Friday, November 21, 2014

The Basis of Religion

(Author’s note: I started writing this post a loooong time ago. Sometime in the middle of 2012. I originally planned to have this follow my posts on crazy Bible verses since it’s largely related to the validity of the Bible. However, as I’ve discussed here recently, I felt a bit bad about all the blatant blasphemy in this blog and the fact that it bugged some buddies who believe in the Bible, so I became a bit bashful about blogging about this. This is a rather important facet of my reasoning for atheism, though, so here goes.)

As I’ve written previously, the Bible is not exactly a perfect document. It’s full of contradictions, has not held up well over time, and is clearly inconsistent in its moral teachings. Most Christians want to believe that their god is a loving god, but there are a multitude of examples where this god is indisputably cruel. Deuteronomy and Leviticus are undeniably overflowing with pure ridiculousness. You know--all that jazz about how eating bacon and menstruating are sins that need to be atoned for by killing goats and stuff. I covered it in this post, which was so much fun to write that I wrote another post about other crazy shit in the Old Testament. Then, to be fair, I wrote another post detailing the pearls of wisdom that can be gleaned from the New Testament.

Three posts may seem like a lot, given that the general theme of all three was “lookit how batshit insane the Bible can be!” In reality, I could write another three posts on the subject since it’s a pretty big book and there’s more than enough crazy in it, but I hope I’ve made my point: the book that Christianity is based on has a ton of passages that most people disregard outright because they’re so crazy, and it also has a ton of passages that require a silo full of salt to rationalize.

This means that the Bible as a whole cannot be completely trusted because we know that, as a whole, it is fallible. Having established reasonable is it to believe in any of it? What sense does it make to try to derive a code for morality from the same book that condones slavery? How can one point to this book that is clearly full of errors and use it as a rationalization for believing in any form of Christianity? If you gave the Bible to a college graduate who had never heard of Christianity before, let them read it, and then asked them whether they believed in the Holy Trinity, how could they possibly say “yes” by using the Bible as justification?

Other than the Bible, what evidence is there for Christianity? Most people hold on to Christianity because of personal experiences and stories from other Christians--times when a prayer has been answered, or comfort was found in times of sorrow, or deep reserves of motivation were accessed. Even if you’re convinced that the only explanation for these experiences is a “higher power,” how do you know it’s the Christian god? Without the Bible, there would be no reason to attribute anything to the Christian god because Christianity would not exist. Religions require a common thread to tie people together, and it’s usually some selection of writing that the members agree is “holy” in some fashion.

Everything that we as a society “know” about Christianity is derived from the Bible: God created everything, got really mad and killed almost everyone, allowed His “chosen people” to be slaves for a while, and eventually mellowed out and knocked up a broad named Mary who gave birth to Jesus who had some sweet magic powers and then died so that all of us lowly sinners could go to heaven even though we’re terrible people and should stop sinning even though we’re already forgiven for our sins that we haven’t yet committed. Also there’s something called the Holy Ghost. Got it? Good. Christians generally agree on some version of that stuff.

However, there’s a bunch of stuff they don’t agree on. Catholics prohibit the use of birth control, but Protestants don’t. Why? Because it’s not in the Bible (and because many Protestants are reasonable enough to admit that birth control, in its myriad forms, is right up there with vaccines among the most convenient medical advances in the world). Then again, Baptists disagree with many moderate Christians on the topic of homosexuality even though that is in the Bible because they “interpret” the Bible differently. The Bible is ultimately what ties all Christians together, but it’s so messed up and controversial that they had to split into a bunch of denominations based on how they interpret it. Still, the Bible is the common source for their religious beliefs and practically all Christian worship services directly reference the Bible.

Here’s the next question: what differentiates the Bible from the Koran (or any other holy book) in terms of validity? Not a thing, if we’re being honest. The Bible is less extreme, but that doesn’t make it more correct. Muslims believe just as strongly in the Koran as Christians do in the Bible (and in many cases, they believe much more strongly--you may be familiar with a little thing called jihad that some of them support). Muslims have “religious experiences” that are just as vivid and “real” as the experiences of Christians, yet they have an entirely different religion. There are a billion Muslims and a billion Hindus in the world, and there is not a single thing that makes their religions any less valid than Christianity. These religions have a holy book (or set of books) that they claim contains the words of the only real god(s). They cannot all be right...but they can all be wrong, which is way more likely than any of them being correct.
The question of why Christianity was correct while Islam or Judaism or Hinduism was not was one of the toughest questions for me to answer when I was still struggling with the idea of religion, and it's one of the things that makes it practically impossible for me to ever believe in Christianity again. I never had a better reason for believing in Christianity over Islam other than "that's what I was brought up with." I can't honestly say that Christianity has been definitively proven incorrect as a whole, but it's also true that there's nothing to prove that it is correct. The most recent books of the Bible were written ~1900 years ago, so the validity of the book as a whole is in question simply by virtue of its age. There's a bunch of stuff in there that is outright wrong, and there's also a bunch of stuff that modern Christians tend to ignore completely. One would think that an all-knowing and all-powerful god would put a little more effort into making sure that his book was more robust and credible. Even if He didn't want to write the book Himself, He could have made some simple decrees like "Don't rape anyone. Ever." and "No one deserves to be born into slavery. Stop that nonsense." But He didn’t. He thought it was more important to stress that making idols of other gods is a big no-no.

