Religious Liberty Trumps Sanity in Texas

The Texas State Supreme Court last week ruled that a church member had no right to sue a church for damages inflicted to her in the course of “church activities for which members adhere.” The case involved a 17-year-old girl who happed to be a victim of a “spiritually charged” garage sale preparation in which fellow believers became convinced she was possessed by a demon. She was forcibly restrained and “laid hands on her” in an exorcism for several hours despite her pleading to be set free. Amazingly, she returned to the church at a later date when a similar episode occurred again. Her family sued the church for abuse, false imprisonment, and distress; she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from the incident among other psychological fallout. An appeals court later lessened the original award of $300,000 to $120,000. A further appeal resulted in the Texas state Supreme Court ruling, which threw out the suit with a 6-3 verdict.

I find this ruling disturbing on many levels. First, there is no such thing as demons. The church members were caught up in a mass hysteria amplified by her non-participation. Courts of law dismissed spectral evidence as valid after the infamous 1662 Salem Witch Trials. The Texas Supreme Court should have been able to discern that demons are nonsense and that the church members got caught up in a mass hysteria for which they bore responsibility. The court seems to be saying that people, in a state of religious frenzy bear no responsibility for their actions.

Next, we’re talking about an underage girl without her parents present. She did not consent to whatever spiritual rape was inflicted on her. What about the idea of the state protecting children from harm? Didn’t the state just remove 400+ children from the FLDS compound because they were in danger of child sexual abuse? Perhaps this is not an equal comparison as the FLDS kids were brainwashed from birth. Presumably, the victim in this case had “chosen” by her free will to be part of the religious proceedings. She’s under age, however and cannot consent to being abused. The state got it wrong on this account, too. Perhaps cults should adopt a “safe word” concept so that people can escape when they’re not feeling the ecstasy that everyone else is feeling: “Darwin!” “Dawkins!” “Bertand Russell! God damn it! Let me go, you psychotic Jesoids!”

Seriously, though, the most disturbing part of the ruling is the Texas State Supreme Court placing “religious liberty” of a mob above the safety and liberty of an individual victim. Writing for the majority, Justice David Madina wrote, “Religious practices that might offend the rights or sensibilities of a non-believer outside the church are entitled to greater latitude when applied to an adherent within the church.” Is US and Texas law null and void in a church? Do they get to do anything they want as long as they can “justify” their position based on the Bible, which is nothing more than a Rorschach test for the morally challenged? It seems in Texas, that is the case. Send those FLDS kids back! The State has no claim against their cult. While we’re at it, let’s drop any case against the Catholic Church. Surely, they can think of some Biblical justification for molesting boys. They’re “adherents within the church,” right?

Finally, how exactly does the court decide who is an adherent? Is the court privy to some sort of mind reading device where they can decide who believes what? Isn’t one’s mere presence in a church is enough to be labeled an “adherent”? After all, Christians are famous for making up stories about non-believers having death bed conversions. Why not make up a story that someone who happened by a church “converted” to that church’s theology? I submit that sane people would be better off staying out of places and situations where they can be thought to be endorsing a particular religion. The Texas Supreme Court just gave us one more big reason not to support churches, or even darken their door.


Sometimes the brain makes connections between things that are seemingly unconnected or only distantly or abstractly related. Recently, a series of oddly related events came together for me in a way that I wanted to share.

First, I came across a comment in another forum last week that mentioned a model known as Morton’s Demon. I hadn’t heard of this before, but it is apparently a metaphorical representation of how people maintain beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. The Demon sits at the gateway of the mind and allows only that data to pass that supports currently held beliefs and values, while barring any information that conflicts. I suppose to some degree anyone is susceptible, but, I think it’s fair to say, some more than others.

Next, a few days ago, I called someone I know, but the call was intercepted by a third party, and a conversation began. During this conversation, the topic of Arctic oil drilling was briefly broached. Just to note, I did not raise the issue, and I’m extremely ill informed on the topic. However, the “logic” presented by this person was, let’s say, unusual, and went something like this: The oil platforms in the Gulf withstood Katrina, therefore it is unreasonable to worry about potential problems drilling in the Arctic.

Without thinking, my first response was, “Have you ever seen an oil spill?” The answer was, “Yes, from a ship, but not from a platform.” My next natural question was, “How are they planning to move this oil?” Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know if the intent is to use pipelines or ships, I was simply asking, aloud, the first questions that came to mind. The topic switched quickly, and I didn’t pursue it.

