28 December 2007

Goat Theory: Part I

If you know me at all, then chances are I've mentioned goat theory to you at least once. I've never been able to put it succinctly before, but now I don't have to. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has just done it for me better than I ever could have done myself. Observe:

I feel like I'm having this conversation all the damned time - especially at Div school. You may think that you're dealing with some intense abstract theological concept, but at the end of the day, most religious people throughout all time have really only cared about the wellbeing of their goat.

It's 2am now, and I'm tapped out for the night. I'll have more to say on Goat Theory in the future, but for the moment I'll leave you with one parting thought:

T-shirts. Make them. Now.


EDIT: Goat Theory: Part II is up

26 December 2007

Short and Sweet

Happy Boxing Day! There Is No God!

24 December 2007

Save Baby Jesus from the Fundies

I didn't want to post about this before Christmas, since it's a lot less cheerful than I tried to make my last post. But I need to get this off my chest so I can get back to enjoying the holiday. (If Festivus is your bag, maybe you can consider this part of the Airing of Grievances.)

Christmas is not a Christian holiday. There are three main values critical and unique to Christianity: the teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. NONE of these values have anything to do with Christmas.

Christmas is about peace on Earth and goodwill toward men; it is a celebration of generosity and camaraderie, the very values upon which families, communities, and civilizations hinge. We have many myths and symbols to reflect these values, including the Nativity scene.

Fundies don't give a damn about the values of Christmas. They're just trying to use our culture's most popular holiday as a propaganda campaign for Christianity. It's sickening.

Worst of all is their obsession with the Crucifixion. Today, driving to my grandparents' house for dinner, we passed a church with the following bulletin posted out front: "Two thousand years ago, God's gift to mankind was hung on a tree." Last week, Ray Comfort (yes, that Ray Comfort) posted an absolutely abhorrent rewrite of "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" on his new blog:
Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"
Joyful, all ye nations rise
What will happen when you die?
Will you go to Heaven or Hell?
Jesus knows! “Emmanuel.”
. . .
That's why Jesus Christ was sent
To be saved you must repent
Died on the cross for all your sin
Repent and put your trust in Him
Christmas is a celebration of life, but Christians have an unholy obsession with death. They murder Jesus in sacrifice to their god, in the hopes that they can follow him to heaven. To draw a connection between that avatar of death and the child of the Nativity is downright obscene. And to think there are those who say atheists have no qualms about killing babies!

I hate Christianity, and I want to keep it as far as possible from my holiday.

Happy Christmas, one and all. In the midst of this season of death and hibernation, please indulge in a celebration of life.

Come In, and Know Me Better Man

Happy Christmas, one and all! The joyous day is mere hours away!

This is going to be my first Christmas as a professed, vocal, out-and-out atheist, and sweet Baby Jesus am I excited! I love Christmas. And as Ben alluded to in his Christmas post, Christmas is a secular holiday, so I'm allowed to love it. It would be foolish of us to give it up and leave it for the religious nuts to apprehend once more.

In fact, I'm going to go further than most atheists might and say that I still really like the Nativity, and will do my part to make it part of secular Christmas culture.

Solstice celebrations date back to time immemorial. In the dead of winter it gets dark, cold, and scary... so we gather together and throw a big party to remind each other that at least we're not alone, and for a little while maybe harsh reality doesn't seem so bad.

When I was young ("and they packed me off to school"), I often wondered why my family and other Christians didn't celebrate Chanukah or Passover. After all, Christianity had its roots in Judaism, and so weren't their holidays our holidays as well? As is so often the case with questions of this nature, I never got a decent answer from anyone. But now I know better: we didn't celebrate Chanukah because we already celebrated Christmas, and likewise for Easter and Passover. The supposed religious meaning behind the celebrations didn't mean bupkis. It's all the same holiday, no matter what you call it. I call it Christmas, because it's the dominant name in my family and culture. And I like it.

We as a culture have accumulated a number of traditions over the millennia: mistletoe, evergreen trees, yule logs, Santa Claus, Charles Dickens, gift exchange, carols, cookies, all the trappings of the season. Many of our traditions have roots in some religion or another, but that's not why they've stuck around. We keep our traditions because they're important to us; we find something meaningful in them.

The myth of the Nativity is one that I like to keep around, because I find meaning in it that's completely independent of the Christian faith I've long since abandoned.

The imagery is beautiful: It's a beautiful starry night, and a young couple has a beautiful new baby boy. All the people around, shepherds and magi alike (and even the lesser creatures, like sheep and angels) gather around to share in the family's joy, because who doesn't love a baby? It's a time not only for a family to come closer together, but also for complete strangers to revel in our common humanity.

And for just a little while, we can all get together and pretend that one stupid little baby is going to make everything all right. It is the beginning of peace on Earth, and goodwill toward men.

This baby is not the savior of whom Christians speak all year. Jesus was a conjurer and rabbi who supposedly performed miracles, accumulated a cult following, told people how to live their lives, and had to be martyred in order to save mankind after death. The Christ child of the Nativity, on the other hand, is just a baby, and as soon as he's born, the entire world is born anew.

