Thursday, December 27, 2007

It's a "Brave New World", Mr. Bush

Think Progress » Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ Convinced Bush To Ban Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Isn't that neat? You can read the whole story above, but it's neatly encapsulated in the hyperlink.
The dystopian novel "Brave New World" had Bush freaking out over the possibilities that humans would one day be bred in hatcheries if the government supported stem-cell research. In a stunning stroke of political mastery, Bush angered both sides of the debate by refusing government funding for new stem cell lines while not banning stem cell research entirely. Feel free to read the whole article by Jay Lefkowitz (a presidential advisor), it really is an interesting scoop on how this president came to his decision.

As a first step, Bush asked me to prepare a set of background reading materials on the scientific aspects of stem-cell research. He also asked for a summary of the relevant laws of other countries, and a description of what the world’s leading religions had to say on the issue. Once I began turning in my memos, a day rarely passed when he did not call with a follow-up request or a question about something he had read. It was clear that in addition to the material I submitted, he was also finding other things to read and was talking about stem cells with friends and intimates.

One morning at 6:30, my wife summoned me from the shower to answer a call from the White House; the President had been speaking about the issue the night before with a friend and had a barrage of questions he wanted me to answer or look into immediately. At a ceremony in the Rose Garden, Bush saw a physician he knew and invited him back to the Oval Office where they spent fifteen minutes discussing stem cells. During a birthday party for a member of the White House medical unit, the President asked each of the doctors present to set forth his own position. At a gathering with medical groups and doctors to discuss the pending Patients’ Bill of Rights, he queried each physician about the scientific potential of stem-cell research, the ethical quandaries involved, and what the best public policy would be.

Bush also discussed the issue on many occasions with individual members of Congress, and spoke about it to nearly all the members of his Cabinet. (After one Cabinet meeting, Secretary of State Colin Powell followed him into the Oval Office to make sure Bush was aware of his views.) Nor did he confine himself to the precincts of the White House or of Washington. In May, traveling to Notre Dame to give the commencement speech, he spoke with the university’s president, Father Edward Malloy, and a number of scientists on the faculty. The next day, at Yale, he sat down with Harold Varmus, who had served under Clinton as director of the NIH and was the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Hmmmm, so I guess if you were anywhere within 300 miles of George W. Bush during this time, you probably had to fill out a survey on what you thought he should do. Great. Let's just have the Gallup organization serve a term as leader of the free world.
Mr. Lefkowitz makes it clear where he stands looking back on the issue:
In the coming decades, scientific advances will compel Presidents and politicians to confront vexing choices on subjects that were once solely the province of dystopian science fiction: human cloning, fetal farming, human-animal hybrid embryos, and situations as yet unimagined and unimaginable. If we are to benefit from the great promise of the age of biotechnology while preventing grave ethical abuses, we can only hope that future Presidents will be guided by the same seriousness with which George W. Bush pursued the question of stem-cell research, as well as by his stout refusal to be seduced by the siren song of political expediency. [emphasis mine]
I will be the first to agree that because science can do something, does not mean that it should do something. However, I think the point of view advocated above is so hysterical, so over the top, that it is almost humorous. Or it would be if it weren't the point of view shared by so many stem-cell research opponents. It's going to be a while before GoatBoy becomes palatable. Hopefully never. However, if you are opposed to these sorts of things, then you have already missed the boat. Sundry animals and their parts have been used for years to prolong human life, and you can't stuff that genie back in the bottle. From new heart valves to pig insulin, the easiest way to save human life is to rig up our own solutions until science produces something better. There sure doesn't appear to have been any intelligent design from the start.
It's also worth remembering that the stem cell debate is not the same as the cloning debate and neither is the same as the xenotransplantation debate. There are well-reasoned arguments on both sides, but I don't believe 1930's fiction should serve as the deciding factor when it comes to national science policy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Survey: Most Americans Believe in Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ |

Survey: Most Americans Believe in Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ |

I'm pretty sure that sampling 1,005 adults by a "christian polling organization" is going to return these kinds of results, but here goes. Highlights:

  • Respondents were apparently asked whether they believed that the following stories were "factually accurate" or "meant to teach principles"
    • Virgin-birth of Christ
    • Christ turning water into wine
    • Christ feeding the multitudes with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish
    • Noah's ark & the flood
    • Serpent (devil) tempting Eve to eat the forbidden fruit
    • Samson's strength being derived from his hair & loss of strength after Delilah cut it.

Once again, I am nearly speechless. As I was explaining here, if you are a biblical literalist, we don't really have anything to discuss. It takes such a willful disregard for facts, biology, even the laws of physics as we know them, that a discussion between us is bound to be unproductive. I think I could almost grant you that biblical stories are meant to be allegorical and a way to teach morality if it weren't for all the incest, genocide, torture, slavery, murder, etc... in the "good book".
However, if there is truly 75% of the American population that literally believes that Jeebus was born from a virgin I might really have to abandon this country. I'm moving to Norway. Luckily, I'm quite certain that the Christian anti-science bias and ignorance of scientific method extends to the area of statistical analysis and polling science.

Pastors Urge Wal-Mart to Repent This Christmas |

Pastors Urge Wal-Mart to Repent This Christmas |

A national television ad campaign featuring two prominent Baptist ministers who call on Wal-Mart to give the gift of economic justice this Christmas was launched Monday.

"The Bible says, 'To whom much is given, much is required,'" says the Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, interim pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church of Nashville, in the television ad which is being aired in 35 markets across the country.

I am amazed. I cannot stand these looters that are more than happy to tell anyone and everyone ELSE how to spend the money that they earned. What was Wal-mart given, that much should be required of them? Isn't providing an enormous variety of low-cost goods in an extremely efficient manner while providing thousands (millions?) of jobs enough? Further:

The ad is part of the third annual "Hope for the Holidays" campaign by, which spent over $1.5 million in radio and TV ads to draw attention to the retail giant’s unique responsibility toward the communities it represents.

