Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Meet Me At My New Blog

Well, it didn't take very long, but I now have my new blog up and running. I decided to go with The Iron Chariot for a title. To see why, you'll just have to go there and find out for yourself! The new blog's URL is:


Anyway, the PBS special on the Dover Trial is about on. I'll post my thoughts afterwards at my new blog. Hope to see you there!

New Blog in the Works

Greetings! For anyone who might still have their subscriptions active, I apologize for my extended disappearance. I've been through an long period of training for work, so I haven't had the time or desire to write much of anything. Fortunately, all that is coming to an end, and I am ready to get back into the swing of things. More than anything, I've missed being a part of the atheist blogosphere. It's nice to share ideas with like-minded people.

However, I will be moving to new blog. I've come to realize that this blog's title is a little too narrow and doesn't represent the breadth of the blog's topics. I'm still working on the new blog (I don't even have a name yet), but I'll post a link to it as soon as it's ready.

Anyway, I hope you'll join me as I continue to share my thoughts on living a life of reason.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Wherein I Respond to a Thoughtful Critique

Throughout the time I've been writing on this blog I've been fortunate not to have encountered any trolls lurking in my comments section. Instead, most comments from theists have been thoughtful and productive. Recently, I just received a extremely thoughtful comment from Jesse V. in response to my recent post concerning evidence. In that post, I was mostly concerned with evidence in the purely scientific sense. However, Jesse's argument is from the historical perspective, using the available sources concerning particular events. Luckily, I majored in history, so I feel more than up to the challenge of debating Jesse's points.

Before getting into the history, Jesse says:

For example, can you prove what word I said yesterday at 12:52pm? No, not by the scientific method. The best you can do is ask those who were around me, IF there was anyone around me. At that point you are relying on the testimony of witnesses, which is not perfect, since someone may have forgotten what I said, or misheard me, or perhaps no one heard what I said. This doesn't mean it didn't happen. Much of written history that we accept would be thrown out the window on the basis of not having enough scientific evidence.
I won't go too in depth on this, but you could consider the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. Basically, you have a cat in a box set in a situation where it has a 50% chance of either being killed or still living and you don't know which until you actually open the box. Schrödinger suggested that the cat would be both alive and dead until the act of observing it set it one way or the other. If you want to know more, I recommend reading the Wikipedia article here, but it basically suggests that anything that can happen will happen until the act of observing it establishes the reality. Jesse could have said anything at 12:52 or nothing at all. However, that's not the point of this post, I just wanted to bring it up to tickle your mind a bit.

Now, getting to the history. Jesse says:
You and I agree that "science is the best tool we have for understanding the workings of the universe." However, it is limited and not universal for proving truth as I have just demonstrated by way of example. When this happens, the wise among us would at least consider the testimony of witnesses and any other alternate methods for discerning truth from fiction. If one solely relied on the inadequate scientific method, then one would potentially be dismissing the vast majority of reality and truth.
This ignores the primary problem with history. Namely, historians can never determine the absolute truth of what happened. For the eyewitness accounts of what Jesse said at 12:52, we might have two witnesses relaying completely different accounts. The historian's job is to use his or her judgment and reasoning to determine the most accurate account. However, another historian could come and favor the opposite witness of the first historian. In reality, history never deals with absolutes. All historians can really do is provide what they feel is the most accurate description of the events with the evidence they have. I'll get into some examples later, but moving on:
In the case of the existence of a god, there may or may not be physical evidence. Perhaps there is but we don’t recognize it. In the mean time, one should consider the reliable corroborating (based on my research) testimonies of witnesses collected primarily in the Bible and elsewhere. In the end, it will not be scientific, but it remains that one must either reject, ignore, or believe the testimonies. In researching, one should be careful to read both sides of the argument. Just like anything else, it can be easy to misinterpret and abuse something that was written to a specific audience 2000 years ago in a different culture. Just because it can be misinterpreted, doesn’t make it false. It would be wise to read many different experts commentaries on the interpretations.
First off, I'd like to point out that you cannot corroborate the Bible with the Bible. Also, Jesse left out an important option: historians can accept parts of an account and reject those that seem unreasonable. One does not have to accept or reject the entire thing.

Now, the authors of the Gospels might not have been the Apostles. The apostles might not have ever existed. You can make the same argument concerning Plato. There is legitimate grounds for debate over whether or not Plato was a real person because no sources ouside his writings mention him. Plato may have been one person, several people, or even an Islamic scholar masquerading as a Greek author (unlikely, but you never know). That is the misfortune of ancient history. There’s simply little reliable evidence for what actually happened. We’ll probably never know the reality of those days long gone. This same problem exists for most of the ancient and classical authors including Homer, Thucydides, Herodotus, Livy, etc.

Where the doubt goes away is when various contemporary sources verify the existence of a specific person. For example, along with his own writings, Julius Caesar has multiple, contemporary sources from different authors verifying his existence along with the archaeological evidence. There’s really no doubt whether or not Caesar was a real person.

On the other hand, the Bible does not enjoy any contemporary evidence verifying the events related within. This goes for both Old and New Testaments. That doesn’t mean it’s all false, it just means we can’t be sure that the events described within actually happened. Therefore, any decent historian would treat the Bible with a degree of skepticism. Now, Jesse claims to have reliable outside evidence, and it would behoove him to provide it if he wants to strengthen his argument.

More importantly, the Gospels might not be eyewitness accounts. Historians aren’t sure if those actually are first-hand accounts. The most important rule historians learn is to not take anything at face value. Just because the Gospels say they’re first-person accounts doesn’t mean that they actually are or that they’re entirely accurate. For example, The Book of Mormon claims to be an eyewitness account too. Without the evidence to verify what people say in sources, they must be treated with a degree of skepticism. Even if they are eyewitness accounts, one must consider the author's bias.

Case and point, Julius Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars and Civil Wars are filled with over-exaggerations and pure falsehoods, and we know by looking at the other sources available that describe the events. Nevertheless, Caesar claims they are accurate. As it turns out, much of what he said was inflated or altered for his political gain. Sure, Caesar's writings are an eyewitness account that have some usefulness, but they are not 100% accurate.

In the same way, the authors of the Gospels might well have taken liberties with the truth to help spread their faith. Until we find archaeological or historical sources to validate what the Gospels say, they’re not particularly useful as historical accounts, especially when the Gospels themselves contradict each other (the link lists all the Bible's contradictions, but you can find the ones for the Gospels towards the bottom).

Now for a little bit about how sources can be used to verify a particular source.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is the best, most detailed account we have for that conflict. We know the conflict happened because there are contemporary inscriptions commemorating the war and several contemporary mentions of it in other Greek writing. Many of these sources reference specific events in Thucydides’ writings. That’s how we know it’s reliable.

The other great Greek source, The Iliad, is the exact opposite. It’s not reliable at all as a pure history. First off, the epic was clearly written in 800 BC even though it describes events that supposedly took place in c.1250 BC. We know this because the style of warfare described in the epic matches ninth century BC style warfare and not that of the 13th century BC based on archaeological evidence. Furthermore, historians questioned whether or not the war even happened until Troy was discovered around the turn of the century and showed signs of having been destroyed. It provided the verifying evidence that the war at least happened. However, we don’t have any other sources for the events, so historians write off most of it as a myth. Instead of being an accurate account of the Trojan War, it teaches us the values and beliefs of Greeks living in the 9th century BC. Also, it has been well copied through the ages, but that doesn’t mean the Greek gods came down and fought with the combatants before the walls of Troy.

The Bible has the same problems as the Iliad. It references people and places we know to have existed. True, it has more references we can verify. It mentions Ramses and Augustus Caesar in the OT and NT, respectively. However, that wasn’t exactly a secret. They were the rulers of the most powerful Mediterranean nations at the time. This doesn't validate the Bible, though. It validates the existence of Augustus and Ramses. The problem is that none of the specific events in the Bible can be verified from other sources. The Egyptians never mention having Jewish slaves. The Romans make no mention of Jesus. Even contemporary Jewish writings make no mentions of Jesus. Therefore, the Bible simply shows that the authors were aware of the most powerful nations around them. Some of the events may very well be true. Unfortunately, we can’t verify that. Therefore, historians don’t use the Bible for an accurate historical account. But they do use it to understand the culture of the people who wrote it.

