Archive for the ‘beliefs’ Category

Confessions of a recurring omnivore


I fall short of my goals and aspirations. It happens all the time. Well, not all the time, but more often than I’d like.

You may remember my announcement, some time ago, that Deena and I were becoming vegetarians.

It was an exciting decision – a visible affirmation of certain values and beliefs that we hold. It was also difficult. It ran against a lifetime of habits – of thought as well as action. It created a distance between us and our non-vegetarian families. It meant relearning how to balance a diet. It meant learning a whole new set of recipes, and abandoning several cherished foods.

Reactions from people we knew were all over the map. Vegetarian and vegan friends congratulated us and helped get us rolling – offering recipes, pointing out web resources, and loaning us books on vegetarianism. Non-vegetarian friends were generally supportive, accepting it as a personal decision (just as we accepted their decision to continue eating meat), rather than as a public condemnation on our part of their meat-eating.*

I remember one exception: a friend once confessed over the phone to “sinning” (her word) because she had eaten meat that day. I think she had a similar inclination toward vegetarianism, but had not yet taken the plunge. I felt that her reaction said as much about her own attitude to meat-eating as it did about any overt condemnation she might have detected from us. I thought of this piece by Dale McGowan. (Just go read it – I’d never be able to summarize it justly.)

Some friends challenged me, probing my decision for inconsistencies. Would you eat a fish? (I’d prefer not – though it doesn’t seem as bad as eating a cow.) An insect? (I have no moral qualms about it – but I have the same ick-reaction that many Westerners have about it.) Simulated meat? (Absolutely – why not?) I really enjoyed this probing, challenging reaction. It meant my friends respected my reasoning, and that they were confident enough in my integrity that I would be willing to change my mind if they could demonstrate a fault in my reasoning.

Family reactions ran the gamut. Some were incredulous: “Why on Earth would you want to do that?” Some were supportive: “Good for you, acting on your values.” Some were mildly resentful: “What does that say about your father, who raises beef cattle?” All of them were understandable; but nevertheless we persevered – even through a visit home for Christmas.

Eventually, though, we reverted. We resumed eating meat and related products (like gelatin). A key reason was to address a pill-resistant low-iron problem. But also, it was just so much easier to include meat in our diet than to exclude it entirely.

Our values have not changed. The idea of animals dying (and, just as important, suffering) for our pleasure and convenience is still distasteful. But for now, we choose to accept that consequence.

What does that mean for our ethical outlook?

Well, I go back to the reason we became vegetarians: to reduce our role in the suffering and death of animals. Clearly, we haven’t achieved that role completely. But we have made progress: we now have some vegetarian dishes we really enjoy, to mix in our weekly menu. So we eat less meat than we used to.

Sure, there is room for improvement. I am not yet living up to my own ideals. But I can live with that. For the moment, I’m working on other aspects of personal development.

I think, since I still dislike the idea of animals dying for me, I will eventually return to being a vegetarian. Perhaps more gradually next time, more sustainably. Check out Greta Christina’s recent take on the same idea here, where she seems to express my own aspirations much more clearly and eloquently than I can.

If I do go totally vegetarian again, I will be more careful about how I communicate the decision to friends and family, to avoid as far as possible any perceptions of condemnation or moral high-horsey-ness. (Though, if I get any of these gems, I will knock them down firmly.)

I’ll let you know how I get along.


* Our transition was helped at the time because we lived in the UK, which has a higher proportion of vegetarians than Canada. There were two vegetarian restaurants near the university I worked at, and real vegetarian options on every menu – not just salads. And people were just more accustomed to knowing vegetarians, and making the slight adjustments in behaviour that it sometimes requires. I don’t know if we’d have managed nearly as well if we’d been back in Calgary.

Contending with Bart Ehrman


This post reviews an essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics, the latest installment in the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge that I undertook some time ago. This time I’m looking at Daniel Wallace’s essay “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”.

