29 March 2008

Muslim Declares War on Atheists on Behalf of D'Souza

So, remember a month ago when D'Souza tried twisting a letter from Muslim scholars to the pope as a call to rally against the atheist scourge? Well, to be fair, I never got to read the original letter (since he didn't link to it), so I don't know whether he was twisting their statements or referring to an unquoted passage. But none of that matters now, Dinesh need not twist any longer! King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is out there saying precisely what Dishy wants him to say. From the Christian Post (emphasis mine):

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called for a dialogue among monotheistic religions Monday, marking a first for the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom.

"I ask representatives of all the monotheistic religions to meet with their brothers in faith," Abdullah told delegates to a seminar on "Dialogue Among Civilizations between Japan and the Islamic World," according to the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

“If God wills it, we will then meet with our brothers from other religions, including those of the Torah and the Gospel... to come up with ways to safeguard humanity," he added.

Abdullah said the country’s top clerics have given him approval to pursue his idea and that he plans to get the opinion of Muslim leaders from other countries.

According to SPA, the Saudi king also intends to address the United Nations on the subject.

"We have lost sincerity, morals, fidelity and attachment to our religions and to humanity," Abdullah said Monday, deploring "the disintegration of the family and the rise of atheism in the world – a frightening phenomenon that all religions must confront and vanquish."

The funny thing is, the author of the article (Eric Young) calls this a message of tolerance. To a writer for the Christian Post, maybe. And it may seem like a small step forward for Saudi Arabia. But this is neither tolerance nor progress. This is scapegoating, and as such would forever exclude and alienate the atheist community. This sort of rhetoric must be categorically rejected by those to whom King Abdullah is reaching, lest they validate his bigoted position and dirty themselves in the process.

(Hat tip NoGodBlog. Also discussed at Skepchick)

27 March 2008

Fieldwork Ethics: A Hypothetical Problem

Consider the following problem that might arise for an Anthropologist in the field:

In the course of conducting your fieldwork, you manage to develop very important relationships with two native informants, without whom your research would be entirely impossible. One day, these two informants extend an open invitation for you to attend a performance of their culture's main religious ritual. Although there are no restrictions placed on who may attend the ritual, you know that active participation in it is restricted to those members of the in-caste who have gone through the proper rites of initiation. The penalty for violating this taboo is never articulated - largely because only people who have been initiated into the cult ever attend - and you suspect that violating it would cause the natives to be less favorably disposed to you, and might jeopardize the rapport you have built in the community. Luckily, in the course of your prior interviews you managed to learn precisely how to go about participating in the ritual, and are confident that you could pass as a member of the in-group without incurring suspicion (note that learning the ritual does NOT mean that you have been properly initiated, which you have not).

Now, enter the problem: your two informants are of different minds as to the extent of your involvement. Both of them agree that their invitation to attend is a gesture of friendship. However, Informant A believes in the strict adherence to taboo laws, and because he knows that you are not initiated he thinks you should only be allowed to watch. Informant B, however, believes that including you and letting you participate in the ritual is an appropriate gesture of friendship - one which he feels justified in making despite the fact that it is in violation of the rules of his society.

Therefore, if you go ahead and participate in the ritual anyway, your relationship with informant A will be irreparably damaged because you're flaunting the taboo. But a refusal to participate in the ritual on those grounds will be construed as a rejection of Informant B's gesture of friendship, and will irreparably damage your relationship with Informant B. If you refuse to attend as well as participate, then you will damage your relationship with both A and B. Finally, you could also go through the process of initiation - an option which would be acceptable to both A and B - but when you ask what it would entail, you discover that it would require you to engage in behaviors that you are ethically and aesthetically opposed to, and which would set you apart as a pariah in your own society when you eventually returned from the field.

In short, you're stuck between a rock and a hard place with no way out. You either have to ruin one or both of your relationships with native informants - which would be an irrecoverable loss - or you must sacrifice your own principles and lose the respect of your own society for the sake of averting conflict with your informants.

What would you do?


17 March 2008

The Littlest Godwin and Other Education Stories

A week or so ago, a panel of three judges of a California appellate court ruled unanimously over a child welfare case that parents in California needed teaching or tutoring credentials in order to homeschool their children. Now, I don't know much about this specific case or homeschooling in general, but on the face of it this seems perfectly rational intuitive to me. Requiring parents to have teaching credentials before they be allowed to teach? What a novel idea!