I guess my point in all of this is that history is not a discipline that deals in absolutes. Due to the paucity of available sources, historians are always seeking the truth, but will never actually find it. The best they can do is come to a bi of a consensus. This is the same in science. It cannot know anything for certainty. That's why it uses theories. They can change as new information comes to light. The same goes for history. It changes as new sources come to light, but nothing is ever absolute. The fact that Jesse suggests historians can discern absolute truth makes me slightly dubious about his historian credentials.

In the end, until some substantial sources arise verifying the Bible, it is pretty much useless as an "eyewitness account." Otherwise, we'd have to accept the Koran and The Book of Mormon as well, simply because they claim to be eyewitness accounts.

At any rate, Jesse, I hope you come back so we can continue this discussion.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Another Dover Seems to Be Brewing

This time it's in Chesterfield County, Virginia. Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars has more.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Use of Evidence

On my post concerning the Creation Museum, an anonymous commenter said:

"Notice atheism really has no evidence at all."
This person said it as if I was trying to hide the fact that atheism has no evidence. That couldn't be farther than the truth. In reality, the absence of evidence is the strongest case atheists can make against the existence of a god. Allow me to explain.

I consider myself a scientific atheist. Therefore, I feel science is the best tool we have for understanding the workings of the universe. Now, science is driven by evidence. Evidence is necessary to support or falsify any hypothesis or theory. Without evidence, no conclusions can be drawn either way. It simply is not considered.

Additionally, something that does not exist will, by definition, be incapable of leaving any evidence. This fact should be self-evident, but many seem unable to grasp this concept.

Anyway, this lack of evidence for a god has two implications. First, science can only work with evidence, and, since there is no evidence of a god, science must remain grounded in naturalistic explanations of the world. It cannot consider supernatural events for which there is no evidence. However, if evidence of a god did arise, then it would no longer be supernatural and would fall into the realm of the the natural world. At that point, science could then consider it. Nevertheless, that evidence has yet to appear.

Second, as a scientific atheist, I base my worldview on evidence and the conventions of science. No, I cannot prove that God does not exist. However, a lack of evidence is as close as science can come to proving the nonexistence of something, as I explained above.

In conclusion, atheism does not have any evidence. But that is the strongest scientific case atheists can make against the existence of a god. The burden of proof remains with the theists because they need to produce the testable, verifiable evidence that would establish God's existence. Until then, I see no reason to spend my time worrying about something that is not powerful enough to leave even the tiniest shred of evidence.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Creation Museum Opens Today

If you were unaware, Ken Ham's Creation Museum opens today in Kentucky. Personally, I think it's a travesty and intellectual dishonesty in the highest degree to call something based on the Bible a museum of science. Don't get me wrong, Ham has every right to open the museum. This is America, and I won't stand for any censorship. However, that doesn't mean I don't have the right to complain. In my previous post, I already discussed my major problems with the museum, so I won't go into it again.

However, if you want to see what other rational thinkers are saying about this church, check out the Creation Museum Carnival put together by PZ Myers of Phryngula. He put a lot of work into it, so please, tell your friends and send some traffic his way and celebrate rational thought. Then when you're done, go visit a real museum and support legitimate science.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Opposing the Creation Museum is Good Science, Not Intolerance

Last week the Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DefCon) launched a petition campaign against the Creation Museum's efforts to teach Creationism as science. Inevitably, Answers in Genesis (AiG), the organization operating the Creation Museum, has accused DefCon of being intolerant and trying to limit the free speech rights of AiG. Mark Looy, the author of the AiG article, says:

So it begs the question: why is a group that purportedly exists to defend the Constitution's First Amendment’s right to free speech wanting to keep people from being exposed to another view?
First, notice the erroneous use of "begs the question". That's a logical fallacy, unlike the phrase "raises the question", which would be the proper way for Looy to say what he's trying to write (Sorry, had to take that jab).

However, DefCon specifically points out that this is not the case:
[Ken] Ham [founder of AiG] is of course free to believe what he wants, but we are also free to voice our concern over Ham’s nefarious campaign to confuse America’s children and undermine scientific understanding.
Contrary to what AiG would like people to believe, it is not intolerance to point out the error in AiG's view of science. DefCon has every right (thanks to the First Amendment) to point out when AiG takes liberties with the truth. As AiG plainly states on their website in an attempt to explain their version of science:
Biblical creationists start with the assumption that the Bible provides an accurate eyewitness history of the universe as a basis for scientific thought. Evolutionists begin with the presupposition that only natural laws can be used to explain the facts.
Nevertheless, AiG never presents any evidence verifying the Bible, which is necessary to make accepting as true it a valid assumption. The simple reason AiG doesn't do this is because there is no evidence to support the historical or scientific veracity of the Bible. Of course, AiG turns around and states that (real) science starts from the assumption that there is no God and that only naturalistic explanations are accepted. While not necessarily true (many real scientists have a theistic world-view), the purely naturalistic presupposition is the only scientifically acceptable one because non-existent things, by definition, leave no evidence. You can't assume something for which there is no evidence, and, therefore, they are not considered. Conveniently, AiG refrains from this inconvenient truth in all its publications.

However, that does not stop AiG from using politically loaded words to get around this problem. As you can see in the quote above, AiG likes to say they are "exposing people to a different point of view". That sounds nice, but science is not democratic. The universe doesn't care what people believe. It simply is, and science seeks to discover its true properties. For example, if a group of scientists sees a clear liquid in a jar, they do not vote on what it is. If they did, the majority might vote for water. However, that does not change reality. If the liquid was originally mineral spirits, it remains so. Instead, scientists actually have to test the substance and and examine the evidence generated. Even though I love democracy, it has no place in the situation I just described.

Unfortunately, AiG doesn't care. They simply want to avoid scientists in general by appealing to the public and gaining their support. They want people to vote on which version of reality to accept, because they know how fickle the masses can be. People tend to vote for what sounds right rather than what actually is right, and AiG is perfectly willing to lie to make sure it happens. That is why people like me oppose the Creation Museum. It's not because we want to censor or take away the First Amendment Rights of Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis. They're free to build whatever they want on their land and believe whatever suits their fancy. We simply want AiG to stop lying and call their building what it really is: a church.

I also recommend you check out this article from Chris Hedges, which further explains why this "museum" is bad for America.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Quote of the Week

I've neglected this for a while, but I'm bringing it back. This one made me smile in light of recent events:

"I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!"

- Jerry Falwell, 1979.

Hmm...I guess not.

Enough False Sincerity (Lies)...Just Say What You Mean

I admit it. I did not know much about Christopher Hitchens. I had seen a number of references to him on atheist blogs, but they usually lament his confrontational style. I just shrugged and never really thought about him again. I wish I had, because PZ Meyers of Pharyngula recently posted a couple of YouTube videos where Hitchens unabashedly shared his thoughts on Falwell. The first clip is what he said on CNN regarding Falwell's legacy:

I applaud Hitchens for being honest. I certainly agree with him that we should not revere evil men just because they've died. Does their mere death suddenly make their terrible acts in life worthwhile? I say nay.

The better clip is when Faux News invited Hitchens to defend his statement on Hannity and Colmes:

This clip actually made me burst out laughing. It's nice to see someone refusing to take the usual Faux News bullshit. I love how Hitchens runs roughshod over Hannity's (or Colmes'? I don't know. I don't watch that worthless network) attempts to distort his words.

I must say I agree with Hitchens wholeheartedly. Honesty is the best policy because fake sincerity won't make Falwell's attempts to subvert the Constitution any less terrifying. I hate making Hitler comparisons (they're usually an association fallacy), but I suppose it's a good extreme example to illustrate my point. Should people have ignored the terrible things Hitler did and focus on his positives merely because his brain activity ceased? I say no. Now, Falwell is certainly no Hitler. Of course, if given the same power, it's hard to say what Falwell might have done. But I digress.

It seems to me we should be true to ourselves and not pretend to feel sincerity when actually feeling the opposite. Sure, a person feeling a lack of sympathy would be wise and civil not to personally tell the deceased's family his feelings. However, we shouldn't close off all debate amongst everyone else. If a man was a bastard in life, the world shouldn't forget that. Otherwise, he can reappear in another form that much easier.

