Friday, June 29, 2007

Jo Hovind sentenced

One year and a day for Mrs. Hovind, whose charming husband — who's now holding comical not-quite-Socratic dialogues with God, it would seem — once told her she needed to "advance" because she was actually starting to feel twinges of guilt and remorse over their dishonest and criminal activities. I'm not adding the "schadenfreude" tag to this one, because I actually feel a little sorry for Jo. It's evident she's played the role of quiet submissive Christian wife putting up with all manner of verbal bullying from an arrogant and self-righteous husband much too long. I hope when she gets out, she will advance — right down the road to the divorce court, to start over in a new life.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

God's forgiveness = self-forgiveness

From the world of phony sports — to which I customarily pay zero attention — comes this grisly tale of professional wrestler Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and child and then killed himself. After killing his family, he placed a Bible next to their bodies.

This isn't going to be another of those posts full of "religion kills" bromides. In this case, the possible reason for Benoit's rampage may be linked to his use of too much of what the bodybuilding world calls Vitamin S. But the role the Bible plays here is interesting. Having no expertise in the mental health field at all, my built-in atheist's "skepdar" (a wonderful term someone on the ACA's Yahoo group came up with) tells me that Benoit was using religion as many people do in life: a forgiveness quick-fix, the moral equivalent of using Fix-a-Flat to pump up a punctured tire.

While Christians go on about how no one without religion can possibly have a moral compass to follow, what they never talk about is the way in which people who do embrace religion, however fervently or casually, typically behave no better than unbelievers, and oftimes worse. And when they do behave worse, they use religion as a convenient thing to fall back upon, either to justify their actions, or to showboat a fake display of remorse.

Many Christians will respond to this by agreeing wholeheartedly, then by attacking those people for moral hypocrisy and not being "true" Christians. This misses the point. I think Christianity unintentionally sets itself up to be used in this way by giving people a poor understanding of morality, and of the difference between right and wrong in the first place. As Stephen has pointed out here, Christianity paradoxically wants people to be good, then gives them bad reasons to do so. Christian morality is entirely tied in to how well one obeys divine rules and commandments. One should not kill or steal because it will anger God (except in those cases where it's okay) and could doom you to hell. That killing takes a life, which is in and of itself bad, and that stealing involves taking something that isn't yours and that you haven't earned from someone who has earned it, which is in and of itself bad, is significantly less relevant to Christian thought. The only consequence to be feared is the displeasure of God. All of us have heard (and if you haven't yet, it's quite sobering to hear it for the first time) some Christians say that if there were no God, then they'd see no reason whatsoever not to just go off on a wild murder rampage, wreaking merciless havoc with gleeful impunity. Whether or not they actually would if presented with the chance, or whether it's all just talk, is immaterial. That a Christian would even say such a thing with a straight face underscores the darkly ironic fact that many of the people who consider themselves to be the world's poster children for all things righteous and moral simply do not comprehend what the terms "right" and "wrong" even mean.

But what of the believer who does go off on that rampage. Well, then, there's God's "forgiveness". Since praying is really nothing other than glorified talking-to-yourself, how easy it must be for a person who does something really horrible to tell themselves, "Hey, it's not that big a deal after all," simply by praying, and enjoying a little delusional exchange in which they themselves, playing the role of creator and ruler of the universe, bestow instant "forgiveness". Occasionally, the display is brazen, as in Kent Hovind's bizarre dialogue with God in which Kent reinforces his belief in his own martyrdom and heroism to a degree that bespeaks genuine mental illness.

But other times, the self-forgiveness is more subtle and cynical. Benoit's is a perfect example. I suspect he placed the Bible next to his murdered family either in the effort to convince himself that it wasn't such a bad thing, what he did and all, because his wife and child were in Heaven now, or simply to assuage his own sense of guilt about the murders through a feeble gesture that he hoped would placate his invisible friend. Or both.

Either way, religion made it easier for him to carry out his crime, rather than giving him the intellectual and moral tools to stop himself from carrying it out. Because Benoit lacked the ability to make rational decisions in life — perhaps a combination of steroid use, religion, and too many blows to the head — he and his family are now dead. And all the little gestures of piety in the world don't change that.

