July 19, 2009

The thing that made the things for which there is no known maker

By Skeptico

I don’t normally post YouTube videos, but after some thought I decided I would post this link to The thing that made the things for which there is no known maker, that was originally linked by commenter PaulJ on the Atheism is Not a Religion post.  It’s a bit long at just over nine minutes, but you’ll get the idea after less than a minute into it.  It demonstrates the fallacy of thinking that if you can’t explain where something came from, then god must have done it.

In future, when some theist says something like, “what is the origin of life and/or the origin of the information" necessary to bring life into existence?” you can answer with: “The thing that made the things for which there is no known maker and that causes and directs the events that we can't otherwise explain and which doesn't need to have been made and is the one thing from which to ask for things that no human can give and without him we can't be fully happy and is unlimited by all the laws of physics and never began and will never finish and is invisible but is actually everywhere at once and who is so perfect that even if he killed millions of people, including babies, he still would be perfect and who is so powerful and magical that he can even make a virgin pregnant if he wanted to."

Which is, of course, just as meaningful and useful an answer as “god.”

Other Videos

It’s also worth checking out the other You Tube videos from NonStampCollector.  For example, What Would Jesus NOT Do?, ATHEIST!!!!!!!, How amazing is God's Forgiveness? Not very, and The Great Debate.

July 19, 2009

The Real Meaning of Crop Circles: Vandalism

By Jeff Wagg

cropgraffitiReader John calls our attention to a recent article in The Mail in which curious sightseers investigating a crop circle saw something unexpected flying overhead: shotgun fire. The report is a bit confused, but it seems that a farmer, one of his cousins, or a hired hand fired a shotgun over the heads of a group of Norwegian tourists who had come to see a recent crop circle.

Why do such a thing? Simple, he says. He was defending his property.

One onlooker was surprised to come under fire:

I have been visiting crop circles for a decade and have in various ways been told that we are not welcome, but this is the first time I have been threatened with a gun.

Farmers have the right to protect their land, but they have no legal right to threaten people. It was totally unnecessary and incredibly scary.

So, let me get this straight... she knows she's not welcome, and admits that famers have a right to protect their land, but these realizations aren't enough for her to stop trampling people's crops. Got it.

July 15, 2009

Show Your Contempt in an Idiotwars.com T-Shirt

By Dave
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It’s stylish, it’s black, it’s full of anger and contempt. It’s quite a bit like the logo at the head of this page. It’s the official Idiotwars.com T-Shirt, featuring the site logo and the everpopular “Cracking the Nuts of the Lunatic Fringe” slogan.

It’s a sure way to piss off truthers and Birchers at the next Ron Paul meetup you attend. We accept zero responsible for any beatings, tongue-lashings or drinks thrown on you when wearing this shirt around irrationalists and Infowars zombies.

Best of all, it’s just $22.99 and it comes in all the popular sizes from emaciated autopsy alien to bloated blogging couch potato.

Get yours now at our CafePress store.

June 30, 2009

Atheism is Not a Religion

By Skeptico

This is a refrain I’m hearing a lot from religious apologists – atheism is a religion. Also its equally fallacious siblings, science is a religion and evolution is a religion. It’s a sign of their desperation that the best argument they have is not that atheism is wrong, or that god does exist (supported by evidence of course), but that atheism is a religion too. A strange argument for a religious person to make on the face of it.  Is it supposed to strengthen the atheist’s position or weaken the theist’s one? In reality it’s a sign they have run out of arguments.

Still, this argument is widely made, and so it needs to be addressed. Atheism (and here I mean the so-called “weak atheism” that does not claim proof that god does not exist), is just the lack of god-belief – nothing more and nothing less. And as someone once said, if atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby.

