Friday, October 31, 2008

The Reason for the Season

Halloween is by far my favorite holiday. It's that rare day when death and evil, two important aspects of the human condition, but that are usually hidden from sight, briefly come into full view. It's also a day of horror, of entertaining ourselves with tales of horrific monsters that rise from their liars at night to wreck havoc upon mankind. And most importantly, it's a day of Lovecraftian horrors.

I hadn't even heard of Lovecraft till a few years ago, when I bought a copy of The Best of H.P. Lovecraft - Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. After reading Rats in the Walls and the Outsider, I was hooked, but my absolute favorite short stories are From Beyond and Shadow out of Time. While reading, I try to visualize what's going on, and if I'm lucky, I occasionally get a feel for the mood as well. In From Beyond, the panoply of otherworldly horrors was readily supplied by my imagination and frightening me terribly. I caught furtive glances at them only in part - a glistening forked tail here or membranous wing there - barely restraining the urge to apprehend anything in whole. But in Shadow out of Time, I was more intrigued than truly frightened, wondering at the cities of the Great Race, their ingenuous use of their consciousness-switching technology, and nervously eyed the trapdoors of the city.

Lovecraft revolutionized American horror - combining both ancient occult with futuristic science fiction, and coating the result with his philosophy of man as a minuscule nothing existing in the shadow of unimaginably powerful horrors, whom he cannot defeat and cannot survive against - death and madness are utterly unavoidable. Further, all of mankind's vaunted notions of progress, good, order, even God fail in the cosmic scheme of things. And the worst part is, the terror is right here in front of us all along, occurring in ordinary locations - that apartment building just off the Rue d’Auseil, that old farmhouse where it is said strange human-like voices can be heard late at night, the strange people of Innsmouth, that poor professor of political economy who suddenly fell ill mid-lecture, even that strange old book deep in the recesses of Miskatonic University's library.

It's interesting the prominent role that science and materialism plays in Lovecraft's work, as opposed to the magic or supernaturalism. Science is what enables Tillinghast to break down the barrier between our dimension and the creatures from beyond, what enables Herbert West to reanimate the dead, and the Great Race drove back the Flying Polyps with electrical weapons and mastered their form of time-travel purely through scientific research. And all of the Great Old Ones, for all their god-like appearances, are in fact wholly natural beings, albeit native to quite a few more dimensions than us.

Lovecraft offers us the thrilling vistas of cosmic horror, from dreamlike spectres and hideous creatures hiding in the dark, to nigh-omnipotent alien visitors. He's a big part of American horror and thus Halloween. So don't forget to celebrate Cthulhu Day!

The God-bots Are Stirring

It seems that the meat bots are stirring and your brain is going to be the next big cultural battleground between the religious nuts and everybody else.

Gah, reading the propaganda piece over at Evolution News is an attack on the mind in and of itself. Essentially, it's one long, whinny rant against materialism, with pronouncements of the vile materialists' imminent defeat of the sort that would make the former Iraq Information Minister blush.
P.Z. Myers and Steven Novella have recent posts on a new front in the war between materialism and reality.

Having convinced only a small fraction of Americans that chance and tautology — i.e. Darwinism — adequately explains life (despite a court-ordered monopoly on public education for the last half-century), materialists are moving on to your mind.

Materialism posits that your mind is meat. No soul, no spirit, just chemicals, congealed by natural selection to dupe you into believing that you’re more than an evanescent meat-robot.
Geez, where to begin. Okay, first of all, calling their superstitions "reality" is a huge lie. Only a small fraction of Americans accept "Darwinism" (IDiot-speak for evolution) - that's lie #2. Describing evolution as a tautology - lie #3.

After the initial spate of lies, they finally move on to the heart of the matter - those evil materialists say that you're just a heap of matter! Oh noes! That's what really ticks off the religious nuts, the horrible indignity of scientists describing the mind in purely physical terms, with no mention of their much beloved invisible, weightless, and as-far-as-we-can-tell-nonexistent souls. Apparently, that idea is not only offensive, but also has vague and terrible "sociological implications".

Anyone else experience a little deja vu? Well, that's because they're all just repurposed creationist/ID talking points.
  • "Darwinists say humans are animals!" "I'm no monkey!"
  • "Darwinists say that we're animals and should treat each other as such!"
  • "Materialists say we're just cells/chemicals/atoms!"
  • "Materialists say that we're just heaps of matter and should treat each other as such!"
Ugggh. So stupid.

