And a happy new year to you all!

It will be a busy one, I know. For instance, in January, the Texas State Board of Education is slated to “review” science education standards, and we already know the creos are hard at work to undermine them. The pro-science community dealt with this handily back in 2003, and now we’re going to have to deal with it again. Sigh. They never learn. Such is the power of myth over minds.

I’ll be taking a blog break of about 5 days or so. See you soon.

WTF?

Superdickery is a site with some of the most bizarre, offensive, propagandist, sexist, racist, innuendo-laden, or just plain hilarious comic book covers and panels from back in the day. Much of it will have you scratching your head in bewilderment, while some of the less worksafe stuff — like a whole plethora of the most unintentionally gay Batman panels imaginable — will simply have you delirious with laughter and must be seen to be believed. The one above, though, has got to be the most inexplicable piece of art damage I’ve ever encountered. So Hitler is apparently crucifying Jesus — so he can blame the Jews for it, I wonder? — when suddenly God, a surprisingly short fellow who favors baby blue dresses and flip flops, bursts into the room, rather the hard way of doing things for an omnipotent deity. Bonus WTF comedy points for Jesus himself crying, “I’m saved!”

Is faux-intellectualism part of religion’s appeal?

I’ve been thinking on this question in the last few days, in light of reading and responding to some comments made by a handful of inordinately ignorant creationists made here and on other blogs. We were visited here recently by a clod named Jon, whose gaseous and incoherent anti-evolution ramblings were annihilated with glorious eloquence by regular commenter Lui. Shalini, over at Scientia Natura, has been ruthlessly trolled by a commenter simply calling himself “creationist” who appears to be quite literally psychopathic, and over at Larry Moran’s Sandwalk, a jaw-dropping fool calling himself “mats” has raised (lowered?) the human capacity for aggressive stupidity to the level of performance art. It’s a phenomenon just breathtaking to behold, and it’s a sobering realization that this kind of mental chaos is what science education in this country has to confront.

It would seem that, to a least a percentage of its followers, Christianity appeals because it provides them with a vehicle for intellectual poseurdom. Without anything in the way of scientific education or expertise behind them, creationists are unique among cranks in the perverse confidence with which they lash themselves to the mast of their stale and long-debunked claims. They’ll confidently and even condescendingly inform experts with Ph.D’s and 25 years of field work that there is no evidence at all to support what is probably the best-supported theory in all science. This goes beyond mere stupidity or even run-of-the-mill ideological denialism into a bold and deliberate repudiation of knowledge and even reality itself.

I’ve often thought that a large part of religion’s appeal is directed towards the less intelligent or less educated, who have come to mistrust those more educated than themselves and who actually equate good education and intellect with “elitism.” For them, Christianity provides the comforting illusion of intellectual superiority by selling the idea that knowledge is a thing received through revelation, and not something you actually have to work for, the results of which are always provisional and contingent upon such things as evidence. This rejection of learning is actually scripturally supported. Many Christians take to heart the wildly ranty final passages of Romans 1, in which anyone who pursues anything other than the “knowledge of God” is branded as “slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful…senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” with a degree of overwrought hysteria calculated to make Ann Coulter’s G-spot explode. (Of course, the Bible, being the Big Book of Multiple Choice and all, can usually be counted on to provide an oasis of common sense at times as well. A passage I often love lobbing at creos is Proverbs 12:1.)

There really is a profound chasm between science and religion that seems so obvious to me, I often wonder at how much guys like Stephen Jay Gould, whose efforts to make nice with religion resulted in his widely-mocked notion of “non-overlapping magisteria,” are entertaining their own “god delusion.” If you were asked, “Why do you trust science? Why do you think evolution is true?” you’d have to give the questioner books, stacks of books. Ask a Christian what they get out of being Christian, and you get sound bites, quick Hallmark-card taglines that radiate emotional comfort. Having dealt with truly ardent fundamentalists, I can say pretty confidently that a huge appeal of their beliefs is not only this emotional comfort, but the idea that one now knows what it’s all about and doesn’t have to look for answers in a big lonely universe anymore. Knowledge is hard work, but belief is easy. Religion claims to provide the answers to the Big Questions ordinarily attained through lifetimes of hard work, to people who don’t particularly care if the answers are verifiable or even true as long as they provide the convincing illusion of both truth and purpose. The difference, I guess, between guys like me and the “Neville Chamberlain atheists” is that I’m not inclined to be sympathetic to the human weaknesses and emotional vulnerabilities that cause people to embrace the easy path to faux-knowledge over the often rocky and difficult path to intellectual honesty and integrity. Ironically, it’s another bit of scripture, the oft-quoted 1 Corinthians 13:11, that best reflects my own rejection of superstition and my disdain for the continued intellectual posturing and rejection of learning coming from the creationist camp.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I imagine that when Isaac Asimov wrote, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived,” he was thinking of passages like that. Religion’s great crime against humanity isn’t that it persuades grown adults who should know better to hold onto childish things. It’s that, in Dawkins’ words, it asks us to be satisfied with not knowing, and beyond that, to confuse belief with knowledge and allow believers to pretend to an unearned and false expertise concerning the facts of the world.

