Archive for April, 2009

In a new article over at Christianity Today, Dinesh D’Souza (Christian apologist) gives a very unsatisfying answer to “Why we need earthquakes”. I mean: does this guy think he’s being a good apologist for Christianity? Sometimes it seems like his answers are so weak that it makes his religion look ridiculous.

D’Souza writes:

A fresh way of looking at the problem of natural evil and suffering comes from Rare Earth, a 2003 book by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee that traces the myriad conditions required for life to exist on any planet. In a sense, the authors—an eminent paleontologist and an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle—are discussing the “anthropic principle,” which specifies the degree to which our planet appears fine-tuned for complex life. The concept is often used in Christian apologetics to show that our intelligently designed universe seems to point to an intelligent designer.

Ward and Brownlee ask: Why do natural disasters such as earthquakes, seaquakes, and tsunamis occur? All three are the consequence of plate tectonics, the giant plates that move under the surface of the earth and the ocean floor. Apparently our planet is unique in having plate tectonics. Ward and Brownlee show that without this geological feature, there would be no large mountain ranges or continents.

While natural disasters occasionally wreak havoc, our planet needs plate tectonics to produce the biodiversity that enables complex life to flourish on earth. Without plate tectonics, earth’s land would be submerged to a depth of several thousand feet. Fish might survive in such an environment, but not humans.

Ward and Brownlee’s answer to this is as simple as it is devastating. Such a world could have produced life, but it surely could not have produced creatures like us. Science tells us that our world has all the necessary conditions for species like Homo sapiens to survive and endure… it seems that plate tectonics are, as Ward and Brownlee put it, a “central requirement for life” as we know it.

I think that’s a perfectly good explanation if God existed 4 billion years ago and was completely prevented from interacting with the world at any time since then. What a ridiculously weak explanation. If D’Souza’s God existed, then: (1) God could’ve brought about any form of life that he wanted at any time in history, (2) God could’ve created continents and mountains without the need for plate tectonics, (3) God could’ve “shut off” plate tectonics and earthquakes once human beings were on earth. In essence, D’Souza’s explanation presumes a God who is severely limited; unable to interact with the planet during the past 4 billion years. This is just another “God is all-powerful; except that He’s not all-powerful when that’s inconvenient” explanation.

[Nod to DubunkingChristianity]

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Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about "The Daily Show: Baracknophobia", posted with vodpod

On a related note:

NEW YORK – The Fox network is sticking with its regular schedule over President Barack Obama this week.

The network is turning down the president’s request to show his prime-time news conference on Wednesday. The news conference marks Obama’s 100th day in office. Instead of the president, Fox viewers will see an episode of the Tim Roth drama “Lie to Me.”

It’s the first time a broadcast network has refused Obama’s request. This will be the third prime-time news conference in Obama’s presidency. ABC, CBS and NBC are airing it.
(Source: Yahoo News)

And a recent video with Michele Bachmann:

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Swine Flu

The Swine Flu stuff seems rather scary. According to reports, it’s killed quite a few people between the ages of 25 and 45 – which is pretty unusual for the flu, though it’s the pattern we saw in the 1918 flu epidemic. And the ratio of known flu-cases (2,000+ in Mexico) to mortality (149 dead in Mexico) would put it at somewhere around 7% mortality rate. Of course, that would assume that we have a decent count of actual cases – and I have doubts about that. If the actual number of cases is 10x higher in Mexico than we think it is, the mortality rate would only be 0.7%. Although, strangely, not a single death in the US yet, which suggests a much lower mortality rate. For comparison, the 1918 flu, which killed 20 million people (more than the number of people who died in World War 1) only had a mortality rate of 2.5% and a very high infection rate (affecting 800 million to 1 billion people), which is also unusually high for the flu. It’s doubtful this new strain is like the 1918 flu epidemic in those details.

Personally, I don’t think it’s going to be all that bad in the developed world. I expect to see more deaths in the third world, though (sigh, seems like they always end up on the bad side of things).

Anyway, it’s definitely brought out the crazy in people. Sometimes it seems like people are on-edge, just waiting for the world to end. Take a look:

“Clues that the virus may be a synthetic creation are already manifesting

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that deadly flu viruses have been concocted in labs and then dispatched with the intention of creating a pandemic.”

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Faith Fighter

According to Game Politics, Molleindustria has done a tongue-in-cheek take down their “Faith Fighter” game in response to Muslim pressure:

Although it was released more than a year ago, Faith Fighter was not on the mainstream media’s radar until yesterday’s Metro UK reported that religious leaders of various stripes were outraged by the game, which features Mortal Kombat-like matches between deities of several popular religions.

