Friday, January 29, 2010

Guilty, asshat!

That's what Scott Roeder, murderer of abortion provider George Tiller, just got from a jury after a scant 37 minutes deliberation. Roeder had, of course, hoped to turn his trial into a media circus and referendum on abortion. By arguing a manslaughter defense and hopefully getting away with a mere five years — the thrust of the defense being that Roeder had an "unreasonable yet sincere conviction" that he had to shoot Tiller in order to save babies, because guys like him care so much about the babies — he and his ideological brethren at Operation Rescue hoped to make his trial the first shot across the bow in the war to eventually overturn Roe v. Wade.

The jury, comprised of the sensible Kansans, wasn't having any. Instead of seeing a valiant superhero of the Lord courageously protecting the unborn, they saw a cowardly, first-class douche canoe who willingly popped a man in the back of the head in public, and handed him a first-degree murder conviction. The prosecutor says she will seek a "hard 50" sentence, meaning Roeder will have to serve at least 50 years before eligibility for parole. This is effectively the same as life without parole for a man who's already 51. Once behind bars, if very unlucky, Roeder may have to face an entirely different kind of "hard 50."

Never fear, Scott. Once they're done with you in there, at least you won't need an abortion.

A day without abusing the Texas SBOE is like a day without sunshine

What never ceases to amaze me about the Texas State Board of Education is the dazzling arrogance with which they blindly soldier on in the face of almost total loathing from everyone in the state who isn't a rabid fundagelical teabagger. This is a pretty conservative state, gang, but when you get an editorial like this from the newspaper in Denton — just a short drive north from the DFW Metroplex, so it's not exactly the tree-hugging lefty Sodom that is Austin — you know you've gone so far over the top in your demagoguery that you've literally lapped yourself and gotten jammed up your own ass. The lead to this piece is pure win, and the rest ain't bad at all. All you have to do to show how dire things are at the SBOE is simply to describe what they do.

Being ignorant is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is nothing to be particularly proud of either. A large and disruptive segment of the Texas State Board of Education is not only ignorant — a state that we all share at various times and on various subjects — it is proudly and aggressively ignorant, which goes beyond simple ignorance and ventures into the territory of malignant stupidity.

Gold. Of course, the defining characteristic of the extremist ideologue is to take the fact that everybody hates you as validation of your perfect and utter rightness in all things. After all, as Dan McLeroy has so bravely said, somebody's gotta stand up to alla dem expertses!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

We don't make this stuff up, gang

Lately we've been getting a series of barely literate emails from a guy who's following the usual pattern: Asserting his beliefs as facts, backing them up with variants of "Look at the trees!" and "Study the Bible!", then bitterly protesting how rude we are for dismissing him as a dimwit. Here's one excerpt for you to get the general gist.

You see why do you insult me, that shows that your mine is block.
You see finding the truth comes with humility not pride. So i think you should write with respect.
well it looks like you have not really studied the Bible, you call it a book of fairy tales.
While one of the greatest scientist like isaac newton call it the word of God and studied it.
Thats kind of surprising to here those words from a renowned scientist.

And it goes on like that. Amusing, I suppose, the way utter ignoramuses think they're so humble the way they spout ignorance with smug condescension. But that's what religion offers: the confidence of faith in ignorance over actual knowledge.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A personal AETV loss

Via email today, I learned the sad news of the passing of Ashlea Doty at the age of 34. When I was host from 2002-04, Ashlea was part of the AETV studio crew. She was enormously good humored, and was one of the four of us who visited a Halloween "Hell House" at a local Pentecostal church the first year any of us did that (my report on that night appears to have been scrubbed from the internets following the discontinuation of GeoCities). After I left the show, she had already drifted away from ACA, but I'd still see her on occasion working as a vet tech at the clinic where I took my dog. She'll be missed by those who knew her, and to everyone else, remember that every day above ground is a good day. Make them all count.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Irony meter explosion in 3...2...1...

Okay, so that preposterous, demented d-bag Mike Adams has noticed all the ridicule he's been getting online, and has, like most deluded narcissists, taken it for validation of his awesomeness. In a new post, he offers the following observation, which deserves an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in Clueless Projection. Now, remember this is the guy who wrote a trillion-word attack on skeptics that led Orac to call him "a pyromaniac in a straw man factory"... Salient hypocrisy boldfaced.

[Skeptics] also tend to jump to false conclusions about what people are really saying. In my previous article, for example, I never stated whether I believed in God, or whether I was an athiest [sic], or whether I followed organized religion and yet people read the article and they leaped to conclusions, assuming I was promoting organized religion, for example, or that I was condemning atheism.

Actually I never stated my position on those matters in the article at all, but the skeptics leaped to the conclusion that I did. This speaks to their tendency to warp all incoming information and restructure it to conform to the beliefs they already carry about the subject at hand.

ROTFL! You silly little bitch.

Fred Edwords: Sailing the Rising Tide of Reason

Since some people may be missing The Atheist Experience this week, I'm posting the video from a recent ACA Lecture Series lecture.

Fred Edwords from the United Coalition of Reason on "Sailing the Rising Tide of Reason".

Over the past few years, with the rise of the “New Atheism,” interest in Freethought and humanism is growing. And the more recent billboard and bus campaigns have stoked the fires of enthusiasm. How can Freethought and humanist groups benefit from this secular "coming out"? How can they capture this interest to help their memberships grow? Fred Edwords, a former executive director of the American Humanist Association, is now the national director of the United Coalition of Reason. Over his thirty-year career as a humanist leader he has lectured, debated, and taught on humanist philosophical issues and effective outreach techniques. He has appeared on national and local television in the United States and Canada, has been interviewed on radio and for newspapers around the world, and has lectured in North America, Europe, and India.

"Sailing the Rising Tide of Reason"

Mp3 audio is available here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Beatdown! Fractally-wrong altie pulls a Yomin over losing Twitter "award"

This post wins the internet!

A little context: Recently an alt-med wackaloon called Mike Adams — who runs the antiscience site and calls himself the "Health Ranger" — was in the lead for something called the Shorty Award. It's the sort of thing where people vote for their favorite person in a certain category, by tweeting. It's not an actual award, just a Twitter popularity contest.

But to Mike, it must have been like the Nobel. Because when he lost the award to DrRachie, an actual cell biologist, he also totally lost his shit!

There are awesome articles by PZ, Orac, and Phil Plait discussing the side-splitting melodrama. (For one thing, it was found that Mike was violating the Shorty rules by getting votes from brand new Twitter accounts created just to tweet a vote for him. However it was done, by Mike himself sockpuppeting or some of his fans doing it too, it was against the rules, and didn't help him in the end anyway.)

Mike has just been "pulling a Yomin" over and over at his site. In addition to threatening to sue people, he's now posted an absolutely hilarious "exposé" of skeptics. Apparently we're "agents of death" who don't even believe we're alive. I won't link to the article, because there's no need. The very first link in this post goes to a magnificent demolition of Mike's endless rant over at Dubito Ergo Sum. It's truly epic in every way. Mike Adams is a person so completely divorced from reality it's a wonder he can tell up from down. He doesn't build a straw man in his lunatic screed. It's a whole straw army. Mike Adams makes Ray Comfort sound sensible. Think about that.

"Unknowable" basically means "who cares?"

Occasionally we'll hear a believer define his god as an "unknowable" being. Bizarrely, these folks tend to think that's a real gotcha! moment, because obviously, that means we cannot disprove its existence, and so unless we want to be "closed-minded," then we must admit there is at least the tiniest possibility that it might exist, because we don't know everything, now do we.

This is pretty much the most desperate form any apologetics can take. For one thing, it reduces "god" to the smallest and most insignificant thing it could possibly be: a thing that cannot be known or comprehended at all by our "feeble" human minds. (Yes, I know, why would a god waste his time creating us at all if he just wanted to give us "feeble" minds?) God could not be any more useless than to be indistinguishable from something that, for all intents and purposes, doesn't even exist. Moreover, when an apologist starts arguing like this, you'd do well to point out he's pretty much at variance with Christianity and every other major world religion, as they emphatically are run on the premise that their deities can be comprehended just fine, thank you.

