Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Equal Opportunity Atheist, Part II

Just in case the last story about Islam wasn't sad enough, there's this one.

Threatened by a teddy bear named Muhammad? Oh boy...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Equal-Opportunity Atheist

In this blog, it's likely that I'll be going after Christianity most of the time. It's the religion I was raised in, so I know the most about it.

However, I wouldn't want to forget the Islamic end of the religious spectrum. This is the reason why we should free ourselves from dependence on Saudi oil. It's also the reason why the separation of church and state is critical. Islamic "law" my ass.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Lottery-Winner Theory of Human Behavior (or: Aliens, Atheists & the Environment)

There are two things that are very important to me: atheism, because I have never believed in the existence of the God of the Bible (or any other god), but I do believe that religion is doing more harm than good; and the environment, because it's critical to life, and it's the only one we've got. I've become even more concerned about the environment since having children of my own because even at conservative estimated rates of environmental degredation, my children's children are going to be living on a planet that's in much worse shape than it is today. And that hits a little too close to home.

I like aliens, too. At least the idea of them. They're not necessarily important to me (I spend much more time thinking about atheism and the environment), but the thought of having neighbors somewhere in the universe is at least plausible. With sextillions (yes, that's a real measurement - ten to the twenty-first power) of stars and likely sextillions of planets in the universe, it's not too hard to imagine that at least a handful of them have conditions suitable to life.

Some have tried to estimate how many inhabited planets might be out there. Perhaps the best-known attempt is The Drake Equation:


N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which we might hope to be able to communicate;


R* is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy;

fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets;

ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets;

f is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point;

fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life;

fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space;

L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

Early estimates put the total number of civilizations with which we might communicate at 10, though more recent conservative estimates put the number at two. But keep in mind that this is only an estimate of the number of civilizations that might be willing to communicate - it's not an estimate of the number of planets that may harbor some form of life. That figure is likely much higher.

But whether there are two intelligent civilizations in the universe or 200, there is a simple analogy that can be drawn to a common activity here on earth - the lottery.
We, humanity, won the cosmic lottery. (So did every other species on our planet, but I suspect they don't appreciate it quite as much.) When the universe burst into existence, there was a certain chance that life would develop on any given planet. The chance was very small, as is the chance of winning any terrestrial lottery. But we won.
Our behavior since winning this lottery, particularly towards our planet, parallels that of many lottery winners past who squandered their newfound resources and found themselves bankrupt within a relatively short period of time. You can read about a few cases here and here.
What makes this behavior especially dangerous is that the winnings we are squandering aren't cash - they're our planet. And if we destroy our planet, we don't just get to start over with a bad credit rating. We lose. We die. And as far as we know, there aren't any habitable planets within a few light years.
It's frustrating to me that theists seem to have little regard for our environment. But the reason isn't surprising. The Christian Bible says two things in particular that don't bode well for conservation efforts: 1) God created the earth for humans to do with as they please, and 2) The world is going to end one day anyway.
The second statement is the most disturbing, since many evangelical Christians view the degradation of the environment as a biblical sign that the "end time" is approaching. And some argue that hastening the degradation will bring the end time sooner. This is frightening.
As an atheist, I live my life in direct opposition to Pascal's Wager. For those that don't know, Pascal's Wager is a piece of decision theory developed by 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal which determined that it's a better "bet" to believe in God, because the benefits of belief are theoretically infinite (i.e. eternity in heaven), while the benefit of non-belief is nothing (or possibly worse). I prefer to function under the assumption of the Atheist's Wager, which says:

"You should live your life and try to make the world a better place for your being in it, whether or not you believe in God. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will be remembered fondly by those you left behind. If there is a benevolent God, he may judge you on your merits coupled with your commitments, and not just on whether or not you believed in him."

