Teaching Religious Skepticism

John Shook has a post up over at CFI about scientific skepticism versus rationalist skepticism with regard to religious claims. He notes that calls for scientific skepticism are not universal among skeptics, and he gives a fascinating bit of history on who originated the call for scientific skepticism to be applied to religion. Read the whole thing.

The first comment, however, raises a misconception that I’d like to address:

Whenever I hear someone talk about what other people should/should not accept/believe as if they know the absolute truth, I wonder how they differ from all of the other people who think that they, too, know the absolute truth.

Here’s the thing: That’s not what we do. It’s a common misconception based, I think, in the fact that we tend to get more attention when we’re talking about politics than when we’re talking about belief and epistemology (and the fact that you can now find atheist skeptics talking among themselves), but it isn’t true. There is no knowledge of absolute truth required to talk about what people should or shouldn’t accept as the skeptical position on religion. Continue reading “Teaching Religious Skepticism”

Teaching Religious Skepticism

"Elders: A Novel", Ryan McIlvain on Atheists Talk

Ryan McIlvain is a former Mormon missionary whose missionary work presented challenges to his faith that ultimately led him away from Mormonism. He is also a recent first-time novelist who took “Write what you know” to heart, capturing that experience in the recently released Elders: A Novel. From the publisher’s description:

Elder McLeod—outspoken, surly, a brash American—is nearing the end of his mission in Brazil. For nearly two years he has spent his days studying the Bible and the Book of Mormon, knocking on doors, teaching missionary lessons—“experimenting on the word.” His new partner is Elder Passos, a devout, ambitious Brazilian who found salvation and solace in the church after his mother’s early death. The two men are at first suspicious of each other, and their work together is frustrating, fruitless. That changes when a beautiful woman and her husband offer the missionaries a chance to be heard, to put all of their practice to good use, to test the mettle of their faith.  But before they can bring the couple to baptism, they must confront their own long-held beliefs and doubts, and the simmering tensions at the heart of their friendship.

McIlvain joins us this Sunday to talk about the novel and about his experiences.

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Listen to AM 950 KTNF this Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call in to the studio at 952-946-6205, or send an e-mail to [email protected] during the live show. If you miss the live show, listen to the podcast later.

Follow Atheists Talk on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates. If you like the show, consider supporting us with a one-time or sustaining donation.

"Elders: A Novel", Ryan McIlvain on Atheists Talk

Skepticism, Religion, and Strawmen

Daniel Loxton has a post up at Skepticblog today titled “‘Testable Claims’ is Not a ‘Religious Exemption’“. Although the article doesn’t specify or provide any links, it is, in large part, a response to PZ’s recent “divorce” from the organized skeptical movement and the arguments leading up to it. From Loxton’s article:

What are we to make of accusations that skepticism’s “testable claims” scope is a cynical political dodge, a way to present skeptics as brave investigators while conveniently arranging to leave religious feathers unruffled? Like the other clichés of my field (“skeptics are in the pocket of Big Pharma!”) this complaint is probably immortal. No matter how often this claim is debunked, it will never go away.

Nonetheless, it is grade-A horseshit. It’s become a kind of urban legend among a subset of the atheist community—a misleading myth in which a matter of principle is falsely presented as a disingenuous ploy. There is (and this cannot be emphasized enough) no “religious exemption” in skepticism. Skeptics do and always have busted religious claims.

Loxton sounds a bit frustrated, and well he may. He’s said this sort of thing plenty of times before, but it hasn’t settled the claims. Of course, there’s a reason for that. Loxton is completely missing the point. Continue reading “Skepticism, Religion, and Strawmen”

Skepticism, Religion, and Strawmen

So You Don't Have To

A couple of weekends ago, I was at Omegacon for a bit of enforced relaxation. Yes, it really is an F&SF convention that people attend in their pajamas.

