Friday, February 27, 2009

A Message To Ray Comfort re: Richard Dawkins

Dear Ray,

I am probably not the only atheist out there saying these words to you in one way or another, but I have to get this off my chest and out in the open: there is a huge difference between someone not taking you seriously and someone who is afraid to debate you.

It has long been the policy of Richard Dawkins and other luminaries in the field of biology to refuse to debate creationists, because meeting creationists in the court of public opinion gives the appearance that there is an actual conflict in the scientific community between evolution and creationism, and there's not. It confuses an already woefully scientifically illiterate community, and it does not do anything to advance the knowledge of anyone. It's a colossal waste of Richard Dawkins' time to meet you on your terms, and worse, it could do more harm than good for the scientific community, especially in the United States, where there is a constant political push to take the teaching of evolution out of biology classrooms.

Come on, Ray, admit it: this whole thing was a ploy to grab publicity for your new book, right? It's pretty transparent to me that no matter what happens, you have gained more free publicity from this stunt than you ever would have if you'd simply have stuck to the Christian radio and television circuit. This story brings your book into the mainstream, whether Dawkins debates you or not. I wonder if you researched anything about Dawkins before you challenged him. Why not Hitchens? He engages in debates all the time with Dinesh D'Souza, for example; he'd probably debate you. You picked the famous atheist with the no-debate policy instead. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not, but you do have a history of insincerity.

I remember well your debate with the Rational Response Squad members on national television, if I can even call it a debate. You used the time to preach and quote from the Bible, rather than doing what you said you came to do: use science to prove the existence of your god. That move wasn't surprising to me; after all, I was one of many atheists who watched that banana video of yours, where you demonstrated clearly for the world that you don't know the difference between natural selection and human cultivation. You got one thing right: the banana as you described it and demonstrated it is intelligently designed; you just got the designer wrong. Humans made the banana what it is today, as is true with just about every crop we now consume. We did similar things with dog, cat, horse, and pigeon breeds. I mention pigeons because Darwin mentioned them in his book to explain how we can modify species through artificially selecting out traits we desire in that species, then going into how nature selects for traits by limiting the ability to survive to reproductive age.

By the way, I have a bone to pick with World Net Daily and everyone who has repeated their announcement that you bumped Richard Dawkins from the number one spot on Amazon. First, Dawkins' bestseller was there for how long? Since it came out? How long was your book in the number one spot, Ray? I went to Amazon to check the rankings, and by the time I read the article on WND, your book had fallen to number five. Not that it matters much to me, but it's just something that people keep repeating, and it didn't last long--although I wouldn't be surprised if all of this free publicity helped keep it close to the top longer than it would have been there otherwise.

I have to hand it to you, Ray: you know how to market yourself well. I have to say that I'm personally insulted by the title of your book, and when I read the sample page, where you say that atheism is the epitome of stupidity, I was rather disgusted, and certainly wouldn't buy it after reading that little piece of incivility.

I'd still debate you for ten grand, though. I could put the cash to good use.

Greg Reich

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why are so many Christians obsessed with the "sins" of other people?

I've read the Bible many times--twenty-seven that I can remember, all before the age of twenty-four. I have read many verses hundreds of times, having read in church as a teen and later, after rejecting religion, to refer to then when apologists used them as arguments. What I can't remember reading in the parts where the Jesus character is traipsing around Galilee is any mention of forcing people to stop committing sins.

Of course, to me, "sin" is a meaningless concept; it requires a transgression against a deity, and I don't have evidence of deities; they're all man-made myths. I suppose it could be extended to include transgressions against other people, but that's not common usage.

In any case, so many Christians seem to want to apply their concept of sin to the law, in spite of the fact that there is nothing attributed to the Jesus character that suggest that they should force other people to their way of thinking. I remember something about "Judge not, lest ye be judged." I remember something about not pointing out the mote in your neighbor's eye while ignoring the log in your own. I remember things about giving all your money to the poor, about loving your neighbor and your enemy, turning the other cheek, and so on and so forth, but I just can't seem to recall a word about forcing other people to stop sinning.

Before someone brings up the notion that Jesus didn't disregard Old Testament law (forgetting for the moment that I have no reason to buy into the idea that Jesus actually existed), let's remember that he saved a woman accused of adultery from stoning, and forgave her for her sins.

Jesus would be a really cool character if it weren't for the doctrine of hell, the weird story about him cursing a fig tree, the doctrine of hell, and the talk about hating your family if they don't believe. The values his character advanced in the Bible were humility, love, forgiveness, and charity. These, of course, are all things just as easily attributed to empathy, and do not actually require moral teaching. The concepts of turning the other cheek and loving your enemy are a bit more difficult, and seemingly counterintuitive.