Being something of a materialist myself, I think I can address this objection:

Yes, you are just matter. Your pet dog is just matter. Your family is just matter. All the paintings in the Louvre are just matter. Even your favorite song is just a series of vibrations travelling through the air.

Obviously, the material makeup of things doesn't dictate their worth. Only an idiot or a creationist liar would make such a boneheaded claim.

And besides, how the hell do the IDiots expect to inject the soul into neuroscience? They're hundred years too late for that, science long ago moved moved on from that sort of nonsense. Seems like this is even more of a lost cause then their evolution denialism.

But it seems like the have another strategy in mind, instead of trying to get positive evidence for their mystical mumbo-jumbo, they'll just fall back to ye olde standby - the argument from ignorance - and point to real research and claim that the material explanations can't possibly fully explain the phenomenon, therefore an unknown soul-like entity must be the cause. Mark my words, it'll happen.

It's all so stupid, not the least of which is the problem that even the devout don't seem to understand exactly what they're saying when they speak of souls (not unlike Intelligent Designers). Sure, they're believed to be some ethereal vehicle that somehow stores our consciousness and personality and survive our deaths - but even simple folk have figured out that all the soul talk runs headlong into the problem of brain damage. If you change the brain, you change the mind. So even assuming that souls actually exist, they're irrelevant because of the massive extent that the brain determines personality.

DI's latest foray into the world of science is just going to be a huge headache.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hagan responds to Dole's attack

Her campaign finally responded to the ongoing furor over Dole's bigoted attacks ...almost a month later. Geez, glad she got back to us on that before election day.

A lot of bloggers have already weighed in on this (Friendly Atheist, PZ, Atheist Ethicist, Poly, etc) so I'll be brief:

It does tick me off that she pulled a Mitt Romney and when attacked for not being religious enough for office (a concept that alternately amuses me and scares the heck out of me), she had a golden opportunity to call Dole out on her bigotry, but failed to do so, calling the attack "slander" and "pathetic" and going through a laundry list of her godly virtues, presumably to wipe away the atheist taint in people's minds that the attacks have generated. (Mitt Romney did much worse than that by endorsing the very bigotry he was attacked with, declaring that "we need a person of faith to run this country")

It's a missed opportunity for Hagan to stand up for us demonized atheists to be sure, but it wasn't terrible. But reading some people's reactions, they make it sound like she spit on Charles Darwin's grave or something. Call me overly charitable, but methinks some people are reading too much into it and taking offense where there probably isn't any intended.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Not a Hard Choice

The McCain and Obama camps in a nutshell:

Sarah Palin on fruit fly research, decrying the horrendously wasteful spending of studying fruit flies to help combat autism. Heaven forbid.

McCain is no better, complaining about the "pork-barrel" nature of spending money on an "overhead projector", in reference to a planetarium projector. WTF.

Obama, demolishing the "real America" rhetoric.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out which ticket is the better choice.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

God is Baller

Heaven the game

Everything about it is absolutely hilarious and simultaneously slightly disturbing.

The game is set a fantastically opulent heaven, complete with an Aryan Jesus (it's whiter than Maine up there) and a blonde buxom beauty as your guide (there's totally going to be a hot coffee mod for this whenever it's released).

Calling this depiction of heaven "opulent" is a tad of an understatement on my part. It's more baller than Dave Chappelle on MTV Cribs - the streets are paved in gold, with gleaming crystal skyscrapers and assorted precious gems everywhere. Combined with your unabashedly arousing companion, it's obvious that this is some poor, sexually-repressed Christian's fantasy land writ large, especially since the site painstakingly tries to depict their heaven as completely biblical.

Damn it, all this time I thought heaven was basically a cloudy version of Elysium, a place where the dead get to live in bliss with their loved ones again (which is odd, because a lot of people dread having their relatives over), and eventually rejected it as a childish fantasy land. If only I knew there was going to be gold!

Is it too late to reconvert?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Life Imitates Art

Personal Halting and Stimulation Response Rifle (PHASR heh)

Temporary blindness never looked so good.