As the controversy grew, the Associated Press reported today that the influential, Saudi-based Organization of the Islamic Conference had called for the removal of Faith Fighter from the Internet. Accoring to the AP, the OIC called the game “incendiary in its content” and “offensive to Muslims and Christians.”

The UK’s Metro says:

Religious groups are calling for a ban on an online game where holy figures such as Jesus and the prophet Muhammad fight to the death.

Critics say the free Faith Fighter game is ‘deeply provocative’ and ‘disrespectful’ towards all world religions.

Muslims are particularly outraged because Islamic tradition prohibits drawings of Allah. [maybe they meant to write “Mohammed”]

You can play the game here. Be sure to pay attention to the background during the game. (Hey, is that the FSM floating past?) I liked Jesus’ special “Holy Ghost” attacks.

You can play their “Faith Fighter 2” game as well (it’s more of a commentary on the whole crazy situation).

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After watching this video over at Friendly Atheist, full of fake Christian persecution…

… I almost have to wonder if this is the way the Christian Right would go about killing school arts programs:

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I saw this quote on the internet today: “Atheism is a religion; belief there is nothing. Agnosticism is honest; we know far less than we claim.”

I have to admit – it raised a whole bunch of troubling questions. For example, if atheism is a religion because it is a belief in the non-existence of something, then how many religions am I practicing right now? I’m practicing the religions of “a-unicornism”, “a-leprachanism”, and “a-fairyism”. And, was I practicing the religion “a-unicornism” before I heard about “unicorns”, or only afterward? And, if I was practicing “a-unicornism” before I knew about unicorns, then I must be practicing an infinite number of religions simultaneously – all the stuff I have yet to hear about. Is there any way out of this religiosity? If I disbelieve or believe in anything, I’m believing in a religion. Can I be agnostic about everything? Agnostic about the sun rising tomorrow morning, agnostic about chemistry and physics, agnostic about my very existence? I guess that’s the only sensible thing to do – because, otherwise, I’d be practicing a religion.

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Tax Protests

There were some fairly large protests down at the Denver capital building today. They were protesting taxes and Obama’s “socialism”. I even saw one sign that read “Say goodbye to White America”. I wasn’t quite clear if he was protesting Mexican immigration, or if he was saying White Americans were going to leave the country. The crowd was almost entirely white, middle-aged, middle-class people. There were maybe 800-1000 people, although a lot of people were leaving, so the crowd was larger before I saw it. It was like Rush Limbaugh was saying, “give me everything I want, or I will flex my muscles and whip my followers into a dangerous frenzy”. Maybe this is all part of the right-wing media’s plan to make Obama fail.

Some people claimed the protest was not partisan, but it’s pretty obvious it was. (For example, check out these signs – one putting the USSR, Obama, and Nazi Germany together, and another asking “Obama is this the change?”.)

Apparently, even the governor of Texas said today that Texas could secede if they wanted to (but quickly added that he doesn’t know why they would want to):

An animated Perry told the crowd at Austin City Hall — one of three tea parties he was attending across the state — that officials in Washington have abandoned the country’s founding principles of limited government. He said the federal government is strangling Americans with taxation, spending and debt.

Perry repeated his running theme that Texas’ economy is in relatively good shape compared with other states and with the “federal budget mess.” Many in the crowd held signs deriding President Barack Obama and the $786 billion federal economic stimulus package.

Perry called his supporters patriots. Later, answering news reporters’ questions, Perry suggested Texans might at some point get so fed up they would want to secede from the union, though he said he sees no reason why Texas should do that.

It’s scary the way the “pro-American” right-wing media threatens to destroy the country unless they get what they want. I had also read recently that Obama’s approval ratings show the largest political-party gap of any president in modern history.

For all of his hopes about bipartisanship, Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades. The 61-point partisan gap in opinions about Obama’s job performance is the result of a combination of high Democratic ratings for the president — 88% job approval among Democrats — and relatively low approval ratings among Republicans (27%).

Here’s one video of the protest from a CNN reporter:

I actually think the reporter handled the whole thing badly – arguing and getting snippy with a protester. I’m betting that the guy who says we’re moving away from Lincoln’s principles is blissfully unaware of the fact that the first time the US government collected income taxes was in 1861 – under Lincoln.

The other stupidity of his whole argument is that US taxes (under Obama) are still quite low by twentieth century standards. (The image below shows the tax-rates on the richest section of the population.) Not, that any of them would know this listening to right-wing pundits.