The Rev. Markel Hutchins, a Baptist minister who heads Markel Hutchins Ministries, also joins Johnson in the ad to call on the multi-billion-dollar corporation to be a better “neighbor” to its communities this Christmas by paying fair wage, providing affordable healthcare, and ensuring the safety of the goods it sells.

So this is the THIRD ANNUAL "Hope for the Holidays" campaign, which has spent over $1.5 million in ads. Hmm, I'm surprised that a church group (Markel Hutchins Ministries- come on!) has that kind of dough to blow on criticizing Walmart. Wouldn't that money be better spent in fighting back in the "War on Christmas"? Or doing anything else????? Oh, maybe it's because the ad campaign is funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Hmm, I wonder if they have a dog in this fight?

More prattle:

“Wal-Mart is not the epitome of all unfairness and injustice in the world but it’s just that they are the biggest,” said Johnson in an interview with The Christian Post. “We want these corporate neighbors to have more equitable policies for their employees.”

The church has the role to be “a voice for fairness and justice in an economic system that is increasingly creating disparities,” said Johnson, a visiting Instructor of Preaching at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta.

“Justice is figuring out what belongs to whom and giving it to them,” he added. “A decent wage is what belongs to the people of God who are workers.”

From a short-term perspective, one may think that Wal-Mart can accrue more profits by keeping its current employment policies, said Johnson. But he believes that through reform, the company can reap greater benefits in the long run.

“It’s not rocket science to see that that will cultivate a more dedicated, more loyal partner in your business,” asserted Johnson.

What a title: visiting Instructor of Preaching at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University. Not really sure what a visiting Instructor of Preaching understands about economic theory, but apparently he's a also rocket scientist! Who is the "more dedicated, more loyal partner" that Wal-mart will attract by cutting their own competitive throat?

This is pure greed and class warfare, masquerading as a search for equality and justice. Wal-mart has money, tons of money. This means that they do their job very well. However, that money does not belong to Wal-mart. It belongs to the shareholders, which have elected a board to decide how Wal-mart should allocate the resources so they continue to make money for the shareholders. Here's another thing I've never understood about the low-wage critics: why do people agree to work there? If the wages suck, go work somewhere else. Or go to school so you're qualified for a better job. Or if they are really that bad, don't work at all. If they don't pay health insurance benefits, get them on your own, or find a better job. Since when is working at Wal-mart supposed to be the highest position on the food-chain!?

Proceed with Caution! | God Hates Crustaceans

Proceed with Caution! | God Hates Crustaceans

Lobsters, crabs, crayfish, prawns … seafood lovers everywhere relish the mention of such culinary delights. But there’s much more to know about these shellfish than simply how tastily they can be served up on a plate. You need to be aware that that tasty morsel you'd love to eat will cause you to burn in hell for all eternity.
Leviticus 11:9-12 says:

These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat. And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination. Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.

Satan Lurks in Seafood Restaurants!

Satan, through his demonic ally Neptune, has placed these tempting abominations in nearly every body of water on this planet, including both fresh and salt waters.

In addition, as part of his evil plan to confuse and overcome the righteous, he has also placed in various locations around the planet what appear to be ancient fossils of Crustacean-like appearance. Some seem to be over 6,000 years old, according to so-called Scientists.


Certain cities have become associated with some of these forbidden foods.

In the USA, the city of New Orleans was smote with hurricane Katrina because of all the seafood restaurants that specialize in tempting the faithful with spicy, tasty, delicious shellfish. God has rendered judgement on creole cuisine.

If I lived in Maryland I'd be very careful about where I go to eat.

The entire state of Maine has been given over to the Red Lobster Conspiracy.

San Francisco may be completely a lost cause, as there are seafood restaurants in almost every neighborhood.

Many thought that the great tsunami of December 26, 2004 was a natural disaster. In fact it was God purging the shorelines of abominations such as lobster traps and clam infestations.

Help protect America from the wrath of God, take your whole family and your lawyers with you, and picket the funeral of a dead lobsterman today!


Teach the Bible in Schools...Please! : The Antipath

Teach the Bible in Schools...Please! : The Antipath

Hilarious!! Full text below:

Teach the Bible in Schools…Please!

Since this issue hasn’t gone away yet, I just wanted to register my opinion that the Bible should be taught in public schools. I’d love that. In fact, just to help facilitate this, I thought I’d do a favor to any local school board weighing the issue and come up with a course curriculum for them.

The History of the Bible - Course Curriculum:

First quarter: Students will study the historic context of the old testament, including slavery, the inferiority of women, etc., and develop an understanding of how these social attitudes are mirrored by the main character, God, in his rules regarding exactly how slaves should be treated and how best to own your women. Exercises will include female students shutting up and baking pies for the male students, while male students create a deity and decide whether or not that deity approves of the pre-established pie-baking and shutting-up system.

Second quarter: Students will study the historic context of the new testament, including reviewing the history of the gospels; namely the men who wrote them and how they could have done so having never knew Jesus. Discussion will include an exercise known as the “telephone game”.

Third quarter: Students will study the creation of the modern-day bible by the Roman Empire. Topics will include the merging of Christian holidays with Pagan traditions and other marketing techniques employed in the selling of Christianity to the empire’s subjects, as well as a lesson on the books that the Romans omitted from the bible because they didn’t fit with the rest. Discussion will include students presenting ideas on how the Romans might have decided for God which books were His word and which were fiction, as well as ideas on what the Roman’s previous god Saturn might have thought about this process.

Fourth quarter: Students will study the various translations of the bible and learn to draw relationships between the results of translation and the goals of the translators. Discussion will include a review of substantial differences in various translations and students will compare key passages and how they appear in the Hebrew, King James, Good News, Esperanto and Klingon versions of the bible.

