Archive for December, 2008

A Happy and Godless New Year!

December 31, 2008

Well, the end of the year is upon us. It would probably not surprise anyone that 2008 can be surmised as positively ghastly. We are still stuck in Iraq. We are currently in the throes of an economic meltdown. People are experiencing layoffs while many of those left working get the additional burdens shifted on to them. The country seems to be a wreck. In addition, 2008 has been a horrible year for mixing politics with religion. The Friendly Atheist talks about that and includes a video from The Secular Coalition for America. One depressing moment mentioned was when the political candidates were led into airing their religious laundry for their campaigns. There was the religious movement to deny gay people their rights in California. We have Rick Warren selected to give the inaugural address. The Friendly Atheist also mentions the fact that 3 of the Republican candidates raised their hands against evolution. The fight to ignore reality continues on the Christian right.

What surfaced in 2008 were powerful bigoted attitudes against people who simply do not believe in a god. This was evidenced in the Dole campaign (fortunately Dole lost, a hopeful sign), Huckabee’s call to change the Constitution to “God’s standard” (see video referenced above), and the Washington sign ridiculousness.

What about 2009? It is up to us humanists and atheists to continue our quest to show people that there is a better way. To resolve to become more involved and to speak out. Even if you are a Christian, help us to keep our government secular. After all, you do not want the government imposing upon you different religious interpretations (or even a different religion) than your particular denomination teaches. Many atheists would also love for you to recognize that we atheists are moral beings just as yourself. Morality does not need to be considered as only springing from God but can be based upon rational discussion and analysis. Therein we may find common ground. But God based moral decisions that can not be justified from non-religious based rational discourse should not be imposed upon others. That would be enough in itself.

But, again addressing any Christian readers, I would also invite you to, if you feel up to the challenge, examine your beliefs in 2009. Why do you believe the way you do? Many of us atheists, myself included, charge that religious thinking dangerously undermines critical thinking. That indeed is one reason why I am opposed to religious ideas. If you think this is wrong, I challenge you to honestly apply critical thinking to your beliefs and see how they hold up. If the beliefs are true, it should be no problem, right?

Oh yes, and the economy will likely continue to suck through 2009. I’m not expecting any miracles, but then, I wouldn’t, would I? Yet I do remain hopeful that we will see incremental progress for the better.

In which I support Bush

December 30, 2008

Back from vacation, so I thought I’d renew my blogging activities with a cold hard smack. I support our President. Oh, he’s done a terrible job, lied to get us into an unnecessary (and very expensive) war, tirelessly sought to undermine our civil liberties, wreaked environmental havoc across the land, sullied our national standing in the eyes of the world, showed no leadership in energy policy, displayed total incompetence when it comes to economics, education, world affairs, handling disasters, and leadership in general. The catastrophe which has been Bush’s Reign of Incompetence will require years for recovery. But other than that, he’s been great!

One place where this administration has the potential of actually doing some good though, is in regard to the oceans.

Read on!
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Where is the LiquidThinker?

December 21, 2008

Outta here! For about a week anyway. This year’s unusually hectic and frenzied Christmas season will culminate in celebrating the War on Christmas out of reach of the otherwise ubiquitous net.

I’ll be back to posting before the New Year though, and although it is clear that 2009 will still be a rough year, I’m sure we all hope it will be an improvement. Especially with the attention Obama seems to be giving to science, with Steven Chu and now John Holdren as science adviser at a cabinet level position.

Still, I know we all will miss the deep well of tragic comedy that was W. Bush. In remembrance of the memorable past 8 years, I give you these thinkable moments.

Read on!
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Atheism is morally bankrupt

December 19, 2008

Over at CNSNews.com, we have an interesting article by Ben Shapiro explaining why atheism is a morally bankrupt system.

There’s only one problem: without God, there can be no moral choice. Without God, there is no capacity for free will.

That’s because a Godless world is a soulless world. Virtually all faiths hold that God endows human beings with the unique ability to choose their actions—the ability to transcend biology and environment in order to do good. Transcending biology and our environment requires a higher power—a spark of the supernatural. As philosopher Rene Descartes, put it, “Although … I possess a body with which I am very intimately conjoined … [my soul] is entirely and absolutely distinct from my body and can exist without it.”