Monday, June 25, 2007

At least the neocon wingnuts can't claim SCOTUS is too "liberal" now

Word is now getting around that the Supreme Court made the wrong decision regarding sudent free speech rights, when, this morning, they decided against a student who had sued his high school for suspending him over displaying a farcical banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus". Evidently even the hint that a student might be promoting drug use, even when the display is quite obviously a stupid joke, is enough that a principal can justifiably trample over that student's expression.

"It was reasonable for (the principal) to conclude that the banner promoted illegal drug use — and that failing to act would send a powerful message to the students in her charge," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court's majority.

Please. "Reasonable"? Only if you have two feet of a broom handle lodged up your colon. That the banner is an admittedly juvenile and stupid expression of humor ought to be obvious. There's not even any context for the statement. To take it seriously prompts the question: is "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" advocating behavior to be enjoyed on general principles, or is it advertising a school club? No, it was just a teenager writing something dorky that other teenagers would find amusing on a banner, just to get a reaction. That may be immature, but should it be a forbidden form of expression?

One ought to be wary of slippery slope fallacies, but I can see this opening the door to other restrictions on student speech simply based on someone even thinking there may be the possibility that a student has just said something promoting an illegal act. Over the years there have been many attempts to ban certain books from school libraries, ban certain clubs (yes, I do happen to think those "pray around the flagpole" groups have a right to do their thing, as long as it isn't sponsored by the school, and they only meet before or after school hours), and what have you. This decision will more than likely lead to more and more students having to watch what they say for fear of Big Brother. What kind of lesson is that to teach budding young citizens of a "free" country?

Atheist Experience #498-499 double feature

Been getting way behind with these. Here's another double feature. Really good stuff in these.

#498 — 4/29/07: Russell takes on Bogus Creationist Arguments.

#499 — 5/6/07: Special guest Victor Stenger discusses his book God: The Failed Hypothesis.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Today's show topic: "Angry" Atheists

Here are links to the things I'm reading from on today's episode of The Atheist Experience:
- Russell

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bush keeps dropping, but what's the alternative?

Ol' Shrub's poll numbers keep plummeting, all the way down to a 26% approval rating in the latest Newsweek survey. Needless to say, three-dollar gas and ongoing headlines like "12 U.S. troops killed in Iraq in 48 hours" can't be helping him. And his recent decision, once again, to put pandering to his Christian Right base before science and veto the latest stem-cell research bill that an overwhelming majority of Americans support are only knocking him lower.

But things aren't all rosy for the Democrats either. Congress's approval rating is only at 25%, with even 60% of Democratic voters disdaining the job they're doing. And I'm one of them. These folks were voted back in charge of both the House and Senate in 2006 on the expectation that they'd stand up to this cretinous, renegade administration and force some accountability into the picture. Instead, they're back to their old business of caving in with little fight, sending him a pathetic "compromise" bill on Iraq that doesn't do anything so irritating as set a time limit for troop withdrawal. The Republicans may be theocratic scum, but fuck — the Dems are just pathetic in the extreme. To paraphrase Scalzi: here's Bush, the least popular and least competent president in our nation's entire history, and the Democrats, for nearly eight years, have consistently found themselves politically flummoxed and outmaneuvered by him at every turn.

If only Canada didn't get so golddarn cold...

Lunatic Baptists shut down summer library program with threats of violence

Here's a bit of "Christian Love" from South Carolina. A summer reading program geared towards young adults and children has been shut down following a number of threats, many of them violent, that have been traced to a local Baptist church. Now, here's the thing: a lot of what was going to be covered in this program is stuff I would object to, on the grounds that it appears to have been in the interests of promoting lots of woo — astrology, Tarot, numerology, that kind of crap. I mean, damn it all, shouldn't summer library programs be educational in nature, and all about such things as science, history, and literature, rather than promoting even more idiotic superstitions?

Now, the difference is that my way of objecting to the materials would have involved sending polite but strongly worded letters to the library directors, as well as to local newspapers. But that isn't how these followers of the Lamb chose to go about it. And it isn't that they object to teaching idiotic superstitions. It's just that they only want theirs taught. Yoga programs were condemned as "teaching other religions" (whoa, can't have that shit in a free and pluralistic society!), and a T-shirt making workshop was objected to — you'll love this — as promoting "the hippie culture and drug use."

