Sunday, December 27, 2015

Authenticating God

1.0 Introduction

How many times have you heard a Christian, Muslim, or other theist say something like:
I know I'm right because my beliefs are grounded in the ultimate truth of the Word of God.
There are a couple assumptions implicit to this claim:
  1. Identification: That the claimant has proven beyond any doubt that his particular "Word of God" are actually words of god. There's a long list things which people claim to be the word of a god:
    1. The Torah
    2. The Christian Bible
    3. The Quran
    4. The Book of Mormon
    5. Personal Revelation
    6. A wide range of ramblings from people suffering mental disorders
    In my experience, most theists will look at this list and beam with pride over their book, yet scoff at or mock the others as though they're no different from option "f". In short I have yet to meet a theist who can address this problem.   Most don't even seem to understand the issue.
  2. Honesty: That the particular god they've authenticated is incapable of lying or  for some reason will never chose to lie.
  3. Knowledge: That the particular god they've authenticated possesses or defines "ultimate truth". For example, is it possible that their god resides within a universe governed by another god? Their god might be completely unaware of this fact.  It could be that it knows everything about our universe, but is limited in its knowledge of the god's super-universe.
Complex infrastructure is used to authenticate users
on the internet
Authentication methods have been studied extensively in recent years. It turns out it's not trivial to authenticate a user.  It requires a common trusted agent (the Certificate  Authority or CA), a Registration Authority, which is trusted to store the registered certificates, and complex mathematics. It relies on algorithms which are easy to run in one direction, but difficult to run in reverse.  Specifically, two very large prime numbers can be multiplied together to form the digital key. It's secure because factoring that key essentially requires checking every possible number -- computationally prohibitive at least for the next several centuries.
Authentication is not easy, but it's possible. And even absent a trusted certificate authority, there are plausible mechanisms by which a god could have given evidence that authenticated itself in a holy book. None are present.

2.0 Identification

There's not a long list of ways that a text could authenticate. The most common method theists point to is prophecy. There might be others.

2.1 Prophecy!

The theists among you are no-doubt shouting, "But there's prophecy! That's proof that the Bible is divine." It isn't.  Not even close.  
  • Suppose I could successfully predict a set of 5 of two digit numbers that will be drawn at random from a set of two-digit numbers. Millions of people try to do this each day, motivated by the potential to win money and they nearly all fail, but I have succeeded and won the lottery. Is that prophecy?
    No. It's luck. It may seem to ME like it's a prophecy, but it happens to someone regularly.
  • Suppose I said that in 2016, there would be wars and storms and floods around the world.  Is that prophecy?
    No. There have always been wars and storms and floods. A person could make this claim about any year in human history and be correct.
  • Suppose I said that the country Israel would exist. Is that prophecy?
    No. Israel exists now, it has existed at many times in the past, and will likely continue to exist in varying forms throughout much of human future. (much like the book of Revelation)
But let's imagine that before it happened, I predicted that a meteor would strike Russia in the Winter of 2015. This is an unusual event, I had no means of fore-knowledge. It would sure seem that this is a prophecy.  If I had managed to make that prophecy, would you presume they're god-like? Or would you assume I just got lucky? Or maybe it's just a trick. Maybe I bribed people to say I made the claim earlier but actually made it AFTER. Regardless, does this one astonishing prediction in any imply that every word I say is true?

2.2 Other Options

We often seem to be confined in our thinking to methods which were available to barely-literate authors of the original Bible.  There are lots of other ways that a god could demonstrate its supernatural powers. These are:
  • Properly and accurately explain the origins of species and the beginning of the observable universe long before it was knowable
  • Be made of an unobtainable material (maybe even not atomic) and readable by all humans
  • Be present in all cultures and tribes around the world
  • Be unalterable, incorruptible, impossible to deface.
  • Be objectively clear and consistent throughout
  • Not endorse slavery or genocide.
  • Teach a morality where people are responsible for their own actions.   Not their great-great-great-…-grandmother's actions, and not excused by third-party torture.
  • Not borrow from earlier myths
These are just some examples I could easily think of.  (I know. The last couple are jabs at the Bible.)
]Finally, the best way that Yaweh could authenticate himself is simply by introducing himself. Now. To all humanity. Maybe a bit like the Vogons did in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

3.0 Honesty

In a relationship of approximately equal peers, it takes time to establish trust in honesty.  It's not something that can be simply declared by one party and accepted by the other. In the Abrahamic mythologies, we are expected to simply accept that Yaweh is always honest. No reason or justification for this is presented.  It's simply part of the traditional beliefs which people are expected to accept without cause.

4.0 Knowledge

The original claim was that god knows all things. This became problematic because if Yaweh knows the future, then it's not possible to do something he hasn't foreseen and free-will becomes an illusion. This result renders original sin even more problematic than it already was since Adam and Eve had essentially no other choice than to commit the sin God had foreseen. 
Worse still, there are problems like:
  • Can god know all possible things about himself or just his creation? 
  • Is it possible that god (who claims to have all knowledge) is simply deceived? A lot of people seem to fall into this category.
In the end, nobody I'm aware of has validated the claim that Yaweh is all-knowing. I'm not even sure such a thing is possible. If the god is NOT all-knowing, it's possible that this fact is not known to him.

5.0 Conclusion

It's  a long and up-hill battle to demonstrate the "divine and inerrant"  natures of the Bible. In the 2000 years of Christianity's existence no such demonstration has been shown. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Holy Spirit told me God isn't real

Read the Bible to find a God
The Holy Spirit told me he God isn't real. "How can that be?," you might ask. Let's begin by discussing what people mean by "the Holy Spirit".
What is the Holy Spirit, and how can we know when it's talking to us?
I was going to share my personal opinions based on my experiences as a Christian, but that would only lead to charges that I'm wrong. Instead, I'll use some GotQuestions "answers" [Emphasis is my own]:
But how do we recognize the Spirit’s guidance? How do we discern between our own thoughts and His leading? After all, the Holy Spirit does not speak with audible words. Rather, He guides us through our own consciences (Romans 9:1) and other quiet, subtle ways. 
One of the most important ways to recognize the Holy Spirit’s guidance is to be familiar with God’s Word. The Bible is the ultimate source of wisdom about how we should live (2 Timothy 3:16), and believers are to search the Scriptures, meditate on them, and commit them to memory (Ephesians 6:17).
So what do I mean when I say "The Holy Spirit sold me God isn't real"? I mean that:

