Tag Archives: freethought society of greater philadelphia

Seven Ways a Black Hole Can Kill You

One of the few things that most (and let me stress, most, not all) freethinkers have in common is a love for science.

Science is the tool that allows us to understand the universe. It’s the process that has allowed us to communicate over vast distances by typing into these little magic boxes (computers, I think they may be called). And, quite simply, it’s just really cool.

Obviously not everyone agrees with me. My own 11 year-old self absolutely loathed going to science class in school. But it can help to capture your attention if the particular scientific subject being discussed is entertaining or interesting. And there are few things as interesting or entertaining as contemplating your own morality and the destruction of the planet. Am I right?

If you think I am, check out the video below. Phil Plait, of Bad Astronomy and president of the JREF, gives an hour long talk about 7 ways in which a black hole can kill you.

So enjoy. And try not to panic.


The Necessity of the New Atheists’ Methods

One of the criticisms of the methods of people like myself–the so-called new atheists–is that we will cause a kind of backlash from believers and others who are sympathetic to the effect of criticism upon the religious and otherwise theistic worldviews. A fair criticism that I hear from appeasers quite often.

But rather than address the arguments of appeasers, I want to address the importance of being willing to accept challenges to personal views. It is this that makes justifiable the reasons for people to be squeamish about the efforts of people like myself. And while I hold no unjustified delusion that I will be able to change this aspect of human psychology in any significant way, I might at least have an affect on a few people. This is all I can hope for.

I believe in perpetual self-challenge. I think that it is important to keep a level of skepticism and lack of resoluteness in my own ideas, in the hope that they will not crystallize into a kind of creed or stubbornness of my own views. It is this idea, and I share it with many atheists, that makes the claim that atheism is a faith absurd.

Let me stop and address that issue for a moment. I will admit that there are some people that I know and who are atheists for whom the nonexistence of god becomes a point of certitude that I find epistemologically irresponsible. They, understandably, laugh at the mythical nature of religious ideologies, but they sometimes go further and conflate these mythologies with the larger question of whether any god might exist. To conflate specific gods with the general question, in my opinion, is a mistake that is made by many an atheist I have known.

And so the claim that atheism is merely another kind of faith, while absurd when fully analyzed, has a kernel of truth to it on the surface. Thus, I understand that many caricatures of religiosity are not fair in the same way that caricatures of the angry, petulant, and intolerant atheist is based upon some unsavory few who make themselves look foolish.

Let me be clear here. I recognize that religious people are not all unthinking, boorish, ignoramuses who are all making the world a bad place. I recognize the importance of religious traditions in people’s lives, and the positive effects it can have on people. I also recognize that the idea of god is one of great inspiration to people, and that in many cases the idea can be beneficial to some. I recognize these things, and still see room for criticism of these ideas.

Why? Because I actually care about the truth. I would prefer to have true beliefs, ones that can be supported by the best methods and evidence that we have available. I think that this value of mine is important, and I would like it to be shared by people, if possible.

But there are barriers between this ideal world and the one we live in. People are largely pragmatic and are not concerned with the truth so much. They are more concerned with, and I understand why, things like where their food is coming from, raising their children, and simply enjoying their lives. No time for silly questions about truth about religion or deities. Oh, but they believe in them whenever an arrogant person comes along and says that they are an atheist. And suddenly this nonchalance disappears from their lives when someone who actually has thought about this issue comes along and calls it mythology. Then they become defensive.

What? unfair caricature? Sure, but in some cases this is precisely what does happen. And while there are many other caricatures I could have brought out, the bottom line is that there are many people in the world that simply do not think about these things and yet still believe them quite strongly. And to ask them why is apparently some great crime.


The reasons are many, and I simply cannot address this whole issue here. Much of it has to do with the fact that these ideas are generally inculcated during childhood, and therefore they are associated with emotions and relationships of supreme meaning to people. We have to remember that religion is tied to many people’s personalities in ways taht will not be parsed easily. And ultimately it may not be possible to divorce the religion from the person, but we can at least provide a template for keeping their minds sharpened in order to loosen the particular beliefs in the hope of them not blindly passing on the associations to their own children. This is, ultimately, a plan for the future more than the present.

The first thing that we need to realize is that our minds will tend to reject information that does not fit into our worldview. It is actually difficult to understand the idea expressed from a worldview that differs from our own because the idea just does not seem to fit into the model of reality we have created. A few days ago I quoted Soren Kierkegaard as saying the following:

One must not let oneself be deceived by the word ‘deception.’ One can deceive a person for the truth’s sake, and (to recall old Socrates) one can deceive a person into the truth. Indeed, it is only by this means, i.e. by deceiving him, that it is possible to bring into the truth one who is in an illusion.

