Belle Plaine gets a new ornament

A small town in Minnesota put up an exclusively Christian memorial to veterans in a city park — only Christians have fought in our military, apparently. The FFRF got on their case, and they initially backed off, but then under local pressure they decided to put it back up, but with a new compromise. They decided to call the park a free speech zone where anyone can put up a monument, just so they could allow this one religious symbol to stand in a civic space.

And somewhere, a Satanist’s eyes glittered with joy and anticipation.

Belle Plaine is now getting a lovely black steel cube with inverted pentagrams on it for their park. Good choice. Some of the citizens don’t seem to understand the first amendment and have defaced secular signs before, so it’s going to be tough for them to do much of anything to a heavy, squat, metal block.

I kinda want one for my lawn now.

Neuralink and the delusional world of Muskians

I know, I’m getting a reputation as that guy who hates Elon Musk (I don’t, I hate hype), but his latest is just too much bullshit. He has bought a company called Neuralink, which has the goal of creating brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). OK so far. These interfaces are cool, interesting, and promising, and I’m all for more research in this field. But Musk gets involved, and suddenly his weird transhumanist-wannabe fanboys start hyperventilating. I double-dog dare you to read this puff piece, Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future. It begins roughly here, with the claim that Musk is going to build a Wizard Hat to make everyone super-smart:

Not only is Elon’s new venture—Neuralink—the same type of deal, but six weeks after first learning about the company, I’m convinced that it somehow manages to eclipse Tesla and SpaceX in both the boldness of its engineering undertaking and the grandeur of its mission. The other two companies aim to redefine what future humans will do—Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be.

The mind-bending bigness of Neuralink’s mission, combined with the labyrinth of impossible complexity that is the human brain, made this the hardest set of concepts yet to fully wrap my head around—but it also made it the most exhilarating when, with enough time spent zoomed on both ends, it all finally clicked. I feel like I took a time machine to the future, and I’m here to tell you that it’s even weirder than we expect.

But before I can bring you in the time machine to show you what I found, we need to get in our zoom machine—because as I learned the hard way, Elon’s wizard hat plans cannot be properly understood until your head’s in the right place.

I dared you to read it, because I’ll be surprised if anyone can plow through it all: it goes on for almost 40,000 words (I know, I pulled it into a text editor and confirmed it), and that doesn’t count all the crappy little cartoons scattered through out it. When the author says you cannot properly understand it without putting your head in the right place, he means you have to start with sponges and be lead step by step through a triumphalist version of 600 million years of evolutionary history, which is all about a progressive increase in the complexity of brain circuitry. It’s an extremely naive and reductionist perspective on neuroscience and intelligence that presumes that all you have to do is make brains bigger and faster to be better, and that computers extend the “bigger” part but are limited by the speed of interfaces, so all we have to do is improve the bandwidth and we’ll be able to battle the AIs that Musk thinks will someday threaten to rule the world.

All the verbiage is a gigantic distraction. It’s virtually entirely irrelevant to the argument, which I just nailed down for you in a single sentence…without bogging you down in a hypothetical history of flatworms and a lot of simplistic neuroscience. He summarizes Elon Musk’s glorious plan in yet another crude cartoon:

It is accompanied by much grandiloquent noise and promises of planetary revolutions, but what needs to be asked is “How much of this is real?”. The answer is…pretty much none of it. We are currently in the little blue ball at the lower left labeled “starting point”, and Musk has bought a company that is doing tentative, exploratory research on building BMIs (I guess that this whole field is new enough that they are all, by default, “cutting edge”). Everything else in the diagram is complete fantasy. Elon Musk has bought a company, and is cunningly trying to inflate its value by drowning the curious in glurge, techno-mysticism, and making shit up, which, because he has this mystique among young male engineers, will probably succeed in making him more money and fame, without actually doing anything in the top two thirds of that cartoon.

I do rather like how the third step is “BREAKTHROUGHS in bandwidth and implementation”. You could replace it with “And then a miracle occurs…”, and it would be just as meaningful.

