You little rascals! You didn’t tell me!

I know there are a few gay contributors here. I want to know why you didn’t trust me enough to tell me about your grand plan! You were willing to spill the beans to the Vatican, but to me? Nooooo.

The Spanish Catholic Church is also concerned about homosexuality. During his Boxing Day sermon, the Bishop of Córdoba, Demetrio Fernández, said there was a conspiracy by the United Nations. "The Minister for Family of the Papal Government, Cardinal Antonelli, told me a few days ago in Zaragoza that UNESCO has a program for the next 20 years to make half the world population homosexual. To do this they have distinct programs, and will continue to implant the ideology that is already present in our schools."

I had no idea we even had a way to “make” people homosexual, but heck, if a Catholic priest says it, you know it’s got to be true. They take vows, you know, and believe in the ten commandments.

Tolerance is not a religious value

Religion really hates it when you tell its proponents that they have to live up to their promise to be good. It’s so unfair!

Last year, New York enacted the Dignity for All Students Act, effective July 1, 2012. (See prior posting.) In addition to prohibiting bullying, the law (Educ. Law Sec. 801-a) requires schools to include in their K-12 curriculum instruction in tolerance and respect for others of different races, weights, national origins, ethnic groups, religions, religious practices, mental or physical abilities, sexual orientations, genders, and sexes. According to Yeshiva World, on Monday the New York Board of Regents voted to exempt yeshivas and parochial schools from this requirement to the extent that the school has a religious or moral objection to the requirement. Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz said that parents of students in such schools "may now feel secure that … their children will not be subjected to lessons that are inconsistent with their religious doctrines."

Yeah, like what? Now their children don’t have to hear those horrible messages like, “You don’t get to beat up that kid for being gay” and “Atheists are human beings, too” and “Yes, the girls are allowed to speak in the classroom”?

Why I am an atheist – Liz Damnit

This is a bit of a tricky one, since there’s no one particular moment. Instead it’s been a gradual unfolding, a gradual freeing from the need for a god-construct and spirituality itself. I was raised Catholic, and in my own kiddy way, was pretty observant. But I recall questioning certain edicts early on, especially those against non-procreative sexuality or sensual pleasure itself (stick a horny kid in a room filled with naked paintings and tell them that sex is wrong…yeah, sure). However, the real first crack in the base was linked with money and class-consciousness.

We were the only “poor” family in our middle class town. We couldn’t make tuition every month at the parochial schools I went to, so we relied on extra work at functions, scholarships, and sometimes the kindness of donors. We were also on assistance for many years, and while we still went to church each Sunday, Mom made a point out of bringing me to every office and explaining every procedure, and showing me firsthand the bureaucratic circus and the pain of stigma. This financial “slump” we could never seem to get out of was the crucible for not only my adult politics but my religious views. Let me explain: growing up without a lot of cash and shaky support networks (even with certain advantages*) exposes a kid early to the damage done to social and political institutions by faith. Take, for instance, the weird link between wealth and religion – that if you’re rich, God must like you, and all the rest can get bent.

This sort of bullshit influenced the policies (and social stigmas) that ruled our lives for much of my childhood (late 80s**, early 90s). It’s still around, present in the miserable treatment many people receive today if they have the “temerity” to not only not be wealthy, but to not “have faith” God (or the whims of the market) will shower them with riches. Even as a kid, I found a direct link between the mind-shutdown faith requires and the kind of thinking that leads people to approve of wealth-worshipping “I got mine, fuck you” behaviors. This was strike one.

I fiddled around with the ideas of religion itself, not necessarily belief. In adolescence I started hanging around with my Mom’s Trekker buddies myself, which is probably the best thing a young teen can do. That scene was and remains fairly diverse, the people I encountered talked to me like I had a brain. There was, at least in this particular group, a widespread sense of “investigate, debate, relate”; investigate what you don’t know, debate stuff you think you do, but always try to relate with someone different. There were exceptions to this, but that’s my takeaway. This was far different from accepting canned responses and handing over a few bucks each week in tithes. Strike two.

At this time, I started drifting towards more neo-Paganism, preferring its more diverse, gender-equitable and sex-positive attitudes, as well as its ecological awareness and interest in history. We were always a pretty matriarchal family, and I was raised on myth and folklore, so this was a natural progression. I tried various flavors of Wicca for a while, but decided it wasn’t for me. I felt silly, even if I did like dressing like Stevie Nicks and keeping track of moon phases.*** I will say this, though – it felt more genuine to me at that stage in my life than Catholicism did, and I’m still fond of the original ideas that attracted me (much like my remaining fondness for the Corporal Works of Mercy). Strike three.

