Our stupid nation: a jeremiad

Not surprising, perhaps, but still sad. I will never understand why people so eagerly embrace fantasy while flushing reality down the nearest commode as fast as they can. [jeremiad] The American Century is definitely over. In the 21st century, expect precious few great achievements from these shores. We’ll be an intellectual third world country, as dependent on other countries for our scientific advancements and quality of life as we currently are for our oil. [/jeremiad]

Pope makes feeble, flailing attack on atheism

Pope Ratzo today issued an encyclical — a scholarly sounding term evidently used at the Vatican as a synonym for “overlong, ill-founded rant” — in which he purports to respond to the “new atheism” by drawing an oddly-reasoned equivalency between atheism and Marxism, and shoring up the theistic position with such empty, Hallmark-card platitudes as “Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.” To which the rationalist can only respond with, “Speak for yourself, you weak-willed superstitious infant.”

Seriously, if the news release is anything to go by, Ratzo really does hinge a huge portion of his anti-atheist position on comparisons to Marxism, which appear to have little depth beyond “Marx was an atheist, so atheism = Marxism.” Using that logic, one could argue that because Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian who painted bad landscapes (not to mention a Christian), that being a vegetarian or a bad landscape painter (not to mention a Christian) invariably leads to Naziism and white supremacist beliefs. It isn’t exactly Mensa-level thinking.

Amusingly, a commenter over at RichardDawkins.net has already noted that Ratzo, who belonged to the Hitler Youth as a child, goes out of his way to stick to Marxist comparisons while avoiding the Nazi comparisons being made by evolution deniers. But if, as the pope’s defenders will doubtless claim, Ratzo’s membership in that august boyscout club was compulsory and in no way reflects approval of Nazi ideologies, then why shouldn’t Ratzo go ahead and own up to that and start throwing around Nazi straw men alongside his Marxist straw men? It wouldn’t make his blatherings any lamer than they already are.

And it’s a bit rich to have the pope attack atheism by saying things like “It is no accident that this idea [Marxism/atheism] has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice,” given his own church’s bloody history. Hell, right up to this decade, we’ve seen the Vatican responsible for the enabling and cover-up of the largest and most horrifying pedophilia scandal in the history of western civilization. And yet, without a shred of irony, Ratzo can drone on sanctimoniously with such dreck as “We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.” Ah, blow it out your ass, gramps.

Sorry, Mr. Pope person, sir, but looking at the track record of your little cult, I really don’t care how shiny and expensive your robes and pointy hat are, but you’ve got no moral authority to lecture anyone on anything. And as for your invisible sky fairy, I’ll tell you the same thing I tell all of you lot. Prove it exists — hell, provide even a modicum of credible evidence it exists. But even if you do that, you’ve still got an uphill battle to convince me that without this being I have no hope, since the actual experience of my daily life tells me that goal-oriented rationalism and productive, positive humanism gives me hope to burn.

TEA’s science curriculum director forced to resign for promoting science

This is beyond appalling. Remember the talk given here in Austin by Barbara Forrest back at the beginning of the month? It turns out that creationist sympathizers in the Texas Education Agency (rapidly becoming a grossly misnamed entity) have forced the resignation of their science curriculum director, Chris Comer, for forwarding an email promoting that talk. It’s as egregious an act of theocratic political retaliation as you’re likely to see. The lead in this Statesman article is boggling in its implications.

The state’s director of science curriculum has resigned after being accused of creating the appearance of bias against teaching intelligent design.

Think about this sentence for a minute. Let it sink in. Imagine, for a moment, if it had read: “The state’s director of science curriculum has resigned after being accused of creating the appearance of bias against teaching that the earth is flat.” Or what if it had read, “The state’s director of history curriculum has resigned after being accused of creating the appearance of bias against teaching Holocaust denial.” What if we actually lived in that world?

Newsflash: we do live in that world. America is gleefully abandoning everything that the Enlightenment stood for and racing backwards into the Middle Ages with open arms. I don’t like to deal in slippery slope fallacies. But when one has to deal with Christianists and their political machinations, it hardly seems beyond the pale to think these are people who won’t rest until absolutely everything modern science teaches us about the world that in any way appears to threaten their precious fantasies about their invisible sky fairy will be suppressed, its proponents driven out of jobs and positions of public influence. (No, I’ll stop short of hysteria about Gulags, and leave that bit of paranoia to the fundamentalists and their little persecution complexes.)

No surprises about who ordered Comer fired. Lizzette Reynolds is a TEA member who used to work for — wait for it — the Bush administration.