It's not as if Christianity came up with this picture in the first place, either. Rebirth motifs were a staple of myth long before Christianity, especially in conjunction with the winter solstice. For instance, in ancient Russia, every year at about this time the goddess-type Rozhanitsy would give birth to the god-type Rod. (Aside: Some scholars believe Rod to have been highest of all Russian gods. I tend to side with those who think this is more a side-effect of Russia's baptism to Christianity. After the baptism, Rod and Rozhanitsy became Jesus and Mary at Christmas, and Rod gradually began to acquire some of Jesus' other traits in the collective memory of the Russians.) The same rules that applied to the holiday also apply to the Nativity scene. A newborn baby by any other name is still going to be symbolic of the season and our cultural history. I call him Baby Jesus, because that's the dominant name within my family and culture. And I like it.

It's why I like the more "religious" Christmas carols so much. I, personally, have no real taste for the likes of "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Give me a hearty round of "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" or "O Come, All Ye Faithful" any day of the season. I like my carols with a little gravitas, thank you very much. It isn't just the music and the poetry of the lyrics that move me; it's the spirit of the myth they embody. (That, and on some level I think I just like a little pomp and circumstance.)

Baby Jesus is much more representative of my values than that other great figure of secular Christmas myth, Santa Claus. (And this is coming from a guy who still has a handwritten letter from "Santa" tucked away somewhere.) Santa is more like Jesus than Baby Jesus is; he's a supernatural deus ex machina that uses his magical power to shower blessings upon those of his choosing. Baby Jesus is more like Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Present; he can show us what happens when people are charitable to one another, but it's up to us to act on that revelation for ourselves.

Maybe I'm a little biased, having grown up in Nazareth, PA, just a few miles from Bethlehem. Maybe the Nativity reminds me of home a little more than it does other people. Nevertheless, I see no reason to shy away from celebrating the myth of the Nativity; don't let it be taken for granted that the Christ child advertises for Christianity. In my mind, Baby Jesus is no more a part of Christianity than Saint Nicholas. So let the preachers and their flock have Jesus and their piece in Heaven; I'm happy just playing with the baby and celebrating peace on Earth.

~*~ Happy Christmas ~*~

21 December 2007

Creationist Resistance to Antibiotic Resistance, Part II

When last we left our story of evolution and antibiotic resistance, we looked at the importance of random mutation to the development of resistance. Now that we’ve addressed (at least in a small way) the origin of these resistance genes, we can take a look at their greater role in evolution.

Commenter Dan Gaston got us off to a great start on the last post, noting that lateral gene transfer is in fact a primary mechanism of bacterial evolution, even though it doesn’t explain the origin of the genes being transferred.

At the end of the day, evolution is about change, plain and simple. Creationists don’t seem to realize this, as evidenced by their second objection to resistance as evidence of evolution: “If resistance DOES result from random mutation, it doesn’t count as evolution, because there’s always a price to be paid for gaining resistance.”

This is the sort of approach taken by Michael F. Behe, who likens the development of resistance genes to “trench warfare” and genome degradation, rather than an “arms race” of increasing buildup. Like many things that Behe believes, this is baloney.

First of all, it misses the point of evolution, which (as I said before) is change. Whether or not these changes meet Behe’s mystical criteria for “increasing complexity” doesn’t matter. It’s still evolution.

But more importantly, it’s short-sighted. As we’ll see, evolution of resistance means more than just having a resistance gene.

ResearchBlogging.orgOne thing is true about the creationists’ claim: in the majority of cases, resistance comes with a cost. Antibiotics work by disrupting some normal process within the cell. Resistance genes can operate by two different mechanisms: they can either disrupt the normal cellular process so the antibiotic can’t target it anymore, or they can create new proteins that actively do something to inhibit the antibiotic (like export it or degrade it). The latter is typically a plasmid-bound resistance gene, the former more typical of chromosomal mutations. But in the absence of antibiotic, these resistance mechanisms tend to lead to decreased growth. Mutations that disrupt antibiotic activity also decrease the efficiency of the targeted cellular process; proteins synthesized from plasmid might have a side effect on normal cell function; even just copying an unused plasmid is a waste of energy. From am medical perspective, this suggests that when antibiotic resistance crops up, we can just take away the antibiotic for a little while and the antibiotic-sensitive bacteria will eventually outbreed the resistant bacteria, and we can start over.

Behe and other creationists quit there and call it a day. But the problem is that all these studies of the cost of resistance were performed in naïve bacteria. That is, one minute the bacteria didn’t have the resistance gene, the next minute they did, and we looked at the difference.

What would happen if we let the bacteria and their new resistance genes get accustomed to each other for a while? Evolution would predict that, in the absence of antibiotics, there would be pressure to ameliorate the cost of resistance through mutation. Either you get rid of the resistance gene causing the problem, or you keep the resistance gene but acquire new cost-compensatory mutations that reduce its side effects.

Several studies were performed to test that hypothesis. Richard Lenski published a great review article in 1998 covering several of them.[1] You can read it for yourself here [PDF]; I’ll do my best to summarize some of the major findings.