Finally, also a few days ago, I was excited to see not one, but two small owls hanging around in my backyard. Being ignorant regarding owls, I decided to research online to determine the species. I was having no luck, when someone suggested I check the Audubon Web site.

At the site, there was a link to an article about the potential impact of oil excavation in the Arctic . At any other time, I might have skipped right over it, but after my recent phone conversation, I decided to give it a read. My reaction to the article was that although its claims seemed reasonable, I would have liked to have seen some references and citations to support the claims and statistics put forward.

The article basically claims that there are engineering challenges that are presented by this region that are not presented in other regions we have so far excavated for oil. I would say that the Arctic presents a very different environment, in many regards, than, for example, the Gulf area; and it seems at least reasonable to accept that materials and processes could react differently in that far colder climate. The article also claimed that seismic exploration would be used, and that this could have a negative impact on species of whales known to use local waterways. That whales are using the area appears to be causing the local Indians some concern, because they still hunt some whale species to survive—again, according to the article. And finally, as this location becomes commercial, the article notes that increased shipping traffic can be anticipated; which is also a concern—and that makes sense to me, because I’ve seen the impact of recreational boating and commercial shipping on waterways, having lived in Florida, Pittsburgh, and Austin.

So, deciding that the article was rational, if not supported by citations, I forwarded the link to my pal and asked in my subject line, “I wonder what Audubon has to gain from lying like this?” I added no further content. I received a short reply later that same day, presented here in its brief entirety:

“I don’t know why they do stuff like this. Look around you and you will see oil rigs pumping all over the place and cattle grazing right next to them. Also the area is not as big as PA. It is really a small area and it so happens in that particular area there are very few Polar Bears. I hesitate to get into this because the media is so liberal and it seems to me the Democrats of which I use to be one, want to ruin our country stopping us from doing anything and everything that would make things better and easier for us all. No matter how good of an idea someone comes up with, if it didn’t come from an Democrat they will vote against it.”

When I examined this, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It appeared that he was initially reasoning that since cattle exist well enough in prairie oil fields, that I should extrapolate Arctic wildlife would fare just as well (since domestic cattle and wild whales are nearly equivalent?)—and that, somehow, I should consider the two ecosystems are comparable, when clearly they are not when I “look around.”

The next assumption is that size dictates importance. True, when I “look around,” I sometimes see that small things are unimportant, but sometimes I see that they can be very important. There are some substances required by the human body, for example, without which it will cease to function normally (or at all)—even though they may be required in very small amounts. It is never safe to assume without knowledge that in any interdependent system, the mere size of a component dictates the overall importance of the component to the smooth operation of the system as a whole.

As far as polar bears being few in the region, again, I’m ignorant. But, if the animal is already struggling as a species, then “few” may be significant. I have no knowledge of how populous polar bears are in the areas considered for drilling, but one thought that pops into my head goes something like, “Why would the Audubon Society knowingly inflate polar bear population figures? How would they benefit by a public disinformation campaign?” Honestly, I don’t mean to imply there’s no one at Audubon who might benefit. But I can’t really miss the clear, immediate benefit to oil companies, and politicians supported by them, to be able to drill in previously restricted areas. I am, then, fully aware of a clear bias on one side of this issue, while I remain ignorant, but open to hearing more about what potential bias the other side might harbor.

To be fair, my friend appears to be trying to explain the Audubon Society’s bias—in an odd, convoluted way. It seems he reasons that media supports liberals, and I’m sure that he means that “Democrats” are “liberals,” but he provides no explanation about how the media actually benefits from lying. I can “look around” and see media’s advertising dollars pouring in, mainly from industries and corporations—so there’s hardly an obvious financial incentive for the media to promote articles that oppose oil drilling, while they support themselves with the money they generate annually from Chevron, Exxon, Shell, and Mobil. The “benefit,” I’m being told, is that they merely wish to be contrary to the Republicans, so much so that they would rather harm the nation (and their own revenues) than support a Republican idea that would actually benefit everyone. Why they hate Republicans and cater to Democrat liberals is sort of glossed over. But they are, according to this line of reason, willing to shoot themselves in the foot financially, and potentially harm themselves and the rest of us, purely for the sake of being disagreeable.

The Audubon Society, I take it, then, is not actually a group that supports conservation, but is, rather, a front for the liberal anti-Republican Democrat agenda. Likewise, the Inupiaq tribe actually knows the whales are in no danger. They simply like to disagree with Republicans, too. Have marine biologists, oceanographers, geologists, climatologists weighed in on this? If so, do those who land on the side of caution also wish only to destroy the planet for anti-Republican spite? What a poor, persecuted group the Republicans ar
e—according to my friend. Very much like another group I frequently hear about that suffers from similar persecution.

