Friday, December 31, 2010

Episode 05 - CB4SM - Charles Darwin - On the Origin of Species

This episode of Cold Beer for the Skeptic's Mind features English naturalist Charles Darwin and is an excerpt of his famous work, On the Origin of Species.

You can subscribe in iTunes or get the podcast directly here.

I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Quote of the Day

Many people choose their religion with the same thought and care as when they choose their primary language.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Americans and Canadians: Not as religious as we claim?

Shankar Vedantam writing for looks at some interesting research that suggests that Americans may not be any more actively religious than other industrialized nations; they just claim to be.

The surveys have been remarkably consistent over the years.  Forty percent of Americans tell pollsters they regularly attend religious services.  Nearly 90 percent say they believe in God.  Yet perhaps half of those believers who claim to attend church actually don't.

The twist lies in how the questions are asked in polls, which I would think be obvious to those who conduct these things.  For example, when asked, "Do you attend church?" Americans will say Yes.  But when asked "Where were you on Sunday morning last week," many of them will say they were somewhere else besides church. 

So the question is, if certain people don't practice religion, why do they think of themselves as religious?  Why is their identity wrapped up in portraying themselves as faithful?  Are they worried that others will think less of them if they aren't appropriately pious?  Vendatam makes no conclusion, but does offer some valid advice:
For many Americans, church attendance is a central part of their lives. For others, it's a waste of time. If you're in either of these groups, more power to you. But in the spirit of Christmas and the truthteller whose message we celebrate, surely believers and atheists can agree on what to tell folks who talk Jesus but walk Santa: Enough with the two-faced posturing.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Saddam Hussein: Superstitious ghoul

Saddam Hussein, in a bid for piety, gave his own blood for ink to transcribe a Qur'an.  Today, Iraqi leaders don't know what to do with the macabre book.

Perhaps the United States should revisit the policy of supporting twisted superstitious tin-pot dictators.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Moon: Natural Satellite, or Artistic Orb?

Today on Conservapedia, their random entry is the Earth's Moon:

Let's take a look, shall we?

"The Moon is a natural satellite orbiting the Earth at an average distance of about 238,000 miles (380,000 km)."

Fine so far, if a bit sparse. What else?

"The Moon appears from the Earth to be the same size as the sun, in perfect artistic symmetry, unlike any known other planet-moon system....And the Moon has one more remarkable artistic attribute: it rotates and revolves in a way such that only one side is ever visible to the Earth."

I'm not sure why the Moon's apparent size when viewed from Earth is so important as to be listed in the opening paragraph. However, if something is called 'artistic' enough, one gets the impression that one is being set up to be told that there's some active agent--a grand Artist, let's say--waiting behind the curtain to be introduced, take a bow, say a few words.

Anything more we need to know about the Moon before we move on to the finer details?

"Atheists cannot explain the Origin of the Moon, despite many failed attempts."

Oh, those silly atheists. What do they know about the formation of natural satellites? Everyone knows that the Moon was just poofed into existence on Day number Four, along with the Sun, the Andromeda Galaxy, and Spitzer-Chandler Supercluster. I mean, come on!

Next we move to the section labeled "The Moon as God's Creation." What is the evidence that God created the Moon?

"The Moon is just far enough away from the Earth to appear the same size of the Sun. The odds of this occurring by chance are nearly zero."

And as we all know, if something is unlikely, then it must be of supernatural origin. That's just basic science, you know.

"Most astronomers assert that the Moon originated from a collision early in Earth's history which created an orbiting ring of debris from the iron-poor surface of the planet which eventually coalesced into the moon. This theory, however, is contrary to key observations of the Moon, such as the relatively low levels of iron in the Moon's crust."

Well, now I'm confused. If the Earth's surface was 'iron-poor' when it was smacked, wouldn't you expect the Moon's crust to be also iron-poor? Is there something else that can explain this discrepancy?

"Biblical history records the Moon being created on the fourth day of creation week, along with the Sun."

Whew. That explains it.

"While the Moon of Earth is the best-known satellite of any planet, other planets in our solar system also have moons. Earth has the least number of moons (one), while Jupiter has sixty-two."

I'll bet the members of the Mercury and the Venus fan clubs are waging letter-writing campaigns right now to get their favorite heavenly bodies restored to their rightful positions as the planets with the least number of moons, as even a Young-Earth Creationist must agree that zero is less than one.

"Earth's moon was, of course, known to the ancients, but the remaining dwarf-planet-sized moons were generally the first to be discovered in orbit around any given primary. Galileo Galilei discovered the first four of these in orbit about Jupiter early in the seventeenth century."

And Catholic priests refused to look through Galileo's telescope at the Jupiter moons because obviously they couldn't possibly exist as their very presence contradicted Biblical teachings. But that's not important right now.

What is important, is that all of this adds up to the irrefutable fact that God created the Moon out of water and transmogrified it into iron, silicon, and good old-fashioned rock, all so that humans can have pretty solar eclipses. Yay science!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Cold Beer for the Skeptic's Mind

Well, against some people's better judgment, I've started a podcast, called Cold Beer for the Skeptic's Mind. The podcast feature a short (2 to 5 minutes) positive message from famous or infamous skeptics and freethinkers throughout history. Think of it as a stimulating refreshment for your mind.

There are a variety of ways to find and/or subscribe. Here's the link for I-tunes:

Or you can throw this link into your favorite podcast catcher:

Or you can access the website hosting the podcast directly and download the mp3s manually:

I hope you enjoy them.

You win some; you lose some

The United States Senate voted allowing the president and the U.S. Military to lift the bigoted, "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy, in place for seventeen long years, so that gays and lesbians which have been serving in the military since the founding of our country don't have to hide who they are anymore. 

On the other hand, the Senate blocked a vote on the DREAM act, which lets kids who have lived in the U.S. all or most of their lives, and who presumably value living here, become legally recognized as citizens provided they graduate from college and/or serve in the military.

In other words, according to the Senate, we'll begrudgingly let you serve your country--putting your lives on the line to defend the very freedoms we Senators enjoy--if you must insist on claiming that you're gay.  But if you have brown skin and were brought to this country against your will, either as a child or inside your parent's genetalia, and even if you want to serve your country or better yourself with education (which would presumably make America a stronger, more competitive nation) then it would be better if you were deported somewhere and dumped in a country where you may not know the language, customs, or a single other person, presumably so that you can either live in poverty or stoke a hatred of the United States that comes out in violence against us.  After all, if we didn't manufacture enemies, what would we do with our half-trillion dollar annual military budget?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Animals know right from wrong, don't form cults

This is an older link, pointed out to me by Tracie Harris of the Atheist Experience, but it's a keeper.

A book called Wild Justice, written by Colorado University professors Mark Bekoff and Jessica Pierce, document the ways in which animals make moral decisions and determine right from wrong:
"There are cases of dolphins helping humans to escape from sharks and elephants that have helped antelope escape from enclosures.

"While it is difficult to know for certain that there is cross species empathy, it is hard to argue against it."

And yet, there are those who argue that only God can teach humans right from wrong, and that God has only revealed himself to humans.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dear Charles Lewis: you just *think* you don't care

Charles Lewis, religion writer for the National Post writes an absurd attack piece against atheists, showing that despite the title "Dear atheists: most of us don't care what you think," Mr. Lewis does indeed feel threatened by them.  His message of "Sit down and shut up!" is not because atheists are taking up too much precious time of the national dialogue talking about trivia, but because atheists are finding a voice, and others are beginning to listen. 

He calls Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens "dreary," and that debating with atheists is a waste of time.  Why?  "Most atheists do not have a clue what religion is about."  Of course this is an outright lie, given that many atheists once were raised in religious households, and surveys show that atheists know more about religion than Protestants and Catholics.

Next he trots out North Korea as the quintessential atheistic society, while conveniently ignoring the Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Norway, countries that are largely peopled with atheists and are models of societal health.  Mr. Lewis, here's a simple quiz for you:

* Atheism plus Totalitarianism makes for an unhealthy society (North Korea, Stalin's Russia, etc.)
* Religion plus Totalitarianism makes for an unhealthy society (Nazi Germany, Saudi Arabia, etc.)

