Sunday, December 7, 2008

Preferring the hard truth

When Kepler found his long-cherished belief did not agree with the most precise observation, he accepted the uncomfortable fact. He preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions; that is the heart of science.
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Today's Sagan quote is one of my favorites. One of the things I've been learning to let go of in the past couple years is the illusion that an idea is correct simply because I am the person who believes it. I remember back in Mr. Ferguson's journalism class in high school, when a student was vigorously questioning something he was teaching. I was shocked when Mr. Ferguson said something like, "The difference between my position and yours is that I am willing to admit I might be wrong." Wow! From a teacher! I think I learned more in that moment than in most of the rest of my high school career. Although I learned this lesson a long time ago, I kind of let myself forget it once I joined the Mormon church. After all, when you have the fullness of the restored gospel, the chance of being wrong is very low. Isn't it?

the-holy-bibleA few weeks ago, I came across an article that blew my mind. I found it on the de-conversion blog, and it's called The Psychology of Apologetics: Biblical Inerrancy. I was once a fundamentalist Christian, and so I know what it's like to believe that the Bible is inerrant. The mind-blowing idea from the article is illustrated in the following paragraph.

What does this have to do with apologetics? This model of belief-formation bears directly on how we resolve potential contradictions between evidence and belief, and between one set of evidence and another. If we are willing to sacrifice some simplicity, parsimony, and the like, we can always maintain a consistent web of belief while simultaneously holding on to any particular belief we wish. Creationists do this all the time. So do conspiracy theorists, end-times theorists, and radical ideologues of every stripe. These folks all have a strong commitment to a handful of central claims, and they are able to retro-fit the rest of the data in around them. They say they can answer every objection – and they can.

When I read this, I realized that this was something I had been doing for a long time. I believed that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and the LDS church was the true church of Jesus Christ. Whenever I encountered anything that seemed to undermine these beliefs, it could be explained away by creating a more contrived understanding of some other aspect of reality. And in fact, you can do this with just about any belief, which is why evidence is not always sufficient to convince someone that their beliefs are in error. Evidence can be explained away.

book-of-abraham-papyrusThe Book of Abraham isn't anywhere close to an accurate translation of the Egyptian papyri Joseph Smith claimed to be translating? Well then, it must be a "spiritual translation", or we must have the wrong papyri (despite the evidence), or maybe the word "translate" means something else entirely. Joseph Smith married 33 women behind Emma's back, many of them teenagers or already married to other men? Well then, God must have commanded him to do so for mysterious reasons, or they must have been married to him only posthumously (despite the evidence), or maybe he was only acting as a man (prophets are only infallible when acting as such, after all). And so on. It doesn't matter how implausible and convoluted these explanations become; it's possible that everything happened exactly this way, and the cherished belief remains intact.

These days, I try to avoid having any cherished beliefs. I have been mistaken so many times in my life that I know I am always capable of being mistaken again. I try to approach knowledge from the standpoint of a skeptic who simply wants to know what is true, and how we know it is true. That is probably an unattainable goal, but I think it's worth striving for every day.

johannes-keplerFor example, I currently believe the existence of a god or gods is extremely unlikely. I come to this belief based on the lack of evidence for said gods, and my own life experience. But I do not hold this belief as sacred. I could be wrong. For that reason, I'm currently reading a few pro-theist books such as The Reason For God by Timothy Keller. So far I don't find his arguments convincing, but I love that it makes me think.

I would also love to believe that we can be reunited with our loved ones after death. I can see why this idea is so enticing to so many people. I would love for it to be true. I don't see any reason to believe it, except for my own desire for it to be true, which is all the more reason to be skeptical. Again, I would be extremely happy to be wrong. But as Sagan described Kepler, I prefer the hard truth to my dearest illusions.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Sometimes I miss belief

This morning, Runtu posted a link to this video. If you're a believing Mormon, you'll probably enjoy it. If you're not, you may find it strange, confusing, boring, or creepy. I actually kind of liked it.

joseph-smith-translatingAs I watched the video, I found myself strangely emotional. Kind of in a good way, but not really. It was more of a sadness, a longing or a yearning for the days when I actually believed all this stuff. I can imagine my former bishop saying that this feeling is the Holy Ghost trying to tell me that the gospel is true. That's what he said to me about a year and a half ago, when my wife and I were first telling him about my unbelief, and I admitted that this is a painful process. But it's always painful when you find that the world isn't the way you thought it was. The pain itself is not evidence that changing your beliefs is good or bad, right or wrong.

It was nice to have a narrative in which the world could neatly fit. God loved me, Jesus was our Savior, and Joseph Smith restored the gospel so that we could all live eternally with God and our families if we had faith and lived right. It was a simple, encouraging story, and it came with an entire life framework. It had its quirks, but it was relatively straightforward. Follow the prophet and you'll be all right. I made my checklist of daily, weekly, or monthly tasks, and completing the checklist felt good, dammit. Like I'm getting something worthwhile done here! We're on the path to celestial happiness!

joseph-smith-translatingNo matter how good it felt, watching this video reminded me why I just can't be a believer. I couldn't watch Joseph Smith kneeling in prayer in the Sacred Grove without remembering his many different versions of the story, each more grand and detailed than the last, and each coming at a time when he needed to bolster people's faith in him as a prophet. I couldn't watch him finding the golden plates without remembering his stories about a huge cave inside the Hill Cumorah, filled with books and treasures. I couldn't watch him translating the golden plates without remembering that he did so via a seer stone, with his face buried in a hat, often without the plates even being in the same room. I couldn't watch him receiving the priesthood from resurrected beings without remembering that he never mentioned this alleged event until years later. I couldn't watch him rocking babies with Emma without remembering that he married 33 other women, some of them teenagers, most of them secretly, and many of them already married to other men. And so on.

