Misunderstandings

One of the things I enjoy most when it comes to blogging is the creation of series. I have all my “Thought of the day” and “Fun fact of the day” posts, amongst others, and they tend to go over well. I’m hoping to make this current post the first in a series called “Misunderstandings”. Sometimes these don’t pan out, so who knows, but it’s worth a shot. I’ll probably focus on theological and creationist arguments, but I expect some variety. In fact, this first post is going to include two different topics, each dealing with misunderstandings by atheists (though one is regarding a theological argument). So let’s get started.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science Facebook page:

A status update was made several days ago on the RDF page that said something to the effect of:

One of the greatest earthquakes in human history occurred in China in the 16th century, killing some 800,000 people. More’s the pity they hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ, thus denying them eternal access to heaven.

This is paraphrased because, unfortunately, the post was taken down. Many users objected to what they thought was an implication that those dead Chinese were ignorant; they found it crude and unliked the page. I think they all missed the point. Soon after, this post was made:

Some religious groups spend great amounts of energy and money to convince others that unless they accept Jesus as their personal savior they will burn in hell. Some people embrace science and, for example, focus on decreasing the death rate from a vicious disease such as pancreatic cancer. Which viewpoint is more compassionate? — Sean Faircloth, Dir. of Strategy & Policy

I believe Sean, a former Maine legislator, made the first post as well, but I don’t recall his signature. At any rate, the initial point of the posts is identical. The second one changes from natural disaster to disease and asks a specific question, but the premises are the same. And what was the reaction? A straight-forward discussion that understood the point.

It’s almost like Richard Dawkins and those in his group occasionally offend people. I just wish it were only the religious who misunderstood the points they make.

The First Cause argument on the Atheists of Maine Facebook page:

Staying with the Facebook theme, I posted a note to the Atheists of Maine page a couple of weeks ago. It was basically just a re-post of something I wrote on FTSOS about the First Cause argument. My rebuttal to that awful, awful argument goes something like this: A “cause” is the colloquial way we describe the scientific concept of a force. We define a force as mass multiplied by acceleration, f=ma. Acceleration is the change in velocity over time. Thus, time is clearly essential in the First Cause argument. However, time did not exist ‘prior’ to the Big Bang, so theists cannot use it in their argument. Since they cannot use time, and since time is necessary in order to even define “cause”, they need to argue something different.

This is simple enough, but one AoM member, Neil Cole, raised a rather incoherent objection:

As an atheist I obviously don’t think any god created the universe or caused it to exist. That said, there are some issues with this post that I would like to address. The first and most important would be the incorrect usage of Newton’s laws. A casual search for the range and validity of Newton’s laws will yield the following:

“These three laws hold to a good approximation for macroscopic objects under everyday conditions. However, Newton’s laws (combined with universal gravitation and classical electrodynamics) are inappropriate for use in certain circumstances, most notably at very small scales, very high speeds (in special relativity, the Lorentz factor must be included in the expression for momentum along with rest mass and velocity) or very strong gravitational fields.”-wiki

The big bang is a phenomenon which is subject to such restrictions. What we know about the universe breaks down around Planck time (5 x 10^-44 seconds). It is wrong to say that we completely understand time or that we completely understand causation.

It’s easy enough to see why this doesn’t even address the argument at hand: the First Cause argument concerns a ‘point’, realm, or whatever one wishes to call it, which existed (or exists) outside the Universe. We aren’t talking about the Big Bang. We aren’t talking about extreme speeds or small scales. Cole even admits this:

Clearly you don’t seem to get that I know this already but I will humor you even though you have not answered my question, [God is] outside [the Universe].

(We referred to the “first cause” as “God” for the sake of simplicity and since, clearly, that’s what the argument is getting towards anyway.)

Now that we had established that God is outside the Universe in this argument, I wanted to be sure we also established that he performed the act which created the Universe from that same place. Cole responds:

Since he is fictional and has magical powers, why not?

This isn’t exactly the best answer since I was asking my question in the context of the given argument at hand. That is, I was asking if God performed the act to create the Universe from outside the Universe, as per the First Cause argument. However, this is still progress. I next asked if God could exert a force (as defined by Newton’s second law) from his timeless ‘location’ outside the Universe. Cole says:

You assume God is exerting a force. In that “place” the word force may not even apply to what “is”.

It is the argument, not I, that assumes the exertion of a force, but still, there we have it. According to the First Cause argument, God is outside the Universe, he caused the Universe into existence, and he did this in a place where, at least as far as we know, the concept of force doesn’t apply since we cannot demonstrate the existence of time. Neil Cole admits each essential element, making my ultimate point for me as his conclusion to this point in the ‘debate’. Yet, we still see this later:

Your argument may not posit that it might not be a force but that is because you failed to understand that Newton’s laws are inappropriate here. You also conflate cause with force which may not be the same thing in the other “place”.

Despite admitting that we aren’t talking about the Big Bang – that is, he admitted that we’re talking about a ‘point’ prior to the Universe, which is necessarily prior to the Big Bang – he still reverts to his point about high speeds and small scales. He then goes one bizarre (and, frankly, embarrassing) step further and claims that a force is not the same thing as a cause. Let’s take a look at a translation of Newton’s own words:

“Law II: The alteration of motion is ever proportional to the motive force impress’d; and is made in the direction of the right line in which that force is impress’d.”

The common way of saying this? ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’ or ‘For every cause, there is an effect’. It isn’t up for debate that the First Cause argument is premised on Newton’s second law, nor that this law is about causation on a macroscopic scale. Thus, the First Cause argument is specifically positing that God created the Universe by means of force on a macroscopic scale, and it is doing this because of the observation Newton made so many centuries ago that seems obvious to us today.

