27 February 2008

Not Dwelling

Sometimes you just need to let things be.

Sal Cordova is apparently completely ignorant of the basic fundamentals of inheritance, has been trying to rewrite the laws of physics despite knowing nothing of electrodynamics (by his own admission), and wants to join the gang at Uncommonly Dense in dancing on Darwin's grave.

Everybody's favorite creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor has been trying to use what fMRI tells us about the function of the mind as an argument against connecting the mind to measures of brain function. (Luckily, Dr. Steven Novella is laying the appropriate smackdown.)

Over at Uncle Density, dacook is trying to suck the value out of his daughter's science project and replace it with his pseudoscience. (This one is just too sad for me to address... he obviously cares about his daughter and thinks he's helping, but he's crippling her education by indoctrinating her with intelligent design.)

And veteran link farmer Denyse O'Leary's response to a study showing that the religious landscape in America is changing, boiled down: "No it isn't! *folds arms petulantly*" I'd like to see the error bars on her complete lack of any evidence whatsoever to accompany her dismissal of the survey.

That's a whole lot of wrong. And it's got me a little down. But it's not worth losing sleep over, so I'm going to pass on the extensive commentary.

...Frack, it's already an hour past when I planned to be in bed.

26 February 2008

D'Souza Declares War on Atheists on Behalf of Muslims

The forces of unreason have been out in force lately. I've got some catching up to do.

Last week, Dinesh D'Souza once again proved himself to be a bigoted, self-absorbed twit. As is so often the case, he opens his article with a plug:
When I proposed in my book The Enemy at Home (newly out in paperback)
Must be nice, getting paid to self-advertise.

Anyway, D'Souza goes on to talk about a letter written last October from a bunch of Muslim scholars addressed to Pope B-16, and how they tried to reassure his Popeliness that they weren't trying to pick a fight with anyone:
"As Muslims," the letter goes, "we say to Christians that we are not
against them and that Islam is not against them--so long as they do not
wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them,
and drive them out of their homes." The letter was carefully worded so
that it did not confuse clashes of interests with a war against the
Muslim religion.
Sounds reasonable, right? Well, here's D'Souza's interpretation:
In effect, the Muslim leaders were saying that their religious quarrel is only with atheists and other enemies of Islam.
The Muslims are saying they won't war over religious issues, they'll only fight over social issues if necessary. D'Souza has them saying they won't war over religious issues with Christians, they'll only war against atheists (hand-in-hand with Christians, ideally). In case you're curious, the actual letter in question never references "atheists" once.

Those of you familiar with D'Souza's writing will recognize this as a recurring theme. All we have to do to prevent another terrorist attack on the United States is get rid of everything the terrorists (and Dinesh, conveniently) don't like: liberals, gays, and especially atheists. The Muslims love Christian, conservative Americans. So for our own good, we need to get rid of anyone who isn't Christian or conservative. D'Souza isn't persecuting atheists, he's just looking out for all Americans.

Goddamned fearmongering Christofascist.

20 February 2008

Goat Theory: Part II

In a previous post, I mentioned Goat Theory, and promised to elaborate.

In order to explain Goat Theory fully, I would essentially have to explain everything I've learned in my five years of studying religion, so I'll be as brief as possible in three easy steps:

1) Modern religion is not representative of religion as a whole as it has been practiced throughout human history. The modern "world religions" are what we call "confessional" - i.e. they postulate divine being(s) who are intimately concerned with the content of your character, your emotional states, and your internal life. They are intimately concerned with professing "belief" - whereas most religious systems have tended to be tacitly accepted, absorbed along with the rest of a cultural apparatus in the socialization of childhood. Confessional religion is a relatively late development in the history of religions, and one that is entirely historically conditioned (by the Protestant Reformation, specifically, which in turn exported the confessional mindset to other religions touched by colonial expansion).

2) The vast majority of people are secular. This is not to say that they are irrreligious - merely that they are predominantly occupied in mundane pursuits. We tend to forget, lounging on the sofa in our post-industrial world, that the time we spend doing things like contemplating ultimate truth, engaging in philosophical debates, and blogging, has traditionally been devoted to less frivolous pursuits like agricultural labor, warfare, fighting predators, cottage industry, and so on. Until the modern democratization of religion, theology remained the purview of priests and theologians - special castes of people who were only able to confront theological issues because their livelihoods were secured by the material support of the pious masses. The vast majority of people, on the other hand, have been far too occupied with securing the means of their own material welfare to worry about issues of heavy theological importance.

