What’s Stopping You? Nothing, and That’s the Point.

For years upon years upon years, religious apologists have been asking the same question of the non-religious and non-believers – what’s stopping you from committing crimes? What holds you back from raping, murdering, stealing and generally causing chaos? What stops you?


After all, we don’t – and to a degree can’t – live by any moral guidance determined for us and dictated from up on high.

Now, this opens up a huge can of worms when you take it to its conclusion; namely, that such questions imply that if the existence of an all-powerful creator-deity was suddenly disproved, or that said-theist stopped believing in it overnight, that they’d immediately embark upon a murderous rampage leaving nothing but dust in their wake. It assumes that under humanity’s playful exterior beats the heart of a ruthless, sadistic maniac. A fair assessment of humanity given our track record, sure, but not one that exclusively correlates with atheism. It also raises issues of trust – would you trust someone who explicitly said that the only thing stopping them from knifing you in the face right this second was their fear of a god?

Tu quoque aside, a far more interesting response to the accusation of being an atheistic amoral psychopath is brutal honesty – nothing is stopping me. Literally nothing stops us, as non-believers, from stealing, murdering, raping and pillaging, vandalising, burgling, buggering, and blasting our way across the planet for the whole duration of our short, sad and miserable time on it. But the simple fact is… we just don’t do that. By-and-large, we’re peaceful people. By-and-large, people are good. A person will stop to help another if they’re able, they’ll obey the law – something that only really exists to prevent the minority from exploiting the kindly majority.

So the accusation levelled by apologists really doesn’t make any sense so long as the atheist they’re talking to isn’t, in fact, committing any crime or sin. Nothing is stopping me from doing all that stuff. Nothing at all. I have simply murdered and raped everyone I have wanted to, and I have vandalised and stolen and destroyed everything I have wanted to. I won’t claim cherubic innocence on every count, but those cases really do round-off to zero. I have done everything I have wanted to, and it just so happens I haven’t wanted to do any of those criminal or immoral acts.

Anyway, that’s all introduction material. It’s all been said before, by multiple people, and probably in longer and shorter forms. You know this, surely.

My question is this – has anyone ever heard of a response to it? The likes of Ken Ham seem to base their entire anti-atheist worldview on it (see the accompanying image above). Their claimed monopoly on the laws of morality and goodness – or, at least, acts that we consider positive, constructive, non-harmful, and wellness- and happiness-maximising – relies on this absurd notion that we are a bunch of wild and rabid lunatics underneath. They need us to be sinful in the absence of God. But we’re not. They need us to be wild savages without the guidance of the Bible. But we’re not. The position is fundamentally flawed and falls at this very first, very mild hurdle.

So what next?

What therefore proves you must need God to be good even in the face of this?

What shows that we cannot possibly make moral decisions for ourselves even in the face of evidence that we make moral decisions for ourselves?

The ball has been on the theistic side of the net for a while now. I can’t even recall the first time I heard someone say “I’ve murdered exactly the number of people I wanted to: none”. Has anyone out there in Internet Land heard of a response to that?

This is a genuine question for those out there – have the Hams, Comforts or even the C. S. Lewises of the world ever taken the next step? And if not, why not? And how would you even begin, hypothetically speaking, to throw the ball back?

You’re not thinking like a true atheist!

createRay Comfort, aka Bananaman, has posted this to his Facebook page twice in fairly quick succession recently, while promoting his fuck-awful “documentary”, Evolution vs God. And no, it really wasn’t any funnier the second time. I’ve seen funnier Dan Lietha cartoons, although that’s only because Lietha’s crippling blindness to the irony of what he writes is inherently hilarious.

I know it’s a cartoon and all, but even then a joke needs a logical structure to it. Observational comedy requires (clue’s in the title here) an observation. Unless you’re one of those ghastly right-wing types who just make stuff up to play to their audience’s prejudices, then really it helps if the observations are somewhat factual. A joke should embed itself partially in reality, otherwise what else are you left with? It sounds pedantic, but seriously, when was the last time you ever laughed at something where that wasn’t based in fact?

Anyway, let’s look at the logical structure since we know that Comfort is trying to make a point, rather than make people laugh here. The text becomes fair game for dissection in this respect.

I’ve been thinking about how no one can create anything from nothing….