Here's part of a recent exchange with a theist emailer I've been having, which illustrates how wrong this line of thinking is.

The fellow starts:

I am composing this letter in an attempt to prove god exists. I believe god is an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principal, and because we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of how everything was created in the first place, I also believe that god is inherently unknowable.

Have I just described something that does not exist? How did I do that? If you could tell me that my god does not exist how could you do that? Better yet how could you even think that? I understand this is an agnostic theist point of view however I cannot see how it is in error.

My first reply went like this:

All you've done in this argument is come up with a new name for the electron: God. It's like new-age people who call "the Universe" God. All they've done is come up with a new word for universe.

If someone were a sun worshiper, and told me in all seriousness the sun was his god, then yes, I suppose I'd have to concede his "god" exists, though I would disagree that the sun possesses any sort of divine powers. And if he agreed with me the sun had no supernatural powers, he's just happy worshiping it as God, then he's simply come up with another word for "sun." What you're demonstrating by your argument is that theists really do create gods as an exercise in trying to understand things they don't otherwise understand, and making the universe more superficially comprehensible by anthropomorphizing it. Conceptually, "God" is a placeholder for ignorance. (And yes, gods typically are defined in ways that defy direct examination, allowing them to retain their divine mystique because "you can't prove it DOESN'T exist!")

He replied today, and here is his letter with my responses in bold.

Hello Martin,

Thank you very much for responding . I am not sure you understand what I have stated in my letter. I have offered an explanation for and thereby proof god exists in that god is the totality of everything. I believe it fits quite nicely the definition of god.

Well, like the new-ager I described in my previous response, it looks to me like you've simply come up with a new word for "the totality of everything." My question would be, how is this helpful? What is the utility of doing this? Does calling "the totality of everything" a "god" increase your understanding of this totality? Does it help you comprehend plasma physics, dark energy, the way in which the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating rather than slowing down? What does this label "god" contribute to any of this? What do I gain in insight or knowledge by thinking that the atoms in the lettuce in the salad I'm eating right now are somehow "god"? Or is it a label you like for emotional reasons?

At this point I find myself wondering if your only definition of god is "something that simply does not exist". If this is the case then it seems to me this is a closed minded point of view. Is atheism a closed minded point of view? If so, I find it less likely that it is an intelligent view, thou it still may be the correct point of view.

If you admit it might be a correct view, why would be it be less intelligent? Usually one's intelligence can be measured by how correct one's views are. A person who thinks 2+2=4 is more intelligent, in my estimation, than a person who thinks 2+2 might equal 4, but might also equal, for arcane reasons, 728.

As an atheist, I do not define god. All I can do is respond to the definitions (and there are many) of god that are presented to me by believers. I examine those to see if 1) there is evidence to support them and 2) if they provide anything in the way of practical understanding of the world, that could not be achieved through the time tested means of the scientific method. I have to confess that I've not yet heard a definition of god that passes those tests.

But that hardly means I'm 'closed-minded'. Terms like 'closed-minded' and 'open-minded' are thrown about very loosely by believers who want to rebut skeptics, but I don't think they understand the terms. It is not 'open-minded' to believe claims that lack evidence simply because those claims are emotionally appealing; it is simply gullible. It is not 'closed-minded' to demand strong evidence for claims before choosing to believe them; it is simply rational. Skeptics are indeed open-minded, but note that it's the 'mind' in that term that counts. What we are open to is evidence.

Now, looking at your definition of god, it's problematic for a few reasons, and hardly the "proof" you think. First, you simply slap the label "god" on everything that exists, down to the subatomic level, rendering the word basically meaningless. If every molecule, every atom, every gluon, every cigarette butt on the pavement is "god," then it means nothing to be god, and every religion in the world might as well pack it in.

Then you make your big mistake: after offering that definition, you promptly do an about face and declare god "inherently unknowable," something "we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of." Setting aside my disagreement with your low opinion of human intellect, if god were really "inherently unknowable," then nothing whatsoever can be said about god. You haven't even got any justification to say god is "an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others." Because to say that means you're claiming to know something about god, which you could NOT do if god were unknowable. "Inherently unknowable" means exactly that. There is nothing at all that can be said about an inherently unknowable concept, because it is inherently unknowable.

And this brings us to yet another problem: what exactly is the difference between an "inherently unknowable" thing, and something that does not exist at all? Practically there is none. Now, that isn't proof that something unknowable couldn't ever exist. But as we could not study it, evaluate it, observe it, or say anything about it whatsoever, then for all intents and purposes, it's as good as nonexistent anyway. So why care?

"God" is either something, or it is nothing. If it is something, either it is something we can know (and all the world's religions pretty much run on that premise) or cannot know. If the latter, its existence is of no relevance, as it cannot be distinguished from a nonexistent thing in the first place.

You state that "god is a placeholder for ignorance". Is there something wrong with that? We have finite minds and therefore could not possibly understand completely this concept that humans have called god.

Read what you wrote here again and see if you cannot answer your own question. What exactly is the sense in embracing a concept that you admit "we cannot possibly understand" as if it were some kind of valid explanation for things? (I think you've seen, to a small degree, the problem with your position, which is why you've slipped the qualifier "completely" into the sentence above.)

You're basically saying this: "There are things about the universe I am ignorant of, and so to explain them, I will conceive of a thing called 'god' that itself cannot be explained, let alone understood."

How is that a better way of grasping reality than A) finding out the real answers to those questions, and B) if there are no answers yet, simply accepting that. If you don't know the answer to a question, the honest thing to say is "I don't know," and then making that a springboard for continuing to study. It is not honest simply to place your ignorance on an altar and call it "god."

I believe that we can however take some comfort in the fact that so long as our mind are open that we can live better lives through the small amount of understanding that we have of god.

We're still talking about this "god" you say is "inherently unknowable," right? Sorry, but you've singly failed to explain how we can "live better lives" by choosing belief in some "unknowable" concept in lieu of increasing our actual store of knowledge. I think history will show that we humans are much better off with the greater knowledge of the world we have today through science than otherwise. People in medieval Europe didn't exactly take much "comfort" in their unknowable god while they were dying in their millions from plague and famine. How does ignorance and reliance on belief in the "unknowable" offer a "better" life than one where your worldview actually conforms to reality?

Friday, January 22, 2010

At the Texas SBOE, the fail flows like a river

If you've been following the Texas Freedom Network's blog, odds are your heart rate has been boosted to lethal levels over the insanity of the Texas State Board of (Mis)Education's attempts to rewrite American history so that social studies textbooks reflect right-wing Christianist agitprop. (McCarthy was a hero, Phyllis Schlafly is as important as the Founding Fathers, and the Civil Rights Movement was really overrated.) This is dangerous stupidity. And the degree to which these assclowns are so wedded to wingnut ideology that they cannot do basic fact checking is illustrated by the revelations in this article. Just go read it for yourself. It's a jaw-dropping level of idiocy. Clearly, there is no bottom for Terri Leo and her ship of fools to scrape.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

How to Read Mythology, 101

All of us understand that fables are not to be taken literally, and it’s an absurdity to expect them to conform to criteria imposed by reality. When a friend starts a funny story with, “A turtle walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a beer…” You don’t stop him, incredulous, and ask him to explain how in the world a talking turtle could exist. You understand it’s just a story, and you immediately suspend your expectation that this story should conform to the rules of reality as you understand them.

The Problem
What we often see with religion is a confusion where the believer suspends his expectation that the story conform to reality, but also asserts the fable is literally true and does, or rather must, literally, conform to reality.

While AETV viewers are well acquainted with the humor value of watching this on an individual level, it’s a bit unbelievable when you realize how many individuals seem to adopt this mode of misreading mythology, regularly, with regard to their respective religions.

Some things have come to the TV-list that drove home for me, with clarity, something most of us have long recognized: These people read fables as though they’re reality. We all know what it means to read “literally.” And as the joke example shows, we also know how to read non-literal tales. But our conversations with theists become confused with regard to currently regarded religious mythologies, because it’s read as literal by some, or even by many. So, while there is little debate when we talk to another modern human about how to read a story about Apollo’s firey chariot, we encounter substantial and very real communication interference when we expect everyone to also understand that modern religious mythology requires the same type of reading.

