Sunday, November 7, 2010

Vampires rejoice - Blood created from human skin!

Too late for Hallowe'en, but not a moment too soon for vampires (and their victims), a Canadian university has been able to create blood from human skin.

CBC news reports
Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton report that they converted patches of skin directly into blood. Their process doesn't involve any intermediate conversion of skin stem cells into multi-purpose stem cells that can create almost any other type of cells.
"We have shown this works using human skin. We know how it works and believe we can even improve on the process," stated Mick Bhatia, scientific director of McMaster's Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute. "We'll now go on to work on developing other types of human cell types from skin, as we already have encouraging evidence."
The process was repeated several times over a two-year period and was conducted using skin cells from people of various ages.
Here's the sort of story that can capture the public's imagination about science-whether through a vampire tale, or the knowledge that a loved one requiring regular blood transfusions now has more options. It's also a step toward creating other cells-all knowledge that can be linked back to evolution and the scientific method.

(And it's a verifiable type of "transubstantiation", not like the catholic kind that can't be proven and relies on outdated aristotelian metaphysics for its definition-Science 1 catholicism -2 )

 That leaves science doing "miracles', healing people and making a better world, while religion tries to talk a good game.

Fail religion.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

We can think (and sing) such messed up things if we add god to the mix.

Yesterday I heard Pearl Jam's version of "Last Kiss":

While I had always liked the song, I found myself bothered by the lyrics:
Oh, where oh where can my baby be?
The Lord took her away from me
She's gone to heaven, so I got to be good
So I can see my baby when I leave this world.
While I don't believe the original songwriter was trying to make a theological statement, I think it shows how deluded we can be as a society that accepted the idea of a murdering god who holds people hostage with the threat of no reunion to their loved ones .

If the singer had written about lovers eating one another, or murdering puppies, or torturing people in their basement, there would have been an outcry to ban the song from the radio. Put the gun in god's hand and let him turn the thumbscrews on the survivor and it's considered a lovely sentiment of true christian love.

It boggles the mind.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Swiss Catholics split over condoms

Catholics in Lucerne started handing out condoms as part of an AIDS awareness campaign, provoking mixed reactions from other catholics. According to the New Zealand Herald, the campaign is focused on raising awareness:

"We needed something to appeal to people who wouldn't dream of talking to the church about that kind of issue," said spokesman Florian Flohr.
The campaign is targeted at those as young as 14 and includes talks in schools about the devastating effect Aids is having in Africa.
"It's not about promoting promiscuous activity. We're using the condoms to prompt people to think about HIV and Aids."
As one might expect, other catholics see it differently:
Officials in the diocese of Basel, of which Lucerne is a part, didn't respond to requests for comment, but a spokesman in the neighbouring Church was quoted by Swiss TV as describing the condom campaign as a mistake.
"It sends the wrong signal," Christoph Casetti told SF1. "From a medical point of view, I also think it's wrong because we know condoms don't provide certain protection."
Vatican officials also repeated the same tired answers.

While the catholics giving out condoms still saw them as linked to promiscuity instead of mature and safe sexual activity, they have at least raised their standard of care for others to the point where causing unnecessary risk through non-use of condoms is unacceptable. It is progress, and if it provokes a debate in the church, that will also prompt more people to question and reconsider dogma.

And help save lives.

Proof against Intelligent Design: The 80's

Would an all-powerful and all-knowing deity have built his greatest creation in his image and provided it with the cognitive ability and natural resources to create technology and capture information to share worldwide so that we could fulfill his plan for us by producing this:

I love the silly quirks that define the 80's and enjoy both Tracey Ulman and the song "Breakaway", but even the most diehard IDer can't explain the existence of silliness. With design, purpose, destiny and god's will, there's no place in the ID cosmology for it.

Nontheists don't have to explain away silly-given that our mental software has been developed "on-the-fly" to meet needs as they arose, it makes perfect sense that it produces thoughts and actions that are "out there".

Think of it as error checking or a self-diagnostic-as long as silliness is still silly to you, the mental mechanism is working properly. It's only when silliness makes you angry or intolerant that you've likely gotten a defective meme in your head (like religion) that needs to be flushed. South Park anyone?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The incredible world of Diminished Reality

Making objects in a video disappear in real time-this is going to require a whole new level of skepticism. Amazing nonetheless.


Brother Andre's greatest deed-removing his followers' hands off the kiddies

45,000 Montréalais celebrated Brother Andre for building St. Joseph's Oratory; for miracles attributed to him and for being made a saint by the catholic church. According to an article in the NY Times he should have been celebrated for showing more decency and self control than the brothers who came after him:

MONTREAL — At least 50,000 Quebecers are expected to gather Saturday for something most rarely do: attend a religious service. But the Mass at the Olympic Stadium to celebrate the elevation of Brother André, a school porter and faith healer who died 73 years ago, to sainthood is one of many contradictions surrounding religion, and Roman Catholicism in particular, in Quebec.

But amid the celebrations over Brother André’s canonization — which took place this month in Rome — another issue looms. The police have opened an investigation into accusations of widespread sexual abuse of students at the Collège Notre Dame decades after Brother André worked there. These, to a large degree, have been advanced by a former member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the order to which Brother André belonged and that controls the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

The article goes on to explain the lack of response to the accusations over a number of years and that only with the recent attention paid to Andre have investigations begun. Now if those brothers who performed the abuse get prosecuted and punished in spite of pro-catholic bias and a tendency toward cover ups in Quebec, then Brother Andre should get credit for this "miracle," his greatest and most helpful act to catholics in la belle province.

