Too big to believe

Sorry about not writing anything for ten thousand years. I started writing a book. I'm not very good at it.

Apropos of nothing, the other day it occurred to me, as I am sure it has occurred to many other people, that there's a parallel concept to the Big Lie.

A Big Lie is a lie so audacious that people can't believe you're not telling the truth. If nobody can believe that you would just make up reasons to exterminate a significant percentage of the population of Europe, or found a religion entirely upon stuff you pulled out of your arse, or throw trillions of dollars down the toilet in the pursuit of imaginary terrorists, then you can be successful in such ventures.

(Hitler of course said the Big Liars were in fact the Jews, who he went on to explain were to be expected to lie about everything all the time. This would make it a little odd that anybody believed their lies, regardless of size, but never mind. Water under the bridge, old chap. Some credit is deserved for anybody whose own Big Lie is an accusation that someone else has told a Big Lie.)

What occurred to me the other day is that there's a converse to the Big Lie: The Big Truth.

A Big Truth is a truthful statement with such vast and terrifying implications that people refuse to believe it.

There's a term for the logical fallacy of disbelieving something because its implications are unpalatable, the "argument from adverse consequences" or just "appeal to consequences". "God must exist, because if he doesn't then I will not be able to live forever." A Big Truth is a very large and shiny example of this fallacy. (And, as for believing a Big Lie, it's not necessary that everybody disbelieve a Big Truth, only that people disbelieve it purely because of the largeness of the disturbance to their world that would occur if they believed it.)

A few Big Truths that spring to mind:

Illegal drugs are less harmful than legal ones.

The consequences of a lifelong addiction to clean heroin, in and of itself, are: Constipation. You're also better off getting your stimulation from amphetamines instead of caffeine. Arguments against this are generally of the form "if you take way too much of that drug and don't eat right and never get any exercise then you'll be very ill", which can of course be said of alcohol, tobacco and even caffeine. (And sugar, for that matter, though it's not a drug.)

Many leaders of the free world are by their own admission guilty of crimes for which the punishment is death.

The first and worse of all war crimes is the crime against peace, the starting of a war of aggression, because that's the one that makes all of the other war crimes possible. (Inevitable, even, because there's never been a war of any size in which some combatants didn't take the chance to have some war-crimey fun.)

Lying about your enemy and saying they are lunatics who attack their own people and have terrible weapons pointed at us and really it's them that are starting the war et cetera does not get you off the hook, because that's how everybody starts a war of aggression in a "free" society. But everybody knows Dubya and Cheney and Rumsfeld and their minor lickspittle Blair and extremely minor lickspittle Howard will never see the inside of a courtroom over this.

Climate change is happening, even if there are leaflets and novels with the author name bigger than the title that say it isn't.

Oh, and gods do not exist.

What Big Truths can you think of, readers?

A crafty religious ambush

The other day a reader contacted me (I'll identify him if he asks me to). He'd read my piece about collecting old technology, and in lieu of a donation sent me a Diamond Mako for free.

How cool is that?!

Diamond Mako PDA

The Mako is a Psion Revo with different stickers on it. So it's a fold-open PDA, marginally bigger than a really humongous modern smartphone. It dates from those peculiar few years when having a phone-book on a digital device that couldn't make phone calls was normal.

The Mako/Revo is about the cutest thing ever to be decorated with a QWERTY keyboard. The battery in this one is pretty clapped-out, though; I'll need to replace it if I don't want to charge the thing, via this well-thought-out setup...

Variac step-down electrical mishap waiting to happen

...pretty much daily.

Along with this PDA-I-might-take-notes-on-one-day-if-I-can-get-it-to-IrDA-to-a-modern-computer, though, also came that most earnestly offered and least frequently appreciated of gifts...

Religious tract cover

...a religious tract!

Fair enough.

New rule: I'm perfectly happy for anybody to proselytise at me, as long as their religious literature is accompanied by an interesting piece of superannuated technology.

I haven't quite worked out my full schedule of fees yet, but an Amiga 600 that can run Speedball II from a CompactFlash-card "hard drive" will earn you complete perusal of a volume of religious literature not exceeding 100 pages. Give me a working NeXT cube and I will attend any service, no matter how long, at any church you specify within 150 kilometres of my home.

This tract is pretty standard stuff, but my correspondent asked me to read it and tell him what I thought, so that's what I'm going to do, in my usual buys-ink-by-the-tanker-load style.

I can't imagine that I'll be telling him, or any of you, anything you've not heard or thought before. But the fact that he sent me this thing, presumably in the expectation that it might cause the scales to fall from my eyes and the majesty of Jehovah to sweep me away, bothers me more, the more I think about it.

Just saying why this tract, to spoil the ending, does not persuade me at all, may be worthwhile.

(I did Google and Tineye image searches on the rather gaudy cover picture, to see if this particular tract is online anywhere else; I didn't get any matches, though Google's "Visually similar images" are pretty darn spectacular, and probably include Captain Goodvibes somewhere. Searching for a chunk of the text of the tract, which I'll include in this post for the convenience of future searchers, turned up one hit, at "Evangelical Tract Distributors". They have this tract with a boring non-psychedelic cover, "on sale" for zero dollars and zero cents. They'll send me in Australia up to a thousand similarly free tracts for only a $US20 shipping fee. It's twenty bucks for one tract too, though.)

Side one of religious tract

Side 2 of religious tract

Mercifully, this tract has only four small pages, making the old-technology-gift to religious-enthusiasm ratio pretty darn favourable, if you ask me.

Legibly larger versions of pages one through four are here: One. Two. Three. Four. And here's the text:

SEARCHING, probing, questioning, people are always looking for answers. From the vastness of outer space to the tiny world of microcircuits, all questions demand answers. But there is one question, life's greatest question, that many avoid. This question darkens the brow and fixes the gaze on eternity for it asks, "Where will I go when I leave this world?"

