Posts Tagged ‘atheists’

Harvesting cash

December 17, 2009

Seeing so many of these “Harvest” bumper stickers everwhere, I felt obliged to to comment on a particular story. Apparently, demons are responsible for taking money away from charlatan, conman, preacher, Rod Parsley of the World Harvest Church. So, he is asking for a little help.

The headline of the appeal for donations reads: “Will you help me take back what the devil stole?”

He really needs help.

When asked to comment yesterday, Parsley’s World Harvest Church issued a statement saying the recession caused a decline in member giving in 2009, which has led to a fourth-quarter deficit of $3 million despite a 30 percent reduction in the budget.

That’s quite a deficit. Wait, also we have:

This year, the church settled for $3.1 million with a family whose son was spanked at its day-care center in 2006, to the point his buttocks and legs were covered with welts and abrasions.

The boy, then 2, said he was spanked with a “knife” by a substitute teacher. His parents, Michael and Lacey Faieta, believe it was a ruler.

Clearly nothing suspicious going on there. That nasty demonic recession has had effects not even I could have forseen.

A prayer for South Carolina

September 1, 2009

Recently, in Columbia City, South Carolina, at the urging of possible mayoral candidate Tameika Isaac Devine, a resolution to open city council meetings with a prayer was unanimously passed with no discussion. It should go without saying that this totally violates the separation of church and state and thoughtlessly tramples over the sensibilities of those present who may not share the religious beliefs espoused in whatever magic words are incanted. Did I say thoughtlessly? No, Devine did put some thought into it.

Devine says she was surprised that City Council had not been starting its meetings with an invocation. “And I totally respect the whole separation of church and state,” she says.
But Devine says council members have an important job to do — the will of the people.

“And I think starting with an invocation gives you that importance and sets that tone,” she says. “But it’s definitely our desire to give voice to a diverse group.”

Although Devine does seem to have some dim glimmering that there is such a thing as separation of church and state, it is clear that she is pretty unclear on the concept. But to be fair, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and offer a prayer that can be used in the city council meetings that will reflect the diverse system of beliefs and non-beliefs of all humanity.


Dear God and Jesus Christ our Savior, we know you are a jealous God whose name is Jealous, so please forgive mention of all these other gods and give us your blessings anyway. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. O Allah, you are all great and merciful so we submit (and really we didn’t mean to pray to Jesus above, really). Lord Krishna, please aid us in our cosmic journey to put our city in harmony with the cosmos. Ganesha, please remove obstacles from the paths to reach our goals for our city. Lakshmi, please give us luck in our plans and make us beautiful and wealthy. Agni, we offer oblation, please don’t burn us. Vishnu, please help us create great plans, and Shiva, let us destroy old unworkable plans so we may begin anew. Great Spirit, help us in our hunt on this vision quest. Lord Buddha, help us make the city such that all our people can escape the endless cycle of suffering, perhaps by adding more light rail to ease traffic congestion. Jah, we promise to legalize ganja to let people engage in spiritual quests. Satan, thanks for getting us into that whole “Tree of Knowledge” thing; it’s working out pretty well. Athena, give us wisdom. Thor, please don’t strike us with lightning, and Loki, please don’t start causing mischief in our fair city. Blessed be the Goddess, by whichever name you know her, and may her blessings be bountiful upon us. We recognize the way of the Tao, which if can be named is not the eternal Tao. [insert appropriate incantations from other faiths, Judaism, Sikh, Bahai, Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc. etc. here]. Finally, we acknowledge that it is possible that none of these gods or goddesses exist so you should quit worrying and enjoy your life.

Now that this prayer is ended, it is the end of the day and time to go home.

On second thought, maybe a city council should just focus on doing the city’s business.

Gog, Magog, Iraq, and the mafia

August 21, 2009

So here’s a little sample of what happens when you make a interesting cocktail mix of politics and religion, especially bizarre religious mindsets. President Chirac recounts a story you may have heard before about the lead up to the Iraq war.