The 100 best signs at the rally to restore sanity

I wasn't able to attend The Rally to Restore Sanity, but these signs made me almost feel like I had. Some really brilliant stuff. (via buzzfeed)

Couple called 'swine' by wedding officiant

The Toronto Sun article explains that a Swiss couple renewing their vows got "counselling" as well.
The unidentified Swiss couple were renewing their vows at the Vilu Reef resort as the officiant calls the couple "swine" and "infidels".
Here's a news clip with part of the video-the rest doesn't deserve to be rebroadcast:

Yet another example of religion's attitude to marriage when those involved don't conform to the religion's rules. Whether it's the gender of the couple or their diet and prayer choices, religion gives itself a free pass to incite intolerance and mockery of others.

If this keeps up societies should give serious thought to putting religious practitioners on "time out" and suspending their opportunity to have their marriages recognized by the state until they can respect the marriages of others.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Thank Goodness we don't live in a christian society

This scary thought came to me re-reading Dan Dennett's essay "Thank Goodness". He makes the point (among others) that the medical practitioners that saved his life would be fired if they conducted themselves in the same way as the religious do. Instead they hold themselves to the highest standards of performance and take responsibility for the outcomes of their patients.

I've currently got a suspension problem that seems impervious to a mechanic's diagnosis and I thought about the sort of responses I'd receive if we had a truly christian society.

The catholic mechanic would tell me that the suffering was making me a better person, would reduce my time in purgatory if I accepted to gratefully and that like my time in purgatory that I should stop dwelling on how long it was taking to fix the car and instead focus on the end result-oh, and would I indulge him by paying one more shop charge?

The pentecostal mechanic would tell me that the whole garage had laid hands on the car and prayed in tongues for it to be delivered from that "swaying spirit" and that if it was still happening a) I needed to have more faith and b) there was unconfessed sin in my life that was keeping me from dealing with a).

The reformed mechanic would tell me that my car had been predestined to have this problem and that nothing could be done about it. The repair manuals only apply to those cars that god has chosen to fix, not mine.

Finally the unitarian universalist mechanic would tell me I needed to be more tolerant of my car's "differences" and to be less dogmatic about its performance. Then she would ask if I had considered whether I might prefer an imported car better.

Fortunately, I am served by mechanics who approach their craft from an entirely secular mindset, taking responsibility upon themselves to inspect, diagnose and repair the car properly, and who have not charged me because they've been unable to find the problem. I know they are capable from past experience and I know they will fix it-and I will thank them for it.

Blasphemy Day is gone and Thanksgiving is now approaching (we Canadians get to enjoy it in just 2 weeks) so let's move from ridiculing religious belief to expressing a hearty "Thank Goodness" that religion doesn't have more influence in people's lives. Living in a world such as the one Dennett and I have envisioned would indeed be hell.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Was Hitler a catholic?

 Everyone agrees that Hitler was baptized catholic. No debate there. Where the friction begins is when everyone starts to hot potato him later in life. Catholics don't want him, atheists don't claim him, pagans shun him, what's a fuhrer to do?

Let's see what the vatican says about people who've been baptized into the catholic church:

7. It remains clear, in any event, that the sacramental bond of belonging to the Body of Christ that is the Church,  conferred by the baptismal character, is an ontological and permanent bond which is not lost  by reason of any act or fact of defection.

This document, which discusses the process by which people can formally defect from the catholic church, clearly states that the church believes that one who has been baptized is always a catholic-no matter how badly they act as a catholic.

So those catholics who have been trying to foist off poor Hitler on the atheists don't know the rules of their own church.

Sorry Benny and Bill Donohue, but he's your problem to deal with.

Good luck with that.

Should we be Sillier than Angrier?

I'm still amazed at how the Comic-Con protest totally removed attention from Fred Phelps and the WBC by reinventing the protest as something fun and silly.

Thusfar, nontheists have tried being angry during the papal visit to the UK (and I must admit that the footdragging with abuse-complicit bishops in Ireland, claiming to be shocked by abuse when he was in charge of the Vatican office tasked with cleaning up abuse for over 5 years, and the everyday sexism, discrimination, triumphalism and guilt inducement that go with catholicism has irked me as well).

Perhaps we should apply the lessons of Comic-Con to catholicism. By angrily protesting the pope and the vatican perhaps we give them a respect and status they no longer deserve-using blowdryers to de-baptize nontheists was a good first start at a different approach, but what if we parodied and created satire of the entire catholic infrastructure?

Imagine satirical "confessions" and Neapolitan wafers instead of Roman ones (loved those when I was a kid)

Imagine Jedi encyclicals and pirate encyclicals and ninja encyclicals (we'll let the vatican continue to be the only distributor of the aptly named papal bull) all providing reasonable thoughts on life-or silly flights of fancy.