But it goes beyond that. I'm not personally concerned about getting into heaven. I'm worried about the state of the earth as we leave it for future generations. We should live our lives to make this world the best place possible for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We should assume that the world is not ending soon, but rather that it will be here for thousands, if not millions, of years to come. We can and must choose now whether our descendants are going to live in a cesspool of industrial pollution and greenhouse gases or not. The future is much closer than we think.
The main reason that I want to hitch the atheism wagon to environmentalism is that I believe they both have a bright future with a lot of room to grow. The future of the environment is renewable energy resources. Currently, renewable energy accounts for about 10% of the energy used in the United States. Interestingly, atheists make up about 10% of the population in the United States.
I do believe that both of those figures will increase dramatically during the next couple of decades. The only question is whether or not they will reach a critical mass soon enough to avoid the irreversible destruction of Earth.
Our existence is a test of our intelligence, whether or not God exists. We have two methods of producing energy for this planet: fossil fuels, which are polluting and finite, and renewable sources such as wind and solar power - which are limitless and clean. The fossil fuels were the first that humans figured out how to harness the power of. But it has become clear that the future of these fuels is not much of a future at all.
With that, I again pose the question to theists: Does it make sense that there is a God? If there is, and he created the earth, he was kind enough to give us enough rope to hang ourselves with. If we burn all of the estimated remaining fossil fuels that can be extracted from the ground, we're in a heap of trouble - to the tune of a 15-degree Fahrenheit rise in average global temperature, plus a rise in ocean levels of about 21 feet among other gruesome statistics. If you believe that God created the earth, then you must believe that God created all of the materials that make up the earth. If this is so, then why did God set such an environmental trap while neglecting to tell us about it?
Like evolution, global warming has been happening relatively slowly. The effects of global warming are not yet very pronounced. However, while evolution has occurred over millions of years, global warming will go from start to fatal within 200 to 300 years. The theist and the atheist can argue about evolution forever - but we have no such time luxury when it comes to global warming. So, unless you're absolutely certain about when the world is going to end, I would suggest to theists that they should get serious about environmental preservation. Personally, I think we're going to be here for a while.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Ballad of Antony Flew

Until a few days ago, I had never heard of Antony Flew.

But before I talk about Mr. Flew, I'd like to share a revelation I had after reading about him.

I figured out why believers - particularly Christians - are so afraid of atheists.

I speculate that there are a lot more Christians-turned-Atheists out there than there are Atheists-turned-Christians. I'm pulling this number straight out of my rear-end, but I would guess the ratio is somewhere around 10 to 1. I'll try and see if there's some research out there somewhere to back this assertion up. But frankly, the only people you really hear about turning to Christianity are convicted felons (and I'm talking about the kinds of felons who got popped for the Class 1 or 2 varieties). So, you'll have to forgive me if I don't quite believe the sincerity of their conversions.

So by this math, any atheist that converts (or returns) to Christianity is worth about 10 people going the opposite direction (remember also that atheists currently make up only about 10% of the population). And the atheist is worth even more when it's a prominent one.

Such is allegedly the case with Antony Flew. Mr. Flew, it turns out, was one of the great atheist philosophers of the 20th century. There is a new book out entitled There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, attributed to Mr. Flew and a Christian activist named Roy Abraham Varghese. (Why is it that nobody seems to be able to write the word "atheist" without sticking a negative adjective in front of it? Seeing a pattern here?)

I'm going to provide a link to a lengthy article about this book that appeared in the New York Times a few days ago. But let me just give a quick summary:

Antony Flew is now in his 80's, and is clearly losing his mental faculties. As recently as two years ago, he was corresponding with an atheist - and during said correspondence, he rejected the existence of God. But a group of Christian thinkers, including Varghese, were able to get to him again and obtain his permission to put his name on the book. The Times article makes clear that the book was largely written by Varghese, with contributions from some other Christian thinkers. In the book, Flew extolls the virtues of these thinkers and solidly backs their positions - and yet, when interviewed by the New York Times reporter, Flew can't even remember who these people are when asked about them.

Dishonesty does not strike me as a particularly Christian principle. But that's exactly what this book is. A few Christians taking advantage of a mentally declining atheist to get their beliefs validated. If several atheist thinkers took advantage of a prominent Christian experiencing Alzheimer's to get such a book published, there would be outrage from the Christian community.

But don't worry. We're not outraged. Just sad. Sad for Antony Flew that he got suckered into this, and sad that Christians continue to use dishonesty to promote their positions.

