Fair Play

In Texas, Governor Rick Perry organized a Christian prayer gathering. *yawn*, I reply. Who cares? The fact that a member of the US Government is organizing it doesn’t faze me, and I think he should have the freedom that any American has to do so. Atheists disagree. You won’t find any comments from me there, because I’ve already had this debate and it led nowhere.

Where was this previous debate? On Richard Dawkins’ home page there was an article about Fred Phelps’ church picketing a military funeral, and you’ll find that I argued several times (comments 16, 31, 60, 76, and 162) against my fellow atheists. It upset me that they could be so close-minded about a free-speech issue just because the opposition in this case was a Christian church. I did feel (and still do) that Fred Phelps or anyone else can peacefully protest any cause they like, anywhere they like (so long as it remains peaceful). It’s constitutionally protected, and the particular item being supported is protected no matter what it is. Case closed.

So why do I find these issues so similar? After all, the newer item is actually filled with atheists arguing that the governor of Texas is in violation of the constitution by promoting a religious event through government channels. This has been done before, specifically mentioned here, in a Christian Rock concert put on by the US Military. My main debate point here is that it’s all fine as long as everyone is allowed the same fair treatment. In the case of this concert, military atheists attempted to put on a secular rock concert and their attempts were shut down (unfairly!). But to be fair, though, this same military – when confronted with a request to host Camp Quest this summer based on its approval of Vacation Bible School – did the right thing and funded both.

So why shouldn’t we put up a fight when someone in the government wants to lead us all in prayer? Because when we make our own request for a secular or humanitarian cause to be supported by a government figure, we don’t want nit-picking. We don’t want crying and arguments and drama. After all, if that’s our own response to their causes, we’d deserve it.

-Supernova

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Biased Storytelling

What do you think about David’s victory over Goliath? Was it miraculous? Was it a show of God’s power? Or was it just a sign of strategic thinking? I think you can guess my stance based on how I phrased the question, but whether or not you see my side of some of the following bible stories, the point I want to make in exploring these stories is that we typically view them through personal bias… and because the bible itself has a thesis, we generally phrase them in alignment with this thesis that God is great and powerful and everything inside the scripture just goes to prove this.

1. Daniel and his friends go vegan: In the book of Daniel, we’re given the story of Daniels’ three best friends who decide to give up meat because it has been offered to idols first. After some time, they are found to be healthier and stronger than all of the men around them that have been eating this idol-blessed meat. This is told in the context of a miraculous outcome, not only in the bible but in the Sunday School classes of my youth, even though today it should be less surprising with our current knowledge of nutrition.

The book of Hebrews makes it clear that eating meat offered to idols is not defined as sinful for everyone, and with what we know about chemistry, offering meat to stone or wood figurines doesn’t physically change the substance of the food. Nor does a diet of vegetables and water make a person less healthy than a person dieting on meat and wine. But we still seem to have learned a valuable non-lesson from this story, and many Christians today believe that any food is healthy so long as it has been blessed by God through prayer.

2. Jesus’s political high and low points: Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, hailed by palm leaves and cheering. Less than a week later, these same people wanted him dead (even more than they wanted Barabus, a hardened criminal, dead). This could only be through an agent like Satan or his devils convincing people to change their minds, right? After all, no one could change their opinions in such a short time!

Actually, new information could do the trick just as easily. You may remember that Herod tried to kill Jesus as a baby. Herod was not historically the King of Israel, but rather sitting on the throne as a steward to the crown. According to the narrative in the bible, Jesus was from the line of David on both sides of his family; the bible makes it clear that he was supposed to be the king. Thus, it makes sense that Herod would try to kill Jesus as a baby not because Satan drove him to it but because he wanted to protect his very prestigious position.