Okay, this is mostly true. We can see from experience and observation that things aren’t “created from nothing”. If you want to make a sandwich, you get ingredients and assemble them into a sandwich; it was created, but only in the sense that it was assembled from parts and that a sandwich now exists where there were only the component parts of a sandwich before. You weren’t “created” when you were born, you were assembled. You mind wasn’t “created” at any point, it was assembled as an emergent phenomenon caused by the organisation of neurons in your brain. I’m so sorry if that denigrates your existence by removing the magic from it, but reality sends its regards and says it doesn’t really give a fuck.

So, what?

Doesn’t that prove everything must have had a creator?

Wait? What? Okay, okay, we could salvage this car crash if the Walter White lookalike in the other panel says something sufficiently witty, but Jesse Pinkman here is playing the protagonist for the creationist, so we must assume they’re supposed to be presented as “right”. In this case, how? Where is the logical connection?

I’m still struggling to find it. I’m trying really hard. I just cannot figure it out. We start with the observation that we only observe ex materia and no ex nihilo creation events, and make a pretty good inference that this means ex nihilo creation is, in fact, impossible. Although that’s just an inference, there are also good logical reasons why it’s impossible, or at least that if it is possible it would break the concept of causality. But how do we go from there to proving that everything had a creator? The first premise says nothing about the nature of the creator, nor anything about creation requiring a “creator”. “Creator” as in an independently acting agent, as we can make a good case for an unconscious physical cause but not for a conscious creator. After all, a car engine “creates” carbon dioxide and water vapour (from hydrocarbons) but we would be hard-pushed to give it the personal agency implied by calling it a “creator”.*

I’m still looking at those two panels. And I’m thinking, and I just can’t see it.

Anyway, I did say the “joke” could be salvaged if the Walter White lookalike could say something sufficiently witty in the last panel. Alas, I lack the wit and charm required, so offer this pitiful re-write that should appeal:


*”Aha!” perks up that one annoying guy in the front row. “But the engine is operated by a human, therefore the human is the creator!” Perhaps, but the human is driving because of their desire to go from A to B. The “creator” is, in fact, the abstract entity of the daily commute.

What quoting the Bible to an atheist looks like when you’re an atheist

What quoting the Bible to an atheist looks like when you're an atheist

Seriously, this is what quoting the Bible to an atheist looks like when you’re an atheist. Spouting lines saying Jesus is the only way to heaven or whatever is genuinely less than meaningless. It may be a standard apologetics or evangelising trick, but it doesn’t work. Preachers need to be honest about how many people they’ve ever converted with this sort of thing; I cannot imagine it being very high.

Citing the Bible is not an argument designed to convince; it’s designed to maintain, or to keep people who already have faith. Indeed, most theistic arguments stem from this solely because they cannot connect the a priori arguments, such as the cosmological or teleological arguments, to the actual prescriptive dogma. If you pre-suppose that the Bible is inerrant and true then it makes sense, it keeps your faith. But that’s true of presupposing anything; if we assume Middle Earth is real, then the Silmarillion is proof that Middle Earth is the one truth mythology of England (besides, we also have Tolkien’s intent to back that one up).

So, to anyone who has ever done this; what do you actually expect us to do? Go “oh, gee whiz mister! I never knew that! Tell me more about this Jesus guy!” Because, frankly, I can’t see how you can even expect anyone but the terminally stupid to follow you after that.

Actually, that probably explains creationism.

How to stop sucking at non-belief (Part 4)

Religion causes more wars than any other factor. Right?

It’s pretty hardy received wisdom amongst non-believers that religion is a violent, oppressive, terrifying force that causes nothing but harm to society.

Is this actually true? And I don’t mean in a “I can dig up at least one example” type of true (that’s trivial, just look up the number of infants who have died while their parents prayed over them rather than taking them to a hospital) I mean actually statistically true. Is it such a cause that can be reliably and repeatedly demonstrated? Is it a cause that tangibly alters the course of human events?

And I mean really caused by religion. As in, one leader got a message from God to declare war and everyone within that religion rose up to join them. Or the war was started by one religious group specifically to eradicate another religious group. Most importantly, though, if you want to say religion is The Cause (capital letters and all), then that war would have to  be impossible without religion. After all, religion could be a confounding variable. There’s the story that George Bush was “inspired” to invade Iraq by God, but that alone would never have passed under the US political system. The political machinations for a war in Iraq were brewing for decades, it wasn’t declared on a whim because of religion – in fact, even taking the “God told me so” message at face value it’s not religion, as in the abstract social phenomenon, that caused the war, but lone single beliefs of an individual. In that respect it’s no different to any other perfectly secular totalitarian declaration of war!

