Friday, November 30, 2007

Our stupid nation: a jeremiad

Not surprising, perhaps, but still sad. I will never understand why people so eagerly embrace fantasy while flushing reality down the nearest commode as fast as they can. [jeremiad] The American Century is definitely over. In the 21st century, expect precious few great achievements from these shores. We'll be an intellectual third world country, as dependent on other countries for our scientific advancements and quality of life as we currently are for our oil. [/jeremiad]

Pope makes feeble, flailing attack on atheism

Pope Ratzo today issued an encyclical — a scholarly sounding term evidently used at the Vatican as a synonym for "overlong, ill-founded rant" — in which he purports to respond to the "new atheism" by drawing an oddly-reasoned equivalency between atheism and Marxism, and shoring up the theistic position with such empty, Hallmark-card platitudes as "Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope." To which the rationalist can only respond with, "Speak for yourself, you weak-willed superstitious infant."

Seriously, if the news release is anything to go by, Ratzo really does hinge a huge portion of his anti-atheist position on comparisons to Marxism, which appear to have little depth beyond "Marx was an atheist, so atheism = Marxism." Using that logic, one could argue that because Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian who painted bad landscapes (not to mention a Christian), that being a vegetarian or a bad landscape painter (not to mention a Christian) invariably leads to Naziism and white supremacist beliefs. It isn't exactly Mensa-level thinking.

Amusingly, a commenter over at has already noted that Ratzo, who belonged to the Hitler Youth as a child, goes out of his way to stick to Marxist comparisons while avoiding the Nazi comparisons being made by evolution deniers. But if, as the pope's defenders will doubtless claim, Ratzo's membership in that august boyscout club was compulsory and in no way reflects approval of Nazi ideologies, then why shouldn't Ratzo go ahead and own up to that and start throwing around Nazi straw men alongside his Marxist straw men? It wouldn't make his blatherings any lamer than they already are.

And it's a bit rich to have the pope attack atheism by saying things like "It is no accident that this idea [Marxism/atheism] has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice," given his own church's bloody history. Hell, right up to this decade, we've seen the Vatican responsible for the enabling and cover-up of the largest and most horrifying pedophilia scandal in the history of western civilization. And yet, without a shred of irony, Ratzo can drone on sanctimoniously with such dreck as "We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man's ethical formation, in man's inner growth, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world." Ah, blow it out your ass, gramps.

Sorry, Mr. Pope person, sir, but looking at the track record of your little cult, I really don't care how shiny and expensive your robes and pointy hat are, but you've got no moral authority to lecture anyone on anything. And as for your invisible sky fairy, I'll tell you the same thing I tell all of you lot. Prove it exists — hell, provide even a modicum of credible evidence it exists. But even if you do that, you've still got an uphill battle to convince me that without this being I have no hope, since the actual experience of my daily life tells me that goal-oriented rationalism and productive, positive humanism gives me hope to burn.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Teddy-bear teacher gets 15 days, then deportation

Well, at least they're not going to flog the skin off her back. I guess that's what passes for "progress" and "human rights" in the Islamic world.

TEA's science curriculum director forced to resign for promoting science

This is beyond appalling. Remember the talk given here in Austin by Barbara Forrest back at the beginning of the month? It turns out that creationist sympathizers in the Texas Education Agency (rapidly becoming a grossly misnamed entity) have forced the resignation of their science curriculum director, Chris Comer, for forwarding an email promoting that talk. It's as egregious an act of theocratic political retaliation as you're likely to see. The lead in this Statesman article is boggling in its implications.

The state's director of science curriculum has resigned after being accused of creating the appearance of bias against teaching intelligent design.

Think about this sentence for a minute. Let it sink in. Imagine, for a moment, if it had read: "The state's director of science curriculum has resigned after being accused of creating the appearance of bias against teaching that the earth is flat." Or what if it had read, "The state's director of history curriculum has resigned after being accused of creating the appearance of bias against teaching Holocaust denial." What if we actually lived in that world?

Newsflash: we do live in that world. America is gleefully abandoning everything that the Enlightenment stood for and racing backwards into the Middle Ages with open arms. I don't like to deal in slippery slope fallacies. But when one has to deal with Christianists and their political machinations, it hardly seems beyond the pale to think these are people who won't rest until absolutely everything modern science teaches us about the world that in any way appears to threaten their precious fantasies about their invisible sky fairy will be suppressed, its proponents driven out of jobs and positions of public influence. (No, I'll stop short of hysteria about Gulags, and leave that bit of paranoia to the fundamentalists and their little persecution complexes.)

No surprises about who ordered Comer fired. Lizzette Reynolds is a TEA member who used to work for — wait for it — the Bush administration.

"This is highly inappropriate," Reynolds said in an e-mail to Comer's supervisors. "I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities.

"This is something that the State Board, the Governor's Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports."

Yes, well, we all know how Bush and his boys are not exactly supporters of evidence-based facts, and indeed their whole policy of "if the facts don't support our agenda, just make some up" is entirely in keeping with the modus operandi of ID creationists. Reynolds is a chip off their little Orwellian block, isn't she?

I say we make a stink about this, and Comer's firing should be a major talking point when science textbooks come up for review again in early 2008.

Here is the letter to the editor that I just sent to the Statesman:

I am appalled to read of the political retaliation in the Texas Education Agency against Chris Comer for, in the article's words, "creating the appearance of bias against teaching intelligent design."

Imagine if the article had stated Comer had been forced out for "creating the appearance of bias against teaching the Earth is flat." Since when is the promotion of accurate science teaching a firing offense?

Religious extremists in the TEA don’t want students and citizens to know a simple fact that threatens their ideology: that "intelligent design" was laughably revealed to be the poorest pseudoscience in the 2005 Dover trial, and the so-called "controversy" over evolution exists only in the minds of the evolution opponents whose dishonesty and ignorance were laid bare in that trial.

Anti-science extremists in the religious right are playing politics with the education of Texas' kids. If facts get in the way, shoot the messenger!

Go to, and click on Opinion > Letters to write your own.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Two headlines

Via a friend living in Tennessee, these two stories showed up in the same paper on the same day.

Story number one:

Testing for STDs offends parents

Juvenile detention facility insists policy protects children's health

For some parents, the testing is the usurpation of their authority and obligation to make sound decisions concerning their children's health.

Story number two:

State's STD rate among highest

Tennessee in top 10 for cases of syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that the state ranks eighth for syphilis infections, ninth for chlamydia and 10th for gonorrhea. All three diseases are caused by sexually transmitted bacteria and can be treated with antibiotics.

They seem like they might be related somehow, but I can't quite put my finger on it...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Expelled trailer

Here we go, it's the first full length trailer for Expelled and now it appears to be an even bigger mountain of crap than it looked like before.

I am so looking forward to seeing this movie with fellow ACA members. I'm not kidding. I hope you folks will join me.

In just the first three minutes, Ben Stein once again reinforces the fact that ID is religion (what? what? I thought this was a scientific theory about an unnamed designer) and then implies that his opponents are Nazis.

I was also impressed with the total brazenness of the Richard Dawkins quote mine occurring at 5:45. Just watch. They clumsily splice between two different shots of him, making it appear as if two remarks are part of one thought, and then they cut off what he was saying in mid-sentence at the end. They seriously have no shame at all.

