Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reason's Greetings in Utah

I've never really gotten into billboard and bus campaigns. Occasionally I will read blog posts about how a new atheist or skeptical billboard has gone up in some location. The stories are usually about how a billboard was vandalized or prohibited or allowed, or about how a skeptical or atheist group has raised or is raising money to erect another one.

Believe it or not, despite my love of ideas and conversation, and despite my skeptical blog on the Internet, I don't generally seek out religious discussion with people I hardly know. Or rather, I don't do it nearly as much as I did when I was religious. So billboard campaigns as a concept have never really done it for me. Dueling billboards seem too much like a shouting match, and I'm not interested in shouting.

But tonight something happened. I stepped off the train in Salt Lake City, Utah, and I saw this:

My first thought was, "Wow, that's awesome!"

My immediate second thought was, "What is that doing in Utah?"

And then it hit me. There are people like me here. Not in Ohio, not in Virginia, but here. There are enough people like me, apparently even in Utah, to put up a billboard and say, "Hey, we're here!" And I finally experienced what everyone says the billboards are there for: I felt like I was not alone.

Unexpectedly, tears came to my eyes. It felt like what the Christmas spirit is supposed to feel like. It was like hearing O Holy Night for the first time, but without any religious baggage. I wish I had a better way to describe it. It didn't feel like shouting, and it didn't feel like making a point. It just felt like a hug from someone who understands. Sometimes that's all you need, you know?

I know I'm not alone in Utah. There are groups of skeptics and atheists, and I have been to a few events and made some friends. But I'm not particularly close with anyone who shares my views. I don't attend events very often, and I don't hang out with anyone on a regular basis. Nearly everyone I know is religious. Being an atheist and a family man in Utah can be a very lonely road, and much of the time I do feel alone.

So thank you, FFRF. Thank you for reaching out. I didn't even know I needed that, but I really needed it. About the billboard campaigns... I think I get it now.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a wizard. But you don't need to ride a broom to know that there's something wrong in this country, when Muggles and Mudbloods can openly attend Hogwart's but our kids can't even use the Cruciatus curse. As president, I'll end Dumbledore's war on wizards, and I'll fight against liberal attacks on our magical heritage. MAGIC made America strong. It can make her strong again. I'm Voldemort, and I approve this message.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Primary program

I went to church today for the first time in months, because it was the primary program. I know the primary program is supposed to be cute and fun, and it certainly had that effect as I was making faces and waving at my own kids. But after a while, I just couldn't stand it anymore. I was glad that my 18-month old was acting up so I could take her out in the hallway.

As I sat in the pew today, I began to suspect that the primary program is the epitome of why I can't stand church. It wouldn't be so bad if most, or even some, of the kids went up and said things like, "I know I can be a good person by helping others." Or, "I can help my family by sharing my toys with my sister." Or, "When I mess up I know I can be forgiven." Or even, "Jesus told us to love everyone so I need to try to do that."

But did any of the kids say anything like that? Not hardly. Without a pause, four-year old after four-year old streamed up to the podium and announced things like, "I'm thankful we have a prophet we can follow, and his name is Thomas S. Monson." Or, "I know the prophet will never lead us astray." Or, "I know Joseph Smith saw Heavenly Father and Jesus, and Moroni helped him translate the Book of Mormon." Or, "I'm preparing to go on a mission." One six-year old had a black missionary nametag.

I've come to accept that this is standard fare, but come on. Far from uplifting, I find this extremely depressing. Can we ever let kids be kids? Do we really need to make every single one of them parrot doctrinal garbage when some of them are barely out of diapers? I don't like to think that my kids are being indoctrinated, and stuff like this primary program certainly doesn't ease my mind.

At least we ended the service by singing only two verses of "Praise to the Man". It could have been worse.

Friday, September 9, 2011

My Scrabble interview with BBC radio programme "More or Less"

This post doesn't have too much to do with skepticism, except insofar as my skeptical outlook has also improved my thinking about the likelihood of various coincidences in life. In case you didn't know, I am a competitive Scrabble player and I have written a program called Zyzzyva to help players learn words quickly and easily.

This past week, I was interviewed by Tim Harford of the BBC 4 radio programme "More or Less" regarding an interesting Scrabble situation. The interview has just been posted on the BBC site:

If you want to hear the interview in the context of the show, listen to the last 5 minutes of the 09/09 show here:

... Oh, and yes, I know that 20,000 squared is not 500 million. Both of those numbers were approximate but I probably should have made them consistent. :-)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ideological Turing Test for Atheists

I came across a very interesting Turing Test-like exercise today. It's 15 people responding to a set of four questions. There are some atheists who were instructed to answer the questions honestly, and there are some Christians who were instructed to answer the questions as if they were atheists. The point of the exercise is, can you tell the difference?