Cost-compensation of plasmid-bound resistance:

A strain of E. coli was transformed with a plasmid carrying resistance to the antibiotics tetracycline and chloramphenicol. For this generation of bacteria, the cells with the plasmid were slightly less fit than those without (in the absence of antibiotics).

The researchers then grew the plasmid-carrying bacteria for 500 generations (75 days) in a culture containing chloramphenicol, to make sure the cells didn’t just ditch the plasmid. They then took those bacteria out of the chloramphenicol and isolated a colony of cells without the plasmid. For this generation of bacteria, the cells with the plasmid were slightly more fit than those without!

Further study showed that it was the bacterial chromosome that had changed, not the plasmid. Over just five hundred generations, enough cost-compensatory mutations had accumulated on the bacterial genome to make the resistance plasmid a boon rather than a bane, even in the absence of antibiotic.

Cost-compensation of chromosomal resistance mutations:

Here, researchers started with mutations of rpsL, a gene that encodes part of the bacterial ribosome (a little blob that synthesizes protein), that result in streptomycin resistance in E. coli. Streptomycin is a type of antibiotic called an aminoglycoside; it binds to the ribosome, preventing protein synthesis and killing the cell. Certain rpsL mutations prevent streptomycin from binding to the ribosome, thus making the cell streptomycin-resistant. However, this change to the ribosome also slows the rate of peptide (protein) elongation.

The researchers grew streptomycin-resistant bacteria in the absence of streptomycin (since it’s on the chromosome, not a plasmid, they don’t have to worry about the gene just being lost), and after a mere 180 generations they found that the rate of peptide elongation was back up to what it had been in wild-type cells. What’s more, they found that the bacteria still had the mutation conferring streptomycin resistance. Rather than mutating back to wild-type, the cells had acquired cost-compensatory mutations elsewhere in the chromosome.

These two studies indicate that fighting antibiotic resistance would be a LOT harder than was previously thought. It isn’t as easy as just taking away the antibiotic and letting the resistant bacteria fade into obscurity. Rather than ditch their costly genes for resistance, the bacteria are evolving cost-compensatory mutations so they can have their cake and eat it, too.

Hm… multiple naturally-selected mutations leading to a benefit with little or no noticeable cost? Sounds like evolution to me.

PS - One final note on the matter of antibiotic resistance, via Greg Laden: apparently there is some hesitation on the part of biomedical journals to refer to the “evolution” of antibiotic resistance, preferring instead to use terms like “emergence.” Head over to Greg’s place to check it out.

[1] Lenski, R.E. (1998). Bacterial evolution and the cost of antibiotic resistance. International Microbiology, 1(4), 265-270.

18 December 2007

Reality Is Not Subject to Vote

Today, we have more evidence that creationist attacks on evolution are scientifically bankrupt, and are nothing more than a desperate appeal to the opinion of a misinformed public.

Last week, PZ Myers reported on comments by Florida Board of Education member Linda Taylor:
[Quoting Taylor:] I would support teaching evolution, but with all its warts. I think that some of the facts have been questioned by evolutionists themselves. I would want them taught as theories. That's important. They could be challenged by others and the kids could then be taught critical thinking and they can make their own choices.
Thank you, Linda Taylor. Warts: name two. Theory: define the term. Answer the following multiple choice question:
Who is best qualified to make informed choices about complex scientific theories?

A: Scientists with years of training in the subject, and qualified science teachers who understand the fundamentals of the theory.
B: Creationists who won't even commit to an estimate of the age of the earth.
C: Members of the board of education who have absolutely no training in the sciences.
D: Children who are just being introduced to the topic for the first time, haven't read any of the primary literature, and who are entirely dependent on the competence of the instructors who have given them an outline of the general story.
Today, creationist fuckwit Michael Egnor posts a response:
Because this is a democracy and Myers doesn’t actually get to dictate the choices, the question is really ‘fill in the blank,’ not multiple choice.

Here’s my suggestion for the answer to the question "Who is best qualified to make informed choices about complex scientific theories in public schools in Florida?":

The people of Florida, through their elected school boards.

Darwinists like Myers find democracy so frustrating.

Yes, because clearly the average Florida voter spends every other day simply immersed in the primary biology literature! They know so much about biology, it hurts!

Democracy doesn't get to determine science; the best it can do is decide how we (at the level of government and society) respond to science. No matter how much the creationists want everyone to get together and say evolution is wrong, you can't vote away reality.

We need government officials who recognize that distinction. Good leadership doesn't mean knowing all the answers. It means knowing where to find the answers and how to employ them. A responsible school board must defer to the scientific community, not public opinion nor their own meager understanding, for advice concerning the teaching of evolution. That's what PZ's questions are meant to demonstrate: The school board members most qualified to decide policy are those who recognize that scientists are most qualified to decide science.

The creationists, of course, don't want responsible leadership. Their only hope is that ignorance breeds ignorance, which is why they are constantly trying to sabotage our children's education.