3) Therefore, when an average person engages in religious activities, he does so for mundane reasons. His prayers are for a successful crop; his magic is directed toward averting plague. He is concerned about the effect of jealousy in invoking misfortune; he worries about witchcraft; he propitiates his deity and makes donations to his religious establishment in exchange for a guarantee of divine protection. He probes his dreams for advice and warnings. He participates in religious activities to show solidarity with his community. He wears talismans to ensure longevity, fecundity, to ward off injury and harm. And in religions that posit a pleasant afterlife (and there are many that don't), the average person does what he can to ensure that he goes there after death. People don't always engage in these activities out of an abnormally high level of conviction; they do them out of the tacit assumption that this was the way to ensure the good life, the fear that failing to do these things might have disastrous consequences, and the unwillingness to run the risk of testing the phenomenon.

And, to come full circle, although I mentioned in the beginning that modern religion is an exceptional case, I ask the reader to take a look at the list above and tell me that it doesn't apply to the modern megachurch-goer as much as it does to an aboriginal Australian. These are universal concerns that do not go away no matter how complex or convoluted the religious tradition. Modern religions are only exceptional in their emphasis on "spirituality" "personal relationships with the deity" and other such hogwash - and it's something I keep trying to bring up in the theological debates I keep getting roped into over at the Div School. People there are always honking on about "Free Will this" and "Transubstantiation that" and "Predestined somethingorother" - and all I have to say is "yeah, sure. But what about my goat?" Because at the end of the day, people really still just care about their goats.

This, then, is what I mean when I talk about Goat Theory. I'm not implying that religious people have an unhealthy fascination with members of the species Capra aegagrus hircus (although I'm sure there were many ancients who felt about their goats the way PZ feels about his squids), but the security of their livelihoods, the soundness of their bodies and minds, the happiness and fecundity of their families, and freedom from physical harm. And that, Charlie Brown, is one of the most overlooked and most crucial aspects of religious life.

19 February 2008

No More Comfort

Well, that's it. I've had enough.

Perhaps you know about the blog of Ray Comfort (yes, the banana guy). If you don't, consider yourself lucky. You won't be finding a link here. Until today, I had it in my Google Reader (under the "christofascists-etc" label) as a guilty pleasure (well, a masochistic indulgence, not really a pleasure). Ray's writings are so... I'm not even sure there's an adequate word for the degree to which they are intellectually deadening in content and maddeningly smug in tone. It's a disaster from which I could not look away. It isn't even the stuff that's worth engaging with reasoned argument, though many have tried. All I could do was look on and shake my head in despair.

All that's over now; I've unsubscribed, and I'm sure my "heart pressure" will thank me for it. What did it take to push me over the edge? The words "chocolate cake." According to Ray, atheists don't like chocolate cake, because we don't make cynical comments about chocolate cake. Stupid as that sounds, it overlooks something even more important:

THE CAKE IS A LIE.

I could draw an analogy between imaginary cake and... oh, but I really don't care that much. Besides, I just finished a short stack of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. I'm not hungry.

15 February 2008

Friggin' Sweet

Well don't I feel sheepish.

It's the day after Valentine's Day, so Sara and I thought we'd take advantage of the occasion and buy some discount chocolates at CVS. So we went to the store, and it wasn't entirely clear that the candy was on sale, but we loaded our arms anyway because candy is delicious.

As we got home and started unpacking our haul, Sara lamented that we should have dyed eggs. At that moment, it dawned on us: we were standing there holding bags of Easter candy, not discount Valentine's chocolates. Tricksy!

Jesus may think he's won this round, but the joke's on him. Now, while many are supposed to be fasting for Lent, we're enjoying sugary goodness. And just wait until you see what we have planned for Good Friday! (Hint: it's going to be the best Friday!)

Anyone? Anyone?