If you want to take the test yourself, stop here and go take it. I don't want to sway your opinions by what I've written below. You can probably finish the test in two hours or so. I'm a slow reader and that's about how long it took me.

The answers I judged to be from Christians tended to focus on questions of atheism versus Christianity. The answers I judged to be from atheists tended to have a more pluralistic view of atheism versus religion in general. Also, I tended to judge personal stories to be more likely from atheists, and academic, philosophical explanations to be more likely from Christians.

I also used the guideline from textual criticism that "what is embarrassing or uncomfortable tends to be true", and any responses that shared anything like this seemed to me more likely to be written by atheists.

For the truly curious, here are my answers and reasoning. I refer to all respondents as "he" although I know that any or all of them may be women. Some seemed slam-dunk easy, but many were difficult to judge. I'm curious to find out how well I did.

#1 was a very cogent explanation of what an atheist might believe, and I couldn't find much to disagree with or suspect. Atheist.

#2 constantly talked about Jesus and compared himself to Christians. This Christianity-centered view suggests that the author is a Christian. Christian.

#3 admitted to a natural tendency toward belief. That's a very real phenomenon, and the fact that it is somewhat embarrassing to admit makes it more likely to be true. I don't think a Christian would put those words in an atheist's mouth since it would tend to weaken the atheist's position. Atheist.

#4 took a very black and white, negative, hostile, and unempathetic view of believers. This struck me more as a Christian idea of what atheists think of them, not a genuine atheist view of religious believers. Also, the "gods exists" near the beginning suggested that the text originally read "God exists" and then was changed to sound more like an atheist. The respondent also appealed to philosophers as authorities more than appealing to philosophical ideas on their own merits. This answer reads more like a position paper than a personal story. Christian.

#5 also reads like a position paper. I don't think an atheist would say that "anything which is true is known by the senses". We tend to realize how deeply flawed our own perceptions are. Also, an atheist would know that Uri Geller is not a skeptic, but a psychic fraud. The miracles required by this respondent are pretty ambiguous, which is what I would expect from a Christian, not an atheist. Atheists tend to hold God to very high standards of unambiguous clarity. He also takes a very negative and uncompromising view of believers, which is not the way I think an atheist would represent himself in a forum like this. Christian.

#6 is like #1 to me. Straightforward and honest, and from a personal point of view, not an academic one. And he made an offhand reference to the Trolley Problem, which suggests to me that he is actually familiar with secular ethics and has had many of these kinds of deep conversations. Atheist.

#7 struck me as a Christian at first, making lots of references to specifics of other religions in order to build credibility. But when I hit the "religion is true" part, I had to go back and rethink. This is something I might actually say myself, particularly with the reference to The Myth of Sisyphus. So now I tend to think this respondent is an atheist, but I'm less sure than for some of the others. Lean Atheist.

#8 frames atheism against a strongly Christian backdrop, and refers to "mainstream Christians", a phrase I have rarely heard from an atheist but often heard from Christians. The answers to the last two questions plausibly sound like they could be written by an atheist, though. Lean Christian.

#9 is sweet and to the point. No clues that this might not be a real atheist. Atheist.

#10 talks about Christianity constantly and makes a whole bunch of weak arguments against it. Seems like he's trying too hard. Christian.

#11 seems very personal, which I find compelling. He occasionally uses Christian-sounding language like "all of creation". But the way he talks, particularly the use of the phrase "post Christian" and his reference to G.K. Chesterton, makes me think that he was raised as a Christian but has left the faith. Atheist.

#12 reads sort of like #6 to me. His answers resonate with me. I also laughed out loud at "like pointing out that language or story-telling has persisted" and I tend to think that any entry that gets me to laugh in agreement is probably written by an atheist. He makes a few references to Christianity, including specific references to Calvinism and Paul's admonition of celibacy. But there's just enough snarkiness in his questions that I get the sense he's familiar with Christianity because he used to be a Christian. Atheist.

#13 is a difficult one. He uses the word "worship" many times and his answers seem mostly detached and academic, which strikes me as a Christian trying to portray an atheist. His reference to "modern theologians" at the end seems unlikely for an atheist. He also claims that the religious view is that "morality consists solely of obeying arbitrary taboos", which I don't think most atheists would really say. But his explanations and reasoning are generally very reasonable and believable. It's a toughie, but I'm leaning toward Christian. Lean Christian.