Can you spot what those two items have in common?

Lewis continues the strawman attacks: "Atheists are under the ridiculous illusion that religious people think that all they have to do is call out to God and help will be on the way."

Right, because religious people never pray when action would be more useful.  Parents never watch their children die because they chose to pray over a treatable illness rather than seek medical attention.  Jesus never said that whatever you ask for in prayer, just believe that you'll receive it, and it will be yours (Mark 11:24).

Lewis likes the monk Thomas Merton, quoting him twice:
Thomas Merton also said: “Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”

He could have said the same thing about faith.

And he could have said the same thing about fetishism, mindless devotion, and superstition.  But why let facts get in the way of a baseless attack against atheists, backed with no supporting evidence?

Science, in conjunction with superstition, works.

Another entry for "What's the harm?" with depressing familiarity.  Child gets sick, parents pray for child instead of seeking professional treatment, child dies.  In this case, the parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter, the same charge as if they had chosen to pray their child out of the street before it gets mowed down by a truck.

The newspaper report also throws up a poll, and the choices are telling:

Do you believe in the power of prayer to heal?
* Yes
* Yes, but in conjunction with medicine
* No
* Don't know

"Yes, but in conjunction with medicine."  Standard cop-out for those who want to cover all their bases, which curiously shows a lack of faith.  "Yes prayer works, BUT, you also have to employ professionals because God's not *quite* powerful enough to heal on his own without a lot of human help." 

In other news, prayer plus aspirin cures headaches.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dawkins on Hitchens: "My Hero of 2010"

Richard Dawkins takes time to praise Christopher Hitchens:

A lesser man would have seized the excuse of a mortal illness to duck responsibility and take it easy. Not this soldier. He will not go gentle into that good night; but instead of a futile raging against the dying of the light he rages, with redoubled energy (and concentrated power in his vibrant, Richard Burton tones) against the same obscurantist, vicious or just plain silly targets as have long engaged him. But he never rants. His is a controlled, disciplined rage, and don't get on the wrong side of it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Debate: William Dembski vs. Christopher Hitchens - "Does a good God exist?"

Last week I attended a debate between William Dembski and Christopher Hitchens, hosted by the Biblical Worldview Institute, a conference held by Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas. The subject of the debate was "Does a Good God exist?"

William Dembski is a Professor of Philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and has authored several books on Intelligent Design.

Christopher Hitchens is an English-American author and journalist, a public intellectual who has written several books in politics and religious criticism.

The audience was primarily the middle-school and high-school members of the private Christian school, and by itself it is impressive that the administrators would invite a well-known atheist to speak to the students. They certainly wouldn't have allowed the same at the private school I attended as a teenager. The debate was also open to the public for those interested. The comment was made that given the younger audience, the debaters agreed to shorten their statements, although the entire debate was still nearly three hours long.

There are two aspects to the debate I'll address: content and delivery. Debates are unlike essays or speeches, in that they invoke a sense of theater. A debater can have a rock-solid message, but if his performance is lackluster the message falls flat. Conversely, a natural showman can whip a crowd into a frenzy with mere platitudes and buzzwords.

Hitchens had the opening statement, whose content did not address the topic, does a good god exist, but was instead more of a justification for disbelief. He correctly explained that an expanding universe is evidence that this universe was not created for humanity's benefit, and he recommended Francis Collins' book The Language of God as a Christian's embrace of the Theory of Evolution. Hitchens shared that he disbelieves in God because he's opposed to the notion a permanent authority, "a king who cannot be opposed, a judge who can not be appealed." He encouraged the students to shed the ideas that we are the purpose of the universe and that we should be in thrall to a dictator.

Dembski's opening statement was almost entirely an argument against evolution by natural selection. His remarks made it clear that evolution leads to atheism, so his method of proving that God exists is to discount evolution. Dembski mentioned several well-worn statements about Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution, such as the complexity of the cell and the patterns in nature.

Hitchens' rebuttal noted that atheism is nearly as old as humanity and has thus long preceded evolution. Hitchens wondered out loud why religious organizations are so hostile to scientific discoveries, and he also reminded the audience that millions of Christians around the world accept evolution as God's method of creation.

For Dembski's rebuttal, he agreed that atheism may predate evolution, but it doesn't predate naturalism, which is the larger threat to religion. Finally, Dembski began addressing the topic, the existence of a good God. First he claimed there are two problems we humans confront: a Problem of Evil, in which evil exists in a world managed by a good God, and the Problem of Good, the notion that good exists at all. Dembski asserted that the Problem of Good outweighs the Problem of Evil, but didn't spend much time defining the Problem of Good or why it is a problem at all. He also employed the time-worn argument that for us to declare God evil must mean that God violated a standard, but since God *is* the standard, the charge is incoherent. He also cautioned that our desire for evil to be eradicated *now* doesn't apply to a timeless God. Too bad for us time-bound humans, I suppose.

The debate moved to the Q and A section, where audience members submitted questions for the two speakers. Curiously, the Q and A devolved into a back-and-forth such that only a couple of questions were asked, but the moderator said that several of the questions were addressed during their repartee. However, the questions that the moderator asked also weren't related to the debate, but were questions about evolution or the Big Bang.

All in all, I was a little disappointed in Hitchen's content, although he certainly addressed the debate topic far more than Dembski. While Hitchens may have shortened his statements, I'm not sure he simplified his content for the young teenagers in the room. I've read several of his books and articles and while I can't fault his intelligence and sparkling vocabulary, given his British accent and obscure subject matter, I'm afraid most of his message went right over the heads of the Twitter-texting crowd.

However, Hitchens' performance made up for the obscurity of his message. Looking at him, you couldn't tell he was suffering from Stage 4 esophogus cancer with the exception of his fashionably hairless skull. He seemed strong and alert, and I was glad to see him strong and vigorous. Initially his performance was reserved, but grew more comfortable as the debate wore on, and his closing arguments were worth the price of admission. Dembski made the mistake of extolling the virtues of Mother Teresa (of whom Hitchens has a low opinion of) and by claiming the Nazis were secularists. These seemed to draw the ire of Hitchens, understandably not as comfortable arguing the ins and outs of evolution. Instead, he closed by encouraging the young people in the room to think for themselves and that any offer from God that you can't reject is not an offer but a threat.

However, all of my criticisms of Hitchen's content and performance are swept away in the lackluster display put on by Dembski. For starters, Dembski's comments were read directly from notes, and were about as interesting as you would expect when someone reads a speech at you. Furthermore, the notes appear to have been written for another opponent, namely Richard Dawkins. When arguing against evolution, Dembski quoted Dawkins several times, and even referred to Christopher Hitchens as "Richard . . . Hitchens" more than once. Dembski complained that once he started working with Intelligent Design his career began to suffer because, "Ideology rules the debate." Actually, Dr. Dembski, the reason your scientific career has suffered since you hitched your wagon to ID is because ID is bad science, not because you are a Christian. There are few countries in the world where it is more acceptable to be a Christian, so your martyr's plea falls on deaf ears.

In short, while both debaters' performance could have been more tailor-made for the audience, Hitchens won this debate handily. Dembski's performance was dull, barely addressed the topic, and was riddled with fallacies.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Bomb-sniffing dowsers are junk

The Iraqi Interior Ministry inspector general finally admitted that the ADE-651 bomb-sniffing dowsing devices don't work.

The ADE-651 was sold as a hand-held wand that supposedly swiveled when in the presence of dynamite or other explosives.  But like water-dowsing the device is nothing but a scam.  ATSC, a British company that manufactured the ADE-651, won million-dollar contracts selling the device to the Iraqi Interior Ministry for as much as $60,000 apiece.  U.S. military officials called the device a scam for years, and the British government has jailed the ATSC Chief Jim McCormick for fraud and has banned the company from exporting more.

Initially, Interior Minister Jawad Bolani defended the wands, saying it had saved countless lives.  But people actually using the device knew better.  Iraqi policeman Mahammed Shaker said he knew they were a scam: ""They don't achieve anything. It's all a show for the public."  The Iraqi Ministry's inspector general, Aqeel Al Turaihi reported that "many lives have been lost due to the wands utter ineffectiveness."

