The War on Christmas

Earlier this week I saw an article on Breitbart talking about how the “War on Christmas” has a new front: the growing number of Bible scholars that believe Jesus never existed, so referenced in a Big Think article. Having read about this and watched a few Bart Ehrman and Richard Carrier lectures, this was not news to me. Here, I want to first address this fiction known as the “War on Christmas”, then talk about the flaws in both articles.

The War on Christmas

People have become aware that overt use of “Christmas” excludes people that do not celebrate the holiday. Government entities are, or should be, prevented from referencing “Christmas”, as it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Where private businesses are concerned, they are free to say or not say Merry Christmas or whatever. Many large chains have taken to the more inclusive “Happy Holidays” in the interest of not being accused of excluding people. The phrase, “Happy Holidays” includes all people, including people for whom December 25th represents the birthday of one third of the trinity of deities that they worship.

Christians have wrongly claimed that this practice of inclusion is an affront to their particular holiday and religion. They forget about people of other faith traditions that have holidays around that same time. Their major argument in this vein is an Appeal to Tradition, e.g., “That’s the way it’s always been,” paired with heartstring-tugging Appeals to Emotion. So many people, especially in the US, have this shared memory of Christmas being the most magical and beautiful and loving-est thing that there could be. Indeed, there are few things as comforting to the late 20th century American psyche as the images of Christmas depicted in A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, and It’s a Wonderful Life, not to mention the works of Norman Rockwell.

My own childhood is filled with these kinds of memories from real life: get the family together, have a big meal, open presents, play in the snow. And, yeah, probably go to church. Maybe we didn’t go to the Midnight Mass on the 24th, being little kids and all, but we went to Christmas Day Mass as good little Catholic children. The pageantry of the Catholic Mass, especially at Christmastime, added more magic to my kid-mind.

People appear to be conflating their good Christmas memories with the religious belief that, in their view, undergirds them. It’s extremely easy to associate traditions such as a decorated fir tree, giving gifts and whatnot with Christmas because of branding: It’s a Christmas tree, those are Christmas presents. The truth is that those traditions have no basis in Christian doctrine. If the birth of Jesus were celebrated at some other time of the year, say March, when some scholars think he was actually born (if he existed at all, but that’s for another time), would sleighbells, fir trees, and sweaters be part of the celebration?

Christmas has become a cultural holiday rather than a religious one. The proof of that is in non-Christian cultures that have adopted many of the traditions, such as gift giving and the style of decoration. I lived in Taiwan for three years. Christians are definitely a minority there. Yet, all the children know who Santa Claus is and they talk about getting presents on December 25th.

How Breitbart Got it Wrong

This isn’t new. There have long been historians and scholars claiming that Jesus never existed and that the story was made up. It’s laughable that the scholars holding this fringe position are being cast as bannermen to the cause that brought us plain red Starbucks cups and employee policies on greeting people.

The fallacious nature of this connection cannot be overstated. In one case, you have a group of scholars, who at least claim to be sincere seekers of the truth, finding less than convincing evidence of the historical Jesus. In that group there may be, as it says in the article, “atheists with an axe to grind.” To the extent that those scholars are blinded by their biases, they should be ignored. Their goal is to produce legitimate work in their field while also selling books and doing lectures, and maybe, just maybe, affect change in the consensus among Bible scholars and ancient historians.

On the other side, you have the aforementioned secular appeals to inclusion as intended by the Establishment Clause. There’s no coordination between these two parties.

Big Think Also Got it Wrong

By using “growing number” in the title of their piece, they make it sound like it’s bigger than it is, like it’s about to reach critical mass. The same could be said of the phrasing of the opening sentence of the third paragraph: “More and more, historians and bloggers alike are questioning whether the actual man called Jesus existed.” At first glance, it sounds like they are claiming that there are more and more historians and bloggers flocking to this position, but that’s not quite it, is it? The comma after “More and more,” indicates that they are referring to a degree rather than a number. To see what I mean, imagine there’s no comma and compare how it sounds to the sentence as written.

Also, “bloggers?” This is the internet. Every idiot out there has a blog. Just as the number of people (much smaller than anticipated) who visit the Ark Encounter doesn’t make Young Earth Creationism true, so does the number of “bloggers” promoting the Jesus Myth not matter with regard to scholarly consensus. Some of those bloggers may be credentialed and have opinions worth sharing on the subject, but that isn’t implied by the title of “blogger.”

To a brandy-new atheist who just discovered Hitchens, this Big Think article might sound like a huge blow to Theism, if not the knockout punch. However, reading the full article reveals that it’s not nearly so overwhelming as the title makes it sound. There are definitely arguments to be made on both sides, or at least it appears that there are educated people on both sides making arguments. In fact, it seems like the “Mythical Jesus” position is and will likely remain a fringe position in the scholar community for some time.

