Thursday, May 28, 2009

Two New Jack Chick Tracts

Jack Chick has recently added to his website, not one, but two new tracts: "Evil Eyes" and "It's a Deal."

Jack Chick is a best-selling evangelical tract writer and conspiracy theorist. His tracts encourage people to accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior. This by itself would not be cause for note. However, Chick is refreshingly explicit in articulating and endorsing the more ridiculous elements of extreme evangelical beliefs. Multiple tracts revolve around good individuals being damned because they died before they accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior while bad individuals are saved at the last minute since they accepted Jesus before they died. Multiple tracts state explicitly "It isn't a question of good or bad. It is a question of saved or lost." If one tried to write a parody of the evangelical conception of God and tried to accent its wretched, cruel and capricious nature, one would have trouble constructing a deity that looked more cruel and evil than that in Jack Chick's mind.

Like many extremists, Chick feels a need to make his argument primarily by attacking groups he dislikes. Thus, he has tracts about how all sorts of people are going to hell: Jews, Catholics, atheists, Mormons, Muslims, Catholics, Dungeons and Dragons players, Wiccans, Catholics, Protestants who think that good works help for salvation, evolutionists, and Catholics. Did I mention he really doesn't like Catholics?

In the past, his anti-Catholicism has generally been highly conspiratorial, claiming among other things that the Catholic Church secretly founded Islam as a way to control the Arab world. Apparently all of the historical conflicts between Christendom and Islam were really just to prevent us from realizing the truth. Or something like that. He also thinks that the Catholic Church founded liberation theology to help control the communists. As with Islam, the fact that the Church has generally been unfriendly to liberation theology is obviously just more evidence for the conspiracy (although honestly in this case, I suspect that he simply heard the term "liberation theology" at one point and jumped from there).

However, one of the new tracts, Evil Eyes, takes a new angle on his anti-Catholicism. In the past, he has portrayed the low level personnel in the Church such as most priests as simple pawns in the larger conspiracy. In this tract however, the Catholic priest in it publicly doubles as a priest of Santeria. Now, one important thing about Jack Chick is that he believes that every deity of every other religion is really an actual demonic entity. Thus, in this tract, an individual uses a voodoo curse on a man to turn him into a zombie. The local Catholic priest, who is also a Santero, tries all he can but is powerless. However, the day is saved when the young born-again cousin uses the true word of God to expel the demon that is the cause of the curse. At the end, the priest gives up both Catholicism and Santeria to become a true born again Christian. One of the most fascinating details in this tract is that not only does Chick think that it is perfectly natural for a Catholic priest to also practice Santeria, but he considers it natural that the priest would do so as part of an accepted community practice. Chick sees everyone else's religions as part of one large blur and assume that the practitioners themselves also see them that way. This is not unique to Chick but is also true for other evangelicals such as the writers of the Left Behind series.

The second tract involves Satan making a deal with a basketball player to have his soul in exchange for letting the player play really well. This tract is part of a running series of tracts that Chick is producing now which are particularly aimed at African-Americans and hence have all African-American characters and stereotypical black plotlines. I'm not sure what Chick is thinking given that African-Americans have one of the highest percentages of evangelicals of any racial group. In any event, as with most Chick tracts involving contracts with the Devil, the protagonist realizes that he's in deep trouble and accepts Jesus as his lord and savior, thus nullifying the contract. The point is then made that the Devil doesn't need a contract to get your soul. This leads to a question: More often than not in Chick tracts, people end up in hell. Furthermore, even people who know about the Devil and God often wind up in hell; in at least some cases people wind up in hell even after seeing the Devil first hand. Therefore, why does the Devil bother to make contracts with people? Indeed, it seems in the Chickverse that making a contract with the devil is a sure sign that you'll eventually realize that you really need Jesus. So if the Devil is trying to collect as many souls as he wants, he shouldn't be trying to make contracts at all.

The only thing more striking than the cruelty of Chick's God is the incompetence of Chick's Devil.