The catholic church has spent billions and lied continuously to try to maintain its public image-satire and parody could erode it faster than angry screeds (that's how they are portrayed to the faithful and undecided) ever did. Even the most devout catholics chuckled a bit at the vatican rag when it came out. (and then promptly went to confession for it)

So next time the pope leaves you incredulous, consider a satirical response and see if we don't start to get more traction in the court of public opinion.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

fyi to Christine O'Donnell: No Wanky Made Jesus Cranky

 The anti-masturbation video of Christine O'Donnell has garnered lots of media attention and she has even admitted to some lapses in purity during college. So let's look at someone who followed her prescription for purity perfectly to see how it affected him.

According to O'Donnell, Jesus doesn't like masturbation, so being perfect, he never would have done so while on earth. Let's look at some of the loving things that came out of his mouth:

John 2 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
 Matthew 21 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered.
 Matthew 23 27 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean."
Luke 1426 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his faher and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple."
 Matthew 24 7 "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.
9 Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other"
 As you can see from this small sample of quotes, the longer Jesus lived the angrier and more frustrated he got. His hands even needed to be restrained at one point. So the wank-free life isn't all Ms.O'Donnell makes it out to be-remember that when people like her ask to be given authority over the military, health care, spending to help the poor, etc.

Do you really want people who are potentially that frustrated and bitter in charge of keeping the rest of us happy, healthy and safe?

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Pod People Finally Got Him :(

Body Snatchers actor Kevin McCarthy dies

Conspiracy theorists everywhere are mourning (and speculating) on the death of Kevin McCarthy, the "hero" of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. His highway dash to warn people about the alien menace was referenced in Seinfeld, The Simpsons and Big Bang Theory among others.

It was a great campy movie to watch with friends and he should be recognized for contributing to American pop culture (but not in any way that will get noticed when the actual alien takeover happens). An example of the undying human will to live and an example to all Humanists (who typically follow his example of resisting sleep as long as possible) I hope he was aware of our enjoyment and gratitude while he was alive.

*note to self* rewatch movie with friends on weekend I don't need sleep.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thoughts on "Burn a Koran Day"

No lengthy missives here just a few quick thoughts:

1. It is better for believers to burn books than other believers

2. Book burning is historically typical behaviour for those of the Abrahamic religious persuasion-this isn't a new development, but more typical than the recent period of religious restraint.

3. Those that are attacking and injuring christians to revenge themselves against Terry Jones are exhibit A in the discussion on "What is wrong with religion".

4.Those of the christian persuasion who said they would distribute Qur'ans for every one that Jones burned are lucky that the judeo-christian god doesn't actually exist, him being a jealous god and all. It shows their lack of actual belief in the sacred and how instead it is a business for them, one where they don't want their clients hurt or their cashflow affected.

5. How can a man who captured international media attention with few resources have been suckered in by the schoolyard ruse of "you go first, then I'll do it too."

6. The international media needs to stop CNN'ing everything 24/7 and whipping up people-or it should be held responsible for the consequences that arise from such actions.

That is all-a good night to everyone.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Religious Gaming Part 2

For those who suggested I was harsh in my comments about Priestville, I offer this thought-if they really wanted to tackle the abuse issue head on, they could have kids in the game and logic that those who try to abuse and/or cover up are demoted or booted from the priesthood and those who don't abuse and turn in abusers get rewarded-they could then sell the code to the vatican in the hopes that it would install the same features.

A new essay on Religion Dispatches Will God-Gaming Alter the Bible? also discusses the phenomenon of religious games from an interesting perspective: the limitations that must be placed on them to please believers.

Discussing the game The Bible Online: Heroes, Rachel Wagner points out that like fanfic, Bible games need to be games of the gaps that limit themselves to the pockets of time and events that aren't mentioned and that don't impact the canonical events. After all, we can't have a purple emu named Zeke tearing down the walls of Jericho before Joshua gets there.

Likewise Moses can't open a strip club in Midian and tell the Israelites to bugger off. In either case it's no longer a game about the Bible, because the story is then contradictory to the original. Not mentioned by Wagner, but likely nonetheless, is the fact that believers would in no way want to encourage imagining "alternate" stories that might give the weak in faith the idea that god didn't write all of these events in stone with his pinky.

There is also the problem of conforming to believer's expectations-the wicked shouldn't win by being wicked. Unlike D&D, where multiple alignments and approaches to ethics are possible, each of which fares better or worse depending on the campaign and DM in question. Or in the case of Priestville, what happens if the most holy character at the time of the next papal election is being controlled by a woman-how will catholics deal with that? Trying to implement woo in an online game only highlights just how woo-ish it is.

Finally, Wagner could have also pointed out how these game limitations also speak to the limitations in the religious ideas of "free will" and "intelligent design" two real world example of religious thought stifling and less than thorough reasoning, but lets hope lots of the faithful end up pondering them as they try to pray and play at the same time.

Priestville-More BS than Farmville?

Not content to raise crops and whack mobsters? Facebook now lets you become a catholic priest-virtually at least. Priestville is one of the latest Facebook games and it lets you try out the life of a priest, working your way up the ranks to more prominent churches and higher offices.

Like the actual catholic church in the Middle Ages you can speed your ascent through the ranks by giving money to the games creators in exchange for favors and benefits. Likewise the game is realistic enough that users had identified several problems with the functioning game until a pope was selected.

