Friday, January 22, 2010

Fallacy Friday: Ad Hominem

Back by popular demand, we continue the Fallacy Friday series with the often misunderstood ad hominem.

Simply put, it's attacking the person rather than the argument.  It's saying that the person's claim is wrong
because of the person, and not because of reason or facts.  It might seem obvious to avoid attacking the character of a person rather than their ideas, but it happens all too often in the heat of an argument.  Sometimes a person might refuse to accept another person's statement and justify that refusal by criticizing the person.  This fallacy serves as a Red Herring because it drives the attention away from the actual argument at hand.

"You claim that atheists can be moral, yet I happen to know that you beat your wife and children!"

I said that this fallacy is often misunderstood.  What I mean is that calling someone names or otherwise being generally abusive toward them doesn't make your statements fallacious.  It's not an ad hominem to malign your opposition -- as long as the maligning is not the basis of your argument.  It can sometimes be subtle.  Just pay attention to what is being objected to.  Essentially the difference is "you're wrong and you're an idiot" versus "you're wrong because you're an idiot".  The latter is fallacious.

Don't be abusive to try to win arguments.  Remember, the truth of a statement isn't dependent upon the virtues, character, actions, or motives of the person making the claim.  All too often, it seems, people justify their stance on issues based solely on what they think about the character of their opposition.  That's another type of Argumentum ad Hominem: circumstantial.  It's usually phrased as "Of course, that's what you'd expect him to say." We need to be careful with this kind, however. If someone is a known perjurer or liar, that fact will reduce their credibility. It won't, however, prove that their testimony is false in this case. It also won't alter the soundness of any logical arguments they may make. It's not always invalid to refer to the circumstances of an individual who is making a claim, but there are some cases in which it may throw extra skepticism onto their position.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Unholy Word: Slaughter the Infidels, Rape the Girls

The God of the Old Testament is extremely bloodthirsty.  All over the bible, we can find stories of tribe murdering tribe in the name (or usually by the direct command) of God.  Here's just one example and this one makes a great bedtime story.

Bathe Her, And Bring Her To Me
Read over Numbers 31.  In it, Moses is instructed by God to have the Israilites kill all of the Midianite children, any child still in the womb, all of the men, and every woman who as slept with a man.

Let's ignore all the problems involved with an all-loving God ordering these "hits" and look at how the story plays out.  After the Israilites kill all the Midianite men, they take the women, children, livestock, and plunder back to the camp. But Moses is furious with them. "Kill all the male children! And kill all the women who have had sex with a man!' Moses orders.

And the best part of the spoils of war..."But spare the lives of the virgin girls. Keep them for yourselves!"

I can raise the issue of keeping other people as property, but I won't.  I can raise the issue of men doing as they please to virgin girls, but do I really need to? I could ask, "How would they know who the virgins were?" but my imagination brings dark imagery.

The story claims there were 32,000 virgins that were divided up among the camp. Half were assigned to those who fought in the war and Moses gave the head priest the portion set aside for God (32 girls), as ordered by God himself.

Again, as with all stories brought to light in this series, the immorality is stomach-turning.  Every time I read these stories I find it inconceivable that the book which contains them is lauded as the pinnacle of human morality and a guide for how we should live our lives.  The fact that we've learned that the kind of behavior taken by Moses is wrong is not due to God (for he is supposedly the one ordering such massacre), but rather due to where we actually get our morality from -- not from any gods, but from society, observation, empathy, media, upbringing, history, and instinct.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

Why And How To Worship God

In recent talks with theists I've once again come across the question of what I would do if "God" showed up to me.  While that is a big discussion in itself, another aspect arrives from contemplating the question: worship.  Why should we worship a reveled God, and what exactly does it mean to worship it?

Brown-Nosed And Rolling Over
Assuming the God in question is the all-powerful creator of everything, several factors reveal themselves in this scenario (at least to an armchair psychologist), the first of which is fear.  We are naturally (be it by evolution or intelligent design) submissive to those with greater power than our own.  We create hierarchical social structures and our treatment of others reflects our perceived level of dominance of them, among other things.  From an evolutionary standpoint, it's a survival mechanism.  Sure, we could all just fight to the death but that would help anyone, especially ourselves.  So we push as far as we can, gaining and giving as much as beneficially possible.  Therefore, should a mighty creator being suddenly plop down and begin issuing edicts, we'd most likely obey out of fear and a desire to live and remain unharmed.

The other side to this is the protection such a being would offer.  Just as the tiny fish seek protection and food from a shark, so too would many humans begin to suck up to the regnant deity.  True, some may also seek companionship and an honest exploration of the previously unstudied.  But I think that most would simply bow out of fear and respect to power unlimited.

Here I Am, Now Entertain Me
That might be the why, but what about the how?  What does it mean to worship a being?  Is it unquestionable love and veneration?  Is it reverence in the form of consent?  I wouldn't expect to automatically love any being just out of awe, surprise, or fear.  Love is earned.  I might be able to respect the deity's authority and powers, but love is an entirely different ball game.

