Friday, December 6, 2013

Yeezus - A Review

And now for something completely different, a review of a hip-hop album.

Full disclosure: I really have no idea who Kanye West is. I don't live in the US, I don't have a television, I don't listen to the radio, I don't go to dance clubs. I'm being completely honest when I say I can't name a single Kanye West song, and I wouldn't know him if I saw him. The only things I know about him are that he apparently says crazy shit in interviews and Jimmy Kimmel made fun of him recently. I think he may have also been the jackass who gave birth to the short-lived but memorable "imma let you finish..." meme, but I'm not entirely sure of that.

I haven't really paid attention to recent developments in hip-hop, and by "recent" I mean since about 1993. Much of the music I listen to these days is extremely aggressive metal that frightens most people, like this and this and this. Still, there has been much ado about this Yeezus album, so I'm curious to see what all the fuss is about. Apologists for these big-time rap stars are always waxing philosophical about how they're doing such creative and innovative things with the genre, so I'd like to find out exactly what the hell that means. And to be fair, I'm going to give this album an even-minded, unprejudiced listen, and point out anything positive, commendable, or interesting I find in it. Lest you question my thoroughness and dedication to this endeavor, I'm going to go track-by-track, start to finish. Let's get to it, bitches!

The Name and Artwork

I have absolutely no idea what the intention of the title Yeezus is. The obvious connection is with Jesus, the chief mythological figure associated with the Christian religion. I have no idea what this misspelling is supposed to imply, connote, or intimate, and I'm not even going to try to figure it out. As far as I know it's just a word that Kanye made up, as I've never seen or heard it anywhere else. If it's a reference to something, it's lost on me. (Note: I've since discovered that Kanye goes by Yeezy, so that offers some explanation. I did not know this when I began the post.)

Then there's the album art: there isn't any. Apparently this album is shipping in a clear jewel case with a sticker on it. I'm not really sure what to make of that either, although I'm sure "professional" music critics will pontificate ad nauseam about what the intended message is. To me it's interesting, a novelty, a quirk from the mind of an artist who may or may not be insane.

This album also has more producers than Miley Cyrus has excuses to disrobe. I'll admit that I'm not really sure what a producer actually does, but I can't imagine that 25 of them are necessary to make 40 minutes of recorded music. I also have no idea who these extraneous people are. (I thought I knew one of them, but after investigation it turns out that I don't know the difference between Lupe Fiasco and Bruno Mars.) And now, at long last, my much-anticipated review of Yeezus:

On Sight

Oh dear. I think I've made a terrible mistake. Well, no matter, I will soldier on! I'm going to listen to the rest of this mess if it kills me. Ok so this first track... um... well, it's incredibly synth-heavy, kind of like the sort of sounds that come out of a plasticky Casio keyboard, and a full 34 seconds go by before Mr. West's vocal arrival. I'll confess that I generally hold the predictable, stereotypical white-folk view that rap/hip-hop lyrics are simply disgusting glorifications of profanity, violence, degradation of women, sexual conquest, and material culture, so I was looking forward to educating myself via this widely-celebrated release.

Unfortunately, the fourth word on the album is fuck, the fifth line mentions famous luxury automaker Mercedes-Benz, the sixth contains a distasteful simile about Parkinson's disease, and the twelfth intimates that Kanye intends to penetrate your (the listener's?) wife. The second verse finishes with the subtle line but I got her back in and put my dick in her mouth. Definitely some serious innovation going on here.

There is one slightly clever line - she got more niggas off than Cochran - although I can't be sure that Kanye wrote it, since there are 11 names with writing credits on this track. So I guess this suffices for an introduction to the new album: Kanye is a monster about to come alive again and a real nigga back in the house again. The title, though... "on sight," lacks any context whatsoever, and so I have absolutely no idea what it's supposed to mean. What's on sight? Whose sight? Does that phrase mean something when used in a vacuum like this? This hasn't gone well so far, but I have a good feeling about the next track, based solely on the title.

Black Skinhead

Ok, so... the first thing I noticed about this track is that it's basically just Gary Glitter's Rock 'n Roll Part 2 with rap lyrics over it. Seriously, I want Kanye to be quiet so I can yell "rock 'n rooollllll HEY!"

This is apparently the first "single" to drop from Yeezus, and I've seen it described as having "a strong anti-racism message." The song does have lyrics like They see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong and Stop all that coon shit / Early morning cartoon shit, but that's about it. He also says that he's being persecuted by conservative Baptists and Catholics, but I'm not sure why that should be... I mean given Kanye's need to dress in fancy clothes and jam his dick into people's mouths, I think he's ripe for the priesthood. Kanye for Pope!

I must also draw attention to the lyrics in the hook (what white folk call the chorus, or what extremely old white folk call the refrain) - I keep it 300, like the Romans / 300 bitches, where the Trojans? First of all, I have no idea what "I keep it 300" could possibly mean, but more importantly, the 300 Kanye is probably referring to were Greeks, not Romans. The heights of their two respective civilizations are separated by several centuries, so it's not a trivial error. The second part of the lyric is just hack writing; everybody makes Trojan/condom jokes.

This song also displays incredibly lazy and uncreative writing. Kanye (or whoever else of the 11 people also listed as writers) frequently rhymes lines with the same word, and in the second verse, those words are almost exclusively "shit" and "bitch." Rolling Stone magazine inexplicably dubbed this track the 3rd best of 2013. They assert, "Next time someone says America is post-race, play 'em this, and watch their head explode." First of all, anyone who suggests that America is post-race probably has a learning disability. Second, from what I've heard from the first two songs on this album, Kanye is incredibly preoccupied with the fact that he's black, and everything he's said so far has reinforced negative stereotypes, not ameliorated them. If this song really does have an anti-racism message, it's presented so opaquely that I can't seem to find it. I'm really excited about the next track though, which has an even better title than this one!

I Am a God

I'm really confounded as to how "Weird Al" Yankovic's name isn't among the 15 with writing credits on this track, as it makes me literally laugh out loud. Maybe Al's using an alias because he doesn't want to ruin his white-boy street cred? Anyway... supposedly Kanye wrote this song after being told by a fashion designer that he could come to a posh runway show, but only on the condition that he not go to any others. To this he thoughtfully remarked, "Cause it’s like, Yo! Nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go. Man, I’m the No. 1 living and breathing rock star. I am Axl Rose; I am Jim Morrison; I am Jimi Hendrix." I'm sure if Jim Morrison were alive, he'd be happy to swap stories with Kanye about how his new fashion brand didn't take off right away either. Is this asshole serious? Does he hear himself talk?

I guess I should at least talk about the track, since a gaggle of producers slaved over a hot MacBook to ensure its unquestionable quality. There's an incoherent bit of sampling at the beginning which doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything, and then most of the track is a fuzzy, monotonous, pulsating womp punctuated with little synth noises between Kanye's hilariously tactless lyrics. He actually says I am a God / So hurry up with my damn massage / In a French-ass restaurant / Hurry up with my damn croissants.

How am I supposed to take this seriously? This whole song comes off as a desperate attempt by Kanye to convince himself that he's powerful and relevant. I can only assume that he's the least confident person on the planet, craving attention and validation from everyone, and if he doesn't get it, he apparently goes off on a megalomaniacal tirade. There's obviously a disconnect between how Kanye feels about himself and how others feel about him. Ironically these are not the words of a god; they're the words of a person who desperately wants to be a god, but simply isn't. I bet Axl Rose never had to tell anybody to hurry up with his damn croissants. Axl always had his croissants on time, ditto Jim and Jimi. When you are a god, you don't actually have to say so, Mr. West.

New Slaves

This is anti-racism track number two, and certainly a clearer effort than the first. No time to waste when your songs are only a few minutes long and filled with samples of other artists' work, so Kanye gets right to it: My momma was raised in the era when / Clean water was only served to the fairer skin / Doing clothes you would have thought I had help / But they wasn't satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself... he goes on to decry this form of "new slavery" for blacks, which is material culture. What you want, a Bentley? a fur coat? a diamond chain? / All you blacks want all the same things. Ok, so, you know what might be a great inspiration to these newly-enslaved people? A guy who didn't have all of those things, who didn't rap about how awesome he is because he has all of those things, when he's not rapping about how terrible all those things are. Pardon me for not taking the message seriously when it comes from someone who can't be bothered to take his own advice.

Kanye also bravely proclaims, Fuck you and your corporation / Y'all niggas can't control me, although his main goal in life seems to be to become a corporation and control other people. Then he says things like You see there's leaders, and there's followers / But I'd rather be a dick than a swallower and then simultaneously expects his message to be taken seriously. At a certain point, it doesn't matter how magnanimous and well-intentioned your message is; if you can't express it without the words nigga, pussy, dick, fuck and suggestions of rape and violence, nobody is going to listen.

Musically, the track is rather sparse for the most part, lacking a strong back-beat during the verses. It certainly pushes the vocals to the front of the mix, and thus far this track has the largest collection of lyrics, so it makes sense. There's an inexplicable, jarring break at about 2:50 when the track completely splices into some other, completely different track with auto-tuned vocals. Not sure what is going on here, and then things get even more surreal when this gives way to an excerpt from an old Hungarian pop song called "Gyöngyhajú lány." Kudos, Kanye; I certainly didn't see that coming.