I actually knew all of this (and more - there's so much more) before I joined the church. But I found the feelings and the narrative so compelling that I shelved the cognitive dissonance and got baptized anyway. Apparently through sheer force of will, I got myself to a point where none of the discrepancies bothered me anymore. And why should they? I was happily married with kids, had a good job and a nice house, and church activity fit right into our happy little life. Everything was nice and simple, and we were filled with certainty. Until I met Carl Sagan and the shelf started to buckle. The weight of the evidence demanded my attention. Fortunately, we still have a happy little life, but of course it's not the same as it used to be.

shut-eyesI think that's what I miss most. Certainty. These days I am learning to be comfortable with ambiguity, probability, uncertainty, and unanswered questions. It's difficult for me to be uncertain, but in light of the evidence I have seen over my lifetime, I must admit that I am. As Carl Sagan correctly asserted, "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." I wouldn't trade where I am today for where I was then. My eyes are wide open, and shutting them doesn't make the world go away. But I still miss it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why we can't imagine death

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
— Carl Sagan, "In the Valley of the Shadow," Parade, March 10, 1996

gravestoneI think about death almost every day. I remember once as a small child, I asked my grandmother why they buried people in the ground after they died. "If you're under the ground," I asked, "how do you breathe?" She told me that people no longer breathe after they die, and I was dumbfounded. The idea just made no sense. I'd never experienced not breathing. How would it be possible to not breathe, forever? If dead people stopped breathing, they would... well, die! It seemed absurd to me then, and it seems absurd to me now. And yet it is literally the most natural thing in the world. Death is something that happens to all of us, yet it is completely outside our experience. What a paradox!

I came across this Scientific American article a little while ago, and it really articulated this phenomenon well, complete with scientific studies to support the idea that all of us tend to perceive our own consciousness as persisting beyond death, even if we believe otherwise. The article is well worth reading.

There were two specific ideas that particularly resonated with me. The first is that our own immortality is unfalsifiable from a first-person perspective. In other words, if I believe myself to be immortal, no experience of mine will ever disprove this to me. I'm reminded of the wise words of Stephen Wright, who said, "I intend to live forever. So far, so good." I cannot experience my own non-existence. It's simply not possible. And yet, as Shaun Nichols is quoted in the article, "When I try to imagine my own non-existence I have to imagine that I perceive or know about my non-existence. No wonder there's an obstacle!"

The second thing that struck me was the idea that even those who do not believe in an afterlife tend to instinctively think of consciousness as persisting after death. I know I do it. To pick a random example, I know that Carl Sagan died over ten years ago, and his body is presently... shall we say, not in working order. And yet, when I wished him a happy birthday last week, it felt like I was really talking to someone who could perceive my words. Like a mystical Carl is floating around somewhere in the cosmos. Intellectually, I know that makes no sense. And yet, the idea seems so intuitively hardwired that it's very difficult to shake.

I had a similar experience last year after my grandfather died, fairly soon after I had begun coming to terms with my skepticism. At the viewing, everyone was milling about, talking with each other, exchanging stories, laughing, and catching up on each others' lives. It was so surreal, like everyone was at a social party, but no one seemed to notice or mention the fact that there was a dead guy at the front of the room. Not that there's anything wrong with that; different people and different cultures deal with death in different ways, and this is how we do it where I'm from. I heard several family members say something like "it's not really him in there" or "he's in a better place now". Obviously, this may help us feel better, to imagine that the person we love is not truly dead and gone, and that someday we will see him again. I would love to see my grandfather again. He was a hard-working, honest man who loved his family and made the world a better place. He was a good person. But I have to accept that it really was him in the casket, and I will never see him again.

earth-and-moonThis is why I think about death. Not because I find it fun or satisfying to consciously ponder unconsciousness or to imagine my own non-existence (although I admit, that can sort of be fun). Not because I have no imagination or no compassion or no desire for eternal life. I would love to be surprised by an afterlife. Seriously, that would be wicked cool. But as Dr. Sagan pointed out in the quote above, there does not seem to be any evidence that it is more than wishful thinking. I think about death because life is precious, and I know how short it is. We find ourselves in an amazing, almost impossibly improbable situation, alive and aware, floating through space on a chunk of rock with only each other to hang onto. It may not make sense to us. It may in fact be the height of absurdity. But we need to make the most of life while we have it, because this is the only one we get.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lori Lipman Brown at Skeptrak

lori-brownThe latest episode of Skepticality (episode #89) has a fantastic talk by Lori Lipman Brown of the Secular Coalition for America, entitled Pastafarian, Zoroastrian, Atheist — Can't We All Just Get Along?. She talks about the secular vote, and what we can do to advance secularism in America. Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from the talk.

A bit about "psychology of privilege", starting about about 23:49:
I have noticed along the way... How many of you have heard people talk about how oppressed Christians are in society today? How many of you have heard how oppressed white people are? How oppressed heterosexuals are? You know, other people want "special rights".

I know there is at least one psychologist sitting in the audience who can tell me if this is an official thing, but just anecdotally I've noticed that if someone is in a privileged majority, they don't usually notice the perks they're getting. For example, if I walk into a store and buy a box of Band-Aids, if it's called skin tone, it's my skin tone. Never really thought about that before.

But they don't notice, and they're just used to having it all, society is all around them. So if a Christian is used to everything being about their religion, as soon as people who are not Christian, whether they be pagans or Buddhists or atheists or humanists, suddenly it's not, "Oh, these people also want to be acknowledged and be part of the fabric of society." It's like, "You're taking away our rights! Because we always had Christian prayer in our school!" And they didn't realize that's not actual equality, that's just a privilege they'd been getting for years and years and years.

A slight move toward any inclusion of a minority feels like an attack. I don't think these people are making this up when they say they feel oppressed. It's a ridiculous feeling. I even asked one person who said that, "What are you talking about?" And she said, "Well, I keep trying to talk to my co-workers about Jesus, and they don't want to listen!" And it's like, "Well, I guess they don't feel like talking about that." You know, it's like, "How dare they? They're attacking my Christianity by not letting me try to give them the Good Word." I mean, that's what they see as oppression. It's like, "Okay, try saying you're an atheist and see how you're treated."

And a bit about the sexuality double standard, starting about about 35:20:
Expose the double standard. When people were talking about LGBT people "flaunting their sexuality and their gender", I stopped keeping a picture of my partner on my desk at school, and I stopped wearing my wedding ring, and I stopped referring to him with any kind of gender specific information. And when people would get confused by that, especially when they would find out who my partner was, they would say, "Why didn't you tell me he was your husband? I thought maybe you were a lesbian." I'd say, "Well, I didn't want to flaunt my sexuality."

The double standard is big-time because my gay and lesbian friends, if they even talked about going on a date, "oh, you're flaunting your sexuality". But all these heteros could talk about anything they were doing with their dates or partners or whatever.

Same thing with "special rights". I got over 1,000 special rights 22 years ago, and I still have them. But people don't think of them as special when I get them, because my partner happens to have the right genitalia for their rules.