Of course, I didn't create this post to be a cheerleader for Jesus; my point is that if you're going to call yourself a Christian, why not follow the teachings attributed to him and leave other people well alone? Yes, you're commanded to witness to people, but you're also supposed to proverbially shake the dust from your feet and move on when people don't listen to you. You're supposed to hang out with the sinners and live by example among them, not legislate your morality on them. Persuasion and example: that's what I got out of what I read in the Bible.

What prompted this post was a story about how a priest was arrested for praying and passing out literature in front of an abortion clinic. I suspect there's more to this story; he was probably obstructing the entrance while doing these things, which you're not supposed to do anywhere. If you're going to protest abortion--or anything else--you can't do it on private property, especially if you're obstructing the entrances to a place of business or medical services.

My question to Christians is: how is it your place to judge abortion clinics, and how is it your place to keep women from getting abortions? You believe it's murder, sure, but that's you judging other people, and carrying out your judgment. If you really believe in eternal rewards and punishments, then you'll let your god take care of things and worry about yourself, as the Jesus character in the Bible told you. "Judge not, lest ye be judged." Don't point out the mote in your neighbor's eye. There's a log in your own. Maybe.

For my part, I want abortion to stay safe and legal. I don't think I should have control over a woman's decisions about her own body, and I think she should be protected from the will of others over decisions regarding her health and private life. I don't think anyone really loves and embraces abortion, but all of the alternatives a woman has with unplanned pregnancy are difficult, and the situations leading to that decision have complications and issues, as well. There's inequality in sexual relationships, for one thing. Males do not have to make a decision that involves either an invasive medical procedure, physical changes to the body followed by a grieving process, or a life taking care of a child, often before becoming financially stable or educated enough to have marketable skills.

Let's face it: abortion is invasive. What woman would do it for fun? Women who do choose it as an option are already scared, have conflicting emotions, and are often alone in making that decision; you're compounding the situation with protests and guilt trips. What is worse is that if abortion were outlawed, we'd be back to women--young, scared, often not well-off--going to drastic measures to give themselves abortions. They'd either be done by back-alley doctors, or they'd be self-induced with coat hangers, chemicals, or other dangerous methods. Some Christians out there cheer on that risk, but they're forgetting about how they're supposed to be without sin if they're going to cast stones. I haven't met a Christian yet who says that he or she is sinless. Abortion should be safe and legal, from my perspective, because I don't want women to suffer and men aren't equally responsible for the consequences of pregnancy. From the Christian perspective, I would think abortion should be safe and legal so that women would have the chance to be forgiven and "saved" sometime before death. I don't want to presume to think for Christians, so I'm asking: am I off base here? After all, "Jane Roe" became a Christian, right?

The second option, adoption, comes with its own issues. Statistically speaking, pregnancy has more risks than abortion. More women die of complications from pregnancy than from complications from abortions. A woman's body is permanently affected by pregnancy carried all the way to term. Then, there's the possibility of grief from giving the baby up. I was adopted. I met my biological mother. She grieved for about two years. Now, in her case, she wouldn't have aborted me, but it still should have been her choice (and it was, in Ohio, in 1971, when she would have aborted me if she had chosen that option), and if she had, I would never have known.

The third option, having the mother raise the child, is expecting a lot out of women who are most likely not at a point in their lives when they can handle it financially or emotionally. It's not easy to be a single mother--just ask any single mother with little means to raise children. Unwanted children are more likely to be abused. The children often grow up without fathers. Now, I'm not saying that fathers are always a good influence, but if a couple is in a stable relationship, it's so much easier to raise one or more children. There's usually more money, the husband and wife can take turns with the children or adopt separate responsibilities to make each other's lives easier; it's definitely a better situation than single parenthood without support. It is possible to raise a child successfully in a single-parent household. I think my half-sister turned out fine, and I know several other people from single-parent homes who are okay, too. Support from other family members and from friends made all the difference, though. It should be totally up to the woman to judge whether she has the means, stability, and emotional support network to raise a child on her own.

Single mothers are often put down by Christians. I remember Dan Quayle doing it; Pat Robertson and other televangelists do it; ordinary, average Christians do it. I have heard Christians speak in hushed, shocked, affronted tones about the young woman who was pregnant, who was going to have the baby. I have heard them asking: who is going to support that child?

You. Christians, if that woman is in your church, it should be you. If you're going to be pro-life, be pro-life. Step up and take care of the ones who are born, rather than focusing on the unborn and the "sinning" mothers. Babysit the child while the woman goes to work, help her with advice that comes from experience raising children, and forgive her for her "sin" of promiscuity. After all, it is not for you to judge. Right?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ray Comfort Offers Money to Debate Richard Dawkins?

Ray Comfort offered Richard Dawkins, who has quite a lot of money already, to debate him in public.

It is my opinion that Ray Comfort does not sincerely want to engage Dawkins in a formal debate. Oh, I'm sure he wants to appear in public with Dawkins, but I'm dead sure he doesn't actually want to debate him.