I think that this notion contains a fair amount of merit. What this means to me is that we need to prepare ourselves to be deceived, at least in the sense Kierkegaard means here, in order to allow ourselves the possibility that we are ourselves subject to some illusion. We need to keep a tentative level of certainty concerning our beliefs and accepted ideas, as they may be shown to be incomplete (if not completely wrong) in the future.

(At this point I’ll link to a very good video)

And this is one reason I respect the scientific method so much. It is a method that encourages people to disprove the hypotheses we generate. It is a method that has incorporated this perpetual self-challenge and has allowed us to accept theories as provisionally true because no better explanation has been presented.

And so one strategy should be to make sure that people understand what the scientific method is and how it works. One pervasive idea I run into is that the opinions of science and religion are on equal epistemological grounding. They believe that there really is a controversy between evolution and intelligent design. They don’t understand that these two ideas arose via opposing methods, and exactly what this implies.

How will you know what you believe is true is justifiable if you do not submit them to the criticism they may deserve? How strong is your ‘faith” if it goes unchallenged? And what kind of challenge is it if you only pursue the argument from the side which you already accept? I just love how, when challenged, creationists will appeal to Answers in Genesis( or creationism.org, ICR or some other similar source), but almost never have even heard of TalkOrigins or can even define evolution correctly .

And as the understanding of this method, it will give a new tool in understanding how we understand, and it will allow people not just to use the resulting technologies of science, but to understand how it works. We should, in terms of our own beliefs, become so inspired by this method. We should become the “new philosophers” (as Nietzsche called them) that are willing to experiment and test our views against the world and to allow ourselves to transcend humanity so that we may one day become better, the ubermenschen.

We cannot simply crawl along in the hope that progress with just happen. The change begins with our own willingness to challenge ourselves. For if everyone is challenging themselves, then nobody has to do it for you, right. Actually, I’m not even sure of that. I still think that there will always be a need for others to challenge us as we do have blind-spots where others can see. Even the most ardent and honest attempt to be self-challenging can be supplemented with help from others.

And since I want active challenging of my own views, I feel comfortable in challenging others myself. And the first thing I will try to challenge is the defensiveness that arises in being challenged. The question, of course, is how. I don’t know completely. I only know that it must be attempted if we actually care about the people and the world around us. And along the way, make sure to pay attention to what others say, as the challenging process is two-way. Any good teacher will tell you that they learn from their students

There are people out there that will always resist criticism. Perhaps nothing can be done for them. But for those that may be willing to hear, but who are not being challenged, we must press on. I will continue to encourage people to challenge their beliefs, their worldviews, and their culture. If you have a better way–a better hypothesis–for how to deal with rampant irrational and ignorant beliefs, then by all means get to work.

So, that being said, bring on the challenges.

How to win at “What if?”

This is brilliant stuff. And it sounds even more brilliant because it is juxtaposed with such idiocy.

There are many things that I disagree with Christopher Hitchens about. And I don’t think all of his arguments are the best, or even the correct ones. But when he is on point (and not drunk) there’s no question that he can go toe to toe with anyone in intellectual debate.

Needless to say, evangelist radio host Todd Friel never had a chance…

(Thanks to Pharyngula for pointing me to this.)

Jason Schnittker speaks about beliefs regarding mental illness.

Before I get to my regular post, I need to add a little something to my topic from last week. Tonight I watched the President’s address. On balance, I have to say that I really liked it. As is tradition, the opposition party broadcast a response following the address. The tradition is that the person chosen to give the response is a rising star within the party. Tonight was no exception: Bobby Jindal delivered the response.

I must confess that I didn’t watch the response. Tomorrow I’ll find out what he said, but I had absolutely no interest in hearing him speak. You see, Bobby Jindal is the evolution denying (pdf) exorcist Governor of Louisiana. And let me assure that these facts aren’t some closely guarded secret; it is common knowledge that Jindal is a creationist who claims to have once cured a woman of cancer by performing an exorcism on her. And yet (fully knowing his history) this is the man that the Republican party has chosen to be their face for this. It’s going to be a long, long, long, long time before I vote for a candidate from that party for any political office. [/political rant]

On the third of February, Jason Schnitker, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke to a snowy day depleted group at our monthly meeting. His presentation, An Uncertain Revolution: America’s Changing Beliefs Regarding Mental Illness, dealt with how the American public perceives mental illness (causes, treatment, stigma, etc.) and how those beliefs have evolved since 1950. The video is below, and his PowerPoint presentation can be found here (pdf).

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Jason Schnittker: America’s Changing Attitudes towards Mental Illness from Freethought Society on Vimeo.

Why I do this.

Why do I participate in the freethought movement? Why am I an activist? Why do I care? Why should I care?

