Non-Providencial Poetry

I received the following in my corporate e-mail today:


People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered
   Forgive them anyway
If you are kind, people accuse you of selfish ulterior motives
   Be Kind anyway
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies
   Succeed anyway
If you find serenity and happiness, there may be jealousy
   Be Happy anyway
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow
   Do Good anyway
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough
   Give the World the best you’ve got anyway

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God
It was never between You and Them anyway.

This wasn’t random spam. It was sent, to the entire company, by a Senior VP. It’s a beautiful poem, but whoever wrote the final lines, doesn’t have a solid grasp on the first line. They’ve completely ruined great sentiments by adding the concept of a God and an appeal to eventual, cosmic rewards for good deeds.

In the final sentence, replace the word ‘God’ with; Zeus, Jehova, ‘Whatever higher power you believe in, if any’, Magical Sky Pixies or Flying Spaghetti Monster and you’ll begin to see how absurd this really is.

If I had sent out this poem (to the entire company) with the last two lines replaced with; “Do good for its own sake — and not because you want a ‘gold star’ from some deity”, I would probably be writing my resume now, instead of a blog post.

If, instead, it had ended with “Do good for its own sake — do it because it makes you happy. Happiness is its own reward.” The poem would have been motivational, true and apart from a little sappy, who could really object?

Why is it so hard for people to see that appeals to a diety only serve to diminish the value of everything?

A flower can be appreciated for its own, natural beauty. To marvel at how wonderful ‘God’ is to have created a beautiful flower is completely backward. An omnipotent God could create beauty we could scarcely imagine; a flower so beautiful that gazing upon it sent one into euphoric fits. Flowers are beautiful, but they’re not miraculous.

If there’s an afterlife, isn’t this life just a place to wipe your feet until you get to the “real” life? Doesn’t the absence of a deity make this life infinitely more valuable? If there’s no cosmic justice, doesn’t that only encourage us to treat each other well, right now?

Let’s celebrate life. Let’s celebrate variety, diversity, knowledge, compassion, cooperation, good works, exploration, achievement and discovery.

No gods required.

Texas Mess

Texas State Senator Dan Patrick, author of the Christian bestseller, The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read, has published a press release announcing that the Texas State Senate unanimously approved the “Patrick Resolution” (SR 141). This bill requires the State Preservation Society to permanently affix the phrase, “In God We Trust” above the Lt. Governors podium.

The Atheist Community of Austin has published their own press release, admonishing the senate and the 80th Texas legislature for their authorship and support of this bill.

There are a few points about this situation that absolutely astonished me. First, I was surprised to learn that the Texas House of Representatives passed a similar resolution last week, by a vote of 142-3. (The Representatives voting against this resolution were; Donna Howard, Lon Burnman and Garnet Coleman.) Second, I was amazed that while all of this information was available online, it took a bit of digging to get to it. The press release regarding the Senate resolution didn’t come from the Senate, it came from the office of Senator Patrick. If Senator Patrick hadn’t mentioned the house resolution in his press release, many of us might not have known about it.

But the biggest surprise was the the Senate vote was unanimous. It’s a bit disheartening to learn that every one of our State Senators thinks that divisive statements of faith, as official actions of the legislature, are a good idea. Someone out there is thinking, “You live in Texas! What did you expect?!” That’s a sentiment I generally understand – but living in Austin has made me a bit more optimistic about Texas. A single ‘no’ vote, as a sign that there’s some hope, would have been nice.

As I pointed out in the ACA press release, the author of this bill has made it clear that it serves no secular purpose and is, as far as I can tell, a violation of the Constitutions of both Texas and The United States. While most people consider this bill a ‘good thing’ or, at worst, ‘no big deal’, I think it’s time that we challenge legislation like this – and a direct appeal to reverse the mistakes of the McCarthy error and restore the original national motto, is long overdue as well.

In the past, I’ve wavered on whether or not challenging “Under God” in the pledge or “In God We Trust” on our money was really a good idea. I was certain that they both needed to be changed, but I wasn’t certain that these were necessarily the best fights to pick. I’m now convinced that these are exactly the right fights.

The Texas State Constitution has the following statement in its Bill of Rights:

No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.”

We know that this is a violation of the U.S Constitution; a uninamous decision by the Supreme Court in Torcaso v. Watkins established that quite firmly. So why does it still appear in the Texas Constitution? Because no one has bothered to push for its removal – we recognize the passage is irrelevant, so it’s just not worth the bother.

Unfortunately, everyone isn’t up to speed on the finer points of law. Which means that this unconstitutional piece of nonsense still serves a purpose – it’s trotted out to support various myths about the religious nature of our government. It is a way of reenforcing a bias to those who won’t bother to investigate.