Hold My Liquor

This is the closest thing to actual introspection and artistry that I've heard on this album so far. While generally it has been predictable, superficial, commercial diarrhea, this song seems to have a hint of personal truth to it. The track is rather simple, with minimal instrumentation and really just a muted pulse to keep time for the lyrics, which deal rather candidly with substance abuse. Of course if Kanye wants to be a rock star then he'd better have a drinking problem, and that's really the theme of this song.

I will say that I thought we were done with auto-tune, but it's all over everyone's vocals but Kanye's, and it's really a shame because I just find it distracting from the message of the words. Kanye's sole verse is a somber, brooding, apologetic, self-deprecating soliloquy about the all-too-common pitfalls of the rock star lifestyle, particularly the transient and ephemeral nature of alcohol-fueled frivolity. Bonus points for using the phrase "late night organ donor" to characterize a booty-call.

I think the reason that this song is the only competent one thus far is that it's the only one that's been even slightly relatable. It deals with a universal theme and actual human experiences and emotions, and all of this is related in a relatively straightforward way. I don't think there's anything particularly artful about Kanye's verse as a composition - the cadence is incredibly monotonous and unvaried, and there's nothing earth-shattering about the rhymes or language, but this is the first thing he's said that I've actually heard. Let's listen on and see where things go from here...

I'm In It

...oh. um. The next track is a brash, brazen, and bawdy account of non-committal copulation crafted with all the subtlety and nuance of a Black Friday Walmart brawl. Seriously, there's something to be said for being direct, but Kanye's dropping rhymes so tawdry they'd make Dr. Ruth turn a bashful shade of crimson. An erotic act is related with what I can only characterize as startlingly blunt detail, with such artful phrases as eating ass, eye fucking, your titties - let 'em out, and my personal favorite, put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.

Kanye's jarringly tactless lyrics are accompanied by random bouts of incomprehensible Rastafarian-sounding raspy babble, and the "hook" includes a vocal performance by someone who can actually sing, making the section between 1:40 and 2:10 the only listenable part of the song. I can't let this one go without also mentioning the profoundly stupid lyrics and the beginning (As I turn my Blackberry off / And I turn your bath water on / And you turn off your iPhone) and the very end (Uh, I be speaking Swaghili). Swaghili? Really?

Blood on the Leaves

There's really no sugar-coating this one - it's a 6 minute auto-tuned nightmare. The song begins with a sample of a music recording of the poem "Strange Fruit," which was written as a response to racism in America in 1937, and bits of the recording are inserted quite annoyingly throughout the track. This song actually has four verses, which as far as I can tell chronicle an unpleasant experience that Kanye had with some gold-digger type. The last verse (mercifully the only one not auto-tuned) has the most salient presentation, addressed affectionately to all my second-string bitches.

Generally it seems to be a commentary on the dangers of sleeping indiscriminately with every woman one encounters and then running into problems when one of them invariably gets pregnant. It is surely a lamentable situation when one must decide between paying the lawyers or the Mercedes dealer. Woe unto you, Kanye, and the contemptible wealth you have amassed! Mo' money mo' problems, amirite? This song is long, boring, and unlistenable thanks to a complete overuse of auto-tune. I also fail to see the connection between the content of the poem in the sample and the subject of this song. Somebody's gonna have to explain that one to me.

Guilt Trip

This is part 2 of the Vulnerable Kanye saga, although this one doesn't work nearly as well as Hold My Liquor does. It should work in theory, as it's a song about unrequited love, the one who got away, possibly the oldest theme in the history of songwriting. I'm just not buying it from Kanye, perhaps because he's not selling it too well. This song is light on lyrics, and we only get a superficial analysis of this failed relationship. It doesn't help that the vocals are fucking auto-tuned again. If I can just pause for a second (your album's pretty good, Kanye, and imma finish it...) to elucidate why I find it so detrimental, it can be explained (like so many things) by the internet. Once the internet gets hold of something, it gets run into the ground at fiber-optic speeds. As far as I'm concerned, once the Bed Intruder dropped, that was the end of auto-tune as a legitimate practice in music. It's a joke now, and it instantly takes me out of the song.

Ill-advised production decisions aside (I guess all 417 producers agreed that auto-tune was a great idea), this song just seems like filler. It only has one verse, in which Kanye vaguely describes a girl with whom things just didn't work out for some reason. Why? Maybe it's cause she into Leos / And I was into trios, plus all the trips to Rio. Those lines just seem forced to me, dictated by the rhyming words rather than any sort of effort at storytelling. The rest of the track is occupied by more incoherent guest vocals, and then a whiny outro that pitifully sobs If you love me so much then why'd you let me go? over and over.

Send It Up

This track, the penultimate composition on Kanye's mighty opus, is nearly three minutes of my life that I can't have back. As far as I can tell it isn't about anything, and I have no idea what "send it up" means. That's problematic, because a considerable portion of the song is simply repetition of the phrase "we can send this bitch up, it can't go down." Whatever that means.

According to Mr. West, This is the greatest shit in the club since 'In Da Club.' I do remember that song - when I heard it the first time I thought the guy doing the vocals was either half-asleep, not speaking English, or both. Kanye's awake for this one, but he couldn't be bothered to find his rhyming dictionary (nor could the 30 other people involved in the writing and production of this gem, apparently). "Club" is paired in the next four lines with ... "club." In fairness though, he pronounces it "cluhh," which probably makes finding a suitable rhyme more difficult.

There's more Rasta-babble at the end, this time by a fellow named Beenie Man. I assume he was one of the housekeeping staff at the Parisian hotel where Kanye wrote and recorded much of this record, because there is no other explanation for why he should be a part of the music business. Toss this track on top of the last one in the "filler" pile.

Bound 2

The Wikipedia page for this song says that critics generally found it to be the best track on the album, so I'm going to listen to it extra hard so I don't miss anything. As the page notes, "this song  incorporates numerous samples into its production, including prominent elements of the song "Bound" (1971) by soul group Ponderosa Twins Plus One." That's a pretty accurate description, but I'd say something more like "this song is Kanye West pressing 'play' on the song "Bound" (1971) by soul group Ponderosa Twins Plus One and then talking over top of it." I guess he did add some original elements, like the part where someone called Charlie Wilson sings over top of distorted synth farting noises which would probably rattle any American-made car apart if played at even a moderate volume. It just doesn't work, talking over top of this sample, and Kanye's vocals constantly drag as if he's forever just slightly behind the beat.

Lyrically, there are definitely some gems in here. The second verse really hits me where I live: I wanna fuck you hard on the sink / After that give you somethin to drink / Step back, can't get spunk on the mink. Preach, brother. The album probably reaches its glorious peak later in this same verse when Kanye becomes the first human being to rhyme Thanksgiving with Christmas.

The end of the second verse is a fitting end to the album, I think, and a great summary of how I'm feeling right now: But first, you gon' remember how to forget / After all these long-ass verses / I'm tired, you tired, Jesus wept.



I tried, really I did. I really want to get it, to understand why people rave about this guy, even if I don't actually appreciate it on some deep level. I can happily admit talent when I see or hear it, even if I don't particularly like it - maybe I don't dig it, but I get why other people could. I do not understand why Kanye West is famous.

Even in the context of the rap/hip-hop genre, there are people I genuinely respect as talented artists. The old school guys back in the late 80's actually had a purpose for their art; it was a response to the racism, police brutality, and general difficulty in life that they grew up with and experienced first-hand for so long, and their music was a fiery, passionate reaction to that situation. Songs like Fuck tha Police actually had a real story to tell, a useful social commentary about the state of race relations in the impoverished inner cities of the US. Songs like that come from a powerful creative source, and I completely understand why people bought that stuff by the millions.

Even to take other contemporary artists as a point of comparison, there are rappers who can sing relatively well (R. Kelly), who can perform some serious vocal acrobatics (Busta Rhymes) and who are obviously quite gifted at writing lyrics, whether they be funny, aggressive, or offensive (Eminem, Eminem, and Eminem). Kanye West isn't any good at any of these things. At all.

Maybe there's something about the music? But if that's the case, how much credit does Kanye deserve for the final product, when every song has multiple writers and producers credited? Ironically, despite the apparent collaboration of dozens of people on this record, the backing tracks on Yeezus are rather spartan. It's a complete contradiction that the efforts of so many people resulted in such an anemic soundtrack. What were they all doing? I assume Kanye just pays people to stroke his fragile ego while he makes his albums and then gives them "producer" credits.

I'm really trying to reconcile all the glowing critical reviews of this album with the reality of my perception of it, and I'm failing. As far as I can find, there's nothing even remotely interesting on this album, let alone praiseworthy. Kanye seems to be famous despite his music, not because of it, and I think critics are simply falling victim to their own psychological aversion to the inevitable cognitive dissonance arising from the stark difference between Kanye the artist and Kanye the brand. Kanye's popularity can't be denied, and so his talent must be affirmed in order to square the circle. Perhaps we should all encourage Mr. West to pursue other avenues; I certainly don't want him to make any more music.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Skepticism 101, or How Not To Suck At Having An Opinion

For all the virtues of social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, one unfortunate drawback is that we're all now painfully aware of how bafflingly ignorant and stupid the opinions of most of our friends are. We've all got that one friend who can't seem to shut up about how GMOs are evil, or President Obama is a Muslim/Socialist/Kenyan, or global warming is a myth, or 9/11 was organized and carried out by the Bush Administration, or vaccinations cause more harm than good, or whatever the hot-button issues du jour happen to be.

Now more than ever, everyone could use a healthy dose of skepticism in order to filter out the bullshit that bombards us incessantly. First, a few words about skepticism - what it is, why it's useful, and how it can improve critical thinking skills.

