Tuesday, September 30, 2008

So why wait? Tax them.

I'm still waiting to hear of any potential fallout from the little stunt called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, in which 33 Christian Right churches decided to send an unambiguous message to the government — to wit, "We're Christians! Rules don't apply to us!" — by openly politicking from the pulpit.

The whole charade was done in the hopes of igniting court cases. But I don't see why that should be necessary. All the IRS needs to do is send these churches letters informing them that, as they have chosen to violate the laws pertaining to tax-exempt organizations by making formal political endorsements, their tax exempt status has been revoked effective immediately. And if the churches were to respond to such a letter with lawsuits, the courts should simply say, "Well, the tax laws are pretty clear about this one point, and you flagrantly violated it. So your suits are dismissed. Have a nice day." See...no big deal.

You know, if every church in America were taxed — especially those absurd, stadium-sized megachurches that boast weekly attendance in the 10,000-and-over range — can you just imagine how that would help the country out of its financial slump?

Apropos of nothing: The post preceding this one was our 600th. Go us!

When you have no evidence, try fear

Got another TV show fan letter today, from this fellow, who voices a common apprehension (and don't snipe at his poor English, as it obviously is not his native tongue):

whats up i been muslim for 11 years after being a roman catholic, and i was shocked but i lost my faith, i was a sunni salafi, now i cant get enough with these atheist vidoes i am still scared about hell, someone told me i should start a show. i cant shake off the fear of hell though everlasting burning

Well, you just need to realize that hell is something religion scares you with in order to control you. It should tell you something about religion, that it has to use an idea like hell as a tool of fear/control, and that it can't just convince you of its truth through evidence and rational arguments. You don't see scientific journals saying things like, "And if you don't agree with our findings, you're going to be tortured unimaginably for all eternity!" Do you?

Any religion that has to resort to a doctrine like hell to compel compliance and obedience is, by definition, immoral.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Show #572: A Missed Opportunity

What does it mean to say "God Exists"? That was what I examined Sunday afternoon on The Atheist Experience. The statement is brief--only two words. It should be simple, but for some reason, it's always disproportionately hard.

What is god? Every theist seems to know. Yet no two theists seem to agree. And no one theist seems able to communicate it in a way that actually provides any real, informed data.

I think it's safe to say a concept of god can exist in any mind. But most apologists put forward that god is not merely mental concept--an idea; god is, rather, existent outside the mind. Despite the often used refrain "god exists like love exists," I have yet to meet the theist who will then declare that god, like love, is a mental concept with no external referent--solely an idea. God does not exist like love exists, to theists, when you explain how love exists, and ask them if this is what they mean by "god."

I have been told on air that god is "ultimate strategy," and tonight someone told me god is "the set of all [logical] possibilities." What does this mean? I agree there is a set of logical possibilities--but how does that constitute a "god" any more than the set of all ipods constitutes a god? I'm less willing to agree there is such a thing as "ultimate strategy." I have actually witnessed many times when there are equally efficient strategies for achieving any given goal. But even if there is a most efficient strategy--again, how is that a "god"? This might provide me some shred of information about an individual theist's concept of a god--but it gives me no data about any god that exists outside this theist's mind.

Without a god to compare to the theist's idea, I must acknowledge no real information or data about a god has been provided to me. If a theist claims god is "ultimate strategy", and I cannot examine god, then I understand his idea of god is "ultimate strategy"--but is there an existent god that actually is "ultimate strategy"? Telling me about an idea of god does not provide me with data about a real, existent god. And our argument is not about anyone's concept of god. As I said, I fully agree that a person can have a mental model of a god. No one needs to convince me of that. But if a theist is claiming god is more than an idea, then providing me with more and more information about his idea of god helps me not at all. Explaining his idea of god does nothing to support the existence of a god outside his mind.

If his idea of god cannot be verified as correlating to any "god" in objectively verifiable, existent reality, then his idea of god cannot be said to be a god until some external referent can be provided with which to compare his claims. I don't doubt the theist has an idea of god. I understand that he clearly does. What I doubt is that there is an external referent, "god," to compare to his claims about his idea. I doubt that his mental model exists in any way outside his own mind.

Meanwhile, there are attempts to "define" god by putting god forward as the cause of particular effects. "God is the creator of the universe," is one common example (but "the Bible" or "manifestation as Jesus" would work just as well). Ask this theist, "if we examine the universe to determine the cause, and it turns out to be a singularity--is that god to you?" You will find that is not god to the theist. So, "god" is not whatever the evidence asserts is the cause of the universe. God, to this theist is a preconceived concept that exists regardless of the actual cause of the universe. If a singularity turns out to be the best model of what caused the universe, but god, I am told, is not a singularity--then this helps me not at all to understand what it is this theist is calling god. And I am only confused now by his claim that god is what caused the universe. Going back to an earlier point, without a god to examine, I have no idea whether a god is at all connected to the production of any universe, holy books, manifestations of Jesus or prophets, miraculous events, or anything else we can drum up. What is this theist calling god, then? I have no idea.

There are also those who define god as "nothing." God cannot be measured. Cannot be examined. Cannot be verified. Cannot be known or understood by mere mortals. God is transcendent, supernatural (and what does that mean?), outside time and space. In other words, god shares all the same attributes in objective existence as "nothing." Except that god is "something," insists the theist. God is exactly like nothing--except god is something. Not helpful.

In fact, definitions of "god" are as unhelpful as they are confusing. And the only external referents we are given are insufficient, to be kind. Intuition and instinct are often defined as evidence of "god" guiding believers. In my earlier post about Jung's book "Psychology of Religion," I discussed his reasons for pointing out that the subconscious mind is more than sufficient to explain why most people who believe in a god, believe in a god. Alternately, claims of miracles are sometimes provided. In fact, on the program, a woman claimed that several years back, she had an indeterminate mass in her chest one morning. She never went to a doctor, so we have no idea what it was. She prayed. It was gone the following morning. Ergo god. I feel no need to critique this "miracle," as I trust any reader's capacity to identify the problem here.

I don't doubt such experiences. However, I'm highly dubious of the presumed interpretations and implications that people place upon them, unfounded.

In the end, I have no idea what any of these people mean when they say "god." And explanations of what "exist" means only appear to cause more trouble.

Humans use the term "exist" in normal conversation to mean "manifest to humans"--to be somehow measurable in a way that is perceptible to human beings. If I say to you, "give me an example of an existent item," you will, no doubt, point out something that clearly manifests. Certainly some things are more difficult to make manifest to us than others--but the things that we can measure--difficult or easy--are the only things we can legitimately toss into the group we label "existent." And, again, just to clarify, I'm not referring here to the existence of ideas--but of the objectively verifiable items we think of as being existent outside our minds.

How do theists tell the difference between existent and nonexistent items? Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? We all are called upon every day of our lives to perform this task. People who can't perform it are sometimes locked away--considered too defective as human beings to function properly in reality. But never, under any circumstances, underestimate the power of a theist to confuse the simplest of things if they conflict with his belief in god. Don't get me wrong--existence itself is a real wonder. I'll be the first to agree that I'm amazed at the idea that I am "here." I'm confounded by the properties of light. I have no idea what causes matter and energy act on one another as they do. But as odd and wonderful as existence can be, is it incorrect to claim that we can tell the difference between that which exists and that which does not exist? If we can, how can we? If we cannot, then how can it mean anything to say that any item or entity exists?

This is a fair question--and one I was repeating often on the program. But at a pivotal point, with a caller on the line, I failed to address it. Alisha called to talk about "The Void." Apparently god is a physics model called "The Void." Alisha is going to send us some information so we can look into this for ourselves. "The Void," according to Alisha, is the set of all possible items. Somehow, we reached a later consensus of "logically possible" items. But, when pressed as to whether she believed in a god or not, she said it was possible. "All things are possible," she quickly added.

My first failing was in not pointing out that not all things are possible. As I had noted earlier, logical impossibilities can be formed. There are no married bachelors. I might have asked Alisha how much she believes her own statement. If I drop a lead weight off a building on a normal day--does Alisha think we can predict accurately whether the weight will float away like a soap bubble or fall to the ground? Or is she unsure what the weight will do--since all things are possible?

Carl Sagan once repeated a quote that it is fine to keep an open mind, but it may not be wise to keep your mind so open that your brain falls out. Did Alisha mean that at the singularity, we cannot say what is and is not possible? I don't know, because she didn't mention the singularity. Did Alisha mean that relativity and uncertainty and subatomic behavior wreak havoc with our physical "laws"? Perhaps. That was my initial assumption. But should I have to assume and guess at what someone means? If a theist expects to communicate an idea, and he is unclear about this idea--how can he possibly hope to provide an understanding of it to another human being? If a theist can't explain what he means, he will sound as though he is saying he doesn't understand what he believes. And if that is the message, how can he then ask me, not only to share that belief, but to even comprehend it?

But I missed a golden opportunity. We asked the caller if she believes fairies exist. Her response was "It's possible." OK, I understand her framework. No matter how farfetched I make the example, I am going to get "it's possible." While this may be an interesting philosophical thought, is it not the case in reality that we operate as though certain possibilities are not possible, and that others are so probable that one would be a fool to doubt them? For example, there may be an invisible, pandimensional vehicle in the middle of my lane as I'm driving forward on the highway. Should I swerve to avoid it--since it is possible the cars on either side of me will not be impacted by my car as the mass of my vehicle moves through them effortlessly? Philosophically, we can acknowledge this is possible. Realistically, however, will it work? Does anyone who holds to this philosophical claim walk the walk in their life outside of their god claims? Not that I've ever seen.

