Sunday, February 27, 2011

Open Thread on #698

The CNN article I talked about during the show is here: Patricia Sawo Article.

To summarize my brief introductory discussion, Ms. Sawo's religious beliefs taught her that HIV infection was a curse from God, inflicted on those who were disobedient. Those so afflicted could be healed if they prayed and repented. Then one day Ms. Sawo tested positive for HIV, and her prayers didn't heal her. Her first-hand experience with the climate of fear and loathing of HIV's victims changed her views. Now she runs a facility that cares for those suffering from AIDS and their children. Unfortunately, she only changed some of her superficial views of HIV. She hasn't abandoned the underlying beliefs from which those views were derived. In fact, she doubled down on them - she's now an ordained minister.

Ms. Sawo's religious beliefs robbed her of part of her humanity. Empathy should have allowed her to put herself in another person's position and see a situation from their perspective. Instead, her religion shut her off from this ability. She only developed compassion for HIV-sufferers after she became one herself, and after she had made a substantial contribution to the toxic climate of fear and condemnation of people with HIV. I find her story to be doubly tragic - first because there's now another human being on the planet with HIV, and second because it took infection with HIV for her to use an ability that most children first manifest at 10 months of age.

Anyway - open thread on episode #698. Have at it!


  1. I find the 'christianity filter' incites a lot of bitter derision or indifference in people when seeing something their religion doesn't agree with. It's almost impossible for a lot of christian's to feel empathy for others when they think people deserve to go to hell for sin.

  2. I find it interesting that Sawo didn't just blame herself and conclude that she did something wrong that brought the curse of god on her. It's so very easy to judge others, especially those who seem different, but when we find ourselves in the hot seat, we always want mercy, don't we? Sawo changed her view of those with HIV, Ted Haggard isn't nearly as hard on those of with homosexual attractions anymore... I'd like to be happy for these people who might learn their lessons, but I can't help but feel that they come all too late sometimes, long after significant damage has already been done. Nevertheless, I'm pleased to hear that she intends to restructure her efforts into a more positive initiative.

  3. I find a lot of issues in life are filled with contention on a daily basis thanks to religion. Unfortunately, it takes tragedy to temporarily shock most christian's in to reality. I even currently know of one person who deconverted from christianity due to coming down with leukemia. She decided a just god would never have made her sick and now puts her faith in modern stem cell science. However, I think it's a poor reason to deconvert.

  4. If I could only respond to the first caller.

    Blacks generally accepted Christianity with little or no resistance. Negroes (as they were called back then) would have bible study when they weren't working, also they would sing songs such as "Stealing away to Jesus" in code to fool the masters so they could meet up in the middle of the night and have more bible study.

    They found themselves in a similar situation as the Jews depicted in the bible; They were in a foreign land, oppressed, and needed a savior. Many Negroes found the Jesus character very inspiring and had left their old folk traditions.

    Not really a theory, just a little history.

    D. Meyers

  5. The second guy (with his one page summary) was pretty standard weird new age pantheism.

    A key thing to note is that not only the term "consciousness" is being abused, but also the word "energy". Thought isn't made out of energy any more than anything else.

    In fact, one can philosophically think of thoughts as "supervening" on the material world. Your brain is made out of cells, but the thought "I like pie." is not made out of atoms. This is because, when we talk about thoughts (and, arguably, other mental items like experiences, memories, perceptions, beliefs, ideas...), we are not talking about their physical instantiation in the brain, but their information content.

    Thought (and consciousness, etc.) is, as far as we can tell, something which necessitates a collection of complex physical parts which obey rules that allow computational processes. It's not a basic physical quantity, but something which requires the arrangement of simpler physical matter.

    It's hard to tell what is meant by "nothing" as well. It seems to be a problem with reification, similar to the pun used when the Cyclops says "No-Man (Odysseus) is attacking me!" and his friends think he means "no man".