I think this is going to be the creation science museum all over again: half the money they make is going to come from atheists flocking to see it in groups. I have no qualms about giving Ben Stein my $8; you can't buy a better advertisement for how inane ID is.

The trailer implies that you'll get in trouble with the vast atheistic conspiracy if you watch this movie. As a member of said conspiracy, I'm encouraging people to see it. This may be as good as Jesus Camp.

If you need a refresher, I first talked about Expelled in episode 522 of the AE TV show. That discussion starts at about 5:45.

What the hell is wrong with Muslims anyway?

No religion in the world seems to lend itself to organized mob psychopathy more than the "religion of peace." When they aren't flogging women for being impure enough to allow themselves to be gang-raped, they're doing even crazier shit. The latest tempest in a teapot has erupted over a British schoolteacher in the Sudan letting her students name a teddy bear Mohammed. I was under the impression that, in addition to being Islam's "prophet," Mohammed was a fairly common Arab name. When I lived in Dubai, at least two of our houseboys were named Mohammed. So why this should be a big deal is a mystery to those of us with rationally functioning brains. But it appears a lot of Sudanese Muslims don't possess those. For her "crime" of "blasphemy," 54-year-old Gillian Gibbons in currently in jail facing a possible punishment of six months behind bars or even a public lashing. It gets even more insane.

"We tried to reason with them but we felt they were coming under strong pressure from Islamic courts," said [school director Robert] Boulus. "There were men with big beards asking where she was and saying they wanted to kill her."

Kill her. Over a fucking teddy bear!? What the fuck is wrong with these maniacs? They're quite simply mentally ill — there's no other word for it. And you can't reason with people whose brains have been short-circuited by a religious scourge as omnidestructive as Islamic extremism. I'm starting to wonder if Hitchens has got the right idea about these people. And I speak as someone who's lived in the Middle East, and knew many moderate Muslims and Arabs back in the day when America had no greater friends in the world. Moderate Muslims are among the finest people I've ever met. But the sanity gulf between Islam's moderates and their radicals is so much wider than that you find in any other religion, that I'm wondering if the only way to pacify these people is just to make them stop breathing before they do it to you (which they'll do if they can, rest assured). But then, as we're seeing now in Iraq, follow that course and you just end up radicalizing more and more of them. There's just no easy way to deal with such faith-based barbarism, especially that which takes such excessively violent forms as Islam.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

And another morally superior Christian goes down in disgrace...

Okay okay, the snark in the headline may have been overkill, since I do believe the whole discussion with Rhology about the presumed necessity of theism as a prerequisite for morality has reached its end. But it never ceases to fascinate me, that the people in our society who most frequently suffer humiliation and public disgrace are those whose public reputation for devout religiosity is most prominent.

Richard Roberts, whose every command God is reported to have told at least one ORU regent to obey without question, has resigned effective immediately from ORU's presidency. The whole Roberts clan were exposed as having misappropriated university money for their own private use, living lavishly on the backs of their student body and faculty. Sleazy is as sleazy does. That a fundamentalist "university" has been exposed as just another money-making scam by those who subscribe to the "prosperity gospel" is, I suppose, not surprising. But it is depressing that, in the 21st century, religion still continues to hold human culture back from true enlightenment and progress, enabling venality and selfish excess under the justification that if you're Godly, you're forgiven already through Jesus' "sacrifice" — so live it up!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New study shows right/wrong distinctions in infants

Apropos to the current round of discussions we've been having with Rhology, news has appeared today announcing the result of a new study suggesting that even 6 month old babies can distinguish fundamental differences between good and bad social behaviors, and choose all by their little selves the better option.

Babies as young as 6 to 10 months old showed crucial social judging skills before they could talk, according to a study by researchers at Yale University's Infant Cognition Center published in Thursday's journal Nature.

The infants watched a googly eyed wooden toy trying to climb roller-coaster hills and then another googly eyed toy come by and either help it over the mountain or push it backward. They then were presented with the toys to see which they would play with.

Nearly every baby picked the helpful toy over the bad one.

The babies also chose neutral toys -- ones that didn't help or hinder -- over the naughty ones. And the babies chose the helping toys over the neutral ones...

The choice of nice over naughty follows a school of thought that humans have some innate social abilities, not just those learned from their parents.

"We know that they're very, very social beings from very, very early on," Hamlin said.

A study last year out of Germany showed that babies as young as 18 months old overwhelmingly helped out when they could, such as by picking up toys that researchers dropped.

There is an obligatory quote from a psychologist who isn't convinced of the "innate ability" part, insisting these behaviors were learned. But it seems he's not recognizing that all these babies observed were the actions of the toys themselves, which toys "helped" one another and which "fought" each other. They were not then told by the researchers which to choose to play with. On their own, they overwhelmingly chose the "good" toy over the "bad" one.

He does make a good point about the social experience babies have in their first six months of life, and how this likely plays a role. But this experience would be limited exclusively to family, where the baby will naturally be getting cared for in most cases. But often, even at that age, there can be bullying and sibling rivalry in multi-child households. I can think of one good control for a future study to test how much the babies' choices are innate, but it would be difficult to pull off. Find some 6-month-olds taken from homes where neglect, if not outright abuse, was the norm, and see if they choose the "meaner" toy.

While nothing in science ever rests on one study, and there is more research clearly to be done here, I think what this study can be confidently said to establish is that it wasn't necessary to hammer these babies with a fusillade of Christian moral indoctrination about their innate "depravity," and nasty threats of eternal hellfire and damnation, in order to persuade them to choose nice over naughty. Sure, they're not old enough to understand such indoctrination in the first place, but that's the whole point: even at this young an age, very fundamental notions of beneficial social behaviors appear to be entirely comprehensible. And the babies didn't even need parental authority — the real-world analogue to Christianity's reward-or-punishment-based morality paradigm — to distinguish good from bad behavior. We're a social species, and it's human nature to want to get along. Sadly, it's only as we grow older, and are exposed to whatever social, political, or religious ideologies appeal to us (or are forced on us), that we feel more inclined to divide ourselves and view our neighbors, our former playmates, with hate, fear, and suspicion.

Gasp! Maybe we aren't moral!


Apparently we scored this rating due to repeated mentions of the words "hell," "death," "sex," "crap," "shit," and "porn." That's it. No more discussing the Old Testament around here!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Warren Jeffs sentenced; must serve at least 10 years

Polygamist cult leader Warren Jeffs was sentenced today for being an accomplice to rape by running his "Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints" as a sex farm for himself and older male members, forcing teenage girls into marriages with cousins and other men often old enough to be their grandfathers. Good riddance.

Now, I wonder how our pal Rhology will assess this situation. I assert, based on "personal" and "societal preferences" (yes, that slurping sound you hear are my eyes rolling yet again), that was Jeffs did was morally wrong because it is harmful to force any unwilling person into sexual submission and/or a marriage that they don't want, and it's especially bad to further manipulate them into consent by scaring them that they might jeopardize their rumored "eternal salvation" if they resist, when what's really going on is that you have an oppressive theocratic society in which males dominate and subjugate the females and treat them like property. Freedom of choice, especially choices dealing with whom you marry and have sex with, should be left up to the individual. To remove that choice from a person simply because you wield power over them is abusive. I know these are not things I should ordinarily have to explain, but remember we're dealing with Rhology here. Basic human nature eludes him.