I especially love the bit about "flaunting your sexuality". That is so totally right on.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Happy birthday, Carl

carl-sagan-ucToday, November 9, 2008, would have been Carl Sagan's 74th birthday. Sadly, he passed away in 1996, but not before leaving the world a great legacy of scientific inquiry and compassion for all humanity. I think about him often, and I am sad that I never met him. This week's quote is one I think of nearly every day, and it even comes with an accompanying video. Dr. Sagan's words taught me to put the earth in perspective, and not a day goes by when I don't visualize the earth from a distance outside the moon's orbit, outside the solar system, outside the galaxy, or across the universe. Thanks, Carl. You made the world a better place.

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
– Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thousands in downtown SLC protest the LDS church's Prop 8 involvement

temple-gay-flagThis is just excellent. Apparently thousands of people swarmed downtown Salt Lake City last night, to protest the Mormon church's involvement in passing Proposition 8 in California. I really wanted to be there, but I needed to spend some time with my family, and that's more important. Gee, it's nice for me to be able to spend time with my legally wedded spouse and our children, don't you think? I wish everyone were able to enjoy the same privilege.

Shockingly, the church finds the protest "disturbing" and objects to being "singled out" for exercising its right to free speech. Well, here's a news flash. When you, a large tax-exempt religious institution, claim that your leaders speak for God and then mobilize your membership by telling them that they need to vote in a certain way on a particular political proposition regarding the civil issue of same-sex marriage... you're going to get singled out.

You can't have it both ways. On the one hand, you call this issue your "Gettysburg", read letters about Prop 8 from the pulpit, call for donations and volunteers, organize call chains, and generally make it felt that every member of your religious organization in the state of California is expected to sacrifice for the cause of taking away others' right to marry. On the other hand, you act surprised and hurt when those whose rights have been stripped become angry, members of your own church actively voice their disapproval, and thousands of protesters show up at your doorstep to protest your coordination of this exercise in codifying discrimination into law. Pardon my candor, but what the hell did you expect?

In the comments to the Salt Lake Tribune article linked above, a commenter named slgb8 condemned the protesters, saying that the church has its own right to free speech and the protesters were trying to take that away. He said:

Don’t take rights away from others that you would not want to have taken from you. I think we should be careful not to take away others rights to free speech even when we don’t agree with them. We could start the country on a road the end with none of us having basic rights.

I agree with that completely, but Prop 8 is not a free speech issue. It's an issue of marriage. Let's substitute the phrase "free speech" with the word "marriage", shall we?

Don’t take rights away from others that you would not want to have taken from you. I think we should be careful not to take away others rights to marriage even when we don’t agree with them. We could start the country on a road the end with none of us having basic rights.

Much more relevant. It's the correct idea, but this particular commenter had the wrong idea about who is attempting to take away rights from whom. In fact, who has succeeded in doing so.

I seriously am about as close to resigning my membership as I ever have been. This has been an emotional election season, and I am emotional as I type this, but I think that even with a clear head and a calm spirit, I do not want to be part of an organization that so confidently proclaims its willingness to take away others' rights. That is the exact opposite of what I hope to stand for.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

My Flying Spaghetti Monster pumpkin

My family and I went to the in-laws' house last Sunday, as we usually do, and we all carved pumpkins. I usually abstain, and go sit on the couch and read instead. But this year I felt inspired to create something, and here it is. Unfortunately by now, almost a week later, the center part is mostly shriveled up, but the overall shape still looks okay.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reading The Reason For God

I'm a little disappointed with how much time I spend thinking, reading, and writing about religious or philosophical topics. On the one hand, it's obviously a very important subject, and one that I've been giving a lot of thought to in the past few years. On the other hand, I don't think it's very important at all, and it bothers me that I spend so much time on a subject that is essentially arguing about fairy tales.

the-reason-for-godRecently, a Christian friend on another message board recommended The Reason For God by Timothy Keller, so this week I checked it out from the library. It purports to address the most frequently heard "doubts" that skeptics raise, and to point the way to the true path and purpose of Christianity. So I was hopeful that this book might contain some actual meat. Unfortunately, here is the list of specific questions the book appears to address:

  • Why does God allow suffering in the world?

  • How could a loving God send people to Hell?

  • Why isn’t Christianity more inclusive?

  • How can one religion be "right" and the others "wrong"?

  • Why have so many wars been fought in the name of God?

I can only speak for myself, but these are not the kinds of questions I tend to ask. These questions seem to presume the existence of a God, and not just any God, but the Christian God. They seem like questions that a struggling Christian might ask, not questions that an actual atheist or skeptic would ask. My questions are more along the lines of, "Why is it necessary to posit the existence of a supernatural realm?", "What does the evidence suggest?", and "How does the God hypothesis explain the data better than naturalism?"

After reading the Introduction, I don't have very high expectations of this book, but I would love to be surprised. The major premise seems to be that skeptics ought to doubt their doubts. Funny, that's the exact same thing my father-in-law said to me after I came out as a skeptic, and it still makes no sense. Doubting your doubts will lead you to believe anything and everything. For example, check out this paragraph:

Some will respond to all this, "My doubts are not based on a leap of faith. I have no beliefs about God one way or another. I simply feel no need for God and I am not interested in thinking about it." But hidden beneath this feeling is the very modern American belief that the existence of God is a matter of indifference unless it intersects with my emotional needs. The speaker is betting his or her life that no God exists who would hold you accountable for your beliefs and behavior if you didn't feel the need for him. That may be true or it may not be true, but, again, it is quite a leap of faith.

flying-spaghetti-monsterI don't see why not believing in God is a huge leap of faith. Is it a huge leap of faith not to believe in Santa Claus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Here's my version:

Some will respond to all this, "My doubts are not based on a leap of faith. I have no beliefs about the Flying Spaghetti Monster one way or another. I simply feel no need for the Flying Spaghetti Monster and I am not interested in thinking about it." But hidden beneath this feeling is the very modern American belief that the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a matter of indifference unless it intersects with my emotional needs. The speaker is betting his or her life that no Flying Spaghetti Monster exists who would hold you accountable for your beliefs and behavior if you didn't feel the need for him. That may be true or it may not be true, but, again, it is quite a leap of faith.

I simply substituted the word "God" with "Flying Spaghetti Monster", and now it sounds pretty ridiculous, doesn't it? Is it really a leap of faith not to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Why not? What's the difference between this paragraph and the original one? What makes this one ridiculous while the other one supposedly isn't?

The only difference I can see is that humanity has a long history of believing in an anthropomorphic "God" (or gods), thus the concept is so familiar to us that it does not seem crazy when someone talks about it. The Flying Spaghetti Monster enjoys no such tradition.

I'm not sure whether the book will get better once I dig into it, but I'll let you know if it does.