There's a fascinating element to Chick tracts. Aside from the interesting view into a warped mind whose views are shared by a disturbingly large number of people, one learns all sorts of tidbits that one wouldn't learn otherwise. For example, according to the Dark Dungeons tract, not only is Dungeons and Dragons a way to lure children into the occult but if your character advances to at least eighth level , then you will start to learn real spells. Obviously, I was never patient enough. I'm am however curious. D&D 4.0 recently came out. The power level of magic in the game is substantially reduced from that of 3rd edition. Does this mean one has to get to a higher level before one learns real magic? If so, this seems like yet another reason to not play 4th edition.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Atheism and Nihilism

The blogger Yeshivish Atheist recently posed the question whether atheism necessarily implies some form of nihilism. YA listed me as one of the people he would like to hear from in this matter. This entry is my attempt to respond to his inquiry. The question posed is far ranging and so this entry will be broadly focused.

YA ‘s inquiry asks whether atheism allows for the possibility of life having intrinsic “purpose, meaning or morality.” The short answers are “unlikely, no, and maybe.” First, it isn’t clear to me why these three issues are related. The primary reason for seeing them as related seems to be that religions, especially the Abrahamic religions, see these three issues as interrelated. This is similar to the common perception that abiogenesis and the evolution of life into diverse species must be related. This attitude towards evolution and abiogenesis arises primarily because, for thousands of years, the common answers to these questions not only gave a single explanation for both, but did not even distinguish between the two issues. The situation is similar in regards to meaning, purpose and morality. The three are not necessarily related though they have been historically.

First, does human life have intrinsic purpose? From an atheistic perspective, the answer is “no.” However, it isn’t at all clear to me why people find the existence of purpose to be important. It comforts humans that they are part of some master plan. However, cows have a purpose: they provide humans with milk, meat and leather. If I were an intelligent cow who found that cows had been bred by humans to serve as a food production device, I doubt that I would find this to be a purpose that filled me with contentment. Thus, the atheist must ask: Why does the theist or the deist feel so confident that the purpose of humanity or that individual’s life is so worthwhile?

Second, does human life have intrinsic meaning? This question is harder to answer, especially in so far as meaning is much harder to define. Many theists are fond of claiming that, if there is no afterlife, then life has no meaning. Thus, “meaning” is frequently a proxy for some way to stave off the overpowering feeling of the inevitable oblivion that awaits. We die. Even our accomplishments and memories will one day be forgotten. And human civilization will eventually collapse. All of this takes places in an uncaring void. In that sense, then life has no intrinsic meaning. Unless one buys into a Kurzweil–style Singularity (most sane people do not), there is no stopping this. We can all find things that we have find interesting, or personally worth doing. But there is no meaning in this life other than what we make for ourselves.

Third, is there intrinsic morality? Of the three issue posed by YA, this is the one that has the most chance of having some sort of “yes” as an answer. As with purpose, theism and deism do not do a much better job at providing morality than atheism. The Euthypro dilemma- Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?- makes claims of intrinsic moral authority as provided by theism to be problematic. However, there is some evidence to suggest that there may be something resembling intrinsic morality. In particular, there are clear trends in moral thought over the last few thousand years. In that time, humanity has embraced broader notions of what constitute basic rights and has extended further the set of individuals to whom those rights apply. A few hundred thousand years ago, one would have no moral duties to anyone outside one’s own small tribe. That has broadened so that many now feel moral obligations to everyone, everywhere. The fact that many different societies are embracing similar moral systems suggests that they may be doing so because they are approximating some external moral system. This argument is by no means airtight. The argument is couched in terms like “rights” which have only made much sense for a few hundred years. There are also other explanations for this trend. For example, it may be that humans have evolved to care more about those they can easily communicate and identify with. This broadening of moral attitudes then simply reflects the reality that communication and transportation are far easier now than they were in earlier ages.