The game lacks realism as molesting children doesn't seem to be available as an activity for priests and covering-up and transferring abuser priests doesn't appear to win you influence and promotions as it does in the physical church (Cardinal Law for example).

Perhaps the fact that children under 13 aren't supposed to be on Facebook has played a role in these omissions-or it may simply be the typical catholic sanitized view of the church that they like to present.

What's sad is the game will likely reinforce the indoctrination of catholics who play it and it may actually encourage some to enter the priesthood and perpetuate the cycle of falsehood and manipulation.

Those nontheists on Facebook may find it an opportunity to raise discussions of the church and its myths or who knows FSMville may arrive and provide a fun and vibrant alternative.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Response to Hemant Mehta's "Outspoken" post

This began as a comment on Hemant's blog in response to Why Aren't You More Outspoken that grew too large to post there. So I brought it here.

There are a unproven presuppositions treated as facts in the post and those can be the mark of zealots if pushed too hard.You've taken a series of beliefs and made them into a credo, like there's some sort of vetting process to be an atheist.

Of the points that stood out to me, the first one was "who nominated you to draw up the list of essential beliefs?"

Anti-vaccination? bad
Sarah Palin? bad
Creationism? bad
Vegetarianism? meh

I'm sure the folks from PETA would love to explain the errors in your thought process in deciding to leave their cherished belief off the list of "essentials".

My time is dedicated to programs to help the underemployed get more skills and training so that they and their families don't have to live below the poverty line. I don't hear so much about that topic from atheist commentators, but instead of spending all my time arguing how "wrong" you are in not making it "essential", I keep working to change it and find common cause on other issues where possible. Many times what I read will cause me to devote more attention to issues that haven't been on my radar in the past or that haven't gotten as much attention. That's good, and it wouldn't have happened if I'd just been blasted for being "wrong".

The "I must always correct every error" mentality is the mentality of the fundamentalist. Google "separation from error" and baptist for an example of what I mean.

Your work has led to to invest significant amounts of time and caring into certain causes-you are passionate about them and respond that way because you've dealt with lots of opposition.

Your doctor friend OTOH likely isn't being picketed by anti-vaccination protesters and depending on her area of practice may come face to face with a self-selected group of vaccine supporters every day. So she isn't moved to respond in the same way-both are conditioned reflexes.

Likewise, my experiences have caused me to focus on other causes, not because some of the one's you've listed aren't important, but because these were the causes I invested in and they became my passion. That's why I don't think a canon of "essentials" is a good idea-it smacks too much of religion and "orthodoxy".

The next issue that caught my attention is that your approach doesn't jibe with the scientific method nontheists like to talk about. There appears to be no mechanism to consider that your belief may need some tweaking even if it is substantially correct.

There have been problems with vaccines, people did complain and improvements were made. Had some of today's vaccine supporters been around at that point, we'd still be using the unsafe practices because they'd view any questioning of results as a call to go into "defender" mode.

Same with the current atheist line on global warming-instead of acknowledging that some of the recent antics in the UK and the UN could raise legitimate doubts in people trying to make up their minds on the issue, there has been no attempt to engage these people and address their concerns just a louder repetition of the party line. These people, not having their concerns addressed remain on the fence. The scientific community disappointed me on this issue just as the moderate muslims disappointed you regarding "Draw Mo".

Lastly, gay marriage. I believe in the rights of gays to get married, but not in gay marriage. Just as the Prop 8 decision showed that the idea of marriage=children is no longer valid, I don't believe that the idea marriage=sex is appropriate either. We should be past the point where we are holding up sheets stained with blood (or other fluids) to show we really care abut someone. So for me heterosexual marriage's time is done-and by definition so would gay marriage.

Anyone who wants to demonstrate their love and commitment through a legal marriage should be able to do so, even if there is no sex involved or implied between them.

It's a position that takes fire from all sides, and again it's a choice to support improvements (such as the Prop 8 decision) rather than denouncing everything that isn't exactly the way I think it should be. It means things move closer to the ideal I hold out even if there is still a ways to go.

Finally we need to cut people some slack because-our brains have lots of built in irrationality that helped us survive in the past, so it's not be surprised that we still cling to lots of it, and don't always use reason.Not everything in your OP was pure reason and certainly my response isn't either.

We need to recognize that some people are opposed and won't listen to anything else while others are opposed because they haven't heard another view or are still undecided on issues. Ted Olson was a huge inspiration to me in this area with his explanation of the Prop 8 decision. He could have gone into "defender" mode, but instead he calmly and clearly explained the excellent reasons for the decision recognizing that he had a platform that would give him access to lots of people whose minds could be changed.

My apologies for taking so long to say what I said-I'm no Ted Olson, but I hope it provides food for thought.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Masturbation and Practical Atheism

Hands above the table until the end of the post. This is a thought experiment to do with a christian.

1. Find a christian who admits to masturbating or look disbelievingly at one until they admit it.

2. Ask them to imagine "doing it" and then ask what their reaction would be if their mother, father, sister, brother or best friend (whomever they wouldn't want to do it with) walked in. Would they stop?

3. Ask them if they walked into a room where that person was if they would simply start masturbating in that person's presence.

4. Repeat as many times as you want to see the person blush and squirm.

5. Once you are done teasing them, ask them why, as a self-admitted masturbator, they can a) masturbate in front of god (who is omnipresent, omniscient, perfectly holy and worthy of all their obedience and adoration in their understanding) and b) cannot masturbate in front of a finite human being.