So what does this have to do with Jesus’ week in Jerusalem? Well, it was the capital city (where the palace was located), so if Jesus (the rightful king) was entering the city on a donkey, it was likely because he had come to reclaim the throne. It quickly became apparent that Jesus had no ambition to take over the government, and that is probably what quickly soured the crowds (Herod was long gone, and the Romans ruled – this wasn’t exactly a favorable idea to all of the non-Romans living there).

3. David takes a lesson from Sun Tsu: Actually, David predated Sun Tsu (circa 500 BC), so the legendary war strategist may actually have learned a lesson from David. This shepherd boy was small and physically weak – especially compared to a giant and incredible warrior like Goliath – but took him down with a stone hurled from a sling. The story goes that he turned down the king’s armor and sword, and instead went with this silly little sling and 5 smooth stones and used it to defeat a man was was considered undefeatable.

Why do I mention Sun Tsu here, the author of The Art of War? As I’m sure he would agree, David’s victory was not miraculous but rather clever game strategy. If David had accepted the armor and sword, he probably would’ve lost. It wasn’t a fair match, and David was simply overpowered. So instead of agreeing to the implied rules of the battle, he brought a weapon that a small guy could actually win with – a projectile weapon. We wouldn’t marvel at David killing Goliath with a gun, despite the difference in the combatants’ size, and we shouldn’t marvel at David winning with a sling. It was a deadly weapon, especially when filled with smooth stones (which don’t make them weaker, but rather aerodynamic, which is why bullets are smooth) and even more especially when he gets a head shot (which he did). The size of Goliath is irrelevant at this point, as anyone who takes a very fast strike to the forehead will die. He brought a sling to a sword fight, and won.

There are other examples, which I’ll maybe cover in a later blog. The point, though, is not to be found in the stories themselves. It’s simply to open your mind and consider different interpretations. Even if God exists, he still doesn’t break the laws of physics with regularly. The simplest answer is still best, and natural agents are usually behind things that astound us today.

-Supernova


Mounting A Real Attack

I was recently accused of picking on weak points of Christianity to attack. I don’t disagree. I could argue against each and every post I’ve put on my blog so far. It’s not like I’m wrong on every point so far, but none of them is solid and complete and impossible to argue against. I wish someone would argue against each post so I could provide the counterpoints, but it seems like in this mental chess game of philosophy I get the same 3 results: People visit without planning to disagree – they’ve forfeited before they start – or they disagree with me but don’t know how to argue or choose not to – they’ve tipped their king over after I make my first move – or they strangely argue that I shouldn’t be allowed to debate – they call chess a game for “sissies”. This last one is strange because by visiting my site they’ve sat down to play my game… they’ve validated my right to argue by taking the time to read my argument. I don’t understand it.

Anyway, I’ve thrown up some of my weaker arguments because I’m baiting an argument in hopes of a deeper discussion, but this never happens. My site should include a stronger argument, even if it won’t be debated, for the sake of completeness. Anyone who has taken a course (or read a book) on philosophy of religion will understand that the strongest argument against religion is the problem of evil. If a person wants to defend the existence of God, he or she has to explain why a perfect god has created an imperfect world. I’ve already brought up this topic but since it hasn’t been debated I’m going to present the counterargument myself (*sigh*) and the problem with this.

There are serious problems with trying to explain evil away as less than evil, or trying to explain why a perfect God can create an imperfect world. I’m not going into them – it’s going to take too much time and effort – but rather I’m going to focus on the “good” and “sound” argument against the presence of evil: God wanted his creations to be free, and true freedom includes free will. For humans to be able to exercise free will, there has to be evil as well as good. There are 3 paradoxes I see with this argument, and I’ll list them from weakest to strongest.

1.  We don’t have complete freedom to be good or evil.  We may, for instance, choose to do evil things such as murder. We can’t, however, kill people with our thoughts. Even if we intend to murder, or steal, or commit adultery we actually have to overcome hurdles to pull these off. Trying to kill the President of the United States is nearly impossible no matter how good you are at murder, and even killing friends can prove to be difficult if they’re paranoid. Stealing is much easier, but successfully getting away with it is much harder. Committing adultery requires an accomplice (unless you go so far as rape, which is another thing altogether), and then your free will is competing with someone else’s.