However, despite the criticisms, the lack of results, and the tragedy of the situation, the ADE-651 units have not been pulled from checkpoints across Iraq, and the official who signed the $85 million no-bid contract has been granted immunity.

U.S. Lt. Col Dennis Yates was very critical of ATSC's McCormick and his worthless device: "
This piece of junk did, in fact, significantly contribute to an unknown -- and pathetically large -- loss of innocent lives. The guy who bought it should rot in one of the stinking jails that dot Baghdad."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

If Paul's Epistle to the Galatians was Published in Christianity Today

This is a funny article:
Dear CT:

I’ve seen other dubious articles by Paul Apostle in the past, and frankly I’m surprised you felt that his recurrent criticisms of the Church deserved to be printed in your magazine. Mr. Apostle for many years now has had a penchant for thinking he has a right to “mark” certain Christian teachers who don’t agree with his biblical position. Certainly I commend him for desiring to stay faithful to God’s word, but I think he errs in being so dogmatic about his views to the point where he feels free to openly attack his brethren. His attitude makes it difficult to fully unify the Church, and gives credence to the opposition’s view that Christians are judgmental, arrogant people who never show God’s love.

Ken Groener; San Diego, CA

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

New Jack Chick tract! Love that Money!

I'm always amused at Jack Chick tracts, and I'm embarrassed at how seriously I took them as a Christian youth.  The latest tract is called "Love That Money!" and it's as subtle as a monster movie attack on New York City.

From the top:

A guy who doesn't want to get involved actually says, out loud, "I don't want to get involved."

Demons need rest.

Joe's boss doesn't know smarm when it smacks him in the face.

Despite being told that Annie's prayer will be answered, Annie's prayer is not answered.

A stock market crash will make a wealthy executive penniless overnight.

Satan manipulates lotteries, so much that it's called 'overdone.'

Angels have power over demons, but only at particular times.

Aunt Louise is not very bright when it comes to her nephew Joe. He refuses to keep in contact with her, but she leaves him everything in her will.

At first the devil wants Joe rich and in power on Earth, but it turns out he just wants Joe in Hell.

Well done, Jack, you've managed to create your own parallel universe, one in which the rules we live by here in our world don't apply.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"I don't have the facts, but I just know it!"

Rachel Maddow asks Alaskans why they are supporting Joe Miller:

Supporter A: Because Eric Holder is anti-gun.
RM: What's he done against guns?
Supporter A: Wuh . . . what hasn't he done against guns? Look at his voting record!
RM: He wasn't an elected official.
Supporter A: <Blank stare> . . . just look at his record--
RM: What's he done on guns that you're upset about?
Supporter A: <Blank stare . . . think, man, think!> I honestly don't know enough to answer that question.

Supporter B: Eric Holder is anti-gun!
RM: What has he done that's anti-gun?
Supporter B: I don't have all the facts, but I know that he is.

Supporter A: Just look at his press releases.
RM: Which ones?
Supporter A: Just . . . just Google "Eric Holder" and "2nd amendment."

Then Supporter C chimes in:

Supporter C: Black Panthers!

"This is the world that Fox News has created."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Danielle Bean: Faith is More Reasonier than Reason

Danielle Bean, "Catholic author" writes in the On Faith blog that she's upset that atheists are using Jon Stewart's D.C. rally to promote reason.  This is unacceptable, writes Bean:
Atheists would have you believe that science is opposed to faith, but real science is not only unopposed to faith -- real scientific study leads us to God.

For proof, she cites Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, who stated that "From a knowledge of God's work we shall know Him." Congratulations to Ms. Bean on finding a seventeenth-century scientist who also believed in God. She doesn't cite any other scientist who doesn't believe in God, or who does not feel that the best way to know about the universe is to apply faith, but that might detract readers from her main point.

I am not sure just how atheists have managed to secure exclusive rights to use of the word "reason."

Well, no one ever said that atheists want "exclusive" rights, but freethinkers do argue that reason is superior to faith when obtaining information. Sure, what we learn by faith might be true, but the only way to know for sure is to A) use reason, or B) use more faith. Martin Luther called Reason "the Devil's greatest whore," but I suppose the Catholic Ms. Bean might not know what the Father of the Protestant movement would say.

Ms. Bean goes on to erect a cartoon-version of the modern scientific method:
There is nothing at all reasonable about believing that the universe is a colossal accident....Believing that the human body is a haphazard collision of cells and that the earth is randomly placed in space, at precisely the correct distance from the sun for supporting life is as reasonable as expecting a roomful of monkeys with typewriters to turn out the next great literary masterpiece.

Of course, no non-theistic cosmologist describes the origins of the universe as an accident, and no biologist calls a human being a haphazard collision of cells. She also grossly exaggerates the range of our Sun's Habitable Zone and Earth's special place in it. Not because, as I suspect, that she's had extensive scientific training, but because apologists have told her so, as I have written about before.

Anti-faith personalities like Jon Stewart and Richard Dawkins might think that they have all the answers, but real believers know that only God does. And He's not invited to the mall this weekend.

Ms. Bean seems confused. The Jon Stewart rally is not intended to be a backlash against faith in general, but a response to the Glenn Beck rally of right-wing conservatism and fear-mongering. That atheists are taking an opportunity to protest against the Religious Right and their "faith-based" politicking is not because we have all the answers. We don't, but we don't plaster faith into our gaps of knowledge and then hug ourselves because we're so special in the eyes of God.

Simply put, faith is an unreliable means of obtaining knowledge. As the saying goes, Faith is No Reason.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Debate: Is Christianity Rational?

I enjoyed listening to a debate on October 7th, 2010 between Jeremy Beahan (of Reasonable Doubts podcast) and Christian apologist Cliff Knechtle.  The topic was "Is Christianity Rational?"

Overall, I found Beahan's performance to be far superior to Knechtle.  Beahan calmly stated his case without emotional appeals, unlike Knechtle who spoke with the punctuated emphasis like a Baptist preacher, and who appealed to emotion more and more as the debate went on.  Beahan managed his allotted time much better, even ending his remarks before his time was up, whereas Knechtle continually went over time and had to be prodded by the moderator to finish his comments.  But that's about the performance, and one aspect of debates is that they are largely theater and oratory.

As for the content, Knechtle brought nothing new to the table that I haven't heard for decades from the likes of Josh McDowell and (to a lesser degree) Kent Hovind: God exists because we can see Design; Jesus really rose from the dead because we have eyewitness testimony; without God we can't have morality.  These are old, tired arguments that have been debunked countless times, some of them for millennia (ie, Euthyphro's Dilemma, Epicurus' God and Evil.)

Whereas Beahan's content was largely unoriginal, although he can't be blamed for that.  When an old rebuttal works against an old argument, there's little need to update the rebuttal.  In fact, the area where Beahan interjected new material was where he stumbled the most.  In response to Knechtle's Anthropic Principle as evidence that God favors humanity (by positioning Earth in such a choice location in the universe), Beahan responded by noting that the newly discovered planet orbiting Gliese 581 in that star's habitable zone.  Beahan asserted too much about that planet, stating that we know much about it's composition and rotation, when in reality almost nothing is known about the planet.  Beahan argued that with this planet capable of supporting life, therefore the universe is benign to life and the anthropric principle is too solipstic to take seriously.  But we're a long way from knowing much more about distant planets, and there are plenty of candidates in our own solar system for potential life (Mars, Europa, Titan, etc.)

All in all, Beahan handled himself well, did not preach, and did not resort to emotional appeals, compared to Knechtle, whom I found disappointing and irritating.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Free Will in Heaven

I've been involved in a long discusson online with an apologetic Christian. I can't precisely define why I do so--there's almost zero chance that either one of us is going to change our position, and the board is peopled primarily with atheists and agnostics, so I can't even count on planting seeds in lurkers' minds. But I still think it's fun.