#14 is similar to #7 in some ways. Many academic-sounding references to different philosophies, which raised some alarms. But then an explanation of having studied philosophy in college, which mostly satisfied me. The last paragraph in particular was a very lucid and personal explanation of an atheist's way of dealing with the hard questions, and it convinced me this respondent is an atheist. Atheist.

#15 seems a little incoherent. I don't think an atheist would probably say things like "how could I ever believe one [a god] existed"? I thought for a while about the idea that "faith is the opposite of certainty". I have two thoughts about this sentence. First, I would tend to think that an atheist would say that faith is certainty (probably false certainty). Second, I find it unlikely that an atheist would hold up certainty as something to be desired. Most atheists I know have struggled hard to deal with the fact that uncertainty is inevitable, and that acknowledging and quantifying it leads to progress. Christian.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Farewell, Space Shuttle

I’m young enough that for me, the symbol of space travel has always been the Space Shuttle. I had a glow-in-the-dark Lego Space Shuttle when I was a kid, and I used to put it together and tear it apart all the time. I remember watching the movie Space Camp, which affected me profoundly as a kid. I watched it again recently and was surprised that it holds up pretty well. For me, the Space Shuttle has always been an inspiration and tightly connected with my love of astronomy.

I was in about 3rd grade when the Challenger exploded, and I have an impression of being on the playground at school when I heard the news. This is probably inaccurate, given the malleable nature of memory, but I have the impression anyway. I think I was mostly disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to watch the live video of Christa McAuliffe answering kids’ questions while in outer space. I wish I could say I didn’t repeat any of the stupid jokes about NASA standing for “need another seven astronauts” but I know I did. We were all stupid kids and we didn’t know how to deal with it.

As an adult, I have a much greater appreciation for the determination and the sacrifices that so many people have made for the sake of science and exploration. Not just in the Space Shuttle era, not even just in the space era, but throughout history. It’s hard work and many people have given their lives to see it through. The fact that we keep doing it gives me hope for the future. I sure hope we keep going. I don’t know if there is a secular equivalent of “so long and godspeed”, but if there is, then I would make it my farewell to the Space Shuttle.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On being wrong, a talk by Kathryn Schulz

This may be one of the best talks I've ever seen. Kathryn Schulz talks about being wrong. Take 20 minutes and watch the video. It's absolutely worth it. Okay, I'm reasonably certain it's worth it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Diverging wills

Read this. After you return from the bathroom having puked your guts out, come back here. I'll wait for you.

. . .

Feel better? Good. Let me ask you something.

Do any of you unbelievers feel anything remotely like the "once-believer" described in this apparently anonymous article? Are any of you consumed with self-loathing? Seeking out increasingly dangerous indulgences to satisfy your insatiable primal urges? Do you dread the evil denouement you know is coming, and wish you could command the rocks and mountains to fall upon you to hide you from God's judgment?

Yeah, me neither.

I am a mediator by nature. It is a fundamental part of my personality that I try to reconcile people who have differences. I try to help people find compromises. I try to help people heal their broken relationships. I value dialogue and listening, and I try to encourage people to see things from another person's point of view. To me, the cultivation of empathy is one of the most important things we can try to do as members of the human family.

What irks me about this article is that it attempts to do the exact opposite. To encourage faithful members to remain in the fold, it caricatures unbelievers as vile, degenerate sinners who are forever miserable. Its intent is to polarize, not to reconcile, except in the rare case where reconciliation means falling back into line under the church's direction. If you're not with us, you must be against us. And furthermore, you must be a bad person. Articles like this actually make it more difficult for me to have relationships with true believers, because they read this tripe and think it somehow reflects who I really am. The article actively impedes dialogue. In fact, that seems to be its main goal.

For the record, the "once-believer" described in this ridiculous article could not be a less accurate description of me. I am not miserable. I am not seeking out ever-increasing levels of indulgence. I do not fear judgment. In fact, I am more at peace with myself and my existence in the world than I have ever been. I am beginning to realize that I am capable of incredible things, and I feel like I have some idea of how to use my talents to make the world a better place.

I wish the LDS church would stop using its official outlets to publish divisive rhetoric. The message of "happy us versus miserable them" is reinforced every six months at General Conference, as well as every so often in the church's other publications like the Church News and the Ensign. Please guys, just knock it off. And yes, my admonition applies equally to unbelievers who claim that all believers are repressed and secretly miserable, though my experience tends to indicate that unbelievers are generally more accepting of a less black-and-white mentality. As in many other areas of life, neither extreme is the truth.