Back in the dark days of only a few years ago, some bright sparks had this great idea to make information available on this thing that they called “The Inter Net”. So looking up this sort of thing has become remarkably easy – if you can broadcast your opinion on the internet, there is no legitimate excuse for you being unable to use it to gain some facts. And so, with that back-hander out of my system, let’s take a look at the list of ongoing military conflicts.

Now, this is just the ongoing ones, but it’s good enough for our purposes (see below). The first thing you would notice looking at the Wikipedia list would be the two categories of >1,000 and <1,000 deaths per year (2013) – conflicts escalate and trail off, ebbing and flowing as they progress whether they’re resolved or not. So the best thing to do with the list is to order them by cumulative casualties. This gives you a better overall view of what’s happened in the last 50 years or so.

You then see, quite readily, the top ongoing conflicts in terms of total deaths caused by them. This is pretty much the established metric for how bloody a war is, or how “bad” it was. These are:

Once you get below that, you’re into the long tail, but these are the ones that dominate the entire list dramatically and take up the lions share of death and destruction. Anyone see religion in there? Anyone? Nope, me neither. They’re almost all exclusively politically-motivated civil wars. State-to-state invasions are practically unheard of in the grand scheme of things! And notably, one of the top ones for deaths this year alone is the drug war in Mexico.

You have to dig through that list of ongoing wars quite thoroughly to find a religious basis for the listed conflict. There’s the Nigerian Sharia conflict, which fits the bill pretty well. There’s the Lord’s Resistance Army, which despite being political I’ll just about accept as religiously motivated because Kony thinks he’s some spiritual medium in contact with God and wishes to install a theocracy (he has many things in common with Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin, it seems). There’s the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines, which is being fought by Jihadists… and that’s about it, really. The Israel-Palestine thing is really more about territory and occupation, rather than religion. Northern Ireland is about separatism and independence, and it’s only a combination of religion tradition dating back to the reformation that means that it’s vaguely Protestant on one side and Catholics on the other. To say that those are about religion would be like saying the second world war motivated by tensions between blonde haired and brown haired people because Hitler liked the Aryan image.

That’s ongoing current wars and civil conflicts. What about the other biggies from the 20th century? The first world war, the second world war, Vietnam… well, if you think those have anything to do with religion you need to and read a fucking history book. Right. Fucking. Now.

“Ah!” says favourite Straw Man sparing partner, “but what about the Crusades, and the Inquisition?”

Well, my darling dearest voice-in-my-head, what of them? What about them? No, really. What of it? Are you seriously considering judging modern religion by the standards of how it operated centuries ago? Are you seriously saying we should take someone going along to a church to sing a hymn or two on a Sunday, and judge them based only on the whims of Pope Urban II 1,000 years ago? Seriously, it’s a 1,000 years ago. If we were living in a fantasy novel this would have been called “The Second Age” or the “Epoch of Elves” or something like that. That’s why I opened this with the list of ongoing conflicts (well, here’s the list of bloodiest wars ever, again, note the dearth of religious motivation).

But let’s take that a bit further. Though I hasten to add that I’m not qualified to talk about this time period, I’ll take some informed stabs at it. What about the political situation of 1,000 years ago? When most of Europe was effectively a theocracy, the distinction between a religious and political cause was practically non-existent. There was no real separation of Church and State. Just like with George W. Bush, a leader didn’t have to be told by God, they just needed the political reason to and then use God as a post-facto justification of it.

So, in conclusion of this rant-in-miniature, stop it. Just stop it. Please just fucking stop it already. Right? Please? Stop simplifying global socio-political turmoil into a case of who has the best God, because that’s not even wrong.

How to stop sucking at non-belief (Part 3)

Here’s a real quick, to-the-point way of stopping yourself sucking balls at being a non-believer. It’s simple, straightforward, and so I’m putting it in large letters:

Stop mistaking parody, satire and Markov-chain-esque spam for the real thing!

Many people get suckered in by Poe’s Law. It’s understandable at times. Yet you can get around it with due diligence and a little bit of basic skepticism. I did write an pretty extensive guide to what you need to think about when checking for parody a while ago (for the two people out there who care) and the short version is that if it’s too funny to be true, it’s probably not. That’s just a guide to things to think about, though, as there is no easy litmus test.

Most of the time, the response should really be “Of course its’ parody. Why is this even a question?” Yet people still get suckered in by piss-taking. this isn’t the bad thing, per se, it’s the fact that when they do they almost inevitably take the wrong lessons from it.

