Map of World Religions

Everyone’s seen maps of world religions like this one.

Have you ever wondered why you never see a Map of World Science?

Let’s imagine such a map.  Over here is where scientists believe in a geocentric solar system, and over there, a heliocentric one.  This area is where they think that astrology can predict the future, and that area is where they reject the idea.  The Intelligent Design guys reign in the crosshatched area, and evolution in the dark gray area.

Naturally, each of these different groups think of their opponents as heretics, and they have fought wars over their opposing beliefs.  (To keep it manageable, I’ve shown on the map only the conflicts with more than 1000 deaths.)

Of course, the idea is nonsensical.  A new scientific theory isn’t culturally specific, and, if it passes muster, it peacefully sweeps the world.  Astronomy replaced astrology, chemistry replaced alchemy, and the germ theory replaced evil spirits as a cause of disease.  One scientist should get the same results from an experiment as another, regardless of their respective religions.  Evolution or germ theory or relativity or the Big Bang are part of the consensus view among scientists, whether they are Christian, Muslim, atheist, or Other.

Sure, there can be some not-invented-here thinking—scientists have egos, too—but this only slows the inevitable.  Contrast this with the idea that Shintoism will sweep across America over the next couple of decades and replace Christianity, simply because it’s a better idea.

Let’s go back to our map of world religions.  Religions claim to give answers to the big questions—answers that science can’t give.  Questions like: What is our purpose?  Or, Where did we come from?  Or, Is there anything else out there?  Or, What is science grounded on?

But the map shows that the religious answer to that question depends on where you are!  If you live in Tibet or Thailand, Buddhism teaches that we are here to learn to cease suffering and reach nirvana.  If you live in Yemen or Saudi Arabia, Islam teaches that we are here to submit to Allah.  We ask the most profound questions of all, and the answers are location specific?

What kind of truth depends on location?

For discovering reality, religion comes up short.  Next time someone nods his head sagely and says, “Ah, but Christianity can answer the Big Questions®,” remember how shallow that claim is.

Principle of Analogy

I recently found the name for a simple and common sense idea that is often abused in apologetics circles, the Principle of Analogy.

Bob Price described it this way:

We don’t know that things have always happened the way they do now.  But unless we assume that, we can’t infer anything about the past.  If we don’t assume that physics and chemistry have always worked by the same laws, we’re just going to believe anything any nut says.  …

[Imagine being confronted with the claim,] “I met a guy today who turned into a werewolf when the full moon came out.”  Wait a minute—I know of no one who has ever seriously claimed to have ever seen that, so there is no analogy to current day experience to such a claim.  But … there are fictional stories and movies where that happens.  I bet this really is one of those.  (Source)

How do we categorize a miracle claim from history?  What’s it analogous to?  Does it look like the plausible activities of ordinary people or does it look like legend?  You can’t say for sure, of course, but which bin does this claim best fit into?

Did a winged horse carry Muhammad?  Did Joseph Smith find golden plates with the help of the angel Moroni?  Can faith healers cure illness that modern medicine can’t?  Science has no analogy to these claims, but mythology and legend do.

Incredibly, I’ve heard Christians reject this principle and argue that an atheist must bring positive evidence against their claims.  Say for example that the question is whether Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.  The Christian points to this story in the gospel of John—that’s the evidence in favor.  And then he says, “So where’s your evidence against?”

Of course, I have no direct evidence against this particular event.  I have no direct evidence that Jesus didn’t raise Lazarus or that Merlin wasn’t a shape-shifting wizard or that Paul Bunyan didn’t exist.  The plausibility test that we all use helps ensure that we don’t simply believe everything we hear or read.  Well, all of us, I guess, except someone who’s eager to make exceptions to preserve a preconception.

Something can violate the Principle of Analogy only with substantial evidence.  The claim “I can see through opaque objects” properly fit into the magical category until Wilhelm Röntgen demonstrated x-rays.

Until we have an analogy to a miracle story, it properly belongs in the magical category as well.

Related posts:

Related links:

  • The Bob Price quote was from a 4/11/2010 interview titled “How to Study the Historical Jesus” from Common Sense Atheism.  The MP3 file is here (go to 13:30).

Weak Argument for Abstinence

Texas governor Rick Perry was recently interviewed by the Texas Tribune (3:00 video), and he was asked about the value of abstinence-only sex education.  The interviewer said that Texas has the third-highest teen pregnancy rate in the country.

