Archive for November, 2007

How ridiculous. Apparently, the way to defend religion is to create laws to jail anyone who speaks against your it – thereby preventing any of the ‘common people’ from hearing arguments against the existence of God.

Richard Dawkins’ best-selling atheist manifesto The God Delusion was at the centre of a growing row over religious tolerance yesterday after the Turkish publishers of his book were threatened with legal action by prosecutors who accuse it of ‘insulting believers’.

Erol Karaaslan, the founder of the small publishing house Kuzey Publications, could face between six months and a year in jail for “inciting hatred and enmity” if Istanbul prosecutors decide to press charges over the book, which has sold 6000 copies in Turkey since it was published this summer.

“It aims to explain atheism from the perspective of Christianity”, one amateur reviewer wrote, “and I don’t think that’s of much use in a Muslim country, because Muslims are already aware of the contradictions and oddities of Christianity as it is.” Another writing on a popular blogging website was more direct: “If I were God, I’d give Dawkins a good smacking” they wrote. (Link)

I haven’t read Dawkin’s book, but I have a feeling Dawkins isn’t purely arguing against Christianity, but also against theism in general. By the way, way can’t the person who wrote “Muslims are already aware of the contradictions and oddities of Christianity as it is” be prosecuted for insulting Christian beliefs? Wait don’t tell me — because the laws are written to sound like they protect all religions (‘insulting believers’, “inciting hatred and enmity”), but they are never applied to anyone unless they insult Islam?

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Drudgereport 2008?

Apparently, the drudge report is getting news from the future:

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< Previous: “The non-believer’s review of ‘The Case for Faith’ – first 50 pages”

Objection #1 “Since Evil and Suffering Exist, a Loving God Cannot” (continued)

“Christians believe in five things”, I said. “First, God exists. Second, God is all-good. Third, God is all-powerful. Fourth, God is all-wise. And, fifth, evil exists. Now, how can all of those statements be true at the same time?”

Attribute #1: God is All-Powerful

“Now, the classic defense of God against the problem of evil is that it’s not logically possible to have free will and no possibility of moral evil. In other words, once God chose to create human beings with free will, then it was up to them, rather than to God, as to whether there was sin or not. That’s what free will means. Built into the situation of God deciding to create human beings is the chance of evil and, consequently, the suffering that results.”

“Then God is the creator of evil.”

“No, he create the possibility of evil; people actualized that potentiality. The source of evil is not God’s power but mankind’s freedom. Even an all-powerful God could not have created a world in which people had genuine freedom and yet there was no potentiality for sin”

Stobel’s “arguments” against Kreeft: “Then God is the creator of evil.” and later, “Then why didn’t God create a world without human freedom?” are pretty pithy. They’re perfectly setup for getting knocked down.

“Rabbi Harold Kushner reaches a different conclusion in his bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” I pointed out. “He says God isn’t all-powerful after all — that he would like to help, but he just isn’t capable of solving all the problems in the world He said, ‘Even God has a hard time keeping chaos in check'”

Kreeft raised an eyebrow. “For a rabbi, that’s hard to understand, because the distinctly Jewish notion of God is the opposite of that,” he said. “Surprisingly — against the evidence, it seems — the Jews insisted that there is a God who is all-powerful and nevertheless all good.”

“You don’t think much of Kushner’s God,” I said, more as a statement than a question.

Frankly, that God is hardly worth believing in. Do I have a big brother who’s doing what he can but it’s not very much? Well, who cares?” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Practically speaking, that’s the same as atheism. Rely on yourself first and then maybe God, maybe not.”

“No, the evidence is that God is all-powerful.”

The evidence? What evidence? Kreeft doesn’t provide any evidence that God is all-powerful. He complains that Kushner’s God isn’t worth believing in — okay, but how does that change anything. If God were truly weak, people like Kreeft would be inventing new, more powerful versions of God that “are worth believing in”. He says that “the evidence is that God is all-powerful”, but fails to deliver anything substantiating that point. Further, the very idea that God is “all-powerful” seemed a bit unfounded to me even when I was a Christian. Sure, the God of the Bible is described as powerful – more powerful than anyone else, but the modern Christian idea of an omnimax God (omnipotent, omniscient) seemed unsubstantiated. The whole Biblical story of Lucifer and the angels rebelling against God and a war in heaven seems bizarre is you assume God is all-powerful. If God were all-powerful, Lucifer and the angel’s had no chance of success. On the other hand, if you say God is just “really powerful”, the story makes sense. Further, the description of God in the early Old Testament seems very limited. He seems to discover Adam and Eve’s sin only after He comes down from heaven. He comes down to look at the Tower of Babel. He tells Abraham that he won’t destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if Abraham can find 10 good men (doesn’t God already know if there are ten good men)? There are all kinds of stories in the Old Testament where God does miracles to prove he is more powerful than the gods of other tribes. The God of the Old Testament just seems like a powerful Greek god. How Christians turned him into an omnimax God, I simply don’t know. Perhaps it hinges on the psychological comfort that comes from believing your God is an omnimax God – which is Kreeft’s argument: it’s more psychologically agreeable to believe in an omnimax God, therefore, you should believe it’s true.

The point to remember is that creating a world where there’s free will and no possibility of sin is a contradiction — and that opens the door to people choosing evil over God, with suffering being the result. The overwhelming majority of the pain in the world is caused by our choices to kill, to slander, to be selfish, to stray sexually, to break our promises, to be reckless.”

Kreeft skips over the point that natural evil exists, and causes vast numbers of deaths: “Smallpox was responsible for an estimated 300–500 million deaths in the 20th century.” – and that’s despite the fact that smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s, thanks to a global vaccination campaign. Malaria “kills between one and three million people [per year]“, which probably works out to around 50-150 million deaths in the 20th century (depending on population growth). Tuberculosis and cholera used to kill large numbers of people (TB continues to kill, although only “1.6 million” per year). Those are not deaths due to man’s “sinfulness” or free will. Whether or not naturally caused deaths are more common than human-caused deaths (as Kreeft argues) is somewhat irrelevant. To argue that we should ignore naturally-caused deaths because they are much less common than human-caused deaths is a little bit like saying that we should ignore the crimes of a mass murderer because those deaths are dwarfed by the deaths in World War 2. God allows massive death tolls from natural phenomena which humans have no control over. These deaths are not caused because God wants to permit human free-will.

Even further, when Kreeft says, “[t]he overwhelming majority of the pain in the world is caused by our choices”, I question that assertion. Going back to deaths, when we add up the death tolls from the major wars and oppressions of the 20th century World War 1 (15 million), World War 2 (55 million), Russian Civil War (9 million), USSR under Stalin (20 million), Famine under Mao (40 million), we’re still only at 139 million deaths. Based on homicide statistics, the global homicide numbers are probably around 300,000 – 400,000 per year (which probably works out to around 20 million in the 20th century – depending on population growth). Obviously, the numbers would be higher with more through accounting, but the human-caused deaths (around 159 million) of those major sources of homicide are dwarfed by the deaths caused by one single disease: smallpox – which caused between 300-500 million deaths in the first 75 years of the 20th century. Despite Kreeft’s assertion that “overwhelming majority of the pain in the world is caused by our choices”, a significant and most likely the majority of deaths in the 20th century have been due to natural forces which humans don’t control.