Huckabee’s fundamentalist pandering: a rant

There’s a rumor going around that America is the most advanced nation on Earth, in terms of human rights and scientific prowess at the very least. But in reality, the majority of this nation has greeted the prospect of returning to the dark ages with open arms. Atheists only ever usually see this in the comments creationists leave on science blogs, most of which (the comments, that is) are such a black hole of vacuous moronity coupled with unwonted arrogance and smugness that they must be seen to be believed.

But Americans’ eagerness to flush the last 200 or so years of civilization down the commode can be seen in so many places, and most prominently in the fact that the front-runner for the GOP right now is Mike Huckabee, a hyper-fundamentalist nincompoop who proudly wears his sexism, homophobia and scientific illiteracy on his sleeve, and who puts his superstitions right at the forefront of his campaign as if they were his greatest virtue. That the benighted American public thinks the more idiotic religious atavism you practice, the more virtuous you really are, it’s sadly predictable that Huckabee’s lunacy is selling. It’s selling so well that people not only don’t care that, when he was governor of Arkansas, this staunch enemy of abortion rights pressed for the early release of a serial rapist from prison despite numerous warnings that the man would almost certainly offend again (and sure enough, he raped and killed one more woman after Huckabee let him walk), but they’d probably be more inclined to support him if they did know. Hell, it’s what all them uppity feminazi bitches deserve, ain’t it?

I fear some folks are taking the confident “it can’t happen here” attitude towards a possible Huckabee presidency. Even American voters couldn’t be that idiotic, they assure themselves. Well, when you remember that over half the population of this country believes the universe was created after dogs were domesticated, I think the intelligence of the majority is something one should not overestimate. That Huckabee has gotten as far as he has solely on flogging his Christian faith, while openly displaying his ignorance of foreign policy and geopolitics ought to be enough of an indicator of GOP voters’ low standards for who they’d like to see in the White House (as if Bush weren’t bad enough).

Yes, Huckabee has tried to assure people he’s open to non-Christians as well (“The key issue of real faith is that it never can be forced on someone. And never would I want to use the government institutions to impose mine or anybody else’s faith or to restrict…”), but when he’s on record as stating he’d like to “take this nation back for Christ,” then defends it as simply the kind of thing you say to a Baptist gathering, forgive me if I’m a little dubious. If a presidential candidate were to appear at an Islamic mosque and talk about taking America back for Allah, or at a Klan meeting to talk about putting the uppity blacks in their place, and then respond to the press that “certainly that would be appropriate to be said to a gathering of” Muslims or neo-Nazi hicks, his political career would be over faster than you could say “redneck.” (Though creepily enough, Ron Paul’s lunatic fringe of supporters don’t seem terribly bothered by his apparent affiliation with white supremacists, so maybe racism wouldn’t be much of a liability to a candidate these days.)

Well, who knows yet how things will turn out in the caucuses, but it does appear as if the GOP at large is throwing former golden boy Romney overboard in favor of Huckabee. I can say that if Huckabee actually gets the GOP nomination, it would be a sufficiently awful turn of events that I might actually be driven to support Hillary. At least the worst you can say about her is that she’s a dishonest, opportunistic careerist who never takes a stand on anything she can’t abandon in a heartbeat if it appears to be hurting her in the polls.

Can you tell I’m not overly optimistic about the election year?

First cause argument and machine guns

Sometimes in apologetics, you get an argument that something (i.e., morality, the universe) cannot exist without a creator. But when you try to pin down the fallacies in these arguments, the person presenting them will often back off to a safer position, such as: “All I’m saying is that there COULD be a God who started everything, and that is at least as plausible as the foolish idea that the universe (or whatever) came into existence without intelligence behind it. Surely you must grant me that much.”