  • It's knowledge of the Bible that emerged from my conscience,
  • This knowledge was revealed to me over the course of months or years of routine study of the Bible as a believing Christian, and 
  • The revelation occurred as a series of smaller revelations, such that the entire faith was internally consistent at any one time.
    1. An loving and ethical God wouldn't punish me for thinking for myself. God is loving and ethical, so it's safe to think for myself. (This was the key to freedom)
    2. A fair assessment of biblical stories must include all reasonable explanations
      1. One potential explanation is that the people who wrote the bible were sincere but deceived
      2. Another explanation is that they were insincere
      3. Another is that the message was corrupted or manipulated during canonization
      4. Finally, there's a chance that a god with the omni's wrote it.
      5. There are a great many serious problems with that final hypothesis::
        1. If a God wrote the Bible, it really ought to be in agreement with the emerging discoveries of science rather than conflicting with them.
        2. A just and loving God wouldn't chose to ban shellfish and permit slavery
        3. An intelligent god would understand that we are rational creatures and require reasonable evidence to accept a claim.
      6. There are many reasons to believe the Bible could be sincere yet false
        1. Even in the modern era, it's common for people to interpret events inaccurately
        2. Much of the Bible (especially OT) is known to be pre-literate Jewish oral tradition.
        3. Even many of the NT Books are of unknown authorship or are written generations after the alleged events.
      7. When I stopped to reflect on the communications I'd had with God / Jesus, I realized
        1. They were never specific enough to make a prediction of an outcome
        2. They never provided me with objective insight which I didn't already have. 
        3. In these VERY REAL ways, my communications with "god" were not possible to distinguish from my own imagination.
    Of course, there's also this gem:
    Knowledge of God’s Word can help us to discern whether or not our desires come from the Holy Spirit. We must test our inclinations against Scripture—the Holy Spirit will never prod us to do anything contrary to God’s Word. If it conflicts with the Bible, then it is not from the Holy Spirit and should be ignored. 
    But what is "God's Word"? Obviously, they think it's the Bible (which version)? Other people think it's the Quran or the Book of Mormon or some other book.  But we all have seen how the Bible contradicts itself. A cursory review of the breadth of Christian denominations proves that one can read anything one wants into the Bible. It's like a Rorschach Test for believers. In any case, that's not a rational way to approach any test. Reasonable people recognize that the Bible they were handed was handled by men in the following chain from their hands:
    • Store
    • Delivery
    • Printer
    • Editor
    • Many hundreds of years (in some cases)
    • Translator
    • Many hundreds of years
    • Canon selection (allegedly divine, impossible to verify)
    • Original Author (mostly anonymous)
    • Source material (allegedly divine, impossible to verify)
    So when it comes down to it, we realize that the book we hold in our hands could have been corrupted in ANY of the preceding steps (some more likely than others). Two of the steps are so fraught with potential error that theists are taught to believe divine intervention somehow protected the Biblical word.  Returning to GotQuestions:
    ... he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Romans 8:26–27).
    In any case, the end result is that we know it's god or the holy spirit because you're studying scripture, or praying, it feels real, and it agrees with scripture -- something poetic and open to many interpretations. In talking to many Christians, it came across that God or the Holy Spirit were talking when things were suddenly clear and understandable.  This was the measure Christians seem to tend actually to use.
    As I reached the age of reason, I studied the Christian teachings I'd been taught as a child. I searched my soul to understand the ethics of the God / Jesus model I had been taught. Some things became clear:
    • A just God wouldn't torture for disbelief due to missing evidence. In a just system, deeds must be the basis of reward and punishment, not beliefs.
    • The Jesus I was taught to believe in was not hateful or discriminatory, and certainly didn't lash out for honest mistakes. The fire and brimstone preachers were caught up in their own personal anger and projecting it onto their version of god.
    The clarity of these personal revelations was convincing evidence of their divinity to my Christian self. They made it possible for me to think openly about the strength of the evidence for the things I was taught to believe as a child.  I didn't need to worry about torture because God is just and wouldn't torture without reasonable cause. 
    In short, a rational review of the reasons for by beliefs helped me recognize the circular logic and simple collection of human cognitive frailties which lead to and reinforce superstitious beliefs. Central to those are the power of community belief, and confirmation bias. But surely there must be evidence of god which stands up to scrutiny that accounts for these cognitive biases!
    There wasn't. I looked and didn't find it in any of the places I expected to. Of course, I heard that "Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence", but given the superstitious nature of early people, I couldn't shake the possibility that my religion was just as much a superstition as all the others.
    I was atheist for decades before I really even knew the word, much less found authors or community.  There wasn't a sudden switch, but a gradual increase in my doubt for god. Example after example showed that God was no more likely than other mythical creatures.  
    • Intercessory Prayer (Prayer for others) [FAIL]
    • Better health of believers [FAIL]
    • Trustworthy clergy [FAIL]
    • Miracles [FAIL]
    • Firmament and heaven up in the sky [FAIL]
    • Genetics or archeology to confirm any ancient books [FAIL]
    One by one, the loving interventionist god I'd been raised to trust fell to the cold hart facts of reality: These things don't happen. People interpret any little positive thing as god, and ignore the negatives. True interventions that align with any objective and intelligent purpose simply don't happen.
    If God is real, it has no detectable interaction with reality which I've been able to uncover. And belief without reason is unhealthy.
    Maybe I'll meet a  god some day.  I doubt it, but if I do and it's ethical and benevolent, it will understand and accept my nonbelief.

    Saturday, November 28, 2015

    Thoughts on Christian Terrorism in the Black Friday Planned Parenthood Murders

    While I would never presume to know before the facts are all in, past statistics and demographics leave very little question as to which religion inspired the terror attacks on a Planned Parenthood health care clinic yesterday.
    Suspected mass-murderer Robert Dear's mug shot.
    Wildly exaggerated stories about "selling body parts" and exaggerated rhetoric like "murdering babies" from a supposed Pro-Life movement are likely contributors. These are the rhetorical tactics of a group which for good reason cannot form a coherent constitutional argument for why it has the right to impose its religious laws on other people's bodies.
    Just like radical Islam, a radicalized Christian lashed out with indiscriminate violence at anyone he saw as part of the "Planned Parenthood evil". The lies and distortions of the radicalized "pro-life" Christian movement are to blame. There are real-world consequences to irresponsible use of violent rhetoric.