Consider this a “How to Read Mythology 101.”

What Prompted this Post
I replied to someone on the list who asked where we got the idea that the character of Jephthah was revered in the Bible.

The main character in the tale, Jephthah, is a Judge, a title briefly given to Hebrew leaders in the days before the tribes were ruled by kings. He was also a warrior. And one day during battle the Bible says the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah and he made a deal with Yahweh that if he won the skirmish, he would sacrifice to Yahweh the first thing that came out of his house to greet him upon his return.

Jephthah is victorious. And upon his return, the first thing out of his house to greet him is his beloved, only child—a daughter. Jephthah keeps his promise and sacrifices her as payment to fulfill his obligation to Yahweh.

Many, many, many centuries later, in the New Testament book of Hebrews, chapter 11, Jephthah is heaped with praise as a man of surpassing faith, of whom the world is not worthy.

Many Christians are vaguely familiar with the Old Testament story of the sacrifice, but not the brief mention in Hebrews where Jephthah is held up among the mythic heroes of Hebrew antiquity, revered as icons of faith to Yahweh. If you ask Christians about their view on Jephthah, you’re likely to get back a response like, “Who?” When you tell them, “the guy who sacrificed his daughter to god in the Old Testament,” if the person knows the standard Christian Bible stories, they’ll then know who you mean and, in general, reply that Jephthah was a rash man whose story serves as a cautionary tale about not making rash promises. In other words, they perceive Jephthah’s story as a symbol of a negative social value about how not to behave. And if you ask them what else Jephthah was known for, most of them won’t have a clue.

But if Jephthah’s role in the Bible is to serve as a symbol to others representing how not to behave, that leaves the New Testament reference in Hebrews as a very baffling statement. He’s clearly highly praised, not just as a good person, but a great one, and as someone who demonstrates what the rest of us can only hope to achieve in regard to a relationship with Yahweh.

The author of Hebrews assumes at least two things about his readers: (1) that centuries after the story was written, his audience will still recognize the name of “Jephthah.” And (2) they will recognize him as a positive literary symbol of surpassing devotion to Yahweh, who should be praised and revered for the faith demonstrated by his actions. The character of Jephthah then, unlike today, was apparently not perceived as a fool, but as heroic. His was not, according to the author of Hebrews, a cautionary tale, but an inspirational one.

Reading the Fable of Jephthah
The character of Jephthah illustrates particular positive values held by ancient Hebrews and early Christians, many of whom were also practicing Jews. And for a person to read the story with a positive central character is not hard if we read it using a different value set:

Jephthah, moved by the god, Yahweh, during battle, promises Him He can have anything from his house—bar nothing. And by not naming the payment price, rather than being rash, he’s being as magnanimous as any adherent could possibly be. Jephthah is declaring that Yahweh may name His price for his victory on the field. Rather than leaving it to random chance, which the “cautionary tale” reading asserts, Jephthah is leaving it to divine providence, blindly trusting and submitting to Yahweh’s choice, a reading that aligns perfectly well with what the author of Hebrews asserts. The character in the tale isn’t expecting to sacrifice some insect to Yahweh, some bit of vermin that crawls across his tent’s threshold; he’s expecting Yahweh to choose something of value from his household and usher that thing out the front door the moment he returns home—thus revealing to Jephthah Yahweh’s required price for his Yahweh-assisted victory.

The fact it is his daughter, if we use this reading, is no chance, and no surprise, it’s the price god was told he could dictate when the bargain was struck: Whatever comes out my door, I will sacrifice to you. You ensure my success in life, and I will withhold nothing. And Yahweh, when it comes to sacrifice, always demands the best.

Yahweh is never satisfied with weak, sick, thin nor flawed “sacrifices.” Killing off the things you don’t care about isn’t “sacrifice.” Sacrifice meant then what it means today, times a thousand—giving up something you’ll really miss. And while our own tales of self-sacrifice demonstrate similar commitment, there is a marked difference in degree between “Gift of the Magi” and “Abraham and Isaac.” There is a difference between self-sacrifice for love, and demanding sacrifice from someone else as a demonstration of their love. We all want to give the best we can to those we love; however, Bible stories carry this value to emotionally manipulative and brutal extremes, when compared to our current values.

Cultural Myths Reflect Cultural Values
Faith in the Old Testament did not mean what it means today. Today we have an idea of “faith” in the existence of god; but in the Old Testament, people like Abraham actually spoke to and even interacted with Yahweh directly, so there was no “faith,” in the modern sense, required. Faith to the Hebrew heroes meant belief that Yahweh was trustworthy. This belief was demonstrated by blind devotion, obedience, and sacrifice to an authority who would, in return, allow them to prosper materially.

Operating using our modern Western values, it would be considered “bad” to be in a relationship with someone who demands sacrifices from you as a demonstration of your love for them. Surely, one would have to wonder if the person doing the asking really loved in return? Our culture, despite our adoption of Hebrew myths into our religious sphere, does not consider that value honorable outside of religion. And even within religion, we reject that the character of Jephthah was praiseworthy, in defiance of the declaration of the author of Hebrews, whom we tend to simply overlook—as did the theist who wrote to us asking how we could possibly believe Jephthah was praised in the Bible.

Themes Throughout
Many Old Testament mythological themes are repeated throughout the Bible. And the story of Jephthah is one of those. The theme of sacrificing the “only child” is not isolated to Jephthah. Who hasn’t heard the fable of Abraham and Isaac?

I relayed this fable as well in my reply to the theist who contacted us. In this fable, one day god decides to “test” Abraham and tells him to offer up his beloved, only child, Isaac as a human sacrifice. Abraham offers no protest to Yahweh, who makes preparations to carry out Yahweh’s instructions.

I want to stop here and note another value difference between modern society and ancient Hebrew values. Many modern Christians will assert that if god asked them to do such a thing, they would not believe it was Yahweh, since He would never ask a person to execute such a horrific act. However, note that the author of the “Abraham and Isaac” tale does not seem to have anticipated that objection, and certainly did not feel a need to write that into his plot. Just as the author of Jephthah has him issue no protest when his daughter comes out to greet him, neither does the author of Abraham and Isaac feel any need to make Abraham protest that “the real” Yahweh would never command or allow such an atrocity. Both men accept that this is within the character of Yahweh to ask, and they both submit without question, and are later both praised in Hebrews as men of great faith—examples to us all.

The author of Hebrews says, in chapter 11:17-19, “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son…Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

In other words, the interpretation at the time Hebrews was written was that Abraham believed Yahweh intended to have him execute Isaac as an offering. And Abraham was intent on doing it. But even with the caveat that the early Christians had reasoned Abraham must have thought Isaac would be magically resurrected (this assumption is not included in the Old Testament tale), if this act were portrayed in a modern story, it would still violate our modern values. Even if the modern character believed the dead could be brought back to life—would we then really consider that murdering his own children to appease someone else’s insecurity about his level of devotion would be praiseworthy, rather than sick and twisted? The action in a modern tale could be arguably interpreted as ever so slightly mitigated—perhaps? But praiseworthy? It is something we might expect from a story about a powerful dark sorceress given over to bloodlust and cruelty.

But again, the myths simply reflect the values of the culture. And cultural values change over time. In our case, we have become more independent and compassionate, and less brutal. Even Disney changed the endings of Andersen’s stories to give them happier resolutions. And movies like V, where heroes commit morally ambiguous acts in order to struggle against symbols of evil, raise discussion. In our myths, we like our heroes, generally, to wear the white hat and be always in the right. They kill symbols of evil, the “bad guys”—not children.

Ultimately, however, an angel stops Abraham and god declares that because He sees Abraham won’t withhold the thing most dear, god is satisfied and he doesn’t have to continue with the commanded infanticide.

You Know You’re Reading a Myth When…
But here is an interesting point. When I included “Abraham and Isaac” in my response to the theist who contacted us, I asserted Isaac was Abraham’s “only child”—that he was simply one of the “sacrifice your only child”-themed myths demonstrated in the Bible. Why is that interesting? Because Isaac was not Abraham’s only child. Abraham had a first born son named Ishmael.

