LD 1428 is dead

I attended my first public hearing on a bill last week. The bill was LD 1428, “An Act to Protect Religious Freedom”. In reality it was just special rights for litigious Christians who don’t want to abide by civil rights and health care laws:

During the public hearing on the bill, Apollo Karara of Portland, a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda, spoke about his experiences coming to America to escape persecution and asked the committee to oppose the bill. “As a Christian, I am glad that I have the freedom to practice my religion. But I know firsthand how dangerous it can be to decide that your personal beliefs entitle you to break laws that protect us all,” said Karara. “I came to America for safety and freedom–please do not take that away.”

The religious were out in force for this hearing, proudly sporting brightly colored stickers. One mother even had her son read a prepared speech. There are no boos or cheers at these sort of things, but if there were, that would have been the best time for it – not for the kid, though. He did fine for what he was asked/forced to do. The mother, though, was deserving of a boo or two for thinking there is such a thing as a Christian child. Or Muslim child. Or Jewish child. Or atheist child. There is no such thing; there are merely children of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, etc, parents. Not enough people realize this, but I digress.

It looks like the bill has another round of votes in the Maine senate, but it’s as good as dead at this point. We have laws that protect religious liberty pretty well. We don’t need ones that will give special rights to a select few who keep losing on civil rights and other matters at the polls and in the courts.

Should polygamy be legal?

A judge in Utah recently ruled Utah’s anti-polygamy laws unconstitutional:

Advocacy groups for polygamy and individual liberties on Saturday hailed a federal judge’s ruling that key parts of Utah’s polygamy laws are unconstitutional, saying it will remove the threat of arrest for those families.

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups said in the decision handed down Friday that a provision in Utah law forbidding cohabitation with another person violated the First Amendment right of freedom of religion.

The ruling was a victory for Kody Brown and his four wives who star in the hit TLC reality show ‘‘Sister Wives’’ and other fundamentalist Mormons who believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.

This ruling doesn’t legalize polygamy, but if upheld it would decriminalize it. I have no doubt that is the correct ruling, whether due to religious freedom or individual liberty. In either case, I see no reason why any government can tell people with whom they can and cannot live. (Utah didn’t even stop at that rights violation: the state went so far as to say people couldn’t claim to be married to multiple people.) However, the question of legalization is a different one.

It’s hard to see a reason why one should care about the lifestyle choice of consenting adults. I don’t. It doesn’t affect anyone else in any way whatsoever. However, that doesn’t mean the government should necessarily go about endorsing contractual agreements that bestow various rights, privileges, and tax conditions.

The fundamental question concerning the legalization of same-sex marriage is one of equality: the government can’t invent/endorse a practice that it limits on the basis of an inherent human condition like race or sexual orientation – at least not since the 14th Amendment. That’s exactly what it has been doing (and in many states is still doing) by barring same-sex couples from marrying. With polygamy, however, that is not what’s happening. The basis for barring polygamous marriages is rooted, right or wrong, entirely in a moral stance which passes judgement on the preferences, not orientation, of individuals. Polygamous marriages and same-sex marriages are apples and oranges.

None of this – to this point – is to say one way or another whether or not I’m in favor of legalizing polygamous marriages. Up until now I’ve only discussed what it is. So with that said, let me state: I don’t think it should be legal. I have two primary reasons for my position.

First, I believe one of the most important rights bestowed upon couples who get married is one of spousal privilege where a spouse cannot be compelled to testify against another spouse in a court. Aside from the fact that any right which prevents the government from gaining any evidence against a person for any reason is a fundamentally good thing for freedom, spousal privilege is necessary to fostering healthy relationships. Allowing the government to force a spouse to turn on another spouse can only serve to prevent married couples from free discussion, thus weakening their marriages. This right is to marriages as the ecclesiastical privilege is to religious freedom. Just as forcing clergy to divulge information told to them by penitents would weaken a person’s ability to freely practice his religion, forcing a spouse to divulge information gained via marriage would weaken a couple’s marital bonds. Now, the reason I bring this up is that there is absolutely no circumstance in which I believe this right should be destroyed, yet that is exactly what would be necessary if polygamy was legalized. If any number of individuals could marry, there is nothing stopping a criminal enterprise from conducting a mass marriage, thus gaining spousal privilege for any number of thugs. This would be great for their freedom, but it would be very bad for everyone else’s safety. (In a weeks-old discussion from Facebook someone made the point that if just one person wanted a divorce, it would become necessary for all the other spouses to divulge all financial information, which no crime organization would want. I was asked if I really thought such people would expose themselves that way. The answer, of course, is yes. First, it’s a risk, to say the least, to divorce one’s self from a crime organization, whether in a symbolic sense or in this fictional legal world. Second, crime organizations aren’t exactly known for their well reconciled check books.)