Now out of office, Chirac recounts that the American leader appealed to their “common faith” (Christianity) and told him: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East…. The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled…. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”

This bizarre episode occurred while the White House was assembling its “coalition of the willing” to unleash the Iraq invasion. Chirac says he was boggled by Bush’s call and “wondered how someone could be so superficial and fanatical in their beliefs.”

Well, there’s a huge contributing factor to what got us in Iraq. Dulled uncritical religious thinking. This is also consistent with all those Bible quotes from Rumsfeld, of course, fueling the fire for Bush’s self-proclaimed crusade. How many lives have been lost and how many resources have been squandered for Bush’s religious misadventure? Whatever the opportunity cost, it certainly has left us in a sorry state. As everyone should know by now, there were no weapons of mass destruction, Iraq was not allied with Al Queda, and Iraq posed no serious threat to us and now our economy is a mess. Although the latter is not entirely the fault of going into Iraq, but it certainly hasn’t helped.

So, what does what happened then have to do with now? You may recall America’s own dark little mercenary unit called Blackwater. It seems Obama is still funding this group. Why? There is a bit of information on one of the cofounders of Blackwater, Erik Prince, a crony of Bush. He is a big sponsor of and intimately related to that repressive group, The Family Research Council, known for wanting to disestablish public education, put prayer back in schools, and bigotry against gay people in regards to marriage. It was alleged (bottom of the wiki) by two Blackwater employees that:

Prince “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,” and that Prince’s companies “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.”

But wait, there’s more! We also have the C-Street Christian mafia, an organization in which Congress are members of, and which seems to act as a kind of white washing facade for all sorts of corruption. Here you can hear more about this insidious organization from author Jeff Sharlet (be sure to check out his book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of
American Power
, a behind the scenes frightening look at what these power hungry self righteous tyrants are all about.

From American Atheist, we have a few tidbits of information.

Family leaders consider their political network to be Christ’s avant
garde, an elite that transcends not just conventional morality but
also earthly laws regulating lobbying. In the Family’s early days,
they debated registering as “a lobby for God’s Kingdom.” Instead,
founder Abraham Vereide decided that the group could be more
effective by working personally with politicians. “The more invisible
you can make your organization,” Vereide’s successor, current leader
Doug Coe preaches, “the more influence you can have.” That’s true —
which is why we have laws requiring lobbyists to identify themselves
as such.

Yes, super secret organizations wielding power behind the scenes. Because, you know, a healthy democracy just thrives on that stuff.

But David Coe, Doug Coe’s son and heir apparent, calls himself
simply a friend to men such as John Ensign, whom he guided through
the coverup of his affair. I met the younger Coe when I lived
for several weeks as a member of the Family. He’s a surprising
source of counsel, spiritual or otherwise. Attempting to explain
what it means to be chosen for leadership like King David was —
or Mark Sanford, according to his own estimate — he asked a young
man who’d put himself, body and soul, under the Family’s authority,
“Let’s say I hear you raped three little girls. What would I think
of you?” The man guessed that Coe would probably think that he was
a monster. “No,” answered Coe, “I wouldn’t.” Why? Because, as a
member of the Family, he’s among what Family leaders refer to as the
“new chosen.” If you’re chosen, the normal rules don’t apply.

So, if you are chosen by God, according to the Christian mafia, the normal rules of man do not apply. Well, of course, why didn’t I think of that earlier? If I get myself chose, I can do anything! Their self proclaimed role models are Hitler, Mao, and Stalin. A very powerful light needs to be shone on this group.

Yes, many people do not take their religion to this extreme. There are many moderates content to believe, go to church on various Sundays, and have a normal life. But, like a cancer, religious memes are not content to remain local and benign. Inherent in religious thinking are threats to a healthy democracy, and all humanity. Humanity, as a whole, needs to stop giving any religion a free pass and examine these beliefs critically. After all, even the moderates stand on the same foundation as those in Blackwater, the Christian mafia, and all the rest.