That really ought to end the discussion right there. Clearly, a mere lack of belief in something cannot be a religion. In addition, atheism has no sacred texts, no tenets, no ceremonies. Even theists making this argument must know all that. So they must have something else in mind when they trot this one out, but what is it? What are they really thinking? Well, if you look at various definitions of religion, the only things that could possibly apply to atheism would be something like this:

6. Something one believes in and follows devotedly

or this:

4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

Obviously I don’t know if that’s what they mean – I don’t read minds. But I can’t see what else it could be. They must be referring to certain activities of atheists – writing books and blogs, financing bus ads, joining atheist groups, etc. They think atheists are “religious in their atheism” as one person put it to me – the word “religious” being used here colloquially to mean something felt very strongly, or followed enthusiastically. But this definition of religion is so broad that virtually anything people enjoy doing very much, or follow strongly or obsessively, is a religion. It’s a definition of religion that is so broad that it’s meaningless. In reality, most of the things that people follow enthusiastically, are just hobbies. And ironically, although not collecting stamps is not a hobby, getting involved in atheist activities (writing books and blogs, attending atheist meetings) might well be a hobby for some people. But it is a hobby, not a religion.

What Is Religion?

I’m sure that argument won’t convince all theists to abandon this rhetorical trope they love so much.  To really address the argument, we have to define religion, and then see if atheism fits the definition. While I don’t think I can define religion completely, I think I can state the minimum that religion has to have to still be a religion. And it seems to me that there is one thing at least that is common to all religions. It’s this. In my view, religion at a minimum, has to have the following characteristic:

Religion must include something you have to accept on faith – that is, without evidence commensurate with the extraordinary nature of the belief.

Most religions will include other things too, but they must require faith. Of course, not all things that require faith are religions, but all religions must require faith.

The minimum definition covers all the religions I’m familiar with. For example, it includes any religion that involves belief in god or gods – something you have to believe in without evidence. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism… all require you to believe in god or gods as a minimum, without evidence. The minimum definition would also include religions that don’t require belief in god, but require faith in other things. For example, I believe it would include Buddhism, which (for example) includes the belief that living beings go through a succession of lifetimes and rebirth. It would also include Scientology – no evidence for Xenu, that I’m aware of. Maybe you can think of some actual religions that would be excluded, but I haven’t been able to so far.

So religion requires belief without evidence. And by that definition atheism cannot possibly be a religion because atheists do not have to believe in anything to be an atheist – either with or without evidence. QED.

Now, some religious people may say, “but that’s not my definition of religion”. To which I say, OK, then give me your definition. Give me your definition of religion, that doesn’t require belief without evidence, that includes your religion, the others I named, and atheism. And it needs to be better than the two dictionary definitions I cited above.  Give me that definition. Because here’s the thing. The problems I have with religions are:

  1. They are not based on fact or on any reasonable evidence commensurate with the claims they make. In many cases, the claims they make are plainly absurd and are actually contradicted by the evidence.
  2. Religious proponents demand respect, and adherence to their delusions by others. This despite (1) above.

Those are the aspects of religion that I object to. Clearly atheism doesn’t fit 1 (or 2) above, so it is nothing like any of the religions I object to. If your religion does not require belief without faith, then I probably wouldn’t have a problem with it. Assuming, of course, all the tenets of your religion are actually backed up by evidence extraordinary enough for the extraordinary claims your religion makes. But they never do. 

In my view, theists will have their work cut out to deny this minimum requirement for religion.  Come on – they even refer to their religion as “my faith”. 

Evidence and Extraordinary Evidence

Some religious people will claim that their religious beliefs are backed by evidence. This is where it gets tricky, because many religious people genuinely believe their religion is rational and backed by evidence. For example, one Christian I debated cited that the evidence Christianity was real, was (and I quote), “the resurrection of Christ”. Of course, the resurrection of Christ, if it had actually happened, would be pretty good evidence for Christianity. But, unfortunately, there is no good evidence for the resurrection. Certainly, nothing close to the extraordinary evidence we would need to accept this extraordinary claim.