(And don’t give me the bullshit about how He was making rules that “fit the time,” as if humanity was so depraved 2000 or 3000 or even 6000 years ago that they were incapable of stopping themselves from banging everything that moves. You know what would convince them to stop raping people? The creator of the universe threatening them with eternal damnation if they did it and smiting some assholes who ignored Him. Problem solved.)

When people like me point out all the ridiculous nonsense in the Bible, apologists often retort “Yeah, but you can make the Bible say anything you want,” with the insinuation being that the Bible is so big and so old and so open to interpretation that one can find a passage to justify any standpoint they want. If that’s the case...what good is the Bible? Saying that you can make the Bible mean anything you want is the single most damning thing you can say about it. If you can use it to argue for both sides of an argument and it’s nothing more than a matter of opinion as to which side is interpreting the Bible “correctly...” then it can’t be used to justify anything.

I just don’t get what’s even remotely redeeming about the Bible. Jesus was a good dude, but so was Buddha. The Golden Rule is delightful, but that’s why it’s also in hundreds of other religions and easily predated Christianity. The story of Jonah is kinda fun, but not nearly as fun as the story of Spider-Man. We’ve got laws that we came up with independently of religion since this is not a theocracy, so we don’t need the Bible to tell us what to do (which it does a terrible job of anyway). Most importantly: there’s no good reason to believe that it’s actually divine in any way. It hasn’t been updated in ages and didn’t predict anything other than some crazy shit in Revelation about dragons that (spoiler alert) hasn’t come true. If it’s not reasonable to believe in the Bible, how is it reasonable to believe in Christianity?

I’d like to think that, as a society, we should be smart enough to move past the idea that the old religions are valid. I know there are a ton of stupid people in the world, but it’s not just stupid people who are religious. There are millions of people in this country who are of above-average intelligence yet still believe that Christianity is valid...even though it’s based on a book that unquestionably contains a bunch of bunk. I avoided finishing this post for so long because I don’t particularly like calling my friends and family crazy, but I honestly don’t know how I can take an objective look at a religion based on something as spurious as the Bible and come to a different conclusion. Maybe “crazy” is not the right word as I know they all have their reasons, but objectively religion just doesn’t make sense. They’re great people, and I still love ‘em...but they’re lending credence to the jackass fundamentalists by treating any form of Christianity as valid, and I don’t love that. Most Christians are good people, but they’re enabling the ones that aren’t for illogical reasons. By extension, they enable all kinds of objectively bad stuff done in the name of religion throughout the world. We could be much better off without it.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Online Dating

As you may or may not know, I embraced the 21st century (as computer nerds are wont to do) and decided to use online dating as my primary means of finding a lady sometime in 2008 after ending a relationship with a girl I met at a wedding. One of my good friends from college met his wife online, so that was good enough for me to try it out. You’re not going to believe this, but I’ve accumulated some thoughts about the whole thing over the course of 5+ years.

For the uninitiated, online dating essentially works as follows:
  • Pick a website and create a profile. This profile should contain some pictures where you attempt to look attractive and some writing where you attempt to seem witty.
  • Answer a bunch of general questions that are used (both by you and prospective mates) to find people who you would get along with “on paper.” Examples include your height, political stance, religious views, age, occupation, etc. Most people are mostly honest about these.
  • Look at other profiles to find someone you’d like to date, then send them an email to see if they’re also interested. Of course, they’re not interested, but that’s OK because there are literally hundreds of other people to choose from, and one of those people might be interested. Plus rejection is a character-building experience!
  • When you actually do generate some mutual interest, go on a date and see how it goes from there. Potentially go on multiple dates. Like a boss.

As for my thoughts, let’s start with the data--it’s not pretty. Things started off smashingly well as I ended up dating the second girl I went on a date with for a year and a half, and the third girl I went on a date with has been one of my best friends for the past four years. However, I was also single for those four years so...uh...yeah, it didn’t go so well on the whole.

