skepticism

Think Like a Bug: How to Deal with Common Pest Arthropods

In the various circles I have inhabited, I have always, always been the one who is most okay with creepy-crawlies.  My friends and family alternately flee from or declare pogroms on the many-legged urban wildlife they encounter, unless I am around.  Then, they notice the demanding smolder in my eyes and let me escort the errant creatures outside, away from insistent shoes.

It’s a cliché, but most of those creatures are not dangerous, only misunderstood.

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Full Faith and Credit

Of all the phrases theists use to lull themselves to sleep each night, “atheists have faith just like we do” might be the most obnoxious.
 
“Faith” is one of several word games believers play with nonbelievers when they’re feeling dishonest, alongside “spirituality” and, beautifully, “belief.”  These games bank on how deviously slippery those words are, as they can mean more-or-less whatever the person using them wants them to mean.  While all of these games are infuriating, “faith” gets under my skin more than the others, because it is somehow more dishonest.

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Halfwaytheism

One aspect of my deconversion story that stands out to many readers is that it didn’t feature certain accusations that atheists, especially freshly minted atheists, often receive.  Partly, that’s because I was secretive about it for so many years, so the people who would have accused me of things simply didn’t know it was an option.  More importantly, my culture, like some others, is entwined enough with its standard religion that it tends to forget that members of other religions, let alone of no religion, can be found in its ranks at all.  The space filled by atheists in others’ imaginations is filled by communists here, or by sullen nihilistic teenagers whose non-religion is only ever implied, not stated.

So I’ve only rarely had to deal with that stereotyped idea that an atheist is an atheist because xe is “angry at God,” and that if I only quelled, grew out of, or found a “more productive” outlet for my anger, I’d return to the Christian fold.  But I have nonetheless had that insulting supposition thrown at me more than once, and I want to silence it once and for all.

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The Mover Out of Time

It does not take much to demonstrate the impossibility of many gods.  The bigger a god is, the more of the universe its devotees claim is within its sway, the more improbable its powers have to be to make what we do know about the universe compatible with its existence.  A river spirit or trickster that hides your socks when no one is looking has a small effect on reality, and can hide in the statistical noise that keeps our world de facto unpredictable.  A huge god, though, needs to be simultaneously of massive import, so that its influence permeates many facets and phenomena in the world, and utterly minuscule, so that it has an excuse for when it inevitably doesn’t show.  Thus, we get gods defined as controlling the weather, the course of wars, and whether anyone lives or dies, but whose influence is indistinguishable from the sum of the hundred and one worldly factors in and causes of all of these events; gods who can be expelled from their controlling niche by humans having the temerity to document and measure, as if God were mere quantum uncertainty; gods who use mortal movers as their proxies, merely shifting the problem one layer of agents upward with theological sleight of hand.

Christianity, between its native Abrahamic grandiosity and its wholesale lifting of neo-Platonic idealism, offers some of the largest gods.  Many versions of Christianity have gods so massive that they not only inflict weather events on people totally unrelated to whatever ostensibly displeased them, but they also, the soothsayers tell us, transcend time and space.  This god, even Jewish dreamers like to claim, exists outside of and independent of time, such that past, present, and future are all the same to it.  Events at any point in the universe’s progress are like the pages in a book this creature is reading, and flipping backward or forward is as easy for it as the analogy implies.  It created the universe and now sits outside it, a cosmic voyeur that may or may not ever interfere with unfolding events, depending on the version.

It will not surprise my readers, I am sure, to learn that this god is incoherent with both logic and the facts of our universe.

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One School System

One of the triumphs of the human race was the invention of public schools.  With the spread of public school systems around the world, no longer would the children of farmers and blacksmiths receive only the training their parents could provide or afford to hire.  No longer would learning for learning’s sake be firmly closed to those without independent wealth or unexpected patronage.  The lot of all people was no longer simply to learn a trade and be content with that much knowledge.  The expectation arose that people would enter adulthood with a basic understanding of art, literature, music, mathematics, history, and many experimental sciences.  Later revisions and additions would make it possible for children to complete schooling with a basic familiarity with classical Western philosophy and levels of math and science that would previously have required connections in august institutions like Oxford University.

A lot of societal changes presaged this shift in human society.  In the west in particular, the Industrial Revolution and subsequent urbanization made the propagation of farmhands and apprentices far less necessary, created a middle class that expected more for its offspring, and created a demand for educated professionals that could not be fulfilled in other ways.  The history here is massive and convoluted enough that almost anything can be linked to this social revolution with enough effort, but that history is not at issue here.

This revolution also had a dramatic effect on the role of religion in society.  Religious organizations have a long history as the core of educational systems.  In societies lacking public schools, it is usually not secular charities and benefactors that fill the gap and provide basic learning to the masses, but clergy.  In countries where public systems exist in urban areas but have not yet penetrated into less developed regions, churches and mosques often fill the gap.  In places where ethnic minorities have separate infrastructure, church and school functions are often deeply intertwined as part of what makes these groups distinct from the surrounding society.  This has given and continues to give religious institutions enormous power to shape each succeeding generation of students…dramatically reduced in societies that have managed to implement secular public school systems.  Secularism, when it works, cuts religion out of the system; socialism makes the system available to anyone, preventing religious organizations from keeping their niche by being more easily accessible.

