Elizabeth Warren on The Daily Show

This fierce advocate for those of us who are not part of the oligarchy reveals the fights that are taking place behind the scenes to prevent the oligarchy from gutting the measures she has proposed to give ordinary people the tools to avoid being suckered by the big financial interests.

She points out how the system really works. When debates are held in the open, ordinary people tend to win because their case is so obviously just. So what the oligarchy and its allies in government do is utter bland generalities in public and move the actual policy making into the back alleys where they can stick the knife in unseen and then pretend that they did not know what was going on. The metaphor is apt because the oligarchy are truly gangsters just with better clothes and manners.

The interview is in three parts and well worth watching in full. The latter parts are prompted after the first one.

Christopher Hitchens on the British monarchy

He gives it the drubbing it deserves but has some friendly advice for the new bride: persuade your new husband to abdicate before it is too late, and that corrupt and soul-killing institution gets you too.

Myself, I wish her well and also wish I could whisper to her: If you really love him, honey, get him out of there, and yourself, too. Many of us don’t want or need another sacrificial lamb to water the dried bones and veins of a dessicated system. Do yourself a favor and save what you can: Leave the throne to the awful next incumbent that the hereditary principle has mandated for it.

It’s uncanny

A SurveyUSA poll finds that despite Obama releasing the so-called long-form birth certificate, “18% still have doubts and another 10% say the document released by the White House is a forgery.”

The total number of skeptics add up almost exactly to the famous Crazification Factor number of 27%.

And there’s more. According to the same survey “Both 27% who have seen the certificate and 27% who have not seen the certificate say the matter is still an open item for debate.” In other words, the people in the Crazification world are totally impervious to evidence.

Donald Trump and the birthers

On his MSNBC show, Lawrence O’Donnell lashes out at the racism that motivates people like Donald Trump and others who question Obama’s eligibility to be president (and even his academic record) and the media’s complicity (particularly NBC) in allowing these crazies to have a platform.

It seems like quite a lot of people simply cannot stomach the fact that a non-white person with a foreign-sounding name could be the president of ‘their’ country.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Bernie Sanders on The Daily Show

The independent socialist senator from Vermont says what I have been saying for some time, except far more clearly and succinctly and without using the word oligarchy. It was clear to me that Sanders thinks that most Democrats are also representing oligarchic interests but since he caucuses with them, he pulls his punches slightly.

I am not sure if Jon Stewart really believes that the Democrats and Republicans are deep ideological enemies or whether he is just saying that to provide a foil for Sanders. The two-part extended interview is well worth watching in full.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – Bernie Sanders Extended Interview Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
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The creationists’ dinosaur problem

Dinosaurs are a headache for biblical literalists. Since religion has no rational basis, you have to build your base of believers by indoctrinating children at a young age. And because children are fascinated by dinosaurs and can’t seem to get enough of them, you need to work them into the story somehow. The fact that dinosaurs existed at one time and are now extinct is an unquestioned fact and must be faced. The catch is that dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Bible. It is no good for creationist adults to deny their existence the way they deny other inconvenient scientific facts because even the most trusting and naïve child is going to balk at such a counterfactual statement.

Young Earth creationists cannot accept the most common scientific explanation of dinosaur extinction as a result of an asteroid collision with the Earth 65 million years ago that changed the climate, because that explanation is too deeply integrated into an old Earth model in which dinosaurs lived long before humans. Biblical literalists believe in a 6,000 year old Earth in which humans existed from the beginning and hence were contemporaneous with all animals so it would be hard to explain why the catastrophic event that wiped out the dinosaurs did not destroy humans as well. Besides asteroids are not mentioned in the Bible either.

As a result, there has developed an entire creationist cottage industry devoted to (a) arguing that the Bible does indeed talk about dinosaurs, and (b) providing explanations as to why they are no longer around.

Blog reader David sent along a little cartoon booklet titled There Go the Dinosaurs! that gives one such attempt. As he said it is at the same time both hilarious and sad.

