Monday, December 31, 2007

And a happy new year to you all!

It will be a busy one, I know. For instance, in January, the Texas State Board of Education is slated to "review" science education standards, and we already know the creos are hard at work to undermine them. The pro-science community dealt with this handily back in 2003, and now we're going to have to deal with it again. Sigh. They never learn. Such is the power of myth over minds.

I'll be taking a blog break of about 5 days or so. See you soon.


Superdickery is a site with some of the most bizarre, offensive, propagandist, sexist, racist, innuendo-laden, or just plain hilarious comic book covers and panels from back in the day. Much of it will have you scratching your head in bewilderment, while some of the less worksafe stuff — like a whole plethora of the most unintentionally gay Batman panels imaginable — will simply have you delirious with laughter and must be seen to be believed. The one above, though, has got to be the most inexplicable piece of art damage I've ever encountered. So Hitler is apparently crucifying Jesus — so he can blame the Jews for it, I wonder? — when suddenly God, a surprisingly short fellow who favors baby blue dresses and flip flops, bursts into the room, rather the hard way of doing things for an omnipotent deity. Bonus WTF comedy points for Jesus himself crying, "I'm saved!"

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Is faux-intellectualism part of religion's appeal?

I've been thinking on this question in the last few days, in light of reading and responding to some comments made by a handful of inordinately ignorant creationists made here and on other blogs. We were visited here recently by a clod named Jon, whose gaseous and incoherent anti-evolution ramblings were annihilated with glorious eloquence by regular commenter Lui. Shalini, over at Scientia Natura, has been ruthlessly trolled by a commenter simply calling himself "creationist" who appears to be quite literally psychopathic, and over at Larry Moran's Sandwalk, a jaw-dropping fool calling himself "mats" has raised (lowered?) the human capacity for aggressive stupidity to the level of performance art. It's a phenomenon just breathtaking to behold, and it's a sobering realization that this kind of mental chaos is what science education in this country has to confront.

It would seem that, to a least a percentage of its followers, Christianity appeals because it provides them with a vehicle for intellectual poseurdom. Without anything in the way of scientific education or expertise behind them, creationists are unique among cranks in the perverse confidence with which they lash themselves to the mast of their stale and long-debunked claims. They'll confidently and even condescendingly inform experts with Ph.D's and 25 years of field work that there is no evidence at all to support what is probably the best-supported theory in all science. This goes beyond mere stupidity or even run-of-the-mill ideological denialism into a bold and deliberate repudiation of knowledge and even reality itself.

I've often thought that a large part of religion's appeal is directed towards the less intelligent or less educated, who have come to mistrust those more educated than themselves and who actually equate good education and intellect with "elitism." For them, Christianity provides the comforting illusion of intellectual superiority by selling the idea that knowledge is a thing received through revelation, and not something you actually have to work for, the results of which are always provisional and contingent upon such things as evidence. This rejection of learning is actually scripturally supported. Many Christians take to heart the wildly ranty final passages of Romans 1, in which anyone who pursues anything other than the "knowledge of God" is branded as "slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful...senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless" with a degree of overwrought hysteria calculated to make Ann Coulter's G-spot explode. (Of course, the Bible, being the Big Book of Multiple Choice and all, can usually be counted on to provide an oasis of common sense at times as well. A passage I often love lobbing at creos is Proverbs 12:1.)

There really is a profound chasm between science and religion that seems so obvious to me, I often wonder at how much guys like Stephen Jay Gould, whose efforts to make nice with religion resulted in his widely-mocked notion of "non-overlapping magisteria," are entertaining their own "god delusion." If you were asked, "Why do you trust science? Why do you think evolution is true?" you'd have to give the questioner books, stacks of books. Ask a Christian what they get out of being Christian, and you get sound bites, quick Hallmark-card taglines that radiate emotional comfort. Having dealt with truly ardent fundamentalists, I can say pretty confidently that a huge appeal of their beliefs is not only this emotional comfort, but the idea that one now knows what it's all about and doesn't have to look for answers in a big lonely universe anymore. Knowledge is hard work, but belief is easy. Religion claims to provide the answers to the Big Questions ordinarily attained through lifetimes of hard work, to people who don't particularly care if the answers are verifiable or even true as long as they provide the convincing illusion of both truth and purpose. The difference, I guess, between guys like me and the "Neville Chamberlain atheists" is that I'm not inclined to be sympathetic to the human weaknesses and emotional vulnerabilities that cause people to embrace the easy path to faux-knowledge over the often rocky and difficult path to intellectual honesty and integrity. Ironically, it's another bit of scripture, the oft-quoted 1 Corinthians 13:11, that best reflects my own rejection of superstition and my disdain for the continued intellectual posturing and rejection of learning coming from the creationist camp.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I imagine that when Isaac Asimov wrote, "Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived," he was thinking of passages like that. Religion's great crime against humanity isn't that it persuades grown adults who should know better to hold onto childish things. It's that, in Dawkins' words, it asks us to be satisfied with not knowing, and beyond that, to confuse belief with knowledge and allow believers to pretend to an unearned and false expertise concerning the facts of the world.

Huckabee's fundamentalist pandering: a rant

There's a rumor going around that America is the most advanced nation on Earth, in terms of human rights and scientific prowess at the very least. But in reality, the majority of this nation has greeted the prospect of returning to the dark ages with open arms. Atheists only ever usually see this in the comments creationists leave on science blogs, most of which (the comments, that is) are such a black hole of vacuous moronity coupled with unwonted arrogance and smugness that they must be seen to be believed.

But Americans' eagerness to flush the last 200 or so years of civilization down the commode can be seen in so many places, and most prominently in the fact that the front-runner for the GOP right now is Mike Huckabee, a hyper-fundamentalist nincompoop who proudly wears his sexism, homophobia and scientific illiteracy on his sleeve, and who puts his superstitions right at the forefront of his campaign as if they were his greatest virtue. That the benighted American public thinks the more idiotic religious atavism you practice, the more virtuous you really are, it's sadly predictable that Huckabee's lunacy is selling. It's selling so well that people not only don't care that, when he was governor of Arkansas, this staunch enemy of abortion rights pressed for the early release of a serial rapist from prison despite numerous warnings that the man would almost certainly offend again (and sure enough, he raped and killed one more woman after Huckabee let him walk), but they'd probably be more inclined to support him if they did know. Hell, it's what all them uppity feminazi bitches deserve, ain't it?

