Back from the Reason Rally

Atheism clashes with ChristianityI’ve recently returned from the Reason Rally, held on the National Mall in Washington D.C. (photos here).  There were an estimated 20,000 people there, in the rain, which is a lot more than I would have predicted.  The organizers figured that it was the biggest secular gathering in world history by a factor of ten.

The atheist glitterati were all there—Michael Shermer, James Randi (founder of The Amazing Meeting), Richard Dawkins, Greta Christina (my favorite atheist blogger), PZ Myers, Tim Minchin (whose beat poem “Storm” is awesome), Eddie Izzard, Jessica Ahlquist (American Atheist’s “Atheist of the year” for her lawsuit against the religious banner in her public high school), Rep. Pete Stark (the only open atheist in Congress), Sen. Tom Harkin (not an atheist [!] but a senator who welcomed us anyway), Penn Jillette, Todd Stiefel (whose foundation helped sponsor the event), Nate Phelps (an eloquent and estranged member of the infamous Phelps family), and many more.  The Rally proceeded without a break for over seven hours.

The 2012 American Atheist conference was the following two days and had 1300 attendees.  The theme this year was “Come Out,” and many speakers talked about both the need for that and for dealing with the challenges that coming out as an atheist can impose on someone living in America today.

After being away from the office, I’ve got a lot to catch up on, and I’ll be busy with the Northwest Freethought Alliance conference here in Seattle this weekend.  I’ll get back to a regular posting schedule soon.  Thanks for all your comments to the posts of the past couple of weeks; I’ll be responding ASAP.

Any brief summary will be inadequate to cover the Rally and conference.  I’ll just summarize some of the highlights.

  • Roughly ten Christian protesters held signs at the Rally.  Discussing apologetics with Christian sign carriers is one of my hobbies, but each was surrounded by lots of atheists—sometimes conversing thoughtfully and sometimes haranguing.  The only one that I talked to at length admitted that he had no arguments in favor of Christianity but was just mindlessly on the Mall, witnessing for Jesus.  I wondered what the point was, since he’s not informing anyone of anything.  He had no new arguments, and simply stating the tenets of Christianity (all he seemed capable of doing) to atheists better informed than the average Christian was pointless.
  • Taslima Nasrin from Bangladesh spoke of the Muslim response to her writings—riots, burned cars, and house arrest.  After hearing this, it was hard to compare any struggle atheists might have in coming out with hers.
  • Physicist Lawrence Krauss said that philosophers asking “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is like Johannes Kepler asking “Why are there five planets?”  It’s an irrelevant and outdated question!
  • Too often, the Christian says, “Morality is built on a foundation of God’s existence!” and the atheist response is a tepid, “But we are moral, too.”  We need to take morality back.  Our morality is superior—it’s built on something besides myth and wishful thinking.
  • Richard Dawkins spoke of a poll his foundation did in the UK.  Of self-identified “Christians,” many accepted non-Christian beliefs (ghosts, fate, reincarnation), many don’t believe in the power of prayer, many don’t read the Bible and know very little about it, and some don’t even believe that Jesus was a historical figure.  Conclusions: most “Christians” aren’t, and we shouldn’t accept Christians’ self-identification but rather ask what they mean.

Asked why they had been recorded as Christian in the 2011 Census, only three in ten (31%) said it was because they genuinely try to follow the Christian religion, with four in ten (41%) saying it was because they try to be a good person and associate that with Christianity.

But when asked where they seek most guidance in questions of right and wrong, only one in ten (10%) said it was from religious teachings or beliefs, with over half (54%) preferring to draw on their own inner moral sense.

  • Jerry DeWitt is a cheerful ex-pastor who left religion half a year ago through the Clergy Project, a group trying to find a soft landing for doubting pastors.  I’ve written before about Rich Lyons, a local ex-pastor who had to get through the process solo and suffered from PTSD after leaving his pulpit.
  • PZ Myers gave an interesting quote from Sean Carroll: “The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions.”
  • PZ Myers on trying to juggle science and religion: “Squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place.  It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.”
  • Religion is a natural part of the human mind.  Okay, and smallpox is natural, too.  That doesn’t mean you resign yourself to it.
  • This chart from a 2009 Gallup poll documents the long-term change in religious preference in the U.S. and shows that the increase in atheism and erosion in Christianity has been fairly steady and not just a recent phenomenon.

  • In a cartoon, two guys are talking.  One says, “New Atheism indeed—it’s just the same old indisputable scientific evidence again.”
  • Religion makes you happy?  Okay, but so does a puppy.  There’s no need to abandon reason for happiness.
  • On the subject of atheist accomodationists (“Do you have to be so shrill?”) versus confrontationists (“Don’t mince words—tell it like it is!”), Greta Christina likened the atheist movement to a toolbox.  If you’re a hammer, be the best hammer you can be and let the other tools be the best they can be.
  • Christina drew parallels with the gay movement and noted that for many straight people, simply knowing a gay person was key to dismantling their prejudices.  Similarly, we need to come out (where practical) to help Christian America dismantle its anti-atheist prejudices.  One important difference: when you come out as gay, you’re not telling straight people that they’re wrong.  That’s not really true with atheism.
  • The Secular Student Alliance has grown from 50 chapters in 2007 to 250 a year ago and even more today.  The Campus Crusade for Christ (now “Cru”) has three times as many chapters, but it has an annual budget of half a billion dollars and is losing chapters.

