Monday, December 30, 2013

Swedish Fish Book Updates: Book Blurbs

My friend and long time supporter The Atheist Missionary has provided a nice back cover blurb for my forthcoming counter-apologetics book The Swedish Fish, Deflating the Scuba Diver and Working the Rabbits Foot.

Thanks to TAM for being an avid reader and one of the dozen people who compelled me to do this project.

“An Essential Reading Companion to Randal Rauser's The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. If Rauser's version of tentative Christian apologetics is the virus, readers will find this enjoyable retort to be the cure.” –The Atheist Missionary

Of course, the back cover synopsis will be:

Skeptic and best selling author Tristan Vick doesn't have a theology degree, yet he knows just as much about God as any theologian. However, don't be fooled as it's not as impressive of a claim as it sounds. Anyone can theorize about God. In this detailed rebuttal to Christian apologist Randal Rauser, Tristan Vick (a Christian turned atheist) takes on Rauser's popular brand of Evangelical apologetics and offers a worthy critique of Christianity from a different school of thought. But this book comes with a warning to those that buy into Randal's from of Christianity hook line and sinker: avoid reading this book if you don't want to have deep thoughts and profound philosophical insights, because it could be hazardous to your faith.

The book is still on track for an early 2014 release. Stay tuned for further updates!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

How I Spent (Part) of My Xmas

Because education is important. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

My Response to Randal Rauser will be a published book!

Almost as soon as I had finished reviewing Randal Rauser's apologetic book The Swedish Fish, The Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails, I began receiving emails by those who were following the series and wanted to know if I'd be collecting the reviews into book form.

At first I really didn't give it much thought. But by the third email, I realized there was enough of an interest. So, yes, I will be publishing an edited version of the reviews, with ADDED content, more sources and citations, and an slightly more condensed version of the reviews.

It will be called The Swedish Fish, Deflating the Scuba Diver, and Working the Rabbit's Foot. Of course, it's an obvious spoof on Randal's title.

Besides the interest in this book, I also hope that people can use this counter-apologetics as a way to introduce their Christian family and friends to other ways of thinking that they may not have heard before, and also as a conversation starter.

Needless to say, I cover more material than Randal did with far more economy. So it's a good work to introduce to apologist wannabes, to show them that anything they have to say has most probably already been addressed, and that they should read this book before starting a debate with you.

Really, that's what this book is for. It's a time saver--for you--so you don't have to waste your precious time debating people who only ever use the same ten arguments again, and again, and again and... well, you get the picture.

My book addresses many of the main apologetic arguments, tackles them head on, and leaves them crippled--so that you don't have to waste your time arguing against age old, twice disproved, non-theories about why Christianity is so great and why you ought to believe. Instead, all you'll have to do is point your God believing friends to this little book--and then sit back and watch as their mind turns into a massive pretzel.

With any luck, I'll get it completed by the first week of January. Stay tuned in for updates.

Happy Holidays to my heathen brethren, and Merry Xmas to all!

Merry Xmas from Japan

I live in Japan.

Christmas is practically non-existent.

Sure, the stores still have all the sales. Some houses put up lights (I counted five this year). And the department stores have all the sales.

But it's just not Christmas.

First off, everyone works.

I'm on break at work writing this, and its Christmas Eve.

After work, I most likely will do some last minute Christmas shopping.

I wanted to do Christmas up right this year, but after having just recuperated from a bronchial infection that kicked my ass for two months, a flu bug, and a bout of pink eye before that, oh, and having put my back out for a week, I really had nothing in me to give.

All this on top of being financially strapped from paying back loans for a last minute trip to America back in May. So presents are meek this year. One per person. Nothing fancy.

We don't even have a Christmas tree. There's no decorations up. For the most part, it's just a normal day in Japan.

And so tonight I will go home, have dinner, and wish everyone a Merry Christmas, and I might get a not in return.

Although, I might make a midnight run to 7/11 to buy an Xmas cake and a cheap bottle of wine. A popular tradition in Japan. Oh, and KFC is half off today because, well, Japanese think foreigners eat fried chicken on Xmas.

This morning, for five classes, I shocked my students by telling them we don't have Xmas cake in the U.S. and KFC is not the dinner choice for most Westerners. They were stunned. No Xmas cake?!

I usually inform them that we have fruitcake, but it's not really the same thing. In fact, it's pretty much... well... evil. Like, if cake hated you and wanted you to know it. Fruitcake is cake's revenge against the human race, as far as I'm concerned.

So like most Japanese people, I will follow the adage--when in Rome do as the Romans do--and work, eat my Xmas cake, open presents in the morning and then wish everyone fun as they head off to work, because I will be taking the day off.

Because it's Christmas.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Duck Dynasty Debacle

I've written extensively on the freedom of speech. About the Duck Dynasty guy... whatever his name is... what he needs to realize is that the First Amendment makes it so the U.S. government can't censor him. But being a bigoted asshole, and saying hurtful things about gays (not to mention showing an overall ignorance and intolerance of prostitutes--who may be good people stuck in a dire situation) demonstrates that this person needed to shut the hell up.

We should allow for the free exchange of ideas--as long as we are responsible with our words and don't use them to try to harm others. 

The goal of free speech should always be to enlighten, bring forth new ideas, and gain new perspectives through our words and conversation. But the moment a person starts rattling off bigoted claims left and right, then you're not practicing free speech, because freedom of speech CANNOT thrive when you oppress others by holding them to outmoded stereotypes and unfair accusations on top of dismissing their opinion altogether (which is why it makes it bigoted).