Did my brain lock up? I'm not sure. But the next question I should have asked was "is there anything you are willing to acknowledge does not exist?" At this point I can only wager a guess--since I didn't ask. But based on her response about the fairies, I'll wager that Alisha would not be willing to state conclusively that any item-X does not exist. I do not think that is an unfair characterization of her mindset during our discussion. All things, after all, are possible, to Alisha. She cannot, therefore, say they do not exist. Gods, fairies--sky's the limit.

Alisha scores a brilliant gold star for consistency. However, she presents a major dilemma for the claim "god exists." What does it mean to exist in a reality where nothing can be said to NOT exist? If we cannot differentiate between existent and nonexistent items--does it mean anything to claim that any item-X "exists"? Rhetorical as that could be, let me answer for clarity's sake: No.

In order for Alisha's god to "exist" requires "exist" to be redefined to include all items--whether they actually exist or not. In other words, it's the same as defining "red" as "all colors--whether they are red or not." If we accept that, does it then mean anything anymore to call something "red"? No. It doesn't.

I missed my chance to exercise the point of my presentation live and on the air. And I couldn't have asked for a more serendipitous opportunity. My only excuse is that when presented with claims that are unfamiliar, unclear, and that defy my experience with reality, it is sometimes difficult for me to wrap my brain around them in the present moment. And it is only later, after some consideration, that the bizarre contortions of logic that were used become clear.

"God exists." Three callers later and I still don't have a clue what I'm even being asked to believe.

Friday, September 26, 2008

"Did you have a good day?"

I wasn't going to post any follow up to the "I'll Pray For You..." post, as I'd generally prefer to keep my health issues within my "inner circle". Fortunately, I was reminded that there are many friends and fans who care and, after receiving a number of kind and encouraging comments, e-mails, text messages and phone calls, I think some minor update is in order. There's also a point to this post, so if you want to skip the diagnosis and get to the meat, scroll down a couple of paragraphs. :)

Yesterday, I stopped by my doctor's office to go over the results of my lab work. As suspected, I'm diabetic. He explained the lab results to me, pointing out each number, what it meant and why it was (or wasn't) a concern. He explained the specifics about the type of diabetes we think I have, discussed what to expect, what changes need to be made, what my potential risks were and then, after he was confident that I had a good grasp on the situation, he went over his proposed treatment plan. I'm now on medication and will be going back in 2 weeks to check my progress and make modifications to the treatment plan.

With luck, I'll be able to avoid taking insulin, but it's a possibility. With hard work and some difficult changes, I might eventually reach a point where medication isn't required but as it stands now, this isn't something that's going to be corrected by diet and exercise.

On my drive home, I stopped by the store to pick up things I needed. As I was checking out the teller asked if I was having a good day. I had to stop and think for a moment. I started to weigh the good and bad events to gauge my day...I got off work early, so that's good...but I had to go the doctor, that's bad. I found out I'm diabetic, that's bad...but it's treatable, so that's good.

I left the store and headed home, ready to make a few phone calls to people who had asked to be informed of the test results, and kept thinking about whether or not I'd had a good day. It didn't take long to reach an answer, once I realized that I'd already started off by categorizing some events incorrectly.

Yes, I had a VERY good day.

There has never been a better time in all of human history to find out that you have an illness. I was fortunate to be able to visit the doctor and to have health insurance coverage to make the visit affordable. I was fortunate that my condition is fairly well understood, treatable and possibly correctable.

More importantly, as one of my friends pointed out, I gained more information about reality, and was able to form a plan to deal with it rationally and responsibly. Seriously, what more could anyone ask for? I've preached that goal in one form or another, on both programs, for years. 'Believe as many true things and as few false things as possible'...'Understanding reality is critical to making good decisions', etc.

No, I'm not saying that I'm thrilled to have diabetes (although it's possibly the kick in the ass I've needed to make some changes to improve my health) and I'm not just looking for a silver lining...but I definitely had a good day.

And because of that good day, I'm more likely to have more good days.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dan McLeroy: stupider than you thought

It's physically painful to realize that someone this thoroughly idiotic is in charge of the Texas State Board of Education.

If science is limited to only natural explanations but some natural phenomena are actually the result of supernatural causes then science would never be able to discover that truth — not a very good position for science. Defining science to allow for this possibility is just common sense. Science must limit itself to testable explanations not natural explanations. Then the supernaturalist will be just as free as the naturalist to make testable explanations of natural phenomena. The view with the best explanation of the empirical evidence should prevail.

People, that's thermonuclear stupidity!

Precisely how does McLeroy propose we test for those supernatural causes? Is he implying that supernatural explanations are testable but natural ones are not? How does he propose to differentiate the supernatural from the natural when testing it? Hell, how does he even define the supernatural in any context? Isn't the word just a sockpuppet for "God"? Of course it is. Seems to me the last sentence of the above quote completely negates all the blather that preceded it, because like it or not, the natural explanations science presents us with are the ones with the best empirical evidence behind them. It's hardly science's fault if brainwashed, asstard ideologues like McLeroy just ignore evidence that doesn't flatter their belief in their sky-fairy-of-choice. (Oops, there I go again trash-talking. I guess I'm due for a Kazim finger-wag.)

McLeroy raises these questions, to appear as if he's actually intellectually engaged in the issue, but he provides no answers, of course, because he cannot answer. He isn't interested in explanations for anything, anyway. Life to him is about belief, not knowledge. He's just looking for a legal strategy, as are all these Liars for Jesus, by which he can shoehorn his religious beliefs into public school classrooms and help throw an entire generation of students back into the 18th century, while the rest of the world barrels along into the 21st. There simply cannot be any limit to the public ridicule these people deserve.

Elitism: a feature, not a bug

We had a fellow write in to the TV show address tonight, with a charge one tends to hear a lot these days leveled at those uppity folks who can't just go with the mainstream flow: that we're all snooty "elitists." Troy writes:

My question is: What makes you feel that your cause is a noble one, especially considering the lack of open-mindedness, and often outright confrontation that your audience often brings? If your show was purely for advancing the benefits of an atheist point of view, I'd say more power to you. But, I tend to agree with my girlfriend that I often see what looks to me like elitism - you're content with your intellectual superiority to the bulk of your audience, and often seem to gloat over their vain attempts to justify their faith. In my opinion, they shouldn't have to - it's their business, and I wouldn't be surprised if many called in to the show simply as a reflex to feeling attacked by your show's attitude.

Allow me to be the first (well, second, after Sam Harris) to declare that elitism is a feature, not a bug. I see elitism as nothing more than a dirty word people have attached to something that ought to be considered a noble goal: the pursuit of excellence rather than mediocrity in all walks of life, whether personal, professional, intellectual, artistic, or otherwise. After all, what can you be, if not an elitist, other than an advocate of mediocrity? Frankly I think there's far too much mediocrity in the world.

I think that Troy and his girlfriend have allowed themselves to be sold the negative definition of elitism, which is that it's a bad thing practiced only by snobs who think they're better than you. Mediocrities want you to accept that definition of elitism, because it gives them a name with which to dismiss people who are simply more informed or better capable of defending their ideas in the court of public opinion (or anywhere) than they are.

Don't be fooled. Elitism is a good thing. Everybody alive ought to be elitist. Having high standards is to be admired, not disdained.

As for any of us having a smug, snooty, smarter-than-thou attitude, okay, I'll cop that that's a risk when A) you are someone who considers elitism a feature, not a bug, and B) you are willing to argue your views not only articulately but with conviction. Many people mistake conviction for elitist arrogance, especially when, once again, they're not as good at expressing and defending their own views. If we come off as arrogant on the TV show sometimes, I see that as just being a by-product of conviction. We don't claim to be infallible intellectuals, but at the same time we aren't going to dumb down our presentation so as not to offend touchy viewers.

Finally, as to why we bother defending atheism? Come now, do we even have to ask that question? You'd be surprised, but ideas do change. I can tell you, from my own experience as past host and present co-host since the turn of the century: I have seen the show evolve from a rinky-dink little local access show to a program with fans all over the world via the internet, that has inspired numerous other like minded-groups to undertake their own efforts. Certainly the calcified fundamentalist mind will not change, but more people than you would think are open to hearing what we have to say. Seriously, if the civil rights leaders or the early suffragettes had thrown up their hands and said "Screw it, nothing's going to change?" where would they be today? Our very next president may well be African American. Something to consider.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More thoughts on Ebert's Poe

Martin wrote:

Ebert comes clean

And gives those of us who get a little smug about our critical thinking a refresher on the importance of critical thinking. Go read.

And he thanked me by name! You now get to ridicule me mercilessly for going into fanboy squee mode.

To be fair, PZ does have some valid criticisms.

Yeah, more than valid; it's an excellent point that PZ is making. I like and respect Ebert, and many times I've relied on his well-written opinions to decide what movies to see. Having said that, I've seen this "point" made too many times to find it in any way novel or clever. The point appears to be: "I said stupid things in a public forum to show how people would react, and sure enough people called me stupid."

I mean, yes, ho ho Roger, very droll. The problem is that if I went around assuming that everyone was kidding when they recited a bunch of ignorant tripe that sounds exactly like what real creationists say, I'd be wrong in 95% of all cases, instead of (as some people were) wrong in this one. I am a fan of Ebert too, and like Martin, I'm familiar enough with his history that I didn't think he would really turned into a creationist. But most people, having at most a passing familiarity with his non-movie writing, would have no reason to assume it wasn't real. The only way to be sure is to read through the creationist nonsense carefully enough to detect the subtle sarcasm. And who the hell wants to do that, when all the creationist "I told you so" lists are so very uninteresting and similar to each other?