There was later a problem with Cole lying – he claimed I wouldn’t answer his questions despite my request for him to re-ask the one he had posed to me earlier, then, when I repeated that I wanted to answer him, he just continued to claim I would not – and so sometimes his tendency to misunderstand what others say is clearly nothing more than base dishonesty, but in the primary issue here, he just doesn’t get the whole picture. When broken down for him, he gets all the parts – the argument places God outside the Universe, presupposes the existence of time, and has nothing to do with the Big Bang – but he entirely misunderstands things when they’re all put together. I wish I could just say he was lying here as well because then I would get how someone could raise such incoherent points, but that isn’t the case. The fact is, he misunderstood the argument even as he agreed with all its parts.

Atheist lobbying in Maine

I recently wrote about the Secular Coalition for America’s push to establish chapters in all 50 states. I mentioned that I had been interviewed for a piece in the local Maine newspapers concerning that push. Here is that piece:

Rarely does a news release headline jump off the screen like this one that landed last week in my inbox: “Maine atheists to organize state lobbying group this month.”

Good heavens. As if Maine doesn’t have enough to argue about these days.

Later this week, the Secular Coalition for America will open its phone lines to anyone and everyone in Maine who a) doesn’t believe in God, b) can’t be sure there is a God or c) believes, regardless of his or her spiritual underpinnings, that government at any level should not be doing anything in the name of the man (or woman) upstairs…

“Lobbying is the tip of the iceberg,” [Sean] Faircloth agreed. Like the gay rights movement has done over the last three or four decades, he said, “the key is building a grassroots organization that has credibility.”

Which is where Mainers like Michael Hawkins come in.

Hawkins, 27, grew up attending the Roman Catholic St. Mary’s School in Augusta.

His road to atheism began when he was in his teens and heard a group of God-fearing adults asserting, with utmost certainty, that the Earth is a mere 7,000 years old.

“I knew that wasn’t true — but I didn’t know why it wasn’t true or by how much they were wrong,” recalled Hawkins, who’s now one course away from a bachelor’s degree in biology and helped found a loosely knit group on Facebook called Atheists of Maine.

Hawkins, upon hearing about the Secular Coalition for America’s conference call at 1 p.m. Thursday, said he’ll definitely be on the line. (To join in, call 530-881-1400 and punch in the access code 978895.)

But where it all goes from there, Hawkins said, is still up in the air.

He’s well aware that “there’s a lot of stigma around the word” atheist.

And he harbors no illusions that in Maine’s current political climate, wary politicians on either side of the aisle might embrace what undoubtedly would be branded the “atheist agenda.”

“With the Republicans in control of everything, it’s not going to be well received,” Hawkins predicted. “It’ll take a little while.”

If not an eternity.

The comment sections on this article are interesting. (The article appears on several websites because many of Maine’s major newspapers are owned by the same company.) Some people are going off with the usual garbage about atheists calling the religious stupid. I’ve never heard or read any major atheist do this. Other people are attacking Faircloth for this or that. One person even said he doesn’t have a real job, even though he’s one of only 4 people listed at the head of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. A few are trying to tackle the writer, Bill Nemitz, for one imagined thing or another. Hey, maybe my mention of the fact that Republicans control everything in Maine right now really is Nemitz’s political agenda. That totally makes sense. Fortunately, a good number of people are simply excited about this. We’ve even seen a slight uptick in membership on the Facebook page Atheists of Maine.

My only disappointment is that my old school got a mention. It isn’t something I’ve ever tried to hide, but I’m sure the people at St. Michael School (previously known as St. Mary’s) weren’t overly excited about it. As much as I disagree with the Catholic religion, I’m constantly grateful that I went to that school over the less than stellar public choices in the area.

At any rate, I hope the SCA makes a big splash in Maine. I’ll keep things updated.

Secular Coalition for America and the organization of Maine nontheists

The Secular Coalition for America has announced that it is seeking to establish chapters across all 50 states:

The Secular Coalition for America is excited to announce the initial organizing efforts for a chapter in Louisiana this month. The state chapter will lobby state lawmakers in favor of a strong separation of religion and government.

The initial organizing call for the Secular Coalition for Louisiana will be held on September 12th at 3:00PM ET / 2:00PM CT. The SCA encourages interested participants to call in. Participation is open to anyone who supports a strong separation of religion and government and wants to get involved, irrespective of personal religious beliefs.

Other state chapters being organized later this month include Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, and Wisconsin. Since June, the SCA successfully held initial organizing calls for new chapters in 27 states. Participants will be trained in lobbying state lawmakers, and the chapter will be provided with a website and other materials.

The big effort here, as far as I can tell, is going to be to dampen the negative effects religion has in politics. Namely, the goals will be to kill stealth creationist bills, promote science education, and maybe even support pro-science candidates. Along with this will come to the promotion of Gnu Atheist values.*

I’m excited about this; I’ve already contacted the former Executive Director of the SCA, Sean Faircloth. He is a former Maine legislator and currently heads up strategy and policy for the Richard Dawkins foundation. I’m not 100% of his involvement with the group at this point, but I do know he is being interviewed for an article that will appear in the Maine Sunday Telegram in a couple of days. (I was also interviewed for the piece.) I hope he can help get me started with all this or at least point me in the right direction. Maine atheists, agnostics, and nonbelievers need to be organized.

The current “organization” for Maine atheists and others currently amounts to an Atheists of Maine Facebook page I run with two other people. As far as I can tell, it is the largest collection of atheists in the state, so if you haven’t liked it yet, you should. I plan on utilizing it to do what I can to help establish an SCA chapter in Maine.