The Disco 'Tute just posted a press release issued by Biola University, a private evangelical Christian institution in Los Angeles, concerning Ben Stein. Honestly, I haven't a clue what it's about. I read the first sentence, and could read no further:
Ben Stein, known from his lead role in the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and his Comedy Central show Win Ben Stein’s Money, believes in liberty and truth.
Now, granted, it's been a little while since I've seen Ferris Bueller, but I'm pretty sure Matthew Broderick had the lead role in the movie. And Jeffrey Jones, as principal Ed Rooney, was the lead antagonist. I'd hesitate to call Stein's role as "Economics Teacher" a supporting one, let alone a lead.

I knew cdesign proponentsists tend to be disconnected from reality, but Jesus Christ...

Kissing Hank's Ass

You all have probably seen this one already, but Robin just brought it to my attention the other day, and I thought it was worth a quick post.

Kissing Hank's Ass

11 February 2008

A Weekend of Exciting Drink

I am told that civilization was built upon beer. Well, this weekend I participated in a long and glorious tradition: on Friday night, I had my first beer. I'd long been wary of beer, given its popular image in America, but I'm willing to start giving a try to these "microbrews" I've heard so much about. My first was a dark Russian stout, with flavors of dark chocolate and coffee. I followed it up with a good English wassail.

I had a good first beer.

But that paled in comparison to the selection last night. For Christmas, Sara gave me a bottle of tokaji (pronounced "tow-KAI," spelling sometimes Anglicanized to "tokay"), a sweet "noble rot" wine from the Tokaj region of Hungary. As far as I'm concerned, tokaji is the most elegant and romantic wine in existence. It is a wine rich in history and tradition. Louis XIV of France famously referred to it as "Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum" ("Wine of Kings, and King of Wines"). I first heard of "tokay" reading The Golden Compass, and ever since then I've dreamed of one day tasting it.

Well, last night we opened the bottle (sealed with wax, not foil). After a fantastic dinner of blackened tilapia served with spiced green beans and dinner rolls, we enjoyed a glass each of chilled tokaji with dessert, a chocolate-chip cheesecake spread with vanilla wafers. I've never had such a wine as this... beautiful amber color, sweet, almost like syrup, slightly tart flavor with tones of apricot and honey. I can't really think of anything to compare it to. It was phenomenal.

Sara and I have agreed that tokaji will be featured in our wedding ceremony. It will be an opportunity for us to take a number of old traditions and make them our own. But more on that as we get closer to October. ;-)

There is a great deal to be said for a good tradition.

07 February 2008

Berlinski whines about peer review

Yesterday at Uncommonly Dense, GildDodgen posted a number of quotes from an interview with David Berlinski, the Disco 'Tute fellow and purported mathematician whose master calculation for assessing evolution quantitatively (revealed in that same interview) amounted to counting (or rather, pretending to count) the differences between cows and whales. The first quote given, concerning the self-critical nature of science, struck me as particularly wrong and important to correct:
The idea that science is a uniquely self-critical institution is of
course preposterous. Scientists are no more self-critical than anyone
else. They hate to be criticized… Look, these people are only
human, they hate criticism — me too. The idea that scientists are
absolutely eager to be beaten up is one of the myths put out by
scientists, and it works splendidly so they can avoid criticism.
One of the great strengths of science is the concept of peer review. In short, before any group's work can be included in the body of published scientific literature, it must be reviewed by other scientists in the field. This way, errors of methodology or interpretation can be addressed and reduced. It's not a perfect system, but it works pretty darn well: success is determined by well-reasoned argument and reproducible evidence.

Peer review is not kind to cdesign propoentsists, considering their total lack of a sound scientific argument (for ID or against evolution), and so it's natural that they'd lash out against it. Berlisnki's comment is so wrong, it hurts. I may be looking at peer review with all the naïve idealism of a kid who's never submitted a paper to a journal, but even I can see he's off his rocker. Look, let's say for a second that he's right, and scientists hate to be criticized. Even if that were the case, that doesn't change the nature of science as a system.

If you want to be published in the scientific literature, you have to get through peer-review. There's no way around it. Sure, you can make propaganda videos, pressure school districts, write books... there are ways to get your idea out there that bypass peer review. But that doesn't make it science.

