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, Beliefnet.com'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?