A futuristic electric fence (actually, it's a Portal Denial System that works via a Laser-Induced Plasma Channel)

Basically, it shocks the heck out of intruders.

hattip to Cracked

Saturday, October 25, 2008

This is your brain on morality

Interesting speech by Sam Harris:


He says that we should strive towards a society that maximizes the well-being of its people, and we can figure it out in a scientific and objective way that there are societies in the world which do not maximize their people's well-being as much as others. His examples are a society where women are forced to wear burqas, people demonize homosexuals, stone adulterers to death, and solicit the murders of novelists and cartoonists - it's obvious that these are bad ways to run a society.

However, in science, there's a big taboo on making normative claims or touching morality - that describing one society as better than another is a form of cultural imperialism. There's a culture of moral relativism that resists any attempt to address questions of morality, especially in a scientific way, and anyone attempting will undoubtedly get accused of scientism. But there's a moral imperative for a maturing science of the mind to address such questions.


In some ways, his speech covers a lot of new ground - using science to figure out which ways of organizing a society would produce the best results, but in other ways, this is the same basic thing that people have been saying for hundreds of years. An ancestor of Harris's notion of maximizing well-being can be seen in John Stuart Mill's greatest happiness principle, where morally right acts produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.

One potential criticism may be in quantifying and defining societal well-being. But surely, most of us can grasp this on an intuitive level - for instance, comparing a western, liberal democracy (like the UK) to an totalitarian state (like Hitler's Germany) to an Islamic theocracy (like Iran) - most of us would figure out that door #1 is a heckuva lot more conductive to a whole host of factors that we'd want in the ideal society - citizen happiness, freedom, economic prosperity, health, etc. And thankfully, there are plenty of statistics that attempt to track societal health in many countries - everything from poverty and infant mortality rate to quality of life and happiness.

One particularly interesting thing about Harris's lecture is that it's extremely relevant and important political policy makers, and using his well-being approach really could help foster positive changes in how our society is structured.

For example, let's talk drugs. It's always puzzled me that, around the world, different drugs are legal and different drugs are illegal. In the United States, alcohol and tobacco are legal while marijuana and opium are illegal, while in the Netherlands, marijuana is perfectly legal and in Saudi Arabia, alcohol is illegal (and the prescribed punishment is a public lashing. Yikes!). And if you go back and look at the history of drug laws, it doesn't seem like these decisions were made very rationally, and certainly not taking into account what science has to say on the matter. More often than not, we're talking about religious prohibitions or cultural norms. Yet, science has shown than some drugs are worse for societal well-being than others, and it's interesting to note that some of the legal ones are worse than the illegal ones.

And I don't know how Harris's talk is going to go over with the religious. Badly, I think. After all, he was the one who pointed out that religious morality, dependent on the imagined commands of God, is divorced from notions of human suffering. So why would such people possibly agree with him about maximizing human well-being across the globe, especially when Harris accuses certain religious norms (like demonizing homosexuals) of being morally deficient? They probably don't. In that case, they should stop advertising their religion as some sort of panacea for all the world's ills. (How many times have you heard people claim that only if more people believe in their sort of God, things in the world would be better? Bonus points if it was in response to someone in their religious group committing a grave moral misdeed)

But couldn't one make the case that religious organizations do a lot of good in the world, like charity work, and that the mission of increasing human well-being need not be at odds with following God's commands?

Well, there are a couple things wrong with this. Obviously, some religious codes don't maximize well-being, and would in fact cause a great deal of harm in the world if carried out (like stoning adulterers or killing apostates). If the religious mandate is merely helping people, then it can be achieved in a purely secular manner. But if it is obeying God above all else, then it cannot be reconciled with Harris's idea of promoting well-being because the two will inevitably conflict, since ancient holy books unavoidably reflect the moral norms of the time they're written, norms that have been rendered obsolete by more recent norms that more effectively increase human freedom and happiness.

So which direction shall we choose? A better world (assuming we have both the knowledge to figure out how to get there and the courage to see it through) or a faith-based world (where we let our ancient superstitions and prejudices guide our behavior)?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark

The videos are finally up, and I'm currently trying to digest what little I can in between all the other stuff I have to do throughout the day.

But I really enjoyed the speech from Sam Harris, and I'll write about that next.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

10 questions atheists can't answer

HJHoP already took a crack at it, so I guess I will too, just for kicks.

Ordinarily, I would say that this is the Christian apologetics version of the infamous 10 questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution from Jonathan Wells's Icons of Evolution, but that's essentially Christian apologetics as well, so let's just call this Gotcha, Part 2 - the latest in a long line of lame gotcha attacks in which the guy who believes in all sorts of dubious supernatural things seriously thinks that he'll win points for his wacky beliefs by trying to poke holes in normal people's beliefs - aka "I know you are but what am I?" apologetics.