Second, it’s hard to fathom how the tax code would cope with this change in law. A fundamental overhaul would be necessary, which could be done I suppose, but no doubt people would take advantage of it for the sake of saving a few bucks, no matter how careful the changes were. I know I would. This isn’t an insurmountable objection to polygamy (hence why it’s my second, not my first, point), but it’s definitely a huge issue.

At any rate, criminalizing polygamy is just making up a crime. And being against polygamy on moral grounds is some pretty weak sauce. However, simply due to a single, fundamental right bestowed upon married couples, I can’t possibly support legalized polygamous marriages. I imagine there are actually a host of rights to be considered here, but I see no need to go beyond just the one given its importance. We can’t get rid of it – that weakens marriage and individual freedom – and we can’t grant it to everyone – the exploitation would be insane – and we can’t grant it to one group of married couples while denying it to another – that’s no different from what we’re seeing now with the non-legalization of same-sex marriage. The only solution is to keep legal marriage defined to two individuals.

Taking on the apologetics of Randal Rauser

Mike over at The A-Unicornist has a solid history of taking on the apologetics of believers who have managed to publish books. I took on a post by one of those apologists, David Marshall, who was responding to Mike. It wasn’t that I thought my assistance was needed (it wasn’t). I suppose I just felt like responding. It turned out to be unfruitful due to the surprising and abundant childishness of Marshall, but I’m going to put that experience in the back of mind and respond to another theist Mike has recently taken on, Randal Rauser. (In Mike’s most recent posts, he discusses Rauser’s censorship. Apparently Rauser wasn’t a big fan of having his beliefs taken apart, so he went on a deleting binge. As a result, I don’t think I’ll be posting on his blog – a censor cannot be trusted – but I will post here.)

The Rauser post that caught my eye was one in which he discusses why Jesus was never really tempted:

In their trials and temptations many Christians have drawn strength from Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet he did not sin.” (TNIV; cf. Heb. 2:18) Unfortunately, the significance of this passage is widely misunderstood, and thus its true force is often lost.

The problems are rooted in the erroneous belief that to be tempted means that Jesus could have sinned and that he was somehow enticed by sin (that is, he found it appealing but still resisted it). Both assumptions are deeply mistaken.

Rauser takes this on from two angles. First, he notes that Jesus is God and God cannot sin, thus Jesus was never actually tempted into doing wrong. It isn’t hard to see why this isn’t much of an answer. Rauser is noting two claims in the Bible – God is perfect and Jesus was tempted – and he is arbitrarily deciding that the claim to perfection must be true. That is, there is a clear contradiction, so Rauser effectively declares that the Bible is wrong in one of its claims. I’m sure he wouldn’t phrase it this way at all, but it’s plainly what he has done.

But, okay, maybe he’s talking about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man. So what of the man? Well:

“But what about his humanity? Couldn’t Jesus sin because he was a man?” Ironically, I argue that the opposite is the case: it is also because Jesus is human that he could not have sinned.

How so?

The key is to recognize that Jesus was not simply a man, but the perfect man. First ask what is it that makes human beings uniquely human? According to scripture, the answer is the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). But while we are made in the image of God, Jesus is the image of God (Col. 1:15). That means that he is not just another man, but the standard and essence of human perfection.

This just brings us further down the rabbit hole. What does it mean to be “the perfect man”? Can the perfect man not sin? Does that mean he lacks free will? Can perfection be attained without free will? And what of emotions? Was Jesus able to feel guilt and envy and jealousy? Hatred? If he lacked basic human characteristics – free will, emotions, etc – then I fail to see how we’re describing a human at all.

So where does this leave us? Well, if Jesus was unable to experience, say, envy like any other human, then he wasn’t really human, perfect or not. That isn’t to say he needed to experience envy in order to be human, but he did need to have the ability to experience it. So let’s say that he could experience envy, but he simply did not. That’s all fine and well for the perfect human argument, but it fails the Jesus-couldn’t-be-tempted argument. That is, if he could experience envy (or any other human emotion), then he could be tempted. That then leads us to conclude that he could sin – which then means that he could be imperfect.

Rauser continues:

But if Christ could not have sinned then what does it mean to say Jesus was tempted? Is there a contradiction between the statement that God cannot be tempted (James 1:13) and the statements in Hebrews that Christ was tempted?

