So today at the store, I got back 60 cents in change. All well and good, but when I grabbed the quarters to put them in the pile for de-godding, I noticed that one of them looked a little different. “In [smudge] We Trust”, it read, unless my eyes deceived me.


Yes! Now, I had never used any quarters at that store, so this must have come from a parking meter, or from the little cafe near my office, or from the UNICEF box at Halloween. Not from a busker–they always got dollar coins, and always more than one (even the lousy ones got 2 bucks minimum–I kept telling myself, it’s not my money to spend, it’s our money to put in circulation).

This coin does look like one of mine, but of course there is another, even better possibility–that there are more of us out there, de-godding coins that will be around for decades.

Comfort: Calling All Christians!

It’s a target-rich environment, with atheists galore!
So it’s onward Christian soldiers, we’ll be marching as to war!
There are lots of you on Facebook, but I’m asking now for more,
Cos my comment threads are being overrun.
I’ve got godless by the thousands—it’s an atheist attack,
Every time I post a message, there are hundreds talking back
While I’ve got a truthful message, it’s the numbers that I lack
So I’m asking if you’d like to have some fun.

They believe in evolution, and they don’t believe in God
So it’s best that you should pity them—their brains are rather odd—
They are driven by desire, once you see through their façade,
Seeking darkness, and withdrawing from the Light
You can read through past discussions for the games that they have played
How they cursed and raged and taunted, while we turned a cheek and prayed
(Though that wasn’t too effective—I’m a little bit dismayed,
And it’s time to call crusaders in to fight!)

They will mock the Holy Bible, citing scripture for their sakes
They will twist the gospel passages and call them our mistakes
They’ll dismiss the Fall of Mankind as a tale of talking snakes
And deny the death of Jesus on the cross
There’s a time for contemplation; there is also time to act!
We must fight the godless heathens, but with dignity and tact
As we show the truth—the bible is uncontroverted fact—
Yes, we’ll humbly show the atheists who’s boss!

In a press release this past Sunday (I only saw it this morning), Ray “Bananaman” Comfort is putting out the word:

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 24, 2013 /Christian Newswire/ — Hundreds, if not thousands of atheists have become “followers” on Ray Comfort’s Facebook page, and he says that he needs help to reach them. There has been an influx of 80,000 followers in the last two months, and according to Facebook statistics the page has a “weekly total reach” of over a million people.

Comfort said, “I have looked at a number of other Facebook pages, and have seen an average of 30-40 comments from followers, however, it is not uncommon to get over 1,000 comments on one post on my page (one had over 1900 comments). With six posts each day we can’t possibly answer all their questions, and so I’m asking Christians to come and help–because this is a very real battle for a generation.”

Mind you, Comfort warns that good Christians might be tempted to take offense, at first blush:

You will need a lot of patience because many show up as though they are God’s intellectual gift to the world. They are extremely arrogant, very condescending, they say things that aren’t true, and they use worn out arguments.

He said, without a trace of irony.

But, of course, a more thorough understanding of these atheists will help you to pity them, rather than to take offense. You have to understand atheists, as Comfort does:

Christians need to keep in mind that atheists’ worldview allows them to lie and twist the Scriptures. They mock creation, say that God commands murder and the rape of women, and that the Bible is full of mistakes. However, the issue here isn’t about evolution, or even the existence of God. It’s about the pleasure of guilt-free sexual sin. Christianity threatens that freedom by saying that fornication and lust are morally wrong, and that God will hold them accountable. They love darkness and hate the light, and so they fight it with all their might and will hold back at nothing in their attempts to extinguish it. This is a wonderful opportunity to reach a Hell-bound world with the gospel of everlasting life. Please help us.

They do need help.

Free Speech, Or Plot To Kill And Eat His Wife?

We see these rights as absolute—
No state would dare restrict ‘em—
We have not broken any law…
Until there is a victim.

We’re free to speak of fantasies
Of murder, rage, or hate—
We haven’t crossed the line, of course,
Until… it is too late.

Our whispered, dark conspiracies
Are safely out of reach—
Until you find a body,
Hey, you can’t restrict free speech!

In the New York Times today, a troubling story of the cop on trial for conspiring to kill and eat a number of women, including his wife. She’s the one who accidentally stumbled across the evidence on a home computer. Her husband had been chatting on some fetish sites online, and she found detailed descriptions of how she and some of her friends were to be tortured, killed, and cannibalized.

Or… the officer was merely engaging in fantasy writing, with no plans to actually do anything he described. Torture porn has a market, after all, and the first amendment is there to protect the speech we detest. I have, in satirical verses, linked to a cannibalism site (one I sincerely believe is itself satire). These were only words, after all, and no one is harmed by mere words.