As people get older they often try to escape this question. Nonetheless, the question remains and all must face it [all underlining my correspondent's, not the tract's]. Perhaps you are avoiding it because you are not sure if there is an answer.

There Is an Answer

God has assured us in His Word that we may know the answer. Here is God's statement about it: "He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may KNOW that ye have eternal life" (I John 5:12-13).

So we see that we may know where we are headed after this life and that there are only two possible choices. We may know if we are safe in Christ having eternal life and on our way to heaven, or if we have rejected Christ and are on the way to the terrible place awaiting all those who despise God's offer of salvation.

He that "hath the Son" hath life, eternal life. He that hath not the Son of God as his Savior hath NOT life. It is not a question of how good a life you have lived. It is a question of God's Son. Do you have Him as your personal Savior? Can you truly say that you know Him, that you have come to Him, that you have placed your faith in Him? "Acquaint now thyself with Him. and be at peace" (Job 22:21).

In Which Class Are You?

"For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God (I Corinthians 1:18). So again you can see, God's Word describes some people as "them that perish," and others as those "who are saved." In which class are you?

Perhaps you are living a good. respectable life, and you feel that you are good enough already, and do not need a Savior. Or perhaps you are in the opposite class, and feel that you are too bad to be saved. God's answer in either case is plain: "...There is none righteous, no, not one" and "...there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:10, 22, 23). We are all sinners. God's Word says that we are all "dead in trespasses and sins." We all need a Savior.

"But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

And God's invitation of mercy and salvation goes out to all alike. For He so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, that WHOSOEVER believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). We beseech you to receive Him into your heart as your Savior. For "as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God" (John 1:12).

It Is Up To You [handwritten: "Daniel Rutter!"]

You, yourself must decide the answer to Life's Greatest Question, "Where will I spend eternity?" It all depends on what you do about God's Son. For, "He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (John 3:18).

Answer the great question today; believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and KNOW that when you leave this old world that you will spend eternity in the presence of your great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

GRACE BIBLE CHURCH
152 W. Prairie Ave.
Coeur d' Alene, ID 83815
772-2717

[This would appear to be that church.]

Oh, boy.

Here's what this tract says, boiled down:

"If you accept the Christian belief system, why don't you accept the Christian belief system?"

That's it. That's all it's got. It says that you have to be a Christian to go to heaven and avoid hell, and it says that again, and then it says it a couple more times.

And, in the immortal tradition of all religious certainty, this tract cheerfully ignores the fact that several of its claims aren't even agreed upon by all Christians.

There are plenty of Christians who don't believe hell exists, for instance. This is not surprising, since it is exceedingly difficult to imagine why a loving god would visit hideous screaming flaming-sulfur acid-burning fingernail-peeling eye-gouging lye-drinking tooth-ripping knee-smashing genital-mincing torture for a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion et cetera years on Adolf Hitler, much less people who just thought religion was a load of claptrap and lived a good life.

(This tract actually has a bit of a bet each way there, because it doesn't actually mention hell, or lakes of fire or eternal torment - it just talks about a "terrible place" or where one might "spend eternity". This is compatible with the idea of eternal death being the only non-heaven option, rather than eternal punishment.)

There are also plenty of Christians who believe heaven, if it exists, is where good people go, whether or not they've kept any particular day holy or prayed on any particular schedule while pointed in any particular direction. Again, it's difficult to figure out why a loving god made us with this demonstrable inability to determine which, if any, of our thousands and thousands of contradictory religions, is the one true path to paradise. But this tract says he did, and we'd better choose right, or else.

And then there's the odd modern invention of the concept of a "personal relationship with god". This, also, is very far from universally accepted, even among Christians.

If you've got a personal relationship with someone they probably at least occasionally say things to you, after all.

It can also be argued that the very notion of a human having a personal relationship with the infinite creator of the universe is far, far more ridiculous than the notion of an E. coli bacterium having a personal relationship with the human whose gut it inhabits.

Now, this is all just part of the miraculousness of the Lord, of course. He's someone you can have a chat with, even if he doesn't seem to say anything back in a way that can't be blocked by appropriate medication. And he's simultaneously someone who sees the totality of reality spread out before him like a vast polydimensional tapestry, yet you also have free will, unless you're a member of one of the religions that says your eternal destination is known to God before you are born.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

If your religion were true, then just showing someone a tautological tract like this one would be likely to convert them in a flash of spiritual magic. You should be just dripping with miracles, like all of those people in the Bible. Some or all of the true believers should, to give one way in which a true religion might manifest itself, be able to speak in tongues - which is to say, your words should be comprehensible to everyone who hears them, no matter what language the astonished listeners speak.

Instead, religious people who "speak in tongues" have decided that it's actually just babbling away nonsensically in ways usually linquistically connected to languages of which the speaker has experience. It's often alleged that this is the language of angels, and it can be understood by some other members of the congregation, who stand up dramatically to "interpret" the doodly boodly boo boo boobly. (Or maybe it's a "private prayer language", whatever that means.)

I presume you're not a glossolalist, though. You probably have some sort of cessationist explanation for why the sun no longer stops in the sky and bushes no longer spontaneously combust and then start talking. You probably think people who do believe in ongoing but silly-looking modern miracles of one kind or another are misled. Perhaps to the point where the ones who say they're Christians are in fact not true Christians at all, any more.

But how can you tell?

What is it that suggests to you that the mainstream Christian ideas in this tract are the correct ones?

The tract, once again, presents no argument.

One wonders why such a thing as this tract even exists in the Western world, where we all know the basic Christian beliefs.