Like most online discussions, the topic drifts--nature of the beast. You start off talking about last night's episode of Glee, and before long you've covered the viability of a crewed mission to Mars, Baltic state economics, and why do your fingers feel funny when you break off a nail?

In this case, the apologist--whom I'll call Sam--found himself trapped in a corner defending why God doesn't do more to make absolutely clear that he exists and that we'd better pay close attention to what he has to say to us. Of course, he hauled out that old chestnut, "God doesn't want robots." The idea being, God wants us to love him freely, not under compulsion or because it's patently obvious that he exists. For some reason, our love is worth more if there's a chance that we're just spitting in the wind. There has to be risk, after all, or else it's cheap.

While on the surface that might sound good, I wouldn't want to enter into a human relationship on those terms. I wouldn't want to be standing at the altar, watching my bride come down the aisle, and think to myself, "I wonder if she *really* loves me. This whole thing could be just a setup."

Anyway, back to God not wanting robots. Conceivably, God could make things much easier if he just programmed us to always obey, to love him on faith, and to never commit a sin, but according to Sam, that would be bad. Parents prefer children, not robots, so we have to have the freedom to reject God. Of course, anyone who says that has never seen someone on their hands and knees gently encouraging her roomba to get itself unstuck from under the dining room table.

I then asked Sam a question, which drifted the thread in another direction: "Will believers have free will in Heaven?"

It's a simple yes-or-no question, but oh my the backflips Sam went through to avoid the implications. Here's the situation as I see it:

If the answer is No, future residents will not have free will in Heaven, then conceivably Heaven will remain a sinless existence forever, as we've been promised. But that wouldn't work, because then we would be the very robots that Sam asserts would be so bad here on Earth. You would have a hard time convincing anyone that its bad to be a robot for eighty years, but good to be a robot for eighty trillion years (and counting).

If the answer is Yes, Heaven's citizenry will indeed have free will, then it seems all but certain that Heaven will eventually descend into the sinful hellhole that is Earth. Of course, when I call Earth a sinful hellhole, I am employing the perspective of the evangelical Christian, not my own. Sin is a religious construct created to coerce and control believers. For some, the very existence of say, homosexuals, or rock music, or even hatless women in church is one more sign of the depravity to which this world has fallen simply because some guy and his wife ate a piece of fruit. That doesn't mean that, from my non-religious perspective, there is no injustice in this world, of course. But from the point of view of evangelical conservative creationist Christians, the existence in our world of cancer, thistles, even entropy itself, is all due to one man (Adam) who used his free will to disobey God.

So it stands to reason that, if two free-willed human beings living in Paradise can't keep from mucking things up for everyone, what possible chance will there be that the same thing won't happen with the millions of believers in Heaven? Sooner or later, someone's bound to do their own thing, and if Earth is any example, the rest of Heaven's residents will have to suffer the consequences. Except in Heaven's case, it will be infintely worse, since no one will die, putting their sinfulness to an end. It's one thing to live in a world in which Hitler is able to do his worst; imagine him letting loose forever.

Sam, of course, objected to this line of reasoning mightily. Even though I asked a Yes/No question--"Will believers have free will in Heaven?"--he couldn't just leave it at that. His first loophole was that the reason Adam and Eve used their free will for evil was because Satan was tempting them. Satan won't be in Heaven after the Rapture and Tribulation and all that, so it won't be a problem. Heaven will only be populated by people who have complete free will but never choose evil--they will WANT to be there, and they won't possibly WANT to sin.

Naturally, I had problems with that answer. First off, Genesis doesn't record that it was Satan in the Garden of Eden talking to Eve--it was merely a serpent. A walking, talking serpent. Taking this passage at face value (as evangelicals constantly urge us to do) Satan isn't anywhere on the scene. Christians have deduced that Satan took the form of the serpent in order to mess around with Jehovah's biology experiment. I suppose that's entirely possible when dealing with myth and allegory. But it makes God's curse on the Serpent for sticking his blunt nose where its not wanted a little tepid. Jehovah curses the serpent that he can't walk around anymore but has to crawl on his belly. And that should be a problem for an interdimensional being that can assume the shape of a non-existent animal--how? What happened, the serpent slithered away, then poofed to wherever Satan lives as he's waiting for Armageddon to spin up? You call that a curse?

Anyway, I didn't bring that up to Sam, because that was a side issue--the problems of taking myths literally--and not germane to the discussion. In response to Sam's defense of No Satan, No Sin, I came back with a two-pronged response. First, if Satan tempts others to sin, who tempted Satan to sin? According to the story gleaned out of The Book of Revelations, Ezekiel, but mostly Paradise Lost, Lucifer was the most perfect angel living in Heaven before God created the universe. Lucifer decided after who knows how long that he's tired of being number two, and so he convinces one-third of all the angels in Heaven to rebel against God. This results in a war in Heaven, which Lucifer naturally loses. He and his army are tossed out of Heaven; Lucifer takes on the name of Satan, the angels become demons, and they plan their next escapade to be launched from--well, wherever it is that's not Heaven and not Earth. I suppose it could be Hell, but it can't be all that bad if Satan is then free to play dice with God over the fate of Job, and to have philisophical discussions with Jesus in the wilderness. At any rate, Lucifer was a free-willed angel with no Satan around to tempt him to choose evil, and yet he chose evil. So why won't future Heaven residents do the same?

The second prong of my response to Sam's explanation of Satan, is that if all it takes to make a paradise with free-willed humans living in perfect harmony and no sin is for Satan to be removed from the picture, then why didn't God remove Satan from the Garden of Eden? Why did God allow Satan access in the form of a walking serpent or whatever in the first place? Already in history (and given the mythology, I use 'history' in the loosest sense of the word) we've had two scenarios in which perfect beings with free will chose to commit sin, so what's to keep the same thing from happening in the future?

In a nutshell, what can God do in Heaven that he can't do on Earth? If there really is some third answer to my Yes/No question, if there really is some way that God can set things up so that people can be not robots, and can have the ability to choose evil but never ever ever do so, then why didn't God just create that situation to begin with? Why did God make Earth, let humans muck it up with sin, kill himself so that a select few can end up in Heaven where everything is perfect forever, when he could have skipped several painful steps and just created people in Heaven?  That way, no one has to die, and even more importantly no one has to live in Hell forever because they didn't or wouldn't love an invisible God without hesitation. Wouldn't that have been the wiser choice, the more compassionate option, the more humane decision?

Those who stump for Heaven strike me as retirement village salespeople. They have a brochure that spells out how wonderful the amenities of your future retirement home will be, how you'll never want for anything, how you'll earn your life's reward wrapped in luxury and comfort. All you have to do is start making payments toward your future condo today, and keep making payments every month and every year until you retire. But no, you can't visit the village yet--only retirees are allowed inside the gated community. And you'll find no shortage of glowing endorsements from people who are already in the process of making their payments about how much they are looking forward to their future life of ease, but frustratingly, no one has ever seemed to be able to report from the inside. No one who actually lives there right now can tell you what it's like inside. In fact, and this is a little bit creepy, once a person checks into his retirement condo, he's never heard from again!

What further complicates the issue is that the architect of these retirement villages--the one who built them from the ground up, and who will be taking your monthly payments and using it to stock your spot with amenities--that guy turns out to be the same guy who built your house! And as you know perfectly well, your house sucks! It was built with shoddy construction techniques, fails electrical code in such a way that if you aren't always careful, you could kill yourself just turning on a light switch. Your house is drafty, leaks, has a suspicious-looking mold in several corners, and is infested with vermin. In fact, your dissatisfaction with your house is the biggest reason why you're even considering plunking down the cold cash for a spot in the retirement village in the first place--you can hardly wait to live in a home where the plumbing actually works as its supposed to.

So if the same builder who screwed up your house so badly is the guy in charge of your final destination, wouldn't you find that a little disquieting? If he couldn't build a decent house, what makes him qualified to build a decent retirement condo?