My original inspiration for this post was a question: what is my actual success rate with online dating? I decided to define “success” as going on more than 2 dates with someone and estimated my success rate as follows: my odds of actually getting a response from someone I contact is about 15%. Of those, I'll go on a date with about 80%. Of those, I'll like them well enough to want to go on another date with about 50%. Of those, about 50% will feel the same about me. Of those, about half will have some kind of reason for not pursuing things further, even if the date went well (more on that later). That leads to this calculation:

.15 * .8 * .5 * .5 * .5 = 1.5%. That is my success rate with a girl that catches my fancy online. Or: one in every 66.6 girls. That’s right--according to my calculations, online dating is literally the devil.

I then went through all the history available to me from the dating sites I’ve used (match, OkCupid, eHarmony, and HowAboutWe) to crunch the actual numbers. Unfortunately, I had to delete about a year’s worth of sent messages with no response from OkCupid, and match automatically deletes old messages so I only have data for girls that responded to me there (since I still have the emails). I didn’t include the “response only” data in my calculations for response rate, but even so the response rate is inflated since I can’t account for the many, many unreturned messages that have disappeared into the ether. For the data I had, here are the actual rates:

23% response rate
47% date rate from responses
76% good dates for me
71% good dates for her
29% of dates last more than 2 dates

.23 * .47 * .76 * .71 * .29 = 1.69%. That is how often I’ll go on more than 2 dates with a woman I send a message to, or one in every 59 women I contact. My original estimates were way off, but they balanced out (although actually hitting 66.6 would have been really entertaining).

Now for some general thoughts:

--After reading through some of the messages I’ve sent, it's kind of amazing that anyone has ever responded to me. At least 75% of the stuff I’ve written has been really fucking awkward (which would explain the 15-23% success rate quite nicely). I didn’t rush through these emails, either--I actually took the time to try and make them engaging. I wish I had some great insight into why it’s so hard to write like a reasonable human being when attempting to woo a nice young broad, but I don’t. Other than the fact that I like to call them “broads.” It also probably doesn’t help that I’m nearly incapable of writing without using sarcasm. Did you know that people don’t always pick up on inflection online? I STILL HAVEN’T FIGURED THIS OUT.

--It can be just as convenient as it seems like it should be. Theoretically, online dating is a phenomenal idea. It’s easy to meet people in school, but it’s much harder after leaving college. Blind dates are unreliable, dating coworkers is risky and typically doesn’t provide a large pool to choose from, and dating random people in bars is a crapshoot. Dating online, on the other hand, has tons of benefits. You get easy answers to important questions before you even talk to the person: how old are they? What are their religious views? Do they smoke? Do they drink? Do they want kids? Do they already have kids? Are they employed? Are they attractive? What city do they live in? Do they have a sense of humor/are they a robot? Are they interested in your gender?

On OkCupid, you might also get the answers to more varied and interesting questions: how many kids do they want? How do they feel about drugs? Gay people? Beards? Nerds? Video games? Cats? Dogs? Furries? Star Wars or Star Trek? Mornings or evenings? Normal or weird? Are they sexually attracted to inanimate objects? (To which I answered “Yes - I love lamp.” Because I'm so damn funny.)

Even with the answers to all these questions, there’s no telling whether you’ll get along well enough to have a meaningful relationship, but you should be able to tell whether you’ll get along at all. I have friends who have been on terrible dates with people they met online, but I haven’t had a single bad date. I went on a couple that weren’t too good, but I didn’t expect them to be; even if the person is generally boring, it’s still interesting to meet and talk to new people. The key is really getting to that first date, and online dating makes that easy. Well, it’s only relatively easy because...

--There are many dudes. Many, many, many dudes. Even when limited to dudes in their 20’s and 30’s with a decent sense of humor who are reasonably intelligent and have their shit together...there are still many dudes. Sooooo many dudes. I’ve heard that the demographics are more balanced in some other cities, but in Cleveland guys like me far outnumber women I’d like to date. I’ve talked to a bunch of women about their online dating experience, and they almost all talk about the insane number of guys they have to deal with. Granted, many of those guys do nothing but send a message that says “how r u?” because many of those guys are bad at online dating (and quite possibly life in general), but there still seem to be a ton of reasonable guys.

There are a few reasons for this. There’s still a stigma (although it’s lessening) that online dating is creepy or just for nerds or ineffective or full of losers (which I suppose it is, although there are plenty of good people, too). Men are much less affected by this stigma as I don’t think we’re embarrassed as easily. Even the women who like online dating often want to pretend that they met their guy in a bar, so many of them are reluctant to even sign up. Those that do can easily be turned off by all the dicks they have to deal with (hopefully only figuratively).