My first instinct was to cringe. How could I have made such an obvious error? I knew about Ishmael. And if I were a fundamentalist, I’d jump all over this mistake: Isaac’s story is not an example of the “only child,” because he was not an only child—how much more of a problem could I be confronted with? But more importantly, in considering the myth—why did my brain assign Isaac to “only child” status in this story?

Frankly, it is because Ishmael does not count, if we are reading the myth and not the literal content. Myths are symbolic, just like certain dreams. And as anyone with PTSD can tell you—if you have stress in your real life, it often leaks into your dreams. If we are experiencing something in life that leaves us stressed and feeling like we’re not sure what to do, we might have something called the “maze” dream that will recur. Let’s say we have the following three dreams during a week:

First Dream: I’m on my way to a doctor’s appointment and I get to the building. I get on the elevator and realize I don’t know which floor I’m supposed to go to. In the dream I am going floor to floor trying to find some sign to tell me where this doctor’s office is. I’m getting increasingly frustrated and concerned that I’m missing my appointment. But no matter where I go or what floor I try, I can’t find the office.

Second Dream: I’m driving down the highway, and I take a wrong exit. I try to get back on the highway, but I end up back on heading the wrong way. Meanwhile, I keep seeing signs I don’t recognize, with place names that don’t match anything on my map. The roads are getting more convoluted with twists and turns, and I’m getting upset.

Third Dream: I’m thirteen, and hiking in the woods. It is getting dark and I need to get home. But when I turn to go back down the path, it looks unfamiliar. The trees are not the same species, there is more underbrush, and a creek that wasn’t there before. I desperately try to find the way back. And suddenly I’m aware of something ominous in the woods with me—a wolf or some such thing. I’m beginning to panic.

My counselor asks me if I’ve had any troubled recurring dreams, and I respond that while I’ve had a number of dreams this week that troubled me, they were all quite different—one was about hiking, one was about driving and one was about a doctor’s appointment. And yet, from a “theme” perspective, the dreams were identical events. And a person who reads a fable as literal reality will not understand the message, the meaning, or the actual significance of the tale. In a word, he will entirely miss the point.

In the fable of Abraham, Ishmael is the son of a slave, not of Abraham’s union with his wife. And Ishmael is sent from Abraham’s house as a youth, and never mentioned in conjunction with Abraham again until he attends Abraham’s funeral. As a “son” to Abraham, Ishmael has no meaning. Isaac is the “only son” in the only sense that matters in a myth. If I had the “dream” of Abraham and Isaac, and also the “dream” of Jephthah, those would constitute “the same dream”—embodying the same theme.

Now, while I see this as reasonable, I could not help but think that any fundamentalist would never accept this. They would assert I’m working up an elaborate excuse for my error. To those fundamentalists, I offer the Hebrews passage above from your own New Testament, where the author calls Isaac, as well, Abraham's "only son." But more importanly, the author of the original tale, as it comes to us today in Genesis 22:15-17, agrees with my interpretation as well. This is god’s reply to Abraham, spoken through the angel that stayed Abraham’s infanticidal stroke: “The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, ‘I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you…’”

The character of Yahweh, in his omniscience, also seems to have forgotten Ishmael. If I am accused of error for distorting the meaning of the story—so must be the author of Genesis, so must be the author of Hebrews. The fact is that from a mythic standpoint, Ishmael is simply has no meaning as a “son” to Abraham.

He was only an element in the stories meant to account for some of the other neighboring Hebrew tribes. Where did these similar tribes come from? From Abraham as well—but from an inferior mother—Ishmael, the surrogate slave son. So, with some neighboring tribes, it appears the Hebrews admitted or believed some ancient kinship—but still asserted their heritage as the superior bloodline. And Ishmael is the fable accounting for that in the same way Romulus and Remus, twins raised by a she-wolf, account for Roman roots.

The story is legend, which is how it needs to be read. And the authors themselves support this reading. Is it based on some ancient personages? Maybe. But in our time, the idea that the tales are literal histories—undistorted facts—is simply not demonstrated as intended by the authors. We observe the theme of the “sacrifice of the only child”—in a story where the “only child” simply cannot be literally read.

Repeating Themes Flag Symbolic Language
And we see it as well in the New Testament, where Yahweh, the god who, we are told by modern Christians, reviles human sacrifice, executes his grand plan to bathe the word in the blood of the greatest human sacrifice ever made: The sacrifice of Yahweh’s obedient, beloved “only child.”

Once again, primed with stories from the Hebrew past, which show us that killing your only child is the best way to show you care, Yahweh demonstrates his merciful love of humanity (who, not to be forgotten, in no way deserves it), by offering up Jesus as a human blood sacrifice. That’s his master plan of salvation: offering Himself a brutal and bloody human sacrifice, born out of historic themes of infanticide, somehow intended as a demonstration of tenderness. I don’t know whether it’s more amazing people believe this or that they even are capable of understanding it as coherent or reasonable in the modern age? This type of dysfunction would be patently condemned anywhere else in our society outside of religion.

While some may protest Jesus was a god—it’s clear from abundant Biblical references that Yahweh was the father, Jesus was the son, and that Jesus was still described repeatedly as being human. From 1 Timothy’s description that he “appeared in the flesh,” to Galatians’ assertion he was “born of a woman,” there’s no reasonable denying the humanity of Jesus described in scripture—even if, as a modern literalist, you assert he was also in some way god.

This is only one of many repeating themes in the Bible that should signal we’re reading a myth. There are many others to choose from. In fact, Isaac demonstrates another—the usurpation of the first born son. But I’ll save that for another post, since I’m overlong again already.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How to Hunt Men for Jesus

You use the "spiritually transformed firearm of Jesus Christ" of course. No seriously, that's what some members of the military call it. Here's what Rachel Maddow had to say about it yesterday:

Onward Christian Assholes! Nothing like compromising the entire mission in the Middle East.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bryan Steeksma's Residual Soul

One of the most frequently asked questions we get from AETV viewers is "Who does that kickass opening song?" to which we've replied, often, that it's by Canadian artist and AETV fan Bryan Steeksma. As your FYI post for Monday I direct you to Bryan's download-only album Residual Soul, available from CDBaby for $24.99, and from the iTunes store for only $11.99. So the choice there seems easy. Now, show fans may be disappointed that the album's generous track listing (31 songs!) does not include "Listen to Reason," which Bryan wrote just for us and for which he hasn't to my knowledge announced any release plans. But there ought to be enough there to satisfy your curiosity about this versatile godless rawker. And the album does include "The Galaxy's Elegant Cinema," which we used as the show theme last summer when broadcasting from Matt's apartment Dillahunty International Studios.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Secular Charities for Haiti Relief

Here's a short list with a brief description of each of them and links where you can donate. I've included text donation information for those charities that provide for that. I'm sure there are others, but these are the ones I had time to vet. You can find them all on Charity Navigator.


MADRE is an international women's human rights organization that works towards a world in which all people enjoy the fullest range of individual and collective human rights; in which resources are shared equitably and sustainably; in which women participate effectively in all aspects of society; and in which people have a meaningful say in decisions that affect their lives. MADRE uses human rights to advance social justice. We partner with women in communities worldwide to meet urgent, local needs and create long-term solutions to the problems that women face. Our program areas are: peace building; women's health and combating violence against women; and economic and environmental justice.

ActionAid International -

ActionAid International USA's (AAI USA) works on the ground and in the halls of power to end poverty. We work in 49 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America, with over 25 million poor people. Our work seeks to create and sustain better futures by providing relief from disasters and conflicts, empowering women, fighting hunger, holding governments accountable, fighting HIV & AIDS, and making education accessible. ActionAid's mission is to work with poor and marginalized people to eradicate poverty by overcoming the injustice and inequality that cause it.

International Relief Teams -

International Relief Teams (IRT) is an international relief organization dedicated to organizing volunteer teams to provide medical and non-medical assistance to the victims of disaster and profound poverty worldwide. Since its inception in 1988, IRT has provided $5.7 million in volunteer services and more than $136 million in medicines and supplies to families in desperate need in 52 countries worldwide. IRT specializes in medical training and education, surgical and clinical outreach, health promotion, disease prevention and disaster relief. During the past year, IRT deployed 36 teams, involving 157 medical and construction specialists. IRT provided nearly $26 million in supplies and services to thousands of families in need worldwide.

