Christian Complaint: Leave Britney Alone

Ajax Cochrane complains:
Just thought I'd point out an interesting fact, and I'm not going to debate this because debating with someone when they believe their own lies so fiercely that they would rather burn in Hell than admit they're wrong is completely pointless. My proof that God exists, and that atheists know that He exists, is their dogged pursuit and harassment of believers. If you really believe that God doesn't exist, why do you so violently oppose any proof to the contrary? If I believe something doesn't exist, and someone else does, I'm like "Oh, cool" and go about my business, and just write them off as another misguided person. So you'd think that atheists would just see believers as religious nut cases and leave us and our posts alone and go in search of higher karma or whatever it is you people do to soothe your troubled minds. 
But no. Every time a post comes up regarding the existence of God, it is immediately swamped by atheists loudly proclaiming that He doesn't exist. And the attitude is just down right humourous- they will stalk even young girls' posts, using every dirty word in the dictionary to try to prove their point. If God does not exist, if you believe with all your heart and soul that He is a myth invented by superstitious yokels in need of a crutch, why do you become so violent in your attacks? If God is about as real to you as Santa Claus, why do you take Him so seriously? It's really just too intriguing, y'all.
(I separated things into paragraphs, but did no other editing) 
 I suppose a thought experiment might be a the best response here. Suppose that it was thousands of years ago and you realised through careful observation that your tribe's annual virgin sacrifice didn't bring the rain. Instead you came to the conclusion that the rains always came because you may have known that one of the virgins was not really a virgin. Would you simply write them off as misguided? What if everyone believed that the moon made its own light, or that the earth orbited the sun?

Whether we like it or not, we all form part of the same society and the same species. If there was another earth-like planet out there, maybe most atheists would feel okay just moving there, but we can't do that. We all need to get along and move society in a forward direction together. There is no them, just us. If we screw up there is no rescue party, no plan B. Well not for atheists anyway. We think we got it right, and we want to help other people to see why, or maybe be convinced that we are wrong if that is the case.

Humanity progresses on the back of fierce disagreement. Despite the confidence of the original post, many people are being convinced by atheist arguments and changing their minds. The person posting the original post displays a strange behaviour. They claim that they don't want to debate in a debating community. In other words they want to have a back patting party with their friends and not have their beliefs challenged or disturbed. That is exactly what we want to do. We want to make people uncomfortable so they can start thinking about the subject of religion. Most of us were born into a religion and accepted it as unthinking toddlers. It's time for humanity to grow up and for adults to answer these questions.

If there is an answer let's talk about it, instead of accusing the other side of lying and preferring to go to hell to admitting the truth. Maybe instead of going the "you people" route, a more careful approach is warranted. 
If God is about as real to you as Santa Claus, why do you take Him so seriously?
We don't. We take you seriously, because you believe in it, and because most people do believe it. I don't think you could ever understand unless you get to hold a belief that is in a small minority.

Seperating People From Ideas

When it is pointed out to Christian apologists that priests molest children or that televangelist prosperity preachers milk viewers to build empires of wealth they are quick to cry foul and remind us that the behaviour of some people within a belief system or movement are not necessarily representative and that such criticisms are unfair. However when a prominent atheist, usually Richard Dawkins, makes some statement on some social issue on twitter apologists are quick to run to their little blogs and go "See! That's the problem with atheism right there kids!"

I don't involve myself in Dawkins controversies because personally his beliefs about gender equality and sexual abuse don't matter to me. I would hazard a guess that being an old Brit has more to do with Dawkins' opinions on social matters than his atheism does. He is only a spokesperson insofar as he speaks about atheism, and even then, he has become one voice among many, not the pope of atheism as apologists make him out to be. 

Of course the previous pope of atheism was Stalin, apologists' goto example of the result of atheism. It hardly matters that pious crusaders pillaged, raped and killed in the name of Yahweh. What matters even less is the question of whether Stalin's atheism was the actual cause of his actions, or just an irrelevant datum among many. People often misunderstand the relationship between powerful religious institutions and the proles in history. The lower classes always looked at the clergy with a mixture of awe and suspicion. It's true that religious organisations abused their power and overstepped their mandate often, using divine authority as an excuse to use and abuse commoners. The clergy was a social class that threatened the sovereignty of the people due to its power and influence, and far from atheism being the driving force to the destruction of the church, their power and wealth were what drew the ire of the common people. By arbitrarily choosing a quality or opinion of someone or some movement you don't like and dismissing the rest you run the risk of missing the really important part: the real cause.