There is more than one way to be happy in the world. There are believers who are very happy with their beliefs, and there are unbelievers who are equally happy with theirs. We should be working together for the common good and understanding. Sadly, this kind of article makes me think that's not what the church is truly interested in. And that's a shame.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Doubting your doubts

Just now, I read a Mormon Times article by Orson Scott Card, called Guessing leads to knowing. I actually liked most of the article, which surprised me since I don't generally think much of OSC. He's correct that almost all human progress comes from someone who had a hunch or a guess or a crazy idea that they decided to try out. Guessing is indeed a good thing.

However, his reasoning is flawed because his proposed "tests" (praying for confirmation, following church commandments) are not really experiments in a scientific sense. People can believe they feel the Holy Spirit confirming wildly different ideas. How do you know which is correct? Science measures hypotheses against objective reality. OSC proposes testing hypotheses against subjective experience. At best, the experiments may prove which ideas resonate with you personally. If that's all you're after, that's a fine result. But you can't then extrapolate your findings as objective truth.

My father-in-law told me to "doubt my doubts" when he first found out about my disaffection with the LDS church. It didn't make much sense to me at the time. But now I think I understand the premise behind the phrase: that your "doubts" are really just new beliefs. As such, they should be subject to scrutiny just as your original beliefs were. If I accepted the premise that doubts are just new beliefs, I would certainly accept the conclusion that you should "doubt your doubts".

However, there is a fundamental difference between belief and doubt. A belief is a positive assertion that something is true. A doubt is a neutral assertion that I don't know whether something is true. For example, I might say that I doubt the Book of Mormon is a historical record. That statement by itself does not imply that I believe it is not a historical record. It simply means I don't know. I make no assertion in either direction.

Now, one can certainly examine the evidence and come to a tentative conclusion with a reasonable degree of certainty. Would I say the Book of Mormon is more likely to be historical than not? No, based on the evidence I have encountered I would say I believe it's more likely to be biblical fan fiction. However, this statement is not a statement of doubt. It is a statement of belief based on evidence. Do I doubt this belief? Of course! I am willing to change my assessment based on new evidence. And you can believe that's true because I have done so already.

If this is what is meant by "doubting your doubts", then I suppose I already do. But do I doubt the mechanism of doubt itself? Should I boomerang back to my original beliefs before disappearing in a puff of logic? That would be silly. As Orson Scott Card said himself, doubt is the vehicle of progress. To doubt the act of doubting would be like using the Internet to spread the message that all technology is evil. It would be inconsistent, and achieve nothing but a smug self-satisfaction in a castle built on semantics.

So doubt your beliefs. Doubt all your beliefs. If they are worth believing, they are worth doubting. But don't test your beliefs against your feelings. Test them against evidence. And is it worth the self-inconsistency of trying to "doubt your doubts"? I doubt it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Oh dear, the end times are here (again)

[Somehow, I was never notified of several comments that were waiting for approval on various blog entries over the past few months. If you made a comment that was not approved until today, I'm sorry!]

I got a visit from the Jehovah's Witnesses this morning. They've been around before, and I am usually far too accommodating. I tend to smile and nod and listen for as long as they want to talk. I usually avoid confrontation whenever possible, and I find it difficult simply to say I'm not interested, even though it would save us all a lot of time.

One of the men introduced himself and asked if he could share a short message from the Bible (he emphasized the word "short"). I said sure. He began to read from Matthew about how Jesus had said there would be wars and famines and... yes, even earthquakes as signs of the end times. He specifically said that the recent earthquake in Japan was a fulfillment of these words. I smiled and nodded and failed to mention the many hundreds of earthquakes and other natural disasters that happen each year. Not to mention the countless number throughout the ages since Jesus allegedly spoke those words.

I choose to interpret these constant signs over thousands of years somewhat differently. I believe it is the fulfillment of the laws of physics. These prophecies are not written in the pages of the Bible, but in the very fabric of the universe from the beginning of time. Far from being signs of the end of the world, they are signs that the universe is still doing just fine, thank you very much. With or without Jesus, with or without the kingdom of God... and frankly, with or without humanity. To think that earthquakes are a sign given specifically to humans seems pretty self-centered.

Anyway, he continued talking about how we would be okay as long as we are part of the kingdom of God. At the point where he asked me, "What do you think the kingdom of God is?" the jig was up. I couldn't just smile and nod anymore, so I said, "I don't really know and honestly I'm not interested in spending much time talking about it." He was very polite and thanked me for my time and the opportunity to share their positive view for the future despite the calamities in the world today. I was surprised at how quickly and graciously they left me alone. I think I need to try directness more often.