Goal: Students will come away from this class with the understanding that the Bible was never handed down from man from the ether, but rather a collection of books written by men, edited by other men, translated by more men and interpreted by even more men, with vastly divergent results. For their final exam they will be asked to write three page essay on why a flawless and perfect being might choose such a retarded method for communicating such important ideas when such direct methods as sky-writing and speaking through flaming shrubbery would be readily available.

Bring it on, baby!

Friday, December 14, 2007 The O'Reilly Factor Flash

Ok, I'm really sorry that I couldn't find transcripts of this segment on the Bill O'Reilly show that aired (in my area) last night on my way home from work. I wanted to bang my head on the steering wheel. Below, I've got the link and the segment info from the O'Reilly website, but I couldn't believe the stupidity I heard. I know, I know, I should have known what I was in for. . . The O'Reilly Factor Flash: "Impact Segment Religion and the Republican race
In debates and interviews, Republicans are being asked more about religion and faith than terrorism or the economy. The Factor suggested that the emphasis on religion fits with the media's agenda. 'If the media can keep the argument on Jesus and not on terrorism, it's a big win for the Democrats. This is a joyful season for the left if they can keep Jesus in the Republican primary.' Former White House spokesman Tony Snow pointed out that most journalists are cut from the same cloth. 'The journalism establishment is filled with people who don't go to church, the vast majority are not observant. They tend to think of religious people as quacks, when in fact they form the backbone of the public. This reflects a mindset that's totally out of synch with the American people.'"
Ummm, wait, what? Now it's the left that is injecting religion into the debate????? Wow, I remember "doublethink/doublespeak" from 1984, but I have never heard a more concrete example of taking facts, changing them until they are the complete opposite, then passing that off as true.

I've heard the call. I believe God wants me to run for president.
-- George W Bush, quoted from Aaron Latham, "How George W Found God," George Magazine, September, 2000

O'Reilly's first point is that the media is largely secular, and aligned with the left. Fine, I can buy that. From that, he gets that the liberal media keeps asking Republicans about the finer points of their religion because the more they talk about religion, the sillier they sound and therefore become less likely to be elected while making Democrats look good by contrast. I fully agree that the more they talk about religion, the sillier they sound. But rather than that being an indictment of the media, it is an indictment of religion. Secondly, Democrats are not the ones who started talking about religion in the political sphere. Faith-based initiatives? That wasn't us.

"The very first act of the new Bush administration was to have a Protestant Evangelist minister officially dedicate the inauguration to Jesus Christ, whom he declared to be 'our savior.' Invoking 'the Father, the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ' and 'the Holy Spirit,' Billy Graham's son, the man selected by President George W Bush to bless his presidency, excluded the tens of millions of Americans who are Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Unitarians, agnostics, and atheists from his blessing by his particularistic and parochial language.
"The plain message conveyed by the new administration is that George W Bush's America is a Christian nation and that non-Christians are welcome into the tent so long as they agree to accept their status as a tolerated minority rather than as fully equal citizens. In effect, Bush is saying: 'This is our home, and in our home we pray to Jesus as our savior. If you want to be a guest in our home, you must accept the way we pray.'"
-- Alan M Dershowitz, in "Bush Starts Off by Defying the the Constitution," Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2001

Does anyone seriously believe that the left is the group behind injecting religion into the presidential race?

O'Reilly goes on to argue that the best president in modern memory (Reagan) was secular and the worst (Carter) wore his religion on his sleeve. There may be something to this, but the thrust of his argument was that religion is best left out of the debate. If I were sitting in a chair, I would have fallen out of it.

I get it Bill. I do, I really understand what you've been doing. You're the "no-spin" guy, right? As far as I can tell, all that means is that you can say whatever wacky, inane thing you want and then when you don't make any sense, you can say, "Hey, that's the no-spin position. If you don't like it, you're obviously trying to spin the issue."

Sadly, we do have a need to know as much as we can about the candidate's particular religious beliefs. If you believe that a 2000 year-old Jewish zombie is someday coming back, I want to know that about a candidate before I vote for them. If you believe that 72 virgins await martyrs in some idyllic paradise (although presumably not so idyllic for the virgins), then I have a right to question your basic sanity. All hyperbole aside, I need to know if your particular supernatural beliefs are going to influence your policies.

I was telling my wife the other night that I'm not so concerned about all the minutiae involved in the debate, but it's getting to the point that if you are religious I think that, in many ways, is mutually exclusive with being a reasonable, logical person. If you believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old, we don't have that much more to talk about. We're obviously not going to agree on environmental policy if you think the whole earth was created in 7 days. I can't listen to your position on taxes, or health care, or education, much less your ideas about more religiously charged topics like abortion, gay rights, stem cells, or even foreign policy. We're pretty much done at that point, and I can't take you seriously anymore. Can you see where I'm coming from? The inmates are out of the asylum and are running for president, unfortunately they all have a god-complex. In a future post, I will talk more about the process of an atheist choosing who to vote for, but I want to know: how do you decide which candidate merits your vote?

This isn't a trite question to finish off this post, it's something that I've been thinking about for a while. There really isn't a candidate that I'm with 100%, so there necessarily has to be some kind of prioritization of issues, even if it's subconscious. In other words: if Candidate A agrees with your positions on domestic policy, but not foreign policy, do they still get your vote? What if they agree with everything you believe, but they are a Mormon-- does that one issue make-or-break their candidacy in your mind?

EDIT: I found this website today with many cartoons and quotations supporting my position. :)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007 "We're on a Mission from God...[the Rest of You Will Burn in Hell]"

OK, just as soon as I post about why atheists are so angry and how we're not going to play nice, I find this on "We're on a Mission from God...[the Rest of You Will Burn in Hell]"

Maybe it's not the atheists who are bitter and hard to get along with!