Even if we manage to avoid organised religious instruction, after all, those of us who live in societies where Christianity is commonplace are entirely familiar with the highly sensible idea that God sacrificed himself to himself in order to expunge the stain of original sin upon all humanity which was there because God allowed the most persuasive liar in the universe access to God's favourite creations and then they disobeyed God and ate something which apparently made evil suddenly exist or something and God then punished not only Adam and Eve but also arbitrarily decided that their disobedience would now sin-stain all of those first humans' offspring even though the offspring were not the ones who committed the sin but it's all right now because the temporary death of the human-like aspect of God during which that aspect might or might not have visited hell or some place like it freed all humans from the abovementioned arbitrary damnation brought upon us by God because of one bad act by our distant ancestors provided we follow the appropriate rules during our life which may or may not involve cutting off a piece of one's penis or being very respectful towards special little biscuits.

For some reason, many people outside the Western world find it hard to take this stuff seriously.

If you've been marinated in it all your life, though, then you definitely already know about these basic Christian beliefs, along with blatantly ahistorical nonsense like Caesar Augustus bizarrely deciding that for tax and census purposes everybody in the Roman Empire had to return to wherever their distant ancestors lived.

People who don't believe evolution is true - who are often quite convinced that God has communicated the truth of creationism to them via another of those "personal relationship" deals - sometimes ask "if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?"

This argument fails for at least two reasons, but applying the same logic to religion does not, because religions usually claim to have invalidated previous faiths.

Christianity, for instance, says it superseded Judaism. But if that is the case, why are there still Jews?

And Islam says it superseded Christianity. But there you Christians still are, and the Jews, and the Muslims. And don't you Abrahamic siblings all just get on like a house on fire. (Or a church, or a temple, or a mosque, the setting-on-fire of all of which is apparently often also strongly encouraged by God in those personal conversations people keep alleging they have with him.)

And all this time the Hindus and Buddhists have been sitting there too, not being persuaded by any of you guys. People convert one way or another from time to time, usually to the great alarm of conservative members of whatever faith they converted from, but the overwhelming determinant of your lifelong religion remains the religion of your parents.

Which, once again, is exactly what we'd expect to see, if all religions were fictional.

If one religion were true, with an all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent deity, then that religion should be more persuasive. Its followers and prophets should be distinctly different too. You certainly shouldn't see everybody in every faith bumbling around in the same way, and every faith producing the same few great people, few terrible people, and great mass of ordinary people.

And yet, that's what we do see.

Most religious followers have plenty of stories of events that plainly prove that they're on the right track. When I worked with Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, many of them had stories of encounters with the malevolent spirits that constantly strive to tempt us from righteousness. Some Catholics hold forth about the effectiveness of their various sacramental adornments, many Scientologists have seen their "tech" work wonders, many Muslims think you might as well drive with your eyes closed because they've seen many times that you'll only crash if Allah wills it, believers in reincarnation from the Hindu to the New Age think the evidence couldn't be more clear, evangelicals are surrounded by miracles and portents every day, and umpteen religions claim some great practitioner didn't need to eat or didn't rot after they died.

The closer you look at such claims, though, the more tenuous they become. Most religious claims are exceedingly difficult to test in any empirical way, but the very fact that most religions say they have hard evidence that they are the only correct religion indicates that, as in the case where two men say they're Jesus, most of them must be wrong.

For pity's sake, even the three flavours of Christians whose job it is to mind the place where Jesus was allegedly crucified and interred keep getting into fistfights when someone moves a chair. And heaven forfend anybody shift the Immovable Ladder. I am not making this up.

I also have to quibble with the tract's statement that "all questions demand answers". The question of the preferred sock colour of Fran├žois Mitterrand does not, to my knowledge, keep many people up at night. And this isn't just me snarking; I find "it doesn't matter" is a perfectly satisfying answer to that question, and to many others, some much more important to religious people than the sartorial preferences of deceased Gallic statesmen.

Take, for instance, the question, "do gods, which do not intervene in the universe in any way, exist?"

The logical answer to this question is "it doesn't matter", because a god who does not interact with the universe is a god who might as well not exist.

This is not the sort of god that Christians believe in, of course. Some Christians believe Jehovah interacts with the world in profound and obvious ways, because otherwise humans and roses and organ music and the laughter of little children and preachers who can cure terrible diseases by magic - though, again, not in any empirically-verifiable way... - would not exist.

Many Christians believe Jehovah stopped performing miraculous party tricks many centuries ago, but that he does still definitely interact with the world, once again because of that direct personal relationship with their deity which they solemnly believe they have. This would be impossible if that deity did not interact with at least the minds of his followers, in some way.

This is a pretty solipsistic justification for belief, though. "I feel God's presence in my heart and mind" is all very well as a justification for your own belief, but it won't convince anybody else unless they independently find such thought processes going on for them as well.

And this certainly isn't a reason for any unbeliever to believe in any particular one of the hundreds of different allegedly-holy scriptures out there. If your only evidence is your God-filled heart, then what answer have you to someone who apparently feels as internally convinced as you, but says that God has called upon him to spread the new doctrine of invisible pink unicorns and eating nothing but geranium leaves, and heretics must be put to the sword?

(Or, of course, someone who starves their baby to death on the grounds that he's insufficiently pious, and then waits patiently for him to resurrect and the murder conviction to thus be quashed. They honestly believed it! Who are you to say the baby won't pop back up any minute now?)

This tract doesn't even make it to the level of Pascal's Wager. All it says is, "We reckon heaven exists. Why don't you want to go there?"

Given the paucity of this question, I shall conclude with the answer I most enjoyed delivering to the more dim-witted Jehovah's Witnesses who asked me, "Don't you want to live forever?" I don't believe it, of course, but at least I was doing them the favour of inserting a new idea or two into their brain.

No, I don't want to live forever.

Forever is a long time. Forever is a trillion trillion trillion trillion googolplex trillion trillion, et cetera, years.

If you could carry one atom at a time, at walking pace, you could move the whole observable universe from where it is to somewhere far, far beyond its borders, and still have made no inroads whatsoever on forever.

God, presumably, has lived, and will live, forever.

Christians seem pretty definite about that.