So, my friend appears to believe that people in all areas of conservation and research who err on the side of caution in this debate, are only claiming to be concerned with conservation, but are actually just Democrat sympathizers who care nothing for the welfare of the planet and only want to be on the opposite side of absolutely anything U.S. Republicans endorse. A global conspiracy of Republican haters.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me just reiterate that this post is not intended as an analysis of the Arctic drilling situation. I’m ignorant. I’m not taking sides. I have not even attempted to take a position on the issue. I am, however, taking a position on the soundness of one citizen’s logic and argumentation in defense of the drilling. I do not presume that his argument represents the “best” argument offered; in fact, I think it’s only fair for me to assume it could not possibly be.

I’m merely pointing out that someone is seriously asking me to accept the position that it’s more reasonable to believe (a) large numbers of diverse groups falsely claim to care about the planet while they are actually lying for spite, even if it means harming themselves, other people or the environment, rather than (b) large corporations and the politicians they support are lying in order to gain gobs and gobs of money, even if it means harming themselves, other people or the environment. When I take my friend’s advice and “look around,” I can’t deny I’ve seen some individuals and, to some degree, small groups do “a,” however, I’ve seen “b” too many times to even begin to count.

I should also give a hat tip to the line, “…of which I use to be one.” How many times have any of us heard, “I used to be a nonbeliever…”, as though that argument is any more compelling to me as it would be to them if I were to say, “I used to be a Christian…” Has that line of idiocy ever altered anyone’s opinion about god?

And this is atheist-related how, exactly? Here’s where I’m back to synchronicity and Morton’s Demon. Compartmentalization is old hat in atheist discussions—the idea that people can reason perfectly well except with regard to one or two particular emotional issues. But here, I have an example of someone using Morton’s Demon in a political context. And he is, just to note, also a Christian. And, just to stir the pot a bit, I’ll go ahead and add that I also know this person denies we walked on the Moon, thinks Evolution doesn’t happen, and has some interesting opinions about 9-11. So, I’m surprised, and even a bit amazed, that his particular Demon is able to keep up with all the information he has to work to sort and divert. If ever I felt sympathy for a metaphorical figure, it is now, when the simple thought of all that labor literally fatigues me.

Here is where I am supposed to reveal the secret of how to effectively respond to Morton’s Demon. The truth is, though, I’ve got nothing. In order to know how to effectively counter him, I’d have to have some idea why he’s considered necessary by those who employ him. Maybe it’s like someone who suspects he has cancer refusing to visit a doctor because he doesn’t want to know? Can life and reality really be just a “cancer” to so many? From what I’ve seen, willful ignorance and self-deceit create a tangled web that must be intricately woven throughout all areas of our lives and minds. In the same way harm to a tiny ecological region might cause damaging ripples throughout an entire planetary system, so willful ignorance and self-deceit can ripple through entire worldviews—poisoning the mind and producing poorly informed behaviors that impact everyone and everything within reach.

I’m beginning to question what exactly “compartmentalization” is. Might it be confined to those who don’t take their religious beliefs too seriously? Is it that some are religious by rote, so that their beliefs don’t have to integrate, because they don’t actually hold them in the forefront (or, in some cases, even the remotest corners) of their minds? Is that “compartmentalization”? I am having trouble understanding how someone could believe—consciously and thoughtfully believe—many common religious doctrines without those beliefs requiring protection in other areas—most other areas—of their worldviews and minds. Can I hold to an unreasonable belief that informs all of my most basic human values and interpretations, and not also require protection from information in nearly every other area of my life? Is that realistic? Is it even possible?

I’m not sure anymore.

Home from TAM6…

…and boy, are my arms tired. (rimshot) It was a perfectly wonderful experience, even my lunatic decision to make a road trip out of it — which totaled over 2600 miles in the end. But as I’ve already told many folks, it was just my desire to gafiate* for a while, and by taking a little highway tour of the Desert Southwest (a part of the country I love anyway), I could take things at my own pace, not feel like I was rushing through airport check-ins, or anything of that nature. A vacation, not a trip, was what I was after, and that’s what I got. Thoroughly enjoyable in every way, despite coming home to the bittersweet news of George Carlin’s passing.


