Monday, March 26, 2012

The Donkey Speaks:

My atheism is no secret to the people who know me. I'm quite outspoken among my friends about the subject, all but a few self-identifying as Christians. However, I'm not active in any atheist organizations. The most active I've ever been beyond my circle of friends has been via comments under various pseudonyms on Youtube and a few other sites when I was still in my mid 20's.

I've quipped before that any group of people I could conceivably belong to annoys me once I spend enough time around them. Youtube atheists proved to be no different. Though it was only certain segments of the Youtube atheist community that irritated me, they were vocal, persistent, and dogmatic. I once gladly had proclaimed myself to be a Youtube atheist. Now, in my 30's, I most certainly wouldn't; not because my views have drastically shifted in regard to God but because my atheism is only a single aspect of who I am. I'm not a Youtube atheist, I'm just someone who uses Youtube (among other sites) and also happens to be an atheist. It's an important distinction.

Initially it was refreshing to see so many people speaking out against religion, as I'd felt as if I were on an island my entire life. It was a relief to see I wasn't the only person who recognized that the world was a little bit crazy. But I began to see many of the same qualities I despised about the religiously motivated in the atheist community. I just grew weary of the whole idea of arguing with people on the internet, either about God or whatever talking head in opposition to theists had said on a given day. It's typically a fruitless endeavor and a profound waste of time.

So, about a month ago, after much deliberation, I decided I should attend the Reason Rally in Washington DC on March 24th, 2012. With Rick Santorum being treated as a legitimate presidential candidate I concluded it was important to be present at this rally. Not because I subscribe to any specific philosophy of any subgroup of nonbelievers, but because the time when Christianity was a necessary and generally positive influence (considering the era and the situations of the time) in American politics had long since passed. The crusade for religious freedom in America was becoming what it sought to escape in the first place. If politicians didn't use the government to wield their religion as a weapon and impose it on the public, to varying severity, there would be few instances where I'd even care about the subject.

Considering my position then, it seemed like a waste to go all the way down to Washington DC for a rally I sought to attend primarily to add to the head count. I'd never been to our capital before and there is plenty for me, an autodidact concerned mainly with anything that can assist me in my personal artistic and literary endeavors, to see. I decided I'd spend a few days in DC and absorb as much of the various Smithsonian museums as I could in the time I had, minus whatever time I felt was appropriate to spend at the rally.

I endured the rain and enjoyed some of the presentation, though at times a hint of Scientism would rear its head, which made me feel a bit odd. There's something strange to me about cheering at the mention of evolution. Yes, it happened, and is still happening, but it really has nothing to do with atheism. Of course, I'm extremely protective of real science and driving creationists back from the gates of public schools, so perhaps my unease wasn't completely justified.

Anyway, at a certain point, I'd just decided I'd had enough and it was time to go back to a few of the Smithsonian museums while I still had the time. On my way out, about to cross the street toward the American History Museum, en route to the Natural History museum, a young woman asked me if I wanted a bottle of water. I declined. I wasn't that thirsty and told her to save it for someone who really needed it. While I stood there a young man next to her then asked me if I was interested in some sort of pamphlet. It was at this point my spider sense went off. I didn't immediately recognize the ploy the offer for free water had been part of.

I wasn't in DC to blindly clap and holler for whatever presenter took the stage at the rally and I certainly wasn't in DC to argue with theists. But here I was, about to be evangelized to by some kid, looking nearly half my age, who thought he had everything of real importance in life figured out.

I told this kid, in so many words, that I wasn't ignorant of Christian theology and he was probably wasting his time trying to convert me. After a brief exchange an older man approached me and a 10-15 minute conversation ensued. The dramatically abridged version, I grew increasingly annoyed, ended the conversation, and headed off to the Natural History museum as I'd intended, and didn't think much of it afterward.

I came home late on the 25th. Having limited internet capabilities in my hotel in DC I had seen little of what was said about the Reason Rally online, so I decided to look around for a bit when I came home. After a few minutes of searching I began to see several videos of atheists arguing with Christians on the edge of the National Mall. It was expected, but considering a small crowd had been present as I argued with the older man I was curious if anyone had documented the exchange. I did a Google search and was shocked, then overcome with laughter, at what I'd found.

The guy I was arguing with has a blog of some significance and I'd (apparently) been the most significant person he'd talked to, which I found hilarious. I was almost flattered. I barely give a shit, yet I was responsible, over a only 10-15 minute span, for the most memorable thing that had happened at the 8 hour Reason Rally.

So, with that in mind, aware that I'm important enough for him to mention on his blog, and overshadow all the speakers at the rally and people who likely engaged him before and after I'd left, that some response is in order.

From his blog: David Albert reviews Lawrence Krauss’s newest book and ends with this

When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

[From ‘A Universe From Nothing,’ by Lawrence M. Krauss -]

It is a retreat to the trivial ridiculizing of religion. Or so it seems to me, but maybe I’m primed to think that way after an encounter I had with an individual at the Reason Rally yesterday. He thought Christianity was absurd, and his Exhibit A was the talking donkey (Balaam’s ass in Judges). He wanted to me to explain how a donkey could talk.