17 December 2007

Creationist Resistance to Antibiotic Resistance, Part I

Earlier last week, GilDodgen of Uncommon Descent wrote about his plans to revolutionize medicine and save us all from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. He exhibits some spectacularly BAD logic, even for a cdesign proponentsist. For a few excellent takes on WHY he is so stupid, check out these fine bloggers:
Humble Monkey
Respectful Insolence
Panda’s Thumb

Now, I don’t want to go into Dodgen’s points and claims specifically; those have already been torn to ribbons in the links above. Instead, I want to address the more general trend of creationist denial regarding antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Resistance to antibiotics (henceforth just “resistance”) is one of the starkest examples we have of the power of evolution by natural selection of random mutation. So it only stands to reason that creationists will fall over each other to deny that resistance has anything to do with evolution. To do so, they employ two main talking points lies (embodied in this *shudder* Answers in Genesis article):

1) “The genes for resistance are not the result of random mutation; they’ve been there all along, we just didn’t notice them!”

2) “Even if resistance DOES occasionally result from random mutation, it doesn’t count as evolution, because there’s always a price to be paid for gaining resistance.”

We’ll deal with that first lie today.

Even if the creationist grudgingly admits the importance of natural selection to the growth of a resistant population, they vehemently deny that what’s being selected is the result of random mutation. Instead, they say that either there were a handful of resistant bacteria around to begin with, or they inherited the genes for resistance from a different kind of bacteria via lateral gene transfer. Dodgen’s post falls into this camp, sort of, since he’s downplaying the power of random mutation. Another, perhaps clearer, example would be a recent UD post by idnet.com.au discussing divergence of E. coli in the human gut versus that of the baboon. Although resistance is not specifically addressed, it is claimed that any new genes found in either population of bacteria must be the result of lateral gene transfer.

ResearchBlogging.orgReal science, of course, is chock FULL of examples of the power of random mutation. Let’s look at just one example: Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections in patients with cystic fibrosis, from a paper published by Antonio Oliver et. al. in the journal Science in 2000.[1] (See that little BPR3 icon? That’s the sign that things are about to get good.)

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disorder resulting from a mutation in the gene encoding the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR). Normally, CFTR adjusts ion concentrations in order to make water flow out of the cell via osmosis. In the lung, this source of water is what keeps your mucus nice and wet and fluid. But if CFTR is broken, the mucus in the lung (and elsewhere, such as the GI tract) becomes dry and super-thick, causing all kinds of hell for the CF patient’s body.

P. aeruginosa is an opportunistic bacteria; it can't and won't infect a healthy adult. It can, however, cause serious infection in certain scenarios if exposure is high and the host's defenses are already down. Two major targets for serious acute (short-term) infection are mechanically ventilated patients and victims of serious burn wounds. But for patients with CF, P. aeruginosa instead causes chronic (long-term) infection. For most such patients, it’s not the CF that kills you, it’s the Pseudomonas.

As it turns out, P. aeruginosa infections from CF lungs show a lot more colony diversity than colonies grown from patients with acute infections. Oliver’s group hypothesized that this diversity was due to the conditions within the CF lung, which as a result of hyperosmolar viscous mucus is highly compartmentalized and continually changing. Such an environment would favor the growth of bacteria that could keep on their toes, so to speak, quickly and readily adapting to changing environmental niches within the lung. And evolutionary biology predicts that, in order to adapt to that kind of environment, you have to be really good at mutating.

So the experimenters collected a whole bunch of P. aeruginosa samples from 30 CF patients, and a whole bunch of P. aeruginosa samples from 75 patients with acute infections, and compared the mutation frequencies of those isolates. Both the CF and non-CF patients had a whole bunch of P. aeruginosa isolates with low mutation frequencies. But in addition, the CF patients had a whole bunch of isolates with mutation frequencies 100 times as great! Genetic analysis of these mutator isolates over several years indicated that they were all different and persistent; these were bacteria that evolved into mutators within the host and stuck around, and not mutators transmitted between patients. Further investigation demonstrated that, for several of the mutator isolates, one or more error-avoidance genes were mutated or deleted altogether, explaining their high mutation rate.

This is the point in the presentation when a creationist might say, “Aha! Nothing new was created; mutation was only capable of breaking genes that were already there!” But this is only the first half of the story; as we’ll see, the mutator phenotype opens the doors to further beneficial mutations.

You see, cells normally keep those error-avoidance genes around for a reason. If the mutator phenotype is so prevalent in CF patients, it must be conferring some advantage in that environment. That is, given the conditions of the CF lung, it’s apparently more important to be able to get beneficial mutations than to prevent detrimental ones.

Patients with P. aeruginosa infections, especially those with CF, are subject to extensive treatment with a broad range of antibiotics. So the experimenters took a look at whether the mutator phenotype had any effect on the evolution of antibiotic resistance:

This is the key figure for our discussion. In case you can’t tell, black bars are mutator strains from CF patients, grey bars are non-mutator strains from CF patients, and white bars are strains from non-CF patients (all non-mutator). For a broad range of antibiotics, mutator strains showed a much higher frequency of antibiotic resistance compared to non-mutator strains.