Argh, and it's from Ray Comfort too, the guy who argued that bananas are so well suited for human consumption that they simply had to be created by the God he already believes in, so you know this is going to be spectacularly idiotic. (here's what a wild banana looks like, by the way)

1. What was in the beginning?
Planck time, heh. Lots of radiation eventually cooling down to the point where baryons could form.

Before that, you ask? Well, the truth is that no one knows what was going on before the big bang, and religious people embarrass themselves by arrogantly asserting that they know things that they cannot possibly know, like God waving his magic wand and creating the big bang.

2. How will life on earth end?
No one knows. All kinds of lovely scenarios await us. But the one to count on for sure is that in about 5 billion years, our sun will hit its red giant phase, swell to about 1 AU, and either engulf the Earth or bathe it in so much radiation that it'll sterilize the Earth.

3. What happens after death?
Rigor mortis, decomposition, consumption by various other organisms. This is known as a fact, despite people's dreams of immortality.

But don't just take my word for it, check out your Bible too:

Job 14 (NIV)

10 But man dies and is laid low;
he breathes his last and is no more.

11 As water disappears from the sea
or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,

12 so man lies down and does not rise;
till the heavens are no more, men will not awake
or be roused from their sleep.

Ecclesiastes 3 (NIV)

18 I also thought, "As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath ; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?"

22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?

4. What is the purpose of existence?
There is no innate, objective purpose. But people choose meaning in their lives.

5. Why there is order in all of creation?
Chemistry and physics. Emergence.

(Yeah, I know it's a loaded question, especially the "creation" bit, implying that order in nature requires a creator God)

6. Why there is morality in every civilization?
Morality is in innate trait among humans (and other species). Humans are a very social species, and so it makes sense that humans would evolve with a moral sense. And as human societies became larger and more complex, eventually becoming civilizations in the proper sense of the word, our moralities became codified.

7. Why does every civilization believe in a Creator?
I don't know if we can actually say that this is the case. In some religions, like Buddhism, there doesn't appear to be a Creator God at all.

Religions around the world often do have common elements, like a trickster god, a god of death, a fertility god, and a god whose dominion is life and creation (usually represented by the sun). These beliefs are widespread, it is true. But that fact doesn't give help their veracity at all - a widely-believed superstition is still a superstition.

8. Why does every sane person have a conscience, even when it is not dictated by society?
Because it's instinctual (humans evolved with a moral sense, like many other social species) and because children are raised to believe that certain actions are wrong and certain actions are right.

9. How did nothing create everything?
This assumes a time in which there is nothing. I doubt this claim can be substantiated.

10. Which came first--the chicken or the egg?
Eggs. Amniotes existed before birds did, let alone chickens.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It's a battleground state. Literally.

Geez, voter intimidation is going on like crazy.

From tire slashing, to death threats for yard signs, to burning yard signs, to window smashing, to harassing folks on the way to the polls, and even a dead bear cub - this election is turning real ugly real fast, and a lot of the really nasty incidents are occurring right here in North Carolina. And it's obvious that a big motivating factor here is race.

This is a long-time red state that might swing for the first time in ages this election, and we have large populations of both rednecks and black folks and a sordid history of racial tensions. With that kind of recipe for disaster, things are going to be nuts around here come election day.

Edited to add - It's so bad that even Al Jazeera is covering our country's fundamentalist right-wing nuts, which has got to win some kind of award in irony.

hat tip to Stupid Evil Bastard

Friday, October 17, 2008

Weird headlines part 1

A couple of days ago, the BBC posted the hilariously but strange headline: Colin Powell digs African hip-hop. Weird, but it's the entertainment section, so I guess that's okay.

Well, today, they put Obama's Krypton joke posted as a factual matter in a little blurb in the front page, which must be quite a surprise headline for people who didn't see the roast and don't know that it's a joke.

Okay, seriously, I've gotta ask... who spiked the office water cooler? I can't imagine sober people reporting on stuff like this.

The Meaning of Life

Every now and again, I notice Christians claim that atheism must lead to hopelessness and despair because atheism offers no meaning or purpose to life. Or the less direct variant, that Christianity is good because it offers meaning (conveniently leaving out the possibility of people finding meaning elsewhere). Or the extremely insulting and inaccurate claim that atheists believe in nothing.