“This is highly inappropriate,” Reynolds said in an e-mail to Comer’s supervisors. “I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities.

“This is something that the State Board, the Governor’s Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports.”

Yes, well, we all know how Bush and his boys are not exactly supporters of evidence-based facts, and indeed their whole policy of “if the facts don’t support our agenda, just make some up” is entirely in keeping with the modus operandi of ID creationists. Reynolds is a chip off their little Orwellian block, isn’t she?

I say we make a stink about this, and Comer’s firing should be a major talking point when science textbooks come up for review again in early 2008.

Here is the letter to the editor that I just sent to the Statesman:

I am appalled to read of the political retaliation in the Texas Education Agency against Chris Comer for, in the article’s words, “creating the appearance of bias against teaching intelligent design.”

Imagine if the article had stated Comer had been forced out for “creating the appearance of bias against teaching the Earth is flat.” Since when is the promotion of accurate science teaching a firing offense?

Religious extremists in the TEA don’t want students and citizens to know a simple fact that threatens their ideology: that “intelligent design” was laughably revealed to be the poorest pseudoscience in the 2005 Dover trial, and the so-called “controversy” over evolution exists only in the minds of the evolution opponents whose dishonesty and ignorance were laid bare in that trial.

Anti-science extremists in the religious right are playing politics with the education of Texas’ kids. If facts get in the way, shoot the messenger!

Go to statesman.com, and click on Opinion > Letters to write your own.

Two headlines

Via a friend living in Tennessee, these two stories showed up in the same paper on the same day.

Story number one:


Testing for STDs offends parents

Juvenile detention facility insists policy protects children’s health

For some parents, the testing is the usurpation of their authority and obligation to make sound decisions concerning their children’s health.

Story number two:


State’s STD rate among highest

Tennessee in top 10 for cases of syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that the state ranks eighth for syphilis infections, ninth for chlamydia and 10th for gonorrhea. All three diseases are caused by sexually transmitted bacteria and can be treated with antibiotics.

They seem like they might be related somehow, but I can’t quite put my finger on it…

Expelled trailer

Here we go, it’s the first full length trailer for Expelled and now it appears to be an even bigger mountain of crap than it looked like before.

I am so looking forward to seeing this movie with fellow ACA members. I’m not kidding. I hope you folks will join me.

In just the first three minutes, Ben Stein once again reinforces the fact that ID is religion (what? what? I thought this was a scientific theory about an unnamed designer) and then implies that his opponents are Nazis.

I was also impressed with the total brazenness of the Richard Dawkins quote mine occurring at 5:45. Just watch. They clumsily splice between two different shots of him, making it appear as if two remarks are part of one thought, and then they cut off what he was saying in mid-sentence at the end. They seriously have no shame at all.

I think this is going to be the creation science museum all over again: half the money they make is going to come from atheists flocking to see it in groups. I have no qualms about giving Ben Stein my $8; you can’t buy a better advertisement for how inane ID is.

The trailer implies that you’ll get in trouble with the vast atheistic conspiracy if you watch this movie. As a member of said conspiracy, I’m encouraging people to see it. This may be as good as Jesus Camp.

If you need a refresher, I first talked about Expelled in episode 522 of the AE TV show. That discussion starts at about 5:45.

What the hell is wrong with Muslims anyway?

No religion in the world seems to lend itself to organized mob psychopathy more than the “religion of peace.” When they aren’t flogging women for being impure enough to allow themselves to be gang-raped, they’re doing even crazier shit. The latest tempest in a teapot has erupted over a British schoolteacher in the Sudan letting her students name a teddy bear Mohammed. I was under the impression that, in addition to being Islam’s “prophet,” Mohammed was a fairly common Arab name. When I lived in Dubai, at least two of our houseboys were named Mohammed. So why this should be a big deal is a mystery to those of us with rationally functioning brains. But it appears a lot of Sudanese Muslims don’t possess those. For her “crime” of “blasphemy,” 54-year-old Gillian Gibbons in currently in jail facing a possible punishment of six months behind bars or even a public lashing. It gets even more insane.

“We tried to reason with them but we felt they were coming under strong pressure from Islamic courts,” said [school director Robert] Boulus. “There were men with big beards asking where she was and saying they wanted to kill her.”