The booklet says that the reason dinosaurs are not mentioned in the Bible is that they used to be called dragons, which are mentioned extensively in the Bible, and that they were ‘renamed’ as dinosaurs in 1841. It is true that the name dinosaur was only coined in 1842 by the naturalist Richard Owen after the discovery of the fossils. But this ‘renaming’ gambit that makes dragons and dinosaurs the same is quite a neat trick because it solves two embarrassing problems at once. One is that dinosaurs existed but the Bible does not mention them and the other is that dragons are widely accepted to be mythical creatures that never existed but the Bible and other fables repeatedly refer to them. Of course, since god knows the future, it does not explain why he did not tell the authors of the Bible to use the term dinosaur. But we’ll let that go.

So why did the dinosaurs go extinct, if it was not due to a catastrophic event? The booklet said that humans hunted them for their meat. During the great flood, a pair of dinosaurs was saved in the ark by Noah and after the flood subsided they reproduced like other animals. But because the flood wiped out all the vegetation, the air in the immediate post-flood era was oxygen poor. Apparently dinosaurs need more oxygen-rich air and as a result they got tired easily and couldn’t run as fast (like what happens to humans in high altitudes, I suppose) and so were much more easily caught and killed. Hence they went extinct.

What is interesting about this scenario is the attempt to provide a scientific-sounding explanation for an accepted fact that picks and chooses from the scientific universe. What creationists do is mix as much standard science as possible with evidence-free assertions. Creationists tend to use science only when it consists of either those things that are common knowledge and cannot be disputed or things that people experience in their everyday lives and seem commonsensical or it provides results that they agree with. Any science that is not common knowledge and contradicts the Bible is rejected. Radiometric dating, for example, requires esoteric and technical knowledge and thus can be dismissed and its conclusions breezily cast aside.

The way that creationists operate is to accept just those scientific facts that ‘every one knows’ (continents drift, during photosynthesis trees take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, the Earth moves around the Sun, the universe is vast) and then weave elaborate stories around these anchors to create ‘explanations’. The catch is that as time goes by, more and more things that once could be dismissed as esoteric start to enter the world of ‘everyone knows’ knowledge, creating more headaches for creationists, requiring more ad hoc additions. For example, creationists realize that it is futile to deny that the continents once formed a single large land mass that drifted apart. But in order to explain how that could have happened in 6,000 years, they say that they moved really fast until just recently.

The idea that trees are producers of oxygen (true) and that low oxygen content in air can more easily lead to fatigue (true) is thrown in with a purely ad hoc assertion (that dinosaurs need more oxygen-rich air than humans) to arrive at the desired result. As Rudyard Kipling showed with his Just So Stories once you are allowed this freedom to be evidence-free, you can explain anything, a point reinforced by the cartoon strip Jesus and Mo.

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What is really going to destroy contemporary creationism is the age of the Earth and evolution. The idea that the Earth is really old, of the order of billions of years, is now so widely accepted that creationists will come to rue the day that they decided that a young Earth and special creation of species had to be bedrock beliefs. Even the mainstream media, ever solicitous of not offending people’s religious beliefs, no longer bother to provide ‘balance’ when it talks of the age of the Earth being 13.7 4.5 billion years old. The same is true that species have evolved.

At some point, young people will peel away from creationism because just so stories that argue for a young Earth and special creation of species will be just too far fetched for them to take.

The news media’s priorities

The radio program Marketplace reports on the absurdly high level of media attention devoted to the royal wedding.

CNN will have a 125 journalists on the ground. Fox is sending 50. NBC’s broadcasting the “Today” show from London. Even Al Jazeera’s on it. There are reports the networks are spending up to $10 million each to cover the event. And that’s in a year when shrinking news budgets have also been squeezed by the natural disaster in Japan and uprisings in the Middle East.

CNN is sending 125 journalists? It struck me that since the newsworthiness of this highly scripted event is essentially zero, the media might have been well-advised to have pool coverage, where one outfit televises it and everyone uses the same feed.

But what do I know.

Atheism’s morality

In his regular New York Times column, David Brooks trots out his usual banalities, this time about how without god we cannot have a timeless morality.

That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.

Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity. Without timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of the moment. But tough-minded theologies are countercultural. They insist on principles and practices that provide an antidote to mere fashion.

How can people write such nonsense? Does he really think that how we understand what the Bible says about morality has not changed from Biblical times?