Oh, don't worry, says the salesman, the guy convincing you to get out your checkbook and sign the paperwork. There's a perfectly good reason why the builder wasn't able to build your home to perfect satisfaction--it's all the brother-in-law's fault. You see, the builder has this brother-in-law . . . . doesn't everybody? . . . who kept hanging around the building site when your home was being constructed. It was that guy--not the builder--who messed everything up. That guy was the one distracting the contstruction crew, and stealing tools, and swapping Grade A lumber with inferior grade particle board. If your house isn't satisfactory, then you can blame the brother-in-law. But he's not allowed on the construction site of your retirement village. Therefore, you can be certain that your retirement condo will be absolutely perfect, just like your home would have been if the brother-in-law hadn't been allowed to hang around. How many bedrooms can we put you down for?

Pastor arrested on 11 sexual abuse charges

Yet another case of a Protestant minister involved in sexual abuse:
The new charges involve two teen boys who said McCurdy forced them into sexual relationships with him. They told police he used his position in the church and Bible scriptures to force them into sex acts, authorities said.
I'm reminded of Voltaire: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Quote of the day

A Christian has to be Adolf Hitler to be called militant.  All an atheist has to do is write a book.

(With apologies to Marlo Thomas.)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Religion: Metaphor or Fog?

Daniel Dennett responds to the Pew survey that finds that atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable about religions than even the religions' own adherents.
After Copernicus and the collapse of the idea that the Sun goes around the Earth, the idea that Heaven was Up There and Hell was Down Below had to be turned into metaphor. It is still potent imagery after several centuries, but it is treated as literally true by, well, hardly anybody.

So with the increase of scientific understanding and textual criticism undermining the major religions' key tenets, what's a religion to do?
There are two main tactics.

Plan A: Treat the long, steady retreat into metaphor and mystery as a process of increasing wisdom, and try to educate the congregation to the new sophisticated understandings.

Plan B: Cloak all the doctrines in a convenient fog and then not just excuse the faithful from trying to penetrate the fog, but celebrate the policy of not looking too closely at anyone's creed - not even your own.

Plan B has been the choice of most religions and denominations, and the result, not surprisingly, is that most religiously affiliated people have no firm knowledge or even opinions about the finer points of any religion, including their own.

In a nutshell, the more you know, the less you need to believe by faith, and thus, the less you actually do believe by faith.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hey Baby, go to Hell.

If, per the Protestant doctrine, salvation can't be inherited, but must be freely chosen, then inevitably one might ask, "What about babies?"

Catholics solve the problem by baptizing their infants, thus assuring that the child will be granted status in heaven no matter when they die.  Protestants however reject that notion, but from there they part ways.

Arminian theology teaches something called "The Age of Accountability," the period when a person becomes mature enough in God's eyes to accept salvation.  That age is different for everyone, but, according to the doctrine, once you've passed that age, you don't have any more excuse.  Live just one more day and don't ask Jesus into your heart, and it's off to Hell with you.

Calvinism, on the other hand, takes a more literal view.  There's no mention of the Age of Accountability in the Bible; ergo, there is no such thing.  All that matter is if the person freely accepts salvation.  If you don't ask for forgiveness--even if you can't--then you go to Hell.  That means that the mentally incapacitated, the infants, even the fetuses that spontaneously abort without the woman even realizing she was pregnant--all of them are carted off to the Lake of Fire, because they died in their sins.  They were corrupt due to their sinful nature received at conception, and their corruption has disqualified them from any mercy in God's sight. 

Like it or not,  according to Calvinist K. B. Napier, babies are screaming in Hell, and that's a good thing:
Election says that God foreordained before the world was made (in eternity) those who would be saved. All others are foreordained to destruction, whether they are in the womb or out of it, and at any age. We might not like it, and we cannot reconcile it with our heart’s desire, but it is nevertheless a fact of God’s word.

Calvinism is a monstrous doctrine.

Monday, October 4, 2010

John Mark Reynolds: "Atheists; Mere Kings of Trivia"

Much has been made about the Pew Forum survey released last week announcing that atheists and agnostics score higher on religious knowledge than mainstream religious believers. Of course, this was trumpeted far and wide by non-believers of all persuasions, particularly since religious apologists accuse atheists of not understanding the religions they criticize. No, we atheists understand faith-based religion just fine; that's why we aren't religious.

And as you would expect, the responses from religious believers to the survey was equally heated. Was it to apologize for assuming that atheists and agnostics are uninformed about religion? Did they express surprise that, for example, the majority of religious believers didn't know that Mother Teresa was Catholic. Did anyone commit to bridging the divide between believers and non-believers by engaging in meaningful dialogue and understanding?

No, mostly they just continued the atheist bashing.

The majority of responses I've seen ran along the lines of, "Sure, you atheists might know a lot about religious doctrine, but you don't really know anything about religion because you haven't spent years in prayer and meditation. Like I have." This complaining about head knowledge versus heart knowledge is jealousy, and P.Z. Myers Courtier's Reply says it all.

The most amusing response has to be from John Mark Reynolds, philosophy professor at Biola, writing for the On Faith blog, who writes:
As a boutique belief system in the United States, atheism has a good many advantages. There are so few atheists and agnostics that they do not run all the risks of a populist movement.

Get that? Suddenly it's an advantage to be small in numbers. This is, of course, just silly. There are more non-believers in America than there are Jews, or Muslims, or most other religious groups other than Christians and their spin-offs (Mormons, etc.) and yet non-believers scored higher than all of those other groups as well. So why are non-believers so knowledgeable about religion?
Not for [atheists] is the burden of dealing with the masses of a global population, their idiosyncrasies, worries and all. Since Christians make up three-quarters or more of the American general population, we have the burden of accounting for almost everybody's problems.

Poor Christians. They have to spend so much time serving in soup kitchens and cleaning bed pans in AIDS shelters that they just don't have the time to learn that Martin Luther is the founder of the Protestantism.

Reynolds continues the rant against atheists by dissing the music of Dan Barker, of all things, and by accusing us of moving to gated enclaves where the only believers allowed inside are the help.

There's a name for people like Reynolds, one that everyone knows but that no one likes to be called--"Sore Loser."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

End-Times Paradoxes and Loopholes

Fred Clark, author of the Slacktivist blog, has another well-written post regarding the paradox of End-Times believers.  In his effort to blog through the Tribulation Force novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Clark explores the themes and logical conclusions of the popular religious authors' works.  This time he touches on a topic that's all too familiar from my early life as a "Pre-Trib."

According to Christian Fundamentalist canon, the end of the world will be marked by two key events--The Rapture, when believers will be air-lifted to begin their heavenly change of residence, and the Tribulation, seven years of misery and suffering for the poor non-Christians left behind, the period when the Anti-Christ unites the world under One World Government.  At the end of the seven years of War, Famine, Plague, and Death (the four horsemen of the Apocalypse) comes Armageddon, when God's army wipes out the United Earth Army, and the planet is swept clean of any nasty, sinful humans.

All of those points are vaguely hinted, discussed, and flirted with in the Bible, but not in any clear-cut fashion, such that Christians have argued over the details for generations.  If you believe the Rapture occurs before the Tribulation, then you are Pre-Trib, as I was raised to believe.  If you believe the Rapture occurs after the Tribulation but before Armageddon, then you are a Post-Trib.  Then there's Mid-Trib, where saints are raptured at the Tribulation's mid-point. Some believe the Rapture of the Saints will occur throughout the Tribulation as Christians enter into whatever is the proper mind state to qualify to be airlifted away from the seven years of hellacious conditions on Earth.  Christians of different persuasion bash each other on the head with their favorite Bible verses supporting their position all the time--arguments that I myself used to happily engage in--and the lack of consensus causes others to call themselves Pan-Tribs, meaning they'll take whatever pans out.

LaHaye's stance in the Tribulation Force novels is a modified Pre-Trib--namely, the Rapture occurs, but the Tribulation doesn't officially start until after Israel signs a peace treaty with the Anti-Christ.  That leaves an indeterminate period of weeks or months, a post-rapture limbo in which God and the Four Horsemen are patiently waiting until certain humans do certain things. 

And as Clark notes, the idea that Israel will sign a peace treaty that leaves them in a weaker position are practically nil, as the Middle East peace process over the last several decades has shown.  In the novels, Israel does exactly that, but the plot point of the Tribulation with all the death and disease and stuff requires people in the novel to do and say things that people in the real world never would. 