It amounts to labeling people for the wrong reasons, then pigeon holing everyone who fits that label. That's wrong in my opinion. Obviously the patriarch of Duck Dynasty disagrees, but he's wrong to do so. Not wrong because I feel he's wrong, but wrong because his bigoted views do actually cause gays, blacks, and other minorities emotional damage--and for what? Because the guy carelessly throws around antiquated labels and doesn't seem to know the genuine hurt that lingers behind them? Or because he thinks it's okay to mistreat others as long as he has a good God-fearing biblical excuse to do so? 

Those who know me know my anti-censorship stance. On my blog, for example, I don't have a comments posting policy, because I don't believe in them. 

But when you attack people directly--by calling out their looks, their gender, their sexual preference, their race... whatever... then such an attack is unwarranted. Always.

So this Duck Dynasty wanker was deliberately defaming others with his bigoted words, or worse--he was unaware that he was--and regardless he was stopped. Simple as that.

In my view, your right to speech doesn't include the right to slander, shame, bring humiliation, or spread oppressive and insular ideologies which would seek to harm others. That's not what the freedom of speech is about.

I fully agree with A&E reneging his public forum in which he can espouse his sinister and poisonous ideologies. After all, they're a private company, and they have the right to terminate your business if you begin misrepresenting them or tarnish their image by saying stupid, racist, homophobic, not to mention ignorant things.

Phil Robertson still allowed his stupid, racist, homophobic, and ignorant beliefs, mind you. He can tell them to himself all the day long. We just don't have to listen to him is all, and it's not an attack on his freedom of speech to tell him to shut the hell up. He already said his piece. It annoyed people, and the company he worked for realize that the show he was on reaches out to 14 million viewers, and that's a big enough audience that when they get disgruntled, ratings are affected. And A&E was wise enough to realize the impact Phil Robertson's words may have had on that substantial viewership and, to their benefit, they weren't having it. 

When your words become blunt instruments to repress and keep others down, then you loose the privilege of being allowed to speak your mind. Not because you don't have the right to speech, but because your mind is cruel, depraved, and simply not tolerant enough to be tolerated by civilized people.

If you want to act like a fucking caveman, then go live in a fucking cave. Leave civilized society up to the rest of us.

And the moral of the story is... THINK before you speak. Because words carry with them real consequences. Something to keep in mind--even for people who often take their freedom of speech for granted.

Okay. Rant over.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist...” Chapters 30-33 [finis]

Chapter 30: The Taliban and the Serenity Prayer
Unable to simply accept things on faith, Sheridan launches his attack and challenges Randal to make a valid connection between any faith-based experience and his brand of faith. Sheridan says:

“How can you really know all the claims of Christianity are true? The kinds of evidence that apologists provide—like the historicity of the resurrection or religious experience—that may be nice for you, since you’re predisposed to believe it, but it seems to me to be a very slim reed on which to build a whole system of faith.”

Randal responds in a strange way, by informing:

“If we want absolutely secure, irrefutable proofs that establish as true only one set of beliefs about reality, we are bound to be disappointed. All of us.”

So if we have irrefutable proofs in things about reality that support our beliefs, we’re bound to be disappointed. What?

Gravity works. The equation for gravity was written in a proof demonstrated by Isaac Newton, hence the term 'Newton’s law of universal gravitation', which is written as:

  • F = Gm1m2/r2


  • F is the force between the masses,
  • G is the gravitational constant,
  • m1 is the first mass,
  • m2 is the second mass, and
  • r is the distance between the centers of the masses.

So here we have an irrefutable proof that establishes our beliefs about one aspect of reality as being true. Now let me ask you, how disappointed do you feel right now?

What’s that? You don’t feel in the least bit disappointed? You don’t say?

When Randal says things like this, it seems to me that he might have a specific example in mind. But finding a counter-example to his claim before he can present any examples of what he possibly could mean just shows that his claim is refuted before it has ever had time to be considered. That's just bad argumentation.

In my experience, having demonstrable proofs that support my beliefs by demonstrating how my beliefs comport to reality gives me a greater confidence in my beliefs, not less. When I can establish such strong beliefs, I don’t have to rely on faith, and in turn I don’t have to live in a state of uncertainty and constantly check my faith against the real world. 

Do you know why Christians have to always go to church every week? (Notice I say have to, as a necessary condition, not because they enjoy social gatherings so choose to). To remind themselves that their faith is true. When you have a solid belief in something based on demonstrable proofs, you don’t need such constant reassurance. After all, you don't see me jumping up and down every ten minutes to make sure gravity is still functioning as we hope it will. You can simply accept your beliefs as being founded on brute facts.

As for those who say we need to have "faith" that gravity will keep on keeping on, or that the sun will continue to come up as always, this faith is more akin to a confidence in knowing how something functions and its relationship is to us. Yes, we also must have confidence that it will continue to function, but this is why things like gravity are called "physical laws" in the first place. They've been established as an immutable property of the actual physical universe, and there is no reason to doubt they would cease to be so. The same cannot be said of belief in God or other supernatural conjectures that are not supported by brute facts.

So the question really should be, who should be feeling disappointed here? The person with a ton of facts and a strong belief, or the person with no facts who has to constantly reinforce their beliefs with other like-minded beliefs in order to keep believing it all?

Randal goes on to inform that he accepts doubt as a sign of spiritual health. He adds that

“Doubt forces us to keep thinking through our beliefs.”

I strongly agree with Randal’s statement about doubt being beneficial to how we go about thinking through our beliefs. In fact, it’s the first thing Randal has said that I’ve agreed with in a long time. 