The last time Ray Comfort offered to "prove" the existence of his god in public, it was in a debate on ABC with two members of the Rational Response Squad, Kelly and Sapient. Comfort promised he would only use science, but what he did when he came up to the podium was preach. That's it.

Ray Comfort has proven himself to be someone who is only seeking to promote himself and his material, and he is using atheists to do it. When he had the chance to engage in a sincere debate with atheists in front of a national television audience, he chose to forego debate and engage in proselytizing.

I am still of the opinion that the Rational Responders should have walked off in disgust, but it's easy to talk from the peanut gallery. I've been on television and on the radio, and I can tell whoever will listen that it's so much different when you're actually there. And hey, Kelly was just...okay, I'm gonna stop there before I get in trouble with my wife.

I hope Richard Dawkins flat-out refuses, and makes a statement about Ray Comfort's track record of insincerity when it comes to debates. It's a ploy for Comfort to make more money, and nothing more.

I'd debate Ray Comfort for $10,000 dollars in public, but that would be to my benefit, not his; he's actually famous. I'd give him a taste of his own medicine, though: I'd shamelessly self-promote. Why bother trying to engage the guy in serious debate when he's just going to preach?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Alexandra Pelosi's Documentary: A Review

By now, this news is a bit old, but I just watched Alexandra Pelosi's documentary on HBO, Right America: Feeling Wronged, and I wanted to give my take on it.

At the very beginning of the documentary, Pelosi lets us know that the views expressed by the people on the campaign trail are not representative of Republicans in general. She's right, but the people she caught on film do represent the remainder of the country that actually approved of the job George W. Bush was doing till the very end of his term.

There are two types of Republicans that do seem to be typical. The first is the type that wants to make sure that their taxes do not get raised. These Republicans are not the super-wealthy; they are usually small business owners who have voted Republican for years, who remember when the GOP was all about small business, and not large corporations. They are stuck on automatic when it comes to voting (just like some Democrats will automatically vote that way), so they don't recognize how far the Republicans who actually have had power have deviated from the fiscal responsibility and--dare I say it--the social liberalism that used to be part of the party line.

The second type of Republican makes up the majority of the party now. These are the social conservatives. They are vocal, and they vote on the issues of abortion (their number one motivation), faith, homosexuality, and maybe guns--although guns aren't a requirement for this bunch, if they're sincere about being pro-life. In any case, this type of Republican believes Christianity is the only way, and that their morality should be legislated on the rest of us. They will vote Republican because the GOP has recognized that using the faith of this crowd secures their votes.

Now, the type of Republicans Alexandra Pelosi interviewed varied, but she caught some of the true party fanatics. These are people who believe everything Fox News spoon feeds them. These are the people that believe every viral email that comes into their inbox, and they have no problem passing these insane messages on without researching them. These are people who equate tolerance with being politically correct.

One of the women talked about how the Christian way is the only way. That's dictatorship, sister. If you have to force your religion down the throats of others, if you can't win people over through persuasion or, as your Bible prescribes (read the New Testament), living the example, then it's not much of a religion, is it?

A few of the guys were blatantly, unapologetically racist. The one black guy in Mississippi is right: this sort of racism exists everywhere, but in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, if you were to say, "I am not ready for a black president," or "I'm not voting for a nigger," or "I wouldn't vote for a black man or a woman," they wouldn't have a political career, and it wouldn't be good for them, politician or no, to say it on camera.

The smears were everywhere. The viral emails were summarized on t-shirts, buttons, and signs held up in crowds. Barack Obama was labeled a socialist. He was labeled the antichrist. He was equated to Hitler.

One word about the Hitler thing: I just don't know whether to fall over laughing at how ridiculous people are who compare Obama to Hitler, or puke in their faces at the disgusting thought. Hitler made his intentions clear in a book. It's called Mein Kampf, and its English translation is available for free online. He talks about how he was "doing the Lord's work" in eradicating the Jews. Barack Obama wrote books, too. I don't recall him saying anything about eradicating anyone. Hitler used the Jews as a scapegoat and thumbed his nose at treaties; Obama is inclusive as he can be and is a constitutional attorney.

No President is perfect, and Obama wasn't my first choice among the Democrats in the primaries, but some of the ridiculous things people say about him just make me want to smack sense into them--and I'm firmly against violence. I just don't know what else would persuade them.

Maybe this documentary will help Republicans to look in the mirror and see what sort of ignorance they at least tolerate, at most foster. I think Pelosi was more than fair to a group of people who thinks her mother is evil incarnate.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Clearing up misconceptions about evolution on Darwin's birthday

Between site visits at work, I typically listen to progressive talk radio (1310 AM WDET) while I'm driving. Well, today, for some weird reason, my favorite station decided to broadcast NASCAR instead of Thom Hartmann, much to my displeasure, so I changed the band with the intention of listening to NPR, which is my usual fallback. However, the station that came on when I changed the band to FM was 103.5, WMUZ, and it was Bob Dutko, talking about evolution.