I was looking forward to Daniel Wallace’s essay, because it is the first to directly address a professional skeptic whose work I’ve seen*. Wallace speaks to Bart Ehrman’s arguments for scriptural corruption – that is, the position that the texts of the Bible as we have them are not the same as those penned by the original first-century authors. He doesn’t address Jesus Interrupted (the book that opened this Challenge), but Ehrman’s earlier book, Misquoting Jesus (MJ from here on). So I had some more Ehrman to read. I didn’t mind – he’s a clear and engaging writer, and it was nice to have an excuse for a sidetrack from the apologetics.

Interestingly, the main disagreement Wallace has with Ehrman isn’t a deep split over how to approach the problem of New Testament studies. They both appeal to the same sort of evidence. They even agree on some key conclusions: of the seven major examples where Ehrman suggests important doctrinal points depend on passages that have been changed, Wallace flat-out agrees with Ehrman on three of them. (That is, Wallace agrees that the passages as we have them were not written by the original authors. He denies that this fact undermines important doctrines.) On the other points, he disagrees in highly technical ways, so that I cannot competently referee the disagreement.

What sort of differences can I evaluate?

Well, Ehrman focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are authentic, and Wallace focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are inauthentic.

Call me conciliatory, but maybe they’re both right. Maybe the original texts of the New Testament books were fairly close to what we have today. But, using evidence available to us, we cannot be certain how close, or on what points. A belief in Biblical inerrancy seems to be fatally undermined by the evidence. But it’s likely true that the original authors of the books in the New Testament believed most of the main things Christians today believe about Jesus.

The great lesson I took away from Ehrman’s book is that the evidence that has survived is undeniably altered in some places. There’s a whole lot of evidence that has not survived. (Ehrman and Wallace both talk about “patristic” writings – by early church fathers – that talk about texts we do not have any more.) What changes may have taken place without leaving a paper trail for people like Ehrman and Wallace to follow? All of the key evidence has spent most of its history in the hands of people who were hell-bent on making sure we believe one story: the now-dominant, orthodox story. It is biased evidence. Even knowing that, I’m willing to take it as probably being fairly close to the original, for the most part. But those qualifications (“probably” and “fairly close”) stand.

So much for the philosophical differences. Unfortunately, some of the content of this article is more personal. Wallace’s rhetoric leaves me with strong doubts about his inclination to be impartial. He uses the term “radical” about any view that departs from orthodox Christianity, and anyone who promotes such a view. And he distorts Ehrman’s own claims in rather easy-to-spot ways. Here is one of his main accusations (p152):

“There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” argues Ehrman. Elsewhere he states that the number of variants is as high as 400,000. That is true enough but by itself is misleading. Anyone who teaches NT textual criticism knows that this fact is only part of the picture and that, if left dangling in front of the reader without explanation, is a distorted view. Once it is revealed that most variants are inconsequential – involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, word order changes, and the like – and that only a small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus. Indeed, less than 1 percent of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable.

(As a side note, even before I read MJ, the math of this jumped out at me. Less than 1% of 400,000. Wallace is basically saying, “Ehrman exaggerates. There are only upwards of four thousand meaningful and viable variants in the New Testament texts.” Is that supposed to inspire my confidence?)

And here is a passage from Ehrman that gives the claim Wallace pounces on (pp10-11):

Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today (and they didn’t even have dictionaries, let alone spell check).

Do you notice the immediate context of the line Wallace quoted above? The very next sentence completely undermines Wallace’s claim that Ehrman is alarmist in his rhetoric. Ehrman raises readers’ interest with an impressive statistic, then provides context, encouraging us not to over-interpret that statistic. Wallace claims that “Scholars bear a sacred duty not to alarm layreaders on issues where they have little understanding.” What about undermining a colleague’s credibility with selective quote-mining?

So Wallace is quite willing to use misleading rhetoric to undermine Ehrman’s credibility. But let’s return to the actual claims at hand.

I am open to the possibility that Ehrman overstates the corruption of the biblical texts. Wallace is right that Ehrman would probably sell fewer books if he put more emphasis on the uncertainty and less on the possibility that the texts are altered. On the other hand, Ehrman came to these conclusions from within an evangelical belief system. He was a believer; he learned about the texts; and the evidence forced him against his inclination to reject the inerrantist position he preferred. That gives him far more credibility as an unbiased investigator than those who believe their salvation and self-identity rely on the conclusion they defend.