  6. This episode seems to be "botched definition day".

    Technically, energy is the "capacity to do work". A compressed or extended spring has energy added to it. When it's released to return to it's normal state, it released that energy. The spring, however, isn't "made of" energy.

    Energy comes in several forms - mechanical, chemical, nuclear, and one other(?), usually as potential.

    It's been awhile since I took this stuff.

  7. Skeptoid podcast, episode 1, "New Age Energy."

  8. The blame the victim mentality is not limited to Christianity. In certain Buddhist sects, afflictions in this life are punishments for bad behavior in previous lives. The afflicted are seen as deserving of their fates, and thus it is wrong to have empathy with them.

    This mentality is common in humans and is likely a way of dealing with fear. It is frightening to see people suffering from AIDS or physical deformity like leprosy in the good old days. If you can make the victim deserving of his affliction, it gives you the power to avoid his fate by being more obedient to whatever superstition you subscribe to. Just like a pigeon in a "Skinner box" this behavior can be completely irrational and bizarre.

  9. Derek wrote:
    "They found themselves in a similar situation as the Jews depicted in the bible; They were in a foreign land, oppressed, and needed a savior."

    I guess both needed a messiah - the Jews got Cyrus the Great, the American slaves went for Jesus. A key difference though is that the Jews dived deeply into their own religion, while the slaves adopted the religion of their oppressors.

  10. I was seriously cringing during that first call. I think he was implying that black people are genetically bred to be more submissive than white people, due to their period as slaves. It is, I suppose, possible that many African-Americans have inherited a culture that steers them to lean that way, but scientifically the genetic notion hasn't got a leg to stand on.

    In the first place, it's been a few hundred years since slavery started, let alone ended. Evolution works on a timescale of hundreds of generations. And we all interbreed with each other; there are pretty much no "pure" Africans living here, so there's no way that any personality traits would majorly dominate one race but not another. It is possible to artificially select for specific behaviors over a smallish number of generations, as long as you aggressively prevent much contamination in the gene pool (i.e., you stud the folks who have desirable behaviors and kill / sterilize the ones who don't). But even assuming SOME slaveowners tried that, any attempt to pull that off would have been completely merged back with the rest of the population by now.

    So unfortunately, this may be a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. The claim is totally unscientific, and it's the sort of misconception that can often be used to rationalize racism. Guy Harrison's latest book, Race and Reality -- which I haven't read yet but would like to -- breaks down the ideas that we have about race and demonstrates that really it's way less clear cut than any of us seem to think, if not an out-and-out myth.

  11. Being raise a Christian and white, I remember thinking it odd that slaves adopted the "white man's religion" but as I got older (and lost my faith), I realized that was very small minded of me (I did, after all, grow up on the incredibly skewed White Jesus depictions of the Southern US churches). The religion originated much closer to where many slaves were yanked from than where most whites came from, so I could see it being a decently tool to pitch, especially if whites were trying to convert the slaves.

  12. I didn't get the impression that the first caller was suggesting that black people were genetically bred for docility. What I took from what he said was that in a white dominated society with a strong prejudice against minorities flying under the radar is a good strategy for success. And, as a successful strategy it has been adopted by many black people. I don't know if this is true, but it seemed to be what the caller was suggesting.

  13. I heard Matt say on Non-Prophets Saturday that he was trying to figure out how to afford going to the American Atheists convention.

    Is there a way for fans to donate so he can go?

  14. @Kazim

    I also thought that he was suggesting that black people are genetically more subservient, which doesn't make sense at all. It's like Lamarckian evolution (environment just makes you a certain way), rather than Darwinian evolution (reproduce any way you can to win!). I don't have any reason to believe that being a more subservient slave would make one more likely to have children. It's a moot point anyway, because the time and death rate involved probably didn't apply nearly enough selection pressure to make any difference (if anything, disease resistance due to the squalid conditions of human trafficking was probably more important). The slave trade lasted hundreds of years, but that's really not all that many human generations.