Big Think could have been honest about this fact from the start. We should want Big Think to be more evenhanded about this, and the fact that Breitbart got a front page article out of it is a perfect example of why. The slight exaggeration in Big Think’s title and that sentence are cannon fodder, allowing dishonest content creators on the other side to put a spotlight on it and say, “See? Look how dishonest these people are.” and continue confirming what their readers have long known about secular people.

Conclusion

In the end, Breitbart are dead wrong on two counts: 1. There never was a War on Christmas, only people who wanted to include non-Christians into society. 2. The minority of scholars who believe Jesus never existed has nothing to do with the first group. Big Think are guilty of overplaying their hand slightly, which is the lesser of the two infringements in this case.

I haven’t read much from Breitbart, though I have heard people speak highly of them. I hope they don’t approach all news stories with the same obvious bias. Speaking of bias, they’re not the only ones here. I used to be subbed to Big Think on YouTube. I especially liked their longer videos, around 45 minutes, on topics such as demographics, psychology, and the universe. Their shorter vids would feature well known people espousing atheist, or at the very least, secular opinions. Only after considering their catalog carefully do I detect a bias on their part.

It’s much easier for me, as an atheist, to see Breitbart’s article and roll my eyes. But I think the more important work is looking at the Big Think article and imagining how Breitbart’s readers might have read it, then asking, “Do they have a point?” For critical thinking’s sake, we have to do this.

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What if I’m Wrong? What Do You Mean “if”?

After I posted an article that stated the not-at-all-controversial fact that evolution was the best explanation for biodiversity and that creationism did not belong at all in the science classroom, a friend responded with comments to the effect of, “What are the consequences if we’re wrong?” There were other things he brought up, and we talked more about those things and not so much about this play on Pascal’s Wager. I honestly didn’t want to address that question because the question is flawed, and I don’t really want to (1) explain what a garbage philosophical argument Pascal’s Wager is, because that would mean I’d have to (2) admit that I’m conversing with people who think Pascal’s Wager is a good argument. I tried instead to present the case that there are many people of faith who have no problem with evolution, as it is the best explanation of the facts as we understand them. This worked to steer the conversation toward science and facts and away from making it a theist v. atheist thing, which may as well be insoluble as long as the two sides seem more often than not to talk past one another rather than really trying to reach an understanding.

Still, the question and its implied misconception stuck in my craw. I found the perfect rejoinder to it this morning in the form of a Phys.org article about how the Standard Model may need to be revised. That headline alone – “Hey we’re probably wrong about something!” – is enough to smash the premise of the question. That premise being that we don’t acknowledge the presence or the possibility of error in current scientific models. The whole point of capital S Science is that we know that we’re wrong somehow, and we want to find out how exactly we’re wrong. This idea of scientists declaring the answers to life, the universe, and everything from some ivory tower, never to be challenged is bullshit. What if we’re wrong? We gather more data, form another model, test it to see if it makes useful and reliable predictions, and eventually settle on a new understanding of the phenomena in question by consensus of experts in the field.

There’s this absolutist thing in the question, a black-or-white-ness that is not at all what real life is like. As if there were just those two choices, creation and evolution, that are either 100% right or 100% wrong. This characterization reveals how little the questioner knows about the topic. In every field that I’ve looked into, I’ve found that there are almost always shades on shades on shades of grey coloring every aspect of it. Things are seldom, if ever, just that simple. When we talk about things that way it is usually out of convenience – which makes me wonder, did my friend talk that way about “the two sides of the evolution debate” out of convenience? I think maybe yeah, there’s something to that. Of course he’d realize that the two positions have mini-camps within them that differ on some details, but that they agree on the fundamental things enough to count themselves as on the same side. However, the idea that there are two somewhat equal “sides” to this thing is an idea favored only by the uninformed or those who are under the sway of the charlatans on the side of creationism. For that reason, I can say that my friend is oversimplifying this topic much to my chagrin.

I am aware that even though the concepts and fundamental ideas of science, lofty though they may be, are not without flaw in practice. Malfeasance of all kinds is something that we should always be on the lookout for. It would be folly to say otherwise. If you want to bring up those kinds of problems in the scientific community, fine, but now you’ve started another discussion.

What about the other side of that question, what consequences await if it turns out that creationism was right all along? Aside from the obvious problem of which particular version of which creation story it is, we could defend ourselves by saying that the evidence we encountered led us to understand the world in the way that we did. And by every measurement we could make, it appeared that we had made a lot of correct predictions about how things worked. We were able to produce results with science. Far be it from me to know the mind of God, but it seems like maximizing life and minimizing misery – by and large the output of science in the last four hundred years – should be thought of as a good thing. So if we were able to do all this good stuff using science, how can it be bad if the employment of the same leads us to concluding that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor? What, if any, difference can be drawn between the two?