So, I invite Rhology to explain whether he approves or disapproves of what Jeffs did, based on his vaunted "objective morality" that he still has yet to define. I invite him especially to give better reasons than the ones I've listed, based on this "objective morality," as to why he think Jeffs was wrong for forcing underage girls into marriages, if indeed Rhology thinks he was.

Demerits for simply falling back on such unsupported presuppositions as "atheists don't have objective morality so they're in no position to condemn the acts of Christians." (Though I suspect Rhology doesn't consider Jeffs, leader of a splinter Mormon offshoot cult, to be Christian.) Remember, Rho, we've heard your premises over and over. We're still waiting for you to defend and explain them. And whether my reasons are just "personal" or "societal" preferences, are my conclusions about the morality of Jeffs' acts wrong? And if not, can we agree that your whole "objective morality vs. preferences" mantra is a big fat rhetorical red herring?

The inherent fallacies of Rhology's presuppositionalism

Matthew Hughes wrote a funny science fiction novel a few years ago, Black Brillion, which contains one the greatest lines of dialogue I've ever read: "You have only just begun to gauge the depth of your ignorance yet you use it as the foundation for a towering confidence."

In following Rhology's attempts to debate us on morality, one notes that the bulk of his argument rests on the stated assumption atheists have "no basis" to determine right from wrong. Naturally, any atheist reading that will immediately know that Rhology's full of crap. But why does Rhology feel so confident as to root his whole argument in such a bold and arrogant claim, and how does he think this claim will help support his conclusion that "the Christian worldview [is] a much more reasonable and fitting (not to mention existentially satisfying) alternative to the atheistic one"?

As the always interesting if long-winded Dawson Bethrick points out, presuppositional apologetics is rife with logical fallacies. And in this case, Rhology is taking a page from Greg Bahnsen's book and employing the argument from ignorance fallacy. When presuppositionalists state that atheists cannot account for morality or whatever, if they were honest, they would have to admit that they simply are not aware of what basis atheists employ to draw such conclusions. But presups like Rhology, rather than honestly admit to their simple lack of knowledge as to how atheists think, would rather declare as an axiom that atheists just cannot draw any conclusions on moral or other issues. Stated as a syllogism, what the presup wants to argue is this:

  1. If the atheist worldview cannot account for morality (or whatever), then the Christian worldview is true.
  2. The atheist worldview cannot account for morality.
  3. ...So the Christian worldview is true.

Where Rhology and his fellow presups fall on their faces is that they never present any evidence to support point 2. If any of them were actually able to state an example of any situation where the Christian, using only the Bible as his guide, was capable of accurately assessing the moral rightness or wrongness of the situation, and the atheist simply could not do so by using reason, then they might be on to something. But no presup ever does this, and I submit they cannot. On the occasions they actually confront atheists head-on with their declaration that we have no basis for right and wrong, as Rhology is balls-fully doing here, they are invariably shot down and given ample and detailed explanations of just how atheists do comprehend moral precepts. Yet they ignore or dismiss these explanations so as to hold on to what little argument they have — an argument which is propped up almost in its entirety by the ignorance fallacy, and which attempts to establish the truth of the Christian worldview and even the existence of God Himself based on the presumed inability of atheists to account for such things as right and wrong.

As long as presuppositionalists insist on rooting their arguments in premises that they not only haven't established as true, but which can easily shown to be false — like atheists' having "no basis" to account for whatever the presup wishes to claim validates Christianity — then their entire method of arguing will be undermined by fallacies from the get-go. In ignoring these fallacies, and by insisting on restating their flawed premises as axioms no matter how often they are corrected, the presuppositionalist is like a homeowner who thinks that brand-new wall-to-wall carpeting is sufficient to deny the fact that all of their flooring has been eaten away by termites.

Monday, November 19, 2007

And now, for an example of that superior Christian morality in action, we take you to ORU...

Okay, so we all remember the recent series of scandals that has rocked Oral Roberts University in recent weeks, do we not? You know, where Richard Roberts and his family are accused of all manner of financial improprieties, as well as such sleazy activity as having ORU staff do their daughter's homework for her? Well, I thought this would be an excellent example to put Rhology's claims (see previous post) that Christian morality has a bulletproof foundation in God's word, whereas atheist morality has no basis to distinguish right from wrong at all, to the test. What, exactly, was God's word to ORU regents while the Roberts clan was skimming the university piggy bank for all they could get? Well, according to Chairman George Pearson, God was evidently an accomodating kinda guy.

When George Pearsons accepted the position of chairman of the ORU regents in May, he said in an address to the board: "I am standing here today because the Lord clearly spoke to me and said, ‘Do whatever Richard Roberts asks you to do,'” according to a copy of the address.

Wow. Carte blanche to do whatever. What a sound system of morals that is! God says it, I do it, that settles it. So if Richard Roberts decided, oh, "Let's fly my daughter and a bunch of her friends to Florida on an expensive senior trip, and charge the whole thing to the university," then that's okay by God. And if we picky atheists raise our hands and say anything like, "Uh, hey, isn't that a little dishonest and unethical, and possibly also illegal?" ...Well, what do we know? All we live by are our "personal preferences," and why should anyone else have to follow those if they don't want to?

Heh. It's always fun to have some pompous Christian turn up proclaiming the moral superiority of all Christians based on an ancient holy book, only to have the wind taken out of his sails by the mendacious and disreputable behavior of some of the most prominent Christians in our culture.

It's clear that in the real world, the only people rooting their moral behaviors in their "personal preferences" are the ones shouting their Christianity from the rooftops. They just tell themselves that anything they do is all pre-approved by God, and alakazam, wrong is right, war is peace, and freedom is slavery. And it's not like God can come down and correct them when he only exists in their minds, created in their own image. Christianity's "morality" is like getting a Visa card with no spending limit, and someone else paying the bills every month, so that you never have to learn to be responsible on your own.

Rhology and Christianity's misanthropic "morality"

A Christian blogger calling himself Rhology has discovered us, and is currently posting like mad in this comment thread with the usual run of "no morality without a God" canards. It's interesting to read, mainly for the way in which Rhology argues, which involves telling us what we think (mainly, that we don't believe in right and wrong), and just stating his assumptions, responding to challenges to those assumptions mostly by restating them. He demands we explain in detail what our basis is for deciding whether a situation is morally right or wrong, but does not himself provide a similarly detailed explanation for the basis he uses. It is sufficient for him to say, in essence, God lays down the law, it's all in the Bible, and that's all I need.

In repeatedly asserting the superiority of his "worldview," he never actually gives an example of any circumstance where theistic morality would present a person with the ability to more accurately assess the right or wrong of a situation than a reason-based, secular morality. Is there any example Rhology can give where a Christian, using only the Bible as his moral guide, could more reliably decide when a situation is good or evil than an atheist could just by rationally assessing the situation using his poor, imperfect brain? I'd love to hear it.

Rhology's vaunted "worldview" is chock full of deeply misanthropic presuppositions. Human beings are entirely evil and depraved, for one, with nary of hint of innate goodness. There is no difference in Rhology's mind between being good and being perfect. One cannot be good at all unless one is perfect. Therefore, no one can be good, and we all need God. It's a rather jaw dropping assertion, to be sure, and one that flies in the face of what anyone who actually, you know, interacts with people in the real world knows.