Attribute #2: God is All-Knowing

Kreeft makes an argument that (like the Bear earlier argument), God is way smarter than we are, can foresee long-term good from short-term evil, and so we should trust Him. He doesn’t actually argue that God is “All-Knowing”, and doesn’t acknowledge the difference between ‘all-knowing’ and ‘really smart’.

Attribute #3: God Is All-Good

“Good is a notoriously tricky word,” Kreeft began, “because even in human affairs there’s such a wide range of meaning. But the difference, once again, between us and God is certainly greater than the difference between us and animals,

“Granted,” I said. “But if I sat there and did nothing while my child got ran over by a truck, I wouldn’t be good in any sense of the word. I’d be an evil father if I did that. And God does the equivalent of that. He sits by and refuses to perform miracles to take us out of danger even greater than being hit by a truck. So why isn’t he bad?”

Kreeft nodded, “It looks like he is,” he said. “But the fact that God deliberately allows certain things, which if we allowed them would turn us into monsters, doesn’t necessarily count against God.”

“I remember when one of my daughters was about four or five years old and she was trying to thread a needle in Brownies. It was very difficult for her. Every time she tried, she hit herself in the finger and a couple of times she bled. I was watching her, but she didn’t see me. She just kept trying and trying.

My first instinct was to go and do it for her, since I saw a drop of blood. But wisely I held back, because I said to myself, ‘She can do it.’ After about five minutes, she finally did it. I came out of hiding and she said, “Daddy, daddy – look what I did! Look what I did!’ She was so proud she had threaded the needle that she had forgotten all about the pain.

“That time the pain was a good thing for her. I was wise enough to have foreseen it was good for her. Now, certainly God is much wiser than I was with my daughter … Therefore, he’s not being evil by allowing that pain to exist. Dentists, athletic trainers, teachers, parents – they all know that sometimes to be good is not to be kind.

“Let’s face it: we learn from the mistakes we make and the suffering they bring. The universe is a soul-making machine, and part of that process is learning, maturing, and growing through difficult and challenging and painful experiences. The point of our lives in this world isn’t comfort, but training and preparation for eternity. Scripture tells us that even Jesus ‘learned obedience through suffering’ — and if that was true for him, why wouldn’t it be even more true for us?” (p.56-57)

I understand that some struggle and some pain can be a useful thing, and that it might “build character”. However, there is a difference between a girl pricking her finger and the kinds of evil that exists in the world (genocide, death of a child, rape, etc). Kreeft’s argument is that there’s really just one class of pain that exists in the world – beneficial, character-building pain. I say that there is more than one type of pain in the world. Sometimes pain is soul crushing and non-constructive. Kreeft would argue that I’m simply not wise enough (as God is) to see that all pain falls into his one simple classification.

Few few pages earlier, he was arguing that suffering exists because humans disobey God. Now, he’s arguing that suffering is constructive. I’m unsure how he puts these two explanations together, but it seems to me that he has only two choices:

(A) All suffering (i.e. naturally-caused suffering and human-caused suffering) is constructive. Human-caused suffering is because of disobedience to God (although it’s still constructive for the victim).
(B) All naturally-caused suffering is constructive. Human-caused suffering can be either constructive or non-constructive. God allows non-constructive suffering to exist in order to protect free-will.

There’s problems with both of these positions. First of all, both positions assert that all naturally-caused suffering is constructive. But if we assume that all natural-evil has a constructive purpose, then does our efforts to stop natural suffering — by creating vaccines, cures, evacuating people from floods, etc — actually cause humans to avoid short-term harm and miss out on more important long-term benefits. Is Jonah Salk, who found the cure for polio, actually guilty of harming our long-term character building? This whole framework of thinking seems upside down: people who cure diseases or find ways to improve the human condition are actually harming it in the long-term by removing those “character building” experiences such as death, debilitating disease, and genocide.

Next is the question of human-caused suffering. If we say that all human-caused suffering is constructive, then we reach some bizarre conclusions. It means all crimes committed by humans against humans are actually constructive. Charles Manson and the Columbine killers were unintentionally improving the world through their violence. If we were “wiser” we would know to let our children play in the streets and be sexually abused. In fact, we’re doing a great disservice to our communities by not letting all the murderers and rapists out of prison. Sure, there’s short-term suffering, but the long-term gain will be beneficial and character-building, right? If we want to used the “suffering is always constructive” excuse, that’s the logical conclusion. Afterall, God didn’t strike-down criminals to prevent them from committing their crimes, meaning that he must’ve been “wise enough” to foresee the long-term benefits their crimes would produce, right? It seems like Kreeft want to argue that all suffering is constructive when you’re the victim, but if you’re the perpetrator, then the suffering you inflict is bad and worthy of punishment. From the standpoint of psychology, you can understand why he would want to hold that position: it condemns the criminal, but also provides an “answer” to the problem of evil and comforts the victim. Unfortunately, it’s also illogical. This position is completely upside down: it says that evil is good and good is evil. It says that rapists and murderers are improving society (even if their motives are bad), and our scientists, doctors, and other people who work to improve the human condition are actually guilty of favoring short-term pleasure at the expense of the more-important long-term benefits of suffering.

But what about the other position: that some human-caused suffering is non-constructive, but God permits it for the benefit of free-will? This also has problems. For one thing, God kills people in the Old Testament for their evil. He kills the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah for their evil. He kills all the people in the pre-flood world for their evil. He kills a man in the Old Testament for accidentally touching the Ark of the Covenant. This idea of allowing evil in order to “preserve free will” simply doesn’t hold up. If the Bible is true and if God is really angry, he’ll kill people. I guess Hitler and Stalin didn’t *quite* reach the level of evil required to kill them. Second, it’s possible to allow free will and prevent (or mitigate) suffering of the victim. For example, an old friend of mine lost her brother-in-law when a drunk driver ran-into their car (where the sister and brother-in-law were). Now, it was possible for God to guide that couple (who were Christians, by the way) away from the accident location – perhaps delaying them a little bit, or making them slightly earlier so that they weren’t hit by the drunk driver. God could’ve caused the drunk driver to run off the road earlier. God could’ve saved the brother-in-law from death. There’s plenty of possibilities here. The only option that would’ve actually conflicted with free-will is if God literally prevented the drunk driver from making the decision to drive his car in the first place.

Further, there’s thought experiments that show how wishy-washy this double-explanation is. Assume a mudslide crushes a village (natural evil), Kreeft would declare that God allowed it to happen for some constructive long-term good. But, if it’s later revealed that a group of evil men deliberately triggered the mudslide, it suddenly get redefined as “God allowed it to happen to preserve free will” and the “constructiveness” of the event is thrown out the window? It just goes to show how quickly these types of explanations can be dropped into place and retracted.

So neither position is a very good position.

Further, if suffering exists for constructive purposes, then why was the “Garden of Eden” supposed to be a world without suffering and death? Are we supposed to believe that God planned for the Garden of Eden to be a place where no character-building could take place? Is heaven a place where evil and suffering is added so that people can build some character?

“Suppose we didn’t have any suffering at all,” he added. “Suppose we had drugs for every pain, free entertainment, free love — everything but pain. No Shakespeare, no Beethoven, no Boston Red Sox, no death — no meaning. Impossibly spoiled little brats — that’s what we’d become.”