Not only does that make these bad novels, as Clark has amply demonstrated over the last many months as he blogs his way through the books, but it also points out a giant real-world conundrum--LaHaye's real-world organizations have been pouring millions of dollars for decades to make this paradox happen.  In an effort to "Support Israel" conservative organizations such as Concerned Women for America have been working to ensure that Israel never signs any peace treaty.  Israel has to remain strong and united and independent so that Armageddon can have a flash point--in which Israel gets destroyed for not accepting Jesus as their Messiah.

Growing up, I was always fascinated with End-Times studies in the same manner that people are interested in disaster movies--it's fun to watch the destruction of the familiar while secure in the knowledge that none of the pain and suffering will actually happen to you.  One key principle that was hammered into us over and over was "Watch."  Be ready for the Rapture, because it will come at a time when you least expect it.  But here's another paradox--the more we study the End Times prophecies, the more we will be prepared for it.  Hal Lindsey's best-selling books spelled out all the details (as he interpreted them from the Bible) warning us of Communism and the Mark of the Beast and the dangers of the One World Government.  Thus, the more Christians are forewarned about the coming events, the less likely those events will come about.  As Clark writes:
The Left Behind series offers a depiction of what the authors insist is a guaranteed prediction. But for that prediction to come to pass as depicted -- for their prophecies to come true -- the vast majority of people in the post-Rapture world would have to be ignorant of what they're predicting. The popularity of the books thus suggests that those prediction won't and can't come true.

And yet another paradox:
Premillennial pessimism and fatalism are ascendant in American evangelicalism. This is a view that, explicitly, teaches that heroism is for suckers and any attempt to change the world is futile. And yet these premillennial believers are more politically active than previous generations of evangelicals and fundamentalists.

The only explanation I can offer for this is that their convoluted theology confuses them even more than it confuses me.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cooking and human evolution

I recently enjoyed Point of Inquiry's podcast, hosted by Chris Mooney, who interviewed Richard Wrangham, Harvard anthropologist, discussing his new book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. The subject was fascinating and worth taking a closer look.

Wrangham holds that learning to cook revolutionized hominid evolution. Currently a chimp's diet consist of fruits and leaves, but they are far tougher and less nutritious than the grocery store counterparts we humans eat. As a result, chimps spend six to eight hours a day just chewing their food, compared to less than an hour a day for humans. Cooking food, however, makes tough food softer and easier to digest, letting early hominids extract more calories from what they ate, thus paving the way to more complex brain development. Plus hominids can spend less time eating and more time doing more productive activities, leading to better communication, tool-making, and exploration. Very interesting stuff.

Another aspect that surprised me was Wrangham's belief that learning to cook may have been the precursor of human marriage. As we know, lifelong monogamy is very rare in the animal kingdom and almost unheard of within primates. So how did humans pick up the habit of picking one partner and sticking with him or her? The theory goes: cooking requires patience but also leaves one vulnerable; after all, if you spend an hour sitting in front of a fire waiting for your food to be cooked, then it's easier for a stronger fellow to swipe your food. So women may have entered into a bargain with men--the men use their superior strength to hunt and gather food and they bring it back to the woman who will tend the fire and cook dinner. The man gets more nutritious food in exchange for protecting the woman while she's cooking. They both win, and would naturally want to continue the exchange over time, since they need to eat every day.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why Choose Creationism?

The Secular Web Kiosk has a new article by Jon Jermey titled "Why Choose Creationism?" Jermey argues that Creationism is a symptom of a dying Christianity in the Western World. As church attendance in Christian churches decline, as more moderate Christians go on about their lives taking little thought for how their religion ought to impact their lives, then some have clung to Creationism as a last dying gasp for what Jermey calls "a belief badge."

A belief badge, according to Jermey, is like a Masonic handshake, a way of identifying others in an in-group, is easy to adopt with no strenuous effort required, and can be determined quickly to identify allies or enemies. Simply ask someone, "Do you believe God created the universe?" If the answer is yes, then the other person is a creationist, end of discussion. How the person answers the question has no bearing whatsoever on how he performs at his job or deals with his family. It offers no input to whether he pays his taxes or how much he gives to charity. It simply is an easy marker to identify if someone belongs to the right crowd.

Therefore, Jermey argues, secularists and scientists who have no truck with Creationism ought to ignore it completely, as whether a person espouses creationist ideals is irrelevant to the world at large.

I find myself sympathizing with Jermey's argument to a degree. When I was a die-hard creationist, I recall as a teenager reading a Batman comic book in which an evolutionary principle was casually mentioned off-hand. It was accepted as a given, a well-known fact, the way even most Christians accept heliocentrism with no threat to their faith, unlike Christians of several hundred years ago. When the Batman comic book told its story with the evolution principle behind the scenes, I recall being deeply disturbed. A frontal attack against creationism by an evolution advocate I could handle, as that was a large part of what I studied in my high school science class--why evolution is contrary to the Bible. But when rousing good stories were told with evolution latent, assumed in the background, I began to wonder--what does everyone else seem to know that I don't?

Which brings up the reason that I can't wholeheartedly agree with Jermey's call to ignore Creationism as some harmless badge belief--the impact on education. The Discovery Institute's Wedge Document clearly reveals that it is trying an end-run around the well-established scientific process by avoiding all the messy peer-reviewed research and field testing for Creationism, and just inject their beliefs directly into the science education classes. The stated notion is that if we ground kids in creationism and god belief, they'll be more open to Christianity--or a more committed version of the religion--at a later time. They'll grow up more moral, as the theory goes, and America will become a Christian nation through and through. Creationists assume that this will be far superior to what they see today, in which teachers don't lead kids in Christian prayers and laws that espouse Christian principles such as those denying homosexuals freedoms or those allowing abortions are struck down as unconstitutional.

That's why I don't feel that Creationism is a harmless belief to help Christians identify each other in secret prayer meetings. When Texas School Board members--most of whom have no experience in education--work to throw out reliable science and history textbooks because they are contrary to their cherished biblical beliefs, this affects the children of Texas and other states who purchase the same textbooks. Injecting Creationism into the classroom puts American children at a disadvantage to other more secular countries who hammer the facts into their kids from the beginning. When generations of American children enter the workforce knowing nothing about evolution other than it's all wrong, they will find themselves at a comparative disadvantage to the rest of the world. I would be hard pressed to argue that the United States must be the greatest country in all things, but I can't justify intentionally hobbling children in the name of a religious belief with little to no basis in reality.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Nice work if you can get it.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, one in five Australian children suffer from some kind of mental illness such as anxiety, depression, or eating disorders.  Naturally this affects societal health such that these kids suffer from higher rates of school absenteeism and drug abuse.

The Australian government, led by the avowed atheist Julia Gillard, has stepped up with increased funding to combat these issues.  The taxpayer bill stands at $437 million.  And how will this one-third increase help these kids succeed in school and life?  Will they provide trained counselors in schools to provide assistance for kids going through abuse or neglect?

No, the money will go to chaplains.
School chaplains come from organisations such as Scripture Union, which sees them as a means by which they can fulfil their organisational aim of making "God's Good News known to children [and] young people" so "they may come to personal faith in our Lord Jesus Christ ... and become both committed church members".
Of course, this being publicly-funded education, the government knows that can't let these chaplains roam the halls passing out Bibles and tracts, leading kids in group hymns, or inviting the students back to their offices for a little one-on-one laying on of hands in prayer. "We know these chaplains aren't mental health experts," the government is saying, "so there are restrictions on exactly what they can do." For example:
  • Chaplains can't counsel students
  • They can't provide educational services
  • Nor can they provide medical services
  • And of course they can't proselytize.
So what are the chaplains, each pulling down an extra $20,000 for their trouble, supposed to do, exactly? No one really knows apparently, including the chaplains themselves:
As a report on the program reveals, many chaplains are unclear about their role. A majority admit they do deal with student mental health and depression issues, alcohol and drug use, physical/emotional abuse and neglect, and suicide and self-harming behaviours. What most don't do is refer to appropriate professionals when out of their depth.
So where can I sign up to sit in an office, listen quietly to kids complain about their lives, not say anything back to them, and not refer the ones that truly need help to competent professionals? I could get used to that sort of work.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Robert Price: Is the Bible Mein Kampf?

