• The Flat Tire and the Gospels

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    Dan Barker, former fundamentalist child preacher and now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has a simple challenge for Bible believers: “Tell me what happened on the original Easter Sunday. Just a simple chronology. Who went where and did what and said what and saw what? And in what order? Be sure to include everything mentioned in any of the gospels.”

    Nobody can meet this challenge, because the gospels are horribly contradictory. (Don’t take it on faith, read them yourself: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. Also Acts 1:3-12 and Paul’s tiny version of the story in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.)

    What should we conclude from this? That 1 apostle got it right and the rest differed in a few of the minor details? No. This is the most important story in all of Christianity, and if the gospels were divinely inspired — as true believers invariably assert they were — then their ultimate author was God, who’s supposed to be omniscient, so the 4 stories should be entirely consistent.

    We’ll open with a little story about college drinking buddies and the flat tire on their car — something we can all understand from everyday life — and see how it’s parallel to the situation in the gospels.

    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.

  • Effective Debunking

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    Mick West made his fortune in the 1990s as a whiz-bang techie programming video games, enabling him to retire early and devote his time to his passion for promoting rationality. He founded, and still runs, the websites metabunk.org and contrailscience.com. He’s the author of the 2018 book “Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect”, which focuses on his special interest in “chemtrails” to illustrate how people get gradually sucked into odd, irrational beliefs. And he exhibits kindness in showing how to extend a hand to help them out of the rabbit holes they’ve fallen down.

    Recently named a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, West debuted as a regular columnist in the September/October 2021 issue of “Skeptical Inquirer” with “UFOs: Beliefs, Conspiracies, and Aliens” (skepticalinquirer.org/2021/08/ufos-beliefs-conspiracies-and-aliens/).

    In it, he is at pains to point out that there are different degrees of belief in various superstitions and conspiracy theories, as he indicated on a 0-10 scale. For instance, it’s perfectly consistent with rational skepticism to ask “Sure, hijacked jetliners undoubtedly caused the collapse of World Trade Center Towers 1 and 2, but how do you explain Tower 7?”

    Similarly, with respect to UFOs, “Is the government lying to us?” would rate a 0 on his scale. Take a single step into Fabuland, however, and that interrogative gets transformed into a declarative: “The government IS lying to us.” This may still be fairly benign, however, because it’s perfectly plausible that those mysterious lights in the sky are state-secret stealth aircraft that the government won’t admit to for national-security reasons.

    But anyone who takes 8 more steps in that same direction might get to “The government is riddled with lizard people from Arcturus disguised as humans in order to rot our brains, enslave us, and eat our babies.” Just 1 final step and they’d add “... and YOU might be one of them!”

    West’s point is that you can’t approach people who are at 3 on this spectrum the same way you would somebody at a 7. The very first thing we rationalists need to do is assess how far down the rabbit hole somebody has fallen, lest we alienate them in our attempts to draw them politely back to reality.

    He concludes his article with this observation about the US government’s July 2021 UFO report: “It contains no evidence of aliens, and that absence will be taken by many as evidence of conspiracy. To have a useful conversation about this, you need to understand WHICH conspiracy.”

    We’ll spend some time at tonight’s Atheist Lounge trying to figure out where various aspects of Christianity fall on this spectrum and how to gently reach people at each depth of that particular rabbit hole.

    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.

  • Whom To Cancel

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    Imagine that this letter about YOU was sent to your descendants in 2121:

    = = = = = =

    “In response to your application to display the image of your ancestor in the National Portrait Gallery, you must know that we have very high standards for who can be honored this way. While we appreciate that your ancestor cured cancer; negotiated a lasting peace in the Middle East; discovered anti-gravity; and won the Nobel Prize, 7 Oscars, 2 Pulitzer Prizes, and the Fields Medal, we must balance that against other aspects of per’s life, and here we are horrified.

    “Per was known to wear leather, eat meat, and consume dairy products forcibly extracted from captive bovine Americans. Per not only condoned the auto-torture of neckties and high heels but actively engaged in them. Per consigned wood and petroleum to the flames. Per treated the forerunners of our cybercitizens as if they were mere tools, to be used and discarded. Per supported the sugar trade. Per performed ritual cannibalism at ‘religious’ services. Per engaged in ‘marriage’ to a single other person at a time. Per regularly used sexisms like ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘man’, and ‘woman’. (Pardon our coarseness, but we must face the ugly reality.) Per consumed paper. Paper!

    “Worse, on multiple occasions per deplored violence in all its forms rather than proudly promoting good violence. Worst of all, per stood for vulgar democracy instead of the benign rule of our wise Council of Elder Philosophers.

    “Since it is universally recognized that the entire measure of a person’s character is the worst thing that per has ever done, you will understand why your ancestor will never be the 3rd image in our Gallery.”

    = = = = = =

    Well, is it true that you should be known only for your worst qualities? If so, what are your own, those which would disqualify you from any form of respect from future generations?

    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.

  • Atheism’s Secret Advantage

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    Every Sunday morning in a Christian household, the alarm clock goes off early, and everybody gets hustled out of bed, cleaned and polished, fed and juiced, and primped up in their Sunday-go-to-meetin’ finest togs before heading out the door for another couple hours of sheer boredom, listening to the same old guy droning on with the same old stories from the same old lectern in front of the same old room, where never is heard a discouraging word, let alone a (gasp) QUESTION invited from the audience.