Library Director Marguerite Keenan reports that at least one bomb threat has come in. What is it with religionists and blowing stuff up? Clearly, these brave Christian soldiers feel they're doing what's best for the sanctity of their beloved Christian community. Jesus loves you, remember that. And if you don't, we're coming after you!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Who the hell are these barbarians infesting my city?

Okay, this is not necessarily a theism/atheism issue, but it is pretty outrageous all the same. And I think it conclusively illustrates what happens when people dispense with reason and give in to base emotional impulses. Frankly, anyone who values "feeling" over thinking is a rank idiot, and this example settles the issue.

Here's what happened: Following a Juneteenth celebration in east Austin, a man accidentally struck a small child with his car, causing only minor injuries. When he stopped and got out, he was set upon by an enraged mob. When his passenger got out to defend him, the mob turned on him and beat him to death.

Yeah, no shit. This is the 21st fucking century, and this happened.

Would it be redundant to say that this is the same kind of mob mentality that unscrupulous, fundamentalist religions exploit to persuade their lunatic followers to become suicide bombers? Would it be equally redundant to say there's something so very Old Testament about crazed, murderous gangs exacting street justice? What we need more of in our culture is education in critical thinking — the simple art of using your brain, and not just its limbic system, to solve problems in a sensible and non-reactionary manner. Sadly, what too many people would rather see our educational system doing is forcing kids to their knees in prayer and embracing religious pseudoscience in biology class. Actually honing your mind so that it's a skilled problem-solving instrument is less desirable, it seems, than filling it with ancient dogmas so you don't have to think for yourself.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The cause of violence: evolution or religion?

Care to guess?

Heads up to PZ for this one. In the wake of the Viriginia Tech massacre, when deranged student Seung Hui Cho mowed down 32 people, right-wing commentators wasted no time in laying the blame on liberalism, secularism, and the teaching of evolution. Among the more brainless remarks was this one from — surprise surprise! — professional idiot Ken Ham.

We live in an era when public high schools and colleges have all but banned God from science classes. In these classrooms, students are taught that the whole universe, including plants and animals--and humans--arose by natural processes. Naturalism (in essence, atheism) has become the religion of the day and has become the foundation of the education system (and Western culture as a whole). The more such a philosophy permeates the culture, the more we would expect to see a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness that pervades people's thinking. In fact, the more a culture allows the killing of the unborn, the more we will see people treating life in general as "cheap."

Blah blah blah. Well, guess what it turns out was really on the mind of the VT killer? (Emphasis added.)

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also think Cho mentally and physically tried to transform himself into an alter ego he called "Ax Ishmael" before his rampage.... Investigators think "Ax Ishmael" is based on the biblical figure Ishmael, the son of Hagar, a maidservant to Sarah, and the prophet Abraham. Ishmael lived as an outcast, and his brother Isaac was favored. Writings that Cho left in his dorm room, sent to the Virginia Tech English Department and mailed to NBC reveal twisted references to religion as part of his identity.

Cho, 23, of Centreville, whose family was religious and had sought help for him from a Woodbridge church, repeatedly made religious references. He said that he had been "crucified" and that, as with Jesus, his actions would set people free. He called himself a "martyr" who would "sacrifice" his life. He wrote that he would go down in history as the "Jesus Christ of the Weak and Defenseless." He thought his actions would inspire others to fight back and get even.

Ah, so! Lessee here. References to the Holy Babble and Jeebus: lots and lots! References to Charles Darwin: zippo!

Now, I confess, the title of this post has a high snark level. For me to say that religion was the "cause" of Cho's rampage would be every bit as stupid as the claims of uneducated creationists who say it's the fault of teaching proper science and of not forcing religion down the throats of students every day. Mental health is a complex issue, and there are numerous factors that lead to madness.

However, it's telling that we have frequently had accounts of all-out acts of wanton violence in society in which fanatical religious delusions reared their frazzled heads, and none in which science and evolution did. It's also telling that religious mania is a known psychological disorder, whereas no one has ever been diagnosed with "evo-mania". Possessing knowledge about how the world really works simply does not move a person to violence. Indeed, violence is most frequently perpetrated by people who are angry that the world isn't working the way they feel it should, and the way they feel it should is most often dictated by a religious or political ideology.

