Wednesday, November 25, 2009

ACLU Defends Christianity

The ACLU is often disparaged by the Religious Right, euphemistically called The 'Anti-Christian Liberties' Union'.  Those who feel the ACLU is bent on stripping Christians of their rights and freedoms for no other reason than because they are Christians should consider this:
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal district court Monday on behalf of two families from Dove World Outreach Center whose children were not allowed to wear "Islam is of the Devil" T-shirts to Alachua County public schools.

While I personally disagree with the students' tactic of wearing inflammatory slogans like this in the public square, I support their right to do so, even if they are Christians. The ACLU agrees, which might cause dissonance to those who hate the ACLU because they work to keep Christians from doing whatever they want at any time, sometimes with tax dollars.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Personal Testimony on Reasonable Doubts

One of the podcasts I enjoy listening to on a regular basis is Reasonable Doubts, hosted by three former religious believers who now discuss religion, science, and anti-apologetics from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

One segment of their podcast is called "Gospel of Doubt" in which listeners are invited to submit short testimonies of their experience with doubt:

We're looking for your stories and your reasons for joining the ranks of the godless. When did you lose your faith? Why did you lose your faith? Did you ever have faith? What are the arguments you ran into that started you down your path to disbelief? What books did you read, what friends did you make, or what events did you go through that helped you embrace the natural over the supernatural?

I submitted an entry which was broadcast in Episode 47, posted July 24, 2009 and can be downloaded here. The entire podcast is over an hour long, and my brief essay is near the end, at the 56:50 mark. I blame the ethereal sparkling background noise on my recording equipment.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Father testifies he hoped God would heal his child

It's a heart-breaking story. An eleven-year old girl is dying of diabetes. Her father doesn't take her to a doctor or a hospital. Instead, he prays for her and asks his God to heal her.

The girl dies in her home, surrounded by her father and other people praying for her. In the end, she couldn't walk, speak or even eat.

Dale Neumann, 47, has been charged with second-degree reckless homicide, and recently testified on his behalf in court in Wasau, Wisconsin. When asked why he didn't seek medical help for his child, Neumann told jurors:

"I can't do that because Biblically, I cannot find that is the way people are healed."

Neumann is partially correct. In the New Testament, many people are healed through divine providence, be it Jesus or the apostles. There's almost no mention whatsoever of medical science in the New Testament, primitive as it must have been.

In three gospels, Jesus cites the often-quoted phrase, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." (Matthew 9:12; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31) What's more, the quote was in response to criticisms that Jesus was spending too much time with sinful people, whereas Jesus replied that who better needs to experience God than those farthest from him. So this line can best be seen as an analogy to make a spiritual point, rather than a piece of advice to those wondering what to do with a sick child. At any rate, this one sentence must have been thin gruel compared to the numerous fantastical accounts of Jesus touching people and having them rise off of their sickbeds, or even from their graves.

On the other hand, the Gospel of Mark tells a story of a woman "subject to bleeding for twelve years." (5:25) Mark tells us that she had "suffered a great deal" when visiting the doctors, who had taken all the money she had and yet had gotten worse, but she was instantly healed when touching Jesus' cloak. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the power of medical science, and this makes it understandable why Neumann may have been skeptical of doctors.

Of course, this still goes on today. Never mind what inefficiencies the sick undergo when dealing with insurance companies, it is still common for someone today to spend themselves into bankruptcy without ever receiving a cure. Medical science has significantly improved in the last two thousand years, but what we don't know about the human body can still leave the best of medical science baffled.

But Neumann's daughter sufferered from diabetes, not some exotic tropical disease that no one has heard of. She suffered from a treatable disease and could have lived a long, full life under medical supervision. Instead, her parents just wanted to pray for her, even as she declined in health. Neumann's wife Leilani was tried separately and found guilty, and now faces up to 25 years in prison.

Side note: According to Colossians 4:14, the apostle Luke was a doctor, and in his gospel he also recounts the story of the sick woman healed by touching Jesus' cloak (8:40-48). For some reason, though, Doctor Luke omits the line that the doctors had bled the woman dry of all her money. In a nice example of closing ranks, Luke simply states, "No one could heal her."

Update: As expected, Neumann was found guilty of second-degree reckless homicide. He'll be sentenced along with his wife in October.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Sex Lives of Shamans

Last month I wrote about a pastor who was indicted for attempting to rape out a lesbian demon. Is this some modern perversion of religion, a diseased mutation descended from the purity of old-time paganism, when man lived close to nature and shamans worked selflessly to connect their people to God?


Robert Wright, author of the recently-published book The Evolution of God writes:

What I do doubt is that these earnest, selfless spiritual leaders were any more common in the heyday of shamanism than today, or that the spiritual quest was any less corrupted by manipulation and outright charlatanism than today, or that there was a coherent philosophy of shamanism that makes more sense than the average religion of today.


While it's difficult to study the writings of prehistorical societies to examine their religious beliefs (since by definition, they don't have any writings--that's why they're called prehistorical), anthropologists have done the next best thing. They've studied current hunter-gatherer societies that haven't been influenced by the modern world to examine how we might have lived before the rise of Western modernity.

What they've discovered is that shamans do what they do primarily for money and sex.

In exchange for treating a patient, a shaman might receive yams (in Micronesia), sleds and harnesses (among the Eastern Eskimo), beads and coconuts (the Mentawai of Sumatra), tobacco (the Ojibwa of northeastern North America), or slaves (the Haida of western Canada)...

[A]mong some Eskimos, "A forceful shaman of established reputation may denounce a member of his group as guilty of an act repulsive to animals or spirits, and on his own authority he may command penance. … An apparently common atonement is for the shaman to direct an allegedly erring woman to have intercourse with him (his supernatural power counteracts the effects of her sinning)."

Despite other observations of outright fakery and extortion, Wright observes that not all shamanism is bad. Natural Selection has made us to be "self-absorbed, with a wary sense of separation from most of humanity. And it's true that various shamanic techniques—fasting, for example—can improve things in this regard." But don't be fooled into thinking to today's neo-pagan shamanism can lead us back to a golden age of spirituality. That age never existed.

In fact, one could perhaps formulate a rule regarding the shaman and his people: The more superstitious the group, the more likely they will be hoodwinked by their shaman . . . and be compelled to have sex with him.

Church sign: "Islam is of the Devil"

The members of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida erected a sign on its front lawn last Sunday that reads, "Islam is of the Devil."  The sign was vandalized and torn down that same evening but was re-erected the next day.  Pastor Terry Jones had this to say:

“We think we are losing our heritage as a Christian nation.”

Source: The Independent Florida Alligator

Mr. Jones is mistaken; the United States is not a Christian nation, nor was it ever intended to be, even if Christians comprise the majority of Americans.  By that reasoning, the US is also white nation, and a female nation. 

“To be a Christian, you would have to agree with that sign,” Jones said.
More poor reasoning.  While Christians have long argued with each other over what the requirements of being a Christian actually are, no one until now has declared that Christian membership requires agreeing with anti-Islam sentiments.

Monday, July 27, 2009

African albinos killed in the name of superstition's The Big Picture features a set of heartbreaking pictures of sub-Saharan African albinos.  These white-skinned Africans have long faced discrimination because of their appearance, but lately they've been hunted by monsters:

Albinos in Tanzania are increasingly targeted by those who would kill them for their body organs, limbs and even hair to be used in luck potions by others seeking wealth and good fortune in business and professional circles. According to local residents, witch doctors use the organs and bones in concoctions to divine for diamonds in the soil, while fishermen have been known to weave albino hair into their nets hoping for a big catch on Lake Victoria. More than 50 albinos have been killed in Tanzania and neighboring Burundi in the past year

Much like rhinos are captured to have their horns cut off so that poachers won't kill them for their horn's non-existent healing powers, these unfortunate people are hidden by humanitarians to protect them from superstitious murderers.

For those who would ask, "What's the harm?" in allowing people their religious nonsense, I suggest you pray to whatever God you worship that someone doesn't come to believe that your body parts have magical properties.

Genie sued for theft, harassment

In Saudi Arabia, a family is taking a genie (or 'djinni') to court, claiming the invisible spirit has thrown rocks at them when leaving the house and has stolen cellphones.