Extraordinary Claims

This needs explaining in more detail. Why do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Well, all claims require exactly the same amount of evidence, it’s just that most "ordinary" claims are already backed by extraordinary evidence that you don’t think about. When we say “extraordinary claims”, what we actually mean are claims that do not already have evidence supporting them, or sometimes claims that have extraordinary evidence against them. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence because they usually contradict claims that are backed by extraordinary evidence.

So why is Jesus’ resurrection an extraordinary claim, and why is the Bible not extraordinary evidence for it? Well, the resurrection goes against all the evidence we have that people do not come back to life, spontaneously, after two days of being dead. Modern medicine can bring people back from what would have been considered in earlier years to be “dead”, but not after 2 days of being dead with no modern life support to keep the vital organs working. In fact, it is probably reasonably safe to say it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that people cannot come back to life after being dead for two days without modern life support. So, extraordinary claim it is.

On the other hand, the evidence we are offered in support of this extraordinary claim consists only of accounts written decades after the event, by people who were not there when the events described were purported to have occurred. We are offered nothing but hearsay anecdotes from superstitious people with a clear reason for wanting others to think the story true. This is hardly acceptable evidence to counteract the fact that this never happens. Christians might ask, what evidence would an atheist accept for such an extraordinary claim? And in reality, it is hard to imagine that there could possibly be any evidence good enough for us to accept the resurrection as true. Christians may claim that this is unfair, or that we are closed minded, but the fact that you are unlikely to find extraordinary evidence for this event 2,000 years after the fact, is hardly the non-believer’s fault. The real question, considering the weakness of the evidence, and the wildly extraordinary nature of the claim, is why would anyone believe any of it in the first place?  The truth is, they accept it on faith.  In fact, the acceptance of this story on faith alone is usually considered to be essential to the true believer. And although that was just Christianity, the same lack of evidence, and belief based on faith alone, applies to the claims of all the other religions that I’m familiar with.

Religions require belief in extraordinary claims without anything close to the extraordinary evidence that is required.  Atheism requires no belief in anything.  The contrast couldn’t be clearer.

But the believer has one final shot – one last desperate rhetorical item to fling at the atheist.  Here we go.

More Faith To Be An Atheist?

The final argument many religious apologists throw into the mix is it takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to believe in god. That certainly took me by surprise the first time I heard it. I think what they’re trying to say is this. Atheists think matter just appeared out of nowhere, that something came out of nothing. But where did the matter come from? To think that matter appeared out of nowhere requires more faith than to think a creator made everything. Why is there something rather than nothing? To think that matter just appeared by itself, requires faith.

Atheists don’t think matter came out of nowhere. Atheists say we don’t know where matter came from; we don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. Maybe one day we’ll know, or maybe we won’t. But we don’t know now. Theists are exactly the same. They don’t know either, but the difference is they make up an explanation (god). But it’s just a made up explanation – they have no reason to suppose it’s true, other than that they just like it.

And it’s a useless explanation. Unless they know something about this “God” – how he created everything; why he created it; what he’s likely to do next - it’s a lack of an explanation. It’s just a placeholder until a real explanation comes along. Except that the theist won’t be open to the real explanation when and if science is able to provide one. The god placeholder prevents investigation into any real tentative explanations. The theist who says god created everything, is the one with the faith – faith that “god” is the explanation and that no other is possible. The atheist is content to say “we don’t know”. For now, anyway. And it’s obvious that saying “we don’t know,” requires no faith.  That may be a hard thing to do for people who want all the answers, but it certainly isn’t religion.

One last thing.  Some theists have responded to the “if atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby” argument by pointing out that non stamp collectors (aphilatelists?) don’t write books or blogs about not collecting stamps, don’t post anti stamp collecting ads on buses, don't ridicule stamp collectors, etc.  This is meant to demonstrate that the “stamp collecting” analogy is weak.  It actually demonstrates that the analogy is very good, since it highlights one of the main problems atheists have with many religious people.

