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Showing posts from September, 2011

The Christian god and forgiveness

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I recently caught the above video online and, well, I don't think it's that great of a video. Not because I don't agree with the message (quite the contrary), but because it's just not a very creative video and it's peppered with f-bombs for some reason. I'd hope that people who make such videos generally expect that some inquisitive believers will watch them, and I don't think that God saying "fuck!" early on is exactly a persuasive rhetorical device.

Anyway, aside from it not being the best video, the central message is interesting to me because it's one of the many conundrums that drove me away from Christianity. In the description of the video, the creator ("DarkMatter2525") states,
"I can do something that the mythological Abrahamic God can't: I can forgive someone without giving them an ultimatum." When I was a Christian, the book of Hebrews did more to drive me away from the faith than just about any…

Taxes in a nutshell

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Dr. Oz, quack (or yes, you can drink apple juice)

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Last time I mentioned Dr. Mehmet Oz, he was extolling the virtues of psychic readings as a form of grief counseling and touting a hybrid of homeopathy and acupuncture as some sort of panacea. If you thought this guy couldn't get any worse, guess what: he just did.

Here's the saga in a nutshell: Dr. Oz recorded a show in which he tested apple juice for total levels of arsenic, and came to the conclusion that apple juice is potentially unsafe due to levels of arsenic that exceed the FDA's standard for drinking water. The FDA wrote him a letter prior to the show being aired informing him that his testing methodology was deeply flawed and his claims misleading. Oz and company ignored the FDA's letter and ran the show anyway.

You can read the FDA's letter here, but the gist of it is this: Oz's tests were not only inaccurate, but they failed to distinguish between organic arsenic (which is safe) and inorganic (which is not safe). Oz's test looked only at total ar…

There are no gods

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TheraminTrees delivers an incisive rebuke of religious thinking:



He has a great line toward the end that I think is worth repeating:
"My loyalty is not to naturalism or materialism, as some folks suggest; my loyalty is to systems that demonstrate their claims."

Science wins again: near-death experiences explained

If there's one constant about supernatural 'explanations', it's that they're gap-fillers. Arguments from ignorance. If a scientific explanation neither apparent nor forthcoming, it's assumed the failure lies in the limitations of scientific inquiry. They not really explanations, but fillers in lieu of real explanations. Nowhere has that been more apparent than with near-death experiences. There's a website called Skeptiko (not to be confused with the skeptical blog Skeptico) that regularly argues in favor of the supposed supernatural side of near-death experiences (along with a litany of other woo). I've talked about near-death experiences before, but I basically concluded that the evidence of any mind/body dualism was weak and inconclusive.

Well, now I get to take it step further, because according to Scientific American, we now have good, rational, evidence-based explanations for near-death experiences:
Near-death experiences are often thought of as m…

Conversing instead of arguing

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Yesterday, it all got to be just too damn exasperating and I finally slapped a long-overdue IP ban on longtime reader/antagonist Jack Hudson. It's the first time I've ever banned someone who wasn't just spamming or being a dick just for it's own sake, and I think 99% of those cases were Dennis Markuze.

Not too long ago I had a fairly long conversation with my brother, who unlike me is still a committed Christian. We undoubtedly disagree on many things. But throughout our hour-or-so conversation, we never raised our voices, belittled one another or cut each other off. It really is possible to have a vigorous but civil discussion, so long as the goal is discussion rather than arguing for its own sake or attempting to "win". 

I've no doubt that Jack, his ego being what it is, will think that he was banned because his arguments are devastatingly incisive, and I the atheist just didn't have the cojones to engage him. I really don't care, because it'…

The terrorists won

It's safe to say that the 9.11 attackers didn't have ambitions of global conquest. Well, many radical Muslims do, but it's more of an intangible ideal, not an immediate objective. The attacks were designed to strike fear into us. And as much as we like to hold hands and sing and pretend that we won, the harsh reality is that the terrorists got exactly what they wanted out of it.

First, we got the Patriot Act, an insidious encroachment on personal freedoms in the name of protecting us all. I'm reminded of the famous quote by Ben Franklin:
Those who would trade in their freedom for their protection deserve neither. Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security. Then we got those stupid color-code "alert" systems. Today's orange! Be extra alert! What does that even mean? What, specifically, were we supposed to do? Nobody seemed to know.