The main gist of the article than goes on to say that without a soul we are inherently bound to completely deterministic biology and so there is no free will and without free will there are no morals. Hence, God exists. Atheism is bad. Q.E.D. First, of course, he presents absolutely no evidence that a soul or God even exists to be a foundation of morals. Shapiro provides no evidence that that things are not deterministic. He simply asserts that determinism is bad, we need morals, so atheism is bad. He is also unaware that he is constructing a strawman in that not every atheist (in fact very few) is arguing for determinism and the demise of free will, although we do know that genetics and environmental factors can influence a person’s decisions. Of course, he doesn’t see the strawman, but I’m sure he believes that he is simply drawing inferences from a materialistic conception of the world. The problem is the inferences are not necessarily correct. Indeed, at a fundamental level, it may very well that there is some measure of determinism, although at the fundamental level we do have to deal with the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. Of course, the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is fairly predictable. We might not be able to determine momentum and position simultaneously with infinite precision, but we know precisely what the fundamental relationship of the uncertainties of the 2 quantities are. Everything is not as ad hoc and free as some might want to think.

But one does have to take into account chaos. There are limits as to how well we can measure things, and the imprecision can make a significant difference in future outcomes. When it comes to individuals and society additionally, there are simply too many variables to predict with any reasonable precision what individual choices will be in all cases. So for all pragmatic purposes, we can not treat all choices as if one really has no free will. Responsibility does not require behavior to be uncaused, but, rather for individuals to recognize that actions have consequences. It is up to society to provide the framework in which that happens and from within which one may take actions that have desirable (for the benefit of all, think the Prisoners Dilemma) consequences for all as a whole and within which actions having deletirious effects are in some way discouraged. An excellent foundation for morality is given by Ebonmusing at his The Ineffable Carrot and Infinite Stick essay.

But what morality does religion encourage? In the Christian religion, God is the sum total of all good morals. The source of morality. In the Bible, children who disobey their parent (or who curse them, talk back to them, etc.) are to be stoned to death. This is by the order of God, whose moral sense is unchanging. In a famous scene, God orders a man’s death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. Now there are those who argue that the purpose of the commandments was to simply show us how imperfect we are and in need of salvation. Let me repeat: according to the story, God orders death by stoning to a guy for picking up sticks on the sabbath. There are, of course, many more examples of God’s abhorrent moral behavior, but these two will suffice for this argument. There are also those who argue that Jesus abrogated the need for many of the rules. He let an adulteress free, for example, and said that “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”. All well and good, but that doesn’t negate the fact that according to God’s unchanging morals, death is considered an appropriate moral punishment for talking back to your parents or trying to gather firewood to keep warm on a cold Saturday. Let’s say that you, dear reader, are a Christian parent. Do you think stoning to death your child for getting drunk and talking back to you is moral? If your answer is negative, you are more moral than the God you worship.

No, if we really want to lead moral and ethical lives, the last place we should look to for an example is any sort of god. Deterministic or chaotic, it is still up to us to determine what kind of society we live in and what sorts of decisions to make. We should look to compassion and a means to minimize suffering while maximizing the happiness of all.

Rick Warren, a bad start

December 18, 2008

In a move that can only be described as interesting, well, interesting and atrocious, Obama selected Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church here in Southern California, to deliver the inaugural prayer. Rick Warren, of course, if famous for wanting to deny gay people their rights. He is perhaps slightly less famous for another bigoted statement in stating that anyone running for President must believe in God. How belief in God actually translates into good governing skills this theocrat does not actually explain because, of course, it is nonsense.

In fact, the whole idea of an inaugural prayer itself makes me nervous, bordering as it does upon an official recognition of religion. I would prefer to do away with the practice all together, but perhaps this is not change Obama believes in. Another option would be to give a nod to the fictitious nature of the matter by doing something a little more recognizable to the general public as fiction. Say perhaps, a Jedi knight wishing for the Force to be strong with the new administration.

Call from the wild, messenger from Malachi

December 17, 2008

We’ve come now to the next in prophecy of this little prophecy series, the last of which was seen here. This is indirectly concerned with Jesus since it is actually claimed to be a prophecy for John the Baptist. Mark also uses this one, but adds a little something. We’ll take a gander at that also. It is interesting in that the person involved apparently was an actual historic person for a change, at least according to Josephus. Let’s jump right in.