Lots of people pull the "I acted stupid and people called me stupid" trick and call it a study of human nature. Many of them even use this tactic to cover up the fact that they really do believe something genuinely stupid, like Scott Adams. Another guy who very clumsily pulled the same thing was our good buddy Patrick, who, after receiving well over 100 emails that universally panned his weird lawsuit crusade, wrote to tell us that the whole thing was an "experiment." Right.

I'm not saying that Roger Ebert is lying, of course, I'm just saying that it's strange to criticize people for being convinced by your plausible imitation of real idiots. Ebert does make a very fine point at the end of his recent post:

These days, there is no room for ambiguity, and few rewards for critical thinking. Now every word of a politician is pumped dry by his opponent, looking for sinister meanings. Many political ads are an insult to the intelligence. Here I am not discussing politics. I am discussing credulity. If you were to see a TV ad charging that a politician supported "comprehensive sex education" for kindergarten children, would you (1) believe it, or (2) very much doubt it? The authors of the ad spent big money in a bet on the credulity and unquestioning thinking of the viewership. Ask yourself what such an ad believes about us. No politics, please.

Yeah, he's absolutely right, somebody would have to be a moron for believing that Obama wants comprehensive sex education for kindergarteners. However, somebody would not have to be a moron to believe that somebody would earnestly claim that he said that. They already did, and do. Hundreds or thousands of blog posts have been written which take the claim seriously.

So suppose that instead of writing about creationism, Ebert had written a "Jonathan Swift" style post saying, "Hey did you hear about Barack Obama? He wants to teach six year olds about condoms." And then further suppose that a lot of people had written to him with all kinds of verbal abuse, and then Ebert had said "Ha ha! You see how gullible these people are? To their credit, no Republicans wrote to me at all." That's really not all that clever.

Besides which, I'd have to say that PZ didn't really get fooled. Oh sure, he wondered what was up with that post, but speculating that his blog got "hacked" instead of assuming that Ebert was writing a joke isn't all that unreasonable. I would say that he was no more fooled than Matt was when "Eve" and I conspired to mess with him on the show. Matt took the call at face value, but he also looked suspicious and said "I'm not sure that call was real."

The difference between our joke and Ebert's was that I was genuinely trying to make Matt laugh later. I wasn't trying to prove anything about his gullibility, or claiming to expose a character flaw.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ebert comes clean

And gives those of us who get a little smug about our critical thinking a refresher on the importance of critical thinking. Go read.

And he thanked me by name! You now get to ridicule me mercilessly for going into fanboy squee mode.

To be fair, PZ does have some valid criticisms.

Dobson: clueless on American slavery

I turned on my local Christian station this morning (99.3 FM in Austin) and ran smack into Dobson gearing up for a rant on abortion. I don't remember how I knew that it was going to be about abortion, but I could tell from a phrase and the tone.

Sure enough, it turns out they were talking about this clip from "The View." In this clip, John McCain says that Roe v Wade should be overturned so that abortion can once again be thrown as a matter to the states. McCain specifically says: "I want people who interpret the Constitution of the United States the way our founding fathers envisioned." Whoopi Goldberg asked: "Should I be worried about being a slave, about being returned to slavery? Because certain things happened in the Constitution that you had to change."

At this point, Dobson breaks in on the clip and berates Goldberg, saying that, of course it's the CONSTITUTION that outlawed slavery. Specifically, the 13th amendment passed under the Lincoln administration. And so, foolish Whoopi, she should learn some history.

This obviously misses the point, by a very long way. First, McCain's traditionalist appeal to the "what would the founding fathers do?" argument is very directly countered by Whoopi's point that the founding fathers supported slavery, even going so far as to write into the constitution that a slave's vote is worth 3/5 that of a regular person's is worth 3/5 of a person for the purpose of census counts (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3).* That Lincoln had to come along and fix this only emphasizes that point, which is that no, we DON'T always want to strictly go by "original intent."

In addition, Dobson should turn the page to the next amendment, because that bears very directly on the kind of "states' rights" argument that John McCain invokes to indicate that RvW should be overturned. Ratified shortly after the 13th, the 14th amendment says:
"No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Later Supreme Courts recognized this as overruling what was originally a states' rights justification for slavery. Essentially, before the Civil War, individual states were free to allow or not allow slavery as they saw fit. The 14th amendment says that no, individual states are NOT allowed to override what has become the law of the land.

This was the same legal reasoning that was later used in the Roe v Wade decision. Previously, abortion was a matter that was left up to the states to allow or outlaw. Now it's not. Nobody's REQUIRED to provide abortions, but nobody can PREVENT you from having one, regardless of which state you live in. Despite what anti-abortion advocates would like you to think, this is not "legislating from the bench"; this is an ongoing process of exploring the legal ramifications of changes to the constitution, and this process started within a few years of the amendment's passage.

Whoopi had a perfectly valid point in the above clip. Our current interpretation of what the 14th amendment means is based on the way that historical courts have ruled on the matter. And that's perfectly constitutional. Unlike, say, the Bible, the Constitution isn't supposed to "interpret itself" (hah); the Constitution SAYS that the courts have the power to indicate what is Constitutional. Whoopi's point is that you can't just go back to the way the founding fathers interpreted their laws, because it's changed. One of those changes was disallowing prohibitions on abortion. Another was disallowing slavery. The same argument that invalidates one would also invalidate the other.

* Edited: The stricken out passage was a total brain fart. Obviously I wouldn't have meant to claim that slaves had any vote before the Voting Rights Act. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, Tommy.

I'll pray for you...

Nearly two years ago, Daniel Dennett wrote one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. After surviving a 9-hour operation to repair damage to his heart, he wrote 'Thank Goodness', a short essay that discusses the ordeal, his take on the sentiments of well-wishers and his view that "Thank Goodness" isn't simply a secular substitute for "Thank God".

This essay has been on my mind for the past few days. It came up in a discussion following Sunday's show and I found myself thinking about it again this morning. As it turns out, I've got a few health concerns of my own and I visited my new doctor yesterday to discuss them. While we won't have test results until Thursday afternoon, there's a pretty decent chance that I'm diabetic (at a minimum, there's a serious blood sugar concern and a few miscellaneous issues to address). I wanted to keep friends and family informed of the situation, so I fired off a quick e-mail, with the full knowledge that I'd receive a few "I'll pray for you" responses.

In situations like this, that doesn't really bother me. Yes, it's as silly as saying you'll sacrifice a goat for me, but I understand that most of the time it's really just a sincere attempt to show that you care. The words don't matter nearly so much as the sentiment, and I can appreciate both the sentiment and the inability to find a "better" way to express it.

I wouldn't be upset if someone said they were keeping their fingers crossed, so why should I be bothered by those who say they'll pray for me? As rhetorical as that question appears, the situation is not nearly so clear cut. Of those who would promise to keep their fingers crossed, I suspect there are relatively few who seriously entertain the notion that doing so is likely to have an effect on the situation. Of those who would offer to pray, I suspect that many (if not most) believe in the efficacy of prayer. Despite that difference, I'm not going to let someone's superstitions distract me from their sincere desire to see positive changes in my life.

Unfortunately, some people simply aren't content to offer a simple "I'll pray for you" without injecting even more of their ignorance, self-righteousness and superstition into the mix. I received an e-mail response from one individual that went beyond the simple, superstitious sentiments of prayer. Without violating this persons privacy, I'd like to quickly point out some of the responses. I'll paraphrase, rather than directly quoting the message, but the following is accurate...

'I've been praying for you for a long time. I pray to the God that you deny and he's told me so much about you.'

It's curious that he couldn't be bothered to give either of us the specifics on the problem. I'm wondering what else your god told you about me...if you'd just tell me, we could check the claims for accuracy. It'd also be nice to hear these 'divine revelations' before their confirmation. It's a bit like looking at the lottery numbers and saying, "Yup, those are the numbers that God told me would win."

'I believe that this is what I saw that was "wrong" when I looked into your eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul and your soul is sick.'

This is a very thinly veiled assertion that my illness (whatever it may be) is because I'm an atheist. I have no doubt that this individual cares about me and wants me to be healthy and happy, but their religious beliefs have so thoroughly poisoned their mind that they're unable to address situations like this rationally and simple expressions of love and compassion become opportunities to preach their superstitions with an "I told you so" bent.

Everything becomes tied to their religious views. If something bad happens to them, it's the devil, trying to attack them for being a good Christian. If something bad happens to me, it's God punishing my defiance. Health problems, money problems, family problems - every single event has some supernatural motivation.

People like this are unable to face reality rationally. The world is full of demons and angels, pulling our strings, guiding our fates, pushing us around like pawns in a cosmic game of chess. There is no grand mystery or wonder in their world, the supernatural 'explanations' fill the gaps. There is no hope of discovery or improvement, humanity is sick and sinful and the Earth is simply a place to wipe our feet while we wait for Jesus to spirit us away to the real life. Yes, modern medicine may be able to tell us more about illness, but these people already know that the ultimate cause is man's sinful nature and the capriciousness (though they refer to it as 'justice') of the invisible friend they call 'God'.

Those of you that have been crippled by religion, unable to face reality without your superstitions, I'll pray for you.

No really. If "I'll pray for you" is shorthand for "I'm sorry you're in that situation and sincerely hope that things improves"...then I'll pray for you.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Poe'd by Roger Ebert

I've oftimes stated what a fan I am of film critic Roger Ebert. He does what any good critic should do: present his ideas and opinions clearly so that you can understand exactly where he's coming from even when you disagree with his review.