If someone persistently mistakes parodies or satire for the real thing, they’ve got a big problem. They haven’t proven how stupid the real thing is, they’ve proven that they have a straw man view of what the real thing is and are interested only in having their biases confirmed. Someone might declare “oh, it’s just like a real fundie xian*” when it probably isn’t anything of the sort – but they may as well declare “oh, my preconceptions of how Christian evangelists speak has just been confirmed” because that’s exactly what they’ve done.

Making this mistake repeatedly is not a bad reflection on fundamentalists, it’s a bad reflection on you.


*Also, stop using “xian”. That’s another thing that marks you out as an idiot.

Honesty is the best policy

So, this cropped up on Facebook. As before, I’m banned from both Ham’s page and AiG’s page for merely talking to another atheist, so couldn’t challenge him directly what this was about (had to wait for some others who weren’t blocked to spot it and call him out on it).HamWhere is the email? Is it so offensive that Ham couldn’t reproduce it? Would his followers be too sensitive for the foul language? Did Houston Atheists send him a large collection child pornography? Did someone link him to one of my more egregious rants? (oh, bloody hell I hope not…)

Well, it wouldn’t be in Ham’s best interest to cite it in full, would it… because you can actually find it here. Unless there’s some other Houston Atheists. Or some other homeschooling conference held in Texas in August. Or some other Ken Ham of some other Answers in Genesis. Or some other 30th-31st May 2013. If you read it yourself, in an unbiased way at least, the letter itself seems fairly polite. It’s strongly worded, sure, but it simply lays out the position; that Houston Atheist’s “vehemently oppose the indoctrination of children with radical fundamentalist theology under the false guise of science”. This is the position shared by many, and there are few (if any) ways of tiptoeing around the subject in a way that makes people feel better about it. There is no way of saying “I think you’re wrong and can prove it” that isn’t going to come across as pretty mean – you just have to grow a thick skin and Deal With It by proving yourself right.

Ken Ham, though? No way, no way at all. He just blindly asserts that the email is rude and unprofessional, and his followers lap it up unquestioningly – such is the protective bubble he keeps them in. No questions asked, no attempt to judge for themselves, not a faint whiff of curiosity about what the email actually said. Not one of his followers asked to see the evidence in the form of quotes or extracts, or even the thing in full. This is the absolute opposite to how things like science or free-thinking philosophy works, where you have to – shock horror – prove what you’re saying by showing it or demonstrating it. I know it’s quite a scary prospect to actually back up stuff and have people call you out when you don’t sufficiently do it, but it’s flown us to the moon and cures cancer, so there must be something to that method. This is the central problem with most creationists; they won’t back themselves up, or if they do it’s to the same insular sources again and again that are effortlessly debunked.

Now, this post isn’t an attack on Ham being religious or believing in God. Really, it isn’t. If I was into that sort of thing, I would do shit like send John Sentamu death threats, disown by Christian Facebook friends for merely existing, and start telling Buddhists that their religion is wrong because Jesus married a 9 year-old Aisha in order to ward off vengeful Thetans. No, this is an attack on Ken Ham being dishonest. He is making statements about something that he hasn’t cited, and we’re supposed to blindly accept what he says. Maybe the later blog post he promises will raise actual quotations (I won’t hold my breath, though) but right now he’s already poisoning the well without citing a single quote – buttering up his audience to accept that Houston Atheist’s egregiously insulted him no matter what words they actually said even if he does get around to quoting them.

It’s about how we go about doing things that’s important – what Ken Ham believes is trivial, but why he believes it is everything. And why he believes it evidently sucks.

So I have made a statement that says Ken Ham is being dishonest by feeding his followers with blind assertions with no evidence – I’ve put the screencap above to demonstrate it. I’ve then said that the email from Houston Atheists is perfectly fine, and not a foul attack on Christianity, and linked to it to demonstrate that – if anyone disagrees, then they have the material at hand to quote what is offensive, unprofessional and rude about it.

Because that’s what honest people do; and what Ken Ham does not do.

Addendum: He has released the promised blog posts and my response is “oh bugger off, Ken“. Selectively quoting the email, and claiming it wasn’t signed by someone even though it was signed by the organisation – which, you know, people can do if they like – and conveniently not quoting the parts where they offer to have a suitable venue, moderator and suggest an experienced ‘evolutionist’ for their ‘side’ – instead, trying to pretend as if such things were his own great ideas. Again, you can check the full text of the email in the link above if you disagree that this is what they said.