The only way this makes sense is if antibiotic resistance is the result of naturally-selected random mutation. Mutator strains have higher mutation rates, and are therefore more likely to acquire the mutations necessary for resistance. The non-CF non-mutators serve as a control. The important comparison is between CF mutators and CF non-mutators, because they had everything in common except their mutation rate. They were derived from the same ancestral strains that first infected the patient. They were subject to the same antibiotic therapies. They grew in the same environment, shared space with the same other species of bacteria, and therefore had the same potential for lateral gene transfer. If resistance were the result of anything other than mutation, then we should see no statistical difference between the black and grey bars. But we do see a difference.

That’s evolution. The CF lung is a dynamic environment with different selective pressures than sites of other, acute infections. CF lungs favor selection of bacteria that can mutate rapidly. This increased rate of mutation results in other selectable beneficent mutations, such as resistance to antibiotics.

It’s important to note that Oliver and company weren’t trying to convince anyone that bacteria evolve; real scientists understood that already. They were trying to use that understanding to save people’s lives. Their insight into how a Pseudomonas infection behaves within the lung is the first step to fighting that infection. Armchair physicians who don’t understand antibiotics and deny the power of random mutation are of no help to the dying.

Next time we’ll look at that second creationist claim, and what random mutation can do to bacteria that are already resistant to antibiotics. That’s when things get really intense.

[1] Oliver, A. (2000). High Frequency of Hypermutable Pseudomonas aeruginosa in Cystic Fibrosis Lung Infection. Science, 288(5469), 1251-1253. DOI: 10.1126/science.288.5469.1251

08 December 2007

Not Really a Review, More Like a Short List of Grievances

Last night I saw "The Golden Compass" with Ben and his girlfriend, Robin.

I didn't like the film adaptation of "The Golden Compass." Not at all, really.

I wanted to like it, I really did. Partly because, as an atheist, I want to give the film as much positive publicity as possible. Partly because my brother (also named Ben) thinks I'm the world's biggest film cynic, just because I have standards. But mostly because the "His Dark Materials" trilogy constitutes three of my favorite books ever, and I want to see it well-represented.

This film was very much a disappointment, not only paling in comparison to the books, but also a poor movie on its own. I don't want to go into too many details, lest I get into spoiler territory. But the biggest problem was definitely the pacing. This is really a story that would have taken three movies to tell well. There was no development of anything. In trying to keep as many details from the book as possible, the director threw away any change of giving those details meaning. And everything was incredibly rushed.

For example, no one seems to notice when an important glass of wine has been spilled and shattered. Lyra and Pan spend about thirty seconds with Mrs. Coulter before they start complaining about how they're never going North. The great meeting of all the gyptian nation takes place on a single boat, to save time and space. Out of the blue, a witch asks a question about her former lover, and it comes across as completely ridiculous because we don't know anything about either character to give a damn about their backstories.

But the most tragic victims of the film were the bears. First of all, so help me, I love Sir Ian McKellen, but I did not buy for one minute that he was the bear prince of Scandinavia. And in the movie, they say Iorek is in exile because he lost in single combat with another bear. That's the exact opposite of how it went in the book. Iorek was exiled because he accidentally killed an opponent (an important parallel to Lord Asriel that was also absent from the movie). That's a pretty drastic change in character, if you ask me.

But beyond Iorek, the bears had absolutely no purpose in the film. They had no character, no substance... they weren't even relevant to the plot anymore, because Lord Asriel's circumstances were changed for the film. And that's tragic, because Pullman wrote the bears into an elegant foil for what it means to be human, with our strengths and limitations. There wasn't hide nor hair of that subtext anywhere in the movie. This may be heresy, but I almost wonder whether it would have been worth it to leave the bears of Svalbard out of the movie altogether. They could have given more time and care to developing other elements of the story.

I'll say this for the film, though: Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby was fantastic. I only wish he had had a chance to do more with the character. Also, I wish they had given him a real balloon, as opposed to more of the same rigid ion-propulsion technocrap that everyone else used in the movie. (Notice: it takes more than brass baubles to make something steampunk, damnit!)

And most importantly, the movie is a big ol' advertisement for the books. I wouldn't hold out for any movie sequel, though. You don't dodge the last three chapters of "The Golden Compass" if you're planning to do anything with "The Subtle Knife."

Oh well. Maybe somewhere down the line a visionary will revisit the material and give it the cinema treatment it deserves. (Hopefully that'll be before Sam Elliott retires.)

07 December 2007

Merry Christmas

Well, folks, it's that time of year again. There's snow on the sidewalk, wreaths on every lamppost, and toys in every window. Everything is decked out, lit up, turned on - and everyone seems to be walking around with a smile on their face (or, if you're in Cambridge, with a smile hiding beneath their manic end-of-the-semester caffeine scowl). But there's another sign of the season that comes every year - one that I'm always much less happy to see. And that's the rhetoric of the so-called "War on Christmas".