    All that said, by a minute later, the discussion was all about cultural forces anyway, so maybe it wasn't as much of a "genetic" question as it seemed.

    In my experience, one of the major memes holding together the black/religion association is the idea of "deliverance". Whether it's the standard cheesy Jesus-y salvation, or the massively genocidal Exodus, God sure likes delivering his special people from bad stuff. (I'm less aware of what black Muslims are about, if it's any different from what other Muslims are all about.)

    There's also the straightforward correlation (both between regions and within an area) between being poor and being religious. Poor usually means uneducated, and less likely to be able to counter religious ideas. Being poor also means a lack of control and social status, which creates a need for control that can be fulfilled by supernatural beliefs about gods managing the universe, and the need for organizations that can band people together under a moral/charitable banner for mutual emotional and financial support. The latter have, historically, been either religious institutions or unions.

    That actually makes me wonder; can we have atheist community organizations that do that sort of thing? I don't know how the ACA is doing at that stuff, and the atheist community is really still organizing in Denver (off to a good start, but not elaborate in different programs). But in addition to straightforward charity, religious organizations also do stuff like providing childcare, or coordinating social groups (youth groups, groups for parents to exchange resources and support, etc.). We have been taking little steps towards that sort of thing with Camp Quest and alternatives to AA and such, but I think that we have a ways to go.

    I don't think that there needs to be an atheist alternative to church or religion. But I think that sustaining atheism culturally really requires secular alternatives to all the non-religious needs that are traditionally satisfied by churches (because those are some of the only social organizations whose members prioritize such things).

  15. The guy with the one page theory of Everything really got on my nerves. Provably because he reminded me some of my thought processes at a younger age. Even more so, some of the arguments one of my friends makes.
    My friend has this notion that the only things his musings need to qualify as truth is for them to be internally consistent and not clash with any clearly evident aspect of reality. And since his definitions for anything remain vague and interchangeable with one-another, his postulations sound very much like the nonsense the caller was spewing. Baseless assertions and unjustified connections which build of off each other in a mesmerizing kaleidoscopic visage of imagined truths.
    For example, he uses this method to assert that his neighbor is able change the flow of time through thought. And he came to this conclusion after she got back from the post office earlier then he claims is physically possible.
    Yes, the most logical conclusion to this everyday occurrence couldn't have been that she has a car, that there was no line at the P.O. or that he made a mistake measuring the time. No, in his eyes, the logical conclusion is that the women mastered a hidden art of the human mind that enables her to break the laws of physics!
    And yet in many other respects he practices intelligence, critical thought and even skepticism. I always wondered how can we be so stupid assessing reality in some areas and still be capable and even intelligent in others?

  16. "My friend has this notion that the only things his musings need to qualify as truth is for them to be internally consistent and not clash with any clearly evident aspect of reality."

    This sounds like what I'm currently calling, 'new earth christian's.' These are the people who believe eating organics and exercise prove god's laws are correct. They blame man for screwing up our health by polluting the environment and putting hydrogenated oils in our foods. They believe god provided all the fruits, nuts, veggies.,etc that we need to be healthy. They believe we need exercise because it's the opposite of the 7 deadly sins. So in a way they have found a way to seemingly make god's laws consistent with reality to prove he is real because his laws work.

  17. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the 'New Earth Christianity movement' it's about all the new fitness centers and organic stores like trader joes or whole foods popping up across the country(mostly in cities). No you don't have to be a christian to participate in it but they are the majority of the driving force. This is one way they are convincing people even stronger that god is real.

  18. Hey guys, I'd like to email the non-prophets a question but I can't seem to find the email address. Can someone tell me what the email address is?


  20. "They believe god provided all the fruits, nuts, veggies.,etc "

    Oh He provides the nuts alright.