And, apparently, that’s what God’s plan was when he created the Garden of Eden. Actually, what Kreeft is doing here is creating a false dichotomy. He says that either the world has all the pain and suffering of our world, or it’s completely devoid of any suffering. As I stated earlier, I understand the usefulness of some pain and suffering. Kreeft never considers the possibility of a world with less suffering. When I look around, I see a mixture of constructive and non-constructive suffering. Why isn’t there less non-constructive suffering?

“If you don’t [believe that], then pretend you’re God and try to create a better world in your imagination. Try to create a utopia. But you have to think through the consequences of everything you try to improve. Every time you use force to prevent evil, you take away freedom. To prevent all evil, you must remove all freedom and reduce people to puppets, which means they would then lack the ability to freely choose to love.” (p.58)

So, if you created a world just like this one, but removed, say, smallpox, then you would diminish human freedom? If you were God and you caused Hitler to have a fatal blood-clot in 1939, you’d diminish human freedom? How ridiculous. I agree that it would be impossible to remove all suffering in a world with human freedom, but you could have a radically better world without diminishing free-will at all. Further, if you were to ask most Christians “is there evil in heaven?”, they would immediately say, “no!” But, according to Kreeft’s argument, it’s impossible to have a world with no evil unless you take away free will. So, apparently, heaven will either have evil and free will, or no evil and no free-will.

Clue by clue, Kreeft was shedding more and more light on the mystery of suffering. But each new insight seemed to spawn more questions.

“Evil people get away with hurting others all the time. Certainly God can’t consider that fair,” I said. “How can he stand there and watch that happen? Why doesn’t he intervene and deal with all the evil in the world?”

“People aren’t getting away with it,” Kreeft insisted. “Justice delayed is not necessarily justice denied. There will come a day when God will settle accounts and people will be help responsible for the evil they’ve perpetrated and the suffering they’ve caused. Criticizing God for not doing it right now is like reading half a novel and criticizing the author for not resolving the plot. (p.58)

So, Kreeft is saying that they’ll all get punished in the afterlife. As a non-believer, I don’t believe that to be true, although Christians reading this book would consider it to be. One of the problems with the “they’ll get punished in the afterlife” argument is that it delays things so long while suffering continues to occur. It’s a bit like God standing there quietly writing down a list of everyone’s sins, without punishing them – not yet anyway. Then, in the afterlife, giving them a massive, eternity-long ass-whooping. Imagine if you did that to your pet: every time your dog pooped in the living room you didn’t punish him, but instead wrote down the infraction; every time your dog bit someone, you stood there quietly and wrote down the event without punishing him. Your dog has become an intolerable little creature because you never punish him. Then, when your dog is old, you bring out that little book and punish him for everything he has done wrong in the last decade. You yell at him and spank him for several weeks or months in a row. That’s what Kreeft’s argument is. So, human beings become mean and evil because they were never punished (like your dog), and now God is going to do an eternity-long ass-whopping that is supposed to make everything better.

“But in the meantime, doesn’t the sheer amount of suffering in the world bother you?” I asked. “Couldn’t God curtail at least some of the more horrific evil”

Kreeft was sympathetic to the problem, but wasn’t buying that solution. “That’s like saying it’s reasonable to believe in God if six Jews die in a Holocaust, but not seven. Or sixty thousand but not sixty thousand and one, or 5,999,999, but not six million,” he said. “When you translate the general statement ‘so much’ into particular examples like that, it shows how absurd it is. There can’t be a dividing line.

“It’s true that there are some instances where quantity does become quality. For example, boiling water: once a temperature of 212 degrees is reached, you get a new state – gas – and gas laws rather than liquid laws apply. But suffering isn’t like that. At what point does suffering disprove the existence of God?”(p.59)

Kreeft is right in saying that you can’t put defined cutoff points on those numbers, but his argument seems to be an intellectual diversion to obscure the fact that the problem still exists. His argument’s setup is to say that “it’s reasonable to believe in God if X people die, but not if X+1 people die”. He also uses the weasel word “prove”, which is a definite rhetorical setup. No one would claim that there is a defined yes/no cutoff that hinges on a single additional death. Let’s take the 2003 Iraq war as an example: imagine we step back in time to 2002 and ask the question, “Do you agree that it’s a good idea to go to war with Iraq?” Now, Americans are generally happier if fewer Iraqis and American soldiers die in that war. They are more likely to support it if it involves fewer deaths, and more likely to oppose it if there are larger numbers of deaths. There is no definite cutoff point where we can say “it’s a good idea to go to war if X people die, but not if X+1 people die”. Most Americans would be happy with the outcome if zero people died in that war. However, if 10 million people died in that war, the vast majority of Americans would oppose the war. That doesn’t mean there’s a definite point where “support the war” is reasonable when there are X deaths, but unreasonable if there are X+1 deaths. It’s philosophical slight of hand that Kreeft employs here. His argument (if true) would support the bizarre assertion that 1 death is no different than 100 million deaths.

“One purpose of suffering in history has been that it leads to repentance,” he said. “Only after suffering, only after disaster, did Old Testament Israel, do nations, do individual people turn back to God … And, of course, repentance leads to something wonderful — to blessedness, since God is the source of all joy and all life.” (p.60)

The “suffering leads to repentance” game is so overplayed. When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004, Muslim clerics argued that it was because the people there needed to be more devout, that God was punishing them and they needed to turn to Allah. It’s used by all kinds of religious leaders to promote their own particular brand of religion. Further, I’ve known good Christian people who have died from random things. One guy I went to college with was working with inner-city kids when he got pancreatic cancer and died at in his mid-twenties – leaving behind a widow. I fail to see how he would’ve been more in need of repentance than the average man on the street. Further, the fact that he died means that he didn’t really have much chance to reap the benefits of that so-called constructive suffering. The fact of the matter is that all kinds of people all over the world suffer. To say that suffering is to bring repentance – well, repentance to whom? The majority of people don’t believe in the Christian God. Assuming they repent, they will be repenting to false gods.

“But good people suffer just as much — or sometimes more — than the bad,” I pointed out. “That’s what’s so striking about the title of Kushner’s book: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. How is that fair?”

“Well, the answer to that is that there are no good people, Kreeft replied. (p.60)

(Roll eyes) The “there are no good people” argument is always a cop-out. It’s basically a “you suck and you deserve everything bad that happens to you” argument, and it conveniently ignores the “God’s love” part of Christianity. Funny, I don’t know why Kreeft didn’t start out with that argument in the beginning and be done with it. There’s simply no reason to talk about constructive suffering if everyone deserves to suffer.

It seems like Kreeft has just started taking pot-shots at the problem of evil. He’s throwing out arguments left and right, hoping that the reader will accept at least a few of them, even if they dismiss the majority of them.

[Mother] Teresa said, ‘In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth, a life full of the most atrocious tortures on earth, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel’ (p.65)

Kreeft is trying to minimize the importance or significance of anything that happens in life – because eternity is so much bigger. I don’t really see that as an answer. Even ignoring the fact that I don’t believe there will be a heaven (and, coincidentally, the diary of Mother Teresa revealed years after Strobel’s book was published that she had deep doubts herself), I think it’s wrong to try to diminish and minimize our experiences. That African woman pointed out by Templeton? Bah, her life was but a blink of an eye – that seems to be Kreeft’s argument here.

