Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

Remember the Japanese earthquake and U.S. poll that was conducted shortly afterward asking if natural disasters are a punishment from God? (Some even claiming that the earthquake/tsunami were a punishment for Japan’s atheism.)

The poll released today by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, was conducted a week after a March 11 earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan.

Nearly six in 10 evangelicals believe God can use natural disasters to send messages — nearly twice the number of Catholics (31%) or mainline Protestants (34%). Evangelicals (53%) are also more than twice as likely as the one in five Catholics or mainline Protestants to believe God punishes nations for the sins of some citizens.
Source: USA Today

Well, Japan does have high levels of atheism:

And a new article says:

In the five months since the tsunami struck Japan, people have returned $78 million in missing cash and valuables that they found amid the rubble, police said… The National Police Agency says nearly all the valuables found in the three hardest hit prefectures, have been returned to their owners… “Polite” and “disciplined” were words often used to describe the Japanese population in the absence of widespread looting. (Source)

Maybe God hates Japan because atheists because they are just so darn honest, even when nobody’s looking. (And religious people still claim that atheists are supposed to be some kind of wild amoral animals.)

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Giving Credit

Recently, we’ve had a number of sudden downpours that filled roadways with so much water that they were temporarily un-drivable. A certain super-Republican, super-Christian girl I know made the mistake of driving her truck into one of these large puddles and had to abandon her vehicle. It sounds (so far) like there wasn’t any major damage to the car, but she has to get it professionally cleaned. What annoyed me was all her facebook posts giving credit to God. The general thinking seems to be: something bad happened, but something worse could’ve happened – therefore, praise God for intervening to stop the worse thing from happening. Example:

“thank Jesus, [my truck] is alive!!! After being submerged in water for 45min, we let her dry out and eventually she started up!!! Thank God for miracles! guessing i just need some interior detailing, but that’s it. an amazing end to a horrifying day!! God is good!!! … God is good and i’m thankful he looks out for me”

(Roll eyes) It’s amazing that bad things can happen to someone, and it somehow it gets turned around into a confirmation of God’s existence and God’s intervention because the *worst* possible outcome didn’t happen. As if the worst possible outcome always happens without God’s special intervention. I also couldn’t help but imagine that other people in other religions also credit their gods when the worst outcome doesn’t happen. “Praise Allah! The worst outcome didn’t happen, God if great!” – as if their imaginary gods played any role.

I was tempted to post a snarky comment like “My car wasn’t damaged at all, I guess God likes atheists best.” or “99% of the people in this city had no problems, I credit Neptune, god of the seas.” or “I saved your car with my psychic powers. What? You have just as much reason to believe that as you do that God saved your car.” or “I knew a Christian guy in college who got pancreatic cancer and died several years later. He and his family prayed like crazy, and he spent a lot of time studying the Bible before his demise, but God didn’t intervene. Glad he’s looking out for your automobile.”

For the sake of diplomacy, I didn’t retort.

Even as a Christian kid, I questioned giving God credit for these kinds of things. It seemed to me, that mathematically, it was unlikely that the worst possible outcome would happen by chance, so some percentage of “bad, but not the worst outcome” situations had nothing to do with divine intervention. Even as a Christian, the lens that Christians used to view the world just seemed out of touch with reality. It seemed to be:
– If a good thing happened: Praise God!
– If nothing happened: Praise God for his protection!
– If something bad happened, but it wasn’t the worst thing that could happen: Praise God for intervening to prevent the worst!
– If the absolute worst thing happened: Either silence, “God works in mysterious ways”, “He’s in heaven with Jesus now.”, etc.

Of course, it was considered impolite to question someone’s opinion of God’s role, so nobody challenged anything. As far as I could tell, bad things happened as frequently as you’d expect if God never intervened in the world at all.

I guess my rationality was the crack in the dam.

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We’re all familiar with the problem of “natural evil” and the problems it poses for a benevolent creator god. We all know about earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and so on. But, I recently heard about a bizarre natural disaster that happened back in 1986.

Lake Nyos is located in central Africa. A pocket of magma leaks CO2 into the lake, causing it to build-up over time. Occasionally, there is a chain reaction that causes the CO2 to suddenly burst out of the lake. The CO2, which was colder and heavier than normal air, flows into the surrounding area, suffocating and killing life.

From the BBC:

It is thought that recent high rainfall had displaced the CO2-rich water at the bottom, releasing a massive bubble of carbon dioxide gas from the lake in a natural phenomenon now referred to as “lake overturn”.

The heavy gas then sank to the ground and rolled in a cloud several tens of metres deep across the surrounding countryside.

The gas killed all living things within a 15-mile (25km) radius of the lake


On August 21, 1986, a limnic eruption occurred at Lake Nyos which triggered the sudden release of about 1.6 million tonnes of CO2; this cloud rose at nearly 100 kilometres (62 mi) per hour. The gas spilled over the northern lip of the lake into a valley running roughly east-west from Cha to Subum, and then rushed down two valleys branching off it to the north, displacing all the air and suffocating some 1,700 people within 20 kilometres (12 mi) of the lake, mostly rural villagers, as well as 3,500 livestock.

This type of event happens periodically to the lake, and people living around the area had myths about evil spirits who periodically came out of the lake and killed people. (An interesting pre-scientific explanation for the events.) When you think about the details, it makes sense why non-scientific people would interpret it as evil spirits – there would be the sound of gas suddenly erupting from the lake, cold smelly air would flow into the countryside, the CO2 would extinguish flames (including lamps or candles), people would become weak, unconscious, and many people and animals would die. It all sounds very creepy.

Since that time, scientists have placed pipes into the lake to degas it, preventing this tragedy from happening again. (Yay science!) But, there are other lakes in Africa which have this same problem.