Here’s the thing they are missing, and the real problem most atheists have with religion.  If stamp collectors demanded that people who don’t collect stamps obey their stamp collecting rules, started wars with groups who collected slightly different types of stamps, denied non-stamp collectors rights or discriminated against them, bullied them in school, claimed you had to collect stamps to be a suitable person to run for public office, tried to get stamp collecting taught in schools as science in opposition to real science, demanded that people be killed for printing cartoons that made fun of stamp collectors, claimed that non-stamp collectors lacked moral judgment, made up ridiculous straw man positions they claimed non-stamp collectors took, and then argued against those straw men positions etc etc, - then non-stamp collectors probably would criticize stamp collectors in the way atheists criticize many religious people. And with good reason. Not collecting stamps would still not be a hobby.  Or a religion.

June 15, 2009

Hammering Some Truth

By Dave
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An excellent article over at Rant and Rave takes aim at three of the outstanding features of conspiracy mania: Birchers, Truthers and Chemies, and makes some excellent points about the way these irrational beliefs develop and the lifecycle they go through.

That’s just one of many interesting posts on the site. It’s well worth checking out.

Dave

May 26, 2009

The Myth of American Empire

By Dave
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Again and again I run into people on the right and left sides of the political fringe who hold to the bizarre idea that the United States has some sort of international empire because we have troops deployed overseas. While I agree that we have far too many troops in other countries and could save a lot of money in these hard times by bringing some of them home, these deployments certainly don’t seem to fit the characteristics you would expect of troops who are part of an international empire.

The common claim is that we have “700 bases in 130 countries”. That’s almost as many countries as there are member states in the United Nations. Now, the definition of an empire is one nation exercising economic, political and military control over another. If these troops were deployed for that purpose, their role would presumably be to control the governments of those 130 countries, keep the civilian population under control, and protect the vast administrative network of our empire.

Yet if you look at what our troops are doing overseas you see something very different. Conveniently the Heritage Foundation has compiled historical data on our overseas troop deployments. Foreign Policy in Focus also provides some useful information in a recent report.

The first problem is that to get to this popular figure of “700 bases in 130 countries,” you have to cumulatively add up all of the deployments of the last 50 years and count extremely small deployments and minor facilities which are considered bases even when they have no actual military personnel stationed at them. You have to count as “bases” the the contingents of marine guards at 165 US embassies and smaller consular offices and such things as the hundreds military golf courses, movie theaters, post exchange shops and other recreational facilities. In fact, if you count all the facilities considered “bases” and all the embassies you get about 860 bases in 165 countries, so the popular figures are a bit out of date.

The truth is that most of these deployments are not really military in character and at any given time the number of significant deployments is much smaller. 20 men guarding an embassy are not building an empire. When you look at deployments of 1000 men or more, you find that there are currently fewer than 20 countries hosting deployments of that size. When you look at deployments of 100-1000 men you find that there are fewer than 30. So rather than 130 countries with significant numbers of US troops in them there are actually only about 40, mostly in Europe and parts of Asia. What’s more, rather than building an empire, these numbers have been steadily declining, and are about half what they were in the 1950s.

In addition, all of these large deployments are the result of mutual defense arrangements which date back for decades where our troops are there at the invitation of and with the cooperation of the local government. The overwhelming majority of our troops are deployed in coordination with the United Nations or NATO or by arrangement with a few major allies like Germany, England and Japan. In many cases, rather than representing some sort of mythical US empire, they are often deployed on behalf of extra-national groups or programs or working in coordination with local forces.

In fact, a great many of these American troops deployed overseas are not even involved in normal military activities, but are engaged in various humanitarian aid programs. In 2006 the US military took part in 556 relief efforts in 99 countries. These efforts on behalf of various international organizations are a major deployment, but they are hardly empire building. They’re things like aiding victims of natural disasters and distributing food aid and medicine in troubled places like Haiti, Georgia and Somalia. Rather than oppressing these nations with our imperial rule, these missions are enormously popular and poll results in disaster-ravaged countries like Indonesia show a substantial increase in pro-American sentiment as a result of our humanitarian activities there.