Read on then!
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As our representatives get unconstitutional on us

December 16, 2008

Well, be sure to check out House Resolution 847 at this time “engrossed” in House. Just to help out:

HRES 847 EH

H. Res. 847

In the House of Representatives, U. S.,

December 11, 2007.

Whereas Christmas, a holiday of great significance to Americans and many other cultures and nationalities, is celebrated annually by Christians throughout the United States and the world;

Whereas there are approximately 225,000,000 Christians in the United States, making Christianity the religion of over three-fourths of the American population;

Whereas there are approximately 2,000,000,000 Christians throughout the world, making Christianity the largest religion in the world and the religion of about one-third of the world population;

Whereas Christians and Christianity have contributed greatly to the development of western civilization;

Whereas the United States, being founded as a constitutional republic in the traditions of western civilization, finds much in its history that points observers back to its Judeo-Christian roots;

Whereas on December 25 of each calendar year, American Christians observe Christmas, the holiday celebrating the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ;

Whereas for Christians, Christmas is celebrated as a recognition of God’s redemption, mercy, and Grace; and

Whereas many Christians and non-Christians throughout the United States and the rest of the world, celebrate Christmas as a time to serve others: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives–

(1) recognizes the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world;

(2) expresses continued support for Christians in the United States and worldwide;

(3) acknowledges the international religious and historical importance of Christmas and the Christian faith;

(4) acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States and in the formation of the western civilization;

(5) rejects bigotry and persecution directed against Christians, both in the United States and worldwide; and

(6) expresses its deepest respect to American Christians and Christians throughout the world.

Whereas, the Treaty of Tripoli, ratified in 1797, expressly states:

Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

,

and whereas the First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

the Sponsors and Cosponsors, as listed at Pharyngula, of this unconstitutional bill shall be removed from office for not respecting the law of these United States.

At least my representative is not sponsoring and has not yet said anything about this resolution. He may be a Republican I disagree with on many issues, but I’ll have to send him some email to thank him for not supporting this and urge him to vote against it.

Good times, bad times

December 15, 2008

you know I’ve had my share. Alright, this isn’t really about Led Zeppelin (although the economy is sinking like one). But apparently bad times in the economy translate into good times for evangelists. A recent article in the NY Times reports how evangelicals seem to be actually happy about this economic downturn as it means more addition to their flocks. From the article:

A study last year may lend some credence to the legend. In “Praying for Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Religiosity in the United States,” David Beckworth, an assistant professor of economics at Texas State University, looked at long-established trend lines showing the growth of evangelical congregations and the decline of mainline churches and found a more telling detail: During each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004, the rate of growth in evangelical churches jumped by 50 percent. By comparison, mainline Protestant churches continued their decline during recessions, though a bit more slowly.

So we may have a ratcheting effect causing the more evangelical (and possibly more fundamentalist) churches to grow possibly at the expense of more moderate churches. It is simple to figure out why, but I’ll let someone from the article explain it in his own words.

Frank O’Neill, 54, a manager who lost his job at Morgan Stanley this year, said the “humbling experience” of unemployment made him cast about for a more personal relationship with God than he was able to find in the Catholicism of his youth. In joining the Shelter Rock Church on Long Island, he said, he found a deeper sense of “God’s authority over everything — I feel him walking with me.”

Of course, we atheists realize that this reliance on a god gives only a false sense of security based on wishful thinking. We also realize that the market does have periodic ups and downs and so, in all likelihood, there will be an eventual recovery (though it may take a while in this case). We also know that there will be some who will likely see a “divine hand” in the recovery in spite of all the hardship and suffering preceding and that the recovery was likely anyway based on the evidence of history.

But simple logic and reason, for many people, does lack the emotional impact of having a special connection with the creator of the cosmos. To have a feeling that you are part of something bigger than all this and that this creator guy is watching out personally for you. It gives one a sense of hope in dark times. It is quite easy to defeat this spirituality with reason, but what constructive approach can we humanists and atheists offer as an emotionally positive alternative in times like this?

I don’t have any ready answers for this. I can see why saying “There is no god, rely on yourself and society.” may not seem like an emotionally satisfying alternative to someone like Frank O’Neill. But perhaps I can relate something from my own personal experience.

