Monthly Archives: May 2011

Blogging the Alpha Course: Part 2

Last week I talked about my first week in the Alpha Course. To simplify things this week, wherever I’m paraphrasing, I won’t use quotes; wherever I’m directly quoting from my recording, I’ll use them.

Again… these will be long. So, without further ado, this week I’ll move right on with…

Week 4

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So, what have we learned?

And now, for a moment of seriousness. For a (hopefully small) number of people, today was supposed to be the day that they’d be instantly whisked away to a place of eternal peace and joy.

Instead, today is the day that they learn the hard truth so may other doomsday cults have learned: Placing your faith in the fantastic (and incredibly dubious) claims made by charismatic preachers who say that they’re going to save the world is a mistake.

But rather than criticize them, this gives us all an opportunity to glimpse the flaws in human thinking and learn important lessons about ourselves.

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Weekend Ruminations #3: Prepare ye, O my people, for disappointment!

In about an hour, it’ll be May 21, 2011 (locally), and yet another doomsayer prophet will have failed to make good.

Some Facebook groups about the rapture are surprisingly still alive, though the owners are studiously deleting many comments made by detractors.

But take heart, believers: it’s supposedly going to happen at 6PM local time! Jesus still has 19 hours to get around to this time zone. And just in case he does come back, I’m prepared for the post-apocalyptic hellscape that the world is sure to become…


Golf club: nice reach; good for zombies. I think there will be zombies…

It’s already 6PM in some parts of the world, but there’s nothing on the news yet about the promised “great earthquake unlike any the world has ever seen before.” Typical liberal media.


EDIT 2: Apparently it’s being DDoS’d. Guess that makes sense.

EDIT 3: That Facebook group is now completely gone. No surprise there – can’t leave any pesky evidence of the false prophecy laying around!

The map is not the territory

Regardless of what kind of theist I’m talking to online, I tend to run into a recurring argument in favor of their god:

  • My god is [such-and-such a thing].
  • The reality we observe is consistent with this kind of god.
  • Therefore, this god exists.

As far as I can tell, this kind of argument underlies all of apologetics, from William Lane Craig and Frank Turek to your typical evangelical Christian who’s just learning how to argue for what they believe.

This leads to something that’s been bothering me for a long time. Basically, it’s this: It’s all well and good to argue for a model which is consistent with reality. Given a good enough argument, I could even agree that a particular god concept could fit with what we understand.

But as Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski said, “the map is not the territory.”

It really doesn’t matter how clever an argument a theist has for a particular model of God. This is an argument for a model, not for a being that actually exists. It’s a concept, not something real; that is, it’s just a map, not the territory.

The thing about concepts – “maps” – is that they’re not bound by reality. At best, a map is a reduced depiction of reality. At worst, they’re crude approximations – simplifications of reality designed to help us find the easiest explanation without having to bother with any of the details.

Maps necessarily can’t tell us everything about the world as it is, since any map that reproduced every part of reality would be indistinguishable from reality itself. They can be useful tools for finding our way around, but we should never confuse them for a perfect representation of the world as it actually is.

So, really, it doesn’t matter how well a theist can argue that their model of god is consistent with reality. An intricately detailed map of where we live is still not the actual place where we live. Theology of all stripes, no matter how simple or sophisticated, can only ever boil down to a process of map-building; since it’s independent of any investigation into what actually exists, it can’t tell us what exists – only give us descriptions of ideas that seem to fit with the limited set of information we have.

There’s another pesky detail about maps: we can create maps of places that don’t actually exist. So far as I can tell, the apologetics for gods of all stripes are of this type: maps of man-made concepts, with no reflection in reality.

Utterly irrelevant (?): Harry Potter fanfiction

(This is what happens when you promise to blog about the next subject someone mentions to you on Twitter…)

Some people take Harry Potter entirely too seriously.

In case you weren’t aware, there’s a ridiculously large number of fan-written Harry Potter stories on the internet. Most of them are innocent; some of them, not so much.

Briefly browsing through them, they remind me of something – namely, that humanity is generally a sucker for a good story about a super-powered, virtuous hero who uses his magical abilities to overcome a seemingly insurmountable evil force.

Too obscure? Fine – I’ll come right out and say it. Harry Potter is Jesus.

Harry Potter, a young man who always knew, deep down, that he was different from everyone else… a young man from lowly beginnings… discovers that he has a grand destiny, and that he’s the only chance the world has to destroy an evil so overwhelming that most people fear to mention it.

Jesus Christ, a young man who always knew, deep down, that he was different from everyone else… a young man from lowly beginnings… discovers that he has a grand destiny, and that he’s the only chance the world has to destroy an evil so overwhelming that most people fear to mention it.


Probably not. The idea of a superhuman savior is a ridiculously common fictional trope. So popular, in fact, that once such a character is established, pretty much anybody who knows about him is eager to tell a new story featuring him as the main character.

