01 June 2009

Sex, Babies, and the RCC

Is it not interesting that men whose religion forbids them to have sex should be so vehement that nobody else should have what they cannot? (And, if they have it, they certainly shouldn't enjoy it)

Is it not also interesting that the women who are forbidden to bear children by that same religion are so vehement that the rest of the world should have as many babies as possible?

I wonder what the Western world would be like if the positions had been reversed? That is, if celibate priests were of a more vicarious mindset, exhorting people to have all the sex that they themselves can't have - and if nuns, conversely, were the dogs-in-a-manger, taking out their childless frustrations on the world by urging better birth control.

24 April 2009


An obligatory David Bowie video to accompany the post title:

Synapostasy is two years old today. (There's no telling what that is in blog years.) When Ben and I, emboldened by "The God Delusion" and the New Humanism conference at Harvard, began this blog back in 2007, it was intended to be a joint exercise in atheist activism and scholarship. We've drifted quite a bit from our initial "mission statement," in some ways, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I know I've expanded into general skepticism topics, and have embellished with some science topics or bits of fun from time to time.

After all, we, the authors, have changed, too. In the past two years, we've graduated from college. I found a job. I got married! And looking back at the archives, I feel a bit of a disconnect from some of what I've written before.

Blogging has been unhappily sporadic of late, for which I apologize. Let me assure you that I haven't been idle. The past few months, I've taken it upon myself to expand upon the single computer science course I took at Dartmouth and become more proficient in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and most recently a smattering of PHP. This has ultimately culminated in my decision to try my hand at hosting my own website. After some fiddling with WordPress, it's up and running for real. I officially unveiled Scion Gradient yesterday.

The freedom of having my own personal site is exhilarating, and so far I thoroughly enjoy using the WordPress platform. A new start may be precisely the change I needed to rejuvenate my writing. I wasn't necessarily planning to use that site to start a new blog, but the siren call is so strong...

Ben and I have yet to discuss what this development means for the future of Synapostasy. One way or another, more changes are in store. Stay tuned.

12 April 2009


Iesus Nazarenus Mortus Manet!

19 March 2009

Fancy Suit

It's been a while since I've paid any attention to OneNewsNow, the online "news" presence for the conservative Christian fundamentalist American Family Association. Part of it was their garish web design with ads that kept crashing my web browser. As juicy as the ignorance in the headlines might be, it's hard to comment on an article that you can't read. Another part was simple fundie fatigue. It didn't help any when they signed on Michelle Malkin as an editorialist.

So what ends the drought? A startling admission does. ONN (not to be confused with the Onion News Network, a far superior outlet to which I have no qualms about linking) posted an article yesterday about a lesbian high school senior in a "small farming community" in Indiana who wanted to wear a tuxedo to her prom. The school initially insisted that girls wear dresses, but relented when the ACLU filed a lawsuit on the girl's behalf, much to the chagrin of local Denizens of an Idyllic Paradise of Strict Heteronormity from a more Innocent Time. Hooray!

Now, I mentioned that the girl was a lesbian, which I'm sure was very important to the AFA, but it should be irrelevant. A tuxedo is legitimate formal attire, and should be an option available to either gender regardless of their motives for choosing it. You know who looks good in the right tuxedo? Just about everybody. Seriously, I'd take a straight girl in a tuxedo over half the monstrosities that pass for prom dresses.

What's notable about the ONN article, though, apart from the standard homophobia and knee-jerk ACLU bashing, is the uniquely candid perspective of AFA Indiana executive director Micah Clark:
Clark points out parents need to be aware that there are very few standards that schools can take a stand for and win in court. He adds that it is a sign of the times when even small, rural schools in conservative areas are not immune to the onslaught of the gay agenda.
Why, yes, Mr. Clark. It is a sign of the times when bigotry can no longer hide, even in the backwaters. And I, for one, couldn't be happier.