    Monday, September 28, 2015

    Help for Those who Struggle with Faith

    Are you "struggling with faith"? Trying to figure out how it is that Christianity seems to make sense to so many people?  The miracles and supernatural just doesn't ever happen in reality, and you can't help but notice that ancient cultures weren't the best at interpreting the things they saw happening around them.

    I have great news. You don't have to struggle with it any more! There's an easy way to be done with the struggle for good.  What's more, by never struggling with your faith again, you can live a life that's even more free and fulfilling you ever imagined. You'll never wonder why bad things happen to good people or why God created cancer and malaria.

    First, we need to carefully understand the problem itself.  "Struggling with faith" is negative language. It makes people feel shame and guilt over your reasonable doubts. A more neutral phrase might be "doubting your deeply held beliefs."   Put this way, it's not so negative, is it?

    Doubts are a natural reaction when we're asked to believe something incredible without supporting evidence. There's nothing wrong with your doubts. In fact, they're very healthy. You would insist on reasonable evidence for any other belief in your life.  In fact, it would be unfair or dishonest to give your religious beliefs a free-pass.

    Most people learn their religion as a young child.  They accepted stories as truthful before they had the critical thinking skills to fairly evaluate the claims. This isn't just true for Christianity. It's broadly true for all religious beliefs. Now that you're an adult and you've learned to evaluate things rationally, you're entitled to reevaluate.

    So what will you find when you rethink things? What conclusions are you willing to accept? Can you give yourself permission to reach the scary conclusion? It's okay if you discover you were wrong all this time.  You're not bound to your religion by some kind of curse. You can change your mind and keep all the values that are important to you. You work ethic, love, and honesty aren't your religion's values. They're your values. You can keep them.

    So how do you put an end to your struggles with faith? It's pretty simple. Stop struggling. Let go of the obligation to believe what your parents taught you. You have the right, even the obligation to figure out what's true for yourself. And it's okay if you reach a different conclusion.

    So congratulations for your new-found doubt. Congratulations for bravely questioning the things you've always just assumed.  And congratulations for giving yourself permission to reach whatever conclusion is rational.

    Saturday, September 26, 2015

    Response to Ohio TRAP laws to limit Abortion access

    Here's the letter I've written to my Ohio Senator and Representative regarding the state refusal to license local abortion providers.

    Mr. X, 

    I'm writing to express my sincere concern about how the state of Ohio is limiting my family's access to healthcare. If my wife were to have an ectopic pregnancy or any other condition where the ethical choice is to terminate the pregnancy, our access to abortion care is being severely limited by irresponsible and invasive Big Government decisions intended to limit access to abortion services. The legislation driving these changes is reckless, irresponsible, and unethical. Please understand that this situation needs to be rectified immediately.

    Wednesday, September 9, 2015

    Towards an Objective Assessment of Scriptural Prophecy

    I want this neon sign!

    I've poked at prophecy in the past. I assert that it's better explained as post-hoc favorable interpretation than as legitimate future-telling. A Christian asked me to expand on how we can apply Bayes' Theorem to prophecy.  On the surface, this seems like a trivial task, but it turns out to become pretty murky since the likelihoods of the various events are very hard to quantify. Nevertheless, I think it's instructive to consider.


    Bayes' Theorem is a theorem in probability and statistics which computes the likelihood of related events given some assumptions.  In its simplest form, it states:

    $ P(A|B) = \frac{P(B|A) P(A)}{ P(B) }  $

    Where P(x) is the probability of x being true, and P(x|y) is the probability of x being true, assuming that y is true.  x and y being events or observations.


    For starters, let's consider what I think is the meat of prophecies: That they support the claim of divine and infallible nature of a holy book. Let us ask Bayes, "What is the probability that a holy book is divine ($div$) given that a prophecy it contains is true ($pro$)." That is to say:

    $ P(div|pro) = \frac{P(pro|div) P(div)}{ P(pro) }  $

    I'm not sure if we'll be able to get very far, but let's dive in, shall we? 

    Divinity Yields Accurate Prophecy?

    What is the chance that a prophecy will be true in a divine book?  That depends on who you ask and what you assume for the nature of the divinity which inspired the book.  That being said, be careful what you apply to this probability.  Too low and the $ P(div|pro) $ approaches zero.  Too high and a failed prophecy will prove the Bible isn't divine.

    Likelihood of Divinity

    What is the chance that a particular holy book is divine without any other assumptions?  Again, this depends dramatically on the incoming assumptions about the holy book in question. 
    • Many presuppositionalists enter the discussion with $ P(div)  = 1 $. 
    • If you assume that one book is divine among all titles ever written, your value for $ P(div) $ is very close to 0.  
    • If you assume that of the four holy books (Torah, Bible, Quran, and Book of Mormon), one and only one is divine, you get $ P(div) = 0.25 $ 
    To be honest, I'm not satisfied with any of these answers.  All of them are pretty arbitrary given that we have no way of knowing if or how often books are divine.  

    Likelihood of Prophecy being True

    $ P(pro) $ 
    What is the likelihood of the prophecy coming true without any assumptions about the divinity of the book in question? In evaluating this likelihood, it's important to consider:
    1. If people believing the book is divine will make the prophecy more or less likely to come true
    2. The likelihood that the event would happen anyways
    In other words, to determine if the prophecy is true, we must consider it in the context of the events we know to be true

    $P(pro|evt) = \frac{P(evt|pro) P(pro)}{ P(evt) }  $

    $P(evt)$ in the denominator means that if the event would be likely to happen anyways ("There will be wars and famine and disease!!!") then the prophecy isn't likely to be true.

    $P(pro)$ in the numerator means you have to guess at the likelihood of the specific prophecy being true. I'm not sure how to estimate this value. Perhaps this could be done by comparing it to other prophecies in the book?

    $ P(evt|pro) $ is the probability of the specific events, given that the prophecy is true. Again, this is very subjective, but it means you must clearly define what your "event" is and assess its likelihood given the prophecy being true.  If there are other ways of fulfilling the prophecy, they reduce this likelihood.


    I'm not going to drag you all the way through a specific example.  My intention in this post is to communicate the various terms that need to be considered when assessing the likelihood of a book's divinity given that a prophecy is true. Hope this helps.