Now, I should disclose here that I have been on Bob Dutko's show five times now. I have had conversations with him--as the opposing viewpoint--on evolution, separation of state and church, the notion of dinosaurs and humans coexisting (peacefully?), and the existence of his god (twice). The reason my radio was tuned to his station on the FM band was because the last time I switched to FM was to listen to his show on the way to my appearance on it.

After hearing Bob speak today, it became clear to me that we're going to have to have another conversation about evolution. He brought up several points that I need to address, but one that stuck in my mind was his use of a Stephen Gould quote, followed by a misrepresentations of the idea of punctuated equilibrium. Another notion he tied into his discussion about Gould was the idea of transitional fossils and why they may or may not be in the fossil record.

First, punctuated equilibrium is the idea that mass extinction events leave biological niches to be filled, and species will undergo relatively rapid physiological changes as they fill them, if they have enough genetic variation/adaptations to replace the extinct species' specializations. For example, with a small mammalian scavenger species that could not thrive as a predator in an environment full of them, but is aggressive/fast/strong enough to become a predator after a mass extinction, members of the species with adaptations that enable them to be predators will fill that niche, and the rest of the active genes that go along with those adaptations will be passed on. The ones with the most predatory behavior are likely to separate with those who have a more passive tendency to scavenge, so their physiology will follow a different path from their more passive relatives. Plenty of experiments have demonstrated that certain physiological characteristics go along with certain adaptations; foxes, for example, when bred for submissive behavior similar to that of domesticated dogs, will produce offspring with droopier tails and ears, shorter snouts, and more clownish behavior--traits that are typically found in omega males in wolf packs.

Getting back to Bob: he was talking about transitional fossils, and how he though scientists explained them away. He quoted Gould (he brought this same quote up during our broadcast conversation about evolution). It was something about how Gould was complaining that the lack of transitional fossils in the record is an aggravating problem for biologists. He went on to say that Gould believed in punctuated equilibrium, which Bob represented as species just evolving slowly, then evolving all of a sudden, out of the blue, and that's why there's no fossil record of them.

No, no, a million times, no.

I'm setting the record straight here, and I hope I get the opportunity again to do it on his show (our next show is about the existence of Jesus, which I'm contesting as being nothing but mythology).

Bob expects to find freakish, half-evolved forms in the fossil record if evolution is true. The problem with this expectation is that it ignores that only about ten to fifteen percent of DNA in a given species is active, and that different genes will be active in relation to different manifested adaptations. If the active adaptation is an aggressive nature, a whole set of physiological characteristics will follow. There are only so many viable combinations of active genes, so whatever the result of evolutionary change will be a fully formed specimen, but with different active genes. Plenty of forms have been deemed "transitional", but controversy rages over them because there's no way (currently) to determine with certainty whether a form is an intermediary between two species. Perhaps a DNA simulation will yield the answer someday, but for now, we have comparative anatomy, more or less.

So, half-evolved forms are not what I would expect to find in the fossil record, because the changes that occur at the genetic level must manifest themselves in the form of a viable specimen with the ability to reproduce, not some freakish, half-formed animal with adaptations somewhere between one species and another.

As far as Bob's contention that Gould believed that animals evolved slowly, then suddenly--POOF!--changed into something else is concerned, Gould went on to say in the same literature that as surprising as it is, transitional fossils have been found. Furthermore, punctuated equilibrium would still take a couple million years, which is rapid when compared to the average life cycle of a given warm-blooded species (twenty-six million years). The odds of finding the fossils of a species that has a couple million years of existence and relatively rapid physiological change are more remote than the odds of finding fossilized remains of a species that existed for twenty-six million. Fossilization just doesn't occur that often.

With artificial selection (horse breeds, dog breeds, and Darwin's famous example of pigeon breeds), it is easy to see transitional forms--but if you dug up the skeleton of a Chihuahua and a Great Dane, would you be able to tell that that either of them came from wolves? Would you be able to identify the forms between the wolf and the Great Dane or the wolf and the Chihuahua as transitional forms? If we didn't know already that these dog breeds were the result of human intervention, creationists would argue that any forms you found were separate species that happened to be similar, because comparative anatomy means nothing to them. They would argue that they are separate, specially-created species--and they would be wrong.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On Faith and Values

Faith is not a value.

The reason faith is not a value is that people can have faith in anything they accept without evidence (or in spite of it). Faith can lead people to believe anything that many people would value or few people would. They can believe in peace and love, but they could also believe that homosexuality and adultery should be punishable by death, for example.