It’s right there, in black and white and it’s time we changed that.

Chocolate is the reason for the season!

Okay, I know everyone is still looking for that final TAM report. I am working on it (amazing how, when you return from a vacation, life just…slams you back into a routine). But this, I felt, was too good to pass up.

If there’s one thing I dearly, dearly love, it’s getting the “Action Alert” newsletters from Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association. I even love the name alone. “Action Alert”! One imagines a fundagelical prayer warrior, sitting at home minding his own business, when suddenly, a red light starts blinking (with accompanying staccato buzzing noise) on his computer! He leaps up, tearing off his shirt to reveal an AFA superhero costume underneath, and, grabbing his Bible — whoosh! — he’s out the door as his wife and kids wave to him, calling out, “Come home safe, Daddy!”

In reality, the Action Alerts are not nearly so Action-Packed. It’s mostly the usual round of homophobia and we’re-so-persecuted stuff, along with calls to boycott this or that other business that isn’t sufficiently genuflecting to their Christian superiority.

Most recently, the AFA wants to extend the shelf-life of the War on Christmas by turning it into a War on Easter. As has been reported many times, the War on Christmas was created by Christian activist groups for the purposes of fundraising. It’s a cash cow, with groups like the AFA stirring up persecution fears in their flock in order to sell zillions of dollars in buttons, decals, and the like. The fact of Christian Right groups being dishonest and sleazy is not, I know, earth-shattering news. But it’s sad that so many are still so easily suckered by it.

Not the least bit concerned that their motives are nakedly obvious to the rest of humanity, the AFA is sounding the “save Easter by sending us money” klaxon loud and clear. Their latest cash cow (cash calf?) is this button/magnet series to let the filthy unsaved know goddamn good and well that Easter is not about bunnies and chocolate. Nor is it, as them evil librul professors will tell you, a ritual originating in pagan cultures related to the vernal equinox in which they honored their goddess Cybele/Eostre/Astarte. Nope, it’s all about their god-man coming back to life at the end of that Mel Gibson movie…and nothing else! And what better way to remind those unsaved heathen about that fact than by sending Donald Wildmon a lot of money for some of these:

There! That’ll show ’em.

This is your invitation to sponsor you [sic] church’s participation in Silent Witness Week, to be observed during Holy Week April 1-8. Imagine this: Thousands of Christians wearing a very attractive lapel button which reads: Easter. He Lives! …This extremely attractive button is a silent but effective witness to Jesus and the Resurrection story. Wear it while shopping, at work, at school, etc. Silently let others know that Easter is about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, not a bunny or eggs.

Now, as Bugs Bunny often would say, “You realize of course that this means WAH!” I’ll put up with a lot from fundagelicals. But when they diss the Bunny and His Magic Eggs, they’ve gone too fucking far!

So in the spirit of the season — especially the “making money!” part — I’ve decided to respond with a button/magnet of my very own! Bask!

And you can order this lovely item right here!

Imagine thousands of atheists spreading the good news of chocolate and colored eggs to all of humanity! And all via the effective “silent witnessing” tool of a simple, elegant button or magnet! There has never been a better time to be a Silent Witness for the Bunny. Join Silent Witness Week, won’t you?

Poor, Tragic Yahweh

Christians often have the impression that atheists somehow hate Yahweh, the God of the Bible. We don’t, and we can’t, because we do not believe there are any gods to hate, even if we wanted to hate them.

Actually, in a sympathetic way, I find the character of Yahweh quite likable. Like most of the ancient gods, he’s an exaggeration of humanity, with both his good side and his foibles written larger than life. He’s just mucking along, trying to get his relationship with humanity to work out, but is met with failure after failure: he fails to keep Adam and Eve in the dark about good vs. evil; he’s so upset by his sons interbreeding with human women to create the hybrid god-man race know as Nephilim, that he decides to eradicate everyone but Noah and his family; he frees the Israelites from Egypt, but when their scouts are intimidated by the forces of Canaan, he pouts and has them remain nomads for forty years until most of the responsible adults are presumed dead; he establishes the reign of kings, starting with Saul, but that idea turns out to be a mixed bag; etc., etc., etc.; at long last, he inseminates Mary to become his own son, and sacrifices himself to himself to take advantage of a loophole in his own law of sin and death–but even this convoluted gesture failed to resolve his problems with mankind; he promised to come again and set everything straight within the lifetime of the apostles, but that didn’t happen either; two millennia later, it still hasn’t happened; those to whom he speaks, once respected as prophets, are regarded as lunatics today. What a compellingly tragic figure is Yahweh.

