Say it with me: theism and gnosticism address different questions.

I absolutely love QualiaSoup. Chicken soup for the atheist’s soul uh… brain, that guy is.

I’ve argued in the past, in some effective and some ineffective ways, that atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive, and that not having made up your mind on whether there’s a god or not does not mean you get to claim you’re “agnostic”. To be agnostic, you must have the belief that the existence or non-existence of all possible gods cannot be definitively established — that the concept of “god” is fundamentally unknowable. To be atheist, you must merely lack a belief in gods.

It’s perfectly acceptable to believe that it’s possible to know of a specific god or gods, and yet not make up your mind on whether you believe in any specific ones. In that case, you’d be gnostic, but you’ve yet to address whether you’re a theist or an atheist.

It’s also possible to expressly disbelieve in every concept of god yet postulated by human beings, as each of them make claims that are demonstrably false, and yet leave the door wedged open a tiny crack for the possibility that some god may one day reveal itself, or be revealed through repeatable scientific experimentation, unequivocally. In that case, you’d be an agnostic atheist, as I am.

It’s also possible to dismiss the concept of deities as childish and impossible under any circumstances, and be a so-called “strong” atheist. You in this case would be an gnostic atheist — you believe that it’s possible to know with certainty that there are no gods, and you believe that there are no gods.

And yes, it’s also possible to decide that you don’t know whether gods exist, and you don’t know whether it’s possible to prove them. I posit that this position is not “true agnosticism” but rather a form of willful ignorance. You don’t know, and don’t care. Every time your mind turns to the possibility of a deity, you shrug and go “dunno”. You don’t expressly believe in a particular god, so you’re not a theist, but you don’t expressly doubt that there are gods, so you’re not an atheist. However, because you lack a positive belief in gods, you’re a de-facto atheist.

There are lots of different variations on the theme. Not all of them require any positive belief at all. Notwithstanding this, there are idiots out there that believe that atheism is a religion (and apparently make a pretty penny by poisoning this well) — that you have to accept a dogma, and that you have a positive belief in science as a deity. And maybe there are even people that do fit this description. But to assume that every atheist believes in science dogmatically and religiously, is as closed-minded as to assume that every theist believes in the specific deity and dogmas of Christianity. Since both are demonstrably false, someone who accepts the latter but not the former, is showing themselves capable of gross doublethink. The subcategory of human beings that fit the description of “atheist” are much more expansive than most people (and some misguided dictionaries) will lead you to believe. This subcategory includes almost everyone who answers “none” to the Religion question on a census form, by mere dint of their not believing in a god. That is, unless they answer “none” when they DO believe in a deist god, or a theist interventionary god that does not belong to a specific religion.

This is a problem of education, and like most problems of education, there is a faction with a vested interest in sowing misinformation — those that wish to paint us atheists as dogmatic religious extremists. And as unlikely a correlation as that seems, pretty much any lie can become the truth if it’s large enough and repeated loudly enough. None of us stand to gain anything from having our position mischaracterized — not even (and especially not) theists who think themselves intellectually honest philosophers.

Benoit Mandelbrot leaves this mortal coil

Sadly, Jonathan Coulton’s song contained in this Youtube video is now out of date. Benoit Mandelbrot, renowned mathematician, passed away this past Thursday at the age of 85.

I often mention fractals to explain to theists that infinite complexity can be derived from very simple math. This is an almost direct analog to how the laws of chemistry, as simple and wholly scrutable as they might be individually, could result in life spontaneously self-arranging. Nobody needs to have intelligently designed these laws, they emerge as complex behaviours from the simpler behaviours of electrons, protons and neutrons. And those, in turn, emerge as complex behaviours from the simpler ones of quarks, leptons, and other fundamental particles. And those, themselves, may well emerge from simpler forms, like in string theory. And whatever the fundamental thing of the universe is, could emerge unbidden from the universe’s zero-net-energy state. Or from some other simpler abstraction we have not yet discovered.

In this way I am convinced that this universe functions as like a fractal. That Benoit Mandelbrot discovered an equation that showed amazing complexity at infinite zoom levels doesn’t mean he intelligently designed the fractal to be infinitely complex, though it takes a keen mind to recognize that the whole abstraction of math as a concept, when visualized on graphing paper, could result in something so intricate, delicate and amazing as the Mandelbrot set fractal.

Kilmeade doubles down on Bill O’Reilly’s bigotry

So Bill Orally managed to offend Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar on The View so badly that they walked off the set before the commercial break. What got them in a huff? He said the so-called “ground zero mosque” should not be built, because “Muslims killed us on 9/11″. Never mind that it’s not a mosque. Never mind that the link is tenuous at best between the terrorism and the religion behind it.

Then. THEN.
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It gets better.

