Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Tyranny of Evidence

In the wake of Prop 8 being overturned a lot of footage flooded the airwaves and internet featuring word battles between the proponents and the opponents of gay marriage.  One piece featuring Tony Perkins and David Boies however managed to transcend the issue:

In case you didn't feel like watching the video, the bit I'm referring to was the following statement by David Boies:

"It's easy to sit around and debate and throw around opinions -- appeal to people's fear and prejudice, cite studies that either don't exist or don't say what you say they do. In a court of law you've got to come in and you've got to support those opinions. You've got to stand up under oath and cross-examination. And what we saw at trial is that it's very easy for the people who want to deprive gay and lesbian citizens the right to vote, to make all sorts of statements in campaign literature or in debates where they can't be cross-examined.

But when they come into court and they have to support those opinions and they have to defend those opinions under oath and cross-examination, those opinions just melt away. And that's what happened here. There simply wasn't any evidence. There weren't any of those studies. There weren't any empirical studies. That's just made up. That's junk science.

... A witness stand is a lonely place to lie. And when you come into court, you can't do that. And that's what we proved."
 What he said here is true for so much more than just the issue of gay marriage.  Creationists, Conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers, Climate Change "skeptics", Anti-Vaxers - they all claim that the facts and evidence support their position.  On their websites, literature and in debates they confidently proclaim that the truth is on their side.  Yet every time they actually land in court and they are forced to tell the "truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth" it all seems to collapse like a house of cards.  For a fantastic example, see the Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District.  The Intelligent Design community finally got their day in court and they fell apart spectacularly.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts.  Sure, it's easy enough to claim to have facts but the funny thing about facts is that they can be tested and verified.  That is why proponents of many "alternative" viewpoints prefer to spend their time yapping about how "the mainstream" is suppressing the truth instead of actually backing their claims with facts.  That is why (I think) the Discovery Institute prefers to spend their funds on literature, lectures and debates instead of any lab work.  The lab, like the court is a place where evidence trumps all.  And when the evidence is not on your side you tend to stay as far away from it as possible.

Life under the tyranny of evidence is not always a kind and cozy affair but I would take it over the alternative any day!

Monday, August 23, 2010

The end is never as nigh as you think it is

A while back my blogging buddy Gumby brought up Harold Camping.  For those who do not know, Harold is a Christian preacher (and I'm using the term extremely loosely here) currently famous for 2 things:

1 - Telling Christians they need to get out of church (personal Bible study and his radio show is all you need)

2 - That The Rapture is going down on 21 May 2011 (with the whole world ending later that year)

He knows this the same way every wannabe prophet throughout history has known it - Biblical numerology.  Sure, that very same method failed when he made the exact same prediction for 6 September 1994, but I don't think any Rapture predictor in the history of forever has ever let silly things like being proven completely and utterly wrong slow them down.  It certainly never seems to give their loyal followers any pause.  They all just stick around for the next prediction like the previous fiasco never happened.

Now I guess I could blog about why using a pseudo-method to calculate a non-existent event is stupid, but honestly what is the point?  It would be like trying to explain why using a drowsing rod to find the Loch Ness Monster won't work.  Even attempting to debunk it is giving it more credit than it deserves.  So instead I decided to blog about how pointless it is to even try to argue with such people.

If history has taught us anything it's that ideology can be incredibly resilient in the face of disappointment and reality.  When someone believes in something deeply enough it doesn't help one bit to prove them wrong time and time again.  It doesn't matter if the idea they cling to is obviously and demonstrably wrong in a lets-dry-the-puppy-in-the-microwave kind of way, some people will just stubbornly refuse to let go of it.  Somehow, when it comes to the end of the world and the rapture, otherwise intelligent people can act pants-on-head retarded.  Case in point, The Millerites:

William Miller (1782 - 1849) was one of the pioneers in the field of being wrong about the date for Christ's return.  Like most in the field he was fascinated by the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation.  He (like so many since) believed that if he fitted all the verses together in the right way and interpreted/decoded them correctly, it would reveal God's planned timeline for the world - including of course the Second Coming of Jesus.  To wit he had charts, illustrations and timelines that laid it all out.  He was a charismatic speaker and soon his movement grew out of obscurity and gained thousands of followers - as these messages are wont to do for some reason.

Now to his credit I must add that Mr Miller never gave an exact date for the return of Jesus (or the Advent as he called it) but he did teach that it would occur sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When those dates came and went with no Jesus in sight the date was revised to April 3 and then again to April 18. Again no Jesus, just thousands of disappointed faithful.  Now you may think that this would be enough disappointment for the Millerites but you would be wrong.