And just as before, not even one of his followers decided to ask for more context or the full email.

How to stop sucking at non-belief (Part 2)

The Problem with “Religion”

There’s a big problem with “religion”. No, this isn’t going to be a tirade against how “it” supposedly brainwashes people, or how “it” starts wars, or how “it” is a massive affront to reason. No, this is about the actual word, the label itself, and how it’s used – especially amongst the anti-theist and anti-religionist crowd of atheists, because holy fuck those people can be stupid when they want to be.

The problem with “religion”? “Religion” doesn’t exist.

See, people treat “religion”, like it’s a thing.

Religion_as_a_thingBut it’s not a thing. You can’t find it anywhere. Sure, we might imagine something like a hypothetical “generalised” religion, much like the “generalised mollusc” anatomy, but that doesn’t mean such a thing exists in reality. We’d have a hard time finding this “religion” anywhere. No one follows “religion”. No one is part of “religion”. And if I type “religion” once more I’m going to have a bad time.

No, “religion” is not a thing. It’s more like a bucket.


We put stuff into this bucket based on a few superficial similarities. Things like “believes in a creator deity”, or “provides a moral code”, or something more abstract. But those similarities are superficial and generic, they overlap and criss-cross and can be quite complicated. They’re not universal, they’re not essential, there isn’t even a single common thread uniting everything in the bucket. Not all religions believe in an almighty God. Not all religions propose supernatural processes. Not all religions fleece followers of money, and not all religions profess a love for peace.

Often, the differences are far more striking than the similarities.


When you step back and think about it, it does seem strange what does go into the bucket and what doesn’t. Pick any attribute ascribed to “religion”, and you’ll be able to find a good few exceptions; “religions” that don’t posses that attribute or “not-religions” that do.

what_goes_inAnd this is sort of where the problem is. Because nothing truly unites everything in the bucket, it’s difficult to use in a general sense. It’s almost pointless to try.

Few people ever reach into the bucket to examine its contents; they’re stuck with looking at the bucket and simply declaring universal truths about it as if it was a thing. By no means are these declarations universally negative in the way anti-religionists use them (“religion is against reason”, “religion is harmful”, “religion is child abuse”),  many of the positive assertions also do this in exactly the same way (“religion is necessary”, “religion answers the big questions”, “religion should be respected”).

contents_may_differThe bucket is just that, a bucket. It does nothing but hold stuff.

Sometimes this is quite convenient. It would be a pain in the ass to refer to tall wooded objects with leaves if it wasn’t for the concept of a “tree”. But this comes at the price of, on occasion, mistaking the bucket for a real thing and then making mass generalisations about what it holds. People assume animist religions are “bullshit” for the same reasons creationism is total and utter crock. They assume Hinduism is interchangeable with Islam – or that neither have the same kind of internal sub-divisions as Christianity does, completely blind to their own geographic biases. Is atheism a religion? Well, the answer to that is actually far more complicated than “is bald a hair colour?”

Getting rid of the buckets probably isn’t an option. The world is just too big and complicated to go without them. Even fuzzy buckets would just break peoples’ brains eventually. All the inclusions, exclusions, exceptions, partial truths and partial matches would be too much information for us to handle.

Instead, we simply need better, more useful, more appropriate buckets for the task.


It’s a much better approach just to simply categorise things better. But it does require some effort, especially when language and society is already rigged for the inefficient and crap version, which splits the world in to “religion” and “not-religion” and says one is good and the other is bad. You need to look into things and pick out what’s bad and what’s good. Then separate it out, and deal with things specifically. The phrase “all religion is bad” is absolutely meaningless; but if the average non-believer admitted that, and tried to say “behaviour that ostracises and demonises the out-group is harmful”, they they’d run the risk of turning a critical eye on their own behaviour. That’s not a comfortable thought, and it’s no wonder people avoid it.

This is why anger at “religion” is misplaced – and why thinking that anger directed at specific components found in the religious bucket is anger at “religion” is a foul misinterpretation. There is a “bad shit” bucket out there, and it’s something worth getting angry about – in fact, it’s a better question to ask why people don’t feel that these things are worth getting angry about. At the same time, though, there’s a “good shit” bucket (or even a “meh bucket”) and lumping that all in with “stuff worth getting angry about”  is, at best, just wasted effort.

But always remember, the bucket itself can’t harm people; its contents do.