Sin is the abomination

AbominationFew things push my buttons like sanctimonious “love the sinner, hate the sin” declarations. The very concept of sin is a cancer that rots the mind. It is the substitution of morality with dogma. Take homosexuality. There is no moral argument to be made against it. Many have tried, and it always comes down to subjective ickiness, religion, or both. It takes religion to transform an act of love into an “abomination”, to tell people who they are is bad and that they must fight it, which means fighting against themselves. All this, even when they are harming nobody.

For this imaginary and victimless crime, however, LGBTQ people are in reality marginalized, discriminated against, bullied, terrorized, and killed. By implying that there is something wrong with them, those who call homosexuality sinful normalize and justify criminal behavior. This is at best victim blaming. This attitude destroys lives, and contrary to homosexuality, is deeply immoral.

The next step in the perverted reasoning is that gay people are allowed to be the way they are; it’s their behavior that should be fought. Behavior, in this case, being awesome gay sex. I call bullshit on multiple counts.

First, this goes way beyond sex, and is effectively denying love to anyone who’s not straight. Make no mistake, gay marriage, even if it didn’t imply sex, is out of the question. As a LGBTQ person, you are simply denied the right to love in the same way that straight people can.

Second, sex is an integral part of being human. It’s a wonderful, joyful, amazing, and positive experience. Denying an adult person the right to have sex with another consenting adult is actually denying them a part of their humanity. Sexual repression can have some serious consequences on mental health, and can even become full-blown public health crises.

Listening to Christians on this topic however, they would have you think that they are the victims. They claim their religion demands that they reach out and try to convert everyone. They demand special protection for their bigotry, despite evidence that it is actively harmful. We have the moral high ground on this topic, and we should never confuse religiosity for virtue. They have their free speech, but we also have the right to call them out.

If you are a Christian and you claim to love LGBTQ people, please keep your proselytism at bay. Accept people for who they are, keep out of their sex life, and don’t deny them the basic rights everybody else enjoys. This is what true love looks like.

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Some context about Charlie Hebdo: don’t judge a magazine by its cover

"It's hard to be loved by idiots" The past two days have been nerve wracking for the French, and for friends of freedom of speech. We’ve all been floored by the savagery of the attacks, but it’s been heartwarming to see support messages from all over the world, as well as the extraordinary unity of the French people overall, including the Muslim community and clergy, as well as all other confessions (but of course, let’s not fool ourselves, there are already brain-dead violent reactions against the whole Muslim community, which is exactly the sort of division the terrorists are trying to create).

All this makes it particularly irritating when several voices from supposedly smart people writing in reputable journals start blaming the victim. USA Today even went so far as to publish a commentary from a self-avowed radical extremist, something I find way more offensive than anything Charlie ever put on their front page:

Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression […] why in this case did the French government allow the magazine Charlie Hebdo to continue to provoke Muslims, thereby placing the sanctity of its citizens at risk?

It is time that the sanctity of a Prophet revered by up to one-quarter of the world's population was protected.

USA Today is not quoting an opposing view, in an article meant to give context to the attacks: they actually gave an unrestricted tribune to a dangerous extremist who misrepresents his own religion, and advocates against freedom of speech, in favor of blasphemy laws, without comment. It’s hard to fathom why USA Today would do that, but at least one can understand what this guy is saying and why. And it’s chilling.

Harder to understand is the chorus of reasonable journalists who attempt to paint Charlie Hebdo as a racist, islamophobic journal. Before I go into the details of the accusations, and why they don’t hold water, I want to point out what should be very obvious: this is the equivalent of showing up at a funeral and telling the family that the deceased had really looked for it. Only insensitive, tasteless assholes do that.

Case in point, David Brooks writes in the NY Times:

let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.