Also disgusting is the way in which especially fanatical religionists make heroes and martyrs out of those who kill for their interests, all the while rushing to vilify science and "Darwinism" when people kill for reasons that don't support extremist agendas. The most egregious display of pro-murder religiosity lately has been the announcement of "Paul Hill Days," sponsored by the anti-abortion terrorist organization (that's not hyperbole, people) Army of God, to whom I refuse to link. This repugnant farce, scheduled to be inflicted upon the citizens of Milwaukee, will celebrate executed murderer Paul Hill, who gunned down abortion provider John Britton and his clinic escort James Barrett. Hill also wounded Britton's wife in the attack. Here's how the sick minds sponsoring this "memorial tour" — during which they plan to re-enact Hill's murders — distort the situation: "On July 29th, 1994, Paul Hill boldly defended 31 babies from unspeakable violence by killing a paid assassin and his bodyguard. He was arrested, given a sham trial, and executed as a martyr."

One simply does not have the warped view of reality presented here, and in the case of Cho, unless one has bizarre beliefs dictating that you have the right to kill and wreak havoc if reality isn't flattering those beliefs. It's no different than what motivates Islamist suicide bombers. And it doesn't happen in the minds of atheists and rationalists with good educations in science and a firm grasp, not only on reality, but on the fact that reality isn't obligated to revolve around them.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Scalzi to invade the Creation "Museum"

This is hilarious. Popular blogger and science fiction writer John Scalzi was being bugged by some of his readers to go visit Ken Ham's ludicrous joke down in Kentucky, since it's evidently a very short drive from where Scalzi lives in rural Ohio. Scalzi set up a challenge; he'd agree to go to the "museum," and post a snarky report on his blog, if any fraction of his 25,000 daily readers would collectively donate a grand total of $250, which Scalzi will in turn be donating to Barry Lynn's Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. (Personally I think a donation to the National Center for Science Education might be more apropos in this context, but hey, it's Scalzi's deal, so he can run it however he wants to.)

Pah! $250? That's chump change! Scalzi has raised over $5100. So everybody's happy...except Scalzi. The AU gets a whopping enormous donation, the blogosphere is about to get one of the funniest field reports from the Kentucky Monument to Willful Ignorance ever posted...but of course, now poor John actually has to go. His response to his readers: "Hate. You. All." Yeah, fine, John. Just hurry back, won't you! I can't wait to read about the coconut-eating T. Rexes!

I personally love the idea of using the foolish activities of fundamentalist clots as a vehicle to fund-raise for groups that actually support quality science and who stand against theocracy and ignorance. I wonder what can be done in the Austin area to get some money for the NSCE or other like-minded groups? Maybe sending an atheist to a psychic fair to raise cash for the JREF, or something like that. But hey...don't look at me!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The price of religious tyranny is ruined lives

You remember the Warren Jeffs/Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints scandal, don't you? Sure you do.

As you might recall, Jeffs was nabbed after a couple of years on the run. He ruled his little cult like a tyrant, forcing teenage girls into marriages with men upwards of 50 years of age, or even their own cousins of similar age, and telling them they'd lose their chance at "salvation" if they didn't comply. The FLDS lived in these remote, isolated towns straddling the Arizona-Utah border, and were the classic closed community. Lately they had been building a compound in central Texas, scaring many of the locals with the possibility of another Branch Davidian blowout in the offing. When rescued from the life imposed on them by Jeffs, a number of former FLDS teenagers reportedly had to be taught such basics as how to bathe.

Now there's a new tragedy that's emerged as a result of all this fundie polygamist inbreeding. Babies born to FLDS cultists are afflicted with an extremely rare genetic disorder called fumarase deficiency. According to the news article, it's "an enzyme irregularity that causes severe mental retardation brought on by cousin marriage." Among children born with the condition, "brain cells fail to receive enough fuel to grow, multiply and function properly because of a missing enzyme needed to generate energy from food, causing severe mental retardation and muscle control problems." Lovely. Evidently the condition is so rare out in the real world, where normal people live, that the FLDS community in Arizona can claim fully half the world's cases of fumarase deficiency!

