And the Discovery Institute has a major headdesk moment

Here’s old Bill Dembski, being interviewed by Focus on the Family, one of the few remaining forums that take him seriously.

I believe God created the world for a purpose. The Designer of intelligent design is, ultimately, the Christian God.

Whoops. Well, so much for any more attempts to claim in courts of law that ID is purely scientific and isn’t about trying to shoehorn Christianity into science classes. Cuz, you see, here’s the Discovery Institute’s official position:

Does intelligent design postulate a “supernatural creator?”

Overview: No. The ACLU, and many of its expert witnesses, have alleged that teaching the scientific theory of intelligent design (ID) is unconstitutional in all circumstances because it posits a “supernatural creator.” Here we provide several actual statements from intelligent design theorists that the scientific theory of intelligent design does not address metaphysical and religious questions such as the nature or identity of the designer. [Emphasis added by some little atheist smartass.]

Hmm. Awk-warrrd, eh, Billy?

Of course, Dembski has frequently been perfectly open about his religious motivations — when addressing a safe Christian audience. In the world of creationism, talking out of both sides of your mouth is standard operating procedure. It must lead to some really uncomfortable muscle cramps.

So what is this, Wacky Hindu Day?

First bandits make off with a holy man’s holy leg, and now, via Skeptico, I discover this delicious little story about a provincial judge in India ordering two gods, Ram and Hanuman, to appear in court to give evidence in a property dispute. The judge is not about to grant any special dispensations to them for being divine, let alone imaginary.

“You failed to appear in court despite notices sent by a messenger and later through registered post. You are hereby directed to appear before the court personally,” Judge Singh’s notice stated.

The newspaper notices were published, in keeping with accepted Indian legal practice, after two summons dispatched to the plaintiff deities were returned because their addresses were “incomplete”.

You know they’re just going to lawyer up.

Irrationalism hasn’t got a leg to stand on

None of you is likely to forgive me for the bad joke in the headline when you read this article. But still, I think this little event shows up the practical risks of embracing irrational beliefs in magic and the occult. So the next time some wide-eyed individual calls me a closed-minded old grumpus because I can’t see the “beauty” in the act of confusing fantasy with reality, I’ll just reply that I’d rather have a closed mind than a bloody severed limb. Skepticism: the life and limb you save may be your own.

Catholics so scared of Golden Compass, they’re suppressing their own praise

According to IMDb today:

Without explanation, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has retracted on its website a positive review of The Golden Compass that appeared in Catholic newspapers last week. The review had appeared to counterbalance claims by the Catholic League, the nation’s largest Catholic lay group, that it served as an introduction to atheism expounded in the trilogy of books on which the movie is based. The League had urged a boycott of the film. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Jim Lackey general news editor of the Catholic News Service, run by the bishops’ conference, acknowledged that he was told to remove the review from the CNS website. “It’s hard for me to categorize whether or not it was a surprise,” he told the newspaper. Meanwhile, the church’s Raleigh, NC diocese on Tuesday warned pastors in a letter about the possible ramifications of the film. “The concern is that once a child gets ‘hooked’ on the film or the books, then the next film could resort to the true atheistic nature of the books,” the letter said.

And we all know how bad it would be for business if children around the country had an epiphany from reading the books that there’s no invisible magic man in the sky and the church is simply a self-perpetuating authoritarian money machine. Plus, if the kids turn atheist and stop coming to mass and catechism and all the other little rituals we have for them, there won’t be so many of them around to molest! Gasp! Martin! You mean mean man! What a cheap shot! Yeah, well, it wouldn’t be so easy if they hadn’t done it.

Now I know I didn’t care for the movie much, but it also happens to be true that the grounds on which the Catholic League (has the odious Bill Donohue even seen it?) is condemning it are wholly bogus, and part of me wishes people would go see it just to realize that all the hysteria in the press is much ado about nothing. Then perhaps folks will be less likely in future to say “How high?” whenever Donohue says “Jump!” But what I find most amusingly ironic about this whole Catholic war on the movie is that they’re basically walking right into it and validating the themes of Pullman’s original books: that the Church is repressive and even punitive towards ideas which challenge their long-held dogmas, and that humanity’s real growth lies not in those dogmas but in embracing free thought and fighting authoritarian rulers and institutions that keep people cowed and submissive. I’ve heard Pullman’s religious critics attack his humanism as somehow “elitist.” But what could be more elitist than a bunch of men in expensive robes and pointy hats claiming to be the emissaries of a deity and telling everyone what to think and how to live thereby?