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One of the ideas I hear a lot when someone dies is that “it was his time to go” – as if fate or God dictated the time of a person’s death. Now, I understand that this belief has a certain emotional appeal when someone dies, so it’s not something I’m going to argue about in that circumstance. But, it does bother me from a logical standpoint. If we really sit down and think about this rationally, I think it can be shown that (in general) people are not “fated” to die at a particular time. What would it really mean if each person has a time to die?

1. Geographical and historical differences in life spans are due to “fate” or “God”, not external factors like medicine, diet, sanitation, or safety.

In the real-world, life-spans appear to be correlated with access to health care and sanitation. The world map shows life-expectancies by nation. (Green is 67 years or longer. Yellow is 60-67 years. Red is 40-60 years. Black is less than 40 years.)
Apparently, “fate” or “God” decided that people in less-developed nations die much younger on average than people living in developed nations.

Historically, lifespans have also been much shorter. Even a few hundred years ago in Europe, diseases killed a lot of children before they reached adulthood, and lots of women died in childbirth.

Humans by Era Average Lifespan at Birth (years)
Upper Paleolithic 33
Neolithic 20
Bronze Age 18
Classical Greece 20-30
Classical Rome 20-30
Pre-Columbian North America 25-35
Medieval Britain 20-30
Early 20th Century 30-40
Current world average 66.12

Admittedly, life-expectancy numbers are skewed by high infant morality, but adult mortality was also higher than they are modern times.

The existence of these differences should be puzzling for anyone who thinks that fate or God determines the time of our deaths.

2. If fate or God determines the time of our death, then, logically, we shouldn’t be concerned about safety or health. If you want to smoke or skip the seat-belt, it shouldn’t matter because the time of your death has already been determined. Disease isn’t the cause of death, but merely a tool used to bring about death at the appointed time. If we correct any of these problems, then we should expect something else to bring about death, instead. These actions should have no effect the average lifespan within a society:

* Finding a cure for a disease
* Reducing gang violence
* Preventing the spread of HIV with condoms or abstinence
* Getting a vaccine, an antibiotic, or going to the doctor
* Increased sanitation (leading to a reduction in water-borne illness, such as cholera)
* Quitting smoking
* Increased safety on work sites, such as mining or construction
* Increased automobile safety, including seatbelts, crash-test standards, etc

Of course, we don’t believe any of this is actually true. We do believe that eradicating smallpox saved lives, that sanitation leads to fewer cases of cholera and reduced mortality. When the panama canal was being built, it was discovered that mosquitoes transmitted malaria. It’s very evident that the death-rates of panama-canal workers dropped significantly when they controlled the mosquito populations.

3. If the time of our deaths is predetermined, then we cannot blame people for actions that cause death. Murderers are merely acting as tools to bring-about death at the appointed time. If the murder hadn’t killed that person, they would’ve died from some other cause. Hitler cannot be blamed for the deaths of tens of millions (both in the holocaust and the war). The 3,000 people who died on 9/11 would’ve died anyway. “Fate” decided it was their time to die. And, it’s not your fault if you drive drunk and kill someone. That person would’ve died regardless.

Therefore, we cannot blame murderers or reckless behavior for causing the deaths of others. In fact, it would be pointless to spend time and money tracking down murderers – because doing so will not decrease the number of deaths in a society. The whole idea of tracking down a killer “before he kills again” is nonsense if each death is predetermined.

Now, I realize that someone could argue that there are human-caused deaths and “fated” deaths. This would allow them to condemn the murderer or the reckless driver. (Although, I’d bet there are plenty of people killed in drunk-driving accidents where people say, “it was their time”.) In general, I think people tend to use the “fate” or “God” idea when the death is outside any reasonable human ability to prevent it. If that really was the case, it should be pointless to find cures for diseases, and the geographical/historical gaps in life-expectancy should be perplexing (at least when those deaths are not caused by humans).

Of course, once you abandon the idea that God determines each person’s lifespan, and realize that people’s deaths occur for mundane reasons (rather than unknowable divine ones), it raises the question: “Why doesn’t God intervene to prevent death?” I have an answer to that, but it isn’t one theists are comfortable with.

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A number of the girls I’ve dated have believed in what I’d call a “generic God”. I have to wonder how common this is, and how common this is becoming. It’s a belief that a God exists, created the universe, wants people to act morally, grants an afterlife, and has a timetable for when people die. But, this generic God isn’t necessarily associated with Christianity or any other religion and it isn’t dogmatic.

