Here’s what’s going to kill atheism dead in its tracks

Atheists who can say it’s “refreshing” and that Trump is “the least religious president to occupy the White House since Thomas Jefferson”, and that that is a positive progression. Also, that the atheist saying such nonsense is Michael Shermer, who still has a following.

He’s careful not to claim Trump as a fellow atheist, fortunately, but instead thinks it’s great that he such a shallow, ignorant follower of vague religious impulses that it makes him more representative of the electorate.

The president’s distance from religion is hugely refreshing. It also makes him more traditionally “American,” in at least one respect, than any other modern president.

But the Religious Right claims him, and voted for him, and why? Because they’re really good at projection, viewing him as one of their own, or at least working towards a common goal. Sound familiar? That’s because Shermer is doing the same thing, looking at an incompetent narcissist and projecting his own views on to him, which actually isn’t much of a stretch. Another way of looking at it is that it isn’t religion or lack thereof which allows some people to see Trump as reflecting their perspective, it’s self-centeredness.

Shermer also sees this as a positive trend towards greater secularization.

Trump was elected president despite being the least religious major candidate in the 2016 field. Looked at this way, Trump isn’t the evangelicals’ savior. He’s just another data point in America’s long march away from religion.

Trump pandered openly to the Religious Right. He got the endorsement of James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Robert Jeffress, and Jerry Falwell Jr. He is against women’s right to choose, and wants to shut down Planned Parenthood. He’s a racist who appoints racists to positions of power. He’s a temperamental militarist. He despises science and wants the phrase “climate change” expunged from our scientific institutions. He has Betsy Devos working to dismantle our educational system. He appointed as Vice President a Christian dominionist and patriarchal tool who dreams of oppressing the LGBTQ community.

What, in all that, sounds like a march away from religion?

Meanwhile, of the other major candidates in the last election, Hillary Clinton seems to be a sincere church-going Christian, but it was not an issue in her campaign, and she did not advocate for issues that would endear her to religious conservatives. Bernie Sanders is Jewish, his religion was downplayed, and said he was “not particularly religious” and that “I am not actively involved in organized religion”.

Yet Shermer claims that Trump was the least religious candidate? Bullshit.

Furthermore, if a Donald Trump is the result of increasing the secularization of our political leaders, maybe it isn’t such a good idea to promote more secularization. I don’t think he is at all representative of secular, non-religious, or atheist ideals — and it’s flaming idiocy to claim he is — but it’s the kiss of death to claim him as one of our own.

It also doesn’t help that atheism seems to self-select for horrible people as their chosen spokesmen.

Celeb uses “celeb” as an insult

@WilliamShatner is, by definition a celebrity and nothing else. He’s an actor with a terrible reputation as an actor — he’s the hammiest of the hammy. It’s not as if he has any other qualifications. But now he’s dismissing a ‘celeb’ oncologist.

Oh, yeah, a celebrity doc!

The ‘celebrity’ doc is … Orac, aka David Gorski? My gosh, I know him! I’ve had a beer with him! And I failed to get his autograph!

Although, to be perfectly honest, he actually seems like a fairly normal person, a working M.D. with a brain he exercises on his blogs. If I run into him, I doubt that I’ll go all starry-eyed…although I have to admit, getting hated by Captain Kirk is kind of an accomplishment, if not quite as impressive as earning a professional degree and working to save lives every day.

Shatner, though, is acting like a world-class dumbass. Oh, excuse me, I said “acting” — I mean, “being”, because what he does doesn’t exactly warrant recognition as acting. It is kind of amusing that he thinks accusing someone of being a celebrity is deprecatory, and that he derides a real doctor by citing Mike Adams, the “Health Ranger”, as a source.

A little Saturday morning nonsense: iridology and sclerology?

Somehow, I found myself looking at iridology diagrams. Iridologists claim that the surface of the iris is connected to every organ in the body, so the detailed pattern of flecks and lines and spots in the colored portion of your eye is a map to your health, as good as an X-ray or MRI. They actually do get quite specific.


From there I stumbled onto sclerology — these sclerologists claim the map is in the whites of your eyes, and that the network of blood vessels, for instance, tells you all you need to know about the state of your body.


Why, just this morning, I got up, looked in the mirror at my rheumy bloodshot eyes, and learned instantly that I was a walking tumorous mass that apparently was simultaneously exploded and crushed in a tragic farm machinery accident yesterday. It was terrible.

But this is just patent bullshit, every bit of it.

For one, we’ve taken eyes apart and looked. There is no connection between eyes and every other organ; the iris is innervated via the ciliary ganglion (the parasympathetic pathway) and the superior cervical ganglion (sympathetic). There are patterns to the capillaries of the eye, but they are more for efficient circulation of the blood than reflecting a mystical connection to your pancreas.

