting TftD to only God-based views is clearly discrimination.
There are also practical problems with Evan Davis’s idea. Who would be invited onto the new Thought for the Day? Davis suggests “spiritually minded secularists”. I guess that would include philosophers and academics, but presumably poets and lifestyle coaches as well. The question is: who does it exclude?
Why should it exclude anyone?
There is something a bit immature about the idea, like a schoolboy trying to get off chapel. It belongs to the same category of silly proposal as Alain de Botton’s secular temples, or Dawkins's rebranding of atheists as “brights”. It shows that, although secularists have realised that they cannot simply be defined by opposition to religion, nevertheless they have little to offer in its place. Crucially the secular tradition has no successful institutions to preserve and spread its principles.
Stagg hasn't done his homework. "Brights" did not come from Richard Dawkins, though he and Dan Dennett have promoted the soubriquet, which hasn't found much favour among secularists. Secularists, however, have plenty to offer the Today Programme's listeners, if given the chance. As for replacing religion, if one has a cancerous tumour surgically removed, one does not seek to insert something in the body to replace it. And what does Stagg mean by "the secular tradition", if he's claiming secularists have no successful institutions? Is he not aware of the well-established British Humanist Association? The National Secular Society?
This is something that few secularists admit: atheism is quite lonely. Not just existentially, but socially as well. Secularism does not offer the sense of fellowship you find in religion. Watching old Christopher Hitchens debates on YouTube with a like-minded sceptic is entertaining, but I doubt it's as nourishing as Sunday Mass.
There's a reason secularists don't admit that atheism is lonely, at least not in Britain today. Because it isn't, neither existentially or socially. (On the global scale, is Stagg unaware of the Reason Rally? If so, he seems quite unqualified to write this article.) And I've no idea why Stagg thinks a secularist would find Sunday Mass in any sense "nourishing".
This doesn't make the claims of religion true.
He gets that bit right, at least.
For what it’s worth, I doubt them as much as Evan Davis. But I recognise that atheism has a long way to go to provide a complete and compelling alternative to religion. And it will take a lot more than inviting some yoga teachers onto the Today programme.
There's no reason why atheism ("lack of belief in a god or gods") should be an alternative to anything other than god-belief. Secular humanism, however, holds that it is possible to lead an ethical, fulfilling and meaningful life (the only life we have) without religion. I am without religion, and I see no need for anything in its place. And it may well take more than yoga teachers on TftD to convince people of that fact. So let's do it.

As mentioned above, the BHA has an ongoing campaign about Thought for the Day, and they are once again urging secularists, humanists and others to write to the BBC trustees. Here's my effort, sent on 2 April:
BBC Trust Unit
180 Great Portland Street

Dear Sirs,

In today's Independent, Evan Davies, one of the presenters of Radio 4's Today Programme, is quoted thus:

Davis, an atheist, feels strongly about Today's "Thought for the Day" slot. A decade ago he complained that it was "discriminating against the non-religious". Now he says: "I think there's a very serious debate about whether the spot – which I would keep – might give space to what one might call 'serious and spiritually minded secularists'. I don't think "Thought for the Day" has to only be people of the cloth."

The BBC has over the years received many calls to restore balance to this slot but has not done so. The calls keep coming.

As a listener to the Today Programme for several decades I would like to add my own strong feelings that "Thought for the Day" should include secular views. The consideration of ethical questions is not the sole purview of the religious, and given that the slot is not called "Religious Thought for the Day" its content remains unbalanced. I urge the trustees to rectify this as soon as possible, in line with what is likely to be the majority view of the programme's audience.

Yours faithfully,

Paul S. Jenkins

I sent this via email, to
(...and only now, on pasting this in, do I realise I spelled Evan Davis' name incorrectly.)

Burnee links for Easter Monday

Myra Zepf - Bunnies, chicks and brutal torture | New Humanist
A difficult call, but in this example it appears that children can't be indoctrinated if they don't care.

Three posts on the Reason Rally from Adam Lee:
Reason Rally Wrap-Up, Part 1 | Daylight Atheism | Big Think
Reason Rally Wrap-Up, Part 2 | Daylight Atheism | Big Think
Reason Rally Wrap-Up, Part 3 | Daylight Atheism | Big Think

And a fourth:
Christian Responses to the Reason Rally | Daylight Atheism | Big Think

Pondering a universe without purpose - Los Angeles Times
OK, we know Lawrence Krauss has a book to promote, but it's always refreshing to read his clear prose. (Just don't bother with the comments unless you have a predilection for purposeful misunderstanding.)

Tennessee Goes Monkey Again - Katherine Stewart -
Amazing that supposedly sane, rational people can allow — indeed be in support of — such madness.

In Defense of Dawkins’s Reason Rally Speech | Camels With Hammers
Dawkins was not being unreasonable at the Reason Rally.