I fear some folks are taking the confident "it can't happen here" attitude towards a possible Huckabee presidency. Even American voters couldn't be that idiotic, they assure themselves. Well, when you remember that over half the population of this country believes the universe was created after dogs were domesticated, I think the intelligence of the majority is something one should not overestimate. That Huckabee has gotten as far as he has solely on flogging his Christian faith, while openly displaying his ignorance of foreign policy and geopolitics ought to be enough of an indicator of GOP voters' low standards for who they'd like to see in the White House (as if Bush weren't bad enough).

Yes, Huckabee has tried to assure people he's open to non-Christians as well ("The key issue of real faith is that it never can be forced on someone. And never would I want to use the government institutions to impose mine or anybody else's faith or to restrict..."), but when he's on record as stating he'd like to "take this nation back for Christ," then defends it as simply the kind of thing you say to a Baptist gathering, forgive me if I'm a little dubious. If a presidential candidate were to appear at an Islamic mosque and talk about taking America back for Allah, or at a Klan meeting to talk about putting the uppity blacks in their place, and then respond to the press that "certainly that would be appropriate to be said to a gathering of" Muslims or neo-Nazi hicks, his political career would be over faster than you could say "redneck." (Though creepily enough, Ron Paul's lunatic fringe of supporters don't seem terribly bothered by his apparent affiliation with white supremacists, so maybe racism wouldn't be much of a liability to a candidate these days.)

Well, who knows yet how things will turn out in the caucuses, but it does appear as if the GOP at large is throwing former golden boy Romney overboard in favor of Huckabee. I can say that if Huckabee actually gets the GOP nomination, it would be a sufficiently awful turn of events that I might actually be driven to support Hillary. At least the worst you can say about her is that she's a dishonest, opportunistic careerist who never takes a stand on anything she can't abandon in a heartbeat if it appears to be hurting her in the polls.

Can you tell I'm not overly optimistic about the election year?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

First cause argument and machine guns

Sometimes in apologetics, you get an argument that something (i.e., morality, the universe) cannot exist without a creator. But when you try to pin down the fallacies in these arguments, the person presenting them will often back off to a safer position, such as: "All I'm saying is that there COULD be a God who started everything, and that is at least as plausible as the foolish idea that the universe (or whatever) came into existence without intelligence behind it. Surely you must grant me that much."

Case in point: a theist wrote to me:

Current observations indicate that order and consistency (e.g., "design") can arise from intelligence or from undirected events (e.g., Mandelbrot patterns, chance).

Given those observations, is there any reason to assume that the design of the universe more likely arose from intelligence (theism/deism) or from undirected events (atheism)?

First of all, just because you have two possible events doesn't mean that the two must be equally likely. Some people actually play the lottery this way. They reason: "I either win or I don't. So my odds of winning are 50%." Wrong. The odds of winning the Texas jackpot are about 3*10^-8, which is way WAY less than 50%. Likewise, even if we grant that the existence of God is "a possibility" that doesn't necessarily mean that the probability is any more that 10^-googleplex. Just about anything that you make up off the top of your head COULD turn out to be true, but probably isn't.

But explaining logical fallacies can be difficult when dealing with somebody who is convinced that he's got an airtight case. So I responded with:

Current observations indicate that people can be killed by machine guns, or by things that are not machine guns.

Given those observations, is there any reason to assume that Julius Caesar was more likely killed by a machine gun, or by a non-machine gun event?

He wasn't buying it:

We know with reasonable certainty that there were no machine guns during Caesar's time, so the latter is best assumed.

So what is it that you know about the origin of the big bang that makes your analogy relevant?

But I said:

We certainly do not know that. All we know is that we don't KNOW of any machine guns in Julius Caesar's time. Yet we know that it is possible for machine guns to exist. So what is your proof that machine guns did not exist then?

Another thing we know is that it is much easier to kill someone with a machine gun than without one. Given the reasonable belief that Julius Caesar was killed (rather than dying of natural causes), isn't it fair to say that if there is even a small chance that machine guns existed, then it is at least equally likely that they were used as that they were not?

Why is assuming the existence of something complex, like a machine gun, not plausible to you, when it can be used as a handy explanation for Julius Caesar's death?

What's wrong with this logic? As far as I can tell, nothing. Oh sure, it sounds stupid, but I think it's just as solid as the first cause argument.

The problem with postulating "an intelligence" as the answer to "where did the universe come from?" is that as far as we know, there wasn't any intelligence available at the time. Intelligence in the world we're aware of universally requires some kind of brains, and the brains that we know didn't just happen to exist; they are the end result of billions of years worth of painstaking evolutionary processes.

Could there have been a cosmic super-brain, long before the brains that we know of came into existence? Sure, anything's possible. And Julius Caesar could have been killed by a machine gun.

But you know, I think he probably wasn't anyway.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Christian Love™ brings people together!

I can't resist hilarious stories like this. Seems two different groups (gangs?) of priests — one Greek Orthodox, the other Armenian Apostolic — were cleaning up inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity when some careless fellow set foot in the other group's section, setting off a bloody turf war. About 80 men of the cloth whaled away at one another with brooms until the police were called in to break up the rumble. Just amazing. Apparently there were "long-standing rivalries" between the two groups. You'd think if there were a God, he'd step in to clear that sort of thing up. Mediate, you know? After all, how can they expect to fend off the evil atheist secularist liberal Darwinist scourge if they can't even get along with each other?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Birthday, Isaac Newton!

Always worth reminding folks that a very special person was born on this day.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

I just don't have a problem with Christmas

It's true. I know O'Reilly and any number of the folks running the right-wing Christian-persecution industry want to think I've declared "war" on their holiday. But I haven't. If anything, they've done so, by loudly claiming the entire holiday season as their own and not wanting anyone else to play. I thought this was a time of peace on Earth and good will to all men. Not for fearmongering religionists who see enemies beneath every rock, I suppose.