So if Dawkins was found with a knife in his hand after killing twenty babies the truth is that it doesn't matter for atheism. Dawkins' ideas on atheism and biology too still have to stand on their own merit, because "would you really defend an argument made by a baby killer?" is an obvious ad hominem, as is "Would you defend a belief held by a mass murderer?". Christianity similarly is not false because of the crusades or because countless priests have molested children. There is no need for atheists to defend Dawkins if he is wrong about something, just like there is no reason to blame atheism for any shortcomings he may have as a human being. 

If we can successfully see ideas isolated from those who put them forward, we would have a lot less trouble absorbing knowledge around us, because occasionally someone who is wrong about everything is very right about something and we can't afford to ever miss out on the truth.

5 Reasons Why List Articles Will Go Out Of Fashion

1. The numerical order is usually arbitrary, so they might as well have been bullets.
2. They often leave out important points in order to reach a particular number like 5
3. There is no 3
4. They pander to a lazy reader who can't absorb prose, but as people become more accustomed to reading they will become more comfortable with reading longer pieces of text.
5. They add useless items just to pad up the list to the number they wish to reflect.

Discourse: What’s in a Word?

This instalment of the series on discourse was written by +Blair Mullins , and reposted from his blog at

As a university graduate and an avid reader of everything from poetry to scientific dissertations, I just can’t seem to get enough of words, and I really don’t know why. It doesn't seem to fit with the rest of my athletic, adrenaline-driven personality, yet there it is. I get as lost in words as I do in sport; they both catapult me into the same sort of intoxicating trance. I soak up words and I can never seem to temper my insatiable quest for more. It’s as if they’re some sort of life sustaining rays for my mind and I guess in some ways, that’s exactly what they are.

I must admit, I do love the creative use of language. I love reading everything, whether it’s a haiku, a straightforward mathematical proof, a news article, a wordy philosophical argument or Uncle Willy’s anecdote about the weekend excursion to the cabin. I must make the disclaimer that with my last formal English class nearly 20 years behind me, my editing skills have denigrated to whatever it takes to get the red underline in Microsoft Word to disappear. But that doesn't stop me from being able to enjoy the great works of others, just as I don’t need to be able to paint well to enjoy looking at a Picasso.

I pay attention to language and I readily admit that my tastes are more acclimated to the poetic side of the spectrum, which means there is a part of me that loves having to read between the lines. There is a part of me that enjoys the ambiguity and the use of metaphors. There is a thrill of the chase dynamic at play where the author’s meaning isn't directly delivered on a silver platter. Great writing truly is an art form and despite the great many that have attempted it, very few have it mastered.

The reality though is that if you want to be clearly understood by most people in most situations, and if you want to avoid misinterpretation and confusion then speaking clearly and plainly is set at a premium. This is especially so in conversations where claims are being made and discussed. When the goal is to understand and to be understood; the simpler the better.

It’s difficult for many highly educated people to avoid the linguistic masturbation that pleasures them so completely as they read and re-read their own commentary, digesting it as a delicacy. It’s a skill to speak plainly using ordinary language and to resist the temptation to show off impressive linguistic maneuvers every time the opportunity presents itself. Some people like to measure their linguistic acumen by the number of syllables they use, while others delight in having to constantly add new words to their spell check.

It’s extremely easy to slip into a smorgasbord of metaphor exalting from a Sassicaia seeped tongue expelling the emblem that rides along the full bodied permeating wave of a Cohiba Esplendido exhalation. Along the fringes of the verses resides the embodiment of the meaning that we so trepidatiously extract with surgical precision and scour precisely with a fine toothed comb to subtly caress the obscene.

The words blunted from full effect are dressed in subtleties and accessible only to the astute, who are well equipped to scrape the rising crème de la crème from the top. In the slow progression of the thesis that is expressed in a thousand words (when ten will do), it becomes exceedingly difficult to refrain and to hold to plain and ordinary language that leaves the point bare and accessible to the greatest number of people possible.