Yep, that was me alright. Moving on.

I asked him what he meant by “explain.” (I’m condensing a ten- to fifteen-minute conversation here, but I’m not distorting the portion I’m telling you.) He said he wanted to know just exactly what physical changes God made in the donkey to enable it to talk. I reminded him that no one had observed and recorded those changes. Amazingly, he continued to insist on that very thing anyway–and no speculations on possible answers was allowed.

Now this is amazing to me on a few levels. The most obvious of which, I think, is he seemed totally unfazed and credulous at the prospect of a talking donkey. If the men who wrote the bible had any sense it would have been Balaam's Parrot. That at least could be somewhat plausible, on a certain level. Talking animals are typically not an idea to take seriously, but this guy was going all in. I asked him several times if he believed the story of Balaam's donkey was literal and not metaphorical and he insisted it did actually happen.

Now, as such, if the story of Balaam's donkey did actually occur, as he asserted, that means it physically happened. There would have to be a physical explanation for a donkey suddenly gaining the previously impossible, due to it's physiology, ability to speak.

Notice too he doesn't mention his speculations specifically, just that he presented them. It's easy to say you offered legitimate explanations if you simply assert it and fail to provide them. The comment section below should be open, should you care to use it. Explain away, so long as you refrain from veering off into anything other than talking donkeys. My blog, my rules.

And yes, I did insist on that very thing anyway, as he said. If you believe something to be true, in this case a physical event, you have to have some kind of reasonable justification for doing so. Beliefs are never baseless. If you have a belief it's inescapable that it's based on some information you believe to have some level of credibility. Whether that basis is legitimate is an entirely different issue.

A key problem I see, when theists assert that any sort of miracle (that is, the suspension of physical laws by a higher power) has occurred, is that miracles are a vacuous abstract. It's not really an explanation. They assert that some entity has changed reality in a certain way for a certain purpose, but can offer no means by which this can be done. They have no real comprehension of the thing they're arguing in favor of. They simply argue that is was so but can't put forth a reasoned argument in what way any agency can illicit such a change. A change they didn't, at the very least, even observe, as he made a point to mention.

I decided to step it up a notch. “Why are you so concerned about the physical possibilities of a talking donkey? Try something really difficult–what about a man rising from the dead?”

Why is someone rising from the dead more difficult than spontaneously rearranging the physiology of a donkey? I don't accept this premise. A person's biological functions can stop and be restarted, some of them anyway, but this isn't a dissertation on cellular function. That's happened, and there are documented repeatable procedures which, if the conditions are right, allow such a thing to happen. I'm not aware of any way in which a donkey's physiology can be altered at will alone. I'm willing to listen if someone knows more than I do about this.

We talked briefly about how there might or might not be evidence for that. But then he said, “I’m not interested in that. I want to talk about the donkey.”

I paused when he said that, so I wouldn’t blurt out the first thing that came into my head.

Just say it you pussy.

After several moments I gently told him, “If you are more interested in that than in life out of death, I suggest you find someone who is as interested in talking donkeys as you are.” He stormed off.

First, I think this is apropos:

Now, as for the last except, that's not entirely accurate. First, saying I stormed off seems to imply it was some concessionary act. If that's what was implied, that's wrong, it wasn't. I just got tired of all the dodging and attempts to shift the conversation. Secondly, after he said, "If you are more interested in that than life out of death, I suggest you find someone who is as interested in talking donkeys as you are," I said, "Okay, I'll go talk to that person then," then walked away, as I should have probably done the moment the young man offered me a pamphlet.

Why a donkey rather than Jesus’ resurrection? I could be wrong, but I think this is why: He was hell-bent on making Christianity look ridiculous.

You're half right, but this is the Rick Santorum defense. In many instances Santorum has tried to justify legally treating homosexuals differently than heterosexuals, yet gets upset when people call him a bigot, even though that's the dictionary definition of a bigot. He's essentially saying, if you get to the crux of his argument, "Just because I want to treat people differently based on my own personal biases doesn't mean you can call me a bigot." Likewise, saying, "Just because I believe a donkey gained the ability speak, as told in the bible, doesn't mean Christianity looks ridiculous." Yes, it does, if you argue it includes talking donkeys. Anyone who can approach Shrek as if it were a documentary doesn't have a firm grip on reality.

I'm not trying to make Christianity look ridiculous, it does look ridiculous. It wasn't my idea to put a talking donkey in the bible.

A talking donkey is a better image of comic absurdity than the conquering of death.

Yes, I think so, and you believe this absurdity. You said so yourself. If biblical literalists went around preaching about talking donkeys all the time instead of Jesus they'd be laughed at and disregarded by damn near everybody, and rightly so. But you hide it, or marginalize it, as if it's not a big deal. I disagree. I just don't see the point in playing your game and talking about the crap you feel is important. I think believing in talking donkeys is stupid, and see no reason to grant any cognitively functional adult a pass for holding such a juvenile belief.