Monday, October 27, 2008

More Prop 8 nonsense

Three things.

First, the arguments being used to support Proposition 8 are generally false, misleading, and based on faulty logic. Don't take my word for it; see Mormon lawyer and scholar Morris Thurston's rebuttal of the "Six Consequences" memo for detailed examples. It bothers me greatly that the Mormon church is doing all it can to push this deceptive nonsense forward.

Second, apparently the latest Yes on 8 ad uses images of children without their parents' consent and against their wishes, and some of these children's parents want it taken down. Just beautiful. Way to go, Yes on 8. Way to think of the children. Oh, the irony.

Third, conservative Christian leaders are quoted in the New York Times as calling Prop 8 "Armageddon", "more important than the presidential election", and saying "we will not survive . . . as a nation" if Prop 8 does not pass. Yes on 8 is looking to raise $2 million this week, and with this kind of rhetoric it's likely they'll get it. If you care about this issue, please donate any amount to Equality For All (at the bottom of the page). Polls are showing that voters are moving back and forth on this issue, and the outcome may well depend on who spends more advertising dollars in the home stretch. Sad but true.

If you're in California, please vote NO on 8.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Standing For Something

If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.
– Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

As you may know, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), though my personal beliefs and feelings seem to move farther in the opposite direction day by day. On Friday, I had the privilege of joining a group of about 50 Mormons and former Mormons who delivered a package to Church headquarters, to protest the Church's heavy involvement in the campaign to pass Proposition 8 in California. The event was organized online via the web site Signing For Something.

Proposition 8 is a proposed amendment to the California constitution to ban marriage between people of the same gender. The Mormon church has used church time and resources to actively campaign for Prop 8, and has directly solicited the time, money, and effort of its members to campaign for Prop 8's passage. It has organized massive efforts via its membership network, which we believe violates its own stance of political neutrality, for example as stated in Doctrine & Covenants 134:9, "We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government."

Our delivery on Friday contained about 300 letters written by individuals, carnations to symbolize those who have lost their lives over this issue, and copies of a petition explaining why we oppose the church's involvement. The petition can be found here, and has currently been signed by about 700 people, Mormons and non-Mormons alike. Those who have signed the petition hold various positions on the issue of same-sex marriage, but all are opposed to the Mormon church's attempts to use their religious influence to impose their beliefs on the larger secular society in this civil matter.

The event was covered on almost all of the local news networks, and you can see coverage at the links below. You can actually see me in some of the videos; I have a beard and ponytail, and was wearing a purple dress shirt and tie.

  • Fox 13 - I consider this the best coverage, with the clearest explanation of our position.

  • KSL - a station owned by the Mormon church; it's interesting to compare how they chose to report the story.

  • ABC 4 - also good coverage.

  • Salt Lake Tribune

  • Deseret News - a newspaper owned by the Mormon church; again, interesting to compare the differences.

Honestly, I doubt the petition or the letters will have any effect on the church's stance toward same-sex marriage, much less its stance toward homosexuality. But I cannot imply my agreement on this issue by remaining silent. I find it sad that the church characterizes this as a moral issue, when I see the issues of gay rights and same-sex marriage as analogous to the issues of black civil rights and interracial marriage in the 1950s and '60s. This has nothing to do with morality.

If you are in California, please vote NO on 8. Wherever you are, please donate to Equality For All (at the bottom of the page - contributions through ActBlue are being matched only through today!), sign the Signing For Something petition, talk to your friends and neighbors about this issue, or do whatever you can. And regardless of your feelings on this or any other issue, remember to vote on November 4.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Why I trust science

I guess this week is the week for publicly posting all the email I send. This post is adapted from an email I sent to Stephen Gibson of Truth-Driven Thinking. He no longer does the podcast, but I highly recommend listening to some of the past episodes. He has very interesting interviews with well-informed people, and the interviews challenge conventional wisdom on a variety of topics.

One of the last podcast episodes I listened to was Epilogue #5, a guest appearance with Don Johnson Ministries, and it kind of pissed me off. You don't have to listen to the episode to appreciate this post, but it might help.

I felt like the Christian interviewers were trying to pigeonhole Steve as a "materialist" so that they could dispatch him with their stock philosophical arguments, instead of actually listening to what he was trying to say. At the same time, they kept insisting that this was a dialogue for the purpose of greater understanding. To me, it came off as disingenuous, though I believe they may have honestly thought they were trying to participate in an open dialogue.

Particularly bad was their assertion that the best worldview is the one that explains what others cannot, and therefore scientific naturalism is inferior because it cannot explain the supernatural. So how about the assertion, "I believe science, reason, and evidence are the best way of understanding the world. I accept the scientific consensus on all matters pertaining to reality. Also, I have an invisible dragon in my garage." Is this a more correct worldview because it explains something supernatural that pure naturalism cannot explain? If my friend says that my garden is beautiful, and I say, "Yes, but did you know there are also fairies at the bottom of it?", does that make my point of view superior? I don't think so, because the addendum of "God did it" doesn't really explain anything. There is no value in arriving at an explanation via Making Stuff Up.

If you're going to compare worldviews, you need to examine them against the evidence. The evidence for scientific naturalism is that science works. The space shuttle flies, and vaccines work, and the reason they work is because science allows us to make testable predictions about the universe. Our understanding of reality has increased by orders of magnitude in the past, let's say, 2000 years. We know that we are progressing in understanding because we are able to make successful predictions that we weren't able to make before. Science is the tool for doing so, and it is also the tool for measuring our progress. That is the evidence.

How has our understanding of reality been increased by Christianity? How would we even know? Does Christianity make any testable predictions about the world? In a way, you could say that prophecy is a testable prediction. Unfortunately, most prophecies in the Christian tradition are so vague that they can be interpreted in dozens of ways. Even prophecies that are specific are not falsifiable, because any failures can be conveniently explained away with "God works in mysterious ways" or "I guess the people weren't faithful enough" or any other rationalization you can come up with. Would the space shuttle fly in a Christian universe? Sure, probably. Did God tell us how to make the space shuttle fly? No.

Does the practicality of science prove that matter is all that exists? No, but it certainly suggests that it is a very valuable approach to assume that we live in a natural universe. As Steve said during the interview, asking for proof that "matter is all that exists" is really asking for proof of a negative proposition. One can no more disprove the existence of God than one can disprove the existence of the invisible dragon in my garage. It is the onus of supernaturalists to demonstrate a single counterexample to the proposition of naturalism. It is not the onus of naturalists to disprove every conceivable example of anything that would fall outside the realm of naturalism.