No one harmed. Imagine finding such writing, naming you (some people don’t have to stretch much to imagine such a thing). In this case, the woman moved from New York to Nevada, and contacted the FBI, understandably frightened for her life. No one harmed.

It will be interesting to watch this one play out. Words have consequences, and free speech is not absolute. And while this case is obviously an extreme, we can see the roles in this case reflected in so many other places. To what extent can you say, even to yourself, that hurting someone is any more acceptable because it is just with words?

There is one aspect to this case that sets it aside from the others that spring to mind–the officer clearly never intended his writing to be discovered by his wife. If it was mere fantasy (as the defense claims), any harm it did (and it did do real harm, unquestionably) was unintentional. There are others waving the free speech banner who are quite intentionally attacking others.

In a way, that makes them worse than this guy.

On Belief

There is a group of people
(they’ll be named before too long)
Who are likely to believe a thing
They’ve just been shown… is wrong.

They’re wrong, it seems, quite often,
But in truth, it brings no shame;
The errors are so commonplace
We’ve given each a name!

There’s type 1 and type 2 error—
The distinction here is this:
The former is a false alarm;
The latter is a miss.

Suppose you find significance
(and do a little dance)
There’s a certain probability
It’s only random chance

Or maybe you find nothing
And you’re pulling out your hair
It’s possible you missed it
But there still is something there!

Belief opposed to evidence
Is faith—or so they say
But scientists (I’ve named the group!)
May do it every day!

At the risk of being misunderstood and quote-mined, I need to address something. I was reminded, by a really bad attempt at taking down “the new atheism”, that there are people who don’t know what they are talking about when it comes to belief. These people exist among the faithful, but also among us godless sorts. And, in part, slight misunderstandings on one hand are jumped upon by opportunists on the other hand (see the really bad attempt for an example) to misrepresent the process of science.

You see, the weird thing is, scientists are not immune to all the belief heuristics that everybody else falls prey to. Scientists want to be right, and will (or may) pay more attention to confirming evidence than disconfirming (when it comes to their own pet theory), will (or may) fall prey to predictable ingroup-outgroup biases, and will (or may) be far more eager to tear apart a competing theory than their own.

The difference between scientists and non-scientists, and the difference between believers and non-believers, isn’t so much in how individuals believe. (I mean, yes it can be, but this is a result of what I am about to say, not a cause.) Rather, it’s a difference in the structure that surrounds them.

The scientific community does not deny the effects of these biases. Rather, it harnesses them. A structure that systematically lets people support their own and tear down others’ ideas (call it “peer review”) harnesses our individual biases for the long-term good of the community. We don’t really need to be self-critical (though some certainly are) when we can set up an environment that will do that for us, systematically and more effectively.

So, yeah, when you are dealing with data that are probabilistic in nature, and when you intentionally and systematically make falsifiable predictions, there will necessarily be times when the data don’t play out the way you expect. And sometimes you will just know that you are right and the data are wrong. And sometimes you will be wrong. And sometimes (the cool thing is, for some of these values, an understanding of probability can let us know fairly well just how often) you will be right, and yes, the data are wrong (the bad news, of course, is that an understanding of probability won’t tell us which times you are right and the data are wrong.

But the scientific community doesn’t care about your pet theory. You can be biased all you want; so are your peers, and some of them want nothing more than to prove you wrong. And you want nothing more than to prove them wrong (and you right). And in the long run, you are crash-testing ideas, and only ideas that can survive the process will survive. In the long run.

There is a similar (well, functionally similar, but not similar in result) structure you can find in religion. Seriously. It’s called “apologetics”, and it is the system’s response to disconfirming data. Rather than rewarding and encouraging the refutation of an apparently bad idea (by others within the scientific community, at least), finding excuses for why the idea actually works is encouraged. (And if you can’t make it work… start a new religion!)

So… people are people. It’s the structures we are part of that allow us to rise above our biases to achieve more collectively than we ever could singly. It’s also the structures we are part of that can fortify our ignorance and make a virtue of non-questioning faith.

Scientists need not be anything special. But science is. And there is no reason to suspect that religious individuals are particularly prone to cognitive biases. But my goodness, religion as an institution (or set of institutions) seems to elevate the bias to an art form. The environments we have created, and which shape us, make us better, or worse, than we would be without them.

And that (as Frost said) has made all the difference.