The question of how unchanged our modern reconstructions of the New Testament are from their original forms is a fascinating debate from a sociological standpoint. But I think I should close by pointing out that, however this debate comes out, it doesn’t really affect the underlying question at issue in the Challenge: does a god – the Christian God or any other – actually exist? If the Greek and Hebrew texts we have today are exactly the words written by the first people to put them to paper, and if those words faithfully record the recollections of the early Christians, it would still just be a report of the beliefs of some ancient people. It would, at best, make the merest smidge of a difference in my estimate of how likely a god is, or the possibility of life after death. It would have no affect on my moral rejection of the idea of substitutiary atonement or the doctrine of infinite consequences for finite actions.

* Yes, a couple of the earlier essays in this book responded to Dawkins. But they were responding to Dawkins’ philosophy (an area of interest to him, but not one where he is an expert), not his science (where he is a recognized leader in his field). This essay takes on Ehrman in his home arena: New Testament studies.

Apps on belief


Okay, here’s another quick one – though I’m hoping you’ll give some input into this one too.

A few months ago, I acquired my first smart-phone. I had resisted it in much the way I once resisted getting a mobile phone at all. And, like the mobile phone, I think I’d now feel quite bereft without it.

Anyway, for this post, I thought I’d ask you three about apps. That is, if you have a smartphone – an iPhone, Android phone, a Blackberry, or (shudder) a Windows phone – what apps have you installed that relate to belief, unbelief, ethics, skepticism, or any of the other themes that this blog addresses?

Here’s my list.

Well, lists. I’ve grouped them by general categories. You may notice that I, a natural Scot by heritage, lean toward free apps. So it won’t cost you any money to try these out if you haven’t already.


  • xkcd Browser - Because you’ve got to have some fun.
  • Overdrive Media Console – The public library here has an awesome collection of electronic books and downloadable audio books, many of them targeted toward this app.
  • Freading – Another library/book-reading app, less used but interesting in its own right.


  • Algeo Calculator, Addi – These are two mathy apps, different takes on beefed-up scientific calculators for Android.
  • Talk Origins – An app for surfing offline through all the responses to creationist arguments from the excellent Talk Origins website.
  • Skeptical Science – A comparable app addressing the claims of climate change denialists.
  • Galaxy Zoo – A citizen-science app where you get to help classify galaxies in a pseudo-game-like environment. From the folks at Galaxy Zoo.
  • Google Sky – An adaptation of Google Sky for Android. This nice little app helps me identify celestial landmarks. It uses the phone’s internal gyros and compass to show exactly what stars and planets should be visible in whatever direction you point the phone.


  • Cadre Bible – Good old KJV. It was very useful recently when I was leafing through some literature a nice Jehovah’s Witness left me. (I’m still waiting for them to return so I can go over it with them. I made lots of notes!)
  • Quran Android – A visually pleasant rendition of the Quran, with English translation. I confess that I still haven’t made it past the first surah, but at least it’s there waiting.

So … any others that you’ve found? Do you use any of these on a different platform? If so, please share links and your thoughts.


Life without freedom is wasted


I am delighted to be living in Canada again. I love being close to family once again. I love being back in the land and climate of my youth.

I have always been proud of Canada’s democracy. For all its warts, it is a more comfortable balance of freedom and social support than either the UK or the USA.

But I think it’s worth pointing out one of the latest warts to appear. A high school student in Nova Scotia is on suspension for the message on a t-shirt that he likes to wear. The message is this:

Life is wasted without Jesus

The justification for the suspension? “Some people find it offensive.” Really?

As I’ve said before in defense of atheist slogans, offending someone cannot, must not, be taken as justification for censorship. Offensive speech is important. If the message is true, then suppressing it is suppression of the truth. If it is untrue, then suppressing it hides sentiments that may be corrosive to the truth. If they are hidden, they cannot be effectively countered.

It seems to me to be particularly heinous to try suppressing this message in an educational setting. High school students are on the verge of becoming full participating members of society. What does this censorship teach them? That it’s okay to suppress unpopular opinions if you have the power. That peace of mind is more important than open discussion of difficult issues. That Christian beliefs are being suppressed.