But it's a necessary premise for Rhology's arguments, because without that deep-seated misanthropic basis for his "worldview," he would have to entertain the notion that maybe people can think for themselves, and reach a consensus morality sufficient for the success of our species and our society on our own. (In Aristotle's words, that virtue arises from the proper application of reason.) If people can decide amongst themselves what's right or wrong, then God looks less necessary. And Rhology cannot countenance that. So human reason must be denigrated at all costs. Rhology does this by trying to deride reason-based morality as nothing more than one's "personal preferences," as if everyone on Earth lives in a vacuum and just makes this stuff up. He cannot comprehend that human moral precepts are based on our shared experience of living together as a social species, and learning through endless trial and error what works for us and what doesn't. There are things about human nature at a fundamental level that Rhology's Christian indoctrination has rendered him incapable of understanding.

So hop on over to the thread and have a read, and pitch in if you can find more flaws in Rhology's "worldview" than I and some other commenters already have. He's an interesting example of how a too-dogmatic adherence to Christianity's authoritarian teachings can cripple one's understanding of — let alone respect and empathy for — his fellow man.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Punishing the Victim

This is a sick, twisted world that clearly needs to change:

The 19-year-old victim was sentenced last year to 90 lashes for meeting with an unrelated male, a former friend from whom she was retrieving photographs. The seven rapists, who abducted the pair and raped both, received sentences ranging from 10 months to five years in prison.

The victim's attorney, Abdulrahman al-Lahim, contested the rapists' sentence, contending there is a fatwa, or edict under Islamic law, that considers such crimes Hiraba (sinful violent crime) and the punishment should be death.

"After a year, the preliminary court changed the punishment and made it two to nine years for the defendants," al-Lahim said of the new decision handed down Wednesday. "However, we were shocked that they also changed the victim's sentence to be six months in prison and 200 lashes."

The judges more than doubled the punishment for the victim because of "her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media," according to a source quoted by Arab News, an English-language Middle Eastern daily newspaper.

Judge Saad al-Muhanna from the Qatif General Court also barred al-Lahim from defending his client and revoked his law license, al-Lahim said. The attorney has been ordered to attend a disciplinary hearing at the Ministry of Justice next month.

So many things are wrong with this situation that one doesn't know where to begin fuming, or whether to end.

On the other hand, consider the implications of punishing victims with infinite torture in Hell. Think about it: the basic tenets of Christianity are infinitely worse than the barbaric actions described in the article.

This also needs to change.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Report on the Dan Barker talk

Tonight, the Atheist Longhorns campus group sponsored a talk by Dan Barker, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and author of Losing Faith in Faith and several children's books.

Turnout was excellent. The talk was held in a UT lecture hall with a capacity of 250. Somewhere between 75 and 100 people attended. The great majority of them seemed to be members of either the Atheist Longhorns or the Atheist Community of Austin, with a few Christians scattered around the room. Most of the jokes were met with appreciative laughs, and most of the stories told for shock value were met with audible outrage.

Dan introduced himself and the Center for Inquiry, then went on to discuss the religious climate in America today. Despite an upswing in fundamentalism since 2001, Dan stated that he was generally optimistic and believed that we were gaining ground over time. He stated that England and other European countries have "grown out of" their preoccupation with religion, and he believes that America will too.

Which is not to say that we shouldn't be concerned with the trends that we do see. Both Democrats and Repubiclans still seem to think they need to pander to the religious right all the time, so you won't see even a Democratic candidate fail to emphasize how important his or her faith in Jesus is. Still, Barker feels that the progress of secularists and progressives shows a clear upward trend over time. He made an analogy to the stock market: in the short term, the market may fluctuate wildly, as we just experienced a large short term rise in religiosity. In the long term, however, the zigs and zags surround an overall forward movement.

For instance, many decades ago, people like Margaret Sanger were jailed for supporting birth control. Today, birth control is so common that it is used by 90% of American Catholics, even when the pope said that it's a sin. He also claimed that the victory in cases such as Kitzmiller v. Dover has been so complete that even creationists know that fighting the case in overt, honest ways is pretty much closed to them now.

Dan then went on to discuss the history of separation of church and state, noting along the way that although those exact words to not appear in the constitution, neither does "separation of powers"; nor does the word "trinity" appear in the Bible. The concepts are the important part.

He discussed George Bush's faith-based initiatives. Essentially, according to Dan, there have been several examples of various organizations receiving government funding that didn't do anything but proselytize, and ultimately didn't even do what they claimed they were supposed to do (i.e., in the case of a group that purported to help former prisoners get jobs, their primary message was "read the Bible, trust Jesus, and then you'll get a job").

FFRF proceeded to sue some of these organizations, and win. In many cases, the state officials actually expressed gratitude over the outcome of these suits, noting that if FFRF hadn't stepped in, they wouldn't have even known that these abuses were occurring. Why is this? asks Dan. Shouldn't states be doing oversight themselves, instead of waiting for some atheists to come along with a lawsuit?

Dan claimed that Congress has never approved any faith based funding, which would be illegal if done through official channels. Instead, Bush has a certain amount of money budgeted for general appropriation, which he then used to set up an office of faith-based intiatives at the White House. What this office does is invite religious organizations to come and hear talks which encourage them to fill out some forms and get cash for their church programs.

FFRF tried to sue the executive branch for violation of the first amendment, but the first judge they spoke to denied the case, on the ground that FFRF had no standing. They then appealed the case to the 7th circuit court and won. But the government appealed the loss, petitioning the Supreme Court to overturn the second ruling.

This was about the time that Alito and Roberts were placed on the supreme court, which meant that the overall composition of the court was very different from its state when the lawsuit began. By a 5-4 ruling, they agreed that no one could sue the government unless they had standing as a citizen who has been harmed, and not merely a tax payer. Although this case was similar to the various suits that FFRF had been winning around the country, suddenly the landscape changed. Now they couldn't get these cases heard on their own merits anymore; everyone was throwing up roadblocks by bringing up the issue of whether they had standing. This brought us up to the present day.

At around 7:45 Dan started fielding questions. Don Baker asked how they raised enough money for all these court challenges, and Dan said that they have a legal fund that people donate to. Also, some lawyers are more than willing to work for free if it means they might get to argue a high profile case before the Supreme Court.

I asked Dan how he and Annie managed to land a gig with Air America Radio, and the answer was: lots of money. Originally they started advertising on AAR, and later they paid more up front to get a national show.

Several people in the back row asked very similar questions about the lawsuits that FFRF had brought. I suspect that they were all part of a Christian group, and the questions may have been planned, but they weren't all that effective IMO. One asked: If these faith-based organizations receiving money had represented several different religions instead of just one, and if their work had proven effective, would FFRF still oppose them? The other two more or less repeated portions of the same question. In all responses, Dan said that 1. It was in fact mostly Christians that were courted by the office; 2. It wouldn't matter if other religions were involved; 3. It wouldn't matter if they did good things with the money, since the issue is government money going to religious programs. Dan made this analogy: If a white supremacist group set up a soup kitchen, and it was clear that they were using it for propaganda purposes, it should be opposed even if it is a really good soup kitchen.

