When Theism Cannot Explain Anything (Origins Especially)

July 24, 2008

In having a bit of a debate with blogger Eric Kemp, we hit an impasse at which he declared that “God” is a sensible explanation for an otherwise presently inexplicable event (in this case, the nature and/or origin of the universe). It seems like as good a time as any to explore what I see as the intellectual impotence of theistic “explanations.”

Just what is it to explain something, anyhow? It is to come away with more information than you began. To have a set of distinct causes, effects, and overall processes, in place of what was once complete ignorance. It means being able to state what needs to be done for some event to happen: what specific capacities are necessary for something to do it.

To say that the standard theistic God has caused phenomenon X is essentially to say that it was done by a being that is hypothetically capable of doing anything. In short, it is a truly ingenious means of avoiding having to give any specific explanation for how X happens. No ignorance is dispelled.

Using God in this way is much like answering a multiple choice question by filling in every option, and then claiming that you have answered the question correctly. But while you are indeed sure to have filled in the correct bubble at some point in the process (unless of course, we’ve tricked you by simply not offerring the right answer there at all), your “answer” doesn’t actually tell you or anyone else which option was the correct one.

Read the rest of this entry »


James Carse: Yet Another Atheist Who Just Doesn’t Get Atheism

July 22, 2008

Yesterday, Salon featured an interview with James Carse, longtime Religious Studies director at NYU, covering his new book The Religious Case Against Belief.

Now, a lot of what Carse has to say about religion is interesting and engaging, if not always convincing. But when it comes to the now-standard near-content-free dismissal of the “New Atheists,” Carse falls flat:

In the current, very popular attack on religion, the one thing that’s left out is the sense of religion that I’ve been talking about [i.e. being endlessly fascinated with the unknowability of what it means to be human]. Instead, it’s an attack on what’s essentially a belief system.

Well, pardon me sir, but duh. Carse acts as if Dawkins, Dennet, and all the rest are somehow honor-bound to a) care about Carse’s obscure religious mysticism b) oppose it as a matter of principle and yet c) fail to justify their opposition. But Dawkins, Harris, and Dennet explicitly say that Carse’s sort of “religion” is not the sense of the word “religious” that’s in their crosshairs.

In other words, they’re focused on a specific target. That’s a good thing, not a failing.

So the fact that Carse uses a far broader definition of “religion” than the New Atheists is no excuse for holding them to that broad definition, let alone then claiming that they sloppily miss the mark and that not all “religion” is susceptible to their critiques. Of course it isn’t.

And while Carse absolutely refuses the word, it’s pretty plain that he’s an atheist himself:

Salon: And yet, you’ve just told me that you yourself don’t believe in a divine reality. In some ways, your critique of belief systems seems to go along with what the new atheists are saying.

Carse: The difference, though, is that I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe. That’s a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. So I have very little in common with them.

I’ve got some bad news for Carse: if he actually sat down and read their books, he’d find that he’s got exactly that in common with them (Dawkins and Harris in particular)… plenty of atheists. You think I’m not stunned and humbled by the mystery of things? That not a single atheist ever walks about in wonder about the universe? These are mere childish stereotypes of atheism: the old equivocation that because we don’t believe in metaphysical souls that we don’t have soul, baby.

Now, Carse is welcome to think that his own critique of modern religion is “deeper and much more incisive,” but that’s clearly in part because he happens to be very interested in religion (nothing wrong with that), and wants people to get more out of it (good for him). In fact, I think there is plenty of synergy between his feelings and mine in regards to even liberal theologies not taking things far enough, not leaping full bore into the sort of poetic innovation that built their traditions in the first place.

But the New Atheists are specifically concerned primarily with the perniciousness of faith beliefs, and there’s simply nothing wrong with having that focus either. Outside of that focus, they really don’t have much beef with Carse or anyone else wandering around in his secularized state of agape. So why is he so eager to pick fights with them, when he seemingly can’t even be bothered to raise a single substantive criticism against their specific arguments, or a single substantive difference between their position and his?

