Happy Blasphemy Day

There are no gods, unless you redefine the word to be so trivial as to be meaningless. Jesus, if he ever existed, was just a guy; he died two thousand years ago and isn’t coming back. His dad isn’t watching you, nor are his angels.
Mohammed was a merchant who managed to appropriate and adapt some extant texts to conquer a huge tract of land and get himself a pile of gold and booty.
The Dalai Lama doesn’t reincarnate. Nor does anyone else. Nor is there such a thing as karma: you’re just selectively interpreting random occurrences, using a brain that sucks at statistics.
The Redskins, the Cowboys, the Eagles, etc. are just guys paid a ton of money to play games.
Rachel Maddow is smart, but she’s not the last word on anything. Richard Dawkins is good at explaining science, but boy howdy has he said some stupid things.

Happy International Blasphemy Day, y’all.

Update: Fixed typo. Thanks, alert reader Fez!

Defending the Barking Mad

Recently, at The Catholic Thing, one William E. Carroll posted a piece entitled The Dawkins Challenge (via PZ), in which he takes offense that Richard Dawkins called the doctrine of transubstantiation “barking mad”.

I’ll let him describe it:

When he speaks of the irrationality of religious belief, Dawkins often invokes Catholic faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Church teaches that with the priest’s words of consecration the bread and wine really become the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ.

The rationale behind the doctrine, which is known as transubstantiation, employs categories of substance and accident, which have their origin in the philosophy of Aristotle. According to the Church, the underlying substances of bread and wine are replaced by the body and blood of Christ while the external appearances of bread and wine remain. A scientific analysis of the consecrated host and wine would only detect these external appearances.

(emphasis added.)

In other words, as I understand it, and as charitably as I can put it, a regular communion wafer is just a piece of bread. But a wafer that’s been blessed by a priest continues to look, smell, taste the same as before; it has the same mass as before; it dissolves in acid the same way as before; it continues to fail to block neutrinos the same way as before. It is in every measurable way the same wafer as before. But it’s not a wafer: it’s Jesus’ flesh.

PS: it’s not “barking mad” to believe this.

Believe it or not, I am not entirely unsympathetic to this argument: at a recent social event, we got to discussing the difference between boats and ships (all of us being landlubbers). According to the various GooglePedia pages on people’s phones, a boat is a smaller vessel for river or coastal travel, while a ship is typically a larger vessel, built for voyages across open sea.

So then someone brought up Kon-Tiki. It’s a small vessel, indeed a raft, so appearances place it well within the “boat” class (assuming, for the sake of this discussion, that rafts are a type of boat). But of course Thor Heyerdahl built it specifically to cross the Pacific, so that would mean it’s a ship.

It seems to me that there are two ways to resolve this: 1) Kon-Tiki is a boat; you wouldn’t expect a boat to cross an ocean, but Heyerdahl managed to do so. 2) Because of its famous voyage, we’re going to consider Kon-Tiki an honorary ship, even though it looks just like a boat.

Of course, neither of these change what Kon-Tiki actually is. It’s just a matter of how we divide the world into categories (boats vs. ships; should there be a third category for rafts? Or should they all be grouped under “vessels”?) and which pigeonhole to put Kon-Tiki in. This tells us more about the way human brains work than about the nature of the vessel in question.

It seems to me that Carroll is doing something a lot like option (2): “Yeah, it looks just like a piece of bread, but we’re going to treat it as if it were a slice of Christ.” Except presumably he thinks this reflects some reality outside of his head, because he feels the compulsion to defend his belief:

Belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist comes from an acceptance, in faith, of God’s revelation. Appeals to divine authority as a source of truth do not fall within the realm of the credible for Dawkins.

And with good reason: people believe all sorts of wacky and mutually-contradictory things on faith. Faith is not a reliable way of figuring out what’s true and what isn’t. Faith is what people resort to when they really really want to believe something, but don’t have any good evidence or arguments.

So as far as I’m concerned, what Carroll has demonstrated is that the doctrine of transubstantiation is “barking mad” and as unworthy of serious consideration as the idea that Xenu brought aliens to Earth in spacefaring DC-10s, or that the CIA has mind-control rays that can be blocked with tinfoil helmets (shiny side out). If he manages to come up with any convincing arguments, I’m all ears, but until then, I’ll continue to point and laugh.

Does BillDo Even Realize When He’s Lying?

In his latest eructation, about opposition to the pope’s visit to England, BillDo writes:

The Catholic League does not exist to fend off legitimate criticism of the Catholic Church.

That’s rich, coming from the guy who defended pedophile priests several times, including claiming that since most of their victims had already reached puberty by the time they were abused, those were normal homosexual relationships.

He goes on to complain about the people criticizing the pope:

much of the criticism about the papal trip emanating from the other side of the Atlantic crosses the line.

The most organized attempt to smear the pope comes from the Protest the Pope campaign. Some two dozen organizations, ranging from Atheism UK and the Gay & Lesbian Association to the National Secular Society, have launched an all-out attack on the pope and the Catholic Church. To read a sample of the commentary, click here. Some clergymen have joined the chorus, including long-time anti-Catholic bigot Rev. Ian Paisley.

Wow! The pope’s critics must really be something, frothing at the mouth, shopping around for sniper rifles and building IEDs, right? Let’s see BillDo’s list of the worst of their comments:

Bernard Wynne, a spokesman for Catholic Voices for Reform, Telegraph, 9/8/2010:

“The church, I think, is deeply misogynist and we have to change that.”

“There is a whole series of issues … about the equality of women, but also there is also an issue of sexual orientation and how in fairness to what the church suggests, one could only say that it is intolerant of people of a different sexual orientation.”