On Free Will

Our free will, or its illusion,
Is the source of much confusion;
We make choices all the time, but can we say that they are free?
Mind and body in cohesion
Make us think we are Cartesian,
But the whole of modern science makes me want to disagree!
A causal mind’s existence,
Though a meme of some persistence,
Has the weight of long tradition, but the evidence is slim.
Our environment controls us;
Though Cartesian thought consoles us,
The truth is, we’re reactive, and we never act on whim.
Even my creative rhyming
Is controlled by sound and timing
And a history of consequences leading to this end;
Rhymes appear as chosen freely,
When the truth is different, really—
There are multiple parameters to which I must attend!

(Parenthetically, I mention
That “free will” will draw attention
To the action and its consequence, but little to its cause;
The resulting shift of focus
Makes it seem like hocus-pocus;
Through a bit of misdirection, it appears we break the laws!)

Reposted from here (where there are some links and comments worth seeing). Everything old is new again; I’m talking free will in another comments section. Gotta run to class; I’ll throw some links up in a bit.

Composing, Decomposing, Recomposing.

I was walking the cuttledog this evening when a refrain passed through what passes for my consciousness. I instantly recognized it—it was something I wrote maybe ten or fifteen (maybe 20!) years ago, part of an unfinished song.

At one point, I had written maybe 8-10 verses to this song (it’s kind of a ballad, but not in traditional ballad format; it’s a story of a relationship that goes from romantic to tragic to worse), and was actually quite proud of it (“happy” with it is not the right word for the subject matter of this song).

And then, something happened on the technological front that had ramifications I had not considered. Computers stopped using disks (I was going to say “floppy disks”, but they hadn’t really been “floppy” for quite some time). With everyone else, I made the migration over to bigger hard drives, to zip drive backups (remember those?), to CD-R backups, and all that jazz. And at some point (if I knew which point, it wouldn’t be a problem), this song stayed on a disk and did not make it to a hard drive. (Not the worst loss—I had a sound file of my then-infant daughter’s laugh I used as an alert; it was lost in the move to my first laptop, and I would gladly give a kidney if anyone could get it back.)

So I still have this song. Somewhere. On a disk. Among the hundreds of disks in my office, probably, or at my home, less probably. Mind you, I have no disk reader. Nor would that disk have been labeled in such a manner that would let me know it was the one. So, really, I don’t have this song anywhere.

And I don’t remember it. Hadn’t really even thought about it in at least a couple of years, to tell the truth. But really, it would be worth finishing—so I am embarking on a bit of an experimental journey. I composed this song, and it has since decomposed. And now, I am trying to recompose it. I am not the person I was ten or fifteen years ago—hell, I’m not the same person I was when I started this post—so I honestly don’t know if what I end up with (assuming I end up with something) will be anything close to what I would have written back then. But I am going to try to keep track of my progress, and attempt (who knows how successfully) to distinguish between what I remember from back then and what I come up with afresh this time.

And frankly, I will be disappointed if it comes out “meh.” Back then, I really thought this was good.

So… what have *you* lost in the great march of technology? Could you get it back? Will you try?

PS the working title of mine was always “only her eyes were blue”. So if you see that come up in the next few weeks, months, or years, that will be it.

We’re All Gonna Die!

We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die!
And it’s only a matter of time.
We’ll live on in memory, and then not at all
(and it’s not any better in rhyme)
The meek and the mighty, the great and the small
Will be gone. So the message is clear:
Since you won’t be immortal, you’ve no time to waste;
Get the most from your life while you’re here.

A strange day today… lots of death–and yet, none of it today.

Radiolab (on our local radio, at least–the episode was from 2009) had 11 meditations on death and dying. Listening, I found out things I did not know about myself–mostly, that I had very strong opinions on most of the segments, and that I disagreed (again, strongly) with a good many of their guests.

As I drove along, I took a bit of a detour in order to hear the whole program. I found myself driving a road I had not traveled in many years, not since my kids were small, and I was driving cuttleson to a friend’s house. I passed that house, and remembered that this kid… a boy from my daycare, whom I had read stories to while he lay on his cot… this boy had died in a fire, at the age of 19, a few years ago, overcome by smoke as he tried to reach the door.

One of the Radiolab segments, long time readers will not be surprised, reminded me of my brother’s death. My brother continues to make a difference, years after his death, in very specific ways–in my classes, in programs he started at his work, in community projects he initiated and contributed many hours to, let alone in the memories of his wife and children, who must miss him even more than I do.