I’m not going to compose my full report of the thing just yet. I’m still fairly tired and just want an evening or two to decompress. But in the interim, here’s my Flickr set for the conference, complete with at least one of my road-diary shots. And I simply have to give a shout-out to my Aussies, Lloyd and Rachel McAlpine and Alan Conradi, who made an already enjoyable conference even more special and memorable. Apart from being fantastic people, they are quite possibly the biggest AE fans in the whole world. I look forward to seeing them all again next year, and I’m sure we’ll all be in touch frequently between now and then.

Off to play with my dogs now…more later.

*gafiate: (v) Neologism I discovered in the world of science fiction fandom, comprising an acronym for “Get Away From It All.” Gerund: gafiating. “Are you in town on business?” “Nope, I’m just gafiating.” (Confused stare.)

Money and thermodynamics

Here’s an addendum to Sunday’s show on financial scams. It’s a thought that I had while preparing the topic, but didn’t wind up using while on the air.

Your financial situation is a lot like the second law of thermodynamics — a concept which creationists frequently and (perhaps) deliberately misunderstand. The second law of thermodynamics deals with entropy, which is hard to explain in abstract terms, but it is often described as “chaos.” It is a function of the amount of energy in a system which is no longer available to do work.

In a closed system, entropy always increases, which means that orderliness is being drained away all the time. The only way to restore that order is to bring new energy into the system which can do work. Here on earth, the sun is always shining down, bringing new energy from space. That energy is absorbed by plants, which are eaten by herbivores, which are both eaten by people, which channel that energy into creating orderly things. If all the people in the world were to disappear tomorrow, within a very short time our buildings would decay and rust, and eventually fall down. What is biodegradable would be eaten by bacteria. And so on. Keeping our civilization going takes work.

The sun provides “free energy” for us and so powers order and life and yes, evolution too. Eventually the sun will burn out, but this is too far in the future for us to care about that problem right now. You can’t just keep spend energy without bringing more of it in: if the sun vanished, all life on earth would likely be dead in a matter of days. It doesn’t matter how clever our science is at that point; without new energy coming in, you can only shuffle existing energy around for so long before using it up.

In your personal life, money plays a similar role to order. Most of the things you do as a citizen of the 21st century require money in some way. Keeping a roof over your head costs money, or it costs somebody else money (if, for example, you live with your parents). Feeding yourself costs money. Traveling around costs money. The highways and buildings that keep our economy running cost money to maintain.

So in order to keep this system afloat, we have to do new things all the time that generate wealth. At a basic level, we have to grow enough food to feed everyone. We have to build houses, and create roads. At a less crucial level, we give each other reasons to go on living when we create art and design cool technology and educate one another. These are the things that we do that are of lasting value to our species, and they are things that are worth paying for.

A financial scam is the economic equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Scam artists will tell you that you can get your money for nothing (and, as Dire Straits tells us, your chicks for free). They say that if you mail their chain letter to other people, or build your downline as an Amway distributor, or hype up Liberty Dollars, or “pay the processing fee” to release the funds from your rich uncle in Nigeria, then you’ll get money without doing work.

Thanks to thermodynamics, we know that perpetual motion machines don’t work, and that anyone who claims to have built one is a charlatan. In order to create motion, you have to spend new energy. In order to keep a lifestyle going, you have to do something of value that brings in new money. In other words, an economic closed system is guaranteed to burn itself out sooner or later.

In a nutshell, that is what I mean when I say that you should always approach a new financial opportunity by asking: “Where is this money coming from?”

Today on the show: Financial scams

Sometimes I like to mix up the topics to avoid just being “the show that talks about how there is still no God.” Because of this, I’m returning to one of my favorite critical thinking subjects: financial scams. I’ll be discussing three examples of scams that I’ve spent time discussing in the past: Chain letters, Amway, and “Liberty Dollars.”

Today’s links:

50 reasons to contribute to Iron Chariots

PZ Myers just posted an email he received entitled “50 reasons to believe in god.” While the apologetics contained therein are the usual unremarkable tripe, I thought this was a good opportunity to renew enthusiasm for Iron Chariots, the counter-apologetics wiki.

The mission of Iron Chariots is to collect in one handy reference guide an exhaustive list of theistic arguments and thorough rebuttals to each one. Here in this email, we find a neatly wrapped parcel of sound bites which collectively represent EXACTLY the sort of thing which Iron Chariots was set up to debunk.

Many of the bullet points from the email already have responses at IC, but many others do not. I’ve taken the liberty of creating a new page dedicated entirely to responding to this email. I’ve also included an example of the kind of response which would suffice to answer the first bullet point.

Go to the article and start editing!