In Jeffs' tinpot holy dictatorship, in addition to being forced into multiple marriages, young people went without education. Needless to say, free inquiry was not allowed. Religious tyranny is the only way you can get a group of people blindly to accept engaging in repugnant and potentially deadly behaviors, all in the belief it's what God wants. Unfortunately, the price for rejecting reason in favor of lunacy is often too high to pay.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Hovind's descent into insanity is complete

Going, going, going....gone. Such is the state of Kent Hovind's mind behind bars. His latest missive on the CSE blog is a bizarre script in which he imagines himself to be in a dialogue with God. This is perhaps the most detailed and explicit first-hand evidence we'll ever get of the extent to which fundamentalist beliefs lead inexorably to actual, irreversible mental illness. Read this one little excerpt, and imagine blustery Terry Jones in the role of God, and a hapless Michael Palin as Kent. Remember, you gotta do the voices.

KH: Lord, I’m outside enjoying Your glorious sunshine on a gorgeous day in South Carolina. I really need the sunshine for my health. Thank you, Lord! What is my next assignment while I’m here?

GOD: One step at a time, son. I’ll guide you. What happened after lunch today?

KH: I was sitting in the sun writing to you and Don came over and sat down to talk. He sure was eager to learn about the Bible. He gladly asked You to forgive his sins and trusted You as Savior.

GOD: Yes, I was there with you. Don is twenty-seven years old. His life will do a complete 1800 turn during the next twenty months in prison. I have big plans for him, son. Thanks for being obedient to my leading, son. Sometimes, I have a hard time getting you to listen to me.

KH: I know, Lord. Sorry about that. I have another question, Lord. Why did you let them more me five hundred miles away from my family?

GOD: I know this is hard for you. How many men in there are away from their families?

KH: Nearly all of them, Lord. Some only see their family once a year—and some not at all. I know what you are going to say, Lord, that now I know how they feel and can be a better witness to them, right?

GOD: Very good, son. You are starting to get the picture!

KH: But, Lord, five hundred miles away?

GOD: You are still in America, son. Would you prefer…Siberia?

KH: Oh, no, South Carolina is just fine! Hey, Lord, why did you let me slip on those steps in Atlanta and bruise my ankle so badly?

GOD: I needed you to see the new prison doctor that just came from India. He knows almost nothing about Me, son. I know you didn’t have much time with him, but you did tell him about your Website. He will look at it and read the “How To Be Saved” article. That will start him on the road to salvation later this year.

I’m sorry about the bruise, but you can’t see the doctor in there unless you are hurt. Would you rather I break it next time—or bruise your head?

KH: No, Lord! The ankle was a great idea.

I guess it was obvious to God that Kent's head has already taken a little too much damage!

Jet-setting, "faith-healing" fraud Hinn still begging for money

This guy just keeps getting more and more vile. Ol' Pastor Benny Hinn, whose bogus "faith-healing" extravangazas were thoroughly exposed in this Canadian television documentary, is claiming that he's four months in arrears on his airtime bills to TBN, which he says total $450,000 each month. As if Paul Crouch, who's entirely complicit with Benny in fleecing the gullible, would ever kick his cash cow pal off the air.

The face of sleaze.

Of course, if Benny's so hard up for cash, what the hell's he doing buying a $46 million Gulfstream jet? What's he doing staying in lavish hotel suites costing up to $4000 a night, and living in a palatial $10 million mansion? If he's so broke, why doesn't he sell off some of his $1000 designer suits and pick up a few things from the Men's Wearhouse instead? Why not trade in his $80,000 Mercedes SUV for a Corolla? Hinn's ministry reportedly raises in the neighborhood of $100 million every year (compare that to the pittance a group like the National Center for Science Education has to subsist on, and feel the steam emerge from your ears), and its finances have gotten the IRS's attention. Really, at a cool hundred mil a year, Benny could meet his broadcasting bills to TBN with ease, and still have $94,600,000 to play with.

Benny whines that it's the evil secular media that distorts his spending. But that isn't the case. Hinn has refused to join the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. A Christian watchdog group,, has issued a warning about associating with or donating to Hinn's ministries. Among their conclusions:

[Facts presented] on NBC DATELINE – coupled with’s previously stated concerns about Hinn espousing the self-serving “prosperity theology” message – has caused to recommend that donors consider redirecting their gifts to one of the many biblically-based ministries that are not only more transparent in their dealings with the public but also treat donor’s funds as a sacred trust dedicated exclusively for the Lord’s work.

