Saturday, June 27, 2009

Glad I'm not in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma state representative Sally Kern has proposed what she calls the "Oklahoma Citizen's Proclamation for Morality." The proposition, which can be read in its entirety here, is truly comedy gold. She claims that "our economic woes are consequences of our greater national moral crisis," which (of course) can be blamed entirely on abortion, same-sex marriage, pornography, divorce, illegitimate births, and other favorite canards of the fanatically-religious right.

She whines and moans about how President Obama didn't officially recognize the National Day of Prayer, but he did recognize a month of tolerance for the LGBT community.

But the real juicy idiocy is at the very end:
NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that we the undersigned elected officials of the people of Oklahoma, religious leaders and citizens of the State of Oklahoma, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world, solemnly declare that the HOPE of the great State of Oklahoma and of these United States, rests upon the Principles of Religion and Morality as put forth in the HOLY BIBLE; and

that we, the undersigned, believers in the One True God and His only Son, call upon all to join with us in recognizing that “Blessed is the Nation whose God is the Lord,” and humbly implore all who love Truth and Virtue to live above reproach in the sight of God and man with a firm reliance on the leadership and protection of Almighty God; and

that we, the undersigned, humbly call upon Holy God, our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, to have mercy on this nation, to stay His hand of judgment, and grant a national awakening of righteousness and Christian renewal as we repent of our great sin.

Signed on the second day of July in the year of our Lord Christ Two Thousand and Nine.
Yowza. This from a woman who says she understands separation of church and state... and who has, in the past, said that homosexuals were a worse threat to America than terrorists. Does anything really need to be said here? She needs to be gone. Fast.

This kind of stuff needs to be shoved forcibly into the light of day. Thanks to the folks at Right Wing Watch for this one.

Friday, June 26, 2009

So I had my first face-to-face theist/atheist discussion...

A few days ago at Starbucks I had a friendly discussion about atheism and skepticism with a barrista. She noticed that I was reading Dan Barker's Godless, which tells the story about how Barker, a former fundamentalist/evangelical Christian preacher, gradually lost his faith and became an atheist (and is now co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation). The book's subject prompted her to ask if I was an atheist, and when I told her that I was, her reaction was reassuringly nonchalant.

She seemed genuinely interested; I'm not sure if she had ever met someone who 'admitted' their atheism before. She asked whether I'd been raised in a religious home, what lead to me becoming an atheist, and so on. She told me that she had been raised Catholic herself, but had grown into a generic kind of theism where she was happy to let people believe what they wanted to so long as it made them happy and didn't hurt anyone else. I gave her a quick two-minute summary of my story, and interestingly, she had literally never heard of fundamentalism or evangelicalism before. She thought they were some sort of Eastern religion... that's a new one!

At one point, she asked me if I thought that billions of people could really be wrong. I said yes, and went on to mention one of my favorite facts about religion - that they can't all be right, but they could all be wrong. If there really were only one religion that was actually true, then yes, billions of people could be wrong. I just no longer see any particularly good reasons for believing in any one over the alternatives and I even see really good reasons to disbelieve some.

She asked me what I thought about people having spiritual experiences, or just generic personal experiences that they couldn't explain. I told her that I don't doubt that they have unexplained experiences; it's part of being human and not knowing everything about everything, after all. I stressed that the fact that something can't be explained right now or hasn't been explained to us doesn't mean that something supernatural has happened. I briefly touched on how our perceptions can be flawed, and how our memories of an event can get blown out of proportion over time if the event stuck out in our minds shortly after it happened.

From here, she mentioned some experiences she'd had as a kid that she was sure were the result of some kind of ghost activity. We got into a discussion about how our concepts of what ghosts are and how they would manifest come largely from our understanding of science and the cultures we grow up in; I mentioned that in some Asian cultures, ghosts manifest as physical beings that look similar to how Westerners might imagine demons to appear. She mentioned that she was once in a "haunted" cemetery, and that she took photographs that she was sure were ghosts - clouds of what appeared to be specks of light. When she told me that they had appeared in one photograph but not in another taken a few seconds later, I felt a kind of surge of skeptical excitement; I pointed out that, if she was using a flash, specks of dust hanging in the air could show up in the first photo because of the flash, but if the second photo were taken quickly enough after, the flash wouldn't have charged yet, which would result in the dust being mostly invisible. She seemed skeptical of my skepticism :) From there we talked about ghost hunter TV shows, and about how goofy they were walking around with their electronic gadgets that they were SO SURE were capable of magically detecting ghosts. She dared me to spend the night in a local cemetery that she was sure was haunted, but unfortunately they don't allow you to be in there at night... Oh well. I would've enjoyed that.

By this time the other barrista had joined us; it was kind of a slow night for Starbucks, and they didn't have anything better to do. We shifted gears into the subject of aliens and UFOs. Barrista #1 asked me if I thought that aliens exist. I said that it'd be pretty disappointing if there weren't life anywhere else in the universe, but so far as the evidence is concerned, it hasn't made any contact with us yet. Barrista #2 (who seems to be a skeptic herself, from other discussions we've had) pointed out that it was a bit silly to think that a species capable of achieving interstellar travel, surviving decades in transit, and overcoming the problems of deadly levels of ambient radiation could make it all the way to Earth - only to crash disastrously into the planet.

