Basava Premanand (1930-2009)

On October 4 of this year Basava Premanand died.

You may never have heard of Premanand, but in addition to physically reminding me a bit of James Randi, Premanand also had his own paranormal challenge and dedicated his life to debunking “godmen” of India. Just days before he died, according to a special release of the e-zine Bangalore Skeptic, he drafted and signed a statement attesting he was of sound mind and still as skeptical as ever. He didn’t want any tales of death-bed confessions to haunt his reputation, after his death.

If you haven’t ever heard of Premanand, I urge you to look him up and read about him and the sorts of problems Indian skeptics are addressing.

A brush with Jehovah’s Witnesses

I’m at home all week. I have a new job starting in San Antonio next Monday, but for now I’m just cooling my heels. I’ve been living in my sister’s house for a while, planning to move to an apartment in a couple of months.

Anyway, this is build up to explain why I was enjoying a nice nap today after an exciting round of healing Heroic Oculus on my level 80 priest, when the doorbell rang. I answered it and was confronted by a smiley woman in her forties or fifties, and a twenty-something middle eastern looking young woman.

They were looking for “Katherine,” and when I said there was no Katherine here the older lady said that perhaps they had the wrong house. I said “You might be talking about my sister, Keryn.” Then she asked if we were believers in God in this house, and I said “No, we’re pretty much all atheists.” She lit up and said “Well that’s great, we love talking to people of all religions and, uh… people of none. I am sure this is the house I was at before, she told me to come back later.” At that point I asked if they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, they confirmed it, and we were off.

Now, I know some people who would try to get rid of JWs as quickly as possible, but I love them. I’ve only had one other encounter with them, which I documented here. They are so full of confidence that their book holds all the answers, yet generally pretty ignorant of basic facts. So I decided to pass some time chatting.

I was introduced to the younger woman, who pretty much never spoke the whole time, as a converted Muslim. I had to explain the whole “Jewish atheist” upbringing thing, which the lady interpreted to mean “Oh, so you read the Bible but you never actually got to know the Lord.” I told her I didn’t see it as getting to know anyone, but rather as not being raised to believe that their god existed.

The woman eager to start reading from the Bible, so I patiently refrained from calling it a book of fairy tales, or a big book of multiple choice, and she proceeded to gush happily about how the Bible is full of stuff that she finds inspirational. She asked me permission to read me one, and I consented.

To be honest, I don’t even remember which part she picked. I just remember that at some point shortly after, we were talking about Adam and Eve, the first people, and she brought up how they defied God and ate the apple. So I asked whether they had the knowledge of good and evil at the time when he ordered them not to eat the fruit?

A little evasively, she said that they didn’t know good and evil, but they understood that it would be disobeying God. But I persisted, did they really? How did they know that it was wrong to disobey God if they didn’t know good and evil? What did they learn from the fruit of knowledge if they had that much understanding about not disobeying God?

She started to read what God said about how the day that Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they would die. So I said “But they didn’t die that day. So God was wrong.” And she said no, they certainly did die, in the sense that they became mortal. Then we talked about how the word “day” is sometimes a metaphor, and I brought up young earthism, so she said that she dismisses young earthism. “Yes,” I said, “but there is no indication in the Bible how long those ‘days’ of creation actually were. Science had to figure it out first, before you could take credit for her.” I also had to fill her in on background history of Bishop Ussher, since she didn’t know how widely accepted young earthism once was.

I asked how, with all the non-literal stuff in the Bible, she can tell the difference between what’s meant to be taken seriously and what’s not? The Bible has no key to interpreting itself — she pointed out that “in the beginning” from Genesis could be an indeterminate length of time and I pointed out that there is no way, without the insight of scientific examination, to actually determine that this is meant to stand for exactly 14.5 billion years.

But then she said that yes, the Bible has lots of original scientific knowledge, such as the order of creation matching up perfectly with what science says. “Oh reeeeally?” I asked, because this is one of my favorite claims to respond to. “Show me this ordering of creation please, that’s fascinating!” So she skipped back to Genesis and started running through the separation of light and darkness, and then plants, and then… “Where was the sun at this point?” I asked.

She had an answer for me: “Oh, this verse doesn’t mean that the sun was CREATED there. It just means that the sun was REVEALED at that point.” Then she started to explain to me about the vapor canopy hypothesis, where the firmament water that would eventually become the water of Noah’s flood, was blocking out the visibility of the sun.