Well, so what is this meaning of life business, anyway? It's about the significance of human existence. Why we're here? What are we here for? Where we are going?

In theistic religions, particularly Christianity, these questions are answered quite simply: God. Believing in God, attaining salvation, and being whisked away to heaven as soon as possible in order be with God. Life on Earth is merely a pit stop on the path to heaven.

Obviously, for people who do not believe in such a God, this is not a very good plan. In fact, the whole attempt to answer the question of meaning by throwing Gods at the problem seems like an ineffectual way to truly answer the question. Do we truly require some grandiose external validation of ourselves to be worthwhile? Do we have to be central to the cosmic scheme of things in order for our lives to have meaning? I doubt it.

I've noticed that people tend to create meaning in their everyday lives. For some people, climbing a mountain is of monumental importance. It may be just a mountain, with no meaning in and of itself, but to this person, it's everything. People do this sort of thing all the time - from mundane objects prized for their sentimental value to land valued as sacred. Some activities or professions are valued high above their pragmatic results, like football, boxing, racing, and fishing. It seems pretty clear that people can take otherwise meaningless things and turn them into meaningful things to them.

In my view, there is no intrinsic value to either existence or humanity as a whole, and certainly no external valuer as theists claim. Indeed, it's hard to imagine anything having a value at all without a human mind that values it. So, are we back to nihilistic despair? Hardly.

Instead, it should be recognized that humans create meaning, and in addition to objects and activities, they determine the meaning of their own lives. That meaning can be anything or nothing, but it is humans, and no other being, who both values meaning and creates it. Atheists choose a meaning - perhaps choosing to create a better world by improving some aspect of human life. Even theists, who imagine a divine creator who gives their lives meaning, unknowingly choose their own meaning - they simply choose a godly meaning.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Are Christians really as bad as you think?

Over at De-converts, they have a guest blogger on who raised the question, Are Christians really as bad as you think?

And of course, the obvious answer is that I think most Christians in most circumstances really are decent, moral, and intelligent people. Hell, I have a family full of them, with only one causality to the wingnut fundamentalist ideology and most people I know who are religious aren't insane in any way. Seriously, good folks. And though we may differ on religious matters, we both approach the world in basically humanist terms: seeking to create a better life in the here and now through our own actions.

That said, the high-profile loons are really not helping the public image. And I'm not talking about Christofascists on Faux News or the money-grubbing televangelists or the faith-healers or the "creation scientists" like Dembski and Kent Hovind - I'm talking about real church authorities, priests who rape the faithful only to have their crimes covered up by other authorities, megachurch pastors like Ted Haggard, who tell their enormous congregations that evolution is atheistic (and therefore, false), a Pope who idiotically blames atheism for the "greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice" ever known in history (no mention is made of burning heretics alive or the Spanish Inquisition), and my own United Methodist church, that voted down allowing homosexuals to be ordained ministers (the church leadership, in their infinite wisdom, unilaterally decided it was bad, with no say from us plebeians) and passed out all-Republican voter "guides" for the election (thank God for separation of church and state - otherwise churches would tell us how to vote!)

Plus, and let's be honest here, what you guys believe isn't very plausible or well thought out. A God who created all the majesty of the cosmos, to whom we are like ants, who punishes many of us after death for what we do or do not believe, or if we broken such and such a commandment. Then, there's a human-God (who is the same guy as the other God) who was conceived by a virgin and God and then allegedly got himself crucified by the Romans so that he could go back to heaven and forgive everybody who believes the right things. This all-powerful God who's Plan for the universe only has the slightest wrinkle - this devil, who really exists and really waged war in heaven, he makes you do terrible things like look up internet porn and atheist blogs. Then there's the efficacy of prayer. And the less said about godly crackers, the better.

Frankly, I dislike that this keeps coming up over and over again: various Christians alleging that atheists think they're all a bunch of ignorant, superstitious, fundamentalist wackaloons and that the atheists are horribly mistaken. I'm halfway tempted to just consider it compliment-fishing, but it always seems like a recurring talking point: that the other side of Christianity is joyous and reasonable and respectable and good, that that everyone else should have faith just like they do. It's not really a question, it's just a PR campaign - and it certainly doesn't play out very well to people who don't already place a high value on religions or faith or Gods. But in this particular instance, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and answer the points as best I can.