Today, though, he's pulled a lovely prank on us all, and has maintained the poker face of a pure professional throughout. An article at his site, bizarrely titled "Creationism: Your Questions Answered" immediately catches the eye, as it seems so out of place. But Ebert's subtle satire, which was such a successful application of Poe's Law — that little law of the internet that asserts it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalist religious beliefs so absurd that no one will mistake it for the real deal — it startled PZ Myers, makes itself known right from its opening salvo, which calmly presents "Questions and answers on Creationism, which should be discussed in schools as an alternative to the theory of evolution." What follows is conveyed in such a dry, non-histrionic style that it's actually fooled a lot of people into thinking Ebert, who has made his support of good science and his full-on agreement with evolutionary theory and disdain for ID or other creationist pseudoscience plain, had gone over to the dark side.

Still, it becomes obvious we've been Poe'd with this gem:

Q. How long did the Great Flood last?

A. We know that Noah was 600 years, two months and 17 days old when he sailed. Using that as a starting point and counting forward, Genesis tells us it lasted for 40, 150, 253, 314 or 370 days.

Until he fesses up, it remains to be understood why Ebert chose just now to pull this little prank. It may have to do with the fact that this week, he's posted a review of Adaptation, the 2002 Spike Jonze movie starring Nic Cage, to his "Great Movies" section. This review boasts the headline "Evolution Is God's Intelligent Design," and I can imagine that sparking a miniflood of indignant emails from creationists, pulling out all their tiresome "evilushun is not siyunts nuh-uh, lookit all the evidense for creashunz!" canards, and demanding "equal time." So, that's what Roger gave them.

Thumbs up, old chap!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Today on the show: Dominionism and Reconstructionism

Some links:

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Remember Tony Alamo?

I've let the blog lie fallow for several days, I know. I've been involved in — uh — other things, about which I will talk here as soon as I can. As it's been several days, I thought what better subject to discuss in getting back in the swing of things than Tony Alamo (pronounced A-lah-mo, apparently).

You may not have heard of this guy, but in Austin we're fairly familiar with his antics. Every once in a while you'll walk out of the supermarket to find that the windshield wipers of every car in the parking lot are clutching copies of Alamo's trashy four-color newsletter, dutifully distributed by his followers, who seem indifferent to the amount of litter they are creating when the majority of them are simply chucked aside by exasperated shoppers. On more than one occasion, I've cleared out an entire lot of Alamo newsletters and recycled them. I had an angry confrontation with a couple of Alamo's clods while doing this several years ago, the upshot of which was that I, evidently, was the "nut," despite the fact they were ones belonging to a cult run by a convicted felon.

Oh yes, Alamo has an impressive rap sheet. Like Kent Hovind, he failed to report his ministry's payroll taxes, which cost him a six year stretch. His church runs a bogus charity that was caught red-handed selling donated goods for profit on eBay. He's an avowed polygamist, who's been accused any number of times of child abuse (both sexual and otherwise). He has a hate-on for the Catholics second only to Jack Chick's, which has led to the SPLC classifying his church as a hate group. And finally, he's just plain batshit insane. After his wife died in 1982, he kept her body on display at his compound for six months, telling his followers she'd be resurrected. (What resulted from that is nearly too bizarre for words.)

Through all of this, the bastard has managed to keep preaching, keep a following, keep scamming money, and, reportedly, keep fucking little girls. Is there anything a truly evil person cannot manage to pull off, even with the law on his tail half his life, as long as he attaches the label "religion" to it?

Well, Alamo's reign of error may be puttering to a close. Early today the feds raided Alamo's compound in Arkansas, as part of a child porn investigation. No one has been arrested yet, but it is expected that a warrant for Alamo is forthcoming. Alamo displayed his usual paranoiac class when interviewed about the raid: "Where do these allegations stem from? The anti-Christ government. The Catholics don't like me because I have cut their congregation in half. They hate true Christianity." Whatever. Tell it to Bubba while he's making you felch him in the showers, you dirty old man you.

So, another crazy bites the dust once and for all, we can only hope. At the very least, hopefully we won't have to deal with cleaning up any more of those stupid newsletters off the pavement.

Monday, September 15, 2008

How I wish, how I wish you were here

You know you're getting older, not only when all the favorite bands you grew up with are suddenly thought of as "classic rock," but when their members start dying on you. Now we've lost Richard Wright of Pink Floyd. Major bummer. And all this time I'd been sure Keith Richards was the guy well and truly overdue for a visit from the reaper.

I don't know if there's a "great gig in the sky," Rick, but if so I'm sure it's a far better place to be than what the pious are trying to sell me. Thanks for all the music. Shine on.

Nick Mason, Dave Gilmour, and Rick Wright

Sunday, September 14, 2008


We've gotten a couple of emails, from some overseas fans, asking if we're all okay in the wake of Hurricane Ike. Thanks for your concern, and the short answer is: yes. In fact the storm avoided Austin entirely, except for a light shower that popped up at about 11:30 last night and went away just as quickly. After slamming Galveston, Houston and Beaumont, Ike's remnants shuffled on up the Texas/Louisiana border. My parents live in Jefferson, about a 45-minute drive from Shreveport, way up in what's called the ArkLaTex, that area where the three states meet. They reported fairly heavy rains, really heavy winds (an entire oak blew down at their lakehouse), and a power outage that lasted until about 4:30 this afternoon and even affected other nearby towns like Marshall and Longview.

Last weekend when I was on the show, someone called in asking some vague question about the severity of hurricanes lately, and I pointed out that this was a pretty clear sign of global warming, as it's the function of hurricanes to act as a heat sink, channeling excess heat from the equatorial regions towards the poles. So if you have more heat sending more evaporation into the weather systems, presto, big hurricane. My use of the word "function" got the knickers of one viewer in a twist, who felt that word was inappropriate to use when referring to a natural phenomenon. Well, "function" can be used that way, and does not imply that the thing in question was designed, nor does it impart any teleological purpose to it. Basically he was in the mood to gripe about semantics that day, I guess. Not to say that's an invalid gripe, as people frequently will misrepresent the intent of words in conversation. After all just look how enthusiastically creationists distort the words of Gould and Dawkins. It's practically a sport. Still, I don't think too many people were confused about what I meant when I was discussing the function of hurricanes.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

And the mail keeps coming...

The TV show gets fan letters at a volume I certainly never experienced in the years before the internets became the distribution channel it is today. When I was host up until early March of 2004, we had set up the address (tv [at] atheist-community [dot] org) already. But with the only people watching the show being those with nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon than tune in to Austin Access, a good week of letters might be one or two letters, tops. Now they flood in at dozens per day, it seems.

Here are a couple of emails that give a flavor for the kinds of questions people have who write in. It's great to hear from so many atheists, from all over, who never hesitate to express their gratitude for the work Matt and the whole team does. (And yes, we get letters from Christians, too, more of which is friendly and not of the "I'll pray for you!" stripe than you might think.)

A fellow named Alexander Altaras asks, in his subject line, a straightforward question: "We don't trust the Bible as an accurate source, why do we trust the news or any other historical document?" A good question indeed. I answered: Whatever the source of information you're referring to, you should only find it trustworthy to the degree its claims can be independently confirmed or corroborated. Historians are usually expected to cite their sources, and the good ones do. News reporting has gotten more difficult to trust, because so much of it today is tainted with one type of political bias or another. It's always a good thing to see if the information being given to you is well supported by facts. It's why science is trustworthy where religion is not. In science the process of peer review is set up so that scientists can independently check each other's findings without favoritism tainting the results. Religion has no such self-correcting tool in place. Another point is that religious claims are doubly hard to trust at face value because, unlike history, for example, the people promoting religious claims are doing so in order to defend or proselytize the belief, an agenda that isn't as often applied when dealing with purely secular matters. So in short, consider the source, consider their reputation, and consider their sources most of all.

A fellow identifying himself only as Bobby, and informing us he's a 38-year-old Marine and plainclothes narcotics officer (I'm assuming ex-Marine, if he's a cop now), wants to know "what is the root of [believers'] hatred for the theory of evolution?" Bobby writes, "Why do theists get so offended by the theory of evolution? It is a basic question. I do not understand. I am an Atheist. I do not get offended by religion until it is forced upon me. I do not actively attack religious concepts until I am provoked. Theists behave as if the very IDEA of evolution insults them. They act as if the theory was created to specifically offend them. Why?"

I think much of it has to do with the fact that evolution seems to deny religion's great promise to them: that they are special creations of a loving god, imbued with souls, which to go on to live in eternal paradise after their bodies die. By treating the development of life as a purely natural process, theists are afraid that evolution denies the divine and thus the chance they'll get to go to Heaven.

Thing is, I happen to think (and Ken Miller would disagree) evolution does deny this. But it's hardly the fault of nature, or of science's methods of learning about nature, if people choose to retreat from reality and embrace irrational beliefs out of fear and wishful thinking.

Now keep in mind that everyone on the TV crew gets these emails, and the above answers to these questions are only my own. The good questions usually spark a stimulating discussion, with some of the other cohosts, like Tracie, offering such beautifully written and thought out responses that I can't help gritting my teeth she doesn't get a chance to post here more often than she does. But however the discussion threads turn out, it must be said that we really do have a fine and engaged audience out there, and we're grateful to the lot of you. Keep watching, and keep the emails coming.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Replaying an old speech

I'm not really fond of empty memorials. I actually think it's kind of trite the way people rush to post their memories of 9/11/01 every year. On the one hand, I think it's important to remember and respect the people who died; on the other hand, I think it's been cheapened by some people who use it to push a political agenda, either once a year like clockwork, or in a constant undertone. But I'm going to participate in my own small way.