The things I dislike about Christmas are mainly the things most people dislike: the traffic, the congestion, the crowds. I'm able to avoid most of this, because I'm not a family man myself so I don't have an obligation to race to the mall and bow to the gods of commerce every year so I can get the kids the latest awesome video game. No, I get to go at my own pace and pick that game up for me whenever I want it. Hah!

When I was a Christian in my childhood and adolescence, I recall having more of an investment in the religious aspects of the holiday. Today I find much about the holiday that engendered those same feelings of warmth in secular motifs — and in fact, I realize now that what I really loved about the holiday back then was mostly secular, as well. I dug decorations, and hanging out by the tree, and the anticipation of opening presents. Going to church on Christmas Eve was okay, I guess, the only really sucky part having to do with getting dressed up and going out in the cold when I'd rather be at home curled up under blankets. But I do remember liking one thing about the Christmas Eve church service when I was a kid: they'd kill the lights in the sanctuary and everyone would be holding lit candles, and that created a really great ambiance.

As an atheist adult, I don't miss the church services or religious carols, but there's still plenty about the holiday for a secularist to enjoy. I have often been asked by Christian friends why I celebrate Christmas if I'm not Christian. I hasten to remind them that the holiday wasn't exclusively Christian to begin with (as with all major Christian holidays, it's an absorbed pagan celebration), and that today, there's the Christian Christmas and the secular Christmas, the latter of which embraces all the good, humanist sentiment of the holiday (the peace and goodwill thing) with none of the baggage involved in taking the mythological parts seriously. We shouldn't need a particular time of year set aside during which it's the proper thing to do to be good to one another. But with all the sectarian ideologies around the world eager to divide humanity into warring factions throughout all the rest of the year, clearly we do. A shame that in this country, the Christians who claim to be Christmas's most ardent supporters want to turn it into a divisive time, too.

Finally, here's one more bit of childhood Christmas nostalgia that still rocks my world. Who doesn't remember growing up with this bit of awesomeness? In fact, I think I'll watch it tonight over a cup of hot chocolate.

So if you don't celebrate Christmas but something else (the solstice, or whatever), then Happy Holidays. If you do celebrate Christmas, then Merry Christmas. (There. I said it.) If you don't celebrate any holidays at all, but are looking forward to a day off work, then have a great day. In fact, have one every day. As best we know, this is the only life we have. There's no excuse not to celebrate every day of it.

Surprise: majority of Americans really stupid

The folks at the Barna Group have done another poll on beliefs, and surprise, the majority of respondents prefer a literal belief in the Bible as opposed to believing that it consists "merely [of] stories told to communicate life's principles." Given how frought with inconsistencies and contradictions the Bible is — and especially given how many alterations have been made by ecclesiastical editing and multiple translations over the centuries — it should seem obvious that any belief in the book's literal truth is wholly insupportable. But not to the punters who make up Christianity's rank and file, obviously.

This ignorance is on its boldest display in that over 90% of respondents believe that Jesus was actually born of a virgin. As Biblical scholars have known since, well, forever, the whole virgin-mother thing is based on a gross mistranslation from the original, in which "young woman" became "virgin," perhaps at the hands of some sexually repressed clerical scribe. So as we see, one of the most widely held and cherished beliefs among Christians is based upon ignorance of their own religion's history. (This is nothing new, of course. People call the TV show all the time, angrily denying that such and such a passage is in the Bible, only to splutter in confusion when Matt whips open his Bible and reads the passage to them.) Religion is most certainly the path away from, and not toward, knowledge and understanding.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The difference between real and fake journalism

Ever noticed how the bobbleheads in the mainstream news media really have it in for bloggers? It's an especially virulent hatred on the part of right-wing media figures. Bill O'Reilly has called anyone associated with Daily Kos (including its readers) "devil worshipers," and raving closeted homophobe Michael Savage is driven to near-homicidal mania by the very thought of Media Matters.

Perhaps the mainstream media is just pissed off that bloggers have an ability to do proper journalism — that which isn't vetted by corporate masters and their armies of lawyers loyal to one political faction or another — they simply lack. Not that the crew of Fox or CNN would do proper journalism if they had the chance. That's the thing about guys like Murdoch taking over every media outlet they can buy. They tend to hire on-air personalities cut from the same ideological cloth.

CNN's latest exercise in egregiously stupid non-reportage came in this simple-minded puff piece about the Light the Highway movement, that exercise in fundamentalist absurdity in which the faith-heads have been laying "purity sieges" to Interstate 35 and any businesses that happen to be stationed along it they don't like. I snarked all over it a few days back, and it has been widely covered on other godless blogs as well, to much amusement.

The CNN piece really is pitiful. Note how the writer, some nincompoop named Gary Tuchman, calls the fundie obsession with I-35 an "interesting belief." Well, I suppose it's "interesting" in the same way some madman raving on a street corner in a bathrobe and a lampshade on his head about how the CIA and the Illuminati are trying to kidnap him and haul him off to Area 51 for a round of alien anal-probage is "interesting." And note Tuchman's flaccid gesture towards the concept of "objectivity." It's the sort of equivocating gibberish that has led to the kind of "he said, she said" pandering that conveniently allows the reporter himself off the hook when it comes to actually digging up hard facts: "Now, it's only fair to say most people, the religious and the non-religious alike, don't buy any of this..." Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. Someone also told me the sun rises in the east. Who knew? "But on the side of the road, the prayerful aren't going to change their minds." Yes, that tends to be the mentality of lunatics who congregate to do their business on the sides of roads. Remind me how any of this is news?

Well, none of it is news in the way CNN has approached it: as the sort of pure padding on a slow news day newspeople call a "human interest" story. But here's a little something about the Light the Highway movement that is interesting and even a little newsy. And naturally, one has to have gone online to find it.

When this story originally surfaced in the blogosphere, it was accompanied by a YouTube clip of jaw-droppingly lunatic 700 Club "news" broadcast extolling the virtues of this amazing evangelical enterprise. Part of this report featured the stunning story of James Stabile, a "19-year-old homosexual atheist" (two, two, two horrible sins in one!) who was apparently on his way to his local gay bar one night to smoke a little pole when he encountered some prayer warriors laying purity siege to said bar. After a brief exchange with Joe Oden, the purity siege organizer, Joe "laid hands" on James (no, not like that!) and instantaneously "cured" him of teh gay through the power of Jebus!