What quality does the human being possess that god does not that causes them to stop?

Voilà! Practical Atheism. Let them ponder that for a while instead of trying to convert you.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Can community develop around atheism?

Depends on your definition. If by "community", you mean an organized group or society, as the original Latin term communitas, then certainly it is possible. Atheist Nexus; Atheist Alliance International and American Atheists are three examples of such "communities".

If "community" brings to mind images of shared resources; common values and cultural elements; and social cohesion, then the question may be a bit trickier to answer. There is no question that many who self-identify as atheists have these sorts of relationships and interactions with one another.

The question is: are these interactions the result of shared "atheism" (defined as a lack of belief in a god or gods) or are they the result of shared positive beliefs that often accompany atheism (humanism; anti-theism; a commitment to reason, science, human rights, etc.)? Can a negative provide the impetus around which to form relationships? Or do they form as a result of the positive, shared ideas?

The idea has important implications for those wishing to forge closer ties between nontheists-rather than seeking to model an atheist community after an ethnic or religious group, with a core identity and belief set, it may be more practical (and effective) to conceive of a loose-knit coalition of communities built around key causes, values and ideas with strong interconnectedness.

These would be similar to a person's national identity in a modern pluralistic country where an individual's multiple roles and identities are infused by the concept of national identity, but not subject to it. The Internet itself also provides a useful model with high degrees of interconnectedness throughout the network while maintaining national and specialized networks within the overall structure. These networks meet specific needs while also serving as the Internet.

Thus nontheists can nurture community around science, justice, shared interests and any number of other elements while holding to a greater atheist identity. Greater, yet also more abstract with fewer shared cultural or intellectual elements. With this model, communities can develop and flourish with unique characteristics and trait, but the entire atheist population can benefit from the results.


How do you mend a broken heart?

Not a heart broken by romance, but by a son clinging to life in the NICU. I have a very good friend whose children have a child in the NICU and are trying to "faith" their way through the situation. Everything is "claim god", "trust god", "cling to his word", "walk by faith, not by sight" ad infinitum.

They are tired, overwrought, and listing from seeking caring at one moment to rejecting any such overture as "evidence of doubt" the next. Every time the doctors want to do something, the family has a prayer conference about it and does what god "leads" them to do.

The odds are that this sweet little boy is going to break their hearts and leave them, in spite of the tremendous efforts on the part of the medical and support staff and the love and caring shown by the family. They seem beyond helping at the moment, since to consider the possibility of loss is "doubting god", but I would like to support my friend without offering false hope or suggesting that I believe a "higher power" can fix the situation (he is also a believer, but a good deal more practical than the kids).

What would you do if you found yourself in this situation? How would you show concern and support while not betraying your personal beliefs?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Calgary microchip 'talks' to brain cells

The microchip actually "listens" to brain cells as you can read below:

CBC News - Technology & Science - Calgary microchip 'talks' to brain cells

So where do you see technology like this going? To help sufferers of disease? To tell police when someone is about to commit a criminal act (a whole new kind of supervised release)? To test for undesirable thought patterns in the populace (kinkiness*, anti-social thoughts**, wanting to vote against the Supreme Leader)?

How should the potential benefits of a technology be measured against possible abuses of the same technology?

*kinkiness is always acceptable here.

**I'm sure theocracies would line up to buy the "A" chip to root out unbelievers in their midst. (In Canada it would be the "Eh" chip).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Darkness, anyone?

My own little creation with the automotivator. Reflecting my current desire for sleep. ;)

hand clappin', finger snappin' and toe tappin'

My two posts that discussed the movie "Leap of Faith" got the soundtrack going back through my head, and after  a brief search on YouTube, I found the original version of one of the soundtrack songs:

(note the difference in the direction of Alex Bradford's vocal and piano harmonies from 2:05 to 3:05. also note that the clip gets "preachier" after 3:05 so some folks may want to bail at that part)

One of the big draws gospel music holds for me is the enthusiasm and creativity it draws out of performers and listeners. That said, since becoming a nontheist, I find myself cringing a bit more at some of the ideas and images that get slipped into people's minds with a catchy beat and good baseline.

For example:

(yes trivia buffs, it's the song that appeared in "Ghost")

Great piano runs, organ wails and harmonies sugarcoat a little ditty by Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes about judgment, no possibility of forgiveness, the world being consumed in fire and the sinners with it. Not quite "Gentle jesus, meek and mild."

It conflicts me because some of the great gospel music talks about determination, perseverance, helping others and being so joyful that you have to sing and shout. Equally great gospel (from an aesthetic pov) dangles people over hell, creates a self-image of a dirty sinner and tells them to leave injustice unopposed and "give it to god".

I so wish a few nontheists would grab a Hammond B-3, a piano and the rest of a rhythm section and do some secular gospel-there should be lots to be excited about with the world, the universe, our better understanding of ourselves-the potential is there.

While not strictly done in gospel style nor done by a nontheist, here's someone whose taken the themes of holding on and overcoming while depending on each other and produced some great music:

Little Milton sang and growled about life and love-what sorts of things can we nontheists get so excited about that we clap, snap and tap?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Birds, bats drive fig evolution

CBC News - Technology & Science - Birds, bats drive fig evolution

Imagine your steak making sure it's cooked the way you like it or your ice cream sundae adding the toppings you like. It's that undercurrent of implied agency that makes stories like these popular reads-and often gives people a mistaken idea about natural selection.