Good is much easier to accomplish but can still have difficulties in specialized cases. For example, most Christians agree that bible study is a necessary ingredient to living a good Christian life. Illiteracy makes this troublesome in the modern world, and the lack of a printing press was a huge hurdle in the ancient world. For hundreds of years it was impossible to read a single bible verse even once unless you spoke Latin (and had access to a church’s tome). A severe mental disability would be a handicap to almost any requirement of faith, and death at an infant age would make the necessary prayers unlikely to be offered. The best example we wrestle with today is the natural affinity that some people have for lusting after their own sex. Someone who finds heterosexual sex to be disgusting would have a hard time “being fruitful” and “multiplying”.

2. Bias towards our species causes us to ignore good or evil in the animal world. Most Americans, whether Christian or Atheist, find cannibalism to be evil. But when we see it in the animal world we shrug our shoulders and just say “that’s how they are”. Do animals have free will? Are animal actions classified as good or evil? Evolution explains the behavior of animals in terms we can readily understand – animals work towards their survival, and everything they do is predicated on this basis. But why are they an exception? What makes humans so “special”?

If animals have free will, then they can do evil. There are things, like cannibalism, that we would see as wrong if done by humans. So why would these creations of God’s do evil? Original sin explains the human condition (poorly), or God tests the Christians and makes them stronger people, or Satan tempts people to do evil – but all of these are aimed at humans, and none of them explain why an animal would do evil.

If animals don’t have free will, and their actions can’t be seen as good or evil, then why do we put these explanations on human actions? What makes us the exception to the rule?

3. Heaven doesn’t allow for free will. Part of the construct on monotheistic religion is the belief in a paradise after this world, one filled with happiness and a lack of evil. Whatever explanation you give for God purposely creating a world in which evil can flourish makes the absence of evil in Heaven nonsense. Whatever explanation you give for God denying happiness to us on Earth makes the never-ending happiness of Heaven a mystery.

Or perhaps you think that God isn’t perfect, and didn’t create the right world the first time but improved on it by creating Heaven. This creates a problem with God’s aseity, because if God isn’t the same creator yesterday and tomorrow then this creates a problem with Him being deserving of worship (assuming He even exists). To explain God’s insistence on giving us freedom in this world, you also have to explain on his insistence of a lack of freedom in the next world and how this doesn’t create an incompatibility with his unchanging nature.

I’m not picking on a weak subject this time, but taking down a giant. If you’ve got a comment, please feel free to form a hypothesis that answers my 3 points. Attacks to my premises before these arguments have already been answered by philosophers, and I’ll just rehash their answers. This post is specifically aimed at people who understand the arguments for and against God’s existence and who can actually stay in the chess game of philosophy beyond the decided openings.


It’s Okay to be Wrong

“To err is human.” “Nobody’s perfect.” “Everybody makes mistakes.” We’ve all heard these cliches, and I think that most of us agree with them, too. Being wrong is part of life. It’s very common for people to be wrong, yet admitting failure strikes me as uncommon. I’d like to change that.

First, let me admit what’s at stake. If you admit that you’ve failed, even once, you ruin your reputation. This is awfully strange, because nobody assumes that their peers are perfect until proven imperfect, do they? Actually, we do. We have a natural way of categorizing our peers that is very simplistic. We assume that others are honest until caught in a lie, then we assume they’re liars. We assume that others are smart until we catch them doing something stupid, then we assume they’re idiots. I know I’m stereotyping humankind here, and that is also a very human quality: we assume things of entire groups of people until one of them surprises us, which simply makes them an exception. It’s just easier that way.

