Archive for June, 2007

Father Jonathan

I found myself laughing through this Fox News segment:
God Under Attack? Are Militant Atheists on the Rise?

1. Attaching the term “militant” to various viewpoints you disagree with has become pretty common. It’s a nice little way to demonize it. Originally, the term “militant” meant committing violence, and it still has that negative connotation. Now, it’s been thrown around so much that anyone who strongly argues a viewpoint is “militant”, although people carefully pick which people they want to attach the “militant” label to. For example, the term “militant Christian” is never used by Christians, even when describing missionaries because it has that negative connotation.
2. Funny how they call atheism a “craze” to downplay the longevity of this change in American culture. Father Jonathan downplays it further saying that it’s just a fad for publishers – not the general public. Then he says that he “has a lot of atheist friends”. Really? Perhaps that’s an indication that atheism is not just a fad among book publishers.
3. Father Jonathan claims that atheist authors believe they are “the only elite who know what they’re talking about”. This is typical debate tactic of attributing negative personality traits (arrogance, looking down on other people) to one’s opponent so that people will want to disagree with them.
4. Father Jonathan says that people writing atheist books need to stick to their field of expertise. Then, he talks about the amazing design of the eye. Apparently, his expertise is biology.
5. Father Jonathan says that 90% of the American public believes in God, and there’s a reason for that. I think there is a reason for that – but it isn’t the existence of God. I think religion is used to “explain” the unknown in the world (much like a “volcano god” explains the eruptions of a volcano) and plays psychological roles in people’s lives – allowing them to believe in an afterlife for them and their loved ones, believe that someone is on their side, believe that evil people get punished and good rewarded (aka emotional justice). Additionally, religious people like to trot out the arguments that you should believe in God because it’s a safer bet than disbelieving. Many people may be doing exactly that – believing in God not because there is better evidence, but because it’s a safer bet. Put another way, it might be that 90% of the American public believes in God because it’s a safer bet, then people want to turn it around and say that the fact 90% of the American public believes it means there must be some truth to it.
6. “Why is there this posturing in the media of atheists as intellectuals?” It’s funny how they have to undermine ideas as they ask questions. The use of the word “posturing” makes it clear from the beginning that “it’s a myth”. Actually, it’s not a myth. Atheism and agnosticism are both correlated with educational level and intelligence. There are a number of reasons for this – ranging from educated, intellectual people have fewer things left unexplained (see my earlier point about God being a method to explain volcanoes), to the fact that educated, intellectual people are more willing think for themselves and dissent from popular opinion which overwhelmingly believes in God (ignorant, uneducated people tend to go with the flow and not disagree with popular opinion), to a variety of other reasons. I’m reminded of Einstein and Thomas Jefferson in these regards. Einstein believed in God, but not a moralistic, personal, human-interested God that grants eternal life. Thomas Jefferson believed in God, but dismissed the miracles of the New Testament (actually cutting them out of the Bible with scissors). While they weren’t atheists, they both dissented from popular opinion and thought for themselves – something neither of them would have done if they had been of average or below average intelligence. This trait of thinking for oneself and dissenting from popular opinion, which is connected to intelligence, also leads people to disbelieve in God.
7. I laughed at the “eye” and “childbirth” arguments. It’s explained by biology and evolution. Funny how people always insert “God” whenever they get to something they don’t understand. Ancient humans did the same thing with storms, volcanos, and even the Sun (the Greeks believed that the Sun is actually a chariot driven across the sky by a god).
8. Father Jonathan says that the reason these atheist books are on the best seller list is because believers buy them to understand it. I doubt that. Personally, I never buy a book that I disagree with – I don’t want to drive up sales, increase profits, or lead publishers to believe that publishing that type of book is a good move. (I will read it in the bookstore or at the library.) Besides, if believers were truly buying up these books, one would expect The God Delusion to have a lower rating on Amazon (70% of the reviews of this book on Amazon gave it 4 or 5 stars).

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Dick Cheney

There’s plenty of disturbing information out there about Dick Cheney. He has a very lawyer-esque way of getting what he wants (even though his arguments are BS). In many ways, I think the White House sees the public and laws overseeing the executive branch as silly limitations on their God-given right to rule. It’s unfortunate that more of the US doesn’t realize that the White House wants to give a great big FU to the American public. Here’s a bit:

The Daily Show – First Video: Cheney Claims he’s not fully a part of the executive branch, and therefore exempt from some rules concerning the executive branch He then goes on later to claim that he is a part of the executive branch, and, therefore, not subject to disclosure on other issues. His little tap dance to avoid following rules is extremely weaselly.

