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.