But at the same time, I can’t help but feel Randal is just saying this to try and sound somewhat more scholarly than he actually is. After all, earlier he was making the case about the necessity to have faith in knowing God’s signs, having faith in the type of God who’d create hell as a punishment, and making faith overall sound like a virtue. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that faith and doubt are antithetical to one another.

Allow me to explain.

Faith is believing in something regardless of whether or not your belief in that thing is fully justifiable, let alone demonstrable. Faith amounts to making the choice to positively believe one way and not the other, and based on no real evidence but for your sense of certitude, and so in your faith based conviction you feel confident that you’re beliefs are right (or true).

If you had evidence, then it wouldn’t be faith. It would be knowing.

Not knowing, however, is where doubt creeps in.

Doubt is the opposite of faith. Because you don’t know for certain, you are reluctant to make any choice, since the fact of the matter could go either way. You’d rather not commit to a faith based assumption, but if you are forced to do so, you’d rather assume you have a greater chance of being wrong than not.

Theologians who claim doubt is important to their faith only do so disingenuously. Of course, they may admit that they have to have a certain amount of doubt in God’s existence in order to ask the question “Does God exist?” in the first place, but of course they instantly go about consoling themselves by giving themselves the answer they like best, usually a wholehearted, “Yes, he does.”

But that’s all the doubt they require. They only require enough doubt to allow them to ask the question. After that, doubt turns into a powerful acid that only seeks to corrode their cherished faith. If they had more doubt than the bare minimum required to ask the question in the first place, they’d instantly be placed in danger of teetering over to the other side and becoming atheists and agnostics—which is why they place so much emphasis on faith being a virtue and doubt being a detriment. Faith is the soothing balm which diminishes that painful revelation that always accompanies a strong doubt—that horrible realization that they have a greater chance of being wrong than not.

In that sense, faith and doubt are always working against one another. It’s a lot like a grand ole game of tug of war, and our beliefs may fall anywhere along the full range of that well-worn rope, faith constantly pulling us one way and doubt pulling us the other.

The question believers like Randal need to ask themselves is, if God really were real, would they have to “wrestle with doubt” at all? Wouldn't God be more like a brute fact, like gravity is?

Randal closes the chapter by warning Sheridan that sitting on the fence isn’t a risk-free position.

Chapter 31: Feel Free to Sit on the Fence, but Don’t Get Caught in the Lava Flow
Opening chapter 31, Randal begins by telling a story about a man trapped on an island with a volcano about to explode. The only way off the island is to jump into a boat and paddle to a safe distance away from the volatile island. But there’s a catch. Randal explains that according to the strange property customs of this man’s tribe, there is a serious dilemma to be considered. He expounds:

“If you leave the island and there is an eruption you’ll save your life, but if you leave and there is no eruption, you’ll lose your home. Conversely, if you stay and there is no eruption, then you’re just fine, but if you stay and there is an eruption, then you lose your home and your life.”

Sheridan informs that setting up this obvious dichotomy seems simply like a tactic to force someone to choose one of two options, when there in fact might be other options worth considering. I agree with this criticism, but Randal denies the accusation and says that

“Whether you go forward, turn back or stay where you are, you are making a decision.”

Once again, it seems we are in danger of Randal beginning to make sense. So before you get your hopes up that Randal will prove himself reasonable, just listen to what follows.

“That doesn’t mean you need to let anyone pressure you into a new decision, but it does mean that it’s wrong to think you can just ‘sit on the sidelines’ until you reach whatever level of certainty you’re after.”

Really? So agnosticism isn’t a valid position? 

Furthermore, Randal may say we needn’t let anyone pressure us into making a decision, but then goes right on to say we’re wrong if we don’t hurry up and make one, thereby pressuring us into making a decision. I know what you’re probably thinking, but too bad, Randal doesn’t care about things like reason—obviously. 

Taking the time to sit on the sidelines and deliberate (a quite reasonable response to uncertainty, I might add) on important decisions just isn’t allowed! There’s no time to sit around reasoning about things. And if you reason the wrong way! Well, then! Randal doesn’t like it. So just hurry up and make a decision already!

No pressure or anything.

Randal finishes his little anecdote by affirming:

“We should be wary of the dangers of doubt no less than of belief.”

Randal then informs that we can still believe certain things for which the evidence is not as strong, just not with the same degree of conviction. Of course, this goes without saying. But what strikes me as peculiar is, now that Randal has admitted that belief propositions are basically probabilistic, how does he sustain such a high rate of conviction based on what appears to be such low rate of probability? 

What's more, does Randal actually realize what it would require in terms of support to get a genuine high rate of probability? I don’t think he does. In fact, I don’t think many believers realize this, which is why probability of existence often gets simplified into daft fifty-fifty arguments like Pascal’s wager. Math for simpletons--or apologists. Not that there is much of a difference.

Low there! We interrupt your programming special to bring you some theological insights by Randal Rauser. Speaking about degrees of conviction, Randal informs us:

“[A] Christian could say that his belief in God is quite strong, but his belief that God is triune is less so… He could accept that proposition ‘God is three persons.’ He just wouldn’t accept it with the same degree of certainty that he accepts some other propositions of the faith like ‘God is the most perfect being’ and ‘God is love.’ Remember, Jews were in a covenantal relationship with God without ever believing that God is three persons. This means that at one point in history God revealed himself as one but not yet three. Christians believe that later revelation expanded and in some sense corrected the Israelites’ belief. With that in mind, it would seem possible that in the future God might expand and correct Christian beliefs in similar respects.”