Notice the subtext here: in America, this wouldn’t stand, not because speech is less free, but because the French agree with “hate speech”? Give me a break and watch Fox News for 10 minutes to realize what Americans allow (which is fine, of course, just pointing out the hypocrisy of an article that aspires itself to denounce hypocrisy). It also takes about 30 seconds to find direct counter-examples of American campus newspapers that are nothing but racist hate speech

I’ll also point out that nobody but their readership can “cut financing and shut them down” in the case of Charlie: it’s completely independent, has no ads, and is not part of a large corporation. Imagine that: really free press. Now that’s something you don’t see every day.

So is Charlie hate speech? Of course not, but if your knowledge of it is limited to a few of the most provocative covers that you’ve seen on the Internet, it may seem to be.

Charlie Hebdo is one of the last journals in a long tradition of lampooning, political caricature, irreverence, humanism, secularism, and freedom that goes all the way back to the French Revolution. If you go beyond the cover and look inside, you’ll find something a lot different from what Brooks describes: the articles are about raising awareness on social issues, about defending the defenseless, such as immigrants, and the homeless, about culture, about the struggles of the Third World, the environment, and generally about fighting oppression in all its forms. Most articles aren’t even funny ;)

The authors of those articles and drawings who died in the attack were not immature 13 year-olds trying to “stick a finger in the eye of authority” and who belong at the “kids’ table”. They were very smart, respected and beloved journalists and cartoonists whom people of my generation have seen on TV and read in newspapers since our childhood. We know they are all the kindest, funniest, and smartest folks. They were also resolutely at the “adults’ table”, even by Brooks’ standard that “you must read Le Monde or the establishment organs”: they were not just reading those, they were writing and drawing in them.

Cabu drew on Antenne 2 (French TV), in Paris-Match, Le Journal du Dimanche, France-Soir, Le Figaro, Le Figaro Littéraire, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Monde, Politique Hebdo, Jours de France, and many more.

Wolinski has drawn in France-Soir, L’Humanité, Paris-Match. In 2005, Jacques Chirac gave him the Légion d’honneur, the highest decoraration in France.

Tignous was drawing in Marianne, and Charb in Télérama and l’Humanité. He even drew illustrations in Le Petit Larousse, the most popular French dictionary. Bernard Maris was a PhD-holding University Professor of economy and “agrégé” who wrote for Marianne, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Figaro Magazine, Le Monde, and France Inter.

This puts the front pages that created such controversy under a much different light: those were not racist caricatures reminiscent of the darkest anti-Semitic propaganda of the second quarter of the twentieth century. Rather, they were funny, courageous, and deliberate, if provocative, pieces from well-respected and well-understood humanist authors who thought that one should be able to laugh of anything, that it was an essential part of Democracy.

There’s also this weird perception that Charlie was going after the Muslim minority. In reality, they were going after all fundamentalisms, not after communities. In fact, over the years they got 14 lawsuits from Catholic organizations, but only one from Muslims (and Charlie won them all). It’s also worth mentioning that they were able to gather 173,000 signatures against Front National, the extreme right French party that is the real voice against the Muslim community in France, and that attacked the journal several times with lawsuits. During the Mohammed caricature controversy however, the F.N. weirdly supported Charlie, for their own partisan reasons. “It’s hard to be appreciated by idiots”, indeed.

Wolinski said in an interview that what they were doing was in fact to treat Muslims like the adults they are, with whom it’s possible to joke and laugh. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, are like bratty children who can’t stand contradiction. Brats with guns. They are the criminals here, let’s not be confused about that, and they are attacking us all, by assassinating journalists and policemen. They’re the ones we shouldn’t allow at the grownups’ table.

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An example of a conflict between science teaching and religious beliefs

Wings In yesterday’s post, I explained how during my whole time as a physics student, I’ve never seen an example of a religious claim, positive or negative, creeping into the science teaching. It’s not that physical science is inconsequential to religious claims, it’s not. However, religion is off-topic in a science class, and there is only a conflict if someone brings religion into the classroom.

A religious student may feel his beliefs are threatened if the topic being exposed happens to be in conflict. It can happen in cosmology, but there’s probably no class where it will happen more than in biology. I didn’t study biology myself after high school, but I have lots of friends who did, and there’s one topic in there that I remember and that can’t leave any follower of an Abrahamic religion indifferent. That topic is the undirected nature of evolution, its total lack of an endgame.