Case in point: a theist wrote to me:

Current observations indicate that order and consistency (e.g., “design”) can arise from intelligence or from undirected events (e.g., Mandelbrot patterns, chance).

Given those observations, is there any reason to assume that the design of the universe more likely arose from intelligence (theism/deism) or from undirected events (atheism)?

First of all, just because you have two possible events doesn’t mean that the two must be equally likely. Some people actually play the lottery this way. They reason: “I either win or I don’t. So my odds of winning are 50%.” Wrong. The odds of winning the Texas jackpot are about 3*10^-8, which is way WAY less than 50%. Likewise, even if we grant that the existence of God is “a possibility” that doesn’t necessarily mean that the probability is any more that 10^-googleplex. Just about anything that you make up off the top of your head COULD turn out to be true, but probably isn’t.

But explaining logical fallacies can be difficult when dealing with somebody who is convinced that he’s got an airtight case. So I responded with:

Current observations indicate that people can be killed by machine guns, or by things that are not machine guns.

Given those observations, is there any reason to assume that Julius Caesar was more likely killed by a machine gun, or by a non-machine gun event?

He wasn’t buying it:

We know with reasonable certainty that there were no machine guns during Caesar’s time, so the latter is best assumed.

So what is it that you know about the origin of the big bang that makes your analogy relevant?

But I said:

We certainly do not know that. All we know is that we don’t KNOW of any machine guns in Julius Caesar’s time. Yet we know that it is possible for machine guns to exist. So what is your proof that machine guns did not exist then?

Another thing we know is that it is much easier to kill someone with a machine gun than without one. Given the reasonable belief that Julius Caesar was killed (rather than dying of natural causes), isn’t it fair to say that if there is even a small chance that machine guns existed, then it is at least equally likely that they were used as that they were not?

Why is assuming the existence of something complex, like a machine gun, not plausible to you, when it can be used as a handy explanation for Julius Caesar’s death?

What’s wrong with this logic? As far as I can tell, nothing. Oh sure, it sounds stupid, but I think it’s just as solid as the first cause argument.

The problem with postulating “an intelligence” as the answer to “where did the universe come from?” is that as far as we know, there wasn’t any intelligence available at the time. Intelligence in the world we’re aware of universally requires some kind of brains, and the brains that we know didn’t just happen to exist; they are the end result of billions of years worth of painstaking evolutionary processes.

Could there have been a cosmic super-brain, long before the brains that we know of came into existence? Sure, anything’s possible. And Julius Caesar could have been killed by a machine gun.

But you know, I think he probably wasn’t anyway.

Christian Love™ brings people together!

I can’t resist hilarious stories like this. Seems two different groups (gangs?) of priests — one Greek Orthodox, the other Armenian Apostolic — were cleaning up inside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity when some careless fellow set foot in the other group’s section, setting off a bloody turf war. About 80 men of the cloth whaled away at one another with brooms until the police were called in to break up the rumble. Just amazing. Apparently there were “long-standing rivalries” between the two groups. You’d think if there were a God, he’d step in to clear that sort of thing up. Mediate, you know? After all, how can they expect to fend off the evil atheist secularist liberal Darwinist scourge if they can’t even get along with each other?

I just don’t have a problem with Christmas

It’s true. I know O’Reilly and any number of the folks running the right-wing Christian-persecution industry want to think I’ve declared “war” on their holiday. But I haven’t. If anything, they’ve done so, by loudly claiming the entire holiday season as their own and not wanting anyone else to play. I thought this was a time of peace on Earth and good will to all men. Not for fearmongering religionists who see enemies beneath every rock, I suppose.

The things I dislike about Christmas are mainly the things most people dislike: the traffic, the congestion, the crowds. I’m able to avoid most of this, because I’m not a family man myself so I don’t have an obligation to race to the mall and bow to the gods of commerce every year so I can get the kids the latest awesome video game. No, I get to go at my own pace and pick that game up for me whenever I want it. Hah!

When I was a Christian in my childhood and adolescence, I recall having more of an investment in the religious aspects of the holiday. Today I find much about the holiday that engendered those same feelings of warmth in secular motifs — and in fact, I realize now that what I really loved about the holiday back then was mostly secular, as well. I dug decorations, and hanging out by the tree, and the anticipation of opening presents. Going to church on Christmas Eve was okay, I guess, the only really sucky part having to do with getting dressed up and going out in the cold when I’d rather be at home curled up under blankets. But I do remember liking one thing about the Christmas Eve church service when I was a kid: they’d kill the lights in the sanctuary and everyone would be holding lit candles, and that created a really great ambiance.