As far as the Bible is confirmed as true, it is mundane

"Archaeology and the Bible — How Archaeological Findings Have Enhanced the Credibility of the Bible" is chapter 45 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God. John McRay's claims for such "enhancement", however, put too great a strain on the word's meaning. The archeology he cites in this chapter only enhances the Bible's credibility if cherry-picking and confirmation-bias constitute valid reasoning.
The Bible is a collection of many kinds of documents written over a period of about fifteen hundred years. Beginning with the composition of the first five books (the Pentateuch), the sixty-six total documents were completed by the end of the first century A.D. They were composed in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages in various geographical settings and different historical periods. Archaeological discoveries relating to these settings and periods have enlightened the cultural context in which many of the recorded events occurred and enhanced the credibility of the Biblical record, both the Old and New Testament periods. For example, many events recorded in the last one hundred years of this period of biblical history, during which the New Testament documents were written, have been illuminated through significant archaeological discoveries. Following are some of these impressive finds. Space limitations will not allow discussion of the fourteen hundred years of Old Testament sites.
In this first paragraph we can see McRay already narrowing his focus to exclude inconvenient facts. He's not going to discuss the Old Testament, so the absence of any archeological evidence for the Exodus is conveniently glossed over. And note his wording: discoveries have "enlightened the cultural context" and "enhanced the credibility of the Biblical record." He's clearly admitting that these discoveries are not proof that the Bible is true.

The findings he cites are these (using his headings):

Pool of Siloam
Rolling Stones at Tombs
Tomb of Caiaphas
Capernaum Synagogue
Acts 17:6 and Politarchs in Thessalonica
Erastus in Corinth
Romans 13:3 Inscription in Caesarea Maritima
Paul before Gallio at the Tribunal in Corinth

These appear remarkably mundane — some location mentioned in the Bible actually existed; some official mentioned in the Bible appears on ancient inscriptions; some of the events described in the Bible actually occurred. Note, however, that none of these attests to miracles or supernatural beings. The Bible may well contain some "truth", but as far as that truth is confirmed by archeology that truth is ordinary.

One might be tempted to suggest that though there are events in the Bible that have yet to be confirmed, and places in the Bible whose existence has yet to be confirmed, archeological evidence may arise in the future to confirm them. But one should not report all the so-called confirmations, dismissing items still to be confirmed, while actively ignoring positive evidence that contradicts the Bible — such as the the problems mentioned by Daniel B. Wallace in chapter 43:
Which evangelical would not like a clean harmony between the two records of Judas’ demise, uniform parallel accounts of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, or an outright excision of the census by Quirinius? And who would not prefer that in Mark 2.26 Jesus did not speak of David’s violation of the temple as occurring during the days of “Abiathar the high priest”? These are significantly larger problems for inerrancy than the few, isolated textual problems—and they are not in passages that are capable of facile text-critical solutions.
Some scholars, it seems, are prepared to admit there are problems. John McRay's approach, however, appears to be a disingenuous attempt to suggest that there is good evidence for the truth of the whole of the Bible. There isn't.

Greta Christina has a list of things

Greta Christina is an atheist-writings powerhouse. Her blog — ingeniously named "Greta Christina's Blog" — is always worth reading. She writes about things other than atheism, such as gay rights, feminism, sexism, and indeed sex, but it's probably her atheist writings for which she's best known, and not only on her blog: she also writes for AlterNet, Free Inquiry and other publications.

Her posts are nothing if not comprehensive — she's a take-no-prisoners, leave-no-stone-unturned kind of writer. And now she's written a book.

It started as a blogpost, became a rousing talk at Skepticon 4 and most recently was a speech to 20,000 rain-soaked but nonetheless inspired atheists at the Reason Rally. Greta Christina is an activist, and her activism appears mainly to take the form of writing. Her goal is to persuade and convince, and she is crafting her writing career to do just that.

Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless begins with the Litany of Rage, comprising a list of those 99 things — and there really are that many of them. For unbelievers of an accommodationist persuasion this list should be an eye-opener. Unbelievers should not be tolerating wacky beliefs if those beliefs give rise to the things that Greta Christina is angry about. In the light of those 99 things, this is no time to be making nice with the peddlers of irrationality — if that irrationality leads to harm. Which it does.

The language of this book is simple, straightforward and clear. Greta Christina makes much use of repetition to drive her central point home, and perhaps some readers might tire of this rhetorical device over a whole book. But it's her established style, which readers of her blog will recognise, and it's no doubt effective in hammering her points home.

The book is as yet available only digitally (I have the Kindle version), but it will soon be in print and audio. Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless is an atheist call-to-arms — and all campaigning, activist atheists should themselves be armed with it.

Here's a promotional video for the book:

Here's Greta Christina's talk at Skepticon 4:

And here's her speech at the Reason Rally:

Sunday 1 April 2012

Burnee links for Sunday

Mostly the Reason Rally...

Face to faith: Richard Dawkins, rationalism, and religion as a team sport | Comment is free | The Guardian
Lois Lee's piece is refreshingly calm, and apt in the light of the recent Reason Rally. (Some of the comments, however, feature the usual mix of banality and inanity.)

Can the Reason Rally resonate in this most religious of democracies? | Sarah Posner | Comment is free |
Making up for Lois Lee (above) not mentioning the Reason Rally...

The Reason Rally, and Why It’s Good to Keep Hammering On About Diversity | Greta Christina's Blog
Could this be the watershed moment for diversity in the "atheist movement"?

Live Blogging the UK C4ID Lecture 2011
Instant reaction to Stephen C. Meyer's lecture — the same one I recently watched on video and talk about on the next episode (#23) of Skepticule Extra.

Atheist Richard Dawkins Celebrates Reason, Ridicules Faith : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture : NPR
Barbara J. King is a mildly hostile interviewer, but Dawkins is well used to her kind of passive-aggressive approach. Audio here: