I’m going to be in Adelaide for the next week, dodging divine lightning and catching up with my family. I’m still of two minds whether to lug my laptop along, so there probably won’t be any posts until I get back.

I’ll try and put up a short Stupid Atheists! before I go though – I’ve made it on to PZ’s super-mega-maxi-ultra-blogroll, and there’s no way I’m gonna risk losing my place by not posting often enough.

Comments Of Unusual Size

September 24, 2007

Since joining the Out Campaign blogroll , I’ve seen a spike in my readership (well, it couldn’t really have gone down, I’m not sure you can get negative blog stats…) and I’ve been enormously gratified to have begun getting substantiative comments on my posts. Yesterday I put up the first article in a series designed to refute common misconceptions about atheism, in this case specifically looking at the assertion that “atheism is just a faith like any other religion”, to which I received what I can only describe as a comment of unusual size – 1353 words (that’s more than twice as many as the original post).

You’d think that someone who went to the trouble of writing so much would have something really interesting to say.

You’d be wrong.

I’m not sure exactly what it was that got my lunatic detector ticking. The intermittent over capitalization? The spelling mistakes and over exclamation? The tangled skein of logical fallacies threaded through the content? Or maybe it was the fact that all 1353 words were in a single paragraph?

Anyhoo, the basic premise appears to be a logically confused appeal to ignorance:

Nothing or no-one in our FACTS AND KNOWLEDGE has proven that something can just be there without some form of something doing something first to get something.

(Although full credit for using the word something 4 times in a sentence.) This was followed by standard mis-characterizations of scientific terms like fact and theory:

A theory is something that is not proven. A belief is something in the mind. A fact is something that is PROVEN. It is not the FACT OF EVOLUTION or the BIG BANG FACT: they are THEORIES! But, if any can’t answer such a question with FACTS, then we are back to beliefs

And the whole argument was capped with a profound (and I can only assume willful) misunderstanding of just where the burden of proof lies in these issues:

Please tell all those theory based people that say there is no God that they better prove that there is no God!!!

And finally Godwin’s Law:

Even Hitler used the bible to take over places, from what I have heard

All in a single post. I’m so proud, my first troll and it’s not just text book, it’s all of the text books.

Welcome to part one of Stupid Atheists! (or A Completely Impartial and Objective Look at the Bogus Things Stupid People Say About Atheism).

And tonight our first contestant is:

“Hey man! Atheism is just another religion! Believing there is no god is just as reliant on faith as believing that there is one! Stupid Atheist!”

Well, the first problem with this proposition is that it’s a strawman, because atheism is not belief in the non-existence of god. Atheism would be more clearly defined as the lack of belief in god. One is an assertion of belief, the other is and assertion of no belief. That might sound like a fine distinction (and that perception is not helped by people saying one when they mean the other) so I’ll try and clarify with an example.

Okay, so if I say “Wah! Wah! I don’t believe the Easter Bunny exists!” then in order to have moved from the default state of “no belief” to “some quantity of belief greater than zero”, the non-existence of the Easter Bunny must be:

  1. Justified by proof, or
  2. Supported by a scientific theory*,or
  3. Taken on faith

Well, you can’t prove a negative, so in lieu of a well tested supporting theory this “belief” would have to be largely based on faith.

Alternatively, I might say “You stupid Bunny-ists. I have no belief in your magic floppy eared dispenser of chocolate fertility symbols”. Having no belief is the default state, so lacking compelling evidence** of the Easter Bunny’s existence, maintenance of that lack of belief is a completely reasonable position. See the difference? One statement requires evidence or faith, the other is the default position and can only be made less reliable by contrary evidence.

Even if atheism was based on faith, it would be somewhat disingenuous to suggest that belief in god was in any way equivalent to belief in no god, because the world we observe is entirely what we would expect if there was no god. The burden of proof lies heavily on the god peddler.

“But there are things you can’t explain Stupid Atheist! If Almighty God didn’t do it, then what did?!”

Sigh. This is usually referred to as the god of the gaps argument, and is a false dichotomy logical fallacy. However, for the sake of this example we will temporarily suspend reality and pretend that the argument has some small merit. Now, when we look back through history we see a constant progression of things that science could not explain at the time, for which we later found completely natural explanations.

Bearing this weight of precedent in mind, if faced with gaps in human knowledge is it more reasonable to postulate that:

  1. There are perfectly natural processes that explain the gap – we just don’t understand them yet? Or
  2. There is an omni-present, omni-potent and omni-benevolent sky fairy managing things.

Hmm. Occam’s Razor anyone? I mean hello.

So to sum up – atheists do not have a belief in the non-existence of god and even if they did, the burden of proof leans the other way. Non-existence is supported by the observable universe, while the existence of magical super-being is an extraordinary claim and as such requires equally extraordinary evidence to justify it.

Atheism is about what we can see when dogma and faith are taken out of the equation.

Atheism is not a religion.