Whenever I have these kinds of discussions, I always end up asking about the epistemology of the other participants. What is it that led you to hold the position that you do? But epistemology is more than that. It’s the next question, or even the next next question or later. What do you consider to be knowledge? What attributes make a statement, or series of statements true?  

This is at the bottom of every discussion people have with one another, and they rarely realize it. We go back and forth with our talking points about this or that issue, and to the one making the statements, it seems like you must be crazy to think differently. We do this without realizing that the other person is thinking the same thing about their own view. Once we realize that people think differently than us, and that they think they have good reasons for doing so, and that we could benefit from finding out those reasons, can we hope to have productive discussions.

How I Became an Atheist

The following is my submission to Itsokaytogo.com. They are gathering stories from atheists, humanists and other secular people. On there, my story is called Critical Thinking: A Catholic Learns to Doubt. Enjoy.

 

My mom is Catholic, went to Catholic high school, and was determined to raise her sons in the Catholic church. Growing up, I went to Mass every Sunday followed by catechism. I learned pretty well and served as an alter boy. In high school I stopped going except when my mom forced me. My dad was raised Baptist and claimed, and still claims, to be Atheist. Faith wasn’t something that we discussed on a daily basis, or at all for that matter. When I had other Christian friends who would say something about faith and we would feel awkward. I think it’s a Catholic culture thing: we know we’re good Catholics (however we define good) and we don’t need to talk about it. At least that’s my impression of it.

I didn’t think much about God or religion until 2005, when I first tried to stop drinking. I had heard of AA growing up, and decided that my drinking had gotten to be seriously problematic for me and my family. In the program, they emphasize a Higher Power. The phrase “God as we understand Him” is a big part of the literature. If I recall correctly, fully seven of the Twelve Steps mention God or prayer as part of recovery. I figured I wanted to get sober, so I began really taking faith seriously. I decided that my God would be the Catholic God I grew up with. Going back to Mass was like coming home. I really started reading the Bible and getting into prayer and the AA program.

About a year later I started drinking again, but my son was getting older, like almost school age. I felt that the church was a place for him to develop morals. Yes, the old saw that the church is the only and best way to give a foundation in morality. So I started taking him to church and Sunday School. I noticed people chit-chatting during service while I was shushing my son and firmly telling him to participate in all the parts of the Catholic Mass. I often felt awkward during church, a voice in the back of my mind, “This is bullshit, this is bullshit”. No real direction or anything, just a general feeling that we were all just pretending but no one was willing to be honest about it.

Then, in 2012, I started a college program that met on weekends, intended to work around working people’s schedules. This meant missing Mass every other week. In one of the classes, the instructor took some time at the end of the course to talk about critical thinking. Like most people, I thought, “Yeah, other people should really do that. I definitely do that, and other people should too.” This was before I’d heard of Dunning/ Kruger, but man was I committing it. He recommended some books on the subject, one of which I found and began reading.

It introduced me to a systematic way of finding out why we believe what we believe. When I started applying this method to my opinions on things, I found that there was nothing supporting many of my cherished opinions.

At this time, I still had not completely gotten out of religion. I was feeling guilty for not taking my son to church every week, simply for the fact that he was missing out on what I considered necessary moral instruction. I was, however, applying the critical thinking approach to everything.

One night, I was thinking about the God concept. I decided to see if there was anything on YouTube that addressed the subject. I searched “does God exist” or something and watched a debate with Christopher Hitchens and Frank Turek I think. I heard things that were shocking at the time. The way Hitch heaved volley after volley of true statements that show church organizations doing harm in the world really blew me away. His arguments and the bold, shameless way he presented them showed me I could be without God. I can’t think of any specific thing that really convinced me, I think I was on the precipice of walking away from faith but just needed to know that it could be done. For that particular lesson, of being confident in one’s nonbelief, there has scarcely been a better example than Hitch. I really like his point about the Neanderthals. We know that these somewhat human relatives of ours had forms of ritual that suggested belief in an afterlife. If the same God that created us created them, where does that leave the Neanderthals? Did they not pray enough? Were they not quite in His image enough? Anyway, Hitch tells it way better than me, or nearly anyone else. From that point, I could say I was an atheist.

That was the beginning of my journey of discovery. I never want to stop finding things out, and examining why people think the way they do about things.

Apparently, I Don’t Exist: Another Intellectually Dishonest Apologetic

My friend declared the other day that atheists don’t exist. I was kind of flabbergasted by this news. Here I was, thinking that I was existing, but it looks like, ever since a couple years ago when I decided that I officially didn’t believe in god, I wasn’t. After I got over the very real existential crisis this statement wrought in me, I wondered what he meant by that, since it could be a couple different things. He could be 1) abandoning reason altogether and casting his lot with the Presuppositionalists, who say that everyone knows that the god of the Bible exists; or 2) defining atheism to mean gnostic atheism, or having absolute knowledge that no gods exist. Turns out it was this one.