Hm. That sounds like forthright criticism, but I don’t see any calls for papal blood.

Well, I’m sure “long-time anti-Catholic bigot” Ian Paisley will have something properly fire-breathing:

Reverend Ian Paisley, Sky News 9/9/2010:

“When the Roman Catholic people are torn asunder because of this matter that the Pope has in many ways closed an eye to, it is time for the Protestant people also to support them.”

Oh, no he di’int! How dare he say that… um… that Protestants should help Catholics. That seems, um, charitable or something. Some might even say Christian.

BillDo goes on to write:

When militant atheists like Richard Dawkins threaten to make a citizen’s arrest of the pope, and when gay activists like Peter Tatchell make a “documentary” about the pope to be shown on TV, then there is cause for concern.

Oh, no! Documentaries on TV! We can’t have that! As for Dawkins’s “citizen’s arrest”, what really happened, according to Dawkins, is that after a suggestion by Christopher Hithchens, he started looking for lawyers to mount a legal case against the pope, within the British legal system.

I think BillDo has had his head up his own ass for so long that he can’t even tell when he’s lying. Either that, or he doesn’t care.

TAM 8 Miscellanea

Some notes I jotted down during talks at TAM 8:

My wife and I have an agreement: if Brian Williams ever becomes single, she gets to leave me and marry him. And if Rachel Maddow ever… um, changes her mind… then I get to marry her.
— Hal Bidlack(?)

I’m a vegetarian zombie. I only eat rotten fruit.
— Joe Nickell

At the Q&As after talks, most people would introduce themselves by giving their name and employer. But one person prefaced his question with:

Hello. My name would waste valuable time, and where I work is embarrassing.

Paul Provenza on George W. Bush:

He’s like a low-rent antichrist: two sixes and a five.

He thinks history will vindicate him. Who does he think he is, The Velvet Underground?

He also mentioned getting into a fight with a network censor who allowed a sketch that made fun of God, but not one about Jesus, because:

You can make fun of God, because he doesn’t exist. But you can’t make fun of Jesus, because he’s God’s son.

I’d brought Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth to read on the plane.* Colour plates 18-19 show a map of the Earth’s tectonic plates, including one labeled “Philippine Plate”.

So of course, given my precedent of having people sign books they didn’t write, I had to get Phil Plait to sign it:

* I didn’t get to read much of it on the way over, though: I didn’t get an assigned seat in advance for the flight from Detroit to Las Vegas, so instead of getting an aisle seat like I’d wanted, I got stuffed next to two Chinese young men in the very last row, by the window, the complete opposite of where I wanted to be.

But during the hustle and bustle of people competing to see how much crap can be shoved into an overhead bin without making the fuselage bulge, a Chinese man asked me if I’d be willing to trade seats with him so that he could sit with his sons. He even apologized that his was an aisle seat instead of the window that I so obviously wanted. I thanked him, and we traded.

When I got to my new seat, there was someone already in it, chatting up the good-looking lady in the middle seat. He went back to his seat in the row behind. A few moments later, a young woman from the row behind came up and swapped places with the lady the guy had been chatting up.

So my new seat neighbor turned out to be a geologist on her way to TAM. I suppose if we weren’t headed for the same convention on skepticism and rational thinking, it would’ve been easy to invoke mystical forces of fate or destiny. But of course that would’ve been silly.

At any rate, she was a better conversationalist than Dawkins’s book, so I didn’t get as much reading done as I’d thought.

Disco ‘Tute Fails Some More

The latest new project by the Disco Tute’s Center for
the Renewal of Science and Culture is

Evidently the new creationists are feeling threatened not only by their
traditional enemy, outspoken atheists like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers,
but by people like Ken Miller and Francis Collins, who are not only
outspoken devout theists, but are also respected biologists who aren’t
shy about pointing out that ID is a load of dingo’s kidneys.

About” page says:

According to noted biologist Richard Dawkins, Darwinian evolution makes it possible to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist. According to Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, evolution is perfectly compatible with his Christian faith. Who is right? And why does it matter? This website is designed to help you find out.

Which leads me to wonder whether they’re being disingenuous as usual, or
whether they’re so stupid as to miss the point that Dawkins’s and
Collins’s views don’t conflict with each other?

Positive Atheism gives a
fuller version
of Dawkins’s “intellectually fulfilled atheist” quotation:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume:
“I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that
God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody
comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position,
though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied,
and that although atheism might have been logically tenable
before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled

— Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, page 6

I think that’s pretty clear: you can be an atheist without
understanding how life evolves. But the theory of evolution answers one
nagging question.

I don’t have a similar quotation summarizing Collins’s views, but
judging by the jacket blurb of The Language of God, it
seems clear that he’s able to reconcile Christianity with evolution.

It seems pretty clear to me that the two are orthogonal to each other.
If you’re an atheist, science can help answer questions; if you’re a
Christian and like being one, that doesn’t mean you have to reject
science. Understanding evolution allows you to go either way.
So the DI’s site is setting up a conflict where none exists.

Stupid, ignorant, or deceptive? Hm, tough choice.

(Update, May 29: Fixed thinko.)

Is This Really What Passes for Thinking Among Theologians?

dlighe pointed me at an article in Christianity Today by Alvin Plantinga, The Dawkins Confusion. He seemed to find it interesting, and there are a lot of links to it from the blogosphere, and they seem to agree that it’s a good, solid refutation of Dawkins’s The God Delusion.

To which I can only say, WTF?

Continue reading “Is This Really What Passes for Thinking Among Theologians?”