Welcome, Pharyngulites!

Due to another link from PZ to my latest TAM 5 posting, yesterday was this blog’s best day ever. Today is already about twice what we usually get in daily uniques, and it’s only 9:15 in the morning! Hope all of you fellow godless heathens stopping by from Pharyngula like what you see, and see fit to do the bookmarking thing. Next TAM 5 update coming later today!

Facing 10 years as Bubba’s Bitch, Hovind loses mind

This is just too funny. Hovind’s latest too-good-to-pass-up offer for the government: let me go and I’ll stop suing you. Oooo! Got ’em on the ropes there, Kent baby.

This editorial lays the smackdown on this cretin.

“You dishonor your fellow Americans” by dodging a fair share of taxes, [Judge Casey] Rodgers said.

She sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

Even then he resisted reality.

“I sure would like to go home,” he told Rodgers.

Oooh man. I almost feel sorry for the guy.

Wait! — what the hell am I saying? No I don’t!

TAM 5: Saturday coverage, part 1 (before lunch)

As mentioned before, Saturday was a much improved day over Friday, not only because the tech troubles had mostly been solved, but in that the presenters were much more entertaining, though no less substantive than Friday’s. Later on I heard a story I couldn’t prove, to the effect that the possible reason for Friday’s nonstop laptop horrors (it got so bad that the only way Richard Wiseman could get anyone to hear his audio was to hold his mic right up to his laptop itself, which didn’t sound at all good and didn’t make him a very happy man) had to do with Lori Lipman Brown bringing her own sound guy for some reason, and this person is suspected of being responsible for the damaged connector found by JREF’s A/V guy at the end of the day. As I said, no hard evidence here, but it could have been a factor.

Regrettably, I missed much of the first speaker, NPR’s Peter Sagal. But I caught the tail end of his talk and all of his Q&A. Like most of Saturday’s speakers — up until Christopher Hitchens, anyway — Sagal set a lighthearted and humorous tone that would be followed for most of the day. One interesting thing he brought up was that, despite NPR’s reputation for being this leftist bastion, NPR really does go out of its way to avoid offending listeners — with the inevitable result that they reliably end up being offensive to lots of people. Sagal mentioned he thought NPR was actually too cautious about trying not to be inflammatory.

Sagal was followed by a moment of pure hilarity in the form of The Onion editor Scott Dikkers. At first I thought, Hmm, he’s not really being all that funny for a guy who edits The Onion. And then, I of course realized he’s a master of the classic form of deadpan comedy, allowing screenshots of the O to speak for themselves while he delivered his own commentary — the overriding theme of which was that we should always believe everything we read in the media — in a calm, reserved tone. Dikkers’ presentation peaked with his demonstration that The Onion is so true that it’s actually predicted the future, showing articles (all of which appeared as Onion satires before actually occurring in real life) about Chris Farley’s death (whoops!), Gillette releasing a five-bladed razor (here’s the Onion bit, and here’s the real thing released the following year), and Bush’s 2000 win ushering in a brave and courageous end to world peace and domestic prosperity. With such remarkable proof of The Onion‘s precognitive talents on display, Dikkers had no hesitation in immediately demanding the JREF million dollar prize. Somehow, it wasn’t quite enough proof for Randi, who nevertheless told Dikkers he’d made his day. Damn those picky skeptics!

The last speaker in the pre-lunch bald-guy parade (hey, they said it, not me) was Bad Astronomy‘s awesome Phil Plait, who began his talk — in obvious physical pain, I must say — conceding his crushing defeat to Pharyngula‘s PZ Myers in a recent best-of-the-web poll, which PZ eventually won in a “suspicious” eleventh-hour rush of votes that put him over the top. First Phil acknowledged the greatness that is PZ…

…followed by the comforting reassurance that it was just as well PZ won, because if he’d lost, the deal evidently was that PZ would agree to appear in the 2007 Skepdude Calendar. And Phil just happened to have the photo.

Well, I feel luckier already.

Phil then went on, in the spirit of the conference’s media-related theme, to fisk an absurd “documentary” that appeared on (of course) Fox about five years ago that gave credence to that stellar gang of asshats, the moon landing deniers. If you ask me, these people are as big a bunch of reprobates as creationists, and Phil showed how they’re no less brazen in the lies they tell in order to promulgate their crazy conspiracy theories in the media. Plait pointed out just how slickly packaged the show was, and how it sleazily manipulated its audience, not by making any outright, actionable claims, but by what it craftily left out, thus prompting viewers to think, “Well, gee whiz, maybe it was all a big fake!” It was a prime example of how the art of editing can build innuendo, and commit egregious lies of omission in order to get people to take any asinine claim seriously.