Officially, Harry Potter only exists in seven books. His life story, in its entirety, is told to us by J. K. Rowling, in her writing. And yet, Rowling’s fans seem almost obligated to write further fictional accounts of Harry’s life, adding to the canon in ways she never thought possible.

This is just about the same way I view the writing of Paul in the New Testament of the Bible. Paul never actually met Jesus, but he was so amazed by the oral traditions surrounding Jesus that he took it upon himself to invent an entire religious system based on Jesus’ teachings.

And somehow, this tradition has expanded around the world, into tens of thousands of denominations. I look at them, and I picture a bunch of people squabbling over things like whether Han shot first.

It’s meaningless, really. Whether you’re a Preterist, a Premillennialist, a Postmillenialist, or an Amillennialist, you’re basically arguing about the finer points of fan fiction. The gospels are the only things containing the words of Jesus, and even those are largely in question. And just like the fact that the seven canonical Books of Rowling don’t prevent the fans from creating works of their own, the four gospels haven’t prevented people throughout the ages from molding Christian doctrine as they saw fit.

Atheist Teen Fights for Separation of Church and State

At Cranston West High School in Cranston, Rhode Island, a mostly innocuous banner has hung in the school gym for several decades. The banner, titled “School Prayer,” exhorts “Our Heavenly Father” to make students desire to improve themselves in a number of ways. In full, the banner reads:

Our Heavenly Father,
Grant us each day the desire to do our best,
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically,
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers,
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others,
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win,
Teach us the value of true friendship,
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.

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Defacing a church? You’re doing it wrong.

Yes, I’m against organized religion. Yes, I think faith can be dangerous. Yes, I think churches tend to be flamboyant displays of silliness.

No, I don’t think a church should ever be defaced.

On April 24 – that is, on Easter – a bunch of unknown thugs took it upon themselves to spray graffiti and obscenities all over the local Christ the King Church and its statues. One of the messages reads “Your God Is Not My Salvation” … so I’m guessing that, unfortunately, it was an atheist that did this, or at the very least someone who wasn’t much impressed with what the church was preaching.

I’m all for freedom of speech. Disgusted with a church’s teachings? Make your voice heard. Go nuts. But remember: your rights end where someone else’s begin. And this is crossing that line in all kinds of bad ways.

Grow up, kids. You’re not helping. Every time an atheist does something like this, their actions outweigh much of the hard work we’ve done to promote our position.

Blogging the Alpha Course: Part 1

I mentioned previously that I’d attended an Alpha Course, a series of short seminars intended to help new Christians learn more about [a particular strain of] Christian doctrine and give them reasons to believe. I’ve finally started going through my recordings and jotting down notes about the experience.

Dig in, kids; this one’s going to be long. I’ve got 13 pages of notes to summarize just for the first session.

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A moral system based on willful misinformation is not worth having

On Slashdot today, a conversation about how people on the internet tend to dismiss news sources they don’t agree with and gravitate toward those they do somehow managed to transform into an argument about religion and morality. Someone actually tried to argue that even if there is no god, it’s best to promote organized religion, because without it we’d be a bunch of murderous, rapacious, thieving beasts and society would fall apart, since most people are too intellectually lazy (read: inept) to figure out morality for themselves.

I’ll lay it out for you…

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What’s in a name? … Who cares?

If you’ve been active in the online atheist community for a few weeks or so, you’ve probably run into this kind of argument:

Atheist 1: Agnostics are just atheists without the balls to admit they’re atheists.

Atheist 2: That’s not true. Atheism is about what you believe; agnosticism is about what you know. You can be both.

<Repeat ad nauseum.>

I no longer see a point in making this kind of distinction. I also don’t think it’s useful to start using terms other than “atheist” to describe your position with regard to religion. Bright, Pearlist, Secular Humanist, and so on; these terms are all well and good, but when you’re trying to explain your ideas about religion, it’s best to keep the confusion to a minimum. Tell someone you’re a Bright, and it gets you nowhere. Pearlist? Almost nobody knows what that means. And no matter what, eventually you get back to the point where you say you don’t believe in God, and they say, “Oh, so you’re an atheist?” And right there, the whole slew of stereotypes and misconceptions come flooding in. What we call ourselves matters to absolutely nobody but ourselves.

Can we all just agree to cut this out? We’ve got much more important stuff to deal with, and engaging in this kind of bickering isn’t helpful.

For example… I’ve got no problem with the idea of atheism as an intellectually defensible position. If I didn’t think it was, I probably wouldn’t be an atheist. But let’s face the facts, here: for most people who are religious, it would be unthinkable for them to give up their beliefs without the emotional safety net they provide. Religion is very useful inasmuch as it provides a sort of emotional security, convincing people that the universe isn’t as scary and impersonal as it really is. If atheists really want to get people to give up their religions, we’re going to have to find ways to make our position more reassuring – something we can’t do if we spend so much time arguing over details that are utterly irrelevant to anyone outside of our peer group.