Thanks to Vjack at Atheist Revolution for the posting about this.

Billboard theocracy

July 23, 2009
Suggested billboard

My own suggested billboard

From my home state of Florida, we have a call to arms for theocrats everywhere. A fellow by the name of Gregg Smith apparently want to bring our country back to God by invoking the fiction that this what the founding fathers intended. On his website, he writes:

“The Judeo-Christian foundation that the Founding Fathers established when America began is the reason that this country has prospered for 200-plus years,” said Kemple, president and sole employee of the local Community Issues Council, which paid for the Web site.

“The fact is, for the last 40 years, as anti-God activists have incrementally removed the recognition of God’s place in the establishment of our country, we have gone downhill.”

I’m sure he’ll be publishing some peer reviewed paper soon to provide support for the claimed cause and effect correlation. I wonder if in his paper, he will make note of the fact that the famous Treaty of Tripoli, unanimously approved by congress in 1797, states in Article 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.” (emphasis mine).

So, essentially, Gregg Smith is putting up billboards with quotes from the founding fathers to support his contention that their intent was a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles (whatever that means). Never mind the fact that Jefferson was pleased with what he called the wall of separation between church and state. Never mind the fact that there is sufficient evidence to believe that Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and others were likely deists who strove to maintain no overlap between government and religion (remember, the no religious test specified in the Constitution?). In fact, in addition to ignoring history, Smith creates some of his own. On one billboard we have:

…carry the same message but with fictional attribution, as with one billboard citing George Washington for the quote, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”

Washington never said this, but:

“I don’t believe there’s a document in Washington’s handwriting that has those words in that specific form,” Kemple said. “However, if you look at Washington’s quotes, including his farewell address, about the place of religion in the political sphere, there’s no question he could have said those exact words.”

So, they are reduced to making things up. Very nice indeed. Next I’ll just claim that Rockefeller meant to leave me all his assets; it is something he could have done.

But, you know, although we are fortuitous that the founding fathers had the astounding insight to separate the state from religion, to argue that this was the right thing to do because they were the founding fathers is fallacious. It is argument from authority. If the founding fathers did, for the sake of argument, establish a theocracy, with religious tests in the Constitution and so on, this would be as wrong now, as it would have been the wrong thing to do then. If that had been the case, we would need to change it. History shows that societies function better when religion is kept out of the apparatus of the state (see here.).

Hat tip to PZ Myers.

Unscientific America, a nonreview Part 1

July 19, 2009
Stepping out

Stepping out

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about Chris Mooney’s and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s latest book, Unscientific America. I have not yet read this book. I would like to, but burdened already underneath a huge reading list and too many projects, it is not likely I will have a chance to do so. So this, unlike other reviews of the book out there, will be a non-review. I think it is good that they have sparked some discussion, although much of the discussion seems to have been focused on the wrong things. From the review I linked to above, much of their discussion seems to not have been backed up with sufficient evidence and they don’t seem to have really addressed the root causes of the problem, if in fact, there is a problem.

They seem to lay part of the scientific illiteracy problem at the feet of the so-called new atheists. Apparently spending a couple of chapters to do so. The thinking seems to be that outspoken atheists alienate people and drive them away from science. They single out P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins as the poster children for this so-called bad behavior. There is a strong anti-science component in the U.S. There are people determined to undermine science education and public policy choices informed by good science. In strong part, this component is fueled by religious fervor and thinking. People like P.Z. Myers are addressing this, and rightly so. The muddle headed anti-critical thinking that is often inspired by religious thinking needs to be pointed out, and when necessary, mocked. One of the factors, according to their blog, Moony and Kirshenbaum, decided to leave science blogs was the “Crackergate” affair (Google it, if you haven’t heard about it. I’m too lazy to go digging around for that at the moment.). This just borders on the bizarre. It was not directed at them. In fact, the whole thing should have been merely a barely noticed minor blip on the “blog-dar”. The fact that it got so much attention speaks far more about the disproportionate reactions religious thinking inspires than anything Myers did. This fact seems to have been lost on Mooney and Kirshenbaum.