However, it seemed to me that there were more women joining when I got out of the game, so I think it’s getting better and more socially acceptable.

--Turns out not dating religious people severely limits the available pool of women, particularly in Ohio. Even though I included “spiritual but not religious” and “Jewish” I still cut out a decent chunk of the population. If you’ve read this blog you probably understand my reluctance; I’m totally fine with having religious friends, but not so fine with dating religious people. I don’t think they’d be too interested in me, either, as I’m still kind of an ass regardless of how much I work on tolerance. I think religion is silly, and that's not likely to change.

--OkCupid is far and away the best online dating site. It’s free, they employ good web developers, the dating pool is relatively large, and I think their matching algorithm is the best since you can weight which questions are more important to you. Also, anyone in the entire user community can submit a question, and you can add explanations to your answers. It just wins on all fronts. Don’t bother paying for other sites.

--The list of extenuating circumstances (names changed to protect the innocent):
Agnes: parents got divorced the weekend after our first date
Esther: was dating another guy before our first date and stuck with him
Lucinda: recently got out of an engagement and I was too big of a pansy to push for a relationship before another guy did
Kay: worked nights and weekends so we never went on a date despite great online chemistry
Cornelia: some people can’t handle sarcasm. Also, I’m kind of an asshole to stupid people sometimes, and she was kind of stupid.
Mildred: thinks Jesse Ventura is just speaking the truth, man
Samsonite: date was immediately followed by a hospitalization for the second time in a few months

And finally, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Not everyone clicks. I’m glad I didn’t click with any of the people above, but it was always frustrating at the time.

--Lessons learned from sending hundreds of messages:
Be casual.
Ask at least one question.
Make sure they know you read their profile.
Don’t be creepy.
Be funny.
Don’t be unattractive.

--When you go on a date, don’t talk too much; if you like the person you’re on a date with, the goal should be to get them to talk more than you do. It has to be a back and forth conversation to work, but whoever talks more usually has a better impression of the date afterwards. If you legitimately like them, you won’t mind listening to them talk anyway.

--I have spectacularly fucked up most of the real life opportunities (i.e. meeting someone through means besides online dating) bestowed on me by giving girls my number instead of getting theirs. Or not even bothering to see if they’re interested. Always get a number.


With all that being said, I still view online dating in a positive light, despite all of its frustrations. This is, of course, primarily due to the fact that I finally found a broad that I’m completely crazy about. Inexplicably, she also really likes me. Yeah, I’m surprised too, but I’m not going to complain. I guess sometimes people just work really well together, but the key is actually meeting them to begin with. Luckily for me, I was prudent enough to praise Billy Madison in my profile and I caught m’lady’s fancy. We never would have met if it weren’t for the wonders of OkCupid, even though we were at the same college for a couple years. Hell, we both almost took jobs in other cities before we met. Meeting the right person can be a bitch.

Anywho, I’d give the online dating experience a A-. It’s not without faults, but it still beats the hell out of the other options for meeting a potential mate after college. I think it has a tendency to make people overly picky when they’re presented with the whole of humanity as options to date, but it’s still really useful for those who are open-minded. It also has a ton of success stories now. It really can work. It’s not as good as the Keurig, but it’s still one of the better things we’ve come up with so far in this millenium.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Discussing Things People Don’t Like Discussing

One of the benefits of writing this blog is that it’s sparked conversations with a variety of people that I otherwise would not have had. To me, the most interesting conversations are respectful debates: conversations where people disagree, but they actually talk about why they disagree rather than getting mad and yelling at each other. I love the fact that Bill Maher has conservatives on his show to provide an opposing viewpoint...but I hate the fact that it often just ends up in lots of “No, you’re wrong, asshole!” and “That’s ridiculous and you’re a stupid doodyhead.” To be fair, that’s a natural reaction when you vehemently disagree with a person you don’t know (although “doodyhead” seems like a strange word choice), but it’s also practically pointless.

When talking to people that you actually know, the level of vitriol goes down substantially, and people are forced to resort to, like, actual arguments and stuff. “You’re wrong, asshole” is replaced by things like “but the problem with that is...” and “here’s some anecdotal evidence for why I believe you are incorrect, my good friend.” Just kidding, real people don’t talk like that--no one wants to admit that their anecdotal evidence is merely anecdotal.

The point is, these are the types of conversations that actually lead to greater understanding on both sides because people are forced to put a real, human face on the opposing side of the argument. They're also less likely to simply dismiss a point they don't agree with when it comes from someone they know. Personally, I wish that these types of conversations took place more frequently. Then again, I’m a competitive jackass who enjoys debating. I also like to bill myself as “the most logical person I know,” so I tend to debate reasonably well. As a disclaimer, I don’t think I’m the most logical person in the world--just the most logical person I know...although I’m probably shortchanging some computer nerds I know. Also, I’m biased.