Yes, we almost certainly have far too many overseas facilities, too many men deployed outside our own borders and are spending way too much money on these efforts. Right now we have about 400,000 troops deployed outside of the US and only about half of them are involved in peacekeeping in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. Some of the remainder provide support services, but the truth is that we really don’t need 200,000 or more men in Europe and Japan and other friendly countries. In times of economic hardship we could save a lot of money by closing some of those bases. In fact, substantial closures of overseas bases were carried out by the Bush administration and the total number of bases overseas has been reduced over the last 20 years from over 1000 to under 800.

Our overseas military installations and deployments are generally not engaged in anything imperial in character.. An empire is not defined by a bunch of troops engaged in humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and security work. It is defined by economic, political and military control of other countries. To have an empire we would need to be controlling and administering foreign territories, running their governments and profiting from their economies, resources and industrial production. While the United States has a nominal presence in hundreds of countries and troops spread far and wide, with facilities to support them, with the exception of the occasional wartime deployment, the overwhelming role of American forces overseas is to provide aid and support and to fulfill treaty obligations and help our allies. Embassy guards, hospital ships, food distribution centers and golf courses are not conquering or plundering or oppressing anyone.

So by all means, let’s close as many overseas bases and bring back as many troops as we can, but let’s do it for the right reasons, not because of the delusion that the United States is an empire.

May 1, 2009

Fantasy Jobs?

By Jess Henig
At President Obama’s April 29 news conference, he claimed that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has “already saved or created over 150,000 jobs.” Wait a minute. Isn’t the number of jobs actually plummeting? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the economy lost more than 1.3 million jobs in the two months after he took office, and it has probably lost at least another half-million in April. The day after Obama spoke, the Department of Labor announced that another 631,000 workers (seasonally adjusted) had filed new claims for unemployment insurance the previous week. So what 150,000 jobs was Obama talking about? It turns out the president’s claim is really an estimate of what his economic advisers think the stimulus bill is doing, and not based on any evidence of its actual effects. We asked the White House for substantiation of Obama’s claim, and a spokesman responded that the figure comes from a recent estimate by the Council of Economic Advisers. “Because the baseline for employment is obviously still strongly downward,” the spokesman told us, “the estimate does not mean that employment has risen by 150,000. Rather, it means that employment is 150,000 higher than it otherwise would have been.” He said the figure is an estimate of people hired to work directly on ARRA-funded projects, plus “jobs created by the tax cuts, aid to the states, and other parts of the ARRA.” So when the president said his stimulus bill “already saved or created” those jobs, he was just giving an estimate produced by his own economic advisers at the White House. Furthermore, the jobs figure is based on projections done at the time ARRA was passed. Recipients of ARRA spending aren’t required to report until later what they’re doing with the money and how well it’s working, so there’s very little hard data on where the money is being spent, let alone how many jobs may have resulted from the legislation. The CEA incorporated some actual spending reports into its estimate, but that information is not complete.
March 27, 2009

Aaaahnold for Fuhrer?

By Dave
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When his popularity was running high, people were talking about amending the Constitution so that Arnold Schwarzenegger could run for president sometime in the future. With their current weakened status he might be the only hope for the Republicans in 2012, so a lot of speculation sill focuses on the muscular and thickly accented California governor from all quarters, including the lunatic fringe.

No one sells conspiracy theories better than Alex Jones of infowars.com. He makes Art Bell look like a skeptic and Whitley Streiber seem like the soul of reason. All by himself he out nuts even the vast collection of ultraliberals who think Bush stole the 2000 and 2004 elections somehow. He’s has a thing about the Austrian Adonis, cataloging every bizarre incident in his past and throwing in some fantastical spin which just about makes Arnold into Hitler’s secret stepson and the chosen messiah of every major conspiratorial organization of the last 2000 years. He stops short of nominating Arnold for Anichrist, but that might be in the next article.