In fact, it’s significant that most objections to the existence of God from the problem of suffering come from outside observers who are quite comfortable, whereas those who actually suffer are, as often as not, made into stronger believers by their suffering. (p.67)

Kreeft seems to be looking for a way to dismiss most people’s opinions regarding the problem of evil. I happen to think there are psychological reasons people cling to religion in times of uncertainty and suffering. What they aren’t doing is thinking about the situation from the standpoint of rationality. Besides, that argument conflict with a sentiment stated eight pages earlier, on page 59:

“I suppose a person could say, ‘If I’m having the pain, then that’s too much suffering in the world!'”

So: if you’re comfortable, then your ideas about “too much suffering in the world” are discredited, and if you are suffering then your ideas about “too much suffering in the world” are discredited.

Kreeft goes into a section about how God suffers with us – how Jesus suffered and died, and how God is “with us” during our suffering:

[H]ow could you not love this being who went the extra mile, who practiced more than he preached, who entered into our world, who suffered our pains, who offers himself to us in the midst of our sorrows? What more could he do? (p.63)

What more could he do? Is he joking? Did he completely miss the obvious answer: stop the suffering? This goes on for several pages, but it’s not really an answer. He goes on:

If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He’s terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. (p.71-72)

It’s essentially saying that the parent who has a sick child just wants the doctor to hang around and comfort them. No, actually, the parents don’t want that. They want the doctor to do something. A suffering person accepts companionship because it’s the best thing that can be done. We can’t heal their cancer. We can’t bring their child back from the grave. They know we can’t do that. God can, so the whole comparison breaks down. Further, remember when Kreeft attacked Kushner’s God of limited-power:

Frankly, that God is hardly worth believing in. Do I have a big brother who’s doing what he can but it’s not very much? Well, who cares?” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Practically speaking, that’s the same as atheism. Rely on yourself first and then maybe God, maybe not.”

Now, Kreeft has come around and said that God doesn’t need to do things that require him to be all powerful. According to Kreeft: God suffers with us, and is there next to us. Isn’t that pretty much the God that Kushner believes in, the one that Kreeft dismissed as being too wimpy to believe in? Now, Kreeft suddenly thinks that hanging out and not using his power is the most important thing God can do.

Now, at the end of the chapter, we find out that a man named Marc sat through this interview Strobel had with Kreeft:

“What Kreeft said — it’s true. I know it. I’ve lived it.”

Several years earlier, Marc had been shoveling snow on his driveway when his wife said she was going to move the car and asked him to watch their young daughter. As the car backed out, they were suddenly thrust into the worst nightmare that parents can imagine: their toddler was crushed beneath the wheel.

Like the African woman, Marc has known what it’s like to hold a dying child in his arms. While I wasn’t able to talk with that grieving mother, I could converse with him.

So deep was Marc’s initial despair that he had to ask God to help him breathe, to help him eat, to help him function at the most fundamental level. Otherwise, he was paralyzed by the emotional pain. But he increasingly felt God’s presence, his grace, his warmth, his comfort, and very slowly, over time, his wounds began to heal.

Having experienced God at his point of greatest need, Marc would emerge from this crucible a changed person, abandoning his career in business to attend seminary. Through his suffering — though he never would have chosen it, though it was horribly painful, though it was life-shattering at the time — Marc has been transformed into someone who would devote the rest of his life to bringing God’s compassion to others who are alone in their desperation.

Sometimes skeptics scoff at the Bible saying that God can cause good to emerge from our pain if we run towards him instead of away from him.” Marc said. “But I’ve watched it happen in my own life.” (p.72-73)

Actually, skeptics would not scoff at the idea of good things emerging from suffering. While I feel bad for Marc, I don’t think his story offers anything to confirm the existence of God. I think that people in horrible situations have a variety of psychological pressures going on in their heads – particularly in Marc’s case when he could very legitimately hold himself accountable for his daughter’s death. Some people may rely on “God” or religion to get through their pain. That’s essentially the appeal of religious belief – to provide comfort. This is the reason some religious and cult groups target victims of tragedy – for example, when Scientologists sent “grief counselors” to New York after 9/11. They know grieving people are easily drawn in to the soothing words of religion. The other force is the desire for explanation, for understanding of the situation under the assumption that a benevolent deity exists. The answers aren’t forthcoming, and people who choose a rational explanation over their desire for emotional comfort end up being atheists and agnostics. People who chose emotional comfort first end up becoming “strong in their faith”. People who are suffering are also most likely to value emotional comfort over rational explanations, so I’m not surprised so many of them cling to religion. In Marc’s case, he needs for something good to come out of this tragedy. The only other option for Marc is that his daughter’s death is an unmitigated tragedy, and he is responsible — something that is far to painful to even contemplate. As far as the question of God’s existence, I can’t help but read Marc’s story and think that a benevolent God would chose the least harmful way to get Marc into the ministry (assuming that was His purpose). I couldn’t help but think, “Gee, getting Marc into the seminary only cost him the death of his daughter. Isn’t there a way to accomplish that goal without ending someone’s life?”

In the end, I’m not impressed with Strobel’s answers. He argues that God permits suffering because of the greater good it brings to people. Even further, since the earth has famines, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, malaria, smallpox, and so on – and all of those things are directly part of “God’s creation”, then God not only permits suffering, but designed a planet to produce it. All of this means that scientists who work to find cures for disease must be working against God’s plan? Are they doing the devil’s work?

The pattern of suffering seems pretty random to me, and seems to indicate that God either doesn’t exist or doesn’t care. Humans didn’t know even basic things for a long time: like how washing one’s hands could reduce the transfer of disease in medieval hospitals. Was God looking down shaking his head at the millions of people who died in medieval hospitals because doctors continually transfered diseases between patients? Couldn’t he have said something, like tell someone? That wouldn’t even require that he use his divine powers, it only requires that he open his mouth.

And what about genetic disorders, like Huntington’s disease, which causes people to progressively lose brain functions over years, beginning in their 40s if they’re are unlucky enough to inherit a particular allele from one of their parents. Meanwhile, by that time, you’ve already given birth to your children and passed on the gene to 50% of them. A ticking timebomb in their cells which won’t be discovered until after they have children. Why would God allow entire family lineages to suffer from such a horrible disease?

But, if God allows it to exist, then it must exist for a purpose. And if it exists for a divine purpose, then woe to anyone who eliminates this terrible disease.

Next: The non-believers review of “The Case for Faith”, Objection #2 >

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Traumatic Insemination

I recently received a few insect bites on my arms. I think they happened while I was sleeping. It’s a little late in the year for mosquitoes, and someone suggested that maybe my bed had bedbugs. After reading a little bit, I don’t really think I have bedbugs, but I did discover something rather nasty about them.

Theists like to claim that everything (and especially biological life) is the product of a benevolent diety. There’s already the examples of mosquitos, malaria, viruses, etc that throws into question just how benevolent this supposed Creator is. (Although, they’ll say everything bad in the biological world is the result of “the Fall” of man. Apparently, “the Fall” is a creative force in itself, capable of transforming, redesigning, and adding new features to creatures like magic. Hey – anything to avoid making the Creator responsible.) Well, bedbugs – other than the fact that they live in your bedroom and come out at night to suck your blood like ticks – have another disturbing feature: “trumatic insemination”. What’s that? Here’s what wikipedia says about it:

Traumatic insemination is the mating practice of a few species of insects wherein the male pierces the female’s abdomen with his genitals and injects his sperm through the wound into her abdominal cavity. The most widely recorded example is that of Cimex lectularius, the bed bug.