There’s a bunch of people who believe that the best way to lose friends is by discussing religion and politics. There’s some merit to that: talking about these issues from opposite sides is likely to put some strain on the relationship. If it’s not a very strong relationship then yes, it could be fatal. This is why I don’t advocate talking about this stuff at work--you may not know your coworkers that well or like them that much, but you will be forced to continue to interact with them, so you don’t want to strain those relationships as they might not be able to handle it. When you’re friends outside of work and you agree on these topics then it’s fine; otherwise just talk about sports or, you know, whatever it is that women talk about. I assume they have some kind of go-to non-controversial topic they discuss all the time. Like shoes, or abortion.

On the other hand, some relationships can handle some strain. If you’ve known the other person for a while, there should be a reasonable amount of goodwill built up. Presumably you have respectful conversations. You should be able to disagree on some stuff and still remain friends because your friendship was built upon other stuff to begin with. You can take some time off before seeing them again, allowing everyone to cool down if necessary. You also don’t need to discuss this stuff every time you see them; chances are you can each make the case for your side the first time you talk, and then simply agree to disagree going forward (you’ll just have a better understanding of why you disagree).


Having spent my whole life in Ohio where I was raised as a Methodist, the majority of the people in my life are Christian. That proportion decreases as time goes on and I befriend more heathens, but before I graduated college there were very few people in my life who were not religious. I’ve come to find out that some people I assumed were Christian aren’t, and I also know some people who have, like me, quit religion. I’m still left with a bunch of Christian friends and family members (and we’ll pretend like all my family members qualify as friends going forward), so I’ve had a number of these conversations in the past few years.

Honestly, I think they’ve all been beneficial. I won’t pretend that they haven’t been occasionally uncomfortable, but I’m glad I’ve had them nonetheless. The main reason is because of the increased understanding between both sides, which in turn increases tolerance and empathy (and hopefully there’s enlightenment on both sides as well).

On the religious side, my friends get to hear my reasons for leaving Christianity behind so they understand why I became an atheist. Hopefully, it softens their impressions of atheists in general since, if they’re friends with me, they presumably like me, which should allow them to be more tolerant of atheists (which would be nice since atheists may be the least trustworthy demographic in this country). It improves their worldview by adding more information to it--even if they don’t agree with me, they still come away with a better understanding of the world by knowing how a group of “others” views it. It will also give them food for thought. Again, even if they don’t agree, they will have had to rationalize why they disagree, and critical thinking is almost always a good thing. Maybe they’ll even be like me and, after a great deal of thinking, come to the conclusion that they were wrong about some stuff that they had always held as true.

On my side, I get pretty much all the same benefits. We’re all adults (I don’t have these conversations with my nephew--somehow I don’t think that would go over well with his ordained parents since he mistakenly looks up to me as a cool uncle (since kids are stupid enough to believe that I’m cool)), so we’ve all had time to think about the big questions and come to our own conclusions. Having come down on the opposite side of religion, I had a tendency for a while to assume that religious people were kinda stupid in some fashion. To be honest, I can’t say I’ve moved past that opinion when it comes to fundamentally religious people who impossibly try to take millennia-old books literally, but most of my friends are of the moderate/liberal Christian variety. Most of them aren’t actually stupid; some are smarter than me. They’ve just had different experiences than I have and they’ve processed the evidence and arguments differently than I have. Do I think they’re wrong about religion? Yes. Do they think I’m wrong? Yes. But now we both know why the other person is wrong, and hopefully we don’t automatically disdain someone just for coming down on the opposite side.

I also understand the world better since I now have a better understanding of the billions of people who remain religious even into adulthood. I’ve also had to refute their arguments or adjust my stance or come up with new ideas, all of which are good things if they bring me closer to reality. Again, critical thinking is a good thing. Even when people don’t fundamentally change their stance on a topic, they should at least end up closer to the truth.

One of the other benefits, of course, is that I come away with a better understanding of my friends’ specific points of view. Even within the same denomination, religious people can have vastly different views so it’s rarely safe to make assumptions. Just because someone identifies as Catholic doesn’t mean they’re as crazy or as unreasonable as a stereotypical Catholic. Most of them don’t even condone child molestation, and most of them have the good sense to ignore that bullshit about birth control being sinful. Plus the new pope seems like a pretty good dude, especially as far as popes go. Catholicism still sucks, of course...but there are plenty of Catholics who don't.