National Coming Out Day was celebrated this past Monday in the States. It was only by a matter of serendipity that I happened to blog about the Mormon asshattery on sale at Wal-Mart, so I can’t claim that was explicitly in honor of the day in all honesty. In point of fact, I’d completely missed it. I don’t feel too bad though — my gay sister didn’t know about it either.

When Jen came out to me as a lesbian, she asked, “what’s the worst possible thing I could tell you about myself?” I answered without hesitation, “That you voted conservative.” For just about anything else — from theism to sexuality to being a member of a pseudoscientific multi-level pyramid scheme — I could live and let live, and have debates on the topic in a reasoned manner. If she’d turned out to be a conservative, I’d have demanded a level of intellectual integrity to account for all the myriad ways the conservative parties directly harm anyone below upper-middle-class, and by extension harm everyone in the entire field of economics as a whole. (Never elect a politician to office whose chief political belief is that government is wrong and must be destroyed. They’ll only do whatever they can to make government wrong and worthy of destruction.) Her sexuality, I could not honestly care any less about.

So when she came out, I thought back (as I am wont to do when I receive new information that colors past events) to all the hints that she might be gay, and I wished I could have been there for her sooner, knowing that other family members have not taken her coming out nearly as well. If there’s one thing I could go back in time somehow and tell her, it’s that it gets better.

Stephanie Zvan didn’t miss the day-of, so I’ll lean on her:

It also makes me quite happy that most of the people I know who fall under the broad heading of GLBTQ (where Q = queer of some sort) are already generally out. A friend of a friend referred to today as “Happy ‘Yeah we know dude’ day.” Today was a day for affirmation for most of them, rather than a day of added risk or longing for what it would be unwise to actually do. One person I’m proud to call a friend used the day to come out as bisexual to her Catholic family.

I’d also like to point out a very touching piece by George W. about the damage done to him as a child in being called “fag”, and how he wears the name like a badge today, despite being a married heterosexual father of four.

When I was in high school I was a notorious fag. Not because I was gay, because I am not. No, I was a fag because I was the president of the drama club, because I hung out with the “wrong people” and because I stood up to the “right people”. I was a fag because I didn’t much care for the politics of high school, I knew who I was and who I was not. I was a fag because I was a little too charismatic to be a “nerd”, a little too normal to be a “freak”, but not popular enough to be spared the humiliation of a bunch of insecure bullies with adult bodies and child brains.

I was subjected to the same kind of teasing. I was a nerd, and called so often, but it was also often rumored that I was gay (the way just about every unpopular kid that can’t get a date ends up having rumors circulated about them). I was punched in the head once for telling a particular name-calling bully to keep his eyes to himself in the locker room, and yet I was the one called gay. That’s how socialization in most grade schools work today. It’s horrid, looking back on it today. And it’s all the more so for people in that age group. Especially if you actually fit the queer description.

When a town council meeting resulted in half the town’s population arguing against a proclamation of October as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History Month in Norman, Oklahoma, a 19-year-old boy ended up taking his life over the “toxic comments”. This kind of tragedy could be prevented via less homophobia, less prejudging of people’s character based on a single outlier trait like their sexuality.

What’s worse is, almost every one of the homophobes in attendance argued against the Gay History Month purely out of deference to their religion’s foundational text. Assuming the text is the Bible, most interpretations prohibit suicide (to keep people from offing themselves unnaturally just to get to the “reward” part of their little cult). If this young teen internalized the message not to off himself, he might have lived long enough to realize that once you’re out in the real world, outside of backwater small-town Oklahoma, you won’t be as shunned and won’t be subject to nearly the same amount of toxicity every day.

It gets better. It really does. If you’re a teen, and you’re considering suicide because everyone around you seems to hate you for an aspect of your biology that you can’t change, you should visit the Trevor Project to access resources including live-chat with other teens that have been where you are now. I know it seems like it won’t, and I know it seems like there are too many people in political power right now that despise you because you’re different. But committing suicide is giving in to their desires. Offing yourself just shuffles your life under the rug so you can no longer serve as a counterexample to their hate speech.

Besides, this is the only life you’ve got. Fill it with love. It doesn’t matter what gender you love, ultimately; only that you love.

News flash: global warming is really happening.

Despite people’s insistence that it isn’t, the climate is really changing, and certain animals dependent on certain climates are being squeezed out. Natural selection is going to kick in, and in a big way. These walruses are pretty much screwed, for instance.

We’ve only been screaming about global warming for decades. The more ground the anti-science crowd gains in pushing the truth out of the public sphere, the less prepared we are for the consequences: more, and more violent, inclement weather patterns; less potable water; lower crop yields; and resource wars. And that’s just with the predicted minimum two degrees centigrade warming that we absolutely cannot avoid.

