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.

History of Science DVD Lecture Series

Michael Shermer, noted skeptic and editor of Skeptic magazine, has made available his college course on DVD, called The History of Science. The course consists of three DVDs containing 25.5 hours of MP3 lectures, including topics such as:

* What is Science? Science, Pseudoscience, & the Evolution-Creation Controversy

* Scientific Revolutions, Paradigms, and Paradigm Shifts in Science

* The Meaning of Science in History

The lectures can be ordered here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Excerpt from Varieties of Scientific Experience, Part Two

More wisdom from Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience:

"By definition, as Ann Druyan has pointed out, an immortal Creator is a cruel god, because He, never having to face the fear of death, creates innumerable creatures who do. Why should he do that? If he's omniscient, He could be kinder and create immortals, secure from the danger of death. He sets about creating a universe in which at least many parts of it, and perhaps the universe as a whole, dies. And in many myths, the one possibility the gods are most anxious about is that humans will discover some secret of immortality or even, as in the myth of the Tower of Babel, for example, attempt to stride the high heavens. There is a clear imperative in Western religion that humans must remain small and mortal creatures. Why? It's a little like the rich imposing poverty on the poor and then asking to be loved because of it." (p. 29)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Excerpt from Varieties of Scientific Experience

I've been reading Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, edited by Sagan's widow Ann Druyan.

Sagan was invited in 1985 to give the Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology at the University of Glasgow to standing-room-only audiences. The Gifford Lectures were established to "promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term--in other words, the knowledge of God." To be invited to lecture is one of the highest honors in Scottish academia.

Ann Druyan edited Sagan's lectures and published them, and I'm reading them now for a second time. Carl Sagan was a master at melding the scientific with the poetic. He saw such beauty and wonder in everything from the way a bacteria reproduced to the stunning images of a supernova, and he was infectious in inviting us to gaze at them as well.

From the book:
The number of external galaxies beyond the Milky Way is at least in the thousands of millions and perhaps in the hundreds of thousands of millions, each of which contains a number of stars more or less comparable to that in our own galaxy. So if you multiply out how many stars that means, it is some number--let's see, ten to the . . . It's something like one followed by twenty-three zeros, of which our Sun is but one. It is a useful calibration of our place in the universe. And this vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, in my view has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion, and especially no Western religion.

Russian has daughter killed over clothing

In a horrible story, a Russian immigrant in St. Petersburg has been charged with hiring a pair of hitmen to kill his 21-year old daughter. Two men abducted the girl, a university medical student, on March 8 and shot her twice in the head. Her crime?

Wearing a miniskirt.

From the article:
Russia has experienced a revival of conservative religious tradition since the fall of the Soviet Union both within its Russian Orthodox and large Muslim communities.

The Brick Testament looks at the Book of Revelations

Rev. Brendan Powell Smith of the popular Brick Testament site takes on The Apocalypse of John, or commonly known as The Book of Revelations. Rev. Smith recreates biblical scenes in Lego, putting a visual twist on familiar bible passages.

This time, Smith has tackled the early chapters of John's visions and--what many believe--our world's near future.

The passages are filled with allegory, as huge bizarre animals populate the throne room of God and, if depicted in a non-Biblical setting, would suggest the influence of mind-altering chemicals.

Smith has cleverly depicted God giving his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse the authority to slaughter one-quarter of the Earth's population, which if it occurred in April 2009, would total 1.7 billion people, all of them killed due to war, famine, and plague.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Holy Week in the Big Picture

The popular image blog Big Picture features photos of Christian believers around the world preparing for and celebrating Holy Week--the last week of Lent and the week leading up to Easter. Rituals vary widely, but what is striking about the set of photos displayed at the Big Picture is the number of people (referred to as 'penitents') who are undergoing some sort of self-punishment--From the skinned knees of someone kneeling on paving stones, to the bloody backs of self-flagellation, to the horrific view of a man's hand punctured with a nail in simulation of Jesus' crucifixion.

Many of these images would no doubt seem normal or even exalted to those familiar with the culture in which they are seen, but to outsiders they appear strange, even bizarre. Such is the way. As Robert Heinlein said, "One man's religion is another man's belly laugh."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Obama: U.S. not a Christian Nation

During his European tour, U.S. President Obama had this to say to reporters in Turkey:

"I've said before that one of the great strengths of the United States is, although as I mentioned we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."

Sounds like George Washington's famous statement in The Treaty of Tripoli in 1797:

"[T]he government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…."