Did you know there was a war on Christmas? Apparently there is. (I guess it's just a bad time to be a concept; I'm talking to you, 'terrorism'.) And what's even more disturbing is the fact that I'm supposedly to blame for it. Yes, dear readers, you heard right - and if you hold the same non-theistic worldview that I do, then you're to blame too. Because this war isn't being waged by people whose only lesson learned from The Grinch was that a successful assault on the holiday requires more manpower than just a fuzzy green curmudgeon and his adorable little dog - apparently it's being waged by us. And by "us", of course, I mean the Godless Jewish Communist Fag Flag-Burning Freedom Hating Pinko Liberal Satans out there. Because, really, at the end of the day, all the forces of progressivism and liberalism are the same, aren't they? (For those of you keeping score, that was sarcasm)

Now, we all know where the problem comes from. For the last bunch of years, America has realized that, whether it likes it or not, it's living in a pluralistic society. Naturally, when this pluralism expresses itself, the people who were in cultural power (WASPs) are upset by it. (To be fair, let's face it, we would be upset too; imagine us heathens all living in Norway, or some other even more godless state, and having a group of immigrant Christians come and insist on putting up a manger scene on our town hall. There'd be heck to pay.) And so this all naturally gives the impression to the cultural majority that all the people who care about equal rights for all Americans are all in a conspiracy to get rid of "Merry Christmas" so as not to offend minority sensibilities, and replace it with something generalized, politically correct, and therefore meaningless.

But there's a catch. You see, I love Christmas. It has been my favorite time of year since before I could walk, and it still is. And even though I don't put up a manger anymore, and sometimes I wince whenever I sing a Christmas Carol that mentions Jesus (although that doesn't stop me from singing them. It helps if they're in other languages), I still put up a tree the day after Thanksgiving, there's a wreath in my window flanked by stockings, and I wouldn't have it any other way. So I object to the fact that I'm being blamed for hating Christmas and seeking to plot its ruin - almost as much as I object to the fact that nasty, reactionary assholes (read: Bill O'Reilly) are spoiling Christmas for me with their crotchety saber-rattling.

Because, you see, we Atheists aren't originally responsible for the "religious correctness" that is most at fault for this so-called War on Christmas. That particular honor belongs, as such honors often do, solely to the religious. After all, let's not forget that the first shots fired in the War on Christmas were fired in an altercation over the public display of religious icons. Nobody, to my knowledge, ever had a problem with the Christmas tree in the town square. It was the nativity scene on government property that made some people antsy. And then, after a while, there was a court battle, and then there were Menorahs on government property. And before long, we have Kwanzaa lights, Diwali lights, Ramadan somethingorothers, and "Happy Holidays" dominating the public discourse.

You know what this says to me? This is not a war between the secular and the religious. This, like all the other wars that man has ever fought, is a war between religions. And while Atheists will agree that having state-funded Jesus idols all up in their face is rather offensive and unconstitutional, the absolute last solution that we would ever endorse would be that instead of one type of religious icon, we replace it with an icon representing every single religious group in America!

Now I can understand both sides. As a Christmas-lover myself, I resent being told that I can't wish people a Merry Christmas while knowing that it will be received in the spirit it is intended. Yet I can certainly understand the feeling of the minority religions as well; being non-Christian myself, I would and do hate to see my elected representatives explicitly espousing faith biases that I do not share.

But the thing that everyone fails to understand is that the entity that most people celebrate as "Christmas" has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus, apart from circumstance. I don't know about you all, but for me, most of what I ever learned about Christmas was secular - and I was raised Catholic. The meaning of Christmas, as far as I'm concerned, is the social gospel of Charles Dickens: that charity and generosity are the cornerstones of civilized society, and the measure of a person is his willingness to do good for his fellow man. It is joy and peace and love, family, and thankfulness. It is a celebration of the good things that life has given us. Even religious Christmas carols, when you come to think of it, mention Jesus only insofar as he is thought to be the bringer of these things: peace on earth, good will towards all mankind. Never mind that the Christians think that we must justify our altruism with God, whereas we godless justify it for the sake of each other. We all agree that peace, love, and prosperity is the central focus.

And the funniest thing to me is the fact that the Christian clergy have already recognized the fact that this holiday isn't all about Jesus - and they've been worried about it for years. Every single year for as long as I can remember, ministers have been saying two things to their congregations during Christmas: 1) "We're open 52 weeks a year, you know" and 2) "Don't succumb to the commercialization and secularization of the holiday; Jesus is the reason for the season." This points to the simple fact that most people are already much more secular than their religious leaders want them to be. They want their Santa Claus and they want their Egg Nog, they want their presents and their holiday specials and their gingerbread and mistletoe, and if they also want a little bit of religious pageantry, it's clear that most of them want it only on the eve of the great festival. Otherwise it's Rudolph and Frosty all the way.

And yet when people who don't understand that "Merry Christmas" is really *not* a religious statement nine times out of ten force a stilted, pluralistically-friendly "Happy Holidays" on these people - the ones who just want to celebrate the major festival of their culture in peace - it's only natural that these already secularized folks are going to get pushed into the religious camp. You can bet that when someone lashes out against "Happy Holidays" they aren't thinking of their Lord and SaviourTM -- they're remembering all those years as a little kid opening up presents on Christmas morning, and thinking about a world in which that kind of magic and joy and love is deprived from their children. "What?" they cry, "The Communist Atheist Jews are trying to take Santa Claus away from my little kid??!? Over my dead body!" And thus we have the war on Christmas. The dogma of religious pluralism is forcing already secularized moderates into the clutches of the radical religious all because somebody seems to think that red and green were Jesus' favorite colors.