America’s atheists | Believe it or not |

America’s atheists | Believe it or not |

Believe it! According to The Economist article linked above, atheists in America would have a better chance at effecting change if we were to stop "picking the wrong fights." Of course, that's not our only problem, they also cite other reasons:

What accounts for the failure of atheists to organise and wield influence? One problem is that they are hardly a cohesive group. Another issue is simply branding. “Atheist” has an ugly ring in American ears and it merely defines what people are not. “Godless” is worse, its derogatory attachment to “communist” may never be broken. “Humanist” sounds too hippyish. A few have taken to calling themselves “Brights” for no good reason and to widespread mirth. And “secular” isn’t quite the word either; one can be a Christian secularist.
But none of that comes close to our biggest problem, which The Economist opines is our meanness. Sound familiar to anyone else??? We have been accused for years of being unpleasant anyway. I suppose that these criticisms are correct, at least to a certain extent. Many of us choose to speak out in favor of the separation of church and state wherever violations appear, rather than only when more groups are on our side. If that strikes some as petty, what can we do?
Also, the "new atheist" authors have brought this issue to the forefront with both the style and content of their writings. We have been criticized as "militant," "fundamentalist," "dogmatic" or just plain "rude". The root of the problem, again according to The Economist:
But another failing of the irreligious movement has been its tendency, frequently, to pick the wrong fights. Keeping the Ten Commandments out of an Alabama courthouse is one thing. But attacking a Christmas nativity scene on public property does more harm than good. Such secular crusades allow Christians—after all, the overwhelming majority of the country—to feel under attack, and even to declare that they are on the defensive in a “War on Christmas”. When a liberal federal court in California struck the words “under God” from the pledge of allegiance, religious conservatives rallied. Atheists might be tactically wise to accept the overwhelming majority’s comfort with such “ceremonial deism”.
OK, fair enough. We piss off a lot of people. And I'm all for strategy in the fight. But I will never understand why anyone feels that we should be satisfied with half-measures. But if these things piss off Christians, why wouldn't they be any more inclined to support our stand when it comes to "areas where American religiosity can do harm—over-aggressive proselytising in the armed forces, undermining science or AIDS programmes, alienating minorities at home and Muslims abroad". Can anyone say "stem cells?" How about other areas: gay rights? Abortion? Intelligent Design vs. Science in the classroom?
No, I'm afraid making nice with the religious will not make them any more likely to support a reasoned approach to any of the above. Therefore, what incentive do we have to abandon the quest for well-thought out policies at all levels of government? Or the constitutional right to separation of church and state?

Monday, December 10, 2007

The 9 most badass bible verses. . . (

If you didn't know this stuff was in your bible, you might be Christian. LOL

My favorite illustration:

Saturday, December 8, 2007


Violence in the Heartland

Well, my letter to the editor did get published, albeit in a slightly altered form. I suppose it's for the best as they did tone down the sarcasm. Anyway, the firestorm over "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas" has really taken a backseat in the wake of the shooting that took place at one of Omaha's largest and best-known malls. At times like these, those kinds of disagreements over the proper structure for greeting someone during this time of year seem even more petty than usual. I must say it is a little surreal to go to work and hear the national news discussing it. It's a trite sentiment, possibly even a cliche at this point, but you never really expect it to happen here. I suppose it's also at times like these that many people search for the deeper meaning, search for solace in religion. As the years go by, I find this becoming more and more nonsensical to me. I mean, I realize that many people find comfort during trying times through religion. I am just not one of those people, and I don't really understand how they make the leap. To me, it's pretty cut-and-dried: we have a teenage kid who has undergone years of mental treatment on an in-patient basis, never really had a relationship with either of his parents, a high-school dropout, loses his job (at McDonald's) and his girlfriend all in the span of about 2 weeks right before the holidays and SNAPS- kills 8 people and then himself. The only thing that was surprising to me once details about the shooter started to emerge is that he went back and got his G.E.D. In any case, there's no need to search for a supernatural explanation for all of this, it's a pretty stark example of multiple failures in the field of child-rearing and mental illness combining in a horrific display of brutality. But I sometimes wonder what lessons would I take away from this if I were Christian- or religious at all for that matter? That God hates malls? He was upset with these particular holiday shoppers and used this young man as a tool to exact his vengeance (a la the Old Testament)? That God loves us and wants us to be happy? God has a plan for everyone? I guess I never understand how to get to solace from all these kinds of questions.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Comix, witticisms, etc...

Every so often, as I'm stumbling around the web, something catches my eye. Google's Notebook is awesome for stuff like this. Stuff that I don't really need to bookmark, but would like to have later to refer to. It's ended up in practice being a place for me put witty little comics and pics from the internets that make me chuckle. I envision this being a semi-regular kind of posting that shows you what's made the cut for atheist stuff this week. Here goes :) BTW, I'm trying as best I can to give credit to where I found the item if I don't know where it originally came from.

From Sinfest:

Kiss Hank's Ass- a classic story with a modern interpretation, finely dusted with satire.

The Atheist Delusion on You Tube - again, satire rules! This is NOT the Kirk Cameron banana debate, although that is hilarious too!

I'm cracking up lately, with this "Raptor Jesus" phenomenon- just google it if you don't know! This one came from Smelly Bean

This comic from the Atheist Community of Austin I have found to be reliably funny in its satirical mission:

I'm not sure of the derivation of this, but it's poking fun at the lolcat phenomenon at the same time :) I found it at

Again, I'm not sure about where this came from, but I thought it was hilarious! For what god has wrought, let no man break asunder . . . :) I found it at

This whole intelligent design debate reminds me of Candide from the French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. It's brilliant, and if you haven't read it yet, you should. This one came from

This chart came from If you don't know the meaning of nullifidian, take a moment and click here. It's a fun word to say : )

This is from De-Conversion, one of my favorite blogs. Or perhaps I should rephrase: I first saw this comic on De-Conversion, but it's really from a parody of a Chick Tract. If you are familiar with those, please enjoy the full version here.