As an atheist adult, I don’t miss the church services or religious carols, but there’s still plenty about the holiday for a secularist to enjoy. I have often been asked by Christian friends why I celebrate Christmas if I’m not Christian. I hasten to remind them that the holiday wasn’t exclusively Christian to begin with (as with all major Christian holidays, it’s an absorbed pagan celebration), and that today, there’s the Christian Christmas and the secular Christmas, the latter of which embraces all the good, humanist sentiment of the holiday (the peace and goodwill thing) with none of the baggage involved in taking the mythological parts seriously. We shouldn’t need a particular time of year set aside during which it’s the proper thing to do to be good to one another. But with all the sectarian ideologies around the world eager to divide humanity into warring factions throughout all the rest of the year, clearly we do. A shame that in this country, the Christians who claim to be Christmas’s most ardent supporters want to turn it into a divisive time, too.

Finally, here’s one more bit of childhood Christmas nostalgia that still rocks my world. Who doesn’t remember growing up with this bit of awesomeness? In fact, I think I’ll watch it tonight over a cup of hot chocolate.

So if you don’t celebrate Christmas but something else (the solstice, or whatever), then Happy Holidays. If you do celebrate Christmas, then Merry Christmas. (There. I said it.) If you don’t celebrate any holidays at all, but are looking forward to a day off work, then have a great day. In fact, have one every day. As best we know, this is the only life we have. There’s no excuse not to celebrate every day of it.

Surprise: majority of Americans really stupid

The folks at the Barna Group have done another poll on beliefs, and surprise, the majority of respondents prefer a literal belief in the Bible as opposed to believing that it consists “merely [of] stories told to communicate life’s principles.” Given how frought with inconsistencies and contradictions the Bible is — and especially given how many alterations have been made by ecclesiastical editing and multiple translations over the centuries — it should seem obvious that any belief in the book’s literal truth is wholly insupportable. But not to the punters who make up Christianity’s rank and file, obviously.

This ignorance is on its boldest display in that over 90% of respondents believe that Jesus was actually born of a virgin. As Biblical scholars have known since, well, forever, the whole virgin-mother thing is based on a gross mistranslation from the original, in which “young woman” became “virgin,” perhaps at the hands of some sexually repressed clerical scribe. So as we see, one of the most widely held and cherished beliefs among Christians is based upon ignorance of their own religion’s history. (This is nothing new, of course. People call the TV show all the time, angrily denying that such and such a passage is in the Bible, only to splutter in confusion when Matt whips open his Bible and reads the passage to them.) Religion is most certainly the path away from, and not toward, knowledge and understanding.

The difference between real and fake journalism

Ever noticed how the bobbleheads in the mainstream news media really have it in for bloggers? It’s an especially virulent hatred on the part of right-wing media figures. Bill O’Reilly has called anyone associated with Daily Kos (including its readers) “devil worshipers,” and raving closeted homophobe Michael Savage is driven to near-homicidal mania by the very thought of Media Matters.

Perhaps the mainstream media is just pissed off that bloggers have an ability to do proper journalism — that which isn’t vetted by corporate masters and their armies of lawyers loyal to one political faction or another — they simply lack. Not that the crew of Fox or CNN would do proper journalism if they had the chance. That’s the thing about guys like Murdoch taking over every media outlet they can buy. They tend to hire on-air personalities cut from the same ideological cloth.

CNN’s latest exercise in egregiously stupid non-reportage came in this simple-minded puff piece about the Light the Highway movement, that exercise in fundamentalist absurdity in which the faith-heads have been laying “purity sieges” to Interstate 35 and any businesses that happen to be stationed along it they don’t like. I snarked all over it a few days back, and it has been widely covered on other godless blogs as well, to much amusement.

The CNN piece really is pitiful. Note how the writer, some nincompoop named Gary Tuchman, calls the fundie obsession with I-35 an “interesting belief.” Well, I suppose it’s “interesting” in the same way some madman raving on a street corner in a bathrobe and a lampshade on his head about how the CIA and the Illuminati are trying to kidnap him and haul him off to Area 51 for a round of alien anal-probage is “interesting.” And note Tuchman’s flaccid gesture towards the concept of “objectivity.” It’s the sort of equivocating gibberish that has led to the kind of “he said, she said” pandering that conveniently allows the reporter himself off the hook when it comes to actually digging up hard facts: “Now, it’s only fair to say most people, the religious and the non-religious alike, don’t buy any of this…” Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. Someone also told me the sun rises in the east. Who knew? “But on the side of the road, the prayerful aren’t going to change their minds.” Yes, that tends to be the mentality of lunatics who congregate to do their business on the sides of roads. Remind me how any of this is news?