If you read nothing else by Antony Flew, read Theology and Falsification - his short 1,000-word masterpiece from 1950, written when he was in his prime.

Here is the New York Yimes article.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Prayin' for Rain

I guess you could file this under "Can't Hurt!", but Georgia's Governor Sonny Perdue is leading a prayer vigil today with the hope of attracting rain to the drought-engulfed South.

As an atheist, I don't especially care if an elected official wants to engage is the Christian equivalent of a Hopi rain dance. (Actually, the only thing I worry about is if it actually rains, people will believe that God did it!)

What makes me sad is that the Governor does not seem to be particularly interested in investigating what the cause of the drought might be. warming?

Global warming is the real deal, people. It's gotten a bit if a black eye now again because any time there is a disastrous weather event (i.e. Hurricane Katrina) there are those who jump the gun and say we're going to lose a major city every year to hurricanes. But you have to admit, the weather has been a little screwy the past few years. Big insurance companies have figured this out. When will politicians?

My message to Sonny Purdue - stop wasting time praying under your taxpayer-funded salary and start researching some concrete solutions.

Friday, November 9, 2007


For the second time in as many weeks, a high-ranking elected official has come out about his UFO-sighting experience.

Fife Symington, former Republican governor of Arizona, will be hosting a November 12 event at the National Press Club where he will discuss the Phoenix Lights incident. He says he will be joined by 14 former high-ranking military and government officials from seven countries who will share evidence from what they call their own UFO experiences and investigations.

It was just a few days ago that Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich was forced to talk about his own UFO sighting after his longtime friend, actress Shirley MacLaine, came out with a memoir describing the incident. Shirley MacLaine is certainly a crackpot by any definition, but Kucinich still admitted to the sighting. Symington resigned his governorship in 1997 after being convicted of bank fraud (hey, big surprise - he's Republican!), but it doesn't change the fact that the Phoenix Lights incident was widely documented.

But this isn't a blog about UFO sightings - it's about religion (and a lack thereof). I've often asked myself - "Wouldn't the existence of extraterrestrial life render religion null and void?". After all, if we were created in God's image but some aliens showed up who look nothing like many images does God have? And that's the least of my questions.

I've spent the last hour or so reading a few missives on the subject of aliens and religion, all written by Christians. The answers they provide (or lack thereof) are frustrating to say the least. Allow me to review.

Many of the writers subscribe to something resembling this statement made by Benjamin Wiker in an article entitled Alien Ideas: Christianity and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life:

"The simple truth remains: Over the span of the 20th century, science systematically eliminated the possibility of extraterrestrials in our solar system, and their existence elsewhere has dwindled from an absolute necessity to a dim chance."

This is a common theist argument that I'll call the Time-Limit on Scientific Discovery Argument. I read and hear over and over, especially from proponents of creationism and/or intelligent design, that because science hasn't yet figured out exactly how the universe was created, for example, then God must have done it. There are a lot of things that science hasn't figured out yet (and I mean yet), but does that mean scientists all over the world have hung up their lab coats and called it quits? No. Should researchers stop trying to find a cure for cancer just because they haven't found it yet? You can't argue that because something hasn't been discovered yet that it will never be. There is no time-limit on scientific discovery. The origin of the universe is The Big Question, to be sure - but it's only in the last 50 years or so that science has really been developing technology (computing technology in particular) good enough to do high-powered research on these kinds of questions. Technology will continue to get better, and more answers to life's big questions will be forthcoming. And this must be disconcerting to those who believe in God, because every time a mystery is explained, God becomes a little less useful.

The first half of Wiker's statement - that there are no extraterrestrials in our solar system (if by extraterrestrials he means the intelligent, society-forming variety) is probably true, though we still need to send quite a few more probes to more planetary bodies in the solar system to rule out the existence of simple organisms either in the past or present. But the preliminary data from the Mars rovers is quite interesting.