There are two main questions being asked here that my friend is conflating. One is, “do you believe in a god or gods?” and the other is, “can we know for sure whether or not a god or gods exist?” Here is a helpful illustration:

Epistemology

For me this comes down to epistemology, or how we know what we know. I only want to believe things that are demonstrably true. Religious claims such as, “There is a god.” don’t have any demonstration to support them.

You should be able to test any claim so that there are clearly defined, measurable circumstances that indicate that a claim is false. This quality is also called being falsifiable. Evolution is extremely well supported because there are clearly defined conditions that would show it to be false (e.g. rabbits in the Pre-Cambrian as J.B.S. Haldane once said) and those conditions have never been met in the century and a half and then some following Darwin’s The Origin of Species. On the other hand, Creationism doesn’t work as since there are no defined conditions that could show it to be false.

For example, I know as well as one can know anything that our planet rotates approximately every 24 hours. I also know that this planet orbits the star we call the sun, and it takes about 365.25 days to do so. I can support these claims with measurable, testable, falsifiable data.

Biblical Claims: What Do We Know?

I know that there are some ancient writings where a man named Jesus worked miracles, was crucified, and rose from the dead. I know that there are many people that believe that those things happened, and that Jesus died for them. The most that any non-biblical text ever says about this is that there were people who believed that these things happened. All of the non-biblical texts are from at least a hundred years after the crucifixion.

The above is just a nugget of the information that is available about the truth of the claims of Christianity. I have seen many Youtube videos and lectures on this, and read about it. I am but a layman when it comes to ancient writings. There’s a crapload of information out there. I recommend interacting with media from both sides.

However, if you are an expert, like my friend that I mentioned above, your faith-based opinion on the Jesus story doesn’t sell me as long as it is, at bottom, based on faith. By faith I mean belief in something without evidence, like the Jesus story. Even if the most miraculous and arguably most important event of the Gospels, the resurrection, can be shown to be true, it doesn’t mean that Jesus is the son of god, or god, or anything else.

Think about it. According to the books of the Bible, Jesus is the third person to get resurrected. Why is this one the one that must be the son of god? These are questions that you are allowed to ask.

Atheists Don’t Exist

To come back to the topic, my friend says that because I can’t know everything, I can’t make the positive claim that no gods exist. I will concede that I don’t have absolute knowledge. It would be foolish for me to claim to know something that cannot be known. Somehow, he is able to know that his god is the one true god, the creator of the universe. This reminds me of Josh Feuerstein’s $100K challenge. For those that don’t want to click the DoNotLink link, the video has the red-ballcapped one offering $100K to any atheist who can provide proof that god doesn’t exist. It is but one float in the endless parade of stupid social media that he is responsible for.

This challenge contains a presupposition that is glaring. You are correct in pointing out that I can’t have absolute knowledge. You fail to recognize, however, that that applies to everyone, yourself included. To say otherwise, that is, to say that you can have absolute knowledge that your god exists while atheists and every non-Christian person can’t is a case of special pleading.

Atheismwonka

You Don’t Get To Say What I Am

The thing that really irks me about my friend’s argument is that he is trying to tell me what I am. He says, “you can’t be atheist. You can be agnostic, but to be atheist is not possible.” This would be like me telling him, “you can’t be Christian. You can be Jewish, but Christianity is just an offshoot of Judaism and not its own thing.” You may really not agree with slap bass, or Korean cooking, or libertarianism, but that doesn’t mean you can tell people who identify with those musical, culinary, or political schools of thought that those things don’t exist. In many ways this apologetic is even worse than #atheismisbelief because it attempts to rob people of their identity. I am an atheist because I have not seen evidence that can only be explained by a divine creator. I am an atheist because I have seen explanations for myriad things in nature that did not require a god. I don’t believe in any gods, therefore I am an atheist. It’s not the whole of my identity, it’s not even a positive belief. They don’t need a word for people who don’t golf, but somehow we live in a world where we need to have a word for people who don’t believe in gods. Atheism is just one conclusion that I have come to after reviewing the available information and applying critical thinking to it. It can be revised if new information comes to light. People like my friend are contributing to the negative attitude people have toward atheists. Atheists are a misunderstood and maligned group and I would like to see that change. In the meantime, don’t tell me who I am.

 

A Bowl Filled To The Brim With Fresh Milk

I was cooking a Christmas dinner of a whole roast chicken with mashed potatoes and kale. I had cooked the chicken for 45 minutes on one side, then flipped it and set the timer for an hour. During that first 45, I did the mise en place for the other dishes; cut veggies, washed the kale, and peeled and cubed the potatoes. After I turned the chicken, I took a shower, putting on relaxing atmospheric music.