God needed to keep himself amused.

So he made the world, and maybe many other worlds. And heaven, and that's where he lives, and he'd like you to come and join him.

To be in heaven with him.

Forever.

He could let you die, but he won't.

Have you ever wondered why God didn't just kill Satan, given that Abrahamic doctrine makes clear that he could have done so any time he liked?

God's not going to let the bastard die.

All Jehovah has left is sharing the misery.

What I discovered today

I believe I have discovered the true meaning of Easter.

Amen!

Another piece of the homophobia puzzle

I have formed a theory about anti-gay activists. Some of them, anyway.

My theory is a refinement of Haggard's Law, which states that the more you complain about homosexuality, the more likely you are to be secretly homosexual. That not-entirely-serious observation has some basis in fact beyond the numerous examples of preachers and politicians that've led us to anticipate the ending of every news story that starts with a listing of some right-wing fellow's anti-gay credentials.

I've always found it implausible, though, that secretly-gay people make up any very large percentage of the anti-gay population.

If you're a member of a stridently anti-gay fundamentalist religion, then you're likely to regard gays and atheists and members of other fundamentalist religions that outside observers insultingly claim are really very similar to your own as all being part of the vast Satanic sea upon which your brave little ark of true believers must voyage. Maybe a member of such a religion will get a bee in his or her bonnet about evolution, or Jews, or homosexuals. Not many people would claim that a noisy anti-evolutionist might secretly be reading Richard Dawkins books, or that an anti-Semite secretly celebrates Rosh Hashanah, and I think it's just as possible to be a really obnoxious gay-hater without, yourself, being gay.

You could, for instance, be very genuinely heterosexual, and therefore find gay sex a fairly repellent idea. Now, if you're unable to comprehend that anybody else in the world could not find it as repellent as you do, you'll regard homosexuals as filthy deviants who've managed to make a lifestyle out of a ghastly activity. Raping small children is also a ghastly activity, if you're one kind of horrible sexual deviant then you might very well be ready to give another deviation a go, and bingo, there's a freshly-minted all-homos-are-child-molesters argument all neatly gift-wrapped and ready to be sermonised about.

The particular thing that led me to a new piece of this puzzle (well, it's new to me; I'm sure many other people have figured this out) is that weird characteristic of so much anti-gay rhetoric - the insistence that homosexuality is not just a choice, but an easy choice. Gayness is, essentially, just laziness. Instead of having a proper, adult relationship with a woman, the homosexual chooses to have meaningless physical dalliances with other men.

Those of us who reside somewhere near the left side of the Kinsey Scale find this argument preposterous. Most heterosexual men were desperately dateless in their teenage years, when the hormonal urge to have sex is at its strongest, but not very many of us went gay as a result. (Well, not as a lifetime choice, anyway. What happens in the Navy, stays in the Navy.)

There's a strong societal component here; in the Western world it's much more socially acceptable for women to experiment with homosexuality than for men to do it, and some other societies, past and present, either accept homosexuality as being entirely unremarkable, or consider it weird if a person hasn't had some sort of gay relationship.

But if we restrict the scope of inquiry to male homosexuality in the Western world, as anti-gay demagogues usually do to make sure nobody starts asking awkward questions about the Spartans, straight men seldom consider this "choice" to be a real option at all.

So why, I wondered, do so many anti-gay people keep saying it's easy to just sort of carelessly fall into the "gay lifestyle"?

And then I realised. It's because those anti-gay people are, yes, gay - but they don't know it.

They're good, Bible-believing Christians. They had girlfriends. Now they have a wife, and children. They're pillars of the community, and may never have had any homosexual encounters at all.

But boy oh boy, do they ever want to have homosexual encounters. The cock, it calls them. It's been calling them as long as they can remember. But like a border collie that's never seen a sheep, they don't know what this urge within them actually is. For them, gayness is like the Dark Side of the Force, or the One Ring.

Now, it all makes sense. These poor men think it's like this for every man. They think that secret schoolboy assignations and sordid encounters in public bathrooms are as appealing a prospect for the rest of us as they are for them.

You're gay because you're weak, or perhaps, especially bizarrely, because you're greedy. You just have to fight it!

But straight guys don't have to "fight" an urge to have sex with men. Stereotypically, they'll fight to avoid it!

Being gay, but unaware of it, can fit quite neatly into other religious beliefs. God requires you to not be envious, to not be lazy, to not lie or cheat or steal; the Lord wouldn't have needed to tell you not to do those things if they weren't rather appealing. So gay sex must be the same. It's a sin into which one can, in weakness, fall.

If this is the way you think, then it becomes perfectly sensible to say that gay people, as a category like "Irish people" or "tall people", don't really exist at all. Saying you're born gay is like saying you're born a burglar.

I've no idea what's actually going on in the head of Ted Haggard...

...or Larry Craig...

...or Mark Foley or George Alan Rekers:

Who knows how many of these guys were, and are, well aware of their true sexuality, and just lie about it, in the same way that they've lied about many other things for personal gain.

But I think the poor people who're gay but don't know it really do help to better explain exactly how this situation's gotten so dramatically messed up.

Now we just need a catchy name for this sexual permutation of the Dunning-Kruger effect. I invite your suggestions in the comments!

Today's sermon will be delivered by Firefox 3.5.2

Firefox makes a suggestion about Answers in Genesis

Yeah, that figures. I wouldn't trust 'em either.

I'm not sure exactly how I got to this oddly apposite error, though I do know why it happened, and will bore those of you intrepid enough to make it all the way through this latest Wall-O-Words™ post with an explanation.

It all started when I read An Evolutionary Biologist Visits the "Creationism Museum", which is by PZ Myers, the Pharyngula guy and well-known desecrator of all that is holy.

The Creation Museum is a product of Answers in Genesis, or AiG, not affiliated with the other AIG, but similarly untaxable. AiG was founded by Ken Ham, an Australian-born evangelist whom we exported to the USA in 1987.