This account was met with what you might call skepticism, mostly by those who identify themselves as skeptics. Who knew that you could transform a gay man into an all-around red-blooded American heterosexual stallion simply by letting a moronic religious bigot scream "Fire!" at him? You'd think if it were that easy the country would have rid itself of the gay community ages ago and the Rupert Everett/Jodie Foster wedding would have been the talk of the tabloids for 2007. Many bloggers and commenters cried "Staged!" and "Plant!" But it took a couple of online writers, blogger Warren Throckmorton and gay journalist John Wright, to get to the bottom of what was going on with this James Stabile character. And it was far more intriguingly complex than just the usual routine of fundie lying. How did they get their information? Why, by doing what guys like Gary Tuchman are supposed to do: investigate, follow up leads, dig beneath the surface to get to the truth. You know...journalism.

The short version: it turns out that James Stabile suffers from bipolar disorder and often goes off his meds, at which point he is described by his family and those who know him as a pathological liar who loves attention and will say what he has to to get it. After James was "cured" by Oden, James enrolled in a "residential treatment program" in Kentucky run by Pure Life Ministries, but was ejected by them for being what they called a "compulsive liar." That's an interesting charge coming from a camp run by Mike Johnston, an HIV+ man who was the face of the Christian "ex-gay" movement for years, until it was revealed that he was still cruising for unsafe gay sex all the while.

Anyway, after James left Pure Life he moved in with some folks from Oden's church, where his problems with dishonesty, doubtless a symptom of his bipolar condition, continued to manifest.

By the time CBN's 700 Club crew came to Texas to shoot their segment, Joe Oden already knew about James' mental health issues. He had spoken to James' father, Joseph, a Methodist minister who is reportedly "fully accepting of his son’s sexual orientation and believes being gay is neither a choice nor a sin." Oden claims he told CBN about all this, and they didn't care. They wanted James for their piece. Still, Oden doesn't get off the hook here. He is interviewed in the same CBN piece, and joyously boasts of de-homosexualizing James. So he's just as much an exploitive, lying shit as any of them.

Word is now that James has finally returned home to his family and is receiving "appropriate medical care." So the long and short of it is, on the one hand, a young man with mental health and sexuality issues lying to people in order to feel accepted and validated, and a group of religious fundamentalists only too happy to exploit him to promote their crusade. A sad story all around, but one that appears to be ending more or less happily for the Stabiles. The problem with James isn't that he's gay, it's that his brain chemistry is all out of whack. It's a shame he left his tolerant family for acceptance by a bunch of raving bigots. But the appeal of fundamentalist groupthink is that, with its revivals and mobs of singing, cheering worshipers, it can seem to a lost and confused person to have something meaningful and fulfilling to offer in a directionless life. When all you really need in life are those people who know you and love you for who you are, not who their ideology dictates you have to be. (And with that loving environment, in the case of a real mental disorder, the proper medical care. You can't pray away mental illness any more than you can pray away the gay. When it comes to dealing with real problems, count on science every time.)

For in depth coverage of James' story, read Wright's story here, and Throckmorton's blog here. Especially if you're Gary Tuchman. These writers ought to give you some tips on how to do your job.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

And the Discovery Institute has a major headdesk moment

Here's old Bill Dembski, being interviewed by Focus on the Family, one of the few remaining forums that take him seriously.

I believe God created the world for a purpose. The Designer of intelligent design is, ultimately, the Christian God.

Whoops. Well, so much for any more attempts to claim in courts of law that ID is purely scientific and isn't about trying to shoehorn Christianity into science classes. Cuz, you see, here's the Discovery Institute's official position:

Does intelligent design postulate a “supernatural creator?”

Overview: No. The ACLU, and many of its expert witnesses, have alleged that teaching the scientific theory of intelligent design (ID) is unconstitutional in all circumstances because it posits a “supernatural creator.” Here we provide several actual statements from intelligent design theorists that the scientific theory of intelligent design does not address metaphysical and religious questions such as the nature or identity of the designer. [Emphasis added by some little atheist smartass.]

Hmm. Awk-warrrd, eh, Billy?

Of course, Dembski has frequently been perfectly open about his religious motivations — when addressing a safe Christian audience. In the world of creationism, talking out of both sides of your mouth is standard operating procedure. It must lead to some really uncomfortable muscle cramps.

Friday, December 14, 2007

So what is this, Wacky Hindu Day?

First bandits make off with a holy man's holy leg, and now, via Skeptico, I discover this delicious little story about a provincial judge in India ordering two gods, Ram and Hanuman, to appear in court to give evidence in a property dispute. The judge is not about to grant any special dispensations to them for being divine, let alone imaginary.

"You failed to appear in court despite notices sent by a messenger and later through registered post. You are hereby directed to appear before the court personally," Judge Singh's notice stated.

The newspaper notices were published, in keeping with accepted Indian legal practice, after two summons dispatched to the plaintiff deities were returned because their addresses were "incomplete".

You know they're just going to lawyer up.

Irrationalism hasn't got a leg to stand on

None of you is likely to forgive me for the bad joke in the headline when you read this article. But still, I think this little event shows up the practical risks of embracing irrational beliefs in magic and the occult. So the next time some wide-eyed individual calls me a closed-minded old grumpus because I can't see the "beauty" in the act of confusing fantasy with reality, I'll just reply that I'd rather have a closed mind than a bloody severed limb. Skepticism: the life and limb you save may be your own.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Catholics so scared of Golden Compass, they're suppressing their own praise

According to IMDb today:

Without explanation, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has retracted on its website a positive review of The Golden Compass that appeared in Catholic newspapers last week. The review had appeared to counterbalance claims by the Catholic League, the nation's largest Catholic lay group, that it served as an introduction to atheism expounded in the trilogy of books on which the movie is based. The League had urged a boycott of the film. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Jim Lackey general news editor of the Catholic News Service, run by the bishops' conference, acknowledged that he was told to remove the review from the CNS website. "It's hard for me to categorize whether or not it was a surprise," he told the newspaper. Meanwhile, the church's Raleigh, NC diocese on Tuesday warned pastors in a letter about the possible ramifications of the film. "The concern is that once a child gets 'hooked' on the film or the books, then the next film could resort to the true atheistic nature of the books," the letter said.