Another guy asked Dan to expand on his comments about Europe "growing out of religion" while America didn't, and expressed some pessimism about whether we have a lot more pain to go through before religious influence starts to recede. Dan reiterated his overall optimism, but did acknowledge that things could get much worse, especially if another catastrophic even such as 9/11 occurs. He also noted that in Europe, there is official state-sponsored religion, and so churches don't have to "hustle" for money, since they are already receiving it from government. Over here, religion is a competitive enterprise, so churches work hard to get more private money as much as possible. That's his explanation for why there's so much more religious influence here even though it's not supported by government.

Matt asked whether Dan opposes tax exemption for churches. Dan said: Yes, I think it shouldn't exist, but it's so entrenched that it's not a battle worth fighting for the time being. He did go on a semi-rant about how churches still use fire stations and police stations and roads, etc., but do not pay for them, which means that the rest of us must pay their share.

After the talk, the Texas Longhorns got a group picture taken with Dan. I introduced myself and had him sign one of his children's books ("Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong") for me and Ben.

I hung around to see some of the Christian students that were starting up various conversations. One group was very friendly, said they had seen our show, and that they agreed with Dan on most points about separation of church and state. That was a very positive conversation.

I also came across Matt arguing with a fairly aggressive Christian about the philosophical issues of "ultimate morality" and his notion that atheism requires purposelessness. This discussion got somewhat heated and ranged among topics like the Euthyphro dilemma, societal construction of laws (the apologist insisted that laws don't "exist", and threw out the usual claim that he'd be killing people if he didn't believe in God), and some of the nastiness in the Bible. It was hard for me to get a word in edgewise, as the apologist was very strident and had a tendency to talk louder when interrupted; and of course Matt was doing most of the talking on our end. I threw in a few points, but basically I considered the conversation pretty much ended when Matt got the apologist to state that stoning children to death USED TO BE morally correct.

However, that apparently wasn't the end of it; Matt continued the conversation for a while longer and I think is getting roped into an email discussion. I'll look forward to that.

Anyway, I enjoyed the evening. Dan Barker's a good speaker, and a good image of the "friendly neighborhood atheist," as he likes to say.

Studying faith leads to loss of faith -- twice

Recently, two, count 'em, two major religion writers have quit their job, and both for similar reasons. Namely, the more you learn about faith, the less faith you actually have.

Stephen Bates, now former religious affairs writer for the London Guardian, writes:

"Now I am moving on. It was time to go. What faith I had, I’ve lost, I am afraid – I’ve seen too much, too close. A young Methodist press officer once asked me earnestly whether I saw it as my job to spread the Good News of Jesus. No, I said, that’s the last thing I am here to do."

Meanwhile, William Lobdell, who describes himself formerly as "a serious Christian," similarly writes:

My soul, for lack of a better term, had lost faith long ago — probably around the time I stopped going to church. My brain, which had been in denial, had finally caught up.

Clearly, I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don't. It's not a choice. It can't be willed into existence. And there's no faking it if you're honest about the state of your soul.

No wonder religions claim that the ways of God are mysterious and inscrutable, and cannot be studied. It turns out that when people actually do study those ways, they have the unfortunate tendency to stop believing.

Welcome out of the fold, Stephen and William!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Digg it!

Hi folks. Please allow me to draw your attention to the "Digg this" link in the upper right corner of this post, and all others. If you have a Digg account, you can now conveniently submit recommendations to posts that you enjoyed, which increases our exposure and makes it possible for more atheists to enjoy this blog.

If you are a fan of this blog and you have a Digg account, we would greatly appreciate it if you would take a moment to skim through some of your recent favorite posts and recommend them. Thanks to everyone for your support!

Yes, the "War on Christmas" is BS, but this came out of the whole herd!

This, apparently, is actually happening.

Santas in Australia's largest city have been told not to use Father Christmas's traditional "ho ho ho" greeting because it may be offensive to women, it was reported Thursday.

Somebody shoot me now.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Liveblogging the PBS Dover trial special, hour 2

Continued from previous post...

8:02 - The Kitzmiller family is getting scary mail and, I assume, death threats. They now mention that eight of the nine school board members (!!!) resigned.

8:05 - Enter the villains! Eight members of the Discovery Institute are shown, all of whom originally wanted to testify. For unknown reasons, five dropped out. (Or not so unknown. See Martin's comment below for more information.)

8:06 - ACLU guy says "It was pretty clear that everything [for the defense side] rested on Michael Behe's testimony."

8:07 - Dramatization of Behe's testimony. That's definitely an actor. Now I am not so sure that's really Jones either. He's mugging too much. I think they're all actors.

8:08 - Flagellum bullshit, with Behe's favorite diagram. Now they show animations illustrating the flagellum up close.

8:14 - Now they're also showing a similar genetic thing to the flagellum, which does not spin but serves a completely different purpose. It is made up of many of the same components as a flagellum. This is a great illustration of adapting pieces that may have evolved for different reasons.

8:15 - Ken Miller picks apart the irreducible mousetrap analogy.

8:16 - This actor who plays Behe is pretty good. He's portraying exactly the right amount of smugness and condescension.

8:17 - Rothschild-actor enacts the amusing stunt of stacking up a pile of books which refute his claim that there are no publications about evolution of flagellum. Behe-actor sits there opening and shutting his mouth, fishlike. Okay, that's probably a bit over the top.

8:24 - Now Judge Jones (the real one) is talking about first amendment, establishment clause issues. We're getting into the "smoking gun" evidence that Pandas & People was once explicitly billed as a creationism book. Lots of shots of Eric Rothschild googling things with an intense look in his eye.

8:27 - Barbara Forrest uncovers the famous typo. One of the lawyers pronounces the words "cdesign proponentsists." Hilarity ensues, in my house anyway.

8:31 - ACLU guy gives Forrest major props as the hero of the trial. Then they re-enact the scene where Behe admits that his definition of "science" applies to astrology. They've now hit both of the high points of Behe's testimony, IMO. And, again with the fish-mouth. In my house, Paul says: "And the Discovery Institute didn't take him home and lynch him, after that performance?"

8:34 - A nice image of the wedge document. Then Barbara Forrest explains its significance. Then an announcer explains its significance some more, with close-ups on significant phrases. Phil Johnson bloviates on camera: "I know it SOUNDS conspiratorial and sinister. But it's really very simple. I just want to chop the theory of evolution into little pieces. And I'm just a humble lawyer, but surely SOMEBODY must know more than me and still support my position. The wide end of the wedge would be smart sciency sounding people like Michael Behe and, um... well, pretty much just Michael Behe." (That's a paraphrase, if it wasn't obvious.)

8:38 - Scenes of Buckingham replay on video footage, where the dumbass says "creationism" many many times, thereby completely tipping his hand about promoting religion. In the courtroom enactment, Buckingham pleads that he "just couldn't think of the words Intelligent Design at the time." This is, of course, contrary to how he was portrayed earlier, where he just wanted to stick in creationism and had never heard of ID before.

8:39 - Buckingham apparently lies under oath, saying he doesn't know where the money came from to buy the Pandas & People copies, or who donated them. Turns out he collected the money from his church personally. Then gave that money to a businessman. Who gave it to Buckingham's dad. Who bought the books. Asshat.

8:43 - Rothschild-actor gives a theatrical summation. Defense attorney-actor also gives quite a stirring summation himself, doing a passable imitation of Alan Shore as he makes an impassioned plea to think of the children and please just let them decide for themselves on the validity of Intelligent Design.