These maps owe more than a little to the model of the cerebral homunculus, which shows the targets of innervation by the sensorimotor cortex. That makes sense. There are necessary connections that the brain makes to control or receive input from the periphery. There are no such necessary associations with the eye. Also, those maps were made with thorough experimental and observational analyses of thousands and thousands of people — functional deficits were mapped to stroke lesions, and focal stimulation of brain regions were found to lead to specific sensory and motor responses. We’ve got data to back up the idea of how brains are connected to body parts.

And then there’s the plagiarism: why are the sclera and iris maps so similar, with bowels below and brain above, and heart central lateral and lungs central medial? It looks like someone invented a pattern for one part of the eye, and then a copy cat con artist stole it and redrew it for another part of the eye. And look at the pretense of precision! Do you believe the pituitary is associated with some specific point at about 11:30, while the ego is found at 11:10?

I confess, my ego compelled me to go look in a mirror for my ego. Couldn’t find it. My ego is just shattered now.

It’s still impressive in a pseudoscientific way. None of these maps are constructed by scientific methods — carefully replication of meticulous empiricism — and are totally lacking in any kind of observational foundation. You can just sit down and make stuff up, and if it’s flashy enough and apes the lingo of real scientists, someone will believe it enough that they’ll pay real money to a quack.

By the sacred scrotum of Jesus!

What is it about the shroud of Turin that short-circuits people’s critical thinking? A recently published paper by Catholic weirdos claims to have carefully scrutinized the piece of cloth, and that they can interpret some of the patterns there as an image of Jesus’ scrotum.

Yes. You read that correctly. There are peepers trying to get a look at Jesus’ twig & berries.

I can’t get at the paper itself, nor am I particularly interested — except, maybe, as another example of pareidolia. You might as well stare at medieval paintings of a naked Jesus and then claim that you’ve acquired deep insights into the biology of a person dead 2000 years ago. Oh, wait, gosh, that’s exactly what some people are doing. Some artwork shows Jesus in feminine poses, or with ambiguous sexuality, so it’s open season on speculation.

A late fifth/early sixth-century mosaic in what is known as the Arian baptistery in Ravenna, Italy shows Jesus, naked in the river Jordan, with genitals clearly visible to the viewer. The rest of Jesus’ body is ambiguously gendered. He is depicted as clean-shaven, youthful, and even slightly wide-hipped. Some have argued that he is androgynous. Regardless of how we assess Jesus’ gender in this scene, the mosaic is pointing us to the idea that Jesus really was a human being, not merely appearing as one.

There are no contemporary accounts or images of Jesus. The portrayals you seen now, or in the fifth century, or in the Medieval period, or during the Renaissance, were all artistic renditions that more reflected the culture and concerns of the artist than anything about the dead guy on a stick. It’s fine to talk about the values of 5th century Ravennans in the context of the art they made, but it is utterly bonkers to use that to discuss the biology of someone who died 500 years before, in another part of the world.

In 2014, Dr. Susannah Cornwall, who teaches at the University of Exeter, caused a stir when she published an academic article arguing that the sex of Jesus was simply a best guess. She wrote, “It is not possible to assert with any degree of certainty that Jesus was male as we now define maleness.” Correctly observing that it is difficult to speak definitively about the genitalia of an unmarried person with no children, she added, “There is no way of knowing for sure that Jesus did not have one of the intersex conditions which would give him a body which appeared externally to be unremarkably male, but which might nonetheless have had some ‘hidden’ female physical features.”

There is no way of knowing is the operative phrase there. I’m fine with the idea that Jesus’ masculinity was a rather irrelevant part of the myth, but annoyed with the baseless dissection of genitalia that aren’t there. But then, it’s also the case that we don’t know that Jesus had a beard, or long hair, or a fine Aryan complexion, so all we’ve got is cultural bias on those trivial details.

But now some unhinged people are excited that they might have a “photo” of Jesus’ crotch.

Newly published scientific investigations into the Turin Shroud have identified the outline of the scrotum and right hand thumb of the man outlined on the cloth. If the Shroud is authentic, this would seem to supply clear evidence that Jesus was, in fact, male.

If the Shroud is authentic, but, as the article points out, it isn’t. And if this picture were accurate, then Jesus rode a dinosaur.


The “ifs” are strong in this article.

An authentic foreskin relic would do a lot more than establish the sex of Jesus. If, in our twenty-first century, we had a piece of Jesus’ body, the problem would no longer be heretical claims about his gender or non-divinity, but rather the potential for sacrilege. If we had the DNA of God it would only be a matter of time before somebody wanted to clone him.