And we all know how bad it would be for business if children around the country had an epiphany from reading the books that there's no invisible magic man in the sky and the church is simply a self-perpetuating authoritarian money machine. Plus, if the kids turn atheist and stop coming to mass and catechism and all the other little rituals we have for them, there won't be so many of them around to molest! Gasp! Martin! You mean mean man! What a cheap shot! Yeah, well, it wouldn't be so easy if they hadn't done it.

Now I know I didn't care for the movie much, but it also happens to be true that the grounds on which the Catholic League (has the odious Bill Donohue even seen it?) is condemning it are wholly bogus, and part of me wishes people would go see it just to realize that all the hysteria in the press is much ado about nothing. Then perhaps folks will be less likely in future to say "How high?" whenever Donohue says "Jump!" But what I find most amusingly ironic about this whole Catholic war on the movie is that they're basically walking right into it and validating the themes of Pullman's original books: that the Church is repressive and even punitive towards ideas which challenge their long-held dogmas, and that humanity's real growth lies not in those dogmas but in embracing free thought and fighting authoritarian rulers and institutions that keep people cowed and submissive. I've heard Pullman's religious critics attack his humanism as somehow "elitist." But what could be more elitist than a bunch of men in expensive robes and pointy hats claiming to be the emissaries of a deity and telling everyone what to think and how to live thereby?

Anyway, it appears the movie is doing better business in Europe (where theistic demagogues generally hold less sway than here), adding an additional $51 million to its lackluster $26 million domestic take. In Pullman's home of England alone, the movie had a per-screen average of $29,129, compared to $7,308 in the U.S. New Line foolishly overspent on the movie, as studios are wont to do with "event" pictures, but the overseas gross could help put the movie in the black.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Civilization accelerates pace of human evolution

Interesting new research popping up in the news today. Darwin predicted that evolution would be a faster process in large population groups, and current science seems to be confirming those predictions with research that shows about 7% of the human genome has undergone rapid change ("rapid" in evolutionary terms being on the order of 40,000 years) under selection pressure from such civilizing activities as agriculture. For one thing, it appears lactose tolerance is a recent development, with the emergence of the LCD gene; no one, it appears, in the Stone Age could drink milk. Nor did any of them have blue eyes. Also, when people began to cluster in large population groups, thus allowing a venue for new infectious diseases to spread, we began developing genes to increase resistance to them, such as G6PD, which staves off malaria.

Today we see different alleles emerging in different population groups, unique to their continent of origin. Europeans have alleles that express fair skin, for instance, but they're different than the ones that fair-skinned Asians have. Also, it appears Asians are rapidly developing genes that suppress ear wax and body odor! Australian aborigines and African bushmen have a hard time with the grains and other carbs we in the agricultural west seem to digest just fine. This is leading to the conclusion that humans may be growing apart, not closer, as a species. In another 40,000 years, might we actually speciate? Particularly in light of the fact we all seem to be staying fertile until much later in life?

It's all nifty stuff to read (here's another article from National Geographic). And it all just shows why science is such a rewarding pursuit. Always new things to learn, to complement, refute, and/or modify existing knowledge.

Tell me again how theism makes you morally superior?

The latest on the Colorado church shootings:

The gunman was identified as Matthew Murray, 24, who was home-schooled in what a friend said was a deeply religious Christian household.

Gosh, it's all so confusing.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Pitt and Clooney pwn Larry "I'm Still Not Gay" Craig

Hadn't seen this before, but it's hilarious. Leave it to the two coolest guys in Hollywood to know exactly how to let hypocritical neocon politicians have it where the sun don't shine. And that's all the innuendo for me, thanks.

(Context: Clooney's Ocean's Eleven costar Julia Roberts is winning an award, and Clooney can't be there, so he's sending a video congratulations.)

Lunatic shoots up Ted Haggard's old church

This is a developing story out of Colorado, so we'll be keeping up with it. It would be too easy to throw in some snark about the obvious (God didn't pop up to save these people), but there is a time and place for that and it isn't when people are really being hurt. I suspect there's something to the fact that this occurred at the megachurch formerly run by the disgraced Ted Haggard, that the guman had some real issues there. We'll see what an investigation into his background reveals. It doesn't appear anyone was killed (we're unsure whether the gunman himself is alive or dead), so that's good news.

Apparently earlier today two guys were killed at a missionary training center about 70 miles away. We'll see if it was the same shooter.

Latest update is that the gunman killed one person at the church before himself being taken out by a quick-thinking security guard.

Today on the show: Skeptical straw men in fiction

Tune in to the Atheist Experience for "Skeptical straw men in fiction". Featuring:
  • This lame old joke about a bullying atheist professor who turns out to be completely clueless about science. This is from years ago; my response was posted here.
  • Evan Almighty, and other silly movies where God is a character in the story.
  • The Reaping, another movie where the skeptic looks ridiculous and fails to do due diligence.
  • The definition of a "Skepticism Failure" at
Plus a few odds an ends to discuss, if we have time for them.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Reviewing The Golden Compass

I'll start here by noting that this review, while it avoids outright spoilers for either book or movie, has some things in it that will mean more if you've read the book rather than not. Since not reading the book would make you a silly person, go correct that lapse in your cultural education at your earliest convenience. Now, onward...

Chris Weitz's film of Philip Pullman's brilliant fantasy adventure The Golden Compass is a respectable adaptation in a lot of ways, but at the same time exhibits a lot of the problems inherent in trying to compress the plot of a complex novel into a two-hour running time. If I give the book a 5 on a 5 scale (and I do), then the movie is hovering around a 2½-3. Truth be told, Weitz did a better job than I was expecting. He's clearly a huge fan of the book and strives to be as faithful to it as he can within the limitations he has to work under. I respect him for trying to do his best by Pullman and the book's fans.

But what this means cinematically is that we get a movie whose story feels rushed, with Weitz doing everything he can to touch on each major plot point in rapid succession. The script just sails along, at such a pace that very little suspense is actually built. We establish the movie's universe, its heroine, and her quest — and then we're off to the races. Lyra, though extremely well played by a great little newcomer named Dakota Blue Richards (why is Dakota the moniker of choice for preteen actresses?), never really feels like she goes through a character arc in the normal sense of the term. She learns to use the aliethiometer, decoding its arcane symbols with almost supernatural speed, just so the script can get the story going.