Not at all. To resolve the tension we need to understand that the Greek word for temptation (peirazo) has two meanings: temptation and testing. God cannot be tempted in the sense of finding sin enticing. But he can be tested (1 Cor. 10:9).

None of this answers questions about whether or not Jesus could logically be a “perfect man”, but it does avoid the problem of declaring one Biblical claim correct while saying another is incorrect simply because it’s inconvenient that they contradict each other. That is, if the Bible only ever says Jesus was tested, then there is no issue with the claim that he is also perfect. This leaves me to wonder why Rauser bothered with his first claim at all.

As to the notion that Jesus couldn’t be tempted because he was “a perfect man”, I don’t see a satisfactory resolution. Parsing the original Greek works for one issue, but the whole point here is to demonstrate that Jesus could not sin. That, to me, destroys his humanity. It takes from the story of when he flipped over the merchant tables in the temple. If that wasn’t his humanity, what was it? He may have been righteous, and a few weak philosophies will justify using any means to achieve a desirable end, but he was also fundamentally human at that moment. Jesus’ sin in destroying the merchant tables cannot and should not be explained away.

Let’s examine faith for a moment

It’s a common definition amongst New Atheists that faith is merely belief without evidence. The occasional theist will accept this, often going further and purporting this to be some sort of virtue, but many Christians will reject this. They will argue that faith bears some relation to evidence, reason, logic, or even all three. But does that make sense? I don’t think so.

Let’s take the most populous religion in our culture: Christianity. If faith was more than belief without evidence, we should expect to find people with Christian beliefs that originated from somewhere other than the bible. That is, if faith is just a synonym for reason or logic or evidence, then a person ought to be able to discover all the information necessary to finding Christ.

Think about it. Calculus has been discovered at least 3 times (twice in Europe and once in Japan). The history of chemistry tells us certain elements have been found by several different people (usually with just one getting the credit). Atomic weapons have been created by multiple nations. All these things happen independently of each other. And why? Because math and science have methodologies behind them that progress on the basis of logic, reason, and evidence. Discoveries can repeat themselves in math and science. This is what we should expect of a type of inquiry that is more than belief without evidence.

When has faith produced the same result in independent people at independent times? Has anyone come to accept Christ in their hearts without the bible? Has anyone even come to know anything of Christ without the bible? Why is it that we don’t have any recorded instances of a Chinese person in, say, 80 A.D. writing about the Christian Savior? The answer is simple and obvious. It isn’t possible to discover anything offered on faith except through faith. To even know the name Jesus Christ, the original source of that name and of that man is always the bible; the original source is never found freely in the world, completely independent of the known Christian traditions. A tribesman in a remote part of the Amazon jungle will never know anything of what it means to be a Christian, no matter how hard he searches, less he find himself a victim of missionaries. Beliefs found on faith are beliefs without an evidential basis. Indeed, faith is nothing more than belief without evidence.

What would constitute evidence for God?

As a so-called New Atheist, one of the cornerstones of my worldview is that evidence is absolutely key in coming to any sort of important conclusion. To believe otherwise is to believe dangerously, at least when it comes to anything important. (Our belief that, for instance, a bridge isn’t going to collapse beneath us is an assumption, and so I exclude such beliefs when I use the word “important”.) That is, to believe something without evidence is to believe on faith. And, of course, that is entirely random; faith is not a method of belief by any means, but rather an arbitrary basis that can lead a person to absolutely any conclusion, including abortion clinic bombings, giving a homeless person a dollar, and committing war atrocities. In short, faith is the worst thing the world has ever seen.

So all that said, I reject faith fully. This is why I call myself an atheist: I am without any form of theism because there is no evidence in its favor. Indeed, there is no good evidence in favor of even deism. (I’m also an anti-theist, but for different reasons.) But I’ve often wondered, what sort of evidence would I accept as pointing towards a knowing, intervening creator? I recall Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers having a back and forth prior towards everyone in the New Atheist movement, including Coyne, shunning Myers for various reasons, so it was a civil exchange, but I don’t recall the details. All I remember now is that Coyne said there is possible evidence whereas Myers took the faith-based position in saying that no evidence could convince him. I won’t bother finding those posts since they aren’t especially relevant here. What is relevant is this B-level Onion article:

Researchers at Harvard University announced today that they have found what appears to be a message from God written inside the human genome.

In a little-explored section of non-coding DNA, a team of top geneticists discovered a 22-word snippet of ancient Aramaic in which God confirms his existence and his role in creating life on Earth.

The stunning finding represents nearly irrefutable evidence of God’s existence and his role in creating the process of evolution by natural selection.

The message was discovered when researchers noticed strange mathematical patterns appearing within a certain section of the genome.