This is of course not taught to annoy religious students, but because it’s extremely important in order to understand evolution. Also, it’s demonstrably true.

If there’s one thing that proponents of ID have understood, it’s that creation, old or young, makes predictions that are different from the predictions of evolution theory (too bad that they can’t recognize when their claims are falsified…). The prediction in this case is that if evolution was intentional, we would see mutations that would be temporarily deleterious, and that can only be explained because they are useful to an innovation that will appear many generations down. In other words, the mutations would not be selected out, because they will serve a role in the future.

Evolution theory predicts that this is very unlikely, because selection starts to exert its pressure as soon as the mutation appears. It turns out that there are no known examples of such mutations, and that every observation is consistent with the predictions of evolution theory.

In teaching those ideas, the biology teacher doesn’t have any intention to indoctrinate anyone: he’s just teaching the science. If there is a conflict, it has been deliberately brought in, and should be resolved outside of the science class.

This should clarify that conflicts do clearly exist between scientific and religious claims (and until now, science has been right every time there’s been a conflict). In the previous post, my goal was to show how there is no anti-theistic indoctrination in a science classroom because religious claims have no place there. In this post, I hope I’ve shown why the onus is on the religious student to take what he’s been taught in science class and resolve any conflicts outside, on his own or with his priest. If he’s intellectually honest and open-minded, some of his religious beliefs will have to be revised.

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The terrible secular indoctrination machine

A UnicornHere’s a great example of projection: many members of the religious right in the US are convinced that non-religious universities are indoctrination centers for the far left and atheism. Case in point, my fellow blogger Ambrose writes:

The reason that higher education in the sciences and philosophy purportedly reduces religious belief has as much to do with contemporary popular antitheistic indoctrination in those fields as any supposed increase in knowledge, much less baseline intelligence.

The irony is quite strong, when the writer of such words got his entire education from Christian schools and universities.

I haven’t studied philosophy, however I can say a few things about science. I studied in France, but I’ve communicated, worked and studied with enough professors and students from many countries to know that what’s taught and how it’s taught is virtually identical everywhere.

Here’s how many times I remember hearing anything about, for, or against God, during my years studying, from first grade to my PhD: One. A student sneezed and my history teacher said: “que le bon Dieu vous patafiole”, which is a humorous and excessively fancy way of saying “God bless you”.

The truth of the matter is that religion is completely irrelevant to the teaching of science, and as such it is never mentioned. I have no idea which of my professors were religious. I know some of my friends were (I even once went on a retreat in a monastery with one of them), but they weren’t feeling indoctrinated, or they never expressed it. You’d need a particularly strong persecution complex to interpret that as “anti-theistic indoctrination”.

Funnily enough, my own atheism only became stronger and militant when I moved to the US. It’s not by any stretch of the imagination my professors who turned me against religion, it’s religious people, the grip they have on American public life, and their privilege. Religion is its own worst enemy, not science, not education. Unfortunately, some religious people are science and education’s worst enemies.

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Infallible, part 3: the unoriginality and wrongness of Biblical creation

George Lemaître, le génie du ChristianismeIn my ongoing series of posts addressing the arguments from Michael, a militant Catholic, today’s post will examine the claim that the Bible’s cosmogony is unique among creation myths in that it talks about creation ex-nihilo. In Michael’s words:

Every culture known believed that the Earth, stars, indeed the entire universe has been present in all eternity. Creation stories abounded, but all the stories began with matter that preexisted

Of course, let’s get out of the way the fact that if that were true (it isn’t), it wouldn’t give any advantage to Catholicism against the rest of Christianity, against Judaism, or Islam, since all are sharing the same Genesis story.