Thinking about it, it isn't that the movie is too rapidly paced, so much as that it doesn't really have anything you could call "pacing." Its script just flings you from one scene to the next — boom, boom, boom — without much in the way of the dramatic peaks and valleys stories normally have to draw an audience in and give them a stake in the outcome.

Part of me wonders just how much studio interference Weitz had to endure from New Line. If The Lord of the Rings taught New Line anything, it's that doing epic fantasy that already has a built-in audience faithfully, and putting the project in the hands of a dedicated filmmaker equals a major box office love-happening. On the other hand, with $180 million at stake (each LOTR movie cost right around $100m by comparison), New Line clearly wasn't willing to give Weitz a Peter Jackson level of carte blanche. Three editors are credited, leaving me to wonder just how often the infamous moviemaking mantra "We'll fix it in post" reared its little fuzzy head during dailies. I'm not saying that a three-hour running time would have been for the best, but allowing for, say, 140 minutes would have given the movie a little space to breathe, and bring some moments back from the book that the script either excised or truncated in order to stay focused on Lyra's quest alone.

The cast is quite excellent. As Mrs. Coulter, Nicole Kidman is ideal. I like her as an actress anyway, though for this role I wasn't sure. Physically she's different from the novel, where she's a brunette, for one thing (when I read the book, I was picturing more someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones). But Kidman swans through the part looking about as glamorous as it's possible for a woman to look short of being sculpted out of ivory, and she conveys the character's seductive, fatal attraction to a tee. I also dug Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel. Craig, after proving himself the second best James Bond of all time (flame shields on), is turning into an actor I'll probably want to see no matter what he's in — wait, scratch that, I still have no desire to see The Invasion. Still, I like him, but of course, the script doesn't give him enough to do.

Sadly, other supporting characters are given short shrift, especially Serafina Pekkala, who's barely in the movie enough to matter. (The script's treatment of the witches is an exemplar of how awkwardly the movie translates ideas from the book. In the movie, we really don't get much of an understanding of who the witches are, why they're involved in this, or anything. They're just there, presumably, because they were in the book.) LOTR veteran Ian McKellan lends his voice to Iorek Byrnison, the disgraced bear prince who becomes Lyra's guardian. And though the movie succeeds in building their relationship (it's really the only relationship in the movie with any substance), the script doesn't give Iorek the sense of tragic pathos he has in the novel. Another LOTR alum, Christopher Lee, is prominently billed (how many octogenarian actors are getting as much work as he is?), but he has exactly one line and about ten seconds of screen time. Sam Elliott made for a very good Lee Scorsby, though I was picturing Billy Bob Thornton when I read the book. Elliott is better suited, I think.

As for the movie's whitewashing of the books' theological themes, well, this was interesting. The Magisterium is played less as a church than as a generic totalitarian governing body. But Weitz manages to keep in enough material about freethought (represented by Asriel and his scientific pursuits) versus dogma that I think fans of the book won't feel like the movie betrays the book's themes too drastically. How exactly any proposed movies of books two and three, though, will manage to slip around the whole "kill God" thing is a mystery to me. Weitz has said that he was willing to compromise certain things about this movie to fit them into more of an acceptable Hollywood blockbuster framework, so that its hoped-for box office success would mean he could take more chances with the sequels. I hope that wish comes true, because I predict that audience word of mouth on this movie will hover around "oh, it was okay, I guess," and TGC won't be looking at LOTR-level returns.

Among fans of the book, the biggest letdown is the movie's decision to end a little early, so that the movie can have a happy ending rather than the somewhat tragic one the book has. I think this is a choice that will backfire, not just because it's a mistake to think audiences only want all happy endings all the time, but because the happy ending we get here is so...well...bland. To have ended the movie the way the book ends (and I know I'm assuming you've read the book here) would have given the movie the one thing it utterly lacks: an edge, a willingness to take risks, to challenge its audience both intellectually and emotionally. You know, the very qualities the book is popular for. As it stands, the movie, while it stays true to the book's words as best it can, lacks its mind and its heart. And it lacks its truth. If only Weitz had had his own aliethiometer.

So yeah, I guess it's 2½. I don't want it to be an Eragon-level megabomb, because it's a worthier effort than that. I'd like it to at least make its money back, so that perhaps Weitz gets to make The Subtle Knife after all and take the risks he says he wants to take. So I'll say TGC is worth a matinee. Fantasy cinema that at least tries ought to get our support, if only so we get a great one now and again.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

And the chorus of disapproval continues, plus a creo reply

I know I seem like a broken record about this, but the wide-ranging ridicule the TEA is getting over the Comer ouster is deserving of all the exposure it can get. The Houston Chronicle editorializes as follows:

Since Texas policy supports the inclusion of evolution in science curriculum, it's hard to see how Comer was violating state policy by circulating an event notice sent out by a group that also endorses teaching evolution. Although TEA officials later cited Comer's attendance at a meeting of the same group, that seems a bogus rationale for dismissal and a violation of academic freedom.

"Maybe [the TEA] must remain neutral to whether or not to lie to students about evolution — but if so, that's just sad," Forrest said.

It will be more than sad if the Texas Education Agency is leaning toward taking an anti-evolutionary stance and allowing religious doctrine to be taught side by side with valid science in the state's classrooms. If intelligent design is a Trojan horse for creationism, the Comer episode indicates Texans need to be wary of TEA bureaucrats bearing undesirable gifts.

Even the Waco Tribune Herald has chimed in, and we all know Waco's history of religious zanies. Perhaps the town is just feeling burned, and burned out, by having to put with the recent shenanigans old William Dembski has tried to pull on Baylor. The paper opines:

Because the State Board of Education will review the state science curriculum next year and set standards for classroom instruction and textbook selection, Comer’s abrupt removal could signal an opening for the insertion of creationism or intelligent design into science classrooms in Texas.

Texas parents, teachers and lawmakers should be on guard that the state avoids the mistakes that led to the 2005 Dover, Pa., lawsuit.