Another interesting tidbit:

The vice president’s lawyer advocated what was considered the memo’s most radical claim: that the president may authorize any interrogation method, even if it crosses the line into torture. U.S. and treaty laws forbidding any person to “commit torture,” that passage stated, “do not apply” to the commander in chief, because Congress “may no more regulate the President’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield.” (Link)

Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency

The Cheney Vice Presidency

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YouTube Creationism

I found this video to be alternately hilarious and scarily ignorant. This young creationist manages to be both incredibly smug and ignorant at the same time. Funny to think that I was raised to believe in young-earth creationism, and was taught creationism in (Christian) school. What was Charles Darwin’s quote on this again? Oh yeah: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”. I’m not even going to bother debunking it because it’s such a train-wreck.

Not surprisingly, he filters all the comments and has shut off ratings after getting 5 positive ratings. Someone else reposted the same video under a slightly different name, and the comments are much more critical and score is much, much lower. It’s very obvious that he’s doing lots of manipulative games with comments and ratings.

Regarding the “giants” shown in the video (beginning around minute 7) that supposedly provide support for the Bible (or Koran): I looked up some information on these “giants”, simply because I’d never seen images like that before and was curious about them.

One of the pictures used in his video came from a photo-manipulation contest at Worth1000. Part of the unaltered picture can be found here.

Another giant photograph is from 1895 and the “fossilized giant” disappeared shortly after the photograph was taken (and was probably a hoax like a similar “fossilized human” that was actually carved out of stone).

And another skull in the video was weirdly elongated, but was actually not much larger than a normal human skull, despite the “giant” claim. The unusual head shape was probably caused by head binding – which has been practiced in multiple places around the world.

The games he’s playing with these “giant human” fossils reminds me a lot of the creationist movement in general – there are lots of supposedly amazing “proofs” that immediately fall apart with a little bit of digging. It’s amazing how ridiculously poorly researched a lot of creationist material is. Most people never do any digging, though, and they end up getting caught up in these hoaxes.

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I saw the trailer for 1408 the other day, and had meant to write something about it – specifically, the tendency of the media to write stories involving the supernatural skeptic who experiences the supernatural and has no choice but to accept its existence. But, it looks like Chris Mooney and PZ Myers beat me to the punch.

1408 Movie trailer:

Of course, a screenwriter or author has complete control over the forces and events in the story. It is just as easy to write about a skeptic who becomes a believer as it would be to write about a preacher who begrudgingly admits the non-existence of God, or a self-deluded psychic who comes to the realization that all psychics are either self-deluded or frauds. The author has the power to make “irrefutable evidence” that only exists in the fictional world. I think this has the tendency to make believers feel superior to skeptics because they can mentally frame the real-world skeptic as being similar to “that skeptic guy in the movie who will eventually come to see what we already know”. Why does the media do this? Simply because it’s a more interesting storyline, which means (hopefully) more viewers.

On a similar note, I had recently listened to some old episodes of Skepticality – specifically, Episode #38: A Very Houdini Halloween. They talked about Houdini (who was a skeptic and believed mediums were frauds) and how he and his wife had an agreement that when he died, he would attempt to make contact with her. They figured if anyone could make contact from “the other side”, it was Houdini because he was an escape artist, and now he had an agreement to make contact. They had even decided on a secret password that could be used to verify whether Houdini was really making contact from the spirit world – to prevent psychics from making false claims about being in contact with Houdini’s ghost. Predictably, quite a few physics claimed to be in contact with Houdini’s spirit, but none could ever tell her what the secret password was. (Or at least not until Houdini’s widow made the mistake of telling someone what the password was.) She gave up trying to contact Houdini after ten years of futile attempts. I’ve heard other stories of skeptics creating passwords before their deaths, but no psychics have been able to reveal the correct password.

Now, I’ve heard people claim to have experienced a ghost. Just a few weeks ago, some of my friends were talking about this. One of my friends says that she was sleeping in her old house when she felt someone sit down on the bed. No one was there, and she yelled at the ghost saying that it was her house now. My own theory on this story is that what probably happened was that her leg moved suddenly, making the bed move. With her half-asleep mind, she interpreted this as someone sitting down on the bed. I’ve had something similar happen just as I fall asleep. Every once in a while, just before I drift into sleep, one of my legs will suddenly and involuntarily lurch. It doesn’t move very far, but the force of it is enough to rock the entire bed – something that could easily be interpreted as someone sitting down on the bed, or pushing the bed. In the absence of anyone else in the room, this could be interpreted as a ghost. I think something similar happened to her.