Even my Mom joined in on this venture. I remember one day we were sitting in our kitchen, mutually “coming out” to one another about being dissatisfied with the Church, with the short shrift women got, and with the hypocrisy of it all. For the rest of her life, Mom had a patchwork Catholic/Pagan thing going on, eschewing Mass attendance, hierarchy, and the gender/class stratification that always comes along with organized religions even as she kept her saints and rosaries. This seemed to help her get by, but I still didn’t feel quite happy with it, although it took me a while to come to terms with that.

The last pit stop on my story here, the big one, also revolves around my mother. She passed away in early 2005 after years of illness. In the last stage of her ordeal, she was in a coma, with all function above the brain stem gone. I came to resent the perkiness of the staff, even as I understood why they may have used it as a professional tool or their own coping mechanism. I also resented sunny platitudes of “oh, God is good!”, “the Lord moves in mysterious ways!”, all of that. No higher brain function – it was as devastating and simple as that. I couldn’t take another prayer.

This coma lasted a couple of months, and midway through she was moved to a nursing home. At that facility, there was one particular nurse that inspired my unspoken wrath, even though she was great at her job and probably is a wonderful human being. She seemed to take a shine to my mother, as much as Mom could have been said to be there. She’d join my family and sing and pray, pat my Mom’s head and call her pet names, call on God to wake her up. Now, I was hardly in my right mind, but I found this one of the most obscene things I’ve ever seen. I’m grateful for the care this nurse gave, but I wish I had the wherewithal to gently tell her to stop, that Mom had passed away, and we were keeping a vigil by her body. To wave belief around in my face, after what I’d been looking at for weeks,well, a punch to the gut would have been preferable. Belief itself was an insult at this point.

That crystallized things for me. Questioning the facile non-answers of traditional religion, and the oddities of non-traditional religions were actually a piece of cake. As I continued along, however, I started to feel more strongly that it was more immoral to chalk things up to a god or gods. I had increasingly difficulty in justifying the impulse to blindly “trust” in something one could never see, never speak with, and never guess its whims. And in the last few years, watching what’s been going on in the US and the Catholic Church – I am more firm in my refusal to sign back up to that. This is far from the cold and lonely stereotype some believers have of atheists and secularists – this was an absolute joy, a feeling of expansion. While I can still understand – but not approve of – why people would cling to a religion or a spiritual framework, it’s not for me. As Joyce said through Stephen Dedalus – non serviam!

*Those advantages are twofold. First, there is race: I am Caucasian and the recipient of many benefits based solely on my skin – unfair as that is, I acknowledge it and try to subvert it when possible or at least make a big noise about its nefarious nature. The second is the kind of education I received: for all the Catholic stuff, those schools did do a pretty good job otherwise, and I’m well on my way to being the first woman in my immediate family to receive a MA!

**I like to joke that I came into the world just in time to see Reagan rip off the White House’s solar panels. Yay, me.

*** Which is still fun, but for secular reasons :)

Liz Damnit
United States

Santorum did not have a good idea

Now and again, some well-meaning but clueless person gets it into their head that teaching creationism in the schools is a good idea — that the clash of ideas is a good pedagogical technique. There are cases where that would be true, but doing it in the public school classroom and hashing over a bad, discredited idea vs. good science is totally inappropriate. Reserve that technique for issues where there is substance on both sides.

But now Jay Mathews is trying to revivify this nonsense in the Washington Post, suggesting that Rick Santorum has a good idea with his plan to “teach the controversy”. He’s done it before, and gotten a predictable response.

Teaching all sides of the evolution issue is supported in opinion polls. But those against it feel more strongly. When I suggested in 2005 that high school biology teaching would be improved by allowing students to debate Darwinism vs. the intelligent design theory, I received more than 400 e-mails. Seventy percent of them said I was an idiot. Many added that I was a dangerous idiot.

Heed your email, Mathews. The majority were right. And your opinion column just reveals that you don’t have the slightest idea what you are talking about.

I respectfully disagree. It is important to note that Santorum and I have different reasons for wanting high schools to allow discussion of intelligent design — the notion that some supernatural force (not necessarily God) brought life to earth. Santorum believes that God had a hand in it. But he wants to avoid injecting religion into schools, so he says classes need only examine the scientific possibility that Darwin was wrong to conclude that life evolved only because of natural processes.

