29 March 2011

Newt Gingrich, moron

Newt Gingrich, who is possibly going to run for President, had this to say the other day:
"I have two grandchildren: Maggie is 11; Robert is 9," Gingrich said at Cornerstone Church here. "I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American."
Let's ignore for a second the irony of a dude who's had multiple affairs acting like a leader in America's march toward moral fortitude. Muslims running an atheist country? That doesn't even make sense. But then, nothing rallies the sheep like a healthy dose of bigoted fear-mongering. Muslims and the religiously unaffiliated (not necessary atheists) make up close to 40 million Americans who apparently have no idea what it means to be an American.

I'm not sure what Newt means by the "nature of America", but since he was giving this speech to the congregation of the ultra-loony Zionism-preaching Cornerstone Church (the one headed by John Hagee)  and lambasting Muslims and atheists in the process – and all us good, God-fearin' 'mericans know that those scary people are the ones to blame for our spiral toward socialism – I can only assume it has to do with stuff like forcing kids to pray in school regardless of their religious affiliation, teaching creationism alongside evilution, giving Christian beliefs special value in American culture above all others, and, of course, giving rich people shitloads of tax breaks. O'er the laaaaand of the freeeeeeeeeeeee.....

This kind of divisive, fear-mongering crap reminds me of an old Richard Dawkins quote: "My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a 'they' as opposed to a 'we' can be identified at all."

27 March 2011

Ray Comfort was on The Atheist Experience

... And I didn't watch it. Really, I think Ray Comfort is incorrigible. I watched his discussion with Thunderf00t, I've visited his blog and website countless times, and I sat through the atrocious debate on Nightline that pitted Comfort and his apprentice Kirk Cameron against the Rational Response Squad. I've seen about all I can take of that guy. I mean, at least the arguments of guys like WL Craig and Alister McGrath reflect a modicum of reason. There's a wise old saying that one is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Ray just gets the facts wrong and spouts the identical arguments ad nauseum no matter how many times he's corrected. He's also a science-denying Biblical literalist, and I can't see any reason to pay attention to those morons.

So yeah. I have no interest in listening to more of Ray Comfort. But I did read the follow-up blog over at TAE, and I liked the way Martin articulated his objections to the standard arguments "Something from Nothing" and "A Painting Requires a Painter":
That things in nature, including the universe itself, appear to be designed, is intuitive to us, because we are pattern-seeking creatures. But where Christians like Ray go phenomenally wrong is in confusing and conflating order and design. Design, at least as Christians use the term, implies intelligent agency and purpose. Order is entailed by the nature of existence itself. As George Smith points out, to exist at all is to exist as something. But order alone is not evidence of intelligent design. The great irony of Paley's Watchmaker argument is that it demonstrates this. To deduce that the watch in the desert must be a designed artifact, the observer is reaching that conclusion by comparing the watch to its surroundings. The watch stands out because it is wholly unlike the desert. The Watchmaker argument proves, if nothing else, that deserts are not designed. [link]
Indeed, if order implies design, then God himself must be designed – since God is presumed to both embody ordered properties and to act with ordered purpose. This is a common infinite regress. WL Craig, among others, has attempted to subvert this point by arguing that we don't need to understand the ontological nature of the explanation to understand that it is the best explanation. This misses the side of the barn: the point is that the logic being used to infer that the universe requires a designer at all is erroneous, and accordingly could just as easily be applied to God himself as the universe.  Before the believer can claim that something best explains the design of the universe, he has to demonstrate that it actually was designed.

The human longing for God (part 2)

In part 1 of this post, I discussed my objections to the notion that humans have an innate longing for God. I pointed out the lack of a ubiquitous definition of God (or gods), and the great diversity in religious beliefs and practices, including things like animism and ancestor worship. But I also expressed dissatisfaction with the atheistic rebuttal that religion simply exists to give people comfort; indeed, religion's "comfort" is often derived from the alleviation of threats and guilt that religion itself fabricates. But even if humans do not possess any homogeneous concept of gods or spirituality, it's undeniable that generalized beliefs in supernatural phenomena are ubiquitous in human cultures throughout history. If "comfort" is an unsatisfying answer, then why is this the case? Is this ubiquity evidence that supernatural things are real, and that we have a deeply embedded desire to connect with them? And why do supernatural beliefs manifest as gods and spirits, and not things like flying spaghetti monsters?