You're welcome.

(In case you were wondering, there also exists a Web site called "Answers in Revelation". It's pretty much what you'd expect - a little like "The Lord's Witnesses", but less apologetic.)

AiG's Creation Museum is a place which surely ranks among the Seven Wonders of the Whacko American Christian World (there obviously isn't really a Christian world outside the USA; it's like the World Series). The Museum is up there with the Crystal Cathedral, the even-more-gigantic Lakewood Church, the sadly-diminished Precious Moments Chapel, Touchdown Jesus and... actually, that's all I've got, off the top of my head. I'm sure commenters will help me out, here, with some more examples of the various US Jay-sus-uh enterprises' attempts to top each other in visible-from-geostationary-orbit violations of Matthew 6.

PZ Myers' article linked to the Christian page of this Cracked piece about baffling Web comics. One of the less peculiar comics told its readers to visit Answers in Genesis for the answer to one of the real posers of the Book of Genesis.

I speak, of course, of the bit where the recently-Marked Cain suddenly acquires an (un-named) wife. This is a bit surprising, seeing as the Bible has to this point mentioned a world population of exactly four people, the only female among them being Cain's mother, Eve.

Christians who bother to address a silly creation-myth plot-hole like this fall into two camps.

The first camp asserts that there were other, pre-Adamic humans, and Cain married one of them. Many white-supremacists hold that these pre-Adamic "mud people" are the ancestors of modern-day black people, who are therefore subhuman pre-Genesis prototypes on their ancient mother's side, and on their ancient father's side cursed by God. So, uh, you needn't feel bad about lynching, raping and/or enslaving 'em, 'cos they're not really people at all.

Answers In Genesis rightly deny this outrageous calumny.

They, instead, belong to the camp which reckons that Cain's wife "was either his sister or a close relative".

Because, for reasons having to do with Original Sin, AiG are certain, to the point of putting up a display on the subject in the Creation Museum, that it is impossible for any humans alive today to not be descended from Adam and Eve, and Adam and Eve alone.

Well, unless AiG's whole huge edifice of biblical literalism is to collapse.

(Given the extreme ages people allegedly lived to back in Genesis, and the parallel and unconnected Sethite and Cainite lineages, it's conceivable that Cain's wife was not actually his sister, but could have been his great-great-great-grandniece. Which is much less disturbing, I'm sure you'll all agree. Note that the completely unconnected Sethite and Cainite lineages each contain a dude called Enoch and another dude called Lamech, not to mention about four other pairs of guys with very similar names; there are actually only four people out of 16 who don't seem to have been struck by this extraordinary nominative correspondence. AiG assure us all that there's no way this could just be two differently-Chinese-Whispered versions of the same list of names. Obviously, the real question is if, when and how angels cross-bred with humans!)

Reading on through An Evolutionary Biologist Et Cetera, I had to admit that the Creation Museum has got some pretty cool displays. I mean, check out this awesome Noah's Ark diorama! And it's not nearly their whole Ark exhibit; they've got plenty more, including a recreated chunk of the Noah's Ark Construction Site! Don't miss the dinosaurs!

People like AiG, who believe the Noah story is literally true, have had to enlarge their Ark size estimates. The Bible clearly says that the Ark was 300 cubits long, but it doesn't say how long a cubit was. The road is therefore open for people like AiG to discover ever-larger sizes of "cubit", and thereby make their Ark bigger and bigger as those troublesome scientists keep discovering more and more species.

I'm not sure why AiG feel this is necessary, since it's also normal for people presenting the literal-Flood argument to say that God preserved the Ark from harm, helped to steer it to Mount Ararat, after the Flood helped the koalas make it to Australia and the polar bears make it to the Arctic, and possibly also helped Noah with the gigantic engineering task of building the Ark in the first place.

(Check out how long it takes for the average backyard boat-builder to make a small vessel; adding more family members and making it a full-time job helps, but making the project about a thousand times the size would still leave Noah and family felling trees, dressing wood, hammering, sawing, carrying and caulking for decades, at the very least.)

So I don't see what the big deal is about God making the Ark into a TARDIS as well, so it could hold as many animals as necessary without having to be as long as HMS Dreadnought, and much wider. This whole subject is a bit like discovering that there are people developing serious theories about how it was that Little Red Riding Hood failed to recognise a wolf dressed as her grandma, or calculating exactly how large a cottage could be built out of gingerbread.

But AiG reckon the Ark had to be big enough for all of the animals (and yes, they've got a Genesis Answer for the freshwater fish question). So the Ark had to be really, really, really big.

Different pages on the AiG site appear to disagree about how big the Ark was. I think the minimum is 450 feet - 137 metres. This measurement agrees with the New International Version's, uh, version.

But then, there's AiG's printable "Kids Answers Noah's Ark Bookmark" (PDF), which I consider as authoritative as anything else on the AiG site. The bookmark puts the Ark's length at a magnificent 510 feet, 155 metres. They also have a page for adults which concurs, and they proudly present an analysis from the Korea Association of Creation Research (by an extraordinary coincidence, the biggest megachurch in the whole world is in Korea...). The analysis concludes that a 135-metre Ark would have been seaworthy. With a bit of encouragement, I bet it'd stretch another 20 metres.

In the boring old secular world, the SS Great Western was, as I've mentioned before, the biggest properly seaworthy ocean-going wooden ship ever built, and its hull was about 65 metres in length (including the bowsprit, it was more than 70 metres). Even this size was too much for wood alone; Brunel used iron bands to hold the ship together.

Wooden ships bigger than the Great Western have been built on several occasions, but none dealt well with waves, and they often disappeared on their maiden voyages. No wooden ship even close to the size of even a mere 450-foot Ark has ever ventured to sea. Nobody can prove that the Ark wouldn't have worked just fine, of course, because nobody knows how it was built; there may be some amazing construction method lost to the ages, and proving there isn't is impossible.