The shower was an intermission. You know that feeling when you’re looking at something that you’ve seen before, but this time, for whatever reason, you see it anew? The smell of the chicken, with that lovely herb butter under her skin, greeted me at the top of the stairs. I padded slowly down, holding my new laptop more and more carefully as the darkness, due to a lack of lighting in that corner, increased. For a dark second I thought how awful it would be to fall down the stairs and crush this wonderful gadget, ruining my brand new toy with desire for constant gratification. For that moment I saw myself at my most indulgent, the greedy little fucker that asks for more ice cream than he can eat, uncaring as to whether anyone else gets any. Stepping down the stairs felt like the subtle transition from regular gameplay to cutscene. I put the laptop, still bleating gentle music to focus to, on the TV tray.

I started the burners, and added oil to the saute pan. The level of caffeine in my bloodstream was that sweet spot about a half hour past the peak. All at once, but by degrees, I felt content. A deep and profound happiness emanated from inside me. The music, peaceful. The chicken, radiating warmth and comfort. Cooking is satisfying work, but this is another level of bliss I was feeling. There are some things that may have contributed to this feeling:

My family and I had had a quiet Christmas at home. At the risk of sounding materialistic, we got a lot of cool stuff. Skyping with my parents. My son made homemade books for his mom and grandma, and they both really liked them.

I have a couple days off work, and while it might be a pain in the ass, there are challenges ahead that I am kind of looking forward to. In the meantime, the break is welcome.

Last night I watched the movie Particle Fever, about the Large Hadron Collider and specifically about the Higgs Boson discovery. I had heard of CERN, and I certainly remember reading about the Higgs particle. The level of cooperation among scientists all over the world is breathtaking.

My perception is that I am alive and conscious, that I live in the developed world, that I have relative good health and a steady job, that I have people around me who love me, that I have a son. Moreover, I perceive that I am sharing a planet with people who understand the universe in ways thought to be forever locked behind the veil of mystery, and who continue to ask questions. Who knows what they will find or how it will impact our lives. Further, we lucky humans who occupy this sliver of time have orders of magnitude more access to more information than any previous generation. Access to information is the most important thing that humans have been deprived of for millenia, but they are no longer deprived. Where will we be when the generation of people who were born with Internet access reach 40?

The music, the smells, the realizations described above, all were crystallized for me in one centering moment. One sublime, never-get-it-back moment of gratitude and bliss. Happy, but not giddy. It was more content, like I knew the sound of one hand clapping. I enjoyed it for what it was, then continued cooking.

Later I thought about what was going on right then. Was I experiencing “the Christmas spirit”? Had “God” spoken to me? Had I unintentionally spoken to God? Can you even do that? It was a powerful experience that touched me in a most subtle way. I did not cry out, I was not knocked down, I was not even silently moved to tears.

As a skeptic, I believe that the chemical and emotional explanation makes sense. It certainly doesn’t explain everything, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to figure myself out. However, positing that this flash of oneness with the universe was the result of interaction with a deity begs many more questions. Do other people get these moments? If so, when? Do they happen when there aren’t wonderful smells and peaceful sounds and comforting activities around creating what amounts to statistical noise? I practice mindfulness meditation, but I haven’t regularly practiced in a while. Meditation, in my humble opinion, isn’t purposed to “give” you these peaceful grateful feelings, but those feelings being more accessible is a happy benefit. The benefits of meditation are supported by research.

Suppose there is a Creator. Something that can create everything should be able to speak to us such that we completely understand it, so that there’s no confusion. It might be impossible for communication to go from us to Him in any meaningful way, as “His ways are not our ways”, etc.

Maybe I should completely understand it. Maybe I’m grasping at straws because I don’t want to face the God that I know exists because I’m a mad-at-God atheist and I’ll come up with any explanation to avoid it. Maybe. But I don’t think that’s the case. As an isolated case, this God explanation probably feels good, especially to believers. But what happens when you apply the same deity to other situations? This is how you test an idea, by seeing if it flies in other situations than the one you started with. Take Euthyphro Dilemma for example. The more questions you ask, the more elaborate explanations have to become to keep up the God explanation. As to my above explanation, I am allowed to say “I don’t know” to questions that are beyond my understanding of consciousness.

I didn’t intend to go on an atheistic rant here, so let me dial it back a bit. As an agnostic, I maintain that it can’t be known whether there is a God or not. So there could be a deity that intervenes from time to time in human affairs. The interventions, however, appear to be nearly indistinguishable from events that occur naturally. What is one to make of that?