As many words that end in ism, skepticism comes from Greek. The verb σκέπτομαι means to look at or consider carefully, and inspired an ancient philosophical school of thinkers who called themselves "skeptics." In the modern sense, skepticism simply means questioning assertions and withholding judgment until evidence is considered.

When should you be skeptical? Well, certainly in some situations more than others. If your friend Bob calls you and says "apples are 50 cents off per pound at the grocery store this week," you probably needn't seek out confirmation of this from other sources. If, on the other hand, Bob calls and says "there's a magical tree giving away apples in front of the grocery store," some skepticism is reasonably warranted. The amount of skepticism shown towards a claim should be inversely proportional to how likely the claim is to be true, based on your knowledge and experience. The less believable a claim seems to be, the more you should be skeptical about it.

So, how can you form well-reasoned, well-informed opinions that don't suck? By following these rules:

1. Be a sieve, not a bucket. Or, as the saying goes, be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brain falls out. Be open to new ideas, but not universally accepting of them. Keep your bullshit detector switched on at all times.

2. Be willing to be wrong. Good skeptics should be open to new information, even if it contradicts long-held beliefs. I cannot stress this enough: if you're unwilling to consider that you're wrong about something, you have no hope of discovering the truth. "When an honest man is mistaken, he either ceases to be mistaken, or he ceases to be honest."

3. Be aware of common pitfalls of reasoning, and know your logical fallacies so you can spot them. Our brains aren't actually wired perfectly for critical thinking; we have an overactive tendency to find patterns, and we are frequent victims of our own confirmation bias.

4. Don't fight above your weight class. Admit when you simply don't know enough about an issue to have a strong opinion about it. Not everyone can be an expert on everything, and if you don't know, just say so.

5. Question the sources. Not all information is created equal. Not all scientific studies are equally valid. Just because something is published or reported doesn't mean that it's accurate. Some scientific journals have better reputations than others. It can be extremely difficult to wade through scientific studies and decide what is credible and what is questionable, but it's an exercise well worth the effort.

With these things in mind, let's take a look at some typical areas of discussion in which people frequently have poorly-reasoned, irrational, or ignorant opinions.

Issues Involving Complicated Science 

See point number 4 above. There are some things in this world which are simply best left to the experts to debate, so if you're not an expert, be aware of your limitations in understanding. A perfect example of this is climate change. Unless you're a climate scientist, I'm not interested in your opinion on the issue, because you have nothing of value to contribute to the discussion. If you disagree with the majority of climate scientists, and you're not a climate scientist, chances are good that you have a biased or uninformed opinion on the matter. Chances are not good that you have somehow understood something that thousands of experts have not.
Highly Polarizing Issues

Some issues tend to polarize opinions heavily, with few people remaining neutral. In situations like these, especially if the issue is a complicated one, polarized opinions are generally based on one-sided information and confirmation bias. A perfect example of such an issue is the Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as "Obamacare." Opinions on this piece of legislation tend to be polarized along political party lines, and several polls have shown that the general public (the same people who are eager to tell you how much they love or hate the law) has absolutely no idea what it says or does. (See The Onion for a sadly accurate portrayal) This is because the act is 906 pages long, and so the public is at the mercy of news outlets to paraphrase and interpret it. As with most complicated issues, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.

Issues About Food And Medicine

Issues that have a possible direct effect on our personal health are treacherous because they evoke an emotional response. Our hearts are for circulating blood, not for thinking, and an issue that stirs up emotions might also obfuscate our critical thinking faculties. A perfect example of this is GMO food and the lightning rod Monsanto Corporation. People are susceptible to one-sided or blatantly false information about GM technology or about companies like Monsanto because the stakes are so high - our well-being could be negatively affected. In fact, this has become such an oft-cited bad argument that the fallacy has taken the name argumentum ad Monsantum. Basically the failure in logic here is associating an evil corporation with an evil product. It does not follow that GMO food is bad simply because you think Monsanto is bad. It may still turn out to be true that GMO food is bad, but bias-free evidence must be put forward to prove it. In cases like this, the only rational course of action is to follow the science and the findings of regulatory organizations. See point number 5 above.

The anti-vaccination movement is similarly misled by emotion, especially because the issue frequently gravitates towards the health of children. On this issue, see point 5 above and the section below on opposing scientific consensus.

Conspiracy Theories

There's a reason that you never hear of a conspiracy theory actually being validated and becoming the new mainstream explanation for an event.  Conspiracy theories are the product of a comprehensive failure of reasoning, a worst-case-scenario of irresponsible cognition. The most salient example of this sort of nonsense at present is the 9/11 Truth movement, proponents of which claim that the terrorist attacks were orchestrated by the government, and that basically every finding of the official investigation is wrong. To give an extremely abbreviated list of what's wrong with these sorts of arguments: people who think this way are obviously tainted by strong biases, are unwilling to evaluate evidence fairly, assume the conclusion of their argument and insert it as a premise, and live in a highly-protected echo chamber in which they only communicate with other people who agree with them. Conspiracy theories aren't actually theories at all; a theory is a set of testable propositions which can be used to explain certain phenomena. Conspiracy theories don't explain anything - they simply point out what they deem to be unanswered questions in the accepted theory and then wildly posit alternatives based on no evidence. This is a perfect example of what happens when your bullshit filter fails, and your brain falls out of your excessively-open mind.

Contrary to Consensus

While it's fun to be a contrarian, there are risks when standing on the wrong side of the majority. It depends who that majority is, however; an appeal to majority opinion to support an argument is a logical fallacy (ad populum), while an appeal to scientific consensus can be a strong justification for one's position. It's certainly true that scientific consensus can be wrong, but the comforting thing about science is that it is adaptable to new information and open to change.

The wonderful thing about truth is that, by necessity, it breeds consensus over time. If something is demonstrably true, eventually there will be no choice but to accept it. Thus popular misconceptions about the natural world have been eradicated over time with the discovery of new information. We now realize that the Earth isn't flat, and it isn't the center of our solar system, let alone the universe. It would be ridiculous to hold a contradictory position on these matters today, because the truth is undeniable.

Still, there are other such issues of overwhelming scientific consensus today about which some people obstinately hold contradictory views. The term manufactroversy has been coined to describe these beliefs, as they pretend that a controversy exists when in fact there is none. Darwinian evolution by natural selection, for example, is overwhelmingly supported by evidence and accepted by scientists as fact (as made hilariously manifest by Project Steve), as is man-made climate change, and the efficacy, safety, and necessity of vaccinations to prevent communicable disease. There is no controversy whatsoever in the scientific community about any of these matters, and one disagrees with these assertions only at one's own peril. To refer again to point number 4 above - if you really feel like you can justify your opinion when you disagree with overwhelming scientific consensus, you should run to the nearest scientific journal and publish your innovative competing theory. If truth is on your side, and you can demonstrate it empirically, then science will have no choice but to agree with you. Science loves to be proven wrong, and that's why it can be trusted above any other method of finding the truth.


It is incredibly difficult to approach all questions with an unbiased and open mind. It's even more difficult sometimes to separate the good information from the bad in order to discover the truth about anything. To adopt a skeptical approach to evaluating claims means not to make a judgment before careful analysis of the best available evidence. It's too easy to agree with our friends on complicated questions or look to our favorite news outlet to tell us how to feel about controversial issues. Thinking for yourself is hard work, but being a skeptic is the best way to be sure that your opinions don't suck.

Resources for Skeptics

Thursday, September 12, 2013

10 Things You Didn't Know About Jesus

Perhaps I was a particularly uninvolved, incurious, or unquestioning Christian (which, I guess, probably made me a really good one), but it occurs to me now that I knew very little about the religion that I was allowing to dictate my beliefs and opinions about the world. If you had asked me, for example, basic questions like who wrote the Bible? or when was it written? or how do we know what we know about Jesus? I would not have had thoughtful or impressive answers. In fact, I'm not even certain what I would have said. I didn't have answers for those questions, because they had never occurred to me. I assumed that nobody talked about these things because the answers were so obvious and well-known that they needed no mention. God spoke some words, and the dudes whose names are on the title pages wrote them down, or something.

That's not what happened, though, and even your church pastor wouldn't say so. I realize that there are many different churches led by different pastors with different agendas, but I've personally never heard a sermon (and I sat through a lot of them) in which the historicity of the Bible was addressed. This is really odd now that I think about it, because the only unique knowledge that a pastor possesses is this academic information about what Biblical and historical scholars, archaeologists, and textual critics say about the Bible. This is the sort of thing which pastors could share with the laypeople of the congregation, but they don't. Instead, they just read and talk about verses from the Bible, which anybody with a Bible could do by himself. (I don't mean to generalize; this has been my experience.)

Since nobody ever told me the answers to these questions, I had to find out on my own. I know everybody likes even-numbered lists of things, so without further ado, here are 10 things that you (probably) didn't know about Jesus and the New Testament:

1. There are no sources contemporaneous with Jesus.

There is no historical evidence of any kind (epigraphical, archaeological, or literary, including the Bible) dating from the time when Jesus is supposed to have lived, i.e. from the late 1st century BCE to the early 1st century CE. Nothing that mentions Jesus comes from the time when he was said to have lived. Nothing.

2. Nearly nothing about the life of Jesus is known with certainty.

As you might expect given the fact that we have no writing from his contemporaries, exact details about Jesus' life are, well, non-existent. We don't know what year he was born; the gospels of Luke and Matthew suggest dates that are 9 years apart. (We certainly don't know what day he was born -  December 25th was made up by Hippolytus of Rome by a completely arbitrary method and is not historical.) We are equally puzzled about when he died; it was somewhere between 30 and 36 CE.

