No God? No Problem!

I’ve got absolute truths by the dozens
They depend on the god that you cite
And, my brothers and sisters and cousins,
I have to decide which is right.

Each claims their morality’s better
They’re divinely inspired, you see;
So I’d follow their laws to the letter,
Except that they all disagree.

Whenever I look to the bible
To see how a person behaves
I can trust that the info’s reliable,
Like how I should punish my slaves.

I don’t wish to be petty or selfish
I just want to know I am right
Is it worse to be gay, or eat shellfish?
Both are wrong, in Leviticus’ sight.

Is it sinful to kill and eat cattle?
Well, the Hindus, of course, would agree
But then, kosher’s a whole different battle,
Although bacon tastes yummy to me!

I’ve got absolute truths if you want ‘em
Each according to different gods
Some keep them, and others will flaunt ‘em
But you’re breaking some rules, say the odds.

When religions make war over quarrels,
And they claim that their god is the source
Can a person have humanist morals?
Of Course!

Context: USA Today story (along with comment thread–you might want to join in!) about the new holiday ads by the humanists. Another round of “be good for goodness’ sake!”, which might as well be “your Virgin Mary wears army boots!”, for the reaction it’s getting.

Galileo! Galileo!

Galileo’s middle finger. Appropriately.

The mystery no longer lingers:
Found, at last, two missing fingers.
They both belonged, as did one tooth,
To Galileo. That’s the truth.

The heretic had made a fuss
Supporting old Copernicus;
The Earth, he said, each year will run
An orbit ’round our yellow sun;

A statement, in The Church’s sight,
That could not possibly be right–
So Galileo swore he lied,
And nine years later, up and died.

Nine decades later, scientists
With strange things on their “must do” lists
Removed some fingers, teeth, and bones,
Then laid him back beneath the stones.

For years, his parts, though very old,
Were bartered, traded, bought and sold,
Until, in nineteen-hundred five,
Expected parts did not arrive.

The trading, then, went underground—
Until this year. Now, they’ve been found!
Next year, his fans may go and see ‘em
At Florence’s History of Science Museum.

The Beeb reports that… well, honestly, it’s best in their words:

Two fingers and a tooth belonging to famed astronomer Galileo Galilei have been found more than 100 years after going missing, a museum in Italy says.

A collector bought the items, lost since 1905, at auction and gave them to Florence’s History of Science Museum.
The museum said it had no doubt about the authenticity of the items.

Scientists cut the parts – plus another finger and a vertebrae – from Galileo’s body in 1737, almost 100 years after he died.

So… in honor of Galileo (and inconsistent with the title of this post), a music video. I never quite got the “degrees of separation” bit–but I am friends with the sister (and her husband) of the author and performer of this particular “Galileo”. (I’d embed it, but they have requested not to. Go. Click. It’s a few years old, but it’s worth it.)

How Will Religion Evolve?

Religion is the perfect tool
To motivate the common fool;
So long as leaders crave its power,
The church delays its final hour.

Religion’s purpose is control
(And not the saving of the soul);
No holy mind; no will divine,
But rather, keeping folks in line.

Religion, having once evolved,
Is just one way this problem’s solved.
But having once found this solution,
It may not die through evolution.

It likely won’t, to be succinct,
Just fade away and go extinct.
They’ll be here till the world grows old:
Religion… and the common cold.

How Will Religion Evolve?” asks the New York Times’ TierneyLab Blog. The occasion is the publication of Nicholas Wade’s “The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures”. Of course, there have been many treatments of the evolution of religion, whether as an adaptive behavior adding to the reproductive fitness of human beings, as the byproduct of other adaptive mechanisms, as a self-replicating meme evolving independently of ourselves… or as a true part of our environment to which we respond. The question the TierneyLab Blog raises is “what will religion evolve into?”, which is a decent question to ask.

I figure (and I may be wrong–I just slapped this together between grading papers) that whatever religion might evolve into, evolution works with what it is given (from the past genetics and the present environment), so there are some limitations on what religion might evolve into. Just as humans are constrained by our tetrapod lineage and will never evolve supernumerary angel wings (batlike wings are unlikely, of course, but far more possible), the religous lineage also imposes constraints. We cannot roll evolution backwards, only forwards, so we must build on what religion is, not on what it could have been.