Kill her. Over a fucking teddy bear!? What the fuck is wrong with these maniacs? They’re quite simply mentally ill — there’s no other word for it. And you can’t reason with people whose brains have been short-circuited by a religious scourge as omnidestructive as Islamic extremism. I’m starting to wonder if Hitchens has got the right idea about these people. And I speak as someone who’s lived in the Middle East, and knew many moderate Muslims and Arabs back in the day when America had no greater friends in the world. Moderate Muslims are among the finest people I’ve ever met. But the sanity gulf between Islam’s moderates and their radicals is so much wider than that you find in any other religion, that I’m wondering if the only way to pacify these people is just to make them stop breathing before they do it to you (which they’ll do if they can, rest assured). But then, as we’re seeing now in Iraq, follow that course and you just end up radicalizing more and more of them. There’s just no easy way to deal with such faith-based barbarism, especially that which takes such excessively violent forms as Islam.

And another morally superior Christian goes down in disgrace…

Okay okay, the snark in the headline may have been overkill, since I do believe the whole discussion with Rhology about the presumed necessity of theism as a prerequisite for morality has reached its end. But it never ceases to fascinate me, that the people in our society who most frequently suffer humiliation and public disgrace are those whose public reputation for devout religiosity is most prominent.

Richard Roberts, whose every command God is reported to have told at least one ORU regent to obey without question, has resigned effective immediately from ORU’s presidency. The whole Roberts clan were exposed as having misappropriated university money for their own private use, living lavishly on the backs of their student body and faculty. Sleazy is as sleazy does. That a fundamentalist “university” has been exposed as just another money-making scam by those who subscribe to the “prosperity gospel” is, I suppose, not surprising. But it is depressing that, in the 21st century, religion still continues to hold human culture back from true enlightenment and progress, enabling venality and selfish excess under the justification that if you’re Godly, you’re forgiven already through Jesus’ “sacrifice” — so live it up!

New study shows right/wrong distinctions in infants

Apropos to the current round of discussions we’ve been having with Rhology, news has appeared today announcing the result of a new study suggesting that even 6 month old babies can distinguish fundamental differences between good and bad social behaviors, and choose all by their little selves the better option.

Babies as young as 6 to 10 months old showed crucial social judging skills before they could talk, according to a study by researchers at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center published in Thursday’s journal Nature.

The infants watched a googly eyed wooden toy trying to climb roller-coaster hills and then another googly eyed toy come by and either help it over the mountain or push it backward. They then were presented with the toys to see which they would play with.

Nearly every baby picked the helpful toy over the bad one.

The babies also chose neutral toys — ones that didn’t help or hinder — over the naughty ones. And the babies chose the helping toys over the neutral ones…

The choice of nice over naughty follows a school of thought that humans have some innate social abilities, not just those learned from their parents.

“We know that they’re very, very social beings from very, very early on,” Hamlin said.

A study last year out of Germany showed that babies as young as 18 months old overwhelmingly helped out when they could, such as by picking up toys that researchers dropped.

There is an obligatory quote from a psychologist who isn’t convinced of the “innate ability” part, insisting these behaviors were learned. But it seems he’s not recognizing that all these babies observed were the actions of the toys themselves, which toys “helped” one another and which “fought” each other. They were not then told by the researchers which to choose to play with. On their own, they overwhelmingly chose the “good” toy over the “bad” one.

He does make a good point about the social experience babies have in their first six months of life, and how this likely plays a role. But this experience would be limited exclusively to family, where the baby will naturally be getting cared for in most cases. But often, even at that age, there can be bullying and sibling rivalry in multi-child households. I can think of one good control for a future study to test how much the babies’ choices are innate, but it would be difficult to pull off. Find some 6-month-olds taken from homes where neglect, if not outright abuse, was the norm, and see if they choose the “meaner” toy.

While nothing in science ever rests on one study, and there is more research clearly to be done here, I think what this study can be confidently said to establish is that it wasn’t necessary to hammer these babies with a fusillade of Christian moral indoctrination about their innate “depravity,” and nasty threats of eternal hellfire and damnation, in order to persuade them to choose nice over naughty. Sure, they’re not old enough to understand such indoctrination in the first place, but that’s the whole point: even at this young an age, very fundamental notions of beneficial social behaviors appear to be entirely comprehensible. And the babies didn’t even need parental authority — the real-world analogue to Christianity’s reward-or-punishment-based morality paradigm — to distinguish good from bad behavior. We’re a social species, and it’s human nature to want to get along. Sadly, it’s only as we grow older, and are exposed to whatever social, political, or religious ideologies appeal to us (or are forced on us), that we feel more inclined to divide ourselves and view our neighbors, our former playmates, with hate, fear, and suspicion.