This isn't simply because it was 2000 years ago and record keeping was spotty. There is general scholarly consensus about when King Herod of Judea died (4 BCE), for example, and the infamous Egyptian queen Cleopatra died August 12th, 30 BCE, as recorded by sources contemporaneous with the event. In the world of the fastidious record-keeping Romans, we have no trouble constructing extremely detailed timelines of the lives of many historical figures, like Cicero and his contemporaries. About Jesus of Nazareth, though, we know practically nothing at all.

3. There are problems with the virgin birth.

One of the things supposedly identifying Jesus as the son of God is the fact that he was born of a virgin. This is known to be a famous translation error, as the Old Testament prophecy in the book of Isaiah says that the savior would be born of an almah, which simply means "a young woman" and has no inherent connotation of "virgin." The Greek Septuagint writers chose the word "parthenos," which does mean "virgin," when they translated the text. All the writers of the New Testament only had this reading, as they were working from the Greek text and not the original Hebrew.

This is evident in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which each tell the story of Jesus' birth. Their stories differ on various details, but they both mention the virgin birth, as the writers of both books believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy, and so Jesus needed to be born of a "parthenos" in order to fulfill it - that's what their version of the text said. Had they been working from the original Hebrew texts, the writers of these gospels may have told the stories even more differently.

4. There is a supportable, not-crazy case against a historical Jesus.

Although most scholars will agree that there probably was a human being called Jesus who was wandering around the desert around 2000 years ago, it's not the case that a historical Jesus has ever been (or could probably ever be) established as fact. There are several scholars who doubt that anyone called Jesus ever existed, and their position is tenable.

Scholars supporting this theory do not simply cite the so-called "argument from silence," i.e. Jesus didn't exist because we don't really know anything for certain about him. They point to many other things, such as the fact that mythologies of the time frequently portrayed the supernatural beings of their stories in an Earthly and even sometimes historical context, so the fact that the stories about Jesus are set on Earth and in a historical period does not mean that they must be historical. The process has newly been named "Euhemerization," referring to an ancient writer (Euhemerus) who actually did this with Greek myths. A well-known example of this is the story of Romulus being the ancient founder of Rome in 753 BCE - an existing God is placed into a historical context at an important time. It is also reasonable to fit Christianity into the historical context of Classical myth when considering it as a syncretism of newer Hellenistic elements with established Jewish traditions.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides, generally supportable by some evidence. My point is simply that rejecting a historical Jesus is not as crazy as, say, denying the Holocaust, or the Moon landing, or the death of Elvis. Jesus is not an undeniable ancient historical figure. (If you're interested in this, the prominent scholars putting this theory of a Secular Non-Historical Jesus out there are Richard Carrier, Robert M. Price, and Earl Doherty, among others.)

5. There is nothing really unique about Jesus' story.

The more a broad contemporaneous mythological context is considered when looking at the figure of Jesus, the more it makes sense that the stories about him are simply stories. Nothing about the mythology of Jesus is particularly novel. The Egyptian god Osiris, for example, was said to have died and been resurrected, and he offered immortality to his followers if they led a moral life. In some versions of the myth, he was a mortal who was murdered by conspirators, and worshipers of Osiris convened annually to re-create this scene in remembrance of his suffering. Zalmoxis in ancient Thrace had a similar story as well. Plenty of parallels can also be drawn with Mithras worship, which was in direct competition with Christianity in the early centuries CE. If we simply place Christianity and its myths into a historical context of ancient mythology in general, it is possible to see how these particular traditions developed. The stories about Jesus are products of the social, historical, and political contexts of the various authors who wrote them.

6. There was no concept of a "New Testament" when it was written.

The writers of the NT did not all set out with a collective, predetermined goal of writing a new holy book about the life and deeds of Jesus to append to the existing Hebrew scriptures. The writers of the books of the NT probably didn't even know each other (although they did share sources), and what we have today as the NT is the product of several committees of church officials at several different times in history deciding upon what is and what is not the officially approved text.

7. We don't know who wrote the synoptic gospels.

The four "synoptic" (meaning to be looked at together) gospels, which we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. These gospels, in the oldest manuscripts we have, are all anonymous. The writers never identify themselves, and historical chronology basically eliminates Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John from being the actual writers. These names were added to the gospels in later centuries.

8. The New Testament contains forgeries.

Even though the NT is a product of nearly two millennia of editing, there are still passages within it which scholars agree are likely forged and interpolated into the old manuscripts. Even apologists admit the existence of these forgeries, but they give them the fancy word "pseudepigraphical." You will at least recognize the root pseudo- meaning "false," as in "this wasn't actually written by the author listed on the pages."  A recent book claims that 11 of the 27 books of the NT are forgeries by the early Christian church in an effort to settle debates about the faith. Perhaps that's a fringe view, but parts of the epistles of Paul have generally been agreed upon as inauthentic, such as 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. In the case of those Pauline examples, the interpolations occurred even before our oldest existing manuscripts, meaning that an uncorrupted version of those books does not exist.

9. The New Testament wasn't established until 1546.

The text as we have it today, i.e. the 27 canonical books that make up the NT, was not formally declared as "official" until the Council of Trent in 1546. These particular 27 books existed and were generally considered to be authentic as early as the 5th century CE (which is, please notice, still several hundred years after Jesus' supposed death), but no formal declaration was made about which books were official (and, therefore, which books were not) until this famous ecumenical council. This leads me to the last point, namely...

10. There are lots of apocryphal gospels about Jesus.

Perhaps the most interesting part about NT scholarship is looking at the apocrypha, books which have been officially rejected by the church for various reasons. There are only four canonical gospels, for example, because Irenaeus said so in the 2nd century CE. His reasoning was sound, though: since there are four primary winds, and the Earth is held up by four pillars, there should likewise only be four gospels. Makes sense.

But there are the so-called "infancy gospels," which describe the early parts of Jesus' life and which date from as early as the 2nd century CE, which have never been allowed into the canon. Even more interesting is the gospel of Marcion, which might even be older than Luke's gospel, but the early church condemned it as heretical, and so we only know about it via Christian authors writing scathing condemnations of it. (In fact so many of them did so that scholars generally feel like they've nearly got the original text.) The Gnostic gospels,
written in the same Koine Greek as the NT, also possibly date to the 2nd century CE and paint a very different picture of Jesus and the idea of salvation, but these have been entirely rejected as well. My personal favorite is the gospel of Judas, in which the story goes that Jesus actually told Judas to betray him, as it was part of Jesus' grand plan to be martyred.

All of these writings and many more have been rejected from inclusion in the NT, even though many of them date to the same period as the canonical works. This is an inconvenient fact for apologists who cite the NT's consistent message despite its many different authors.The only reason the NT has a consistent message (an arguable statement in itself) is that it was made to by the church.

The point of all of this:

Like I said at the beginning, I didn't really know very much about our knowledge of Jesus and the historicity of the NT when I was a Christian. I believe that most of the people around me at the time didn't know these things either; I never heard anybody talking about it, at least. Maybe you already knew some of these things, maybe some of it is news to you. If you don't believe that something I've written here is true, I'd urge you to look into it for yourself and see what you find.

I think the most important thing to realize is that the evidence for believing anything at all about Jesus is extremely scant, to the point where nearly nothing about him can be said confidently. I'm sure some percentage of the faithful will either not care about any of this information or dismiss it as lies. What I have collected here is not my opinion, but the collective assessment of well-qualified people whose life work it is to look into these matters. I would have been happy to have this information when I was a believer, so I hope it will be enlightening to others as well.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance: Belief vs. Experience

I was a faithful Christian for the first 20 or so years of my life. I mean a fully indoctrinated, Bible-thumping, Jesus-loving, nightly-praying, church-going believer of The Word. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, went to church regularly (even after I was old enough to stay home if I wanted), and even played bass in the praise band during my church's hip contemporary service. I know what it's like to be a believer, I know how most Christians acquire the beliefs that they hold, and, most importantly, I know what it's like to live in a world where those beliefs are constantly being called into question, or as Christians might say, tested.

I got the idea for this blog entry from watching a YouTube video made by a British fellow who goes by TheraminTrees. This video is actually the second in a series about his transition from faith-based beliefs to atheism, and his explanation in this second part is simply a perfect illustration of the effects of having beliefs that are inconsistent with our life experiences.

The phenomenon I'd like to talk about is one that is inherent in any faith-based belief system, and one that every Christian (and Muslim, and Jew) experiences and has to find creative ways to deal with. That phenomenon is something I'll call cognitive dissonance.

That sounds like a fancy phrase, but it simply comes down to this: we all have a set of beliefs, values, and assumptions about the world in which we live, many of which we acquire directly from our parents during our formative years as children. We all also live in a world which is constantly bombarding us with sensory data and experiences. We try to interpret all of these experiences through the lens of our beliefs. Sometimes the two are easily compatible, and there is congruence - our beliefs and our actual experiences coincide harmoniously. Sometimes our beliefs and experiences, however, seem to be at odds with each other, and this produces a problem, which I'm calling cognitive dissonance. Picture it this way:

As you can see, when our beliefs about the world and experiences of the world coincide, there is congruence. When they don't, there is dissonance. Congruence makes us feel comfortable and confident in our beliefs; dissonance makes us feel uncomfortable and uneasy about them.