For what it’s worth, atheists seem divided on whether this particular t-shirt message is acceptable. Also, I notice that there are some subtleties that weren’t apparent on first sight – see here, for example.

The best argument on the pro-suppression side is that kids are more easily affected by emotional sentiments like this. I understand. And, just to be clear, I find the t-shirt’s message offensive. But in ambiguous situations like this, I prefer to err on the side of freedom.

Let the kid know he’s being an ass, but don’t suppress his right to be an ass.

New snow


One evening not long ago, I took the garbage and recycling out to the curb. A gentle snow was falling, drifting down through the orange glow of the street lights.

I stood in the serene silence, contemplating the scene. The marks of vehicles and feet, grit and grime, were all disappearing beneath a pristine orange-white blanket. My subconscious gently whispered a single word to me:


It was a forgiving snowfall.

It was a peaceful sensation, standing at the curb, watching the forgiving snow fall, feeling the cool night air against my cheeks. It suffused me with an unlooked-for sense of relief, of release from the stresses and worries of the day. I began to reflect on the appeal of forgiveness (a concept that seems to be a central, motivating element in more than one religious system).

I saw how someone in my position, feeling what I felt right then, might infer a divine forgiver behind the emotion (rather than dismissing it as simply coming from their own mind*). After all, forgiveness is normally granted by someone else.

And of course, if one is forgiven, it is generally in response to a transgression of some sort. You are forgiven for something. A sin.

And the forgiver must have had some alternative (or else what’s the point?). If forgiveness were not granted, then what? Punishment. Retribution. Some sort of supernatural gulag. Hell.

I noticed that, in a short series of very natural steps, I had been led from a remarkable experience to imagining the invention of a religion – a religion with a very familiar structure. I felt, as I don’t think I have felt so strongly ever before, how appealing are those belief systems that hold up forgiveness as a central reward of participation. I could see why someone might want to believe. Why I might want to believe.

I don’t know. I don’t know whether my chain of imagination in any way reflects the birth sequence of any actual human religion. I don’t know if any individual person has ever come to religious belief through such an experience.

Though it was powerful and moving, the sensation and the thoughts it inspired did not make a believer out of me. It was wonderful, memorable. It begins to give me a little more insight into how my mind works, how I process things emotionally.

But it does not look to me like evidence of a supernatural realm, of a divine forgiver.

I think – I hope – that the experience has given me a new sympathy for believers, a new ability to see why they find their beliefs so attractive. We shall see.


* It is both curious and telling that, in response to atheists’ skepticism, believers often challenge them by asking if they think these experiences are simply in their heads. As if anyone with even a passing familiarity with neural physiology or human psychology could ever describe the physical mind as “simple”. Your brain is incredibly powerful, and is doing so much more work processing the input of your senses and curating your memories than you are ever conscious of.

Maybe I’m missing something here.


“Mommy! John said I like tomatoes!”

“Do you like tomatoes, Tim?”

“No. But he said I did!”

“Well, nobody believes him. Just ignore him – he’s only wasting his own breath.”

“But he keeps saying it!”

“I know, sweetie. And if you ignore him, he will keep wasting his own breath.”

Kids are so strange – I’m sure many parents have had to deal with similarly bizarre claims of injury to one child by another. Fortunately, they tend to grow out of such things as they grow up, and learn a little perspective. Usually …

Several Jewish organizations and individuals are upset that some Mormon individuals continue to perform (remote) baptisms of dead people – including Jews who died in the Holocaust. They seem to see it as an intolerable attack on the religious identity of the dead. (CBC, BBC)

Maybe I’m missing something here. The Jews don’t believe the Mormons have any actual access to the spirits of dead Jews; the Mormons are not doing anything to the physical remains of people; and the historical record remains unchanged. What exactly is the nature of the injury?