AmeriCares -

Founded in 1982, AmeriCares is an international relief organization whose passion to help is matched by an ability to deliver. Whether it's an epic disaster or a daily struggle, AmeriCares goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure that medicines, medical supplies and aid reaches individuals in need wherever they are, whenever they need it. In a quarter of a century, we have delivered more than $8 billion of aid to 137 countries. For more than two decades, the success of AmeriCares has been characterized by timely response, meaningful impact, high integrity and intense passion for the work. To deliver medicine, relief supplies and health care to the needy, AmeriCares has developed a platform based on strategic partnerships, high-efficiency and tight auditing procedures.

Doctors Without Borders -

Doctors Without Borders, USA (DWB-USA) was founded in 1990 in New York City to raise funds, create awareness, recruit field staff, and advocate with the United Nations and US government on humanitarian concerns. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an international medical humanitarian organization that provides aid in nearly 60 countries to people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe, primarily due to armed conflict, epidemics, malnutrition, exclusion from health care, or natural disasters. In 2007, MSF-USA raised $152.1 million and sent 200 aid workers to work overseas.

MSF lost all 3 of its hospitals in Haiti.

Partners in Health -

Founded in 1987, Partners In Health's (PIH) mission is to provide a preferential option for the poor in health care. The work of PIH has three goals: to care for our patients, to alleviate the root causes of disease in their communities, and to share lessons learned around the world. Through long-term partnerships with our sister organizations, we bring the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need and work to alleviate the crushing economic and social burdens of poverty that exacerbate disease. PIH believes that health is a fundamental right, not a privilege. PIH works in Haiti, Rwanda, Peru, Russia, USA, Malawi and Lesotho, and supports projects in Mexico and Guatemala.

Humanist Charities of the American Humanist Association -

Humanist Charities of the American Humanist Association (AHA) expresses its deep sorrow for the people affected by the massive devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti. To ensure rapid and effective response to this tragedy, Humanist Charities has established the Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund to support a humanist and secular organization in Haiti with direct aid.

UPDATE 01/15 4:12pm: Thanks to the generosity of over 300 members, Humanist Charities is sending $23,450 from the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund to purchase food and supplies for the people of Haiti. The AHA sent the donation via wire transfer to a secure credit union in the Dominican Republic, where the money will be used by Sebastian Velez to secure food and supplies to deliver to the people in Jacmel, a city near Port-au-Prince devastated by the earthquake. A gift of this size had made it possible to provide the largest truck filled with supplies. The trucks and Dominican NGO teams will travel Saturday evening to begin distributing the food.

Direct Relief International -

Direct Relief International provides medical assistance to improve the quality of life for people affected by poverty, disaster, and civil unrest at home and throughout the world. We work to strengthen the in-country health efforts of our partners by providing essential material resources – medicines, supplies and equipment.

Direct Relief was established in 1948 and is nonsectarian, nongovernmental, and apolitical. All the programs are provided in a non-discriminatory manner, without regard to political affiliation, religious belief, or ethnic identity.

To support our earthquake relief efforts in Haiti,donate online or text the message Give10 to the number 20222 to donate $10 via your mobile phone.

American Red Cross -

Since its founding in 1881 by visionary leader Clara Barton, the American Red Cross has been the nation's premier emergency response organization. As part of a worldwide movement that offers neutral humanitarian care to the victims of war, the American Red Cross distinguishes itself by also aiding victims of devastating natural disasters. Over the years, the organization has expanded its services, always with the aim of preventing and relieving suffering.

To support earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, text the message Haiti to the number 90999 on your mobile phone.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

We Can’t Please Everyone

It’s pretty obvious that Jen and Russell received mixed reviews on the theist guest experiment. I will let the viewers continue to figure out their feelings about it.

But the event also triggered some e-mail responses, and one in particular was from “a fan of the show” who also notes he is “a Christian…currently in school studying Apologetics and Philosophy.”

The gist of the letter was that a pastor really is not a good representative to interview about Christian doctrine and belief. Just to clarify, “if you guys are going to put Christians on the show to represent Theism I would really like to see a trained apologist or philosopher...the Pastor has degrees in councilling and phsycology, which is fine but would not represent Christian Theism nearly as good as those who are actually trained in philosophy and apologetics.” [sic]

I replied to him on the list, and was asked if I would share the response on the blog. So, here it is:

First, thanks for writing, and sorry for the delay in a response to your letter. Since I wasn’t a co-host on this particular program, I didn’t want to jump in too quickly to speak for Jen and Russell. But they have spoken for themselves at our blog if you would like to see those discussions:

Having some history with the program, and the benefit of an insider’s view, I can share a few thoughts on how I perceived your note initially. I was surprised by it.

Our show is available to educate the population about atheism, foremost. We welcome callers to contact us with questions or differing view points so we can talk about what an atheist is, or talk about what they believe and why. This would seem like a fair format—however we take pretty constant criticism for this each week. One criticism we often receive is that it is wrong and cruel to talk to Christian laymen live on the air, because they come across as stupid and uneducated. Believe it or not, we get this criticism from both atheists and theists, pretty equally, and both are just as blunt in calling our callers “uneducated” and “stupid.” We generally respond that our callers are just regular believers who call us, and even we don’t insult our own callers on that level—except on the rarest of occasions. I can’t say “never”; but I can say I, personally, never have referred to any caller as “stupid” or “uneducated.” But this is what people claim to think of Christian laymen—who are generally the theists who contact the program.

Next, we get criticized pretty consistently, and in line with the above criticism, for not having good Xian representatives on, even though we're an atheist program and have no requirement to represent the broad majority religious view (which is represented in pretty much most aspects of media/society without our assistance). Why don’t we put on a preacher or someone who understands these things better than the stupid “regular” Christians who call—is normally along the lines of how this is expressed.

So, for reasons expressed at the blog, Russell decided to bring on a professional, educated man who also works as a leader in the local Christian community. He hosted an actual pastor. And what do we get almost immediately? A letter saying a pastor with an education, an actual Christian leader, doesn’t “count” because he doesn’t have the “right” education to be up there with amateur counter-apologetic hobbyists. Remember, please, that nobody on our show is a “professional” counter-apologist with any sort of counter-apologetics degree. So, the pastor was not in the company of anyone on that set who could even begin to claim his own level of professional credentials to talk about his religion. In fact, of the hosts, Jen and Russell may have the least background with Christianity. Just being a professional leader in the Christian community should have put the pastor at a decided advantage over either Jen or Russell in talking about god or Christianity.

Next, what struck me was that you say you are a student of apologetics, but nothing [in your e-mail] offers us any thoughts on what this Pastor said that was wrong or could have been better stated. You don’t “correct” any errors he made about your beliefs. And you don’t counter Jen and Russell’s questions yourself—even though you say this is your personal area of education. The reason this strikes me as something that stands out, is that whenever any of the co-hosts on our program makes a misstatement about some fact in science, we are immediately barraged with letters from science students and amateur science hobbyists offering not only criticism but, more importantly, correction of the error. If the pastor did a poor job of explaining how your doctrine works—please feel free to represent, and explain what he might have presented differently or better.

Finally, I was surprised by your note, because it begged an important question to me: If regular Christians aren’t able to understand or explain Christian beliefs correctly, and a paid, educated Christian in a position of leadership within the religion isn’t able to understand or explain Christian beliefs correctly, and a student of theology and apologetics in these beliefs can’t offer constructive critique of someone else’s flawed responses about his own doctrine and beliefs as a Christian, who, then, has any justification to believe this doctrine—since it’s obviously outside most people’s capacity to even understand it correctly?

And that's basically all I had to say about that.


The California Supreme US District Court is currently hearing a case over whether 2008 Proposition 8 (which bans same-sex marriage in the California State Constitution) is itself constitutional. If the court rules that it is not constitutional (by the state's US constitution), then same-sex marriage would revert to being allowed in the state. This is a pretty important case as many people feel that California is a cultural leader for the entire US--not to mention its sheer size.