We invaded Iraq. We took out Saddam and killed many thousands of civilians – hundre…

Ten years ago today....

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I'm going to spare the whole spiel about how the 9.11 attacks changed everything, because I think that sort of thing tends to be greatly exaggerated. But I do want to reflect briefly on a relevant issue.

Terrorism and war is one of those fringes of the religious debate that arouses lots of ire from religious moderates who don't like to be associated with fundamentalist killers. Most Muslims are peaceful, normal people. The US is home to some two million of them, who unfortunately have had to endure being stigmatized by reactionary conservatives. Remember when they tried to build a community center in New York, perfectly within their legal jurisdiction? I sure do.

Anyway, here's the issue: the problem with fundamentalist Islam, as is the problem with all religion, is that it is based on a bunch of ridiculous ideas that are shielded from criticism precisely because they are religious in nature, and command some bizarre form of special privilege. It's still taboo to critic…

Thought of the day

Re: Christianity

How can an omnipotent deity sacrifice itself? What is it sacrificing, and to whom?

Morality series index

The essence of moral reasoning, part 3: informed decisions

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In my previous post in this series on morality, I talked about the biological underpinnings of our moral judgments, and argued that variances in the development of "empathy circuits" in various regions of the brain can powerfully shape the manner in which we make moral decisions, and that in our natural environment we may experience a conflict between the emotional circuitry in our brains and our rational faculties, which makes moral reasoning more complex. For the final post, I want to turn to the rational component of moral judgments.

There's a question regarding morality that is commonly posed to non-believers: "If you don't believe in an objective, transcendent and absolute moral authority, how can you say that the behavior of the Nazis was wrong?"


False morals

There are really two components here. The first is that what the Nazis did – treat people as mere objects – requires an erosion of our empathetic circuitry. Save those who suffer from abnormaliti…

The essence of moral reasoning, part 2: making moral decisions

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In my previous post on morality, I argued that simply saying that people are inclined to be "evil" fails as an explanation for human cruelty – it not only fails to take into account certain facts about our biological inclination toward empathy, but it leaves important questions about how we make moral decisions – and how our empathetic hard-wiring can be eroded – unanswered. I touched briefly on the fact that many of our "moral" decisions are made impulsively, and we reason about them retroactively. In this post, I want to examine more thoroughly some of the processes involved in making moral decisions – including how our empathetic nature can both influence us and be eroded.


Empathy on the brain


In his excellent book The Science of Evil, Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen discusses the many regions of the brain that are associated with our ability to empathize with others. What's fascinating is that damage to specific regions of the brain cause empathy to…

Our closest relative?

Sometimes it seems like you can't throw a rock at a new primate fossil without hitting talk about how it's the "missing link". A new find in South Africa, however, may provide some very important clues to understanding human evolution and even has the potential to reshape conventional wisdom on the matter. From the BBC:
The 1.9-million-year-old fossils were first described in 2010, and given the species name Australopithecus sediba. But the team behind the discovery has now come back with a deeper analysis.
It tells Science magazine that features seen in the brain, feet, hands and pelvis of A. sediba all suggest this species was on the direct evolutionary line to us - Homo sapiens. "We have examined the critical areas of anatomy that have been used consistently for identifying the uniqueness of human beings," said Professor Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg "Any one of these features could have evolved separately…

Vegas, bunny death, Jesus tracks, etc.

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I'm back in town after a thoroughly debaucherous weekend in Las Vegas. It was a blast, of course. While I was gone, I had my 'rents swing by my place to check on Alexi, my cat. So upon returning home I swung by their place to pick up my key, and they informed me that the family bunny, Benji, had died while I was away. I'd just taken care of him for a couple weeks while the 'rents were out of state, and I loved having the rabbit and my cat bopping around my apartment together. It's a good memory of him to have now that he's gone. You'll be missed, Benji.

I should be returning to my usual quasi-regular blogging this week. In the meantime:

While in Vegas an old man who was raising money for a no-kill animal shelter thanked me for my small donation and handed me one of those novelty $1,000,000 bills. It wasn't until later that I saw the back: it was a track. It was basically the Ray Comfort pitch: Have you ever stolen? Then you're a thief. Ever lied? Y…