Meanwhile, some pencil-dicked creationist calling himself John King has sent a whiny email my way in reply to the letter I just had printed by the Statesman, and it's replete with exactly the kind of dishonesty, fallacies, and scientific illiteracy you'd expect from one of his lot. I was hoping this would happen, since I've been in the mood to bloody my knuckles. But interestingly, there's only been one response so far. Here it is below, with my rebuttal included in bold.

One thing is clear, that you fully embrace censorship in public schools. If Chris Comer was censored, so are those who want intelligent design acknowledged in the classroom.

Except for one detail: Intelligent design is not valid science, and thus has no business being taught in science class, except perhaps as an example of pseudoscience. It isn't "censorship" to refuse to teach things in schools that are not facts. It wouldn't be "censorship" to refuse to teach Holocaust Denial in history classes, it wouldn't be "censorship" to refuse to teach astrology in astronomy classes, and it's not "censorship" to refuse to teach "intelligent design" or any other form of creationism without a single example of science to back it up in science classes.

The notion that a trial in Dover, Delaware established any scientific truth is nonsense on its face, equivalent to saying that a trial established O.J. Simpson's innocence.

Except for another detail: Both sides asked Judge Jones to decide whether or not Intelligent Design was science. But if you don't want to go by his ruling, you can just take the testimony of Michael Behe, who admitted on the stand that in order for Intelligent Design to be considered scientific, you would have to expand the definition of science to include the aforementioned astrology. That's pretty bad, and coming from the mouth of one of ID's biggest proponents, how could you blame Judge Jones from deciding any other way?

As for other leading ID supporters, like William Dembski, the Dover trial was the opportunity they all said they had been waiting for to prove in a court of law that ID was soundly scientific and deserved to be taught in classrooms without committing some sort of religious constitutional violation. And not only didn't they make their best case, most of them didn't even show up! That should tell you something.

Similarly, the comparison of the solar system to the dogmatic claim that accidents of nature account for life as it exists today is just as arbitrary.

Just as you revealed your ignorance about the Dover trial, you now reveal your scientific illiteracy. There is nothing about evolutionary science that is dogmatic; like every other field of science, new discoveries are made every year that open up entirely new branches of study. And there is nothing in evolutionary science that attributes the process to "accidents of nature." Evolution is a remarkably complex and wide-ranging field of scientific study, about which you are quite clearly entirely ignorant. And the ignorance you reveal makes a much better case than I could that quality standards for science education need to be upheld in Texas. Because you obviously didn't get a quality science education.

Your insistence that Darwin was infallible is like Al Gore's remark that "the debate is over," the sole meaning of which is that Al Gore is afraid to debate.

Find anywhere in my letter where I insisted Darwin was "infallible." I didn't, and you know it, which means this is a typical straw man. That's the problem with dealing with creationists: you guys can't make your points without lying. So the whole inherent dishonesty of your character does make it exasperating to deal with you.

But if you'd rather hide behind the self-flattering fantasy that scientists are afraid of you, go ahead. We are all well aware how important martyr/persecution complexes are to you folks. Indeed, the entire PR thrust of the ID movement feeds on those complexes. Just remember, the ID side had its chance to make its case in Dover, and they were the ones who ran away.

Maybe if any of you folks would produce some peer-reviewed research, your claims might finally be worth taking seriously. But this isn't what you want. ID supporters basically want to cheat, to be allowed to cut to the front of the line without doing any real science to support your position, then whine about "censorship" when people point out just how scientifically vacuous ID is.

So, sorry John, nice try, but we've all heard the tired claims you're trying to make many many times, and they're just as bogus coming from you as anyone else. Try again if you feel up to it. If you think I have any fear of debating you, you're in for a humiliating surprise.

Not surprising ol' Barney Fife here is also a global warming denier, is it? Well, we'll see if he bites, so that I may taunt him a second time!

Statesman reader response to the TEA debacle

Man oh man. The whole Chris Comer thing is looking like one colossal embarrassment for the Texas Education Association, who are being vilified in editorials and opinion columns everywhere. The Austin American Statesman website has posted a page full of letters to the editor, and not one of them — not even the one written by a Christian referring to God as "our gracious creator" (and it's quite possible more of the letter writers are believers who just didn't bring up their thoughts on God) — is supportive of the creationists' shenanigans. This could be a bigger blot on their copybook than even Dover. While the IDer's endlessly accuse scientists and academicians of suppressing the teaching of "strengths and weaknesses" or the "controversy" or whatever code words they wish to use to cover their creationist agenda, in actual fact, they're the only ones doing any suppressing.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Hmm...don't think so...

Apropos of nothing, I thought I'd make the observation that, for reasons I can't make out, the "current weather" widget on my computer is telling me that it's 21° outside, with wintry snowflake icons to drive the point home. And I just walked outside in my shirtsleeves to bright sunlight and gorgeous blue skies. I hope this isn't some kind of metaphor for the poor quality of science we're getting right now in Texas under the current leadership.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

We're Top 40!

At least according to this list of "Top Atheism Blogs." Granted, we're right at #40. So I guess I'll have to get more militant or something.

The Lost Highway, indeed

I really am beginning to wonder if, in order to be an evangelical, there's some kind of secret, Masonic-style ritual where they haul you off into a darkened chamber and spend ten hours bashing your head in with baseball bats made out of freeze-dried stupid. Because one's brain really needs to be in such a state in order to swallow malarkey this malarkified.

If you live in Austin, you'll be well familiar with I-35, that dazzling display of engineering ineptitude designed to maximize wrecks and congestion at all hours of the day and night. This highway actually traverses the entire midwest, running all the way up to Duluth, MN, which ought to indicate that if there's Somebody Up There, he really really hates us. But not to a clutch of cuckoos in Christianity's parallel universe, who have decided, based on their reading of this Bible Rhology likes to remind us is infallible and accurate in every particular, that I-35 is some kind of "Highway of Holiness."

The scripture they're basing this whole little movement on is Isaiah 35:8, which reads:

And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness.
The unclean will not journey on it;
it will be for those who walk in that Way;
wicked fools will not go about on it.

Exactly why do they think this passage — written centuries before any surveyor ever thought of building I-35 — prophesies the existence of our delightful freeway, which, to anyone who's ever actually taken their lives in their hands by driving on it, is clearly populated by nothing but wicked fools? Because — and prepare to be bowled over by the breathtaking genius that is Biblical "hermeneutics" — the passage appears in Isaiah 35. Get it!? I-35! It's so obvious!