Nevertheless, Mooney and Kirshenbaum do a service on at least helping to spark some discussion on addressing scientific illiteracy. I don’t think a case is clearly made that it is a growing problem, but I think we are probably safe in assuming that we, as a nation, are not as literate in science as we could be. I think there is some discussion to be had on just how literate is enough. Not everyone is going to be needing to figure out how to do lattice gauge calculations, or what have you. Certainly, as a representative democracy, we need to be able to carry on a public discussion about climate change, recognize the need for vaccines, alternative energies, and so forth. There are several contributing factors to anti-science thinking in the U.S. Religion is one of them. The other is that same democratic spirit that made helps to define our national character. “I don’t need no ivory tower scientist to tell me how things work!”. Yankee ingenuity, all of us are equally capable, no elites necessary. I personally know several people where these traits combine to make the perfect storm. “Creationism is just another viewpoint! It should be taught in the schools on at least equal footing!”. These are factors about which very long discussions can be had and perhaps we’ll explore these further in future posts (I’ve already hit on these a few times myself), though feel free to tackle them in comments.

The suggestion that Mooney and Kirshenbaum make is to pave the way for an increased number of literate science communicators, modeled after Carl Sagan. Get scientific ideas out to the public and help them understand what we’re doing, and how things work. Chad Orzel, over at Uncertain Principles is running with this ball. I certainly agree that it is important to get ideas out there. To enable people to see a little better how the world works, and how it effects daily lives and public policy. It is an important mission. Of course, in fact, there are plenty of good science communicators out there already. There is Chad Orzel, of course. We also have Phil Plait, Sean Carroll, et al, P.Z. Myers (linked to earlier), Jennifer Oulette, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ken Miller, and many more. My first thought is not that there is a lack of good science communicators, but many are lost in the white noise of everything available on all the different available media. With a few exceptions (Phil Plait on Coast to Coast radio, for example), one has to seek these guys out. There is a preaching to the choir effect where those who are interested and motivated by science will find these good communicators. We have to nurture the interest, and I think this starts with a good education, along with something that will engage imagination and curiosity.

So to start with examining such matters, and to throw in a few thoughts, I’ll look to myself as an example. What motivated me to go into science? What were the initial seeds? One of course, was museums. Visiting air and space museums and natural history. Another was the movie 2001, A Space Odessy”. I had no idea what this movie was about as a kid, but the awesomeness of space exploration was firmly transfixed in my mind and inspired me to learn all I could. Another factor that contributed to my motivation was the lunar landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. Getting humans to the moon, and then back, was a stunning achievement, not only for America (after all, it was a competition with the Soviets), but for all humanity. This motivated many young minds at the time into studying science and engineering.

It is now 40 years after this stunning achievement. Friday night, I saw nothing on T.V. celebrating this. Aside from a few obligatory film footage shots on CNN this morning and a good article in the LA Times, the media have been relatively quiet. Is this part of the problem? What can be done now to make the type of inspiration stemming from Apollo 11 part of our national fabric?

Don’t pray for me Argentina

February 4, 2009

As I struggle to find posting time in the midst of hectic pressing schedules and all, I thought I could at least offer a few thoughts on one of the latest bits of news circulating the web. No, it’s not about Andrew Lloyd Webber. The title just seemed to flow. Rather, a nurse is facing disciplinary review for calling attention to her righteousness by praying for a patient over his understandable objections. I for one, would not want a medical professional doing magical incantations to cure me; I want them doing their job.