(a) The core Christian faith teachings deal with moral ideals - like the ‘do nots’ of murder and adultery or ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. I cannot find places where the teachings actually allow for the immoral behaviour of someone committed to this faith. We know that it happens - but any small reading in the gospels will reveal they have no right to treat people like crap - none whatsoever.

People have divergent ideas about what moral ideals the Bible actually lays out. Nowhere is this clearer than the ongoing conflict between conservative/fundamentalist Christians and their more liberal counterparts, with both claiming that the Bible supports their diametrically opposed values.

I've heard people claim that the Bible clearly doesn't advocate anything immoral, but the Bible itself seems to disagree on numerous occasions, like prescribing a good old fashioned stoning for idolatry, adultery, even for the "crime" of being a disobedient child. But since you asked specifically for a Gospel quote, how about 2 Corinthians 6:14? The part about being "unequally yoked" with unbelievers? Surely, such ideological segregations seem ghastly to modern ears, yet it is there, nonetheless.

(b) The Christian faith, if it is bad, does not produce very many bad people (per capita). I see the odd bad person crop up - that will commit murder in the name of God or picket funerals. However, they are the exceptions to the norm (deviations from the standard). If it was reverse, and they were not exceptions, the news and history pages would be littered with their vicious exploits. This is not the case at all.

I'm not sure if I have reliable statistics on bad people per capita. I rather doubt that's a real statistic. But I agree with the general gist of it - most Christians do behave themselves very well (most people in general behave themselves very well) and only a few are truly bad (again, the same goes for people in general). But I'm not really seeing where you're going with this, it doesn't appear to be much of a revelation.

(c) People that join the Christian faith actually can do a 180 degree turn in their life. Now we cannot scientifically prove the change in someone’s life or their 180 degree spin - but for those personally affected by that individual - they can see the change. As much as people do not want to give merit to personal stories of change - it is the best evidence of a person’s actual change in behavior. No test can exist to show someone has changed - but as humans we can all admit when we have seen it.

Oh, I'm sure there are Christian converts who really have changed their life for the better. The same goes for Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Wiccans, Buddhists, and probably even some Scientologists. Likewise, I'm sure deconverts also report similar positive experiences. Clearly, the veracity of the religion is irrelevant to the happiness converts feel.
(d) The Christian faith provides (and fills) something in society - a place to belong and find a value system. Most places you attend will not guide you into some type of value system - it’s just not going to happen…and sometimes families fail to fill this role. The church just happens to direct people into values that may help them become a functional piece of society. What they lack in culture, vision, ethical development, attention, community - all these things and more can be given to a person via a church.
That's certainly true, people can find meaning and purpose in a church. People can also find it in a hundred other places. People can even find it without requiring a religion at all.

But I'm not convinced that the meaning a church provides is even a good one, given the alternatives. It hinges on lust for immortality and fear of divine punishment. Whatever meager fulfillment these ideas grant is outweighed by the costs involved in taking this route to fulfillment.

(e) Christians say some strange things - I agree - and hold some strange theologies - I also agree - but how often does what they ‘believe’ make those same people into criminals or shady characters in society? Very, very, very rarely.

It doesn't. It doesn't make them criminals at all. It just makes them religious nuts, no better or worse than UFO nuts or psychic nuts.

These ideas aren't very well supported, and most are directly contradicted by what we currently know about how the universe works. Their proliferation is a cause for concern.

I admit the Christian faith has it drawbacks - namely in some of its weak theological ideas. However, I would not call it a faith that makes ‘bad’ people or makes society inherently ‘worse’ by being there. I admit they have some questionable behaviours - like being overly judgmental - but even within these behaviours they do not commit crimes against you or society. Churches actually help society in many ways - and can in many more.

It's a system where unquestionable, yet very questionable beliefs are instilled, and its primary justification, faith, gives those beliefs immunity from both scrutiny and doubt. These conditions make it a good breeding ground for dogmatism and zealotry, which does do harm to the surrounding community.

I think most of the things said by de-converts about Christians is pure BS and a mass generalization. They have an axe to grind concerning the treatment they received from Christians

How ironic, this is itself a generalization, and quite mistaken in this case. Despite my obvious displeasure with my old church's political stances, I have nothing else bad to say about it. The people were friendly, the sermons were often dedicated to loving one's neighbor and helping one another, and the beliefs themselves were often of the most progressive sort possible within Christianity. It's the kind of place where even an atheist can feel at home.