While we were all talking about this, I told my “ghost story”. This happened a few days after moving into my new condo – in a building nearly a hundred years old. I was in bed trying to fall asleep when I heard a faint noise in the other room. It was just loud enough that I was sure I wasn’t imagining it. I got up, walked into the other room, turned on the light and looked around to see if I could figure it out. Nothing. The sound had stopped. I turned off the light and went back to bed. A few minutes later, I heard the faint sound again. I was getting creeped out. So, I got up again, turned on the light, and looked around. But, the sound had stopped again. This time, I turned off the light and waited. A few minutes later, in the darkness, I heard it again – coming from the other bedroom. I snuck in quietly, and when I figured out which area of the room the sound was coming from, I turned on the light. A tiny little mouse came running out of the garbage. It wasn’t a ghost, afterall. Some of my friends were disappointed that my story wasn’t a real ghost story (which is an interesting reaction to think about), but it was the closest thing to a “real” ghost story that I had. Actually, it was kind of a subtle anti-ghost story since it involved the debunking of what could have been a ghost.

One odd thing that I’ve noticed with people who tell their ghost stories, is that of the four people (off the top of my head) who have told me their ghost stories, all of them were women. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence, or what exactly that means, but it seems like an odd pattern.

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I can’t really say I understand the reasoning for Salman Rushdie’s recent knighthood. Perhaps the fact that he was willing to stand up for his freedom of speech despite threats from religious fanatics? Whatever the reason for his knighthood, the Muslim world was pretty unhappy. Here’s a clip of what Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, Pakistan’s religious affairs minister, said to the Pakistan’s National Assembly (which unanimously condemned Britain’s award of a knighthood):

“The West is accusing Muslims of extremism and terrorism. If someone exploded a bomb on his body, he would be right to do so unless the British government apologizes and withdraws the ‘sir’ title,” ul-Haq said. (Link)

Um … wait – how do those statements go together? Oh, I get it – the West is accusing Muslims of extremism and terrorism, but if someone does a suicide-bombing because of the knighthood of Salman Rushdie, it’s not “extremism and terrorism”; it’s a completely justified retribution.

(Via Fundies Say the Darndest Things)

More Links:
Newsvine: Pakistan Condemns Rushdie Honor
BBC: Rushdie title ‘may spark attacks’

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Link to the earlier article: The Bible you haven’t read – Part 2

According to the Bible, there were ten plagues sent against Egypt when the Jews were trying to leave the country (Exodus 7-12). The tenth plague was death of the firstborn of every family.

Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. (Exodus 11:5)

In this verse, we hear how God will kill the firstborn child of everyone in the entire country. However, the Egyptians can avoid this fate if the Pharaoh will let the Jews go. Why doesn’t he?

And the LORD said unto Moses, Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you; that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt. And Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh: and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go out of his land. (Exodus 11:9-10)

God intervenes to prevent the Pharaoh from making that decision. In fact, God says that he will harden the Pharaoh’s heart multiple times – including in Exodus 4:21, before any of the plagues occur. As a result, the Egyptians suffer the ten plagues, and, finally, millions die, no matter how they lived their lives, simply because they were born Egyptian. The reason God “hardens [his] heart” is so that “His wonders are multiplied” and everyone knows that He is God. It’s an amazing level of callousness. It reminds me of the earlier “landlord principle” which says God can do anything to anyone because humans are his creation. One would scarcely expect Saddam Hussein to issue an order to kill the firstborn child of everyone in an entire nation simply to prove his power. I can’t help but imagine a five-year old child surrounded by tiny plastic army-men stomping on them repeatedly and reveling in his own power.

Christians will sometimes say, “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever”. (Gee, I hope not.) Yet, even when I was a Christian, I couldn’t help but think that the God of the Old Testament is quite a bit harsher than the teachings of Jesus (although, even Jesus made lots of criticisms, and Revelations is plenty harsh). About the time I was reevaluating Christianity, I remember thinking that if Christianity were actually true, that the Bible records the “growing up” of God – the God of the Old Testament being a brash, temperamental teenager without much concern for anyone. I don’t think that now – now I think it was the “growing up” of human culture and that change is reflected in the actions of their imaginary gods. Of course, one could also read these verses and come to a belief in dystheism (God exists but is not wholly good), and say that all the Biblical references to a “good” or “perfect” God are inaccurate and similar to the way a common peasant might flatter a king by praising his “goodness”, “mercy”, and “perfection”.

Also, an interesting little contradiction from the Exodus story is that the Egyptian livestock get killed over and over, and are still alive in Exodus 14.