I highlighted part of that paragraph, because it illustrates how wrong Mathews is. No, the Religious Right wants to inject religion into schools; that’s clearly been on their agenda from the very beginning. They want prayer, they want religion classes, and they want to expunge any scientific finding that contradicts the Bible. Santorum and his fellow travelers see intelligent design creationism as a Trojan horse to get god into the classroom.

After his failed exercise in reading Rick Santorum’s mind, an exercise that ignores the paper trail the Religious Right has left us, Mathews turns his magic powers on the minds at the Discovery Institute, and gets that wrong, too.

Advocates of intelligent design at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute have influenced Santorum. They accept many Darwinist concepts, such as the notion that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. They see a weakness in Darwinian theory because of the lack of much evidence of natural precursors to the animal body types that emerged in the Cambrian period 500 million years ago. How did we get from random chemicals to creatures with eyes and spines? They say that gap in knowledge leaves open the possibility of intervention by an outside force.

Many scientists and teachers think the intelligent design folks are only pretending to have an allegiance to science. They seemed sincere to me. Some have doctorates in science. Even if they are fakes, their reliance on the fossil record rather the first book of the Bible qualifies them for a science class debate.

Mathews, look at your email again. You’re an idiot.

The Discovery Institute contains a diverse group of people; some are young earth creationists who completely deny common descent; some accept that the earth is old and that we can trace the derivation of humans from prior forms. What unites them is a categorical rejection of natural mechanisms of evolution; they don’t believe that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. Some of them believe that the ape genome was consciously ransacked by an intelligent designer to build a new species, us, with intent.

The absence of evidence of natural precursors you are babbling about is pure ID propaganda. It’s wrong. We don’t have fossils of these things, that is true, but you have to be thoroughly ignorant of modern biology to think that fossils are the primary source of information about our biological history. We analyze molecules, not bones. And the molecules tell us much about pre-Cambrian relationships.

GAPS? You’re proposing teaching “gaps” in our knowledge? OK, the right answer is to point to a specific question and say, “I don’t know”. It is not right to say “I don’t know, but I’m going to invent a magic ghost to fill in that gap, and I’m going to call him Jesus.”

Now Mathews claims to see “sincerity” in the intelligent design creationists, which is nice and charitable, but not credible. Philip Johnson has a doctorate, sure…he’s a lawyer, and he adopted this ID nonsense when he had a midlife crisis and also became a fundamentalist Christian. Bill Dembski has a doctorate in math, and also thinks ID is a modern version of the Logos gospel. Jonathan Wells has a doctorate in biology (amazing!), and also went into his graduate program at the behest of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, so that he could destroy Darwinism from within. They are sincere Christians. They are not sincere scientists.

I would like to see evidence that creationists rely on the fossil record. Mathews himself claims it’s about gaps; the Discovery Institute has not proposed that the way to advance their cause is by more intense study of paleontology.

So Mathews knows nothing about what the creationists actually argue. Does he know anything about biology? No, he does not.

I think Darwin was right, but boring.

It was hard for me to become interested in classroom explanations of natural selection when I was a student. Introducing a contrary theory like intelligent design and having students discuss its differences from Darwinism would enliven the class. It would also teach the scientific method. Did Darwin follow the rules of objective scientific inquiry? Does intelligent design?

Grrrr. BORING? You’re a goddamned ignorant moron, Mathews. Do not blame the instructional failures of your lousy teachers, or your inattentiveness in class, on Charles Darwin.

Right now, we have a wealth of wonderful material that can be taught in the classroom, and great texts to do it with. I highly recommend the books of Sean Carroll; I’m using his Making of the Fittest in our introductory biology classrooms right now, and it does a marvelous job of explaining the molecular evidence behind evolution. I’ve also used Endless Forms Most Beautiful in my developmental biology class — it’s great at summarizing evo-devo. We’ve also used Weiner’s Beak of the Finch as an example of modern population genetics; Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge for the intersection of paleontology and molecular biology; and Shubin’s Your Inner Fish for human evolution. These are real pedagogical tools and interesting scientific issues that can be and have been used routinely in good science classes, without resorting to contrived nonsense.