Only an Evangelical Christian would dare to write the phrase “Jews were in a covenantal relationship with God.” They were, were they? They weren’t just obeying and worshipping their God as was custom? But they were in a relationship with him? Upholding a covenant is much like honoring an agreement. If Abraham, Moses, and David didn’t agree to follow God’s dictates to the law, they’d be breaking their agreement. But following a ruler’s laws isn’t necessarily a “relationship.” Just because you follow the speed limit doesn’t mean you have a “covenantal relationship” with your government’s lawmakers who enacted those laws. All you have in terms of a “relationship” is the agreement to follow those laws. That’s it. There’s nothing more to it.

Another thing that strikes me as odd is that God chose to depict himself one way, then suddenly, depicts himself another way. And Christians wonder why outsiders are perplexed by the confusing beliefs of Christians? Worse still, Randal flat out says that Christian beliefs corrected the Israelite beliefs. Does this mean Jewish beliefs are wrong? Is Randal claiming all modern practicing Jews who believe in Yahweh as the one true God, are wrong? Really? Because that seems to be the implication. If not, then couldn’t he have merely said ‘updated’ their beliefs rather than ‘corrected’ them?

But Randal isn’t entirely wrong either. Christians might very well be wrong about God, too. After all, we could imagine God revealing himself another way to another people of faith, and so it’s not just Jews who are “wrong” but also Christians. But that’s obviously me speaking nonsense, right? I mean, it’s not like we actually have any examples of a final revelation given to a chosen prophet by the one true God. That would be, like, staring an entire new religion, right? The next thing you know they’d be declaring all the infidels who didn’t agree with them “wrong” and, well, you get the point. Praise be to Allah!

Just kidding.

As fun as it is to roast Randal up a bit of humble crow pie, he does edge in one decent point. Randal states that he feels that

“[I]t’s a big mistake to think you need to hold all Christian beliefs with the same level of conviction, as if it’s 100 percent certainty or not at all.”

I’m sure the Fundamentalist variety of Christians would have a field day with this, but Randal’s point is well taken. Fundamental Christianity makes a huge mistake putting things into black and white terms. 

In fact, I would say that this ebb and flow of Christian belief conviction in specific doctrinal claims has allowed Christianity to thrive. The English philosopher A.C. Grayling suggests it's a lot like trying to box with jelly. Christianity always changes its shape and form to accommodate the biggest threats attacking it. And then it sticks to everything.

This has essentially allowed Christians to pick the best their faith has to offer and leave the rest. After all, slavery didn’t turn out to be all that good. Evolution has forced Christians to rethink the conviction they once had in the literal truth of the Genesis origin story of man. If they held to 100% conviction in these obviously falsified beliefs, they’d go the way of the dinosaur. (The reason fundies haven't gone the way of the dinosaur, however, is because, as Richard Dawkins has rightly observed, they flat out deny science and history.)

At the same time, however, this success that Christianity has enjoyed by growing more pliable, and more accommodating, has also made it more prolific and, ultimately, a greater nuisance. Gone is the day of Christian orthodoxy—now all you have is the heretical views of the individual. 

Personally I find this wishy-washy kind of faith sort of annoying. It could just be my preference for systematic thinking, but I feel that this pliability perhaps allows Christians to change their minds on what they belief far too much to be reliable in anyway, and far too uncertain to be able to talk about their beliefs in a comprehensible fashion. 

Which is why, I think you’ll find, many atheists prefer to take the easy bait and rail against Fundamentalists. It’s just so much more fun to get a reaction out of them than have to listen at length to a liberal Christian’s existential spiritual crisis.

Chapter 32: Adieu
Sheridan informs that he has to get going and Randal bids him adieu. That’s the whole of the chapter.

One thing I will say that I can’t complain about is the fact that Randal allowed Sheridan to maintain his reasonable doubts and didn’t have the character be converted. That would have been an obviously silly ending and little more than an apologist’s fantasy. But to his credit, Randal left Sheridan an atheist and a skeptic.

Chapter 33: A Love Supreme
Randal opens by recounting Sheridan’s journey, then informs “He’s beginning to see that the ‘skeptic’ bears a burden of proof surely as the believer.”

Well, actually, that’s not how it works. The burden of proof depends on the positive claim being made and whether or not the state of evidence warrants it. If not, then the burden of proof is surely on the claimant. If so, then, and only then, would the burden of proof be on the skeptic.

Closing the book, Randal repeats his favorite bit of wisdom:

“Remember, the conversation isn’t about winning a debate. It’s about moving toward the truth.”

It’s a sentiment I can get on board with, although I didn’t expect to find any more things to agree with in this book. But what can I say? I’m feeling agreeable.

With that said, we have come to the end of The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. It was anything but a smooth ride, but I think I will forgo closing thoughts as I feel I've said everything I need to about the nature of this book and Randal's reasoning. 

Ladies and gentlemen, you’ll be pleased to learn that the ride is over. Now, stop reading this. Seriously, I’m sure you all have better things to do. So go do them already.


The Advocatus Atheist

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Reflections on a Suicide

Christmas time is practically upon us and, sadly, for those that know about my personal life you will know this will be the first Christmas I have without my father. Just a little over half a year ago I lost my father to suicide. I still don’t know what to think about it all. What caused him to be so miserable that he poisoned himself, put a noose around his neck, and shot himself in the head? Some people “try” at suicide and fail. If anything is certain, my father really, really wanted to die.

That was his choice.