“So,” I said, “you believe that when plants came into existence, there was no visible sun on earth.” “That’s right.” “And you believe this is in accordance with what modern science says? Seriously? How do you think plants get their energy? Ever heard of photosynthesis?” She put it to me that plants were getting energy straight from God.

So I said “I’m sorry, but you originally said that you think this information matches up with current scientific data. I know a lot of scientists, and I think it’s safe to say that only a very tiny minority would give any credibility whatever to your version of events, including the vapor canopy hypothesis.” She insisted that she had all kinds of literature she can bring back proving its scientific accuracy. I replied that I’m well aware that lots of creationists believe in that, but that doesn’t make it in agreement with scientific thinking.

“What I’d really like to see is some kind of mainstream, peer reviewed, scientific journal that seriously advances the ideas that you’re talking about.” She promised that she would do the research and come back with it later. Asked what time would be good for me, and we agreed on Saturday at 11. The whole conversation lasted about 15 minutes, I think.

Personally, I’m betting they won’t be back.

What matters is he gets to play the Christian Persecution card

An amusing tale from the world of sports, which I generally regard with absolute indifference. Oakland Raiders cornerback Chris Johnson intercepts a pass in the end zone, celebrates by dropping to his knees and flamboyantly thanking God*, and is promptly penalized. “”I’m just getting on my knees giving my respect to God. I don’t see how that’s a personal foul or anything like that,” he complains. But it appears that religion is not the culprit after all here. It would seem the NFL passed a rule three years ago prohibiting showy end-zone celebrations on general principles. Now the writer of the linked article makes the point that, religion notwithstanding, the problem here is that it’s a stupid rule in the first place, and one that the NFL doesn’t bother to enforce consistently. But even that misses the point. Christians will run with anything that lets them play the persecuted minority. You can bet that Kirk and Ray and all the fundagelicals who enjoy whipping up fear in the flock by whining about how Christianity is being “criminalized” in America will soon be adding “And the liberals won’t even let football players praise Jebus in the end zone!” to their repertoire of repression. Yawn.


* The spectacle of sports stars constantly thanking God for their victories, as if the creator of the universe wouldn’t have anything better to do, reminds me of the joke where the coach is talking to his team before the big game, and he warns them, “This is going to be a tough one, boys. God is on their side!”

Conservapedia to form their own schism

Right now, lots and lots of people are emailing us to make absolutely sure that we’ve heard the exciting news that the geniuses behind Conservapedia want to rewrite the Bible without all the bits that they consider too liberal. To be blunt, it reminds me of trying to rewrite Olsen’s Standard Book of British Birds by removing the ones who wet their nests. (And to see opinions I’ve already rendered on Conservapedia, check out this older post at Kazim’s Korner.)

I have to say, when I first saw this at Pharyngula I immediately assumed it was a hoax. Then I saw the actual page on Conservapedia (which at the time of this writing is down, probably flooded by hilarity-seeking atheists). But I still imagined that somebody had punked them. I mean, anyone can edit the site, and their famous objective standards are a bit, hmmmm, what’s the word, nonexistent. So clearly some silly person was seeing what he could slip by the censors.

Then I saw the discussion page. It may or may not be a joke, but enough of the regulars there take it seriously that it looks like it’s taken on a life of its own.

So, okay. A nontrivial number of Conservapedians really think that their Bible should be improved. After all, if you leave the Bible in its current inferior form, then terrible liberals like E. J. Dionne are free to claim that the book actually supports their point of view, which is clearly ridiculous and unthinkable.

Now, you might say that this is an act of tremendous hubris, but I say, really, what’s the big deal? It’s not like it is without precedent, for a group of people to write or rewrite some holy text to suit their convenience, and claim the end result to be unchanging eternal truth. I mean, for starters, we’ve got the original authors of the Bible, unless you accept that they were divinely inspired. Then you’ve got the Council of Nicea, who went through all the books that were candidates for inclusion at the time and decided which ones did and didn’t fit in with their conception of what the Bible should be.

Then you have the big Catholic/Protestant split in the 16th century, which by now has spawned alternate versions of the Bible. You have the Book of Mormon, supposedly dictated by an angel, and you have L. Ron Hubbard who specifically announced his (highly successful) intention to start his own religion.

What I’m saying is that, to borrow a description from the great George Carlin, it’s all bullshit anyway. What difference does it make whether you take a 2000 year old book and claim that it is infallible as written literally, or you retranslate it and claim that the translation is infallible, or you make up some entirely new bullshit and claim THAT’S infallible? It’s all bullshit, and the beauty of this Conservapedia project is how close they come to flatly admitting that it doesn’t matter.