It is also obvious that there is such variety in creation myths that it wouldn’t prove anything if one of them happened to correspond vaguely to reality. For instance, the Bhagavad Gita anticipates the concept of a multiverse, the expansion of the universe, until its thermal death, with time scales in the billions of years for the universe, and trillions of years for the multiverse. This is much closer to the current thinking in cosmology than Genesis ever was to the thinking of l’Abbé Lemaître last century. Does it prove that Krishna is the one true god? Of course not.

Let’s get back to Michael’s specific claims. Does every culture really believe that the universe has been existing for all eternity? Of course not. That claim alone betrays confirmation bias, and the thinking from someone who doesn’t bother to verify what other apologists have been saying. Other myths of creation ex-nihilo exist. Worse, Genesis does not itself appear out of thin air: it has its own influences and heritage in Mesopotamian mythology.

The biggest problem however is that Genesis is a primitive, vague creation myth that gets pretty much everything wrong: the Earth is created before the light, the firmament is a thing that is holding “waters”, plants appear before the night and day cycle, which appears before the Sun, which appears before the stars, the Moon appears only at night, and it goes on.

Even the claim of creation ex-nihilo is unsound: the relevant Hebrew verse would be more accurately translated as “in the beginning filled God the heavens and the Earth” (emphasis mine). This implies a pre-existing void that got filled, which is at odds with modern cosmology that shows that our space and time emerged at the Big-Bang, from nothing at all, from a singularity, or from another region of a multiverse. In any case, there was nothing to fill, as space itself had yet to be created.

There is nothing original in the Bible’s creation myth, and it is mostly wrong anyway. It cannot be seriously used as an argument to prove Christianity right.

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The Kalām Cosmological Argument is a terrible argument – 1. Induction

Not the induction we're talking about here...It’s quite amazing how often the Kalām Cosmological Argument, or some version of it, is still used by believers to justify their faith. It seems like a naive understanding of modern cosmology, coupled with confirmation bias, conspire to keep this tired argument on life support. In this series of posts, my intention is to explain some of the ways in which KCA is a terrible argument, one problem at a time. In this first post, I’ll focus on whether it’s reasonable to apply inductive reasoning to the universe.

As a reminder, here’s how the KCA usually goes:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
2. The universe began to exist
therefore:
3. The universe has a cause

The first clause is an unjustified generalization that really is inductive reasoning in disguise. Inductive reasoning is a perfectly legitimate and inevitable way to reason –because it works– if you understand its limitations.

A more accurate version of the first clause could be:

Every thing that we’ve seen begin to exist has had a cause

I’ll address in a future post how even this formulation is false, but let’s focus on the induction issue for now. In this version, I removed the excessive generalization, thus pulling the induction from under the carpet and putting it in plain sight. I’ve also replaced “everything” with “every thing”. This is a really important nuance: in a similar way that “nothing” is not a thing, but is really “no thing”, the universe (i.e. the set of all the things that exist) cannot be treated like an ordinary thing. It’s in a category of its own. Inductive reasoning is the application of probability to a set of similar objects. It cannot, therefore, be applied to the universe, because there are no objects similar to the universe. And before you ask, yes, some physicists are guilty of doing exactly that.

And that is not even all that’s wrong with the first premise…

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Time, causality, and prime movers

What's beyond the sky used to be a reasonable question.Sometimes we ask the wrong questions, and answer them with bad answers. One particularly bad question is: “what was there before the Big-Bang?” There are many others, but this one requires a little mental gymnastics in order to get used to modern ideas of time and understand what the consequences are.

“What was there before the Big-Bang” may have looked like a good question before Einstein (if anyone then had a clear idea of a universe expanding from a very dense original state, which they didn’t), but the revolution of Relativity in our concepts of time and space made it scientifically absurd. The word you have to remove from the question is “before”. Substitute “beyond”, and we have something to talk about, but “before” is just absurd in this context. Let me explain.

In a Newtonian, 19th century scientific framework, time and space are fundamental: physical phenomena, and the universe in general, happen in time and space, but time and space aren’t physical phenomena themselves. Einstein showed that time and space are not only relative, but are physical expressions of geometry. They are even in a way consequences of matter and energy. In other words, time and space are properties of the universe. They are of the universe, and don’t make sense outside of it (whatever “outside” could mean when talking about the universe).