The practice of traumatic insemination is believed to be advantageous to the reproductive success of the male while at the same time imposing a cost on females which results in reduced lifespan and reproductive output. The successive woundings each require energy to heal, leaving less energy available for other activities. Also, the wounds provide a possible point of infection, further reducing female lifespan.

So – the male punctures the female’s abdomen and inserts his sperm. Nice. I know if I were a benevolent diety creating a perfect world back in 4004 B.C., I’d include traumatic insemination. But, seriously, how could anyone who’s not twisted even think of “designing” a reproductive method that involves the male physically puncturing the abdomen of the female? Sounds like something H.R.Geiger or Trent Reznor would think up.

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On several occasions, I’ve heard Christians allude to this or that Christian expert who can out-argue any non-believer and their criticisms of Christianity. The underlying subtext of these claims seems to be: “You can out-argue me, but only because you’re a skilled and intelligent debater. If you get two equally intelligent and skilled debaters in a room, the Christian side will always win because it has the facts to support it.” Lee Strobel is one of those popular Christian authors that Christians point to. I have a copy of Strobel’s “The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity” on my desk, and had once read roughly a third of the book before getting tired of reading his bad arguments.

One of the things Strobel does is write this book like some kind of novel. He’s like some sort of detective, running across the country to get this or that bit of information (even though it’s obvious a phone interview would’ve been just as effective – except for building suspense). His interviews are drastically condensed into this or that bit of “wisdom”, and it’s obvious that his interviews is being recounted through his Christian filters and recollections.

The Introduction

Strobel recounts the stories of Charles Templeton and Billy Graham. They were friends, and Templeton had a crisis of faith – eventually becoming an outspoken agnostic and author (see his book, “Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith”). Graham, on the other hand, couldn’t answer the intellectual problems raised by Templeton, and one night, he falls to his knees and decides to ignore all the doubts and simply believe in Christianity. (I talk about this in an earlier post: “Kurt Wise and the Religious Lobotomy”.) Needless to say, I thought Templeton’s position was the rational intelligent one, and Graham’s decision to simply shut off his brain and believe in religion was (to use Templeton’s words) “intellectual suicide”.

Stobel has an interview with Templeton, who is an old man beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s at this point. Templeton argues that Christianity cannot be true, raising the question of suffering in the world – and one particular example:

“It was a picture of a black woman in Northern Africa,” he explained. “They were experiencing a devastating drought. And she was holding her dead baby in her arms and looking up to heaven with the most forlorn expression. I looked at it and I thought, ‘Is it possible to believe that there is a loving or caring Creator when all this woman needed was rain?'”

As he emphasized the word rain, his bushy gray eyebrows shot up and his arms gestured toward heaven as if beckoning for a response.

“How could a loving God do this to that woman?” he implored as he got more animated, moving to the edge of his chair. “Who runs the rain? I don’t; you don’t. He does — or that’s what I thought. But when I saw that photograph, I immediately knew it was not possible for this to happen and for there to be a loving God. There was no way. Who else but a fiend could destroy a baby and virtually kill its mother with agony — what all that was needed was rain?” (p.16-17)

At the same time, Templeton also expresses great admiration for Jesus:

“He was”, Templeton began, “the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings…”

I was taken aback. “You sound like you really care about him,” I said.

“Well, yes, he’s the most important thing in my life,” came his reply. “I … I … I,” he stuttered, searching for the right word, “I know it may sound strange, but I have to say … I adore him!”

as his voice began to crack, “I … miss … him!” (p.21-22)

While Strobel never says it in his book, I couldn’t help but think he was playing on C.S. Lewis’ popular God-shaped-hole idea (google: 66,800 hits) – i.e. creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. In other words, if you desire for a kind, benevolent invisible deity to watch over you – then it must be true that this being exists; if you desire an afterlife for you and your family, then an afterlife – or a way to gain an afterlife – must exist. (C.S. Lewis argument sounds a lot dumber when you put it that way.)

Strobel bemoans the fact that intellectual hurdles (as Templeton argues) stand in the way of believing.

Throughout the book, Strobel likes to take on this “I’m a hard-headed journalist” persona. For example, after his interview with Templeton, Strobel recounts a conversation with his wife:

Leslie nodded. “You have been [on the same path as Templeton],” she said. “You’re both writers, you’ve both been skeptics.” Then she added with a smile, “And you’re both too hardheaded to buy into faith until you’re sure it’s not riddled with holes.” (p.29)

And then on the very next page:

I was sincerely interested in determining whether [the most knowledgeable and ardent defenders of Christianity] had rational answers to “The Big Eight [objections to Christianity].” I wanted to give them ample opportunity to spell out their reasoning and evidence in detail so that, in the end, I could evaluate whether their positions made sense. Most of all, I wanted to find out whether God was telling the truth when he said, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (p.30-31)

He constantly reinforces the “I’m a hard-hitting skeptic” idea throughout the book. He acts like he’s going to sincerely ask the hard questions of Christianity, and even raises the stakes by saying things like “I wanted to find out whether God was telling the truth“. Really? At the time the book was published, he had been a Christian for almost 20 years, he’s a pastor who’s authored a bunch of pro-Christian books, a son who’s a biblical studies graduate, and he’s seriously going to ask whether “God was telling the truth”? It’s patently ridiculous. I can’t help but laugh out loud at this kind of faux skepticism (evidently crafted to build credibility and suspense). His whole persona makes sense when you think about his relationship to his audience, though. He’s writing these books for Christians, telling them that he’s not going to pull any punches, and the benefit of this strategy is that the readers get to convince themselves that this no-holds-barred writer gets continually knocked over with the pro-Christian position. I can’t help but imagine a grown man play-fighting with a child. He flexes and grunts, but then feigns shock and surprise as the child “knocks him down” repeatedly. That’s Strobel’s performance in his books.

What are “The Big Eight” objections to Christianity?

* If there’s a loving God, why does this pain-wracked world groan under so much suffering and evil?
* If the miracles of God contradict science, then how can any rational person believe that they’re true?
* If God really created the universe, why does the persuasive evidence of science compel so many to conclude that the unguided process of evolution accounts for life?
* If God is morally pure, how can he sanction the slaughter of innocent children as the Old Testament says he did?
* If Jesus is the only way to heaven, then what about the millions of people who have never heard of him?
* If God cares about the people he created, how could he consign so many of them to an eternity of torture in hell just because they didn’t believe the right things about him?
* If God is the ultimate overseer of the church, why has it been rife with hypocrisy and brutality throughout the ages?
* If I’m still plagued by doubts, then is it still possible to be a Christian?

Objection #1: Since Evil and Suffering Exist, a Loving God Cannot

Strobel talks to Peter John Kreeft (Philosophy PhD and author of “Making Sense out of Suffering”), and relays Templeton’s argument involving the African woman suffering from a drought, her dead child still in her arms. Kreeft seizes on Templeton’s words: “I immediately knew it was not possible for this to happen and for there to be a loving God” complaining about the absoluteness of the statement. Admittedly, I thought the same thing about Templeton’s statement the the first time I read it – that it was excessively absolute, and that opened him up for attack. Kreeft says:

“[T]o say there’s no possibility that a loving God who knows far more than we do, including about our future, could possibly tolerate such evil as Templeton sees in Africa — well, that strikes me as intellectually arrogant.”