So how can we fix it all? Is there a way that we can preserve Christmas as our cultural holiday, while at the same time not infringing on the rights and sensibilities of the religiously inclined? I think we can - and, predictably, I think the model for this can be found on Sesame Street. Specifically, I'm referring to the classic 1978 Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. In this film, the Sesame Street gang does what they do best: demonstrate how an incredibly diverse group of people and other things can get along so well together that they all spontaneously know the words and dance steps to all the show-stopping numbers. Now, the vast majority of the story arc of this special has to do with the secular mythology of Christmas, viz. Santa Claus and his chimney-descent abilities. And all of the musical numbers stress the secular message of Christmas, for example:
Christmas means the spirit of giving
Peace and joy to you,
The goodness of loving,
The gladness of living;
These are Christmas too.
Everything that everyone says is about joy and love and being good to each other. No Jesus there - but nevertheless, they call it Christmas. In other words, it's the perfect model for a pluralistic, secular existence in which nobody feels they have to restrain their joy.

But the most meaningful and hopeful thing for me came in a brief exchange between Mr. Hooper and Bob. Now, for those of you who don't remember, Mr. Hooper is Jewish, and Bob - well, I think I heard somewhere that he was a minister in real life, but I think maybe I'm getting him confused with Fred Rogers. Not important. Anyway, there's one point in the story where Mr. Hooper (who, by the way, has decorated his shop for Christmas, because he recognizes the secular nature of the holiday) runs into Bob on the street while on his way to play O. Henry to Bert and Ernie's Jim and Della . After a brief exchange, Bob, knowing that Mr. Hooper is Jewish, wishes him a Happy Hanukkah - a sentiment that Mr. Hooper demonstrably appreciates, and reciprocates by heartily wishing Bob a Merry Christmas. Now, I don't know whether Mr. Hooper is referring to an explicitly religious aspect of Christmas for Bob, or merely thanking Bob for his sensitivity...but in either case, I have always seen this exchange as the model for a Holiday Greeting Etiquette. Use "Merry Christmas" for everyone, if you so choose, because the holiday is secular. However, use religion-specific greetings with people who you know celebrate such holidays exclusively. And if you get corrected on accidentally wishing a Jew or a Muslim a "Merry Christmas," apologize, tell them you meant no offense, explain that you use the word to describe the secular holiday, but that you will remember their preference for the future. Maybe if we do that enough - maybe if we can make everybody understand that you don't have to be Christian to celebrate Christmas - and we can all just sit down and enjoy the tinsel.

So please, this holiday season, if you're so inclined, don't feel like you can't wish people a Merry Christmas. Because, after all, what's in a name? I'm sick to death of hearing people say, (to quote an email I just received forwarded from someone else's grandmother):
This is a Christmas tree.
It is not a Hanukkah bush,
it is not an Allah plant,
it is not a Holiday hedge.
It is a Christmas tree.
Say it... CHRISTmas , CHRISTmas , CHRISTmas
Yes. CHRISTmas - celebrating the Birth of Jesus Christ!!!
After all, depending on who you are, there's about as much Christ in Christmas as there is Thor in Thursday. It's really just a linguistic accident that the English language has happened to preserve "Christ" in the name for this holiday at all. If we were in France, we would be wishing each other Joyeux Noel. In Germany, Froeliche Weinachten, and in Norway God Jul. And as far as I'm concerned, if English-speaking Christians can suffer to call their highest holy day after the name of the pre-Christian goddess Easter, then there's no reason for us Atheists to shy away from the word Christmas.

So that's my two cents. Make of it what you will.

Happy Christmas to you all.
The war can be over, if you want it.

05 December 2007

Thinking Out Loud

When you all are faced with a really tough choice, and after long deliberation you finally make up your mind, do you ever have the impulse to run out and justify that decision to every person you meet? As though by convincing them that you made the right choice you'll convince yourself?

Well, I think I've just come to a decision, and I hope you'll indulge me a little self-justification.

You see, I've spent the last three years studying the Hebrew Bible. And it's been fun, and really rewarding. But because my interests (i.e. showing that the Ancient Israelites were really just a bunch of wacky Iron Age polytheists) are in such stark conflict with what most people want to hear ("everything in the Bible is true, and we have archaeology to prove it!"), this means that for the rest of my professional career, my message will necessarily be a negative one. Just by the fact of how the discipline works, I will be challenging people's cherished assumptions about their own identity on a daily basis. And as much as I like challenging people to think critically about their own traditions (As Penn Gilette once said "Go ahead. Read the Bible - because the world needs more Atheists"), that's just not a battle I want to be fighting every day until I retire.