This is just funny! I found it at

Christmas vs. "holidays"

After reading the post from Radical Atheist on Thursday last week, I thought that there was no way we could be retreading this debate again this year. Apparently I was wrong. I opened my Omaha World Herald this morning to find the following letter to the editor:

True Spirit of Giving
It's time for America to wake up and realize that there is an ideology that is slowly eating away our traditions and beliefs. It's political correctness that began with Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin under the name partiinost meaning ideological purity.
Substituting "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas" and eliminating any reference to the birth of Jesus are perfect examples of political correctness. Traditionally, we celebrate Christmas by giving gifts to others to commemorate the greatest gift of all, the birth of Jesus Christ.
But what if for just one Christmas, every Christian gave money to charitable organization instead of buying presents? As the economy slipped, I believe we would find every business scrambling to wish us all a very "Merry Christmas."
If it were done for more than one Christmas, maybe we would eventually see elected officials gladly dedicating Nativity scenes on public properties, judges beginning to rule against the American Civil Liberties Union and the nation once again recognizing its traditional Judeo-Christian heritage.
Val Black, Shenandoah, Iowa

I'm now taking responses to the following question: Have you ever heard mindless drivel like this before? I think that it must be concentrated in this part of the country, at least that's what I've got to believe if I'm going to keep going. Anyway, I penned my response to the editor, below.
Val Black's December 2nd plea for more Christianity this time of year strikes me as non-sensical. The derivation of the word "holiday" comes from the middle English term for "holy day". Therefore, it is religious to say either "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays". Although perhaps that is a little too "politically correct" for Val Black to wish happiness to anyone if you can't prove they are Christian.
As for gift-giving during this season, it might surprise Val to learn that this tradition (along with many, many, others) was adopted by the Germanic tribes of Europe in the middle ages to mimic or replace those of pagan holidays at the same time of year. Luckily, we live in the United States of America, where we don't have to worry about "elected officials gladly dedicating Nativity scenes on public properties" or "judges beginning to rule against the American Civil Liberties Union" without a hearing. Yes, how lucky we are to live in this country where we have a separation of church and state and all are free to worship (or not!) as they see fit. And wishing "Happy Holidays" to someone does not make you a communist on par with Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin.
One would think that there are far greater things to be concerned about than someone inadvertently offending you by wishing you happiness in a format you deem inappropriate!
I would dearly have liked to write more, but they try to keep the submissions to about 200 words. Really though, the arrogance involved in this mindset staggers me every year. And what a manufactured controversy! Does anyone besides Bill O'Reilly and his followers really care about this? To say to everyone else that "IT DOESN'T COUNT UNLESS YOU SAY 'CHRISTMAS'!" blows my mind! The train of thought has to go something like this:

1. I am a Christian, therefore
2. Everyone must believe exactly the things that I do, therefore
3. Christmas has to be celebrated a certain way, because it's traditional to me, therefore
4. Anyone who varies from the way I want things done is a COMMUNIST & therefore Evil
5. And I will solve this by writing to my local paper- they will help me enforce conformity to my will!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Onion- classic

The Onion is hilarious. They are particularly skilled at realistic satire & social commentary. Their style convincingly mimics "real" journalists while providing biting indictments of their subject matter. I find them hilarious, especially when they are lampooning things that deserve lampooning. Or harpooning. Or whatever. . .

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Vandals and eggs and atheists, oh my!

In this story from the Chicago-area Daily Herald, we find out the sad state of the education system. I thought it was a pretty standard story about retaliation against atheists until I got to the last line of the story:

The vandalism likely was the retaliatory work of youngsters, police Sgt. Mike Millett said -- since it came on the heels of the school incident and because one of the chalked words, "Jesus," was misspelled.
See, this is why we need to put religion back into the schools. These devout youth need to be able to properly spell the name of their lord and savior when they are busy vandalizing the neighborhood. Today's vandal-on-the-go doesn't have time to drag a dictionary or bible around with them wherever they go, they need to know this stuff! Although, I think the article itself has it misspelled, I believe the technical spelling is "jeebus". Just trying to help out . . .

On a related topic, I noticed that Darwin Fish Wholesale has a "JEEBUS" car emblem now. How cool is that????

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Legalize it!

The Freakonomics blog has a great posting today :

On the Legalization — or Not — of Marijuana

Read it all, even the commenters seem to agree that it should be legalized. Sometimes you just have to admit it when you have a failed policy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Response: Sam Harris' "The Problem with Atheism"

In Sam Harris’ newest article (actually the text of a speech he gave at the Atheist Alliance Conference in Washington, D.C.), he makes an impassioned plea that atheists should not be known as such. Or, more properly, that they should not self-identify as an atheist. I recommend you read the entire speech, he makes a good case. I find myself in an unusual position in that I disagree wholeheartedly with him on this issue. I thought I disagreed with him in the past, but I was wrong. He was absolutely correct, and I was won over through the strength of his arguments. Not so, this time.

The main thrust of his argument is encapsulated in this quotation:

. . . We should not call ourselves ‘atheists.’ We should not call ourselves ‘secularists.’ We should not call ourselves ‘humanists,’ or ‘secular humanists,’ or ‘naturalists,’ or ‘skeptics,’ or ‘anti-theists,’ or ‘rationalists,’ or ‘freethinkers,’ or ‘brights.’ We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

He spends some time explaining that “atheist” is, at its root, an expression of negation, which makes it somewhat useless as a way to define oneself, especially vis-à-vis other people. Quoting Sam, “I think that ‘atheist’ is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people ‘non-astrologers.’” Further, he explains that racism used to be a widespread, everyday phenomenon in the United States. Even horrific, violent, deeply entrenched and institutionalized racism was not as rare as we would like to think. He explains that "there have been important, and I think, irrevocable changes in the way we talk about race. . . how many people have had to identify themselves as 'non-racists' to participate in this process?" Unfortunately, although all of this makes sense on the face of it, casual thought on the matter makes me realize that it's too facile to serve as a good metaphor for the struggle against theism.