All in all, I really enjoyed discussing these things - finally - with someone who didn't completely agree with me. I'd like to think that I planted some seeds for critical and skeptical thinking. I was surprised to learn that there are Christians who are unaware of fundamentalism or the evangelical movement. I suppose this reflects the worldview I've developed through my experiences. Because those two flavors of Christianity featured so largely in my history, I just assume that Christians are familiar with them. Her unfamiliarity with them also makes me wonder if most mainstream Christians don't see what the fringes are doing, simply because they don't know the fringes even exist. This could help to explain why Christians respond so negatively to so-called "militant" atheism: If all they see is moderation and a quiet, peaceful religious tradition, they're oblivious to what the more outspoken, pernicious members of their community are up to. From this I think we can draw two important points to consider: First, that we should tailor our message in such a way that we're not painting the target of our complaints with a broad brush, and second, that we should make sure that people are aware of just what is going on that they might not even be aware of.

Most Christians I've met are good, decent, hard-working people who just want to provide their families with comfort, safety, and a secure future. The dialogue I had with the barrista gives me hope that the more moderate/liberal believers out there are willing to engage us politely and to allow their misconceptions to be corrected.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Video: Religious indoctrination is a poison.

Just recorded myself with a few thoughts on religious indoctrination, and the persistent effects it can have on you later in life.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Lying for Jesus, Catholic style

I just briefly skimmed over an article called Atheism: a threat to civilization from Father Alphonse de Valk of Catholic Insight. It's your typical anti-Atheist scare piece, calling up the specters of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and ...

Wait a minute, they mentioned Hitler? As an atheist? Wow, that's a surprise. I'm sure it would surprise him, too, seeing how he was a devout Catholic. Not that his religious beliefs are even relevant. Most of the atrocities carried out in the Holocaust were done by thousands of other good old-fashioned, God-fearing German citizens. Unless, of course, de Valk is insinuating that each and every person in Germany at the time was an atheist, I think he would do well to avoid mention of Hitler.

(On another note, what's up with this obsession over comparing body counts? You'd think that, if a religious belief lead to a blameless moral standard, there would not be any kills under the Catholic church's column in the ledger.)

The author of this article would do well to attend to the results of a study performed by his fellow Catholics at Creighton: the one called Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look. The study examined the varieties of religious belief in much of the first world, as well as the degree of devotion of the religious people, and compared them to various quantifiable variables - infant mortality, abortion, murder rates, et cetera.

Contrary to the thesis of Father de Valk's article, the conclusion of the study was comprised of two major points:
  1. Increased levels of religious belief and increased religious fervor correlate to increases in the negative measures of societal health. To wit:
    In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies. The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional ... The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a “shining city on the hill” to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health. Youth suicide is an exception to the general trend because there is not a significant relationship between it and religious or secular factors. No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional. None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction. In some cases the highly religious U.S. is an outlier in terms of societal dysfunction from less theistic but otherwise socially comparable secular developed democracies. In other cases, the correlations are strongly graded, sometimes outstandingly so.

    If the data showed that the U.S. enjoyed higher rates of societal health than the more secular, pro-evolution democracies, then the opinion that popular belief in a creator is strongly beneficial to national cultures would be supported. Although they are by no means utopias, the populations of secular democracies are clearly able to govern themselves and maintain societal cohesion. Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data - a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.

    Ouch. So much for atheism being dangerous, eh? Oh, and also...
  2. There is evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction, the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west having markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms.
I think this nicely refutes the entire article from Father de Valk, papal quotes, scriptural references, and all.

But don't expect a retraction from someone like this. He's not interested in facts, only in the promotion of fearmongering.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ray Comfort pisses me right the hell off.

This is from an excerpt (PDF) from a book written by Crocoduck enthusiast and creationist troll Ray Comfort, entitled Evolution: A Fairy Tale for Grownups.

This book will no doubt be seen by some as “quote mining.” This is the practice of taking a quote (often out of its context), and using it in a way that was never intended by the author. However, every gold nugget is legitimately mined out of its context. No one seriously values the earth that encases the gold. So, when I uncover an evolutionary expert quietly admitting that he has no evidence to back up his theory, I don’t see any value in the soil of his surrounding words. I merely extract what I believe is of value for those who want to discover the truth about the theory of evolution.

That's right, Ray, rationalize your deceptive behavior. After all, it's okay to lie for Jesus, like when you introduce Charles Darwin as "a man who became disillusioned about God [and] formed a theory that all this amazing order and complexity came from nothing and randomly evolved over time."

For a quick overview of the kind of idiocy Ray Comfort considers 'evidence' that evolution is a fairy tale, check out his blog post about the book. Skip right over mass of the nonsense and look for some comments by a user named 'Carl' where he shows precisely why Ray is such a fan of quote mining (or just making quotes up from whole cloth).

I almost wish there were a hell so that there could be special places reserved in it for people like Ray who fill other people's heads with misinformation and who promote the "values" of gullibility and credulity.

Video: Open-mindedness - what it is and what it isn't

I ran into this video a while ago and I really liked it. I bumped into it again while browsing Skeptoid and decided to share it. It gives a fantastic overview of the difference between the uncritical 'believer' definition of open-mindedness and what open-mindedness really should mean to skeptics and freethinkers.

I've been a bit lax on posting here lately. I hope to have something more substantive later tonight or tomorrow; I'm working on a video that gives a layman's explanation of evolution and transitional forms, which rebuffs some common complaints made by creationists.