Ark-believers like to bring up the subject of other ultra-gigantic wooden ships from the pages of history. Or, at least, from the pages of books that say they're history.

See, for instance, AiG's buddies at worldwideflood.com, who've got this awesome Flash size-comparer, which assigns the "most likely size" for Noah's Ark as a displacement of a mere "17000-28000 tonnes".

So, from the Graf Spee to the 1915 Revenge. I can totally see a family building something that big out of wood. How hard could it be?

The most impressive wooden vessels, besides the Ark itself, in the WorldwideFlood comparer are the two greatest hits in the world of mythical giant ships. First, there's Ptolemy IV's "Tessarakonteres", a mega-trireme alleged to have been rowed by four thousand oarsmen. And then, there's the Chinese eunuch admiral Zheng He's treasure ships, which were presented as vast beyond the imaginings of the Western world in that bestselling book by Gavin Menzies.

(Menzies' claims received a less than entirely friendly response from those tiresome empirical-evidence fetishists.)

The Tessarakonteres and another outrageously large wooden ship also allegedly owned by Ptolemy IV, the 115-metres-if-it's-an-inch "Thalamegos", have a peculiar tendency to only be taken seriously on Web pages that also argue for the existence of Noah's Ark. I'm sure the total absence of any substantive evidence that either of the Ptolemaic ships was ever paid for, built, crewed, sailed, sunk or salvaged has nothing whatsoever to do with the sad lack of orthodox academic interest in these extremely plausible ships about which it would be a terrible slander to say they're as physically practicable as building an Empire State Building out of pine.

(Or larch.)

For comparison, consider historically-supported large wooden vessels like the Syracusia, which ended up in the possession of Ptolemy III, or Caligula's giant round barge and "Nemi ships". The Syracusia probably existed, but is only said to be a - possibly exaggerated - 55 metres in length. And Caligula's ships pretty definitely existed, but were really just huge lake pontoons, that would have broken up at sea.

I can, at this juncture - quite a bit before this juncture, actually - hear readers begging me to stop poking at this nonsense and finish the review of that new computer you all bought me. But I think there's something more to engaging with preposterous speculations, like AiG's mania for persuading us all that the world began in the late Neolithic, than the mere sideshow-freak quality of the exercise. I think there's a significant educational value to chasing these silly rabbits. It leads you directly to basic philosophy-of-science questions like, "how do we know something is true?", and "what is truth, anyway?", and "what is sufficient evidence for a given claim to be treated as true?"

These questions are absolutely fundamental to critical thinking for everybody, not just professional scientists. But I don't think they're on a lot of school curricula.

(Did any of you readers receive lessons in critical thinking before tertiary education, or even then? You'd think that there'd at least be room, somewhere in the school year, for a half-hour on the different levels of evidence needed to make plausible the claims "I own a cat", "I own a horse", "I own an elephant" and "I own a dragon"...)

Everybody, young and old, needs to know this stuff, and one of the most entertaining ways of learning critical thinking is by examining the writings of people who don't quite get this whole "science" thing. (I think a kid could pretty much copy and paste this post into a history and/or science assignment and get a decent mark, as long as their teacher wasn't a Young-Earther.)

The Creation Museum really does seem to be, as Myers says, the very opposite of an actual museum. If you want to read about what real science museums do, I suggest Richard Fortey's excellent Dry Storeroom No. 1, (out in paperback soon!). As Fortey explains in his idiosyncratic wander through just a few of the numerous paths that exist in just his one museum, and as the Wikipedia article on museums also currently says, a museum acquires, conserves and researches the heritage of humanity and its environment. People who work in the parts of proper museums that visitors never visit devote their entire lives to collecting, collating, categorising and analysing stuff from the real world. Fortey writes of several museum employees who, after their retirement, keep coming in and working for free, so dedicated are they to the pursuit of knowledge.

I presume the Creation Museum has some actual fossils and such, and every now and then there's another News of the Weird story about hopeful fundamentalists heading off on yet another doomed trip to find the big floating Ark or the little magic one. But such efforts have all the actual substance of a dolls' tea party. The Creation Museum is, like AiG, nothing more than a great steaming heap of ad-hoc hypotheses, built on faith and making no predictions (if you don't count failed prophecies about the end of the world). The Creation Museum performs no real research, has nothing to conserve but what their exhibit-builders constructed, and is uninterested in the acquisition of new evidence, because they've already got the primary source to end all primary sources.

The Creation Museum even manages to, as Myers also notes, get the layout of a real museum wrong. Instead of letting visitors pick their own path, it funnels them through its didactic exhibits in sequence, like a haunted house or Ikea shop. (Or like a Hell House, for that matter.)

Once again, the Bible-thumpers have approximated the form, but failed to deliver the content, of the scientific endeavour. This is pretty much the definition of "pseudoscience"; pseudoscience is to real science as patent medicines were to real medicines.

Actually, that's a little unfair to patent medicines, which often contained desirable substances like alcohol, opium or cocaine. But I suppose people in hopeless situations could gain just as much comfort from religious hoo-hah as they could from opium.

Oh yes. The funny error. Remember the funny error that kicked off this bulging tumour of a post?

Firefox makes a suggestion about Answers in Genesis

The error happened because I followed a link, from some damn place, to https://www.answersingenesis.com/something_or_other, which attempts to use the SSL encryption certificate for https://www.answersingenesis.org/, whose suffix doesn't match the one in the certificate - and hey presto, there's the snigger-inducing error.

The main Answers in Genesis site is answersingenesis.org, but they also own answersingenesis.com, thus protecting that domain from being hijacked by the vile Satanists who dare to question AiG's Answers. AiG do actually have their act together as regards this stuff; if you go to answersingenesis.com it redirects you to the .org site, and neither of them try to use SSL so no certificate error appears. http://www.answersingenesis.com/anything redirects, not entirely elegantly, to the home page of answersingenesis.org, but that and the .com/.org SSL certificate thing is the only other bug I've found.