Homeschooling parents, however, are apparently up in arms. SNL's Weekend Update included a little blurb lampooning the protests (hat tip Crooks & Liars):
Many California parents who homeschool their children are upset by a California court ruling that may force their children to be taught by a credentialed teacher. Said one angry parent, "This is just like what the Nazis did to the Eskimos in the 1850s."
Ha ha! Oh, the hyperbole! So amusing!

But wait. Since homeschooling is so often used by evangelicals to protect their children from reality, it's only natural that a Christian "news" site like One News Now would pick up the story:
"We will not give up home schooling our child," she states. "If it means moving from out of state, however we have to do that, we will do it because that is what we feel that God has called us to do." Kathleen says she and her husband have not had much chance to discuss the issue beyond that basic decision.

Even Kathleen's nine-year-old son understands what is happening to parental rights in his home state. "He said to me, 'This is like that bad man,' which he couldn't think of his name, 'in Germany. That's what it reminds me of,'" she continues. "And I was surprised at his perception, that he actually considered that a comparison.

Adolf Hitler outlawed home schooling in Germany in 1938. The practice is still illegal in re-unified Germany to this day.

Many of the commenters on that article applaud Kathleen's son for having such insight on world history, and hail this as a victory for homeschooling. But I'm guessing he didn't come up with the Hitler comparison on his own; either he was taught it directly, or he overheard his parents talk about it in that context, or he had already been primed to invoke der Führer to smear his opponents in a different context (maybe against us evil-utionists! just one month 'til "Expelled" is released!). In any case, his mother/educator clearly approves of the comparison, which bespeaks ill of the education he's receiving.

Greg Laden links to some less Godwin-y articles on the homeschooling controversy here.

In other news...

A CDC study indicates that one in four teenage girls has an STD, with HPV being the most prevalent. Naturally, fundies see this as indication that we need more abstinence-based sex education. Never mind the fact that ignorance-only sex ed DOES NOT WORK, and more than likely is partly to blame for the current teen infection rate. I especially liked this quote in the article from National Abstinence Education Association official Valerie Huber:
"When we learn that one in four teen girls is infected with [an STD],
it becomes clear that the contraception-based approach taught in 75
percent of U.S. schools is failing young people."
Gee, one in four teen girls has an STD, and one in four teen girls isn't getting education about contraceptives? Hmmmm.... ;-)

Meanwhile, via Americans United, a recent study has revealed that students at Catholic schools perform no better than public school students in reading, and actually do worse in math. Just one more piece of evidence that government vouchers for private schools are NOT the way to improve education in America. Instead, we need to reform and reinforce public education.

And boy, could public education use some reinforcements. For instance, the Disco 'Tute is trying to push an "academic freedom" bill through the Florida legislature as a countermeasure to the recent inclusion of evolution (and exclusion of intelligent design) in the state science standards. All is not lost, though. Ben Stein tried to peddle his propaganda to Florida lawmakers, but the event tanked. And Casey Luskin has let slip that the academic freedom bill is about intelligent design after all, and the press noticed... oops! (As a side note, Luskin appears to be trying to make amends for his indiscretion by churning out
another article on how ID isn't creationism, this time with the help of
Mike LaSalle of right-wing site Men's News Daily. I'm not about to give MND a close read, but somehow I'm not
inclined to trust it as a source of commentary.) Here's hoping that the Academic Freedom Act withers and dies. This isn't about academic freedom, this is about academic integrity and responsibility.

But the real humdinger is going on in Oklahoma, where House Bill 2211, the "Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act," threatens to undermine all that is education. In short, the bill is intended to make it so a student can get credit for a wrong answer, so long as that wrong answer is based on the student's religious beliefs. Teachers who ask the age of the Earth on a test would be required by law to mark answers of "6,000 years" as correct. Maybe it would work that way, maybe it wouldn't... there's a law like this already on the books in Texas, and it's just begging for a federal case. Bullshit like this makes me want to fly down to Oklahoma and apply as a science teacher; I'm mad as hell, and an angry letter to the Oklahoma legislature isn't cathartic enough. Sometimes you feel the need to inject a little reality right at the source.