But here’s the thing though … for years I had thought of suicide as a purely selfish act. Think of all the loved ones who will be devastated, I thought. Think of the burden you’ll place on them. Think of all the broken hearts and the devastating holes you’ll leave in the lives of those closest to you; of those who depend on you; of those who’d never be the same without you. What about all of us?!

What about our feelings. Our needs?  What about usThen I realized, we were the selfish ones. What we have to realize is that suicide isn’t about us.

You see, the thing is, after my father took his life I didn’t have any inclination to ask “what about me?” because, simply put, his suicide wasn’t about me. It was about him. It was something he felt he had to do, for whatever reason.

It was his choice.

Sure, I have questions. When someone disappears from your life suddenly, you always have questions. Where’d they go? Why’d they leave in such a hurry? Why didn’t they say goodbye? But lamenting “Why me?” is trying to make something that’s not even about you, about you, and that’s selfish.

My father wasn’t particularly ill either. He didn’t have cancer or anything like that. He was in relatively good health for his age, although he had developed type II diabetes over the years, but he was taking medication and had it under control. He had recently retired from his job of managing Northern Telephone Co-op for over seventeen years (and twenty-two years in the telephone business), and having been a practicing lawyer prior to that. As for finances he was well off. In fact, a week prior to his death we had even been talking about him coming out to Japan (where I live) to visit—since he had mentioned that he had enough free flier miles saved up for a round-trip flight. It sounded like he might be coming out for a short summer visit, and I was getting excited to see my father again, even though we had spent the previous Christmas at his place—and, luckily enough, he had met my daughter, his granddaughter, for the first time.

Then, just like that, he was gone.

My mother and father with me at one years old.

My father wasn’t your typical suicide either. He wasn’t overly depressed (as far as we can discern) and he wasn’t suffering physically (as far as we know). He didn’t have chronic pain like some people, but after his retirement, living alone (as was his way) he did seem to become a tad lonely over the years. But if you know my father, he was one of the most anti-social people you could ever meet. He preferred solitude to having to deal with people on a regular basis, and don’t even kid yourself about getting on intimate terms with the man, he was impossible. He only let family and age-old friends in, and the occasional friend of his children. For all intents and purposes, being alone suited him. It’s one of the reasons he never re-married after he and my mother divorced. He preferred it that way.

He was the 40 year bachelor, and he enjoyed the life of doing things his way. He loved his toys and his gadgets; his sports cars and his computers. Oh, and he played video games, too. Avidly. I don’t know many other 60 year old fathers that do that, but as long as I can remember my father always loved video games. Every Christmas he bought my brother and I the latest gaming consoles and, what’s more, he’d always sit down after watching for a while and he’d play with us.

In fact, some of my fondest memories are going Christmas shopping with my father for video games. I remember one year, sometime after the Nintendo 64 had come out, we had gone to a local Target for some last minute shopping. It was the holiday season after the popular James Bond video game ‘007 Golden Eye’ was released, and they had a testable demo out on display to play. Of course, there was a long line of adolescents waiting to play, and my father stood in line watching eagerly, waiting for his turn.

Next in line for his turn, my father patiently waited for a small boy in front of him (maybe around 10 years old) to move it along. But the boy kept beating the levels and kept progressing through the game. And you know how kids zone out  when playing games, right? My dad had waited patiently in anticipation for over half an hour, yet the kid kept on playing. So, finally growing impatient, my father gently shoved the kid aside and took a hold of the controls.

I was browsing the CDs nearby, and watching my father out of the corner of my eye, I started laughing out-loud.

“Did you just push that kid?” I asked. 

“Maybe. What of it?” My dad answered, without taking his eyes off the game. 

“You can’t push peoples kids,” I informed. 

“I was teaching him something,” my dad stated wryly. 

“Teaching him something?” I asked, perplexed. “What were you teaching him?” 

“To respect his elders,” my dad informed as a matter-of-fact like. 

“Ah, I see,” I replied, and then I went back to browsing the new CDs.

I still laugh about it to this day. Simply the image of a 48 year old man pushing a 10 year old out of the way to play the new game at the store—how delightfully absurd—and what a perfect Christmas memory, too.

Yeah, that was my dad. But I loved him.

And now he’s gone. And this will be the first Christmas I have that I won’t be able to call my father and wish him a merry Christmas and tell him that I love him. And it kills me inside.

But never once have I felt like his suicide was a selfish act. It was no more selfish than a person scratching an itch, if you think about it. No more selfish than choosing a Pepsi over Coke. It was his life to live, and he chose to write a different ending than most. You don’t have to agree with his choice of ending, but it doesn’t make it any better or worse than any other person’s choice.

It took me a while to figure that out. But it helps to remember, we’re all just stories in the end.

And as much as it hurts, at the same time, I cannot deny him his choice. He had his reasons. I just wish he would have been more open about what was going on in his life and shared them with us so we would have understood, at least to some small degree, what he might have been going through that ultimately compelled him to take his own life.

But there’s no changing back the course of time. And as a non-superstitious person, I do not believe I will ever be reunited with my father in some magical place where I can have that happy fairy tale ending that so many people seem to long for, but honestly—in my mind—that shouldn’t even matter. What matters to me are the memories we made together when we were together. A lifetime of precious moments encapsulated in brief flashes of memory built over years of familiarity, of growing to know one another, as father and son. That is all I have left of my father.

It seems to me, the best thing we can do is simply strive to keep our loved ones, and the ones we have lost, in our hearts and our memories for as long as we are alive.