First, while calling oneself an atheist is probably a useless way to define oneself in a vacuum, we do not live in a vacuum. There would be no need for a term like “atheist” if there were no “theists”, but that is not the world in which we find ourselves, no matter how desperately we wish it were. Whether atheism is a burgeoning movement or not remains to be seen, but I’d like to think of it as a revolution of sorts. And revolutions are inherently anti- status quo. Mr. Harris makes an intellectual gyration here, and insists that we should stand for reason and common sense, rather than against religion or ‘god(s)’ per se. Movements (revolutions?) are sometimes best defined in terms of what they are opposed to. Mr. Harris says that "atheism is not a worldview," but I'm afraid it is. Since I woke up and realized I was atheist, my worldview has been dramatically altered. It is a global change in the way I view everything-- the metaphors I use, the way I reflect on my actions and consequences of those actions, my political ideas, what is important to focus upon in my life, etc... If that is not a worldview, I don't know what else to call it.

This brings me to a related point. Many atheists are proud of the fact that they are atheists. There are extensive lines of bumper stickers, t-shirts, and related merchandise available to proclaim one’s lack of belief in the supernatural. I strongly doubt that a t-shirt or coffee mug reading "pro-reason" would command similar sales figures to those reading "godless atheist," "evildoer," "heretic," or "infidel". I also doubt that if one were to ask Sam Harris, "Are you an atheist?" that he would respond "No, but please allow me to tell you about reason and science".

Perhaps I should also explain that one of the primary reasons that Mr. Harris gives for preferring not to be so easily labeled is that people make assumptions based on those labels. As atheists, we are mind-numbingly aware of all of the arguments that believers use to attack us or shore up their defenses. I think Mr. Harris tires of responding to the same arguments over and over again, even though he has attempted to pre-empt so many of them with his other writing. As such, he's throwing in the towel; it's harder to attack something if you aren't sure what it is. From his perspective, it is so much easier for society as a whole to dismiss us as the lunatic fringe or to use canned arguments or sound-bite attacks against us once they know that we are "atheists". We should be "under the radar", it's safer that way. It seems to me this is completely backwards. The gay-pride movement did not start to gain any momentum until it became known as "gay-pride". The refusal to go away, the insistence on one's rights (even while in the minority), the appeal to change society at large-- these are all the hallmarks of great social movements. It's how monumental change occurs. This is the real reason why I can't support Mr. Harris' racism analogy: change occurred because people stood up and vociferously argued for what they believed in. It did not occur because there was an amorphous group of people that realized that racism was wrong and stealthily changed society. The civil-rights movement got loud, got organized, they made people uncomfortable, they made society change. It does not matter if this self-identification made it easier for racists to label them, or to use canned arguments to keep them in their place. They changed society because it was the right thing to do, and not just for themselves individually, but for society as a whole. This is the true heritage that atheists should lay claim to. Instead, we are too busy squabbling over the myriad ways we could name ourselves, or give ourselves a symbol (ostensibly to identify ourselves to one another), or which atheist group would be best to join. It's this tiresome rehashing of nomenclature that Mr. Harris alludes to in the first quotation above, but instead of advocating that people take action to make change occur, he changes the naming debate marginally.

Mr. Harris then changes tack, and argues that we should use this approach of stealth-atheism is we are more likely to win any given battle if we ally ourselves with those of faith with whom we might agree on any given situation. He uses the example of Mormonism. Atheists may have something in common with mainstream xians, in that neither one of us believes Mormonism is true. Therefore, we ought to somehow combine forces with those that agree with us, in some "enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend" shady logic. Quoting Harris again, "to be consistent as atheists, we must oppose, or seem to oppose, all faith claims equally. This is a waste of precious time and energy, and it squanders the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues." This may be true, but only so far as those who agree with us on specific issues are willing to ally with us. Once we've eradicated those pesky Mormons (or Muslims), then what? Who's next? I submit it's far better to avoid settling for half-measures when we could obtain the whole ball of wax. Obviously, we must have our priorities, but they shouldn't come at the expense of our identity. Making deals with the proverbial "devil" never works out the way we think it will.

Mr. Harris then moves on to advocating a return to reason in our daily interactions, which I wholeheartedly agree with. "Nobody wants to believe things on bad evidence. The desire to know what is actually going on in [sic] world is very difficult to argue with. In so far as we represent that desire, we become difficult to argue with." The problem with this is that people believe things for bad evidence all the time. People just don't think that they are the ones with bad evidence. For many, "the bible says so" or "my pastor says so" or "my friends/parents say so" is the highest evidentiary standard. For these people, it's incomprehensible that there are people in the world that don't believe in the bible. Even more difficult then, would be a debate with these folks as to solutions to problems such as global warming (See related Wall Street Journal article). It seems that there is some debate in the evangelical xian community what to do about global warming, both sides claim a biblical imperative for their solution. (By the way, the two solutions are to 1- do nothing, 2 - do something.) Everyone on both sides are convinced that they have the best of reasons for what they believe. To me, as an outsider, I think their reasons for debate are inane, but try convincing them of that.

The article winds up with a rather large exploration into the metaphysics of experience and the value of meditation, which I have no qualms with, followed by Mr. Harris' vision of what victory in this struggle would look like. "We will have won this war of ideas against religion when atheism is scarcely intelligible as a concept. We will simply find ourselves in a world in which people cease to praise one another for pretending to know things they do not know." Almost by fiat, he believes, this world will come about if we insist upon reason, rather than "atheist". While it's certainly a very worthy long-term goal, for now I will settle for rational national policy. I don't care if everyone wants to believe in god or buddha or Russell's teapot, so long as we can have stem cell research, a change in our foreign policy, gay marriage, etc... Laws, policies, the long-term direction of society is what we ought to be concerned with, not this relentless back-and-forth about what we ought to be called. Although Mr. Harris recognizes that racism still exists, he seems to believe (again by fiat) that eventually things will all be pollyanna, that "it will be a world in which the very concept of separate races has lost its meaning." A worthy and noble objective, but for Rosa Parks, it was enough to say "I will not give up my seat."