So what this means in terms of starting up some kind of revival movement is that Christians have taken to prayer sessions in "prayer rooms" (basically harmless), as well as harassing freeway businesses they don't like in protests they dramatically call "Purity Sieges," such as adult video stores, family planning clinics (where nasty liberals kill babies and anoint effigies of Hillary Clinton with their blood, of course), and any business catering to gays and lesbians. They also see signs and portents in recent events, too. Read the following and remember, the gibbering madness you're trying to wrap your brain around passes for thinking in this revivalist environment.

"I don't usually send what the Lord is downloading to me, however this is very timely and significant I believe," Highway of Holiness Community Coordinator Christine Pickett of Little Canada wrote to the movement's Web site.

Pickett says that last year's election of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim, and his announcement of a trip to Israel the very same day of the collapse could be an omen. "I think the Lord may be saying that this man and his district and what he is about doing in Israel is connected. I could be wrong -- however, I just have to look at the timing and the fear of the Lord comes upon me."

"I don't usually send what the Lord is downloading to me..." How can you not love that part? One imagines Hebbin having its own tech support department. Does God also download periodical updates so that Christians can patch their brains with his latest build of crazy? Evidently, being God in the wired generation is a stressful occupation. You gotta constantly be on guard that Steve Jobs and his gang of grinning assholes in Cupertino don't totally broadside you with a pocket sized iGod and leave you holding onto last week's obsolete salvation chipsets with your thumb up your ass and a dazed look on your bearded face as millions of impressionable teens backslide into Apple-y perdition! So hey, prayer warriors, don't forget to lay "purity siege" to any Apple Store you may come across in your quixotic journey! (Only thing is, I think those are generally too upscale to be located along a freeway.)

Anyway, snark aside, one just has to read some of the testimonials at their website to really understand that we're dealing with the mentally ill here.

My prayer journal entry was dated June 1, 2004, it was 4am and I saw the Lord walking along I-35 into downtown Dallas, Texas. He stood by the Reunion Tower and Arena next to I-35 and began callling [sic] out words of love and encouragement (in Hebrew) to His body and bride, (the Church) that was living throughout the area. He was wearing a prayer shawl (talit) with a "Star of David" over his head. He skin was like blazing bronze and His eyes were full of pure light and fire and a brilliant light eminated [sic] from his nail scarred hands and feet.

Yeah, that's just...special, isn't it? Nurse!

So I'll wrap up with a fun bit of speculation: I wonder just how many of these "prayer warriors" have accounts at the adult video stores they're picketing? I know...I'm so mean. Anyway, I think it's too bad they won't make it all the way down to Austin. Are we just too much of a godless liberal hellhole even for them? Or could they not find anyone down here insane enough to participate?

Monday, December 03, 2007

The New York Times pitches in on the Comer firing

The Old Grey Lady has its article up on the retaliatory firing resignation of Chris Comer from the TEA, and some passages really reveal the boo-scary Orwellian atmosphere that seems to be permeating the agency under its neocon creationist leadership.

Ms. Comer said that barely an hour after forwarding the e-mail message about Dr. Forrest's talk, she was called in and informed that Lizzette Reynolds, deputy commissioner for statewide policy and programs, had seen a copy and complained, calling it "an offense that calls for termination. " Ms. Comer said she had no idea how Ms. Reynolds, a former federal education official who served as an adviser to George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas, had seen the message so quickly, and remembered thinking, "What is this, the thought police or what?"

Update: Now there's an editorial. And it's nicely uncompromising and, hopefully, deeply embarrassing to Texas.

It was especially disturbing that the agency accused Ms. Comer — by forwarding the e-mail message — of taking a position on “a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.” Surely the agency should not remain neutral on the central struggle between science and religion in the public schools. It should take a stand in favor of evolution as a central theory in modern biology. Texas’s own education standards require the teaching of evolution.

Those standards are scheduled to be reviewed next year. Ms. Comer’s dismissal and comments in favor of intelligent design by the chairman of the state board of education do not augur well for that review. We can only hope that adherents of a sound science education can save Texas from a retreat into the darker ages.

We'll do all we can, of course. But we're going up against fanatics who have a religious ideology to protect, and they're deeply fearful of evolution because they've been indoctrinated into believing that if it's true, they won't get to live forever playing harps in Heaven's Fairyland Food Court. When facts go up against psychologically crippling existential terror, it's always a hard-fought battle.

Yippie, Rho's back...

...and up to his old tricks — straw men (he accuses us of using them, but as you'll see, he actually does); tautologies; putting words in my mouth and demanding I defend them; it's all there — in this comments thread. Go read and enjoy. Click on over to the link he provides to his blog and get a kick out of his arguments for the Bible's infallibility. Cheers.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

TEA castigated in Statesman

They didn't pick my letter to print, but there are two very good ones in the current Austin American Statesman, as well as a surprisingly smart editorial, attacking the political retaliation against Chris Comer by the creationist-run Texas Education Association. The editorial board opines:

The education agency, of course, portrays the problem as one of insubordination and misconduct. But from all appearances, Comer was pushed out because the agency is enforcing a political doctrine of strict conservatism that allows no criticism of creationism....

Whether one accepts the theory of intelligent design or not, discussion encourages scientific exploration, which is what a science curriculum director should do. Forcing Comer out of her job because she passed on an e-mail about the critic’s presentation is egregiously wrong.

It looks like the Texas Education Agency has fallen victim to a smelly little orthodoxy, to quote author George Orwell. And that cannot be good for the schools or the schoolchildren of Texas.

Apart from the little gaffe of calling ID a "theory," which is like some no-hoper pointing to a Playboy centerfold taped to his wall and calling it his "girlfriend," it's nice to see that the paper is ready and willing to call the TEA on its bullshit spin right away, and tell it like it is regarding Comer's firing: that she was forced out for not toeing a Christian neoconservative anti-science party line. And that the people who make a big noise about scientists being closed-minded dogmatists who have unfairly "Expelled" intelligent design from fair scientific inquiry are the most despicable of hypocrites and lying frauds. Good on ya, Statesman. Maybe you don't suck as much as I've been thinking all these years.