Faith has been on all sides of every issue at any given time. During the anti-communist hysteria in the United States of the 1950s, the focus was not on the totalitarianism of the USSR or its forced economic ideology, but on its "godlessness". It was during this period of American history when "In God We Trust" was adopted as the national motto and placed on our currency. It was at this time that the Pledge of Allegiance--already illegal for schools to make children recite because of freedom of speech issues--began to include the words "under God".

During the period of our history when slavery was legal, abolitionists and slaveowners alike used faith to justify their positions. There are rules in the Bible for slavery, and the slaveowners would cite these rules as justification for their practice. The abolitionists would focus on the New Testament, where wealth was condemned, equality encouraged.

The Irish Catholics and the Southern Baptists fought each other for decades, often violently, during the 1800s, all over which version of the Bible to use in a public school setting. It's one of the many reasons both sides began to accept separation of state and church as a good thing, especially in public schools.

Faith can lead to delusion. Some people believe so strongly in their chosen ideology that they will ignore even the strongest evidence against their faith-based convictions. Biblical literalism is one example. No matter how much it is pointed out to biblical literalists that the Earth cannot be six thousand years old, that there was no global flood, or that human beings can't survive in the digestive tracts of sea creatures, based on scientific observations, they will dismiss the science, often demonizing it in the process.

Since faith is subjective, it leads to arbitrary values. Believers will often argue that moral relativity is the hallmark of atheism, and that it's a bad thing, but they never seem to analyze the moral relativism inherent in faith. Here is how religion is divided around the world:
  • Christianity: 35,000 denominations, most under eleven sects
  • Islam: Three major sects; twelve denominations (at least); various schools of thought under each
  • Judaism: At least seven, with various schools of thought under each
  • Hinduism: 3 major sects with several denominations under each
  • Buddhism: 3 major sects with many subdivisions
  • Shintoism: 25 groups
  • Thirty-four other major religions with thousands of subdivisions and cults.

Faith does not lead everyone to the same end; if anything, it divides everyone. It is not the only thing that divides people; economic and political ideologies also make their contribution, but these are also a brand of faith, complete with their own apologists and preachers.

I am not going to tell you that dropping faith will lead to worldwide unity. I doubt that it would. What I would like to explore is what values might be considered universal, and why.

What seems to be almost universal to human beings is empathy. According to research in neuroscience and psychology, empathy is at least partially an automatic response. There are exceptions, such as psychopaths and sociopaths, but empathy does appear to be something that the vast majority of humans the world over seem to have.

To what values can empathy lead? All cultures have laws against homocide; people do not want to have their lives taken from them, so they see it as wrong when someone takes a life from someone else. There are shades of gray here; some people would include termination of pregnancy as the "murder" of the unborn; most people would allow a justification for self-defense; some would justify execution for certain crimes (especially murder). In any case, murder is outlawed universally to some degree.

In light of the universality of the outlaw of murder, how can anyone justify war? My personal take on war is that the instigator must be a sociopath, a psychopath, or paranoid-delusional. That opinion comes only from the idea that in order to send soldiers to kill and to die, a person must not have much empathy, if any, or must be so scared out of his (or her, I guess, but I can't think of a female instigator of war off the top of my head) mind that he imagines threats or creates them, then works very hard to draw everyone into his delusion and paranoia.

The next near-universal value based on empathy is the idea that stealing is wrong. There are shades of gray and different schools of thought here, too, but for the most part, people don't want other people to take their stuff, and most won't take from other people as a result. I think people feel less empathy when shoplifting, because they aren't thinking about their theft in terms of doing harm to another individual; they see a business making profit, and their petty theft isn't going to hurt, they believe. They don't think about how the reduction in profits will cause an increase in prices for honest people; they don't think about how when insurance covers stolen items, premiums go up for everyone contributing to the pool.

Charity comes from empathy. People want to to good for other people, not only because it feels good, but because they would like other people to do good for them.

The willingness to pass knowledge to other people can come from empathy; people who want to learn will share their knowledge in return.

Empathy is not relative like faith. Perhaps if people went with their empathy instead of faith, they would get along to a greater agree.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Ken Ham--unsurprisingly--gets it wrong about evolution

Ken Ham, the founder and CEO of Answers In Genesis, a creationist organization, recently wrote an article that appeared on It may be found here. This is my reply to it, since it would not fit in the comments section, and I like to share.

As usual, Ken Ham displays his ignorance of how science works and does his best to defame evolutionary biologists in the process.

The first point Ham attempts to make is that evolution leads to moral relativism. I say we have it anyway, regardless of worldview. For example, people who call themselves Christians have as many different different views on what is sinful and what is moral as there are sects of Christianity, if not as many as there are individual Christians. Christian moral relativity is great enough to have divided Christianity among approximately 35000 sects worldwide, each with its own unique background and doctrine. They have different versions of the Bible, from the King James to the Catholic version to the New International--they can't even agree on which anthology reflects their beliefs, let alone whether to interpret each literally or contextually.