What religion is, is a way of controlling people. And a very successful one. Anything that can, without too much strain, lay claim to both the Sistine Chapel and the Jonestown Suicides, to the Parthenon and to the Crusades, to Sarah Palin and to Torquemada, has got to be good at controlling people. Hey, if you want to take credit for controlling in a good way, you gotta take the fall for controlling in a bad way. Evolution does not care; religion, as an evolving creature or behavior, does not care. It just (very successfully) controls.

Religion does what it does (control) very well. So does the common cold. Both “religion” and “the cold” are oversimplifications, one name for myriad creatures, but sharing a fuzzy but functional role. And while I may well wish the world were rid of both of them… like I said, evolution does not care.

PS. If any of you got an extra copy of the bananaman Origin of Species, I want one! Might even be persuaded to trade a copy of my silly book for it… (so long as no profit goes to Ray of Darkness)…

Oh, Poor Stanley Fish!

Oh, pity petty Stanley Fish
Who isn’t treated as he’d wish;
Who wants the world to go his way
Complaining at each brief delay.

If retail workers choose to take
Their legally required break
And Stanley has to wait a bit
Professor Fish will throw a snit.

The poor, poor, privileged Stanley Fish
Starts steaming like a chafing dish
When operators are too bold
And ask to put the man on hold.

And Stanley Fish will take offense
(In fact, or maybe in pretense)
At error screens and menu trees
And other helpful things as these.

It must be nice to live a life
So calm, so cool, so free of strife;
Annoyances are viewed as crimes
And worth a column in The Times.

In his column in Monday’s New York Times, Stanley Fish complains:

There is a class of utterances that, when encountered, produces irritation, distress and, in some cases, the desire to kill. You hear or read one of these and your heart sinks. Everyone will have his or her (non)favorites. Mine is a three-word announcement on the TV screen, “To Be Continued,” which says, “I know that you have become invested in this story and are eager to find out how it ends, but you’re going to have to wait for a few days or a week or a month or forever.” In the great order of things, it is only a minor inconvenience, but it is experienced as a deprivation; you were banking on something and now it has been taken away.

Stanley has a rough life. I can’t think of the last time “To Be Continued” gave me the desire to kill.

He goes on to list other horrible crimes against humanity, like cashiers taking breaks, operators asking if they can put you on hold, and the horrible and insulting “Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed.” Yeah, that last one is right up there with roadside bombs and amoebic dysentery, innit? I note also, with amusement, that Fish takes computer messages as being designed to tell him, personally, that he is an idiot, when in fact he is clearly more important than the people who are trying to do their jobs while dealing with a caller or customer whose idea of an appropriate response to “to be continued” is homicidal rage.

So there it is : a list of phrases that make you wince and say (if only to yourself), “Oh, no!”, because they derail expectation or because they offer condescension and prevarication in equal measure or because they accuse you of failures and weaknesses often before you’ve even had a chance to do anything.

I’m sure the list could be longer, and I invite you to add to it.

I did add to it. As of this writing, my comment is “awaiting moderation”, despite roughly one hundred later comments all being posted without incident. My comment (submitted at 8:05):

“Let us pray”.

The next few minutes will rarely be devoted to speaking to god, but rather to chastising those gathered in hearing range, whether they wish to hear or not. All well and good; those people are there to hear, whereas god is busy helping a football team win or something. Still, if you are going to speak to the people, then admit you are speaking to the people, and don’t pretend to be praying. Better yet, use the time in productive activity.

And of course, the similarly useless

“Join me in a moment of silence”

In which a group of people gathered together, who could be using this time productively, intentionally choose to waste it, but to make themselves feel better about having done so.

Comments are now closed, after 424 people complained about trivia similar to Fish’s selfish items, and one person writes “How albout (sic) all the religious ones? Have a blessed day. It is God’s will. He won’t give youmore (sic) than you can handle Blah, de blah, de blah.”

I suppose my comment won’t be approved, because it was not trivial enough. It’s ok for Stanley to insult the service industry, but to suggest that prayer is an organized waste of time? Not in Stanley’s world.


The experts all will have their say,
Examining each different way
The world we know will cease to be;
We know the world will end one day,
We each could be the last to see,
And though we know, of course, it may,
We each will hope “it can’t be me!”