Let’s add a little more reality here: Musk has a BS in physics and economics, and started a Ph.D. in engineering, which he dropped out of. He has no education at all in biology or neuroscience.

Another shot of reality: he’s buying this company in collaboration with Peter Thiel’s venture capital company. You remember Thiel, right? Wants to prolong the life of old rich people by transfusing them with the blood of the young? Libertarian acolyte of Ayn Rand who is now advising Trump on policy? If you think this is a recipe for a post-Singularity paradise, looking at the people backing it ought to tell you otherwise.

So why are these filthy rich people getting involved in this nonsense? Let’s ask Elon.

Fear and ignorance, like always.

They’ve imagined a huge, shadowy existential risk which does not exist yet — you might as well drive your decisions by the possible threat of invasion by Mole People from Alpha Centauri (oh, wait…they also fear aliens). They don’t know how AIs will develop or what they’ll do — nobody does — and they lack the competencies needed to guide the research or assess any risks, but they’ve got a plan for generating all the benefits. These guys are as terrifying to me as the Religious Right, and for all the same reasons.

They have fervent worshippers who will vomit up 40,000 words based on inspiration and wishful thinking, and then wallow about in the mess. It’s possibly the worst science writing I’ve encountered yet, and I’ve read a lot, but still, take a look at all the commenters who want it to be true, and regard grade-school and often incorrect summaries of how brains evolved to be informative.

He didn’t rise, and he probably didn’t exist in the first place

Happy Easter! Skip church and instead go read this essay on why Jesus is a myth.

The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of independent evidence for an historical Jesus, remain sceptical about his existence.

The things you can learn from Inside the Vatican

It’s a Catholic magazine, and Anthony Barcellos sent me a scan of their letters page. It’s very enlightening.

The things I learned from this sample:

  • Catholics are old.

  • Many of them are in prison.

  • I have succeeded in my crusade to drive them out of my university.

What caught Anthony’s eye was this letter:

MAGAZINE IS “VITAL” FOR CATHOLIC STUDENTS

The University of Minnesota in Morris, as well as the main campus in the Twin Cities, is 98% atheist. That is why Inside the Vatican is vital. I was the only Catholic professor there, now retired, so I know whereof I speak. I wish to give this gift subscription to the few Catholic students at UM-Morris.

Maria Louisa Rodriguez

Morris, Minnesota, USA

I do not know who Maria Louisa Rodriguez is — she may have retired before I got here. But there are a few errors in her letter. Catholicism is the single largest religious denomination in Minnesota, with about a quarter of the population, and while universities do have their demographic biases, I rather doubt that we’d be able to exclude Catholics that thoroughly, especially since we don’t have any filters in admissions that would discriminate.

I wish I could say specifically that I know Catholic students, but since I don’t attend the church, and I never ask any of my students what they do on Sundays, I don’t know. Also don’t care. It’s not as if I would put a question on an exam about it.

I do happen to know that a couple of faculty members are Catholic, so I guess we’ve been backsliding since those halcyon, Catholic-free days immediately after Ms Rodriquez’s retirements.

I’m also curious about what’s going on in the UMM Newman Center, this lovely building just off campus, a few blocks from me. Apparently all the photos on that page of students there are photoshop fakes, their schedule of Catholic-associated events are a lie, and the coordinators are all making it up when they claim to be students.

Uh-oh. Maybe the lesson I should learn is that the old jailbirds who write in to Inside the Vatican are all making crap up.

Time for the War on Easter!

I didn’t even know we were fighting over that one, but apparently we are. It’s an unexpected front. You might be wondering what deep article of Christian faith we’re going to be battling over. That too is unexpectedly trivial.

The war is to be fought over eggs.

The latest manufactured moral outrage came courtesy of the Archbishop of York, whose bandwagon was soon jumped on by none other than the Prime Minister. The cause of their holy indignation? Cadbury and the National Trust have had the temerity to advertise Egg Hunts, rather than Easter Egg Hunts. Well, there go hundreds of years of Christian-appropriated pagan religious tradition down the plughole!

It’s hard to believe, but the fanatics are up in arms over those totally biblical symbols of Jesus from deep antiquity, chocolate eggs.