That's why it was neat to read this article by CBC (Canada's public broadcaster) that for the most part avoids all of the agency-esque language and clearly shows that being tasty, combined with a reproduction method that relies on being consumed, results in "tasty traits" becoming the norm.

More stories and explanations like this that catch the interest (between a love for fig newtons and an interest in bats and birds, who can resist at least taking a peek at it?) and provide clear and correct explanations of how selection functions will help those reluctant to embrace evolution feel more comfortable to at least dip a toe in the gene pool.

Kudos to the CBC.

(For those wanting the actual study, start here)

Thank you, that means so much!

I shop for people year round. Work permits lots of opportunities to travel and I'm always keeping my eyes open when I'm in new places to find gifts to celebrate those special times in the lives of people I care about. Sometimes a bit of local art, the perfect book, or for that person whose emails have been filled with computer-related complaints, a RAM upgrade.

Whatever the gift, it almost always results in some variant of the phrase "it means so much". Music to the ears for those of us whose gift planning goes beyond a trip to Costco to pick whatever is cheap and available.

But it raises an interesting point: neither the art, the book nor the RAM were produced with the intention of being a gift from my friends or family, I didn't participate in their creation-how can they"mean" something to the recipient?

That's the secret believers and (some) philosophers don't want us to grasp-objects, actions, events, etc. can all be invested or infused with meaning after the fact. And for we humans, that meaning is just as "real" as any claimed "objective" or "ultimate" meaning that others attempt to assert on the basis of their belief system.

Believers who will assert repeatedly that "it's only the meaning that God gives that counts" don't seem to take the logical step of either a) claiming that the specific flowers in the bouquet they bring home were chosen by god from the dawn of time to celebrate that one particular event (raising the question as to why god couldn't have taken a bit of his flower choosing time to cure cancer or plant some more food for the starving) or b) acknowledge that the flowers have no "real" meaning and show up without them (see related material under "job had it easy").

Believers through their daily lives acknowledge that we finite, mortal humans can invest meaning in objects and actions.Let them try to explain the inconsistency of also claiming absolute, objective meaning for things. We nontheists can enjoy the seemingly magical act of transforming words, deeds and objects into conduits of meaning, simply through our own choice to invest them with meaning-meaning that can support our ethics, charitable inclinations, efforts to achieve justice and simply showing others that we care.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Steve Martin (part 2)

I just recieved a note from someone regarding my last entry, who pointed out that there's a great clip on YouTube that perfectly describes the dilemma often faced by skeptics when trying to disprove religious claims.

(props to Liam Neeson for a great portrayal of a skeptic)

How would you have convinced the crowd that the evangelist was a fraud? What would you have done differently?

Not exactly Steve Martin in Leap of Faith"...but

Recently I was travelling in the US and passed through Jeffersonville, Indiana a couple of times. The name kept nagging at my memory, but I couldn't figure out why. Sitting here tonight I realized that it was because of its association with William Marrion Branham (wikipedia here) and the pentecostal/christian offshoot that he started.
William Marion Branham

Having been at one time a researcher of obscure Pentecostal and Charismatic groups there was a time where this would have been the focus of my trip. Branham was one of the key members of the Healing revival of the 1950's and as such was a role model for such men as Oral Roberts, Moris Cerullo and Benny Hinn even if they may be somewhat reluctant to admit it today.

The whole idea of evangelists having a special "word" for people in the audience (such as we see Martin doing in Leap of Faith) was popularized by Branham (it was claimed an angel spoke to him) and many healings (and even a resurrection or two were credited to him.

Yet he is hardly known now-except by those involved with churches that recognize him as God's last great Messenger who will usher in the return of Christ to earth. Members believe that his every sermon and teacher were inspired by god and should be treated as such and that in spite of his death in 1965 his words must be followed to be one of the members of the true church that Christ is coming to save from this wicked world.

This in spite of the fact that his prophecy that the world would end by 1977 didn't happen (it has since been reinterpreted by those who keep the "faith" going, and at the same time make their living selling printed copies and audio recordings of Branham's sermons, along with relics of his ministry).

I believe it is likely that some healings can be credited to him, either through the placebo effect, or the power of suggestion, both of which have shown surprising degrees of effectiveness in clinical trials. His avoidance of scandal and Sam Walton-like lifestyle set him apart from many of the more extravagant and flamboyant evangelists who were the basis of Martin's character.

Nontheists can use Branham's ministry as a case study of what a group of believers is willing to accept after 15 years of exposure-from a good man who preaches and heals people to god's true messenger whose very words are inspired scripture. Worshiped by true believers broken away from their mainstream religion and waiting from everything to be set right and god to vindicate them.

Hmm, sounds a lot like the story of Jesus, doesn't it? Branham's ministry can give us insight into how a myth forms, how people rationalize failed prophecies and gaps in teaching and how people go on believing long after long after the myth should have died out (with a little help from those who profit from keeping it alive of course).