The Kalam gets another beatdown

A while back I pointed out that the Kalam commits the fallacy of equivocation two separate times. I've talked in other posts about the erroneous scientific assumptions in the argument as well, but now someone with much more free time than I has authored an extensive and thorough rebuttal of "Kalam cosmology", such as it is. There are two very in-depth articles here:

1. The Science of Kalam: The Big Bang

2. The Science of Kalam: Singularities

Essentially, the Kalam – and pretty much all belief in a theistic creator – is dependent on the notion that the Big Bang is the finite beginning of the universe, and there absolutely was not and could not have been anything before that. The universe began at the so-called "cosmological singularity" – the moment of God's creation. Except that's wrong. I'm headed to bed, but I liked this quote, because I've said a before that the singularity is merely an artifact of general relativity.
And this is the main problem: the mere idea of a singularity ignores quantum mechanics. As physicist Bruce Basset puts it, “The speed of light, c, and Newton’s constant, G, are the only constants of the theory [of General Relativity]. But Planck’s constant, h, appears nowhere. … Why is Planck’s constant important? When the average inter-particle distance becomes about the same size as an atom, then classical physics fails and quantum effects start to become important. As the density of the universe steeply rises, most cosmologists believe there must come a point at which Einstein’s equations fail and are simply wrong, since they don’t include any quantum effects” (Introducing Relativity, Pg.167-168 ).

26 March 2011

Boy almost dies, claims Heaven is real, strikes lucrative book deal

I caught this on my Facebook feed today: a story about a kid who had a near-death experience, complete with visions of angels, a sister he wasn't supposed to know about, Jesus riding a big horse, the apocalypse, and well... y'know, typical evangelical end-times crap.

His dad's a protestant pastor. He couldn't possibly have picked up any of that imagery from his parents, friends of family, or their church. He couldn't possibly have filled in missing pieces months after the fact. He couldn't possibly have heard about his sister from someone else, or (again) mistakenly attributed it retroactively. He was four and unconscious with sepsis from a burst appendix. How reliable would any of these memories be? People in perfectly good health make mistakes and retroactively edit their memories all the time. But nah. That wouldn't happen. The only logical explanation is that he actually went to Heaven and it's all true.

I always say that when there are people stupid enough to believe ridiculous things, there are people smart enough to make money off of it. Sort of like how my ex-girlfriend's mom had an attic full of dried food she was stockpiling for the Tribulation. And if you really want some entertainment this weekend, Google "2012 supplies". Shocking, then, that many a credulous fool will be buying this stupid book, and believing every word of it.

20 March 2011

The human longing for God (part 1)

There's a highly underrated book in the atheist arsenal, so to speak, that flew under the radars of most readers – primarily, I suspect, because it is not a polemic in the vein of The End of Faith or The God Delusion. It's called Religion Explained, by the anthropologist Pascal Boyer. He discusses religion through the lenses of evolution and cognitive psychology, explaining not only why religious beliefs are ubiquitous but why they tend to take the particular forms that they do.

I bring this up because I was just visiting the site of fellow godless liberal Michael Hawkins, where he's posted an interview with Richard Dawkins from the Christian show "Revelation TV". The interviewer challenges Dawkins to explain why so many billions of people seem to have an innate sense of God's existence. I've seen this concept posed a myriad of other ways by countless other people of faith, so much so that I'm convinced it's one of the central arguments for the existence of God: the old everybody's doing it argument.

Unfortunately, I found Dawkins' answer lacking. He suggests that people seek belief in God out of comfort – it helps them feel safe, helps them make sense of the world, etc. etc. Dawkins has often stated (correctly) that just because something is comforting doesn't mean it's true, and it seems like he was setting himself up to deliver that zinger.

But the answer is much more interesting than that, and it's here I will pull concepts from Boyer's book. Consider that there are cultures in which people perform elaborate rituals of witchcraft to protect themselves from evil spirits from which they believe themselves to be constantly under threat. This is not much different than the "spiritual warfare" attitude of many Pentecostal-style Christians, who are constantly fending off demons and performing exorcisms. Add to this beliefs about the end times, the wrath and vengefulness of God, and the pervasive guilt deeply woven into many forms of Western religions. But there are many other cultures and subcultures in which people do not busy themselves with such things – they give no mind to perceived threats from evil spirits, they do not fear angry deities, and they do not wrack themselves with guilt over their everyday behavior. As Boyer says, "If religion allays anxiety, it cures only a small part of the disease it creates." [p.20] Comfort, then, is not an adequate explanation for the existence of religious beliefs.