I found it interesting that they demanded this impossible evidence in order to support the naturalistic view, yet when claiming evidence of their own position, the best they could do were ideas like:

- "Thoughts and emotions aren't physical." (Why?)
- "Is rationality rational?" (Why not?)
- "The gospels tell what Jesus' contemporaries thought of him." (No, they were written about 100 years later.)
- "Plenty of people have debunked Ehrman." (This is an argument?)

In a way, this is a specific rant against the Christians in a particular interview, but it's also a more general complaint about supernaturalism in general. If a supernatural explanation were better than a scientific one for explaining any part of reality, I wouldn't have such a problem with it. If prayer could help someone regrow an amputated limb, I would pray. Hell, if prayer were shown to have a significant effect on anything at all, external to the person praying, I would pray. But as far as I can tell, naturalism is sufficient to explain everything we see and experience. And furthermore, science works. That is why I trust it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Taking some control

As I was writing an email to a friend tonight, I realized that I have recently made a lot of changes for the better. In the past 18 months or so, I have:

  • Taken control of my own mind as I realized that I am free to believe what makes sense to me, and I no longer believe in the church. I have pretty much come to terms with what I do and don't believe, and why. I like who I am, and my family still loves me, and that's really all that matters.

  • Taken control of my finances. We've been focusing on paying off debt for the past 17 months, and in 12 days from today, we will be totally debt-free except our home. I think the feeling of freedom that comes with paying off debt is one major contributor to my reassessment of where I am and what I want to do with my life.

  • Taken control of my health, by paying attention to what I'm eating and by exercising. I've lost about 30 pounds in 4 months, and I now run 3 miles every other morning, whereas a year ago I could barely walk up a flight of stairs without being out of breath. I feel so much better, and it just adds to the feeling of empowerment over my own life.

  • Started taking control of personal organization, after reading Getting Things Done by David Allen. It's basically a system for getting everything out of your mind and into a written system so you don't have to worry about everything you're doing or not doing at any particular moment. I haven't gotten too far into it yet, but I can already tell it's going to be a very positive change. The simple act of capturing my thoughts on paper instead of trying to hold them all in my brain has been very freeing.

I feel like all these positive changes are part of the same phenomenon that's happening in my life, and they all support each other. It's like I'm systematically finding areas of my life that I'm unsatisfied with, and consciously making changes to improve them. It feels a lot like cleaning out 10 years worth of garbage that has accumulated through laziness and negligence, so that I can move forward and actually do something positive. Like filling in a bunch of holes I dug for myself, so that I can finally start to build something.

About two years ago, I remember sitting in church and writing down the question on a piece of paper: "What do I really want?" I thought about it for a while, and finally I wrote the answer: "Freedom." By this, I didn't mean freedom from anything in particular. I meant freedom to dream and to dare, freedom to explore, to create, and to achieve. In all of the areas I mentioned above, I can see how something was holding me back (religion, debt, laziness, disorganization), and I can see how eliminating that thing has given me more options. I feel like I'm starting to experience more freedom in all these areas, and it's because I decided to change my life in order to get what I really want. I'm not sure what caused me to stop and write down that question two years ago, but I think that was the beginning of all these big changes.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Science is never finished

I've decided to start posting a quote from Carl Sagan each Sunday, to remind me of why I have chosen the name "Saganist" to identify myself on this blog and in other places around the Web. Carl Sagan had a way of expressing many of the hopes and ideals I would like to express myself, except that he was much more elegant and succinct than I am. I hope you enjoy the quotes.

I urge you to bear in mind the imperfection of our current knowledge. Science is never finished. It proceeds by successive approximations, edging closer and closer to a complete and accurate understanding of nature, but it is never fully there. From the fact that so many major discoveries have been made in the last century – even in the last decade – it is clear that we still have far to go. Science is always subject to debate, correction, refinement, agonizing reappraisal, and revolutionary insights. Nevertheless, there now seems to be enough known to reconstruct some of the key steps that led to us and helped to make us who we are.
– Carl Sagan

Recently on another site I frequent, someone implied that scientific naturalism requires as much faith as theism, and as evidence for this claim, he pointed to the fact that physicists disagree with each other just as theologists disagree with each other. Specifically, he said,

I notice today in the news...Stephen Hawking has a $100 bet that the elusive "God" particle won't be found by the new particle collider and it will be back to the drawing board for even the "standard model".....yikes....Again, it seems to me that physicists disagree among themselves as much as theologists do.....

The difference between physicists and theologists is that physicists do experiments. Whatever evidence the LHC provides, scientific theories will need to be adjusted to account for it. This is not a weakness of science; this is science's greatest strength. It is what connects scientific understanding to reality. Theology does not need any such connection.

I actually agree with the assertion that science is not infallible. It is a method used by humans; and humans make mistakes, take wrong turns, disagree with each other, and play politics. But I believe science is simply the most effective method we have found so far for discovering the nature of reality, and in the long run it maintains the balance of wonder and skepticism that is necessary for finding truth.

The fact that physicists disagree with each other is a good thing! It means that there is much left to discover, and we don't have all the answers. I think the media tends to portray scientists as thinking they have all the answers, but continual uncertainty is integral to scientific inquiry. As Dr. Sagan said, science is never finished. If you think science claims to have all the answers, I think you misunderstand science. Disagreement among scientists is usually about how to interpret the evidence, or which theory best explains the evidence. It is not disagreement about whether to follow the evidence at all, and that is what makes it so different from religion.

I leave you with a quote from Bertrand Russell:

The scientific temper of mind is cautious, tentative, and piecemeal; it does not imagine that it knows the whole truth, or that even its best knowledge is wholly true. It knows that every doctrine needs emendation sooner or later, and that the necessary emendation requires freedom of investigation and freedom of discussion.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The devil wears Birkenstocks

I love This American Life, and last week's episode, "The Devil in Me", was fantastic as usual. It's worth listening to the whole thing, but especially Act Three: The Devil Wears Birkenstocks. I found myself laughing and clapping several times, because it is so right on. Here's the brief description:

Some people battle inner demons, but contributor Dave Dickerson went one step further. Dave tells the story of the time he took on an actual demon in his college classroom. (10 and 1/2 minutes)

Dave was raised as a fundamentalist Christian, and at a point where he thought he was mostly past all that, he found himself placed in a situation where his belief in angels and demons was brought to the forefront of his mind in a very real way. Listen, you won't regret it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The power of Christ compels vampires!