I know it may be somewhat morbid to reflect on one’s own mortality amid all the holiday cheer, and I don’t mean to put a damper on anybodies festive spirits, but if in an unlucky twist of fate I did happen to bite the big one tomorrow (god forbid) the only thing I would wish for is that my daughter recognized how much her daddy loved her. And hopefully, she’d have some fond memories of her old man to keep with her and which she could hold onto and eventually pass on to her children.

As for all the young boys and girls hogging the games in the stores this holiday season, please make sure to share with the big kids too, no matter how old they are. And parents, please beware, like my father before me I have no trepidation of pushing your ungrateful, snotty-nosed, game-whore of a child out of the way at the store when it’s apparent you haven’t instilled in them the basic politeness of sharing—and respecting their elders. I mean, it’s the least I could do to help out this holiday season … so if you see me in the store shoving your nerdy kid out of the way … you’re welcome.

Tristan Vick

Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist” Chapter 29

Chapter 29: The Lights Cast by Little Amazing Moments of Providence
What to expect, what to expect? Randal’s penchant for using  non-standard terminology without explaining it (i.e., defeaters and acquaintance of knowledge, just to name a couple),[1] a love for starting entirely new topics in the middle of an ongoing one, and his consistent ability to forget to sum up previous questions and points raised at the beginning of one chapter leaves us often in a state of confusion and anticipation. What to expect, what to expect?

Sheridan, who continue to proves he is an overly simplistic stereotype of an atheist at best, informs that he is confused as to how a Christian can know they are being “Christlike” or not, and Randal said that the Christian will know through signs. Sheridan inquires:

“Signs?... Like what kind of signs?”

Randal informs:

“I’m talking about the experience that real, everyday people have of God working in their lives, and specifically how that working is corroborated when suggestive events occur. When this happens I think we can take these events as signs that God is real?”

Really? That’s all one needs for “signs” from God? Simply a suggestive occurrence? Well, if any old subjective experience will do… then by that reasoning… yes, there’s overwhelming evidence for God! Since anything can technically be evidence if it’s suggestive enough.

It strikes me as ironic that Randal, in the next paragraph, stops Sheridan from going on simply to say, “I’m not interested in mere anecdotes…”

Oh, really? Because the majority of this book has consisted of “mere anecdotes” an no real genuine support, you know, apart from those suggestive occurrences. Randal continues on, because he wants to, “bring some rigor to the discussion.”

I know, it’s hard not to laugh, but let’s give him a chance to make his case. Randal states:

“On this point I think it would be helpful to begin with the criteria that William Dembski has articulated as prerequisite for justifying a design inference in scientific enquiry… Dembski notes that whenever an event occurs we can attribute it to chance, necessity or design. I think this is as true in mundane affairs as in natural science.”

Randal then goes on to posit the question:

“You and I can call any synchronous event that arises from chance or necessity a ‘coincidence.’ So our question is whether a suggestive event arises from coincidence or design.”

Sheridan asks him what kind of event would that entail, and Randal launches into an anecdote.

I’m sorry, but I actually laughed out loud here. Because as I recall, just a few paragraphs ago he said, and I quote, “I’m not interested in mere anecdotes…”

Maybe in Randal’s mind there is a noticeable difference between regular anecdotes and mere anecdotes? I wouldn't presume to guess. At any rate, Randal’s mere anecdote details how he was singing to himself Michael Jackson’s song ‘Don’t Stop til You Get Enough’ while in the car. Then he turned on the radio and the exact song was playing!

Randal says although a unusual thing to happen, “it lacked a meaningful signature, so I chalked it up to coincidence.”

But what would a non-coincidence look like according to Randal? Well, one that has a “suggestive signature or pattern” of course. Detailing further, he informs:

“If the pattern is sufficiently suggestive, a person can conclude that it’s more than coincidence. There may be some intelligence superintending the event.”

But who is deciding on whether the pattern is sufficiently suggestive or not? The person experiencing it? If so, then that creates a bias which favors the person’s subjective interpretation of the experience as to whether the event was “sufficiently” suggestive. The only way to avoid this problem of bias is to ask others whether our individual experience looks to them if it was sufficiently suggestive or not. And even then, this doesn't mean it was a sign from God. It could be that it simply was a one off event that looked overly suggestive to satisfy everyone’s conclusion based on their understanding of what makes something “sufficient” enough.

I can’t help but see this reasoning as, how should I put this, well, simply bad.

Of course that doesn't mean there might not be some intelligence superintending the event, but we have to find a better way to determine this than our own interpretation of what is sufficiently suggestive to constitute a supervening intelligence.

Randal then cautions us not to jump to conclusions, since sometimes when “suggestive, synchronous events occur” (I’m beginning to feel temped to call these peculiar word phrasings ‘Randalisms’) we will tend to invoke agency, whether there is any genuine agency behind the event or not.

Now he tells us!

So what then? Well, Randal reminds us that

“[I]t’s at least possible that a highly complex event with a signature like this could occur and not be attributable to another human being. In that case you might invoke a divine agency.”

Really? We leaped from a random event to a divine event? Whatever happened to the middle step of highly intelligent, super advanced race of extraterrestrials? What about time travelers from the future? Or parallel/alternate universe versions of us stepping through temporal wormholes to influence events on our planet? Because these are ALL more likely than God.

Of course, by more likely I mean more probable, and that’s something which theists tend to brush over. It’s easier to jump to the conclusion you like, in this case “Because God,” rather than have to discount other more likely probabilities first. The reason is simple, it is ridiculously hard, not to mention impossible given our current knowledge and technology, to fully discount the above science fiction scenarios—all of them still more likely than a divine agent like God. Unable to discount those, however, leaves the theist without the ability to assume God at all. So instead of taking any of the more likely probable causes into consideration, they simply are ignored in favored of the presupposed divine God agent.