Though it was a “Reason Rally,” he didn’t want to listen to a reasoned answer on the resurrection. He wanted to focus on the foolish image instead.

As comedian Jimmy Carr once said, "If we're all god's children, what makes Jesus so special?"

I don't care. Honestly. I don't. The story of the resurrection is important to you, but it's not to me. It's incredibly arrogant, I think, to act as if the tale of Jesus rising from the grave is something objectively important to everyone. It's not. Deal with it.

I worry about him. Sometimes we become like that on which we focus. I hope he thinks that through.

If you're worried about me help me pay some bills or something. But really, this is another fascinating evangelist's (not strictly in the Protestant sense) doublethink. Sometimes we become like that on which we focus? That almost sounds like, "You're just as crazy as we are. You're no better than we are, and we're stupid, so, so are you."

Worry about me then. It's not my problem. Enjoy the unnecessary stress.

But there is a much larger story here, lest you think I myself am guilty of trivializing by focusing on these two stories. Richard Dawkins spoke at the Reason Rally and called on the attendees there to make “ridicule” and “contempt” their mode of dealing with religion. The man I spoke with was carrying out marching orders. I haven’t read Krauss’s book, but I suspect from the review he might be too. This is big-picture trivialization. And with it the world gets even weirder.

I was carrying out Richard Dawkins's marching orders? First of all, I don't own nor have read any of Dawkins's books. I'm not aware of anything he's said since about 2006 that's any different than what he's had to say recently. I don't dislike Dawkins. I agree with some things he's said, but I'm actually ignorant of the bulk of his work.

And, as I established earlier, I left the rally long before it ended. According to my android app Dawkins spoke at approximately 2:55pm. Where was I at by 2:55pm? At the Hirshhorn Museum, walking through a sea of blue nylon strings. I know because I recorded a video of it and it has a time signature. I was more interested in walking through dangling blue nylon strings, for no real reason at all, than I was in listening to what Richard Dawkins, my supposed drill sergeant and idol, had to say.

Lawrence Krauss? I like Lawrence Krauss, but again, I don't own nor have read any of his books. He spoke at approximately 4:30pm. Where was I at 4:30pm? The Postal Museum. I was more interested in looking at stamps, something I don't even have an interest in, than I was in listening to him speak.

Tom Gilson doesn't know me. He shouldn't presume to. I wasted over 10 minutes that I could've used to look at stamps. Atheism isn't even a hobby for me, much less something more grand as he's describing. As Gustavo said at the beginning of this post, the donkey speaks. When you honestly argue that a donkey can talk it just makes you look like an ass.


  1. Greetings. It's good to meet you once again, online this time.

    You say,

    "And yes, I did insist on that very thing anyway, as he said. If you believe something to be true, in this case a physical event, you have to have some kind of reasonable justification for doing so. Beliefs are never baseless. If you have a belief it's inescapable that it's based on some information you believe to have some level of credibility. Whether that basis is legitimate is an entirely different issue."

    You kept on insisting on a detailed and accurate description of the donkey's physiology at the moment of his talking. That's not the same as an explanation, and it's not required for an explanation.

    You say that I was "honestly argu[ing] that a donkey can talk." Actually I wasn't. You kept forcing the discussion toward a physical description of the donkey's physiology. A description is not an argument. Therefore in fact you never did hear an argument from me on that count. You didn't hear a bad argument, you didn't hear a good one; you didn't hear any at all, because you wouldn't listen when I tried to move the discussion in that direction. You forced it, as I have said, back to requiring of me a mere description of what no one could possibly describe, and which was not necessary to describe in the detail you insisted on.

    If you are still more interested in talking donkeys than you are in the death-to-life victory that Jesus Christ accomplished through his resurrection from the dead, all I can say is I still hope you can find someone equally interested in that topic with whom to converse. For although I could explain how the donkey incident makes sense, I choose not to participate with you in this distortion of proportion. It's not that I'm ducking anything, running from it because it's too difficult to defend, for as you know, when I changed the subject to the resurrection of Christ, I changed it to something that was more, not less, of a challenge.

    There is death, there is life, and there are donkeys, and as long as you think the donkey is the most important of the three, I refuse to go there with you. I wish you well, and I wish you a more proportionate sense of what really matters in life.

  2. You said, during our conversation, and as I asked you to clarify, if the story of Balaam's donkey was meant to be taken literally. You said it did. If it's meant to be taken literally that means you believe a donkey spoke, a physical event. A donkey is incapable of speech. Saying a story in which one does, and saying the story is literally true, requires an explanation of how such a thing could happen. A description of what physical phenomenon could allow this to happen seems implicit in my request for an explanation.

    If you choose not to explain this as I've requested than that is indeed your choice to make.