That took me aback. “Really?” I asked. “How so?”

“How can a mere finite human be sure that infinite wisdom would not tolerate certain short-range evils in order for more long-range goods that we couldn’t foresee?” he asked. … “Look at it this way,” he said. “Would you agree that the difference between us and God is greater than the difference between us and, say, a bear?”

I nodded.

“Okay, then imagine a bear in a trap and a hunter who, out of sympathy, wants to liberate him. He tries to win the bear’s confidence, but he can’t do it, so he has to shoot the bear full of drugs. The bear, however, thinks this is an attack and that the hunter is trying to kill him. He doesn’t realize that this is being done out of compassion. … [The Bear would be] convinced that the hunter was his enemy who was out to cause him suffering and pain. But the bear would be wrong. He reaches this incorrect conclusion because he’s not a human being. … how can anyone be certain that’s not an analogy between us and God?” (p.43-44)

Now, I’ve heard the God-is-to-humans as Humans-are-to-animals analogy used before, and I don’t believe it. The other time I heard this analogy used was in church, where the pastor explained that humans were like a bunch of sparrows caught in a barn, and God had to become a sparrow to show them the way out of the barn. Similarly, God had to become a human in order to teach humans how to live. The major problem with this analogy is this: humans have no common language with animals. We *cannot* communicate with them, except with body language. On the other hand, assuming Christianity is true, then: (1) God is omnipotent – and therefore *can* communicate with us, (2) There are 39 books in the Old Testament which were “written by God”, (3) There are numerous occasions claimed in the Bible where God sends angels to talk to people – and they seem to have *no* problem understanding these angels. On the other hand, bears and sparrows literally have no spoken language. The reason the bear in a trap doesn’t understand is because we cannot communicate with him. The reason we don’t understand suffering is not because we cannot understand God, but because God chooses not to communicate.

Now, he could argue that the bear isn’t smart enough to understand, just as humans aren’t smart enough to understand God’s reasons for permitting suffering, but that argument is undercut by the fact that God could simply tell people “Don’t worry, I have a reason” without trying to spell out the deeper reasons. That wouldn’t require much brain power to understand, and I’m quite certain humans are capable of comprehending it. Instead, we get silence. To get around this problem, he could argue that God’s silence and our confusion in the face of suffering is essential for bringing about the (assumed) long-term benefit. It’s a “test of faith”, some might argue, although that argument doesn’t make much sense when we’re talking about the suffering of non-Christians.

At this point, I should point out the fact that what Strobel is looking for, and what I am looking for are two different things. Strobel is looking for a loophole so that the existence of evil does not disprove God’s existence. What I am looking for is to find the most reasonable explanation of the existence of evil. My explanation: that God doesn’t exist, or God doesn’t care seems to make the most sense of the situation. Out different positions can be illustrated by this scene from Dumb and Dumber:

Lloyd: What are the chances of a guy like you and a girl like me… ending up together?
Mary: Not good.
Lloyd: You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?
Mary: I’d say more like one out of a million.
Lloyd: So you’re telling me there’s a chance.

Stobel is Lloyd. He’s not looking for the most reasonable explanation. He’s just looking for a way to argue against the claim that evil completely eliminates the possibility of the Christian God’s existence. For Strobel, there is a vast difference between “one in a million” and “impossible”.

Personally, I don’t actually buy this argument. I call it like I see it, and I shouldn’t be expected to take “hidden variables” into my calculation that are going to make everything better (i.e. in the afterlife, where none of us can see). To claim that everything gets made better by a benevolent deity in some place no one can see is as thin as claiming that a malevolent deity is giving us a decent life on earth so that we will truly be horrified by our pain and suffering in the afterlife.

Kreeft goes on:

“Only in a world where faith is difficult can faith exist. I don’t have faith in two plus two equals four or in the noonday sun… You have to make an effort of faith to find [God]… And if that weren’t so, if there were something more or less than clues, it’s difficult for me to understand how we could really be free to make a choice about him… If we had no evidence at all, you could never get there. God gives us just enough evidence so that those who want him can have him.” (p.44)

This is simply ridiculous. It could just as easily be said by a cultist arguing for the divinity of David Koresh. Hey – Koresh isn’t going to do some miracles to prove his divinity; you have to have faith; he gives you just enough evidence, etc. – thereby putting the ball in your court when it legitimately belongs in theirs. It’s a great strategy for any false religion or cult because it absolves them of actually presenting good evidence. Further, why must we be free to “make a choice about him”? I think the primary issue here is obedience. Someone could know God exists, and yet be disobedient. Somehow, Kreeft manages to conflate “free will” with deciding whether or not the Christian God exists. Further, according to the Bible, God literally took away many people’s uncertainty about his existence; plenty of Biblical figures allegedly had encounters with God or angels.

But, then Kreeft really goes off the deep end:

“Besides, the evidence of evil and suffering can go both ways — it can actually be used in favor of God. … If Templeton is right in responding to these events with outrage, that presupposes there really is a difference between good and evil. The fact that he’s using the standard of good to judge evil — the fact that he’s saying quite rightly that this horrible suffering isn’t what ought to be — means that he has a notion of what ought to be; that this notion corresponds to something real; and that there is, therefore, a reality called the Supreme Good. Well, that’s another name for God.”

That sounded suspiciously like philosophical sleight of hand. Warily, I summarized Kreeft’s point to see if I understood it. “You mean that unintentionally Templeton may be testifying to the reality of God because by recognizing evil he’s assuming there’s an objective standard on which it’s based?” (p.46)

I’m often confounded by the stupidity that theists will confidently assert when talking about religion. It’s like they drop a good 50 points off of their IQ whenever they talk about it. Other than the fact that he’s essentially arguing that empathy cannot exist unless there is a supremely good deity in charge, the most obvious problem is that you can’t talk about God being good unless there is an objective concept of “good” which exists independently of God. But, if objective concepts of good and evil exist independently of God, then God isn’t the standard, and God’s existence makes no difference to our concepts of good and evil whatsoever. Essentially what Kreeft is arguing here is “might makes right”: good is whatever God says it is – an argument that undergraduate students debunk as an exercise in philosophy class. When Strobel says that it “sounded suspiciously like philosophical sleight of hand”, that’s because it is philosophical sleight of hand.

“Are there any other ways in which you believe evil works against atheism?” I asked.

“Yes, there are,” he replied. “If there is no Creator an therefore no moment of creation, then everything is the result of evolution. If there was no beginning or first cause, then the universe must have always existed. That means the universe has been evolving for an infinite amount of time — and, by now, everything should already be perfect. There would have been plenty of time for evolution to have finished and evil to have been vanquished. But there still is evil and suffering and imperfection — and that proves the atheist wrong about the universe.” (p.47)

Yikes. And this guy is a philosophy professor? No wonder so many people reject evolution – they are completely clueless about what it is and what it means. Evolution is not concerned with “morality” or the elimination of evil in the universe, and the mechanism of evolution will never lead to perfection or eliminate evil. Further, even if we were to assume an infinitely old universe, that doesn’t imply that evolution has has been working for an infinite amount of time. While I’m not asserting this to be true, consider the possibility that the universe goes through cycles of expansion and collapse. If we assume collapse results in the elimination of all life, then the universe could be infinitely old, and yet, evolutionary mechanisms would only work for X billion years before being reset by the “Big Crunch”.