If it were true that humans possess an innate "longing for God", we might expect to see a great deal more homogeneity in religious beliefs and practices than we do now, because the very concept of "God" is one that lacks any sort of ubiquitously accepted definition. The Western concept of God as an extrinsic creator is certainly not shared by much of the rest of the world – many cultures believe the universe is eternal, and view their gods as powerful players on its stage; others still do not even bother themselves with gods at all, and instead worship ancestral spirits or anthropomorphized forces of nature. We must also consider that while humans have walked the earth for some 200,000 years, Western concepts of monotheism have only arisen within the last few thousand years – even the Old Testament is full of stories of divine rivalries between Yahweh and weaker or more evil gods.

Further, when most modern theologians talk about a "longing for God" or some such thing, they tend to be talking about something that resembles an interpersonal relationship – something that brings the believer a sense of purpose and connection to things greater than themselves. However, this is a relatively recent development in religious practice, even among the great Western monotheisms. For most of religion's history, belief in gods lent itself to more localized explanations of phenomena. People have not been particularly concerned with the kinds of questions that theologians busy themselves with now – why is there a universe, for example – but rather more immediate concerns, like why is there a drought, why has my child fallen ill, or why did the storm destroy my village. And as we can see from the elaborate rituals of witchcraft and ancestor worship, religion has produced contorted, elaborate explanations and solutions to these dilemmas. The function of religion, then, has been and still often is nothing like the new-age influenced "relationship, not religion" ideology growing in abundance today – likely, I suspect, because our modern wealth, affluence and scientific knowledge has freed us from the kinds of concerns that plague more materially and educationally impoverished cultures.

It might be more accurate, then, to say that people have a predisposition for a broad array of supernatural beliefs rather than suggesting that they long to be "one with God" or "one with the universe". So why do we have such a predisposition and, more importantly, why do our beliefs tend to take the forms that they do?

Continued, in part 2.

19 March 2011

This is why science beats religion

Any regular readers of this blog are likely familiar with the Christian theologian William Lane Craig. Judging by his debates with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Atkins and many others along with a great deal of work in Blackwell's Companion to Natural Theology, he's regarded by many a Christian as one of today's formost apologists.
His pet argument is the Kalam Cosmological Argument. A key premise in this argument is the idea that the universe had a finite beginning. Craig derives this from the Big Bang, and it's absolutely central to his theology. If the universe has no beginning – no moment of creation – then there's no need for a Creator. God could still exist of course, perhaps as some sort of pantheistic divine intelligence. But in order for his theology to be tenable, the universe must have a finite beginning.

Here's the thing though: we don't actually know whether the universe had a finite beginning, and the Big Bang is not evidence for it – primarily because the "starting point" of the Big Bang, the cosmological singularity, is little more than an artifact of the equations of General Relativity. While those equations "break down" (i.e., yield infinities) at the cosmological singularity, the equations of quantum mechanics do not.

So here's the big question: What caused the Big Bang? For William Lane Craig, it's a closed case: the Christian God did it and that's the beginning of the universe, so there. But as this video with Nobel Prize winning physicist John Mather simply illustrates, for science, it's still an open question.

This is the fundamental difference between science and religion. Where we lack understanding, science seeks answers; religion, on the other hand, makes assumptions. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins remarks (paraphrasing) that theologians and scientists both like mystery, but for different reasons: for the scientist, it's the beginning of a quest for knowledge; for the theologian, it makes for a convenient gap in which to insert a god.

18 March 2011

The reason earthquakes happen

I caught this video courtesy of Friendly Atheist, in which a priest-turned-atheist gives his view of the earthquake in Japan, and something in particular caught my attention:

First, I should mention that I wholeheartedly agree with his perspective; while believers fumble about trying to rationalize "why", we nonbelievers aren't losing any sleep over who is to blame – because no one is to blame. Earthquakes happen because of plate tectonics. That's it. Not because of the wrath of God, not because of original sin, not because it's a sign of the end times. Plate tectonics.