Look, if I am in the hospital and you want to show your concern, fluff my pillows, find something interesting on t.v. for me to watch (good luck with that one), bring in an ipod with cool tunes, or make sure my medication is in order and life signs are good. Prayer is the most useless activity you can do.

I understand that if you are a Christian friend and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can possibly do to be useful (even company is usually appreciated, so I don’t even see that as a likely situation), you may feel the delusion that prayer is at least something of use you can do. Said around me, this will simply make me sad that you persist in your delusion. So now I’ll be bed-ridden, sick, and sad. You don’t want that.

But if you are a medical professional, please stick to modern medicine. No anointing with oil, no chants, sacrificed goats, or prayers. If there is some compulsion to prayer, you will give your patient (at least this one) confidence if it is not seen and is done during a personal break.

A strawman’s call to action!

January 28, 2009

Another little article came across from the feeds from the McCook Daily Gazette which was truly amazing. The writer, Sam Elridge constructed a strawman which constructed a strawman. First, he suggested that colleges will soon, if not already have courses in atheism. That would be a rather short class. First 5 minutes; “No evidence for any gods. Class dismissed.”. Now I could see a class in humanism as being somewhat more substantial. In any case, the name for his chosen strawman is Prof. Churchkiller, an atheist professor seeking to explain why Christians aren’t really a danger since they don’t really believe what they claim. The whole piece is really meant to be a rallying article to get Christians to rise up, and, well, I don’t know, usher in a theocracy? As evidence of this lack of Christian belief, he has Prof. Strawman Churchkiller state:

Want proof? Consider what I just told you about God. If Christians really believed in a God of this Power and Consequence, a God capable of being individually involved, intimately, with the six billion persons of Earth, I’d think they’d act differently. For example, God proclaims that children are God’s gifts to mankind. Would Christians who really believed in this MIGHTY of a God, stand by an let Abortionists kill fifty million of these “gifts”?

Must be why in the Old Testament, this God causes and orders the deaths of countless numbers of his “gifts”. But that aside, has Mr. Elridge been paying attention at all to modern politics? Abortion is a litmus test issue for many fundamentalist Christians. What is he really advocating, civil war over this? The secular response is that at early stages of pregnancy, the embryo has no nervous system. Thus, there is no suffering involved to the embryo. This is the starting point for a basis of a calm rational discussion concerning abortion that requires no supernatural claims for justification. As a society consisting of multiple belief (or non) systems, governed by a secular government, that is the correct approach. If one is a Christian believing that abortion is wrong in a number of cases, don’t have an abortion in those cases.

He also writes this:

We Atheists saw to it that their God was tossed out of our schools on His ear, and did the Christians rise up? I have already talked about abortion and how defeated the Christians are in that area. We have almost got the work place declared off limits to Christians, remember, “keep it in the church.” Certainly talk of God is not allowed anywhere in colleges, and I don’t know of a single pornography fight that Christians have won lately.

Well, yes, many Christians did complain bitterly about taking prayer out of schools. We still have “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance. Further, if talk of God is not allowed in the colleges, how does Elridge have Prof. Strawman Churchkiller talking about God? Teachers and administrators can not be seen as officially endorsing any religion, Christian, Hindu, Wiccan, Islam, or whatever. One can, of course, have (and I have even taken) comparative religion classes in college. Students can talk about their own particular religion all they want. There are Bible clubs in school. At my own place of work, for a while several of the Christians were meeting for Bible study during lunch, so no, the work place is nowhere near being off limits to Christians, nor is anyone advocating this. I am not sure what pornography fights he may be thinking of, but I can’t help but remember the incredibly disproportionate response to the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction”.

Shortly after we have:

Many Christians today are consumed, as most of us, with the cares of life. They don’t want to take the time to learn about their Faith, or to act on their Faith. It was their own Jesus who said: “you must be willing to give up all, for My sake and the Gospel.” Who is willing to give up all nowadays? I may support my atheist ideals wholeheartedly, but, am I willing to take a bullet in the head for Atheism right now at this moment? A Christian, a Christian who believes, would take that bullet, for their God.