As a consequence, time and space as we perceive them are not necessarily useful concepts “everywhere” (and I use that word with scare quotes to express an idea of a place that is more general than what we mean in everyday speech).

The Big-Bang is such a “place”: what scientists mean by Big-Bang is that early region in the universe where everything was so densely packed that our current knowledge of physics breaks down. It is where our ignorance begins, where taking our usual concepts of time and space seriously would lead to absurdities and infinities. The only certainty about what’s beyond the Big-Bang is that we need new science to understand and describe it.

Now if you care about metaphysical questions of origins, that leads to a serious problem: if there is no useful concept of time beyond the Big-Bang, do we still have a useful concept of causation?

Hume’s concept of causation cannot be kept in this context because it is based on time: the cause must be prior to the effect. If “prior” is meaningless, we are reduced to correlation, which can easily be reversed without contradictions.

The only causation that can be used here is the logical concept of necessary causes: if x must exist for y to exist, and y exists, then x exists. The first premise however is a tricky one…

Let’s take a favorite argument from theists, the Kalam cosmological argument. It starts with “everything that begins to exist has a cause”. There are too many problems in this statement to count, but the word we need to focus on is “begins”… The argument continues with “the universe began to exist”. We can stop right there: no, as far as we know, the universe didn’t “begin” to exist because that implies a meaningful notion of time, that we don’t have near the supposed origin of the universe. This argument simply doesn’t work.

I’ll leave you with a final puzzling thought about time and causality. Quantum physics introduced a funny notion that is that the results of some experiments cannot be predicted, and that we can only predict the probabilities of the possible outcomes. Without going into too much details, this doesn’t necessarily eliminate determinism at a fundamental level, but it does confirm that with our limited perception of time, the future is not fixed. One interpretation in particular, the Many Worlds Interpretation, sees us navigating in an infinitely branching network of possibilities. When an experiment is performed, other outcomes than the one measured may seem like they didn’t actualize, but according to Many Worlds, they did, it’s just that this is not where we are. Now here comes the crazy bit: in this interpretation, everything is still fundamentally reversible in time, and the branching that happens about the future also happens for the past. The consequence is that the past may be just as undetermined as the future is.

Have a nice day.

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Cartoon history

Giordano BrunoThe Christian blogs these days seem to be erupting with outrage over a short cartoon sequence in the new Cosmos TV show. The segment in question tells the story of Giordano Bruno, and it’s… well, cartoony, both literally and figuratively. That’s not shocking on its own, the science itself in Cosmos is cartoony: biologists will cringe at inaccurate representations of a DNA molecule, astronomers will face palm when Tyson’s spaceship avoids planetoids that are in reality many orders of magnitude farther away from one another. It’s the nature of the exercise: trying to convey complex ideas to an uninitiated public in simple and entertaining images, will require simplifications, dramatization, shortcuts, and even that you’ll occasionally be plain wrong. Being a science show, maybe it was sloppier and more caricature on the history. I don’t know, I’m no historian. As long as deception is not deliberate and central to the discourse…

The blogs do claim that deception there is, however, and proceed to plead for the Church:

“it was Bruno's theological beliefs, rather than his beliefs about the universe, that were troubling to the inquisitors in Rome.”

Of course, this is missing the point by several light years. It doesn’t matter what ideas got Bruno to be burned at the stake. It matters that the Church was getting people tortured and executed for thought crimes. This is why mankind had to free itself from the oppression of religion and establish freedom of thought as a sacred value, in order to enable the explosive progress of science, literature, philosophy, education, and individual rights that it has been enjoying for centuries now.

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Infallible, part 2: Consistency is Insufficient

Kurt GödelMichael, on his way to establish the infallibility of the Catholic Church, makes the claim that consistency is the defining characteristic of truth:

The hallmark of truth is consistency. Error can always be shown, at the core of the argument, to be logically inconsistent and ultimately self­refuting. Ergo, consistency is contingent to any claim of truth.