The Jews do not believe the Mormons have special access to God’s will or the souls of dead people. (If they did, I would think they’d call themselves “Mormons” rather than “Jews”.) So they don’t think the Mormons are actually stealing their loved ones’ souls for their non-Jewish god. Besides, even if they believed, the Mormon posthumous baptism is an invitation, not an initiation. According to Mormon belief, the soul of the deceased can accept or reject the baptism as they choose. So even if you believe there is something to Mormon posthumous baptism, the deceased is, at worst, voluntarily converting.

The baptisms are performed in absentia – a volunteer from the church stands in for the person being baptized. So no violation of physical remains is taking place.

The only evidence that anything happened is in the LDS records; so there is no chance that the historical records of people’s identity, or of the numbers of Jews that died in the Holocaust, will be distorted by these actions.

So all we’re left with is that the Mormons are performing rites in the privacy of their own homes and temples that express their belief that Joseph Smith’s revelation was a genuine message from God, and that all other religious messages are inferior.

So how is that any worse than, you know, being Mormon? How is it (for example) any more religiously insensitive than the orthodox Jewish prayer thanking their god for not making them a gentile? (Or, to be nice and ecumenical, is it any different from the traditional Catholic prayer for their god to convert the Jews?)

I just don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not surprised at the outrage. After all, I’m accustomed to hearing people complain that atheists are “militant” because they lay out, clearly and without apology, their reasons for not believing in any gods, and because they wish to live in a society where they are not treated as second-class because of their personal beliefs. The Jews are understandably sensitive about their religious identity.

It’s rather insensitive of the Mormons conducting these baptisms to publicize them in such a way that Jews can learn about them. (Yes, if they did them in private without telling anyone, I would see no problem beyond the fact that they’re expending energy on false beliefs.) And it should be remembered that Jews aren’t being singled out. Various others, from Adolf Hitler (and family) to Obama’s mom, have also been named in this ritual. This doesn’t make the practice less offensive, but it does suggest at least that anti-Semitism is not a motive.

So, to sum up my understanding: Nobody – real or imaginary, living or dead – is being coerced into anything by these “baptisms”. Nobody except the Mormons themselves believes that the dead are in any way affected by the baptisms. No physical remains are disturbed. No historical record is being altered.

Why is it that so many Jews think this is worth shouting about?

Please let me know what I’m missing.



The UK government recently reasserted its determination to privilege Christianity over other religions, and especially over unbelief, in public schools.*

There are plenty of rants one could indulge in over this – on the merits of a secular public sphere in general, on the dangers (to religious as well as secular values) of mixing religion and government, on the indoctrination of children.

Today, I’d like to simply reflect on the justification given: that the collective worship assemblies reflect the country’s broadly Christian heritage.

Many replies could be made to this statement. First, I will agree that Christianity has played a long and important role in shaping British history and culture. It would be a disservice to children and society to deny or downplay this fact in teaching kids about British history.

But what is, in fact, suggested, if we really take seriously the claim that British religious heritage should be imparted in school assemblies? You see, as I understand it, the religious heritage of the UK is not one of meekly accepting traditions that have been handed down. A large part of that heritage is a laissez-faire attitude: great numbers of people claiming religious affiliation for but doing nothing about it.

Leaving that very important part of the British character aside, the religious history of the isles is an exhilarating tale of reform, revolution, and advance. England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have all been swept with waves of religious reform, from the Anglican break from Rome, through the Protestant Reformation, down through the Enlightenment and the rise of scientific scepticism.

British religious heritage includes ideals of Catholic universality, of Anglican nationalism, of Protestant individualism, and (very dear to me) of radical dissent from religious belief. The intellectual history of humanism is as indissoluble a part of this heritage as Christian traditions such as the “Lord’s Prayer” – and as necessary to understanding the contemporary character of British society.

To deny this – to privilege Christian beliefs and rituals over the other aspects of British heritage – is to reject the great advances that have been made by some of Britain’s most well-known and respected historical figures – NewtonHume,Darwin, Huxley, and many others. It is also to reject the growing portion of the population that finds fulfilment in life without any reference to a god or religion.

If the government really wants to impart British heritage to schoolchildren, to give them a real experiential connection to the grand themes of British religious identity and heritage, then it should open up the scope of the religious assemblies to explore all of that heritage, rather than only one corner. How were things in Britain different before and after Henry VIII’s break with Rome? How have different religious groups, when in power, persecuted or protected other religious groups? Perhaps children could watch (or, even better, participate in) re-enactments of the encounters between John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots, or between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce.