Genies are mentioned in the Koran ("I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me." 51:56), so per Islamic tradition they must be real, although the BBC correspondent reports that belief in genies predates Islam.

According to Sheikh Amr Al Salmi who is presiding over the case, "We have to verify the truthfulness of this case despite the difficulty of doing so."

Good luck with that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Oakland raises tax revenue from marijuana

Many cities in America are suffering from budget crises due to the poor economy. The city of Oakland, California is finally doing what many advocated for years: Taxing marijuana sales.

Oakland residents overwhelmingly voted Tuesday to approve a first-of-its kind tax on medical marijuana sold at the city's four cannabis dispensaries...

Oakland's auditor estimates that based on annual sales of $17.5 million for the four clubs, it will generate an estimated $294,000 for city coffers in its first year.

The United States has wasted billions of dollars fighting the consumption of certain chemicals. And yet, after forty years since the War on Drugs was declared, not one beachhead has been secured, not one city has been liberated, not one hilltop has been claimed in victory. We can't keep drugs out of schools, or out of workplaces. We can't even keep them out of prisons. But every year, the war continues at a horrendous cost to our society.

The legalization of medical marijuana in California was a tiny but important step in a sensible policy toward drugs. Lawmakers are slowly waking up to the notion that rather than spending money to suppress a product that will be consumed anyway, they can make money on it instead.

I recently watched the film "Layer Cake", a seedy violent story about back-stabbing drug dealers in the UK. Daniel Craig plays a drug dealer who tries to maintain a level of integrity in his work.

The relevant portion starts at 1:00:
Drugs. Changed. Everything. Always remember that one day all this drug monkey business will all be legal. They won't leave it to people like me. Not once they figure out how much money is in it. Not millions. F*ing BILLIONS. Recreational Drugs PLC: "Giving People What They Want." Good times today, stupor tomorrow. But this is now. So while prohibition lasts, make hay while the sun shines.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pat Buchanan recommends Todd Palin to commit murder

Pat Buchanan has been a vocal supporter of Sarah Palin since she was tapped for the Vice Presidency by John McCain back in 2008.  When Palin recently announced her resignation from Alaska governership, Levi Johnston, former fiancee to Bristol Palin, suggested that she gave up her position to make more money.

Today on The Today Show, Buchanan gave some helpful man-to-man advice to Sarah's husband Todd Palin:

Well, first, with regard to Levi, I think First Dude up there in Alaska, Todd Palin, ought to take Levi down to the creek and hold his head underwater until the thrashing stops.

I'm sure Buchanan will wave it off as just a joke.  Never mind that he was very critical of Dave Letterman also making jokes about the Palin family, although to be fair, Letterman never once advocated murder in any of his monologues.

Women lashed for wearing pants

It's nice to see that Sudanese police are working hard to keep their citizenry safe from violent criminals and civil unrest.

In the capital city of Khartoum, "20 or 30 police officers" entered a popular restaurant and arrested at least 13 women who were dressed indecently, one of the women being a BBC reporter, Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein.

Source: BBC

So what was the clothing that so offended these Islamic police officers? String bikinis? G-strings? See-through blouses?

No. Pants.

According to al-Hussein, the women are facing up to 40 lashes for this grave offense of wearing clothing that covers their entire legs. Several women pled guilty at once and received a lighter penalty of only 10 lashes, but others, including al-Hussein, have spoken to lawyers and are awaiting their fates.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Selection Bias and Economic Booms

Selection bias is defined as "a distortion of evidence or data that arises from the way that the data are collected."  In colloquial terms, it's also called, "Counting the hits and ignoring the misses."  For example, if I give a large number of heart patients an experimental drug, then count the patients who improved, and ignore the ones who don't, I can report a high success rate that isn't reflective of reality.

CNN Senior Producer Elise Zeiger demonstrated a tendency toward selection bias this week when reporting that Korean car manufacturer Kia plans to open a new automobile factory in tiny West Point, Georgia at the end of the year.  West Point, which was rapidly becoming a ghost town due to economic hardship, was understandably excited about the announcement which already has spurred economic growth and optimism among the town's residents.  Zeiger leaves open the possibility that higher forces are at work:

Or perhaps a little divine intervention deserves credit, as a West Point sign pointed out: "Thank You Jesus For Bringing Kia to Our Town."

Perhaps Jesus did manipulate the free will of Kia management to select West Point--despite assurances that God would never influence the free will of humans in order to prove his existence.  If so, then this would be a firm confirmation that God exists and that he has specially chosen the residents of West Point for divine protection.  But then again, many other towns all around the country are still under threat, and were not chosen for this special privilege.  If so, then this would be an example of counting a hit, and ignoring countless misses.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Masturbation may increase fertility; Vatican in a two-handed dilemma

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has expressly beaten down on masturbation, calling it "intrinsically and gravely disordered."

"sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes."

In other words, if you aren't making babies, don't touch the junk.

However, Australian infertility expert Dr. David Greening suggested last week that men can significantly improve their sperm quality through a simple program that can be written on a single prescription pad: "Ejaculate daily."

Presumably, daily ejaculation prevents sperm from harmful exposure to toxic molecules within the man's body.  This is typically no problem for healthy couples who are trying to conceive and are committed to having sex daily.  But what happens when the woman is tired, or absent, or ill?  What happens then?

Well, those sperm have to get out of there somehow.

The Vatican now finds themselves in a tight bind.  On the one hand, they don't want people to masturbate.  On the other hand, they want couples to have pro-creative sex.  Is there a way to hold your pearls and wear them too?  Catholic priests are encouraged to firmly take hold of the brass candlestick and hammer out a hard and firm policy that everyone can swallow.

Sailing on a Raft for Jesus

Newsweek's Lisa Miller reports of two 50-something brothers, Bob and Ralph Brown, planning to cross the Atlantic on a 21-foot motorized flat boat.  It's being billed as a Christian mission--the trip is being sponsored by I Am Second, a Christian non-profit firm, but I'm failing to see the Christian angle.  The brothers have indicated their trip is to memorialize three Marines who perished in 1980 during Operation Eagle Claw, the failed rescue attempt of American hostages in Iran.

Miller tries to associate this trip with tales of other faithful voluntarily going through heroic feats of deprivation, such as St. Anthony, a third-century Egyptian who lived in a cave for 20 years with no human contact, or the fourth-century hermit Simeon Stylites who sat on a pillar for 36 years. 

While I can't fault the brothers efforts for raising awareness of fallen military members, how is this a Christian act?  The brothers say they are Bible-believing Christians, yet they will have no Bible on board for their estimated 48-day trip.  They already hold the world record for flat-boat ocean voyages, and this trip will beat that by a fair margin, if they survive.  Is this trip truly fueled by faith and charity?  If so, this sort of stunt--an "I dare you, God, to not keep me safe" type of divine test--is baffling at best, and embarrassing at worst.  Or is it just a publicity stunt driven by adrenaline and youthful zeal for adventure?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hamas tries to restrict woman in public

There's a reason why everyone, believers and non-believers, should worry if a religious group obtains political power.  The temptation to take a religion's private mores and apply them to the public at large is too great.

MSNBC reports:

An attempt by Hamas police to detain a young woman walking with a man along the Gaza beach has raised alarms that the Islamic militant group is seeking to match its political control of the coastal territory with a strict enforcement of Islamic law.

The incident was the first time Hamas has openly tried to punish a woman for behaving in a way it views as un-Islamic since seizing power two years ago. But it follows months of quiet pressure on Gaza's overwhelmingly conservative 1.4 million residents to abide by its strict religious mores.

More burkha logic, where one's private moral standards must become a cultural standard applicable to all.

Hamas police spokesman Islam Shahwan denied the incident took place but said Gaza residents "must preserve our customs and Islamic traditions.

God help you if you find yourself subscribing to the wrong religion.