This bill and others are being promoted by state Representative Sally Kern, a "hate filled, backwards bitch" (I really can't put it better than that) who (surprise, surprise) has been hiding a gay son.

This bill seems to be getting a fair share of attention, which is probably the best way to snuff it out. And snuffed out it must be.

Is our children learning? Not if some people can help it...

14 March 2008

The Pies of March

Sine, cosine, cosine, sine! Three-point-one-four-one-five-nine! Goooooooooo Π !

The fourteenth day of the third month of the year is declared Π Day, and Sara and I celebrated in the only way that is good and proper and decent:

Sara and Pi

That is a breakfast pie: egg, sausage, and cheese in pie format. You have no idea...

Celebrate a number? Why not? I make it a rule not to stand in the way of any holiday that promises baked goods, even if I share a tiny bit of sympathy with those who lament the fact that we don't celebrate Π Day on the twenty-eighth of June.

13 March 2008

More on McCain

Think Progress has called McCain out over Hagee's anti-gay comments, and good for them. This Hagee endorsement needs to stay in the news. It needs to remain an albatross around McCain's neck. It's time to set an example for any politician hoping to make quick gains by pandering to the evangelical fundamentalist right.

TP also notes that Hagee isn't the only questionable evangelist to whom McCain has been cozying up. The up-and-coming Rev. Rod Parsley, whom McCain has called his "spiritual guide," has been trying to rewrite American history as a glorious crusade against Islam. Once again, this isn't just about bigotry, we need to be pushing McCain for information on how this relates to his foreign policy objectives.

From among the comments to the posts above, a blast from the past. The ever astute Jon Stewart warned McCain of the perils of "crazy base world" back in 2006, shortly before McCain was to speak at Jerry Falwell's Liberty "University":

11 March 2008

The Repudiation That Wasn't

As you may have heard, two weeks ago presidential candidate John McCain received the endorsement of John Hagee, mega-evangelist and hateful fucking lunatic. This caused a little bit of a stir, considering that Hagee is (as noted before) a hateful fucking lunatic. In particular, it raised the ire of Catholic League president Bill Donohue, a man so easy to offend that he'd probably call his own Pope an anti-Catholic bigot if he thought he could get away with it. Hagee, you see, has made some disparaging remarks against the Catholic church in the past, calling it "the great whore" and "the apostate church" among other things. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, herself a Catholic, also condemned McCain for accepting Hagee's endorsement.

As the AP's Libby Quaid reported on Saturday, McCain finally went before the press on Friday and directly "repudiate[d] any comments that are made, including Pastor Hagee's, if they are anti-Catholic or offensive to Catholics."

That might sound like the end of it, right?

It shouldn't be.

Hagee's hateful fucking lunacy doesn't end with anti-Catholic bigotry. What about the fact that Hagee called Hurricane Katrina a punishment from God for gay pride parades in New Orleans? I bet he's said some juicy things about atheists, too. Or here's a big one: what about Hagee's explicit desire to expedite Armageddon via a preemptive military strike at Iran? McCain reportedly still praises Hagee's support of Israel; shouldn't we be holding his feet to the fire over that? That's more than some stupid, bigoted insult; that's an explicit desire to kill in the name of God.

Once upon a time, Senator McCain denounced the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world. But over the past few years, he's been kissing the religious right's ring at every turn. Let us not forget that McCain actively pursued Hagee's endorsement.

This isn't really about McCain (for whom I had and have absolutely NO intention of voting). This is about Hagee and his ilk, and their supposed power over American politics. These people are hateful fucking lunatics, and it's high time that that be made crystal clear. In a just, sane world, McCain's pursuit and acquisition of Hagee's endorsement would cost him tenfold the votes he would gain.

. . . And as an aside, can I just say that I'm really, truly discouraged that Quaid thought it necessary to define "apostate" for her readers?

09 March 2008

Paying My Elders Their Proper Respect

Today was PZ's 51st birthday, so I spent all evening making him a little present:

Not too gaudy, I hope? I know he already has a few cephalothrones, but maybe he could use one for the den, or the summer cottage.