Having grown up mostly oblivious of religion in Canada, I rather like the British idea of openly discussing and learning about religion in the classroom. Too many of the ills of religion are due to (or exacerbated by) ignorance of other beliefs. It is a shame that the UK government undermines their basically positive principle by cravenly catering to sectarian influences, as in the case of collective worship.

I have to agree with this statement by Lord Avebury at the end of this piece that,  “this is going to happen in the end” … “whether they like it or not, it is going to come. Sooner or later we shall get rid of the act of compulsory worship in schools, and the sooner the better.” Britain is becoming more secular, and secularists are gaining a stronger voice. But sooner would be better, for the children’s sake.


* The media at large doesn’t seem to have picked up on this, so I can only link to the BHA’s summary. See also this report by the Accord Coalition, a group of religious and non-religious organizations working to improve education and religious rights in the UK.

Candy evangelism


I do not worry too much about my kids and religion. I suspect that, if you give kids a good grounding in thinking for themselves, then they are unlikely to gravitate to religious belief. And if they do become religious, it’s less likely to be a toxic, anti-science, anti-equal rights, us-vs-them type of religion.

But there are some things that are off-limits. Basically, any kind of emotional blackmail, fearmongering, or bribery is unacceptable. That means threatening hell, promising heaven, that sort of thing. I know you may believe in these things very sincerely, but you are not entitled to scare my child into believing as you do. Period.*

What I would not have expected, but find equally repugnant, is what this group did, not far from where I grew up. Members of a Christian church in Edmonton approached a 9-year-old in a playground, offering her candy and religious quotes (with promises of more candy in the future).

It’s creepy and disturbing without the religion bit, and it’s just as creepy and disturbing with religion. Don’t do this, people. The kid may or may not be creeped out; their parents are more likely to be (whether or not they’re religious). If the kid is creeped out, your proselytizing has backfired (and you’ve made it more likely the kid will want to stay away from all religion in the future). If the kid’s parents are creeped out, you have at best turned a whole family a little further away from your message. At worst, you’ll get bad publicity that will make a whole community less receptive to your message.

How did the church in this case defend their actions? They say that they believed they had the okay from the city to do this.

Is it just me, or does this sound a lot like the people who argue that guys in elevators should be allowed to hit on lone women in elevators at 4am?**

Short answer: yes, it should be allowed by law, but it’s creepy, and it’s going to backfire (ie, you won’t achieve your goal – a woman in your bed or another soul in your flock). An appropriate response by the person being solicited (the woman in the elevator, or the kid’s parent on the playground) is to publicly criticise the act, and raise awareness in the community at large as to why this is not a behaviour we want to encourage.

I suspect that this particular type of incident – using candy to entice children without okaying it with the parents first – is rare. But it may be worth pointing out to the more evangelical folks out there (do I have evangelical folks reading this blog? If so, welcome!) that, from my perspective, evangelizing my kids with promises of heaven or threats of hell is just like evangelizing them with promises of candy, and for the same reasons. Only more so, because heaven and hell speak to even deeper hopes/fears than candy, and so are more powerful emotional manipulators.

(Thanks to PZ Myers for bringing the candy evangelism story to my attention.)


* I’m happy to say that almost all of the family and friends that will be in a position to influence our children much are well over on the atheist/agnostic/liberal religion end of the spectrum, so I don’t really worry about the issue of religious blackmail or bribery coming up. But I know it happens.

** I would love to produce an eloquent and persuasive post on the whole “Elevatorgate” palaver. But frankly, it’s an open-and-shut case for me. Of course there shouldn’t be a law against guys creeping women out, but of course it is reasonable to ask them not to do it anyway. If you want a more thoughtful, extensive discussion, read this, thisthis, this, or this. Follow the links in them. Think about it.

Skeptics in the Pub: Joshie Berger


Deena and I went to the Boston Skeptics in the Pub on Monday to see Joshie Berger.