Am I willing to “take a bullet” for atheism? For the idea that there is no God? That would seem counterproductive. However, I am willing to fight for, and take a bullet if necessary, for the cause of liberty, freedom of speech and of, or from, religion.

So, it seems to me that either 1) Elridge has not been paying attention to how vociferous Christians are in the country, or 2) he is trying to advocate for stronger measures.

Some of the comments to this story were pretty good. But I was particularly amused by someone called G5. Getting off track a bit (and we’ll follow him for fun), he writes:

When I was a child science books had Gravity described as forces generated by the rotation of the earth. Of course that was nonsense, because the rotation of the earth works against gravity forces.

More recently, during the 19th century, it was discovered that electrons were negatively charged particles. That meant that electrons flowed from negative to positive. (Positive particles, Protons, are 1840 times larger than electrons.) Prior to that, all the books and schematic diagrams had electricity flowing from positive to negative.

I’m not sure what books G5 was reading as a child, but if what he said was correct, the books were blatantly wrong, and would have been known to be wrong even at the time he read them. Gravity has never been described by scientists as being generated by the rotation of the earth. It was described by Newton as a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance between 2 objects and proportional to the product of the masses, but never dependent on the rotation of a body. A body will have a gravitational force associated with it whether or not it is rotating. Of course, now we know that it is caused by a (in simple terms) bending of space time, via general relativity.

Second, he is correct about the current and charge flow bit. Except the convention is still to show current as flowing from positive to negative, making some fun confusion for beginning students. Of course, sometimes there is positive charge flow. In the world of semiconductors, when an electron moves from one vacant atomic orbit to another, it looks like a positively charged hole moving in the opposite direction. One can use the Hall effect to determine what sign the charge carrier is in a given material. The Hall effect takes advantage of the fact that the force on a moving charged particle in a magnetic field is proportional to the charge of the particle, its velocity, and the strength of the magnetic field. The direction of the force is perpendicular to the velocity of the particle and the magnetic field. So, the direction the particle is going to take will depend on the sign of the charge of the particle and you can use this to find out what the sign is. Now if you take one type of material (say a positive charge carrier .. a current of holes, usually called a p type) and sandwich it between the other type (n type of negatively charged carriers), you’ve made a transistor. Cool stuff.

The same old design arguments

January 26, 2009

Flitting across my feeds, over at what appears to be yet another conservative web site, I was treated to the ill founded ramblings of a certain Phil Harris. He says that he does have a strong interest in science, and for this I commend him. I wish him success in his explorations of scientific understanding. Unfortunately, he seems to have not yet mastered some basic critical thinking. I also recommend he actually learn some biology. His arguments are those which have been endlessly refuted in too many sources to be enumerated here. That people keeping making the same arguments, the basic refutations of which are too easily found with even the most casual investigation, shows an unwillingness to step outside their bubble to examine the evidence and counter arguments.

He writes:

Who am I, and why am I here?

It is a question that Richard Dawkins and other rejectionists can never answer through the scientific method; although, they claim all mysteries of the Universe would surely be unraveled given enough time and study. In a rather perverse twist, it is those who believe that life continues that are assured to know all there is to know, while those who reject life beyond death will simply evaporate, along with the composite chemicals that give the illusion of self, knowledge, and consciousness.

Who he is an incredibly complex carbon based sentient lifeform descended from primate ancestors we share in common with modern day primates. This lineage goes back several billion years to before multicellular organisms arose. Furthermore, I would imagine he fulfills several other societal roles. This is an incredibly rich legacy. I fail to see how invoking any supernatural entity adds any depth. Why is he here? I am not sure why the question is even valid. Purpose is what you make of it. We have the power to create our own purpose. Adding a god to the mix does nothing.