If we had a tiny scrap of human tissue from the first century, I’d think the first question to ask would be how you know it came from a specific individual (let alone one with magic powers), so I don’t see how any of this creative speculation allows you to say anything about the prophet who supposedly founded the Christian faith.

But then, this is a subject that does seem to scramble even relatively intelligent minds.

More money than sense

Take one terrible NY Times pundit who lives on an alien planet of her own, and toss her into the esoteric hothouse world of Silicon Valley, and all you’re going to get is a hot mess, a weird dive into the delusions of very rich smart people with no reality brakes to check out the truth. Maureen Dowd talks to Elon Musk and other pretentious luminaries. It’s painful if you prioritize critical thinking.

They are two of the most consequential and intriguing men in Silicon Valley who don’t live there. Hassabis, a co-founder of the mysterious London laboratory DeepMind, had come to Musk’s SpaceX rocket factory, outside Los Angeles, a few years ago. They were in the canteen, talking, as a massive rocket part traversed overhead. Musk explained that his ultimate goal at SpaceX was the most important project in the world: interplanetary colonization.

Hassabis replied that, in fact, he was working on the most important project in the world: developing artificial super-intelligence. Musk countered that this was one reason we needed to colonize Mars—so that we’ll have a bolt-hole if A.I. goes rogue and turns on humanity. Amused, Hassabis said that A.I. would simply follow humans to Mars.

In a world overpopulated with billions of people, where climate change is a looming threat, where all those people are a petri dish for cultivating new diseases, where the majority live in poverty, where in many places clean water is a struggle to find, where the most militarily powerful nation has just elected an incompetent, narcissistic clown to be in charge, two men sit down to talk. One says the most important project in the world is to put a tiny number of people on a barren rock. The other says the most important project is to create more powerful computers that can think on their own.

And then the two of them start arguing over the threat of artificial intelligences enslaving, or liberating, humanity. These intelligences don’t exist, and may not exist, and will definitely not exist in the form these smart guys are imagining. It is the grown-up, over-paid version of two children arguing over who would win in a fight, Darth Vader or Magneto? The Millenium Falcon or the Starship Enterprise? Jesus or Buddha?

And then Ray Kurzweil shows up.

Fuck me.

Dowd just parrots these absurd conversations and doesn’t offer any critical perspectives, and lord help us, the participants certainly don’t. Can we just lock them all in a well-padded room with an assortment of action figures and tell them to get to work to resolve the most important dispute in the universe, which toy is powerfulest?

Or could we at least have one skeptic in this mess to try and focus the discussions on something real?

There was a #pizzagate rally today?

YouTube loon David Seaman apparently organized a rally in Washington DC to mobilize people to fight against a nonexistent pedophilia ring run out of a nonexistent basement at a pizza parlor. A “couple dozen” people showed up, but about the only coverage it’s getting is a few comments on Twitter.

This is a nonsensical story that has only gained a relatively small number of advocates, but the few are fanatical.

I’m so sorry for those poor kids. Not the imaginary ones kidnapped by a pizza parlor, but those three kids stuck with parents with a bizarre obsession.

I never want to see another baby-eating joke about atheists

Yeah, sure, accuse atheists of eating babies. Do you know who actually consumes fetal tissue, though? Suburban new agers with a weird fetish for “natural” and “organic” BS.

I just learned about Minnesota Placenta, a place that does placenta encapsulation (pdf). It’s easy! After your baby is born, it comes with this hideous lump of fetal support tissue, the placenta, that looks like a lump of hamburger and a piece of raw liver got into a serious barroom brawl, and neither won. Scoop up that bloody sac slathered with slime and mail it off with about $250 and it will be steamed, chopped, ground, powdered, and packed into tidy pill capsules for you to consume at your leisure.

There are photographs of the process. The only thing that would make this more unappetizing would be if Guy Fieri were involved.*

Bonus! The company that charges $250 will also shape the umbilical cord into a short script message (“love”), and dry it down into a hard, leathery, mummified sign the color of old dried blood that you can hang on the wall and terrify your offspring with for years to come. I really missed out on this opportunity.

By the way, these outfits have lots of anecdotes about feeling more “energized” and “peppy” after consuming these discarded scraps of their baby (for a more entertaining version of this myth, see the movie Ravenous), but there is actually no evidence that it provides any benefit. No benefit. None at all. Lots of ick, though. Probably no worse than chowing down on calf’s liver, though.

*Would it perverse of me to say I really want to see what Fieri would do with placenta as an ingredient?