When I was laid off for a short time during the tech bubble crash, I saw this as an opportunity for growth. I took advantage of the time to learn new things, some of which turned out to be useful in the next step in my evolving career. One should be able to, amidst the ruin, evaluate and lay the foundation of a stronger structure, having learned from the experience. There was also time to further nurture personal relationships. To me, this seems much more useful than developing a “relationship” with something that doesn’t exist. One thing mentioned in the article was that people also are more able to contribute personal time to charitable functions, such as soup kitchens. I agree that is a worthwhile cause, and I’ve mentioned previously there are a number of notable secular charities and causes to which one can contribute as well. By doing so, we can do the groundwork for making a more progressive society where the needs of all can hopefully be met. I realize that the concept of humanity as a whole might, to some people, seem more abstract than some concrete cosmic entity looking out for everybody. But if we can help people to think at this higher level, I think society will be on a much more solid footing with more opportunity for success when the recovery finally takes effect.

I would be interested to see what anybody else thinks are positive things we, as humanists and atheists, can offer.

Creationist harm

December 14, 2008

I was recently asked in an email (not related to this blog) about the harm of creationism. This person tried to make the point that it is only fair to have both sides of the evolution story presented in science class. That this is in keeping with true American democracy and we should let children know that the matter is not settled. The person went further and asked that since most Americans accept creationism and our nation is in a position of scientific leadership, surely that demonstrates that it is o.k. to present creationism (or its insidious cousin, “intelligent design”) as a viable alternative theory. So, I figured I would work out some thoughts on the subject here on this blog. Feel free to add your own comments here.

Read on!
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Hazardous news

December 13, 2008

The LA Times had an interesting story today in the science section today. Apparently the EPA, under the direction of Bush, is exempting an estimated 118,500 tons of hazardous waste annually and allowing industry to burn the waste as fuel so it doesn’t count as hazardous waste. From the article:

Susan Bodine, the EPA’s assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said in a statement that the rule eliminated unnecessary regulation and promoted “energy recovery” without sacrificing human health or the environment.

But Ben Dunham, associate legislative counsel for the nonprofit advocacy group Earthjustice, said that “everything about this rule-making was flawed,” including “the logic that says, ‘If you can burn it, it’s not a hazardous waste.’ ”

That’s pretty much the extant of it in this report. Sounds like no big deal, right? The waste gets burned, it’s gone, and nobody gets hurt, right? That is one of the problems with science reporting in mainstream media. There are many unanswered questions here. What sort of waste will get burned? What will be the residue left after burning? It also stands to reason that some of the byproducts of burning is going to be emissions into the air. What sort of emissions?

Of course it turns out one can get a little more information about this online. The Earth Justice site also has a little story about this here. From this article:

“Everything about this rulemaking was flawed,” said Ben Dunham, Associate Legislative Counsel for Earthjustice. “From the backroom industry request for the rollback, to the process that hid the identities of the facilities from affected communities and ignored data showing increased toxic emissions, to the logic that says ‘if you can burn it, it’s not a hazardous waste.'”

The agency justified the new rule by claiming that emissions from burning waste are not “likely” to differ from emissions from burning fossil fuels. But EPA offered no data to support that claim in their proposed rule, and admitted that some emissions could be higher.

“Many of these wastes are already being burned for fuel by licensed, trained, and closely regulated professionals in incinerators designed to eliminate toxic emissions,” Dunham added. “This rule allows hazardous waste generators — including many with terrible environmental records — to simply throw their hazardous waste in the company boiler.”

Admittedly, a group called Earth Justice might be considered somewhat biased, but the statements made seem entirely reasonable. The EPA has even admitted that some emissions may be higher than fossil fuels. Looking at the pdf link has a little more information. Out of 173 tests, 32 showed more toxic emissions than the worst fossil fuel boiler, with emissions including benzene (a known carcinogen) and toluene.

Now I do happen to think this is a very bad idea, but just another in a string of very bad ideas coming out of the Bush administration. But whether or not you agree with that, I think it is reasonable to ask why we are not seeing more media coverage of something like this. Plus the coverage we have is very sparse and lacking any depth. This just got slid way under the disproportionate coverage of the Illinois governor, cabinet selections, etc. (yes, those things are important also, but don’t need to be every story). This deserves wider public discourse and is just one example of why we need to work at more effective communication and public scientific literacy.