What is amazing about the fact anyone takes moon-landing-hoax claims seriously is that the “evidence” these people point to is so pitiful that anyone with the slightest bit of understanding of the issues involved can refute them with no effort at all. There’s just no critical thinking going on at all among these conspiracy kooks. Several moon landing deniers, for instance, claim to be photography experts. And yet they appear unacquainted with such basic photographic issues as lens flare, perspective and horizon lines, and even ASA speeds and exposure times. Why don’t you see stars in any of the moon-surface photos? The deniers say it’s because it was all done on a sound stage in Area 51 (no shit, a guy in the doc actually said “Area 51”). People with brains who know how cameras work will tell you it’s because the astronauts were using slow film and adjusting their f-stops to show a clear lunar surface, not the sky. To expose the film for long enough to pick up a sky full of stars would have resulted in such a blazing white, glared-out lunar surface that the whole shot would have been a loss. As someone who works in the film business myself, allow me to give my expert assessment of Phil’s explanation: Duh! Now someone tell Fox and these shitheads who claim to be photographers.

In this photo, Phil uses his belt to show how a flag can appear to be “waving” in an airless environment.

In all, Phil’s talk was a spectacular and, though funny, deeply sobering demonstration of how easily the media can influence public opinion through deception. It’s one more reason the pro-science camp needs to learn to be more media savvy, in order to find ways to communicate facts to a confused public and show how the truth about science and the universe is far more wondrous and compelling than the bleak fear-mongering and go-nowhere ignorance they’re currently being given. Phil’s final shot was this wonderful autograph from Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean.

Says it all, I think.

Back later with the second half of Saturday.

TAM 5: Saturday a much better day!

The many technical glitches that marred even the best speakers’ presentations yesterday seemed to have been mostly smoothed over and dealt with. Today was, overall, a much more satisfying day. Even the lunch was better: hot food instead of cold cut sandwiches. Consistently funny, engaging, and sometimes contentious, each speaker had a lot to offer.

But I’m going to wait until I get home Sunday night to blog the day, mainly because I’m wiped out. I just feel like coming down and relaxing, and not thinking about recapping and analyzing all the speakers just right yet. So look for coverage and photos of Saturday shortly. For now, I can say that if you ever find it in your budget to go to TAM, go. It’s been a terrific experience and a great little vacation, and TAM 6 is scheduled for summer 2008, not January, giving you 18 months to plan.

Yawn. Me for bed.

TAM 5: Friday afternoon speakers

The general opinion so far of my friends Thad and Stacie Engeling (the latter of whom is Ms. November in the 2007 Skepchick Calendar, by the way) is that TAM 5 has so far not been as good as TAM 4. But a lot of this is probably due to the fact that Friday afternoon’s talks were frought with stupid technical glitches. It can’t be terribly difficult to output audio from a laptop to a public sound system, but it happened with almost every presentation. In addition, presenters with video on DVD-R’s often encountered the aggravating problem of their discs not playing properly. In all, the afternoon was a little bit of a mess, but there were still some fine presentations going on.

Nick Gillespie and Ron Bailey from the libertarian Reason magazine were scheduled to follow Eugenie Scott, but as everything was running late they’ve been bumped, so we’ll see if they speak today.

The first post-lunch speaker was a fellow from MIT named Neil Gershenfeld, who talked about advances in nanotech and how they will make manufacturing a much more democratic process. His team has set up “fab labs” all around the world, with the result that even little kids are making some cool gadgets. He’s also pointed out that since he introduced a class at MIT all about this, which he initially expected to appeal only to a handful of engineering dweebs, he has in fact been flooded with hundreds of students who just wanted to make stuff. What he’s discovered is that the killer app for this kind of tech will be personal tech, and not necessarily mass-produced things for the marketplace. I wasn’t expecting to get into this talk that much, fearing it would slide headlong into tech-talk-land and lose me utterly, but Gershenfeld, in full hip-prof mode, made it utterly compelling. It was great to see how young kids living in the developing world, when exposed to this kind of knowledge, really had a hunger for it and absorbed what they were learning like little sponges. I can foresee a time when online communities of fab junkies are trading their manufacturing templates via p2p, and spitting out all kinds of nifty things on home replicators. Time will tell.