The best he musters is to claim that the New Atheists have their own belief system to offer in place of religion: one that is just as dismissive of ignorance and mystery as religious dogma. But this is surely a cheap shot. All of the people he talks about have all written tons of material on science as a neverending, never-certain method, not a dogma. Carse is basically attacking people like Dennet for trying to explain things like consciousness and “free will” that Carse, perhaps, thinks should not be explained, but doing it under the guise of falsely accusing Dennet of arrogantly thinking that he can solve or answer every question. That’s just a low blow.

And then there’s clueless claims like this which make me wonder if he’s ever really thought about atheism much at all:

To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you’re not believing in. Therefore, if you don’t have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily…

This is like saying that to not be a platypus, you have to have a deep and well-developed understanding of platypi. Nonsense. To be an atheist, all you have to be clear about is that there is no concept close to or akin to ANY sort of God belief inside your head. You don’t have to know every possible deep insight into what a god might be to know that you’ve yet to happen upon a convincing reason to believe in God, period.

And Carse seems no different on this point anyway. His answer as to whether he believes God exists is “[Laugh] Frankly, no.” So if even Carse, supposedly deeply steeped in theistic understanding hasn’t found anything to convince him to believe (and Carse pretty much rejects the entire “belief claim” side of religion), why should atheists who don’t happen to be interested in religious studies in the first place worry their pretty little heads about it?

A lack of deep insight into theology is neither laudable nor contemptible, any more than a lack of deep insight into botany is necessarily a gaping hole in your life. You can’t appreciate or be interested in every single subject equally deeply, and everyone has their favorite subjects. Carse enjoys religion even without the belief claim side of it, and good for him. But without compelling, universally relevant belief claims at stake, and lacking much other than subjective appreciation, Carse hasn’t made any sort of case as to why atheists, or people in general, must care about appreciating the poetic side of religion.

Of course, I just so happen to have a taste for religious studies. And for all my carrying on over this particular point, Carse’s book sounds like one I’ll be adding to my already bulging reading list. I just wish people that celebrate the mysterious and unconventional sides of life would stop pushing such conventional and dogmatic slanders of non-belief.


James Dobson Shocks No One With McCain Flip-Flop

July 21, 2008

Conservative Christian crank James Dobson is apparently the last person in the universe to realize that he will, after all, be supporting the Republican nominee for President this year, contrary to his pre- and post-primary promises.

“I never thought I would hear myself saying this,” Dobson said in a radio broadcast to air Monday. “… While I am not endorsing Senator John McCain, the possibility is there that I might.”

Ah yes, we’re all waiting in suspense to see what happens next, aren’t we?

Dobson, of course, would apparently like folks to think that this predictable turn of events is all down to recent revelations about the two candidates and some serious pondering on his part:

In an advance copy provided to The Associated Press, Dobson said that while neither candidate is consistent with his views, McCain’s positions are closer by a wide margin.

“There’s nothing dishonorable in a person rethinking his or her positions, especially in a constantly changing political context,” Dobson said in a statement to the AP. “Barack Obama contradicts and threatens everything I believe about the institution of the family and what is best for the nation. His radical positions on life, marriage and national security force me to reevaluate the candidacy of our only other choice, John McCain.”

Changing political context? Back when Dobson said that he could not “in good conscience” vote for McCain, both McCain and Obama were pretty much the same guys they are today. Obama was just as much a contradiction of everything Dobson slouches for, and McCain was just as much… uh, whatever the heck he is.

In fact, the only new developments in the Obamaverse in recent days have involved Obama playing up his more centrist positions. The only recent developments in McCainia has been a mirroring stroll towards centrism, including McCain’s recent, horrifying admission that maybe gay people can raise kids, you know, if no one else wants them. In short, the only new information Dobson now has with which to change his mind is an Obama apparently slightly closer to his positions than before, and a McCain slightly farther.

So here’s a far more plausible scenario: Dobson is an opportunistic gasbag who knows, and always knew, that if McCain won, that he’d eventually be endorsing him. His hyperbole to the contrary was merely a means of trying to throw his weight around: the ultimate in playing hard to get. And given that the whole point of the ploy was first to hurt McCain’s primary ambitions and then to try and weasel as many concessions out of McCain’s camp as possible, his backing off now is doubly pathetic: Dobson seems to have entirely failed in both realms. As a last resort, he seems to have settled on the lame booby-prize goal of nudging McCain to pick a more orthodox evangelical-type as a VP.

But whether he wins or loses that final gasp effort, the result will be the same: the hapless and increasingly irrelevant Dobson stuck having to chew through his own foot to get it out of his mouth.


Anti-Evolution Doc Expelled Really Is Trying for a Theatrical Comeback!

July 19, 2008

Looks like those vague hints and rumors were indeed authentic: Ben Stein’s anti-science opus Expelled is going to be re-released later this summer.

The rationale, however, strikes be as pure hype:

“We had many individuals and groups who had planned to see the film, but decided not to because the cloud of doubt this lawsuit brought to the film,” noted one of the film’s producers, John Sullivan.

Riiiiight. Because an obscure lawsuit based on copyright claims that few people outside of nuts like myself that follow these things ever heard about had a chilling effect on ordinary moviegoers.

Now, it might have been reasonable for Sullivan to note that the Ono lawsuit hurt the distribution efforts of the film, which it almost certainly did, and that this hurt their momentum.

But this production has always favored incoherently overwrought rhetoric over honest appraisal. Does Sullivan really expect anyone to seriously believe that any moviegoers at all avoided the film because of the lawsuit? Were they afraid that Ono would have thugs stationed outside the theaters threatening anyone who dared to watch it? Conflicted fans of both the Beatles and Ben Stein that held off declaring their allegiances until the legal issues were resolved?

“We came out of the gate with strong momentum only to have our integrity questioned by this frivolous lawsuit. While we’re thrilled with the film’s having earned nearly $8 million during its first run; we’ve heard from enough people and groups who want to see it in their theaters that we’ve agreed to re-release it this time without an undeserved cloud over its head.”

Because, of course, the only “cloud” over the film’s head was an obscure copyright lawsuit and not, well, you know, most critics panning it, sciencebloggers raking it over the coals for its distortions and slander, the ADL condemning it, and so on.

And this paragraph makes the “cloud” reasoning even more ridiculous. People obsessive enough to demand the immediate re-screening of a film which will likely be out on DVD in a few months are not the sort of people who would have stayed away the first time… based on the mere existence of a copyright lawsuit against the film.

“We will not be silenced. In fact it will have the opposite effect: we will re-release it and allow millions of Americans to go to the box office and register their vote against Ms. Ono and her attempt to keep them from watching our film.”

As John Pieret has pointed out, something is funky with the math here. Given that Expelled made about 7.5 million during its run, and ticket prices were generally in the range of 8 dollars and up, then at best the film got about a million viewers (not counting the fact that some percentage of people would have been repeats). The odds are astronomically low that any hypothetical second run would match that, let alone exceed it.

And indeed, despite all the hype, it looks like the producers know that, and that the “re-release” is not quite akin to a remastered Star Wars. At the end of the article, they note that they have 1000 prints of the film ready to go. Which is a rather far cry from “1000 different theaters already booked to show the film”: the sort of thing you might expect from an announcement about an impending re-release. As far as I can tell, this is all just hyperbolic way of announcing that the producers, free from the injunction, are now willing to lease out old prints to anyone who wants them.

Which all strikes me as sort of pathetic coming from an outfit that once seemed to sincerely believe that they would be sparking off a vast nationwide movement. We still don’t know whether the filmmakers actually broke even after their production and marketing costs.


No Atheists in Retirement Homes, But Fewer Believers to Come

July 18, 2008

USAToday’s poll-maven Frank Newport has a quick analysis of some Gallup Polling on religious preference in the States, in this case regarding religiosity by age group. In many ways it’s not too surprising. Newport can’t help himself when it comes to repeating, without caveat, the usual slander of “no atheists in foxholes,” but he’s got a new modification that apparently hits closer to the mark: “no atheists in retirement homes.” Sigh. Anyhow:

Beginning at age 30 this “no religion” percent begins to decline. By age 40 it’s down in the lower teens, and by age 62 it’s in the single digits. It keeps getting lower. Of all of those we interviewed over the past six months who were 89 years of age (over 150 of them), only 2% said that they had no religious identity whatsoever.

That is indeed a pretty tiny percentage of atheists (if that’s what it really represents: as we’ve seen in other surveys, there seems to be considerable confusion as to what counts as an atheist, and some atheists do have “religious identity” in that they are still culturally this or that, such as secular Jews who observe some holiday traditions and so on).

Newport doesn’t mention it, but in addition to plausible factors like generational differences (old people today grew up in an era where the instilled traditions and expectations involved at least a cultural belief in nigh universal faith) and perhaps even just a plain old likelihood to run to religious belief in the face of age and death, I think a pretty plausible factor here is free time: empty-nested parents and older retirees often just have the time and the space to actually sit down and think about religious preferences that they’d been too busy to really consider seriously during their working/parenting years. I’ll bet that in many cases, the “no religious preference” folks are generic cultural Christians who simply never bothered to find themselves a church.

Still, any atheists who look at religious preference as a numbers game can’t help but be encouraged by the higher-than-normal rates of non-belief amongst the current younger generations. If it’s true that people become more religious as they age, it’s still the case that having fewer religious people to start with ultimately implies fewer religious retirees than there would have been. For all those who think that the “New Atheism” hasn’t had any cultural impact other than increased obnoxiousness… well, the numbers are telling a different story.

Personally, I expect that the real difference between the old people of today and the old people of the future is going to be the cultural impact of computers. The Wii is creeping into retirement communities already: imagine 40 years from now how different the ultra-connected net-generation is going to be than their forebears. We may all become just as demented and physically slowed down as any generation before us. But we’re going to do it texting, gaming, blogging, and generally supplementing our fading physical and mental fortunes with the communicative freedoms and entertainments web.


More on PZ Myers & the Kidnapped Communion Wafers

July 18, 2008

We’ve been debating the fallout from Florida student Webster Cook taking (and then returning) a communion wafer, atheist blogger PZ Myers’ aggressive reaction to the blacklash, and Andrew Sullivan’s lame defense of double standards when it comes to defending the infamous Muslim cartoons, but condemning Myers’ proposed symbolic wafercide. In the process, I had an exchange with Murder of Ravens on the subject that I think helped clarify my position on the whole mess, and was worth expanding on a bit. MoR wrote:

In the case of the Danish cartoonists, they were mocking specific actions of fundamentalist Muslims, namely, their proclivity towards blowing things up and killing innocent people in the name of Allah. Sure, the cartoonists’ approach was injudicious and heavy handed, but then, surely no more heavy handed than the actions of their subjects. And besides, political cartoons have never been known for their subtlety.

In this case, the cartoons were not intended to depict at ALL Muslims, simply an odious minority who engaged in violent and, one might daresay, sociopathic behavior. I think most people will agree that this sort of behavior is rightly condemned by all right thinking people.

On the other hand, taking communion is a benign expression of faith that is partaken of by almost all Catholics. Even if you don’t believe it has any benefits, I think you’ll agree that it harms no one. Unlike the Danish cartoonists, Myers is deliberately antagonizing an entire faith for participating in a harmless act of faith.

Read the rest of this entry »


Double standard: Andrew Sullivan on Catholic Wafer Controversy

July 14, 2008

Blogger and liberal Catholic Andrew Sullivan was a hearty defender of the infamous Danish cartoons that depicted and poked fun at the Islamic prophet Mohammed. But now, the sacred cow is, er… on the other foot, or something. Sullivan Sullivan tells a very different story when it comes to the recent hubbub about PZ Myers merrily threatening to desecrate Catholic communion wafers:

It is one thing to engage in free, if disrespectful, debate. It is another to repeatedly assault and ridicule and abuse something that is deeply sacred to a great many people. Calling the Holy Eucharist a “goddamned cracker” isn’t about free speech; it’s really about some baseline civility. Myers’ rant is the rant of an anti-Catholic bigot. And atheists and agnostics can be bigots too.

“Atheists and agnostics” is just another word for “some people,” and yes, people can be bigots, especially towards groups of which they are not a part. Whether or not you think Myer’s jab is bigoted or not depends quite a bit on whether you think attacking and parodying beliefs can be a form of bigotry or not. I’m open to the argument that it can be in some cases.

But I’m not so open to the argument that it’s bigotry when done against Catholics, but not when basically the same thing is done against Muslims.

Sullivan, however, thinks he can dig his way out of this double-standard:

Thanks for the defenses. My objection to PZ Myers – even as I defended his right to say whatever he wants and wouldn’t want him punished in any way – is not, in my view, a double standard. Printing a cartoon for legitimate purposes is a different thing than deliberately backing the physical desecration of sacred objects. I’d happily publish a Mohammed cartoon if it advanced a genuine argument, but I would never knowingly desecrate a Koran purely to mock religion.

But Sullivan’s distinction here is nonsense. In Islam, creating images of their prophet is inherently very much a form of physical denigration, no different than physically denigrating a consecrated wafer (in this case, oddly, by NOT destroying it!), or improperly treating a written name of God is for some observant Jews. All of these are, of course symbolic acts done to unfeeling objects, and it is a matter of religious belief as to whether it causes any real harm to anything other than people’s feelings or not.

Sullivan’s definition of “legitimate purposes” is also a form of special pleading. Myers and the Danish cartoonists were both seeking to mock religion for precisely the same reasons: to puncture presumptions of special authority in matters metaphysical. Either you think that’s a legitimate purpose or not: but you can’t have it both ways depending on how much you like the target.

I certainly think it fair to object to these sorts of showy, trolling criticisms as unproductive, or rude, or aggressive. But as even Sullivan’s readers have pointed out, the same can be said about people, himself included, attacking or making fun of Scientology. If it were really “about baseline civility” as Sullivan claims, he’d treat this incident as a case of reconsidering his own bigotry when it comes to anything but Catholic doctrine, rather than trying to pin it exclusively on Myers.

Update: Commenter Terry points out that Sullivan’s concern for the desecration of the host is potentially problematic for him. For any number of reasons, if Sullivan himself has taken communion in what his church could consider a state of sin (i.e. unrepentantly defending and/or engaging in gay sex), then he himself would have desecrated the Host.

Dueling Hypocrisy Update: Andrew Sullivan still hasn’t addressed his own lame defense of his cartoon blasphemy apologia, but he has thought to check in on PZ Myers’ take, and implies that Myers wasn’t as enthusiastic about bashing Muslim beliefs as he was about Catholics. But Sullivan is pretty clearly quote-mining here. Myers says immediately after the supposedly damning quote:

So on the one hand I see a social problem being mocked, but on the other—and here comes the smug godless finger-wagging—I see a foolish superstition used as a prod to mock people, and a people so muddled by the phony blandishments of religion that they scream “Blasphemy!” and falsely pin the problem on a ridiculous insult to a non-existent god, rather than on the affront to their dignity as human beings and citizens. Religion in this case has accomplished two things, neither one productive: it’s distracted people away from the real problems, which have nothing at all to do with the camera-shy nature of their imaginary deity, and it’s also amplified the hatred.

In short, there doesn’t seem to be any less willingness to attack sacred beliefs here. Myers’ reservations were, if you read his post, mainly about his feeling that the cartoons traded in racial stereotypes of what he saw as a powerless minority.


Student “Kidnaps” Eucharist: Catholic Controversy Conundrum

July 9, 2008

As Webster Cook, a student at the University of Central Florida, tells it, he was attending a Catholic Mass with a friend, was given the communion wafer, and wanted to show it to the friend in order to help explain Catholicism. He was accosted as he attempted to walk back to his seat with the wafer uneaten, and in defiance decided to leave the service with it (he later gave it back). Church officials tell it differently: Cook was never physically restrained, and he basically absconded unprovoked with what they believe is the body of Christ, holding it hostage just to make point about the public funding of religion (the service was held at a publicly funded school).

Worldwide controversy ensues. Bill Donahue calls his act “beyond hate speech.” The local priest calls it “kidnapping.”

PZ Myers has his usual blistering take of course, mostly agog at the seeming absurdity of the whole matter: it’s just a cracker!

I guess I have more sympathy for the outraged Catholics than he allows. Read the rest of this entry »


Defending Obama’s “Faith-Based” Funding Changes: Special Rules for the Religious?

July 7, 2008

I’m by and large indifferent to Obama’s promised expansion of “faith-based” funding, which like most government programs that target certain groups, is likely to boil down to patronage, just as it did in the Bush administration. Maybe he’ll do better, enforce some actual standards of quality and non-partisanship. In fact, given the outright disdainful incompetent way many of these programs have been run, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could do as badly. But politics has a certain gravity, not unlike economic markets, that quickly washes away one’s original intentions when it comes time to make policy. I can’t really celebrate or decry Obama on this stuff.

There are, however, some broader important church/state principles here, and a lot of people making arguments that I just don’t think hold water.

Most prominently, there’s the religious folks who are horrified that Obama is suggesting that they might have to play by the same rules as everyone else who receives government grants. The NYTimes calls it the “six little words” that threaten to throw a wrench into his overture to religious groups

Read the rest of this entry »


Blog Shorts: Bush Smears Jefferson, Colson Smears Atheists, Cthulhu Smears Your Entrails Across Campaign Trail

July 5, 2008

The web is a wondrous place, isn’t it? From just the last week:

Ed Brayton and Timothy Sandefur catch George Bush “honoring” Thomas Jefferson by altering his actual words to avoid any hint of anti-religious opinions.

From the “Theists Are Far Ruder to Atheists than Atheists Could Be in Return” File comes Chuck Colson, the convicted felon who thinks he’s better than you. Hemant at the Friendly Atheist is having none of it. Hemant’s also not buying the idea that requiring students to actually act out Islamic prayers is a legitimate way to teach them about world religions, even if the teacher is a Christian.

Over at Catholic and Enjoying It, Mark Shea manages to be more far more outraged about a story in which Muslims are supposedly outraged by a puppy than anyone in the story is actually outraged. But he makes up for it by his hearty endorsement of Cthulhu’s 2008 run for the White House. No More Years!

And finally, Orac over at Respectful Insolence bemoans yet another loss to the forces of woo: apparently some states, with Vermont the most prominant amongst them, are starting to require insurance companies to pay for the “evidence-free medicine” of naturopathy. Lest you think that such errant nonsense couldn’t possibly hurt you, Orac points out that it’s a move that will kick you right in the pocketbook:

I don’t know about you, but if I were paying into an insurance plan, and the company administering that plan were wasting money paying for woo, I’d be mightily pissed. This can only serve to drive up the costs for everyone, as patients with non-self-limiting diseases pursue non-science-based modalities, think they feel better for a while, and then find that their disease is progressing, at which point they seek out science-based medical care–which their insurance companies will have to pay for, too.


Ancient Jewish Tablet Ignites Controversy: Another 3-Day Messiah?