I'll say it again with glee: This swine should be in prison. But I suspect that, unlike Kent Hovind, he's probably just a bit smarter about hiding anything he could get really nailed for from the proper authorities. Sadly, our culture's insistence upon treating religion, no matter how absurd or exploitive the practice of one might be, with "respect" means we can't exactly criminalize the guy for standing up on a stage and lying to idiots that he can cure them of any ailment they've got (including AIDS) as long as the cash buckets are appropriately filled. Am I wrong in insisting that's gotta change?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Only religious "morality" would condone "honor killings"

Hi all. I've had a very busy last couple of weeks, and that's kept me away from blogging here as often as I'm used to. A shame, because there has been plenty of good stuff going on worth discussing. But a number of the other top-notch atheist and science blogs have been covering them just fine.

Today I stumbled upon this piece on CNN that reminded me why I needed to get back in the saddle and do my very small but enjoyable part in the growing atheist pushback against religious horror around the world.

The very concept of "honor killings" ought to be oxymoronic. Naturally, it would be a concept that would find a welcoming home in the grisly world of religion. In England, a Kurdish man has been convicted of the murder of his own daughter, because, apparently, she brought "shame" upon the family by leaving her first husband from an arranged marriage and falling in love with someone else. Only in the diseased and violent world of Islam would falling in love be considered shameful and dishonorable, and strangling your own child be considered right and proper.

Now, please don't waste time in the comments section arguing about how this sort of thing is not indicative of the behavior of all Muslims, how most Muslims are fine folks who aren't terrorists or shoe bombers, and who would find this incident utterly appalling. I know this. In fact, having grown up in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates as a child, and thus surrounded by more Muslims in their native habitat than most Americans would ever dream of, I know it better than many people.

The point I'm raising is that, without something like an extremist religion requiring people to live by perverse distortions of what consitutes "moral" behavior, and backing those benighted ideas up with threats of violence, woe, and divine wrath, you simply would not see this kind of thing going on. Religionists often like to accuse atheists of lacking a moral sense. But who's out there in the world slaughtering their own daughters (or, in the "milder" cases, simply sentencing them to be gang raped) under the notion that one is restoring your family's "honor"? I'll give you a hint. It's not the atheists.

Religion distorts moral precepts by tying them to whether one is or is not making a capricious and vindictive invisible magic being happy. On an even simpler scale, religious morality is about nothing more than obeying a list of rules to the letter in the hopes of winning a spiritual kewpie doll labeled "immortality". Very little is mentioned in religious circles about the actual real-world consequences of good or bad behavior having much of a bearing on whether or not said behavior is moral or immoral. In fundamentalist Christianity, morality is especially confused, because while fundamentalists will bleat all the live long day about how our society's morals have gone to hell in a handbasket, most of them will state in the same breath that salvation is possible only through faith and not "works". In other words, it doesn't matter one whit whether you're a good person or not, all that matters is membership in the club. You'd think this view would make morality an utterly irrelevant topic for Christian fundamentalists, but it wouldn't be the first inconsistency they've preached.

As for this situation...well, let me just say that I'm glad absurd PC ideas about "respecting" religion are still drawing the line at murder. But think of other appalling behaviors that have been enabled because the spectre of religion gave them its support. A prime example would be the Catholic child molestation scandal of a few years back. As Bill Maher pointed out at the time, would any parent entrust the well-being and care of their children to a bunch of aging bachelors if it weren't called religion? Likewise, would any parent go against all of their innate, biological drives towards nurturing and protecting their own children from harm — indeed, to the point of wilfully and gleefully killing them in cold blood — if there weren't a religion providing such perverse concepts as "honor killing" to help numb their consciences to the enormity of their deeds? Sure, there have been child-killings by parents where mere mental illness, and not religion, has been the key factor, such as Susan Smith. But then there are Andrea Yates and Dena Schlosser, two mentally ill women whose religious fervor only exacerbated, rather than corrected, their conditions. If God really existed, would he not have seen what was wrong with the minds of these women, and either fixed their malfunctioning cortexes, or at the very least, done something to save the babies before they were butchered? Oh yeah, I forget. God can't interfere with that "free will" thing. Sorry, kiddies.