    Extra Credit

    Suppose we believed that $P(div) = 1$ and $P(pro|div) = 1$. Show that $P(pro)$ must be equal to unity and that therefore ANY prophecy which can be shown to be false proves the assumptions are wrong -- either the Bible is not divine or the divine agent produces false prophecies.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2015

    Speaking for God

    I've spent over year now debating theology with Christians and Muslims. One thing that's constant is that they'll make a claim about God without an ability to back it up. Then they get upset when I tell them the claim is baseless. Yet they cannot point to an objective fact or means to validate their claims.

    In a nutshell, this is one of the foundational problems with religion: In religion, the church is created to represent an absentee God for the believer. Since nobody can communicate with God, your church, synagogue, or mosque tells you what he is like and what he wants from you.

    At this point, some religious believers might be thinking "that's not true! The [Name of holy book] is the word of God!" But of course, that holy book simply supports or is supported by the aforementioned religious organization. Regardless of the religion, there are many different interpretations of the holy book which quibble over details ranging from acceptance of gays to the divinity of Jesus or Mohammed. Of course none of the beliefs are based in objective evidence, so it's impossible to resolve these disagreements. The disagreeing groups simply aren't equipped with (or aren't willing to use) the critical thinking skills necessary to resolve their disagreement. They seem unable to even see the foundational epistemological failures that explain why their groups cannot agree.

    The process by which churches make these claims about the nature and desires of God is gradual and subtle. It's done through sermons, songs, and discussions with other church members who also accept the dogma. Through this process, religion is helping to define the believer's expectations for what God is like. When the believer then communicate with God through "prayer," their mind forms plausible responses from this shared vision of God. Humans are VERY good at imagining conversations. The imagined interlocutor is convincing enough that people believe their imagined God might be real.  Of course they're prepared for this delusion by being taught they need to "listen carefully" and "God will speak to them." This handy guide provides a nice template for how the delusion is cultivated.

    First, Christians should build relationships with other Christians
    The belief spreads best if you're surrounded by people who support your belief.  Since there's no objective evidence, developing a social group is the best way to convince yourself.
    A Christ follower should spend daily time reading the Bible, mulling over the messa and praying for ways to make scripture’s lessons into a lifestyle. 
    Repetition and meditation helps solidify a common belief
    By adding prayer for others and himself to this daily quiet time, the Christian will find it easier to turn away from their own self-focused desires, and advance God’s priorities to first place. 
    Believing they're helping other people helps believers feel like this repetitive action isn't as selfish as it really is,
     Christians should actively seek opportunities to tell others about what they are learning from and about God.
    The best way to follow through with a commitment is to publicly affirm it.  This makes the believer be more committed to the beliefs. Turning away from the commitment after publicly affirming it is socially awkward.  To avoid this embarrassment, a believer will tend to shun any self-doubt. or at the very least conceal this doubt from fellow believers. The end-result is a community which can more strongly reinforce the religious dogma of the sect.

    It is through this mechanism that these God beliefs flourish. Each believer thinks theirs seems rational because they're surrounded by people with nearly identical beliefs. The belief which cannot be supported by any rational or objective means is supported by the echo chamber of the social group instead. When confronted with a differing belief or a different religion, there's no way to resolve the different subject of gods each group has independently created.  

    So what happens? Christian theologians review Muslim work and find all the logical and factual flaws in their religion and say, "Ha ha Islam is false!" But of course, Muslim scholars do the same for Christianity. The leaders of each religion are capable of critical thought and logical evaluation of other beliefs. But for their own favorite belief, they're unable or unwilling to apply the same standards. This is the part that I don't understand.  

    How can intelligent people be oblivious to their own double-standard? I suppose it takes effort to evaluate one's own deeply held beliefs, but that's an essential part of being an honest person.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2015

    Year in the Bible - Super Secret Edition [Working Draft]

    Wouldn't it be neat to publish a Bible devotional in a tabloid style?

    The Bible is a powerful force for atheism

    Year In The Bible

    Super Secret Edition

    Scandalous Bible Verses Your Preachers Hopes You Never Discover

    Monthly Themes:

    1. Convincing believers not to question religious authority -- even when it's absurd
      1. A fool says in his heart
      2. The story of Thomas
      3. 1 Chorinthians I
      4. Kill apostates and non-believers (if you doubt, don't tell!)
    2. Mobster-Style Blind Loyalty
      1. Job
      2. Lot
      3. Abraham and Isaac

    3. Magical Creatures (March)
      1. Unicorns
      2. Fire-breathing Dragons
      3. Living in a fish
      4. Satyrs
      5. Revelation stuff
      6. Talking Snakes
      7. Talking Donkeys
      8. Burning Bushes
    4. Learning and Cooperation is bad
      1. Tree of Knowledge
      2. Tower of Babel
      3. John 4 - Jesus Learnin'
      4. ?
    5. Broken Morality
      1. Stoning Children
      2. Passover
      3. Stoning non-virgins
      4. Polyamory - King concubines
      5. Slavery
    6. Mistreatment of Women
      1. Stoning non-virgins
      2. Lot's wife
      3. Daughter sacrifice for battle victory
      4. Keep virgins for yourselves
      5. Lot's daughters
    7. God Makes Mistakes
      1. Adam and Eve
      2. Noah's Ark
      3. Satan
      4. Broken word

    Wednesday, August 12, 2015

    The Good News of Atheism

    So often, the theist - atheist debate focuses on the basis or reason behind beliefs. Christians like to tout the "Good News" of the new testament as a reason to convert to Christianity.

    What's the Good News of Christianity?

    Note: When the Christians deliver this message, it focuses on the positive parts, and skips over the absurdities. I assume you've heard the whitewashed message so often that a deliberately jaded and cynical perspective is appropriate to help provide some "balance".

     In this story, their alleged god becomes human, then tortures and kills himself in order to generate a loophole in the morality he originally created. Christians say the "Good News", is that if you just BELIEVE in their claims and beg their invisible god for forgiveness, you can exploit this "moral" loophole and avoid eternal torture that/ awaits you after death.  Only this god doesn't really manifest anywhere you can point to, so this begging for forgiveness happens (conveniently) at their church and to a large ironic idol, like the ones forbidden in Exodus 20:4.