The reason why I don't kill people, steal from them, or otherwise harm them is because I have empathy (it's also why I'm likely to help them). I can put myself into their situations and understand how the consequences of my actions will affect them. Humans would not have thrived as a species without empathy and cooperation.

His second point about what is being taught in science classrooms is poorly supported by a plaque in Darwin's house and a vague reference to how evolution is taught, but that wasn't my experience in high school biology, or even college biology. Religion was not discussed because it requires faith, and faith is not within the scope of science, by definition. Science is about what can be observed, not about what people accept as true without evidence. We couldn't possibly bring religion into a science classroom (or any classroom, for that matter), since there is so much division among religious people about origins. Origins are not a discussion in a classroom involving evolution anyway, since evolution is about changes in species over time, and not how they came to be in the first place. It's an obvious progression from learning about changes to inquiring about origins, but since nobody really knows exactly how life began on Earth, origins aren't typically the subject of high school biology texts.

Ken Ham's next point represents his transition from ignorance about evolution and how it is taught to defamation of those who teach science and those who learn it. His example of the killer in a 2007 Finland school shooting (I have not researched this incident) fails, because clearly, the killer did not understand evolution at all. If by killing people he believed that he was a "natural selector", he clearly did not understand what is meant by "natural selection". In natural selection, sentient purpose does not drive the process; when purpose enters into it, it is artifical selection. Ironically, this killer selected himself out of the gene pool by being caught (or killing himself; again, I haven't researched the incident), thereby eliminating his chances of mating and passing on his genes. Of course, ideas aren't heritable traits, but perhaps his urge to kill other people and his apparent lack of empathy toward others might be.

In his fourth attempt to defame evolution, Ken Ham again uses an example of people misusing evolution to promote an agenda that displays their ignorance of how it actually works. Evolution is not progressive; there is no species "more evolved" than any other. What one might say is that a species is more specialized (i.e., has adaptations more suitable) for a given environment, but to claim superiority in evolution would be folly. In any case, scientists today do not subscribe to the idea of racial superiority in relation to evolution; the human genome project should have erased any such idea. The idea of "survival of the fittest" isn't even Darwin's; in natural selection, the heritable adaptations that are passed to the next generation that allow it to survive, in its turn, to reproductive age are what matter most.

None of the examples Ken Ham presents of how people misuse and misunderstand evolutionary theory have any bearing on whether or not evolutionary theory is valid. The theories regarding the mechanisms of evolution find validity in their predictive power and in the evidence that reinforces them. The validity of any scientific theory is independent of public opinion.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Questions That Atheists Should Answer?

I use Google Alerts to get news about subjects that interest me. One of these alerts is a search for "atheist", because, in case you don't know already, I am one. I do see a lot of news articles, but the search also includes blogs. I have toyed with the idea of excluding blogs from the searches, since many of them are just people like Ray Comfort, painting caricatures of atheists with their outrageous stereotypes, putting words in our mouths that many of us--the atheists I know, anyway--would never say.

In any case, I ran across a video from a young man who had five questions he believed atheists should answer. He wanted a YouTube video response or a response in his comments, but I don't think my responses would fit in one comment, I don't want to post several, and I'm definitely not doing a video at this hour--but I thought I'd answer his questions. I will be posting this link in his comments, so I hope he'll run across this page.

Question 1: "Atheists believe that the universe began millions and millions of years ago. Now, how would you know this for a fact, or is it just a guess?"

Greg's Take: Let's parse this question first, because I have some issues with it.

First, there's the "Atheists believe" part. I have been hanging with Atheists long enough to know that we're as diverse a group of individuals as any other group can be; the only thing we have in common is our rejection of theism. There's no worldview that you can assign to all atheists. Some Atheists know very little about cosomology and don't care. Many Atheists don't know a thing about evolution, either, and don't care. They leave these things to astrophysicists and biologists, respectively.

Secondly, there's the word, "believe". Many of us reject the word, "believe", for its implication of acceptance without evidence. I know I do. I have no place for faith in my life, and "believe" is something I'm trying really hard to remove from my vocabulary, because it doesn't do justice to the amount of research I put into the things I know.

Thirdly, there's the idea of the universe beginning. Scientists don't know if the universe had a beginning. They don't. Seriously. All they know for certain is that the universe expanded. How do they know? You know that famous telescope named Hubble? That telescope was named after the scientist who, through the discovery of a phenomenon known as red shift, found out that everything in the universe appeared to be moving away from everything else, and on a certain trajectory. Everything seemed to be moving away from a center.

Fourth of all, it's not "millions and millions", but "billions and billions". The universe started to expand about 13.7 billion years ago.