Related Links:
Wired: Aug. 21, 1986: Volcanic Lake Explodes, Killing Thousands
BBC: 1986: Hundreds gassed in Cameroon lake disaster

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I’ve been seeing this story around on some blogs lately:

While I agree with the right of atheists to have their freedom of speech, and that Christians shouldn’t get a monopoly over government buildings, I actually disagree with doing this. The main problem is: what’s the point in putting up the sign, other than to exercise the right to do it and poke a finger in the eye of Christians? Similarly, I would also suggest that Muslims avoid putting up a sign next to the Christmas tree saying that Jesus wasn’t God, people who believe in the trinity are guilty of blasphemy that will be punished severely in the afterlife, that the Koran is the only uncorrupted divine message. Similarly, if Muslims create religious displays, Christians should avoid putting up signs calling Mohammed a pedophile, and telling them they’ll all burn in hell if they don’t convert. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And it’s not like this atheist sign is going to change anyone’s mind on the issue. It’ll just reinforce the feeling (as the radio ad said) that atheists need to “sit down and shut up”.

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There’s a article up on NewScientist about the Discovery Institute’s new attack on evolution / materialism. They’re apparently going to push the “the mind can’t be explained as a product of the brain” idea to advocate dualism:

“YOU cannot overestimate,” thundered psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, “how threatened the scientific establishment is by the fact that it now looks like the materialist paradigm is genuinely breaking down. You’re gonna hear a lot in the next calendar year about… how Darwin’s explanation of how human intelligence arose is the only scientific way of doing it… I’m asking us as a world community to go out there and tell the scientific establishment, enough is enough! Materialism needs to start fading away and non-materialist causation needs to be understood as part of natural reality.”

Schwartz and Beauregard are part of a growing “non-material neuroscience” movement. They are attempting to resurrect Cartesian dualism – the idea that brain and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of things, material and immaterial – in the hope that it will make room in science both for supernatural forces and for a soul. The two have signed the “Scientific dissent from Darwinism” petition, spearheaded by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, headquarters of the intelligent design movement… According to proponents of ID, the “hard problem” of consciousness – how our subjective experiences arise from the objective world of neurons – is the Achilles heel not just of Darwinism but of scientific materialism.

This is more an attack on materialism than it is evolution. But, the Discovery Institute’s charter isn’t against evolution, exactly – it’s against the idea non-supernatural explanations. I especially liked, “I’m asking us as a world community to go out there and tell the scientific establishment, enough is enough!” – uh, yeah. Everyone who knows virtually nothing about the brain needs to get out there and tell the experts what to believe. Up next: I’m asking the world community to go out there and tell the chemists that their periodic table is a load of crap!

And the two neuroscientists who they’ve enlisted in this fight follow a familiar pattern: people with degrees (i.e. credibility) saying incredibly stupid things – like Egnor’s ridiculous claim that if naturalistic evolution was true, then brain cancer should result in evolving a better brain:

Cancer is a test of Darwin’s theory. Cancer is real biological evolution by random mutation and natural selection, writ fast… Perhaps Dr. Novella has data that show real evolutionary improvements in the brain caused by brain tumors. If he has, he should show us… I’ve never seen cancer make a brain better.

Read the full NewScientist article here.

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(Militant Atheists shown below.)

Apparently, in game testing, some people had an issue with the game ‘Spore’ because it includes religion. I think as games mirror the real-world more and more, it’s impossible to avoid taking-sides or editorializing. Even the game ‘Civilization’ included religion. The problem is that you can’t give religion a role without implicitly taking sides on the issue. Some people think religion is like a virus, others see it as false but useful for civilization, and others see their religion as the one true way – humanity’s lifeline to God. You can’t really put all three roles into a game and please everyone. Will Wright comments on the complaints:

Eurogamer: You describe yourself as an atheist; take the so-called militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who see faith uniformly as a bad, negative and dangerous thing. Do you see it more benignly, even if you don’t necessarily believe?

Will Wright: Oh, I definitely see it more benignly. I see a lot of benefit and danger in religion like anything[…] I think our bigger fear was that we didn’t want to offend any religious people; but looking at the discussion that unfolded from this thing, what we had was a good sizeable group of players that we might call militant atheists, and the rest of the players seemed very tolerant, including all of the religious players.

Most of the articles ended the quote right there (1, 2, 3, 4) – making atheists and ‘militant atheist’ virtually synonymous. But, he goes on:

And most of the atheists were very tolerant as well. I didn’t expect to hit hot buttons on the atheist side as much; I expected it on the religious side. But so far I’ve had no critical feedback at all from anybody who is religious feeling that we were misrepresenting religion or it was bad to represent religion in the game. It was really the atheists!

My only issue with Will Wright’s comment was his use of ‘militant atheist’. In any other context, the word ‘militant’ means violent, taking up weapons, and killing people. (In fact, the images above are from the first page of google images when you search on “militant”.) It’s silly to use that to describe atheists who are complaining. These guys didn’t show up at his house with AK-47s and technicals. But that doesn’t stop everyone from jumping on the theme: ‘Militant atheists’ up in arms over Spore’s sim-religion.

Now, “hardline atheist” I guess I’d be okay with that in the sense that it’s more accurate (though it has negative connotations), but at least it doesn’t erroneously hint at violence and killing.

Update: It seems that Spore doesn’t just include religion as a method of managing your civilization. In fact, it would seem odd to complain about that, and many other games have done the same thing. Rather, when you reach the Civilization phase of the game, you can choose a military, economic, or spiritual path. Choosing the spiritual path gives your people access to magical powers (Faith Heal, Black Rain, and Messianic Uprising). I guess atheists had a problem with some realism (simulating a planet’s evolution Intelligent Design over billions of years), coupled with unrealism (gaining magical powers based on religion).

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