What followed was an interview with Randi by his friend Jamy Ian Swiss. We were shown quite a lot of amusing video from a Korean TV show that invited Randi over to debunk a whole host of their local paranormalists. Randi coached the show’s producer on what to look for when he and his crew went out to various psychic presentations, and, in contrast to the way an American TV show would insist on presenting woo with 100% credulity, this producer turned out to be a debunking champ, laying awesome traps for spoon-benders and psychic “healers” that Randi admitted he himself could not have improved upon. A simple hidden camera showed one spoon bender just bending the spoon the normal way when he thought no one was looking, and a Malaysian healer whose schtick is that electricity flows through his body (he did a trick that Randi had no trouble duplicating in the Korean studio) was shown to have tricked out his sandals with a battery pack. The dude also nailed Uri Geller, pissing off the Israeli fruad so much he threw them out of his house. Hilarious.

It was terrific watching these clips, but the whole presentation ended up getting a little overlong and repetitive because the DVD player they were using had the hardest time cueing up to the right spots in the DVD-R.

Technical glitches continued with Lori Lipman Brown, lobbyist for the new Secular Coalition of America, the first lobbying group for atheists. Brown was a decent speaker once she stopped just reading from her prepared remarks, and she presents a nice face for atheism in the public square. Still, she was fairly unprepared for the abject disrespect from Fox News interviewers, getting that deer-in-the-headlights look when confronted by O’Reilly; she showed three clips from Fox News interviews, two from the Factor. Still, she mentioned that she hasn’t received any disrespect on Capitol Hill simply because she’s representing atheists, and I hope once she develops a slightly thicker skin and cangive as well as she gets in front of TV cameras, she might be someone to exert some real influence. She ain’t there yet, though. Overall, her presentation was brief, a nice relief from the extreme length of the Randi interview and its glitchy videos.

A Q&A with the ever-popular Penn & Teller followed, who were both funny and warm as they fielded questions from the crowd, many of whom had clearly worked up the funniest questions they could think of well in advance. Some of the better questions involved the benefits/liabilities of working with Showtime versus using DIY broadcasting technology online like YouTube. They also related the hilarious story of the video game Desert Bus, in which nothing happens except that you drive a bus from Phoenix to Vegas for eight hours.

But as funny as Penn & Teller are, the real comic genius of the day was the energetic Richard Wiseman, who talked at a machine-gun pace, peppering his speech with off-the-cuff jokes that had everyone belly-laughing. Wiseman has a reputation doing lots of debunking over in his native England, most prominently the claims of the kookoo Rupert Sheldrake, who thinks dogs and parrots have ESP. Sheldrake believed he had proven a little terrier was psychic because she always ran to the window at the precise moment her owner was coming home, even if the time was entirely chosen randomly. Wiseman set up his own camera
s on Sheldrake’s invitation and learned that the dog was in fact going to the window all the time. (Again, Wiseman had several minutes worth of his own laptop issues before we were able to see the videos.)

Wiseman went on to talk about how he’s seeking to use the media, not just for debunking efforts, but in a way that presents science entertainingly. He gave us the whole story of a stunt in which an investor, a “financial astrologer,” and a five-year-old girl were invited to choose the best stocks, and after six months, the little girl was the only one who hadn’t lost money. Then there was the long saga of the humor research program to discover the funniest joke in the world (it’s not quite) by allowing thousands of people to submit jokes to a website, then screening them through public votes down to the most popular one.

Wiseman, the final speaker for the day, is a hilarious guy, and he’s the kind of bloke I’d love to see doing more work for skepticism in the public arena. After the room was shutting down I managed to locate him and we had a good talk walking back to the elevators. I was particularly interested in his talk, as I told him, because a few years back I got into a brief Wikipedia edit war with a Sheldrake fan and woo believer who was editing Wikipedia’s ESP entry, both to slant the article to a pro-paranormal bias, and also to add about a dozen links driving traffic to his blog. I hadn’t heard about the dog experiment before dealing with this clown (who believed Sheldrake’s results utterly), but it was evident right away to me that the way Sheldrake set up his own test proved the guy has no clue how to run a controlled experiment to save his life. Sheldrake’s response to Wiseman’s findings has, of course, been to lie and say Wiseman got the same results he did. Of course, Wiseman showed the dog did indeed go to the window at the precise moment her owner was coming home. But she also went to the window nearly every five minutes before and after that point as well. I’m a dog owner and know full well these are creatures of habit; my dogs know when it’s walk time, and if I’m slacking off online they’ll come to get me and bark indignantly that they’re ready to go. Are they psychic for knowing this? No, they just know how to learn routines. It’s what dogs do. Sheldrake’s work is just a prime example of confirmation bias in action.

Anyway, that was the end of Friday. I’ve decided to skip the continental breakfast this morning. Today has another solid roster of speakers — Phil Plait, Christopher Hitchens, and…wait for it…Trey Parker and Matt Stone! So I hope fewer techie troubles plague the day and everything goes a lot more smoothly.