8:45 - Clip of Pat Robertson is shown, threatening Dover with the wrath of God for rejecting Him from their city. And here I am without any popcorn to throw.

8:46 - Fourteen minutes left, and they're just now getting to Judge Jones' lovely ruling on the case. But at least they have him reading it out loud. Actually that's not so great; he's kind of an awkward and slow reader. Soon an announcer takes over to explain the ruling instead of listening to Jones tell it. Speaking freestyle and not reading, Jones then expounds on the ruling and sounds much better. They replay highlights including showing the term "cdesign proponentsists" again.

8:49 - Bill Buckingham: "To put it bluntly, I think he's a jackass. I think he went to clown college instead of law school." He does not add: "And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for you meddling kids!"

8:50 - Other members of DI fall all over themselves to alternately bad-mouth Judge Jones and distance themselves from the rotten performance of their colleagues. Jones talks about receiving death threats.

8:52 - You know, Phillip Johnson really looks a lot like Skeletor on camera these days. "I'll get you next time, evolution! Next time!" No wait, that's Dr. Claw.

Final verdict on this show: It was not bad, but I wouldn't call it riveting television. For people who didn't follow the trial closely, it's a decent academic introduction to the events. For those of us who did, it's mostly a retread that didn't offer a lot of new stuff. The re-enactments were a bit distracting in their amateurishness. The interviews were the most interesting part, and I would have liked to see more of that. Plus, as I said before, much more creative computer animations.

Liveblogging the PBS Dover trial special

I've never tried something like this before. Martin asked me if I would post a review of the Nova Special, "Judgment Day," since he wouldn't get to watch it. So I thought I'd take some live notes during the show, either as an aid to or in place of this review. I'll update this post periodically throughout the two hour show. Paul Wilson is here, we're having a couple of beers and kibitzing. Feel free to join the comments, whether you're watching or not.

7:09 - Still on background material. They showed shots of the town, had clips from various people (Kenneth Miller, Phillip Johnson) on the conflict. Had some people talking about how they should teach that God did the creation. As usual, these people are blissfully aware that ID isn't really religion. (Wink wink.)

7:12 - clips of the Spencer Tracy classic "Inherit the Wind". Great movie, good artistic choice. Mentions that teaching creationism is today considered a violation of church /state separation.

7:14 - Dover school board member is whining that the textbook they were initially going to approve was "laced with Darwinism." OMG! It's like complaining that a physics book is laced with Newtonism.

7:15 - they talk about Darwin's finches, with background provided by Ken Miller.

7:18 - nice 3d animated rendering of a "tree of life." Well, actually kind of cheesy. :) Also, there's that awkward mixed metaphor of going UP the tree while talking about "descent."

7:20 - They show the mural drawn by a Dover HS student depicting evolution. It was thrown out and burned without asking anyone.

7:22 - Tammy Kitzmiller (bringer of the suit) makes an appearance, talking about the heated school board meetings.

7:24 - So it was the lawyer from the "Thomas More Law Center" who had the bright idea to bring "Intelligent Design" to Dover. Buckingham, the school board lackey, just wanted a book that had evolution AND creation. This lawyer advised him to try Pandas and People, and the rest is history.

7:27 - Buckingham is still trying to talk about Genesis, and is in fact frustrated by the failure of P&P to mention God. Oh goody, here's that blowhard, Phillip Johnson.

7:28 - Buckingham sees ID as "A good compromise" even though it's not religious-y enough. Science teachers come on one by one to say that the book is crap and they see right through it as creationism. Ultimately, the board rejects Pandas and approves the Miller textbook. But "an anonymous donor" generously supplies a crate full of P&P, and the same school board slips through a 6-3 mandate to use the "free" books. WTF? The three resign in protest.

7:31 - The lawsuit is introduced. The science teachers collectively agree as a unit that "we have standards, we're not reading this stupid disclaimer about alternative theories." This is clearly not a case of big bad government oppressing poor innocent teachers who want to teach the controversy; it's a bunch of school board creeps with an agenda trying to order teachers to read this disclaimer.

7:34 - Re-enactment of the Dover trial starts. This is a minimalist set with dim lighting I can't tell if this the real Rothschild talking to the real Judge Jones. They look like the real people, but I don't know them that well. Now the real Jones is being interviewed. Hey, did you know he was not only approved by Bush, but recommended by Rick Santorum? I guess they're establishing his "true conservative" cred before he tears ID to shreds.

7:39 - Fundamental questions of the trial: 1. Prove that the one minute statement is a promotion of religion. 2. Show that ID is not science.

7:41 - Here's that cheesy tree animation again. Paul makes the excellent point that for all the work they did on panning the camera, it's still a STATIC TREE. To be a really good analogy, they should show a tree that's actively sprouting in the animation, while elsewhere it would show branches falling off where species go extinct. Paul's right, I think that would be way cool.

7:49 - Alan Bosnell and other Dover school board members predictably make a horrible botch of the word "theory." The courtroom re-enactors correct the public understanding of the word. I think this is the real Judge Jones in the fake courtroom, but this guy playing Ken Miller is definitely not him. Not-Miller agrees with the ID lawyer that "evolution is tentative," but correctly adds that ALL science is tentative. Pretty well played.

7:52 - An excellent point made by the show: genetics provided a genuine test for evolution. It's not just an ad hoc theory. There were major missing pieces from Darwin's theory, and genetics filled them in. As Paul points out, it's an important counter to the idea that evolution makes no predictions: evolution predicted genetics.

7:58 - Yaaaaay Robert Pennock! (I am such a geeked out fan.)

8:00 - The plaintiffs rest, and the show fades to black. This seems like a good time for a page break. This commentary continues in the next post.

Some corrections to this week's TV show

This week when I did a show on pseudoscience, I was complaining about a reality show called "Phenomenon", featuring Uri Geller and Criss Angel as the judges. I mistakenly claimed that this show was about contestants trying to prove that they have psychic powers.

In addition to the person who called at the beginning of the show, numerous people have sent email to inform me that the show does not claim to promote the idea of real magic powers; they are judging people on their abilities as stage magicians. I regret the mistake, and it turns out that I was thinking of a different show: "America's Psychic Challenge" on Lifetime. Please direct your mockery towards this other show, and not Phenomenon.

In addition, I said I didn't have an opinion on Criss Angel as a magician, but I had heard him bad-mouthed by Penn Jillette. I used to listen to Penn's radio show, but it turns out I was wrong about that too. Searching for Penn and Criss Angel together, I found this audio clip of Penn doing a friendly interview with Criss on his own show.

I heard this interview, but I must have misremembered the characters in it. It turns out that Penn really likes Angel, and together they were badmouthing David Blaine, whom they both consider an untalented hack whose whole act is basically about selling himself. So, in Penn's opinion: Criss Angel smart smart smart, David Blaine dum dum dum.

Now I don't agree with Penn Jillette's opinions on everything, but I really dig him as a performer, a magician, and a loudmouthed skeptic. So if Penn likes Criss Angel as a magician then that's good enough for me. I guess you can watch Phenomenon now.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Cripes, why not sacrifice a @#!!* chicken?

Headlines that make me embarrassed to be an American: Georgia governor prays for rain amid drought. They're even going to do it on their capital steps. Oh the humiliation. Of course, if it rains at any time in the next three months, they'll squeal that their prayers were answered.