I'll recount an example when I can clearly recall experiencing this sort of cognitive dissonance. When I was in high school, I took an elective course in Philosophy. One day we were talking about the origins of life on Earth. The various theories were laid out, most specifically creationism/intelligent design and evolution. (The theory of evolution does not actually seek to explain the origin of the first life form, a phenomenon known as abiogenesis, but let's just pretend like we're dealing with apples to apples here.) As a Christian, my belief was that God had something to do with the creation of life on Earth. In the theory of evolution, there is no mention of God whatsoever; the theory works without any such supposition. Looking at the evidence for evolution, however, produced a problem for me: the explanatory power of the theory was overwhelming and undeniable. I simply could not reject the theory outright, even though it did not align with my beliefs. This troubled me greatly, until I heard about a third option, namely special creation. This hybrid theory states that evolution occurred, but God intervened at several key points in order to ensure its success. I immediately latched onto this theory and, for a period of time, accepted this as my belief for the explanation of life on Earth.
In order to correct the dissonance between my belief and my experience, I needed to distort the theory. There was no compelling evidential reason for me to insert God. I was beginning with the assumption that God simply had to be in there somewhere, and so I distorted my beliefs until I could square them with my experiences. This is one way that believers can reconcile dissonance and try to make their beliefs and experiences congruent. The problem is that, just as in my example, this process invariably produces garbled nonsense. In the end, my conclusion was an incoherent bastardization of two different theories, but crucially, it alleviated my cognitive dissonance about the matter at the time.

A more salient example that many Christians are facing right now is the issue of homosexuality. Among younger people especially, this seems to be extremely important - I know people who have decided to attend different churches based solely on this one issue. In this case, the cognitive dissonance arises between the Christian belief that homosexuality is a sin and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality by our culture. Many people who have close friends or family members who are gay find it difficult to condemn these people to hell for eternity as vile sinners.

There is a serious lack of congruence here between belief and experience, and there are many ways in which believers try to force a reconciliation. All attempts to do this require either distortion of belief or denial of experience. The believer has to convince himself that the scriptures must be interpreted in a different way; the translations are wrong, the verses apocryphal, the cultures incomparable, et cetera. The believer desperately wants to find a way to harmonize his sensibilities with his preconceived beliefs, and it is particularly difficult on this issue.

Christianity has some very serious dissonance built into it from the onset, in the form of obvious contradictions. Two examples that come to mind easily are the Garden of Eden story and the entire concept of prayer. Any amount of serious critical thought about these two things will reveal some serious cognitive dissonance, as I will attempt to illustrate.

The Garden of Eden story in Genesis is ridiculous for many reasons, but even if we dismiss it as entirely metaphorical and not descriptive of any actual event, it still has bigger problems. (Mind you, there's no textual justification for dismissing it as a metaphor - the Bible never suggests that the story is anything but literal truth.) We all know the story: God creates Adam and Eve and two magical trees, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. God tells Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge. A wily snake slithers up and tells Eve that God is lying, so she eats from the forbidden tree and gives some to Adam too, so they've both made a mess of it. Yadda yadda yadda, original sin.

The contradiction comes in God's reaction to this incident. By his very nature, God is said to be omniscient. He knows all that ever was, is, and will be. If that is the case, then God should never be surprised or react with any emotion to anything that ever happens, because he already knows exactly what will happen. This makes it absurd that God would ever be angry for anything that anyone ever does or doesn't do. If God is omniscient, then he knew that Adam and Eve would eat from the forbidden tree and be cursed forever. This story is supposed to explain original sin, but it actually implicates God as the originator of sin. God knew what would happen; he set Adam up to fail. The God we read about in the Bible does not react as if he is omniscient. The believer must try to square this massive inconsistency of experience with his beliefs in order to produce congruence.

Prayer is another head-scratcher of a contradiction. This is perhaps the most resonant source of cognitive dissonance among believers, because everyone has experienced a so-called "unanswered prayer." The process by which believers reconcile this troubling experience with their belief is by invoking "God's will." If anything happens, it is because God willed it to happen, and if we cannot understand the reasons, this is simply because we cannot understand God. Invoking "God's will" is a tacit admission that God does not listen to or answer prayers. He's going to do whatever he wants to do anyway, whether you pray about it or not. And remember, since he's omniscient, he already knows what you want. There's nothing you can tell him that he doesn't already know, including the fact that you don't want your grandmother to die from cancer. Praying is one of the most futile, contradictory, arrogant, misguided acts imaginable, and believers all but admit this themselves. One can make giant leaps towards congruence of belief and experience by simply disavowing the idea of a God who answers prayers; by our very experiences we know this to be simply false. Prolonging this clash between reality and unfounded belief only invites unnecessary suffering on oneself.

The problem with faith-based belief is that it demands that we reject our experiences. Instead, people are raised to believe completely arbitrary and unsupported claims like God is perfectly good. We have to dismiss our own experiences, which tell us that any God who offers eternal punishment for a transgression is unjust and cannot be good. No crime, however severe, could ever possibly justify an eternal punishment. One can only reconcile those conflicting statements by distrusting and rejecting one's own intuition. This is profoundly unhealthy behavior.

In the video above, TheraminTrees talks about atheism as a congruence. When you don't begin with a set of beliefs which you did not arrive at through evaluation of your experiences, congruence occurs naturally and much more frequently. There is no struggle to contort your experiences into a rigid predetermined framework. Atheism is not a rejection of God, it is an admission that there is no evidence for God. This is the only logical framework that promotes harmony between belief and experience. Believing things on no evidence, and rejecting evidence which does not fit with beliefs, is a recipe for constant struggle to reconcile belief with the real world, and for the believer, it must be exhausting.

If you believe things on faith, ask yourself why you have these beliefs. You will discover that you don't actually have faith in Christ. You've never met Christ. You have faith in other people who have never met Christ but have told you about Christ. You have faith in The Bible, which was written by people, none of whom knew Christ. This is no way to form beliefs about the world, as it leads to dissonance. Base your beliefs on your experiences, and you'll be stunned how quickly everything falls into harmony and makes sense. I've found that it's much easier to sleep at night as an atheist than as a Christian.

Friday, August 9, 2013

So, How's My Hungarian Coming?

I've been living in Budapest, Hungary for almost five months now. I'm a bit of a language fanatic with a solid background in linguistics and an above-average understanding of syntax and morphology. So, many friends back home casually ask me how my Hungarian is coming. Well... it isn't.

Why not? How can you live somewhere for months and not be able to speak the language, at least a little bit? Ok, depending on what you mean by a little bit, I can. Certainly more than you can, unless you're a Hungarian reading this, but not enough to matter. I still don't understand 98% of what I read or hear all around me. There are, however, good reasons for this, and they're not all entirely my fault.

First of all, I work for a language school, and I teach English. This means I'm surrounded by people who either speak English quite well already or are trying to learn to speak English better. Consequently, much of my communication with other Hungarians is, by necessity, in English. Secondly, a fairly large number of people in Budapest speak English. While it's certainly not safe to assume that, for example, the clerks behind the counter at the T-Mobile store will speak English, the odds are better than 50-50 that they will, at least well enough to answer any questions. It's not uncommon for someone to say something to me in Hungarian, note my blank stare, and then repeat in perfect English.

The single most important factor limiting my acquisition of Hungarian is, well... Hungarian. It's a bitch of a whore of a bugger of a language. It's not the sort of thing you pick up casually. I've actually met expats who have been living in Budapest for several years and still neither comprehend nor speak the language with any real proficiency. I'd like to try to point out to all of you exactly how ridiculous of a language it is, if I can, based solely on what I've already learned so far.

First of all, as I've mentioned in another blog post, second language acquisition difficulty is relative, based largely on the similarities of the new language to one's native language. If you already speak a language which behaves like, or shares some common ancestry with Hungarian, then it won't be such an impossible task. Hungarian is a member of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family. It's the Ugric part. The Finno part is, as perhaps you've guessed, Finnish. The only other language with any appreciable number of speakers in this family besides Hungarian and Finnish is Estonian. Taken all together, there are about 25 million native speakers of Finno-Ugric languages in the entire world. For comparison, there 38 million people living in the US state of Texas.

Hungary is bordered by seven countries: Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Austria, and Croatia. None of these countries speaks a language related to Hungarian. In fact, every single one of them speaks a language from the Indo-European family, of which English is a part. This means I could move a few hundred miles in any direction and instantly make my life simpler.

So, how is Hungarian different from English? Well... maybe it would just be easier to list the ways in which it's similar to English:

1. Hungarian uses the Roman alphabet (mercifully).
2. In Hungarian, adjectives generally come before the nouns they modify, not after.
3. Hungarian nouns don't have gender (mercifully).

That's pretty much it. Hungarian has no common ancestry with English whatsoever, so the roots of basically every word imaginable are completely different. Take, for example, the words for the numbers 1-10 in Hungarian and some neighboring tongues:

English Hungarian Serbian Romanian
one egy jedan una
two kettő dva doi
three három tri trei
four négy pet patru
five öt četiri cinci
six hat šest şase
seven hét sedam şapte
eight nyolc osam opt
nine kilenc devet nouă
ten tíz deset zece

Even if you don't know anything about Romanian or Serbian, I think that if you were shown this list of words, you would surmise that you're looking at 1 to 10. If you were shown the Hungarian, you'd perhaps surmise that someone had pounded his head on a keyboard ten times.