This has enabled the public school system to become much more than it was.  As a shared time of growth and experience for the majority of a country’s youth, school became where people acquired their sense of what it means to be a citizen of their country and the heritor of its culture.  It also became the primary means by which people would learn how our world functions.  School serves many purposes, depending on the priorities of those running them and the pundit consulted: babysitting to make the workforce possible, training future workers for basic jobs, breeding moral and upright citizens, or even conferring advantages not shared by those outside the system.  But that function—bringing to the next generation an understanding of our place in the universe, how our universe functions, and how to gain further understanding—is incredibly important, and becomes more so as more and more available futures demand such understanding.

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Handle Effect

There’s a platitude that believers like to use to comfort each other in the face of adversity: “God only gives us what we can bear.”

I shudder every time I hear that.  Like Søren Kierkegaard’s mouthpiece Johannes de Silentio, I skip whatever solace believers find in that idea, and go straight to the horror.  It’s poetic shorthand for a longer thought: “This is happening to you because God thinks you’ll eventually come out okay.”

Think about that.

This is happening to you because God thinks you’ll eventually come out okay.

Out there somewhere, a cosmic calculator has determined that I have some threshold of suffering I can endure without breaking, and has responded to that information by burning my crops and giving my mother cancer.

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Skepticism in the Aquarium Store, Part 2

The second part of my run-down of common situations where knowledge and skepticism lead one to greater success at the aquarist’s hobby focuses on the biggest and most rewarding task the hobby has to offer: picking your fish.  This area in particular is where pet-store employees are particularly likely to lead one astray, since they rarely caution people against buying fish that they really shouldn’t be buying.  And with bony fish being at least as speciose as every other category of vertebrate put together, there are a LOT of ways to get bad advice.
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Skepticism in the Aquarium Store, Part 1

Earlier this year, I gave a presentation at Ottawa Skepticamp 2013 titled “Skepticism in the Aquarium Store.”  It definitely got some smiles out of people, not least the radio host who interviewed one of the organizers about Skepticamp and spied the unusual title.  My presentation took the axiom that skepticism is vital to virtually every human endeavor and brought it to one of my dearest hobbies: aquarium keeping.  And now I’m bringing that to you.

I like fish.  Fish provide a truly astounding variety of shapes, sizes, and behaviors to observe, comparable only to insects.  Their diversity puts more conventional pets to shame, and they have the added perks of being confined to specific places in people’s homes, being hypoallergenic, and providing relaxing waterfall background noise.  There’s an artistic and collection-building aspect to fishkeeping that isn’t present with other pets, which appeals to me.

One other thing that differentiates fishkeeping from many other pet-related hobbies is that there isn’t really a fishy equivalent to a dog rescue.  Sure, one can pick through Craigslist and Kijiji for people giving away their kits or their animals, but that’s a time-consuming and risky method.  For better or for worse, fishkeepers are stuck with pet stores, and that means getting stuck with a lot of bad advice.  Like car dealers and the slimy cads who sell people fancy audio cables, the underpaid and often unprepared sales associates who staff the fish section often have priorities other than the best life for their livestock.

Aquakeeping, like car sales, treating disease, and politics, is an endeavor that requires a little background and a lot of…skepticism.  And it starts right at the beginning.

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Clever Questions to Ask an Atheist, provided the Atheist has a Severe Head Injury

A LOT of Internet real estate is devoted to Christian zealots of various flavors claiming to have some sort of checkmate-level rebuttal to the steady increase of nonbelievers in the developed world.  One example in particular caught my attention.  I’m not sure where this list originated (I found it here), but its “cleverness” is, shall we say, overestimated.

The questions:

Dear Christians,
Here are some clever questions I have thought up for you to ask an atheist.  If you are on an atheist online chat, you can copy and paste these questions to ask them, or you can confront an atheist in public and ask the questions.  Just watch how they can never answer these questions:
Can you explain what happens when we die?
If we came from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys living today?
Is it okay to commit murders, rape, homosexuality, going to stripbars, looking at pornography, and other forms of rebellion if you think there is no God to guide you?
How can you explain the way a banana fits in the palm of the hand?
If Fox News is a dishonest channel, then why are the reporters such as Bill O’Reilly true Christians?
Did you know that there are biblical records of dinosaurs that were witnessed by men?
How did pond scum turn into us?
How did the eye form?
How did the Grand Canyon form?
If you call yourself an atheist in regards to God, then do you call yourself an atheist in regards to Santa and Bigfoot?
How did everything come from nothing?
If evolution is true, how come we never see frogs turn into birds?
Have you heard of the shroud of Turin?
Your’s [sic] in Christ,
Where to begin?  Most of these questions are veterans of the religious apologist circuit, frequently utilized in dishonest ways by prominent anti-atheist agitators like Ray Comfort.  While none of them is particularly clever, some of them require surprisingly interesting answers.
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