Far from providing a sound and rational set of moral precepts to follow, religion most often provides flimsy justifications for people to do whatever they were inclined to do in the first place. In most cases, both religious and non-religious people will do what's right and proper anyway, because we have evolved as a social species, and it's in our genes that group cooperation is what will ensure species survival. But when people wish to do wrong, historically, they've had a good friend in religion to give them all the excuses they need. I fully expect that, in prison, Mahmod Mahmod will be able to lay out his prayer mat and bow to Mecca as often as he likes, secure in the twisted confidence that what he did to his daughter was right and proper, and suffering no pangs of remorse whatsoever, other than to think of the Western secular judicial system that sentenced him as a horribly corrupt tool of Satan. When Dawkins says that a strict religious upbringing can be comparable to child abuse, the sad, wasted life of Banaz Mahmod, whose only "sin" was love, will loom large as an exemplar.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Testing the supernatural

One criticism that is often applied to intelligent design is that it is fundamentally untestable and hence can never be scientific. But is this really true?

The classical notion of God is definitely untestable. A being that is intelligent and omnipotent, and doesn't want to be found for its own reasons, can do whatever it wants to avoid being found. It can hide indefinitely, and it can even plant false evidence to trick people into reaching the wrong conclusion about the origin of the universe. That's kind of what true believers are required to believe, in order to explain away the overwhelming lack of evidence for God.

There is an assumption among ID promoters that they don't need to come up with ways to test the properties of the designer; all they have to do is detect objects that have the property of being designed, and the nature of the designer can remain comfortably outside the domain of scientific inquiry. However, that's not necessarily true unless you assume that the designer is godlike -- which of course they do, even though they lie and say that they don't.

But I don't think that this property of being hidden from investigation should be true of all supernatural events in principle. What does it mean to be supernatural? I think the usual understanding is that it's something that exists outside the realm of the natural universe. But does this mean that a supernatural thing can do absolutely anything with no limits? Not necessarily. If the supernatural thing lives in its own universe, or its own metaverse, then that universe is probably subject to its own rules and limitations. Those rules wouldn't necessarily be the rules of our universe, but they'd be rules nonetheless, and would require anything in that universe to behave in a way that is, at least in principle, also predictable.

Is it possible to test what the rules are? Well, it depends. Really, the interesting question at work is whether the other universe can interact with this one. If it can, then it ought to be testable in some way. If it can't, then there is really no reason to care about it.

In the 90's there was this sci-fi show called "Sliders" about a small group of people who figured out how to "slide" into parallel universes. These universes had parallel versions of all the main characters (except in universes where the characters died or were prevented from being born), and they had separate histories. In one world, the British won the war of independence, and America remained a colony owned by a preserved monarchy. In another world, the patriarchal society was reversed, women ran the world, and men were considered weaker and often objectified as sex objects.

These universes had apparently always existed, but until sliding was discovered, they were completely irrelevant to this one. If you asked me right now, "Is there a universe where Kazim is the popular and successful pastor of a megachurch?" I would say "There could be, but who cares?" For the time being at least, "sliding" is total fantasy. If Pastor Kazim can never meet Atheist Kazim, and vice versa, then we have no effect on each other's lives, even potentially. I don't rule out the possibility entirely. I can imagine it easily. The problem is, there are so many different implausible things for me to imagine, that there's very little point in treating any of them as true without evidence.

If we ever proved that a supernatural entity did exist, it would only be because that entity interacted with the natural universe in some detectable way. Either a physical manifestation of something appears and does something, or we develop technology that can peer into the supernatural realm and see it there. Either way, there is an exchange of information between the two. And if that exists, then suddenly the supernatural thing is detectable by natural means. By some definitions, that would mean that the supernatural thing has become "natural." That's why I'm wary of calling things "supernatural": the definition is vague and kind of fragile.

But if we're slightly less ambitious in our assumptions about the designer's identity, there's no good reason to assume that we couldn't learn about it through experiment. It presumably stuck its finger into our universe at certain points in history, and altered the universe in detectable ways. (Remember, if it didn't do this then it's irrelevant -- just like Pastor Kazim may exist but is currently irrelevant to me.) If it did something we can detect, then we can see what the changes were and come up with likely mechanisms for how it interacts with our universe.

The only reason ID has to remain non-science is because they've set up a boatload of assumptions that make it non-science. As soon as they get creative and come up with hypotheses that can be confirmed or disconfirmed in some way, then they could figure out a way to do some legitimate research.

Just don't hold your breath waiting for that.