    Meanwhile, in an atheist household, if the alarm goes off at all, it’s an easy matter to turn it off and roll over for another couple of hours of relaxing sack time before getting up and lounging around in your PJs, maybe reading the Sunday paper, then turning on the TV to see if there’s anything entertaining available.

    This is atheism’s secret advantage, and it’s no wonder that fewer and fewer religious families bother going to church any more, even if they still claim to subscribe to everything the church stands for. It’s possible that, after having drifted away long enuf, they’ll start to question why they ever bothered attending church to begin with, since they’re clearly no worse off now, only better rested and more relaxed.

    That’s not atheism’s only advantage, of course. There are also the cost savings, the absence of externally induced guilt over perfectly normal human behavior, and the opportunity to celebrate the holidays of all sorts of other religions without being shamed about blasphemy or apostasy.

    Tonight’s Atheist Lounge will be mainly a free-form discussion of what the participants think are the advantages that atheism has provided in their own lives, along with expressions of sympathy for the poor folks who are still locked into particular superstitious habits that atheists never have to fret over.

    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.

  • Help America Pray the Rosary

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    You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker: Help America Pray the Rosary. Why? Does she mumble? Perhaps some speech therapy. Does she lose count easily? Maybe some remedial math. Wrong time of day? Electronic reminders might help.

    All sarcasm aside (and no offense to women named America), what is up with that? How hard can it be? Ten minutes’ worth of instruction should last a lifetime. Furthermore, constant, endless mind-numbing repetition should burn the magic words indelibly into one’s brain forever.

    A bigger question is why the rosary is necessary at all. Supposedly God hears all prayers, so wouldn’t just one have done the job? This calls to mind the judicial admonition “Question asked and answered, counselor. Move on!”

    The biggest question of all is “What good are all those prayers anyway?”. Things works out exactly the same way they would’ve whether a prayer is offered up or not. (Religiots explain this away by saying “God does answer all prayers; sometimes the answer is ‘no’.”.)

    Here are a couple of pithy observations about the power of prayer:

    “Pray: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.” —Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary

    “Really, when you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers: Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow!” —Rabbi Gellman

    Tonight’s Atheist Lounge will be mainly a free-form discussion of why religions in general (and Roman Catholicism in particular) recommend this utterly worthless practice so highly, so often, and so insistently. The rosarators don’t get any obvious benefit from it. What do the churches and priests get out of it? Just the proceeds from the sale of all those rosaries (and perhaps of the bumper stickers encouraging people to use them)?

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • How Would We Know?

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    Are we living in a computer simulation like The Matrix? How would we know?

    Why is there something rather than nothing? How would we know?

    Was the entire world created 5 minutes ago, including each of us with all our memories intact? How would we know?

    In Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, 2-dimensional beings living on a flat surface understand length and width but have no concept of height. Are we 3-dimensional beings oblivious to a 4th spatial dimension? How would we know?

    Did a supreme intelligence create the Universe 13.77 billion years ago, give it a little shove to get it started, then walk away to let it wind down on its own? HWWK?

    What if, every time somebody made a decision, the universe split into two separate timelines, identical but for the decision going one way on one timeline and the other way in the other one? HWWK?

    Gravitational measurements indicate that the Universe is about 5% what we think of as normal matter and energy, 30% dark matter, and 65% dark energy. Are we physically occupying the same space with dark-matter people, passing effortlessly thru them without noticing, because their equivalent of protons, electrons, and neutrons have no way of interacting electromagnetically with ours? HWWK?

    Notice that these questions are qualitatively different from ones like “What was family life like for our ancestors 200,000 years ago?” (past), “Is my perception of red the same as yours?” (present), or “Will I ever be able to self-levitate?” (future). Those are cases where we can at least imagine a line of inquiry, such as the one about “Is there a Contra-Earth in our exact same orbit, only on the far side of the Sun, where we can never see it?”. The answer to that was “Let’s invent space flight and go look.” (We did, and there isn’t.)

    But for all those “HWWK?” questions, we wouldn’t even have a clue where to start looking. This drives some people nuts.

    Face it: We human beings are natural prey animals. No fangs. No claws. No armor. No fur. No poison. Crappy camouflage. Slow runners. Poor swimmers. Can’t fly. And, to top it all off, soppily devoted to our offspring, who remain helpless and useless for years after birth. (Contrast that with colts or fawns struggling to their feet within minutes of being born.)

    Our only evolutionary advantage is our big honkin’ brains, which let us understand how the world around us works — and gives us language to share that knowledge with our fellow humans — so we can survive, thrive, and reproduce.

    But the pathological consequence of this is that some humans just can’t stand uncertainty. They have an itch that must be scratched. They need to know! They must have The Answer!

    This is how religion was invented. “What causes the lightning? I’m afraid.” “There, there, Zeus is just angry at Hera again. It’ll go away.” Just because this was complete, utter, totally made-up bullshit didn’t matter, since it had been delivered in tones of calm assurance. The itch had been scratched. That person knew, and thus was to be trusted and believed.

    What religions of the future will be born out of people claiming to know the answers to all the unanswerable questions listed above? How would we know?

    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.