But as warmly as I feel about that church or Christian friends and family, I must acknowledge that the beliefs themselves are not very plausible, and really do end up causing a lot of harm in the world. It is for this reason that I criticize both Christianity and religion in general.

but at the end of the say I don’t let a few bad apples determine for me the whole apple orchard is rotten.

Indeed. But in this case, the orchard is plowed by oxen and is sown with salt. The fact that some fruits are decent despite the mistreatment is not a testament to its vitality, but a wonder of chance. We can do better.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Palin Presidency

Sarah Palin's the best thing to happen to political humor since Bush. The jokes practically write themselves. The fark thread on the topic is priceless.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Look out world, here comes a new parody religion.

Their videos are so flashy and well-produced, with an alluring emotional pull, but one question haunts me:

What the hell is Tarvusim?

They never ever tell you! Something about talking to an octopus, spouting incredibly vague descriptions of one's religion, and reading books at exactly the same pace.

That's probably the joke right there - religions are flashy and contagious and go to great lengths to look pleasant and enjoyable for newcomers, but underneath that shiny exterior, all you have is a bunch of people who believe some really, really crazy things. Instead of being an emotional and social boon, it's actually an intellectual lobotomy.

"It's like my spiritual intelligence has been magnified, like, a billion million thousand times!" :D

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Elizabeth Dole is so not getting my vote

The weird thing is, I never even heard of Hagan until Senator Dole lashed out against her for *gasp* consorting with atheists.

Well, the latest salvo has my blood boiling. Not only is there reprehensible fear-mongering (atheists apparently want to destroy Christmas), but she did hit pieces on two of the most amiable bloggers in the atheosphere, the Friendly Atheist and Daylight Atheism. As far as I know, neither of them actually live in NC, so they can't let her know the error of her ways on election day, but I do, and I'll be waiting at the ballot box.

And lastly, who the hell does she think she is to dictate "North Carolina values"?? WTF. She didn't even start living in this state until 2001, and she didn't live here for 40 years prior, even though she was born here back when we still had ironclads. She's a North Carolinian in the same way that Hillary is a New Yorker. And she sure as heck isn't an adequate spokeswoman for our "values". Even though North Carolina is a red state (think Jesse Helms), we're not all xenophobic country bumpkins and we aren't all scared of atheists. In fact, some of us are atheists ourselves, and this atheist is sick of politicians pandering to religious bigotry to get elected.

Kudos to the Barefoot Bum

For tackling the Atheist or Agnostic issue, and doing it in a much more concise and to-the-point way than my own attempt.

Monday, October 6, 2008

"Evolution is complete"

It's not news, it's And it's a doozy.

The intro is just a tad odd - opining about the good old days and how the human race is in decline, apparently on "social, moral, and biological levels". They might have well just thrown in this quote:
"Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common, Children no longer obey their parents. Every man wants to write a book, and the end of the world evidently is approaching." - Assyrian tablet circa 2800 BCE"
Really, declining on a biological level? Seriously?

They help make the case with a basic overview of the theory of evolution. Well, a brief but passable explanation, and a couple terrible jokes. And then finally, cutting to the chase:

"As a result, the rate of mutation goes up many times for old fathers compared to young ones. To forecast its future we need to know only how many elderly fathers there will be.

That figure is, in the West, in decline. Today's men start late, but stop early. In Cameroon, almost half the fathers are over 50, in Pakistan about a fifth, and in France only about one in twenty. Young dads mean that the rate of mutation is going down rather than up, and less, not more, of evolution's raw material is being made."

Okay, I'm no geneticist, but I think I see a couple problems here.

#1 - Complaining about young fathers putting the brakes on evolution makes NO sense for the obvious reason that for most of human history, humans have had babies very, very early. We're not talking Bristol Palin early (17), we're talking Mercy ministries early (11), ages so young that it's just barely physically possible.

#2 - I'm not sure where they got the statistics about younger fathers. It wasn't too long ago that they ran an article on increasing numbers of 40+ fathers: "The number of over-40s giving birth in Britain each year has doubled in the past decade to 16,000."

#3 - There's a very good reason why men don't often reproduce late in life: there's a pretty nasty risk of birth defects involved. Mutations may fuel evolution, but they also fuel Down syndrome.