Boring? Jebus, Mathews, you aren’t competent to lecture us on how to teach biology if you think this entire field of science is uninteresting…so uninteresting that you want to introduce crackpots and wackaloons to liven it up. Hey, how about clowns, too? That would have perked you right up in your lackluster student days — sure, let’s just fill the science classroom with a whole fucking parade of clowns!

You know what classes students really find dry and boring, and complain about frequently? Math classes. I anxiously await the patented Jay Mathews solution to make math exciting — it will probably involve lying a lot, putting mathematical concepts on trial, and inventing out of whole cloth solutions to problems that have resisted actual mathematical efforts to answer. Maybe magic tricks? Perhaps he thinks this old S. Harris cartoon is a legitimate example of good math teaching style?

I teach at the college level, and I do discuss intelligent design creationism in the classroom. But first, I spend a couple of weeks discussing the scientific evidence for evolution intensively; I prepare the students with the background to analyze the questions legitimately. And then I don’t present creationism as something that has to be addressed scientifically, but as a social and political problem — and we go through a subset of their arguments and show how they neglect and contradict the scientific evidence that the students already know. It is most definitely not because we need creationism to make the science lively; it’s because creationism is a pain in the ass lie that the students should be prepared to cope with.

(Also on Sb)

It does look vaguely religious, doesn’t it?

In a completely unsurprising decision, Jessica Ahlquist has won her court case, in which she was complaining that a prayer banner was an inappropriate object to hang in a public school. The defendants tried to argue that it was “an historical memento of the school’s founding days, with a predominantly secular purpose.” Judge for yourself. It’s the banner titled “School Prayer”, which begins, “Our Heavenly Father” and ends with “Amen.” Somehow, the judge in the case was not fooled and recognized that it seemed to be rather obviously religious in tone, and has ordered it taken down.

Next thing you know, these religious gomers will try to argue that creationism is a secular, scientific theory. No one is going to be fooled by that, are they?


We’re all aware of the intermittent service failures. Last I heard, it was caused by some hard drive difficulties, and a crack team of kobolds has been dispatched to excavate the relic out of the lava pits and hammer an enchanted red gold filigree into the platters to improve their performance. There may be further absences while the device is worked over on the anvil, but then all shall be well, barring drow or faerie-fire incursions.

At least, that’s what it sounded like.

I’d been wondering about that

I don’t know about where you are, but this has been a strange winter here in Minnesota. We’ve had two snow “storms” so far, that did little more than dust the place with snow that melted away in these bizarrely odd warm days we’ve had. It’s cold, windy, and snowing lightly today, but otherwise, this was the first Christmas of Color I’ve experienced since moving to Minnesota.

There’s a meteorological explanation, though, and it’s not global warming. It’s a La Nina year, and the Arctic Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation have been coincidentally conspiring to allow air to flow across the country from west to east with no snarls that might have led to interesting weather.

I’ve been grateful for the relatively boring and safe weather — apparently, it’s going to get worse this spring, which means more nights when my wife is stranded in her cold distant workplace and I have to keep warm by piling on the blankets.

(Also on Sb)

FtB needs a better logo!

Lo and these many years ago, we had a logo contest on Pharyngula. Only the old-timers will remember it; it was pre-Scienceblogs, even, in the dim and distant days when getting two thousand hits a day was a triumph. Readers submitted suggestions for a general logo that we could all use on atheist blogs. There were many clever suggestions, and absolutely no resolution — like typical atheists, everyone had their own favorite and no one could say, “this is the one”. Although eventually, by mere common practice and usage, one did emerge because, I think, it was easy: a red letter “A” in the Zapfino font (you may have seen it around).

Anyway, let’s do it again. We’ve got a more limited goal this time around. Have you noticed that the freethoughtblogs design is, well, kinda ugly? We need a better FtB logo; something clean, elegant, simple, and pretty. Something I could tattoo on my forehead and no one would be confused and think it was a malignant growth. Help us out and come up with something for us!

We have a few ideas. Here’s a set of designs we had scribbled up before the launch of the site — I don’t know how we ended up with the specific one we’re using. You could just tell us that one of these is superior, or you could use them as inspiration for your own, or you could go off in a completely different direction.

Send them in to me, and I’ll screen out the winged penises* and other such suggestions, and pass them onto the other bloggers here and get their opinion…and the best I’ll post here for your input. We shall make the site prettier, pixel by pixel.

*This was not a suggestion. Please, no winged penises.

Crap. I’m going to get a hundred winged penises, aren’t I?