Anyway, it appears the movie is doing better business in Europe (where theistic demagogues generally hold less sway than here), adding an additional $51 million to its lackluster $26 million domestic take. In Pullman’s home of England alone, the movie had a per-screen average of $29,129, compared to $7,308 in the U.S. New Line foolishly overspent on the movie, as studios are wont to do with “event” pictures, but the overseas gross could help put the movie in the black.

Civilization accelerates pace of human evolution

Interesting new research popping up in the news today. Darwin predicted that evolution would be a faster process in large population groups, and current science seems to be confirming those predictions with research that shows about 7% of the human genome has undergone rapid change (“rapid” in evolutionary terms being on the order of 40,000 years) under selection pressure from such civilizing activities as agriculture. For one thing, it appears lactose tolerance is a recent development, with the emergence of the LCD gene; no one, it appears, in the Stone Age could drink milk. Nor did any of them have blue eyes. Also, when people began to cluster in large population groups, thus allowing a venue for new infectious diseases to spread, we began developing genes to increase resistance to them, such as G6PD, which staves off malaria.

Today we see different alleles emerging in different population groups, unique to their continent of origin. Europeans have alleles that express fair skin, for instance, but they’re different than the ones that fair-skinned Asians have. Also, it appears Asians are rapidly developing genes that suppress ear wax and body odor! Australian aborigines and African bushmen have a hard time with the grains and other carbs we in the agricultural west seem to digest just fine. This is leading to the conclusion that humans may be growing apart, not closer, as a species. In another 40,000 years, might we actually speciate? Particularly in light of the fact we all seem to be staying fertile until much later in life?

It’s all nifty stuff to read (here’s another article from National Geographic). And it all just shows why science is such a rewarding pursuit. Always new things to learn, to complement, refute, and/or modify existing knowledge.

Pitt and Clooney pwn Larry “I’m Still Not Gay” Craig

Hadn’t seen this before, but it’s hilarious. Leave it to the two coolest guys in Hollywood to know exactly how to let hypocritical neocon politicians have it where the sun don’t shine. And that’s all the innuendo for me, thanks.

(Context: Clooney’s Ocean’s Eleven costar Julia Roberts is winning an award, and Clooney can’t be there, so he’s sending a video congratulations.)

Lunatic shoots up Ted Haggard’s old church

This is a developing story out of Colorado, so we’ll be keeping up with it. It would be too easy to throw in some snark about the obvious (God didn’t pop up to save these people), but there is a time and place for that and it isn’t when people are really being hurt. I suspect there’s something to the fact that this occurred at the megachurch formerly run by the disgraced Ted Haggard, that the guman had some real issues there. We’ll see what an investigation into his background reveals. It doesn’t appear anyone was killed (we’re unsure whether the gunman himself is alive or dead), so that’s good news.

Apparently earlier today two guys were killed at a missionary training center about 70 miles away. We’ll see if it was the same shooter.


Latest update is that the gunman killed one person at the church before himself being taken out by a quick-thinking security guard.

Today on the show: Skeptical straw men in fiction

Tune in to the Atheist Experience for “Skeptical straw men in fiction”. Featuring:

  • This lame old joke about a bullying atheist professor who turns out to be completely clueless about science. This is from years ago; my response was posted here.
  • Evan Almighty, and other silly movies where God is a character in the story.
  • The Reaping, another movie where the skeptic looks ridiculous and fails to do due diligence.
  • The definition of a “Skepticism Failure” at tvtropes.org.

Plus a few odds an ends to discuss, if we have time for them.

Reviewing The Golden Compass

I’ll start here by noting that this review, while it avoids outright spoilers for either book or movie, has some things in it that will mean more if you’ve read the book rather than not. Since not reading the book would make you a silly person, go correct that lapse in your cultural education at your earliest convenience. Now, onward…

Chris Weitz’s film of Philip Pullman’s brilliant fantasy adventure The Golden Compass is a respectable adaptation in a lot of ways, but at the same time exhibits a lot of the problems inherent in trying to compress the plot of a complex novel into a two-hour running time. If I give the book a 5 on a 5 scale (and I do), then the movie is hovering around a 2½-3. Truth be told, Weitz did a better job than I was expecting. He’s clearly a huge fan of the book and strives to be as faithful to it as he can within the limitations he has to work under. I respect him for trying to do his best by Pullman and the book’s fans.

But what this means cinematically is that we get a movie whose story feels rushed, with Weitz doing everything he can to touch on each major plot point in rapid succession. The script just sails along, at such a pace that very little suspense is actually built. We establish the movie’s universe, its heroine, and her quest — and then we’re off to the races. Lyra, though extremely well played by a great little newcomer named Dakota Blue Richards (why is Dakota the moniker of choice for preteen actresses?), never really feels like she goes through a character arc in the normal sense of the term. She learns to use the aliethiometer, decoding its arcane symbols with almost supernatural speed, just so the script can get the story going.