Then there's the inherent difficulty in pronunciation. Hungarian has several sounds which we in English simply do not, both vowels and consonants. Not only are there rounded vowels (the ones with the dots), but they also occur in long and short versions (ö/ü, ő/ű), AND there are minimal word pairs in which the only difference is the length: compare öt "five" and őt "him/her."

The Hungarian alphabet has 44 (not a typo) letters, including many digraphs (two letters that count as one) and one trigraph (dzs). My least favorite Hungarian letter is gy. I dislike it for two reasons. First, it's not a sound I can make with my stubborn Anglican mouth. (To give you a vague approximation of how it sounds, imagine a British person saying during, where they kind of put a y in it - dyuring - and this gy sound is the dy part of that word.) Secondly, this stupid letter IS EVERYWHERE. As you have already seen, it's in the word for one, which also doubles as the indefinite article (a/an). It's also found extensively in forms of the verb to be, and in extremely common words like big, or, and how (nagy, vagy, hogy). It's difficult to say almost anything without needing to make this cursed sound come out of one's face.

In English, we really like prepositions. We say things like "I'll see you at the game after lunch with Bob." Hungarians do not like prepositions. Instead, they just like to have one word with the preposition part stuck onto the end, for example: iskola, "school" iskolaban "at school." This wouldn't be so terrible, except that it's not that simple. For you see, Hungarian displays a relatively rare linguistic feature known as vowel harmony. This basically means that they really only like their words to have one kind of vowel in them, either back vowels (a, u, o) or front vowels (e, i, ö, ü). Mixing them up in the same word is not ok. So, iskolaban, "at school," but étteremben, "at (a) restaurant."

Here's my favorite (by which I mean absolute least favorite) head-scratching bit of Hungarian grammar so far: the language distinguishes between sentences which are "definite" and "indefinite" with respect to the direct object of the sentence, if there is one. That is to say that Hungarian finds the statements "I see a house" and "I see the house" (in which the latter refers to a specific house and the former does not) to be different in a significant way, and this difference must be noted by a change in the grammar of the language. The unfortunate task of marking the distinction falls to the verb, and as such, all (transitive) Hungarian verbs have two conjugations: definite and indefinite. Quite annoyingly, Hungarians are generally not aware that they do this, nor are they able to explain it when confronted with the awkward reality that the verb "I see" in the aforementioned sentences is different: Látok egy házat, "I see a house." Látom a házat, "I see the house." This difference between definite and indefinite persists throughout the entire conjugation of the Hungarian verb.

My real gripe with this odd distinction is that it is totally meaningless and serves no ostensible purpose other than to complicate the language needlessly. To speak incorrectly and say Látok a házat will certainly betray your non-native proficiency, but in reality there is no lost information, no difference in actual meaning. It's simply that the language wants látom there, not látok, for reasons which are beyond my comprehension. [If a scholar of Hungarian has an explanation for this otherwise baffling grammatical anomaly, please do comment below.]

Although my understanding of the language is still quite rudimentary, I nevertheless could cite several more examples demonstrating the utter chaos which is the Hungarian language. Every time I open my Hungarian grammar book, I'm immediately greeted with a new reason to close it. Still, it is quite an extraordinary way of communicating, and to me nothing short of a miracle that Hungary has held on to this unique language for so long. It would certainly be a shame if we ever lost it.

If you're curious as to what Hungarian sounds like, here's a random news broadcast. What do you think? To me it's sort of a mix of German and Slavic languages, although at the same time sounding distinctly like neither. It's definitely unique. So, how's my Hungarian coming? Not well, but I swear it's not my fault!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Response to William Lane Craig

Dr. William Lane Craig is a well-known Christian Apologist philosopher and theologian. He operates a website called (and I assume he means this without irony) On his website you can listen to podcasts about how awful atheism is, why gay marriage is bad, and even buy books for children with clever titles like "What Is God Like? God Is All-Good!" (not making this up.)

He also has several compositions available to read, one of which is entitled "The Absurdity of Life Without God." Since I will probably never be invited to debate with Dr. Craig in person (although many people much smarter than I have been - just search for Dr. Craig on YouTube), I'll just publish my reactions to his assertions here in my own webspace.

Now, this particular article of Dr. Craig's is rather lengthy, and it contains several extended quotes from other authors and philosophers, as well as some anecdotes, so for the sake of brevity I won't reproduce the entire thing here. Rather, I'll quote parts of Dr. Craig's writings directly and then respond thereafter, keeping the order of the original text. Please don't accuse me of cherry-picking; I could respond to every single sentence.

Or, if you'd simply like the Reader's Digest version of what Dr. Craig thinks and why I think he has the brain of a six year old, I can sum it up like this:
  • Dr. Craig thinks that life without God would be so utterly hopeless and terrible that it cannot in fact be true, so therefore Biblical Christianity is the only reasonable choice.
  • I accuse Dr. Craig of repeatedly employing two logical fallacies in putting forth his arguments: the so-called argument from personal incredulity and false dichotomy.
That's everything in a nutshell. The slightly longer-winded version goes like this, with Dr. Craig's text in italics and my reactions immediately following.
The Absurdity of Life without God
William Lane Craig

Why on atheism life has no ultimate meaning, value, or purpose, and why this view is unlivable.