I would like to leave this subject with a few closing thoughts. As one of the comments from the website on which the speech was posted has pointed out, atheism can be a tough sell. Nobody likes an atheist, at least when the think of us as morose determinists with no joy in this nasty, brutish, short life on a lonely planet in a vast and meaningless cosmos. Mr. Harris' attempt to shoehorn the topic of metaphysical experience and meditation into this speech is his answer to this, along with avoiding the term "atheist" whenever possible. My answer is to shout from the rooftops the overwhelming relief that comes with realizing there is no omniscient judge (nay, voyeur) over all of my actions. There are no great scales on which my life will be judged. Think of all those times that I didn't keep the sabbath day holy, or when I coveted my neighbor's ox, or told a little white lie to make someone feel better. If all of those things counted against me, I'd surely be in trouble. Luckily, it's so much easier to go through life trying to do the right thing as best I can, making mistakes, learning from mistakes, and trying to do better the next day. If I also had to worry about violating dogma lest my eternal soul be in peril, I don't know how I'd continue to make it through every day.

All this being said, I fully agree that words have meaning. We shouldn't casually throw terms like "atheist" around, especially if that is not what we intend. I don't see what is damaging about saying I am an atheist. I believe the feminists have it right when they say that the English language (at least the way it is commonly used) helps entrench sexism. But, call me crazy, I also think that "In God We Trust" should be taken off our money if we mean what we say in the Constitution (or at least the First Amendment). By the way, I believe that the First Amendment does allow for freedom FROM religion, not just freedom OF religion, but that's another blog.

Finally, it's been said that there are two sides to every argument. I think that one (or both) sides usually try to reduce the argument to trite sloganeering and mis-characterization of the other position. However, that doesn't devalue the worth of the arguments, and it only convinces those that don't have a dog in that particular fight. Once people realize that this is a struggle that has immense ramifications for society as well as themselves and take the time to examine their position, hopefully the useless round-and-round that we go through with theists will disappear as they begin to question the reasons they believe what they do, and thereby the implications for our national policy.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Kathy Griffin and Jeebus

In case you haven't heard, comedienne Kathy Griffin is pissing off a lot of people. She's bucking a trend. She's successfully avoided thanking the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and Jesus for their help in securing her Emmy Award. For some reason, this has xians in an uproar. Ok, there's the fact that she didn't thank any of these imaginary beings, and that she said this, "a lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. Suck it, Jesus. This award is my god now." What's wrong with that?

Catholics are calling it hate speech. In fact, the Catholic League President, Bill Donohue had this to say:

"The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences reacted responsibly to our criticism of Kathy Griffin’s verbal assault on 85 percent of the U.S. population. The ball is now in Griffin’s court. The self-described ‘complete militant atheist’ needs to make a swift and unequivocal apology to Christians. If she does, she will get this issue behind her. If she does not, she will be remembered as a foul-mouthed bigot for the rest of her life.”

OK, she's a complete militant atheist to the Catholics, while her response was "Am I the only Catholic left with a sense of humor?"

Yes Kathy, you are. And please don't be the first comedian to "be remembered as a foul-mouthed bigot" Personally, I think she has worked hard to get where she is, I don't see any obvious signs of divine involvement, and I have no problem with what she said. I thought it was funny.

Sam Harris' new response

As is so often the case, I find Sam Harris to be spot-on. I'm reposting his reply to an essay by Jonathan Haidt here, foremost because it's applicable to a much wider variety of religious/atheist dialogue. It's available at The Reality Club if you are interested to read the other replies.

SAM HARRIS [9.13.07]

In his essay, "Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion, "Jonathan Haidt worries that the "new atheists"—Dawkins, Dennett, and I—may be "polluting the scientific study of religion with moralistic dogma and damaging the prestige of science in the process." According to Haidt, Dawkins becomes the Grand Inquisitor whenever the topic of group selection is politely raised; Dennett has misinterpreted the literature on religion and morality for reasons inscrutable; and for my part, I am merely waging war with straw men. As luck would have it, Haidt comes to this debate in the guise an increasingly familiar "straw man"—that of the liberal, atheist scientist who would deliver us to the threshold of moral relativism, if not across it, with the best of intentions.

Haidt concludes his essay with this happy blandishment: "every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing." Surely we can all agree about this. Our bets have been properly hedged (the ideology must be "longstanding" and need only have "some" wisdom). Even a "new atheist" must get off his high horse and drink from such pristine waters. Well, okay…

Anyone feeling nostalgic for the "wisdom" of the Aztecs? Rest assured, there's nothing like the superstitious murder of innocent men, women, and children to "suppress selfishness" and convey a shared sense of purpose. Of course, the Aztecs weren't the only culture to have discovered "human flourishing" at its most sanguinary and psychotic. The Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesias, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and numerous other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.

What would Haidt have us think about these venerable traditions of pious ignorance and senseless butchery? Is there some wisdom in these cults of human sacrifice that we should now honor? Must we take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Or might we want to eat that baby instead? Indeed, many of these societies regularly terminated their rituals of sacred murder with a cannibal feast. Is my own revulsion at these practices a sign that I view these distant cultures with the blinkered gaze of a colonialist? Shall we just reserve judgment until more of the facts are in? When does scientific detachment become perverse? When might it be suicidal?

Despite Haidt's suggestion to the contrary, it actually matters what people believe. Most religious practices are the direct consequence of what people think is actually going on in the world. In fact, most religious practices only become intelligible once we understand the beliefs that first gave rise to them. The fact that some people have begun to doubt these doctrines in the meantime, while still mouthing the liturgy and aping the rituals, is beside the point. What religion, after all, is best exemplified by those who are in the process of losing it?