To summarize: If one is an atheist, it is unlikely that life has any intrinsic meaning, purpose or morality and theism doesn’t do a substantially better job of answering these issues. The appropriate response seems as it often is to be that of Randall Munroe:

Original at , licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

Hannity, Waterboarding, and Mancow

Readers may recall that last month Fox News commentator Sean Hannity said that he was so confident that waterboarding was not torture that he was willing to be waterboarded for charity with the money going to help troops and their families. Keith Olbermann took Hannity up on the offer, pledging to donate $1000 to charity for every second that Hannity took of waterboarding. At the time, I saw this as a win-win situation, since I would get to see Hannity tortured and I'd get to see Olbermann have to part with his money. Unfortunately, Hannity did not respond to Olbermann's request. However, someone else did. Mancow Muller, a conservative radio host, contacted Olbermann and volunteered to be waterboarded:

Mancow has now joined Christopher Hitchens in the category of people who didn't think that waterboarding was torture until they agreed to be subject to it. Hitchens and Mancow both deserve credit for being willing to go through with it and for being honest enough to change their opinions after experiencing waterboarding.

Olbermann rescinded his offer to Hannity and gave the money for Mancow's ordeal. However, we are in luck. Because there is now a website where you can pledge money to be paid if Hannity undergoes waterboarding. As a poor graduate student, I've pledged $10 per a second of time spent waterboarding. Many people have pledged similar amounts or more. As of right now, if Hannity is waterboarded for 5 seconds, that will be $67,869 to charity. Go pledge.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Electronics and the Supernatural, II

Earlier, I wrote a blog entry on electronics and the supernatural. That entry noted that there is a popular perception connecting spirits and the afterlife with electronic devices. The entry focused on the psychological and cultural reasons for such beliefs, but did not address why I could be reasonably certain that any such connection was spurious. In the comments thread, Tony Sidaway criticized my inattention to why such beliefs were silly. I initially dismissed Tony’s criticism. However, having looked at the incoming hits from Google, it is clear that most people reading the entry are searching for an answer to the question “Are ghosts and electronics connected?” Therefore, this entry will attempt to address this question.

How can I be certain that claimed connections between spirits and electronics do not exist? The primary claimed connection is that of EVP, or electronic voice phenomena, in which spirits of the departed or other supernatural entities communicate through altering the static from electronic devices. This claim is not plausible for three reasons. First, the claimed messages can be easily attributed to pareidolia and other psychological biases. Second, there is no plausible mechanism by which the spiritual messages are being transmitted. Third, the data received is not what one would expect to receive if there were spirits capable of communicating with us from the afterlife.

Pareidolia is the phenomenon of perceiving apparent patterns that do not necessarily exist. Classic examples are animals in clouds, the man in the moon, the face on Mars, and the Virgin Mary on burnt grilled cheese. The old-style Rorschach test was based on this behavior. Humans are incredibly good at pattern recognition. We are so good that we often perceive patterns where none exist. Humans see patterns in random dots and hear sounds in random noises. Sometimes these are cute; other times they seem silly. Perceived sounds can easily be explained by pareidolia.

Pareidolia is not the only psychological bias that comes into play when considering the evidence for EVP. Another important bias is confirmation bias, the tendency to remember data points that support a hypothesis while discounting or failing to note data points that do not. In this case, it is likely that people remember the seemingly striking examples of EVP but fail to note the vast majority of static where there are no apparent messages.

The lack of a plausible mechanism for EVP is also a problem. When asked about mechanisms, most proponents are inclined to wave their hands and make vague statements about sprits being somehow connected to or composed of electromagnetic fields. However, even if some vague form of this hypothesis were true, it doesn’t help matters. In particular, there are two fundamental different kinds of electronic devices, digital and analog. The basic underpinnings are very different although both can produce static. This raises a serious issue: there’s no plausible mechanism that would impact both digital and analog signals in the same way. Moreover, the strength of different types of signals varies widely. If the spirits have the ability to substantially alter the static of a strong signal, it is unclear why they cannot send clear signals through less noisy channels. Yet, it seems that no matter how sensitive the equipment used, the remaining signal created by the spirits is always just at the edge of measurability. That’s at best implausible.

Another issue is the messages that are sent. We must ask: If everyone in the afterlife can send messages back to us, why do we not get any messages giving us genuinely new information? For example, many great mathematicians such as Gauss and Erdos are dead. It strains credulity that there would be an afterlife where they could plausibly communicate with us and they would not be communicating further mathematical discoveries. Similar remarks apply to the great physicists such as Einstein and Bohr. Yet, there is no evidence of any such attempts. Why don’t we hear from them?

For all these reasons, one can be confident that even if spirits exist, they have no ability to communicate through electronics.