Further, I’m not sure that Dawkins and others would claim that everything that can be learned will be given enough time and study. We keep learning more, to be sure, and fitting more pieces to the puzzle. It is not clear to me when anybody will ever be able to claim that the puzzle is complete. We must also remember that scientific theories are “true” on a provisional basis. Experiments must always be performed to test theory and you never know when some unexpected result may force modifications to a theory, or even overthrow it. Further, his notion that those who reject an afterlife will simply evaporate away is somewhat strange in context. In the highly unlikely case of an afterlife in any objective sense, I fail to see why those of us who see no evidence for one now would simply not be able to take part in it. Even most fundamentalists think we atheists will spend eternity enjoying the pleasure of each others company in hell. Or something like that.

Well, he goes on. For example:

It is amazing to realize that such an incredible chemical accident occurred on a planet that hangs in an orbit so precisely tuned distance-wise to the Sun. How fortunate that this same planet includes physical systems of weather and climate that insure fresh water cycles in such a way to support life of all types.

What would be more incredible is if our planet was more too far away from the sun for our kind of life to exist, and yet, here were are. It would simply be amazing if we were living on the sun without any alterations to our physical composition. I don’t see why it is so hard to understand that the reason the planet seems so finely tuned for our kind of life, is because these are the conditions for which our kind of life evolved. If there were different conditions, it would possibly be a different kind of life. We still, so far, have only a sample size of one in comparing planet biosphere evolution pathways. We haven’t even ruled out life on other bodies in our own solar system yet.

Finally:

This clump of self-aware chemical compounds will continue to believe that there is more to the story of life and the Universe, than an unbridled, unstoppable run of chemical reactions. In fact, until Richard Dawkins can demonstrate the acquired ability to mix up a batch of molecules and produce a single blade of grass that is eager to join the evolutionary process, then I will take by faith that God does exist.

Nobody thinks one can mix a bunch of chemicals and have grass pop out. That sounds suspiciously like how a creationist would think. Grass itself is the result of painstaking years of evolution in the plant world (not that the division between plants and animals is always so clear, so I understand). He is talking about the earliest chemical evolution which was the precursor of life on this planet. In fact, this is an active area of research (a 1999 sample of the sorts of this type of research can be found here, more here (concerning how life may have started between layers of mica), and more discussion at the inevitable wiki. One of the factors that makes this a hard problem is that we don’t really know for certain all the precise variables that were in play when it happened. We can make some good educated guesses and probably get reasonably close. We may even succeed reproducing a scenario with an entirely different set of variables than the ones that actually started things off here.

His main argument is that life is very complex and we don’t understand how it came about, so there must be a god to give us all meaning. This is incredibly faulty reasoning. Again, not understanding how life came to be, and especially not understanding evolution, does in no way constitute positive evidence for a god. It is only evidence that it is a hard problem to solve in the one case, and evidence of not even trying to understand basic biology in the other.

Obama and the unbelievers

January 23, 2009

There’s been a bit of buzz concerning Obama’s referral to the “unbelievers” in his inaugural speech. Accusations include that this comes across as a negative term, that something like “free thinker” should have been used instead, and so on. So, at the risk of get buried in semantics, I figured it might be worthwhile to ponder this for a bit.

First, by itself, the term “unbeliever” means nothing. Most of us don’t believe in something. Christians don’t believe in Lakshmi or Ganesha. Muslims don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God. Nobody believes in Russell’s teapot (at least nobody’s admitting it yet). But Obama, in speaking to a predominately Christian audience, refers to a number of theistic beliefs and then includes nonbelievers. It is clear from the context that he means atheists or agnostics.