While we were there, a couple of my network mates and I got together with our friends from the Geeks Without God podcast to play Left Behind: The Movie, The Board Game Adventure. (I swear to you on all that is unholy that this is really the name of the game.) Being who we are, we also set up a microphone to capture the event.

I can’t tell you how much we were looking forward to this. It played no small part in the decision to leave my bedroom after an insane week that involved a business trip and traveling to the emergency room before dawn in a city I’d never been to before. Yes, everyone will be fine, but I was a bit of a wreck. But this! The Left Behind board game! The lulz!

How can you not play this game when offered the opportunity?!

Well, frankly, you can just listen to the podcast. We weren’t expecting anything good, but this game was bad in the very worst way that a game can be bad. All I can say is hooray for making up your own rules. And for moonshine-soaked cherries. Those helped even those of us who don’t like booze.

So go listen. Play the podcast drinking game if you feel so inclined. If you still feel you must play this when you’re done, leave a comment at Geeks Without God. I don’t know whether they’ve found a new home for the game, but I know no one there wanted to keep it, even as a novelty.

So You Don't Have To

Mock the Movie: Hacksploitation Edition

All right. For realz this time, we’re moving back to Wednesdays. This Wednesday, May 8, we’re exploring hacksploitation cinema. That’s a thing, right? Because something like .com for Murder is better–or at least fundable–if you put it in virtual reality. You can tell it must be great, because we can’t find a trailer. Have a terrible movie poster instead.

Dark poster with a vaguely Matrix-like background, featuring the heads of Nastassja Kinski and Nicolette Sheridan. Tag lines: "Two women alone in the frightening world of the internet" and "In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream".

This one is available on Netflix. Do help us mock it, won’t you? Continue reading “Mock the Movie: Hacksploitation Edition”

Mock the Movie: Hacksploitation Edition

The Theory of Gluten-Free Flour

I was just talking with an avid baker about the problems of baking for people with celiac disease. (Minnesota has a large Nordic population, which gives a higher-than-average concentration of the disorder.) I mentioned that I developed a flour mix that I like and have had good enough results with that I don’t bother with xantham gum or other additives as long as I’m not trying to make yeast breads (which I leave to professionals).

This is an easy mix in the proportions, though it does take a little bit of extra processing. It’s also based on my thinking about what flour does in various recipes, so others may find it useful in trying to create their own flour mixes for various purposes, like cakes. Personally, I’d get rid of the rice flour for cakes and use only the other three, or even just a mix of tapioca and corn/potato flours.

Gluten-Free Flour Mix

1 lb. rice flour/starch, run through a food processor
1 lb. sorghum or oat flour
1 lb. corn or potato starch
1 lb. tapioca flour

Mix thoroughly in a large bowl. I use a whisk but stir slowly so as not to get flour all over my kitchen.

  • The rice flour provides stability in the structure. Running it through the food processor break the grains down further and reduces the graininess in baked goods.
  • The sorghum or oat flour provides a more traditional “wheaty” flavor.
  • The corn or potato starch provides the gelatinizing that wheat startches undergo.
  • The tapioca flour provides a lightness that is frequently missing in non-glutinous breads.

Most importantly, none of these flours taste remotely like beans.


The Theory of Gluten-Free Flour

Ready for the End of the World

It isn’t news that some believers are so ready for the end times that they’re ready to help bring it about. It is news, however, and slightly terrifying, just how many of these believers there are.

“[T]he fact that such an overwhelming percentage of Republican citizens profess a belief in the Second Coming (76 percent in 2006, according to our sample) suggests that governmental attempts to curb greenhouse emissions would encounter stiff resistance even if every Democrat in the country wanted to curb them,” Barker and Bearce wrote in their study, which will be published in the June issue of Political Science Quarterly.

The study, based on data from the 2007 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, uncovered that belief in the “Second Coming” of Jesus reduced the probability of strongly supporting government action on climate change by 12 percent when controlling for a number of demographic and cultural factors. When the effects of party affiliation, political ideology, and media distrust were removed from the analysis, the belief in the “Second Coming” increased this effect by almost 20 percent.