But what caught my attention is that he points out the irony of praying to God to help the earthquake victims, when – if one believes that God is omnipotent – God is the one who orchestrated the earthquake in the first place. Believers, of course, do everything they can to reassure themselves that God has his reasons. Maybe it's because of original sin, so it's all our fault! Except, plate tectonics were around for billions of years before human beings, so that rationalization can't work even if you accept the central Christian doctrine of guilt by association. Or maybe it was a sign, or punishment or something.

14 March 2011

Ronald Reagan on collective bargaining

"Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost."

Dr. Oz may actually be from Oz

At least, that's the only reasonable conclusion I can reach after this monstrosity of stupidity:

Dr. Oz Says Psychic John Edward "Changed My Life"
As a rule, the worlds of western medicine and psychic phenomena just don't mix, but that's not the case on Tuesday's installment of The Dr. Oz Show. Oprah discovery Mehmet Oz will welcome famed psychic medium John Edward, who claims to relay messages from the dead, and the two men will discuss how connecting with the afterlife can be therapeutic for those in grief. Edward also conducts readings for several members of Dr. Oz's studio audience, and offers advice on how to pick up signals your dead loved ones may be sending you — things you can do without the help of a psychic. TV Guide Magazine spoke by phone with Dr. Oz, who had quite a wild time watching Edward do his thing. In fact, the good doc says the experience changed his life!
Geez. Dr. Oz has peddled some pseudoscientific crap on his show before, but he's officially crossed over into utter nutbaggery. The worst part is that his show was on at work today, and the brief section I watched seemed like pretty sensible stuff. I thought to myself, maybe he's not so bad. Then came the preview for tomorrow's show with John Edward. Ugh.

To be clear: the James Randi educational foundation is still offering $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate psychic abilities under proper experimental conditions. No one's taken the challenge, and I don't think Edward will be too eager either. But James Randi offers a pretty thorough beatdown of this loon here, and Dr. Oz should be ashamed to advocate such lunacy on national television to a trusting and credulous audience. I don't believe that this is harmless entertainment – it's the exploitation of grief for profit, and now we have a celebrity doctor advocating it as a valid alternative therapy for the bereaved. Disgusting.

13 March 2011

Sam Harris on dualism

Sam Harris touches on some very important points in this clip from his recent debate, particularly the fact that science (and, by extension, atheism) makes no a priori assumptions about the existence or non-existence of supernatural things. And I love his final point regarding the absurdity of the "spirit".

ht/: Tristan Vick

12 March 2011

Sophistocated theology in a nutshell

I mentioned in the previous post that the Huffington Post always provides an ample supply of religious woo, and in browsing the site I've come across some op-eds that typify what appears to be passing for sophisticated theology these days.

You'll hear them spouting off all this poetic-sounding stuff about meaning and purpose, about the limitations of science, about "other realities" and "expanded consciousness", but without ever providing any rational basis for making such bold ontological assertions. Like, for example, this inane rambling from David Wolpe, the rabbi who (along with Bradley Artson Shavit) recently debated Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchen and, by most accounts it seems, got his ass kicked:
Religions are not the same. One claims a man can become God; another claims the distance between human and God is unbridgeable. One claims that God is not personal; another insists that God is personal. Differences can be multiplied. They are real; they are significant; they are not ultimate, however.
Therefore the essential question to any faith is not its dogma, but its realization. How does your attempt to live faithfully manifest itself in the world? Religions are different in innumerable ways. Ultimate reality is a unity, however. Or, as Judaism expresses it, God is One. [link]

Religious woo takes on dreams

Jerry Coyne links to Huffpo a lot, and I can kinda see why – it's a breeding ground for pseudoscientific, accommodationist garbage that masquerades as sophisticated philosophy. I still enjoy the site, but if I'm ever feeling like I'm fresh out of targets, Huffpo never lets me down.

Case in point: professional woo peddler Sadhguru rambling about the meaning of dreams:

In a nutshell: dreams are repressed desires. This might sound plausible (Freud certainly though so), but sorry; that's not actually what dreams are. How do I know? Cause I done went me to school.

10 March 2011

A fate worse than death?

Jeremiah Mitchell is an 8-year-old boy here in my home state of Oklahoma who contracted meningitis. Last year, an outbreak of meningitis killed two children and hospitalized five others. But this isn't one of my rants about the evils of the anti-vaccine movement, although there is a vaccine for meningitis. 