My current girlfriend actually has these beliefs. She was raised Catholic, and a number of months ago, she set out to read the Bible because she wanted to see what it was all about, and what so many Americans base their lives on. She managed to read through the New Testament, and the first six (or so) books of the Old Testament. She wasn’t that impressed. She’s surprised that people think the Bible is divinely inspired. She says many of the initial stories in the Old Testament have no real point – they are often strange and contain no lesson for the reader. She also said that the Old Testament God behaves “like a tyrant”. However, she believes in a kind of generic God. This generic God isn’t the same as the God of the Bible. I have to admit, it’s a slippery concept to actually debate or test. The generic God doesn’t have to answer for any of the actions of “God” in the Bible, nor is there any belief that Christianity is the only way to God.

She doesn’t necessarily believe that prayer has any effect on the world – which means that studies showing the non-effect of prayer doesn’t say anything about the existence of God. In fact, she thinks that if God has a plan for the world, then prayer must be ineffective because petitioning God to answer a prayer would necessarily be a deviation from God’s plan. If God thought that you should: be healed, get a new car, or whatever, then He would make it happen; prayer is irrelevant.

We haven’t really gotten into why God would allow atrocities – ranging from the holocaust to serial killers to Josef Fritzl. Or why God would permit disease to afflict humanity, and if disease was part of God’s plan, why humanity would be allowed to find cures.

At the heart of it is the fact that she likes to believe in a higher power. She said that if she lives her whole life believing in God, then dies and there is no God or afterlife, that it would still be a good thing to believe because it would be a happier life to believe in all those things. (My own view on that is that I would prefer to know the truth, even if it was a less-happy belief.) In this case, it comes down to an issue of the burden of proof. From my perspective, I don’t think there’s any good evidence for God, or a loving God in particular. The burden of proof is on the believer to show that God does exist, rather than the non-believer to prove God doesn’t exist – which isn’t even theoretically possible (at best, we can make God an entirely superfluous explanation). From her perspective, I can’t prove God doesn’t exist, or that there isn’t an afterlife. She wants to believe they do exist, and, as long as there is a window of possibility, she will believe it because she can and because it feels good. She’s also lived her whole life believing in God, and she misses some of the ritual of belief.

Now, there’s nothing about her belief that would cause her to do anything irrational like I see in fundamentalists (like fundamentalists who blindly support Israel because “it’s what God wants”, believe that God is directing them to a particular course of action, or claim that we don’t even need to think about global warming because only God can destroy the earth or avoid making decisions because ‘it’s in God’s hands’). As long as her beliefs don’t make her skirt personal responsibility or make irrational decisions, then I don’t need her to think exactly the same as I do.

One of the snags is that she wants children who believe in God like she does. She wants them to go to church – despite the fact that she doesn’t really believe in Christianity. She likes to pray because it gives her a minute to think about her friends and what their needs are (not because she believes God will actually answer prayers). She also started going to mass recently – not because the teaching is divine, but because the priest gives a little nugget of wisdom to think about. I’m not quite sure what to think about it exactly. I would feel silly sitting in church listening to a priest/preacher teach something that I know isn’t true, plus I often see them making factual errors. To me, most religious teachings just sound like a bunch of fiction that people made up because it feels good to believe it. At the same time, if we did have kids, I wouldn’t want to be that Dad that stays home when mom took the kids to church. I remember families like that when I was growing up, and I always hated that. Admittedly, I was a Christian at the time.

(All of this makes me think about the Christians who claim that atheism is just something people believe because it’s the easy way to do what we want. Well, atheism is not the easy way when it comes to relationships and living in a predominantly theist nation.)

The whole thing has caught me a little off-guard. Assuming we got married and had kids, we could end up going to church. She would believe in God, but not really in Christianity. I wouldn’t believe in God or religion. Yet, we’d be showing up to church every Sunday? Are there other people like that? I understand that there are probably some “Christians” who go to church as part of a program to “climb the social ladder”. I also realize there are churches that aren’t Christian (so “church” doesn’t necessarily mean “Christian”). A friend of mine who is Buddhist goes to a church which has a series of speakers from different religions. I’m probably less opposed to that – if for no other reason than the fact that I like to hear what people believe. Although, I would probably still be irritated by the stream of feel-good fiction supported by zero evidence, which exists in all religions.

Personally, I don’t really have a need for feel-good fiction. Some people do. I have to wonder about the ability of atheism and agnosticism to really make much headway with people who hold beliefs in a generic God and enjoy believing it. At least these people are unlikely to stand in the way of science (say, in the evolution-creation debate) or dogmatically assert that homosexuality is wrong and we need to support Israel or invade a country because “God told me”. I can’t help but wonder how much “generic religion” is on the rise in the US, whether people continue to practice religious ritual because it feels good and gives people a community, and whether people are showing up to Christian churches out of belief in a generic God.

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Funny Condom

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