At any rate, after seeing this, I'm definitely going to read Hitchens' book. I'll let you know how it is.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry Falwell Dies

Today Jerry Falwell, founder of Moral Majority, died at age 73. I'm not going to publically cheer his death, but I will be frank about my feelings on this. In the 1980's Falwell was the face of the Christian Conservative movement. That mantle has since passed to people like James Dobson, but, in his time, Falwell did more to hurt America's civil liberties than anyone else. With his insistence on mixing fundamental Christianity with politics and his demonization of entire segments of society, Falwell's crusade seriously undermined the Constitution, tried to return our society to the Middle Ages, and helped spread "acceptable" forms of hate through his homophobia and dislike for non-Christians. I don't wish death on anyone. I know this life we have is the only one we've got, so everyone's time on Earth is precious. However, I will certainly not miss Falwell and America is better off without him. Good riddance.

Black Sun Journal has more on what Falwell did to harm America. Check it out here.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Thoughts on the Nightline Debate

This is a little late, but I wanted to share my thoughts on the Nightline debate on ABC where the Rational Response Squad took on Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. Here's the link to part one. You can get to the rest of the debate from there.

First, I want to put forth that I didn't watch all of it. I got bored with hearing the same creationist arguments and decided to do something else. However, I do want to say a bit about the parts that I did see.

The RRS did an excellent job, much better than I expected. They quickly addressed the glaring holes in Comfort's arguments and maintained a cool, light-hearted demeanor thoughout. My hat's off to them.

As for the glaring holes, well, they were pretty bad. For the second proof of God's existence, Comfort used to Ten Commandments, even though he promised to use scientific evidence and not invoke the Bible. Thankfully, the RRS immediately pointed this error out, which drew a great response from the crowd.

What was the eveidence you ask? Well, it was that we know painters make paintings, and builders build houses, so a creator must have made creation. The usual, "Gee, this is so complicated a god must have done it." Not exactly evidence of any sort.

Thankfully, the members of the RRS jumped on this and said that, through Comfort's line of reasoning, since everything must have a cause, then something had to make God. Comfort and Cameron refused to address this part, saying God is timeless and he doesn't apply to the logic that drives their argument. Just the usual dodging the question. Even the moderator came in on the atheist side, trying to get Comfort to address the problem.

As for Kirk Cameron, his arguments came down to: I was driving one day and I felt God, so he must be real. Meh. Whatever.

In the end, it wasn't anything we haven't heard before. I doubt the debate will change any minds, but at least the atheist side was well handled and came out looking like the rational ones. Of course, if you ask Ray Comfort, he thinks he won the debate. Please, click the link and read it so you can see that he's clearly comfortable with deluding himself. I could take him to task for it, but...he obviously deludes himself on a regular basis, so I don't feel like taking the time.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Atheist vs. Christian Debate on ABC Tonight

In case you haven't heard, ABC will be airing a debate where Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron will take on the Rational Response Squad tonight on Nightline. It will be available online at ABC News Now sometime this afternoon.

Ray Comfort is the creationist who puts forth the unintentionally humorous argument that the banana is proof of God's existence. In case you haven't seen it, here it is:

It's really one of the lamer arguments for creationism that I've ever seen. My rebuttal: what about cows? Those don't come easy to eat. In short, you can probably expect some particularly irrational arguments out of this one.

As for Kirk Cameron, I don't know much about him other than he's a sitcom actor who found God. Whatever.

On the other hand, I'm not entirely enthused that the atheist side is being represented by the RRS. They kind of come across as the "rebellious youth" and probably won't be taken as seriously. I'm sure they'll do a decent job, but I'd rather see an intellectual like Sam Harris there to utterly mop the floor with Comfort. Oh well.

The RRS has released a home video of the debate. Here's a link if you want to watch it, but I'm going to wait for the actual broadcast so I can see it without any biases. I'll post my thoughts on it later.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Book of the Month: The "God" Part of the Brain

Back in March I received my first ever solicitation from a publisher to review Matthew Alper’s The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Spirituality and God. Needless to say, I was excited at the prospect. It made me feel like I had finally achieved something as a blogger. Nevertheless, when I received the book, I made a promise to myself not to pander to the publisher and maintain a critical eye throughout the read so that I could provide an honest assessment. To do otherwise would make me feel intellectually dishonest, which is something I refuse to do. What I didn’t expect was how amazing The “God” Part of the Brain would turn out to be. Quite frankly, this is probably the best book I’ve ever read concerning atheism. The writing is great and easy to follow, and, more importantly, the book makes an excellent argument.

As the subtitle explains, Alper sets out to find a scientific explanation for the apparent compulsion humans feel to believe in a god and spirituality in general. Although Alper’s reasoning has drawbacks in a couple of places, which I will cover later, I feel he generally succeeds in his stated task. Not only that, but his logic addresses a number of disparate thoughts I’ve had on my own and ties them together in a comprehensive framework that simply makes sense to me.

The book begins with Alper’s personal reasons for exploring this particular topic, including his battles with LSD, which showed him how easily it was to alter one’s consciousness and personality. Alper saw this as direct evidence that one’s consciousness—what theists consider properties of an immortal soul—is entirely dependent on the electrochemical processes of the brain, thereby making the existence of any sort of spiritual realm a dubious supposition. This observation lays an important framework for the rest of the book. Namely, we are utterly dependent in the chemical and electrical functions of our brain for the basis of our personality and perception of reality.

Next, the book goes into the author’s loss of religion and quest to understand the nature of the universe through science. For the scientifically literate, this is little more than an overview of the current scientific understanding of the universe. Nevertheless, Alper’s writing abilities make it an interesting read.

With the scientific foundation laid down, Alper then moves to the primary hypothesis of the book, a concept he calls biotheology: the human compulsion to believe in a higher power and an afterlife are an evolutionarily evolved genetic trait that serves as a coping mechanism to alleviate our anxiety towards death. For evidence, Alper cites the universality of religion in human culture. Even though each religion has its differences, their basic foundations are remarkably similar in the same way that all languages share specific, essential characteristics. Thus, religion seems to be just another genetically inherited factor amongst several others that make up the human psyche. Certainly, Alper is not the first to suggest such a hypothesis, but he won me over with the novel rationalization behind it (granted, he may not be the first to have come up with this rationality, but it was new to me).

In essence, it all comes down to anxiety. Alper deftly explains how anxiety plays an essential role in the lives of every creature on Earth. It drives us to eat, sleep, mate, flee from danger, etc. Without anxiety, living organisms would feel no compulsion to perform the tasks necessary to our survival as an individual and a species. However, humans had a unique problem. As the first creature to be aware of its existence with the ability to plan ahead and ponder its place in the cosmos, early humans encountered an existential problem. Since we, unlike other organisms, are aware of our impending death, the resulting anxiety would provide a serious problem. After all, what purpose is there to succeeding in life if we’re just going to disappear? Alper argues that this would provide an inescapable source of anxiety with no solution, thereby making everyday function difficult at best. To deal with the problem, natural selection eventually found an end run around this anxiety. As a species, we began to see a spiritual side to ourselves, which we believed would survive death and last for eternity, thereby removing the anxiety of an inescapable demise. Furthermore, the belief that there are all-powerful, paternal figures personally caring for us provides another source of relief from anxiety. Combined, this genetically inherited belief in spirituality and god became the basis for all theistic thought. In an amusing irony, it seems we evolved the need for religion.

For the remainder of the book, Alper tackles the various experiences associated with religion including spiritual experiences, prayer, religious conversion, near-death experiences, speaking in tongues, morality, the existence of atheists, and even why America is more religious than every other developed nation in the world. The best sections come when Alper uses the finds from scientific research to support his hypotheses. His section on spiritual experiences is particularly effective because science has already had great deal of focus on this phenomenon, and Alper has a plethora of documentation to turn to. This includes studies with MRIs that show how meditation has a direct affect on the part of the brain associated with our sense of self. Indeed the sense of “being one with the universe” is nothing more than the restriction of blood flow to the part of the brain that keeps us grounded in reality.

In other areas, Alper deals with logic chains, which are not nearly as convincing. His section on the effects of personal prayer relies on a number interlinked hypotheses that all have to be true in order for the final conclusion to also be true. While he could very well be right that prayer relieves overall anxiety, thereby allowing the body to heal better because there’s less strain on the central nervous system, there’s simply not enough evidence available to support each part.

Another drawback is that Alper is not a scientist. While certainly no fault of his own, he can only rely on what he has taught himself and what the studies of others have found. I’m not saying a person must be a scientist to write about scientific matters. Indeed, I enjoy writing about science, and I’m no scientist. However, for a work that makes such bold, scientifically based conclusions, it would certainly lend Alper a far greater degree of credibility and authority.

Regardless of the shortcomings, I can’t deny that I like and almost entirely agree with Alper’s logic. His arguments are well conceived and well written and almost always backed by scientific research. Even when there’s little evidence to go off of, Alper still performs exceptional thought experiments that maintain their rationality throughout. I could go on and on recounting the great ideas in this book, but, for brevity’s sake, I’ll just ask you to read it for yourself.

In the end, I loved The “God” Part of the Brain. Perhaps it’s simply because Alper provided what I had been looking for. For a while now, I’ve felt there must be a biological reason for the human need for religion, and Alper provided the comprehensive explanation I had sought. While authors like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris provide excellent reasons to doubt the existence of a higher power, they don’t add much to understanding why we delude ourselves. Alper effectively fills in this gap for those atheists wishing to find the answer. More than anything, it forces nonbelievers to consider the reality of our situation. If belief in religion actually is a genetically inherited trait, then it’s not going away anytime soon. With this understanding, perhaps we can find more effective means of communicating with theists in a way that is constructive for both sides so that we can all work together towards a more positive future.

I want to thank Sourcebooks for providing me with Alper’s book. More importantly, I want to thank them for bringing this book to my attention. It truly is a worthwhile read and I recommend you go out and pick it up.

Monday, April 30, 2007

My Beliefs: We Make Our Own Purpose in Life

I haven't written one of these in a while, but today I thought I'd write about a belief that's a major component of my worldview. If you've read much of anything I've posted here, you know I don't believe in the existence of a god. I won't go into the reasons why here, but I do not see a grand plan in the universe. However, contrary to what many theists believe about atheism, that does not mean I think that life is pointless. I do not believe we are all doomed to suffer meaningless lives just because there is no paternal figure in the sky watching after us. Instead, I feel we can and should make our own purpose in life.

Obviously, this is an entirely relativist position, which means that different people will come up with wildly different meanings for their lives, for better or worse. While this may not sit well with many people, to make claims against the reality of relativism is to deny the ample evidence of human history. Certainly, the Nazis did terrible things because they made their ideology their purpose in life, and other similarly distasteful individuals have found insidious purposes for their lives. However, that doesn't mean that people can't put forth the same amount of effort towards something positive. Whenever there's a major disaster, people turn out in droves to help, and aid money pours in to finance the recovery. This is not the work of a god showing his mercy. It's the efforts of a group of people working together to do something positive. In much the same way, the Nazis and Japanese were not stopped by an act of god. It took the herculean efforts of several nations over six years to end that nightmare.

Before I get into too much more of a tanget, Id like to make my point. Even though I believe we might be alone in the spiritual sense, there are still over 6 billion other people in this world sharing the human experience. When enough of us come together, we can either do works of great evil or do truly amazing things that greatly improve the richness of all our lives. It's your choice which path you choose. You just have to be willing to deal with how your fellow humans will view your actions. As far as I see it, we don't need to please anyone other than those with whom we share this planet. Technically, we don't need to please anyone. However, my position is that I want to make the world a better place for future generations so they have lives that are even more fulfilling than my own. If you want to suffer trying to appease a being who refuses to reciprocate, that's fine by me. I'm going to enjoy life and do whatever I can to help others do the same. If that makes me a bad person, so be it.

My Work is Done!

I finally finished my thesis and my other minor papers, so the five of you that read this should start seeing regular posts once again...until my schedule fills up again in July. At any rate, I'll be ranting strong until then.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Best Pro-Choice Argument I've Seen in a While

There's nothing like personal experience to put a debate in context. More often than not the pro-choice/pro-life debate comes down to nothing more than rhetoric and ideology, particularly on the pro-life side of the debate. That's one reason I don't like to get involved in abortion debates. There's simply too much emotion involved. Plus, I'm a male, so I don't think it's my place to decide what a woman does with her body, anyway. However, the aspect that most pro-lifers tend to forget is how their desired results would affect the actual people involved.

I came across a heart-wrenching post (thanks to Pharyngula) about a husband who had to struggle with this very problem. In it, the author relates an instance where his wife and he did not want an abortion, but complications made it increasingly likely the mother would die without one, and, due to her condition, placed the decision squarely on the husbad's shoulders. More than anything, it shows how government involvment in a difficult time would simply make it even worse.

It's an eye-opening article, so check it out.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

We All Knew This Was Coming

It was only a matter of time before some creationist hack blamed the Virginia Tech shooting on evolution. I'm surprised it took this long (of course, it could have come sooner, this is just the first instance that came to my attention). What's not surprising is that it came from Ken Ham, the founder of the creationist organization Answers in Genesis.

Here's some of what Ham had to say:

We live in an era when public high schools and colleges have all but banned God from science classes. In these classrooms, students are taught that the whole universe, including plants and animals—and humans—arose by natural processes. Naturalism (in essence, atheism) has become the religion of the day and has become the foundation of the education system (and Western culture as a whole). The more such a philosophy permeates the culture, the more we would expect to see a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness that pervades people’s thinking. In fact, the more a culture allows the killing of the unborn, the more we will see people treating life in general as “cheap.”

I’m not at all saying that the person who committed these murders at Virginia Tech was driven by a belief in millions of years or evolution. I don’t know why this person did what he did, except the obvious: that it was a result of sin. However, when we see such death and violence, it is a reminder to us that without God’s Word (and the literal history in Genesis 1–11), people will not understand why such things happen.

Now how does Ham support this conclusion? Well, he begins his tirade with this:

When such terrible acts occur (and sadly, random violence is occurring more frequently these days)...

Now that's an unsubstantiated assertion if I ever heard one. Of course, Ham never bothers to offer evidence. If he tried, it would simply counter his claim that things are much worse now than they used to be. Now, I like to live in reality, and the reality is that things are not worse now than they have been before. In fact, violent crimes dropped dramatically in 1994. Unlike Ken Ham, I will use evidence. Here's a good chart from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Hmm. Crimes are lower than they used to be, but the theory of evolution was still taught in schools from 1994 onwards. What do you make of that Mr. Ham?

More than anything, this "it's much worse now than it used to be" is a common myth the Religious Right uses to justify imposing their narrow ideology on the nation. It's simply a lie to justify taking away our freedoms.

Now, we can also look at a time when Western Civilization was completely grounded in Christianity and Biblical principles to test Ham's claim that it would make society a perfect utopia. There's only one problem for Ham. The best example of a Biblical-based society was in the Middle Ages. During that time, there were no random acts of violence whatsoever, right? Oh wait, it was one of the most violent periods of human history.

In reality, the Virginia Tech shooting was a result of one thing: humans are inherently violent. We always have been. We probably always will be. It's unfortunate, but it's the reality of our existence. Violence didn't suddenly appear in 1859 when Darwin published Origin of Species. Certainly, this heinous crime is a tragedy, and we must do everything we can to prevent it from happening in the future. However, it will take a rational look at this particular situation to find proper deterrents. Using it to justify an assault on our free society is not only wrong, but it is a dispicable way of using another's tragedy for your own purposes.

Ken Ham, you make me sick.

Thanks to Respectful Insolence for bringing this to my attention.

Debbie Schlussel: Muslims Must Have Done It

First off, I want to say how saddened I am by the shootings at Virginia Tech yesterday. It's always despicable when someone decides to use violence against their fellow human beings. My thoughts are with the families of the victims in the hopes that they will find the solace to cope with and overcome this tragedy.

I also hoped that people would not use this tragedy as an excuse to try and validate their intolerances, but I guess I hoped for too much because Debbie Schlussel has already done so.

You may or may not remember Debbie Schlussel. She was the woman who showed her ignorance and bigotry towards athiests on CNN and then continued to look like an intolerant dumbass on her blog afterwards when she insisted that atheism makes people Muslim extremists (see my post on the subject here). Anyway, she has come to my attention once again (thanks to Pharyngula) when she decided to open her mouth on the Virginia Tech shootings. Who did she blame without any evidence? Why Muslims, of course.

Why am I speculating that the "Asian" gunman is a Pakistani Muslim? Because law enforcement and the media strangely won't tell us more specifically who the gunman is. Why?

Even if it does not turn out that the shooter is Muslim, this is a demonstration to Muslim jihadists all over that it is extremely easy to shoot and kill multiple American college students.

Now, I know she's Jewish, and there's a bit of bad blood between Jews and Muslims, but come on. This is hysteria plain and simple. Without hearing anything beyond the fact that the shooter was "Asian", Schlussel immediately assumed it was the ubiquitous "Muslim terrorist" because the police and media won't say who it is. Right. So the media has stopped all information on this case from reaching the public? Vast, left-wing conspiracy, eh?

Now, I know Schlussel is quite the conspiracy theorist (she also thinks rising atheism in Europe is making Europeans fundamentalist Muslims, nevermind the fact that there's been a massive influx of immigrants from the Middle East), but this is rediculous. In the case of the identity of the VT shooter, the answer is probably the most pedestrian. It's an ongoing investigation and the police rarely release the names of suspects for the first few days. Look at what happened after Columbine. It took a couple of days before the police released any of their findings.

Debbie, how about you wait for the facts and keep your hysterics to a minimum? If it's a problem with anxiety, Im sure your doctor can prescribe something to help you out.

Of course, when it came out that the shooter was actually Chinese and not a Pakistani Muslim, Schlussel immediately posted this update:
The shooter has now been identified as a Chinese national here on a student visa. Lovely. Yet another reason to stop letting in so many foreign students.
Okay, so maybe she not a conspiracy theorist. She's just scared of everyone who isn't white. Damn xenophobe.

Why Fundamentalists Struggle to Maintain Their Numbers

Daily Kos has a great article by Mary about why fundamentalists struggle to maintain their numbers in the modern, scientific world. The title, "Who Are You Going to Trust, Me or Your Lying Eyes?", basically spells out the central idea of the essay that the younger generation has trouble rejecting reality enough to buy into the fundamentalist nonsense since science and reason does a much better job appealing to a person's common sense.

I can't speak from experience. I grew up in a casually religious family, so there was never an insistence to adhere to any rigid dogma. However, the conclusions in Mary's article seem reasonable to me because, when it came to choosing one worldview or the other, I quickly went with the one that conformed to reality.

At any rate, the article gives me hope that the continued march of science will bring a slow death to the scourge of religious fundamentalism. Call me an optimist, but it keeps me going.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Oh that South Park

I am moved to post again because I recently view an episode of South Park that had particularly interesting social/political overtones. The recent episode entitled Cartman Sucks had in it, among other crude attempts at humor, a rather interesting social dynamic involving the naive character Butters. After being tricked by Cartman, Butter's father catches him performing what appears to be a homosexual act and immediately questions Butters. Not knowing what is going on, Butters admits that he is confused as to his gender preference referred to in the episode as "bicurious." Butter's parents’ solution is to send him to a camp to "Pray the Gay Away" but unfortunately for the camp administration, the "confused" campers continually commit suicide. Butters, who is not actually gay, eventually saves the life of a fellow camper about to commit suicide by standing up and declaring that it is ok to be "bicurious" because essentially God made them that way. Though he has no idea what is really going on, Butters and South Park, in their crude yet humorous way that we have all grown to love, have hit upon an important point that has long gone un-recognized in society.

Homosexuality is not a choice. People do not choose to face the ridiculing scorn of an un-accepting public. They do not choose to be ostracized, told they are wrong, and forced to either pretend to be something they are not or worse yet, kill themselves. In one instance in the episode the campers are exposed to a clergyman who has been supposedly "cured" of his gayness. Yet he is the most gay of all of them. Homosexuality is not a disease, it is not a choice, and it is not evil. God (editor's note: notice this is GreatScott! and not me who wrote this. I promise I haven't radically changed my worldview in the last few hours--J-Bar) makes everyone; God loves his children. The God I worship does not love conditionally. He does not punish his children for being different. All that should matter is how you treat other people and the world around you, for God has made everyone in his imagine, not just the select few of fundamentalist Christians who see fight to oppress those who disagree with them. I would have thought we Christians of this world to have learned the lesson the Romans taught us so very long ago. That is violence and hatred will not snuff out people. Trying to destroy what you do not understand will sooner destroy you. We treat homosexuals as the ancient Romans treated us and we should be ashamed.

We could all stand to learn a thing or two from the naive idealism encapsulated in the character Butters.

Are Geeks More Likely to be Atheist?

Okay, I have a confession to make: I'm a huge geek. I mean, I can tell you the name of the fictional company that made the equally fictional Star Destroyers in Star Wars, and that's common knowledge for Star Wars geeks. You don't even want to see how far I can go with this, but I'm comfortable with it.

Anyway, I came across an interesting article (thanks to Five Public Opinons) that talks about the positive correlation between being a geek and having an atheist worldview. The authors rightly avoid the "geeks are smarter" argument and instead argue:

...geeks are not atheists simply because they may know "more" but also because they choose to think differently (whether or not they think superiorly is a question for another debate).

I think the authors make some good points, so check it out and see what you think.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Blog Against Theocracy: The Problem With End Timers

All this weekend, a plethora of secularist bloggers are blogging against theocracy. To start off my humble contribution, I wanted to repost a little missive I wrote last year to hold you over while I get some new stuff ready:

First, let me tell you who End Timers are. They are the bulk of the evangelical right who believe that the book of Revelations accurately predicts the second coming of Jesus. When this happens there will be plagues, natural disasters, genocide, war, etc. Luckily for Christians, they think they’ll be “ruptured” into heaven to dance and party with Jesus until the end of time. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Antichrist will call all the nonbelievers to his side to destroy the remaining Christians (poor bastards, I guess they didn’t believe enough in the first place). Luckily, Jesus will come back in seven years as a superhero and smite the forces of the Antichrist, judge all of humanity, and then reign on Earth for the next thousand years. And it’s all going to start in the next fifty years. Don’t believe me? Read the Left Behind series by Tim Lahay. This money grubber lays it out exactly how fundamental Christians think it will happen.

The problem with prophecy is that it can become self-fulfilling. Evangelicals today want to do everything they can to hasten Jesus’ return. They support war in the Middle East, refuse to allow Israel to give up land to the Palestinians, and don’t care about global warming. Why? Because these are the events that will hasten Jesus’ second coming. That’s all well and good…unless it’s not what Revelations means at all.

The idea of the Rapture first appeared in the 1800s. It’s not an ancient belief at all. Furthermore, the author of Revelations was writing for a contemporary audience. The Christians of the time rightly feared the Romans and believed that Jesus was going to come back and destroy the Roman Empire in the same generation. But here Christians are 2000 years later, still waiting for Jesus to save them.

Because of the control the RR (Religious Right) has on our government (not to mention our born again President) through the Republican Party, this belief in the End Time permeates through government policy. Bush rejected the Kyoto Treaty to stop global warming, and believes that he is doing God’s work in Iraq. It also widens the division between religions until there is no chance for reconciliation. It’s all ludicrous. When people stop caring about this world, what happens to this one? What do we leave our children? This belief in prophecy must stop if we want to survive as a species and give our descendents a decent place to live.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Supreme Court Rules Against Bush Administration

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. Between school work and my laziness, I just haven't had the desire lately. However, there was an interesting development yesterday.

Surprisingly, the Supreme Court Ruled yesterday on Massachusetts v. EPA deciding 5-4 against the EPA. The case decided whether or not the EPA has an obligation to enforce the Clean Air Act and, if they choose not to, states can enforce it instead.

The Bush Administration had claimed that the Clean Air Act did not give the EPA the right to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. However, the states and environmental groups filing suit pursauded enough of the court that carbon dioxide emissions pose a serious threat to their security and that the EPA must follow its own regulations.

Even better, the majority opinion said that if the EPA doesn't want to regulate specific emissions, it must provide valid, scientific proof that the emissions are not harmful rather than a set of unrelated objections. Since the scientific community pretty much agrees on the reality of global warming, that makes it extremely difficult for the EPA to refuse to act.

Perhaps now this ruling will force the EPA to finally do its job regardless of any kicking and screaming coming from the White House.

Read more at the New York Times.

The part of thise ruling is the fact that the court doesn't seem to have become crazy conservative with Bush's appointees. Of course, they were both amongst the dissenters along with Scalia and Thomas, but that's to be expected. Perhaps the Court is less liberal, but I can live with a moderate one as long as it doesn't destroy all the progessive gains that have been made over the past half century. It gives me hope that they'll rule properly in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation over whether or not taxpayers can file suit against the unconstitutional Faith-Based Initiatives. I suppose only time will tell.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Former Senator Santorum Hates Freedom

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has a rather troubling interview with former Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. It seems the man is going through a severe case of denial. I guess that's understandable when you lose the popularity contest that is an election. Here's the first bit of craziness:

"I still believe that this country is a center-right country and not like Europe which is left or center-left," he said during a telephone conversation on Monday. "And the Republican Party still by and large is the majority party."
Riiiiight. Notice how he used the word "believe". So instead of actually looking at the data of the last election--which is available, I promise--he chooses to believe that everyone still unconditionally loves the Republican Party. What a nice, comforting fantasy. So why does he think the Democrats won in 2006?
"It's the war, it's the war, it's the war," he said. "We have an obligation to be more honest with the American public about the nature of the enemy we fight and the gravity of the fight that we have." He says "terrorist" is a euphemism.

"Why don't we say who they really are?" he asks. "They are Islamic fascists. This is a war against a strain of Islam which is not a fringe radical strain but a substantial strain of Islam."

Okay, that's perhaps a little more grounded in reality. The hatred against America is very real in the Middle East, but it seems likely the war in Iraq has only made it worse. However, when Mr. Santorum calls Islamic fundamentalists "fascists", I don't think he realizes his extreme hypocrisy when he says the next statement:
"I have real concerns about the libertarianish-right," Santorum says. "They depart from me on issues that I think are foundational, which is traditional moral values." Those values hold together the American family, he says.
I see. So instead of submitting to Islamic fascists, Americans need to submit to Christian fascists who want to have complete control over what consenting adults do in their private life. Family values/traditional values/fascism...it's really all the same thing. It's a way of making people adhere to a strict doctrine regardless of what the Constitution says.

I'm really glad voters decided to take this asshat's job away. He needed a bit of a reality check (unfortunately, it didn't seem to work). If this country has any "traditional values" then they are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Not the government intruding on its citizens' private lives and forcing them to a religion's particular view on human relationships. Keep it in the church where it belongs.

Mr. Santorum, why do you hate freedom?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Blog Against Theocracy

I just wanted to spread the word about an upcoming blog swarm whose subject is near and dear to my heart (from Neural Gourmet):

I'd like invite you all to Blog Against Theocracy. This is a little blog swarm being put together by everybody's favorite panties blogger Blue Gal for Easter weekend, April 6th through the 8th. The idea is simple. Just post something related to, and in support of, the separation of church and state each of those three days. Something big, something small, artistic, musical, textual or otherwise. The topic is your choosing. Whether your thing is stem cell research, intelligent design/Creationism, abortion rights, etc., it's all good. Separation of church and state impacts so many issues and is essential.

Blue Gal is still putting the finishing touches on everything and tying up loose ends so check in regularly with her for updates. In the meantime, if you need a little information to tickle your muse then you'll want to check over at First Freedom First for a ton of excellent resources. FFF is a partnership of two very cool groups; Americans United For Separation of Church and State and the Interfaith Alliance Foundation. Also, I can personally recommend this interview on CFI's Point of Inquiry podcast with Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. The Center For Inquiry is just one of many supporters of the FFF project.

So get involved in a little blogactivism and help raise awareness on the need to preserve separation of church and state and protecting the First Amendment. Your help in recruiting bloggers for Blog Against Theocracy is needed and appreciated too.

Since being against theocracy is one of the main points of my blog (after all, it is in the title), I will certainly be taking part in this blog swarm and will save up all my good anti-theocracy rants until then. I hope you join us and do what you can to increase awareness on the thin ice our government has been toeing for the past few years.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Attorney Purge Controversy Gets Interesting

After watching President Bush's press conference earlier today, I couldn't help but feel like we're seeing the beginning of a constitutional showdown here between Congress and the Bush Administration.

Now, the firings of the US attorneys are somewhat shady by themselves. All of them had satisfactory job reviews and no reason for being fired, unlike all but two of the ten attorneys asked to retire in the previous 25 years. Clearly, there's an overt political reason here since they didn't pursue Republican goals enough. But that's not surprising or the real problem since US Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President, and he can fire them at any time.

The real problem is that Bush is refusing to allow members of his staff to testify before Congress under oath. The "reasonable offer" Bush kept referring to in the recent press conference is anything but. He will allow a bipartisan panel from Congress to interview Rove and Miers as long as it is not under oath, behind closed doors, and there will be no transcript of the meeting. Clearly, he has something to hide because this offer basically says, "My staff should be allowed to lie to protect the administration." What's the matter Bush? Afriad Rove will have to disclose too much about the corrupt workings of your administration?

The Administration has tried to defend itself by saying that there is no precedent for White House staffers testifying before Congress. There's only one problem: that's not true at all. 31 of Clinton's advisors testified before Congress on 47 different occasions. Hmm. Slight bit of misinformation (read: lie) there.

Bush also said that he, as the head of a separate branch of government, does not have to send his staffers before Congress because they have to be able to say what they want without fear of being held accountable for what they say. That way, Bush says, he can get honest advice to be more effective. I say bullshit. Why should Bush's staffers not be accountable for what they say unless you want to cover something up? Claiming this kind of executive privilege stinks of Nixon to me, and we know how that turned out.

Next, Bush accused Democrats of fishing for political points. While I don't doubt that whatsoever, it's a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Of all those times Clinton's advisors testified before the Republican-controlled Congress, does Bush seriously think it was never for the Republicans to score political points? Saying politicians are doing something for political reasons..well, no shit Sherlock.

The next step Congress can take is to issue subpoenas. If Rove and Miers refuse to appear, as Bush promised they will, then Congress can vote to find them in contempt of Congress, which means it will go to the courts. In short, this could get interesting very fast.

It's obvious that Bush is trying to hide something. If his administration is innocent of wrongdoing, then he should have no reason to fear his advisors testifying under oath. I really hope this is where Bush finally learns that the game is up. He needs to realize that he is not actually the Emperor of America, but just one part of a three branch government that serves the will of the people. Now, I just hope the Democrats see this through to the end and don't chicken out.

Ann Coulter Has a New Book (Maybe She'll Tell Us How She Really Feels)

Uh-oh. Someone let Ann Coulter near a computer long enough for her to reguritate a new book. From the title alone, If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans you can pretty much guess what it will be about. Yep, more of the same: Democrats hate America, true Republicans are the warm, fuzzy example of how to lead prefectly virtuous lives while calling the opposition every bigoted name their god-fearing minds can conjure up. Classy stuff.

Seriously, why would people keep buying her books? She repeats the same unfounded nonsense over and over. Of course, I guess she did branch out into evolution in her last book, but the ignorance she displayed there might actually be the answer to the repetitivness of her books. She doesn't know how to do anything except come up with creative ways to call people she doesn't agree with derogatory names. It's actually kind of sad. Ann Coulter's only real skill in life is to be a name-caller. What a trite and meaningless existence.

Unfortunately, her crass description of John Edwards hasn't affected her publisher's decision to produce the book. From The Book Standard:

Ann Coulter may be dealing with newspapers upset over her use of an anti-gay slur to describe former North Carolina senator John Edwards, but she is having no problems with her latest book, If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans, which is set to be published in October by Crown Publishing Group.

"We have a book with her on our fall list and have no plans on altering our current publication plans," said Steve Ross, Crown publisher and senior vice president, according to the Associated Press. "Every book we have published with Ann has been a major bestseller and we expect the same with the upcoming title."
As if popularity validates someone's ideas. Hitler's ideas were popular for a while too. However, Ann Coulter is certainly no Hitler. She's just an angry woman who gets joy out of calling other people names to make herself feel better. Kind of like the popular girl at school. Sure, people want to be like her now, but in a few years she'll have no friends and will wonder where all her good looks have gone.

My First Book to Review

I'm a bit excited today because I just recieved my first book to review. If you're a regular reader, then you know that I post books of the month; however, this is the first time a publisher has written to me asking me to write a review. The best part is, that the publisher sent me the book for free as long as I post a review on my blog, which is a small price to pay.

Anyway, the book is The "God" Part of the Brain by Matthew Alper and deals with why humans would have evolved to feel a need for religion. I'm looking forward to the read, and, as promised, I will post a review as soon as I am finished.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Catching Up...

My my, things have been busy during my time away. Let's see:

John Edwards backed out from a debate in Nevada sponsored by Fox News for that very reason, rightly accusing it of being biased. I'm glad to see Edwards taking this sort of stand.

The best part is the resulting fit Fox has thrown when it continues to assert that it is "fair and balanced." I don't see how they can say that slogan with a straight face. That's my real problem with Fox News. It's not that they're biased--it's inevitable that an organization will have some sort of bias--it's that they lie through their teeth to claim that they are not political whatsoever while at the same time praising conservatives for everything they do while deriding liberals at every turn. I would have no beef with Fox News if they were just honest about their slant. Sure, I'd disagree with them, but I would respect them for being honest. In fact, I think it would be best if all media organizations were up front with their biases. American media should follow the European model and be up front with their biases.

Read more at Daily Kos

Next, we have the Alberto Gonzales scandal. This is probably just the first bit of fruit we're seeing from the Democrat-controlled Congress. The details of the scandal don't surprise me at all but, in case you haven't heard about it, in early 2006 Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to fired several US Attorneys even though they had positive job evaluations in order to replace them with more Republican-friendly attorneys. Since this is extremely unethical, Gonzales will probably step down in a matter of days, but what's more interesting is how far this seems to go. The latest inquiries have turned to Karl Rove and his certain involvement in the scandal. We'll see how far this goes, but I really hope the law can finally nail Rove for his shady (and probably illegal) activites.

Read more at Daily Kos, Time, and The New York Times

Finally, the Secular Coalition of America announced that Representative Pete Stark of California acknowledged that he is the highest-ranking atheist in the US government. First off, I want to applaud him for his courage. In today's political climate, this was a bold move. Secondly, I'm surprised it was someone so high in the government. I was expecting a rather minor political appointee. Needless to say, I'm pleased. I just hope it doesn't cost him his position in the next election. I fear that it will.

You can see the press release at the Secular Coalition of America's website.

Well, that's the major events of the previous week and my thoughts on them. More to follow as I get caught up.

The Caribbean Is Not Overrated

Whatever you might of heard about how great the Caribbean is...it's all true. I just got back from St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands and I had an amazing time. The scuba diving was especially grand. If you're ever there and want to find a quality dive shop that deals with you on a personal level, then I recommend going to N2 the Blue on the north shore of the island. It's an awesome little shop that will help you do pretty much any type of dive you'd like to do.

Anyway, now that I'm back, the blogging will resume once again.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Going Out of Town

I'm going on vaction for the next week, so you won't find anything here until the 19th. Until then, keep up the good fight. Science be praised.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

At Least We Can Stay "In" the Country

Here's a little something that will make your hang your head in disgust. From a reader in Soldotna, Alaska, this letter was published in the Peninsula Clarion (click on the picture to see it clearer):

I shouldn't even waste my time to address any of this, but I can't help myself. First, if you must do something, then that is not freedom. In fact it's compulsion, which is the opposite of freedom.

Second, "In God We Trust" was not added to our money until the Civil War. Even then, it appeared sporatically until the national motto was changed from "E Pluribus Unim" to "In God We Trust" in the 1950's to show those dirty communists that America has morals (sigh).

Third, how does having prayer in school actually solve any problems? Please, I would like to hear a good, rational explanation for that one.

Fourth, I don't know what evil it is we practice since we don't actually practice anything. That's part of being an atheist. However, if thinking rationally about the world is evil, then I'd have to admit that you've got me there. I guess I'm evil.

Fifth, if atheists are the reason crime is rampant...Jesus, this is just stupid. Why do I bother?

Finally, clever use of the phrase "get off my country." Never heard that one before. I guess Ms. Shannon wants us to fall off into the ocean.

Christian, atheist, whatever...it doesn't matter. I feel sorry for anyone who thinks like this, no matter what he or she believes. I can't even get angry at this one. It's nothing but sheer ignorance.

The Proper Way to Counter the "Hitler and Stalin Were Atheists" Argument

Alonzo Fyfe of Athiest Ethicist recently addressed the proper way to counter the tired "Hitler and Stalin were atheists" arguments. Fyfe correctly argues that finding evidence that Hitler and Stalin were actually theists is irrelevent. In reality, it's just the same flawed argument in reverse or like saying all theists are bad because of the Crusades and the Inquisition. Instead, Fyfe takes the following tack:

My sound-byte answer: "I'm sorry, but blaming me for the crimes of Hitler and Stalin is like blaming the Amish – or blaming you, by honorable adversary – for 9-11.”

If my opponent will grant me a few more seconds, I would add, “You would certainly object if I were to accuse you of being responsible for these crimes. You would scream that any who would make such an assertion is bigoted and unjust. You would be right. Such a person is, in fact, bigoted and unjust. So is the person who blames all atheists for the crimes of Stalin.”

It's an excellent read, and I encourage you to read it. It's probably the best counter I've ever found to the Hitler and Stalin argument.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Thoughts on the Jesus Tomb

Last night I watched the Discovery Channel documentary on the supposed tomb of Jesus. Initially, the evidence seemed fairly convincing...until I really thought about it (damn filmmakers making me feel the way they want me to). Plus, the critical debate afterwards was far more enlightening since the viewer got to see a couple of actual archaeologists speak on the subject. They brought up several concerns I hadn't considered. Another reason why one should always listen to the professionals. Of course, after the archaeologists came the theologians. Basically, their argument was, "This doesn't agree with my interpretation of the Bible, so you're wrong." I got bored with this part rather quickly and found something more productive to do. Okay, fine, I watched Scrubs.

Anyway, these are my major concerns with the film:

1. The conclusion that Mariamne Mara is Mary Magdalene is based on a copy of the Acts of Phillip (one of the books excluded from the New Testament) that was found in the 1970's. How certain are they that this copy of the Acts of Pillip is the original translation? Since many of the books were written several decades after the fact, is Mariamne really what Mary Magdalene would have been called in life? The filmmaker's conclusion seems to be a leap of faith. Worse, this is the key piece of evidence. Without it, the whole hypothesis falls apart.

2. The statistical analysis is based on the names from ossuaries (boxes used in the first century to store bones) of the time. While it might provide a reasonable sample of contemporary names, it's far from exhastive, and the margin of error must be fairly large. There's probably still a lot of ossuaries out there which could drastically change the frequency of specific names, thereby altering the odds. Of course, I'm no expert on the subject, but it's a concern of mine. I'd like to know more before making any conclusions either way.

3. In the "Critical Look" section after the documentary, Koppel brought the fact that the film portrayed many of the forensic experts speaking out of context. The film was actually edited to make them say what Simcha Jacobovici, the filmmaker, wanted while discarding the parts that shed doubt on the conclusiveness of his findings. Then Jacobovici was extremely evasive when confronted with these facts. It seems real shady to me. For example, the film was edited to make it look like the forensic experts said the differences in the mitochrondrial DNA between Jesus and Mariamne meant that they were husband and wife. In reality, it simply means that they did not share the same mother. It could mean they were husband and wife. It could also mean that Mariamne was the wife of any other man in there, she was a cousin, etc. It's a piece of evidence, but not a damning piece.

4. The entire conclusion rests on an evidence chain, meaning one piece of evidence leads to the next. If any single piece of evidence no longer supports the conclusion, then the whole thing falls apart. For an acceptable conclusion, there will have to be several pieces of evidence that can stand on their own.

5. The suggestion that Jesus had a son. Sure, that's entirely possible, but its an example of the filmmaker using the Bible when it helps him and ignoring it when it doesn't. In some ways, this reminds me of Young-Earth Creationists. They love to use any scrap of evidence they can find that loosely supports their conclusions, yet they ignore everything else. It's the same thing with the Mariamne name. They found it in a single copy of a book excluded from the New Testament. However, every other reference to Mary Magdalene uses a different name. It seems extremely selective.

In short, the documentary was interesting, but not convincing by any means. Certainly, I think there should be more research on the ossuaries and the tomb, because it could be the real deal. However, it's far too early to make any conclusions. More evidence is necessary. And no, this is not because I have hidden affinity for Christianity. I think it would be cool to actually find Jesus' remains and force Christians to think about their faith just a bit. However, it has to be done with a scientifically sound conclusion. Otherwise, it's just wishful thinking and not any better than the claims of Creationists.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Ann Coulter Is Real Classy

Ann Coulter always amazes me with how easily she turns crass, obnoxious slurs into eloquent terms for a political debate. Except it still sounds crass and obnoxious.

As you might have heard, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter showed her insidiousness once again at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington D.C. At the end of her speech she made the following comment:

“I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I — so kind of an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards.”