Prosperity Gospel in Economic Gloom

Slate's Faith-Based column discusses the failure of "Name It and Claim It" Prosperity Preachers like T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen to accurately account why, if God wants his followers to prosper, are so many of them not prospering:
Osteen is everywhere these days. You see his coiffed pate smiling on Good Morning America, at the new Yankee Stadium for its first nonbaseball event, on the cover of Texas Monthly's ideas issue—all in one week. Yet he artfully disappears for housing-crisis questions like "Why, if God wants to reward the faithful with material possessions, are so many believers in foreclosure?"

Despite the failed promises of these mega-church salesmen, their message isn't at risk of fading away. When times are hard, people look to leaders who promise better times ahead, even if those very same leaders peddled a message of health and wealth which didn't pan out. What's important is the message, not the results:
But with two centuries of entitlement echoing Prosperity's mantra "What I confess I possess," who can blame people for flocking to Joel Osteen when he reassures them that "God wants to make your life easier"? Recent news that Americans have become less religiously classifiable doesn't mean a wave of Christopher Hitchenses so much as feel-good cafeteria spirituality stripped of tradition and dogma.

Here's another theory why people encouraged by their pastors to take sub-prime loans to buy houses they can't afford are finding themselves in a financial crunch: God does not exist, and those people who speak for him are just saying what you want to hear in order to sell you books and DVDs.

But that's just a theory.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Psychics Interview dead Michael Jackson

The afterlife is proving to be as hectic for pop star Michael Jackson as the real world, according to Canadian news source Palluxo. The singer has apparently relaxed the media silence that he maintained toward the end of his natural life, and is now more than happy to conduct interviews.

Reportedly, popular psychic James Van Praagh interviewed Michael Jackson shortly after the pop star's death last week.

"Where are you located now, Michael" asked Van Praagh. "I am surrounded by happiness. I never felt more happier," said Jackson.

Van Praagh failed to provide any evidence that it was indeed the media sensation he was speaking with, and not the English journalist Michael Jackson, who wrote several notable books on whiskey.

Palluxo also reported that "More answers from dead Michael Jackson will be revealed on upcoming Oprah Show," which gives me an idea how Van Praagh was able to nail an exclusive interview with Jackson.

Not to be outdone, another popular psychic Sylvia Browne rushed to confirm that she too had conducted an interview with the singer, only with physical confirmation:

"I asked him to identify himself by moving my desk. The desk started trembling, then it moved a feet (sic) or two away from me. He wrote his name on my desk," she said. "This was Michael's sign of life."

What more evidence could anyone need?

Luckily for her fans, Sylvia Browne will have more information on an upcoming Montel Williams show.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Mark Sanford: God wants me to stay

In a message written to supporters, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford stated that God does not want him to resign due to his lengthy affair with a woman in Argentina.

"“A long list of close friends have suggested otherwise – that for God to really work in my life I shouldn’t be getting off so lightly," said Sanford, who voted for the impeachment of President Clinton after the Lewinsky scandal.

"I would ultimately be a better person and of more service in whatever doors God opened next in life if I stuck around to learn lessons rather than running and hiding down at the farm.”

Here's another quote, Mr. Sanford.  "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."  Susan B. Anthony

Fish make judgement calls

One tenet of creationism is that there is a huge gap between mankind and the animal kingdom.  For some, the notion that humans are just smart animals offends them and eliminates our special creation.  For support, they constantly point to our special abilities and declare them to be a part of our spiritual nature.

Over time, scientists have discovered more and more abilities once thought to be uniquely human are also exhibited by animals.  Monkeys  and dogs have a sense of morality and know when they're getting a raw deal.

Last week, Scientific American's 60-second science featured fish that make judgement calls.  A type of stickleback fish was able to determine when others of its kind were finding more food and thus switched their feeding patterns.  This goes against the notion that all animals are merely obeying their God-given instincts and that only humans can make these sort of complex decisions.

Michael Shermer wants to believe

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, has just written his 100th column and it's a keeper.

What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence does not always coincide. And after 99 monthly columns of exploring such topics (this is Opus 100), I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know.
Ann Druyan said the same thing about her husband Carl Sagan: He didn't want to believe; he wanted to know.  To believe something is easy, but to know if something is true is much more difficult.  However, taking the extra effort to uncover the facts behind a claim rather than accepting it outright is the best method of avoiding swallowing lies or misinformation.

There is one mystery I will concede that science may not be able to answer, and that is the question of what existed before our universe began. One answer is the multiverse. According to the theory, multiple universes each had their own genesis, and some of these universes gave birth (perhaps through collapsing black holes) to baby universes, one of which was ours. There is no positive evidence for this conjecture, but neither is there positive evidence for the traditional answer to the question — God. And in both cases, we are left with the reductio ad absurdum question of what came before the multiverse or God. If God is defined as that which does not need to be created, then why can’t the universe (or multiverse) be defined as that which does not need to be created?

A debate I listened to recently between theists (Hassanain Rajabali & Michael Corey) and atheists (Dan Barker and Richard Carrier) hovered over this area. The theists asserted that God created the universe, and when the atheists asked for proof, the theists' response was mild offense. "It's obvious," they said, "and besides, science hasn't come up with anything better, have they."

At no time during the debate were miracles mentioned, or the efficacy of prayer, or the problems of evolution.  No, the primary focus was on the state of the universe 15 billion years ago and how it came to be that way, something that cosmologists are currently puzzling out.  It's as though the theists have conceded almost everything to science and are now desperately hammering against what could be called "the weaknesses of cosmology." Richard Carrier who advocated the Black Holes-Multiverse method couldn't offer positive evidence for the model, but nothing in our physical world rules it out.  But the theists would have nothing to do with it. No, the universe must have been created by God because there's no evidence for Black Holes creating baby universes. What would Michael Shermer have said about that?

In both cases, we have only negative evidence along the lines of “I can’t think of any other explanation,” which is no evidence at all. If there is one thing that the history of science has taught us, it is that it is arrogant to think we now know enough to know that we cannot know. So for the time being, it comes down to cognitive or emotional preference: an answer with only negative evidence or no answer at all. God, multiverse or Unknown. Which one you choose depends on your tolerance for ambiguity and how much you want to believe. For me, I remain in sublime awe of the great Unknown.

I'm with you, Mr. Shermer. Count me in with those who are satisfied with the Unknown.  I don't trust my emotions enough to judge truth by them.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Faith Healing challenges in courts

MSNBC reports that courts are having trouble ruling in cases in which parents denied their sick children medical care in lieu of faith-based healing, particularly when the parents are members of smaller fringe denominations.

Existing laws have gradually accounted for more well-known and established faiths, such as Pentecostalism, Christian Science and Jehovah's Witnesses.But recent cases in the news have judges and child care advocates dealing with parents who claim adherence to lesser-known faiths...

The article reasonably asks how judges and courts are supposed to evaluate these claims: What's an organized religion? Who is an ordained minister? Who decides that praying for healing is insufficient compared to modern medical care? When does the child's rights to health trump the parent's religious freedom?

Many of the exemption laws were enacted in the 1970s. Rita Swan, director of the Sioux City, Iowa-based advocacy group Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, which lobbies states to repeal such laws, said that since 1975, there have been at least 274 known cases of U.S. children who have died after medical care was withheld on religious grounds.

Most religious people want the best of both worlds. When they or their children get sick, they insist on rigorous medical treatment while at the same time praying earnestly that God will perform a healing--granting God the credit if the medical ailment is alleviated, naturally. But when modern medicine fails to cure, or if the believer is distrustful of science-based medicine, then faith alone is called for.

Faith healing is a natural byproduct of a culture that places such a high value on faith in general. If a religious tradition or a holy scripture teaches that praying to heal an illness will work or has worked in the past, believers will be less likely to seek more effective means of treatment. What complicates the issue is when it's a parent's decision to forgo medical treatment on behalf of the child. Apparently at least 274 children have paid the ultimate price for this faith.

Monday, June 29, 2009

No death in the Garden of Eden?

I have often heard Christians assert that the Garden of Eden was a paradise in which no death ever occurred. 

God's original creation was "very good". without blemish, death and suffering. Even the animals did not eat each other, they were all vegetatians (sic). Something happened to change all that and it was sin. After that the Lord cursed the universe but gave a way for man to be restored to him.

They cite sources such as Genesis 1:29-30, in which God gives the newly-created Adam and Eve and all animals "every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed" for food.  Lions, wolves, bats, sharks, alligators, eagles--all of them were strictly herbivorous.