Some of the conversations I’ve had in the past couple years have been in writing, which has the advantage of allowing time to clearly communicate arguments. On the other hand, in-person conversations have the advantage of forced cordiality as most people try to avoid disrespecting their friends to their face. Sometimes I can be a bit offensive when writing this blog to the world at large. It’s not my explicit intention to be a dick about this stuff, but I’m not one to let political correctness stop me from clearly expressing how ridiculous I think religion is. In person, though, I’m a delightful fellow who is, for the most part, quite polite. I’ll probably still make more logical arguments than whoever I’m talking to (which is easy to do since my arguments aren’t faith-based), but they won’t be quite as aggressive or offensive. Since I’m not as offensive, I’m more likely to have a receptive audience and they’re more likely to actually consider the points that I’m making rather than simply thinking, “Man, Kyle can be a real dickface sometimes” and refusing to read any more of the stuff I’ve written (I assume that people who don’t like my blog think of me as a dickface. Also, it turns out that Google thinks “dickface” is a real word, so feel free to use it in your own high-minded writings).

My final reason for advocating discussion on religion and politics: these topics are really, really important. As in, so important that they practically demand debate in order to come to the best possible resolution. If there is an afterlife, I’d say figuring out the rules that determine how you spend it is a pretty damn important endeavor. If the major religions have it right and I’m going to spend eternity in either perpetual bliss or perpetual torment then I really want to know which set of rules to follow in order to get through the pearly gates.

On the other hand, if they’ve all got it wrong then we should collectively stop all this silliness we’re engaged in. We should stop wasting so much time and energy and emotion and hatred on baseless beliefs. We should stop acting like books that are thousands of years old provide a reasonable guide for modern morality. We should stop promoting ridiculous views of sexuality that are sourced from (supposedly) celibate old men. We should stop fighting wars over land that is no more holy than my yard. We should stop fighting wars in general since pretty much all of them are fought over religious and/or political ideologies. Perhaps most importantly, we should stop making laws based on our interpretations of what a non-existent god wants (not just in the United States, either).

All of these “we should stop” statements only apply if there are no gods, but if that’s the case then we really need to stop fucking up life on Earth if it’s the only one we’ve got. Any religiously-influenced laws are made with the afterlife in mind, which means that they are completely, totally, absolutely irrational if there is no afterlife. Sure, there’s an intersection of laws that work on both religious and secular levels--most of us can agree that murder is bad...although even that is not always the case when it comes to Islamic fatwas. So we can’t even all agree on that. Thanks, religion. You’re doing a bang-up job of keeping swaths of the world trapped in the Middle Ages. Maybe it’s time we talked about that.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Unnecessarily Necessary Debate

On February 4th William Nye, The Gentleman of Science went to Kentucky to debate Kenneth Ham, The Proponent of Humans Riding Dinosaurs about whether or not creationism is valid. They each had a 30 minute presentation, followed by a rebuttal, followed by a bunch of audience questions that they each responded to. The whole thing took a little over two hours, and you can watch it here if you want (skip ahead to 17 minutes). If you can believe it, I’ve got some thoughts on the debate.

First, I was mildly surprised by Ham because I don’t think he quite qualifies as crazy. He’s illogical, kinda dense, and most certainly wrong, but I think he genuinely believes his own rationalizations for how the Bible could literally be true despite all the evidence to the contrary. He talks like a sane person, and he makes some arguments that could be construed as worthwhile if you don’t think about them for longer than a second. I mean, a few of the things he said even hold water. If you ever wanted an honest look into how a religious person can compartmentalize their irrationality into a corner of their brain without breaking it, Ham can give you a pretty good insight. I genuinely appreciate his honesty and I even appreciate his passion, misplaced though it may be.

With that being said...Ham made some really stupid arguments. In the spirit of being less offensive in my writing, I’m going to be as civil as possible in deconstructing his terribly, terribly illogical points. I will even refrain from using the word “fuck” when discussing Ham or his arguments because I am (arguably) a mature adult...although it should be noted that I was unable to do that in the first draft of this post. So: what did Ham get wrong?

One of his biggest points was that evolution and the myriad forms of dating are somehow not science because they don’t involve direct observation. This is one of those points that sounds reasonable until you think about it for two seconds...because we haven’t been capable of recording observations for the past four billion years. That only started a few thousand years ago which, not coincidentally, is when Ham thinks the entire universe began (even though Egyptian history predates the Bible). OK Ken, I concede that we don’t have scientific records available from a million years ago (much less four billion)...but what’s the alternative? Are we supposed to treat the Bible as an accurate historical record? Did you sit down with God to interview Him about how He created the universe? Did you watch Eve eat that apple? Did you watch Noah build his ark? Did you watch God write the 10 commandments with his lightning pen? Did you witness the events at the tower of Babel? This stuff was all written as if it was observed, but there’s no conclusive evidence pointing to it being true; there wasn’t exactly a lot of journalistic integrity in 1000 B.C.