    "What do I need forgiveness for?" you may rightly ask.  It turns out Christian doctrine teaches that humans are all wretched creatures deserving of eternal torture. They're not permitted to acknowledge how strange it is that a perfect being would create such a horrible failure of a species. "Free will" somehow plays a role in absolving god of his design failure. Chief among your "crimes" is not acknowledging and groveling before the theist's church (which stands in the place of the conspicuously absent god you're actually supposed to worship). Nevermind that this god failed to give you senses capable of detecting his presence. Nevermind that no scientific instrument has ever detected a god or its effects on the natural world. None of that matters. The blame for your failure to accept and worship the unseen god lands squarely on your shoulders. Refusing to accept the theist's claims that this god exists and deserves worship means you are arrogant and rebellious against their god.

    So what is the good news of Atheism? 

    I put this question to my followers on Twitter:

    What emerged was an outpouring of positive messages about atheism and what it means to people.  It was a wonderfully uplifting day, and I'm delighted to be able to share it with you.  There were so many wonderfully positive messages of freedom, relief, and empowerment.  I captured many, but not all. I'd highly recommend reading the thread. I find it uplifting.

    Corporal Punishment is as Immoral as it Feels

    "Spare the rod, spoil the child" was an edict for many of my followers in their youth. This is a doctrine that feels good to dispose of. Physical punishment feels like poison.

    There is no Eternity to Worry About

    Sure you'll hear from Christians that you ought to believe "just in case".  But Pascal's wager is a fool's errand. Belief isn't a choice, it's a realization. And pretending to believe "just in case" wouldn't fool an omniscient god anyways.
    1. Heaven and hell almost certainly don't exist
    2. No just god would force a decision before you die.
    If he existed, a god wouldn't be a used car salesman, employing high-pressure sales to make you take a position you're not really comfortable with.  That's the domain of dishonest men -- like clergy.

    Let Go of Irrational Fears

    There's so much additional baggage associated with Christian doctrine.  The "mark of the beast" has been so played up that it hardly bears any resemblance to the passing mention it gets in the Bible. 
    Similar things could be say about other recent additions to Christian doctrine.  Much of our shared vision of "hell" comes from Dante's Inferno.  Satan's portrayal in books and movies has had huge influence over our thinking.  The Bible makes no claim that Satan barters souls in exchange for granting wishes. These are all modern inventions of fiction, adopted into our shared cultural memes.
    Sometimes, God is just as scary as that Satan thing!

    God is not Judging You for Thoughts

    You are your harshest critic. There's no supernatural deity judging you for your thoughts. You're alone with them. They're yours and nobody knows them without your permission.

    You Don't Owe the Church 10% Of Your Money!

    Charitable donations are supposed to be voluntary. But god needs your 10%! The Mormon church is especially brazen in this regard.  Members are basically coerced into "donating" their tithe to the church. Personal finances are actually reviewed to ensure you're paid up, and failure to do so excludes you from certain "privileges".

    Nobody Hates You … 

    Well no Super-powerful Gods Anyways! There's no god deliberately fucking with you when things go wrong. That's just life. You never know what you're going to get, so enjoy it. 

    It's Easier to Understand Your Place in the World

    When you first question your religion, it's often a central part of your identity. My parents indoctrinated me into Christianity from a young age, and I thought of myself as a  Presbyterian. Turning my back on those beliefs also meant turning my back on a central part of my identity from which I thought I derived my ability to love, behave ethically, and find peace.  What's worse, it was a central component of my social network! I was very active in the church youth group.
    There's so much intellectual capital wasted trying to reconcile reality with the absurdities of theism. "Why would god do that?" is no longer a concern.
    Live your life knowing the connection you have to nature.
    Religion can hinder our ability to think clearly and act decisively. Accepting that we're on our own is motivation to do something to make things better!

    Disease and Starvation are Natural

    Yup. There's no need to reconcile a "loving" god who lets his people suffer needlessly.  Diseases, parasites, famine and drought are all simply events that are to be expected in a world where all species struggle to survive (including our own).

    Freedom and Empowerment

    No need to defer to "authorities" who ruled over you as a child. No need to reconcile the tremendous range of conclusions that people reach when using religious faith as their process.
    We have both the freedom and the responsibility to make our world a better place.
    You're not broken!
    Freedom to think clearly and carefully.

    You are Your Loved One's Immortality

    When a loved one passes, they no longer exist. There's no magic place where we'll see them again. Your memories of them, including their beliefs, ethics, humor, and mannerisms all combine to form one of the best existing avatars for your lost loved one that exists anywhere.  You can honor that memory by acting in a way they would endorse or simply imagining a conversation with them.

    The Suffering of Your Loved One who Committed Suicide is Over

    This one really hit a nerve with me.  What a relief it must have been to let go of the fear that loved-ones might be tortured in hell!
    After struggling with depression or medical problems, a loved one took their own life. The Good News of Atheism is that their suffering is over. There is no afterlife in which they're being tortured for a moment of weakness. 
    The mythos which says they'll be tortured eternally in hell is pure fiction. Eternal torture for suicide was probably a response to the rational observation that if you believe in heaven, you're quite literally better off dead.


    What  a wonderful collection of positive messages about letting go of the guilt, shame, superstition, and fear of religion. Perhaps these are the messages we should be carrying forward to believers. Maybe these positive affirmations will be more effective than pointing out their lack of evidence.

    I have an idea. Let's get some focus groups and TEST it! That's how we get to an answer.

    Friday, July 17, 2015

    Ideas for an atheist billboard near the Ark Encounter

    We need your inputs.

    I'd like to see atheist (or maybe just rationalist) advertising near Ken Ham's monument to ignorance and genocide (A.K.A. "The Ark Encounter") but I'm not sure where to start or what the right message should be. Here are some ideas:

    • Did it rain in Antarctica?
    • How did all the marsupials get to Australia?
    • What did all the animals to to deserve death?
    • How many babies drowned in the "flood"?
      Good thing it never really happened.
    There's more detailed arguments against it but they involve some math, which requires some thought that doesn't fit in the freeway-Billboard timeline.

    My goal would be to plant some seeds of doubt in the minds of those attending. Other ideas are either more abrasive or more mathematical.

    • Does your God commit genocide?
    • Need to fact check this: Most Jews and Most Christians understand the Ark is a myth. (Optional: But most Muslims accept it as truth.)
    • Show a valid quote from a Pope stating that the Ark is a legend, "Even the pope admits it never happened"
    • Where did the food come from? Where did the poop go?
    • Fire code limits Ark Occupancy at X. That's only X/2 species.
    Goals of such a sign:

    • Raise awareness that lots of people think this is absurd
    • Advertise an atheist / secular / skeptical event (leverage media coverage as advertising)
    • Plant a seed of doubt in the indoctrinated
    • What else could we accomplish? Not gonna convert anyone.