You see, although I am an Atheist, that identity is secondary to my identity as a Religionist. In fact, I only arrived at my conclusion that there was no god after I became fascinated with the diversity of humanity's religious manifestations. I derive my greatest intellectual satisfaction from understanding how religion works -- not from refuting or demolishing it. Yes: I think it is harmful and backwards in my own society - but in the societies of others or of the distant past, I find much in it to be excited about. Lately, the only thing I've been able to be excited about is being an angry Atheist, thanks to the professional discussions I'm forced to have - but that's not who I am or who I want to be. If I stay within the field of the Hebrew Bible I will be putting myself in a place where I can only be angry at people for not putting aside their biases to do real scholarship - rather than trying to get people excited about studying something new and different, which is what I always wanted to do in the first place.

Which leads me to the alternative: there are a number of options on my plate right now - and obviously I can't pick one until I shop around and see what clicks - but for the moment I'm seriously considering one or more religions of the Indo-European family. That is to say: the Indian Vedic tradition, Pre-Zoroastrian Persia, Hittite religion, Greek Religion, Slavic religion, Germanic religion, and Celtic religion. I feel like these traditions would a) give me the necessary cultural variety I crave, b) allow me to speak as I like without worrying about the tenure-consequences of offending a student of faith, and most importantly c) allow me to study something simultaneously very familiar and very foreign. Because this I-E religious strain both was superseded by the modern axial traditions, and in many cases survived at a folk level after the introduction of these traditions, this would also allow me to study my dual interest in ancient polytheism *and* heterodox behavior among later ethical religions. In other words, I can finally go back to "hey, look at that. Isn't that cool? Why do you suppose they did that?" instead of "don't be stupid. You're reading that text wrong. Your hermeneutic is flawed, and you're letting your faith cloud your judgment."

Now, all I have to do is finish out this semester, and let the fun begin.

03 December 2007

An Inconvenient Truth about Christian Ethics

A few days ago, I received an anonymous comment on my post about Tillich. My response ended up much longer than it ought to have been, so I'm including it as a post unto itself, because I think it is useful to see the kinds of real-world popular theologies that are out there. The anonymous poster writes:
The central tenet of Christianity is that we should act as Jesus would.

What we think Jesus would do is,at best, only loosely related to whether we think Jesus actually existed and did what he is said to have done.

The "truth-value" of the central tenet is T. We should act as Jesus would.
The respondent seems to be going along with Tillich's modernist interpretation: i.e. that the existenz/nonexistenz of a historical Jesus is a moot point because the heart of the Christian message is the moral example that we attribute to Jesus.

Fair enough. I see in this similarities to the Deist Christianity of, say, Thomas Jefferson - for whom Jesus was just a man with some pretty good ideas of how to act toward each other.

But my question, to play Devil's advocate, is this: if Jesus never existed, then from where does this moral example come? Who attributed these sayings and actions to a man who didn't exist, and why?

Furthermore, even if a historical Jesus did indeed exist (and I believe he probably did, although he was probably nothing like he appears in the Gospels), it is still a very difficult, if not impossible, task to determine what he would have done in any given circumstance. Like it or not, attempting to predict what a given person - fictional or not - would do in a given situation is intrinsically an interpretive, speculative exercise. Thanks to the free will that people are always touting, we can predict human responses with no certainty. And given the propensity of people to find justifications for their actions, there's a whole host of possibly-questionable things one can argue that Jesus would have endorsed, but that we will simply never know for certain.

Now, of course one will argue that this is one of the tasks of theology: to make educated guesses about moral choices given a limited set of holy precedents. And again I say fair enough. But what I would like to bring to your attention is the fact that these guesses must be dictated at least in part by the zeitgeist. Because the actual Jesus is apparently less important than the kinds of behavior people think he would be ok with - and because we can't exactly call him up and ask him - then ultimately the decisions of moral/immoral good/bad are in the hands of the people who claim to speak for him.

So far so good: that's organized religion for you. There's a caste of divine functionaries who are believed to have the ability to speak on behalf of the departed precedent-setter.

But (and this is coming full-circle now) if one claims that there needn't have been an actual Jesus, or that Jesus' divinity is not an important part of the equation, then those people who claim to speak on his authority therefore have no divine backing - seemingly by their own admission. Instead, we have a bunch of people arguing about whether a fictional character would approve of or engage in such-and-such a behavior.

So why, then, can't we cut out the middleman, and instead have these debates about whether such and such a thing is acceptable in the abstract? Why can't we have secular ethics without the distraction of a fictitious a desert mendicant peering over our shoulders? If Jesus' existence or divinity is not important, then one's choice of him as a role model is completely arbitrary (albeit culturally determined) - and the ethics attributed to him in any given era are the morals of that era, and not the other way around.

02 December 2007


Hot damn! Back on the seventh of November, I pickled a jar of garlic. Yesterday, I finally got to taste it. And it was delicious.

So naturally, today I pickled two more pounds of garlic. Should be ready just in time for Christmas.

In case you want to try it yourself, here's the recipe I used. I used a chili pepper instead of a large red bell pepper, though, and mustard seed instead of ground dry mustard.

Now, I think I'm going to make a burrito. Because I can cook.