And with that as a ground rule, scientists have to be highly self-critical. Sure, scientists are only human, and we like to be right. That doesn't mean we won't submit ourselves to criticism to make sure we're right, especially when the nature of the system means our success depends on it.

Not that your standard creationist would care about any of that, anyway. They're convinced that peer review must be flawed, since their criticisms of evolution never get any traction in the scientific community. Remember, you can't spell "crank" without "persecution complex." But it isn't enough to reject an idea, you have to be able to levy legitimate criticism against it. There isn't any "Darwinist conspiracy;" creationist claims have simply been consistently and conclusively demonstrated to be WRONG.

04 February 2008

A Bright Atheiversary

What with Grandpop's funeral and all, I completely forgot to make note of a certain date. On January 7, 2007, I first officially came out to the world as an atheist on my old blog.

That isn't the date that I stopped believing in God, mind you, but rather the date that I stopped pretending that theism was still a viable option. I can't really name a specific moment when I stopped believing, but I (like Ben) am working on documenting the numerous factors that contributed to my eventual atheism (you'll find a few hints below), so keep an eye open for that.

The occasion of my (belated) atheiversary is as good a time as any to address the matter of The Brights. The day I came out, I also registered as a Bright. It was important to me, as a fledging apostate, that I be able to define my position clearly; naturally, I found a certain appeal in a group based solely on having a clear, concise definition of their worldview. I don't think I ever really bothered much with the term "bright" after that, and certainly after a year I'm pretty well-versed in bandying about the word "atheist" without fear. But having that handhold was important to me for those first few days.

I no longer particularly support The Brights' movement. Whatever you think of the choice of "bright" as a moniker, relabeling ourselves will not make people stop hating us; I feel we need to take a stand and find unity in the terms we already have. That said, I think the Brights have done an excellent job of giving new members an essential tool for affirming their identity by stating their definition clearly and repeatedly. And if that helps some new atheists (not to be confused with New Atheists(TM)) come out, then more power to them, I guess.

Anyway. Here, for posterity, is what I wrote just over a year ago. I hesitate to post it; I wasn't happy with how it came out then, and I'm even less happy with it now. :-P I don't know that I could have done a worse job of coming out... unless, of course, I hadn't come out and all. And that's why I am reposting it here: as a reminder that, even if I'm not always eloquent about it, I'm an atheist, and I'm not afraid to admit it.

Here's to a full year of godlessness, with many more to come!
In Which I Come Out as an Atheist
(7 Jan 2007)

The God Delusion is a fantastic book. Of course, I'd be inclined to say so, since it's precisely what I've been waiting for these past few months.

I can say with confidence now (and feel it is my duty to say) that I am an atheist.

I highly recommend that you read The God Delusion for yourselves. If you've been on the fence about your beliefs, it might help you sort out the different arguments. Even if you have no intention of abandoning your faith, at least you'll know where I'm coming from. Plus, it's an entertaining read; you've got to appreciate a scientist with a sense of humour.

To be fair, Dawkins did not convert me. I had already abandoned religion some time ago, after a thorough investigation of Intelligent Design and an increasing frustration with American Christian fundamentalism. The God Delusion contains much of what I had already known, but organized, clarified, and augmented with details, thus giving me the ability (and courage) to clearly express my worldview.

Last night I registered as a Bright with The-Brights.net. A Bright is "a person who has a naturalistic worldview (free of supernatural or mystical elements)." Brights include atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists, rationalists, and a multitude of other labels. Please give the site a look; you might very well be a Bright, and not even know it. Or maybe you know you're a Bright, but are afraid to admit it.

This is a hard post to write (I may never be happy with how it comes across, but I must publish it nonetheless). The way things stand today, as a declared atheist, I can pretty much kiss any hopes of running for political office goodbye. I'd have a better shot if I were Christian and openly gay. But that's precisely why I need to come out of my closet. I need to help turn public opinion around. By the most conservative estimates, atheists, agnostics, and those with no religious preference outnumber every religious affiliation in America save Christians, yet we suffer the most political discrimination. Maybe by the time I'm old enough to be president, we'll have changed the public stigma against atheism.

And so I say freely: I am an atheist. I am a Bright. If you are as well, then I encourage you to share the fact. The first step to achieving acceptance is to show the world that we are not ashamed.

--Aaron--