    In any case, I think a WAG for such a billboard is about $5k. Not sure if that includes the design or not. Please share this article if you'd support the idea. And share your thoughts in the comments section below or via tweet to @AtheistEngineer.

    Edits and Updates:
    • If at first you don't succeed …
      Drown everything and try again [link]
    • "Would a loving and all-powerful god REALLY annihilate all of humanity on the planet for the purpose of a do-over?" [link]
    • We don't celebrate death (images of Ark, Abraham/Isaac, Passover, and Jesus).
      Atheists are better without gods.
      Meet-up / event information.
    • Ark Encounter: Were the only evidence necessary is proof of admission. [link]
    • "Ark Encounter": Science-free zone ahead [link]
    • "Ark Encounter": Proven wrong by geology, archaeology, genetics, and common sense
    • If you think Noah and his family cared for millions of animals, you've quite obviously never kept a horse.... [link]
    • Rear view: God carrying set of golf clubs walking toward the "19th hole" caption reads: Noah's Ark: God's Mulligan [link]
    • Noah's Ark: Why would you want to spend eternity with the worst mass murderer in "history"?  [link]
    • @AtheistBigfoot: @AtheistEngineer The passage should be "Others will know this BS is crazy, but not you. You're gullible" 
    • @wildy412: @AtheistEngineer want to drop out of school, stop thinking for yourself? Visit the Ark, where stupidity welcomes you.

    Sunday, July 12, 2015

    A Letter To My Loved Ones After I'm Dead

    I'm sorry I couldn't be here forever for you. But that's not how life works.  If my death is recent, many people will likely tell you that I'm "in a better place now". Some smug assholes will probably say I'm in hell for my rational beliefs. Both these assertions would be upsetting to me, as I'm sure they might be for you. Try to remember that those people (even the assholes) think they're doing the right thing.

    I would like to discuss life after death from my perspective. You might be surprised to learn that both my consciousness and body will live on through purely naturalistic means. Lights out at death is far too trite of a description compared to the reality of what happens in death. What's more, I can point to specific evidence to support these claims.

    Immortality of the atheist mind

    I used to live only in my brain, but through our friendship, You built a little copy of me in yours.
    (PET Scan from Wikimedia Commons)
    I have good news for you which doesn't require supernatural beliefs. I still exist in a way that's very real. As one of the people who knew me best, I live on in you. This probably seems trite at first, but I'm quite sincere. Please let me explain.

    Your memories and knowledge of my personality and values are such a reliable copy of me that you can imagine interactions with me, playing out imagined conversations we've never had as though they were really happening [1]. Of course I'm not really continuing to live in some nebulous "spirit realm". The fact is that our human ability to develop a mental model of other people is a very successful evolved trait. The model we develop of close friends is such a good approximation that many people (especially theists) are prone to believe it's the real thing. Maybe that's where this "afterlife" nonsense originated.

    So I'm asking you to use your mental model of me. Imagine conversations with me and don't feel ashamed or embarrassed about it. Even though I'm gone, I live on in you. I know it's not exactly me, but at this point in time, there is no closer approximation. There's no shame in summoning my "ghost" for a conversation whenever it would help you. I wouldn't be bothered, but proud. In fact, It's the closest thing I will ever get to immortality. I trust that your model of me will be faithful to my true personality, and I hope it's useful to you.

    While this "virtual me" won't be able to help you solve linear algebra problems, it will be there to listen to your thoughts and fears, and even give the same kind of advice I might have given if I had been able to. I sincerely wish I could. It's not exactly my mind, but it's close. This is the immortality of the atheist mind.

    But what of my body? 

    With any luck, I will have lived a long and joyous life. My body was hopefully pretty worn out by age. Both the heaven and the hell camp will tell you that I'll get a new body. The former to enjoy my eternal life. The latter so I can be mercilessly tortured for eternity. Both are pretty absurd, don't you think?

    One like this is just fine. Don't even splurge on poplar. It's just going to decay! Honestly, it's just a convenient way to lug my dead ass around. 
    I'd like a natural burial. Make something natural and beautiful from my body.  A tree, not a cement vault. Don't waste formaldehyde or expensive coffins on me.  A pine box will do just fine (Just don't put a fucking cross on it!). You can even make it yourself. Do it as a Boy Scouts project. Shouldn't be more than $500 in lumber from the hardware store. If you want to wait to have the funeral service when more family can attend, just put my corpse on dry-ice or have me refrigerated commercially. I won't mind. I'm not using it anymore.

    Once I'm back in the ground from which my molecules came, you can come visit the nature that takes hold of my nutrients and reuses them. We did this as a family with our dog, Barley in 2014. The tree we planted on his grave was a present and beautiful reminder of his life. Keep me close if you wish or put me in a natural cemetery if you prefer. You could even donate it to forensic science [2].

    Don't feel like you have to obey my wishes. Simply honor my memory for your own gratification. I'm done with these molecules.  I was just borrowing them from nature for a while, and I trust you to chose a fitting method to return it to nature. At this point, my corpse is nothing more than a token of my life to help you remember me. I'm done with it. It's yours.

    Regardless of your choice, I take comfort in the knowledge that the molecules that once formed my body will eventually rejoin the web of life on earth. That is the immortality of an atheist's body.

    End Notes

    1. Some "religious" or "spiritual" people misattribute our capability for accurate imagined conversations to an ability to legitimately communicate with a living spirit of someone who has died. I wonder if such an attribution wasn't a contributing factor to the mythology surrounding "souls". This is the sort of unfounded model of the world that I found irritating. So I suppose like all good myths and legends, there's a kernel of truth near the bottom. 
    2. I could help detectives learn to identify the age of bodies discovered under various conditions. That'd be kinda' cool. Maybe my body could help solve a murder. 

    Saturday, July 4, 2015

    I Didn't Choose to Become Atheist

    A Symbol of one of the many Christian sects: The opulent Roman Catholic Church
    "Basilica di San Pietro (notte)" by Eugene Pivovarov - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
    Within religious circles, it's common to move between churches to find the one which best fits one's subjective personal preconceptions about the world. From this social construct, theists often ask me why I chose atheism.