“Then atheism,’ I said, “is an inadequate answer to the problem of evil?”

“It’s an easy answer — maybe, if I may use the word, a cheap answer,” he said. “Atheism is cheap on people, because it snobbishly says nine out of ten people through history have been wrong about God and have had a lie at the core of their hearts.”

“Think about that. How is it possible that over ninety percent of all the human beings who have ever lived — usually in far more painful circumstances than we — could believe in God? The objective evidence, just looking at the balance of pleasure and suffering in the world, would not seem to justify believing in an absolutely good God. Yet this has been almost universally believed. (p.47-48)

What craziness. Atheism is “snobbishness”? Just because a majority of people believe something doesn’t mean it’s true, and saying they are wrong doesn’t make you a “snob” or that your viewpoint is “cheap on people”. People also believed the earth was flat, diseases were caused by demons, etc. Could you imagine this guy living in the time of Galileo? He’d be standing there talking about Galileo’s “snobbery” for asserting that everyone was wrong about geocentrism. I think there are good psychological explanations for the spread of the “benevolent God” religions. Further, what he says is factually incorrect. He claims that over 90% of all the people who have ever lived believed in an absolutely good God. Really? There’s the Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Zoroastrians who believe in a benevolent God. That’s slightly more than half of the global population. Hindus are polytheists. Buddhists are agnostic about gods, but say that gods can’t help you achieve enlightenment anyway. The majority of China and Russia is atheist or agnostic. Further, the Christian-Muslim-Jewish religions are currently at their peak. If you stepped back two thousand years into the past, you can only count Jews and Zoroastrians – which might be in the single-digits as a percentage of global population. To say that over 90% of the people who ever lived believed in “an absolutely good God”, is flat-out wrong.

So far, Strobel has been doing exactly what I described in the beginning of this post: raising virtually no objections at all to Kreeft’s arguments, yet Strobel wants people to take him seriously as a tough-minded skeptic. Remember, the words of Strobel’s wife earlier? “And you’re both too hardheaded to buy into faith until you’re sure it’s not riddled with holes.” Yeah, right. Apparently, Strobel never met a Christian argument he didn’t like. Strobel loves to paint himself as a skeptic, but actions speak far louder than words.

Next: The non-believers review of “The Case for Faith” – part 1.5 >

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West meets Middle-East

I heard three very different news stories today – one out of Switzerland, and one out of Saudi Arabia:

Sex for the disabled

A Swiss welfare group is recruiting volunteers to have sex with disabled people.

The Basel-based Welfare Group for Disability and Sexuality already arranges erotic massages for people with disabilities.

But it is now providing full sexual intercourse and is also signing up gay volunteers to have sex with homosexual disabled people. (Link)

I can understand why conservative people see the West as morally decadent, especially with these kinds of stories. For a contrast, compare it to this BBC news article:

Saudi gang-rape victim is jailed

An appeal court in Saudi Arabia has doubled the number of lashes and added a jail sentence as punishment for a woman who was gang-raped.

But the victim was also punished for violating Saudi Arabia’s laws on segregation that forbid unrelated men and women from associating with each other. She was initially sentenced to 90 lashes for being in the car of a strange man. (Link)

Saudi Arabia has all kinds of “moral” laws restricting what people can do. Women have to be covered, they can’t drive, and they can’t associate with men they aren’t related to – unless escorted by a male relative. The woman in this story was sentenced to 90 lashes for being with males. (Apparently, being raped by seven men wasn’t punishment enough.) She appealed the sentence, and the story made it into the media. The judge became angry because he thought she was trying to use the media to manipulate the judge. So, he upped her sentence to 200 lashes and six-months in jail. Her lawyer had his license confiscated, and faces disciplinary action as well.

So – in Switzerland, a charity will look for volunteers to have sex with disabled people, and in Saudi Arabia, a woman gets 90 lashes for merely being in the company of men she isn’t related to.

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Prayer for Rain

[Via Pharyngula, Bad Astronomy]

As Georgia descends deeper into drought, Gov. Sonny Perdue has ordered water restrictions, launched a legal battle and asked President Bush for help. On Tuesday, the governor called on a higher power.

He joined lawmakers and ministers on the steps of the state Capitol to pray for rain. (Link to Video and story)

How ridiculous. He tries to wrap it all up in respectable language, but it’s really as primitive and ineffective as a rain dance or praying to a stone idol.

But if we pray and it doesn’t rain, does that mean the answer is no? Not necessarily, said a handful of Atlanta thinkers.

“The answer is at some point it will happen,” said [Rabbi Steven Lebow]. “Maybe we’re just not ready for it yet.” (Link)

I saw a lot of these kinds of “explanations” (no matter what happens, God is involved in the situation) growing up in a fundamentalist Christian church. I eventually realized that all their excuses were just that – excuses. Anything and everything could be explained away: why did my friend’s brother-in-law get killed by a drunk driver [God must have a reason], why are children born crippled [insert excuse that preserves divine providence], why does medicine work so much better than prayer [maybe God gave us the medicine], why did a Christian I knew in college get cancer and die in his early 20s leaving behind a widow [uh, God works in mysterious ways? – translation: “yeah, it doesn’t make sense to me, either”]. It always makes me want to confront Christians directly, and ask them: “Well, you claim to have a personal relationship with God, why don’t you ask him? Does He have a problem responding to you, even though you have a ‘personal relationship’ with Him?” The litany of hollow excuses was one of the reasons I woke up to the fact that religion is a sham.

One other thing that struck me about the whole situation was this:
October 20, 2007:

Gov. Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency in most of Georgia on Saturday, and called on President Bush to recognize that the historic drought had created a disaster for 85 counties.

In a defiant plea Saturday at Lake Lanier, Perdue asked Bush to issue a federal disaster designation that would:
* Empower the president to order less water released from Lake Lanier.
* Make federal funds available to state and local governments.
* Offer low-interest loans to Georgia businesses hurt by the drought.

“We will continue to conserve,” the governor said, “but we have to have help.” (Link)

So – he appealed for help from Bush on October 20th, and prayed for divine help on November 13. Apparently, even Gov. Perdue knows prayer is a last-ditch attempt for help – even He knows God isn’t likely to do anything.

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Privacy in America

In a speech to GEOINT (which includes the use of satellites, UAVs, and recon aircraft), Donald Kerr, the US’ principal deputy director of national intelligence:

Safety and privacy – it’s common thinking that, in order to have more safety, you get less privacy. I don’t agree with that. I work from the assumption that you need to have both… That’s of course a very hard thing to convince people of. Movies like “The Enemy of the State” and “The Good Shepherd” have poisoned the well of public opinion in some ways, and make people think we focus on safety mainly for governmental activities to the exclusion of all else. My takeaway message for today: We’re not. You can – and we do – have both.

Safety and privacy? Wow, how do we get both? You’re not going to change the definition of privacy, are you?

Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity; and it’s an idea that is deeply rooted in American culture… But in our interconnected and wireless world, anonymity – or the appearance of anonymity – is quickly becoming a thing of the past… We need to move beyond the construct that equates anonymity with privacy and focus more on how we can protect essential privacy in this interconnected environment. Protecting anonymity isn’t a fight that can be won. Anyone that’s typed in their name on Google understands that. Instead, privacy, I would offer, is a system of laws, rules, and customs with an infrastructure of Inspectors General, oversight committees, and privacy boards on which our intelligence community commitment is based and measured.