The Necessity of God and Immortality

Since the Enlightenment, when he threw off the shackles of religion, man has tried to answer these questions without reference to God. But the answers that came back were not exhilarating, but dark and terrible.
"Dark and terrible" is simply a matter of opinion. There is certainly no consensus that the answers to fundamental questions with God are flowery and cheerful, and without, dark and terrible. 
Modern man thought that when he had gotten rid of God, he had freed himself from all that repressed and stifled him. Instead, he discovered that in killing God, he had also killed himself. For if there is no God, then man's life becomes absurd.
Let me just stop you at the phrase "killing God," because that falsely implies that modern man has collectively ceased to believe in God. For many people, there was never a belief in God to begin with, so the killing metaphor is not apt. 
If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death.
This implies that, if God does exist, then somehow both man and the universe are not inevitably doomed to death. Perhaps this follows logically in Dr. Craig's brain, but he offers no evidence for this assertion whatsoever, and so it can be as freely dismissed as false as he freely asserts it to be true. Since this is basically the thesis of his entire article, I should really just stop here. I won't, though; the rest of it is just too silly to ignore. 
For though I know now that I exist, that I am alive, I also know that someday I will no longer exist, that I will no longer be, that I will die. This thought is staggering and threatening: to think that the person I call "myself" will cease to exist, that I will be no more!
Yeah, Epicurus solved this problem back in the 4th century BCE, but apparently Dr. Craig is still having some difficulty. The idea is pretty simple: once you're dead, you can't lament the fact that you're dead, because you're dead. You won't care that you're dead, because you can't. As long as you're alive, death is no concern, because you're not dead; when death comes, you're no longer alive. The fear of death is irrational, and any time spent freaking out about it, like Dr. Craig is doing, is wasted time.
And the universe, too, faces death. Scientists tell us that the universe is expanding, and everything in it is growing farther and farther apart. As it does so, it grows colder and colder, and its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. There will be no light at all; there will be no heat; there will be no life; only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space—a universe in ruins. So not only is the life of each individual person doomed; the entire human race is doomed. There is no escape. There is no hope.
...and? What if this is the truth? It seems to be true, from what we can observe about the natural world. This is the conclusion reached from the data we have. Sorry if this is somehow upsetting to Dr. Craig - that doesn't make it any less possible. 
The Absurdity of Life without God and Immortality
If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.
...and? What if this is the truth? This is also a fallacy of false dichotomy. Dr. Craig seems to think that there are two possibilities, and two alone: there's no God and life is absurd, or there's a God and life has meaning. This ignores the possibilities that there is no God and life has meaning from some other source, and there is a God but life still has no meaning. Dr. Craig must explain away these other two possibilities if we're to accept his dichotomy. He does address the first one later, but the second - that a God exists but life is still absurd - is never addressed. He also offers no positive evidence to support the link between God existing and life having "ultimate significance, value, [and] purpose." Apparently to him one entails the other, but this is simply assumed to be true and never proven. 
No Ultimate Meaning without Immortality and God
If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all? His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events? If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate meaning of influencing any of them? Ultimately it makes no difference.
 ...and? What if this is the truth? Dr. Craig seems to demand that each individual life have ultimate significance and meaning, as if the universe owes this to us. There is no rational motivation for making this claim; he simply finds the negation of it so utterly depressing that it can't possibly be true. This is the fallacy of argument from personal incredulity, which may as well be renamed the Dr. William Lane Craig fallacy, for as often as he succumbs to it.
And the same is true of each individual person. The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good men everywhere to better the lot of the human race--all these come to nothing. This is the horror of modern man: because he ends in nothing, he is nothing.
The failure here is in separating ultimate meaning (defined as something which persists not just after the death of the individual, but after the death of the universe) and meaning while we're alive. This is the popular claim that atheism leads to nihilism, which is manifestly not true (as a great many atheists are not nihilists.) While it's apparently true that, ultimately, none of our actions means anything, it is not true that they are meaningless while we're alive. I do not agree that the fact that eventually we'll all be gone means that there's no point in any of us doing anything while we're here. I see great value in contributing to the general happiness and prosperity of mankind while we're all permitted existence during this brief period. Dr. Craig finds it impossible to do this without invoking God, and again I'll reiterate that he never makes explicit exactly how God's existence remedies this supposed problem. 
But it is important to see that it is not just immortality that man needs if life is to be meaningful. Mere duration of existence does not make that existence meaningful. If man and the universe could exist forever, but if there were no God, their existence would still have no ultimate significance. Now if God does not exist, our lives are just like that. They could go on and on and still be utterly without meaning. We could still ask of life, "So what?" So it is not just immortality man needs if life is to be ultimately significant; he needs God and immortality. And if God does not exist, then he has neither.
Dr. Craig believes that he has somehow established that immortality is necessary for meaning in life, even though he has only offered negative evidence for the opposite of his claim and no positive evidence for the affirmation of it. Nevertheless, he makes a second leap, namely that we also need God for meaning, not just immortality. Again, please note that nowhere in here does he even come close to attempting to explain just why God's existence equals meaning in our lives. This goes utterly unexplained, as if it's so obvious that it needn't be expressed.
French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus understood this, too. Sartre portrayed life in his play No Exit as hell—the final line of the play are the words of resignation, "Well, let's get on with it." Hence, Sartre writes elsewhere of the "nausea" of existence. Camus, too, saw life as absurd. At the end of his brief novel The Stranger, Camus's hero discovers in a flash of insight that the universe has no meaning and there is no God to give it one.
Kudos for defaulting to the experts on the absurd life, as the existentialists really do it best. Still, this is not an argument that the existentialist position is false, but rather that it's quite unpleasant. This is an assertion that many existentialists would agree with anyway. The question of whether or not the existentialist position is true is affected in no way by whether or not it is pleasant. Dr. Craig still can't seem to divorce the two in his head. For him, it's impossible that we live in a word which sucks, so therefore we don't. At this point the most difficult thing to understand is why so many people take this man's opinions seriously. 
No Ultimate Value Without Immortality and God
If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or as a saint. Since one's destiny is ultimately unrelated to one's behavior, you may as well just live as you please. Sacrifice for another person would be stupid.
See my above retort about life having no meaning because it is not eternal. I see nothing inherently problematic about a statement like "sacrifice for another person would be stupid" regardless of the immortality of man. There's another large problem with this argument, which actually makes Dr. Craig look like the far less moral person: which is the more morally-sound person of these two - the man who doesn't murder his neighbor because he feels that this is somehow inherently unjust and damaging to society, or the man who doesn't murder his neighbor because the Bible says not to, and he fears celestial retribution? If you really need to be told by God that murder is wrong, then it sounds to me like you're really just a frustrated would-be murderer, not a moral person. The idea that we get our morality from God or the Bible (two different arguments entirely, by the way) is a joke. This is yet another false dichotomy as well: Dr. Craig does not allow the possibility that an unjust God would exist, or a God who was completely indifferent about the issue of morality. There's no reason to dismiss these possibilities and only grant that, either there's no God and we live in a moral free-for-all, or there is a God and there is ultimate moral value.
But the problem becomes even worse. For, regardless of immortality, if there is no God, then there can be no objective standards of right and wrong. Moral values are either just expressions of personal taste or the by-products of socio-biological evolution and conditioning.
Again, this makes the assumption that if God exists, he will without question be a moral authority. There is no good reason to assume this and dismiss any other possibilities. What if God exists, but he is completely indifferent to what we do? What if he exists, but he is patently evil, and what he thinks is right is generally the opposite of what most people hold as moral? If Dr. Craig is offering the Bible as his version of objective standards of right and wrong (a reasonable assumption, since he's a Christian Apologist), then he must be an extremely warped person of whom I would be rather distrusting. Seriously, if you really want to make the argument that moral standards come from the Bible, read the Bible. There's no way you'll get through the Pentateuch with that view still firmly intact.
In a world without God, who is to say which values are right and which are wrong?
Lots of people. Parents, judicial systems, our own biological instincts, as Dr. Craig mentioned above...
The concept of morality loses all meaning in a universe without God. In a world without God, there can be no objective right and wrong, only our culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments.
This is an utter non-sequitur. The concept of morality will always exist, because people will always have an idea about what is right and what is wrong. They may not agree, but this is not the same as there being no meaning to anyone's opinion. Why denigrate our "culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments?" What happens when God and his moral authority say that, for example, homosexuality is a sin, but society starts to feel differently? Many, many people in the US firmly disagree with God on this issue, and an increasing number of state legislatures as well. It is not unreasonable to assume that, after some time, gay marriage will be legal everywhere in the US. What about when equality for everyone seems to be the morally correct course of action to society at large, but God and his moral authority say no? Evolutionary biology provides some insights as to why we might inherently find murder and stealing to be wrong. In this case it's even easier than usual to dismiss Dr. Craig's assertion as manifestly false.
This means that it is impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, and love as good.
No, it isn't. The question of whence comes our ultimate knowledge of right and wrong is an extremely complicated one. There are over seven billion people in the world, and the vast majority of those people are not Christians. They obviously get their morality from somewhere other than the Bible. I've never heard of a society that doesn't have basic laws like "don't murder" and "don't steal," including those in ancient times which predated the Abrahamic religions.
For in a universe without God, good and evil do not exist—there is only the bare valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say you are right and I am wrong.
...and? What if this is the truth? Sorry to sound like a broken record, but just because you don't want to live in a world with no moral absolutes doesn't mean that you don't, or that you can't. 
No Ultimate Purpose Without Immortality and God
If death stands with open arms at the end of life's trail, then what is the goal of life? Is it all for nothing? Is there no reason for life? And what of the universe? Is it utterly pointless? If its destiny is a cold grave in the recesses of outer space the answer must be, yes—it is pointless.
...and? What if this is the truth? Yet again, false dichotomy. Dr. Craig never spells out exactly how the existence of God somehow automatically provides meaning to life.
But more than that: even if it did not end in death, without God life would still be without purpose. For man and the universe would then be simple accidents of chance, thrust into existence for no reason. Without God the universe is the result of a cosmic accident, a chance explosion. There is no reason for which it exists.
Yes, this is a much better explanation: God created the entire expanse of the universe so that a small collection of people on one planet could worship him for a short amount of time before they are destroyed by the universe he created. Very meaningful.
As for man, he is a freak of nature— a blind product of matter plus time plus chance. Man is just a lump of slime that evolved rationality.
This is merely one way of looking at it, and a quite morose one at that. Evidence does suggest that we are indeed a "lump of slime that evolved rationally," although I'd rather spend my time marveling at the incredible events which had to take place for life to exist rather than reducing it all to nothing simply because God had nothing to do with it. 
Do you understand the gravity of the alternatives before us? For if God exists, then there is hope for man. But if God does not exist, then all we are left with is despair. Do you understand why the question of God's existence is so vital to man?
Do you understand that you haven't even proven the premises of your argument, so that it does not produce a valid conclusion? Why is there hope for man simply because God exists? Do you understand that it's entirely possible that "all we are left with is despair?" Do you understand why the question of God's existence must be answered by facts and evidence, not emotions and wishful thinking?
Unfortunately, the mass of mankind do not realize this fact.