The fact is that I've always seen the attack of September 11 as an act of religious intolerance, and then it was used as an excuse to foster even more religious intolerance. One of the reasons why I feel so perpetually annoyed by "Loose Change" style conspiracy theories is because they dismiss and disregard the very real component of religious extremism that played an important role in motivating the attackers. I don't single out Islam for this: ALL brands of religious extremism are dangerous.

I could go on, but instead I think I'll just repeat a speech that I read for a secular one-year memorial that was sponsored by the ACA on 9/11. It was an event that featured many fine tributes by ACA members. Here's my small contribution. Many of the links may be outdated, since they pointed to news sites that are now outdated by six years.

After September 11 a year ago, for a short period of time -- maybe a few days, maybe a couple of weeks -- the United States really seemed to be unified. We were a nation in mourning; we all had a grief that we shared, even though most of us didn't personally know anyone who died in the tragedy. Everyone seemed just a little more sympathetic towards each other. People went out of their way to call old acquaintances and make sure they were okay. My wife even said she noticed that drivers were a little less rude in traffic. They wouldn't cut each other off, they would slow down to let you change lanes, and they wouldn't honk and gesture so much.

Human nature being what it is, it's not really surprising that this camaraderie didn't last very long. The first crack I noticed came from an unsurprising source: Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Instead of offering moral support and positive suggestions, they began casting around for someone to blame. It was on September 13, just two days later, that Jerry and Pat appeared on "The 700 Club" to offer these words of support and comfort to our nation: "...what we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be minuscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve."

Falwell then went on to explain why we deserved what we got. It would seem that it's all the fault of a laundry list of groups: the American Civil Liberties Union, pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, and lesbians. They all make his God angry.

At the same time, something else was happening in America. Reports of hate crimes against people of Arabic descent started coming in. We all heard the reports about assaults, death threats, and general harassment against people who looked middle-Eastern. They were directed against innocent people who weren't involved in the attacks, who would never dream of such an action. In many cases, the victims weren't even the RIGHT ethnicity -- they were Pakistani or Indian; they practiced Hinduism rather than Islam. Racial prejudice isn't known for its logic.

To Ann Coulter it's obvious what the solution is to Islamic terrorism. In a column on September 14, she wrote that "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." OBVIOUSLY the problem is that the assailants were Muslims; if they had been Christians, they would never have done such a thing, because there are no recorded instances of people killing each other in the name of Christianity, right?

The news about racial hate crimes has diminished in more recent times, but it has been replaced by a general undercurrent of anger against Muslims. As recently as last month, we've heard Billy Graham's son, Franklin, tell us that all Islamic people scare him, saying, "the silence of the (Islamic) clerics around the world is frightening to me." In reality, there are hundreds of Muslim leaders from around the world who have issued public statements denouncing the actions of the terrorists, and yet Graham ignores this fact and asks: "How come they haven't come to this country, how come they haven't apologized to the American people?"

Ashraf Sabrin, a medical technician who volunteered for the relief efforts at the twin towers and the Pentagon, said: "We've had so many different events -- open houses, candlelight vigils, national press releases. What's it going to take exactly?" Ironically, Franklin Graham's false sweeping generalization about Muslims came up shortly after the publication of a book he wrote which included the following claim: "Islam - unlike Christianity - has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance for those who follow other faiths."

Meanwhile, popular radio commentators and news editorialists can be heard daily making sarcastic mockeries of Arabs, saying "If they don't want to be frisked at every checkpoint and looked at with perpetual suspicion by all American citizens, then they shouldn't come here and blow up our buildings." That is, of course, absurd. Most of the people we are talking about are American citizens themselves, who watched in horror along with the rest of us as the twin towers collapsed; but unlike the rest of us, they received the additional insult of being harassed and targeted by angry people looking for revenge on someone, anyone. The reality is that the peaceful American citizens of Arab descent who walk among us in our cities are NOT the same ones who attacked us.

We atheists have also received a bit more than our fair share of the blame for an event that didn't involve us at all. Kathleen Parker wrote an editorial for USA Today on October 1 that begins by saying, "One can't help notice the silence of atheists these days." The general idea of this article was that it would be a very good thing if atheists would all shut up about that irritating "separation of church and state" and go away so we could get back to the business of giving our children proper values. It concluded by saying, "If we're to win this war -- sure to last into our children's futures -- we have to reweave the rituals of God and country into our institutions."

Well, obviously atheists haven't been keeping silent -- here we are, after all -- but they've been marginalized as much as possible ever since last year. We've become convenient bogeymen representing everything that's wrong with American values, which led God to decide that we're not worthy of being protected anymore.

So, whose fault was September 11? On the one hand, we hear that the reason we're being targeted by terrorist attacks is because we deserve it, thanks to all the atheists and evolutionists and ACLU members and gay people and so on. On the other hand, we hear that it's all the fault of every single person who has a certain ethnic background, especially if they are presumably too foolish to recognize that one religion is inherently evil and violent while another religion is noble and good.

Human beings are pattern-seeking animals. When we see something that interests or scares us, we look for a way that we can generalize the experience. Sometimes this is simply good survival instinct; after all, if you recognize the circumstances when you make a mistake, then hopefully you won't make the same mistake again. But as a method of dealing with other people, sometimes it's just bad policy.

A common thread that we see in all this is Americans attacking other Americans, looking for easy rules of thumb to tell them who the bad guys are. No such rules exist, of course, especially in a pluralistic society where many different ways of life are represented. We're letting generalizations get in the way of thinking.

Unfortunately, atheists are sometimes guilty of this habit too. How many of you were listening to what I said about Robertson, Falwell, and Graham, and thinking to yourselves "See? That just goes to show that you can't trust those religious people"? It's very easy for non-Christians to take the worst examples of Christianity and use that as a substitute for the religion as a whole. But in fact, it's not that being a member of a particular religion makes you a bad person, any more than being a member of no religion. There are some fine and wonderful Christians out there, just as there are fine and wonderful Muslims and atheists.

The danger that any religion poses occurs only when its members become entrenched in the idea that "Our metaphysical truth is right, and theirs is SO WRONG that there is no possibility that we can even communicate." Jerry Falwell said it about large numbers of Americans. Franklin Graham said it about all Muslims. And Osama bin Laden said it about us. In that sense, when fundamentalism is practiced to extremes in this country, it mirrors the sort practiced in Afghanistan.

We shouldn't do that. We're supposed to be the country that values diversity, and we're proud of our freedom to choose to believe whatever religion we want, including none at all.

But we are, each one of us, about more than just our religion. We are not our set of beliefs. We are not the groups we join or the people we associate with. Each one of us is an individual, someone who is worthy of respect and appreciation for our unique qualities.

Let's not join together in groups as a way of shutting out the rest of the world. If we do join groups, it should be because we want to feel close to each other and have friends. Study the examples of the Taliban and al Qaeda, and understand that they're bad not because they practice Islam, and not because of their dark skin, but because they've come to a place where they can't accept anyone having different beliefs than their own. And then let's try not to follow their example.

A grim reminder on a grim anniversary: it can happen here

Because people need to remember exactly what was at the root of the most horrific terrorist act of modern times: religious fundamentalism and zealotry. Here is the list of instructions that was found among the personal effects of 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta. Some salient excerpts:

Keep in mind that, if you fall into hardship, how will you act and how will you remain steadfast and remember that you will return to God and remember that anything that happens to you could never be avoided, and what did not happen to you could never have happened to you. This test from Almighty God is to raise your level [levels of heaven] and erase your sins. And be sure that it is a matter of moments, which will then pass, God willing, so blessed are those who win the great reward of God. Almighty God said: 'Did you think you could go to heaven before God knows whom amongst you have fought for Him and are patient?'

Remember the words of Almighty God: 'You were looking to the battle before you engaged in it, and now you see it with your own two eyes.' Remember: 'How many small groups beat big groups by the will of God.' And His words: 'If God gives you victory, no one can beat you. And if He betrays you, who can give you victory without Him? So the faithful put their trust in God.'

When you have reached (M) and have left the taxi, say a supplication of place ['Oh Lord, I ask you for the best of this place, and ask you to protect me from its evils'], and everywhere you go say that prayer and smile and be calm, for God is with the believers. And the angels protect you without you feeling anything. Say this supplication: 'God is more dear than all of His creation.' And say: 'Oh Lord, protect me from them as You wish.' And say: 'Oh Lord, take your anger out on [the enemy] and we ask You to protect us from their evils.' And say: 'Oh Lord, block their vision from in front of them, so that they may not see.' And say: 'God is all we need, He is the best to rely upon.' Remember God's words: 'Those to whom the people said, "The people have gathered to get you, so fear them," but that only increased their faith and they said, God is all we need, He is the best to rely upon.'

The ultimate "faith based initiative," this.

Ah Martin, some of you might be saying, of course radical Islamists are violent psychotics. But that's what their religion promotes. Christianity is all about peace and love and forgiveness and fluffy bunnies. You'd never see that kind of mindset bred here, goodness gracious me no!

Except, of course, we do. Meet "Joel's Army," a fast-growing group of Dominionist maniacs so flamboyantly extreme that they even frighten other conservative Christians. In the words of Rick Joyner, a popular pastor associated with the movement:

"As the church begins to take on this resolve, they [Joel's Army churches] will start to be thought of more as military bases, and they will begin to take on the characteristics of military bases for training, equipping, and deploying effective spiritual forces," Joyner wrote. "In time, the church will actually be organized more as a military force with an army, navy, air force, etc."