Hat tip to Greg Laden, who includes a LOLrus in his post, bringing real gravitas to the seriousness of this issue.

Mormon homophobia, on sale now at Wal-Mart

From LGBTQ Nation:

More than 100 WalMart stores in the Intermountain West are stocking a new children’s book aimed at Mormon families to help in overcoming homosexuality.

Chased by an Elephant: The Gospel Truth About Today’s Stampeding Sexuality, was authored by Janice Barrett Graham, wife of Stephen Graham, President of the anti-gay organization, Standard of Liberty — an LDS-oriented educational foundation.

Chased by a Big Gay Elephant

I’m guessing this illustrated children’s religious tract is in direct response to Heather Has Two Mommies. What surprises me the most is how long it’s taken for someone to make a children’s picture book showing that homosexual feelings will trample you like an elephant. I mean, isn’t it obvious? If you’re not painfully aware of society’s attempt to gay-ify you from an early age, you’ll get trampled and become gay yourself, by this stampeding gay scourge! Because that’s totally how it works! Before Joseph Smith made the Mormons, with the intent of becoming the stalwart guardians of mankind’s sexuality (with their magic underwear), almost all the world’s population was homosexual. Only Joseph Smith and his magic underwear managed to avoid the stampeding gay elephant and single-handedly took up the onerous task of producing the entire next generation.

But I’m being (only a touch) facetious. Sexuality is an emergent property of your genes, not a societally imposed “stampede” that might crush you if you’re caught unawares. You don’t get a choice as to your sexuality; it’s not a binary thing, and it’s not subject to your whims. Even in cultures where sexuality is NOT strictly enforced, and children are NOT exposed to sexual imagery every day of their lives, homosexuality exists. Sexuality is a sliding scale, and if you’re somewhere in the middle, you might have a choice as to how you live, but if you’re near one of the ends, you can’t simply override it any more than you can change your natural hair color just by dying it. You can disguise it temporarily, but your roots will show eventually.

I consider the stampeding elephant metaphor a good one (if you include the “trampled” parties becoming elephants themselves, at least), for discussing rampant memes that spread and transform societies. If you want a good example of such a meme, religion is it. It’s the REAL elephant in the room. Without such religious teachings, people might be more inclined to live and let live. Only in religion will you find the meme that sex is solely for procreation, and that any sexual impulse outside that function is sinful and means you’re a broken individual. Such a meme, when internalized, sets the stage for religion as being your only salvation, and since every one of us is subject to sexual impulses, we’re all in the path of the elephant that is religion. Even those of us that won’t become elephants ourselves, can still be trampled and damaged needlessly.

Again, only in religion, and in societies heavily influenced by those specific religions over very long periods of time, will you find a stampeding elephant of intolerance and deprecation of humanity over something as integral as their sexuality. That Wal-Mart is abetting this intolerance is not surprising, but it is rather disheartening.

Teen pregnancy more prevalent in prudish societies

What… a… surprise. Know what you get when you teach kids that sexuality is off-limits and sinful, as the American conservatives do? You get pregnant, STD-ridden kids! Meanwhile, societies like the Netherlands, where kids are allowed co-ed sleepovers and are taught about safe sex, have drastically fewer underage pregnancies and STDs. And by drastic, I mean American kids’ pregnancy rates are eight times higher. EIGHT TIMES!

Furthermore, Dutch teenagers are less likely than American teens to engage in sex outside a committed, monogamous relationship. To recap: Dutch teens are having safe sex in the context of loving relationships and under their own roofs, while American teens are engaging in alarming rates of unprotected sex in questionable relationships god knows where.

So, why the huge cultural divide, especially given how much time, energy, and money America funnels into the prevention of teenage pregnancy? Essentially, it boils down to this: the Dutch treat their teenagers’ emerging sexuality as normal and healthy, and react accordingly. Contraceptives and reproductive health care are readily available. Conversely, in America we tend to treat teenage sexuality as a demon to be fought. We throw money into unrealistic abstinence-only education programs while simultaneously neglecting to educate our youth on their bodies and sexual health. We throw up barriers to birth control and abortion services.

Schalet believes that this can, in large part, be attributed to religion. Americans are far more likely to claim religious devotion that the Dutch. Shlalet also points to another interesting potential cause for the differing approaches to teen sexuality: the Dutch seem far more likely to validate their teens romantic feelings, whereas American parents tend to trivialize those emotions as “puppy love.”

The study is right here. Funny how sensical the results seem to me, where I am disabused of the notion that only through abstinence can one effectively curb these issues, and that sexuality is a moral vice. Underage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are not a consequence of moral failing — they are a consequence of inadequate education and pushing kids out of safe and loving environments. The real moral failing is in teaching kids abstinence exclusively.