Jeremiah's odds of survival were very low, but his parents opted to leap for the surgery. It succeeded, but at a great cost: all four of his limbs were amputated, along with part of his face. He has many more surgeries to come, years of rehabilitation, and will almost certainly require assisted living for the rest of his life. He'll have extraordinary difficulty relating to his peers, dating, getting married, or raising a family.

I'm not about to suggest that his parents were wrong to save him. But I wonder what I would do if I were a parent in that situation. Would I fight for my child's life, no matter the cost? Or would I recognize that to save his life would condemn him to a life of extraordinary hardship, and let him go? I believe that quality of life is more valuable than quantity of life; I support assisted suicide, and do not for a minute believe that life should be prolonged through artificial means. There's a big difference between living and merely existing. But at the same time, I also recognize that many people have led extraordinary lives despite crippling disabilities. Who would I be to deny my child the chance to do just that?

Republicans vs. their own values

So in case you haven't heard, Republicans are trying to toss a pebble off our mountain of debt by stripping funding from Planned Parenthood. It's no secret conservatives dislike Planned Parenthood because... wait for it... they do abortions. And as we all know, a fertilized mass of human cells is the exact same thing as a living, breathing human.

Republicans claim that they're doing this do reduce our national debt. According to Wikipedia, Planned Parenthood receives a shade under $400 million of its national funding from government grants and contracts. Per Republican legislation, the organization cannot use this federal funding to pay for abortions. But of course, conservatives aren't content yet. They want Planned Parenthood gone for good.

But Planned Parenthood, as the name suggests, not only provides a number of vital heath care services for women (breast and cervical cancer screenings, for example), but it offers services that help prevent unwanted pregnancy – including comprehensive sex ed and the distribution of contraceptives. You'd think that if Republicans were really serious about reducing the number of abortions in this country, they'd be rallying for increased federal funding for Planned Parenthood. You know why people get abortions? It's because of unwanted pregnancies. You know what sex education and contraception do? They reduce unwanted pregnancies.

Why are atheists angry?

Over at Huffpo's religion page, Rabbi David Wolpe (whom some may know from his debates with Sam Harris) asks why we atheists are such a pissy bunch:
It is curious that a religion site draws responses mostly from atheists, and that the atheists are very unhappy. They are unhappy with the bible ("foolish fairy tales" is one of the more generous descriptions), unhappy with the idea of God (the "imaginary dictator" whose task in human history, apparently, is to ensure that oppression and evil triumph) and very unhappy with anyone (read: me) who presumes to offer religious advice to the religious.
Whenever religious folks start talking about angry atheists, I feel like it's mostly just them projecting their frustrations.  It's like Daniel Dennett said (I'm paraphrasing): there's not really any nice way to tell people that their most cherished beliefs are basically nonsense. And yeah, we're a little irked at the way religious nutbaggery can and often does impede science education, promote bigotry, oppress women, and incite violence. But I'm also unaware of any atheists who think that all or even most religious people are like that. Most people follow a pretty liberalized, culturally diluted theology and don't make a big fuss over it. It's the really vocal ignoramuses that annoy us non-believers.

I think it also comes back to the fact that religious thought and skeptical inquiry are inherently at odds with each other, and when atheists start challenging religious beliefs, it makes people a little uncomfortable. Nobody likes it when their sacred cows get sent to the slaughterhouse, but there's nothing intrinsically malicious about provoking people into a little self-reflection. Now, I'm sure there are atheist assholes who just hurl insults and haven't put much thought into their non-belief. But that's no more representative of most atheists than the shouting fundie morons are representative of most religious people.

Wolpe goes on to speculate about why atheists are angry. But since it's all rooted in a spurious claim to begin with, he's just pissing into the wind.

09 March 2011

Those aren't aliens in that meteorite

Wow. So it turns out that this Richard Hoover character is a bit of a kook, who has already penned a book on panspermia. Confirmation bias, anyone? Then you have the problem that the Journal of Cosmology (which published his study) has, well, to put it kindly, a less than stellar reputation (it's online-only, if that tells you anything).