This is how you brainwash a generation of kids into becoming the kinds of killers who strap bombs to themselves and walk into public places. You convince them that any violent act they see fit to commit is fully justified as an act of self-defense. And the best way to feel like you're a persecuted minority when you really aren't is by embracing religious piety. Ol' Adolf had convinced himself of this, when he wrote many religious justifications in Mein Kampf for his anti-Semitism, and the psychology was well understood by Hermann Goering, a much smarter and more cunning man than Hitler, who testified in Nuremberg, "Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." Goering was speaking in a general political sense there, but the principle applies to religious terror as well. Just replace "pacifists" with "unbelievers" or "unsaved," and "patriotism" with "piety" or "faith," and it's basically the same sentiment.

Joel's Army have what must be the biggest case of fatwa envy on the planet, and take my cynical little word for it: the only difference between them and al Qaeda is that Joel's Army simply haven't gotten around to the "killing people" part of their plans yet. They're hopeful, indeed, even eager, to see a sea change in public attitudes that will make that kind of activity in America receive the sort of overall public support that Qaeda's terrorism gets in much of the Islamic world. But that doesn't mean they'll wait around to commit acts of violence, any more than the Islamist terrorists have. Proud of their anti-intellectualism and lack of education and worldliness, the cretins of Joel's Army pray for the day God's armies swoop down across the United States, killing off all the fags and libruls and establishing a blessed Christian fascist theocracy to welcome the savior's second coming.

Sure, you might say that, with the vast majority even of Christian denominations contemptuous of the militarist fantasies of JA's "Kingdom Now" theology, and arrayed against them, that they're unlikely to gain any kind of majority foothold. But while they might hope for that kind of acceptance, disaffected loons don't exactly need a majority foothold to be violent. Indeed, the feeling of being further isolated and marginalized might prompt them to action sooner rather than later. And with the far right currently energized by the rise in popularity of Sarah Palin, a book-banning zealot of the fire-and-brimstone old school from a Dominionist church, who knows what kind of plans are fomenting in the brains of these loons, if it looks like even a shred of respectability is suddenly being accorded their views. (Not saying that Palin's fundamentalism, while too extreme to make her a safe bet in the White House, is as extreme as Joel's Army. But the link between her church and Dominionist teaching has been noted.)

So on the 7th anniversary of 9/11, it behooves us to remember that not only is the war on terror still not won, it will probably never be won as long as the primary ingredients of terrorism's recipe — a self-righteous sense of victimhood married to an implacable faith that God is behind you all the way — remain at full boil on the stove. And while we've been spending all our time these last seven years nurturing our fear of the Islamists, and wasted countless lives and resources trying to bring the war to them on their shores, over in America we've been cooking up our very own divinely inspired wannabe mass murderers, who have as much, if not more, contempt for the United States and its diversity and freedoms as al Qaeda ever had.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

World still here, so far

Well, the Large Hadron Collider has been switched on, and as far as I can tell, we haven't all been slurped into a black hole to Narnia or whatever alternate universe might await us at the end of one. It's an amazingly ambitious experiment, and one that will certainly reshape a lot of what we understand (or don't) about the early universe. I like Stephen Hawking's take on the whole thing. He's banking on that wonderful unpredictability you so often find in science. Hawking has bet £100 that, in fact, the LHC will not confirm the existence of the elusive Higgs boson, but will in fact lead us to discover things we may never have dreamed of. We'll see how it pans out, won't we? Unless I wake up tomorrow with a winged octopus perched on my nightstand singing Beatles tunes while feeding me breakfast in bed. I might get suspicious I was in another universe at that point.

We get email!

Here's a delightful missive from someone who assures us he's a "scientist"! I suspect he's more likely to be a typical example of the McCain/Palin — oh, I'm sorry, I meant Palin/McCain — cheerleading squad. His subject line was "How misleading your are" (spelled just like that, yes), and he goes on to say, without paragraph breaks (because those are for libruls and homos):

atheism is not new and is as old as religion itself believing in ones self then believing in god! i am a scientist not atheist.. I look at facts to back up my beliefs not speculations about if or not there is a god. I know there is billions of atoms and trillion to the 2nd power of DNA splattered through-out the universe and thing unexplained by science today! before you assume that there is no god or assume there is you must look at the evidence. and not at the winners of history's version of truth! just because they claim to be one thing doesn't mean they are that which they claim! atheist are the same you worry about about future and worry about today! as most humans do! I worry about my children and their future! but i look at the christian world and see a joy they have that no other set of people have! so i look at both sides no worries and a joy beyond measure.. or fear and self human interest! and death..to believe in something greater then ones self .. hmm but left to human temper the world is then ruled by fear hatred and death.. wars.. disease..famine..religion has bring out love and understanding..but for a few bad apples take Islam for example it claim all infidels should be killed!! but in christian belief accept jesus into your heart and be saved beyond your earthly years! This is just a look at what are atheist and their views..looks like no-one ever thought it through we don't have enough evidence to claim there is no god! or creation..but belief..and then you must stomp out the belief in love hope and faith if there is no god.. for all the idea of god is a starting point of creation..if big bang is correct then god is the impact of two asteroids..but why hasn't their been another big-bang??? all the time asteroids impact each other..and the universe keeps expanding into infinity! atheism is a belief just as satanism is..belief in ones self!

If you made it through that lunatic eruption of verbal diarrhea, it's possible you may have some questions. Such as, what exactly is this "joy...that no other set of people have" that he seems to think exists in the Christian world? I mean, sure, they all seem like they're having fun at their church services, especially in those Pentacostal madhouses where they all hold hands and chant "ooga booga wakalakamaka" all the time. But get them out in reality, and you see a group of people governed almost entirely by fear — fear of gays, fear of "liberals" (defined as anyone out there who thinks people should be nice to everyone whether they're white and Christian or not), fear of science and education, fear of us "militant" "new" atheists, fear of all the soul-corrupting anal-sex loving Jews in Hollywood (that one courtesy of our pal Bill Donohue). And rather than assuaging those fears through understanding and knowledge, they nurture and cherish them. Nothing is more important to the fundamentalist mind than fear, because fear allows them to believe they are the oppressed rather than the oppressors, and feeds their need for martyrdom.

Come to think of it, our correspondent may be right after all. Perhaps this sort of thing is a "joy" that no other group has. If so, good thing! It doesn't seem like an especially joyous sort of "joy" when you think about it. I'd rather get mine from good old reality. Say, by things like walking my dog on a beautiful day. Which I think I'll do right now.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Back in the saddle with some political observations

Yes, I've been a mite busy of late, which has precluded my blogging here as often as usual. But I see others of the team have stepped up admirably to take up the slack. Kazim's Objectivism post has generated either the third or fourth longest comments thread this blog has ever seen. Nice to see a good scrap going on in my absence.

Really not much to talk about, except some obvious notes about the 2008 campaign. I have nothing to say about Sarah Palin that hasn't been said. John Scalzi, in a very timely and brilliant post, has some pointed cautionary words for Dems and liberals that everyone needs to read and Digg like mad. Short version: focus, focus, focus, and stop playing into the fundie neocons' hands by losing your shit over the Palin media frenzy. And Phil Plait reminds us why supporters of science, something vital to our nation's very survival (yes, science is that thing, not religion) that has been in freefall for eight solid years, have a friend in Obama. These are the kinds of facts that need to be cutting through the media noise right now. Spread 'em far and wide.

As Scalzi points out, Palin was brought on board to placate the waffling fundagelicals, who were worried McCain wasn't Christofascist enough. And choosing her shows just how easily placated those people are by a shallow ideologue who can get away with telling lie after lie after lie as long as she toes the proper ideological lines. We ought to expect the GOP to play dirty pool, and they are. For my part, the fact that Palin is a creationist wackaloon of dubious character and political experience who attends a Dominionist church with ties to such disturbing, militarist fringe movements as Joel's Army was enough to disqualify her pretty much instantaneously. The GOP will, of course, portray her extremism in the conservative-friendly mainstream media as a feature, not a bug. The thing for sensible people to do is stay on message. Yes, I know that didn't exactly work out for Gore or Kerry. But it isn't over till it's over, and by being diligent and displaying the kind of integrity that the win-at-all-costs neocons can't be bothered with, two months is still plenty long enough to get the message out that the party that has spent the last eight years destroying America from within more thoroughly than Osama bin Laden ever dreamed of destroying it from without does not need to be rewarded for their evils with four more years of power.

Addendum: There are many things I don't like about Ariana Huffington and HuffPo, but this post of hers makes more excellent points about the distraction Sarah Palin has quite deliberately represented, and how the Dems cannot afford to fall into the GOP's trap here.

Her critics like to say that Palin hasn't accomplished anything. I disagree: in the space of ten days she's succeeded in distracting the entire country from the horrific Bush record — and McCain's complicity in it. My friends, that's accomplishment we can believe in.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Batman Begins, Gotham and Gomorrah: (Shows #556 & 562)

I have gotten repeated requests to provide some sort of summary on this two-part program. I’ve been slow to provide it, because, frankly, it’s a lot of material. But here goes:

This show was billed as “How Batman Begins is based on the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah.” However, it is fairer to say it shares many commonalities with the tale. I have nothing from the writers of this film indicating they intended a modern retelling of the tale—but a modern retelling of the tale it is, intentional or not.