There has been a recent side-show as to whether the hearing would be (video) broadcast to the public. One can make an argument that public interest is served by transparency, especially in such an important case. This little debate went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States that decided today that there should be no such coverage. The 5-4 decision (with the conservative Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and Alito in the majority) was ostensibly decided on a technicality. Not too interesting so far; but let's look under the hood, shall we?

The very fact that SCOTUS even heard the case and issued a decision was based on an urgent claim of "irreparable harm" to someone. According to one source, "The Court also found that the high-profile nature of the trial might intimidate witnesses and cause irreparable harm if the rule were not stayed." However, the dissenting justice wrote (page 24-25): "I can find no basis for the Court’s conclusion that, were the transmissions to other courtrooms to take place, the applicants would suffer irreparable harm. Certainly there is no evidence that such harm could arise in this nonjury civil case from the simple fact of transmission itself." (This article has a good analysis.) Perhaps a broadcast on YouTube would cause irreparable harm to their cause.

So what's going on? The religious supporters of Proposition 8 are wanting have their free speech rights to make false and emotionally manipulative claims, but they are crying persecution when it comes to taking responsibility for them. Consider defendant Hak-Shing William Tam, who wrote, "On their agenda list is: legalize having sex with children," and that, "other states would fall into Satan's hands," if gays weren't stopped from marrying in California. A successful advertising campaign during the Proposition 8 election claimed that homosexuality would be taught in public schools. They want to perpetrate thuggery on gays, but they're playing the persecution card when it comes to taking responsibility for their lies--and the conservatives on the Supreme Court are backing them up. Apparently, taking responsibility is irreparably harmful to the religious.

The irony is so thick here you could build a church with it. Some supporters of Proposition 8 have gotten harassing phone calls and e-mail messages. I can't say I feel any pity for these people. They are being subject to much milder versions of the same tactics they have done to gays and others over the years. (Religious readers are referred to Exodus 21:22-25 and Matthew 7:12 for a little morality lesson and some tasty just desserts. I long for the day when the majority of gays vote on the Christians' right to marriage, just as the Christians have done to gays.) Christian death threats are a common intimidation tactic and the religion has plenty of people who are willing to carry them out. Gays have been subject to (real) hate crimes for years, most of which have been religiously motivated. Christians have made a big business out of persecuting gays. Proposition 8 itself is just part of that business. If same-sex marriage becomes normalized, they will have a much harder time vilifying gays and their red-meat lovin' constituency will turn to other pursuits and take their tithes with them.

Same-sex marriage in the US will happen eventually, but we can count on the religious fighting unfairly every step of the way.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haitian ambassador schools Pat "Just F*cking Die Already" Robertson

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

We get email

Hard to keep coming up with creative new titles for these, so may as well just stick with the time-tested one.

Dear AE, please stop being naive & guilble.

You're blinded & deceived by the devil.

I pray that you, along with every fellow atheist find the light through all the darkness you all

remain In & accept our Lord Jesus Christ as your almighty saviour.

Whats the purpose of preaching atheism, when you don't go anywhere after life?

Whats the point?

You say us Chrisitans are waisting precious time here on earth, while thats quite hypocritical.

You preach atheism, aren't you waisting precious time as well?

Us christians actually believe In a beautiful life after death with our king & saviour, so we have

more then a reason to preach, It's our purpose.

We want to save people from there sin & the devil because we love them & don't want them to end

up In hell.

Whats your purpose?

Life Is a lesson that we're here to learn & experience, our reward Is heaven.

All of you are being controlled by the devil, you don't even know It because you cease to have an

open mind, you cease to even try to understand his existence because Its much to difficult.

You would rather just take the easy way In life & say there Isn't a God.

You would rather be your own God, have your own control, your own reasone for existence because

thats what YOU want & find easiest.

Quite honestly, I think life as an Atheist would be quite sad & depressing because to think we are

only here once & that all this that we're living currently Is all for nothing?

That would mean there Is absolutely no purpose for anything.

I'm not going to get Into detail because as long as you all keep that hard head of yours, you won't

ever see the truth & you will end up pershing in hell for the rest of eternity.

For your sake, please try & see the truth.

Call out to the lord & ask for his help, he won't let you down.

Seek him diligently & you shall find.

It takes time, but be patient & wait on the Lord because those that remain patient & wait on the

Lord have a special place In the kingdom of God.

There Is all to much Info out there, you just need

to seek diligently & you shall find.

Start of by praying, asking for forgivness, accepting Jesus as your Lord/saviour & then ask him to

come Into your life & he will.

Then pick a bible up & start studying, you will see the truth.

You will finally experience the peace that comes with knowing & following him.

We love you, may God bless & have mercy on you.

[name deleted]

I like this one because it's the complete opposite of the usual, unreadable "dozens of sentence crammed into a single giant paragraph" format that we often see. Instead of that, every sentence in this message has its own paragraph, and sometimes the paragraph breaks occur within a single sentence.

Also, for some unfathomable reason, it looks to me like every word that begins with the letter "I" is capitalized, ("It", "Is", "In") as if the author was chided too many times for failing to capitalize the first person pronoun, and he went to the opposite extreme. A little knowledge being a dangerous thing, and all that.

I may be accused to responding to this email's style over its substance, but really, in a case like this, what the hell else can you do?

Stay classy, Pat

We've gotten an email at the TV show address alerting us that on today's 700 Club episode, Pat Robertson has gone into his usual "blame the victims" spiel regarding the Haitian earthquake. Apparently God decided to level Port-au-Prince, kill untold numbers (estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands), and displace at least 3 million people, because in the 19th century the Haitians "made a deal with the devil to free themselves from the French." Setting aside the native Vodou religion (which is where Pat gets his debbil from), let us remember that the Haitian Revolution is the only successful slave revolt in history, bringing to an end a minority rule by the French that was enforced — in the way slavery is always enforced — with an oppressive caste system and violence. I guess that's the way Pat prefers things.

Pat has clearly created his God in his image: they're both despicable douchenozzles. Decent people, on the other hand, are encouraged to help.

Here it is right from the scumbag's mouth.

And here's something impressive. As much as we all like to dogpile on Faux News, one fellow there I have to say I respect is anchor Shepard Smith. He's the one guy there most willing to resist toeing the right wing party line. I remember him broadcasting live from New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina and he was unflinching in his condemnation (as was Geraldo, as I recall) of the Bush administration's clusterfuck attempts at relief even as Sean Hannity was desperately trying to spin the whole thing from his comfy chair in Manhattan. And now he registers appropriate disgust with Robertson. Kudos, Shep.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Another konk on the head with the Reality Mallet

Okay, so you know how the homophobic Christian Right clutches its pearls and bleats that if teh gayz are allowed to marry for realz, it will, like, totally destroy the institution of marriage for everybody, forever? So we have to keep gay marriage illegal because the sanctity of traditional straight marriage simply won't survive otherwise?

Well, it turns out that in the big wide real world that the fundies like to pretend they don't inhabit, things actually seem to work a little differently.

Now of course, correlation is not causation, and you couldn't say that if the states with gay marriage bans were to allow gay marriage, then overall divorce rates would start to reverse. I think it's more of an indicator that many of the states with gay marriage bans have a high fundamentalist demographic, and the rigidly patriarchal marriages that exist in that culture are not exactly the portrait of perfect connubial bliss they want everyone to believe they are.

But it does tend to throw a bit of cold water — like, enough to fill Lake Erie — on the claim that gay marriage is some kind of heterosexuality killer. One has to wonder what folks who say things that stupid are so desperate to suppress.

The most persuasive evidence I've yet seen that there may not only be a God, but that he dearly, truly loves us!


Seriously, Jon Stewart, Colbert, Rachel Maddow, Olbermann must not be able to stop dancing with glee! This is rapture!

Propagandists to the Rescue!