Finally, no, it's not a guess. Red shift is real. The universe is expanding and has been. Scientists--notice that I didn't say "Atheists", because not every Atheist is well-versed in physics/cosmology--know that the universe is at least 13.7 billion years old because a) the speed of light is a constant, b) we can measure the distance from Earth to the stars we can see with Hubble, c) light had to travel the distance necessary for us to see it, and d) no plausible alternative explanation backed by evidence can explain how light could reach us without traveling this distance. In order for light to be here from where the universe began to expand, it would have had to travel faster than light. I repeat: light would have to travel faster than light.

Question 2: Why are atheists like Richard Dawkins actually afraid of admitting to the fact that they could possibly be wrong and that there is a god?

Greg's Take: Let me begin by answering that there are no Atheists like Dawkins. He's an international Atheist celebrity. He's a household name. There are a few with his level of fame: Hitchens, Harris, Madelyn Murray O'Hair, some comedians (e.g., George Carlin), but not many with his knowledge of biology, his soft-spoken manner, and his intellect.

I would argue that Dawkins would say--actually, he has said--that he is 99.9% sure that there is no designer, like a good scientist would say about anything. He also says he's 99.9% sure there are no fairies. Scientists do not rule out possibilities, but science deals only with what can be observed and quantified, so things people accept on faith are outside the realm of scientific thought.

For my part, I say that the burden of proof is on those making the claim that their god exists. Bring on your evidence, because I haven't seen any. It always comes down to faith.

Question 3: Why do atheists think that it is illogical for Christians and religious people to believe in god, because they can't see him, feel him, hear him, et cetera, believe that we don't have proof of god, when apparently, atheists believe and have faith in the big bang theory and evolution? Atheists love to preach it and teach it in schools, so wouldn't that make atheism a religion?

Greg's Take: We come back in this question to the mistaken noting of Atheists believing things. Think of it more like this: Atheists, for the most part, from what I've seen and experienced, trust scientists. At least, those among us who know science (or are scientists ourselves! Not me--I'm an IT professional) trust scientists, because scientists deal in what is observable, quantifiable, and verifiable. I will admit that many Atheists get overzealous in their defense of evolution and the big bang (which I prefer to refer to as the expansion of the universe as we know it) and go a little far, taking liberties with what science is actually available, but as a former biology major and someone who really enjoys science, as someone who reads journals and science news, I can tell you that evolution is a fact, that it is inevitable, and it takes more knowledge than I can impart to you in this blog entry to understand how it works.

To simplify evolution as much as I possibly can, it's all in the genes. To expand just a little, I can say with certainty that during reproduction, a little bit more information is added to DNA. This addition is an observable, verifiable fact. With additional DNA, there is a possibility that different genes will be active in the next generation of a species, which explains population genetics, but I won't go into that at the moment. What I can say is that when you add mutation (which is the only mechanism creationists seem to think exists for evolution; it's not) and gene-crossing to the mix, you have all sorts of possibities that open up.

I can expand and expand and expand, but unless you've taken a few courses in biology at the college level, you're not going to get it. Evolution is a fact; it's the theories regarding evolution that are not 100% proven--but they are 99.9% there. Evolution has so much predictive power in science. For example, you know the flu vaccines that are administered every year? Scientists know how to make these vaccines because they can predict the evolutionary path of viruses--and it is a statistical fact that people who get flu shots are less likely to get the flu, and more likely to recover faster from it if they do get it.

I already touched on the Big Bang theory, so I won't go over it again. I would just advise you to think of it as an expansion of the universe, because nobody knows what happened before 13.7 billion years ago. Nobody. There are some educated guesses, but there is no certainty.

Oh, and no, atheism is not a religion. If Atheism is a religion, bald is a hairstyle. The reason evolution and the Big Bang are taught in schools is because science must be taught in science classrooms. It is unfair to students who want a career in the sciences to waste time in science class on things that are not science. Creationism is a matter of faith, and does not belong in a biology or physics classrom. What you learn in science classes has everything to do with the body of knowledge that scientists have built, and has nothing to do with popular opinion or debates between people of faith and people of no faith.

Question 4: If the big bang theory were true, then how did everything in the universe come to be designed the way it did? Like for example, how could the Earth be in the perfect position for the sun to give it light, and if it moved by an inch or so, we wouldn't have light like we have now, and the Earth is the only planet with supplies for human life? [I tried to correct for grammar here, but you get the gist, right? I gave up because I hate playing the grammar police.]

Greg's Take: First of all, the Earth moves much more than inch toward or away from the sun, depending on where it is in its orbit. Secondly, how do you know that Earth is the only planet that can support human life? It's a big universe out there, and there could be thousands, millions, or billions of inhabitable planets in it. We just don't know. The odds are good that there is some more life out there in some form, given the number of stars, and given the number of solar systems with planets astronomers are now discovering.