Background on Sodom and Gomorrah:
The myth of Sodom’s and Gomorrah’s destruction is found in Genesis, chapters 18 and 19. It is a simple plot. God comes down to meet his loyal subject Abraham. God shares his plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He has heard reports that the cities are—well, actually I’m not sure what he’s heard specifically. What the cities are guilty of is never clearly revealed. Basically, He’s heard that they’ve been very, very naughty. And he plans to investigate the allegations, after which, he’ll know for sure if what he’s heard is true.

God never states that he has any intention of destroying the cities, but Abraham gets that impression, and Yahweh doesn’t dispute him. Abraham has a history of unquestioning obedience to Yahweh (look up “Abraham and Isaac”). But here, the same man who would have murdered his own son as a human sacrifice to God points out that god’s plan could be considered unjust. Abraham’s plea amounts to the idea that there must be good people in the city, and that god, righteous as he is, would never kill good people in his lust for vengeance against those who are, for whatever reason, judged to be wicked. Abraham, being for a moment almost a humanist, tries to reason with Yahweh to save the cities by appealing to His pride and reputation (it should stand out that he doesn’t attempt an appeal to Yahweh’s compassion), “Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked…Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

In what is perhaps the most famous aspect of the story, Abraham bargains with god to spare the cities for the sake the righteous. Yahweh says he will spare them if he can find 10 such people. Later, the cities are destroyed without any confirmation whatsoever in the story of how many “righteous people” were found. Actually, there’s no account of any attempt at investigation on Yahweh’s part to try to determine the number of “righteous people” in the cities. We go straight from the scene where God tells Abraham he’ll spare the city for 10 righteous people, to a new scene where two angels (who had accompanied Yahweh during his visit to Abraham’s) are imploring Lot and his family to leave the doomed locales. Lot is Abraham’s nephew, who lives in the area. So, without any recorded tally of righteous people, the cities are marked for destruction.

If I assume, as most Christians do, there were less than 10 righteous people in the cities, it still appears that, like the myth of The Flood, children don’t count. There is no indication in the myth that any children were spared, pitied, or even considered for the briefest moment.

We're left to guess what the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah might have been and to guess how many righteous people Yahweh was ultimately willing to destroy for the sake of vengeance. But that’s the tale in a nutshell.

The Characters of the Bible Story:
Yahweh (and his angels): Powerful, supernatural being bent on the vengeful destruction of the cities after judging them wicked beyond salvation. Spiritual “father” to Abraham.

Abraham: Loyal follower of Yahweh who tries to intervene to save the cities for the sake of the righteous.

Lot: Abraham’s nephew who lives in the area.

The Wicked: They make a brief appearance as a mob who mean to inflict harm on Lot’s angel guests.

The Righteous: Never make an appearance. In some sense Lot and some of his family may be part of this group.

The Storyteller: The Hebrew adherent who puts forward the story and creates the other characters in conjunction with the spiritual beliefs of the religious institution of which he is a part.

The Characters of the Film:
Batman Begins has pretty much the same roster.

Ra’s al Ghul: Leader of a powerful organization (that shrouds itself in the trappings of supernatural power) bent on the destruction of the city of Gotham. According to Ra’s, “Gotham's time has come…the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die.” He claims the right of judge, jury and executioner. Ra’s is not portrayed as a compassionate humanist. He admits to Bruce openly that he is motivated by “vengeance.” Another clear parallel with Yahweh of the Bible.

It is important to note that while I initially identified Ra’s as correlating to “god” in the story, he actually appears to be the equivalent of the religious leader, who creates the character of god in order to empower his will and justify his actions. If we take the Bible story as fact, then Ra’s is playing the role of god—but the correlation then fails immediately, as Ra’s is not really supernatural, but only a very powerful man who feigns supernatural ability and immortality.

To the Christian viewer, Ra’s would be an imposter god, and, therefore, unjustified in his actions toward Gotham. This would produce a disconnect that would allow a Christian to accept the message of the film as not being critical of his god’s actions in Sodom. In other words, god acted rightly toward Sodom and Gommorah for no other reason than he is god. Ra’s, being a mere mortal, would not be justified in judging or meting out justice upon Gotham in the same way.

If, however, we take the story as a product of Hebrew religious myth from the point of view of a religious storyteller, then Ra’s (with his League of Shadows) correlates to a religious leader (and institution) who produces god to further his own goals. And, in that case the character of god would actually be completely lacking in the film—just as he is lacking in observable existence. All we have of god, then, in the film, are men who use the god concept (specifically the fear of it injected into others) to empower their own actions. So, we have a choice to go with an interpretation that fails to correlate with the Sodom story's main character (god to man)—or one that successfully correlates (man-made symbol to man-made symbol), but only from an atheistic perspective.

Bruce Wayne: Correlates to Abraham—loyal follower of Ra’s who desires to support the will of Ra’s, until he begins to question the justice and benevolence of Ra’s’ actions and goals. In fact, even the famous Biblical bargaining scene is repeated in the film, as Bruce tries to reason with Ra’s that the city should be spared for the sake of the righteous. The culmination of the exchange is Bruce’s statement to Ra’s that, “Gotham isn't beyond saving. Give me more time. There are good people here.” It is important to note here as well that Ra’s was ultimately responsible for Thomas Wayne’s death, after which he hand selected Bruce in a “lost” state and mentored him—becoming the father that was lost. Just as Yahweh is a surrogate father-god to Abraham.

Like Abraham, Bruce is not only interested in the welfare of the generic “righteous people,” but also those close to him (Lot and his family). The most celebrated righteous man in Gotham is no longer living. Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, appears to be in a blood line of righteous men. His virtues in helping people in the city of Gotham are repeated throughout the film, and even Thomas’ own ancestors are incorporated as good men. Alfred informs Bruce that his “great-great-grandfather was involved in the Underground Railroad, secretly transporting freed slaves to the North.” The Wayne family is a righteous family from a humanitarian perspective.

Humanitarian goals, however, appear to conflict with the vengeance of Ra’s. In talking about his plans to destroy Gotham, he admits to Bruce, “Over the ages our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham we tried a new one. Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham's citizens—such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself, and Gotham has limped on ever since. We are back to finish the job. And this time no misguided idealists will get in the way.”

Alfred and Rachael: Correlate to Lot and his family—those for whom Bruce cares. In general the generic Righteous People are also represented, and we even have an appeal to the idea of considering children among the victims—something sorely lacking in most Biblical destruction myths. There is a repeating character of a small boy who puts in a few cameos throughout the film.

There are other characters that bring hard realism into the film, which is one of the superior features of this film over the past Batman films. Gordon represents the struggle of man within corrupt social infrastructure—similar to Rachael’s character in many ways. His Quixote-style struggle to benefit society while constrained within the layers of a thoroughly corrupt social system is a flagrant anti-vigilante statement. We feel his frustration to the point of wondering at times why he even bothers to continue in his role as an officer of the law. But he still holds out hope—dwindling as it may be—that if a good system isn’t working, right action doesn’t include blowing up a building or killing people. He works as far as he is able, within the system, to correct what is broken and make it function successfully again. But he, alone, or at least disenfranchised from others of the same mind, can have little to no impact. (That is my one plug for the OUT movement.) This is quite contrary to Ra’s’ philosophy, “If someone stands in the way of true justice...you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.”

Fox: Science and technology are represented as being on the side of reason and humanism. Fox is the sci-tech guru, and the film’s icon of calm reason. His character, immersed in science and reason, actually produces the antidote to “fear”—Ra’s’ weapon of choice, produced in mass quantities by his brilliant, but diabolical subordinate, Crane. If Fox is the epitome of calm reason, his opposite, Crane, is no less the epitome of calm insanity.

Crane: Supplies mass fear, in the form of a neurotoxin derived from a blue flower, that shrouds and empowers Ra’s. And like any faithful adherent to a religious leader or institution, he operates in his own self-interest—Ra’s’ promise of reward. Ra’s explains to Bruce, “He thought our plan was to hold the city to ransom.” Also, during a discussion with Falcone, Crane makes a statement that is reminiscent of the religious adherent proselytizing or the Old Testament prophet, “I am more than aware that you are not intimidated by me, Mr. Falcone. But you know who I'm working for, and when he gets here...”

It is clearly then a struggle between a group of a humanist mindset and a group using fear and deception (of a false supernature) in order to gain power and wreak indiscriminate vengeance upon a population Ra’s has judged unfit to go on living.

The quotes supporting the use of supernature and fear as weapons against the masses are so thick it’s hard to cull them. But, below, I supply a batch as examples.

On Supernature and Deception (being more than a man in the minds of others):
Ra’s/Ducard: Theatricality and deception are powerful agents. You must become more than just a man in the mind of your opponent.

Ironically, this sentiment is echoed later by Bruce himself as he works out his Batman persona, “Theatricality and deception...are powerful weapons, Alfred.”

Ra’s/Ducard: You know how to disappear. We can teach you to become truly invisible…The ninja understands that invisibility is a matter of patience and agility.

Ra’s/Ducard: …if you make yourself more than just a man—if you devote yourself to an ideal…then you become something else entirely…Legend…

Bruce: People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy. I can't do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I'm flesh and blood, I can be ignored, destroyed. But as a symbol—as a symbol, I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting…Something elemental, something terrifying.

Finally, in a conversation between Ra’s and Bruce, humanism and reason stand up to supernatural claims to call them out for what they are:

Ra’s/Ducard: But is Ra's al Ghul immortal? Are his methods supernatural?

Bruce: Or cheap parlor tricks to conceal your true identity, Ra's?