While this might appear at first glance to an idealistic paradise, more investigation reveals this scenario is rife with problems.

The first problem with this scenario is that predators certainly look as if they were designed to catch and eat prey. What with the claws, the fangs, the forward-facing vision to track movement, the variation of hide coloring to conceal themselves, the digestive tracts suitable for consumption of flesh, hair and bone--all of those features are absolutely unnecessary for animals hunting plants. No cheetah needed to sprint up to 70 miles per hour to catch a bush.

So perhaps God created these creatures with useless features that not only would not help them consume plants but in fact would hinder them from doing so. It's hard to survive if your teeth can't properly chew cellulose and it passes right through you. This would be a colossal example of bad design. Or, perhaps God repurposed a large swath of the animal kingdom (and plants--think of venus flytraps and other plants that feed on insects) to be carnivorous after Adam and Eve's fall. Essentially this would mean that God took a lion with flat, plant-grinding teeth and performed divine dentistry to give it sharp incisors, along with a meat-preferring digestive system as well as the natural desire to consume meat to begin with. If that's the case, then I'd have to say that a plant-eating lion could hardly be called a lion in the first place.

What's more, the introduction of death would also require the creation of an entire group of creatures we call scavengers. Vultures, hyenas, even many bacteria feed off dead flesh. But according to the Creaion myth, they were not a part of the original six-day creation. They would have had to be created after the Fall, even though Genesis is clear that after six days God rested from creation. According to Hugh Ross, who sees Genesis as an uncannily accurate scientific treatise, we are still in this seventh day, which is why Ross asserts no new species are evolving today. (He's wrong about that, of course, but he needs it to be true for his premise to hold up.)

But we know what happens in situations today when predators are removed from an ecosystem--the herbivores overpopulate, consume all the food supply, then begin a massive starve-off.

And yet, according to the story, death hadn't entered the world, meaning no rabbits were starving to death for lack of greenery. So the only way that I can imagine this scenario panning out is for plant-eaters to not reproduce. At all. Despite God's command to increase and multiply, no animals or plants could reproduce. They certainly don't need to, since they aren't dying, and if they did, they would multiply unchecked. So again we have the same problem as the predators, in that every single species is equipped with organs and hormones and sexual characteristics with absolutely no purpose. The male peacock's beautiful plumage is completely pointless, because no female peacock will ever select a male for mating. No plant ever blooms, no tree ever launches seed pods. Even worse, no tree ever bears fruit either, since within each fruit is the seeds of future generations. And yet every single living creature is dependent on the plants bearing fruit for food--an unsolvable conundrum.

So either God created reproduction ahead of time for no reason, or he re-created all of creation after the Fall. Neither scenario is satisfying.

In a world without death, there can be no birth, either. Just unending, unchanging, static existence--as stagnant as a dank pool of brackish water. Certainly not the paradise we've imagined Eden to be.

All of these problems are what to be expected in a world with no death. I'm just an ordinary guy--I'm sure a trained biologist could come up with even more problems. These are the logical conclusions of holding to a primitive myth. Now there is no doubt that the idea of no pain, sorrow, and death is a compelling one. I completely understand the desire to believe that "Once upon a time nothing ever died." But like all fairy tales, they reveal our innermost desires and dreams and fears, but we must be very careful not to take them literally.

Pastor indicted for raping out a lesbian demon

In September 2006, 65-year-old Leonard Ray Owens was indicted by a Tarrant County, Texas grand jury for raping a church member in an exorcism.

Owens, a self-anointed prophet, told investigators that the 22-year-old woman had a sex spirit and a lesbian demon that needed to cast out but that he denied any sexual contact.  According to the woman, on two separate occasions Owens raped her in his home while trying to exorcise the demon, pinning the woman down and shouting, "Loose her in the name of Jesus!"  Afterwards Owens told her to wash her face and read Psalm 105:15: "Do my prophets no harm."

Other church members reported saying the the pastor's indictment "would not disrupt the church."

The case was later thrown out by prosecutors due to inconsistencies in witnesses.

Pastor encourages guns in church

Louisville, Kentucky pastor Ken Pagano invited Bethel Church members to bring their guns to church in celebration of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees the right to bear arms.


More than 200 people responded, bringing their firearms to church to view gun safety videos, listen to patriotic music, and participate in a handgun raffle.  Church attendant Liz Boyer said, "I just believe in the right to protect ourselves."

There was just one problem: the church members were not allowed to bring any bullets . . . which makes the issue fairly moot.  An unloaded gun provides as much protection as an unplugged adding machine.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lawrence Krauss: God and Science Don't Mix

Excellent article by the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss in the Wall St. Journal, discussing the incompatibilities of religion and science:

the most important contribution an honest assessment of the incompatibility between science and religious doctrine can provide is to make it starkly clear that in human affairs -- as well as in the rest of the physical world -- reason is the better guide.

P.Z. Myers summarizes it very well:

[R]eligion is wrong. It's a set of answers, and worse, a set of procedures, that don't work. That's the root of our argument that religion is incompatible with science.

Faith is a method of obtaining information, and its track record is notoriously poor.  It's possible for two people of faith to yield entirely different answers to a problem, and too much blood has been spilled determining which answer was correct.  Only reason can settle the issue without anyone having to die for it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Brick Testament wraps up Revelations

The Book of Revelations comes to a close in the Brick Testament. I'll let the Reverend Brandon Powell Smith summarize:
Ever performed a magic trick for your friends? Committed adultery? Worshipped an idol? Are you cowardly? How about filthy? Have you ever told a lie? If so, bad news. You are going to be ceaselessly tortured for all eternity.

Good news, though, if you are a male Jewish virgin. A lucky 144,000 of you are going to get to live on the New Improved Earth with Yahweh. Sound fun? Did I mention the whole place is made out of gold? And has good water and 12 kinds of fruit all year round? Pretty sweet, huh? Plus, there will be no crying, no pain, and no death. And everybody gets a cool tattoo of Yahweh's name on their forehead and worships Yahweh to his face!

But guess what? No chicks. And no being sad about your loved ones being eternally roasted in flames while you bask in Yahweh's glow.

Yes, folks, our final four illustrated stories from Revelation, reveal God's ultimate plan for humanity in full. And what a plan it is. Sure you may have been wondering what all that crazy build-up was leading to, what with all God's elaborate killings and tortures of the vast majority of humankind. But when you finally see that all those people who were tortured and killed on Earth are also going to be tortured in burning hot flames for ever and ever after they died horrible deaths, it all just suddenly comes together. So go now, read the final stories of Revelation and have your own A-ha! moment. Happy epiphany!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Vatican investigating deceased chaplain miracle

Due to a pole-vaulting accident last year, 20-year-old Chase Kear received a severe skull fracture, causing swelling of his brain and infection.  The Wichita, Kansas young man required brain surgery, but neurosurgeon Raymond Grundmeyer reportedly told family members that Kear would likely not survive the procedure.

Within hours, the family members began requesting friends and loved ones to pray for Kear's recovery.  Prayers were offered specifically to Father Emil Kapaun, a U.S. Army chaplain from the Wichita area who died in the Korean War.  Kapaun distinguished himself in a Chinese prison camp back in 1951 by rescuing wounded soldiers, ministering to the sick, and other acts of kindness toward fellow prisoners, until he succumbed to illness himself.

Despite the long odds, Kear survived the procedure to remove a portion of his skull and has now achieved a semblance of normalcy.  While Kear and family are grateful to Dr. Gunderson and his team for their medical expertise, they are also giving Kapaun equal credit for performing a miracle.  Even Dr. Gunderson considered Kear's recovery to be miraculous.

That claim of miraculous healing has prompted the Vatican to further investigate whether Kapaun is eligible for sainthood.  Andrea Ambrosi, the Vatican lawyer assigned to the case, promised to thoroughly "and skeptically" examine the evidence that it was Kapaun that performed the miracle.