Also at stake is your ego. No one enjoys feeling like a failure, and we avoid this feeling at all costs. When we lose games, we blame an outside factor (“the sun was in my eyes”) or we redefine loss (“it was a moral victory”). When we blunder, we take solace in the fact that other people blunder even worse (“I only cheated on you once, but you’ve cheated on me several times”) or we downplay how awful the blunder was (“I know marijuana is illegal, but it’s not like I was doing something as bad as cocaine”).

When we defend our point of view, we have even stronger defenses. First, we use The Assumption of Ignorance. This is assuming a person who disagrees with us doesn’t have all the facts. When we discover that he or she is well-researched, we use The Assumption of Idiocy. We assume that, even though that person has the facts, they’re too stupid to make the right conclusion from them. When that fails, we fall back on our final defense of The Assumption of Evil. Sure, our opponent may have all the facts and is actually smart, but he or she must be purposely misleading us, because there is absolutely no way that I could possibly be wrong!

We know that we’re wrong at times, and it’s not so hard to admit past wrongs because they’re history. Past mistakes impact our reputation and ego much less than current mistakes. But I challenge you to try looking at your actions and opinions from a third-person perspective. Do you find yourself making assumptions about people who have contrary opinions?

I know that I personally argue with people about issues of both opinion and fact, and I often cite my sources. However, these sources aren’t checked. When it comes to reading my blogs, I’ve made it as simple as possible to check my sources, and yet WordPress.com continues to inform me that, despite an average of 10 visits per day, the average number of clicks on my blog hyperlinks is less than 1 per day. For each 10 visitors, only 1 of them clicks 1 link to actually make sure that I’ve done the research. I encourage you to click on the one single link I’ve included in this blog, and see if I’ve done a good job of passing on accurate information to back my premise. Then you can move on to assume that I’m an idiot or evil.  😉

-Supernova


The US Government is a Bully

This blog is mostly my attempt to vent my frustrations at my government’s interference in the world of online gambling. Meant for those who are unaware of our government’s history, I’ll lay out the coordinated attack that my country has laid on my favorite pastime (and until yesterday, main source of income).

Thanks to new legislation, many folks have become aware of a law passed in 1961 called the Wire Act. This made offshore sports betting illegal. It’s important to keep in mind that it wasn’t possible to play poker over a phone line at this time, because the internet was many years in the future. But expert interpretation of the law concluded that this didn’t include poker, blackjack, etc. after these games were introduced.

In 2006, the US Congress passed a law with an earmark referred to as the UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act). This didn’t change the status of online gambling – it was an “enforcement” act, that simply went on to enforce what was, previous to this bill, unlawful. While this didn’t include internet poker, US Republicans spoke to the media as if it did*. The US Democratic party has since tried to overturn this law, also under the assumption that it somehow prohibited online poker.

So how do I know that online poker was (and is) legal? After all, the Wire Act could’ve been interpreted to cover this also. Well, there was a federal case in 2001 where several poker players, after losing millions to an online poker site, sued that site. They claimed that the online poker site was committing fraud, and therefore owed them their money back. While this may be silly on ethical or logical grounds, it would’ve been legally sound – but the court found that the Wire Act did not cover online poker.

A supreme court decision makes the interpretation of the law set in stone, so there would be no more federal trials of this sort. However, shortly before passing the UIEGA, the US government had this tried in an international court (US vs Antigua). The World Trade Organization found the US to be out of line, stating that they didn’t have legal precedent for trying to stop offshore (Antigua is an island in the Carribean) gambling sites from operating in the United States.

So the issue is finally over, right? Wrong. The US blocked service from an EWallet service (a middleman that allows you to move money from a bank account to an offshore account, such as a poker account) called NETeller. This company lost millions as a result, and rather than fight this legal issue for years, finally decided to give up and no longer offer its services to Americans. This case, unfortunately, never saw its end in a courtroom. Our government simply bullied them into submission, despite not having a legal backing for its case.