From there, the article drifts into the tedious ancestral histories, eventually getting to an actual point in that modern technology and lifestyles have greatly reduced darwinian pressures and therefore evolution. In that, I agree. I mean, it's not like my neighborhood is hunter/gatherer tribe toughing out drought with a fair amount of man-eating beasts roaming the area. But still, it's far from "complete". Sexual selection, for example, is still going strong.

But the thing that kills me about this question is that whenever people talk about where human evolution is headed, they either imagine X-Men-like superhumans or becoming the prey of giant crows or humanity splitting into utterly ridiculous subspecies.

It's incredibly silly.

Okay, here's what I think will happen (at least on the Nature side of things): you might see a nifty little trick or two (lactose tolerance, sickle-cell anemia, AIDS resistance, increased blood oxygenation at very high altitudes, etc) but nothing earth-shatteringly different. And then we go extinct. The end.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


Bill Maher was on the Daily Show about it, and I'm looking forward to seeing it. I hear he went to Raleigh, NC for one of his examples of religious nuttery, so that certainly hits close to home.

Overall, I'm extremely sympathetic with his reviews, but occasionally, he cheeses me off with something right out of left field. And sure enough, right at about 6:20 or so, he says:
"I don't use the word "atheist" about myself, because I think it mirrors the certitude I'm so opposed to in religion. What I say in the film is that I don't know. I don't know what happens when you die"
Like I tried to explain earlier, atheism is nothing more than an eschewing of theistic beliefs - it's not a very exclusive club, all you have to do is not believe in gods. One certainly doesn't have to have certainty that gods don't exist, or how fundamentalists sometimes idiotically put it: "faith that God doesn't exist".

Look at it this way: most normal people aren't Scientologists and don't believe in the whole Xenu story. How many of you guys would say that you have faith in Xenu not existing? Or have "certitude" in the Xenu story not being true? You filthy, filthy dogmatists! Don't you know that you're not allowed to reject any religious claim unless you have obtained omniscience?

Atheist Jew is likewise peeved, and raises some excellent points on the matter. We should form a gang. ^_^

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sacred 2 Demo

It's back and it's just as mediocre as ever. I recently got my hands on the demo (which I had to run on low because my computer's getting old).

It's the same fun hack a slash clickfest that it's always been, with a graphical overhaul. Sacred 1 had the crappy isometric feel to it, at least this is fully 3d. The combat is fun, if stilted and tedious. But I've been dying for a brainless, fun RPG and this definitely fits the bill.

The character development seems a bit more complex than last time - you get your deity's ability plus a bunch of skills to choose from plus your combat abilities (which themselves seem customizable in some strange kind of tech tree that I haven't unlocked yet) plus slots for 3 gems that you can carry with you in addition to your gear.

The Seraphim is as charming as ever, occassionally delivering one-liners with her attacks. The Temple Guardian and Shadow Warrior classes seem entertaining, but I'm really going to miss the Vampire. :(

The game itself is decent, but it's plagued with bugs. For starters, the camera sucks big time. It'll clip through terrain and objects (especially annoying in tight quarters, like in houses and caves), yet also gets obscured all the time by branches. Combined with terrible lighting, it makes for an extremely aesthetically displeasing experience. Also, the game stutters and briefly freezes every 15 minutes or so, but I'll be generous and chalk it up to my crappy computer.

I just hope nothing's wrong with the horses (in Sacred 1, you could call your horse to your side, only be frequently unable to mount it. And it would often disappear entirely, never to return)

Grade: C

Is the culture war winding down?

Seems like things have been pretty quiet lately.

Sure, PZ still gets crazy e-mails from believers who apparently want to beat him up and Pat Condell's new video gets taken down from YouTube for "hate speech" reasons.

But by and large, it seems like the ongoing conflict between the religious right and everybody else is slowing down a bit. Remember when Intelligent Design was all the rage? It hardly makes the news anymore. Nowadays, you can't even scare people with the "War on Christmas" stuff (but it's too early to call, maybe this year they'll go all out) It's hard even say "fundamentalist" except as a punchline (for example, the ongoing trouncing of Palin's simple faith online and in print).

What's a poor atheist with nothing to do except watch the economy circle the drain?

This is all your fault, Joe Sixpack, for not "lending" (and by lending, I mean giving away) at least $700 billion to corporate scum who drove their respective giants into the ground. Only the poor fear bankruptcy - the rich just get subsidized at taxpayer expense.