I suppose too that it would depend on the demands made by the god.  Will it stand before us and proudly exclaim, "Bow down to me or be crushed!"?  I'm willing to bet that the best form of "worship" would be the actions, words, and behaviors that the god did not ask for.  Many people may solicit the being to gain protection, companionship, a freedom from responsibilities, or to share in the power.  I would rather worship (and be worship by) beings that love or respect me enough to want to make me happy -- not out of fear of punishment or hopes of reward -- but just out of the goodness of the heart.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means To Me
I can hear the religious people now, "But that's just exactly what God wants!  He wants you to love him out of your own free will, and he wants to be worshiped by you and share his glory with you."  I'm sorry, but it would depend on the character of your God.  If, as I've said before, the deity is the actual Yahweh from the Old Testament, I wouldn't worship him if he threatened me directly to my face.  Might doesn't make right.  I don't care how powerful it is or how much right it has to me as its property, being my creator and being stronger than me doesn't give it the prerogative of my respect, honor, love, worship, or even acknowledgment.  The content of its character and its actions toward others determine where it would sit in my book.  I'll obey the might only if I accept its justifications for the requests it makes, and only if its standards meet those worthy of devotion.  The Gods of people today do not warrant my respect, and they are not worthy of worship by anyone, including you.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hollywood Atheism

Happy New Year!  We've said goodbye to one of the worst decades in living memory and we look hopefully forward to what awaits us in the years to come.  But hey, the holiday celebrations are over and you're ready for some more deep insight from a small-town atheist, aren't you?  :oP  Well, I plan on getting out more, writing more, producing more videos, and engaging in more debates this year.  As always, your comments, emails, and criticisms and support are what drives these projects, so keep 'em coming.

Now, as I am the inquisitive type, I thought I'd start this year off with a question: why are atheists portrayed so badly in movies and television?  It's a subject that I've written on before, but I just want to revisit it because I think it's important.

Ain't No Such Thing, And That's Final!
The wiki has several pages discussing the literary devices and deceptions used by writers to portray the skeptical and the nonreligious.  Most often, atheists are depicted as self-loathing, bitter, lawless radicals who stick to their materialistic ideals even though the Sci-Fi monster is eating them alive.  And this is what irks me.  Some of these writers (and viewers) seem to think that if a skeptical person is shown direct evidence, they will still remain skeptical.  As if that's the way questioning things really works!

I've stated numerous times in my articles and videos that if someone can provide the sufficient evidence to prove a god exists, I'd be an idiot not to believe.  And yet screenwriters continue to create fantasy worlds where vampires, aliens, demons, and psychic monsters abound and yet they portray the nonbeliever as a overzealous doubter who just won't accept the "reality" of what's going on.  For some it may be a way to take jabs at skeptics in the real world, but in doing so they're just missing the point of skepticism altogether.

God-Shaped Hole
Not only are they portrayed as being unwilling to believe in anything, even if it's biting them on the ass, atheists are also shown in movies and TV shows to be unkind, bigoted, immoral, lonely, and cranky.  Let's make one thing clear if it isn't already: being an atheist does not nor cannot "lead to" any of these.  Atheism isn't a positive thing in itself; it's simply a response to an assertion.  You can't get from "I don't believe in a god" to "I hate myself" or "I want to rape, kill, and steal from others".  That being said, you can find an atheist with just about any disposition there is.  It's akin to finding a bald person with just about any disposition there is.  But have you ever seen a happy atheist in a TV show or a movie?  While a lot of atheist characters offer incredibly deep and satisfying stories, I've yet to find a nonbeliever who isn't suicidal or a drug-user or or an overly-opinionated crone.  Maybe that's how the rest of the world sees us.  We complain too much.  We seek to hurt others' feelings.  We lead unfulfilled lives.  The funny thing is that for a lot of us, these accusations couldn't be further from the truth.  Being loosed from the shackles of superstition gives us freedom, and consequently, happiness previously unfathomed.

While this is a topic for another day, I should also clarify something else:  although atheism and skepticism complement each other, they are not synonymous.  I've used them nearly interchangeably above, but not all atheists are skeptical, and not all skeptics are atheists.  The distinction is important and we will discuss it in detail in the future.

Elementary, My Dear Theist
Over the holiday break, I was taken happily by surprise by the feature film Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr.  His character flaws make him both though-provoking and enjoyable to watch, and Holmes gives audiences a rational, evidence-seeking skeptic faced with seemingly overwhelming evidence of the supernatural and the existence of magic.  So as not to spoil it for you, I've hidden the next few sentences.  If you've already seen the movie, or don't care about spoilers (it's not a hugely significant one anyway), then highlight the next paragraph with your mouse.

In the movie, Holmes is faced with an opponent who appears to be a resurrected, black magic-practicing sorcerer.  Using deduction and physical evidence, Holmes eventually learns that all the supposed tricks are nothing more than just that; tricks.  Rational explanations win out over superstition and faith.  Holmes even leaves open the possibility of a supernatural explanation, examines first-hand the incantations used by the antagonist (though this is probably done more for getting into the head of the opposition rather than actually testing if the magic really works).  Watson admits that he's seen things in his lifetime that he cannot explain, and says to Holmes, "a supernatural explanation to this case is theoretically possible."  The lead character replies in my favorite piece of dialog from this film, "Agreed -- but, it's a huge mistake to theorize before one has data.  Inevitably one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts."  To date, this is the best representation of a skeptical mindset I've seen in a feature film.  I had a awful feeling that since the movie started out so well, it would devolve into "Haha skeptic, you were WRONG! You think you know everything, don't you?  Well, suffer my supernatural wrath!" as they inevitable seem to do.  But surprisingly it worked out in favor of the rational.

Why can't more writers figure this stuff out? Data, data, data!