Perry’s response: “Abstinence works.”

Let’s make a distinction between abstinence (that is, actually abstaining from sex) and abstinence as a policy.  Perry is right, of course, that “abstinence works” in the first case.  It works by definition.  But the question is: Is teaching schoolchildren that abstinence is the way to prevent pregnancy the best approach?  Does it lead to the fewest unwanted pregnancies?

The punch line is that Perry cited steroid testing within schools as something that yielded very poor results.  The interviewer asked if Perry is saying that that was a poor expenditure of money.  Nope—“If that’s a good expenditure, then I would suggest to you that the dollars we’re spending on abstinence education is a good expenditure.”  Huh?  The question is whether or not there’s something better.

Moving on to the larger abortion debate, it’s hard for me to understand someone saying that abortion is murder and then not demanding the most effective way to prevent unwanted pregnancies.  If you really, really hate abortion, then teach teens in a way that minimizes the unwanted pregnancies.

The graphic above shows abortion rates by country, with dark being worse.  Compare the dark United States with lighter Europe.  For example, the teen abortion rate in the US is 30 per 1000, but in the Netherlands, it’s less than 4!

Looks like there’s room for improvement.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

John Lennox Responds to Stephen Hawking

John LennoxDr. John Lennox, a math professor at the University of Oxford, visited Seattle recently to respond to Stephen Hawking’s recent The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow).  I’ll give a brief summary of the main points Lennox made with a few comments.

In his book, Hawking says:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

Christian apologists like to focus on the beginning of the universe, sensing a weakness in the naturalistic model. When asked about what came before the Big Bang, Science simply says, “I don’t know.” This is neither a weakness nor a reason for embarrassment. Instead, it points to those areas in science where more work needs to be done. But this statement by Hawking gives at least one resolution to the question.

Lennox spent much of the lecture criticizing this one claim.  Continue reading

Caltrop Argument

CaltropA caltrop is a small object with four sharp spikes arranged such that however it lands on the ground, three spikes are down and one is pointing up.  Ninjas are said to have tossed these on the ground as they ran away to stop barefoot pursuers.

A caltrop argument is a defensive argument that attempts to avoid an argument rather than respond to it honestly.

My favorite caltrop argument goes something like this:

Atheist: There is no absolute truth beyond trivial statements like 1 + 1 = 2.

Christian: Well, that certainly sounded like an absolute truth statement!  Aha—you’ve defeated yourself!

Atheist: [sigh]  Fine.  What I should have said was “I have never seen evidence of such absolute truth statements.”

The atheist in this exchange made a mistake.  But instead of interpreting the statement charitably and finding the valid point wrapped in an imperfect presentation, the Christian tried to use the mistake to avoid the point completely.

Of course, I’m not saying that only one group is guilty of this.  Atheists can toss out caltrops to avoid confronting an argument as well.  But the person interested in the truth confronts an argument directly.

Related posts:

Post #1

Hello?  Test, test….  Hey, is this thing on?

After several years posting at other discussion forums, I’d like to focus my creative efforts on this blog.  I want to take a broad look at the arguments for and against Christianity as well as look at Christianity’s place in society.  I’d like to create a civil but energetic critique of Christianity from an atheist viewpoint.

I’m interested in what you think!  Please add your comments.  Any suggestions for new topics—things about Christianity or atheism that bug you or questions you have—would also be much appreciated.  Email me at bobtheatheist@gmail.com.

I’m also interested in any comments you have about the name and tagline for the blog.  I went through a lot of them, looking for the right balance between politeness and frankness, and I’d like to hear any suggestions for improvement.  For your amusement, here are some taglines that didn’t make it.

  • Using Reason to Critique Christianity
  • Clear Thinking about Christianity
  • If God Wanted Mindless Faith, Then Why Did He Give You a Mind?
  • Challenging Thoughtful Christians
  • If God Exists, He Made Reason to be Used
  • Free your Mind
  • Religion is Easier than Thinking
  • Using Reason to Reject Faith
  • “Faith means not wanting to know what is true”  — Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Faith is No Virtue.  Demanding Evidence is No Vice.
  • Santa Claus isn’t Real Either
  • A Critique of Christianity in America Today
  • Faith is What You Appeal to When You Don’t Have Good Reasons
  • “Atheism is not a religion, it’s a personal relationship with reality”

Let the thinking begin!

Bob