* By scientific theory, I am referring to an explanatory model that is falsifiable and makes accurate testable predictions. “I have a theory, it could be bunnies” is not a scientific theory.
** When I say convincing evidence, I mean evidence that is scientifically or logically compelling. Anecdotal evidence isn’t.

I spend a lot of time sifting through the blag-tastic goodness of commentary at sites like Pharyngula and the Richard Dawkins Foundation, where (oddly enough) a lot of the discussion tends to be about religion and science.

Unfortunately, this tends to put me in a position of spending a lot of my time being profoundly irritated by a continual litany of tired, old and comprehensively refuted attacks on atheism. I generally end up so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of bogosity that I can’t even put a coherent post together.

Sigh.

I’d like to address this in some way, and rather than try and tackle it all at once, I’m going publish a (admittedly sporadic) series of articles looking at the more common attacks and misstatements, and outlining why I think they suck. Stay tuned.

I know, I know. I’m not going to change anyone’s mind, but hey, blogging is all about me remember. Me! Me! Me!

Yaaar!

September 18, 2007

Shiver me timbers, it’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

JollyAtheist

Yahahaaar! Unhand me coffee ya scurvy dogs or I’ll storm yer proxy server and take it’s high speed internet booty for me own! Yaaar!

 

And of course, no Talk Like A Pirate Day would be complete without the the obligatory link to the definitive study of Pirates versus Ninjas.

Well, I’ve been following a few comment threads around the bloggy-ball-shaped-thing and have discovered that (apparently) I’m a New Atheist. Sounds ominous. Do you think there’s an ointment for that?

According to Matthew C. Nisbet I’m part of a noise machine (which is bad) and I just listened to an episode of the Point of Enquiry podcast where DJ Grothe (in his ever so subtle pseudo-devil’s advocate fashion) and Paul Kurtz spent most of the interview pointing out that their brand of secular humanism is ever so much nicer than that nasty New Atheism that’s going around.

(Edited to add: Dr Nisbet has now written a post about the Point of Enquiry podcast. I sure know how to pick my links.)

So what is the New Atheism, and why is it so last season?

Well, from what I can see, New Atheism is a term predominantly used by the various flavours of Old Atheism* to distance themselves from those nasty arrogant, blunt and outspoken Militant Atheists** like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.

It’s a bit like when a creationist uses the term Darwinist to describe an opponent who supports the theory of evolution. By using a term that people don’t actually identify with they are able to define it’s meaning themselves and then triumphantly slap down their own straw man. Except in this case it’s people on the same side of the fence who are making their bones by calling out their more outspoken and widely known contemporaries.

After a fair bit of reading, I’ve been able to glean two main points made against New Atheism:

1. Those New Atheists are just negative and against stuff. They don’t actually stand for anything.

Says who? In my experience you generally can’t even get a relatively small group of atheists to agree on a definition of atheism, let alone how they think that it fits into a greater sociological framework. To say that a certain subset of atheists don’t stand for anything is a gross generalization and a straw man. If you’re making such a claim, then the burden is on you to prove it, not on the so called New Atheists to defend your unwarranted assertion.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins quite clearly advocated the positive influence of the changing moral zeitgeist – he just said that the morals represented by it had nothing to do with religions or gods, and thus society didn’t have any need of them.

2. Their poisonous attitude towards religion doesn’t get us anywhere! They turn off people who might work with us or be convinced by those nice humanists. They alienate religious moderates. They’re just big meanys!

Well, this presupposes that Atheists should work with religious moderates to effect change. Calling for Atheists and Theists to meet on common ground gives equal credence to each side as a means of determining scientific and moral truth. Except that Atheist morality has a grounding in philosophy and logic and science, and religious morality is (supposedly) based on omniscient decree. Atheists might be able to achieve more by pandering to superstition, blind faith and dogma, but they shouldn’t have to.

Theism and Atheism aren’t opposing and equal beliefs. Atheism is based on a lack of belief resulting from a lack of evidence, and as such is the default position. The burden of proof is on the believer to substantiate their claims. Calling for a common ground gives religion a bargaining position that has not been earned.

New Atheism is just an external label allowing certain flavours of non-theist to differentiate themselves from other flavours they consider to be too loud or outspoken.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?


* Nice Atheists who don’t offend people

** Those nasty Atheists who don’t automatically respect religious beliefs, but rather apply the the same level scrutiny, criticism and (gasp) logic, to them as society applies to any other area of human inquiry.

iPod frustration

September 11, 2007

When I’m at work I usually have my iPod on shuffle, and I’d like to be able to select songs that are playing to add to the (allegedly) “on-the-go” play list. In an admittedly uncharacteristic gap in product usability, this doesn’t seem to be supported.

Does Apple assume that people would rather plan out their on-the-go playlist in advance and then tortuously navigate thorough the iPod interface to put it together? Or is there some super easy way of accomplishing this that I just didn’t figure out because I don’t have the Apple mindset?