Then you have the problem that a number of scientists in the blogosphere had serious reservations about the study, and the reaction, from the Journal of Cosmology, was this:
Only a few crackpots and charlatans have denounced the Hoover study. NASA's chief scientist was charged with unprofessional conduct for lying publicly about the Journal of Cosmology and the Hoover paper. The same crackpots, self-promoters, liars, and failures, are quoted repeatedly in the media. However, where is the evidence the Hoover study is not accurate?
Few legitimate scientists have come forward to contest Hoover's findings. Why is that? Because the evidence is solid.
But why have so few scientists come forward to attest to the validity? The answer is: They are afraid. They are terrified. And for good reason.
The status quo and their "hand puppets" will stop at nothing to crush debate about important scientific issues, and this includes slander, defamation, trade libel... they will ruin you. Three hundred years ago, they would burn you for questioning orthodoxy. Has anything changed?
The scientific community must march according to the tune whistled by those who control the funding. If you don't do as you are told, if you dare to ask the wrong questions, they will destroy you.
JOC offered the scientific community a unique opportunity to debate an important paper, but for the most part they have declined.
The message is: Be afraid. Be very afraid. Or you will be destroyed.
Why is America in decline?
Maybe the terrorists have won.
I'm starting to think they're an arm of the Discovery Institute. And to think I was kind of excited about that one.

05 March 2011

You can't make this stuff up, part MCXVII

You often hear the old creationist canard that life cannot arise from non-life. Well, abiogenesis is a nascent field of science, and we're not sure how life first arose. We certainly have no reason to assume that it must have been supernatural. Our very bodies – and indeed all life – is composed of the exact same elements (indeed the exact same atoms) that ancients stars spat out when they exploded, seeding the galaxy with heavy elements. That such elements were synthesized by the laws of chemistry is certainly more plausible than the old "A Magic Man done it!" excuse. I've always thought it was peculiar that creationists insist the universe was designed for life, but then insist that biogenesis itself required an extra bit of divine intervention. I mean, that's pretty arbitrary, no? If God designed the universe for life, then why wouldn't he make it so the laws of the universe allowed life to arise by the natural processes he created? So I posed this query to a creationist (former frequent visitor Jack Hudson), and this is what one creationist commenter had to offer:
That would obviously make it much too easy for naturalists to then dismiss life as being a product of design. Why should He make things so convenient for naturalists?
Checkmate, atheists!

Extra-terrestrial life found? Maybe.

A NASA researcher is claiming that he's found hard evidence of extra-terrestrial life, in the form of fossilized microbes on a meteorite:
Writing in the March edition of the Journal of Cosmology, Richard B. Hoover argues that an examination of a collection of 9 meteorites - called CI1 carbonaceous meteorites - contain "indigenous fossils" of bacterial life.
"The complex filaments found embedded in the CI1 carbonaceous meteorites represent the remains of indigenous microfossils of cyanobacteria, " according to Hoover. That matter-of-fact sentence also underscores the shout-out-loud implication that the detection of fossils of cyanobacteria in the CI1 meteorites raises the possibility of life on comets. And Hoover does not shy away from offering that very conclusion.
Well, not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon just yet. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy writes,
Probably the biggest bump in the road for showing these things are life-forms is to show they are not the result of Earthly bacteria getting inside the meteorite after it hit. This is very tough to do, though Hoover says this in his paper:

Many of the filaments shown in the figures are clearly embedded in the meteorite rock matrix. Consequently, it is concluded that the Orgueil filaments cannot logically be interpreted as representing filamentous cyanobacteria that invaded the meteorite after its arrival. They are therefore interpreted as the indigenous remains of microfossils that were present in the meteorite rock matrix when the meteorite entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
Clearly, Hoover thinks terrestrial contamination is unlikely. However, contamination, no matter how unlikely, is a more mundane explanation than extraterrestrial life, and Occam’s Razor will always shave very closely here. We have to be very, very clear that contamination was impossible before seriously entertaining the idea that these structures are space-borne life.
It's a tantalizing possibility, one that if true could lend weight to the old panspermia theory, which holds that life on Earth was seeded by extra-terrestrial objects smashing into Earth. It's fascinating stuff, but let's take a wait-and-see attitude. 

Science denial

There's an article over at TIME magazine's website about the dangers of the anti-vaccine movement. The last few years have seen disturbing rises in treatable diseases like meningitis, whooping cough, and even the measles. The victims are usually kids.