July 5, 2008

When the Drudgereport first posted an unlinked story “BIBLICAL STONE CAUSES STIR; re-evaluation of Jesus story?” this morning, it caused quite a stir and much speculation. And while it remains unlinked at the moment, it likely refers to this NYTimes story: Tablet Ignites Debate on Messiah and Resurrection.

The tablet of this story contains what appears to be a sort of Judaic sect’s apocalyptic gospel, ostensibly transmitted to man by the angel Gabriel. That in itself is not so controversial, since such literature was well known in the era. What’s stunning is that some scholars have made what seems to be a decent case that the text proves the pre-Christian existence of a cultural motif of the suffering messiah: one who, no less, is killed and then perhaps even comes to live again three days later. If this is so, it means that this idea was not, as most scholars believed, original or unique to Christianity, but was in fact a known cultural theme that predates the life and ministry of both Jesus portrayed in Gospel texts as well as any historical Jesus.

As with all such finds (such as the famous Ossuary of James, now widely believed to contain partial fraud), a significant amount of skepticism is warranted. But for many reasons, including the length of time the tablet has been around in scholarly hands, it seems like few doubt the legitimacy of the stone and its text, at least insofar as their dated origin. The debate instead revolves around what precisely that text says (much is illegible or missing) and what that means for the cultural and religious beliefs of the time.

“Some Christians will find it shocking — a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology — while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,” Mr. Boyarin said.

On the face of it, the use of past events to flesh out the Christian story is not exactly unprecedented: many of the Gospels and other early Christian writings seemed concerned with showing that their religion echoes, and thus is legitimately rooted in, Jewish scripture and history (i.e. the idea that Jesus was in some respects analogous to the lamb of Passover). This could simply be one more example, and whether or not this demonstrates post-hoc justification and embellishment or prophetic harmony is a matter of subjective opinion.

However, while some believers may indeed decide that the tablet is actually just another prophecy predicting the life story of Jesus, that line of argument is complicated by the fact that the story of the tablet seems to concern very different events and characters (and if it is a real prediction, then the Bible seems to be missing a rather amazing and key text!)

And the idea that the Christian idea of martyrdom was so culturally “out-of-the-blue” that it just has to be true (i.e. true because it’s too absurd and out of the mainstream for the Gospel writers to have dreamed up) is still decisively undermined. To be sure, atheist critics of such apologetics have dealt with these sorts of arguments quite convincingly in any case. But if the translations and interpretations of the tablet pan out, it will be yet another case in which the comfortably certain claims of evangelists are later overtaken by real history, which seems to have no particular inclination to validate such apologetic assertions after the fact.

Will this turn out to be another James Ossuary scandal, where over-competitive scholarship drove breathless conclusions and media stories far beyond what skeptical scholarship should have allowed? Or will this find ultimately alter our understanding of the pre-Christian world and the context in which Christianity took hold?

You were expecting me to have any clue? Nope. We’ll have to wait and see!


More Misleading Atheist/Theist Surveys

July 4, 2008

Tiny Frog has an excellent post taking a look at a recent poll being shopped around by several Christian news outlets purporting to show that atheists are less moral and sociable than theists.

Putting the subject matter completely aside, it’s a very insightful look into the way that survey results can give highly flawed or misleading pictures of people’s attitudes, both depending on what data you choose to report (and the sociologist in question, Reginald W. Bibby, does seem to make some rather suspicious choices), how you present it, and the questionable implications one might want to draw about causality (as far as I can tell, the survey doesn’t even include any statistical controls, making the claimed social implications nigh meaningless).

I actually wouldn’t be surprised to find that atheists and theists differ significantly in many respects (though I doubt this sort of uncontrolled study, even sincerely undertaken, could reveal much about them). Given Western society’s mixed and highly diverse attitudes about religion, theists and atheists likely have some fairly different experiences. Might be nice if theists and atheists spent more time comparing notes, rather than comparing statistical flufferies.