Don’t tell me you take any of this stuff seriously anyway.

Roman Polanski

Once again, I’ve been away from the blog for a few days, this time because I was attending the fantastic Fantastic Fest at the Alamo Drafthouse, and my mind has been in movie mode for a solid, wondrous week. Which means that while ACA’ers were busily batcruising a week ago, I was a few blocks away at the Paramount theater squealing like a little girl while George A. Romero signed my ticket to the premiere screening of Survival of the Dead. Much as I love the gang, I’ll have to miss a batcruise for that one, folks. Too bad the movie was crap, though.

Anyway, another incident involving a film legend went down recently, and while it may seem to have nothing to do with atheism, it was an event that gave me lots of food for thought about matters I’ve often discussed here on the blog and the TV show. I speak, of course, of the arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland on a fugitive warrant for his drugging and rape of a 13-year-old girl more than 30 years ago.

Opinions have been divided over Polanski ever since he fled the country upon realizing that the judge handling his case at the time — who, it must be said, has been revealed as something of a publicity hound — was about to renege on a plea deal. On the one hand, there are those who have categorically condemned Polanski as a slimy pedo, and on the other, cineastes who point to Polanski’s great films and stature as one of the world’s master directors, and the crime as simply some sick aberration that shouldn’t tarnish the man’s entire life. And besides, the victim, now in her 40’s with a family of her own, has forgiven him.

Debates along those lines can and will go on for ages, and they are. Following Polanski’s arrest, battle lines were drawn along familiar borders. Many of Polanski’s industry pals have rushed to his defense, demanded his release, and offered all manner of apologia for his misdeed. Conversely, read feminist blogs, and it’s clear they’ll be satisfied with nothing less than Polanski’s mutilated corpse dragged down Hollywood Blvd. behind a truck.

For my own part, I would not want to live in a world in which an artist like Polanski wasn’t able to create. His best films are landmarks. Repulsion is the great film about psychosexual neurosis. Rosemary’s Baby is a horror masterpiece, dealing with religious horror themes in a way the campy and atrociously scripted The Exorcist could never touch. Chinatown is one of the best movies ever to come from a major studio. And even his underrated adaptation of Macbeth, shot while he was still grieving over Sharon Tate’s murder, is the darkest and most violent version of Shakespeare ever filmed. So yes, that Polanski is a great artist ought to be beyond dispute.

He also drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl.

This is a bad thing.

In deciding where I should draw my own conclusions here, I had to consider the way in which I like my atheism and overall fondness for rationalism to inform my thinking. The key factor is moral and intellectual integrity. By that. I certainly don’t mean adopting inflexible dogmatic views and attitudes, but I do mean being consistent and not a hypocrite.

Repeatedly, on this blog and the TV show, I have been ruthless in my condemnation of religious pedophiles. Tony Alamo, Warren Jeffs, adult Muslims in the Middle East who enter into arranged marriages with girls as young as eight or nine — I’ve seen no reason to cut them slack. And so I cannot cut Polanski any either. Certainly, I do and will always revere him as an artist. But the crime is a crime is a crime. Time doesn’t make it go away. Nor does the minor detail that the difference between Polanksi’s rape and those committed by the likes of Alamo and Jeffs is that Polanski never tried to justify it on religious grounds. Do I plan to denude my DVD collection of Polanski’s films? No. Why? They’re great films, that’s why. But just as O.J. Simpson’s double murders don’t diminish his accomplishments as a football star, neither can his football accomplishments be waved around as if they diminish the murders.

So if I cannot cut Warren Jeffs, Tony Alamo, and whoever-the-frak-else among religious wackaloons any slack when they victimize kids, nor can I cut Polanski slack. As an atheist, I think it’s an important factor in retaining my own integrity that I do not allow personal anti-religious bias to influence my opinion, and make me treat crimes by the religious more harshly than the same crime committed in a context where religion had no role. It’s hard for people to free themselves of biases, and those of us who pride ourselves on reason must be doubly diligent that we don’t make excuses and plunge into the same hypocrisy we see from the religious.

I think the arrest needed to happen, if only so that the whole affair can now play out as it must, and neither Polanski nor his victim have to go on living with it as some sort of Sword of Damocles hanging over their lives. Polanski will always be a great filmmaker. But he drugged and raped a kid. At 76, it’s past time for him to man up and face the consequences. If the court is harsh, so be it. If it’s lenient, so be it. But it must be faced. And Polanski’s defenders ought to know better than to embrace the casual insouciance of that last line in Polanski’s greatest movie: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”