Is non or un-believer a negative term? It is in the sense that it is a negation of a belief in something. Beyond that is cultural context. Here in the U.S., unbeliever would probably carry the same weight of negativity that atheist does (Not that I think this is a good thing. I don’t.). Many of us atheists see atheism in a positive light and may see the term as implying a certain sense of rationality and humanism, in a way that simply not believing in something does not. For most Americans not actively involved in these religious/atheist debates, this implication may not exist (But it is an association that we would like to make mainstream, I’m sure.). That is beyond the definition of atheism, to be sure, but we all have word connotations derived from our experience. Even knowing that there are irrational atheists.

So saying someone is an unbeliever doesn’t really say what the person is for. Free thinker? Humanist? I would say that in some sense Obama is also a humanist and free thinker. He is also a believer, of the Christian variety. Would atheist have been better? My first inclination is yes, due to my own positive connotations of the word (not shared by most of my fellow citizens). But, then should he have distinguished atheists from agnostics, perhaps even giving a nod to Deists?

In the end, the speech was not about distinguishing between religious types or various flavors of “nonbeliever”, but a call for inclusiveness. To specifically include people who do not share in the various theistic beliefs that he or the majority of Americans share is a welcome relief. That governing should not be based on religious principles but on ideas that can be rationally reached and mutually agreed upon by reasonable people. I think we can probably all agree on that ideal.

Isaiah, Zebulun, and a great light

January 22, 2009

Here we go kids, another Jesus prophecy. It is kind of like shooting dead fish in a barrel, but since some actually think these prophecies actually work, we’ll plunge ahead. Matthew seems to be pretty prophecy referral dense, so it doesn’t take long to come to the next one in Matthew 4:15. The context is Jesus just tempted by the devil and John the Baptist got arrested. So, the story has Jesus leaving Nazareth and dwelling in Capernaum by the sea. Starting with Matthew 3:13:

…and leaving Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphatali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“The land of Zebulun and the land
of Naptali
toward the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles –
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region
and shadow of death
light has dawned.”

Sounds good, dawning of light taking away the shadow of death and all. Very poetic. What does Isaiah say? Just for fun, let’s include more context, eh? Starting with Isaiah 9:1:

But there will be no gloom for her that was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naptali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep
darkness
on them has light shined.
Thou hast multiplied the nation,
thou hast increased its joy;
they rejoice before thee
as with joy at the harvest,
as men rejoice when they divide
the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
thou has broken as on the day
of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called
“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of
Peace.”
Of the increase of his government
and of peace there will be no end,
upon the throne of David and over
his kingdom
to establish it, and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and for ever more.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

So what else is going on here, besides giving Handel some verses for the Messiah? In the previous verse, he was giving Ahaz the Immanuel sign about which I wrote previously. Now Immanuel is born and he’s talking about Assyria taking over Samaria and Damascus and God is going to hide his face from Jacob (symbolic for Israel) and there will gloom and anguish. But the land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be fine this time. Boots and clothing from the soldiers wil be used as fuel. That’s essentially it. As for the “unto us a son is given” aspect, this seems to almost work if you want to see it that way. It may seem a mystery that Matthew doesn’t grab this one, unless of course there was a well established tradition for a different interpretation. In fact Jewish tradition holds that it was King Hezekiah to which the “child is born” aspect refers (see here), not any future Messiah hundreds of years hence. Some discussion on this may be found here and here as well. This shows how translation problems (and comma insertions) along with a change in tense shows that this prophecy was used incorrectly by Christians.

There are some Christian objections to this claim, and claim that the Jewish scholars are misinterpreting their own scripture. At the very least, this shows the “prophecy” is ambiguous at best. Within it are no further clues to corroborate anything about the life of Jesus. Further, read in context, it certainly looks like the whole thing is framed with the context of an actual physical war, which a certain king is going to help win. It doesn’t sound anything like what is claimed for Jesus’ ministry.

So if you already are convinced that this is a prophecy of Jesus, chances are these arguments will not persuade you. But neither are they at all persuasive to someone you are trying convince. As all the other prophecies so far have been easily demolished, if you’re left with only this one, you are on pretty shaky ground.

More in this series.