The Laughable Argument by Eli Soriano and #atheismisbelief

I recently discovered Eli Soriano’s blog about atheism when I noticed that #atheismisbelief was trending on Twitter. I tweeted about it, but I feel that I need more than 140 characters to explain. In this post I want to address some of Mr. Soriano’s points and rebut them as I see fit.

Title: The Laughable Belief System Atheism Is

There are a few things wrong with this title alone. First, atheism is not a belief system. Religions, particularly those that posit a deity, make a claim. Atheists do not accept those claims. The classification of a person’s religious preference as “atheist” is like someone calling herself an avid non-stamp collector, a person whose favorite hair color is Bald and who prefers the television channel Off. Atheism is the null hypothesis, the default position that one starts from.

From the very beginning, Brother Soriano gets this wrong. This is a person whose opinions are poorly formed. He is relying on a straw man version of atheism to argue against. This is not a description of atheism that I imagine many atheists would agree with.

What If The Title Were: The Laughable Philosophy of Islam?

If Brother Eli were criticising Islam for example, saying that Islam is not a belief system because it is based on cultural traditions rather than revealed truth from a deity. He is not saying that, and neither am I, but if he or someone like him were saying such things, Muslims and non Muslims alike would be up in arms about Islam being disrespected, Soriano is spreading ignorance about Islam, he is using his media presence to spread a message of ignorance and hate against Islam. The charge of Islamophobia would likely be leveled at him, racism even.

Because he is attacking Atheism, the least trusted group in America, no one bats an eye.

More Than Mere Disagreement

This shouldn’t be a thing. The views expressed by brother Soriano do not have a place in the discourse. But he has a readership that numbers in the thousands. The people who read him and accept his arguments without question go around parroting his ignorant hatred of nonbelievers.

When you see someone who has been indoctrinated into Young Earth Creationism, they have deflections for any rational argument in favor of science. For one who is really dug in, they won’t budge from their position no matter how many books you suggest, no matter how many videos you recommend, no matter what facts you can quote them. I don’t want to make this about creationism, but I’m drawing a comparison here. People who read and are taken in by Soriano’s writing, which is probably echoed by their faith leaders, perhaps those same faith leaders recommend Brother Soriano’s work, reinforcing the nonsense. Hey you should read this guy who says the same shit that I do, making my message look more credible. It isn’t just about saying things that are wrong and ignorant. The real crime that Brother Eli Soriano commits in his media is that he is teaching ignorance. Soriano is engaging in and encouraging in-group/out-group behavior, which goes against nearly everything humans have bee striving for since the Enlightenment.

Painfully Badly Written

I would go on, but there is no need. Mr. Soriano is not interested in persuading people to his point of view. Like most other works of apologetics, it is there to reinforce people who are already bought into his fundamentalist Christian, anti-atheist viewpoint.

A Visit From Jehovah’s Witnesses

There I was, Sunday morning, having coffee, when the doorbell rang. Who could that be, I wondered. Totally expecting a neighborhood kid, I was surprised to find a grey handlebar mustached man in a suit smiling at me. He introduced himself as Joe, and asked me, as I realized who he was and what he was there for, “who do you think is in charge in this world?”

Finally!

In my head, I was jumping up and down. Finally! After all the YouTube debates and lectures I had watched, all the blogs and articles on /r/atheism and other places I had read, the audiobooks and actual books I had been reading, a chance for battle!! The bullshit Facebook debates with people who either don’t know how to be intellectually honest or don’t care enough to bother with it, those stupefying comment clashes where the same assertions get leveled again and again no matter what factual evidence presented refutes them, opinions are given as facts, false equivalence is posited where it doesn’t exist, “intelligent design is science”, scorn thrown at opponents, ad hominem, strawman, special pleading, begging the question, ignoring most or all of an argument and refusing to deal with their own intellectual dishonesty, all that shit that is so easy to get away with in FB comments, would not fly here. This is real life. I was like:

worfmeme

I took a deep breath, stepped into the doorway and told him, “Well, as a Humanist, I feel like humans are in charge of our own affairs, and while we aren’t perfect, we do the best we can,” Later, it dawned on me that the question was loaded with the presupposition that Someone or Something could be in charge at all, and that we could somehow know about it.

He responded by giving a long speech about how the world was evil, and that Satan was in charge. Right after he mentioned that Satan was in charge, I could listen no further. Here’s why. The statement, “Satan is in charge of the world.” is loaded with presuppositional baggage. It takes for granted the following:

1. There exists a being named Satan.
2. Beings with the power of deities exist.
3. Satan is such a being.

When your starting point is taking all that for granted, and everything else you’re saying is contingent on those things being true, I need to hear why those first three things are true, or at least reasons to believe that they may be true. Thus, the tuning out. At the end of his spiel, he asked, “Now, do you believe that?”

“No.”