After all, the primary purpose of language is to transport information from one person to another. While there will always be a demand for creative language, it’s always important to consider the audience at any given venue and proceed accordingly. There are indeed people who are threatened by plain language and usually these are the ones who like to obfuscate language in an effort to bury arguments so deep that they cannot be readily identified, let alone dismantled. In the conversation with religion we are far better served setting the example with plain and simple language, thereby giving us the license to demand the same in return. If you cannot state your case clearly and precisely, then you cannot state your case. Let’s leave the creative language to the wordsmiths and the poets.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Albert Einstein

The Natural Case For Morality

In the post titled Can Atheists Be Moral? That’s the Wrong Question , shared by +Andrew honest , the author of the article makes the excellent point that atheists can and do behave morally, even according to theistic standards. Atheists I know are often very honest and sincere even to a fault. Of course, I don't want to generalise, maybe I have been lucky with my sampling.

With that aside, the post goes on to address relativism, cultural differences, genetics and instinct as the sources of moral behaviour. I can't speak for relativism, as I am not one (despite apologists' repeated assistance that all atheists are), but the natural case for morality is not adequately understood by the writer of the post to even be relevant to making a case against morality as a natural phenomenon.

In the section titled "Morality is Not Genetic", the author states:
"If we truly believed that we merely “dance to our DNA” as Richard Dawkins stated, we would have no reason (or grounds) to tell someone that what they have done is wrong or inappropriate."

The author does not go through the trouble to learn about the case that morality as an evolutionary trait states at all. It does not state that genes are deterministic with absolutely no flexibility in our behaviour. This is an easy misunderstanding to make. Genes don't program how our brains will respond to every single situation and stimulus, it merely puts in place the structures necessary to function in a general purpose kind of way. So instead of a set of moral rules being coded directly into our brains via our DNA, there are simply emotional and logical "programs" that take in information and make decisions based on available information. The idea that genes are fully deterministic and that people can't help themselves due to genetics is simplistic and mistaken.

The author goes on in the section titled "Morality is Not Mere Instinct":
"Similarly, it cannot be shown that morality developed over time as a means of self or group preservation. If this were true, doing what was in our own best interest, or the interest of our “tribe,” would by default be the right thing to do."
And it is. If we look at morality from an anthropological perspective, we see that attitude pervading many cultures. In fact the author at +Reasonable Theology should ask himself why it is that people are starving and being murdered in some places of the world, but when a single white child is abducted in the west the media goes into a frenzy. This indifference to outsiders is explained by morality as a natural phenomenon, but not as a god given sense.

The author goes on:
"Even if it helps us get ahead, we still understand that cheating is not the right thing to do."
 Any evolutionary psychologist will tell you that detecting cheaters in a social context is of utmost importance. The reason why organisms in social contexts don't just cheat the whole time is because when everyone else finds out that someone is cheating, the cheater is punished. To avoid punishment, we have to some extent evolved a sense of fairness and integrity. This emotional equipment encourages us to avoid cheating, even though many of us still feel okay doing it when nobody is looking and the risk of punishment is gone or diminished.
"The very definition of altruism is “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” If morality was the result of some herd mentality, altruism could still exist. However, it would be deemed a weakness and not admired."
Why wouldn't an organism admire another organism that does things for it without expecting anything in return? Speaking in evolutionary terms it would be stupid not to admire altruism in others. It can indeed be a weakness if an organism gives away too much, unless it gives away to its offspring or family members, thus preserving the genetic material of the group even though it sacrifices its own life. Many animals die shortly after reproducing, because evolution doesn't select for any traits that prolong life unless a prolonged life is directly responsible for more successful offspring.

A single member of the group can sometimes seem to be highly self sacrificial. It is then almost definitely the case that the organism is closely related to the others that they sacrifice themselves for. What seems like an act of pure altruism is actually just a group survival strategy. The overall genetic identity of the individual is preserved, even though it loses its life, because its family members are genetically close to itself.