They’ve now done this to the popular online gambling sites. I imagine you’ll still see what I saw at www.FullTiltPoker.com, a federal notice that they’ve shut down business in the US. I can’t get back to a table, nor can I access my poker funds (despite a lack of allegation that poker players have done anything illegal). I hope you can see, with a little bit of history, why I consider the US Government a bully when it comes to the regulation of online gambling.

-Supernova

*Sorry that I can’t cite this… I simply couldn’t find a related article. If anyone does find an article about congress members speaking about the UIGEA at the time of its passing (specifically Republicans or Focus on the Family, the lobbying group behind the provision) I’d appreciate a link.


Evolution is not Improbable

In a primordial soup, random chemicals are floating about. Suddenly, lightning strikes the primordial soup and somehow links the chemicals in a chain that resembles DNA. Around the DNA a single cell forms, complex and with evidence of clear design, yet strangely made through an accident of fate. And against all odds, that one cell reproduces to make other cells, which proliferate in an effort to make themselves into modern humans.

I know the story above seems like total fiction, and that’s because it is. I decided to start this blog with the creationist’s view of the origin of life. From their point of view, it does seem like evolution is mindlessly wild and extremely unlikely. This is because their point of view is wrong. Creationists have (for the most part) not familiarized themselves with evolution. Let me start with the beginning.

Life started in the oceans. It did begin with chemicals floating freely, which probably formed into protein chains. These chains probably came together to form peptides. These peptides probably formed self-replicating molecules, etc. until they formed primitive cells.

I keep using the word “probably” because this is a long process that’s extremely unlikely to observe, so we’ve never seen it happen naturally. Fred Hoyle first estimated the probability of life’s formation at 1 in 2.04 x 10 to the 390th power, but he was guessing that simple chemicals would somehow jump to the formation of the first cell (see the above story for an example of what he pictured). The chances of life forming are actually much more likely (especially when you expand that “primordial soup” to “earth’s oceans”).

Creationists have likened this to a tornado passing through a junkyard and leaving behind a fully-functioning 747 (using Hoyle’s estimation, which as I said, is based on faulty logic that assumes a sudden jump). However, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out in the Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit, even a creator that was capable of nothing but planting the first cell on Earth would be more improbable than Hoyle estimated, as His existence would be nothing but chance… He would be a machine more complex than any aircraft and yet built without even the help of a passing tornado. Simply saying a creator “was always there” is just begging the question, as a critic could respond that life “was always there” if he or she wanted to make unsubstantiated claims of that nature.

Furthermore, while evolution was at one time “just a theory”, is now has a mountain of fossil evidence as well as lab experimentation to back its existence. It has never been disproved, despite what creationists think. However, like any scientific theory, it can be disproved. This is what makes creationism unscientific… you can’t even possibly replicate it, test it, or falsify it. Its entire premise is that things “look designed” (I’d love to hear an actual definition of design that fits this context) and therefore must have a “designer”. This isn’t science – it’s philosophy. Yet the religious want it taught in our science classes, because they don’t believe in evolution based on hypocritical ideas such as its improbability or the inability of scientists to recreate its origin.

But evolution isn’t improbable. It’s a fact.

-Supernova


A Suspicious Tale

John 8: 1-11

1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

 

You may have noticed I’m calling this story “A Suspicious Tale.” Yeah. That’s because, within these 11 verses, there are no fewer than 6 errors.

1. She’s alone.

The bible is pretty clear on this; if two people are having sex and one of them is married, they’re both supposed to die. Was this woman “caught in the act of adultery” all by herself? The Pharisees don’t mention the man and Jesus doesn’t ask about him. I guess he’s let off the hook by Jesus, too.

In the modern world, this would be like getting robbed by two thieves and the police letting one of them go without so much as a warning. How would you feel about that?