Anyway, go pay PZ a visit today, and tell 'im I sent ya. He could use the traffic (hur hur i bet im the only one who ever made that joke hur).

Seriously, though, PZ's an important fella, and he deserves his accolades. I forget exactly how I started reading his site, but it was shortly after I came out as an atheist. That definitely had an impact on my maturing godlessness (as I'm sure you can imagine), and we Pharyngula readers should all know how important development is. ;-)

Here's hoping I get a chance to meet him at TAM6!

05 March 2008

I Done Been Saved!

...or, at least, that's what some well-meaning (let's give them the benefit of the doubt, eh?) but completely unknown person in Charlottesville, VA wishes would happen.

You see, I came home from a hard morning of translating Biblical Hebrew (the irony!) to find this envelope in my mailbox

So I thought to myself: "Hey. I wonder who I know in Virginia who has the handwriting of a kindergartener or an 86-year-old with some kind of neurological disease?" I was, I fear, forever to be left in suspense, because the envelope contained no personal message and no identifying information of any kind. Just a copy of the following pamphlet (read at the peril of your sanity):

My Best Friend!

There's nothing in there of interest, and it's not really worth my time to try to pick apart. Just an example of the kind of logic that would only be compelling to someone already convinced. If you already think that you're condemned to damnation for one reason or another, then of course it makes sense to save yourself all that grief and aggravation by just saying "yeah! me too!" But chances are if you're already convinced of hellfire, you've also got the Jesus. They're a package deal, like the mafia.

Anyway, what I really can't figure out is: who in the world do I know in Virginia? The address they used is really the kicker, because it's wrong. If this fellow found me through my website (via my profile, via this blog), then they have no excuse for getting my address only partially right, because it's there as clear as day. But if they didn't find me through the interwubs, then the only thing I can think of is that they know me personally. I've got some family in West Virginia, and I think a few outliers in the Carolinas...but nobody in Charlottesville that I know of. I still haven't ruled out the possibility that Aaron sent it to me as a prank -- but I've yet to figure out how he could have gotten the VA postmark. He's sneaky, but not that sneaky.

In any case.

I ended up browsing the website of the publishing company for a while after finding the digital copy of the tract (I didn't feel like hooking up my scanner), and I made an interesting discovery. Apparently, it's part of their mission statement that they will send as many pamphlets as you would care to request free of charge in order to help spread the word of Jeezus.

Which got me thinking. I wonder how they make ends meet? They also have a donation page, of course, but I'm sure they don't have a 1:1 ratio of cash in/out. Chances are, they're breaking even at best, and probably losing money, which it seems they're willing to do as long as those pamphlets end up in the hands of real sinners, as opposed to, say, the bottom of sinners' rabbit cages, or the local recycling center. Imagine how terrible it would be if they received a whole bunch of orders for pamphlets which got used for confetti instead of evangelism. They might go out of business if it happened in enough volume -- and then nobody would ever feel the true joy of finding Jeezus in a pamphlet! I certainly hope none of my readers decides to order a bunch of pamphlets off of this convenient order form.

03 March 2008

Book Get

At the advice of Larry Moran, I've picked up a copy of Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. It arrived in the mail the other day, and since it didn't have a dust jacket (I bought it slightly used), I covered it in an old grocery bag, just like we used to do in grade school:

Man, brown bag dust jackets are awesome. You can draw on them! Why don't I do this for all my books?!

For all the exposure to evolution I've had through my biology classes and elsewhere, I've been lacking a solid, dedicated study of the subject for its own sake at the kind of level offered by Structure. I'm hoping it will be a good launch point, if nothing else.

But enough talk... I'ma do some reading before bed!

01 March 2008


Sara and I were at PharynguFest Boston last night at the Cambridge Brewing Company. Were you there? You should have been. It was a good time. There were a LOT of Pharyngulites there... we eventually splintered off with Chris, Terra, Blake, Juri, Dion, and Liz, who took pictures!

Part of the conversation turned toward our religious upbringings and various deconversion stories. I let slip a little bit about what got me on the road to godlessness... I really need to write that memoir. :-P

Many thanks to Jeff (who, sadly, I didn't actually get to meet, I don't think) for organizing the whole shebang.