Archbishop of York John Sentamu said Mr Cadbury, a Quaker who founded the firm in 1824, was renowned for his religious beliefs and would not condone dropping the word Easter.

He said if people were to visit Cadbury World in Birmingham “they will discover how Cadbury’s Christian faith influenced his industrial output”.

“To drop Easter from Cadbury’s Easter Egg Hunt in my book is tantamount to spitting on the grave of Cadbury,” Dr Sentamu added.

A spokesman from the Church added: “This marketing campaign not only does a disservice to the Cadburys but also highlights the folly in airbrushing faith from Easter.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the issue reflected “commercialisation gone a bit too far”.

Are all the party leaders idiots over there? Even the prime minister, Theresa May, is whining about it. Doesn’t she have anything better to do, like preparing for the coming war with Spain?

P.S. Cadbury, the guy whose grave we’re supposed to be spitting on, was a Quaker. Quakers don’t actually celebrate Easter.

We haven’t heard from Bill Donohue for a while

I wonder what he is up to…ah. He’s defending Trump’s savage budget cuts for the arts, because art isn’t reverent enough.

Justice demands that these agencies should be eliminated: Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for assaults on their religion. Christians constitute roughly 75 percent of the population; Catholics are approximately 25 percent of the total. In the name of “art,” these Americans are expected to pay for irreverent exhibits, but depictions that are reverential—such as a nativity scene outside City Hall—are denied a dime. It’s time we stopped giving the arts a privileged position and cut their funding. The same is true for publicly funded radio and TV programming that has a history of insulting the majority of Americans.

I don’t think he understands art. Bye, Bill, sink back into obscurity, ‘k?

Sadistic Christianity

I always thought that one of the pleasures of parenting was helping kids grow up to be themselves — to develop to be independent people with their own interests and goals, which might be very different than my own. We’re about giving opportunities, not dictating how they should live their lives, and one of the advantages of that is that all of my children were relatively stress-free (kids are never totally stress-free) and have never caused us much in the way of problems — and I think part of the reason is simply that we did not force them to go against their natures. There were lots of moments where I didn’t understand their choices, or even disagreed with them, but I just had to remember that my parents didn’t quite understand what I was doing with my life, either, but they let me be me and we all ended up happier for it.

Some people just can’t do that, though. Authoritarians are all about control, and it can lead to catastrophic evil against children.

Today, in the United States, there is a multibillion-dollar industry for residential treatment—one that sells an illusory promise to desperate parents: Your children’s addictions and mental health problems can be cured with a relatively quick (and usually expensive) fix. Yet the potential danger of abuse and neglect is a real threat for many of the 200,000 to 400,000 young people trapped in the nation’s poorly monitored secular and religious “group care” facilities, “troubled teen” residential schools and unlicensed treatment programs. Too often, critics say, these programs profit off the misery of emotionally troubled kids, substance abusers or just misbehaving youth, as well as their parents, who struggle to deal with kids they can’t control. “These are throwaway children,” says Jodi Hobbs, the president of the nonprofit group, Survivors of Institutional Abuse. “They are looked at as dollar signs, not as individuals.”

One of the most common types of private programs for errant youths are the virtually unregulated religious schools, many of which push fundamentalist Christian beliefs and employ violently harsh discipline against enrollees. Inspired in part by the programs of a fiery Baptist radio preacher, the late Lester Roloff, purveyors of these programs have been exposed for whippings and beatings and accused of rape. Perhaps the largest alliance of such ultraconservative churches is the far-flung Independent Fundamental Baptist organization with thousands of churches nationwide and numerous boarding schools that cite the biblical importance of breaking the will of the child. “If you’re not bruising your child,” a pastor declared in a 2007 sermon captured by ABC News’s 20/20, “you’re not spanking your child enough.”