The point of this exercise is not simply to write a long essay in the body of the response. If there is already a response within a different article, link it! If there is no such article, make one! If an existing article fails to sufficiently address the point, improve it! You can categorize new articles yourself, or simply write something basic and let our crack team of experienced editors come in behind you and wikify the contents. Either way, let’s make this a group activity. Have fun! And feel free to share the link.

Also, you’ll noticed that I’ve created a new category for this project called Internet Memes. If you know of any other good messages that fit into this category, feel free to create more articles in there.

Prince Caspian is Anvilicious

  • Anvilicious, adj:
    In media, the state of conveying a particular message so unsubtly that they may as well etch it onto an anvil and drop it on your head.

Okay, so I’m late in seeing this movie. Ginny and I don’t get out enough.

I always liked the Narnia books, even after I knew that Aslan represented Jesus. As someone who wasn’t terribly absorbed in Christian mythology around age 10, the parallel wasn’t immediately obvious to me at the time, but it seemed undeniable once someone pointed it out to me. Still, I continue to feel that Lewis was a much better fiction author than he was an apologist.

Prince Caspian was never my favorite of the series; in fact it would be fair to say that it’s roughly tied with The Horse and His Boy as my least favorite. IMHO the best of the series, in order, are books 4 (The Silver Chair), 6 (Narnia’s “genesis” story, which further explores the concept of parallel universes), and 3 (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which had some cool random adventurey stuff).

While Caspian wasn’t that great, I don’t remember it being particularly full of religious overtones as compared with many of the other books. I have a theory about this. Some of his own statements notwithstanding, it seems to me that Lewis wrote the first book as a straight-up Christian story. The lion getting killed for another character’s sins and then coming back to life is just way too obvious to overlook. On the other hand, once he had settled into a mythos, Lewis got more comfortable with writing a good story whose characters take on their own life and don’t necessarily have to correspond with Biblical figures.

But that’s not the way the director of the latest movie series saw it. The first movie emphasized the religious overtones, and since there’s not enough of that in the second book, by God he added some.

The white witch, who represents the devil, makes an all new appearance, tempting the main characters with personal glory and stuff. This never happened in the book, given that the witch had been dead for 200 years at this point.

Then at the end of the movie Aslan parts the red sea. I mean, he creates a wall of water to kill the Egyptian — I mean Telmarine soldiers. In the process, the water morphs a giant “river god,” resembling a huge old man with a beard. I couldn’t resist whispering to my wife “Oh finally, God’s here.” I didn’t remember this from the book, but Wikipedia mentions in passing that it’s in there. It seems to get an awful lot more attention in the movie though; it sounds like in the book the river god only shows up to ask Aslan for a favor. In the movie, he wins the fight for them. And seriously, he looks suspiciously like “the” God rather than “a” god.

I don’t mind religious themes in movies, for the most part, as long as it’s a good movie. This particular movie is not a case where less is more, however. Caspian has a lot going for it: pretty good characters and actors, first rate CG effects, some entertaining writing in places. But the movie dragged on way too long for me anyway — and the sad part is, most of the religious anvils are part of the unnecessary dead weight.

I’m convinced that the book is too short to make a faithful movie about. I can even admire some of the creative decisions taken by the team. At least the first half of the book has no action to speak of, since it is a dwarf retelling the backstory for the benefit of the four kids. I actually liked the way the first scene focused on Caspian escaping from guards, and the rest of the first half continually switched perspectives between Caspian and the kids, making all the events concurrent with each other.

But you could have lopped off Tilda Swinton’s scenes reprising the witch, and not only not lost anything, but actually made a lot more sense.

I’m not a direct-translation purist. I’m happy to let movie directors add or chop scenes as they need to make the transition between media formats go smoothly. I’m less than happy about the directors’ effort to shoehorn their own religious messages in there because they don’t trust CS Lewis to beat you over the head with it enough.

Teach the controversy

An alert Non-Prophets listener named Matt writes:

I tend to prefer shirts without text over shirts that consist of nothing but text which makes finding good atheist t-shirts rather difficult. Most of the time they are nothing more than a block of text on an otherwise plain shirt. These shirts are not only fairly well designed, they are highly amusing as well.


Sweet! TAM 6 is coming up this week, so I’m heading out to Sin City for the skeptical festivities. This will mean a slowdown in my own posts between now and the time I get there — gotta prep and all — so hopefully Kazim and the others will take up some of the posting slack between now and Thursday, when I start blogging the conference. I know I will be meeting a few AE readers there, so wave if you see me saunter by.

For a bit of headdesk-inducing irony, take a gander at who’s appearing at the conference’s hotel, the Flamingo, just about one month after.