  21. I like the author's idea that empathy is ruled out by religious beliefs. That explains the vitriole in the homosexual debate. AIDS is not a curse, anymore than other STD's, bird flu or the common cold. It is a virus. It is transmitted via blood. The sad fact that homosexual activity seems to cause bleeding moreso than other activities people engage in does not mean it is "out to get them", anymore than people who sneeze when they have a cold are committing a crime against humanity.

  22. k-10clark: The sad fact that homosexual activity seems to cause bleeding moreso than other activities people engage in...

    Umm... teh ghey secks... ur not doing it rite.

    May I suggest that next time you tell the guy about the the 4 "'tions"? "Communication, Relaxation, Dilation, Lubrication." :P

    I'm not trying(only) to be a smart-ass, it's just that I see a lot of, shall we say, not-so-informed statements like that, even among the liberal-minded. I mean, if I had a dollar every time I heard from otherwise supporting and well-meaning people something like:

    - "stupid fundagelicals, how can they claim that being gay is a choice?, who would want love-making to be excruciatingly painful? it's obvious that people are simply born that way"

    - "A choice? honestly, nobody would look at a vagina and say 'this would be a lot better if poop came out of it'" - Dana Gould, comedian(but still)

    There's this misconception among straight men, mostly, that gay sex is some sort of horrendously scatological torture or that anal sex is even the most common form of intimacy. None of that is really accurate(unless done carelessly, it IS a more delicate procedure, after all :P).

    I'm not anything close to a medical expert, but the information I have on the subject is that receptive anal sex is obviously the easiest way to contract the virus but not because it causes bleeding(you can get it via vaginal intercourse and that doesn't necessitate tearing a woman's genitalia xD), but because of the tissue in that region is more susceptible to infection and because of minute tears that may occur during the activity.

    So, there's some grain of truth in the claim but I felt like clearing that up with my high school health ed. knowledge. Hope I didn't make everyone uncomfortable, didn't mean to go that much into it or so off-topic, just a pet peeve of mine. :P

  23. Thank you Jen. Ms. Sawo reminds of Tammy Bruce, whose audiobook The Death of Right and Wrong I just finished.

    Although she raises some valid points, such as public funds being spent on organ transplants for convicted criminals, she ignores the value of informed consent.

    It is this viewpoint, based on religious dogma, that leads to individuals losing compassion after seeing someone in excruciating suffering. They are the ones who oppose the right to die even after seeing close friends and loved ones suffer when palliation fails.

    Religion slaughters compassion and replaces it with despotism.

  24. For Brandon in Dallas, there are a variety of groups in the DFW area that do have a variety of styles of interaction like Matt and Jen describe. Here's a quick list of a few of the orgs that are part of the Dallas/Fort Worth Coalition of Reason:

    Metroplex Atheists:
    Social meeting every Wednesday in Arlington, monthly business meeting.

    Fellowship of Freethought:
    Wide variety of types of events, this is the more family-focussed organization with a monthly formal meeting+pot-luck, lots of volunteer outings, philosophical discussions, and so on. See:

    Dallas/Plano Atheists:
    Social outing focussed, dinner at a different restaurant (and different part of the Dallas/Plano corridor) every Tuesday night with occasional other social outings on other nights (pub night, games, star party, etc). This coming week it's Gordon Biersch, next week is Cantino Laredo. See:

    And there are a few other organizations and off-shoots from those as well. Also as they described on the show, even within the above orgs different events can show you comletely different styles of interaction with some heavily discussion religion and others talking about anything but religion, even different ends of the table can see that range as well, so mix/mingle to find something that suits your mood.

    I'm Philip and you'll find me most weeks at the Dallas/Plano group, though I happily interact with the others when I have the time as well.

    Good luck, Brandon

  25. I just watched the archive, and I can't help wondering what were the problems with the CGI thing during this episode...

  26. "Blacks generally accepted Christianity with little or no resistance" - Derek

    More like little or no choice.


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