I'm not sure whether I should be offended that the JWs showed up on my doorstep using such a horrible tragedy to push their religion. I'm not one bit surprised, of course. People have been doing that for all of recorded history. It's hard to fault them too much for actually believing what they're teaching, either. People like to try to make sense of the world, especially the parts that are senseless. For them, a giant earthquake simply confirms what they already believe. Just like every other natural disaster, and just like the great invisible Second Coming of 1914. People see what they want to see.

So I think I'm not offended. But the tactic of capitalizing on others' misfortune to push your own agenda, used consciously or not, still strikes me as poor taste. At least I had the good sense to articulate my disinterest, or I would probably still be standing in my doorway right now.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why I don't go to church

It doesn't seem that long ago, but I guess it's been over six months now. I was giving church another shot, not as a believer but as a curious fringe participant. I was interested to see whether the LDS church could be an enjoyable place to socialize even without being a fully invested member of the in-group. You can probably guess how it went.

It goes without saying that I think the supernatural claims of the church lack credibility. I was not trying to make myself believe those claims, nor to pretend to anyone that I believed them. I wanted to see if I could ignore them and find other positive reasons to attend church. At first, I thought it might help to treat the supernatural claims as part of a fantasy epic like the Lord of the Rings, and treat the church like a dedicated book club. It's nice to discuss what we can learn from the fact that Bilbo was the only character to give up the ring voluntarily. Why couldn't discussions about Joseph Smith and the First Vision be the same?

That worked for a while. It was actually kind of fun to treat the entire experience as interactive fiction. But I found I could only go so far before it became very tedious. In a book club discussion, everyone recognizes the meta-reality of the situation and there is common understanding that the story didn't literally happen. You can step outside the walls of the story and take a look from the outside. But the stories at church are not like that, at least not in the LDS church. You don't get to say, "I find Joseph's story to be a good metaphor for the search for the divine within all of us." No, what you're supposed to learn is that God and Jesus are real, and that they are separate beings with ten fingers and ten toes. We're talking about literal truth here. At least that's what the manual says.

So the stories are mostly fiction but everyone treats them as real, and they're not pretending. Which is fine, I expected that. Mormons spend a high percentage of church time simply talking about the stories, and it's difficult for me to ignore being totally disconnected from reality for so long, but I tried. What I wanted to know was, would the remainder make up for it? At church, could I glean insights into my own life like I used to? Would I learn anything worth learning?

As a Christian in high school and college, I went to church because I felt it helped me become a better person. We often talked about compassion, love, and service, and I surrounded myself with others who were dedicated to these propositions. Don't get me wrong, there are many people in the LDS church who also value these things. But as the weeks passed, I began to see that we mostly weren't discussing how to be a good person. We were discussing how to be a good Mormon, which is something else entirely. And in many ways, for me, becoming a good Mormon would run directly counter to becoming a good person.

For example, one of the virtues I value most highly is empathy. I wish everyone could put themselves in someone else's shoes and see things from their point of view. I try to do that often, but not often enough, and I feel that improving at it would make me a better person. But at church we don't generally try to see things from other perspectives. If anything, another perspective might be raised only to show how it is wrong. Again, this stems from an inability to step away from our personal fictions into the meta-reality of the situation to view ourselves from outside.

There are many other examples that are just as fundamentally wrong, in my opinion. The characterization of LDS teachings as "pay, pray, obey" is not too far off, and I disagree with every item on that list. I feel that I need to give money and service to those in need, and to worthy causes that need support. The church teaches us to give money to the church, for them to use as they see fit, but only a small percentage of that goes to those who need it. I feel that I need to find the inner strength to overcome life's challenges and stretch myself to become a better person. The church teaches that we should let a supernatural being take care of the hard stuff, and sometimes even the easy stuff. I feel that I need to determine my values for myself, and that a bottom-up approach to problem solving, with many ideas from many perspectives, is likely to produce good solutions most of the time. The church teaches that they alone hold the authoritative keys to true doctrine and true morality, and that if you stray from their top-down edicts, you will suffer. And the list goes on.

So that's why I don't go to church. I don't believe the stories, and it doesn't help me become a better person. I disagree with much of what is taught, and there is no freedom to have meaningful discussion about why. I've said before that I like to find meaning in my life by contrast with my environment. But when contrast is all there is, it gets tiresome. My approach to life is so fundamentally different from many other people at church that sometimes it's difficult to relate to what anyone is saying. So I think I've finally admitted that church is not really for me. I haven't gone at all for several weeks, and I've probably attended only a handful of times in the last six months. It's nice to skip being irritated for three hours on a Sunday, but I also haven't found anything to replace it. I keep thinking I should, because despite my introversion I know I need social interaction. But so far, the status quo is okay.