The second half of the statement, though, is misleading at best. The search for extrasolar planets (planets orbiting stars other than our own) is in its infancy. The technology involved at this point is only good enough to detect large (and theoretically uninhabitable) gas giants circling distant stars. This is another take on the Time-Limit on Scientific Discovery Argument. Look at this article, for example. Once you wade through all the biblical quotes, the author makes the argument that because the extrasolar planets discovered thusfar do not appear to be inhabitable, therefore extraterrestrial life must not exist. This type of argument is also called Jumping to Conclusions.

You'll notice in both of these articles that the authors run a lot of interference before even attempting to answer the question of what effect the discovery of extraterrestrials would have on religion. Wiker spends the bulk of his piece reviewing crazy theories of extraterrestrials put forth by scientists from the year 1200 until around 1900 - yet he doesn't cite a single prominent 20th-century (or 21st-century, for that matter) scientist on the subject. In the second article, as you would suspect from someone who believes in the end-time prophecy, there's an awful lot of Bible-thumping.

(By the way, you can read more on the subject yourself. I'm not going to quote any more articles here, since this is already a much longer post than I was planning. The Google search I used was Christian position on alien life.)

Just to sum up one other Christian argument on the topic of extraterrestrial life - this is the assertion that God created the entire universe, not just the Earth, so we shouldn't be surprised to find life elsewhere. That was refreshing, I thought, until I kept reading: Jesus died for them too.

What? What?! Okay, granted all this talk about alien life is conjecture anyway. But hang on a minute. Jesus died for aliens too? Let me run through a few possible alien first-contact scenarios to see just how this would play out...


Aliens: "Hello Earthlings. How are you?"

Us: "Welcome to Earth! Jesus died for your sins!"

Aliens: "What? Who?"

Us: "You know, Jesus, son of God. God created the universe!"

Aliens: "Um, no. The universe was created in the Big Bang [or whatever their scientific universe-creation theory is, which would undoubtedly be more sophisticated than ours]."

So who would be right? Would aliens be just another bunch of no-good atheists?


Aliens: "Hello Earthlings. How are you?"

Us: "Welcome to Earth! Jesus died for your sins!"

Aliens: "What? Who?"

Us: "You know, Jesus, son of God. God created the universe!"

Aliens: "Actually, the Great ZZZZnnrfbOtT created the universe."

This is possibly the only scenario where believers might get a foot in the door. It could be that the Great ZZZZnnrfbOtT is just their name for God. Our theologians and their theologians could sit down together, discuss our mutual scriptures, and who knows - maybe live together in galactic harmony. But then there's the third scenario...


Us: "Welcome to Earth! Jesus died for your sins!"

Aliens: "Open fire!"


Assuming aliens arrive simply to obliterate us, the question remains - who is right? Would God have created a race on another planet that would destroy us? What's the point? And why would God create all the different races on earth, instilling only some of them with the belief that is right? You could argue that all the different religions of the world, at their most basic level, want the same things. If that's true, why don't they work together? Why, in fact, are they almost continually in conflict?

It just goes to show that you don't have to look to extraterrestrials to reasonably conclude that there is no God.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Senator Investigates Megachurches

A couple of days ago, Republican (yes, Republican) Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, initiated an investigation of the finances of six megachurches who are suspected of misusing huge amounts of their churches' assets.

I'll let the article speak for itself, but also - it's interesting to note that in the United States, religious organizations are not required to file tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service. The vast majority of charitable non-profit organizations must submit a statement of their financial activities each year (usually IRS Form 990) despite being exempt from paying taxes.

I've worked for several (non-religious) non-profits during my career, and preparing tax returns for an organization is about as fun as preparing your own. Except with your own tax return, sometimes you get a refund.

Non-profit organizations usually have to have their financial activities audited by an independent Certified Public Accountant each year, since many large donors - such as foundations - require it. The tax return is usually created from the results of the audit to ensure maximum accuracy. This is a time-consuming and expensive progress. I've never been successful in getting a CPA firm to do an audit on a pro bono basis. Even for the smallest organization I worked for, the audit cost was about $3,000.

For churches to be exempt from this is unfair, at best. So unfair, that this investigation of megachurch-televangelists has inspired me to write a letter to my state's U.S. Senators. And you can do the same. Instructions on how to do so (and text for letter I wrote) are here.