I love Jack Chick tracts. They're just so over the top that you can't take them seriously at all. Even as a Christian I thought they were way too goofy. Here's one where the heroine uses the power of Jesus to convert a vampire! Rock on! In the next episode, I bet she uses the sword of the spirit to slay unicorns!

December 22, 2012

Mark the date on your calendars, if you have a long count calendar that actually goes that far. I don't normally prophesy, but this is an official prophecy. The world will still be here on December 22, 2012.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

We are they

This beautiful National Geographic article reminded me of something I've been thinking about for quite a while. The article is about how an archeological find in the Sahara confirms theories about certain groups of people who lived there when it was more temperate, several thousand years ago.

The image that struck me was of the Stone Age Embrace, a grave containing (presumably) a mother and two children with hands interlaced. This arrangement of bodies touches me deeply, because it shows that people who lived thousands of years ago may not have been so different from us today. When I think of the people who lived in ancient Egypt, or Sumeria, or medieval Europe, or prehistoric North America, I often wonder about the nameless masses of people who lived and died without leaving a trace of their existence. We know almost nothing about any specific person who may have lived and died so long ago.

But they were like us. They loved each other. They loved their children. They were afraid of the dark. The sun gave them light, and the earth gave them water. They looked up at the same stars we see. They wondered about the meaning of life, and their place in it. They mourned the deaths of those they loved. They were afraid to die, and they wanted to be remembered. Now I'm projecting a bit, but I like to think that these things are true. And the Stone Age Embrace makes me think that I'm not too far off. I think they loved their lives just as much as we love our own. And one day in the not-too-distant future, we will become them.

I often try to look at life and existence from many different angles. It helps me to understand and appreciate my place in the universe. Here is one way of looking at it: We are now living in the past. Just as those who lived and died thousands of years ago are in our distant past, we are in the distant past of those to come. People will wonder who we really were, and what life was really like so many years ago, back in the 21st century. What will they think of us? How will they know who we were? Will they admire us for our achievements? Will they thank us for having made their world a better place? I hope so. And I hope they will find some of us buried in an Information Age Embrace.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Feed your kids if you don't want them to die

This story just totally broke my heart. How could anyone do this to their own child? I don't buy the line that it wasn't her decision not to feed the boy. If she hadn't made a decision not to feed the boy, she would have fed the boy.

This is an extreme example of the spirit vs. conscience concept I was talking about the other day. I don't care if you believe that God, or God's prophet, or the Holy Spirit, or Jesus himself told you that your two-year old child is a demon and you shouldn't feed him. If you have any sense of human decency, you feed your fucking child. And then you get far, far away from whoever told you otherwise.

Monday, August 11, 2008

It's OK to be uncertain

Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science — by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans — teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.
—Carl Sagan

I'm fairly new to this skepticism business. Well, I am and I'm not. In many ways, I've been a skeptic since I was two years old, when I used to ask my parents where God came from. However, I have always craved certainty, and my religious history reflects this. I'll save the full story for another time, but let's just say that although I have always asked deep questions and sought true answers, I have never allowed myself the freedom to be uncertain.

Even now, spilling my thoughts to the world, I feel like I need to have everything figured out before I propose even the simplest idea. If I want to talk about the cosmos, I ought to have a Ph.D. in astrophysics. If I want to talk about science and skepticism, I ought to be an expert in philosophy, and I ought to have extensive scientific research experience. If I want to talk about religion, I ought to have an M.Div. and speak half a dozen ancient languages. If I want to talk about the human condition, I ought to be an expert in psychology, sociology, political science, and so on.

The fact is, I am an amateur. I am educated, and I am always becoming more so. I have a point of view, which I try to base on evidence, but I am not an expert. I am uncertain of many things, and I am trying to allow myself to accept this. It is impossible to know very much with certainty, yet I strive for better understanding. Mostly, I think I would like my understanding to be complete, but I am coming to grips with the fact that this will never happen.

One huge benefit of uncertainty is its flexibility. I am open to new evidence, and I am willing to be persuaded. I try to accept good ideas and reject bad ones, no matter where they come from. In this way, I hope to learn much about how the universe really works. This is how science works as well, building upon imprecise understanding in order to fit our theories to reality, not the other way around. I guess this blog is my peer review.

I started with a Sagan quote, and I think I'll end with one too. This quote is from The Demon-Haunted World, and epitomizes the attitude I strive for.

I’m frequently asked, “Do you believe there’s extraterrestrial intelligence?” I give the standard arguments—there are a lot of places out there, the molecules of life are everywhere, I use the word billions, and so on. Then I say it would be astonishing to me if there weren’t extraterrestrial intelligence, but of course there is as yet no compelling evidence for it.

Often, I’m asked next, “What do you really think?”

I say, “I just told you what I really think.”

“Yes, but what’s your gut feeling?”

But I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Conscience trumps spirit

Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things — that takes religion.
—Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg

I've been giving it the old college try at church for the past few weeks. Trying to look for positive things I can appreciate, and trying to contribute positive thoughts of my own. Some weeks are better than others.

This past week, I learned something while sitting in Sunday school. I don't think it had to do directly with the Korihor lesson, but maybe something in the lesson jogged my brain. I had the thought that conscience is more important than spirit. In other words, if you feel like the "Holy Spirit" is telling you to do something, but your conscience is objecting to it, follow your conscience. Your sense of spirit is messed up.

Here's an example to illustrate. Let's say you believe that the spirit is telling you that there is no God but Allah, therefore all American infidels must die, and you should accomplish this by poisoning the water supply. Er... okay, that example would work fine, but let's try something slightly less obviously destructive to the entire world. Let's say your co-worker has a gay son who just died, and you are a Christian who believes that homosexuality is an abomination. Should you:

A. Picket the funeral, shouting and holding signs that say "God hates fags" and "Thank God for AIDS".
B. Express to your co-worker your sorrow that his son will spend eternity in hell, and share with him the good news of Jesus Christ so he can avoid the same fate.
C. Express condolences to your co-worker because he just lost his son, and do not mention homosexuality at all.

Personally I have nothing against homosexuality, so of course C is the obvious answer. A is right out! Yet sadly there are a few nutjobs who think A is the thing to do. At a time in my life when I was a Christian who believed homosexuality was wrong, I can imagine myself being torn between B and C. I believe that I might have thought of this as a good opportunity to share the gospel, and I would have attributed this idea to the Holy Spirit, but I also believe my conscience would have been telling me that this is not an appropriate time to be pushing religion. As fellow humans, we ought to treat each other as we would want to be treated. When someone is in need of comfort and understanding, we ought to be listeners, not preachers.