    To many atheists, this question is offensive.  Unlike a decision to switch among the roughly 40 thousand Christian sects, atheism is a rejection of the core assumptions central not just the Christian sects, but all religions. I didn't decide the communities were all a waste of my time. It wasn't that I couldn't find a version of Christianity that aligns well with my political and scientific beliefs.

    Rather, I left Christianity because there's no convincing evidence that any gods exist.  My own sense of honesty is one of my central cherished values.  I simply couldn't maintain my personal standards for honesty and still tell people I thought there was a god. I continued to attend church for many years as I drifted away.  But participating in the Apostle's Creed became a emotionally painful exercise that left me feeling like I had sacrificed my personal honesty to fit in. Singing hymns became similarly uncomfortable.

    Of course, I could just sit out from these major portions of the service,but this seemed like some sort of rebellious protest. That wasn't it at all, and I didn't want to give that false impression either. In the end, I left the church because I didn't want to be dishonest anymore.

    Tuesday, June 30, 2015

    What Makes it a Cult?

    I have a high school friend who is considering moving their family from one state to another because they found their "spiritual home." This strikes me as more than just a little bit culty, and got me thinking about what's the right definition for "cult."

    Of course, my friend thinks this is all positive. It's wonderful that they've found their spiritual home with this group.  All positive goodness. But don't cult members always think like that when they're inside one?

    The meme at right floats around the internet, poking fun at organized religion as nothing more than a big cult. And while I'll admit to having chuckled at the image, I don't think it's an
    insightful or valuable representation. It bothers me that cult is too easily tossed around as a term of derision towards all religion.  Some are not particularly harmful.

    The google definition of cult isn't much help either. Google defines cult as "a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object." Using this definition, one could easily make the case that Christianity is a cult for Jesus Christ. Then we're right back where we started -- all religion is just a cult.

    It seems to me that the connotation of the word cult implies that the organization is fringe and causes significant personal harm at the whim of a single, charismatic leader who dictates the dogma for the group and controls their personal lives.  But again, it's all a sliding scale, isn't it?

    One characteristic of cults could be that they cause demonstrable harm to the members. But individual preachers can be charismatic and bilk parishioners out of money without being a cult, right? Here's a few:

    • Joel Olsteen has made millions off the "Prosperity Gospel"
    • Pat Robertson tells elderly poor people to give him more money so they'll get more from god.
    • Creflo Dollar gained notoriety recently for asking for donations for a new private jet.
    The Prosperity Gospel sounds SO much like the Nigerian bank scams that it would be funny if it weren't so tragic for the congregants. "Just send your televangelist money and you'll receive even more from god" is just like "Send me money and I'll share my fabulous wealth with you." It plays on people's greed and gullibility. Even though I consider those generally undesirable human traits, they are still people. And these ministers cause them demonstrable harm with this sort of scam. 

    So do "Prosperity Ministries" rise to the level of cult? I don't think so. The term in my mind seems to also convey an aspect of self-righteousness and shunning of any people who disagree with the dogma.  

    This brings me to a couple religions well known for shunning non-believers or apostates.
    • Jehovah's Witnesses - JW's are famous for shunning apostates. Families disown family members for admitting they don't really believe anymore. 
    • Catholics  - As recently as 1983, Catholics were expected to shun apostates! Good thing they have a way to revise errors in Catholicism. 
    • Orthodox Judaism
    • Amish - Shunning is a formalized process for the Amish. 
    • Scientology - They even have a formal name for it: Disconnection.
    • Islam - Most Islamic Sharia law demands execution for apostasy. Islamic nations have been known to fulfill this law and kill apostates. That's one hell of a shun!
    This one seems to be a stronger indicator of "culty-ness".  The end result of this formalized shunning of non-believers is an isolation from mainstream society based on the doctrine of moral superiority. 

    In the end, I think it's isolationism in general that I most strongly associate with cults. Closing a group off from the outside world allows radical ideas to persist better than they would if a cult member could tell their friend the crazy things their cult leader said.

    So what's the take-away? I suppose it's that we should strive to be as welcoming, multi-cultural, and diverse as possible. The cross-fertilization of ideas will help us discriminate between those which have merit and those which don't. We should be skeptical of ideas that are both secret and sacred. Truth withstands scrutiny.  It seeks publicity and understanding. It never hides because the public isn't ready.

    Friday, June 26, 2015

    In 50 years, Most Conservative Christian Churches will Disown their Unethical Stance of 2015

    Time and time again throughout American history, conservative churches have stood on the side of barbaric biblical practices. These examples span a broad range of time and geography:
      • Witch burnings in Salem, MA (Exodus 22:18 "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live")
      • an extensive and well reasoned (biblically) defense of slavery 
      • Opposition to civil rights
      • Opposition to interracial marriage.
    And most recently,
      • Opposition to Same Sex marriage.
    For all but the most recent, support from churches in modern day America is unthinkable.  There may be a few, but they are seen as more radical and fringe than Westborough Baptist. 

    I take great pleasure in the knowledge that like all these past immoral acts on behalf of a "God", in about 50 years, nearly all these churches will disown their former positions and claim they always supported equality. 

    I derive a certain amount of glee from the knowledge that some day in the near future, their own religions will turn their back on conservative Christian leaders of today and pretend they didn't exist. 

    Congratulations, America. 

    Thursday, June 18, 2015

    If Bible stories were named like Aesop's fables

    Now that I'm no longer in the Christian church, it seems so painfully obvious that Bible stories are simply attempts to explain the world around us, and rather juvenile ones of that.

    My kids love reading Aesop's fables and "just so" stories so I thought it would be fun to remap some Bible story titles into Aesop's fables titles. So for a little fun, let's think up some new names for classic Bible stories that better fit the genre!

    • Genesis 3 (The Fall of Man): 
      • "How the Serpent lost his legs"
      • "How Survival Became Hard"
      • "Why Birth Hurts a Woman"
    • Genesis 5-7 (Noah's Ark):
      • "How the Rainbow got its Colors"
      • "The Old Man and his Boat"
    • Exodus 12 (Passover)
      • "The Chosen People's Escape"
      • "How the Red Sea got its Name"
    • Exodus 20 (10 Commandments):
      • "How Killing Turned Out to be Wrong"
      • "The Twisted Morality of Jealous Inmortality"
    • Book of Job: "Why Your Day Sometimes Sucks"
    I'm sure there are other good examples. Or better names for the stories I've suggested. Leave some comments in your tweets or in the comments below. I'd love to hear your ideas. Thanks for reading!