This is a case of "I had a headache, so I took an aspirin and said a prayer. The headache went away, so prayer cures headaches."   I'm curious how exactly a lawyer can investigate the details "skeptically?"  How will he know that it was Kapaun and not some other saint that performed the miracle?  Despite the doctor's claims, could Kear have survived without the prayers?  Has any person ever survived a procedure of this type that didn't have thousands of prayers offered to a chaplain that's been dead for over fifty years?  Would Dr. Gunderson agree to refund the money he was paid to perform the procedure, since apparently even he believes that he didn't have an effect on Kear's recovery?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Psychic fails to predict swindle

Psychics often claim to see the future and identify key events in people's lives through their access to spiritual or supernatural visions.  But then the Rutland Herald Online news from Vermont reported this last week:

The former bookkeeper of an internationally known psychic from Dorset has agreed to plead guilty in court to federal felony charges levied against her by prosecutors who say she executed a scheme to swindle roughly $200,000.

Rosemary Altea
has appeared on several programs including Larry King Live and The Oprah Winfrey Show promoting her psychic skills and selling books, and was exposed on Penn & Teller's Bullshit for seeding the audience with people she knew in order to perform cold readings.

Too bad her psychic skills couldn't reveal the six-figure swindle.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Reasonable Doubts on "Faith and Reason"

One of my favorite podcasts is Reasonable Doubts—the Skeptical Guide to Religion, hosted by Jeremy Beahan, Luke Galen, and David Fletcher. Typically the three men speak with each other on topics of atheism, religion, and skepticism, discussing current events and apologetics.

Recently the three Reasonable Doubtcasters were guests of the internet radio show called “Faith and Reason” hosted by Bill Freeman. Freeman and his two co-hosts identified themselves as liberal Christians, and based on some of their expressed ideas they would indeed find themselves in hot water with many fundamentalist Christians, such as the idea that the beginning chapters of Genesis are not to be taken literally or that God may not be benevolent.

As is so often the case when believers and non-believers sit down together to discuss important issues, a lot of time was wasted circling around the proper terminology. It’s difficult to coherently discuss issues of religion and philosophy if the parties can’t agree on the definitions of key terms, such as ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ or even ‘God.’ The Reasonable Doubt podcasters carried themselves off well, in my opinion, in the face of Freeman’s claims that Atheism requires Faith and other misrepresentations.

Early in the broadcast the Problem of Evil was mentioned, and here was where I grew most frustrated. Freeman seemed to feel that the Problem of Evil was merely a thorny conundrum, a necessary but unfortunate byproduct of humanity’s lack of the right technology to uncover the solution. He acknowledged that philosophers and laypersons alike have been wrestling with the Problem of Evil for twenty-five hundred years.

When a theologian addresses the Problem of Evil, he has several options. He can suggest a technical answer, such as the Solution of Free Will. Often this answer fails to satisfy skeptics because it raises further problems. The second option is to redefine the terms, such as declaring that maybe God is not omniscient after all, or God is not concerned about our suffering enough to do anything about it. This answer fails to satisfy believers because it then diminishes God. No one wants to worship a being unworthy of worship. Some have argued that there is no suffering in this world—an answer satisfying to nobody.

The third option is then to punt to mystery, which is what Freeman did here. I’ve heard this tone before, back when I was a Christian. For Freeman, that lack of solution is somehow the proof that it’s such an important question. A theologian might say, “Our finite minds are too limited to understand the ways of God, and we can rest in the hope that one day we will be enlightened when we sit at the feet of Jesus in His glory.” When properly voiced with hushed reverent tones, such grave platitudes are meant to comfort believers. But for skeptics like me, they come across as an exasperated parent scolding a child, saying “Don’t ask silly questions.”

Listening to the podcast, I grew frustrated that the Reasonable Doubtcasters didn’t press Freeman on this issue, because there’s a fourth solution to the Problem of Evil, one that atheists know and believers won’t dare admit: Release your belief in God. It’s only the assertion that an all-powerful, all-knowing, benevolent God exists that the Problem of Evil arises in the first place. The Problem can be eliminated by setting aside the assertion.

Here’s an example of the issue I’m talking about. How can Santa Claus visit all the homes in the world to distribute presents in a single night? Well, we can try to answer this difficult question technically, by invoking worm-holes and the manipulation of the space-time continuum. But this answer fails to satisfy because it raises further technical issues, such as how does one man have the ability to pull off such feats?

Or we can redefine terms, declaring that Santa Claus is not a real person but just a spirit of the gift-giving season, and that when humanity unites in the spirit of Christmas it can circle the globe. But that answer would never satisfy a child who wants to sit on Santa’s lap and set out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve.

The third option is the most popular one—punt to mystery. Declare that Santa Claus has magical powers that we can’t comprehend. One might even use a bit of stick to enhance the carrot by suggesting that inquiring too deeply in the ways of Santa can lead to no presents on Christmas morning. “Believing is Seeing” as the story goes.

Of course, we all know how to solve the Problem of Santa’s round-the-world trip, and that’s by not believing in Santa Claus. It’s not a solution to the problem—it’s an elimination of the problem itself. The problem wouldn’t have existed to begin with if Saint Nicholas had not been deified into a globe-trotting elf. Likewise, the question, “How can a Good God allow Suffering in our World?” can never be properly answered—our best minds have been chewing on the question for 2500 years. But the question can be eliminated entirely when we relinquish our belief in God.

Of course, that’s not to say that there is no suffering in this world—there most certainly is. But it’s our problem to address, not God’s. We do this by studying our world thoroughly so that we can eliminate suffering caused by natural events, such as disease, earthquakes, and famine. And we do this by improving ourselves and our relationships with each other, by studying human psychology, systems of economics, and by cultivating love. None of these require a worship of a supernatural being to accomplish, particularly when such a being causes more problems than it solves.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Debate: Michael Shermer vs. Eric Hovind

Dr. Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine, engaged in a radio debate on Creationism vs. Evolution against Eric Hovind, son and heir apparent of "Dr. Dino" Kent Hovind. The full podcast can be heard here, or you can listen to a sample below:

Not much new material here, for those who are interested in the subject. Shermer gives a good account for his support for evolutionary science, although he allows himself to get dragged down rabbit trails by Hovind too often. Of course, that's easy to do, because Hovind is like his father, quick to insert a half-dozen canards and outright falsehoods regarding Creationism, Evolution, Biblical authority and textual criticism in one go. If you thought Piltdown Man, and Julius Caesar can't be combined in a single sentence, then you haven't hear a Hovind speak.

When the show hosts or callers asked questions of Hovind, most often his answer was to invite the questioner to buy or obtain one of his DVDs, something even the sympathetic show hosts mentioned as a point against Hovind.

One of the callers asked Shermer a question that's been asked and answered countless times: Why aren't any transitional species found in the fossil record but always fully formed? Shermer answered the question adequately, stating that many, many fossils have been found of transitional species, but the question likely stems from a problem of definition. How does the questioner define "transitional species"? Ray Comfort defines it as two existing (and incompatible) species somehow mashed together, like a duck with a dog's head.

Of course, no evolution scientist has ever postulated such a species, living or dead. This is a cartoon version of Evolution. It would be like debunking gravitational theory by watching cartoons of the Road Runner and Wil E. Coyote.

Every species is a transitional species, just like every ring of metal, when connected to others in a line, becomes a "link" in a chain. Some transitional species are more apparent than others. Certain crickets can differentiate from each other by as little as the songs they employ to find mates, yet when they are fossilized they appear identical. Other species are clearly intermediates between different types of species, such as the feathers and other bird-like characteristics on the lizard Archaeopteryx.

As for the definition of the term, "fully formed," I suspect the Creationist is insisting on being shown birds with only one wing, or horses with three legs and one stump. Again, the theory of evolution doesn't postulate that such species exist, except as mutations within established species. Such errors of gene copying typically don't live long enough to reproduce due to their enormous disadvantage.

Thus, the Creationist has protected herself by insisting on evidence that does not and can not exist, ensuring she will never have to change her mind, or even worse, admit that they were wrong once. And yet they believe in Creationism on even scantier evidence, namely, the writings of an ancient book written in a pre-scientific society.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Mr. Deity Season Three

Mr. Deity is back with a new season. In the first episode, we see a behind-the-scenes look at what was up with the whole "brides must be virgins, but grooms get a pass" thing:

Also, the movie trailer riffs on Frost/Nixon, with predictably humorous results.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Appeal to Tradition Fallacy

One common logical fallacy is called "Appeal to Tradition", the notion that an idea is thought to be correct because it is associated with an existing tradition. In short, the fallacy states, "it's always been this way."