This hypothetical situation reminds me of Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer's Unwritten Order of Things talk, in which he said that funerals should be about preaching the gospel, not about remembering the deceased. This makes me want to throw up. Not only that someone would think this characterization of funerals is appropriate, but that they would use their considerable influence to demand such behavior of all good believers. My conscience would not allow me to ignore the deceased at his own funeral, and I would hope I'm not the only one who finds this unwritten order of things repugnant.

This kind of "conscience vs. spirit" quandary used to happen to me all the time as a Christian. Airplane rides were the worst. I never felt comfortable pushing my religion on anyone else, particularly if they hadn't initiated the conversation by asking about it. But I always felt guilty, like I should be talking to everyone about religion all the time, because that's what God wanted me to do, right?

The bottom line is that the "spirit" is usually a mental playback of something someone else told you to do. It might be the right thing to do, or it might not. Your conscience represents your own beliefs and values. If you perceive a conflict between the two, follow your conscience. You're the one who has to live with yourself, so live by your own ideals.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Korihor was right

As I sat down next to my wife before the Sunday school lesson at church yesterday, the words "All things denote there is a God" were written on the blackboard at the front of the room. I thought, "Oh, this is just going to be great." The class was just what you would expect, kind of a rah-rah session for theism in general and Christianity in particular, with heavy emphasis on Mormonism in ultraparticular.

The lesson was about Korihor, a man who is one of the most famous atheists and anti-Christ characters in the Book of Mormon. In the LDS church, the word "Korihor" is basically synonymous with "rotten, anti-Mormon, atheist scum" and everyone knows that in the story of Korihor, he says obviously ridiculous things that are not worth considering. A few months ago (well after my disaffection), I reread the Korihor story and was surprised to discover that I agreed with almost everything he said. In fact, Korihor lays out a fairly lucid argument for atheism, which is especially amazing since this is supposed to have occurred in ancient America in 76 B.C. It's too bad the story ends with Korihor admitting he always really believed in God and was just lying because the devil told him to, after which Korihor is trampled to death by everyone who had previously listened to him. No, I am not making this up. Read on, it's worth it.

I'll be quoting excerpts, but if you'd like to read the whole Book of Mormon account of Korihor, you can do so here. It's probably a 5-minute read.

When we first see Korihor, he is preaching that Christ will not come (remember, this is 76 B.C., so Christ hasn't come yet) and the prophecies of Christ are foolish because no one can see the future. At this point, the class instructor pointed out the paradox that Korihor is claiming no one can see the future, then claiming that he can see the future because he knows Christ will not come. But is that what he said? Let's take a look.

12 And this Anti-Christ, whose name was Korihor, (and the law could have no hold upon him) began to preach unto the people that there should be no Christ. And after this manner did he preach, saying:
13 O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come.
14 Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.
15 How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.

He didn't say that he knows Christ will not come. He said that no one can know whether Christ will come. In the absence of evidence, it is reasonable to abstain from belief. This is not the same thing as claiming a sure knowledge of the non-existence of something, which is of course impossible. Technically it's impossible to truly claim a sure knowledge of anything at all, but that's a technicality. What Korihor is saying is that the probability of a Christ coming is very, very low, and it is foolish to believe such a thing without some kind of evidence.

Of course, since the Book of Mormon was published by Joseph Smith in 1830, the miraculous prediction of the coming of Jesus Christ becomes a little less miraculous. It's easy to paint a bulls-eye around an arrow you just stuck in the wall. Whether Jesus existed on the earth is a separate question, but Joseph Smith and basically everyone around him believed it. Let's hear it for "ancient prophecy" revealed in a modern context.

The instructor also made much of the idea that Korihor advocated anarchy and lawlessness, saying that whatever a person does is "no crime". Is this what Korihor said? Let's take a look.

17 And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.
18 And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms—telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.

It seems to me that in this context, the words "no crime" refer to the notion that our actions in this life do not merit eternal reward nor punishment. Both paragraphs are talking about Korihor's denial of the need for an atonement, because there is no life after this one. Again, this makes sense, and it does not seem to be a call for lawlessness and disorder. Yes, even atheists have a conscience, and believe it or not, even anarchists, for the most part, do not advocate chaos.

Next Korihor criticizes religious leaders for keeping the people ignorant and obedient. The instructor asked, "Are there people who make the same accusation against our church leaders today?" I answered with a vocal "yep!" There's not really much to note here, except the eerily familiarity of this next passage.

23 Now the high priest’s name was Giddonah. And Korihor said unto him: Because I do not teach the foolish traditions of your fathers, and because I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to thy words.
24 Ye say that this people is a free people. Behold, I say they are in bondage. Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true.
25 Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgression of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty because of its parents.
26 And ye also say that Christ shall come. But behold, I say that ye do not know that there shall be a Christ. And ye say also that he shall be slain for the sins of the world—
27 And thus ye lead away this people after the foolish traditions of your fathers, and according to your own desires; and ye keep them down, even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands, that they durst not look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges.
28 Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own lest they should offend their priests, who do yoke them according to their desires, and have brought them to believe, by their traditions and their dreams and their whims and their visions and their pretended mysteries, that they should, if they did not do according to their words, offend some unknown being, who they say is God—a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be.

Whew, that was a run-on sentence if I ever saw one. But notice the continual repetition of the words, "ye do not know", "ye do not know". That's the main beef here. Religion makes an awful lot of claims to knowledge that no one can truly know. And yet religion (one in particular I have in mind) can make huge demands of your time, energy, and money. All in the name of a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be.

Now we get to the meat of the argument between Alma (the believer) and Korihor (the unbeliever). They really lay their main points on the table. Here is Alma's:

39 Now Alma said unto him: Will ye deny again that there is a God, and also deny the Christ? For behold, I say unto you, I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come.
40 And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only.

Wait a sec. Pause. Again with asking Korihor to prove a negative. You can't prove there is no God any more than you can prove that Bertrand Russell's teapot is not orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. The burden of proof is on the party making the claim of God's existence. It is impossible to prove a negative assertion. Okay, unpause.

41 But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? Believest thou that these things are true?
42 Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God.

Alma has a testimony! And he knows that Korihor has a testimony too, but unfortunately the devil has power over him. It all makes sense to me now. All this talk about logic and evidence is just Satan telling lies. Carry on, then.