18 March 2009

Some Kinda Druid Dudes Lifting the Veil

St. Patrick's Day has never been one of my favorite of holidays, to be honest. Not that I have anything really against the holiday itself... any excuse for a party, right? But for the longest time, I wasn't even sure what it was supposed to be celebrating, apart from cheesy decorations and drinking to excess, neither of which particularly appealed to me. One might think to take refuge from the modern debauch by focusing more on what the holiday is ostensibly supposed to be celebrating, but the truth is, there's nary a bit in the St. Patrick story worth celebrating. St. Patrick was a missionary, well-known in legend for having driven the snakes out of Ireland.

And by snakes, I mean the native Druids.

The effects of missionary creep can be tragic enough, but it was doubly so in the case of the Druids, because they left nothing behind. The Druids remain an intractable mystery, and that's a goddamned shame. That culture is gone. A whole culture, gone, and with hardly a trace remaining apart from a few peat bog mummies and a handful of Roman writings (a source of limited value, to be sure).

Which is not to say that the Druids were a bunch of saints (so to speak); that's not the point, though I'll note that the human sacrifice business is heavily disputed. That's the tragedy, that we don't know. We just don't know. Too often, when an oral tradition died, so did the memory of it. They survive as figures of legend, especially in Irish literature, but we don't know anything about them.

But I suppose it was worth it in the end. After all, Christianity in Ireland has worked out so well for everyone involved. And Patrick got to return to the island that kidnapped him with the ultimate revenge.

Therefore, this St. Patrick's Day, I wore green and black, to mark the holiday in solidarity with the Druids. And I didn't touch a drop of alcohol all day. Though that was more due to the fact that we're out of whiskey in the house...

I mean, solidarity.

11 March 2009

Hand Jive

A reminder that good hygiene isn't restricted to laboratory practices:

Once again, via yeah-it's-high-time-I-dropped-this-from-my-feed-reader FailBlog.

10 March 2009

Once Burned, Twice Shy

I am surrounded by things that will kill me. I'm not even talking about any of the deadly pathogens we study (this time). The spot of trouble I had was with a fairly mundane experiment.

The other week, I had to perform roughly two hundred gel purifications in preparation for a cloning experiment. First, you load a mixed DNA sample (in my case, the products of a PCR) onto an agarose gel and apply electric current to separate the DNA into bands based on size (a process called gel electrophoresis). Then, if there's a specific piece of DNA that you're interested in manipulating further (for instance, the pieces of DNA I wanted to clone), you can just cut the band of corresponding size out of the gel and extract the DNA from it using a special filter.

It's a straightforward and common practice, but you do have to be a little careful when running an agarose gel. To visualize the DNA, you stain the gel with ethidium bromide (EtBr), a chemical that becomes fluorescent when it binds to DNA. Its proclivity for binding DNA is all well and good for the sake of running the gel, but you don't want it coming in contact with your skin. It can induce DNA mutations, and is therefore suspected to be a carcinogen.

I take care not to get EtBr on my skin. I don't want cancer.

I guess I should have been more careful about the radiation burns, then.

Okay, so that sounds melodramatic, but that's technically what happened. You see, EtBr fluoresces under ultraviolet light. In order to cut all the bands out of my gels, I had to spend a fair deal of time standing over gels lit from below by a UV light box. Before you scold me, I was actually wearing a UV shield and safety glasses over my face. It wasn't until I was washing my face that night, however, that I realized the face shield hadn't given my neck much coverage. So yeah, I wound up with a mild sunburn on my neck (and a bit of color in my face... the shield doesn't give perfect protection). It was a little sore for a few days (I actually got a cold around the same time, so my throat was sore inside and out!), but otherwise no serious harm done. Good for a chuckle at my own expense, and a reminder that I'm a trained professional who deals with some dangerous stuff.

So now I know better than to lounge in front of the UV box without a scarf and/or a turtleneck. Hey, at least I wasn't performing protein electrophoresis. Proteins are run on a polyacrylamide gel instead of agarose. Polyacrylamide is mostly harmless, but non-polymerized acrylamide is a pretty serious neurotoxin.

I love science. Excitement around every corner.

28 January 2009

The Unheard Atheists

In which I argue for the necessity of my discipline, and rediscover my purpose in blogging.

The argument that an atheistic, rationalist worldview is inherently better and more true than a religious one will not be won decisively if we continue to compare the two solely on their ability to create a coherent, compelling, and intelligible reading of the world around us.

Of course we rationalists believe that the materialist cosmos described by modern science is the only one that conforms to the evidence at our disposal -- that it is the most compelling, plausible, and structurally elegant system man has yet discovered. But when you take a religion on its own terms and within the confines of its own language, you will find that it too projects an elegant, internally-justifying, and altogether coherent view of the world. And, moreover, we atheists who refuse to appreciate the internal consistency of the religious worldview are hamstrung by our own cherry-picking attitude, one that pounces on the blatantly contradictory and easily-refutable anachronisms that, for most modern religious people, have been smoothed over by generation upon generation of increasingly sophisticated apologists. For example, I consider myself very well versed in the standard refutations of Christianity as well as the history of the Hebrew scriptures (having studied the religion of the ancient Israelites for the better part of four years before moving on to East Asian religions) -- but when it came to arguing with a very erudite and very fervent Episcopalian friend of mine, I actually found myself hard-pressed to find any chinks in her armor, so well had the broader theological project of her religion caulked the holes inherent to her scriptural foundation. The bottom line - and this is a line that religious apologists have used against us against us time and again to great effect - is that science and religion can, each in their own way and none more correct than the other, describe the world we inhabit in a coherent and sensical way. Of course we know this isn't empirically valid, but the inter-subjective agreement to disagree favored by the more educated theists has an infuriating ability to stymy most of us in debate.

The key to winning the Atheism/Theism debate is to take a step back, to stop trying to compare the two on their ability to describe the world (the origin of life, the necessity of social order, the problem of suffering, the meaning of existence), but instead to assess their ability to account for the other. We can trumpet the descriptive value of empiricism until we're blue in the face, proffering cohesive explanations of the origins of life, the universe, and everything -- but until we also start to explain the entirely human origins of religion itself, the theist will still be able to take refuge in his relativist, agree-to-disagree, two-different-ways-of-interpreting-life position.

You see, most of the greatest and most vocal Atheists of today - Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers immediately jump to mind - are in the natural sciences. Which means that they are entirely qualified to explain why religion is empirically wrong about the nature of the universe, but completely ill-equipped to account for the origin, purpose, and function of religion in human society. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing but respect and a great deal of admiration for these men, and the new Atheism would be in dire straits without them. But when they turn their prodigious biological talents to the question of religion, it is obvious that they are out of their discipline. Then the new Atheists dismiss religion with their own ad hoc psychological theories - as a crutch, as an evolutionary holdover, as a tool of coercion, as primitive psychiatry - their dismissals ring hollow. The problem with the new Atheist movement is that it gives all of its attention to scholars with evidence that contradicts religion, but none at all to those scholars whose entire enterprise essentially undermines religion by explaining it in scientific terms.

And it's not like these scholars don't exist. The University of Chicago defines the academic discipline of the History of Religions as one that:
approaches religion as an exclusively human phenomenon, via the methods of the social sciences and the humanities. It is concerned to theorize at a high level of generalization, informed by broadly comparative and empirical research, and to carry out high level empirical research informed by theoretical reflection. ... Irreverent by temperament and sometimes on principle, it insists that [a] the Western monotheisms should not be the only paradigms and/or objects of legitimate study, [b] religion cannot be reduced to belief, but also includes issues of practices, institutions, communities, habits and other factors that often operate below the level of consciousness, and [c] interpretation involves critical probing and systematic interrogation of the idealized self-representations of any religious phenomenon.
What better ally can we have than this field? Why is it that the only vocal atheists out there are biologists? Speaking as a person whose own natal faith - which was left completely unthreatened by my complete acceptance of Darwinian evolution - took only one semester in the History of Religions to be completely overthrown, I want to know how we can afford not to have these scholars at our vanguard?

There are many and complex reasons, of course, not the least of which is political: no religious scholar wants to scare away the people who can most benefit from his classes by developing a reputation as one of the staunch godless - let alone jeopardize his tenure. Moreover, religionists understandably don't tend to be as interested in annihilating the thing that gives them a job. But still, for every hundred of those professors, can't we have our own Dawkins or Meyers?

I certainly don't make myself out to be any such person. Not yet, at any rate. There's still too much to learn. But until then, I'll try and continue to bring this perspective to my own blogging.