Just in case you wondered why some of us are interested in loosening belief and encouraging uncertainty, well, our futures may depend on it.

Ready for the End of the World

Saturday Storytime: The Banquet of the Lords of Night

Liz Williams has written a police officer who herds demons and a librarian who maintains the boundaries between dimensions. Is it any wonder to find her here writing a chef who would be a revolutionary?

Opening the refrigerator, de Rais takes out a container and places it on the table. He opens it carefully, not wanting the essence to escape. The container is full of ice: glassy dark ice from the seas near the southern pole, a place that de Rais knows only from legend. It seems to hold its own glow: it’s almost green, like the stories the old folk tell about dawn. With a sharp scalpel, de Rais touches the edge of the sheet of ice, so that it splits and cracks into a nest of slivers. De Rais arranges the shards of ice in the center of each of the twenty seven sorbet dishes, then reaches back inside the refrigerator for the ingredients of the sauce. He plans a complex, subtle accompaniment to the simple ice: a touch of fragrant Indonesian darkness, gathered close to midnight, redolent of cinnamon and incense and spiced smoke. Placing the darkness in a bowl, he adds a pinch of flavors: twilight from Japan, warm and clouded, with a hint of star anise. Then a touch of evening from the Sinang Delta, water-clear and cool. De Rais stirs all of these elements nine times with an ebony spoon, then pours the swirl of darkness into a silver pan and lights the chilly flame beneath it. He waits, frowning, as a drift of smoke begins to rise from the sauce and then he casts it in a spiral around the little columns of ice and claps his hands imperiously for the serving staff to take it into the dining hall, where the Lords of Night are waiting. The head chef looks up, once, as the procession passes by, and gives a single grudging nod of approval.

Having dispensed with the appetizers, the responsibility for the meal passes on to the head chef for a time, while de Rais busies himself with the desserts. He hopes to get the chance to take the parcel from his overcoat pocket and slip it into the oven, but the head chef has got the apprentices out of his fevered way by sending them over to work in de Rais’ corner, a not-uncommon occurrence. Frustrated, de Rais gets on with his own tasks. He prepares fondants of gloom, sorbets of shadows, and sherbets of dusk; each one gathered from the far and unseen corners of the Earth. Then de Rais wipes his weary hands on his apron and steps back to admire his handiwork. Behind him, the booming voice of the head chef says,

“Not bad. Perhaps there’s some promise in you after all.”

De Rais jumps like a tortured hare. Turning, he snaps, “Don’t do that! You startled me.”

“Why?” The head chef thrusts his cadaverous face close to that of de Rais. “Nervous? Been doing something you shouldn’t? Been gobbing in the fondants again?”

De Rais bridles; he’d never dream of doing such a thing and the head chef knows it.

“Get over there, boy, when you’ve finished. I want some help to scrub the floors.”

The head chef’s head jerks in the direction of the apprentices and they scramble after him as he ambles back towards the cold crimson glow of his own territory. Heart pounding, de Rais sidles into the store, retrieves the parcel at last and slides it underneath the iron floor of the little oven. The package is still warm. It seems to radiate its own heat, and de Rais is relieved when at last it’s safely out of sight. Then, he goes to where the head chef is waiting and begins to rinse the stone floor clean of blood. He keeps thinking about the package lying in the oven. Once more he rehearses the plan that has been steeping in his mind ever since the girl gave him the parcel.

Once the kitchens are quiet, and everyone has left for the night, de Rais will take the package out of the oven. And then, he will begin to cook. He’ll prepare a special dish for the next banquet of the Lords of Night, which will take place tomorrow, on a day that was once called Midsummer. De Rais thinks of the eternal, plunging rain, which he fancies he can hear beating on the pavements above the dungeons of the kitchen, and he shivers as he swabs the bloodstained floor. Mechanically, he goes over the plan once more in his mind, but in the next few minutes, he realizes it might be too late to even think about executing it. The Unpriests have arrived.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: The Banquet of the Lords of Night

Through the Fighting Toward Understanding

A couple of months ago, I did a post covering much of the uproar around the work of Napoleon Chagnon. The controversies and the behavior of various scientists was fascinating in that it was almost precisely unsuited to uncovering scientific knowledge.