I care because ignorance has been running rampant for far too long now. I am living in a country where a non believer cannot get elected to a high office. However, incompetent buffoons who prattle gibberish rise to positions of leadership. Allow me to introduce to you Delegate Jeff Fredrick of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Now Mr. Fredrick is not only a delegate of Old Dominion, he’s the chairman of Virginia’s Republican party. That’s right, this man leads one of this country’s two major parties in its 13th largest state.

As you may have already guessed, he is indeed a kook and a nincompoop. So why am I concerned with him? Well, I wouldn’t be if he were just an aberration, but he’s not. He is a symptom of the disease. A nimrod like him could have never achieved the position he has unless that type of ideologue and dogmatist was seen virtuous by a large number of powerful people. This is the man who Virginia Republicans want leading them! It should scare all of us into action.

But on to specifics. Here is Delegate Fredrick addressing the Virginia assembly on Charles Darwin’s birthday.


Let’s dissect what he said.

Ladies and gentlemen of the House, as the gentleman from Alexandria pointed out, today is Darwin’s birthday. Charles Darwin was born February 12th 1809, but there was also somebody else that was also born on February 12th 1809. [pauses] I’ll tell you who! It was the first Republican president of the United States–a guy named Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln is best know (sic), as you all well know, for freeing the slaves by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation affirming in his Gettyburg (sic) Address in 19, I’m sorry, 1863, saying “Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Clearly this man is a somewhat of a dolt. However he does appear to have a plan. He’s pulled the line from the Gettyburg Gettysburg Address where Lincoln quotes the Declaration of Independence, then tied it to the Emancipation Proclamation. Yes, clearly the first Republican president is a man to be admired. Now let’s hear what he has to say about Darwin.

Darwin however is best known for the theory of evolution, arguing that men are not only, quote, are only, not, not created, but they are not equal, as some are more evolved… While Darwin’s theory was used by atheists to explain away the belief in God, the last act of congress signed by Abraham Lincoln before he was shot, was to place the phrase “In God We Trust” on our national coin. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Let’s ignore the incoherence for a moment. On second thought, let’s not; the man is a complete twit! Now back to the critique. Some men are more evolved??? Obviously he’s saying that to contrast it with “all men are created equal”, which was said by Lincoln–quoting Jefferson (and neither of these men were Christians). Ah yes, evil Charles Darwin was the antithesis of good ole amercun values. The thing is, I’ve read a bit of Darwin–and quite a bit more about him–and I don’t remember him saying exactly that.

As for atheists using evolution to explain away the belief in god, while the wording is somewhat awkward, it is technically true for many atheists. The rub is that many atheists have also used the Christian bible to explain away the belief in god.

Why do I do this? Exhibit A: Jeff Fredrick.

The hypocrisy of anti-criticism

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this old canard about how those who criticize others should not do so.  We, after all, are permitted to believe what we want and it is not the place of people like me to criticize them for their ideas, they’ll say. My immediate response is to ask them whether their criticism of my criticism is hypocrisy or not.

But beyond this is the notion that we are supposed to tolerate the views of others in general.  Is this really true?  Are we simply supposed to accept whatever others believe, no matter what, without challenge?  I think this is problematic for two reasons.

The first is that some people’s views are simply incorrect, and can be easily shown to be so.  The views of creationists who want to teach about Intelligent Design (or whatever the Discovery Institute is calling it now) in science class are simply untenable, and many have rightly stood up against such views.  Similarly, the idea that a god exists is untenable, and people of this blog and others rightly argue their points.

But the more interesting reason is that what happens when someones opinion is that one should criticize other people’s beliefs.  What happens when our naysayer accosts me for my criticizing others’ views and I follow up with my view that one should criticize others’ views.  For them to disagree would be to criticize and thus be a hypocrite, and to agree wold be to disagree with their own view.  Quite a quandary, eh?

The bottom line; if one claims that people should not criticize, they are either allowing the possibility of rampant stupid ideas to go unchallenged or are a hypocrite.  Or is this one of those both/and situations….

Marc Adams – Growing up gay in a fundamentalist world

Last night The Freethought Society held its monthly meeting. The attendance was rather sparse. If I had to guess, I would say that this was because the imaginary gods of ancient mythologies decided to send a snow storm our way specifically to disrupt our meeting. Seriously though, the speaker was very interesting. He was Jason Schnittker, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He gave a talk to us about the changing attitudes towards mental illness in the United States over the last sixty years. My original plan for today’s post was to talk about his lecture and show the video that was shot. This was a rather ill-conceived plan and I really should have known better considering that I have experience in how long it takes to edit and render and upload a 90 minute video–particularly when there are slides involved.

So I will save my discussion of that talk for when I have the accompanying video to show with it. In the meantime, let me reach into FSGP’s vast reserves of videos of past lectures. Here is Marc Adams from October 17, 2008 talking about what it was like growing up gay in a fundamentalist Christian world.

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