“Hello my children. This is Yahweh, the one true Lord. You have found creation’s secret. Now share it peacefully with the world.

Again, this is an article in the style of TheOnion, a tongue-in-cheek piece meant to be funny. It comes from The Daily Currant, which has had some success in fooling people with its articles (not that that was their intention), but I’m not a big fan.

At any rate, this is a perfect example of what it would take to show me evidence God exists. It isn’t that if we find there are no hidden messages in our DNA we’ve falsified the God hypothesis. No, rather it’s that something like this would be strong evidence for the existence of a creator, I think. The odds that natural selection would, by chance, produce something so precise as this is very, very small.

Of course, let me take this moment to point out that natural selection is not actually a chance process. I only describe it as such in the above instance because natural selection acts to increase an organism’s ability to survive – it does not act to produce linguistic codes that translate into multiple sentences in order to form a coherent message. That is, natural selection is not a chance process, but for it to produce a lengthy message would be insanely freak chance since no part of its regular process leads to anything like messages. That old creationist chestnut about a tornado producing a 747 would actually have some applicability here.

So there we have it. There certainly is possible evidence for the existence of God, and I think this brings us to an important conclusion: God is a refutable hypothesis that can be subjected to the rigors of science just like anything else postulated to exist and/or have an affect on the Universe. The problem for theists is that they’ve never been able to present a test their particular, cultural god could pass.

September 11

There were a number of factors involved in why 9/11 happened, but it cannot be denied that any single factor could potentially be eliminated with the same end result. That is, any single factor with the exception of faith. Faith – belief without evidence – allows for anything and everything and is an invalid methodology to come to anything resembling a consistent conclusion or type of conclusion on any matter.

Stephen Fry and Islamophobia

I found this blog post by Stephen Fry fascinating and well done. I’m going to reproduce some sections of it here, but do read the whole thing:

There was a right old Twitter barney last week. It started with me defending Richard Dawkins –– always a difficult thing to do since he seems to be everyone’s least favourite atheist. Even atheists often express the wish that he’d “tone it down a bit”.

The usual hail of insults at Richard (and some at me) came down from the holier side of the twittersphere, followed by the inevitable “Ah, but Dawkins and you and your type never dare attack Islam, do you?”…

Anyway, I made the fundamental mistake of tweeting (just to show I wasn’t the coward they assumed I was) that of course I was against those Muslims who slaughtered, bombed and treated women in such charming ways.

Now the entire seesaw tilted and I was bombarded with tweets saying mostly stuff like”:-

“Disappointed that you are an Islamophobe, Stephen. Thought better of you.”


Sometimes it’s just a reflex tweet from someone who hasn’t put any thought into it, on other occasions the tweet claims that my saying a single word against any kind of Muslim is Islamophobia of the kind that feeds the vilely racist bigots of the EDL and BNP.

The squeezed liberal finds himself in the position that he cannot criticise Islamofascism because it’s somehow “racist” (although Islam encompasses many many races) or because it encourages acts of violence against innocent law-abiding honourable Muslims, which I would never for a second endorse. It is a topsy-turvy smothering of debate and an Orwellian denial of free-speech to declare that speaking out against violence will cause violence. I’m all for insult, as it happens, as long as it’s funny. But I have no time for assault. Only a few letters’ difference, but the two are a world away…

Ah, but do I believe that all Muslims want to see my civilisation destroyed? That they are all bombers in the making? Of course I don’t.

The fact that I need to go through this absurd liberal court of inquisition in which I have to repeat these mantras is what, as Peter Griffin would say, really grinds my gears:

“I promise I do not think all Muslims are fanatics.”

“I go out of my way to smile at them when sitting opposite them on the tube.”

“I think it is terrible the way a whole community is distrusted because a fanatical few.”

This is the game we see played so often. Western New Atheists, largely facing a Christian-dominated culture, criticize that which is most prominent to them, to their lives. In defense and as a sort of sneaky red herring, some Christians will demand equal criticism be leveled at Islam. Or, at the least, the New Atheists will be taunted as cowardly for not saying something impolite about Mohammed. Of course, the moment we say anything, we’re verbally attacked for saying being “racist” (even though, as Fry points out, Islam is not a race) or Islamophobic. It’s all just a cute shell game: “You think violent, seemingly routine riots protests are a bad thing?” Why, yes. “Look everyone! A racist!”

It’s all quite tiresome.

At any rate, I do highly recommend giving that blog post a few minutes of your time. Stephen Fry’s talent is impressively strong; I wish I had become familiar with his work earlier in life.