Now that the research which showed a link between autism and the measles vaccine has been discredited and its author stripped of his medical license on charges of fraud, you'd think that people would be saying, "Oh... I guess we were wrong." I mean, that's what reasonable people do, right? They look at the evidence. But when followers of the anti-vaccine movement are faced with mountains of evidence that discredit their claims, they do the opposite: the become even more entrenched in the ideology. They shift the goalpost: originally, they wanted thermosol removed from vaccines, and it was. After autism rates continued rising at the same rate, they charged that it's due to a diversity of toxins in vaccines. The cycle of denial continues unabated, even as children begin dying of treatable diseases. Just read the comments section in the TIME article, and try to hold on to your faith in humanity.

Similarity to faith-based belief

This isn't too far removed from religious thinking at all. In my previous post, Tim Minchin sings a song in which he sarcastically thanks someone named "Sam" for showing him the light, after this person claimed that Jesus healed his mom's cataracts. These lyrics, in particular, struck me as poignant:

03 March 2011

I love Tim Michin (again)

This one's been making the rounds on atheist-themed blogs... Tim Michin is a brilliant musical comedian, and like George Carlin and Ricky Gervais, he's adept at exposing the absurdity of religion through light-hearted mockery: here, incisively mocking the silliness of prayer.

If the subtitles moved a bit too quickly, here are the lyrics.

02 March 2011

If it ain't one dogma, it's another

Primatologist Frans De Waal has done a lot of work on evolutionary models of morality, which undoubtedly provokes the ire of religious believers who simply can't fathom morality being an emergent outcome of evolution divorced from some unseen divine entity. I particularly love this opening statement from an essay he contributed to the Templeton Foundation:
Human nature simply cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of nature. This evolutionary approach is already difficult for many people to accept, but it is likely to generate even more resistance once its implications are fully grasped. After all, the idea that we descend from long-armed, hairy creatures is only half the message of evolutionary theory. The other half is continuity with all other life forms. We are animals not only in body but also in mind. This idea may prove harder to swallow.
De Waal's books are scientific, not polemic, and he only mentions religion in passing. But much as Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained dispassionately took the scalpel of science to the foundations of religious beliefs, De Waal doesn't pull any punches when discussing the real implications of scientific research into our moral evolution, and the science cuts far deeper than any Dawkins-esque polemic ever could. 

So it surprised me a bit when De Waal, in an article some time back for the New York Times, said the following:
[What] would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.

Why does anyone care about Westboro?

Okay, I know they're really annoying and stupid. But this story from Huffpo just popped up in my Facebook feed about them:
A leader of the Westboro Baptist Church told reporters Wednesday that the congregation would "quadruple" the number of funeral protests in the wake of a ruling by the Supreme Court, which found that their controversial demonstrations were protected by the First Amendment, ABC News reports.
Last I checked, those "protests" look something like this:

Just for reference, the March on Washington protests for civil rights looked like this:

Who care about a dozen or so inbred morons? Well, they certainly do. They love the media fuss, and they feed off of it. If we quite giving them what they want, they'll go away.

You can't make this stuff up

The Pope has a new book, and in he tries to resolve that whole antisemitism thing by exonerating the Jews for Jesus' death:
In "Jesus of Nazareth-Part II" excerpts released Wednesday, Benedict explains biblically and theologically why there is no basis in Scripture for the argument that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus' death.
Interpretations to the contrary have been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews.
While the Catholic Church has for five decades taught that Jews weren't collectively responsible, Jewish scholars said Wednesday the argument laid out by the German-born pontiff, who has had his share of mishaps with Jews, was a landmark statement from a pope that would help fight anti-Semitism today.
Riiiiight. Since when have antisemitic assholes, just like any sort of racist or ethnocentric assholes, ever let something like this get in the way of their hatred?

Here's a better one: first of all, according to Christian theology, Jesus was supposed to die. That was kinda the whole point. So whoever "killed Jesus" was the catalyst for mankind's salvation.

But there's an even better one: there's not one shred of contemporaneous evidence that Christ as described in the Bible even existed in the first place, and the entire Bible is filled with myths and hagiography that is bereft of corroborating historical evidence.

I mean really, the best way to realize all that antisemitism is silly is to accept the fact that none of the stories it's centered on are actually true.