This leads to the issue of faith on both sides. Ham has faith that the Bible is literally true, whereas I have faith that extrapolations based on scientific evidence provide a reasonable estimation of the truth. To Ham, I’m making a bigger leap of faith than he is but, of course, Ham is not a reasonable man. Another of his big points was about how reasonable people assume that the natural laws used to estimate ages haven’t changed over time. Here’s my question: is it more reasonable to assume that the things we can observe now are following the same laws that existed millions of years ago, or is it more reasonable to assume that the universe followed a different set of rules 6,000 years ago despite the fact that we’ve never seen these laws violated? Is it more reasonable to base our worldview on assumptions and extrapolations from what we’ve observed, or to base our worldview on the assumption that a 3,000 year old book is the literal truth according to an omnipotent being whose existence we have no evidence of? We’re all working off of assumptions; I prefer to make my assumptions based on logic and evidence rather than the Bible. Of course, logic and evidence have led me to believe the Bible is, at best, only occasionally accurate so I am admittedly biased...toward logic.

Ham seemed to think he was making some kind of argument in his favor when he asked, ”Where do the laws of logic and nature come from if not from God?” Wait, what? That’s supposed to be some kind of self-explanatory “gotcha?” There’s no reason whatsoever to assume that a god is needed in order for natural laws to exist. None. What’s the difference between “these laws exist because God created them” and “these laws exist because that’s the way things are?” This boils down to whether or not God created the universe, and the existence of natural laws is not an argument in favor of either side on that issue. I don’t want to spend any more time on the origin of the universe here because it doesn’t currently have a satisfying explanation--you either have the Lawrence Krauss “universe from nothing” theory (where the definition for “nothing” sounds suspiciously like “something”), or you have the “God created everything” theory (which doesn’t explain where God came from, so it doesn’t explain anything). Let’s move on from that quagmire.

In what was probably the most telling moment of the entire two hours, Ham freely admitted that nothing could change his mind on this topic because, in his view, it’s impossible to disprove the notion that the Bible is the word of God. Nye, on the other hand, answered the same question reasonably: evidence would change his mind. Any evidence at all that goes against the theory of evolution, and he’d gladly embrace it. It’’s incredibly frustrating to know that Ham feels this way, and that many religious people feel the same. How can we possibly have an honest debate when one side unequivocally refuses to be persuaded, regardless of literally all the evidence in the world? How can one have any intellectual integrity whatsoever if they are unable to change their mind? Ham can’t even think of something that would sway him. I appreciate his honesty, but it’s quite discouraging if, like Nye, you care about the scientific literacy of the country. At some point you have to stop trying to pound the square peg of scientific knowledge into the smaller round hole of theism. There are, of course, reasonable Christians who agree that the world is much older than 6,000 years and that evolution is far and away the best explanation for the diversity of life on this planet. Then again, there’s also Ken Ham.

Ham won’t even agree to simple math when it disproves his beliefs. Nye made a phenomenal point about how quickly we’d have to churn out new species if we only had 4,000 years to go from some small number of animals that Noah saved to some very large number of animals that currently exist. Nye originally used 7,000 as the number of different “kinds” (Ham’s term) of animals on Noah’s ark, although Ham later argued that the number might be as small as 1,000 in an attempt to make the ark itself more plausible without realizing that it would make the speciation problem 7 times worse. Estimates vary wildly for the current number of species, although Internet says the current best estimate is 8.7 million. At the high end of, say, 30 million species with only 1,000 of them on the ark, we’d have to generate more than 20 new species every single day: (30,000,000 - 1,000)/4,000/365. In other words, (Total Current Species - Species on Noah’s Ark)/Years Since Noah’s Ark/Days in a Year. At the low end of 5 million species, 7,000 of which were on the ark, we’d still have to come up with 3.4 new species every single day and this is the absolute best-case scenario for the speciation problem.

Life is currently diverse enough (what with our 5-30 million existing species) that we could probably hit that rate of 3.4 a day. Then again, we’d also have to factor in the problem of species going extinct, which inevitably happens as a result of both natural and unnatural selection (turns out we humans are greedy when it comes to space and resources). The problem gets really messy here, because we’re currently losing an estimated 100-200 species a day depending on whose numbers you like, and we’re not really sure how many new species a day are being generated. We’re also not sure how many species have already gone extinct--cataloguing all the species that currently exist and have ever existed is a near-impossible task, but that number would need to be added to the total number that would need to be generated since Noah. There’s also the issue of how long it would take to even split from one to two species when there are only two members of the entire species to start out with. Speciation typically happens when populations are geographically split and the two populations favor different adaptations; in reality this tends to take thousands of years for animals with a reasonable lifespan, and that’s after the geographical split. It can occur quicker than that, of course, but it’s not common (certainly not common enough to happen to 100% of all original species many times over).