Thinking about it, it isn’t that the movie is too rapidly paced, so much as that it doesn’t really have anything you could call “pacing.” Its script just flings you from one scene to the next — boom, boom, boom — without much in the way of the dramatic peaks and valleys stories normally have to draw an audience in and give them a stake in the outcome.

Part of me wonders just how much studio interference Weitz had to endure from New Line. If The Lord of the Rings taught New Line anything, it’s that doing epic fantasy that already has a built-in audience faithfully, and putting the project in the hands of a dedicated filmmaker equals a major box office love-happening. On the other hand, with $180 million at stake (each LOTR movie cost right around $100m by comparison), New Line clearly wasn’t willing to give Weitz a Peter Jackson level of carte blanche. Three editors are credited, leaving me to wonder just how often the infamous moviemaking mantra “We’ll fix it in post” reared its little fuzzy head during dailies. I’m not saying that a three-hour running time would have been for the best, but allowing for, say, 140 minutes would have given the movie a little space to breathe, and bring some moments back from the book that the script either excised or truncated in order to stay focused on Lyra’s quest alone.

The cast is quite excellent. As Mrs. Coulter, Nicole Kidman is ideal. I like her as an actress anyway, though for this role I wasn’t sure. Physically she’s different from the novel, where she’s a brunette, for one thing (when I read the book, I was picturing more someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones). But Kidman swans through the part looking about as glamorous as it’s possible for a woman to look short of being sculpted out of ivory, and she conveys the character’s seductive, fatal attraction to a tee. I also dug Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel. Craig, after proving himself the second best James Bond of all time (flame shields on), is turning into an actor I’ll probably want to see no matter what he’s in — wait, scratch that, I still have no desire to see The Invasion. Still, I like him, but of course, the script doesn’t give him enough to do.

Sadly, other supporting characters are given short shrift, especially Serafina Pekkala, who’s barely in the movie enough to matter. (The script’s treatment of the witches is an exemplar of how awkwardly the movie translates ideas from the book. In the movie, we really don’t get much of an understanding of who the witches are, why they’re involved in this, or anything. They’re just there, presumably, because they were in the book.) LOTR veteran Ian McKellan lends his voice to Iorek Byrnison, the disgraced bear prince who becomes Lyra’s guardian. And though the movie succeeds in building their relationship (it’s really the only relationship in the movie with any substance), the script doesn’t give Iorek the sense of tragic pathos he has in the novel. Another LOTR alum, Christopher Lee, is prominently billed (how many octogenarian actors are getting as much work as he is?), but he has exactly one line and about ten seconds of screen time. Sam Elliott made for a very good Lee Scorsby, though I was picturing Billy Bob Thornton when I read the book. Elliott is better suited, I think.

As for the movie’s whitewashing of the books’ theological themes, well, this was interesting. The Magisterium is played less as a church than as a generic totalitarian governing body. But Weitz manages to keep in enough material about freethought (represented by Asriel and his scientific pursuits) versus dogma that I think fans of the book won’t feel like the movie betrays the book’s themes too drastically. How exactly any proposed movies of books two and three, though, will manage to slip around the whole “kill God” thing is a mystery to me. Weitz has said that he was willing to compromise certain things about this movie to fit them into more of an acceptable Hollywood blockbuster framework, so that its hoped-for box office success would mean he could take more chances with the sequels. I hope that wish comes true, because I predict that audience word of mouth on this movie will hover around “oh, it was okay, I guess,” and TGC won’t be looking at LOTR-level returns.

Among fans of the book, the biggest letdown is the movie’s decision to end a little early, so that the movie can have a happy ending rather than the somewhat tragic one the book has. I think this is a choice that will backfire, not just because it’s a mistake to think audiences only want all happy endings all the time, but because the happy ending we get here is so…well…bland. To have ended the movie the way the book ends (and I know I’m assuming you’ve read the book here) would have given the movie the one thing it utterly lacks: an edge, a willingness to take risks, to challenge its audience both intellectually and emotionally. You know, the very qualities the book is popular for. As it stands, the movie, while it stays true to the book’s words as best it can, lacks its mind and its heart. And it lacks its truth. If only Weitz had had his own aliethiometer.

So yeah, I guess it’s 2½. I don’t want it to be an Eragon-level megabomb, because it’s a worthier effort than that. I’d like it to at least make its money back, so that perhaps Weitz gets to make The Subtle Knife after all and take the risks he says he wants to take. So I’ll say TGC is worth a matinee. Fantasy cinema that at least tries ought to get our support, if only so we get a great one now and again.