Valerie Reiss,'s Holistic Living editor, commits this fallacy in an article offering advice to readers wanting to find a psychic:

Christianity sees divination as going against the Bible's mandate not to seek "soothsayers," because that would be expressing a lack of faith in God as omnipotent and all-knowing. Yet many other of the world's religions and cultures have woven it into their fiber--Hinduism uses Vedic astrology to match marriage partners; in Chinese culture, an expert is consulted on the most mundane to crucial life matters--from when to get married to where to live. Wanting to know what will happen is not just a result of our modern brains grasping for control and answers; it's been the human condition for millennia, people have been seeking propehcies since Greeks took often long journeys to consult the Oracle at Delphi.

If divination has been practiced for thousands of years in a variety of cultures, then it must be correct, reasons Reiss, even if Christianity forbids it. But Christianity is also a long-held and widespread belief, so how is one to choose? Another practice found in nearly all cultures past and present is child abuse, but I hope Reiss isn't advocating that for her readers.

Rather than appeal to tradition, Reiss's readers would be best served using reason, experience, and inductive knowledge to make decisions. Of course, if they did that, then the probably wouldn't be searching for psychics.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Deadly Manufactroversy of Autism and Vaccines

In last week's eSkeptic, the email newsletter of the Skeptic Society, Dr. Harriet Hall states that there is no scientific controversy over the value of vaccines for public health or their association with autism. None.

Instead, we have a "manufactured controversy," brought on by junk science, misguided thinking, celebrity worship, and hysteria.

Thousands of parents have been frightened into rejecting or delaying immunizations for their children. The immunization rate has dropped, resulting in the return of endemic measles in the U.K. and various outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in the U.S. Children have died. Herd immunity has been lost. The public health consequences are serious and are likely to get worse before they get better — a load of unscientific nonsense has put us all at risk.

Dr. Hall identifies the source of the problem with a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield, who in 1998 published an article in a respected medical journal suggesting a link between autism and vaccination in 12 children. Despite the disclaimers and weak connections in the article, Wakefield held a press conference recommending stopping certain injections.

Wakefield’s data was later discredited (more about that later) but even if it had been right, it wouldn’t have been good science. To show that intestinal inflammation is linked to autism, you would have to compare the rate in autistic children to the rate in non-autistic children. Wakefield used no controls. To implicate the MMR vaccine, you would have to show that the rate of autism was greater in children who got the vaccine and verify that autism developed after the shot. Wakefield made no attempt to do that.

Later researchers were unable to duplicate Wakefield's research--itself based on a small sample size--and 10 of the 12 co-authors of the article issued retractions. But the damage had been done. Immunization in the U.K. dropped significantly, childhood diseases like measles increased, and several children died unnecessarily.

Despite Wakefield's research and reputation in the U.K. being completely discredited, he currently works in an autism clinic in the U.S. and has many followers who insist he was right.

Dr. Hall also identifies celebrity spokespersons such as Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey who speak out against vaccinations at every opportunity.

Jenny and her cohorts claim they are not anti-vaccine, but they are certainly a good facsimile thereof. The goalposts keep moving. First it was the MMR vaccine, then it was thimerosal, then it was mercury from all sources, then it was other vaccine ingredients, then it was too many vaccines, then it was giving vaccines too early. They will not be satisfied until science can offer a 100% safe and a 100% effective vaccine proven to have no side effects of any kind even in a rare susceptible individual. That’s not going to happen in this universe.

The result of this is that many treatable diseases which Western countries had gotten under control have become pandemics again, and the false information is diverting attention away from legitimate research into effective treatments both for deadly diseases and autism.

An anti-anti-vaccine backlash is now afoot. Outbreaks of vaccine- preventable diseases are being reported. Scientists are speaking out. Blogs like Respectful Insolence and Science-Based Medicine have covered the subject in depth. The Chicago Tribune published an exposé of the Geiers.9 Even Reader’s Digest has contradicted Jenny. They said that vaccines save lives and do not cause autism and hey stressed that the science is not on Jenny’s side. Let us hope that sanity will prevail before too many more children die from vaccine-preventable diseases. They are dying now. The Jenny McCarthy Body Count webpage is keeping track of the numbers.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Biblical Prophecy as Public Policy

In yet another response to the question, "What's the harm?" when people believe in superstition, a new book published in France last March claims that France's President Jacques Chirac was "disturbed" by ex-president George W. Bush.  In 2003, when he was seeking allies to invade Iraq, Bush claimed that prophetic characters Gog and Magaog from the Book of Revelation were raging in the Middle East:
In Genesis and Ezekiel Gog and Magog are forces of the Apocalypse who are prophesied to come out of the north and destroy Israel unless stopped. The Book of Revelation took up the Old Testament prophesy:

"And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them."

Bush believed the time had now come for that battle, telling Chirac:

"This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people's enemies before a New Age begins".

Thus, thousands of American and allied soldiers were killed in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, and countless Christian Iraqis were displaced from their homeland, all because one man thought God instructed him to wage war against obscure Biblical characters--characters of which even devout Christians disagree on their true meaning?  When a Muslim man kills in the name of his religion, Christians denounce both the man and the religion.  But when a Christian man does the equivalent, where is the outrage, particularly among American Conservative Christians?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Chiropractor Fires Woman for Being an Atheist

In McKinney, Texas, Amanda Donaldson worked at a Chiropractic office and had developed Stage III Breast Cancer. She missed three weeks of work in April and May to undergo a full mastectomy. Amanda's husband, Brant Donaldson, runs a blog called to raise funds for medical expenses and keep friends and family informed of Amanda's prognosis. The Donaldsons, both atheists, also expressed their religious opinions during their ordeal.

Amanda's boss, Dr. Scott Dawson learned of the website back in March, and threatened to fire her if she did not remove the atheist portions of her website. Dr. Dawson expressed concern that his patients may cast aspersions against his practice if they learned of the website. The Donaldson's complied by removing the religious portions of their blog.

Amanda considers herself a quiet atheist, never mentioning it at work, even quietly accepting others offers to pray for her and even lay hands on her to "cast the demon out." When Amanda returned to work on May 4 after her mastectomy, Dr. Dawson was very cool toward her, finally uttering, "There is no place for your thoughts, opinions and beliefs on God in my office, please give me your key and leave.” As the Donaldsons only have one vehicle, Amanda was forced to walk four miles to her home, aggravating her medical condition.

Dr. Dawson was reported as saying, "It’s a Christ-oriented office, they (meaning employees) need to be on the same page I am." He also stated, "I’m a person of faith, connected to God, and I’ll hire anyone who is qualified, but I do not want to hire anyone with a different world view.”

According to Amanda, she has contacted attorneys and her State Senator, but they all say the same thing. State Labor Law is designed to protect small businesses, and companies with less than 15 employees can not be sued for discrimination of any kind. Today she worries about her loss of income and medical benefits, and she continues to struggle, having been fired from her position for being an atheist.

Atheos Today: Texas Breast Cancer Patient Fired for being an Atheist.

Interview with Amanda Donaldson.

Interview with Dr. Scott Dawson.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Two New Chick Tracts

Chick Publications has released two new tracts espousing his peculiar brand of Christian fundamentalism.

The first, called "It's a Deal" depicts a young black youth who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for fortune and fame. Unlike the story of Faust, however, this one has a happy ending. However, the tract itself seems determined to strengthen many negative stereotype held against African-Americans.

The tract also asserts that even though someone has "died in his sins" he can be prayed back to life and yanked out of Hell, complete with a sulfur residue. I'd like to see any reports of doctors detecting sulfur after reviving a clinically dead patient.

The second tract, called Evil Eyes conveys Chick's animosity toward the Catholic Church. We see a hodge-podge of absurd elements here; namely, occult witchcraft is real and effective, people in comas are actually zombies, and that Catholics worship a dead Christ.