Now, however, along comes Greg Laden with an article in Slate that helps those of us bewildered by the conflicts and controversies do just that.

Chagnon spent decades with the Yanomamö of Venezuela and wrote a monograph called Yanomamö: The Fierce People. The first through third editions kept the subtitle, but it was dropped for the fourth edition. The Venezuelan government had used Chagnon’s work to label the Yanomamö as dangerous and unsociable, as part of its effort to displace indigenous tribes occupying land otherwise exploitable for lumber or for other purposes.

Some sociocultural anthropologists and human rights activists have held Chagnon responsible for the use of his ethnography against an indigenous group. This seems rather unfair. If the Yanomamö are fierce, that is not Chagnon’s fault; the use of an honest ethnography for nefarious political or economic goals is not the ethnographer’s responsibility. However, a litany of other charges has been made against Chagnon. More than 10 years ago, Marshall Sahlins accused Chagnon of unethical practices, including disregarding Yanomamö cultural proscriptions against using names and discussing kinship relations in order to assemble census and genealogical data for the villages he worked in. Sahlins claimed Chagnon tricked the Yanomamö into giving up information that they held as secret, and that this led to conflicts which led to violence. Others have suggested that Chagnon’s payment of informants and helpers with western goods such as machetes caused or escalated violence. Most recently, Marshall Sahlins resigned from the National Acaedemy of Sciences in protest of Chagnon’s election to that body.

These may be valid criticisms, but we should also take into account context and timing.

Greg’s article doesn’t ignore the criticisms, the controversies, or the politics of what happened to the Yanomamö. What it does instead is put them all into context, both the context of the field of anthropology and the context of a world in which anthropology isn’t just a study of “other” people.

Go read the article. You’ll come away with both a better understanding of where all this dust came from and a better understanding of what is left when it all settles.

Through the Fighting Toward Understanding

"The Myth of Persecution", Candida Moss on Atheists Talk

The early history of Christianity is a history of persecution, with pagans zealously defending their own faiths through torture and martyrdom and Christians being mauled by lions for the entertainment of the crowd. Or is it?

Biblical scholar Candida Moss reviewed the evidence of early Christian persecution for her new book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, and found it mostly lacking. From the publisher’s description:

As the story goes, vast numbers of believers were thrown to the lions, tortured, or burned alive because they refused to renounce Christ. These saints, Christianity’s inspirational heroes, are still venerated today.

Moss, however, exposes that the “Age of Martyrs” is a fiction—there was no sustained 300-year-long effort by the Romans to persecute Christians. Instead, these stories were pious exaggerations; highly stylized rewritings of Jewish, Greek, and Roman noble death traditions; and even forgeries designed to marginalize heretics, inspire the faithful, and fund churches.

The traditional story of persecution is still taught in Sunday school classes, celebrated in sermons, and employed by church leaders, politicians, and media pundits who insist that Christians were—and always will be—persecuted by a hostile, secular world. Moss urges modern Christians to abandon the conspiratorial assumption that the world is out to get Christians and, rather, embrace the consolation, moral instruction, and spiritual guidance that these martyrdom stories provide.

Moss joins us this Sunday to talk about her book and about how this narrative of persecution hurts Christians in the world today.

Related Links:

Listen to AM 950 KTNF this Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call in to the studio at 952-946-6205, or send an e-mail to [email protected] during the live show. If you miss the live show, listen to the podcast later.

Follow Atheists Talk on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates. If you like the show, consider supporting us with a one-time or sustaining donation.


"The Myth of Persecution", Candida Moss on Atheists Talk