Frustrated, he looked down at his partner. I didn’t see him at first and had a thought that it was strange to see one by himself. Now I realized I had been speaking to the apprentice.

There Is A Book…

I met Vinnie, a taller, skinnier gentlemen with a thick, well trimmed mustache that stopped at the corners of his mouth. It contrasted well with Joe’s thin, yet equally well trimmed handlebar. As a Navy Sailor, I am obligated to notice mustaches, and if I like the individual, comment on them. If I talked with Joe and Vinnie a little longer, I would compliment them both on their mustache growth and maintenance.

Vinnie came up to the landing, stopping one step short and shook my hand. He began to tell me about the Garden of Eden, and how Satan fooled Adam and Eve into sin by telling them they can know things if they eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He connected this story with an interpretation of my answer to Joe’s first question. I had said that humans were ultimately the determiners of our fate, and Vinnie now told me that it was Satan telling us, and by extension, me, that terrible lie. Vinnie explained that we were never meant to have disease, suffering, or death, that tending the Garden and having dominion over the creatures was our intended lot. When he paused, I would start to ask the question that was on my mind since the very beginning of his speech, but he continued talking, letting me know that he wasn’t done yet. Still proceeding very politely, I sensed that he knew I objected to his story on some grounds, so he went on, hoping that his speech’s persuasive power would grow with its length.

No such luck. He told me that everything he was saying was in the Bible. Seeing an opening, I pounced.

“In the book of Genesis, it says the serpent talked to Eve, it doesn’t say Satan.”

“Well, Satan was using the serpent as a puppet.”

“Does it say that in the book?”

“Yeah, well Satan couldn’t just go up to Eve himself, she’d know that he was Satan.”

I thought, but didn’t say, “without having eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, how would she know Satan was bad?” Instead, I said, “If Satan did use the serpent, it should explain that somewhere in the Bible.”

Those Scientists Know The Truth.

He complimented me on my Bible knowledge, and had another go at convincing me. “Six thousand years ago, God created man to serve him in the Garden. We weren’t meant to die in 70, 80 years. Did you know scientists did experiments and they found that the human brain could live forever?

My head nearly exploded with questions and incredulity at this nugget, but again, I had to start with the beginning.

“Six thousand years, you say?”

“The Bible says that man was created six thousand years ago.”

Not exactly. The real story is that a bishop named James Ussher came up with the six thousand year timeline in the 1700s. Didn’t want to broach this one, I felt better to just refute the claim rather than waste time on correcting his source for the claim.

“There is a great deal of evidence that man has been around much longer than six thousand years.”

“Well, scientists just tell us that because they’re paid to, but they know the truth.”

I had to smile at this. I wanted to laugh out loud, to truly lol at these two and their story.

I got the Argument From Design, where Vinnie pointed to a car as being designed, “just like me. I was designed.” The first person reference, I noticed, made it more difficult to argue against.

I think Vinnie quickly realized that he was getting nowhere telling me about Intelligent Design, so he went back toi talking about the evils of the world. Joe jumped back in with a verse from Revelation. I was really hoping they would mention The Beast because I wanted to tell them about how the entire book was an allegory and The Beast was a symbolic representation of the Roman Emporer Nero. No such luck, they just pointed to passages that talked about when Jesus is going to come back, every knee shall bow, etc.

About this time I felt that the conversation wasn’t going anywhere. He reads a Bible verse, talks about how it supports his warped worldview, and ignores or deflects all of the facts that I know conflict with it. For example, the idea that the world is going bad, and getting worse all the time is one they kept taking for granted. This is a popular misconception that many people agree with on the basis that it “seems” true, but it’s not. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker explains how all statistical categories of violence have decreased over time. I mentioned this book to Vinnie, and the statistic that with one or two exceptions, there has been no war between world powers since WWII. Like the rest of the facts I mentioned in our talk, it didn’t change their minds, they didn’t even seem to acknowledge them.

Normally in a face to face conversation, facts that are presented confidently have a way of being given at least the benefit of the doubt for the extent of the conversation. The exception to this would be where the listener knows that the facts to be untrue, or that other facts call the presented facts into question. In this case, my facts were not refuted or even attempted to be refuted. They were simply ignored.

Am I being fair if I appear to ignore their position? For me to entertain their worldview, I would have to abandon things that are verifiable and empirically supported by physical evidence. My acceptance of these empirically verifiable things comes from a way of seeing the world that values the same. As Sam Harris said, and I’m paraphrasing, how can you convince someone who doesn’t value evidence of the truth supported by evidence?

Vinnie told me, after showing me yet another Bible verse, that “the Bible interprets itself.” I wanted to get off the treadmill that this talk had long since become, but I couldn’t help it. I asked, if the Bible interprets itself, how is it that there are so many different conflicting interpretations?