I listen to Point of Inquiry's podcast regularly, and a recent episode wasn't the usual interview format, but a lecture given by host Robert Price, a professor at Colemon Theological Seminary.

Price begins with a scenario imagining what if the texts of Homer had as large an influence as the Bible does today in the United States, if there were large groups of people who insisted that the texts of Homer must be taken literally, and that we ought to base our legal and societal structures on the Illiad and the Odyssey.

Of course, Price continues, classicist Greek scholars would roundly object to such a narrow literalist interpretation of Homer's epics. But neither would they want to throw out the poems as valueless barbarisms in the effort to staunch the foolish attempts to apply Homeric wisdom to our daily lives. Rather, the scholars who most appreciate ancient Greek texts would do so because of the richness and value in them, "warts and all."

Price goes on to maintain that "new atheists" and other modern-day religious skeptics are doing the same with the Bible. In an attempt to counter the overweaning influence of Biblical literalists who want to forcefully apply ancient Jewish texts on a modern society, the opponents of biblical literalism are at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Price maintains that even though the Bible chronicles a barbaric people living in a barbaric age, it also holds flashes of wisdom--not God-given, certainly, but human genius nontheless. As an example, he cites the common disgust toward Jepthah's burned sacrifice of his daughter in exchange for a military victory, but people don't feel the same distaste toward Agamemnon's burned sacrifice of his daughter for the same reason.

Overall, I find some value in what Price is saying. I know one woman who figuratively pulled her hair because on the invoice of an online order she received was a Bible verse, presumably a favorite for the vendor who shipped her the goods. She wailed that she couldn't understand why she had to be subjected to this sort of religous indoctrination when all she wanted was to buy some lotion online or somesuch.

On the other hand, I can't help but wonder if perhaps Price is perhaps tilting the pendulum too far in the other direction. After all, the number of Greek scholars who appreciate the wisdom found in Homer is a tiny, tiny portion of the population at large, whereas the number of Biblical literalists are much larger; those who use biblical arguments to support their political and social policies are even larger, perhaps in the millions. So the comparisons don't exactly match. Parents don't encourage their young children to push through the works of Homer, including the graphic descriptions of violence and superstition, and yet many children of Christian parents has a Bible to take to Sunday School. Some have argued that encouraging children to read the good parts of the Bible and ignore the murders, the incest, and the genocides would be equivalent to encouraging children to read Playboy magazine for the articles.

Likewise, certain websites like the Skeptic's Annotated Bible aren't the villifying enemies of the Bible as Price suggests, for even on that site is a long list of what the editors call Good Stuff, the passages that extol wisdom, peace, humility and virtue.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

CBN: Demons in your Halloween candy

The Christian Broadcasting Network's Kimberly Daniels wrote a blog post in 2009 claiming that Christians ought not to participate in Halloween because . . . well, because demons and witches have filled the candy with evilness.

During this period demons are assigned against those who participate in the rituals and festivities. These demons are automatically drawn to the fetishes that open doors for them to come into the lives of human beings. For example, most of the candy sold during this season has been dedicated and prayed over by witches.

The post no longer appears on CBN's site for some reason, but it can be found here, along with an editor's note that the article is indeed controversial but Ms. Daniels apparently knows what she's talking about because of "her many years of ministering to people involved in the occult."

But back to the candy. So the sweet stuff bought at the stores has already been blessed by witches--apparently the security controls at Mars, Incorporated and other candy manufacturers are quite lax. But what about candy obtained through trick-or-treating?

Curses are sent through the tricks and treats of the innocent whether they get it by going door to door or by purchasing it from the local grocery store. The demons cannot tell the difference.

Apparently demons are easy to fool.

Ms. Daniels ramps up the crazy assertions, citing bonfires, pumpkins, even the color orange as all part and parcel of Satan's plan to take over the world. Frequently she cites pagan rituals and connects them to demonic worship, as if the one had anything to do with the other, except they're both not Christian.

Which makes me wonder if she celebrates Christmas with a decorated tree, another pagan ritual co-opted by Christians.

Ms. Daniels doesn't stop there. Giving out Smarties and mini-Snickers bars on Halloween leads to demon rape:

The danger of Halloween is not in the scary things we see but in the secret, wicked, cruel activities that go on behind the scenes. These activities include:

* Sex with demons
* Orgies between animals and humans
* Animal and human sacrifices
* Sacrificing babies to shed innocent blood
* Rape and molestation of adults, children and babies

One would think with all this rape, murder, and barnyard sex going on every October 31st, local police officials would be aware of something going on. Are any rapes by demons reported to officials on November 1st? Do very many men and women strangely not show up for work after Halloween because they were murdered in a blood ritual? Do day care centers see a drop in clients during November due to parents sacrificing their babies to Satan? Ms. Daniels doesn't say.

Finally, having done her best to convince us that demons are powerful enough to hide inside the center of a Tootsie Pop and that witches release 'time-released' curses against the populace, Ms. Daniels then reassures everyone that Satan isn't all that much after all:

People who worship the devil continue to attempt to lift him up. But he has already been cast out and down! Many are blinded to this fact, but the day will come when all will know he has been defeated once and for all.

So which is it, Ms. Daniels? Is Satan mean and scary and evil, or is he weak and defeated? Are demons like the Nazis in 1939, or 2010? I need to know, because October's coming soon, and I really like Peanut M&Ms.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ignorance of the Law is Apparently Just Fine

Federal authorities in Philadelphia have decided not to press charges against school administrators who issued laptops to students with built-in webcams, then used the webcams to monitor students in their own homes.

The story came out in February when it was revealed that 2300 school-issued MacBooks had webcams that could be accessed by school officials wherever the computers went.  They argued at the time it was to prevent theft, but they let the cat out of the bag when they busted a student for "improper behavior" they saw the student doing in his bedroom.  They thought he was popping pills; his parents claimed he was eating candy.  Regardless, they sued the school district for the invasion of privacy, and lawyers who filed the suit claimed the district had thousands of pictures of students in their room, in bed, even partially dressed.

Here's where it's confusing.  The US attorney for the district said he found "no criminal intent" in the surveillance, so there was no point in furthering prosecution.  This strikes me as bizarre.  Does this mean that people can do all sorts of criminal behavior as long as they can prove they didn't mean to do anything wrong?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Laugh of the Day

A guy starts a website called "" because his believed his gardener, Jesús, (that's Hey Zeus) is sleeping with his wife. The site was supposed to drive Jesús' business away and let the world now how much he hated his ex-gardener.

Naturally, he receives a flood of e-mail from outraged Christians (Motto: Umbrage Is Our Birthright!) Finally, the guy has to change everything on his website because A) he was tired of getting all the hate e-mails from Christians who don't know the difference between Jesus and Jesús, and B) it turned out Jesús wasn't sleeping with his wife, but he's still a jerk.

Here are the main points of what I'm saying in a nutshell:

* Jesús and Jesus are two different people.
* I was mad at Jesús because it looked like he was going above and beyond the call of duty with my wife.
* I'm not mad at your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who, if he exists, I'm sure is a nice guy that would never bone another guy's wife.
* Even though Jesús wasn't doing the nasty on my property, I still wouldn't cry if the Romans crucified him.

We all clear now?

Prediction of the Future is Tough

The Web comic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (or simply SMBC) has a new comic that amused me:

After reading this, it occurred to me that the same formula could perhaps be applied to those who have predicted the exact date of the Rapture.  Has there been an individual who calculated the date that Jesus would return who was A) over 50 years old and B) calculated the date more than 50 years in the future?  Wikipedia has pages listing Unfulfilled Predictions of the Second Coming, as well as Unfulfilled Religious Prophecies in general. 