The first few minutes at our table – before Deena (my social grace) arrived – were characterized by halting attempts at conversation, punctuated by slightly less awkward silences. One of my table-mates sported a t-shirt depicting a harmonic series, with the basic wave equation “λ=c/f”. The other wore squid earrings. I thought with satisfaction: Yes. This is my tribe. These are my type of people. (I happened to be without any trappings of geekery. Well, except for the two pens stowed in one pocket, alongside a notebook. Just in case.)

(Image from SkeptiCamp 2009 site.)

The main reason we had decided to spend this rare and precious kid-free evening here was Joshie Berger. We had listened to his conversation with the rogues on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe earlier this year, and were eager to hear him talk again.

We were not disappointed. To a surprisingly small crowd (maybe 20 people, if you count the bar staff), Joshie talked about what it was like to be a Hasidic Jew. To have been one, and not be any longer. To have a sister still in thrall to that misogynistic culture (even in the heart of liberal New York). To have so many friends living a lie – disbelieving as he does, yet unable or unwilling to leave like he did.

What I found most moving was when he set aside the jokes, the laughing, the amazing, amusing exposition of human folly and ridiculous beliefs. When he vented a little bit of anger. Not at the believers (they mainly earned his contempt), but at some of the would-be peacemakers in the skeptical movement.

“How dare you tell me to make nice?” was his gist. “After all the pain and suffering that religion put me through, still puts me through, how dare you tell me not to voice my anger?”

I couldn’t help but nod. Oh, sure, I am one of the peacemakers. I try to find common ground. I read books by apologists. I seek out dialogue in university chaplaincy, or at a Unitarian church. But Joshie’s anger wasn’t aimed at me. It was aimed at those who go further, who say that all skeptics (/atheists/humanists/whatever) should be peacemakers. That we should never, any of us, publicly mock or deride believers. Which, for a community that values freedom of expression so highly, is a very odd sentiment.

I did not have a religious upbringing. I don’t have Joshie’s scars; I don’t have the ongoing pain he has of separation from his loved ones. I need people like Joshie. I need people to remind me that such cruelty exists. That there are people who, because of their beliefs, put themselves and everyone in their reach through misery.

I’m terrifically grateful to people like Joshie, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christopher Hitchens, and all the rest, for reminding me that there are dangerous beliefs out there. I’ll fight bad beliefs my way – and hopefully reach some people. They will fight bad beliefs their way – and reach different people. Skepticism/humanism/atheism needs all of our approaches.

A new challenge


Luke Muehlhauser, over at Common Sense Atheism, set a challenge early last year: The Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge. He challenges his readers to read several books discussing two worldviews: Christian theism, and atheism. About ten thousand pages of (primarily) philosophical arguments, divided roughly equally between those defending Christianity and those defending atheism. These are the best presentations, in Luke’s opinion, of the two sides.

It is an admirable undertaking, but far beyond my ambitions as a casual philosopher, both in the level of some of the books, and the sheer volume.

Never fear! A couple of months later, Luke came out with an abridged version of the challenge.

The basic idea (in either version of the challenge) is to encourage people to challenge themselves to read the best arguments for an opposing worldview to the one they currently hold.

This sort of activity appeals to Deena and me. Similar reasons have, in the past, led us to check out Christianity Explored at a local church in Edinburgh, to attend a philosophy book group organized under the Humanist Society of Scotland, to become involved through the student humanist group with the Chaplaincy Centre at the university there, and to invite Mormon missionaries into our home for a series of discussions.

So, starting late last spring, we began working our way slowly through the more manageable list of eight books – four apologetic, four atheistic.

We’re going slowly. At times I’ve been tempted to give up, for various reasons. I may tell you more about that in a later post.

For now, I just want to lay out the situation.

As I write this, we are working our way through the fourth book, a collection of apologetic essays. Going in to this exercise, I would say that I held three main positions that are relevant to the question being debated in these books:

  1. I was a negative atheist. By this I mean that I was unconvinced by existing arguments purporting to demonstrate or support the existence of any god. I was not particularly convinced by (or committed to) definite claims about the non-existence of a god.
  2. I was an enchanted naturalist. A naturalist in that I thought that everything that exists (ie, interacts causally with the world I experience) is natural (as opposed to supernatural). This is also known as physicalism. Enchanted because I think the universe presented to human experience through the naturalist lens is beautiful and exciting.
  3. I took all religious beliefs, systems, dogmas, etc. to be products of human minds – through wishful thinking, hyperactive agency detection, pareidolia, misunderstanding of probability, political and social pressures to conform, a desire to externally codify innate moral sense, etc.