Thanks to Potoooooooo for the link.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Satan Unleashed; Atheists Still Skeptical

More adventures from the the Book of Revelation await, as presented by the Reverend Brandon Powell Smith of The Brick Testament. In this chapter, we see more marvels including scorpions the size of horses; soldiers riding horses with lions heads--complete with breath of fire, smoke, and sulfur; and a giant beast with seven heads, ten horns, and naughty words printed on it.

And yet people still won't repent.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cool Award-winning Illusions

In yet another example that Seeing is Not Believing, take a look at the top three winners of the 2009 Best Visual Illusion of the Year Contest, hosted by the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, Florida.

Will a falling ball change course if you take your eyes off of it?

Does a white bird change colors if the background color changes?

Think you can tell the difference between a man and a woman just by looking at their faces?

Take a look at the illusions and see.

Marriage, Statistics, and Fallacious Arguments

Evangelical conservatives have argued that legalizing gay marriage would be wrong. In the past, they've tried to use emotional arguments such as, "The Bible condemns homosexuality," or "Gay marriage is confusing to our children." These emotional appeals are ineffective because they only carry weight for those who already subscribe to the beliefs that the emotional appeals are intended to influence. For example, if I don't believe that eating crickets is sinful, then quoting a Bible verse to me that forbids eating crickets will have little effect.

What evangelicals should be doing is using reason and argument against gay marriage, rather than appeals to authority or emotion. To use my crickets example again, if you can demonstrate that, say, people who eat crickets have an enormously higher rate of cancer than people who don't, then that is a valid argument. With regard to gay marriage, some conservatives have argued that allowing homosexuals to marry will have a detrimental effect on heterosexual marriage, and they use statistics to support their position. For example, James Dobson, former chairman of Focus on the Family, told Larry King (Nov '06):

In the Netherlands and places where they have tried to define marriage [to include gay couples], what happens is that people just don’t get married. It’s not that the homosexuals are marrying in greater numbers, it’s that when you confuse what marriage is, young people just don’t get married.

But is that the case? One problem with relying on statistics to make an argument is that statistics can easily be manipulated or skewed to demonstrate bias. In this week's e-skeptic, the e-mail newsletter of the Skeptics Society, Barret Brown examines Dobson's claim and finds that the notion that gay marriage decreases straight marriage rates is absurd.

Brown notes that Denmark allowed gay civil unions as far back as 1989. In the next decade, heterosexual marriage increased over 10 percent, and the divorce rate dropped 14 percent. Sweden and Norway also had similar results. So where did Dobson get his idea that gay unions decrease straight marriages?

Brown blames Stanley Kurtz, contributor to the Weekly Standard and the National Review, who focused on year-to-year changes in marriage and divorce rates rather than overall trends over longer periods of time. If marriage declined two percent one year, then Kurtz highlighted it, even if the marriage rate also declined in other countries where gay civil unions or marriages are not allowed. If marriage increased even more the following year in Denmark, Kurtz ignored that. Kurtz also used bad statistics to wave away the fact that Danes divorce at a lower rate than other European countries.

Kurtz seemed most upset that 60 percent of first-born children are born out of wedlock in Denmark. What he doesn't mention is that the percentage of second-born children with unmarried parents is lower, meaning that many couples are marrying after having their first child. That seems reasonable to me--I can easily sympathize with couples not wanting to commit to marriage until they are sure that they can have children together. I could even see it becoming a religious requirement that couples must provide proof of fertility before being allowed to be married.

What out-of-wedlock births has to do with gay marriage is unclear, except for the fact that Kurtz is "disturbed" by it. He cites a rise in the percentage of couples having children before marriage (a trend that has been rising for decades) and tries to correlate that with the acceptance of gay civil unions, a logical fallacy as silly as trying to blame the rise of global temperatures on the decline of pirates. As Brown concludes:

Why is Kurtz so disturbed about out-of-wedlock rates? Personally, I think it would be preferable for a couple to have a child and then get married, as is more often the case in Scandinavia, rather than for a couple to have a child and then get divorced, as is more often the case in the United States. Kurtz doesn’t seem to feel this way, though, as it isn’t convenient to feel this way at this particular time. Here are all of these couples, he tells us, having babies without first filling out the proper baby-making paperwork with the proper federal agencies. What will become of the babies? As long as we’re looking at trend lines, we may conclude that they’ll continue to outperform their American counterparts in math and science, as they’ve been doing for quite a while.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When God Attacks

The Reverend Brandon Powell Smith has been busy working his way through the Book of Revelations, and he's created a new set of Lego dioramas depicting the fate of Earth during the Apocalypse. As Smith writes:

There's a popular notion that The Bible gives us two starkly different portrayals of God. There's the Old Testament God who often directly intervenes in human affairs to bestow favor on particular races, drown people, kill babies, command genocide, or torture people with snakes, and then there's the The New Testament God who seems remote and aloof, and whose son espouses a surprisingly loving, forgiving ethic.

But those who read The New Testament carefully know that Jesus drops more than a few hints that God has hardly lost his appetite for destruction, and is instead saving it up for one final gory feast. The Old Testament God, Yahweh, returns to form in The Bible's final book, Revelation, and in today's four new illustrated stories we begin to see what sort of plan for humanity ol' Yahweh has been scheming up during his "quiet years":

His latest series shows what happens when God unleashes his fury if bright vivid detail:

That's one-third of the earth burning up, according to Revelations 8:7, with presumably billions dying.

And to think, some people are actually looking forward to this. Not living through it, of course, but watching it happen from their safe perches up in heaven.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Why God Needs to Kill with Natural Disasters

Theodicy is a philisophical idea dealing with the Divine Problem of Evil, namely, if God is both powerful and benevolent, then why is there evil in the world? Free will is often cited as the reason for some kinds of evils such as murders and other crimes, but what about natural disasters? What about earthquakes and tsunamis and viral plagues? Those can't be brought about by human free will, and yet God allows them to happen anyway? Why can't God keep these destructive forces from occurring?

Dinesh D'Souza, former policy analyst in the Reagan White House and conservative author/speaker, has published a stunning article in Christianity Today magazine titled, "Why We Need Earthquakes." D'Souza cites the book Rare Earth (2003), written by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, which argues that earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters are all a simple result of plate tectonics, and without these naturally occurring forces, humans would never have been able to live on the earth.
While natural disasters occasionally wreak havoc, our planet needs plate tectonics to produce the biodiversity that enables complex life to flourish on earth. Without plate tectonics, earth's land would be submerged to a depth of several thousand feet. Fish might survive in such an environment, but not humans.

Plate tectonics also help regulate the earth's climate, preventing the onset of scorching or freezing temperatures that would make mammalian life impossible. In sum, plate tectonics are a necessary prerequisite to human survival on the only planet known to sustain life.

So why couldn't God simply create a world that doesn't require plate tectonics? Easy answer, according to D'Souza:
Such a world could have produced life, but it surely could not have produced creatures like us. Science tells us that our world has all the necessary conditions for species like Homo sapiens to survive and endure.

D'Souza cites the anthropic principle, the notion that the universe was created by God for our benefit. I suppose that D'Souza would also embrace other natural evils such as deadly viruses, cancer, extinction events, and being eaten by a shark. Those have nothing to do with plate tectonics and they kill humans indiscriminately, but God must have a good reason for allowing those as well.

D'Souza's apologetics fall in line with the Catholic Church's early opposition to vaccines. The church's concern was not that a vaccine meant to eliminate one disease might cause another one like autism. No, Catholics opposed vaccinations on the grounds that if God decreed that someone should die a horrific painful death due to smallpox, then who are we to thwart God's will by vaccinating smallpox into extinction?

Likewise, I suppose that D'Souza would be opposed to the scientific study of earthquakes with an eye toward minimizing loss of human life on the same grounds. After all, we need these deadly earthquakes or else the earth wouldn't be the perfect abode for humans that it is. Perhaps that's why Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal rolled his eyes at the U.S. Government stimulus package including funding for "volcano monitoring."

This is not to suggest, as the scientist and philosopher Leibniz once argued, that ours is the best of all possible worlds. But ours may be the best of all feasible worlds, at least as viewed from a human perspective. This recognition will not stop people from bemoaning the next earthquake, but it should at least stop us from blithely assuming that the Creator could have done a much better job.