While I'm glad that my embracing a nontheist mindset means that I have more important things to do than research church history, it might be good for those seeking to clear the minds of typical christians to look at Branham in order to better understand why religion and its bizarre claims can so capture people's thinking-after all, there aren't any first century jews around to ask.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hundreds on Twitter criticize airline for breaking Tanner Bawn's wheelchair

A young boy who needs a special mobility chair is again able to move and participate in life thanks to the online community applying massive pressure to Air Canada, the airline who broke his chair.

While not specifically about a nontheist topic, this story caught my attention.It shows what a clearly communicated message and desired outcomes can accomplish. It also highlights once again how Air Canada is a terrible company whose business model seems to include bullying those it serves poorly in an attempt to get them to settle for inferior resolution of the problem. I've peronally seen them discriminate in providing accomodations and amenities topeople their poor service has left stranded, based primarily on how vulnerable those people seem to be at the moment and how little it appears they will settle for.

While a number of us protested this, it took the intervention of a Super Elite customer threatening to stop flying with them to motivate them to treat these people better and offer them suitable accommodations and amenities. When the airline staff tried to placate him afterwards by offering him even more perks, he told them to give them to the folks they had mistreated.

What is great about this is the fact that people didn't need to rally around a religion to do the right thing, nor they need to find any motive beyond helping another human in need-a lesson in how we as nontheists might be able to achieve justice for others, demonstrating our convinctions in action.

Friday, August 6, 2010

AC360 goes in circles with Hitchens

Woke up this morning to the news on PZ Myers blog that Christopher Hitchens had appeared on Anderson Cooper last night. After watching the interview, I can easily say I am even more impressed with Hitchens than after his Vanity Fair article (see here for my thoughts) and even less impressed with AC than I typically find myself.

After an interview consisting mostly of surprised blurts to Hitchens well thought out answers (such as Cooper's evident surprise at hearing Hitchens take responsibillity for the state of his health, unlike the typical "I have an excuse" CNN guest.) Cooper can barely stop squirming in his chair at the development of an excitement stiffie from asking Hitchens if he might, kinda, sorta, possibly ever make nice with god and the journalistic kudos it would bring if Hitchens took the bait.

Cooper-In a moment of doubt, isn't there... I dunno, I just find it fascinating that even when you're alone and you know no one else is watching that there might be a moment where you, you know, want to hedge your bets.

Hitchens replies:
Hitchens-If that comes it'll be when I'm very ill. When I'm half-demented, either by drugs or by pain, or I won't have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumor later on. Because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumors, you know on his death bed he finally well... I can't say that the entity that by then wouldn't be me wouldn't do such a pathetic thing, but I can tell you that not while I'm lucid. No, I can be quite sure of that.

So no prize for Cooper and an honest revelation by Hitchens that it could happen. He makes it clear that he doesn't want it to happen, but he demonstrates clearly that he understands the reality of dying with cancer. Pain, sickness, drugs can all make a person do something he or she swore they would never do.

At this point I must make a confession. I am not proud of this fact any more, although at one time I was extremely proud of it.

I helped both of my parents make deathbed acts of faith. My father, who had violated some moral standards that went clearly beyond religious polity saw the week before his death as a time to be cleansed and to make amends for those actions. The experience of "coming to Jesus" was very powerful for him and brought him peace, a greater sense of being loved and an impetus to clear up old unfinished business with friend and foe (I now recognize that he could experience these same feeling and drives without god being involved at all, and I only wish I had known that then to help himas I did, but without Jesus tagging along)

Likewise, my mother, who did come back to her childhood religion as she saw the end approaching, wanted to be "sure" that she was right with god (her siblings never knew of this as the idea that she found their faith lacking enough that she "topped up" would be a painful emotional blow to them).

She didn't experience the profound emotional changes of my father (she had less to make amends for) but did become much more peaceful and able to cope with her last painful hours as a result (I also realize now that she could have experienced this without god, but what's done is done)

I am glad that since then I have been able to bring support and comfort to three of my aunts and uncles who have since died (yes folks, I am a genetic time bomb-if someone suggests you bet on my becoming an octogenarian, I'd advise against it)without the invocation of any sort of deity.

So yes, in the heat of the moment, people do turn to religion. Christopher Hitchens may even do so, given enough drugs and enough pain. If that should happen to him or anyone, we can recognze it for what it is: a coping mechanism with generations of use ingrained in our thinking, a mechanism that has no ultimate meaning or reality, but rather simply a grown up version of a child's blanky for someone who's in need of some rest and comfort.

If we want people to move beyond that blanky we as nontheists need to show them ways to find peace, support and comfort based on the here and now, to make their own meaning of their experience and to be an example to others that it can be done, just as Hitchens is doing for us.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Proper Response to Prop 8?

When I first read about the Prop 8 decision over on Blag Hag I wasn't sure how I felt about it-reading the news articles that were listed gave the impression that the legal decision was very poorly reasoned-essentially that same sex marriage isn't *that* different from traditional marriage so it's ok. *rollseyes*

Then I discovered which not only had in-depth commentary on the decision, but also a link to the entire 100+ pages of the decision. Reading this (the analysis and some of the decision) was much more comforting. The legal decision clearly recognized that the pro Prop 8 side was arguing for a view of marriage as an institution "to promote naturally procreative sexual relationships and to channel them into stable, enduring unions for the sake of producing and raising the next generation" and that "the state’s interest in marriage is procreative".