Life has always been a struggle on Earth. While life begets life, life also eats other life. Life has to contend with climate changes and natural disasters, geographic separations and limitations on food sources. Species after species forms and dies. Warm-blooded species last an average of twenty-five million years; cold-blooded species last around three hundred million. I should say that the genus lasts that long, because there is a blurry line where the species becomes so different that it can no longer breed with creatures like its ancestors. Given what geneticists know now about the amount of information that is added with reproduction to DNA, enough change will occur over a twenty-five million year period to make the descendents become very different from their ancestors.

To say that this life is "fine-tuned" for life (which is how it is usually worded) is to have it backwards: life struggled and thrived due to adaptations that allowed it to live under the conditions that existed already. This planet was uninhabitable 3.5 billion or 4 billion years ago; whatever the first life was had to have the correct adaptations to allow it to survive under the conditions that existed then. I am fairly certain that more than one combination of self-replicating proteins appeared, but only the combination(s) producing the characteristics giving it survival advantages thrived.

Question 5: When Christians like my brothers and sisters in christ and I spread the word of god in a loving and perfect way, why do you have so much hate towards us when we share with you about the gospel of our lord and savior jesus christ, when he came to this world to save sinners, he died on the cross for our sins, and was risen from the dead?

Greg's Take: I can't speak for all Atheists. No Atheist can. What I can say is that I do not hate you. I don't know what reactions you're receiving that you translate as hate, but I can guess, because when I first rejected religion, I was angry, frustrated, and alone. I knew a precious few people who were Atheists, and when I came out to my Christian friends, they just wouldn't leave me to it. They felt that I was "lost" and that my "soul" needed "saved", but they--and you--have no idea how condescending that sounds to someone who has just undertaken an intellectual journey away from religion. I read the Bible at least twenty-seven times through during my life, referring to various versus hundreds, perhaps thousands of times during the course of my journey. I studied ancient religions, I studied philosophers and apologists--rejecting faith wasn't something I came to lightly. For people I once considered friends to treat me as though I was being foolish, going through a phase, or as if I had lost my way somehow was disheartening and annoying. That's probably one of the perspectives you're meeting.

I'm well beyond that point now. I'm not angry as much anymore, though I do get passionate about defending kids from being ostracized from their religious classmates, or when a town turns against a family for wanting to keep religion out of government, or when Atheists are painted as hateful, bitter, morally corrupt people. In any case, toward individual Christians, I am pretty much done being angry, but it can get a bit annoying, hearing the same thing over and over. Having debated with Christians since 1991, I can tell you that I haven't come across anything new in about ten years. Sure, there are new spins on old arguments, but it always comes down to the same thing: you have faith, you have ancient texts, and you have artwork. You have no real evidence to prove that your Bible is true, you have no evidence that your god exists, and Jesus is just mythical as any other figure in your anthology of myths. You truly believe that Jesus performed all of those miracles, that he was born of a virgin, that he rose from the dead; I can't buy into any of it. There's scant evidence that he was even a historical person, let alone this magical man-god that your Bible makes him out to be.

Do you really believe Jonah could have survived in the belly of an ocean-dwelling creature? He wouldn't have drowned, asphyxiated, or been digested over the three days he supposedly spent in there?

Don't even get me started on Noah's flood. If you believe that story, please build me a boat with those dimensions that will float--without steel supports, entirely of gopher wood (whatever that is). The longest wooden boat ever built without steel supports was less than three hundred feet long. The reason why was a phenomenon known as "keeling". Essentially, the wood would crack and the boat would sink. Never mind explaining how all of the salt water and fresh water life survived, how algae could have survived without sunlight for forty days and nights, or any other of the long list of things in that story that just aren't possible.

I don't hate you; I just get a bit annoyed by the constant attacks on physics and biology by people who have, at best, a limited understanding of the subjects. Do you know the complexity of the math involved in physics and biology? Have you taken an advanced chemistry class? These subjects aren't ones just anyone can take; science involves heavy mathematics and logical thinking. It's not surprising that most people aren't scientists, but it is surprising how many people reject science out of hand when they haven't taken even the freshman level courses at the college level, if they even took the very basic high school level ones.

I don't hate you, but your Bible bothers me. I don't like being called filthy, foolish, a liar, and an antichrist. I don't like the execution orders your Bible gives regarding Atheists in at least four verses. I don't like how your Bible treats women as the property of men. I don't like its support of slavery. It bothers me that the only way your god character could think of to absolve human beings of sin was to make a humiliating blood sacrifice of his only begotten son (if I would even go as far as to accept this myth, which I don't). It also bothers me that this concept of original sin was born of a myth about a man and woman who didn't have the knowledge of good and evil, but were expected to know that it was evil to disobey your god when they were punished for eating fruit (!) that somehow gave them this knowledge.

Conclusion: I hope I've answered your questions to your satisfaction. Feel free to ask follow-up questions.