Curiously, no one talked about what I like to talk about: critique of Christian apologetics.  I’m not sure what to make of this.  Does no one care about this topic?  Has everyone already moved on, comfortable in their conclusion that the emperor has no clothes?

Ah well, I guess I’ll just be the best hammer I can be.

How can you have judgment if you don’t have faith
and how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?
Newt Gingrich (October, 2011)

I’m Off to the Reason Rally

I’ll be leaving soon for a bit of vacation and then I’ll attend the Reason Rally in Washington D.C. on March 24, “the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history.”

After that, it’s the American Atheists National Convention (March 25–6), also in Washington.

If you’re attending too, I hope to bump into you. Say hello if you see me.

And if you’re in the Seattle area, the Northwest Freethought Conference featuring Richard Dawkins as keynote speaker will be held March 31–April 1.

I have blog posts queued up for the next couple of weeks while I’m gone, so come back often, but I won’t be able to respond to comments very well.

I’m looking forward to telling you about it when I return!

Faith is superstition disguised as virtue
— Pat Condell

The “God is Simple” Argument

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins said, “God, or any intelligent, decision-making calculating agent, is complex, which is another way of saying improbable.”  But is God complex?  Philosopher Alvin Plantinga argued that he is not:

According to much classical theology (Thomas Aquinas, for example) God is simple, and simple in a very strong sense.…  So first, according to classical theology, God is simple, not complex.

Seriously?  We’re consulting a 13th century scholar to understand modern cosmology?  Modern science takes us to the Big Bang, and we need Thomas Aquinas to figure out the remaining riddles?

Here’s philosopher William Lane Craig’s input:

As a mind without a body, God is amazingly simple.  Being immaterial, He has no physical parts.  Therefore to postulate a pure Mind as the explanation of fine-tuning is the height of simplicity!

So anything that isn’t physical is simple?  Sure—something that isn’t physical is maximally simple physically because it doesn’t exist physically.  But that doesn’t help us with immaterial things, whatever they are.  I don’t know what it means to be an immaterial mind, so I have no way of evaluating its complexity.  Incredibly, neither apologist gives any evidence of the claim that God is simple.  They seem to have no way of evaluating its complexity either and propose we just take their word for it.

Of course, science has shown that complex can come from simple.  For example, we see this in the formation of snowflakes, in erosion, or in evolution.  From a handful of natural rules comes complexity—no intelligence required.

But we’re talking about something quite different—an intelligent creator.  And in every creative instance we know of (the creation of a car, the creation of a bee hive, the creation of a bird’s nest), the creator is more complex than the creation.  Plantinga’s God would be the most stupendous counterexample to the axiom that, in the case of designed things, simple comes from complex, and yet we’re supposed to take this claim on faith.

But there’s a way to cut through all this.  Is God as simple as Plantinga or Craig imagine?  Then demonstrate this—make us one.  Humanity can make complex things like a microprocessor, the worldwide telephone system, and a 747, so making this “amazingly simple” thing shouldn’t be hard.  Or, if we don’t have the materials, they can at least give us the blueprints.

Surely they will fail in this challenge and admit that they have no clue how to build a God.  In that case, how can they critique the simplicity of such a being?  Now that their argument that God is simple has evaporated, we’re back to Dawkins’ argument that a complex God is improbable.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related links:

  • Alvin Plantinga, “The Dawkins Confusion (A Review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion),” Christianity Today, March 2007.
  • William Lane Craig, “Dawkins’ Delusion,” Reasonable Faith, 2009.
  • “Divine Simplicity,” Wikipedia.  (Note: neither Craig nor Plantinga accept this view.)

Bungling the Facts Behind Evolution

A series of images show how the horse evolved over 50 million yearsA Huffington Post article earlier this week asked, “Does Questioning Evolution Make You Anti-Science?

Yeah, pretty much.

The author notes the flak Rick Perry received for stating that evolution was “just a theory” and that it has “some gaps in it” and tried to make the case that Republicans aren’t as anti-science as they’re portrayed.  I’m not interested in the politics here, but the science (or failure to understand science) is worth mentioning.

Denial of both climate change and evolution is popular among conservatives.  The author said, “While I cannot comment on climate-change science, I do have a great deal to say about evolution.”  He lists his credentials as organizing an annual science vs. religion debate at Oxford University, which were typically about evolution, and giving Richard Dawkins a good thrashing at another debate for good measure.

But for someone who’s well versed in these matters, his understanding of science seems stunted.

What I learned from these debates, as well as reading extensively on evolution, is that evolutionists have a tough time defending the theory when challenged in open dialogue.

I doubt that, but let’s assume it’s the case.  Who cares?  Science, not debate, is where our confidence in evolution comes from.

[Attacks on evolution do not] mean that evolution is not true or that theory is without merit or evidence. It does, however, corroborate what Governor Perry said.  Evolution is a theory.  Unlike, say, the laws of thermodynamics, it has never been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt to be true.

Wow—where do you start?

Evolution is an explanation.  It claims to give us the mechanism explaining how life got to be the way it is.  The best evolution can hope for is to become a theory, and it has done so.  The same is true for germ theory, another explanation, which has also reached that pinnacle and can’t become anything better.

By contrast, a scientific law is Continue reading