Human beings and many other social species operate on a principle known as reciprocal altruism which works a bit differently to pure altruism. The idea is pretty simply to give first as a sign of good will, and then something will come in return. A great example of this principle is the lover's quest. The lover will buy the object of their affection gifts, sing songs, make lofty gestures and pay extravagant compliments. A lover, blinded by a chemical soup that could well be the best drug known to mankind, will give these things selflessly. However if the receiver of these gifts does not eventually reciprocate the giver becomes jaded and feels cheated, even though they gave freely with no expectation of receiving anything in return. In a mutually loving relationship the giving, compliments and favours carry on, and a powerful pair bond is forged.

The concept is simple: give to receive. We engage in this behaviour with gift giving too. It is an integral part of human social order.

All these innate properties and behaviours don't carry us to a modern moral system, it just gives us the tools we need to get there. We co-opt familial love into larger entities like countries when we refer to the father land or to all humanity when we refer to mother earth, implying that we are all family. That means that instead of not being nepotistic as our nature makes us, we just convince ourselves that our family extends over the entire earth. In fact that is one of the most beautiful aspects of evolution, the message that we are all family.We take the tools we have in our minds and reason collectively to build ever better moral systems, starting from tribal dictatorships to democratic nation states.

These concepts are not simplistic. They do not occupy singular paragraphs, but span across multiple fields of study. If the author of this apologetics article wants to object to naturalistic morality, I think it would be fair for them to become aware of these facts and the study that surrounds them. As usual, the natural explanation does not only consist of real tangible science and facts about ourselves, but it presents a reality that is far more interesting than a "universal moral law" and a "universal moral law giver".

Discourse: Keep it short

My cat reading a book.
The optimal response to someone is always the one that conveys a maximum amount of meaning and minimal amount of fluff, while still keeping your response neat and understandable. This is one of those guidelines that seem intuitively obvious in discourse but is easy to violate.

When responding to someone it is often the case that you want to be as verbose as possible to make sure that the message is transferred reliably, but the truth is that the only misunderstandings we can preempt are the kind we ourselves can conceive of.

Other people might have completely strange misunderstandings alien to our way of thinking. Therefore a long comment can actually explain something that the other person already understands in detail, and miss the fundamental part of your communication they don't quite get.

When someone has to read a large amount of text, a higher cognitive load is imposed on them. They are more likely to miss things and lose attention, if only briefly. If you are writing something, no matter how well written, if it is too long people will have trouble keeping it in their heads. That means that they would have to reread parts before they respond, or quite commonly you will find that they just respond to what they remembered in the first place, which could already be distorted by the time they finish reading or listening to a long comment. 

When you write long pieces of text, someone may not have time to adequately respond, giving responses that don't address things you originally said. Alternatively, they can give a very long response in which you are now faced with the same prospect of reading a very long piece of text. You may meet a misunderstanding in this long text which renders the rest of it neutered. For example if an animal rights activist is trying to stop fishing, and finds out you are a fisherman, they may assume you use hooks and kill fish, when it could be that you use nets and release fish back into the water. A long comment on the evil of hooks would clearly be a waste of time when addressing you. To avoid this happening, shorter text is almost always better. 

If your desire is to truly communicate something, you should keep in mind that you don't possess a right to your audience, you have the privilege of their attention. It makes sense not to abuse that privilege. Sometimes it is hard to keep things short, but with practice it is very possible to at least make things more brief.

I noticed a massive improvement in the productivity of discussions I had when I reduced the length of my writing. It seemed counter intuitive at first, and removing certain things I was itching to say was hard, but it paid off big time. I referred mostly to writing here, but the same concept can apply equally well to discussions in person. Our aim should be to communicate understanding, not to drown people in words.

Discussion vs. Preaching

A big thank you to +Greydon Square for the following video. Have a look.

There are a few reasons why I like this video:

1. A respectful discussion is a two-way street. If someone is entering a discussion without the possibility of having their mind changed, that respect is missing. 

2. If everyone has this attitude with evangelists, street preachers and door knockers it would maybe cause them to rethink their position. Maybe it will occur to them that being closed minded is not the kind of thing that other people appreciate, and why it is such a problem.

3. We only have finite lives, and wouldn't we rather spend that time discussing things with open minded people who are willing to listen to what we have to say.

4. It is more likely that open minded people are mistaken less often, because facts and logic change their minds, and therefore they hold more valuable information that anybody would more likely want to listen to.