The thing about Jones and other conspiracy fans is that the gates of belief are always open and the filtering system has been turned off. Everything is grist for his mill. It all ties together into one giant fabric of paranoid fantasy. Every little factoid is blown up to its most sinister permutation and the result is a truly unique worldview. From a few offhand comments and minor incidents in his past Jones has made Schwarzenegger into a monstrous android in the service of the New World Order, plotting a Hitlerian future for us all.

Important facts that don’t fit Jones’ assumptions are cast aside as he focuses on the selected minutiae that can be molded to fit his thesis. Never mind that Schwarzenegger is a political moderate with a pretty harmless set of policies in California, or that he’s been remarkably successful with very little support and even open opposition from the Republican establishment. For Jones there are no gray areas, so Schwarzenegger becomes the pinacle of a grand pyramid of conspiracy.

I by no means endorse Jones’ lunacy, though I do love the picture I borrowed for the head of this posting. However, so long as you take it as a fascinating voyage into the world of fiction, there’s some entertainment to be gained from checking out his theories on Arnold and the New World Order. His original article isHERE and some more recent conspiracy spinning can be found HERE – spurred by talk about changing the Constitution so Arnold can run for president.

As for the constitutional issue, I’m generally against changing the constitution unless it involves repealing the 16th Amendment. It really shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. This particular provision in article 2 was originally put in there with questionable intent, specifically targeting Alexander Hamilton and born out of the same kind of conspiracy paranoia that Alex Jones has inherited. Its impact has never been a serious issue before, though there was some talk at one time of Henry Kissinger as a candidate who would have faced the same problem as Schwarzenegger. At this point, with Hamilton long dead, it might be worth considering the change, but given the gravity of changing the Constitution we should move very slowly – but not because of anything Alex Jones is telling us.

Dave

March 23, 2009

Explaining the Federal Reserve

By Dave
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Many libertarians and others on the far right are concerned about the Federal Reserve and subscribe to the common conspiracy theory that it is a dangerous private monopoly operated by foreign bankers for their profit and to the detriment of the people of the United States. While I acknowledge that there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about Fed policy, the conspiratorial concerns are generally unfounded.

This issue is explored in an excellent article in Liberty Magazine by Bill Woolsey. He lays out in considerable detail exactly how the Federal Reserve works and provides as clear an explanation as I’ve seen of the nature of the institution and the illogic of theories about Fed conspiracies. He makes the very important point that even if there are foreign bankers involved in the operation of the Federal Reserve, the structure of the institution is such that final authority rests with government-appointed board members, not with the members who represent the banks investing in the Fed, so even if foreign banks and bankers are involved, they aren’t in control.

Dave

March 11, 2009

Paper or Plastic?

By James Randi Educational Foundation
Jeff Wagg notes: Naomi Baker is a chemical engineer and founder of the Houston Skeptics Society. She is currently in Mexico on her third Amaz!ng Adventure. Paper of Plastic? How do you answer?  If you give what you think is the 'correct' answer, you say ‘paper' or you've brought your own bags.  Let's examine that choice. The paper bags used in the grocery stores begin in the forest, with the clear-cutting of forests.  Even though trees are a renewable source, there is more to producing new paper than planting new trees.  The paper industry is one of the dirtiest industries we have.   The chemicals used in the paper pulp process include sulfur, bleaches, and acids.  The process uses huge quantities of water, which must be treated and cleaned, a process which also uses chemicals.  According to a representative of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, paper manufacturing also receives a larger number of complaints than refineries on ‘nuisance odors ‘ which is a term meaning that the facilities emit very strong, disagreeable odors, as unpleasant to live near as a feedlot.   Processing facilities must control odors to the same extent that they must control pollutant emissions.