The Texas State Board of Education has been a constant source of annoyance and frustration for people like me, who value church-state separation. The current board is packed with creationists and religious ideologues who have lost touch with reality, not to mention their mission as educators. Here's a sampling: Board member Cynthia Dunbar has called public education a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion" and unconstitutional. Not surprisingly, she's a graduate of Pat Robertson's would-be law school. Another board member, Don McLeroy, has consistently promoted Christianity in his previous role as chair of the board. He is quite convinced his training as a dentist makes him better suited to judge scientific material than the true experts whom he holds in contempt. He has called evolution "hooey" (as it conflicts with his Christian belief). Board member Terri Leo has argued for all language in textbooks to refer to opposite-sex couples exclusively (with no neutral language) when referring to marriage. She advocated that middle school textbooks emphasize that gay teens commit suicides at a higher rate. (It couldn't have anything to do with Christian persecution, propaganda, and suggestion, could it, Terri?) If this is our best and brightest on the SBOE, Texas is pretty screwed up on the education front. Unfortunately, Texas' textbook decision impact broad swaths of the United States. Many states simply buy the textbooks that have gone through the Texas review process.

The latest episode in this freak show is the current review of the history textbooks. Various dubiously qualified "experts" have been brought in to spin the textbooks with ideological agendas. Of particular interest is pseudo-historian David Barton and minister Peter Marshall who were both called by board members to lend a hand in reviewing history textbooks. Neither have credentials to be called experts. Barton is a well-known propagandist. He makes his living promoting a pro-Christian version of American history with lies and half-truths. Not surprisingly, he's up to his usual tricks. The minister's agenda is far more obvious. The only bright light in this whole sordid mess is the fact that Texas Freedom Network is doing a great job of covering the mess and helping to keep us informed. With luck, we can get more sane people on the board in the upcoming election. For now, we can really only watch the train wreck and hope for the best. (Yes, there's a public hearing this week, but I don't think it will have an impact.)

While I have certainly felt a lot of frustration and anger at the Texas SBOE over the years, today I'm feeling kind of sorry for Christianity. I feel pity. If the facts about Christianity were actually taught in schools... the Crusades, Salem Witch Trials, systematic persecution of Jews, the burning of the Library of Alexandria, the Spanish Inquisition, the corruption of the Popes, the sabotage of medical advances, the marketing of rapture snuff porn, and the link between belief and so many social ills... if all of the facts were taught in schools, in an unbiased way, it would inoculate kids in the US against the disease of Christianity. That's what they've done it in Europe and the level of belief has plummeted.

Christian leaders here know of this danger, so they've packed the board with ideologues and sent in their crack team of propagandists to make Texas children's minds safe for a false religion. They know they have to lie to the children because the truth is not on their side. It's a pitiful attempt to save the falsehoods they hold so dear. Even in its sickly state, however, Christianity is still doing great harm.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Post-show thoughts for 1/10

Hi folks,

Thanks for watching the show last night, and thanks in advance to all of you who will eventually come across this thread after listening to the podcast. Sorry for spinning this off into a new post, but I felt like using my executive privilege to cut in line and not appear after 20+ comments.

I hear what you guys are saying about the positives and negatives of last night's experiment. And believe me, this was definitely an experimental bit, and I didn't have any idea whether this would be a good move or not. I suspect I will not really be sure until discussing it and reading feedback for a few more weeks. I'm sure there are things that could be improved.

I cut my intro short, because the obvious shuffling around on camera threw me off a bit and I didn't want the introduction to seem phony. But I was intending to explain a little better why I decided to violate our usual stated reasons for not having Christians on the show. Obviously there are a lot of exclusively Christian shows out there, so we feel no need to provide "equal time." But as we've noted often in the last year, it's hard to get a reliable source of disagreement from the callers when so many people are internet fans who seek us out because they like us. I think yesterday's show illustrated that very well, since all but the last two callers were atheists, and those two were a bit mediocre in my opinion.

So I have been wanting to see what would happen if we go offer an invitation to an experienced Christian speaker, rather than some clueless person who just happened to stumble on us. I sent out an email to everyone at Great Hills Baptist (which is among the biggest churches in Austin) and got feedback from Kyle right away. While acknowledging that this was possibly a stumbling first effort, I'd like to make a case for why this appearance was a success.

First of all, apologies to people who were hoping that they would see a full scale brawl and didn't get one. I know that that's a direction we could have gone, but that would have depended more on getting a guest who wanted to fight. We got Kyle. He's a polite, friendly, non-creationism-promoting, non-atheist-condemning Christian, and that's who we wound up with on the show.

At the same time, I completely disagree with somebody's claim that this was so "softball" that it was like Fox News interviewing Dick Cheney. My opening statement was intended to point out that whether or not evil is a "problem" for God, there is no indication that there is any kind of God (whether Dionysus, Jonathan Edwards' god, or Kyle's god) taking an active interest in society; and what we see is exactly what we'd expect if every individual simply made up their own concept of god based on personal preference. To the extent that Kyle made specific claims about his god, we didn't miss any opportunity to point out that there is no rationale for believing that this god actually exists, or that Kyle's interpretation of God has any more weight behind it than that of Jonathan Edwards. And furthermore, Kyle didn't provide any serious disagreement with this response, preferring to disavow any application of evidence.

Yes, the conversation still turned out to be pleasant and friendly. So what? The mission of the Atheist Experience is not to destroy Christians at every opportunity. It's:
  1. To promote positive atheism -- which wouldn't have been as well served by hosting a Crossfire-style shouting match.
  2. To provide community outreach and clear up misunderstandings -- which I think will only be helped if we can encourage more Christians to watch the show and not fear the atheist attack dogs.
  3. To present atheism as a rational point of view while pointing out logical inconsistencies in religion -- which we most certainly did.

I must also report that Kyle was a fine dinner companion, listening respectfully to people who wanted to contest what he'd said, and talking about experiences that people were interested in hearing. That's exactly why we regularly add "or atheist friendly" in our dinner invitations.

Finally, I hear some people saying that the segment wasn't long enough, and that they were left wishing that we had left more time for it. Fantastic! I was initially worried that 30 minutes was going to be too much time. I was thinking that if it became a one-sided preachfest, at least we would have a time limit. Instead, the time I was on seemed to fly right past, and I was downright surprised when 6:00 rolled down. Apparently, so were our viewers. So if you actually wanted more, then that's a good indication that this is something we ought to repeat.

Obviously I wouldn't be averse to having a guest with a little more fire and brimstone in them. If you know a better way to get in touch with such people, post your suggestions.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Open thread on today's show

Hey gang. I'm posting this one a few hours early, because, unless I've missed my guess (and I've just double-checked the schedule on the AETV site so I don't believe I have), this will be the day that Kazim's Special Thing that was announced for the show last month and then postponed will be happening. So consider this a heads-up for the program this afternoon, after which this will serve as the open discussion thread for what transpires.

So, now we all know what the surprise was: AETV's first ever on-air theist guest, Baptist minister Kyle Miller. A soft-spoken gentleman, and not the sort of wild-eyed fundie cretin you'd all like us to tear from limb to limb, but nice to have as a guest. Part of Russell's goal on today's show was to demonstrate atheists and theists can have civil discussions on a topic of mutual interest without having the whole thing turning into a Bill O'Reilly screaming match, and in that I thought the experiment worked fine. As it turns out, the last half hour did not seem to be nearly enough time to broach the subject matter — the Problem of Evil — with any kind of depth. A big thank you to Kyle for taking time out of his day to be a guest.

Folks, if you just tried commenting on the more recent post that was up for a short time, please go ahead and re-comment here. I went ahead and deleted that as it was redundant to have two "open thread on today's show" posts. I personally thought there were a lot of opportunities on the subject of the Problem of Evil that didn't get broached, but maybe I'll comment in more detail later.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Came up with a one-liner, now I'm just waiting for an opportunity

Hypothetical nondenominational new agey theist caller: "Don't you understand, God is the energy in the universe."
Russell: "Do you measure him in joules or calories?"

Video games were invented by THE DEVIL!!

Oh look, this is original! Some crazy lady blogging for the Orange County Register, who aptly calls herself "Frumpy Middle-Aged Mom," thinks that video games are horrible influences on her kids! And she blames Grand Theft Auto for the misgivings that negligent parents had after they allowed their underage kids to play it! (Props to for bringing this to my attention.)