And now a reminder for any intrepid readers who've made it this far: Please nominate further Wonders of the American Religious World, and/or tell us all who, if anyone, taught you critical thinking!

Psychoceramic literature

There was me thinking that vanity-published books-by-loonies didn't come any better than the inimitable Latawnya, the Naughty Horse, Learns to Say "No" to Drugs. (The same author, with her husband, has also written Spicy True Stories, Investigators Lies, Slanders And Stocks. This latter volume is a chronicle of paranoid-delusion which I contend is indeed made more "spicy" by the author's decision to spell the word "stalk" as "stock", throughout the work.)

All that is in the past, though, for I have just this moment - which is to say, a couple of months after a million other people - discovered the landmark work Birth Control Is- I'm sorry, BIRTH CONTROL IS SINFUL IN THE CHRISTIAN MARRIAGES and also ROBBING GOD OF PRIESTHOOD CHILDREN!!, by Ms Eliyza- oh, darn it, I made that same mistake again, I meant to say by MS ELIYZABETH YANNE STRONG-ANDERSON.

MS ELIYZABETH would just be another unhinged religious ranter were it not for two decisions on her part.

The first is that she appears to have decided upon a list price for her book of one hundred and fifty US dollars. (Currently on special for only $135!)

The other, a true stroke of genius, is that BIRTH CONTROL IS SINFUL ET CETERA appears to be ENTIRELY IN UPPER CASE. Amazon have a "Look Inside" for the work, which only gives you the usual few pages, but reveals a distinct lack of lower-case anywhere other than the "and also" on the cover, and the text of the copyright page.

Amazon reviewers have rewarded MS ELIYZABETH with the adulation she deserves.

In Your Heart, You Know It's Flat

No sooner have I finished my second reply to that power-saver guy who took an entertaining religious tack in his dispute with me, than this shows up:

Hey Dan. I enjoyed reading some of the material on your website. You've definitely got some serious knowledge and understanding (not that you needed me to tell you that). But the reason I'm writing you is that it became clear to me that you reject the concept that God created the universe and yourself. As much as you know and can effectively explain to others who are wondering, you can not logically explain away the fact that you know deep down that you were created by God. And I am prepared for you to write me off as a religious psycho (though I myself hate religion) but I wanted to let you know that I prayed for you tonight that you would come to know your Creator who loves you and sent His Son, Jesus, to give you life. This email did not just happen by chance, just like you did not happen by chance. God is drawing you to Himself and I pray that you would accept His invitation.

"That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved" Romans 10:9, 10

Stewart

You know, I actually do kind of wish that I did "know deep down that I was created by God". It'd make me quite a lot happier, I think. It'd certainly beat the hell out of the terrifying contemplation of the unimportance of all human endeavours when compared with the overall scale of the universe, and the glum certainty that no matter what any human does, and no matter what brilliant tricks any human may manage to pull, in the blink of a geological eye we will all be cold and forgotten dust.

(I think this sort of thing is at the core of your classic Lovecraftian cosmic horror stories. A story that's just about one guy sitting in a chair contemplating his mortality and unimportance probably wouldn't be serialised in sci-fi magazines, though, so you have to add tentacles, asymmetric brain-swapping elder races, all-powerful entities with no mind at all, people who aren't people, and a whole lot of hilarious adjectives.)

The philosophical argument has been advanced that if a God-as-described-in-the-Abrahamic-Scriptures did exist, everybody even slightly sane would believe in him. The fact that there are many apparently reasonable people who do not believe in God may, therefore, be a valid argument for God's nonexistence - it's called the "argument from nonbelief".

(There's probably a nice tidy philosophical name for the argument Stewart presents, that there actually aren't any real unbelievers,
atheists don't actually exist
, and everybody's secretly religious even if they deny it. Does anybody know what that's called?)

But in any case, even if some mysterious suppressed kernel of religious belief survives in my black atheistic heart, why on earth would you assume that the God-of-the-Christians is the only entity that could have inspired it?

(This is the flipside of the there-are-no-real-atheists argument. It can be argued that in fact everybody is an atheist, because everybody disbelieves countless gods, most of whom they've never even heard of. By this measure, the only difference between "real" atheists and religious people is that atheists disbelieve slightly more gods.)

I don't think there's actually much point to asking somebody presenting Stewart's argument why they assume that my alleged tiny ember of religious belief is in the Abrahamic god. I already know what the answer's likely to be. Faith, right? You just know, and you don't need a reason.

If you ask me, just knowing without a reason is defective thinking, which can severely weaken any attempt to think critically about any subject at all. Most religious people seem to be able to compartmentalise their faith away from their everyday life, so if they're crossing the road or buying a house or choosing a movie to see, they don't just kneel down and close their eyes until the Lord tells them what to do. But critical thinking is something you have to learn to do, and learning to be unthinkingly faithful pulls your mind in exactly the opposite direction. It can get to the point where you actually seriously argue that you can arrive at faith via the scientific method, because Jesus said that if you do God's will you will be convinced that it, um, is God's will, which sure sounds like solid scientific proof to me!

(The minor problem that the world is full of people all doing contradictory things while convinced that they have the full support of one or more gods does not appear to injure this argument.)

Many religions say faith is laudable in and of itself, and actively encourage adherents to believe all sorts of weird things. Thinking critically is hard enough as it is; thinking critically about religious topics is almost impossible, unless you're willing to devote years to your education and then, quite possibly, end up sounding not unlike an atheist anyway.

So I can't really blame people for taking the blind-faith route. It combines simplicity with laudability! How often in life does one get the chance to be commended for being lazy?