43 And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words.
44 But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

Again, Korihor asks for some evidence, and says he will believe if the evidence is good enough. I'm with Korihor on this one. Alma responds with a huffy accusation about "tempting God" (whatever that means), and then puts forward his best evidence. Finally, the evidence. And what is this evidence? Are you ready for it? Here it is: the words of the scriptures, the testimony of other people, the laws of physics, and everything else too. Oh my God. This is so not convincing. Korihor has just been punk'd.

Korihor's response is beautiful, and is a very concise description of the atheist position (or the agnostic position, if you prefer).

48 Now Korihor said unto him: I do not deny the existence of a God, but I do not believe that there is a God; and I say also, that ye do not know that there is a God; and except ye show me a sign, I will not believe.

Show me the evidence! How much clearer can you get? Unfortunately for Korihor, at this point the story takes a turn for the surreal. You see, in Korihor's universe, God really does exist and he is pissed at Korihor. Also, if you've read the Book of Mormon, you know that the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose. Always. I attribute this to a certain naiveté on the part of Joseph Smith, who was in his early twenties when he published the Book of Mormon. But I guess you could also attribute it to how everything really happened in ancient America. Take your pick.

Finally, the denouement. Alma calls down the wrath of God and strikes Korihor dumb.

52 And Korihor put forth his hand and wrote, saying: I know that I am dumb, for I cannot speak; and I know that nothing save it were the power of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always knew that there was a God.
53 But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me.

What a terrific ending! Not only is Korihor proven wrong by the power of God, he also admits that he was lying the entire time, he always really believed in God, and the devil told him to say all those things! Brilliant! Okay, I admit, this is not the greatest ending I've ever read. In fact, it's sort of the lamest of all possible lame endings. We actually had an interesting conversation going between faith and faithlessness. Each side was putting forth its best argument, and we almost had a debate. And then deus ex machina literally comes down and blows it all to hell with a miracle and a confession. Fuck.

Is it impossible for an atheist to hold his convictions honestly? Must he be lying? Must he really believe in God, deep down inside? Must he be a servant of the devil? The answer to these questions is, of course, NO. Atheists are just like anyone else, except that they don't happen to believe in any supernatural beings called gods. The Korihor story condemns and demonizes those who simply have a single, reasonable request for perhaps a tiny bit of evidence, if it wouldn't be too much trouble. Make that request, and Bad Things will happen to you. If the moral of this story weren't explicit enough, witness the epilogue.

56 And it came to pass that the curse was not taken off of Korihor; but he was cast out, and went about from house to house begging for his food.
57 Now the knowledge of what had happened unto Korihor was immediately published throughout all the land; yea, the proclamation was sent forth by the chief judge to all the people in the land, declaring unto those who had believed in the words of Korihor that they must speedily repent, lest the same judgments would come unto them.
58 And it came to pass that they were all convinced of the wickedness of Korihor; therefore they were all converted again unto the Lord; and this put an end to the iniquity after the manner of Korihor. And Korihor did go about from house to house, begging food for his support.
59 And it came to pass that as he went forth among the people, yea, among a people who had separated themselves from the Nephites and called themselves Zoramites, being led by a man whose name was Zoram—and as he went forth amongst them, behold, he was run upon and trodden down, even until he was dead.
60 And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.

QED. Unless you want this to happen to you, repent and serve the Lord, bitches.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Occam's razor to the rescue

On another site, I just got all worked up and wrote a response to a (fake) talk alleged to be written by Russell M. Nelson, an apostle in the LDS Church. Apparently he didn't write the talk at all, but I wrote my response before I knew that. Anyway, the points in the fake talk purport to be valid, and so my response to them still stands. Read the talk, or don't. The gist is that the Book of Mormon contains all kinds of linguistic "evidences" that Joseph Smith couldn't possibly have come up with on his own. I call bullshit. Here's my response.

Oh, dear heaven. Almost all of the linguistic constructions you're talking about are used frequently in the Old Testament (originally written in Hebrew, of course), and Joseph Smith was very familiar with the Old Testament. It would have been quite natural for him to speak in this way if he were trying to produce scripture that sounded authentic. It's not a miracle that the Book of Mormon language sounds just like King James English translated from the Hebrew.

As for "ziff", I would love to know whether other words translate naturally into Arabic (and why Arabic? why not Hebrew or Egyptian?). How about: cumom, curelom, deseret, senine, senum, seon, shum, limnah, ezrom, onti, shiblon, shiblum, antion, neas, sheum, shemlon. With dozens of such made-up words, I am not surprised that one of them happens to sound like a real word in another language. In the context of the word "ziff" though, does it really sound like it should be referring to a scimitar-like sword? The context seems to imply that "ziff" is a precious metal or ornament, not a weapon. This is not impressive "evidence".

Occam's razor, people. What is the most likely explanation? That a history of ancient American people was preserved on golden plates, delivered by an angel, translated with a seer stone, and then taken back up to heaven? And the best evidence of this is a few words that could easily be coincidence? Meanwhile, our best scientific knowledge indicates that no such people, animals, weapons, or foods were present in America during the relevant timeframe, and DNA evidence indicates that modern native Americans are descended from Asians, not Jews. Is it possible that the Book of Mormon is historically accurate? Sure. Is it likely? Not bloody well so. What is the simplest explanation that fits the facts?

I understand that in some areas where there is little evidence, it is possible to have faith. For me, in the face of overwhelming disconfirming evidence, faith in the historicity of the Book of Mormon is willful foolishness. I'm not asking you not to love the Book of Mormon. Love it! Find joy in it! But please don't attempt to support an argument for its historicity with these flimsy apologetics.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Hello, world!

I've had a LiveJournal account for a few years, but my life is so interesting that it probably deserves at least two blogs, so here we are. Seriously though, I've been feeling the need to create a separate blog just for skeptical, scientific, and spiritual stuff. The LiveJournal blog will be for relatively benign stuff like Scrabble, weight loss, financial freedom, and other random thoughts. This blog will be a little more serious, a little more philosophical, and a little more irreverent.

The name of this blog is Saganist, because that's who I am. I greatly admire the work and ideals of the late Carl Sagan. It was through reading his books that I was finally able to admit to myself that I am a skeptic at heart, and I always have been. Until relatively recently though, I was a devout, if somewhat unorthodox, religious believer. I am still a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). These days, the most concise label I might apply to myself is ignostic, though I would also call myself a secular humanist, a Saganist, a skeptic, or an atheist. I hope this blog will be a good way for me to explore my own relationship with the cosmos on both a large and small scale.

For now, I will leave you with one of my favorite Sagan quotes, from The Demon-Haunted World:

It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

This is what I strive for, honestly and imperfectly. I will probably never reach the destination, but I am excited for the journey.