The Fifth Plague (The Plague on Livestock):

“[T]he hand of the LORD will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field—on your horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats.” (Exodus 9:3)
“And the next day the LORD did it: All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one animal belonging to the Israelites died.” (Exodus 9:6)

Then the Seventh Plague (The Plague of Hail):

“Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every man and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die.‘ Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the field.” (Exodus 9:19-21)

Then in the tenth plague, God kills the firstborn of all the beasts (translated as “cattle” in some versions):

“Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well.” (Exodus 11:5)

Then in Exodus 14:6-9, the Pharaoh pursues the Jews with chariots and horsemen:

“So [the Pharaoh] had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly. The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon.”

One could claim, of course, that the Pharaoh stole the Jews’ livestock, but before the tenth plague, Moses explicitly refuses to leave their livestock in Egypt. And in Exodus 12:32 / Exodus 12:38, God tells the Jews to take their flocks and herds. So, that explanation isn’t available.

Biblical Commentary: (Link) Exodus 11:9 says why God does these things: “that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt”. Maybe that explanation is undesirable, because Biblical commentaries have come up with their own ideas about why God sends the plagues and hardens the Pharaoh’s heart:

One explanation for “the plagues is that the plagues were punishment for the Egyptians’ long abuse of the Israelites, as well as proof that the gods of Egypt were powerless.” God kills all of the firstborn in the tenth plague, yet I doubt every Egyptian was involved in the abuse of the Israelites. The God of the Old Testament makes a habit of making groups of people suffer even if not all of them committed whatever theoretical crime they are accused of. (This comes in handy a few Old Testament books later, when entire cities – including women and children – will be slaughtered by the Jews.) As far as “proof that the gods of Egypt were powerless”, it seems a bit excessive. Who needed the proof? The Egyptians who were suffering through each of the ten plagues (even though they aren’t the “chosen ones” and, therefore, will get no divine communication)? The Jews – who will see numerous miracles in the desert? Do the Jews really need to see the death and suffering of Egyptians to “prove” their God is real? Should God make non-Christians suffer divine miracles today to prove to Christians that he is real?

Jewish Exegesis justifies the last plague with two arguments: Retribution in kind, and Self defense (the claim is that Exodus Exodus 10:28 alludes to a plan by Pharaoh to “slaughter all Hebrew children. By inflicting upon Pharaoh the same thing he planned for the Hebrews, his plan was thwarted”). The “retribution” argument falls flat because the Pharaoh had not carried out his plan, and you can’t do retribution for something that hasn’t happened. The second, “self defense”, argument fails because many of the firstborn included small children and livestock. Were small children and livestock a threat to the Israelites? Further, there are other alternatives: killing Pharaoh to stop the plan, or divine intervention which causes the deaths of Egyptian soldiers on their way to carry-out the plan.

Another explanation is that “the first-born sons of Egypt were in fact the decision makers, and communally responsible for the deeds of the nation, good or evil.” However, since the firstborn included small children, livestock, and even leaders who may have opposed the Pharaoh’s plan (and there were likely plenty of them since God was hardening the Pharaoh’s heart, but never mentions hardening the hearts of all the Egyptians). Besides, when God is involved in hardening people’s hearts, they lose their free-will, and therefore, lose culpability in their own actions.

None of the Biblical commentary seems to provide a good answer to the moral questions in this story, and they can’t even agree on the correct explanation (which raises questions about what God was trying to communicate if no one – not even the Jewish and Christian leaders – can come to an agreement on it). In the end, I think ancient people often had deep grudges against their neighbors. They often treated each other horribly – putting them into slavery, killing them and taking their women, etc. My guess is that ancient Jews had very few moral qualms with a story that ends in the mass murder of Egyptians. Further, Egypt was in control of the “land of Israel” until around the eleventh century BC – which means (according to secular views that there was no major exodus) Jewish ancestors very likely lived under Egyptian occupation when it controlled Israel, and therefore, didn’t care for them very much. One gets a sense that the modern-day middle east hasn’t really “grown up” in it’s attitudes towards it’s neighbors, which is why the Middle East continues to be a tumultuous mess. They haven’t found a better way – a secular, moderate way – because they’re still following the harsh “you deserve death because you’re not one of us” morality of their imaginary God.

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This is a great clip from the Daily Show involving Tony Snow’s claim three months ago that White House firings of eight US attorneys was based on performance:

“And it’s pretty clear that these things are based on performance and not on sort of attempts to do political retaliation, if you will.” – Tony Snow, March 15, 2007 (Link to Whitehouse transcript)

Versus his more recent claim that they never said the firings were based on performance:

Reporter: “At the beginning of this story, the president, you, Dan Bartlett, others said on camera that politics was not involved, this was performance-based, but..”
Tony Snow (interrupting): “No, that is something – we have never said that.” (June 13, 2007) (Link to Whitehouse transcript)

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