See while William Miller refused to set an exact date, one of the more ambitious members of his movement had no such qualms.  Samuel S Snow taught at a Millerite meeting that the true date for Christ's return would be October 22, 1844.  For reasons I can't grasp the Millerites grabbed hold of this date despite all the previous disappointments.  In fact, if anything they seemed even more convinced of this date than the previous ones!  When the date came near "fields were left unharvested, shops were closed, people quit their jobs, paid their debts, and freely gave away their possessions with no thought of repayment".  Thousands of Millerites gathered across the United States in churches or on hilltops, fully expecting Jesus to arrive before their eyes.  You can guess what happened next right?  Yep, nothing. This time their despair and dissillusionment matched their previous levels of excited expectation - there were reports of uncontrolled weeping and deep depression and despair.  This final, crushing blow became known as the "Great Disappointment". The Millerites became a joke amongst the rest of the populace and members were roundly mocked and even assaulted.  Several members gave up on the Christian faith completely as a result.  William Miller however continued to expect the immanent return of Jesus right up to his death.

I bet you think that is where the story ends, right?  After all, who would use such a definitively debunked doctrine as a foundational belief?  Turns out people will never fail to surprise you.  See, while a fair number of Millerites realised that they were obviously mistaken, some decided that they were in fact right all along.  A number of strange theories started cropping up to make sense of what happened, the most popular of which taught that instead of the expected physical return the day actually marked a spiritual event.  Jesus didn't return to Earth that day, He instead entered the "heavenly sanctuary".  1844 therefore was the beginning of a still-ongoing process of "investigative judgment" of the souls of believers with the physical return due any day now.  A couple of fragmented Millerite groups reformed under this teaching.  You may have heard of the most successful of these - The Seventh Day Adventists.  They have - rather prudently - decided to not dabble in date setting again however.

Interestingly enough,  two other infamous groups with a strong apocalyptic focus can also trace their linage to William Miller.  One former Adventist - Charles Taze Russel - founded the Watchtower Society, better known today as the Jehovah's Witnesses.  Another Adventist splinter group in Waco, Texas would later rename themselves "Branch Davidian" in 1934 and would later become world famous (for all the wrong reasons) thanks to a charismatic leader by the name of David Koresh.

And that, cats and kittens, is why I don't see any point in addressing the claims of self appointed prophets claiming to have the inside scoop on Christ's return and the end of the world.  These guys have been with us for centuries and I'm willing to wager that they will continue to be with us for centuries more.  Their predictions will consistently come to nothing as they always have and yet their followers will never stop supporting them.  It's just one of those things.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Who wants to be a Christian?

It seems that everybody hates Christianity.  Weirdly enough, this includes a whole lot of Christians.  I was just struck by that again after reading Anne Rice’s resignation from Christianity:

Gandhi famously said: "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." When does a word (Christian) become unusable? When does it become so burdened with history and horror that it cannot be evoked without destructive controversy?

For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to "belong" to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten ...years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn't understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.

Now I know that her words gave a sizable number of believers a bad case of the vapours, I thought it was really Christian of her to renounce Christianity.  I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve come across who insist on being called “King’s Kids”, “Christ Followers” or “Disciples of Jesus” rather than “Christian”.  See, whether you agree with her or not, it’s hard to deny that she was spot on regarding the baggage attached to the name “Christian”.

Of course you are far more likely to hear Christians simply claim that all the Christians who do bad things are not real true Christians.  Now this approach is not without merit.  It is after all very easy for anyone to belong to a Church and to call themselves Christian without actually believing (or practicing) any of it.  However, this does not mean that all Christians who say and/or do horrible things are fakes.  It is entirely possible to be passionately and sincerely wrong.  People have being doing bad things with good intentions for as long as there have been people after all.  You can be so convinced that you are in the right that you don’t even realize how wrong you are.

I think this is worse than simply refusing the label of "Christian".  Redefining “Christian” to be “someone who is always at all times perfectly like Christ” is an impossible standard.  You may as well renounce the label then because if that is how you define “Christian” then you are pretty much admitting that there are no Christians on this earth. Maybe that’s why no one wants to be one!

Honestly, is it that hard to simply own up to our mistakes?  Is it that important to always be rigth and perfect?  I prefer honesty and repentance over whitewash and faked perfection.  Why not just own your baggage and that of your group?  It can be therapeutic!  It may even make the whole group seem a bit more hospitable