A black hole made by evil CERN
A calendar about to turn,
With all the danger that portends;
An unknown planet, which we learn
Will kill our families and our friends;
Some few will watch the planet burn
And witness as our species ends.

We read, and weigh their sage advice:
The world will end in fire or ice
Or so, in rhyme, said Robert Frost.
How will it end? We roll the dice,
The game is over when we’ve lost;
Today, the players don’t think twice—
Their children will absorb the cost.

Disaster films and end-times tales
Are more concerned with ticket sales
Than teaching people how to care,
The work that such a job entails,
The damage that we must repair,
Before our fragile system fails
And all too soon… there’s no one there.

The saddest thing I have seen on this is that there are people who take this 2012 nonsense so seriously that they are contemplating suicide–or worse, suicide after killing their families.

Time To Eat The Dog?

I bike to work; I do not drive;
My thermostat’s on “chilly”.
I compost; I recycle; I
Think wasting fuel is silly.
I have a backyard garden, where
I grow my corn and beans;
I can my own tomatoes, and
I patch my old, torn jeans.
I try to purchase locally
From stores that show they care,
And speak at local gatherings
To make us all aware.
I’m doing all I know to do;
I’m hedging all my bets…
But now, I hear the latest news:
It’s time to eat our pets.

Our pets have carbon footprints,
Just the same as you or me,
And Lassie has the impact of
A good-sized S.U.V.
The meat it takes to feed a pet
Should make you think a bit
And that’s before we mention all
The tons and tons of shit.
Our dogs, of course, reflect ourselves,
In how much we consume
It’s time for some reflection here,
Ere Fido meets his doom.
With lots of bigger targets here
Before I roast my bitch;
You want to save the planet?
Then it’s time to eat the rich.

Both the BBC and the Guardian (UK) report on the provocatively-titled “Time to eat the dog?“, which takes an interesting new approach to analyzing our environmental impact.

Instead of measuring emissions of CO2, or CO2 equivalent, they calculate the literal footprint or “global hectare” (gha) – the amount of land it takes to support a given activity.

So they work out that constructing and driving the Land Cruiser for a year takes 0.41 gha.

Growing and manufacturing the 164kg of meat and 95kg of cereals a border collie or cocker spaniel eats every year takes about 0.84 gha.

A bigger dog such as a German shepherd consumes even more – its pawprint is more like 1.1 gha.

By their reckoning, that is more than the environmental footprint of the average Indian person, who uses just 0.8 gha of resources.

If you are a multiple dog owner you are in even more trouble. Two big dogs have a bigger carbon footprint than some British citizens.

According to the book the average resident of Cardiff requires just 1.89 gha.

The average American, by contrast, requires a whopping 9.5 gha.

Taking a closer look at that 0.84 gha figure for a border collie, New Scientist points out (in an editorial titled “Cute, fluffy, and horribly greedy”):

If that’s troubling, there is an even more shocking comparison. In 2004, the average citizen of Vietnam had an ecological footprint of 0.76 hectares. For an Ethiopian, it was just 0.67 hectares. In a world where scarce resources are already hogged by the rich, can we really justify keeping pets that take more than some people?

As I have known for some time now, I am clearly part of the problem. We all are, in a global Tragedy of the Commons.

We need to become part of the solution. If using Fido or Fluffy gets people’s attention, then the authors’ unusual approach has done its job. Judging from the comments on various news articles, though, there is a significant population who won’t quite get the point of the book.

Oh… for those who think the “Time to eat the dog?” people go too far, you might not want to click here.

UPDATE: Ah, it seems it was too bad to be true, or at least too bad to be accurate. Take a look here for a nice skeptical look at the analysis. (In a nutshell, the researchers underestimated the impact of SUVs, and overestimated the impact of dogs; the majority of pet food comes from “byproducts” of the production of food for humans, and cannot be meaningfully seen as competing for the same scarce resources. On the other hand, the Guardian article did focus on a trend of gourmet dog food, which does use the same cuts of meat that people eat. It is, admittedly, a small part of the market.)


The Impossible And Unnecessary Pursuit Of Perfection

“Have you noticed how much they look like orchids? Lovely!”
– “More From The Notebooks of Lazarus Long” –Robert Heinlein

“There is no such thing as perfect”, she said,
What she meant was Platonic Ideal;
That ancient Greek has made us seek
For things that are better than real.