Well, none of it is news in the way CNN has approached it: as the sort of pure padding on a slow news day newspeople call a “human interest” story. But here’s a little something about the Light the Highway movement that is interesting and even a little newsy. And naturally, one has to have gone online to find it.

When this story originally surfaced in the blogosphere, it was accompanied by a YouTube clip of jaw-droppingly lunatic 700 Club “news” broadcast extolling the virtues of this amazing evangelical enterprise. Part of this report featured the stunning story of James Stabile, a “19-year-old homosexual atheist” (two, two, two horrible sins in one!) who was apparently on his way to his local gay bar one night to smoke a little pole when he encountered some prayer warriors laying purity siege to said bar. After a brief exchange with Joe Oden, the purity siege organizer, Joe “laid hands” on James (no, not like that!) and instantaneously “cured” him of teh gay through the power of Jebus!

This account was met with what you might call skepticism, mostly by those who identify themselves as skeptics. Who knew that you could transform a gay man into an all-around red-blooded American heterosexual stallion simply by letting a moronic religious bigot scream “Fire!” at him? You’d think if it were that easy the country would have rid itself of the gay community ages ago and the Rupert Everett/Jodie Foster wedding would have been the talk of the tabloids for 2007. Many bloggers and commenters cried “Staged!” and “Plant!” But it took a couple of online writers, blogger Warren Throckmorton and gay journalist John Wright, to get to the bottom of what was going on with this James Stabile character. And it was far more intriguingly complex than just the usual routine of fundie lying. How did they get their information? Why, by doing what guys like Gary Tuchman are supposed to do: investigate, follow up leads, dig beneath the surface to get to the truth. You know…journalism.

The short version: it turns out that James Stabile suffers from bipolar disorder and often goes off his meds, at which point he is described by his family and those who know him as a pathological liar who loves attention and will say what he has to to get it. After James was “cured” by Oden, James enrolled in a “residential treatment program” in Kentucky run by Pure Life Ministries, but was ejected by them for being what they called a “compulsive liar.” That’s an interesting charge coming from a camp run by Mike Johnston, an HIV+ man who was the face of the Christian “ex-gay” movement for years, until it was revealed that he was still cruising for unsafe gay sex all the while.

Anyway, after James left Pure Life he moved in with some folks from Oden’s church, where his problems with dishonesty, doubtless a symptom of his bipolar condition, continued to manifest.

By the time CBN’s 700 Club crew came to Texas to shoot their segment, Joe Oden already knew about James’ mental health issues. He had spoken to James’ father, Joseph, a Methodist minister who is reportedly “fully accepting of his son’s sexual orientation and believes being gay is neither a choice nor a sin.” Oden claims he told CBN about all this, and they didn’t care. They wanted James for their piece. Still, Oden doesn’t get off the hook here. He is interviewed in the same CBN piece, and joyously boasts of de-homosexualizing James. So he’s just as much an exploitive, lying shit as any of them.

Word is now that James has finally returned home to his family and is receiving “appropriate medical care.” So the long and short of it is, on the one hand, a young man with mental health and sexuality issues lying to people in order to feel accepted and validated, and a group of religious fundamentalists only too happy to exploit him to promote their crusade. A sad story all around, but one that appears to be ending more or less happily for the Stabiles. The problem with James isn’t that he’s gay, it’s that his brain chemistry is all out of whack. It’s a shame he left his tolerant family for acceptance by a bunch of raving bigots. But the appeal of fundamentalist groupthink is that, with its revivals and mobs of singing, cheering worshipers, it can seem to a lost and confused person to have something meaningful and fulfilling to offer in a directionless life. When all you really need in life are those people who know you and love you for who you are, not who their ideology dictates you have to be. (And with that loving environment, in the case of a real mental disorder, the proper medical care. You can’t pray away mental illness any more than you can pray away the gay. When it comes to dealing with real problems, count on science every time.)

For in depth coverage of James’ story, read Wright’s story here, and Throckmorton’s blog here. Especially if you’re Gary Tuchman. These writers ought to give you some tips on how to do your job.