Around this point, the religious person often says that everybody has faith, it's a perfectly good reason to believe things, don't you have faith that the sun will come up tomorrow and that all of the intersection traffic lights won't turn green at once. And yes, of course you do, but that faith is based on long experience; religious faith, in contrast, is defined by its lack of evidentiary support. You just have to believe that you'll get that million dollars when you leave town.

Clearly, Stewart believes I should embrace some sort of Christianity - while, um, hating religion, by which I presume he means organised religion - but what if the one I choose isn't the right religion? Christianity isn't even the world's majority religion; in total, Christianity is more popular than any other religion, but it's still only got 33% of the religious market (rather less than 33% of the world's population, since many people have no religion). And of course Christianity, like Islam, is itself broken down into various sects which usually insist that members of the People's Front of Judea are all going to Hell, and you'd better join the Judean People's Front if you know what's good for you. It's all very well to reject organised religion and come to your own understanding of the scriptures, but there will still be many other incompatible interpretations, all with believers every bit as sincere as you.

Perhaps I should go with the oldest religion that's still at all popular. That might be Judaism, though of course the Judaism of 1000 BC probably didn't bear much resemblance to any Jewish sect today.

Or perhaps I should tour countries where everybody's very religious, take notes, and see who's got the best argument. Algeria's 99% Muslim, Armenia's 99% Christian, Bhutan's 97% Buddhist, half of Madagascar's population retain their slightly peculiar traditional ancestor-worshipping beliefs, and about 70% of Albanians profess no religion at all!

In all of those places, I can tell you now that the strongest determinant of anybody's faith will be the faith, or lack thereof, of their parents. Adolescent rebellion doesn't actually usually make a lot of difference to that. Which, again, is a bit of a funny thing to see; if there's one faith that you can just start believing and then, hey presto, its truth becomes apparent, you'd think the global religion market would have settled more solidly on that faith by now.

At this stage in the discussion, the theist will usually sally forth with the warm-and-friendly big-house everyone's-welcome ecumenical argument, saying "there are many religions, but I suppose they all worship the same God". I really cannot accept that, though, since the statements and requirements of many of the world's religions are very clearly incompatible with each other, and people seem to get quite upset about it.

Saying that all, or even many, religions are philosophically compatible is like saying that all codes of football are compatible. OK, sure, a soccer player can pick up the ball, run like hell while dodging the bemused opposition and then dive over the goal-line for a righteous touchdown, but I think you'll find that his team's score will not then rise by six points.

So here I am, back in the quandary of which religion to settle upon, with my immortal soul - if I have one - hanging in the balance.

Should I eat bits of my god, start a Crusade, shoot abortionists, or die heroically in battle? Should I pray five times a day, three times a day, or on Sundays, or on Saturdays?

I think the best course of action is to continue to eschew all religious observance, because I think that'll give me - in a sort of permutation of Pascal's Wager - the best chance of getting into heaven or a better spot on the reincarnation wheel or whatever. Because if there's a god up there, and it's fair, it ought not to cast me into a lake of fire unless I directly choose the wrong religion. If I'm just completely confused by all of the options, each and every one encrusted with bizarre counterfactual and/or solipsistic dogma, and so avoid them all and just try to live a good life, then a fair god should let me into paradise.

And if God isn't fair - as, objectively speaking, unfortunately seems to be the case - then we're all screwed anyway. In that case, I might as well not waste any time praying.

The boy who cried wolf 155 times

Every now and then I check back in with "The Lord's Witnesses" at TrueBibleCode.com. (The Lord's Witnesses may be an actual group of people, or maybe just one guy called Gordon.)

Since 2006, the Lord's Witnesses have been confidently predicting the start of Armageddon, usually to be heralded by nuclear explosion in Manhattan, in the very near future. Which is to say, weeks, or a few months at most, from the date on which the prediction is made. It's all based on careful analysis of encoded data in the Bible. It's really very simple.

Over and over and over, the Witneses have been wrong. But there's seldom even breathing space of a few days between the expiration of the last nuked-New-York deadline and the arrival of another, equally confident prediction that it's now very likely to happen by a new deadline. They always apologise for their previous error.

The Lord's Witnesses (who aren't connected with the Jehovah's Witnesses, except that Gordon used to be a JW) are so darn snappy about producing the new predictions that I suspect they may work on the new predictions before the old ones have expired, possibly just so as to have something to do while waiting for the Whateverocalypse.

The Witnesses have now reached the entertaining conclusion that the large number of times they've been wrong to date (155 times, according to them; a few more if you take every line of the frank list of mistakes on the front page as one error) may, itself, have numerological significance!

This stands to reason, of course. Why would God tease them like this, if not to enlighten them to another aspect of His ineffable plan?

(A plan which seems to have been in progress for rather a while. According to the Bible, Jesus Himself clearly predicted His own second coming before everybody then alive had died. Perhaps there's some troublesome immortal out there extending the deadline.)

It's refreshing to see an apocalypto-church, however small, whose org-chart doesn't taper to a point composed of people who are making out like bandits, and socking away the believers' cash in investments that're obviously incompatible with an actual belief in the imminent end of the world.

But at least sometimes those guys get caught. In the early 1990s, there was a Korean church called "Mission for the Coming Days" whose Australian branch was headquartered in a block of flats just up the road from my house. (Apparently there was a Korean "Hyoo-go", meaning "Rapture", movement at the time, and the Mission for the Coming Days was the biggest single church in the movement.)

The MftCD predicted the end of the world on October the 28th, 1992; that date stuck in my mind, since it was printed in big letters on the side of their van, which I passed every time I went to buy groceries.

As you may have heard, it didn't happen.

Some Korean followers of the Mission for the Coming Days committed suicide, I would imagine at least partly because they'd given everything they owned, including their homes, to one Lee Jang Rim, the guy in charge of the church. Some other Hyoo-go enthusiasts tried to kill their preachers.

I think that Lee Jang Rim himself, though, moulders in a Korean jail to this day. The giveaway was his substantial investments, some of which matured after the predicted end of the world.