Makes us in Texas look not so unlucky to be stuck with Rick Perry.

Fundies splintering over GOP hopefuls

The Christian Right is all over the place when it comes to whom they want to support next year for the White House.

The latest news is that the anti-abortion group National Right to Life Committee has thrown their weight behind washed-up character actor Fred Thompson, despite the fact he's been trailing so far in the polls that he's this close to packing it in for sheer futility. None of the fundies are too fond of Rudy Giuliani, even though he's been courting them like mad, and has won over the clinically insane Pat Robertson. It's a tribute to Giuliani's cluelessness regarding these people that he can't see the pointlessness of asking them to look beyond his support for abortion rights while he tries to keep selling his image as the Savior of New York on 9/11. For one thing, even the wingnuts aren't dumb enough to buy that last pitch, and for another, asking a bunch of religious ideologues to overlook a position that happens to run contrary to their most preciously held beliefs (however hypocritical they might be — we all know the pro-lifers don't give a shit about unwanted children after they're out of the holy confines of the womb) is rank idiocy. You might as well ask them to embrace the "gay agenda."

Giuliani's nastiest slap came from Randall Terry, head of the infamous Operation Rescue. Sayeth Terry:

"In the eyes of the Angels, we may find that Hillary's pure evil is far less putrid and damnable than the hypocritical and seductive evil of Rudy's caliber. After all, Rudy has seduced one of the major leaders of the Religious Right. Even Hillary couldn’t pull that off."

Ouch. (Read Terry's whole rant for a fascinating exercise in "Christian love.") Of course, I think Hillary could get some mileage out of that one. To be called "pure evil" by a known domestic terrorist could win her a few points. Now if she could get Terry's spiritual cousins Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong Il to badmouth her as well, she'd probably shoot to the top of the polls in a heartbeat.

(Only it wouldn't happen that way. Bin Laden is smart enough to understand the fractured American political climate, and he's been loving what fools the Bush administration has been making of itself squandering lives, money, our last remaining military strength, and all our worldwide goodwill flailing around in Iraq. I expect bin Laden to congratulate Hillary fulsomely if she gets the DNC nomination, thus ensuring at last four more years of neocon blundering radicalizing the Islamists.)

What these reports reveal most sadly, I think, is America's most distressing truth: to succeed, not only in running for the presidency, but for any major political office, candidates must basically drop to their knees and fellate the most xenophobic, superstitious, dogmatic, bigoted, fearful and uneducated segment of the voting public. We may not be the theocracy that the likes of Roy Moore and James Dobson want just yet, but in a lot of ways, we might as well be.

Scalzi's Creation "Museum" field report

Popular blogger and science fiction writer John Scalzi has returned from his trip to Ken Scam's Creation "Museum" in Kentucky (the trip that he promised his readers in return for the $5000 they Paypalled in, which he donated to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State), and boy, does he have a report for you. Go read. Hilarious stuff. Here's the intro for the warm, nougat-y flavor of the thing:

First, imagine, if you will, a load of horseshit. And we’re not talking just your average load of horseshit; no, we’re talking colossal load of horsehit. An epic load of horseshit. The kind of load of horseshit that has accreted over decades and has developed its own sort of ecosystem, from the flyblown chunks at the perimeter, down into the heated and decomposing center, generating explosive levels of methane as bacteria feast merrily on vintage, liquified crap. This is a Herculean load of horseshit, friends, the likes of which has not been seen since the days of Augeas.

And you look at it and you say, “Wow, what a load of horseshit.”

It gets better.

"Those who know what's best for us...."

"...must rise and save us from ourselves." So sang Canadian prog-rockers Rush in their 1981 track "Witch Hunt". A quarter century later, the modern-day torch-bearing hysterics haven't gone away.

I'm a little behind-hand on this, as I took a week's blog break and don't regularly read the local Austin paper. So it wasn't until today that I saw the full-page ad that ran on page A14 of the November 9 issue of the Austin American-Statesman. In screamingly huge type it grabbed your attention with the button-mashing headline "The Most Despicable Crime Ever Committed Against America's Children"!

The Catholic pedophilia scandal, you might ask? No, it's all them evil liberals pushing violence and smut in our entertainment, poisoning, in the paranoiac words of Dr. Strangelove's General Jack D. Ripper, our precious bodily fluids. The ad is exactly the same kind of reactionary drivel I thought was a relic of the Reagan years. (And as you read on, you'll find that's exactly its provenance.) To take its claims at face value, you'd think America was a real life version of a Halo 3 deathmatch, with maddened gun-packin' teenagers running around wantonly blasting away at everyone and everything in sight (that is, when they aren't gang-raping each other silly). It's a lunatic Heironymous Bosch view of reality that, more than anything, reflects the utter, paralyzing fear under which religious conservatives live their lives. it just cynical manipulation run by dishonest, sleazy, exploitive hucksters to raise cash from those among the public susceptible to such easy manipulation?

The ad is a veritable smorgasbord of fallacies and irrationalism. It purports to offer evidence of the alleged brainwashing effects of violent and explicit media in sidebars with the header "The Truth". Whenever wingnuts use the word "truth," and especially when they capitalize it, just remember that immortal line from The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." The "Truth" presented here takes the form of sensationalist headlines. "Police say 13-year-old molested girl after seeing sex on TV." Egad. Well, what police? Where? Which 13-year-old? When? Oh, you want these claims backed up? Sorry. They don't do that here. None of these headlines is sourced, which one would think would be a bottom-rung criterion for credibility. It'd sure help persuade me to the cause if, say, "Judge says film influenced boy to kill 2-year-old" was followed by "Such-and-Such Gazette, Month, Day, Year." Otherwise, how do I know this is the truth? Oh, I see. It says so in the header.

The ad was placed by some outfit calling itself the Parents and Grandparents Alliance. There is no website URL printed in the ad, which immediately struck me as curious, especially in a day and age when everybody and his hamster and his hamster's mice has, at the very least, a fucking MySpace if not blog or full-on website. Quick Googlage revealed a webpage at, which is little more than an anemic version of the kind of hysteria featured in the newspaper ad. I say anemic because the ad actually featured denser content. But the format, particularly the use of unsourced alleged headlines as "evidence," is no different. The web page, however, does feature a photo of has-been fundie crooner Pat Boone. You know, for street cred.

To find out what the Parents and Grandparents Alliance actually is, I had to check out this page at Sourcewatch, which reveals it's an offshoot of Accuracy in Media, the right-wing media watchdog group run by Reed Irvine until his death in 2004. AIM began running these ads as far back as 2001 in the New York Times. Apparently it's taken them six years to climb down the newspaper food chain to the Austin American-Statesman. Accuracy in Media has been doing its thing since 1969.

Since Google is fun, I thought I'd do a little more digging. But first, it's interesting to note the difference in presentation between the website and AIM's own. The latter looks stately, journalistic and professional, while the former employs bright primary colors and blazing, 48-point headlines full of emotionally overwrought language. (Content-wise, they're equally full of shit.) And while says it's not a fund-raising ad, the newspaper ad itself most definitely is, with a clip-out donations coupon at the bottom extolling all the parents and grandparents they hope they've terrified to "send in the 'Outraged Citizens Petition'... You don't need to send in any money to have your Petition added to the number we report. But we beg you to help. These ads cost up to $20,000 and more each. This is a grass roots campaign."