It’s funny how this blinkered reasoning doesn't’t bother the apologist, because it really grates on my brain, and I can’t be the only one.

Let’s put it another way. It’s like asking the apologist to sing us the alphabet and they sing “A, B, C, X, Y, Z…” and skip everything in the middle simply for the convenience of getting to Z. The only thing is, even this analogy is a poor one, because what we have to realize is that the apologist’s “Z” in all probability doesn’t exist. In that sense, it’s more like us asking the apologist to sing us the alphabet and they sing to us “A, B, C, X, Y, Thrym.”

When we challenge them on whether or not “Thrym” is a real letter of the alphabet or not, they will reply that

“[I]t’s at least possible that a highly complex [alphabet] with a [letter] like this could occur and not be attributable to another human being. In that case you might invoke a divine agency.”

(Changes above are obviously mine—used to better illustrate how the reasoning here doesn't actually support the claim.)

What we could invoke is the fact that the person simply made Thrym up! The challenge of the theist is to try and prove that, like the above example, they haven’t simply made God up and posited it as the “sufficient” explanation for the event they think may have a divine intelligence behind it. Otherwise, it really does sound like they are making stuff up.

Usually when challenged on this front, believers will makes confessions of faith, such as, “I know it in my heart that God is real.”

Well if hearts could only know, then that would be enough wouldn’t it?

The apologist is worse than your common person of faith however, because they know the arguments well enough not to make the mistake, but then they go and make it anyway—deliberately. You see, it’s just so much easier believing in God is everyone believes in God. And the only way to do that without first proving the existence of God is to presuppose the existence of God. Then all you have to do is assign unexplainable coincidences to divine agency and… easy as pie… you've proved God!

However, in the reality of the real world, not really.

But not one to be left scratching his head and looking dumb, Randal concocts an answer for this problem as well.

“In my view, the causality of the event is not as relevant as the strength of its signature.”

It’s a puzzling statement to me, because I can’t see how one can add strength to a signature. By pressing down on the pen harder, perhaps?

It’s not Thrym. It’s THRYM!

Likewise, it’s not merely “Because God.” It’s… “BECAUSE GOD!”

Haha, take that atheists!

I for one am glad this book is almost over.

Sheridan, luckily, calls Randal on this (and for once some good foresight on Randal’s behalf as he predicts the objection ahead of time). Sheridan asks:

“How could an event that has already been explained, perhaps even predicted, in accord with scientific laws, still qualify… What’s left for God to explain?”

Randal launches into another strained analogy about meteorology. Randal imagines our weather forecasting technology improving to the point of being able to predict not only the weather but also the exact location of every single raindrop’s point of location. He then suggests a hailstorm predicts that the hail will form the words “Randal was right” on your back lawn, and even though science could explain everything, the message itself still cannot be explained—at least not dismissed as a mere coincidence.

This is what Randal means by the “meaningfulness” of the signature. He also says that it would be a good example of God working within the laws of nature yet still managing to make his message clear.

Good thing then, that this scenario has happened zero times in the history of ever. But Randal is right, if it should happen, it would give one greater incentive to take pause.

Sheridan raises the objection we came across earlier about signatures and signs being person dependent, and therefore rather subjective. Sheridan quips:

“One person’s mess is another person’s message from God, right?”

Randal jumps at the chance to explain, and Randalisms ensue.

“When complex, synchronous events occur, we only bother to invoke an intelligence if their occurrence makes sense within a context. If the hail had spelled out ‘car’ or ‘bat’ we would probably think it very unusual while not attributing to it any special significance.”

Really? We’d just dismiss it off hand? As a Batman fan, if I was going to a comic book convention dressed as Batman, I’d find it significant, yes (context, after all). But as a Batman fan, random weather spelling out the word ‘bat’, or any other word for that matter, would give me pause, perhaps enough to look into the matter and not just dismiss it off hand. Even if I wasn't a Batman fan, I’d still think it highly peculiar and might do a Google search to check whether or not such things have happened before.

So in all whichever context I find myself in I don’t think I could simply dismiss such a phenomenon. Yet at the same time I don’t think we need to stop searching for the answers and simply assume “Because God” either. That would be the lazy thing to do. Besides that, I really don’t think there is any context which exists where we would be warranted to bypass looking for natural explanations before settling on supernatural ones. No matter what Randal the apologist may think, that context simply doesn't exist.

[Note: Well, technically speaking such a context involving the supernatural could exist if you ruled out every single natural phenomenon first, and couldn't explain it otherwise, at least not without having to presume a supernatural reality. But whenever we have looked for physical or naturalistic explanations which sufficiently account for the event we have found them. The hypothetical Randal poses only works as a possible conjecture, and only if his assumptions about the supernatural are accurate for whatever type of super-reality exists, but it’s not a proof or even a demonstration. It’s at most, simply an imaginative speculation in what such events possibly might look like.]

Sheridan says that he’s had enough of the fanciful illustrations and demands Randal give him a real example. So Randal does what any good apologist would do. He quotes William Lane Craig. Or rather, he quotes William Lane Craig’s anecdotal story (which is kind of worse—since Randal’s concrete example isn't even his own experience).

It appears this is turning out to be the lough out loud chapter of the whole book. If I am sounding overly cheeky, it’s because everything in this chapter is laughable from my atheist perspective, but appears more than absurd to my rationalist perspective. I really cannot take anything Randal has to say seriously any longer.