This is of course an error of monumental proportions.

Consistency is necessary but not sufficient. Sagan's dragon in the garage is perfectly consistent, but still untrue. Alchemy was, as far as I can tell, logically consistent, and turned out to be false nonetheless. Galilean relativity is consistent, but it’s Einstein’s Relativity that coincides with observation.

In physics, consistency is not even achieved as a whole, but only within theories (quantum field theory is incompatible with general relativity for example, although each is self-consistent), which should tell you something about the usefulness of the concept. Second, nothing is ever accepted in physics based only on consistency. You need confrontation to reality. That is the real test. Superstrings are consistent, and even plausible and compelling, but as long as we haven't obtained solid evidence for them, they are not going to be accepted. The graveyard of physics is full of failed hypotheses that were consistent but did not pass the test of reality.

Even in mathematics, consistency is not proof. As Gödel has shown, no non-trivial formal mathematical system can prove its own consistency.

I'll also point out that mathematical truth is essentially different from physical reality, and that it is always circumscribed by the axiomatic system in which they are expressed. For example, the proposition “only one line parallel to a given line passes through a given point” can be true or false depending on whether we are expressing it for Euclidean or non-Euclidean geometries. The geometry of our universe is not determined by consistency.

Michael makes a stupendous but too common error when he says that “error can always be shown, at the core of the argument, to be logically inconsistent and ultimately self-refuting”. This is the illusion apologists are under when they attempt to prove the existence of God through “logic”. If I claim that if I use a flashlight from a train, the speed of the photons is going to be the sum of the speed of light and of the speed of the train, I am making no logical error, and there is nothing self-refuting here. Still, I am in error, because my claim can be demonstrated to be wrong by experimentation.

Consistency is wholly unimpressive, and saying so is not at all the same thing as saying math or physics are unimpressive. Those disciplines have a lot more behind them than just consistency. Catholic dogma? Not so much. I remain unimpressed, except by the unwillingness of apologists to understand the difference between necessity and sufficiency.

Next time, we’ll examine the claim that the Bible’s cosmogonic myths are unique in describing creation ex-nihilo.

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Infallible, part 1: Starting the Gish Gallop

Le papeOver the past few weeks, I had an interesting discussion on Facebook with Michael, a militant Catholic, about the Catholic Church’s claim that it is infallible. Like many arguments with believers, this has rapidly morphed from a single simple problem into a full-blown Gish Gallop. I should know better, but I bit. This series of posts is a compilation of my answers to his claims.

When the discussion started, and after trying unsuccessfully to drive home the point that consistency wasn’t sufficient to prove infallibility, I asked Michael to provide an example of a statement that qualified as infallible and that was also falsifiable: after all, it wouldn’t be very impressive to be infallible and only offer inconsequential and unverifiable claims. I offered an example of what it could look like (knowing, I must confess, that the Church had been claiming exactly that):

For example, if the Church were to claim ex-cathedra that Adam and Eve really existed and were once the only two human beings in existence. That's a factual and falsifiable claim.

I got the standard answer that I was expecting:

[…] the church has taught that Adam and Eve were real people. And science has verified Eve: look up 'mitochondrial eve'.

Mitochondrial Eve is a concept that is only describing a most recent common matrilineal ancestor, not a first ancestor or a unique member of a species. It's a useful concept in evolutionary biology, but not especially relevant in this case, especially as her male analog, Y-chromosomal Adam, was not living at the same time as her (missing her by a few dozen or hundred thousand years). We also know that there has never been less than about 1,200 members in the population we descend from. That's pretty much eliminating all possibility of anything remotely comparable to what's in Genesis, and of the Church’s claim being true.

Michael answered this with a long bullet point answer that you can read here: http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/…/Infallible_Church

In the next few posts, I’ll respond to that, and to the inevitable response to the response.

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