All populations will vary, you know,
Even twins aren’t exactly the same
And that’s the appeal of the things that are real
Cos monotony sure is a shame

Perfection, to me, is a wonderful spectrum,
A rainbow of difference and change
The lows and the highs, every shape, every size,
My perfection is seen in a range

Bigger, or smaller, or thicker, or thinner
Darker or paler in hue
Yes, every complexion is part of perfection
Including, so perfectly, you.

But Plato’s perfection, a perfect ideal
Is the reason for this operation
But cutting some snips off of vaginal lips
Isn’t perfect, it’s just mutilation

When Barbie is viewed as a model for women
(Despite being merely a doll)
Being hairless and plastic, while patently drastic
Is seen as a goal for us all!

The body (your body) is perfect as is—
It’s a one-of-a-kind work of art!
The flesh of your quim isn’t something to trim—
I’d as soon take a knife to your heart!

Rejoice in the body you already have
Protect it and treat it with care;
Don’t ask which direction will lead to perfection:
My darling, you’re already there!

I’ve written before about some of the problems that arise from a pre-Darwinian view (in this case, a Platonic view) that finds some abstract entity “ideal”, and variations (which, since the ideal is an abstract, must necessarily exist) as imperfections or flaws. The notion that “there’s no such thing as perfect” is a necessary consequence of Plato’s world view, but of course it will be the case when you define “perfect” as he does. In a population-centered view, there is no utility in an abstract ideal; a varying population is a necessary element to evolution, and to life. There is no perfect Luna Moth, for instance–or, just as usefully, we could say that any Luna Moth is perfect (or at least as entitled to use the term “perfect” as any other).

Every McDonald’s hamburger is the same. Every hamburger I grill is different. Which more deserves the label of perfection? (and yes, on occasion one of my burgers may be worse than a McD’s; I do have my off days.) Variety is not just the spice of life, it is the main dish. Things that do not vary are not alive (literally and metaphorically; I know someone who has eaten the exact same lunch for some 50 years–with regard to lunches, this person is long dead.)

So I was particularly disappointed to see this BBC report, a “new warning on perfect vaginas” (It’s well worth a read, although I will not quote much here.) As soon as we speak of “a” perfect vagina, we are in Platonic territory and have defined the goal as out of reach. So women have been seeking some approximation of this perfection, and for some reason have decided that the perfect vagina is not that of a woman at all, but that of a prepubescent girl. Labioplasty is on the rise, and the story reports on a “‘shocking’ lack of information on the potential risks”, as well as the dubious ethics of a procedure that seems preponderantly to be a response to culturally-created concerns about looking… well, like a woman instead of like a Barbie doll.

It’s bad enough when platonic thinking misleads people about atheism and religion. But far worse is the notion that it is powerful enough to lead people to voluntarily (no, worse–to pay for it) have someone take a scalpel to their genitals (!!) in order to transform them from unique into assembly-line monotony.

Of course, the article presents others who call the surgeries safe and a simple way to address self-image problems. Mind you, these others are on the receiving end of the £3,000 paid for the operation, and have no incentive to complain about Plato.

And, not that it matters, but there are just sooooo many other titles I could have chosen for this post, which would have guaranteed hundreds of clicks on a daily basis for years to come… ok, all of them from people looking for a particular sort of porn, but still.

Come The Rapture, Who Feeds The Dog?

The day the rapture sweeps the land,
And plucks up true believers,
Among those heathens Left Behind
Are Labrador Retrievers

No Saint Bernard will make the trip
Nor Cockapoo, nor Hound;
The Lord may be my shepherd,
But my Shepherd stays aground.

No Poodles, Pugs, or Pekingese;
No ifs or ands or buts—
The rapture takes God’s faithful,
But it doesn’t take the mutts.

Believers who are worried for
The welfare of their pets
Are offered, now, an answer
If they’d like to place their bets.

“Eternal Earthbound Pets” exists
To serve those Left Behind;
It’s rapture pet insurance, if
Believers are inclined.

Of course, not all believers think
Their pets will all be lost;
Their pets may go to Heaven, too
(Thus saving them the cost)

And Fido sits beside them, cos
In Heaven, all is well;
Together, they can laugh and spit
At sufferers in Hell.