I don’t want my use of the past tense in that list to suggest that I no longer hold those positions. I just mean that, at that time, those were my positions, as closely as I can remember. When we’re done the challenge, I’ll check my state of beliefs and see if any of these points has shifted appreciably.

So, next up, I will start posting my reviews of the books we have read. I won’t necessarily do a point-by-point philosophical analysis, but I do want to share my overall impressions, as well as any belief-shift that each book occasions. Of course, there will be individual points that I’ll want to discuss in more detail.

Here are the eight books, as Luke presents them:

And here it is, my Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge (Easy Version):

  1. Bart Ehrman – Jesus, Interrupted (304 pages). A leading Biblical scholar explains the basic facts of Biblical scholarship, and why they undermine conservative Christian views.
  2. C. Stephan Layman – Letters to Doubting Thomas (240 pages). Presented as a series of letters between a Christian and an atheist, this book presents a case for God not based on the usual arguments but on why God is the ‘best explanation’ for the way things are. A careful and respectable case for God’s existence.
  3. Guy P. Harrison – 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (354 pages). Each brief chapter explains one of the 50 most common reasons people give for believing in a god, and summarizes why skeptics are not persuaded by that reason.
  4. Paul Copan & others – Contending with Christianity’s Critics (304 pages). Eighteen major apologists respond to the New Atheists and other contemporary critics of Christianity.
  5. John Loftus & others – The Christian Delusion (385 pages). Michael Martin writes: “Using sociological, biblical, scientific, historical, philosophical, theological and ethical criticisms, this book completely destroys Christianity.”
  6. William Lane Craig – Reasonable Faith (416 pages). A leading Christian philosopher’s defense of theism and Christian doctrine, with all the standard philosophical and historical arguments.
  7. Richard Swinburne – Is There a God? (144 pages). Many philosophers think Richard Swinburne has given the best evidential case for God ever conceived. This slim and attractive book is Swinburne’s own attempt to make his arguments accessible to the layman.
  8. Richard Carrier – Sense and Goodness Without God (444 pages). A comprehensive case not just for atheism but for a full, enriching, purposeful, and moral naturalistic worldview.

I will begin soon with a discussion of Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus, Interrupted, which is in the “atheist” category. In the meantime, I’m curious what people think of Luke’s list. If you’re interested, don’t forget to head over to his blog to see the discussion of the books there.

As I post my reviews, I will link to them from here:

[Added 2013 April 24:]

For those who are still following along, you may have noticed one or two sidetracks – not exactly reviews of the texts above, but lines of thought clearly connected with them. I’ll keep a list here for anyone interested:
  • Evolving Free Will – Inspired by an assertion in one of the essays in Contending with Christianity’s Critics. This post looks at how we might expect evolution to interact with libertarian free will, if such a thing were possible.
  • The precariousness of libertarian free will – I reflect on the main reasons why I take a compatibilist approach to free will. (Sort of connected with the previous item.)
  • Duty and futility – In which I ponder the value of carrying on once it has become clear that the Christian apologists in the series are largely leaning on the same tired old arguments.

And, just for completeness, here are some books I have picked up as a result of issues raised in the Challenge:

  • Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. I picked this book up so I could more fully evaluate the claims made by Daniel Wallace in his essay from the fourth book in the series. (Wallace’s essay is about this book, not Ehrman’s other book, Jesus, Interrupted, which began this Challenge.)
  • Proving History by Richard Carrier. This book I wanted to read because it addresses historical claims from a Bayesian perspective. (Ultimately, in a follow-up volume, it aims to address questions of this historicity of Jesus.) Bayesian reasoning is a mathematically rigorous way of determining the probabilities of claims (how credible we should think they are) based on evidence available to us.


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