Haidt draws comfort from the fact that even biblical literalists occasionally yield to common sense and ignore their holy books. Of course they do: their holy books are not only bursting with ancient ignorance—they are actually self-contradictory. Is Haidt suggesting that there are no real religious fundamentalists out there at all, or that their numbers are negligible? According to a recent poll, thirty-six percent of British Muslims (ages 16-24) think apostates should be put to death for their unbelief. Just how much exculpatory sociology is Haidt inclined to do in this area so as to get Islam entirely off the hook? When is a belief system not only false, but so encouraging of falsity and needless suffering as to be worthy, not merely of our understanding, but of our contempt?

Haidt offers us a choice between "contractual" and "beehive" approaches to morality—the first is said to be the province of liberals like myself, who care only about harm/care and fairness/reciprocity; the second represents the social order imposed by conservative religion, which incorporates further concerns about ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. The opposition between these two conceptions of the good life may be useful to talk about, and the data Haidt presents about the differences between liberals and conservatives is interesting, but is his interpretive scheme correct? I have my doubts. It seems possible, for instance, that these five foundations of morality are simply facets of a more general concern for harm/care.

What, after all, is the problem with desecrating a copy of the Qur'an or taking the Lord's name in vain? Well, if a person really believes that the Qur'an is a sacred text or that God is listening, he almost surely believes that some harm could come to him or to his tribe as a result of these actions—if not in this world, then in the next. Examples of this sort of thinking should come so readily to the reader's mind as to make any examples I provide superfluous (AIDS as a punishment for the sin of homosexuality? The Asian tsunami as repayment for idolatry? September 11th as the result of too little faith and too much tolerance for abortion and gay shenanigans?). A more esoteric reading might be that any person who blasphemes or desecrates will have harmed himself directly thereby: a lack of reverence might be its own punishment, dimming the eyes of faith. Whatever interpretation we favor, sacredness and authority have collapsed to the harm/care axis just the same. Perhaps Haidt's thinking on this subject has been powerfully distorted by his own atheism, as he seems incapable of seeing the world as the faithful see it. We might well wonder, at this juncture, just which of us atheists are in danger of "misunderstanding religion." At least Dennett, Dawkins, and I have made some attempt to understand what it might be like to actually believe what people of faith say they believe.

The same point can be made in the other direction: even a liberal like myself, enamored as I am of my two-footed morality, can readily see that my version of the good life must be safeguarded from the aggressive tribalism of others. When I search my heart, I discover that I want to keep the barbarians beyond the city walls as much as my conservative neighbors do, and I recognize that sacrifices of my own freedom may be warranted for this purpose. I even expect that conservative epiphanies of this sort could well multiply in the coming years—just imagine how we liberals will be disposed to think about Islam after an incident of nuclear terrorism. Liberal hankering for happiness and freedom might one day yield some very strident calls for stricter laws and tribal loyalty. Will this mean that liberals have become religious conservatives pining for the beehive? Or is the liberal notion of reducing harm flexible enough to encompass the need for order and differences between in-group and out-group?

Even if we accept Haidt's "new synthesis" without caveat, we can ask whether any given culture is raising its children to have "bad" moral intuitions and to be incapable of the sort of moral reasoning that might lead to a more enlightened outlook. Are certain conceptions of morality especially good at binding a community together, but incompatible with modernity? What if certain cultures are found to be relying upon moral codes that look terrible no matter how we squint our eyes or jigger Haidt's five variables and four principles? What if we find a culture that is neither especially sensitive to harm and reciprocity, nor especially cognizant of the sacred, nor especially conducive to human flourishing, nor especially astute in any other way? Would Haidt's conception of morality allow us to then demand that these benighted people to stop abusing their children? Or would that be unscientific?

Finally, I should mention that Haidt fails to acknowledge the central point of "new atheist" criticism. The point is not that we atheists can prove religion to be the cause of more harm than good (though I think this can be argued, and the balance seems to me to be swinging further toward harm each day). The point is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it. And the faithful are encouraged to keep shouldering this unwieldy burden of falsehood and self-deception by everyone they meet—by their coreligionists, of course, and by people of differing faith, and now, with startling frequency, by scientists who claim to have no faith. Even if Haidt's reading of the literature on morality were correct, and all this manufactured bewilderment proves to be useful in getting certain people to donate time, money, and blood to their neighbors—so what? Is science now in the business of nurturing useful delusions? Surely we can grow in altruism, and refine our ethical intuitions, and even explore the furthest reaches of human happiness, without lying to ourselves about the nature of the universe. It is time that atheist scientists, above all people on this infatuated planet, acted as if this were so.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Welcome to the inaugural issue of my blog. It is titled "Fall of Hate". There's a couple of reasons for that, none of them good. I wanted a name that sounded kind of trendy, and kind of funny in the way that really good punk songs or album titles are funny. Puns, I suppose you would call them. I didn't really get there, although there are some nice multiple meanings to "fall" that could be interesting to explore. Interesting in the way that I don't know whether they are "homonyms" or "polysemous", but Wikipedia's not really helping me figure out the difference. Anyway, here are some things about me that could prove useful to you in the future, or now if they have an impact on whether you are going to continue reading this blog or not. I am an atheist. I was a mormon, then a christian, then an agnostic, and now an atheist. I am a libertarian. I like lots of kinds of music, but not most of the top 40 stuff. And I don't like country music. I like to read, a lot. I read fiction, and I read non-fiction. I like to Stumble. It seems every time I stumble upon a website that I love, someone has already Stumbled it. Luckily, most of my friends don't know about Stumble, so to them I am still a trend-setter. I shouldn't say "still a trend-setter" because I never have been one. Anyway, I believe that I will mostly post atheist propaganda, libertarian propaganda, and generally try to persuade you to think exactly like I do. I will fail horribly, but I think that we can all have fun while trying, right? Oh, and I'll try and persuade you to read books that are good for you. Or bad for you. Just pick up a book and read it, you're bound to learn something! Especially if you read some Kurt Vonnegut or Chuck Palahniuk. <-------------- I spelled this right the first time, but I had to check it at his official site:

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