That’s part of the story of Restoration Youth Academy, a Christian boot-camp in Alabama that promises to straighten out those darned rebellious teenagers with discipline…which means solitary confinement, beatings, bloody whippings, and sexual abuse. Many of these kids do have serious problems — drug abuse and mental health issues — but a) those are problems that can be worsened by a miserable home life, and b) even if the parents are otherwise blameless, shipping them off to a violent, brutalizing incarceration isn’t going to make them better. The article doesn’t say, but I wonder what proportion of these kids weren’t actually serious problem children, but were just people who had a different sexual orientation or dissented from the religious views of their parents, and were sent off to be punished and re-molded into a different view. Given that many of the institutions discussed in the story were intolerant fundamentalist Christian horror shows, I suspect a lot.

The story is also about intransigent Alabama politicians who refused to take action and closed a blind eye to the evidence of child abuse going on, probably in part because they had a shield of immunity, that they were preaching Christianity. Among the problem characters was the Alabama attorney general, Luther Strange, who was in the news lately for a promotion.

Kennedy is equally outraged that former state Attorney General Luther Strange has been appointed a U.S. senator to replace Jeff Sessions, the new U.S. attorney general. “He [Strange] threw the children under the bus so he could grease the way for his political ambitions,” Kennedy says. “All these politicians have lined their pockets with the blood of children.”

And all of those churches.

Is there no religion Reza Aslan won’t pander to?

It seems to be his schtick. Religion is just plain good, and the only way to criticize it is to cherry-pick unrepresentative bad bits, he seems to argue, and he uses this argument to paper over a lot of truly horrific, deeply imbedded aspects of faith. And apparently, he has a show on CNN called Believer, which I haven’t seen, in which he does this repeatedly.

There’s an episode coming up in which he makes excuses for Scientology, of all things; he’s going to highlight small independent groups that have split away from the mainstream cult and are somewhat less toxic (in part because they also represent a way to get outside the controlling influence of the Church of Scientology, and can be a gateway to leaving the religion altogether), while ignoring the greater crimes of the much larger, main sect.

In the meantime, we’ll point out what we did a year ago, when CNN’s series was originally supposed to come out. On occasion, we are taken to task for focusing so much energy on such a small organization, the Church of Scientology, with its 20,000 members. We think Scientology, with its billions in assets, its ruthless legal tactics, and the way it treats children and families is worth keeping an eye on, even if we are just, for the most part, a sole proprietor with a single-subject website.

If some people, however, don’t think the Church of Scientology is worth paying attention to, what does it say that CNN, with its worldwide media reach, will be using its mighty resources to promote a “movement” of perhaps only a few hundred people doing something that is not really very controversial or that affects many other people at all?

“Aslan is clearly confused or deliberately trying to create a scenario to fit his preconceived story line,” Mike Rinder tells us. He points out, however, that even if Aslan is all wet, his show might accidentally be useful for people still stuck in the Church of Scientology to believe that there are alternatives to Miscavige’s brand of Hubbardism. “The idea that Scientology is only available in the church is something Miscavige and company try very hard to pretend is true.” The idea that there are alternatives, Rinder says, could be “beneficial.” But as for Aslan’s claims about the size and growth of independent Scientology?

“It just makes Aslan look uninformed and stupid,” Rinder says.

There was a time when I thought Aslan was mildly interesting as a counterbalance to the more extremist arguments against Islam, but it’s become clear that no, he’s just an apologist for inanity.

Tuam

Culture of life, my ass. More like a culture of Catholic hypocrisy.

A mass grave containing the remains of babies and children has been discovered at a former Catholic care home in Ireland where it has been alleged up to 800 died, government-appointed investigators said on Friday.

Excavations at the site of the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, have uncovered an underground structure divided into 20 chambers containing “significant quantities of human remains”, the judge-led mother and baby homes commission said.

The commission said analysis of selected remains revealed ages of the deceased ranged from 35 weeks to three years old. It found that the dead had been mostly buried in the 1950s, when the facility was one of more than a dozen in Ireland offering shelter to orphans, unmarried mothers and their children. The Tuam home closed in 1961.

Let’s not even consider those unmarried mothers, locked away in isolation and virtual slavery.

If all those people complaining about Planned Parenthood wanted to do what’s right, they’d move their picketlines to the nearest Catholic church.