Unfortunately, Dr. Craig does not know the meaning of the word "fact."
They continue on as though nothing has changed.
That's because nothing has changed. Some people believe in God, some people don't. This has been the case for every culture in the history of mankind.
But Nietzsche predicted that someday people would realize the implications of their atheism; and this realization would usher in an age of nihilism—the destruction of all meaning and value in life.
People who are atheists are perfectly happy with the implications of atheism, because we're living in a world which is reconciled with observable reality. The only people who see utter despair in a world without God are sheep like Dr. Craig, who is simply incapable of being an adult and accepting reality. I assume as an 8 year old he wrote books about how absurd life would be if there were no Santa Claus. Dr. Craig here invokes Nietzsche as if to suggest that we're now living in an age of nihilism, where there is no meaning and value in life. He provides no evidence of any sort to suggest that this is true.
Most people still do not reflect on the consequences of atheism and so, like the crowd in the marketplace, go unknowingly on their way. But when we realize, as did Nietzsche, what atheism implies, then his question presses hard upon us: how shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?
Have you spoken with "most people," Dr. Craig? Atheists don't go "unknowingly" in any way. Atheism is the result of a systematic evaluation of the nature of reality and the conclusion that the God hypothesis is unnecessary to account for anything in it. How shall we comfort ourselves? However we'd like. I have friends and family, hobbies, things that make me happy. I have the comfort of knowing that I've given serious thought to the nature of the universe and my place in it, and I've come to a conclusion that not only makes sense to me but doesn't rely on faith, bad evidence, and self-delusion. 
The Practical Impossibility of Atheism
The fundamental problem with this solution, however, is that it is impossible to live consistently and happily within such a world view. If one lives consistently, he will not be happy; if one lives happily, it is only because he is not consistent. Francis Schaeffer has explained this point well. Modern man, says Schaeffer, resides in a two-story universe. In the lower story is the finite world without God; here life is absurd, as we have seen. In the upper story are meaning, value, and purpose. Now modern man lives in the lower story because he believes there is no God. But he cannot live happily in such an absurd world; therefore, he continually makes leaps of faith into the upper story to affirm meaning, value, and purpose, even though he has no right to, since he does not believe in God.
Falsest of false dichotomies. This entire argument hinges on the unestablished premise that all meaning, value, and purpose come from God. Dr. Craig has done no work whatsoever to establish this as true, and so no argument can be built upon it. Sorry, but there's nothing preventing an atheist from finding meaning, value, and purpose in his life. It is not a contradiction, not an inconsistency. 
Meaning of Life
First, the area of meaning. We saw that without God, life has no meaning.
We did? I don't recall seeing that, because you didn't do anything to explain it. You also didn't even consider the possibility that God could exist and still there could be no meaning in life.
Yet philosophers continue to live as though life does have meaning. For example, Sartre argued that one may create meaning for his life by freely choosing to follow a certain course of action.
The audacity! How dare someone live life as though it has meaning when he doesn't believe in God? You atheists go over there in the corner and be miserable; happiness and meaning are only for us, the deluded!
Now this is utterly inconsistent. It is inconsistent to say life is objectively absurd and then to say one may create meaning for his life.
Why? Dr. Craig seems to think that atheists must be punished for their denial of God by not being allowed to have any meaning in their lives.
If life is really absurd, then man is trapped in the lower story. To try to create meaning in life represents a leap to the upper story. But Sartre has no basis for this leap. Without God, there can be no objective meaning in life.
Again, this bit about the lower story and the upper story. Why does God have a monopoly on the upper story, the part where we get meaning and value? It is never established how or why God and God alone leads to these things.
Sartre's program is actually an exercise in self-delusion. Sartre is really saying, "Let's pretend the universe has meaning." And this is just fooling ourselves.
At this point I considered that Dr. Craig is actually an atheist, and all of this is just a giant joke. A Christian of all people should have absolutely no problem with self-delusion, since it's the only way he can even get out of bed in the morning. 
Value of Life
Turn now to the problem of value. Here is where the most blatant inconsistencies occur. First of all, atheistic humanists are totally inconsistent in affirming the traditional values of love and brotherhood. Camus has been rightly criticized for inconsistently holding both to the absurdity of life and the ethics of human love and brotherhood. The two are logically incompatible.
I feel like in Dr. Craig's mind, atheists are like Darth Vader, and Christians are like Luke Skywalker. The dark side (atheism) has to be about death and anger and fear and hate, but the Christian side is all about love and generosity and self-sacrifice. God does not have a monopoly on virtue. People value things like love and brotherhood because it makes us feel good; these things are intrinsically and self-evidently positive. I see no contradiction in being nice to each other in a world that ultimately has no meaning. Dr. Craig seems to think that denial of God must by necessity lead to a chaotic world of anarchy in which people just go around murdering each other at will. Since the world is not this way, all he can do is accuse atheists and humanists of a contradiction. Well gee, sorry we're not conforming to your ridiculous notions of what a Godless world must look like.
A second problem is that if God does not exist and there is no immortality, then all the evil acts of men go unpunished and all the sacrifices of good men go unrewarded. But who can live with such a view?
This is why we have a judicial system. We don't rely on God's judgment, because actions need to have consequences in this lifetime, and so they do. We don't simply wag our fingers at a murderer and say "God's gonna get you, fella!" Nor do we pass over the good deeds of the generous and say, "We don't really care about what you did, but God will grant you many blessings in the afterlife!" The evil acts of men don't go unpunished, nor the sacrifices of good men unrewarded. 
Purpose of Life
We often find the same inconsistency among those who say that man and the universe came to exist for no reason or purpose, but just by chance. Unable to live in an impersonal universe in which everything is the product of blind chance, these persons begin to ascribe personality and motives to the physical processes themselves. It is a bizarre way of speaking and represents a leap from the lower to the upper story. For example, Francis Crick halfway through his book The Origin of the Genetic Code begins to spell nature with a capital "N" and elsewhere speaks of natural selection as being "clever" and as "thinking" of what it will do. Fred Hoyle, the English astronomer, attributes to the universe itself the qualities of God. For Carl Sagan the "Cosmos," which he always spells with a capital letter, obviously fills the role of a God-substitute. Though all these men profess not to believe in God, they smuggle in a God-substitute through the back door because they cannot bear to live in a universe in which everything is the chance result of impersonal forces.
This is a new and exciting logical fallacy introduced by Dr. Craig, namely the tu quoque fallacy. Basically Dr. Craig tacitly admits that the idea of God the Creator is stupid by calling attention to the fact that some atheists have done it with Nature and the Cosmos. Nevermind the fact that Carl Sagan spelling Cosmos with a capital letter because he "cannot bear to live in a universe in which everything is the chance result of impersonal forces" is an extremely spurious notion. Dr. Craig is being incredibly irresponsible in attributing thoughts to Carl Sagan which he certainly never expressed. Suddenly Dr. Craig has some particular insight into the true inner-workings of Carl Sagan's mind that the rest of us missed somehow.
And it's interesting to see many thinkers betray their views when they're pushed to their logical conclusions. For example, certain feminists have raised a storm of protest over Freudian sexual psychology because it is chauvinistic and degrading to women. And some psychologists have knuckled under and revised their theories. Now this is totally inconsistent. If Freudian psychology is really true, then it doesn't matter if it's degrading to women. You can't change the truth because you don't like what it leads to. But people cannot live consistently and happily in a world where other persons are devalued. Yet if God does not exist, then nobody has any value. Only if God exists can a person consistently support women's rights.
 At this point I just want to run to the nearest thing and kill it. You need only pay attention to the sections I've bolded here. You can't change the truth because you don't like what it leads to. That's right, Dr. Craig. You can't change the truth at all, in fact, because it's the truth, and it's immutable. The irony of a Christian invoking such an argument against someone else is so staggering that I think Dr. Craig must have a learning disability of some sort. The last statement is so utterly inconsistent with reality that it's laugh-out-loud ridiculous: Only if God exists can a person consistently support women's rights. This statement is patently false. The Abrahamic religions are unapologetically oppressive to women.  The only worldview which advocates equality is one in which we needn't listen to a bigoted, narcissistic, asshole God who doesn't believe that everyone is created equal. 
The dilemma of modern man is thus truly terrible. The atheistic world view is insufficient to maintain a happy and consistent life. Man cannot live consistently and happily as though life were ultimately without meaning, value, or purpose. If we try to live consistently within the atheistic world view, we shall find ourselves profoundly unhappy. If instead we manage to live happily, it is only by giving the lie to our world view.
Dr. Craig seems really upset at the notion that an atheist could live happily. This idea is obviously profoundly disturbing to him, that someone could actually be happy without God, and so he accuses happy atheists of being inconsistent, deluded liars. If you don't find meaning and value in your life in the extremely small-minded and arbitrary way that Dr. Craig allows it, then you're a liar. 
The Success of Biblical Christianity
But if atheism fails in this regard, what about biblical Christianity? According to the Christian world view, God does exist, and man's life does not end at the grave. In the resurrection body man may enjoy eternal life and fellowship with God. Biblical Christianity therefore provides the two conditions necessary for a meaningful, valuable, and purposeful life for man: God and immortality.
Ah, finally! There it is. This is the exciting alternative to despair offered by Biblical Christianity: fellowship with God forever. What does that even mean? We all just sit around talking or whatever? This idea of eternal life in heaven is such an obvious man-made by-product of our irrational fear of death that I can't believe people still actually believe it to be true.
Because of this, we can live consistently and happily. Thus, biblical Christianity succeeds precisely where atheism breaks down.
I can think of no more inconsistent and contradictory life than that of the Christian. Every single Christian cherry-picks verses from the Bible to follow dutifully while ignoring the vast amount of their sacred, holy, infallible text. Christians preach tolerance and yet on the whole are the least tolerant people in America. In fact, to be a Christian in America is from its very onset a contradiction: the First Commandment says "Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me." The First Amendment to the Constitution: Freedom of Speech, Assembly, Religion, and Press. Atheism doesn't break down. It simply leads to conclusions which Dr. Craig is unable to accept, and so he basically throws a tantrum and says "no!" 
Now I want to make it clear that I have not yet shown biblical Christianity to be true.
Oh don't feel bad about that; nobody else has yet done that either.
But what I have done is clearly spell out the alternatives.
You've spelled out one alternative, to the unjustified exclusion of others.
If God does not exist, then life is futile.
Nothing about this statement has any bearing on the truth of it.
If the God of the Bible does exist, then life is meaningful.
This is not in any way an affirmation that the God of the Bible does exist, and so we can literally replace the if clause in this statement with anything at all. If the flying spaghetti monster exists, then life is meaningful. If Arrested Development is renewed for another season, then life is meaningful.
Only the second of these two alternatives enables us to live happily and consistently. Therefore, it seems to me that even if the evidence for these two options were absolutely equal, a rational person ought to choose biblical Christianity.
The evidence for these two options is not absolutely equal. There's no evidence whatsoever for Biblical Christianity. This is a pointless hypothetical because it will never be realized. Yes, perhaps it would make more sense if the evidence were equal, but the whole point of the matter is that the evidence is not equal!
It seems to me positively irrational to prefer death, futility, and destruction to life, meaningfulness, and happiness. As Pascal said, we have nothing to lose and infinity to gain.
No rational person would say "I prefer death, futility, and destruction to life, meaningfulness, and happiness." The use of the verb prefer here is ridiculous. Atheists are simply concerned with what is true, and then we accept whatever consequences follow from the truth of reality. If it happens that life really is the result of random chance, then we need to deal with that reality and accept the conclusions which come from it. Unlike Dr. Craig and his Christian brethren, the atheist doesn't start with the conclusion and work backwards, desperately trying to reassure himself that it's true.

Dr. Craig seems completely unable to imagine a world in which there is meaning without God, and so he spends a great deal of time trying to prove that somehow it really is impossible. This is utter nonsense. I picture him walking around trying to make sure that people who don't believe in God aren't happy. "Hey, hey you over there! You weren't in church this morning! Be all despondent and melancholy! Otherwise you're living a lie!"

What an asshole. Fuck you, Dr. Craig.