Back in the ‘80s, Randal informs, Craig was trying to raise funds so he could serve as a missionary reaching European university students. He managed to raise everything except for the last 300 dollars. Coming down to the wire, and without sources to make up the difference of the cost, Craig did the only thing a true believer in his situation could do, he prayed. At the last minute one of the churches Craig reached out to calls him back and gives him the money.

Randal says this is a direct sign from God.

From the outside looking in, it rather looks like Craig left a message and the church got back to him. Better late than never, I suppose.

But was it a sign from God with a “strong signature” as Randal would call it? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Sheridan then points out that it seems more like chance, and reminds Randal that prayer has “always failed to produce statistically significant results.”

Randal goes on to say that Sheridan is missing the point and adds:

“The Christian doesn't claim that prayer is directed at some abstract force that can be tested under laboratory conditions. This isn’t a mere event cause work that’s constrained by a natural law. The claim, rather, is that God, an agent, answers prayer.”

Well, wouldn't the consequences of God’s actual involvement in any actual manipulations of even basic natural laws be measurable? If not, then how can anyone pretend to know if it’s a causal agent at work or just a series of natural events falling into line which appear ordered but, in actuality, are a random occurrence? Randal still hasn't met the challenge of explaining how he can distinguish between the two.

“And you can’t stipulate how an agent is going to act. Still less can you do so when that agent is infinitely wiser than you because you simply cannot factor in all the knowledge that agent might consider in making his decision.”

We don’t actually have to factor in all the data. We just have to be able to measure the frequency of prayer related events and see if they come true with any statistical regularity based on when the prayer was said and when it was assumed granted, and then compare this to other prayers supposedly answered by the same God, and see if there is a statistical pattern.

Of course, if there was anything of the like people would have seized on it long ago as evidence. The fact that nobody has ever demonstrated anything in the way of measuring the rate of prayers answered or, for that matter, shown how you can widescreen such “answered” prayers from random off chance events is the reason apologists like Randal claim we cannot understand the mind of God.

The distinction I like to make here is that we’re not trying to understand the mind of God. We’re simply trying to detect whether there is a mind or not in the first place. As it is, humans do have the ability to recognize other independent minds from our own, so why couldn't recognize God’s mind? We don’t need to understand it to recognize it as such. For example, I recognize my wife has a mind of her own even though half of the time I simply do not understand how my wife’s mind works.

Sheridan then says he simply doesn't find such anecdotal stories reliable, as he feels they can all be dismissed as chance or coincidence. Randal has a problem with such a position, and explains:

“My concern would be that invoking ‘chance’ or ‘coincidence’ can become a sweeping excuse to dismiss the evidential force of any event, no matter how compelling.”

Oh, really? Do tell.

“Jesus knew this danger. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man suffering in Hades pleads that an angel be sent back to warn his brothers of his fate. Abraham responds, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” 
So it’s like that, is it? And… hold the phone… Hades? After Randal spent several futile chapters attempting to convince us of how real Hell was, he goes with… Hades? Doesn't that undermine his claim that Hell is real in some degree? I mean, if you’re going to consider Hell a real place, don’t turn around and use a fictional name for it. But I digress.

Still not satisfied, Sheridan reminds Randal that nearly all his anecdotal accounts could essentially be explained by chance and coincidence. So Randal launches into yet another anecdote.

He tells of a student of his by the name of Lynn. Her husband is recovering from a recent heart attack, and due to the expensive medical bills, she cannot afford to take her kids to the water park for some much needed R&R. Low and behold, there is a knock at the door and someone from their church with four extra passes to the water park arrives and offers them to her family. What’s more, Randal informs, the tickets were offered within an hour of her son’s request.

With timing like that, it must be God!

Randal says it could have been tickets to the zoo, or the historical park, or any other numerous attractions. But it was the exact water park that Lynn’s son had requested. Randal views this as a high signature event. A sign from God, in other words.

But really, there isn't enough information to make that assumption. For example, did Lynn’s family and this other family frequent the park together? Did the church do activities with the youth which involved the water park. Was the water park promoting itself and offering tickets for a bargain price that month. There are lots of factors which could contribute to it being *not a one off event. Even if we cannot account for such things, and it appears to be a one off event, how can we distinguish that it was a miracle and not simply a coincidence.

See, Randal’s high signature probability is merely based on what looks more likely to him to be pertinent to the context, but that’s purely subjective. And since he’s looking for signs of God anyway, he’s probably more liable to see patterns that aren't’t even there, as this is a trait of patternicity, i.e. the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data, and infuse these patterns with agency, i.e. imbuing patterned events as being the intended result of an agent.[2]

Randal reiterates his point for several more pages, but doesn't give any new or compelling evidence to back his claims, so it’s really not worth raising objections to, since all the problems I have with his initial examples holds for all the rest as well. So, this brings us to the end of the chapter.

Again, if I sounded a bit cheekier this time around it is likely due to the fact that Randal’s arguments are so bad and so silly that they are practically absurd. There’s only so much a person can take of absurdity before it grows dull and uninteresting. Moreover, I just cannot fathom how someone with a PhD would even think that these constituted good, let alone worthy, arguments for the kinds of claims they are making. But the good news is that there are only three chapters left, and I will review them altogether as we come to the end of reviewing Randal’s haphazard rabbit trails.

[1] To learn more about what defeaters are in epistemology, read this insightful Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article:

[2] Patternicity and agenticity are Michael Shermer’s terms for our human brain’s penchant for isolating specific patterns based on previous experiences or expectations we may have, so that we inevitably will tend to find meaning in patterns that aren’t really there, and see agency when it’s not likely. See Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain to learn more. 

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist