Friday, December 19, 2008

Bad, survey, bad!

I was going through PZ Myers' blog and he posted about this survey, Coming Out as an Atheist.

I couldn't finish it. I mean, not because I didn't come out as an atheist - I think, fairly obviously, I have quite a bit come out as an atheist. But like many of these surveys, I find that the choices I'm given for the answers simply don't make any meaningful sense for me.

In particular, there were two political ones, right in a row - asking one's political views, ranging from very conservative to very liberal. I held my nose and clicked very liberal. I mean, I'm not a liberal. But, generally, my views are leftist - in the sense that I'm somewhat to the left of Karl Marx - so I held my nose and clicked. But the very next question was how I generally voted, ranging from . . . all Republican to all Democrat. The real answer is, "Well, mostly socialist, if applicable and in many races there there are only Democrats and Republicans running I don't vote for either." Right or wrong, I feel that choosing between Republicans and Democrats, in most instances, is like choosing between Coke and Pepsi - the ad campaigns might make a big to do about it, but the differences are really quite superficial between the two.

So then I stopped taking the quiz. The people who gave it couldn't envision atheists as being anything other than liberal or conservative, Democrats or Republicans. It never entered their mind that around 5% of all Americans vote, fairly regularly, as independents of various stripes. Their inability to imagine a world that wasn't split between two parties, largely identical in a great many ways, far more ways than they're different, made me close it down.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Let's change the date of Christmas!

I largely like PZ Myers. But, like many atheists, he's in denial about Christmas. He says, here, and a number of other spots, that Christmas is really a secular holiday.

Which is why it's the busiest day of the year for Christian churches, right? The secularness just packs the Christians into churches. Ugh. It's not a secular holiday, it's a religious one, by and large, and obviously so.

But Myers quotes some thing or the other about how the US courts have largely claimed that Christmas is a secular holiday. I feel that's an appalling ruling. I think that's a clear and transparent attempt to keep this religious holiday on the federal books - because, again, it is clearly a religious holiday for the overwhelming majority of people who celebrate it in the United States. And given such preponderance, to call it secular is absurd.

And I can prove it! If Christmas is a secular holiday, well, let's move it. There are good reasons to do so. In particular, it is criminally irresponsible to encourage people to drive on icy roads. Auto accidents shoot way up in December compared to both November and January - and the reasons are clear. People do lots of driving on lousy wintry roads. So, why not change it the date of Christmas to September, when the roads are a lot better, to minimize the thousands of preventable injuries. It'd be a much better idea to do shopping in late August instead of December!

I will take it as given that everyone reading this knows that could never happen. Not because of the inertia of it, either. Holiday dates have been changed plenty, and they will be, again. But I think we all know that Christmas can't have it's date changed for reasons founded in religion. That the Christians could not endure it because they view Jesus' birthday as December 25th and so to celebrate Christmas at any other time violates their religious beliefs.

Still, the date should be changed. It's crazy to encourage people to crowd the roads on days that are often icy. It's downright irresponsible.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tony Blair = gutless coward and lousy Prime Minister

It wasn't until Tony Blair was out of office that he admitted he was Catholic. Oh, but not because he couldn't be a British Prime Minister, oh, no, that had nothing to do with it!

Likewise, as the article makes clear, he hid his religion from his constituents for the duration of his time as a politician. He was afraid of people dismissing him as a "nutter".

Yeah, Tony, that's the point. Your constituents needed to know how you made decisions so they could meaningfully support or oppose you. So you decided to engage in decades of deception because you know your real thoughts and feelings would be bad for your political career. And in some bizarre way no one seems the least bit, oh, I dunno, feeling weird or betrayed over this?

But mostly what I'm thinking is that Blair is a gutless coward. I mean, here's this thing, and if you listen to what religious people say it's the most important thing there is, and he hid it. And not because he and his family would be hurt or even disgraced. Tony Blair is rich, he's been rich for a long time. No, no, he hid his true feelings about what religious people claim is the most important thing there is because he was worried that people would call him a "nutter". I don't think being a Roman Catholic makes you a nutter - tho' switching from the Church of England to the Catholic Church is basically as exciting as switching from Coke to Pepsi, IMO - but I do think hiding it like he has and for the reasons he has makes him a hypocritical gutless coward.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Traditional Christmas rant - oh, I loathe Christmas

I deeply dislike Christmas. Since around the time I was twelve or so I haven't actually liked gifts - my mother was terrible at giving them, not the content of the gifts but how she gave them; on my birthday one year she pretended to have forgotten my birthday and waited until I exploded about how she'd forgotten and then exploded back at me about how she did get me presents and she did remember my birthday but she was just trying to build tension by pretending she'd forgotten. There were several experiences like that, so I actually dislike gift giving as a Pavlovian thing. When I was a child, however, I still liked the religious aspects of it, church and singing and such.

Then I became an atheist. Because Christmas was, for me, always a religious holiday, when I became an atheist I gave up Christmas. It was actually out of respect for the religion. I don't celebrate Christmas in the same way I don't celebrate Ramadan or Holi or Shavuot. At this time I didn't particularly dislike Christmas, either. Indeed, part of me still yearned for it because I did enjoy the music and church and the rest of it, but a yet bigger part of me would have felt disrespectful for celebrating a holiday for a religion that I found quite absurd.

Then this really weird thing happened. People would ask me what they should get me for Christmas and I'd say, "Nothing. I don't celebrate Christmas. I'm not a Christian." Then they'd try to talk me into celebrating it! They'd say it was a secular holiday (it is, weakly, but it is much more a religious holiday) so my reasons were silly or wrong somehow. Almost inevitably they'd end up by telling me that they'd get me a gift, anyway.

I really hate that. That's the proper word. Hate. Because what it does is ignore me. It ignores the way that I, Chris Bradley, really feel about gifts in general and celebrating Christmas in particular. This has caused me to see Christmas in an entirely different light. I feel Christmas is a very selfish holiday. Everyone gets so wrapped up in whatever it is that they are feeling, well, they don't really have time to be honestly generous or loving or even peaceful.

Take this Christmas season - a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death. The customers broke down the doors of the Wal-Mart and when this regular guy tried to stop them from literally invading the store they trampled him to death. Beyond the death itself, how does that show any "Christmas spirit"? How is that about generosity, love or peace? Everyone is in such a hurry! Traffic accidents skyrocket, violence skyrockets, people are brusque and rude, everything about Christmas - except a few parties - is pretty unpleasant really. And deeply selfish. Like those people at Wal-Mart - and tens of thousands of other places all across America - where people started the holiday season by mobbing stores.

So, in actual behavior, I feel there is a real deep hypocrisy about Christmas. People aren't being generous. Generosity isn't giving your kid an Xbox 360. Generosity is . . . creating a society with no poor. Not giving to a food bank once a year (often just cleaning out canned goods from your cupboard) or giving something to a Toys for Tots thing, but eliminating the social need that makes people that vulnerable in the first place. Generosity is feeding the poor all year long, making sure our schools are good, making sure that everyone has medical care, outreaching to people in countries poorer than ours (all of them) to make sure they've got enough food to eat and their kids go to good schools and have medical care. It is not about trading gifts with people. That is a parody of generosity - giving people who don't need anything things they don't need!

It's not about peace. If it was about peace, instead of going shopping and to parties, people would be petitioning the government to get out of Iraq, to shut down Guantanamo Bay's illegal prison. It would be about working to end the scourge of war both here and abroad. But you can't do that because to get political wouldn't be in the spirit of the season, which is absurd.

It's not about love, because you don't need - indeed you can't - buy love. Love is something you feel, and while you can work on feeling love, greater love, both for those you know and those you don't, there is nothing about Christmas that invokes love with the possible exception of the actual Christmas feast. (Eating good food with people you love is a way to keep the bonds of love strong. Companion is Latin for "people you share bread with".) Shopping, gifts, all that, has nothing to do with love.

So, when I tell people I don't celebrate Christmas and they try to talk me into it, often with emotional manipulation and always over my (I feel) reasonable objections, they're being selfish and offensive. They show no generosity, charity, peace or love for me by ignoring my clearly expressed, reasonably and easy to follow request to be left out of Christmas. They focus on their need or desire to force others into celebrating this holiday. They show, indeed, quite a bit of contempt for me - that my requests aren't worth following. It pisses me off. And it happens so damn often that it's entirely poisoned the season for me. Entirely.

Since I stopped celebrating Christmas, I have grown in understanding. I understand that many atheists and agnostics are cultural Christians - Christianity is a foul religion, true, but it is also an integral part of European and American civilization - our history is bound up in innumerable complex ways with Christianity. And much like people can go to medieval recreation societies, or Civil War recreation societies, and appreciate how feudalism or the Confederacy shaped their history without wanting to recreate feudalism or the Confederacy, people can celebrate Christmas without endorsing Christianity. I see that.

But for so long people have been telling me that I'm silly for not celebrating Christmas that it's stripped off the mask. I see the fnords. Christmas is a giant hypocrisy, where selfish people make a mockery of the very principles that the celebration is supposed to be about. Not to mention that so many Christmas celebrants have been rude and arrogant to me, personally, that I have no desire to "celebrate" Christmas. For me, it's just a sad and ugly time that's made all the sadder and uglier because of the hypocrisy of it - that except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day it's all just a consumer driven holiday, that the Christmas Season is a marketing ploy that pisses over the supposed principles of the season. That instead of being a time of joy, it's a time of stress mitigated by one day's celebration after six weeks of lousy traffic, drunken drivers and chaos in the marketplaces.

Ironically, and I'm poignantly aware of this irony, it's actually religious people who listen to me when I say I don't celebrate Christmas. They always go, "Oh, yeah, I understand that." They might believe my soul is damned to hell, but they grasp why a non-Christian doesn't celebrate the holiday.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Catholic Church tryin' to blackmail America! Seriously!

So, some bishops are trying to hold Americans hostage about abortion. Some bishops have mouthed off that if the Freedom of Choice Act gets signed into law that Catholic hospitals will close their doors. About a third of all hospitals in America are Catholic.

And by "Catholic hospital", well, I mean that only in a narrow sense. Most of their income is actually from fees, and the federal government funds them more than the Catholic Church does through Medicare and Medicaid, not to mention grants from the federal as well as state and even local governments. So, they're only Catholic in a very vague sense. I think that's important to realize.

But the Freedom of Choice Act . . . well, no one has even tried to pass it in fifteen years. So, it's an act that doesn't really, y'know, exist, and it hasn't come before the House or Senate in any form in fifteen years, so who knows what it'll actually say? But the act would presumably force hospitals to give or refer abortions. And the Catholic Church is trying to blackmail the US government with it.

Mind you, the medical profession is already regulated. Catholic, and Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, secular, etc., hospitals are already regulated to do a large number of things if they receive public money. They can't, for instance, deny emergency services. They have to contentiously serve their patients. Stuff like that.

But because abortion is an "intrinsic evil", they feel they can threaten the US government! That they can blackmail us. Because that's what this is - a threat, blackmail.

Me? I hope they do it. I think it'll destroy Catholicism in America - which ain't doin' so well to begin with - if they try that. They love life so much that they'd close down a third of the hospitals in America, causing untold suffering, because, oh-em-gee, they might be forced to give medical services to people after receiving billions in taxpayer money.

Which is part of the key thing, here. These institutions get a lot of funding from the government. They're not private hospitals (which would likely be exempt from the FOCA, or they were as of the last draft of it, fifteen years ago). These are public institutions . . . but also religious ones?

I think that the Catholic Church shouldn't be allowed to get government money. Separation of church and state. If they want to run these hospitals as privately financed charities, they should do that. Make 'em private hospitals. Oh, but they can't afford to do that. To do what they say they want to do - help people - they receive huge amounts of money in the form of grants and Medicare and Medicaid and supplementary state and local programs. So, they want our money, but don't want to follow our laws . . . ? I think that just this threat, alone, is enough to get their non-profit status removed. It's insane that they should try to blackmail the American people!

But what strikes me as interesting is how conservative the Catholic Church has become. I can't think of a single time in my life that I've seen the Catholic Church go after anyone the way they've gone after Obama. Beyond the institutional racism in the Catholic Church (WHEN is there going to be a Latin American or African Pope?! African and Latin American Catholics are the huge bulk of Catholics!), there's been a steep rightward slant to Catholic politics for the past ten or fifteen years. Once viewed as being a center-left organization, now it's basically an all out right-wing organization. While giving tepid statements about how global climate change and war are bad and should be worked against, while very lightly castigating corporate capitalism, the Catholic Church doesn't do anything about any of those things. You don't see Catholic bishops threatening to excommunicate soldiers who work with nuclear weapons (also intrinsic evil) or who fight in illegal and immoral wars, or who serve greedy, soul-destroying corporations that are plundering the wealth of the world - but with abortion you've got these right-wing reactionary bishops threatening to close a third of all hospitals in America and trying to blackmail the American government. Wow. Which really tells a person where their priorities are, huh? War in Iraq? Well, they can work with that. Having to refer abortions? Intrinsic evil and they're willing to blackmail the US government over it!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

John Lennon in hell

The Vatican forgives John Lennon. Y'know. For when, back in the 60s, he said that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and opined that rock and roll might outlast Christianity.

I think it's fascinating that they imagine anyone giving a damn - least of all John Lennon who if not an out-and-out atheist was definitely massively distrustful of all religion. I think it's fascinating that they imagine we care what they think about our art and our artists. It's all so narcissistic! The idea that Lennon needs to be forgiven by them, that such a thing would have any meaning at all (especially in light of the fact that their religion condemns him to eternal torment because whether or not he was an atheist might be in question, but whether or not he was a Christian is not).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

In Russia, they steal CHURCHES

I can't make this stuff up. Apparently, thieves in Russia are hitting rural churches, stealing them. The whole damn thing. The churches have valuable icons that can be sold, and the building materials apparently are worth enough for the thieves to dismantle whole buildings.

I'm not sure what I feel about this. I mean, on one hand, it is thievery. On the other hand, it's so funny that whole churches are being stolen and I have trouble feeling sympathy for the Russian Orthodox Church - another reactionary religious organization that does nothing but impede human progress.

Funny stuff, though.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Justification by faith alone . . . not!

Often, in a sort of vague theoretical way, religious people will say that they have faith in their religion and that faith is enough to justify whatever it is that they want to justify. My experience with religion is . . . different. In particular, I can't think of a single person on this blog, or on any blog I've read, or in any of the fairly large number of private email conversations I have had with religious people where that religious person said, "My religion doesn't make any sense and I'm comfortable with that."

Time and again, I point out the absurdity of religion - like believing in an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving god who allows children to die of cancer. It makes no sense that a being would both love something and wish to see it harmed in such an unjust and arbitrary way. Lots of religious stuff is like that - it does not make sense. It means believing in magic, miracles, supernatural beings and things like that. But I can't remember a single person admitting that their religion makes no sense.

Usually, they will insist that their religion makes objective intellectual sense. The best known case of this is Pascal's Wager. Almost every religious person I've ever met will insist that their religion is sensible, and even if I don't think that their religion is right for me they deeply want me to agree that how they practice religion is reasonable - while many just insist that their religion is the most reasonably way to live.

Even when they are argued into a position of essentially having to say that there is no objective reason to believe in their religion, rather than just admitting that they will say that they've personally experienced things that make it sensible for them to believe in their religion. But that's not faith. If they've seen, as in honestly experiencing something, that inclines them towards a given faith, if they have proof and I've merely not witnessed this proof, that's still not faith. (It is, however, a conversation stopper - there's no good way to say that they haven't seen what they claim to have seen, after all. But it is my impression almost everyone who claims that is, well, lying. Or maybe crazy. Or both.) Faith is believing without proof.

(Which does have interesting consequences. If they have faith, they can't claim the Bible as proof.)

It is, of course, normal to want people to think that their decisions are intelligently made. And people use proof and evidence as the major influencing factor in almost every part of their life that isn't religious. When struck by a car, almost no religious person says, "Oh, my god will cure me if I'm to live." They go to the hospital. When they cross the street, they look both ways. They do not trust that their god will halt oncoming traffic. They make almost all of their decisions based on reason, evidence and proof. So it's normal to want a decision as important to most people as their religion to be sensible and reasonable.

The problem is . . . it's not. Most people are religious because they have been told their entire lives, since they were infants, that religion is important, that their religion is the most important thing there is, and the importance of religion is constantly reinforced by society at large. Most people do not seriously choose their religion - and when they do choose it's generally a small lateral move, such as a Catholic becoming Episcopalian, or Lutheran becoming a Baptist. Hell, even moving from Christianity to Islam is a fairly small step - it's merely changing from one large, organized patriarchal Judaism based religion to another. Almost all the tenants they learned in their old faith apply to their new. But most people don't even make it that far - they are the same religion as their parents. But that doesn't mean it makes sense. It just means it's a tradition and a great number of traditions are deeply stupid.

It is interesting to note, however, that almost no religious person is actually comfortable admitting their religion makes no reasonable sense.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The problem of pain vs. atheists?

This guy was my first ever troll. He's a crazy man who believes crazy things. On October 30th, he posted an article about his take of the problem of evil - and from his point of view the problem is with atheists. I'd give a direct link, but his blog is about as user-friendly as a whip-sword.

See, for him, the problem is pain. And it's a problem, and we atheists can't solve it. I used to consider myself a philosopher - I certainly studied it long enough - and I'd never heard of it as a serious refutation of the problem of evil. I mean, as atheists, we believe that "shit happens". Not to mention from a biological perspective, pain serves all kinds of useful functions (like us knowing when we're being injured). That it occasionally incapacitates the subject is one of those things that just happens to be the case - like bad backs and acne. Much of our biology is pretty slap-dash, as befits something that arose out of negentropic stochastic chemical processes.

The Problem of Pain is the name of a book by C.S. Lewis. But it was him trying to answer the normal problem of evil. Or, in other words, why does his god - whom he claims is all-loving and all-powerful - allow suffering to exist.

So, y'know, I wasn't aware pain was a problem for atheists. But this guy apparently thinks it is. Allow me to quote: "See: if something painful happens, and the person it happens to can't fix it except by causing more pain -- in fact, more pain than they are experiencing in the first place -- they don't have a way to choose their actions."

Well, of course, that's nonsense. If I get cancer and the only way to cure it is chemotherapy which will, in the short run, will be far worse than the cancer, I'll still choose to get the chemo. Duh. Because, as a human, I can understand the options - comfort in the short term and a lingering death later on, or suffering in the short term and a an overall greatly improved.

He goes on to say: "You know: as if somehow some suffering ultimately has a therapeutic or, if we dare say it, redemptive purpose." His argument seems to be - albeit stated in an awkward way - that because atheists have a the faculty commonly described as "will" and they can accept pain for a greater purpose (such as willing to accept chemo to overcome cancer), that atheists themselves have answered the question of evil because, wait for it, we accept that sometimes pain is necessary to be better people.

The problem he has with the problem of pain, however, is that atheists aren't either all-benevolent or all-powerful. With our limited powers, yeah, we'll accept chemo to get rid of cancer. But none of us are invested with omnipotence. An atheist can't just will cancer away with no pain or suffering, not for themselves or others. Many of us would, if we could, because the pain of chemotheraphy does not make cancer patients better human beings, except insofar as it prolongs their lives. They don't come out the other side with more character. They're just alive.

The common Christian conception of god, however, is all-powerful, however. Instead of making cancer patients go through chemo, their god could just decide that there was no such thing as cancer. Furthermore, this being could decide that there is no reason for redemption, either. That redemption just didn't mean anything in this universe, or any other universe, because - out of his infinite kindness and compassion - their god wouldn't want us to suffer.

The funny thing is, he even knows this. He says, "[John Loftus' view] is that God ought to be good enough and powerful enough and intelligent enough to create a world where these crappy choices ought not to have to be made." But then he goes on to say, "It's an interesting redirection of the question, but it is where we turn the bend from exposing the atheist short-comings to actually advancing the Christian faith -- and I'll get you back with that another day."

So while he admits the argument needs to be addressed, he doesn't actually address it. I don't much read the guy's blog - it's . . . not my cup of tea, shall we say - but I'm almost curious to see if he does try to follow this up. Because I just don't see pain as being a problem for atheists. It exists along with a lot of other crappy things like earthquakes that level cities and pop music. Pain exists because it exists, and because it serves a useful biological function (one that far outstrips its occasional down sides). I just don't see how that's a problem for atheists in the first place.

Still, a pretty bizarre argument. But to try to argue the problem of evil while maintaining your belief in an all-loving, all-forgiving, all-powerful god requires a lot of bizarre thinking.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Priests and "sex drive tests" - the laughs abound

Apparently, priests are gonna going to be evaluated for their sexuality before taking the cloth. This is one of those things where my fairly considerable mockery skills are challenged by the inherent stupidity of what they're talking about. How can I mock the Catholic Church's testing of the sexual orientation of enforced celibacy? A bunch of eunuchs are going to be designing tests about sex. Funnier than I could come up with.

The reason is, of course, because priests are raping little kids. In my mind, the real problem is that instead of allowing the authorities to do their job the Catholic Church hushes it up. They're still going to hush it up. This is just one of those sound bite talking points that they can trot out to say that they've cleaned up their act - when the real problem is the tradition of secrecy around the crimes of priests that the Catholic Church has defended for sixteen hundred years or so.

However, the article doesn't really seem to be about trying to weed out pedophile priests. They're looking to vet "deep-seated homosexual tendencies", "uncertain sexual identity", "evident the candidate has difficulty living in celibacy: That is, if celibacy for him is lived as a burden so heavy that it compromises his affective and relational equilibrium". It doesn't even sound like they're looking for pedophiles. What are they looking for? Priests with a "positive and stable sense of one's masculine identity".

Priests. With a . . . positive and stable sense of their . . . masculinity. Isn't being a Catholic priest slightly more girly than being a cross-dressing hooker? The priesthood is about as masculine as a doll house! How can I mock that? It's pretty self-mocking, if you ask me.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests isn't fooled by this nonsense. They say, "Catholic officials continue to fixate on the offenders and ignore the larger problem: The Church's virtually unchanged culture of secrecy and unchecked power in the hierarchy" and "these broader factors are deeply rooted in the Church and contribute heavily to extensive and ongoing clergy sex abuse and cover up".

Indeed. If the Catholic Church wants to stop priests from raping little kids, they need to, first, when they become aware of the problem inform the authorities and, two, assist in whatever way possible the authorities in prosecuting these criminals. Whether or not priests need to be screened to determine if they're butch enough for the job is a question I can't answer - but the Catholic Church currently acts like a criminal conspiracy towards criminals who have taken the cloth.

If it was up to me, I'd have the Pope up on racketeering charges for his role in protecting sex offenders - rapists - in the Catholic clergy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Another pseudo-answer to the problem of evil

I was actually slightly wrong last post. Christians will offer two arguments to try to defend their religion against the problem of evil.

One is the "best of all possible worlds" scenario, which is vapid because a child could think of a better world than the one we've got. One without, say, disease or natural disasters.

The second is "god is mysterious and we can't understand god because we're finite beings". This is also a bad argument because while it is likely true that we can't really understand a higher order of intelligence (much in the same way that a dog can't really understand humans), an omnipotent and omniscient being can certainly understand us. So while a human's motives are totally inscrutable to a dog, the dog is pretty transparent to a human. So we know, even if the dog can't really say it, that it's not OK to beat and torture the dog. And you can abuse a dog in such a fashion that it will continue to show all outward signs of love - we're smart enough to do that, too. But anyone with a mind can see that the paranoid wreck that dog becomes, both angrily lashing out at strangers while being pathetically obsequious to it's "master" isn't actually good for the dog. Much in the same way, one would expect an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-benevolent god to understand that people, y'know, don't want to suffer the infirmity of old age, we don't want to get cancer and die lingering deaths, we don't want to be destroyed in natural disasters. And because it is the contention of almost all religious people that their god is all-powerful, they can't say that their god needs for things to be this way or that way in order to achieve an end. They're just stuck with the inescapable conclusion that an all-powerful being must, in some way, want people to suffer horribly and to be aware of that suffering, even when it does not infringe on individual will.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The question of evil vs. Christians

Almost all Christians try to talk about the existence of god. Like that's the only question. If only, they think, we can get atheists to acknowledge god exists then we've got 'em! Or, anyway, that's what I imagine they're saying to themselves.

Furthermore, the question of the existence of god is nice and . . . abstract. Since they acknowledge the world exists in the form it exists, they can assert the god of the gaps. Wherever we can't look is where their god is, operating in secret.

But there's really a much better way to expose the fundamental absurdity of religion - which is the question of evil. You know, if god is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-benevolent then why is there evil?

They'll try to derail the question with the question of free will. They'll say, "There's evil because people are evil." Don't fall for it! The argument isn't about free will, and what constitutes free will, and the limitations of free will. The question is one of evil.

Say, instead, "Why is there cancer? Why does your god allow little babies to die horrible, lingering deaths because of cancer?" Focus on the fact terrible things happen to innocent people - not as a function of anyone's will. Focus on disease and natural disaster. Focus on real things that happen to people.

Then sit back and enjoy. Because, at that point, they're stuck on the horns of of the dilemma of the problem of evil. Either their god isn't all-powerful or isn't all-benevolent. They will agree that their god can do anything but they can't offer any reason why their god hasn't stopped suffering that does not arise from human agency.

They will not admit, however, that the dilemma is real. Well, none I've met, anyway. They'll look for any kind of excuse they can think of to justify why terrible things happen to good people.

Eventually the have to come down to Leibniz's argument in some fashion: that this is the best of all possible worlds. It'll come out in some twisted version. They won't say that. They'll just insist that everyone happens for a "purpose". They don't know the purpose, but whatever it is, they will assure you, it's worth the untold suffering that disaster and disease bring. They must assert that their god both allows evil and is perfectly good.

It's really a much better way to argue than wasting your time talking about the creation of the universe. ;)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cornering the market in reactionary behavior

As readers of my blog know, I occasionally get very amusing letters that I share. To be honest, most of the people who are religious don't threaten me with death or anything - probably the most common letter I get from Christians (and so far they have all been from Christians) are attempts to dissuade me from lumping all religious people together.

For the record, I don't lump all religious people together. I do, however, have deep criticisms about religion generally, tho' I'll acknowledge there are a few religious out there I have no beef with. It's sorta hard to get worked up over Jain or Unitarian Universalists. But they feel that my general critique of religion throws the "good" religious people out with the "bad" religious people. I just got done with precisely such a discussion with a Catholic woman. As usual, it went no where. In the end, she was just offended that I think her religion is sexist, racist and homophobic and the supporters of that religion support sexism, racism and homophobia - which is to say that they are sexist, racist and homophobic. I compared the Catholic Church with the KKK in that regard - if someone in the KKK said that they weren't racist, you'd laugh. The Catholic Church isn't so much different from the KKK to me.

But during all of this I got a revelation. At some point, the woman said that religious people don't have the market cornered on sexism, racism and homophobia. I thought back for a while and thought to myself, "But . . . they do. I can't think of a single sexist, racist or homophobic organization that isn't pretty explicitly religious. I can't think of a single atheist organization that is." I wrote back telling her that, but shortly afterwards she stopped writing to me altogether.

So, that's my little revelation. Religious organizations do have the sexist, racist and homophobic markets cornered.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Researching Las Vegas

Researching Vegas is always a little . . . weird. Especially when you're researching gangster activities in Las Vegas.

The reason is that the people who write the books are often locals or semi-locals who use their insider connections to bring stories about gangland Vegas to the book. Almost all of them - and all of the dozen or so I've read of late - are basically told from interviews. Very much, "so-and-so told me this story".

The stories get a little strange when talking about the mob run casinos of the 40s through 70s. (In the 80s, the mob better learned how to hide behind corporations like the Steve Wynn's Mirage Resorts. If you think the skim isn't happening and the mob's out of Vegas, well, I guess you're entitled to your opinion, hehe.) At the time, it was pretty open that the mob was in town and the stories reflect that.

But almost uniformly, the casino employees from that time will talk about how nice the gangsters were and, bizarrely, how Las Vegas in those days didn't have much crime - even when they were talking about the crimes the mobsters committed. Several times I've read these interviews where the person would go, "In those days there wasn't any crime in Las Vegas" and then go "people who were caught stealing or cheating would be taken to what we called the torture room and afterwards they'd have a cast and a limp". Like the numerous assaults that the mobsters were committing - that these former employees were acknowledging - was somehow compatible with a town with "no crime". Not to mention the skim, itself, which was a daily theft of millions of dollars to support organized crime.

Even more than the stories themselves, what I find weird is how people rationalize working for the gangsters like the gangsters were somehow *good* for Las Vegas.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The way to be a Christian

Some months ago - it'd have to be some months, right, because it's not precisely like I'm undating this blog regularly, hehe - I wrote an article how atheism was Conservapedia's article of the year, wherein I pointed out how terrible and insulting the article was. In particular I found it amusing that one of the reasons Conservapedia believes atheism is spreading is peace and justice! Anyway, I got this comment from a Christian about my article that's amusing enough I feel the need to share:

Okay, you cocksucking, worthless atheists. Conservapedia, while not being perhaps the most famous website, is still excellent and trustworthy.

But you, Satan worshipping, child sacrificing atheists will go to Hell, and that's a fact, you faggots.

Atheists, go back to suck your beloved Dickhard "Dick" Cuntkins's cock, you whoresons.

Richard Dawkins is a cunt, whoreson, shiteating fuckface, and he should be killed. With the rest of you fucking atheists.

We christians will rule the earth, and there's nothing at all you butthurt atheists can do! Mwahaha!


Poor lad. He thinks his dinosaur of a religion stands a chance. And he seems to be a Christian to hate without regret and seek some kind of power that will never come to him, because if history has shown anything it has shown the ease with which Christian rulers oppress Christian subjects in horrific and brutal ways. But, mostly a big laugh for me! ;)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

John Freshwater and a student of his . . .

Back on this thread, I wrote about John Freshwater, a science teacher from Mount Vernon, Ohio, who taught creationism in class and as a "demonstration of electricity" would brand crosses into students arms. I got this comment anonymously, and considering how some students are acting, I understand why someone might want to be anonymous about this. Anyway, here's the quote - it's already posted publicly so there's no confidence issues involved, I should note:

I am a student at Mount Vernon High School and last year had Mr. Freshwater as an 8th grade science teacher. This man should have been fired years ago, far before the branding of a students arm. I have been raised Catholic, and many times we asked him to allow Catholics to be added to his "Fellowship of Christian Athletes" conversation, allow a priest to come in to talk. His exact response was, "I as a True Christian can not allow my students to bear witness to this." I am an atheist though, and he constantly is mixing religion into the classroom, straight out shunning certain students. The only reason anyone is now coming out and saying anything is because in the last year Mount Vernon administration has changed, being that the previous principal and vice principal encouraged him and allowed him to do this.

No real surprise that a fundie Christian is anti-Catholic, is it? And it is interesting to have someone say that it had hitherto been systematic. Not surprising, of course, but interesting.

On the other hand, at least he got fired. I wonder if that would have been the case if the story hadn't gone national. Freshwater says he's going to appeal, but, yeah, right. Unfortunately, he hasn't been arrested for his child abuse (which is a bigger issue than even the teaching of religion in class - the man burned children in his care).

Friday, June 13, 2008

I can't figure out how religion rots people's brains - but it does; another example

An old friend of mine wrote the post about how Coyote loves him and what that "means". The person in question isn't particularly religious, tho' he maintains that the universe makes more sense with a governing intelligence than without one and I think this post really . . . make it clear the disjoint between what he says and what I hear.

See, his magical belief in Coyote is the belief in a god that does terrible things for laughs, and he isn't even a very good comedian. He gives an anecdote about how his step-dad got into a car wreck that looked horrible but wasn't so bad, haha, isn't that funny, what a trickster that Coyote is to scare a person like that! This reasoning, of course, ignores all the dead and maimed from car accidents. Well, for them, Coyote's joke was a little meaner. Some people pick bits of glass out of their hair, and other people pick out bits of their baby's skull, but it's just a cosmic joke, right? Which, of course, is how religious people everywhere "explain" things - they just say "it's my god's will". And if you disagree with it, well, then you lack the special knowledge (in this person's case, I don't "get the joke").

The only way this "reasoning" distinguishes itself from Christianity or whatever is that it acknowledges that the reasoning of the cosmos is, at best, that of a not particularly bright vindictive idiot who never the less likes to give his favorite pets pats on the head.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dennis Kucinich introduced a bill to impeach Bush!

Dennis Kucinich, a Democratic Cleveland representative, has has introduced a bill of impeachment against George Bush. It has thirty-five articles of impeachment ranging from conspiring to circumvent voting laws to the whole business with the illegal war in Iraq.

There aren't that many news stories out there, here's one from the Belfast Telegraph, and another from Newshounds.

I haven't seen any news story about this on CNN, BBC or any of the big commercial websites. I'm also not seeing any action on this on the websites I generally frequent that have lots of political content. Which is why I'm writing this blog post.

Dennis Kucinich is trying to impeach Bush! The man is a criminal! He should be impeached, tried and convicted by our laws and then given over to the International Criminal Court to face his crimes in Iraq and elsewhere! For years, almost every even vaguely liberal person I've talked to has agreed Bush is a crook and should be impeached. If you are reading and are one of those people and you have a blog - post about this! Right now! And then write and/or phone your congressperson and tell them to impeach Bush.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Derren Brown Messiah on YouTube - go watch it!

Credit to Pharyngula for posting this so I might learn of it.

British stage magician Derren Brown apparently did a special called Derren Brown Messiah. It starts here on YouTube:

It's cool. Spoilers follow.

What he does is come to America, where no one knows him, and poses as five different people claiming to have paranormal powers of some sort - first as a psychic with remote viewing, then as a Christian with the power to convert with a touch, an alien adbuctee who could know people's medical histories (he assures us that abductees routinely claim to have these powers), the inventor of a machine that can collect dreams and, lastly, as a medium who can speak to the dead.

In each instance, he goes to a respected person in that field and tries to sell them that he's got paranormal powers. Part of the act is if anyone asks him if he's trying to trick them, if they ask if this is "real" or a trick in any way, he fesses up.

In every case, in all five cases, he gets at least some acknowledgment that he's got the powers he claims to have. Several of them are elaborately glowing in their praise and ask them to start doing things immediately on the grounds of his clear paranormal powers. None of them ask if it's real or not. They, on some level, just assume he's legitimate.

Of course they're tricks. I've seen Derren Brown's act before in different contexts. On his TV show, Trick of the Mind, he got some advertising professionals into his office and he pitched them a concept for them to brainstorm something and accurately predicted what they were going to brainstorm. He pulled back the curtain, then, and told the audience how he did it - he had, well, shills along the path the taxi took them from their office to his rented office, each of them with very noticeable signs and the like, knowing that they'd see them along the way - because they were so obvious - and likely incorporate them into their ads. They did. It as both eerie and fantastic.

But, here's this guy, a total scientific materialist skeptic, one willing to let people know how he does the trick, who tricked a bunch of "respected professionals" in their various paranormal fields that he had some kind of magic or psychic power! Often, their praise is elaborate, glowing, placing him as the best they've ever seen of that kind of thing.

And at no time did any of these professionals, nor anyone else with whom he dealt, openly criticize or doubt him.

All in all, absolutely fascinating because he offers a reasonable way that purely material events can cause the perception of the supernatural at the same time demonstrating it.

Which is something of a service the magician community does. Since at least the days of Harry Houdini, stage magicians have spent a fair bit of time, effort and energy throwing back the curtain on how religious, psychic, etc., "powers" are just psychology and performance. More than any other field, they blow away the clouds of obscurity from magical phenomenon. They show the the tricks are done. They do the tricks, but acknowledge that it's not magic, not supernatural powers, not psychics or aliens. Just real skills that can be learned by anyone with sufficient ability and drive - and tricks whose workings can be comprehended by anyone.

Interestingly, he doesn't accuse these people of insincerity. I think that's good to know, too. Because I don't think that they are being insincere, either. I think that even when people do start out as insincere, over time most of them teach themselves to think that this is what magic and psychic powers really are. In my own personal dealings with magicians, that is very much the case. They talk about how they're doing magic, but they're often just engaging in confidence scams - sometimes with themselves - and attributing the mundane to the supernatural. But they are sincere. They don't want to, and will not, see evidence that is contrary to their worldview.

Which, he very rightly points out, is what we all do. If I was in that room where he converted people by touch, I would have been intensely skeptical, because I think laying on hands and the like is very much just charisma and psychological manipulation of crowds (which was certainly the case with Jesus in Simon Peter), and I would be looking for the trick. And, looking, I would have seen it, how the crowds were self-selecting (people who don't have doubts about their skepticism wouldn't normally attend something like that), the people first selected I would conclude were either outright shills or people who were displaying emotional distress over what he was saying, and then once a couple of soft-targets had been used to prep the audience the mass conversion at the end would have been simple group psychology - no one there would want to openly criticize the "leader" of the group, and after you do that ridiculous falling down thing what are you going to say? How many people will really go "oh, damn, I was caught up in a sick group dynamic and totally got scammed", especially in public? Who would be willing to shame themselves thus? Few - particularly because they could easily be branded as weak hypocrites for coming out.

On the other hand, a Christian viewing the same event would likely draw the conclusion that their god was personally involved. That it was a miracle.

Which is a message I wish more people would internalize - that we're all gullible in some way.

Still, it was a nifty little show.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Whacky monarchy stories

The Internet confuses and yet amazes me at the same time. In my last post, I said that monarchy is stupid and sort of embarrassing, and I believe that's true. I also said that I consider the Dalai Lama an imposter, a monarchist who found populism only after being dethroned, which I also think is true. I had been quite a bit prepared to respond to supporters of the Dalai Lama who were offended at me pointing out his feudal past and the class-based repression of the Tibetan state before modern Chinese rule.

What I got instead was the Radical Royalist. So, instead of getting the reasonably common defense of the Dalai Lama, I got this nutjob who thinks that monarchy is preferable to democracy. I mean, WOW!

Or, as he puts it, himself, "These are troubled times, but I guess monarchists have something to say and something to offer as a possible solution for many problems that shake the world. That's why I call myself "radical royalist" because I am unashamedly in favour of a monarchy - anywhere!"

So, I will give you my FAVORITE MONARCHY STORY.

Around about 1914, the Archduke Ferdinand got assassinated by anarchists from Serbia. He was the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was basically the rump state of the Holy Roman Empire. By the early 20th century, it was also in serious decline in relative power, the wars of the late 19th century proving it to be politically, economically and militarily decadent. So great was the misrule of Austro-Hungary that there was widespread low-level civil strife throughout it, and eventually some (reasonably incompetent) anarchists managed to blow him away.

Obviously, Austria was pretty pissed about this. So, they asked Germany, ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II . . .

OK. Let me back up. Willie the Second was what is technically called "an idiot". One of his more odious habits was a deep love of dressing up in military uniforms. It was observed during his own life the reason he increased the size and power of the German Navy was because he wanted to wear an admiral's uniform. He also decided to throw out Bismarck, amongst the most brilliant (if evil) politicians of the 19th century, and all-in-all believed that he was German Emperor because of God's personal intervention, and proceeded to act as though his least whim was therefore divine. Which largely meant provoking European powers. An idiot with unimpeachable authority that was literally claimed to be divine. (Think about that the next time some Western power accuses somewhere else of being backwards - not too long ago European monarchs were claiming absolute divine authority. Maybe I'll follow this blurb up with something about Leopold II of Belgium.)

So, Franz Joseph, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, asked Willie the Second if they could attack Serbia, from where Ferdinand's assassins came. Germany, thinking it would be a brief war, said, "Sure, go ahead."

However, unbeknowns to anyone, Peter I of Bosnia - another hereditary monarch - had a deal with the Russian Czar Nicholas II. They had a secret defense pact.

OK, a brief word about Nick the Second. Also an idiot. He was a weak man ruled by his wife (I don't mean that as sexism, but kings can't afford to be ruled by anyone) who was in turn largely ruled by Rasputin who had power over the the Russian heir, Alexei, who was a hemophiliac due to aristocratic inbreeding. Rasputin seemed able to control Alexei's suffering, which endeared him to the Tzarina, who in turn had immense power over Nick the Second.

Nick the Second's misrule had, by 1914, already been clearly demonstrated through many bone-headed plays, including the Russo-Japanese War (which was deeply humiliating for Russia) and the 1905 Revolution.

So, this idiot had a secret defense treaty with Serbia, saying if Serbia was attacked that Russia would come to Serbia's aid . . .

OK. Think about that for a second. Secret self-defense pact. Now, who in their right mind makes a secret self-defense pact. What fucking good is a self-defense pact if no one knows about it?! The whole point of deterrence is that your presumptive enemies know that you've got a big stick! But, no, the idiot Nick the Second of Russia and Petey the First of Serbia decided what would be really clever was to hide the fact if you attacked Serbia you'd also be attacking Russia.

So, the Austrians attack Serbia - thinking that they'd have a jolly little war, teach those Serbs their place and be home by Christmas - but it activates the secret self-defense pact that Serbia had with Russia, which activates the treaties that Austria had with Germany, which activated the treaties that Russia had with France . . .

And now you've got World War I.

But, really, monarchy is the solution to the world's ills.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Evicting a king and ruminations about monarchy and Tibet

Gyanendra, formerly King of Nepal, has not only been stripped of his crown but been evicted from the formerly royal palace.


I think there is no such thing as a good monarchy. They range from the absurd - like the Brits have - to considerably worse, such as the House of Saud in Arabia which rules the country like a personal possession in a brutal, fundamentalist and despotic rule. In this day and age, the only good monarch is the one that actively works for the destruction. Which makes King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck of Bhutan the only decent monarch in the world. He is destroying the monarchy. Good for him. But all the rest of them range from ludicrous and decadent reminders of past brutality and excess - again, Queen of England and your ilk, I'm looking straight at you - to despots like those scattered through the Middle East.

The BBC article elaborate concern for the deposed monarch and his family. Where will former prince Paras live?! And what about former queen Ratna? WHERE WILL SHE STAY?! Golly, maybe Paras will have to go out and get a job and pay rent like everyone else! And certainly Gyanandra won't abandon his dear sweet stepmom, right? And even if Gyanandra does toss her out on her bum (possible - he's a complete and utter fucktard widely believed to have supported his brother's bloody palace coup), I mean, she'll get treated just the same as everyone else in that situation . . . which should call attention to the atrocious way Gyanandra ruled. To think otherwise is to take the absolutely absurd and morally preposterous position of thinking that a person used to luxury should be provided for it on the basis of their former wealth. Horrible things happen to poor people all the time with absolutely no comment, kick one former queen on her ass and the BBC sheds tears for you. Preposterous.

But what this mostly makes me think of is Tibet, really. Nowadays, the Dalai Lama does pretty good for himself going around talking about the injustices of the Chinese rule in Tibet. What he forgets to mention is that before he was the kindly, sainted fighter for the rights of the Tibetans he was their primary oppressor of the Tibetan people as the absolute monarch of that country. Perhaps if he'd fought for the freedom of the Tibetan people before 1950 - say in the fashion of King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck of Bhutan - I might give a fuck what this feudal monarch thinks. But it was only after he lost his own magnificent palace that he discovered the need to fight for Tibetan freedom. That really fails to impress me.

Which is not to say that there isn't race based bigotry on the part of the Chinese government. There is. It is abominable and should stop. But, hey, the Chinese didn't keep the Tibetans in feudal bondage to the land as the Dalai Lama did. Should we forgive or ignore the class based discrimination and crimes of the Dalai Lama's misrule simply because of Chinese misrule? As we all learned as children, two wrongs don't make a right.

All monarchy is bad. All. Including the Dalai Lama's. The only monarchs that aren't evil bastards are the ones actively seeking to get rid of the monarchy. Which means King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck of Bhutan. Who is pretty cool.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Proof religious people are stupid! Or at least ignorant. Well, I have a CHART.

I know, divisive title for the blog. Razib at made this post where he correlates IQ and Biblical literalism by religion, hehe. (Which I in turn got from The Friendly Atheist.) And it's not really strong proof - what it is is a simple correlation between IQ values charted to religion. I, myself, don't think that IQ tests for intelligence so much as a particular kind of education . . . so if anything, this is a measure of the education of religious people (which is, itself, of course, very interesting data).

OK, then. Granting that it's not a study, and it's not really measuring intelligence but how well the people took IQ tests, it's still pretty lovely, hehe.

Isn't that lovely? Razib is personally aware at the limitations of the chart. While the data is legitimately gotten from reputable sources, it is, in the end, just a chart, so we should remember that correlation is not causation.

However, correlation suggests causation. What IQ tests were initially intended to do is locate people inside a given society that have special needs. If Pentacostalists as a group are doing poorly on IQ tests, it is legitimate to ask why. At a guess, it isn't the religion, but their education, which is likely bad not because of their religion (tho' that might play a role in it, esp. with science education - Bible literalists are known to have some contempt for science, after all) but because of issues like poverty and social status. Indeed, it isn't precisely news that fundamentalist religion goes hand-in-hand with poor, low status groups whereas non-theism is largely amongst the best educated people with secure careers (y'know, tenured scientists).

But for me the real pleasure is just seeing it charted out how Biblical literalism is heavily correlated to outright stupidity, hehe. I have to admit.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cyborgization continues - "brain pacemakers"

Apparently, good work is being done by using "deep brain stimulation" to help some seriously depressed and obsessive-compulsive people.

I know that my own depression is not the same as the kinds of depression this device works on - severe depression is the realms of utter madness, often including delusions and hallucinations, and is utterly crippling. It is ghastly. So, knowing that, even I can't help but feel some real joy at the notion that work is being done that can successfully treat depression as a purely material problem. (Because it is, of course. The "mind/body problem" is only a problem if you think there's a difference between your mind and your body. Which there isn't. "Mind/body problem" makes as much sense as "heart/body problem". Your mind is part of your body, located primarily in your brain. Duh.)

Of course, what particularly fascinates me about this is that it's a mechanical, electronic solution. You stick some wires in your head and, zap, 4 out of 6 severe patients feel better.

It makes me wonder when someone will say to themself, "Self, if it works for them, might it not work for me. Oh, I know that I don't suffer depression, but if it helps my mood, makes me feel happier, be more productive, allows me to more fully express the person I want to be, why not?" then I'll be particularly fascinated. (People already do this with mood medication; taking anti-depressants as "mood brighteners". I should note I'm mostly for this. What's wrong with people being in good moods?)

But we're all on the verge of becoming literal cyborgs. I find all of this very fascinating and await all of this with bated breath.

For the most part, I will add, I don't think that this will lead to some dystopian future with people being modified or drug addicted to become the mindless drones of the state. The reasons for this are two:

1. In the end, humans will prove more useful if they are allowed to pursue their interests where it leads them. Since machines are taking over all our physical and even some of our intellectual labor, creative labor is about all we've got left as we begin this new period. Enslaving people through these techniques would be a disaster, good for no one.

2. The techniques, themselves, will lead those who use them to benevolent conclusions. I have long wondered how much of human civilization has been the results of literally madness - how many lawmakers have been mentally ill, and how has that effected our society? I think quite a bit. (I also think that since the average life expectancy of early civilizations was about 18 years old that civilization was created by teenage boys - and shows it.) I believe that clarity of thought makes it intellectually and emotionally difficult for tyrants to be tyrants. The cruelty and stupidity of what they are doing will be clear, not only to themselves, but others, because of people's intellectual clarity.

Conservapedia YouTube vid and general comments

More about Conservapedia! Here's a lovely YouTube video of Andy Schlafly and a member of his "world history class" that created Conservapedia going on about the project:

Great video. I love it, hehe. What I love the most about it are the pans of the kids in Schlafly's home schooling class. Not only are no minorities represented, I don't think I saw a single kid who was so much as dark haired. No kidding! I was spooked by the way these kids looked like recruitment posters for racial purity. They weren't just white, they were pale.

The other thing that struck me is how there's an automatic equation between conservative Christian beliefs and real truth. Again and again, they talk about a liberal bias while frankly saying that Conservapedia is from the point of view of fundie Christians. To them, that's not bias. That's truth. Fundie Christian bias is truth to them.

One of the things in particular I found amusing is when the young woman that served as the mouthpiece of the students said that one of the reasons they founded Conservapedia was because they couldn't go edit Wikipedia's evolution article to talk about creationism and intelligent design. What I found funny is that Wikipedia's portal about creationism is vastly superior to Conservapedia's rather anemic article about the same subject. Conservapedia, as a source of information even about what is their stated reason to exist is far inferior than Wikipedia's articles about the same subject matter. If you want to learn about creationism, you're much better off going to Wikipedia than Conservapedia. I doubt that they'll grasp the irony there.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Conservapedia article of the year is atheism!

Woo woo! The Conservapedia article of the year is their article on atheism!

It is, of course, a totally dismal article. The larger part of it is actually debunking atheism, saying everything from that atheists are fascists to saying we have worse health than people who believe in religion. The list of reasons why atheists are atheists is fascinating, itself:

* Rebellion: Atheism stems from a deliberate choice to ignore the reality of God's existence.
* Moral depravity: Moral depravity has been demonstrated in the atheist community through history and through various studies. The Bible asserts that "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good." (Psalms 14:1 (KJV)). The biblical fool is said to be lacking in sound judgment and the biblical fool is also associated with moral depravity. For example, the biblical book of Proverbs states: "A wise man is cautious and turns away from evil, But a fool is arrogant and careless. A quick-tempered man acts foolishly, And a man of evil devices is hated. The naive inherit foolishness, But the sensible are crowned with knowledge."(Proverbs 14:16-18 (NASB)). The book of Proverbs also has strong words regarding the depravity of biblical fools: "The desire accomplished is sweet to the soul: but [it is] abomination to fools to depart from evil." (Proverbs 13:9 (KJV)). Regarding the deceitfulness of fools Proverbs states: "The wisdom of the sensible is to understand his way, But the foolishness of fools is deceit." (Proverbs 14:8 (KJV)). Noted Bible commentator and clergyman Matthew Henry wrote regarding atheism: "A man that is endued with the powers of reason, by which he is capable of knowing, serving, glorifying, and enjoying his Maker, and yet lives without God in the world, is certainly the most despicable and the most miserable animal under the sun."
* Superficiality: Noted ex-atheist and psychologist Dr. Paul Vitz has stated that he had superficial reasons for becoming an atheist such as the desire to be accepted by his Stanford professors who were united in disbelief regarding God.
* Error: Some argue that atheism partly stems from a failure to fairly and judiciously consider the facts.
* State churches: Rates of atheism are much higher in countries with a state sanctioned religion (such as many European countries), and lower in states without a sanctioned religion (such as the United States). Some argue this is because state churches become bloated, corrupt, and/or out of touch with the religious intuitions of the population, while churches independent of the state are leaner and more adaptable. It is important to distinguish "state-sanctioned churches," where participation is voluntary, from "state-mandated churches" (such as Saudi Arabia) with much lower atheism rates because publicly admitted atheism is punishable by death.
* Poor relationship with father: Some argue that a troubled/non-existent relationship with a father may influence one towards holding the position of atheism. Dr. Paul Vitz wrote a book entitled Faith of the Fatherless in which he points out that after studying the lives of more than a dozen leading atheists he found that a large majority of them had a father who was present but weak, present but abusive, or absent. Dr. Vitz also examined the lives of prominent theists who were contemporaneous to their atheist counterparts and from the same culture and in every instance these prominent theists had a good relationship with his father. Dr. Vitz has also stated other common factors he observed in the leading atheists he profiled: they were all intelligent and arrogant.
* Division in religion: According to Francis Bacon, atheism is caused by "divisions in religion, if they be many; for any one main division addeth zeal to both sides, but many divisions introduce atheism."
* Learned times, peace, and prosperity: Francis Bacon argued that atheism was partly caused by "Learned times, specially with peace and prosperity; for troubles and adversities do more bow men’s minds to religion."
* Negative experiences with theists.
* The advance of scientific knowledge: Science has in many ways become a new God.

I mean . . . wow. And the whole article is like that - just filled with a great and directed anger towards atheists. I am serious when they compare atheists to Hitler, literally Hitler, saying we're mentally ill, etc., etc., but I think this list of reasons - taken straight from their site - does a good job of nailing on the head what they think of atheists. Atheists are morally depraved, or have had bad relationships with our fathers (just our fathers? having a shitty mom doesn't make one an atheist?).

But, really, my favorite is that education, peace and prosperity are one of their factors leading to atheism, hehe. I love that one. I mean, there's some truth to it (but just some, the growth of atheism in Europe was vastly facilitated by the World Wars - many Europeans rejected god because of the horrors of those wars, feeling that no god could allow such terrible things to happen), in terms of education in particular. Education allows one to see all the stupidity of religion, yes. But nested with all the rest, all those hideously insulting, superficial reasons, that one shines out because I think that they put it in there like they put in all the others, as a sly, anti-intellectual barb - and don't understand how they saying that poverty, war and ignorance are the causes of religion is high praise to atheists.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Laughing a bit at religious homophobic, racism and sexism - also warning labels on the Bible and Koran

Recently, I was contacted by some people who have a neat little video that makes fun of religious sexism, racism and homophobia:

It's a fun little song - in French, but it has English subtitles - that brings up the serious and very real point about how morally backwards the Bible and Koran are, but does it with humor and is a nice little ditty. Everyone should watch it. Pertutti wants their names out there, so I'm gonna give a little help. ;)

The people who made the video are also suing people, initially in France but now more broadly, to put warning labels on the Bible and the Koran for it's racist, sexist and homophobic content. I love the idea of that, because I believe that religious works (and organizations) should be treated like any other work (or organization). There is nothing special about these books, or these organizations, and I think it's bad for governments to accord them special privileges. They should be held to the same standards that any other human work or enterprise is held. I think that's obvious. So I'm fascinated and glad that people are working to remove the special status of religions. Anyway, here's a video (also in French with English subs) about their attempt to sue the French government to get warning labels put on the Bible and Koran:

From letters with the makers of the video and subjects of the news story, I was told that the case was dismissed in France because the plaintiffs were ruled not to have legal standing ("because it should have been done by a group who considered being globally discriminated by the books, like homosexuals for instance") which is one of the standard legal tricks that governments use when they don't want to deal with a sticky issue like this. It has the air of a stupid procedural rule being used to avoid what would certainly be a contentious issue. On the good side, it's at the European Court of Human Rights and some people have come forth to possibly resubmit the case in France with legal standing of the globally discriminated groups.

They're also writing "le livre athée", an atheist's book, to lay out the case for atheism in clear and accessible language. I fully support that kind of project as well. A big problem, I feel, with atheism is that it is not particularly gentle to people without fairly traditional advanced educations. Atheists often have trouble speaking to people who aren't college educated, so a clear and simple book about the subject I think is a very good idea.

So, take a look at the things Pertutti is doing! :)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Liberals and Guns

My blog is verging on becoming a political blog! Oh, no! I'll write about something different soon, I promise, hehe. But I'm using this journal to vent some frustration, and, hey, it's not like anyone actually reads it, except for a few Europeans. ;)

One of the reasons I can't identify as a liberal is that, well, they're not very liberal. Take this "liberal" posting about why gun restrictions are bad. In my experience, this is pretty much the standard American liberal line about firearms - that, y'know, because most gun owners never blow anyone's head off, it's OK to ignore it when other gun owners do blow someone's head off. Because, okay, the quote is too good: "Guns are a tool, like anything, can be used to harm….or they can be used for fun, like most gun-users do."

For fun.

Around 10,000 people a year in the USA are murdered with firearms. That's 68% of all murders, not to mention 42% of all robberies and 22% of the assaults in the US involved guns. About 16,000 people a year kill themselves with guns. There are around 40,000 firearms injuries per year where hospitalization was sought. There are over half a million crimes a year committed with guns. A gun is eleven times more likely to be used in a suicide or suicide attempt than home defense!

But the justification is that guns are fun. And on the strength that people like guns, we are justified in turning our eye away from the 26,000 people a year who die because of guns, the forty-thousand who are seriously injured with guns, and the hundreds of thousands of gun-related crimes committed each year.

I have difficulty expressing how morally vacant I find that argument. I prefer the conservative argument, for even tho' I don't agree with it, and I think it is ignorant, it is not wholly morally vacant. To say that we need guns to kick the government's ass if it becomes tyrannical is a little crazy, but not morally vacant given that governments do become tyrannical. But the argument that guns are fun, or cool, or whatever, is so blindingly empty, so vile and backwards and stupid that I have trouble imagining how an intelligent person could hold to such an evil idea. It baffles me.

Additional Comment: One of the "guns are cool" group on the post that spurred my post has gone on to say how we should boycott bananas because of how awful and destructive United Fruit (aka Chiquita) is.

So, we should stop eating bananas because United Fruit is a horrible corporation but it's okay to supports the arms industry. Because "guns are cool". At least bananas are healthy. Oh, I think she's got a point about United Fruit - it is a horrible company, without doubt, but at least the product that United Fruit produces, bananas, are actually good for people.

I mean, how can you support firearms, the fucking arms industry, the death merchants and then criticize any other corporate entity for being horrible? And do support the most murderous - overtly, literally murderous and literally war mongers - group of corporations on earth and then get your knickers in a twist over bananas?

The piece de la resistance is, of course, that United Fruit's horrible policies would be impossible without the arms industry - the arms industry makes oppression possible. So, y'know, don't eat the banana, but support the company that makes the oppression of the farmers who grow the bananas possible.

It's insane.

Friday, May 23, 2008

"Buy this car and I'll throw in a FREE PISTOL!"

Max Motors in Butler, Missouri, have decided to give away a handgun with every car purchase. And it's all Barack Obama's fault, or at least that's what owner Mark Mueller says: "He said all those people in the Midwest, you've got to have compassion for them because they're clinging to their guns and their Bibles. I found that quite offensive. We all go to church on Sunday and we all carry guns."

I mean, let us ignore the fact that this sorta demonstrates Obama's point. But, man, am I the only person who finds handing out pistols with cars is kind of like handing out quarts of Jack Daniels with cars?

Mark suggests a Kel-Tec .380 pistol, which he describes as "a nice little handgun that fits in your pocket". Because, you know, what a great idea! A gun that fits in your pocket! Because, you know, needing a pistol in your pocket at all times is not clinging to your guns because of your ignorance.

Missouri has the 14th highest murder rate in the Union, which is the 27% percentile for murder. Good going, guys! Exactly what a state like Missouri needs, more people carrying guns in their pockets.

The depths of this irresponsibility stagger me. Unlike Obama, I don't think that they should be pitied. I think they should be stopped. Before they kill again.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

One of the key differences between the Republicans and Democrats

The Louisiana legislature is going to cripple the teaching of evolution. Not exactly a thrilling story in modern America - I mean, shocker, some Deep South state government is pissing in the face of science education and separation of church and state. Who knew? Oh, right, anyone conscious. For me, while tragic, and obviously everyone should do everything they can to stop this kind of nonsense from happening, it is a reason to reflect on one of the biggest differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Here it is: Republicans don't give up. Let me repeat that: Republicans don't give up.

Democrats, on the other hand, do.

I reflect on this because, I mean, I'm going to bring up three words that no one had heard of in years, and some of you perhaps never: Equal Rights Amendment. The amendment was simple - to guarantee all Americans equal rights regardless of race or gender, and giving Congress the power to make laws to insure this. It wasn't ever ratified, and it is dutifully reintroduced - in a purely symbolic way - every year since '82, but I can't remember the last time that someone actually talked about it.

On the other hand, the Republicans are fighting, still fighting, the Scopes Monkey Trial - and that was in 1925. They're still fighting the New Deal. They're still fighting Roe v. Wade. I can't think of a single issue that the Democrats have fought for like the Republicans have fought on those three issues. Year after year, they just haven't given up. They have this view of the way the world should work, and they fight for it. Tirelessly. Relentlessly. Without cease.

Because the Democrats, who routinely mistake compromise for appeasement, do give up fighting for things like the New Deal (much less the Great Society), the ERA and for the progressive humanism of government, the debate can be controlled by the Republicans and conservatives. Because they do teach their children, and their children's children, that destroying the New Deal, secular education, civil rights, etc., are the highest political values. Even when the Democrats have been right, they . . . have given up.

Which is probably why I'm not a Democrat (oh, god, I'm not a Republican, either!). Even when they've been right, rather than tirelessly fighting for what is right, they've allowed "political expediency" to shape their politics and policy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Witches burned in Kenya

Apparently, a province in Western Kenya has been burning witches. Eleven of them, even.

The odd thing I find about this story is that the religion of the witch burners isn't discussed. All the time, and I think we've all had this experience, whenever something terrible happens in a Muslim country the news is very quick to point out the religion of the perps. But here we have a shocking, religiously motivated crime that happens in a Christian country - about 70% of Kenyans are Christian, meaning that Kenya is roughly as Christian as the United States (and Kisii, itself, seems to be dominated by Catholics and 7th Day Adventists) - the religion of the perpetrators isn't mentioned.

Of course, this happens all the time. Christians perpetrate vile offenses, often quite a bit religiously motivated, but their religion isn't discussed. Whereas with Muslims, even when their religion is only tangential to the deeds, is often discussed. In this fashion, the media is perpetrating a lot of discrimination and bigotry against Muslims, allowing people who read the news to easily infer (so easily that I can't believe it's unintentional) that Muslims are far more crime prone than their Christian neighbors. Given the heightened state of cultural tensions between Christians and Muslims (even ignoring the war in Iraq, which obviously has religious connotations - Bush is an evangelical fundamentalist who has explicitly said that his god urged him into this war against an overwhelmingly Islamic nation), the racism and/or irresponsibility of the media makes me pretty pissed off.

Monday, May 19, 2008

My favorite "not a gang" - the CIA

My favorite "not a gang" is definitely the CIA. In 1996, a San Jose Mercury News reporter by the name of Gary Webb wrote an expose of the CIA using Nicaraguan contras to run drugs into Southern California in order to fund CIA activities in Nicaragua. Yes, you read that right - the CIA were drug runners. They did this because their funding for Nicaraguan black ops had been defunded but it was a priority of the Reagan administration to support the Contras. Very ugly, very nasty stuff.

Gary Webb's career was destroyed. He was called a conspiracy theory nutjob. He couldn't get work. In 2004, he committed suicide after deep depression stemming from, in part, how his work was viciously attacked and he was forced out of a job.

However, eventually, almost every conclusion that Webb reported about was found to be correct by the CIA Inspector General Fredrick Hitz. The Hitz report talks about how the CIA protected over 50 Contra drug dealers who sold crack cocaine in Southern California and how money from these drug deals were laundered and used by the CIA for their illegal Nicaraguan operations. Rep. Maxine Walters had entered into the Congressional Record a memorandum of understanding between the CIA and Justice Department where the Justice Department said the CIA would be free of any legal culpability arising from their drug trafficking operations - the mechanism through which the CIA was able to protect those Nicaraguan drug dealers. Pretty much everything Gary Webb said about the CIA drug dealing was correct - but his career was still destroyed.

However, it is without a doubt that the CIA was one of the biggest crack cocaine distribution gangs in the 80s, their drugs and money fueling not only war in Nicaragua but also in the streets of LA and my hometown, Las Vegas, as gang wars spilled over into neighboring communities.

Interesting to note, too, that out of these investigations, absolutely no indictments were handed down, much less trials and jail time for the CIA gangsters that distributed massive quantities of crack cocaine to Southern California.

I suspect in the not too distant future, we're going to learn a lot about the CIA's activities in Afghanistan concerning heroin. Because no serious accounting has been done to find and persecute the drug dealers of the 80s (or how Air America - the CIA's air program during the Vietnam War - was used to smuggle heroin out of Southeast Asia in the 60s and 70s), I think anyone who doubts that the CIA isn't smuggling black tar out of Afghanistan right now is being intensely naive. It's almost impossible to find a conflict in the past 50 years where the CIA has been involved where they haven't smuggled drugs.

Definition of gangster

Now, I've been reading a fair bit about gangsters in the United States because I'm going to write what is more and more becoming a psychohistorical fiction than a straight up crime novel. Or maybe I'm just being a pretentious ass about that. But in doing the investigation I've really come to the conclusion that the term "gangster" is deeply racist.

You'd think that it wouldn't be, that any person in a gang would be a gangster. I mean, I will right here acknowledge the definition of a gang is a pretty blurry concept in a lot of areas. Many "legitimate businessmen" are involved with "gangsters" and many "gangsters" own "legitimate businesses".

It's part of every MBA grad school in America that you have an outside man - a person not formally connected with your business that can do the things you can't do in order to help your business. So, when a "legitimate businessman" uses an outside man (say, a ruthlessly unscrupulous private investigator) to dig up dirty on a business rival and drops evidence that could ruin that person's life or marriage off to that person with unstated hints about accepting the business deal - that's just business, right? I mean, no joke, that's a standard business practice. Perhaps its legality is tenuous, but how is that any different than a couple of gorillas going into a place of business and saying that the owner should take out an insurance policy because it would be terrible if there was a fire in his nice store. And that's not even talking about the specific connections that people in a great many businesses need to have in order to get things done. In Las Vegas, where I'm from, all the big owners of all the big casinos, and definitely all the owners of the little casinos, have connections with a number of organized crime figures. Yet . . . those businessmen aren't ever called gangsters, despite for decades working hand in glove with "gangsters" - helping them to steal billions of dollars.

So, all the time these books will focus on people with Italian or Jewish names as the gangsters, but the people with the Anglo names that are equally part of the criminal activity won't be called that. Indeed, I can't think of a single "Anglo gang" - gangsterism in America seems to be defined by some sort of ethnic identity. You can have an Italian gang, or a Jewish gang, or a black gang, but a non-ethnically identified white gang? Nope. It doesn't happen. White kids don't do organized crime. When they behave the same way as gangsters, it's just called business.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Researching a new book, gangsters and anecdote

I am doing research for a new novel I'll be writing, and since it'll be set in Las Vegas and deals with Vegas' gangsters, I'm reading a lot about gangsters. Mostly what I've learned about gangsters is all their spiel about honor and stuff is nonsense. Even "made men" are generally, in the fullness of time, killed by other gangsters.

The other thing I'm learning is the definition of gangster is pretty narrowly defined to include some crooks and not others. So, when reading about the legendary skim at the Stardust Hotel, Lefty Rosenthal and, of course, Tony Spilotro are ID'd as gangsters, but all of the guys with Anglo-Germanic names aren't - including, y'know, the people who created, maintained and used the machines that allowed the skim to occur. I know some of the reasons behind this must be because the Italian and (to a lesser extent) Jewish mobsters had fairly elaborate rituals and formal organizational structures, whereas other gangsters equally organized didn't have all the ritualism or formality of organization. Some of it also has to do, of course, with the sensantionalization of Italian and Italian-American gangsters in Hollywood, but it seems that many writers in many ways define gangster to exclude a . . . lot of violent Anglo-American crooks.

Still, a lot of the stories are so much fun. Take this one: in 1951, Estes Kefauver went after organized crime, particularly illegal gambling, in televised Senate hearings. At one point, he had Virginia Hill on the stand. Virginia Hill had been the main squeeze of the then-deceased Ben "Bugsy" Siegel, largely considered the person to have brought modern casino gambling to Las Vegas.

Hill's income at the time was, uh, in the form of gifts by rich men, a Chicago physician, a couple of New York gangsters, Ben Siegel when he was alive, a Mexican millionaire, a concert violinist, all of whom were giving her money.

Kefauver asked her, "How come that's the case, Miss Hill?"

Hill: "Senator, are you sure you want to know why these men give me money?"

Kefauver: "Of course I want to know, Miss Hill."

Hill: "Senator, they give me money because I'm the best damn cocksucker in the United States!"

The answer knocked the toupee off of one of the Senators. It was televised live on TV, all the three big national channels. Classic!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Continued cyborgization of athletics!

Apparently, Japan's Olympic swimmers were in an uproar because of bathing suits. Speedo has something called an LZR Racer swim suit. Since the LZR's launch, 29 swimming records have been broken, and twenty-eight of those records had people wearing the LZR. Japanese swimmers must use Japanese products, so they were pissed off about this, likening using the LZR to doping. The LZR was developed, in part, by NASA's advanced materials division.

Of course, trying to beat Japan with technology is askin' for a smackdown, so now Yamamoto Corp. has created what they say is an even faster swimsuit. Just in time for the Olympics, so Japanese swimmers can glide exclusively to victory!

The cyborg aspect is, of course, that the high-tech suits serve as a second, almost frictionless skin. Everywhere the swimmer's body propelling a swimmer serves as drag to slow them down. Reduce drag and you get a faster swimmer!

Now, none of this has anything to do with the athletes. The quality of the athletes is now less in question than the clothing they wear. To break records, swimmers now need super-slick bathing suits.

Which, of course, makes me wonder when the concept of physical sports will go away entirely. The shoes you wear, the clothing you wear, whether or not you have mechanical feet - all these things are technological developments, not training and exercise developments. I wonder how long it will be before we're forced to acknowledge that we are, as a whole, more interested in the technology than the athletes, in the swimsuits and not the swimmers.

If I had a billion dollars, I might think about that sort of thing. Leagues where I don't care if you dope, or use shoes that make you jump higher and faster, and just focus on creating the most kinetic athletic entertainment experience possible. Like pro-wrestling with gadgets!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Atheists and the argument of epistemological uncertainty

Fairly often, I come across some atheist who rubs me the wrong way because I am sure there is no god and then says, tut tut, dear fellow, you can't be epistemologically certain about anything, therefore you can't really say there's no god. I hate that argument. It's so silly!

While I acknowledge epistemological uncertainty in this life, everyone I know makes pretty absolute statements. They say "the earth exists". They will also say "Batman doesn't exist". Which is the more interesting point for me. Because . . . how do they know? Have the really scoured the entire universe and checked every possible place Batman might exist? No. Because there is a sufficiently compelling narrative to explain the existence of stories about Batman without having to search everywhere in the universe. The same is true with god - we have compelling historical, sociological, psychological and archeological evidence about the creation of religion all over the earth. We know the process, have seen the process happen again and again, through which religion is created, we know much about the historical events around the creation of all major religions which fit into this pattern. We all these powerful and consistent facts that explain everything about the development of religion - include the idea of god - that fit in with the broader tapestry of human knowledge. But then what we're expected to do is ignore all of this human knowledge because of a smidge of epistemological uncertainty.

And, almost always, because these people are unbelievers, they do not actually believe in any god enough to be religious in any sense. So, I often bring my brows together with confusion. If they don't believe in any god enough to act on this knowledge, where is their claim to believe in the possibility of this god? Because, y'know, if you admit to the possibility of god, then Pascal's wager makes quite a bit of sense. Sure, maybe the Christian (or whatever other god you might choose) might not exist, but maybe they will, and you really improve your odds of not burning in hell or whatever from nothing to "a slim chance you chose right". But yet there they go, living their atheistic lives without the possibility of god's existence entering their mind when choosing a choice of behavior. Except to annoy other atheists who are just a fraction of a percent more certain than they are about the non-existence of a god.

So, perhaps it is more ultimately accurate for me to say I don't believe in a god to the limits of epistemological certainty. But that seems cumbersome. In normal speech, I just don't believe in god and think that quibbling about arguing about the limits of epistemological certainty is generally quite a bit off target - especially coming from admitted non-believers!

Interestingly, this is the argument that religious people, themselves, often use. They'll try to say the epistemological uncertainty about the origin of the universe, for instance, justifies belief in god and then improperly generalize that to mean their god. This is, of course, the god of the gaps, which is a intellectually cowardly and insupportable notion. But it is to be expected from religious people - it's when atheists admit to the possibility of a god because of those gaps that make my eyebrows knit together.