From The Union Leader (Manchester, NH) comes the last pet-sitting service you will ever need. Well, assuming that you are going to heaven. If you’re with me, plan on needing to buy kibble for a long, long time.

As those Christians who believe in the Rapture get taken up into eternity, the pet-lovers among them will have one less thing to worry about if a Langdon atheist has anything to say about it.

Bart Centre, 61, a retired vice president of an international retail firm and current co-owner of Eternal Earthbound Pets, is offering a $110 post-Rapture pet care service. The way Centre sees it, he makes a little money in his retirement, and should Jesus Christ return and the Rapture occur, those snatched up into heaven will have their pets cared for, he said.

Of course, to me, the most interesting thing was the reaction from the editor for Rapture Ready:

One Christian who is having a bit of a chuckle over it is Terry James, general editor for the popular Christian Web site Rapture Ready based out of Arkansas.

“He’s giving somebody the business,” James said. “It’s a scam. . . . Anyone who would take that offer seriously, well, how would you even follow up?”

James said what is true is that Christians who believe in the Rapture do wonder about what will happen to their pets. So many, that James wrote a pamphlet about it. He said though pets will be left behind, if the people in Heaven decide that they miss their pets, they can decide to have them brought up later. He acknowledged that sounded a little screwy, but, he said, it’s what he believes.

“I find it kind of amusing to tell you the truth,” he said of Centre’s business venture. “I don’t begrudge him and I don’t hate him for it. And if anyone is actually foolish enough to buy the service and don’t think to follow up, well, then they are foolish.”

Leaving aside the irony of a biblical literalist making up non-biblical pamphlets telling feel-good stories about pets in heaven, and leaving aside the irony of someone with his beliefs calling any other beliefs foolish, there is a further, less evident (or maybe that’s the H1N1 talking) irony.

I have, in arguments with Rapture Ready believers and their ilk (not using my Cuttlefish handle), been told that they are happy I am going to hell, and that they will greatly enjoy looking down from heaven and watching me suffer in a lake of fire. I have been told that they will laugh, and if they are feeling particularly charitable, they will spit on me, just to watch me welcome this relief from the searing heat. Seriously.

And these people (or, most probably, others who share portions of their world view) are going to miss their dogs in heaven? Terry James makes up a story about bringing up Fido later, but gee, it’s too bad about grandma. If you love her, maybe you can convince more of your heavenly friends to spit on her.

(edited to add: predictably, the commentary on the story is every bit as interesting as the story itself, which will surprise no one familiar with the Union [mis]Leader.)

Cuttlecap tip to commenter Laurie on Pharyngula.


Cuttlefish Classic: The Natural State Of The Featherless Biped

Image: Michael McRae

The natural state of the featherless biped
Is totally batshit insane,
From the folks who are “tetched”, to the mere “barking mad”
To the ones even Freud can’t explain.
Some talk to themselves, some talk to “the voices”
And others to “god, up above”
Some know there are bugs living under their skin,
And some (pity them) are in love.

A clear diagnosis is hard to obtain
When we’re characteristically odd.
Just look at behaviors most people call normal
Like talking and listening to god;
If you claimed you were talking to Satan himself
They would probably lock you away;
But instead, choose a different invisible friend
And the doctors all think you’re OK.

Some point to religious folks flocking like pigeons,
With atheists more solo fliers—
And say this to friends who have gathered together
With Dawkins, or Randi, or Myers.
Of course, there are differences, none could deny,
But a few similarities, too.
We follow our leaders, a true social species
As nature selects we should do.

When Dennett says memes can take over our heads,
Make us willing to die for some god;
I look at the hooligan soccer-fan riots–
Devotion no longer seems odd.
The vestments and hats of the Orthodox Church
Are a spectacle worthy of mention,
But some secular groups may be equally gaudy—
Just check out a Star Trek convention!

It’s good to examine abnormal behavior
(Whatever “abnormal” might mean)
Just remember, we’re usually seeing ourselves
In the things we’re surprised to have seen.
We like to point fingers at somebody else
For the troubles, today, that we face;
But don’t point at others; the problem is us—
We’re the batshit-insane human race.

As I said before, I’m re-posting some of my favorites (and yours, if you let me know which ones) during this kinda sorta Fall Fundraiser Drive (tip jar over there on the right).

This is a fairly early verse–from about a year and a half ago–so it ought to be new to quite a few of you.