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"The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall." —Thomas Paine (1737-1809) American revolutionary, pamphleteer, and atheist, "The Age of Reason"

Had enough of astrologers, psychics, homeopaths, and spirit channelers? Yearning to talk with someone rational for awhile? Meet up with other local skeptics for some refreshing and sane conversation.

If you've got some kind of event or opportunity that's commensurate with what we're about (as described below), we'd love to hear about it and publicize it to our 1000+ members. E-mail your idea to RichardSRussell@tds.net and we'll either schedule it or explain why not.

What is a skeptic, anyway? It's someone who lives by the Missouri state motto: "Show me!". Does some claim seem too good (or amazing) to be true? Well, that's because it's probably not. Having an open mind isn't the same as having holes in your head.

OTOH, doubting everything makes you a cynic, and suspecting everybody makes you a conspiracy theorist. Skeptics who ARE shown something are willing to accept it. A couple of cases in point:

(1) Even little kids notice that the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa look like jigsaw-puzzle pieces that should fit together. DID they, at one time? In the early 20th Century, skeptics scoffed at the idea. "Just coincidence", they said. And rightly so. There was no known mechanism for how anything that big could be moved. Then Alfred Wegener showed evidence that continental drift had definitely happened, and later Arthur Holmes explained how plate tectonics was the mechanism behind it. With those in hand, skeptics were convinced.

(2) For most of human existence, people believed the Earth was only a few tens of thousands of years old. Skeptics concurred. If the Sun were made of wood or coal or petroleum, it couldn't possibly keep burning for much longer than that. But there was all this other geological evidence that indicated the planet was millions, if not billions of years old. What to believe? Skeptics openly admitted they didn't have the answers. But as soon as we discovered the amazing amounts of energy that could be produced by nuclear fusion, the source of the Sun's longevity was revealed, and skeptics settled in on the proper scientific answer.

We skeptics take our cues from people like the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who pointed out: "I have argued flying saucers with lots of people. I was interested in this: they keep arguing that it is possible. And that's true. It IS possible. They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it's possible or not, but whether it's going on or not."

In other words, "show me".

Upcoming events (4+)

What Are the Odds?

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This month’s topic was inspired by an article in the January/February 2022 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine entitled “Jeopardy! and Ideas of Reference”, by Mick West. In it, West starts off by recounting the “amazing” coincidence he and his wife experienced when watching the famous TV game show and hearing a question that was the exact same subject they’d discussed — for the first time in their lives — an hour earlier that same day, namely that the Spanish phrase for “rice with chicken” is “arroz con pollo”.

How to explain such a phenomenon? West continues: “... the notion that ‘the universe is trying to tell you something’ is timeless. Historically, people have seen meaning in the most banal of occurrences. A cat crossing your path was a warning from God.... In psychology, this type of thing is often referred to as ‘ideas of reference,’ defined as the belief that random events are specifically related to a person. In more extreme cases, where the belief begins to impact a person’s life, it’s known as delusions of reference.”

Religions obviously take the position that it’s God sending you encoded messages, but even secular observers have postulated that there’s something mysterious at work. The seminal psychologist Carl Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to describe the phenomenon and speculated that it might be a manifestation of extra-sensory perception (ESP) picking up signals from other creatures.

But how would a RATIONALIST explain such an occurrence? Turns out that it’s not that hard. The trick is to remember that you’re not looking for just the odds against that one particular thing happening to one particular person at one particular time but the odds vs. something LIKE that happening to SOME person at SOME time. And, given that understanding, the odds go from very low to very high. More people increase the odds of success. “Million-to-one coincidences happen 8 times a day in New York City.” The chances of YOU winning the lottery are vanishingly small; the chances of SOMEONE winning it are 100%.

This also explains the so-called “birthday paradox”. What are the odds that you in particular will have the same birthday as some other random person? 1 in 365 — not that great. But what are the odds that 2 people in the same room will have the same birthday? If there are at least 22 people in the room, chances are at least 50:50 in favor.

Odds are 635,013,559,600 to 1 that a particular combination of 13 cards out of a 52-card deck can appear in a bridge hand dealt to a single player. In combination with the same odds for the other 3 players, odds are 53,644,737,765,488,792,839,237,440,000 to 1 that each of their 4 hands could turn out in a particular way. Yet, deal after deal, game after game, time after time, day after day, year after year, such miracles occur relentlessly.

Most people don’t have a very good understanding of how statistics and probability work, and we could use a good term to describe the condition that leads to their looking for ethereal explanations for perfectly normal phenomena. “Innumeracy” (lacking basic knowledge of mathematics and arithmetic) doesn’t capture it, because it afflicts even people who are perfectly capable of computing mileage and balancing checkbooks. I suggest “astatisticia”.

Tonight’s Atheist Lounge will be mainly a free-form discussion of personal experiences of astatisticia, along with musings about how it has contributed to evolution denialism and stories of miracles.

This will be a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom. A link will be sent out at noon on the day of the event to people who’ve RSVPed.

1
O Come Let Us Adore Him

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We jokingly refer to the November Atheist Lounge as occurring on Nov. 31, but of course there are only 30 days in November, so it’s really Dec. 1. We just moved it here because we didn’t want to compete with Thanksgiving.

But that’s OK, because Christmas comes in December, and people will be breaking into topical song at the least provocation. One such is the devotional carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (originally “Adeste Fideles”), with its refrain “O come, let us adore him”. Let’s zoom in on that “adore”. Why would self-respecting people want to do this? What level of self-abnegation does it take to travel great distances just to say “You’re so hot, and I’m so not!”?