Not to beat a dead horse, but in claiming the film puts forward a statement about religion, showing the repeated messages to this effect is necessary. In Batman Begins, it is not necessary to search with a fine-toothed comb for clues. It hammers us over the head with blatant and repeated messages throughout. Using the Sodom theme as our guide to the characters, Bruce is little more than a mouthpiece, stating outright that god is a cheap parlor trick—a mask—to conceal the real power of religious authority.

It’s no coincidence that masks play such an overwhelming role in this film. Ra’s hides behind a supernatural façade, but he is none other than Ducard. Crane plays the Scarecrow. And in a confusing string of masks, Bruce hides behind Batman, who hides behind Bruce. The “Bruce” we see dating models and buying expensive things is a front for Batman who is a front for the “real” Bruce. As Rachael points out near the end (talking about Bruce’s face), “This is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear.” This is interesting because of all the “masks”—Batman appears to be the only one that was “real.”

But clearly Ra’s, the deception of the supernatural “more than a man” mask (god), is used as a front to provide the League of Shadows (religious institutions) with unquestioned power. Unquestioned in the sense that so long as everyone is paid off (with Heaven) or scared (of Hell or social condemnation), nobody dares to question what’s in Falcone’s crates—to use another metaphor from the movie we’ll get to in a bit.

When Bruce stands up to Ra’s, we see humanism and reason confronting superstition, vengeance and fear in a struggle for the population, “I'll be standing where I belong. Between you and the people of Gotham.”

In another response by Bruce, we hear him say, “This is just the beginning. If they hit the whole city [with Crane’s fear-inducing neurotoxin], there's nothing to stop Gotham tearing itself apart.” In other words, if everyone is infected with fear, there will be no reasonable perspective left to restore order.

On Fear:
Ra’s/Ducard: ...men fear most what they cannot see. You have to become a terrible thought. A wraith. You have to become an idea!

Ra’s/Ducard: Feel terror cloud your senses. Feel its power to distort—to control. And know that this power can be yours.

Ra’s/Ducard: To manipulate the fears in others...you must first master your own.

Rachel gives a potent speech on the paralyzing effect of fear: “As long as he [Falcone] keeps the bad people rich and the good people scared, no one will touch him. Good people like your [Bruce’s] parents, who'll stand against injustice, they're gone. What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?”

Falcone sums up his take on fear with this, “…you always fear what you don't understand.”

Crane illustrates how, rather than paralyzing, fear can also motivate dangerous reactions, “Patients suffering delusional episodes often focus their paranoia—on an external tormentor…” Who could forget the images of 9-11? How long have gays been persecuted in our own society? What was it like a few hundred years ago to be an apostate or a heretic? Irrational and paranoid fear is nearly all that is needed to motivate one group to unfairly, and with real animosity, unleash upon another. As Thomas Wayne explained to Bruce about the bats, “You know why they attacked you, don't you? They were afraid of you.” He also, reasonably notes that those who would use fear against others must understand fear themselves—that is, be subject to the effects of fear, “All creatures feel fear…especially the scary ones.”

On Compassion:
When Ra’s begins his attack on Gotham, he nonchalantly informs Bruce, “Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a city to destroy.”

Ra’s take on compassion clashes noticeably with all of the characters of Reason in the film. Finch, Rachael’s boss, small part that he plays, even understands that addressing wrongdoing should not include disregard for the well being of those who are not to blame. When the investigation threatens to put Rachael in harm’s way, Finch makes it clear, “…as much as I care about getting Falcone, I care more about you.”

In a telling exchange between Ra’s and Bruce, we see the conflict between vengeance and compassion hightlighted:

Ra’s/Ducard: Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.

Bruce: That's why it's so important. It separates us from them.

On Justice vs. Vengeance:
No character in the film disputes the corruption levels of Gotham. The question is only one of how to address the problem in the most appropriate way—through blind vengeance or through reasoned justice combined with compassion? Although this is clearly addressed several times in the dialogue, perhaps the clearest expression is between Bruce and Rachael:

Rachel: You're not talking about justice. You're talking about revenge.

Bruce: Sometimes, they're the same.

Rachel: No, they're never the same. Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better. It's why we have an impartial system.

Later, Bruce recognizes Rachael’s point, “I was a coward with a gun, and justice is about more than revenge.”

Religious Language and Symbolism:
Other religious language in the film is not to be overlooked, quotes like these pepper the exchanges:

Ra’s/Ducard: When I found you in that jail, you were lost. But I believed in you. I took away your fear, and I showed you a path. You were my greatest student. It should be you standing by my side, saving the world.

Ra’s, posing as Ducard: Ra's al Ghul rescued us from the darkest corners of our own hearts.

In contrast to the religious ideology of salvation via an external source, Thomas Wayne’s statement, often repeated in the script, is supportive of self-reliance and stands in stark contrast, “why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Thomas’ other mantra is this: “Don't be afraid.”

Alfred also asserts self-reliance and the idea that we make our own destinies: “I wouldn't presume to tell you what to do with your past, sir. Just know that there are those of us who care about what you do with your future.”

Rachael has something to add to the discussion on self-reliance as well, “it's not who you are underneath...it's what you do that defines you.”

Even the murderer Joe Chill chimes in with a statement about responsibility for one’s actions, “Sure, I was desperate, like a lot of people back then...but that don't change what I did.”

Other lines filtered through religion-colored lenses include:

Bruce: You're not the devil. You're practice.

Or more on lost states and salvation:

Ra’s/Ducard: …whatever your original intentions...you have become truly lost.

Bruce: And what path can Ra's al Ghul offer?

Ra’s/Ducard: The path of a man who shares his hatred of evil...and wishes to serve true justice.

There are even a few lines that may strike chords with aficionados of Bible trivia:

When Batman is interrogating Flass, Flass shouts out, “I don’t know! I swear to god!” Batman replies, “Swear to ME!” If this sounds familiar, it should. Hebrews 6:13 states that “When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself.” In light of this passage in Hebrews, asking Flass to swear to Batman, rather than to god, produces a usurpation of the god symbol. With Bruce’s prior statements about creating the Batman symbol, which will follow Ra’s lead of making him “more than a man,” we see him, as a symbol of humanistic compassion and reason, raised to a supreme and unchallenged status—even above god. The dialogue now goes beyond Ra’s as a metaphor for god, to the use of the actual symbol god.

Another cameo religious line comes in toward the end when Bruce tells Ra’s, “let these people go.” This is nearly verbatim of a very famous religious quote from Moses (speaking on behalf of Yahweh) to Pharoah—another situation where an oppressed population required emancipation, and here again, Batman speaks words of his own that are, in Biblical terms, words from a god. Extremely interesting here, too, one minor change in the line is the switch from “my” (showing ownership) to “these” (showing autonomy). Batman demands their release on humanistic authority, respecting the human autonomy of those in danger. His power and will to help them requires no submission or reciprocation on their part. This is a slight, but highly significant difference in the two statements—as Yahweh’s assistance is always provided at a cost.

Perhaps the most clear contrast is a statement that reflects Jesus’ divine identity in the New Testament that he is “The Word,” and, subsequently, the Christian’s claim that they are “spreading The Word.” Ducard explains exactly what “spreading The Word” is really about: “Time to spread the word. And the word is—panic.”

Another interesting use of religious symbolism is found in the “rare, blue flower.” Bruce is told to climb a mountain—but he must carry a “rare, blue flower” with him. Ra’s puts it thus, “If you can carry it to the top of the mountain—you may find what you were looking for in the first place.” A friend who actually mountain climbs pointed out that this was his favorite scene. He went on to explain that the use of the words “if you can” should be a red flag. Climbing the mountain, he pointed out, is the hardship. Carrying a flower with you represents no challenge. So why carry the flower? Simply to show loyalty and obedience to Ra’s’ will. A viewer wrote in to point out that this flower represents “faith,” and that appears to be dead-on. Meanwhile, it is no surprise later in the film to find that this flower, faith, is used to produce a neurotoxin that imparts fear to the entire population when spread by Ra’s (the religious leader) and Crane (his adherent).

Further religious symbolism strikes when we consider that fear is used more than once to rebuff inquiry. As Falcone so clearly explains, “Ignorance is bliss, my friend. Don't burden yourself with the secrets of scary people.” The writers illustrate his point when they have Finch try to investigate the contents of Falcone’s shipments at the docks. Finch is told by the guards, “Listen, counselor, we don't wanna know what's in Mr. Falcone's crate.” Do not question. Do have faith. Use fear where bribes fail. If push comes to shove, get violent. Finch does, in fact, end up dead for his inquiry.

What defense is there against the effects of fear? Oddly enough, Crane hands us the key, “only the mind can grant you power.”

Ra’s uses Crane to make the blue flower of faith convert to fear, where it is described, in the film, as an honest to goodness mind poison. When Rachael is injected with it, Crane says, “the mind can only take so much.” And Bruce points out later that “she needs the antidote before the damage is permanent.” Could the effects of fear and faith poison the mind so as never to be undone? I certainly hope that’s not the case.

And who should produce the antidote to this mind poisoning fear brought on by faith, but Fox, the icon of reason and science—real inquiry and information. Later, Batman instructs that the antidote (provided by reason) must be administered to the entire population.

Even to the last, the film is a promotion of a humanist perspective. Gordon says to Batman that he never said “thank you.” And Batman replies, “you’ll never have to.”

Reason, humanity and justice serve humanity and require no homage—no money, no bloodletting of animals or of humans, no pledge of loyalty, not even gratitude. They demand no fear. They fear no inquiry. They provide equal support to everyone to pursue happiness and fulfillment in their lives, and they demand nothing in return for what they offer and provide. Perhaps with more works like Batman Begins on the market, more people will begin to consider taking advantage of those offerings?