The book The Christian Delusion edited by John W. Loftus has a chapter titled Yahweh is a Moral Monster by Hector Avalos that lists the horrendous morality that is found in the Bible. (The essay is largely a refutation of a defense of god offered by Christian apologist Paul Copan in an essay titled Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics that can be read here. )

In his chapter, Avalos ends (p. 232) with a section titled Atheism’s Morality that is worth quoting at length:

Copan fundamentally misunderstands the New Atheism insofar as he believes that it cannot provide a sound moral ground for its judgments. For a Christian apologist to think he or she has triumphed by pointing out the moral relativism of the New Atheism is to miss the entire point. As an atheist, I don’t deny that I am a moral relativist. Rather, my aim is to expose the fact that Christians are also moral relativists. Indeed, when it comes to ethics, there are only two types of people in this world:

1. Those who admit they are moral relativists; and
2. Those who do not admit they are moral relativists.

Copan fails because he cannot admit that he is a moral relativist, and he thinks that God will solve the problem of moral relativism. But having a God in a moral system only creates a tautology. All we end up saying is: “X is bad because X is bad.” Thus, if we say that we believe in God, and he says idolatry is evil, then that is a tautology: “God says idolatry is bad and so idolatry is bad because God says it is bad.” Or we end up using this tautology: “Whatever God says is good because whatever God says is good.”

As Kai Nielsen deftly argues, human beings are always the ultimate judges of morality even if we believe in God. After all, the very judgment that God is good is a human judgment. The judgment that what God commands is good is also a human judgment. So Christians are not doing anything different except mystifying and complicating morality. Christians are simply projecting what they call “good” onto a supernatural being. They offer us no evidence that their notion of good comes from outside of themselves [My italics]. And that is where the danger lies. Basing a moral system on unverifiable supernatural beings only creates more violence and endangers our species. I have already discussed this at length in my book, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence.

Copan cites Dinesh D’Souza who repeats the oft-cited anecdote that atheists have killed more people than religionists. Again, this is based on the false idea that Nazis were atheistic Darwinists, and that Stalinist genocide was due to atheism rather than to forced collectivism (something I discuss in detail in chapter 14 of this book). Speaking only for myself here, I can say that atheism offers a much better way to construct moral rules. We can construct them on the basis of verifiable common interests, known causes, and known consequences. There is an ironclad difference between secular and faith-based morality, and we can illustrate it very simply with these propositions:

A. I have to kill person X because Allah said so.
B. I have to kill person X because he is pointing a gun at me.

In case A, we commit violence on the basis of unverifiable premises. In case B, we might commit violence on the basis of verifiable premises (I can verify a gun exists, and that it is pointed at me). If I am going to kill or be killed, I want it to be for a reason that I can verify to be true. If the word “moral” describes the set of practices that accord with our values, and if our highest value is life, then it is always immoral to trade real human lives for something that does not exist or cannot be verified to exist.

What does not exist has no value relative to what does exist. What cannot be proven to exist should never be placed above what does exist. If we value life, then you should never trade something that exists, especially life, for something that does not exist or cannot be proven to exist. That is why it would always be immoral to ever take a life based on faith claims. It is that simple.

Avalos captures quite succinctly my views on this topic. I am a moral relativist because I simply cannot see how a moral framework can be constructed that is independent of human input and judgments. The reason that Brooks thinks the rules are timeless is because a human being told him that one particular holy book’s rules (out of the many holy books with their own rules) are given by a god and are thus timeless. He chose (or was indoctrinated) to believe that claim. How is that not a product of human judgment?

If a god were to suddenly appear to me, even then I would not unhesitatingly accept those moral commands. If this god said, for example, that I should murder my children (as the Bible says he told Abraham to do with his son Isaac) or indeed that I should murder anyone at all, I simply would not do it and I am confident that these days most people would do the same. None but the most fanatical god believers would comply and we would consider such people to be either insane or moral monsters.

If a god issued commands that we now consider immoral, he/she/it would face a revolt on his hands because all thinking people are, in the end, moral relativists and reject moral commands that are not congruent with their own moral sensibilities or based on agreed-upon humane principles.