In essence, the old catholic view that children are the reason for marriage and that by regulating marriage society and the state are issuing "parenting licenses" to ensure that children are taken care of and become good citizens. On the negative side, the ideas of "bastards" and "lving in sin" were society's way of discouraging freelance parenting.

Reliable contraception decoupled having sex from having children, and in doing so decoupled marriage from having children. Couples could have children or not, and marriage became more about their commitment to each other.

The ruling recognizes this fundamental shift in society and clearly states that marriage descrimination on the basis of gender doesn't work any more-since marriage isn't about having babies, it doesn't have to be restricted to couples who (normally in times past) could have babies. It is now available to all in committed relationships. Or as the judge put it:
"The evidence shows that the tradition of restricting an individual’s choice of spouse based on gender does not rationally further a state interest despite its “ancient lineage.” Instead,the evidence shows that the tradition of gender restrictions arose when spouses were legally required to adhere to specific gender roles. See FF 26-27. California has eliminated all legally mandated gender roles except the requirement that a marriage consist of one man and one woman. FF 32. Proposition 8 thus enshrines in the California Constitution a gender restriction that the evidence shows to be nothing more than an artifact of a foregone notion that men and women fulfill different roles in civic life."

This is the message that people need to hear about the decision, that society had changed and that institutions must now change with it.

At one time schooling meant segregation, until the courts ruled it meant integration.

At one time voting meant men only, until the vote was obtained for women.

At one time marriage meant a man and woman coming together to raise children, now it means something else.

While everyone else ceebrates, I still have two thoughts on my mind:
  1. Why still sex? Since the key reason for marriage is no longer to have children, why is sex still the defining characteristic? Lack of consummation is still grounds for annulment in many jurisdictions. Why should it be? Since the anti-Prop 8 side said it is about love and commitment, why can't people who love each other, but don't have a sexual relationship marry? Why should sex, gay or straight, be the ticket to public recognition? Why can't they have the same legal benefits and recognition of their committment to each other?
  2. Why still two? As the ruling above notes, the gender difference is no longer valid, given the new understanding of marriage, so why should the number of partners remain? Folks wishing to live in some sort of loving and committed plural relationship should be able to do so with public recognition.Arguments to the contrary are based on the same appeals to antiquity and fear and those of the pro-Prop 8 side.
For those of you who have fought for the repeal of Prop 8, enjoy your victory. Then get the word out about the key points of the decision-in the mean time, I'll be here, pondering my two questions and hoping change comes full circle.

To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

Vanity Fair has published online an article from its September 2010 issue Topic of Cancer by Christopher Hitchens, describing his life since he was diagnosed with cancer. Having lost a number of relatives due to cancer, including my parents, a number of his thoughts struck home:

  • the gradual dehumanization of the patient on the part of medical staff in the name of efficiency (taking vitals before speaking with you) or the loss of desire due to treatment to stay alive that played a key role in making you want to stay alive in the first place.
  • the new language, the unquestioned assumptions, the battle metaphors and the catchy slogans that are supposed to make dealing with cancer easier-I think most of it is to make things easier for the medical staff and the family of the patient (they don't)
  • the regrets (his to miss out on Kissinger and Ratzinger getting what he perceived as their just deserts my father's regret of not spending more tie with my sister or her children and my mother's wish that she hadn't said no to one last trip with her sister)
What does any of this have to do with nontheism?

Theists have a number of powerful ideas that they bring with them into a challenge like cancer (being a child of god, going to heaven, the suffering having an important purpose, etc) that enable them to reframe the experience and reduce some of its pain.

What does the nontheist bring with him or her? What "greater good" can be appealed to when spirits lag or fatigue overwhelms? One sees this in Hitchens' article-he provides readers with the record of a rationalist's thoughts during such a trial. To remove some of the mystery of suffering by describing it clearly, showing that one can still laugh, dream and keep contributing to the world. This idea of the world being one's memorial is a powerful one that can inspire great actions.

Many theists are offering prayers for Hitchens recovery and/or the saving of his soul. Some, likely out of a sense of compassion for him, and others possibly for the brownie points it would score for god if Hitchens "joined the other team". A god that would inflict cancer on a man to save him is a monster who bears more resemblance to the director of a gulag or an apparatchik in 1984 than any kind of loving parent.

So one hopes that no stories pop up about a "deathbed conversion", one almost hopes that Hitchen's llast days could be recorded to quash any such story. But if such a converision were to occur, it wouldn't change the reality that god does not exist, nor should it shake the nontheist's conviction that one can create meaning in the world through one's actions, and thus contribute to something greater than onesself. Hitchens is demonstrating that for us and we should be grateful to him.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

hanging up my shingle

After reading a number of great blogs by atheists, nontheists, humanists (add your own preferred term) I've decided to throw my hat into the ring and share my thoughts on coexisting with theists in the modern world.

What you may find different about my blog is the fact that I'm:
  • Canadian-fewer heinous creationist plots to expose (and more "u"s in words)
  • more libertarian  than many nontheists (no I don't have my own compound, thank you for asking)
  • a huge fan of classic 50"s gospel music (think Sam Cooke, not George Beverly Shea)
So give it a try, feel free to comment, and hopefully leave entertained and/or informed.