After a short pause, the audience then erupted in applause. Here's a video of the incident:

Now, I'm all for Coulter being able to say whatever she wants. It's her right. However, this sort of name-calling is exactly what's wrong with Coulter and politics today. First off, Edwards is not gay, so it has no basis in reality. Second and more importantly, the term is incredibly offensive to homosexuals and serves nothing more than to alienate them, especially when it's said publically at a Republican function. It's the sort of thing that doesn't belong in political discourse because makes a bloc of citizens within a democratic republic feel unwelcome. This should not happen. All citizens should feel welcome within politics.

Maybe Coulter doesn't know it's so offensive because she said the following in the Q and A session after the speech:

I do want to point out one thing that has been driving me crazy with the media -- how they keep describing Mitt Romney's position as being pro-gays, and that's going to upset the right wingers. Well, you know, screw you! I'm not anti-gay. We're against gay marriage. I don't want gays to be discriminated against.

I don't know why all gays aren't Republican. I think we have the pro-gay positions, which is anti-crime and for tax cuts. Gays make a lot of money and they're victims of crime. No, they are! They should be with us.

Coulter must simply be clueless. She uses a slur against gays, the audience cheers, and then a little while later Coulter can't understand why gays do not support Republicans.

At any rate, it's refreshing to see the leading Republican candidates for president denouce Coulter's statement. McCain's spokesman said, “The comments were wildly inappropriate.” Giuliani said, “The comments were completely inappropriate and there should be no place for such name-calling in political debate.” Romney's spokesman said, "It was an offensive remark. Governor Romney believes all people should be treated with dignity and respect."

Call me an optimist, but it's my hope that Ann Coulter has gone too far on this one, and her fifteen minutes of fame will come to an end. However, her brand of hate has become popular these days, and I'm fairly certain her fans will just eat it up like they always have when Coulter says something outrageous.

Read more from CNN.

Elizabeth Edwards, John Edward's wife, also has a great post on her blog about Coulter's statement.

Friday, March 02, 2007

James Cameron Found Jesus!

No, he hasn't been born again, but he does have a new documentary coming out this Sunday on the Discovery Channel where he claims to have conclusively identified Jesus' final resting place. However, I'm skeptical about the whole thing.

Sure, I don't think Jesus' body disappeared and ascended into heaven, and I'm sure his remains are out there in Israel somewhere. I just don't think enough evidence would exist to prove it one way or another. It not like he was royalty or anything, so his final resting place would be a little difficult to distinguish from the countless others out there. Plus, Cameron's documentary claims ot have used DNA evidence to validate the claim. Right. To use DNA for establishing a person's identity, one needs to have a known sample to compare it to. Where did they get Jesus' DNA to make the comparison? Did the researchers get a priest, some wine, some crackers, and have a communion? Or maybe the Da Vinci Code was right and they found the long lost descendent of Mary Magdalene living in France?

I'll watch the documentary to see what it says, but at this point, I'm not impressed. I need to see the evidence first.

Read more from the BBC here.

As an aside, a was a little peeved by a quote in the BBC article from Stephen Pfann, a scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem where he said:

"But sceptics, in general, would like to see something that pokes holes into the story that so many people hold dear."

I would hope this is not the case with a true skeptic. It sounds more like what a conspiracy theorist would do. An actual Skeptic doesn't just go around trying to destroy people's beliefs. Instead, they don't personally believe something until they see the evidence to support it. Big difference there. That is why, despite my lack of belief in the tenants of Christianity, I will not immediately jump on this boat. Like I said, I need the evidence first.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What a Terrible Doctor

A pediatrician in Bakersfield, California recently denied a child treatment for her ear infection because her parents had tattoos. Why should that matter? Because the doctor wanted to create a "Christian atmosphere" for his patients.

I can't even find the words to describe how angry this makes me feel. I mean sweet Jesus, aren't doctors supposed to help people?! Even then, this "doctor" punished the child for something she had no control over. What a loser. I bet he claims ot be the exemplar of Christian charity, but then he refuses to give a child medical treatment because her parents have a bit of ink in their skin. How does the presence of a person with tattoos ruin the "Christian atmosphere"? How does it make them less worthy as a person? Please, I wish someone would explain this to me, because it makes no sense to me whatsoever.

Man, this pisses me off. Just another prime example of religion making someone a judgmental asshole for no good reason. Then again, it might not be the religion. Maybe he just has an irrational fear of tattoos and uses religion as an excuse.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Here's a Good Sign: Religious Right Can't Find a Republican Presidential Candidate to Support

On Saturday, the New York Times had an interesting article on the Religious Right's current political woes. After a meeting of the Council for National Policy, a group comprised of several leading Fundamentalist Christian leaders, they all agreed on one thing: they don't have a winning Republican to support.

Obviously, they can't turn to Democrats since the RR has painted them as evil baby killers. That might look too hypocritical (never say never, right?). However, the leading Republican candidates aren't much better from a Fundamentalist Christian's point of view. McCain, despite his recent pandering, was pro-choice in 2000, so that leaves him out. Guliani is currently pro-choice and pro-gay rights, so he's definitely out. Romney is a Mormon, a religion that most fundamentalists view as a cult, so they can't support him either. Of course, Brownback, Huckabee, and Sanford all say the right things to soothe the RR's ears. Too bad they're losers and are lagging far behind the others in the polls, and no one wants to bet on a losing horse.

More than anything, the RR might have to admit that most of the country really doesn't give a damn about their "family values" agenda. There's much more important problems with this country: war, massive deficits, individual liberty abuses, incompetent government, etc. The last thing people should be worrying about right now is "sinful" activites between consenting adults that harms nobody. This nation has real problems, and blaming it on abortions and homosexuals is not a solution.

Sorry Fundamentalist Christians, but you've had your opportunity and you couldn't do anything but mess it up for everyone. It's time to put rational people back in complete control.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Case to Watch: Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation

This Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear the oral arguments for Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation. The purpose of this case is to challenge the Bush administration's appropriation of funds raised from taxpayers to religious groups in such projects as the "Faith-Based Initiatives". The Bush adminisration's side will argue that they used general operating funds for these initiatives and that taxpayers cannot challenge such action.

I have one word for the administration's stand on this: bullshit. The day US citizens can't challenge the government's use of their taxes is the day the government no longer belongs to the people. Basically, the administration is saying the the law does not apply to its actions since only it knows the people's best interests. It's downright scary.

Of course, this has been happening for some time, but the Faith-Based Initiatives are one of the most flagrant manifestations of this lawlessness. Even though the money given to religious groups is said to be for charitable purposes, there's no oversight whatsoever. Religious groups can do whatever they want with the money. It is in direct violation of the establishment clause of the Constiution, and should not be allowed to stand.

Unfortunately, Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation will not challenge the Faith-Based Initiatives directly. Instead, it will determine whether or not taxpayers can challenge such governmental action. The fact that this is in question should be enough to concern people by itself. At any rate, if the Supreme Court agrees with the Constitution, then we should finally see some direct challenges to the administration's poorly veiled attempt to bring us closer to a theocracy.

Read more at Americans United

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Another Reason Religion is Not for Me

This bit of news shows just how dangerous faith can become. Last week in Pakistan, female government minister Zilla Huma Usman was shot in the head right before deliviering a speech. Why did the man shoot her? Because she refused to wear a veil and she's a woman in politics. So the man who murdered her, Mohammad Sarwar, decided to end another human being's life because the woman wasn't wearing a scrap of cloth over her head and tried to enjoy some semblance of equality. Dispicable.

Even more frightening is Mohammed's complete lack of remorse:

I have no regrets. I just obeyed Allah’s commandment. I will kill all those women who do not follow the right path, if I am freed again.

The police statement also said:

He considers it contrary to the teachings of Allah for a woman to become a minister or a ruler. That’s why he committed this action.

The worst part is that, religiously speaking, Mohammed is completely justified in his actions. That's why he has no remorse. The Koran says he has a duty to kill "disobedient" women. This is why fundamentalist faiths are so dangerous, especially those with guidebooks written before the modern era. The fact is that those books were written in a different time by people who had different moral views of the world. If you tell an impressionable individual that a particular book tells you exactly how to live, you shouldn't act surprised when that person does exactly what that book tells them to do.

I just hope this tragedy causes others to rise up in outrage, making equality for women closer to reality in the Middle East.