What strikes me as truly interesting is that religious believers point to fulfilled prophecies in the past as proof that their religion is backed by supernatural forces.  But when a prophecy in the present fails to pan out, the religion continues on.  Sometimes the expected prophecy is adjusted to another future date.  Sometimes the prophecy is re-interpreted to mean something else.  Other times it is concluded that the prophet was simply wrong but the religion remains true.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

10-year-old girl burnt and abused in exorcism

In Malaysia last month, a young girl finds herself the victim of superstition and abuse:
A 10-year-old girl who was bound, beaten and burnt for a month as part of an exorcism ritual escaped on Monday after picking the lock on the chain around her ankle.

The unnamed girl was left in care of a relative after her father passed away. Perhaps the relative (also unidentified) resented the extra mouth to feed. A local medium told him that the girl was an unlucky omen for the family. So naturally he began to torture her:

Initially, she was deprived of food, given only rice laced with turmeric powder and chilli.

Then, she was chained and beaten up. This allegedly went on for a month until Monday morning when she managed to pick the lock and freed herself.

The relative and his wife told the girl that this was all for her own good.

At the time of the report, she was receiving medical care in a hospital, and the relative was under arrest. The girl testified that she would rather be put in foster care than go back to her relative's home.

No word on whether the fraudulent medium will receive any charges as well.

Just one more entry against the line, "What's the harm?"

Monday, August 2, 2010

Smug compartmentalization

From xkcd. Be sure to hover your mouse over the image to get the bonus.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Witch: "Your rules don't apply to me."

Add one more account to "What's the harm?"

A Geelong, Australian woman is stopped by a traffic officer for using a cell phone while driving. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Until the officer asked for her ID:
"When asked to produce her driver's licence, De Avalon replied that she did not have one," Sen-Constable Lamb said. "When asked why not, she said, 'I'm a being from another world and don't require one.' When asked to state her name and address De Avalon replied, 'I have a universal name that is not recognised here'."
Eilish De Avalon claims to be a witch, and feels that traffic laws don't apply to her. Ordinarily, this would be laughed off as she's taken away to receive mental health counseling, but in this case, the story took a dangerous turn:

"De Avalon began to wind her window up and Sen-Const Logan reached through in an attempt to remove the keys from her ignition. She continued to wind the window up pinning the officer's right arm to the door frame. She then drove off dragging him along with her."

The officer was dragged beside the car, which reached speeds up to 60 km/hour before he could get the keys. He received injuries to his arm and chest and will need surgery to repair the damage, and of course he's lucky he wasn't killed.

Her sentencing will occur on August 6th.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Arab convicted of rape by deception?

From the news of the weird:

An Israeli woman in Jerusalem meets a man, supposedly because of an interest in his motorcycle. They have consensual sex that same day. Later she discovers that he was not Israeli, as she thought, but actually Arab.

So she went to the police and claimed he raped her.

Sabbar Kashur, an Israeli Arab, was initially charged with rape and indecent assault. But Kashur claims he never pretended to be Jewish. "If I were Jewish, they wouldn't have even questioned me."

The charges were later changed to "rape by deception" and Kashur was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

The judge presiding over the case, Zvi Segal, apparently can read the woman's mind:
"If she had not thought the accused was a Jewish bachelor interested in a serious relationship, she would not have co-operated."

And the judge has quite the juvenile understanding of male/female relationships:
"The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price - the sanctity of their bodies and souls.

Let this be a lesson to young men wishing to meet women in Jerusalem. You better have a blood sample, a paternity test, and a fact-checked resume ready before letting a woman speak to you, lest she later decide that you duped her into being a dupe.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Where are the atheist billionaires?"

Billionaire businessman Warren Buffet just donated another $1.93 billion to five charitable foundations, another step in his 2006 commitment to donate 99 percent of his enormous wealth to charity.

The majority of the funds went to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a secular charity working to alleviate education and health issues around the world.

Warren Buffett identifies himself as 'agnostic.'

"He did not subscribe to his family's religion. Even at a young age he was too mathematical, too logical, to make the leap of faith. He adopted his father's ethical underpinnings, but not his belief in an unseen divinity." --from Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist, by Roger Lowenstein (Doubleday, 1995), page 13.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Muslim apostate hanged after admitting he was atheist

Here's another maddening story of the state of religious tolerance in our world:

A YOUNG Muslim, who had been investigated by his employers at Male International Airport in the Maldives for apostasy, was found hanged from the airport’s control tower yesterday.

The death of Ismail Mohamed Didi, a 25 year-old air traffic controller, prompted deep concern on the Islamic website Raajjeislam which  reported that Ismail “was a person inclined to atheism” and had:

Declared his atheism to his friends.

In two emails sent to an international humanitarian organisation on June 23 and 25, Ismail admitted he was an atheist and desperately requested assistance for a UK asylum application. He claimed to have received several anonymous threats on June  22.

Genocide: Good or Bad? It depends!

Israeli psychologist George Tamarin conducted a survey among 1000 Israeli school-children ages eight to fourteen. He presented to them the biblical story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, where Joshua commanded Israeli soldiers to slaughter all men, women, children, infants, and animals in the city, and to bring all gold and silver into the Israeli treasury.

The children were then asked a single moral question: Do you think Joshua and the Israeli soldiers acted rightly? The results were interesting. 66% of the children expressed total approval, 8 percent expressed partial approval, and 26% expressed total disapproval. Contrary to expectations, there was no difference in the answers between male and female children.

Those who expressed total approval typically gave religious reasons for their answer:

In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them this land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the Goyim.

In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.

Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.

Even some of those who expressed total disapproval did so for backhanded religious reasons. One girl wrote that even entering the land to perform the conquest ran grave risks:

I think it is bad, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse.

Two others expressed disapproval because the Israelites slaughtered the animals as well, and those could have been kept as more loot.

What really makes this study interesting is that Tamarin also ran a control experiment. He presented the same story to 168 other school-children, except he substituted any mention of "Joshua" with "General Lin" and of "Israel" with "a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago." When asked the same question of approval, this time the results were reversed. Only 7% expressed approval, 18% gave partial approval, and 75% disapproved. As Richard Dawkins writes:

"In other words, when their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children agreed with the moral judgments that most modern humans would share. Joshua's action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it." The God Delusion, p. 255

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The failure of Microcreation

Intelligent Design advocates have long asserted that while microevolution may occur resulting in minor changes within species, only an intelligent designer can make major changes that result in new species or body types.  However, cultural anthropologist David Eller argues in Skeptic magazine that this notion of 'micro-creation' fails on two levels: it neither strengthens the case for 'macro-creationism' nor does it weaken the case for macroevolution.

A STANDARD TACTIC USED by creationists to attack evolution is to contrast microevolution (i.e., within species evolution, which they accept) with macroevolution (i.e., between species evolution, which they adamantly reject). Microevolution, they grant, may or does occur. But they assert that macroevolution either has never been observed or is theoretically impossible. They argue that while microevolution may be true, it is trivial, and the major claim of evolution — the evolution and emergence of species — is either unsubstantiated or false.

This failure to account for macrophenomena, such as human life, the earth, or the universe, then serves as an opportunity to suggest that creation is the only plausible alternative for the origin of life. This conclusion suffers from the fallacy of the excluded middle or false dilemma (just because B is false does not make A true). But ironically the “success” of the “scientific” creationist enterprise, particularly its most recent and “serious” incarnation — Intelligent Design (ID) — has itself up to this point rested on claims regarding a few minor fragmentary subspecies processes rather than the macroprocesses that it is so keen to deny to evolution.

Eller concludes:
[I]n the end, microevolution is nothing more than descent with modification over the short term, and macroevolution is descent with modification over the long term. Put another way, macroevolution is merely the accumulation of microevolutionary changes. The only difference between them is time-scale. The same thing cannot be said about microcreation and macrocreation. Macrocreation is not the accumulation of microcreationist events; if it were, then macrocreation would be “blind” or incidental. You do not get a flagellum over the short term and a protist over the long term. Where would the flagellum reside in the meantime? We can conclude with confidence that microcreation fails as an explanation even of microlevel phenomena and that, even if it were it to succeed at that level, it would still fail as a ground for macrocreation.