She also laments:

This is a huge dilemma for me, because I always had this fantasy that my house would be the one that all the kids congregated at after school. I would be the “fun mom,” the one who made popsicles, the one in the TV commercial with all the kids crowded around the kitchen counter, demanding more of those little pizza nuggets.

Unfortunately, since we have neither video games nor a swimming pool, this does not happen.

Seriously? Your fantasy is to provide frozen foods for neighborhood kids? And that's what you think they'll find fun? What a barren fantasy life you must have, lady.

I've got some other theories about why this does not happen, actually. Those TV commercials are fictional. They're designed to trick people who fail at critical thinking into buying their crummy food products because, hey, if you stock your freezer with pizza rolls then kids with perfect teeth and cherubic ruddy cheeks will beam at you just like on TV! Here's some more information for perspective: Real kids do not barge into your home clamoring for "More Ovaltine, please!" Also, the Kool-Aid Man does not break down your wall to help you out when you're thirsty.

My kid plays plenty of video games, often right alongside me. He is also a voracious reader and a great student, and has an active imagination that constantly amuses me with drawings and lego structures — yes, some of which are based on video games, and some are not. I'm just sayin', maybe if you lightened up and figured out how to connect with your son, tried to understand his hobbies rather than ineffectually demonizing him, he wouldn't be a C student.

Oh, and I bet some people will think that FMAM is a Poe. I considered that, certainly, because she's just too perfect a target. Her picture even bears a striking resemblance to the Jeanie Teasdale character from The Onion. But I skimmed her other columns and concluded that they are far too dull to be anybody's attempt at comedy. So I'm pretty sure she means it, mkay?

Ill-educated fools in charge of education

Yes, it's another Don McLeroy post. This Washington Monthly piece is currently making the rounds. If you haven't seen it, you aren't aware of just how bad things are in Texas.

Seriously, this will make you ill. Is there no depth to the ideological delusions cretins like this want to enshrine in our schools? Don't answer that, it's rhetorical.

In honor of McLeroy, and inspired by one of PZ's headlines today, I thought I'd create a little article of anticreowear, for all your scientifically sartorial needs. I plan to wear mine proudly. Those of you obsessed with the whole "civility" thing will clutch your pearls and admonish me sternly about it, I'm sure. Go ahead and take your concern as noted in advance. Read the attached article — shit, just read the first two paragraphs — and you'll understand, I hope, why I'm beyond any pretense of civility with the likes of McLeroy.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Scientist portrayal in Avatar

I've seen Avatar twice now. I already reviewed it on my personal blog. I didn't love it exactly, but I had to see it a second time because, despite its flaws, I knew my seven year old would think it was awesome. He did.

However, I do want to add one quick thing about it. In the past, I've complained often about the way movies portray scientists as closed minded eggheads who don't understand the way the world really works, and skeptics are regarded as blind fools who wouldn't recognize evidence that's whacking them over the head with a cricket bat. For more of this discussion, see the Atheist Experience archive, episode #530 about "Skeptical straw men in fiction."

One thing that Avatar really has going for it is that the scientist characters were clearly right. The military wanted to charge in with guns blazing; the scientists just wanted to study the planet's ecosystem and establish diplomatic relations. The scientists emphatically were not egotists filled with hubris who were tampering with forces of nature they did not understand. And when they talked nerd talk, it's presented as charming. They got geeked out and excited about the stuff they were seeing, and this was treated with affection for new discoveries. When Grace visits a new part of the world in order to try to treat her serious wounds, the first thing she says is "I have to take some samples!"

So the movie itself was thoroughly implausible all the way through, and the political aspects were annoyingly oversimplified. But treating scientists as real good guys and giving them believable reactions counts for something in my book.

Why I usually don't argue with YouTube videos

This isn't terribly important but I'm airing a minor grievance. People frequently email the TV crew to say "I saw this video on YouTube. Can you refute it?" Here's why I usually refuse.

Frankly, I hate dealing with videos. Text is an asynchronous mode of communication, whereas video is synchronous. ("Synchronous" is a fancy-schmancy computer science major's way of saying "dependent on time.") See, when you're arguing, the entire argument is part of an interconnected whole. Bits are presented that rely on other bits for validity. Grasping an argument is not like reading a story; you have you to bounce back and forth and cross reference things in order to understand them.

In a way, I think that's why members of the creationist movement are so much in love with live debates, while being such miserable failures at validating their stuff through rigorous scientific publication. A weak argument is much more easily exposed when you can scroll back to an earlier part and double check for inconsistencies. In live format, once a point whizzes past, the words are lost in time and you have to rely on your memory of what was said. Obviously we do this ourselves on the Atheist Experience, discussing issues with callers in real time, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But it changes the viewer's experience, and you have to rely a little bit more on the claimed authority of the speakers since you can't fact-check effectively in real time.

So YouTube is not quite the same as a live presentation, because you can easily move the time slider backwards and forwards to review what was said. But I still hate doing that, because there's no effective search tool. There's no index. Also, it is much harder to accurately quote the passage you're responding to. Text is something I can copy and paste. With video, all I can do is hunt for approximately the right spot on the video, sit through parts of the monologue that I'm not using for a while, and then painstakingly transcribe the text while pausing frequently and scrolling back to make sure I got it right.

And finally, it's time consuming. In text, all the words exist simultaneously on the page, and you can flip through and skim to find what you need fairly quickly. If there are large passages of obvious nonsense that don't need to be addressed, it's easy to detect where they begin and end. With video, all you can do is... watch the video. In a real-time debate, you can at least respond and influence the direction of the conversation in real time. Video is a flat, dead expanse of time that doesn't listen to you.

Incidentally, this is yet another reason why I can't stand watching Zeitgeist. I don't so much mind responding to all those horrible arguments when they are laid out in text format. But I refuse to waste two hours of staring at a screen if there is no effective attempt to entertain.

What I'm saying is that movies are simply a terrible format for holding a serious argument, and the majority of the time if I get a link to a movie saying "Watch this" and nothing more, it's probably getting archived and ignored. Other people on the TV list might sometimes answer it. But if you want a response to a movie-based argument from me, all I can suggest is that you either find a written version of the argument and present that, or sum up the main points that you find difficult.

And don't even get me started on YouTube comments. Whoever tries to hold a serious discussion with people through short soundbites that are presented ten to a page and cycle off the front within minutes... all I can say is, may the FSM have mercy on your soul.

End of rant.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Thugs without Borders

Christians are having a big impact in Africa, it seems--especially those from the US.

In recent memory, we have:
Now, we have Christians spreading their bullshit theories on homosexuality in Uganda. Selling hatred of gays has been a big moneymaker for the religious right. They have lost quite a bit of momentum, in the US though. They have having more and more trouble painting gays as evil child molesters, given that so many real child molesters are religious leaders. (Can you say "projection"? I knew you could!) People just aren't afraid anymore of same-sex couples that keep their yards a bit too neat and just want to get married. Perhaps the religious thugs thought they'd get more mileage out of their campaign in another country.

Apparently, their campaign was a bit too successful. Uganda is considering implementing what Christians here in the US have always wanted: laws that punish homosexuality with death--just like the BUYBULL sayz (Lev. 2o:13). We all know conservative Christians want to inflict Leviticus on their enemies, but ignore it otherwise.

But wait. Now US Christian groups are saying that they don't think Uganda is doing a good thing by following the US Christians' advice. Even some of the hard core homo haters like Rick Warren have had to backpedal. Apparently, God's universal and absolute morality changes minute by minute depending on the financial needs of Christian groups and their ability to spin to the morons that fund them. We supposedly immoral atheists can see through your con and call you on it.

The constant in this equation is the religious exploitation of the poor and ignorant in whatever continent. ...Just as they've always done. We could make the world a better place by separating the US government from these exploitative efforts. Let the Vatican and US Christian groups stand alone without sullying the US's reputation on these efforts. Let's call the exploitation of Africa a Christian initiative when it is, as in these cases. Let's stop giving government subsidies and tax breaks to religious groups that promote hate and exploit people--even if that's all of them. Finally, let's put some of these people on trial for their crimes against humanity.