Horseshit. It's an establishment campaign. AIM's corporate donors include Mobil Oil and Union Carbide, which no doubt reflects the organization's global warming denialism. Neocon gazillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife gave AIM $2 million over a 20 year period, until he was embarrassed by the right's failed attempt to concoct a bogus murder allegation against Bill Clinton in the case of Vince Foster's suicide (a situation in which Irvine and AIM were major players). AIM has been responsible for a number of other vicious and wholly false wingnut smears, such as vilifying Walter Cronkite as a "Soviet dupe," falsely accusing a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter of fabricating a story on a massacre in Kosovo (another source here), and getting another NYT reporter fired for reporting on the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador in 1981.

So far from being a "grass roots" anything, AIM and its bogus sockpuppets like the "Parents and Grandparents Alliance" are really tools of the entrenched neocon plutocracy. (Hey, how's that for agitprop language!?) Since violent and sexy entertainment continues to be released and continues to meet with public approval (this ad hit the Statesman the same week that American Gangster was the #1 movie, with $80 million in ticket sales so far), it seems to me that Irvine's successors at his "watchdog" group aren't really lying awake nights over the thousands upon thousands of imaginary children who are running rampant, raping and pillaging after an all-night World of Warcraft marathon. It's only when they need to get those donations rolling in, the ones they claim amount to 75% of their operating budget, that they sprinkle these fearmongering ads out among Bible Belt newspapers.

Thus it's on the meager, hard-earned paychecks of the great unwashed — cowering in terror over the thought of a meth-hopped, FPS-addicted sk8er off his ritalin crashing through their front doors to chainsaw them into hamburger in an orgy of liberal-media-feuled lust and carnage — that AIM can pay to libel and defame their ideological and political opponents in their own neocon-friendly press.

Now who are the outraged citizens?

(For another detailed AIM critique, go here.)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

This Tuesday: Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial

Yes, I know things have been quiet around here for several days, but rest assured I'm about to be doing a lot of catch-up blogging this week. But for starters, I wanted to alert everyone to this week's upcoming episode of PBS's venerable Nova, a two-hour special about the Dover trial entitled Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial. Barbara Forrest, who was in town at the beginning of the month, is among the experts prominently featured in it, and at least one review I've read assures us it will be a solid pro-science piece dealing in the facts and nothing but the facts, without the lame style of "he said, she said" reportage that masquerades as "fair and balanced" "journalism" in the post-Fox world. So check your listings.

And I have a favor to ask of our readers. I won't be in a position to watch it Tuesday night. So if anyone can TiVO it/tape it/burn it to DVD/post it to Google or YouTube, please let me know. I really can't wait to see it and I'm bummed I'll be nowhere near a television Tuesday night. Thanks in advance!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Barbara Forrest: the evolution of creationism

Barbara Forrest's talk last night was nothing short of brilliant, a wonderfully concise and entertaining summation not only of the Dover trial, but of the shenanigans and institutionalized dishonesty and sleaze of the whole creationist movement since it began to get really politically active in the 1980's. What stood out most to me was how she described the way the ID movement, having been dealt a decisive body blow in Dover, has, in quintessential Darwinian fashion, adapted to its circumstances and is now presenting a new face to the public. Now even a number of ID proponents and old fashioned creos are disdaining the term "Intelligent Design." Dan McLeroy, the creationist who was just appointed to head the Texas State Board of Education, has actually said in newspaper interviews that ID should not be taught in classrooms because it is not supported by a scientific consensus.

But...don't get too smug and complacent, Forrest warned. The ID movement is now talking in code. They're simply recycling old creationist buzzwords from the 80's and redressing them to reflect what we're all supposed to think is a more moderate, conciliatory, even pro-science stance. They talk about "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution; in the same interview, after distancing himself from ID, McLeroy criticizes current science textbooks for not presenting the "weaknesses" of evolutionary theory well enough. (Which, of course, means they don't talk about God enough.) They're chanting the mantra of "teach the controversy," a phrase designed to persude the scientifically illiterate general public that there must be some raging controversy within the sciences regarding evolution. Sure, there are controversies within biology regarding evolution. But the idea that evolution doesn't happen and has never happened in the first place ain't one of 'em.

So one can never let one's guard down around the creos. It behooves proponents of good science to remember that these are not people motivated by a sincere thirst for knowledge and desire to learn all they can about the world around them, all the while keeping to an "open-minded" attitude that the scientific mainstream, they say, doesn't share. No, these are religious ideologues who see science as a threat to their cherished beliefs. They fear science because, as creo-godfather Phillip Johnson has repeatedly claimed, if there's no invisible magic man in the sky ready to hand them eternal life and other shiny shinies as a reward for their godly virtue, then life itself can't have any meaning. You and I know that's rubbish. But it's a powerful set of psychological and emotional shackles with which to chain someone. And it's difficult to break those chains, especially when the chained individual doesn't realize they're chained and fears being freed.

Having read such enjoyable Dover accounts as Monkey Girl and 40 Days and 40 Nights, I'm now eagerly curling up with Forrest's Creationism's Trojan Horse! I think you should, too. To the creos I say, bring it! You're no longer fooling anyone but yourselves, and we're ready for whatever the latest set of lies you choose to trot out might be.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Friday in Austin: Barbara Forrest, Creationism's Trojan Horse

The fine folks at CFI-Austin are sponsoring a talk tomorrow night from 7-9 p.m. by Barbara Forrest, one of the authors of Creationism's Trojan Horse. Forrest has been active in the front lines of the ID wars, and she'll be talking about her participation in the Dover trial as well as giving an overview of the whole ID movement. Should be excellent! It all takes place at the Monarch Event Center, Suite 3100, 6406 North IH-35 in Austin. That's just north of 290/2222, on the west side of 35, in the shopping center where the World Gym is. Miss it not if supporting proper science education matters to you.

At the National Center for Science Education website, you can read this piece by Forrest about her role in Kitzmiller.

Letter from hell!

Over on GodTube, Pharyngula has pointed out this video of a letter by a kid in hell.

Yes, it's a dramatic reading of a fictional young unbeliever about to get tortured forever. As Martin likes to put it: "Torture porn."

You know, we frequently use the words "tortured forever" on the AE TV show. As in: "The central doctrine of Christianity is that you must freely worship God or else be tortured forever." Frequently, we are criticized by kinder, gentler Christians for being melodramatic. Silly atheist, they say -- nobody really believes in a god who tortures people forever. Hell is a metaphor. Read some C.S. Lewis.

No, actually I'm fairly certain that a great many mainstream Christians believe what's in the video. That when I die, I'm going to be missing from this "book of life" and then roughed up by angelic thugs who proceed to hurl me into a quite literal lake of fire -- in a world that's "crystal clear, even more real than my life on earth."

What I don't get is this. Based on the sound effects and the spooky fonts, this video is clearly intended to be disturbing, and it's targeted at Christians. But why should Christians be disturbed? Sure, maybe they should have done more to help their friend who is now in hell. But in the end, the friend was sent to hell because he deserved it. If he didn't deserve it, then God, being merciful and all-powerful, wouldn't have put him there. So shouldn't a True Christian™ be celebrating the torment that his friend is now experiencing?