Leave the science to Aaron -- I've got to be the religionist.

27 January 2009

Ever As Before: Creationists Still Resist Antibiotic Resistance

It's hard to believe that it's been over a year since I wrote about creationists' arguments against using antibiotic resistance in bacteria as an example of evolution. The creationists' refrain, if you don't remember, is typically:

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.”

Both points are complete balderdash, as I've written before. In short: Evolution is about change in populations--neither for better nor for worse, rather simply for different--by any of several mechanisms. But if you're hung up on random mutation, then we have ample evidence that antibiotic resistance can be the result of random mutation. And if you're hung up on seeing mutations that improve general fitness of resistant bacteria, then, hell, we've got that, too.

I dipped into my archives for this one because the creationists have been dipping into theirs. The Young-Earth Creationist (or "YUCK" for short) evangelist website Answers in Genesis is, once again, trumpeting the first argument, this time by means of a moldering little article from May 2007. Looking at a population of bacteria under antibiotic selection, yuckmeister Ken Ham and his cronies want you to "recognize that the resistance is already present in the bacterial population" and therefore not an example of "the addition of completely different kinds of genetic information." Sound familiar? And apparently that was insightful enough to be worth repeating over a year and a half later.

I guess that's to be expected, though. Some of the nonsense they recycle is thousands of years old.

20 January 2009

Isn't Anybody Gonna Help That Poor Man?

A preview of the inauguration festivities?

19 January 2009


I remember, at the start of 2nd grade in the autumn of '92, being given a sheet of paper with three faces on it: George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot.  I remember having no idea who any of them were, circling George Bush's face after learning that he was already the president, deciding that I
was in no position to change things.

To my detriment, I never paid much attention to current events when I was growing up, least of all to politics.  I didn't understand a lick of Operations Desert Storm or Desert Shield.  I didn't know the difference between Watergate and Whitewater.  (The fact that the latter was often referred to as "Whitewatergate" didn't help.  Seriously, for the children, we need to quit it with the "-gate" suffix.)  All I knew about the Monica Lewinsky scandal was that it was sexual in nature, and therefore not
something I should know the details of.  (I did wonder, though, what exactly a cigar or a blue dress had to do with anything.)

But I remember the 2000 election.  That must have been when I really started paying attention.  I remember helping my mom vote as usual--she, my brothers, and I all crammed into one of those massive verdigris-colored voting machines--but with a purpose other than just to help flip switches and point out which politicians had the silliest names.  I remember staying up to watch the election results that night.  I remember the confusion of the following morning.

Which means that the bulk of my world-aware life--and certainly the entirety of my "adult" life--to this point has belonged to the era of George W. Bush.  I don't really remember what life was like before what has come to be known by many as the Worst Presidency.  And I don't know yet what life will be like after it.

Optimistic as I'd like to be, the uncertainty of the road ahead is unnerving.  Starting tomorrow, things will be different.  I just hope they're different enough to repair the damage done.

13 January 2009


The predictive power of astrology is kinda like... like...

(Via the increasingly repetitive, yet still occasionally chuckle-worthy, FailBlog)

12 January 2009


The time has come for me to undertake a long-neglected rite of passage.  I am going to read a book.

Not just any book, mind you.  Written long before my time by a British academic, this particular book had a profound impact on the world, and it is to my unyielding shame that I have yet to read it.  Like many, I already know quite a bit about its contents, but I've never actually experienced it firsthand.  It's time for that to change.

Yes, tonight is the night that I finally start reading The Lord of the Rings.

In my defense, I read The Hobbit back in middle school, and I had every intention of reading The Lord of the Rings immediately thereafter.  However, my brother's copy was lost by a friend, and before we could obtain a replacement I was well into some other book.  The opportunity passed, and I never found my way back 'round to it, until now.

There are a great many books to be read on my list right now, and I have every intention of taking this year as an opportunity to rekindle my old reading habits.  What better way to start than with the epic that defined high fantasy?

Read more.  Write more.  Make more.  Make something of myself.  That is my charge.  Yes, this will be a good year.

Now, then.  Concerning hobbits...

Oh, I'm going to enjoy this.