I was taken by a thing that happened to me at the FBI, where I also had electronic surveillance as part of my responsibility. And people were very concerned that the ability to intercept emails was coming into play. And they were saying, well, we just can’t have federal employees able to touch our message traffic… but they were perfectly willing for a green-card holder at an ISP who may or may have not have been an illegal entrant to the United States to handle their data. It struck me as an anomalous situation.

(Source: Remarks and Q&A)
(See also: Associated Press: Definition Changing for People’s Privacy, and discussion on Slashdot)

In other words, privacy means the government doesn’t tell people what it knows about you. But, what are the limits on what information the government can collect – and what can it collect without a warrant? Apparently, quite a bit – that’s the message from other actions the US has taken (see below). This isn’t the East German Stasi talking here.

Not surprisingly, Kerr invoked all kinds of tragedies to justify this “new definition” of privacy. Specifically, he mentions: attacks on the Kenya and Tanzania embassies where he “first experienced the smell of decaying human remains on a large scale”, Osama bin Laden, USS Cole, 9/11, truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Beiruit, etc

Remember the days when Republicans were big on keeping government out of our lives? Anymore, it seems Republicans’ primary occupation is fighting the culture war, and teaching people to hate Democrats.

In related news:

The central witness in a California lawsuit against AT&T says the government is vacuuming up billions of e-mails and phone calls as they pass through an AT&T switching station in San Francisco.

Mark Klein, a retired AT&T technician, helped connect a device in 2003 that he says diverted and copied onto a government supercomputer every call, e-mail, and Internet site access on AT&T lines.

While I happen to think Bush sees the constitution and other checks and balances as unnecessary encumbrances to getting stuff done, it’s really not a question of whether the US government under George Bush can be trusted with all this information – the question is whether all future intelligence agencies and administrations (for the next X generations) can be trusted with information – because you know they aren’t going to voluntarily give-up these capabilities. Heck, most of this stuff was done under cover to begin with. At the very least, the number of times the US government (including Bush) has used or attempted to use intelligence to for political purposes should give one pause.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is fighting to stop these kinds of powergrabs. Check them out:
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Electronic Frontier Foundation: Stop the Spying

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There are people who like to claim that an atheism means rampant immorality and lawlessness – as if a deity is the only proper basis for morality and lawfulness. Well, in the news the other day was this article: Mafia’s ‘Ten Commandments’ found:

Italian police have found what they say is a “Ten Commandments”-style code of behaviour for Mafia members, at the hideout of a captured Mafia boss.

The Mafia’s “Ten Commandments”
1. No-one can present himself directly to another of our friends. There must be a third person to do it.
2. Never look at the wives of friends. (Parallels the Ten Commandment’s “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife”.)
3. Never be seen with cops.
4. Don’t go to pubs and clubs.
5. Always being available for Cosa Nostra is a duty – even if your wife’s about to give birth. (Possible parallels with “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”.)
6. Appointments must absolutely be respected.
7. Wives must be treated with respect.
8. When asked for any information, the answer must be the truth. (Parallels the Ten Commandment’s “Thou shalt not lie”.)
9. Money cannot be appropriated if it belongs to others or to other families. (Parallels the Ten Commandment’s “Thou shalt not steal”.)
10. People who can’t be part of Cosa Nostra: anyone who has a close relative in the police, anyone with a two-timing relative in the family, anyone who behaves badly and doesn’t hold to moral values.

This isn’t that surprising. Groups often devise rules to define the proper ways to interact with each other – even thieves have rules when dealing with each other. Why? Is it because they want to “do the right thing”? No, what it does is establishes a reasonable code of “wrong behavior” – and this aids in preventing conflict between individuals. Imagine a group where there are no defined rules, and anyone can do anything to anyone. One person does something harmful to another person (steals, rapes, murders, etc). In that case, the victim, family of the victim, or friends of the victim will be offended by the attack, and will retaliate. This can spiral into cycles of retaliation (as in the case of the Hatfields and McCoys), which ends up harming everyone.

When someone violates this code of conduct, it is apparent both to the individual, and to the group as a whole. This makes it easy for the group to decide who to side with – afterall, by creating the list of “wrong behaviors” beforehand, the individual knows when he’s crossing a line, and the group knows that the individual knows he’s crossing a line. If there is no list of wrong behaviors, there is still a general knowledge of what is fair and unfair behavior – but it might vary from one person to another (which creates for potential deception “I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to do that”), making it more difficult to pick sides in a conflict.

The main point, though, is that being fair prevents unnecessary conflicts – many of which end up harming both parties. So, there is a real reward for “doing the right thing”, even if there’s no deity or karma to reward and punish people.

While I’m not a follower or fan of Taoism, this reminds me of something I read a long time ago in ‘Lieh-Tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practical Living’:

Softness and Hardness, Yielding and Resisting

There are many things about the way of heaven and earth that people find puzzling. For example, strength does not always win, and sometimes softness may be a more effective strategy.

If you routinely try to overcome strength with strength, then one day you will meet someone who is stronger than you are, and you will be defeated… If you are competitive, there will always be that one time when you will lose. If you are noncompetitive, you will not have to worry about winning and losing.

There was once a king who was only interested in hiring men who were strong and brave because he believed that strength was the best way to protect himself.

One day, a wandering philosopher visited the king. The king was in a bad mood that day and was scowling and pacing around. He saw the philosopher and said, “I am only interested in hearing about strength and courage. If you are going to talk to me about virtue and morality, then you are wasting my time.”

The philosopher said, “If I had a strategy that will guarantee that anyone who attempts to stab you will miss, would you be interested?”

“Of course I’d like to hear about it.”

“If someone tries to stab you and misses, you will still be humiliated by the attempt on your life. Therefore, a better strategy would be one in which people will never dare to strike you in the first place.”

The king reluctantly agreed.

The philosopher continued, “Now, if people do not dare to harm you, there’s no guarantee that they will not wish to harm you. Therefore, an even better strategy is one that will make people not want to harm you at all.”

The king nodded thoughtfully.

The philosopher then said, “But just because people do not want to harm you doesn’t mean they will respect you or love you. Suppose you had a strategy that could get them to love you and respect you, so that your concerns are their concerns. Would this strategy be several times better than just strength and courage?”

The king exclaimed, “This is exactly what I am looking for.”

The philosopher said, “Confucius and Mo-tzu were not princes. They never became leaders or held any political office. However, people gave them respect equal to that of kings and nobles. Everywhere they went, people craned their necks and stood on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of them. Everyone respected them and wished them well. Your Majesty, you already have political and military power. If you rule your people with virtue and integrity, wouldn’t your greatness surpass that of Confucius and Mo-tzu?”

The moral of the story is that even kings (who have disproportionate power to abuse others) benefit from being fair and just. Yes, there is an obvious hole in the claim that being just and fair completely protects the king – it doesn’t protect the king from power-hungry men attempting coups, or from foreign nations. However, being just and fair does reduce the problems and threats a person faces – and we don’t need to invoke heaven, hell, or karma to make that argument.

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Oddest Picture of the Day

While looking up some Hitler quotes, I stumbled on the funniest juxtaposition. The Adolf Hitler Research Society (a pro-Hitler website that argues Hitler was unfairly demonized and his ideas were just grand – no, it’s not a parody) has the following picture on their front page:

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