None, because it didn’t mean that back in 1611, when King James I authorized his translation of the Bible into English. It has come to mean ”admire”, “cherish”, or “love”, but it started out as the Latin “adōrāre”, “to plead with, appeal to, approach [a god] as a suppliant or worshipper”.

Same deal with “awe”, which refers to “an emotion combining dread and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime”. Artists use the term in a secular sense to describe natural beauty like the Grand Canyon, and teenagers throw it around hyperbolically to refer to mundane things like hamburgers as “awesome”. But this too is a vanilla version of the original term, descended from Old Norse by way of Middle English, which meant “terror, dread, extreme reverence, veneration, something to be feared, danger”.

These are examples of amelioration, the process of a word’s meaning becoming more benign over time. The opposite process is pejoration. Here’s an example, noted by Simeon Potter in Our Language: “... when King James II saw the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, he described it as ‘amusing’, ‘awful’, and ‘artificial’. The King meant no offence, and presumably none was taken, because those words then denoted ‘pleasing’, ‘awesome’ (i.e. awe-inspiring), and ‘skilfully achieved’, respectively.” Both are subsets of the phenomenon of semantic change.

Another subset is specification or semantic narrowing, in which words with a general meaning gradually become associated with more specific instances of the term. “Deer” once meant any kind of animal but now means only the hoofed forest dwellers that Wisconsin hunters cull by the thousands every fall. And then there’s generalization or semantic widening, such as the name of Guy Fawkes being more generalized to men, then males of any age, and (in the plural) to groups of people of any gender (“you guys”).

Which brings us to “almah”, a Hebrew word for a young woman of childbearing age. The James gang looked for an English equivalent and hit upon “virgin”, which in English hadn’t yet undergone specification to mean “female who has never had sexual intercourse”.

But even before then the term had dual meanings in both Hebrew and Greek (and later Latin), so its exact meaning was never certain and served as a source of theological dispute, schisms, and persecutions for over a millennium.

Wikipedia informs us that “The modern scholarly consensus is that the doctrine of the virgin birth rests on very slender historical foundations. In the entire Christian corpus, it is explicit only in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, both of which are late and anonymous compositions dating from the period AD[masked]. The earliest Christian writings, the Pauline epistles, do not contain any mention of a virgin birth and assume Jesus’s full humanity, stating that he was ‘born of a woman’ like any other human being and ‘born under the law’ like any Jew.”

So where did Matthew and Luke come up with their slant on things? Wikipedia again: “The most likely cultural context ... is Jewish Christian or mixed Gentile/Jewish-Christian circles rooted in Jewish tradition. The two narratives were intended for a Greco-Roman audience for whom stories of virgin births and the impregnation of mortal women by deities were well known in the 1st Century, for the ancient world had no understanding [of how conception worked] and was a cultural milieu conducive to miraculous birth stories. Such stories are less frequent in Judaism, but there too there was a widespread belief in angels and divine intervention in births.”

Tonight’s Atheist Lounge will be mainly a free-form discussion of why people are willing to torture, kill, and die over vague meanings of originally blurry terms of obscure provenance that have gone thru multiple translations.

You’ll adore it.

This will be a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom. A link will be sent out at noon on the day of the event to people who’ve RSVPed.

2
Decline of Religion in America

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Is religion fading in America? Is opposition (or simple indifference) to religion on the rise? Has the COVID pandemic done anything to affect the situation?

These are simply placeholder questions. As we get closer to the session date, guest presenter Robert Godfrey gets to chime in.

This will be a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom. A link will be sent out at noon on the day of the event to people who’ve RSVPed.

The End

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Normally January is a time to celebrate new beginnings, not endings, let alone THE End (of everything). Not that anybody would be celebrating it in any event (assuming there is an “anybody”), but as rationalists we should be willing to look the possibility dead in the eye.

Consider the graphic above. It shows that, for most of the nasty diseases in human history, the ones that were almost certain to kill you were hard to catch, and the ones you were almost certain to catch hardly ever killed you. But suppose (as many alarmed epidemiologists were doing during the COVID pandemic) we had the worst of both worlds, with evolution producing the ideal viral predator — something like pneumonic plague, easily transmitted via sneezing, fast-acting, and almost invariably lethal. What would that mean for humanity?

Well, something akin to that has happened before in human history, according to anthropologists, who refer to it as the “genetic bottleneck”. The Toba supervolcano, which erupted around 75,000 BCE, enshrouded the planet with dust for most of a decade, killing off plant life all over the world, starving many species into extinction, whittling our forebear Homo sapiens down to maybe 3,000 to 10,000 individuals, and probably hastening the extinction of the Neanderthals.

Of course, that was a pre-technological milieu, and the starting population was nowhere near the 7 billion humans we have today (AKA “way too many”). With language, modern medicine, and technology at our disposal, modern humanity is presumably better able to deal with such catastrophes. But certainly not with complete success, as over 6 million worldwide casualties from COVID-19 will attest.

What if a real super-duper-COVID came along? What if, instead of killing off 1% of the planet’s people, it took out 99%? What would life be like for the survivors? In particular, would the Hand of God be seen in all this? And, if so, as the deplorable cause or the only thing that kept the survivors alive?

Needless to say, such post-apocalyptic imaginings have long been a staple of science fiction. If you’d like to prep for our discussion of The End, recommended readings (all classics of the genre) are:
• “Nightfall”, by Isaac Asimov (1941)
Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart (1949)
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)
• “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain”, by James Tiptree Jr. (1969)

This will be a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom. A link will be sent out at noon on the day of the event to people who’ve RSVPed.

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