In short, it’s flat out impossible for a small enough number of animals to fit on the ark to proliferate into the ridiculously large number of animals that have existed in the past 4,000 years...unless you subscribe to the theory that God has been creating new species literally out of thin air for 4,000 straight years (and if He was going to do that, then what the hell was the point of saving any animals to begin with?). He would, of course, have to sneeze out new species in secret where no one could observe Him, because heaven forbid that an omnipotent being would actually provide evidence that He exists. Luckily for God, He can sneeze in secret because He doesn’t need anyone to say “bless you” since He’s God and all.

There’s been plenty of discussion over whether the debate was even worth having. There are some people in the secular community who viewed the debate as a bad idea because they felt it lent credibility to the creationist point of view simply by having the debate. There’s some merit there--the Theory of Evolution shouldn’t require any debate since it’s a scientific theory, meaning it’s a collection of facts. Reasonable, informed people do not doubt that evolution is responsible for the diversity of life on this planet, but the simple fact that Nye agreed to this debate makes it seem as though there might be a viable counterpoint to evolution. However, as ridiculous as Ham’s viewpoint may be, one-third of the country doesn’t believe in evolution so there is clearly a good bit of education that is still needed on the subject.

There are also some people that think the debate is pointless because whether or not we share ancestors with every other animal on Earth doesn’t materially affect the present or future. I get the point that the knowing the age of the planet isn’t a big deal on its own, but that doesn’t mean that believing in creationism doesn’t have drawbacks. For example, a belief in creationism tends to go hand in hand with a lack of understanding of science (which in turn leads to things like denying climate change, which certainly is a big deal). Ham used clips from a few people with PhDs in his presentation as if to say, “Look! Some scientists are creationists, ergo creationism is legit!” I don’t mean to downplay the difficulty of attaining a PhD, but having one doesn’t make that person right. Also, for what it’s worth, three-fourths of people with postgraduate degrees believe in evolution along with a whopping 97% of scientists, so it’s harder to find smart people who don’t believe in evolution than those who do.

An interesting (although not surprising) note from those surveys: both Republicans and religious people are less likely to believe in evolution than their counterparts. This is relevant because people are likely to throw their political support behind the politicians who hold the same views (misguided though they may be), regardless of how terrible those politicians are. These people make laws so they are, unfortunately, important. This goes back to the big picture of the influence of religion. I am far from being a bleeding heart liberal, but there is just soooooo much blatant idiocy being driven by the Religious Right that it hurts. I knew people in college who would vote straight Republican solely because they were the more pious party, and questions like “Do you believe in evolution or creationism?” feed into that nonsense.

Here’s a crazy point, and one that makes Ohio more tolerable to live in: in the Pew survey from 2013, white mainline Protestants (i.e. the “moderate” or “liberal” Christians) are the group most likely to believe in evolution, edging the unaffiliated group 78% to 76% (I would assume this is mostly due to the fact that “unaffiliated” would include those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” rather than strictly secular people, but this stat is impressive nonetheless). To be fair, half of them think that God guided evolution vs. only a fifth of the unaffiliateds, but at least they’re not living in total denial of the insurmountable evidence on this topic.

Finally, this debate is important because a misunderstanding of evolution is one of the biggest barriers that prevent people from breaking away from religion. It was a huge stumbling block for me for many years, so it’s a topic I’ve had strong opinions on ever since I done got myself some education on it. The reason it’s so important is because it can stop the doubt about the validity of religion in its tracks--my train of thought used to go something along the lines of “Man, religion is kinda messed up, and it’s rife with logical fallacies...but humans are really, really complex. There’s no way we could have come about through random mutations from something as simple as a single-celled organism. Welp, I guess that means God is real.”

Everyone thinks about the origins of life at some point, regardless of their viewpoint on religion. “Where did we come from?” is truly a universal question. I can’t speak for everyone who was raised religiously, but many of us never gave the question much thought because we simply didn’t think there was a viable alternative to “God created everything.” Evolution doesn’t make sense without an adequate explanation of how it works, and for a long time I didn’t get that explanation. Ergo, for a long time I couldn’t seriously entertain the idea that God doesn’t exist. Above everything else, that is why this debate is so important.