    Coming Out Atheist Message

    I'm toying with the idea of a short & sweet coming out message to my friends, many of whom went to Christian youth group with me. This would probably come as a minor "huh" moment for most of them.
    I'm not sure how serious I am about posting this on Facebook. Probably not very, because I'm not really the type to make a big stink about my beliefs. I thought this might be helpful as a Coming Out Atheist letter for others. Here's a draft:
    About 20 years ago, I started sincerely exploring the reasons why I believed in God. True things withstand scrutiny, and it was important to me that I be consistent in the things I accept as true. I considered the strength of the foundations of my religious beliefs. The reasons I thought had for believing in a God were not at all convincing when examined honestly. 
    Absent a defensible foundation for God belief, I considered the only honest conclusion would that God is not likely to exist. Looking across the history of human religions, the progression from polytheism to monarchy-polytheism to monotheism is all too clear. I'm quick to dismiss all those silly ancient beliefs like Roman and Greek pantheons. What objective evidence could I point to when asserting that Christianity is somehow different?
    The magical beliefs surrounding Christianity fell as well. It's clear from our understanding of the brain that my consciousness resides there in. And that its demise will surely mean the end of my consciousness. There's no rational reason to believe that I will somehow survive the death of my brain. In short, it's wishful thinking that directly conflicts with everything we learned about consciousness.
    This last realization took some time to come to grips with. I was raised to believe that my religion made me immortal. That loved ones lived on in a magical place where there was no pain or suffering. Where they were aware of the happenings here on earth. They could possibly even read my mind. I believe that such would be my fate as well, and coming to grips with my mortality was by no means trivial.
    I've lived my last 20 years without any sort of God belief and couldn't be happier. My version of immortality is the influence I have on those around me. It's rewarding to realize that I can be inspirational to those around me and that they will carry forward my vision, my joy, and my curiosity to others.

    Tuesday, June 16, 2015

    Are You Smart Enough to Convert to Atheism?

    Graduation Cap, Used under Creative Commons License
    Theism is easy. Answers to all your questions are readily available.

    • Where did we come from?
    • What's the meaning of life?
    • How do I know what's right or wrong?
    • How can I be sure I'm raising ethical kids?
    There's a great deal of comfort in believing that we have answers to all these questions. 

    Yet if you ask the hard question, "How do you know that's true?", it becomes quickly apparent that we religion doesn't really know. Rather, it gives you a consolidated group of individuals willing to attest to the dogmatic answers, with each individual largely relying on the attestations of others in the group as validation for his own attestation. In short, religious answers arise from group-think, with core assumptions reinforced by weekly group recitations of the "creed".
    I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
    the Creator of heaven and earth,
    And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
    who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
    born of the Virgin Mary,
    suffered under Pontius Pilate,
    was crucified, died, and was buried.
    He descended into hell.
    The third day He arose again from the dead.
    He ascended into heaven
    and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
    from whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
    I believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the holy catholic church,
    the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of sins,
    the resurrection of the body,
    and life everlasting.
    This isn't to say that all religious answers to the life's hard question are necessarily wrong (that would be committing the "Genetic Fallacy").  There is no shortage of religious people who understand the origins of the universe and of life. And some churches may indeed have some good ideas about how to raise ethical kids. The United Church of Christ was quick to recognize the injustice of marriage inequality, and take legal action based on freedom of religion to advocate for equality. Many churches like the protestant one I grew up in are comfortable with skepticism about everything -- except of course the central creed.

    In the end, church dogma and answers are subjective group-think opinions. If left unexamined, some of these opinions are damaging. For example, church inspired sexual repression leads to sexual ignorance and higher teen-pregnancy ( in religious communities.

    So why do you need to be smart to be atheist? Well you don't really. You just need to recognize that the answers you are getting aren't really reliable and be willing to set out on your own to investigate the important answers as objectively as you possibly can. It takes mental effort and discipline to identify the beliefs that are unsubstantiated group-think and reconsider them. It requires a level of intellectual self-confidence and personal discomfort to admit the truth: "I don't know," and to qualify statements with phrases like, "it seems to me" and "as far as I can tell."  In the end, your statements and views are more accurate. Pretending to know something you've never validated is fundamentally dishonest. 

    Monday, June 15, 2015

    Common Failures of Critical Thinking

    There's striking similarity between theists and conspiracy nuts when it comes to the failures of critical thinking used to argue the belief. I see the same sorts of arguments from Christians and Muslims alike.

    • "Atheism is bad." 
    • "Without my religion, how can you be moral?" 
    • "Atheists just chose atheism to avoid responsibility to god."
    • "There must be an explanation for this unexplained event" (hint: It's mine)

    These seem to be the central failed arguments of irrational thinking, and there's STRIKING similarity across all theists and conspiracy theorists.I'm not sure which camp to put "Ancient Aliens" in. It's somewhere between a religion and a conspiracy theory.

    FailureTheistConspiracy NutIssue
    Future EvidenceWhen you die, you'll see you were wrong!Some day the truth will come out!Claims to be right despite not possessing any evidence
    You can't prove me wrongCan't prove god doesn't exist!Can't disprove the planes were real!Shifting the burden of proof
    Something isn't known so I'm rightUnknown/unusual phenomena x proves god is real.Unexplained 9/11 detail proves CIA's involvementOften, the "unknown" is actually well known to experts.
    Unpleasant ramifications of disbeliefIf my religion is false, the conclusions are unpleasant so it must be true.If you reject my chemtrail claim, you're being poisoned.As if the unpleasant ramifications of disbelief make it true!

    I'm sure there are others, but these are the ones that seem to come up all the time. So I suppose the thing to do is think about how to be sure YOU don't fall victim to these sorts of errors.  Ask or reming yourself: 
    • What assumptions am I making about evidence I haven't actually seen
    • What evidence would convince me I'm wrong?
    • It's not good enough to show my opponent is wrong. If I'm making a positive claim (something is true), I must show I'm right.
    • Whether I like the ramifications of a fact or not has NO bearing on its truthfulness. 
    On that last point, it's valuable to notice when you have strong feelings about the truth of a claim. For me, this sets of little mental warning bells. "Be Careful! You're susceptible to confirmation bias here"