I have often found that when a religious apologist says the words, "This is not to suggest," then that is exactly what is meant to suggest. D'Souza argues that God needs deadly disasters to make this world, and without them we wouldn't be here to worship that very God that wants children crushed under tons of concrete.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Burkha Logic

Once again, Fred Clark of the Slacktivist blog has written a well-thought essay in response to the National Organization for Marriage's ad in which a handful of worried citizens wring their hands over same-sex marriage, and how it inhibits their freedoms. Critical response to the ad has been loud and furious, but Fred Clark has accurately summed up the dual positions of the ad's supporters, what he calls "the persecuted hegemon."

American evangelicals hold two mutually exclusive beliefs about their faith and its place in society. First, the United States is a Christian nation in which ninety-something percent of citizens believe in God. Therefore, Christianity should be upheld with the highest respect, and anyone who doesn't subscribe to Christianity should learn their place and be silent. Second, Christians are a persecuted minority in this wicked secular nation, and even checking off "I'm a Christian" on an anonymous survey is taking a bold stand for Christ.

They're not duplicitous in holding both beliefs, as Clark writes. They sincerely believe both--that they are both a righteous majority and the last of a faithful minority, which is why evangelicals expect--nay, demand--that store clerks greet them with "Merry Christmas" not some mamby-pamby "Happy Holidays," and anyone who does kowtow to the more-inclusive expressions are trying to "remove Christianity from the public square."

Clark wisely notes that today's evangelicals complaining of persecution would be laughed at by first-century Roman Christians, or seventeenth-century Anabaptists, or countless other groups of believers that truly were persecuted for their faith.

The persecuted hegemon phenomenon leads to the oxymoronic concept of non-reciprocal justice:
For these folks, turnabout is never fair play, turnabout is merely backwards. Thus when others respond to them in kind, or even simply remind them of the Golden Rule, they take offense, as though this constitutes an injustice toward them.

The idea is seen when fundamentalist Muslims require their women wear burkhas. It's not the free choice of a handful of faithful Muslim women, nor is the requirement restricted to one's own household, church, or sect. It's become a cultural standard enforced on all women--Allah forbid an upright Muslim man should have to go in public and see a non-Muslim, non-burkha-wearing woman's ankles.

That's why the NOM's ad is so silly, as Clark neatly summarizes:

Your freedom threatens my freedom to live in a world in which people like you are not free to do the sorts of things you might do with your freedom. "And I am afraid."

It must be noted that Clark is a Christian, and a rather clever one at that.

Friday, April 17, 2009

More Noah's Ark replicas

I wrote earlier about a Dutch creationist building a replica of Noah's Ark, commenting on the fact that while impressive, it was only one-fifth the size of the original, per the dimensions listed in Genesis.

Well, I just learned that three Hong Kong billionaires have built a full-size replica. Seventeen years in the planning, it's a biblically-endorsed 450 feet long, but with modern amenities such as a rooftop luxury hotel.

The article includes a slide-show of several other ark builders and their monumenal creations, some with either models of, or even real live animals on display (although far too few to repopulate the world's animal kingdom).

Do Atheists Care About Others?

Answers in Genesis, a young-earth creationist organization, has a disturbing campaign arguing that you matter to God. The campaign has a signature video depicting a boy walking up to the camera, looking the viewer in the eye, then pointing a gun at the camera and firing it. The caption reads, "If God doesn't matter to him, do you?" The implication is that if you don't believe in God, you have no reason not to walk up and shoot people in the face. After all, what do you care, right?

AIG has received much press for their campaign, many of it negative, something that I think they were hoping for. They have a page up explaining their rationale, and it only fuels the stereotypes and hateful thinking that the video expresses.

Every day we are inundated with evolution-based messages intended to remove the Creator from the fabric of our society, our lives, our thoughts. But if we evolved from lower life forms, then the Bible can’t be trusted and life’s supposed billion-year history is one of continual death and struggle.3 If the Bible isn’t true, then why should we be fair and kind and love our fellow human beings, as the Bible teaches?4 After all, evolution relies on survival of the fittest—no matter who gets in the way.

The theory of evolution was intended to explain the rich diversity of the biosphere on planet Earth. It was NOT intended to remove a belief for a specific creator-deity, no more than studying North Pole climate is intended to remove belief of Santa Claus from society. Granted, an acceptance of the theory of evolution does make it difficult to also accept a literal interpretation of Genesis which was written based on sixth-century B.C. scientific knowledge. In twenty-six hundred years since the era of ancient Babylonia, humans--Christian and non-Christian--have learned a few things about the world, such as its true shape, its position with regard to the sun, and the framework of the wide variety of life. What AIG can't seem to understand is that most Christians accept evolution just fine--they simply feel that it was God's primary tool for creating the life that Genesis said he did.

Those who feel that neither they nor their actions matter to God lose their motivation to care for the lives of others or for their own life.

This is at best an unproved assertion and at worst an outright lie. Atheists, agnostics, and non-believers around the world all care for their families, their friends, and their communities. If this were not the case, then the sociological results would be clearly obvious: atheists would not be married or have children; agnostics would crowd our prisons; non-believers would all be anarchists bent on destruction. The fact that these social behaviors are certainly not true demonstrates that AIG may claim that atheists don't care about others, but in reality, AIG doesn't care about the truth.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Excerpt from Varieties of Scientific Experience, Part Three

The part of Sagan's new book The Varieties of Scientific Experience that I enjoyed most was the Q and A section. After each lecture, audience members were invited to step up to a microphone and ask Sagan a question. I can tell by how some of the questions are worded that some questioners were hostile toward Sagan and his ideas. Yet he was able to respond to their challenge with a grace and wisdom that puts other religious skeptics to shame. When confronted by a religious claim, someone like, say, Christopher Hitchens might reply, "You're wrong, that's foolish nonsense, and here's why." But Sagan would respond more like, "I understand why you would feel that way, but I can't agree with your position, and here's why."

Questioner: Can religious beliefs adapt to the future?

Carl Sagan: Well, it's certainly an important question. My feeling is, it depends on what religion is about. If religion is about saying how the natural world is, then to be successful it must adopt the methods, procedures, techniques of science and then become indistinguishable from science. By no means does it follow that that's all religion is about. And I tried to indicate at the end of my last lecture some of the many areas in which religion could provide a useful role in contemporary society and where religions, by and large, are not. But that's very different from saying how the world is or came to be. And there the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions have simply adopted the best science of the time. But it was a long time ago, the time of sixth-century B.C., during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. That's where the science of the Old Testament comes from. And it seems to me important that the religions accommodate to what has been learned in the twenty-six centuries since. Some have, of course, to varying degrees; many have not.

Positively Misguided

Steve Salerno, investigative journalist for eSkeptic, writes a remarkable essay revealing what science has to say about the Self-Esteem and Positive Thinking movements. Spurred by the runaway success of Rhonda Byrne's The Secret (now with six million books and DVDs in print), Salerno's essay reveals the myths and mistakes of the "new" movements, which are based on the much older empty concept "The Law of Attraction."


There's no mistaking the allure of an outlook in which you'll make every block, get every job you apply for, close every sales call, and win the heart of every man or woman who catches your eye. This became clear to me many years post-college when I began research for a book about the human-potential movement. I quickly realized how invested Americans were in their optimism -- and how irate they'd become at being challenged, or even just questioned, on it; I was encountering what essayist Barbara Ehrenreich, writing later in Harper's, would bracket as "pathological" hope. It's a world-view that's seductive and uplifting and ennobling -- all of that -- and yet, evidence and common sense suggest it has nothing to do with setting (and implementing) realistic goals, establishing (and observing) priorities and, perhaps most important, recognizing valid limitations and obstacles....

The notion that the riddle of success is more easily solved by attitude than aptitude may be one of the more subtly destructive forces in American society. Not only is it a reproach to rational thought, but in a society already veering ominously towards narcissism, this "hyping of hope" also erodes reverence for hard work, patience, scholarship, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, due diligence and the other time-honored components of success....

More here.