2. The author tells you up front who’s wrong and who’s right.

The fact that the author of this story says “they were using this question as a trap” is assuming the unstated intentions of others (that is, it’s not a fact but rather a guess) and without that line it’s reasonable to wonder what makes the Pharisees wrong in this case. They were absolutely correct in saying that Moses commanded them to stone her, and that commandment was found in the bible. Jesus’ words and actions are not based on previous scripture. If instead we were given the same exact story, but with different players, would we come to the same conclusion?

If this were an Indiana Jones movie, the Pharisees would be the Nazis (arriving, of course, in a black car) and Jesus would be Indiana Jones. We would excuse the hero of this movie for anything he did to the bad guys,  just because the movie established who we should be rooting for. But the bad guy isn’t always the bad guy just because of the story’s premise.

3. Jesus’ response is both illogical and dishonest.

Up until this point, God left it up to “the whole assembly” to carry out his punishments. God apparently has the power to carry out punishments himself, but instead leaves it up to people “with sin”. It doesn’t make sense that a person needs to be sinless to punish sin, because then sin would never get punished… except in this case, where they dragged her before someone who, according to the bible, is “without sin”. So if that was truly Jesus’ reason for preventing them from stoning her, then he would have carried it out himself.

Remember the story proving Solomon was wise? Two women were brought before him, arguing about a baby, and through his infinite wisdom he determined who the mother is. But this story also infers that the Jewish leader settled civil cases brought before him, presumably for hundreds of years before Solomon took the throne. And none of the previous judges had Solomon’s wisdom. Do you think these mere mortals always judged correctly? Clearly God should’ve taken been judge, jury, and executioner all along if he didn’t want mistakes to happen. But I think it’s rather silly of Him to command men to do it instead (because he’s lazy?) and then tell them they weren’t worthy of doing it in the first place (because he’s arrogant).

4. The author of the story didn’t witness it.

First he’s making assumptions about the Pharisees testing Jesus, and then he’s assuming how the story ends. “Those who heard began to go away… until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.” The author is no longer present, and so he either interviewed the woman (unlikely) or took Jesus’ word for it.

You may wish to rebut with something about “divine inspiration” in the bible’s authorship. If you really believe in divine inspiration, then you’ve never tried to define it literally. I’ve already painted that picture… there’s no need to do it again.

5. Jesus believes that his forgiveness is enough.

Even if you granted Christians this belief that every sin “wrongs God”, therefore requiring an apology to Him, this still doesn’t excuse a wrongdoer from apologizing to the person who was actually wronged – in this case, her husband. Remember him? He has no idea that she cheated on him, and Jesus doesn’t tell her that she needs to say “I’m sorry” or even to confess that she cheated on him. And if he picks up a venereal disease from her that she received from the act of adultery, I guess Jesus is in the clear for that one, too. Because he’s Jesus.

6. He lets her go with a warning.

Forgiveness is a nice concept. It really does paint Jesus as a nice guy here, even to an unbeliever. But even though we see this as an act of love, the bible says it’s the exact opposite. And if it were the modern day, Jesus would be yet another traffic cop letting a beautiful woman get away with just a warning. And why not – she is totally naked, after all, and he’s a virgin. His decision might be just a little biased.

And if you agree that Jesus was right, you also may be just a little biased. Let’s change the players in this situation. Let’s call the woman “Willie Horton” and let’s call Jesus “Michael Dukakis”. If you aren’t familiar with this story, Willie Horton was a murderer/rapist who was let out of prison on a furlough program supported by Dukakis. And he then went on to murder and rape again. Many Republicans (who aren’t necessarily Christian, but the two groups often coincide) saw this as a good reason not to elect Dukakis as president. But wasn’t he just emulating Jesus? Or perhaps Jesus was foolish, too, because a simple “leave your life of sin” doesn’t fix the problem.

 

Adding further suspicion to this story, you should also know about its shady origins. Read what http://www.biblegateway.com has to say in the preface to these verses:

[The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.]

– Supernova