For the first time, I heard frustration in Vinnie’s voice. He again pulled another Bible verse and told me that he and his group had gotten it right. These guys were nothing if not well prepared. Since then I have had occasion to quote a Bible verse but couldn’t remember the exact chapter and verse to say nothing of the wording of the verse itself. Of course, these guys, especially Vinnie, do this every week, going door to door, so they had way more EXP arguing their bullshit than I had arguing using facts and logic.

I Am New to This

In fact, this process of systematically examining and re-examining my arguments and my support for same is relatively new to me. As of 2012 I was consuming pseudoscience eagerly, certain that I had stumbled onto secret knowledge that They didn’t want us to figure out, and we were on the verge of great new revelation that would change humanity forever. For a more detailed, shamefaced look back, check out my 2012 post.

College classes, more than anything else, were the catalyst of my (as of this writing, still embryonic) development as a thinker. In classes with other people, with other sets of experience to draw from, is where I learned that your reasons for your answer are as important, if not moreso, than the answer itself. It is in these classrooms that I learned that “it depends” is a fitting beginning to such an answer, to be followed by questions and more questions. Most importantly, I learned that arguing – a verb that connoted aggression (to me anyway) – calmly, patiently, and respectfully, was the best, maybe the only true way to evaluate ideas.

And ideas is all they ever were. Just some thoughts, a story about the world, how it is, how it should be. The having of an idea does not define one any more than preference of sleeping position. Questioning an idea is no more offensive than asking what city someone was born in. All ideas are questionable, even that one. Everything is up for debate, and there is no need to get emotional about it. This last is very tricky, especially when it comes to ideas that are charged with emotional baggage, or whose very existence is enough to make people question other previously rock-solid ideas of theirs.

Where Was I?

It is clear to me now that that was were I was with Vinnie and Joe. I was telling them things that I know to be true, things that I could show to be true if they needed, but these things was saying, these facts flew right in the face of the story they were committed to. These guys were dug in, but good, and it would take much more than my reasonable questions and verifiable facts to get them out.

The Cult Mentality

After they left, I realized that I was more or less ignored in every point I had tried to make. While I didn’t go get my copy of The Better Angels of Our Nature as I wanted to, or even reliably quote a really meaningful statistic from it – I gave a very brief synopsis of the main argument of the book during one of the times they let me speak – I don’t think it would have made a lick of difference. I took their pamphlet mostly to take pictures:

image

Then I looked up their site as seen on that last pic. I found that there was a documentary film about the Witnesses. In fact, there are several. Only when I learned more about the nature of this cult and how strongly the cult mentality penetrates those who get caught up in it did I realize how far I was from talking sense to those two. One of my favorite YouTube channels, The Bible Reloaded, did a video about them.

Those Wacky J-dubs!

Due to their strange beliefs, door-to-door marketing strategy and relative newness to the field of religious belief, most people use Witnesses as a sort of punch line. It also doesn’t help that they have wrongly predicted the end of the world several times. Even theists, my-beliefs-are-sacred-you-must-not-mock-them theists, can agree with bashing JWs.

After my meeting with Joe and Vinnie, and the tiny bit of googling and learning I’ve done since, it occurs to me that this is a real cult that is really consuming the lives of its adherents. People who would have led normal lives, especially here in the developed world where ideas are free, are wasting their time, energy, and other resources in the service of spreading a message that is toxic to modern life. They’re laboring their lives away under the delusion they’ve been fed; worst, they think they’re doing good. Seriously, these people deserve to be made fun of, but they are also worthy of contempt for what they take from their members: in a word, their lives.

A Parting Word of Advice: Question!

If these husks that were once productive human beings (and could become again I’m sure, people leave cults, get deprogrammed, etc.) come knocking, knocking, knocking at your chamber door, ask them questions. What made Joe have to signal for help from Vinnie was my questioning, along with my refusal to go along with his story of the Devil being in charge et al. The only time I saw Vinnie get frustrated was when I asked questions, specifically how does he know that his interpretation of the Bible verse saying how you could interpret Bible verses is correct, a nitpicky but relevant inquiry given the number and variation among Bible interpretations.

Telling them things accomplished nothing. My answer to their opening question, “who is in charge in the world?” wasn’t listened to the way a person would listen to another person’s opinion if they were having a conversation where all parties truly wanted to exchange ideas. Instead, Joe heard me begin saying, “as a humanist,” then decided I didn’t have the right answer, then politely waited for me to stop talking so that he could do his pitch.

Asking questions forces a person to acknowledge what you are saying and respond to it. If there is no response to the question, it appears to any reasonable observer that they are not playing fairly. I recommend it not just for when cult members come to your door, but any time ideas are being bandied about. Even the ones you agree with. For it’s by questioning that we discover, that we learn, that we grow.