Perhaps my favorite segment reminded me of the big picture. I will likely not be remembered in a century… but it is possible. I will almost certainly not be remembered in a thousand years… but some are remembered from a thousand years ago, so it still possible. This segment took a longer view. A hundred million years. Our species will, in all likelihood, be gone. Most of the species we know–perhaps all of the species we know–will be gone. My book will be transformed to carbon–342 sheets of paper-thin coal, the verses long gone. (Ok, that doesn’t bother me–not so much as the segment’s assertion that Mozart will be gone, presumably along with Beethoven, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Justin Bieber).

We are all going to die–not just individually, but as civilizations, and as species. We won’t last forever.

Like the sidebar says… Since the music plays so briefly… can you blame me if I dance?

XKCD comic, “time robot”

(image, XKCD, of course)

Dear Mister Minister (re: DEAR MR ATHEIST)

Dear Mister Minister

I read your little letter—and I disagree, I fear—
Since you don’t allow for comments there, I’ll have to comment here:
It’s written very clearly, and it isn’t very long,
But your letter has a fatal flaw: its premises are wrong!
You paint us a position, which you eagerly refute
But the rights you say we fight against are nothing we dispute!
You can put religious symbols up, in prominent display;
In the schools and in the courthouse, you have every right to pray;
You have built yourself a strawman as the target of your rant—
You may practice your religion… it’s the government that can’t.

In your houses, in your churches, in the windows of your store,
You can spraypaint “Merry Christmas” till your fingertips are sore
In a restaurant, as in your home, feel free to say your grace,
It’s your personal behavior, though it’s in a public place.
It’s the government’s behavior that’s restricted by our laws,
So the government’s the target of that first amendment clause
Our founders had their different faiths, and with those faiths as guides
They determined that our government should not be taking sides
So if one faith is promoted, in the courthouse or the schools,
Then the other faiths are second-class… and that’s against the rules.

You can see how this arrangement’s in the interest of the church
And it wouldn’t take you very long, if you should care to search,
To collect a load of cases where a church has been protected
From the power of a different church the government selected.
Should a town begin its meetings with a public “let us pray…”
But a handful of their citizens praise God a different way
Or are Muslims, Jews, or Hindus (but who live there nonetheless)
They can use the first amendment as the answer to this mess
It’s protection of religion at the center of the fights
As we teach each local government our first amendment rights

So the “Apprising Ministries” blog doesn’t allow comments, but pastor-teacher Ken Silva wrote an open letter to a “Mr. Atheist”:

This nation in which we live was—beyond question—founded by religious people. Now, I’m not saying Christian—but certainly people of deeply held religious convictions. There’s no way around that.

So, exactly what makes your perceived right not to have to view religious symbols in public places and hear people pray in public, trump my actual right to display such symbols and to pray in public?

There’s a neat trick there–did you catch it?

I’m purposely avoiding the red herring about Christianity here as the founders considered “these truths self-evident,” that men are created, which presupposes the Creator Who endows them with rights.

He tells us he’s avoiding that red herring… but then goes on to present the real red herring, his second paragraph. No atheist I am aware of (even those who find such practices annoying, though I’ll admit there are a few of those) wants to deny pastor Ken his right to view religious symbols or pray in public. Not in the slightest. He can put them in his lawn, on the lawn of his church, in the front window of his store, or anywhere where the property owners have given him permission to dos so. Mind you, he can’t put them in my yard, but he doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. He can pray in my yard, if he happens to stop by there while walking his dog. I can’t stop him from that.

But if he is acting as a representative of the government–as mayor, councilperson, public school teacher, or judge, for instance, then he cannot, while acting on behalf of the government, favor one religion over another. He’ll have to wait until he’s on his own time.

Pastor Ken is right–our founding fathers were religious. They held different faiths, and saw what happens when one, but not others, of those faiths are chosen as the official faith of the government. For the protection of religious groups themselves, they chose to prohibit the government from taking sides.

Looks to me like the government likes to talk about selected views of America’s founding fathers while conveniently ignoring the fact that the religious should prevail in such things, not the atheists.

Pastor Ken, your fight against atheists is a very recent thing. The first amendment establishment clause was meant to protect your faith against other faiths (and vice versa). Even today, for instance in Jackson, OH, one of the plaintiffs is a Christian. That person’s Christian views are at odds with the Christian views held by the school board. Now, those school board members have every right to practice their religion. But when they are acting as school board members (a minority of their time, and under very specific circumstances) they are the government, and the government has no right to treat this Christian plaintiff like a second-class citizen because of his or her religious beliefs.

I should hope you would be in favor of protecting this plaintiff’s rights. But it’s tough, when you are in the privileged position of an overwhelming religious majority, to recognize that the giving up of some of your privilege is not the same as an infringement on your rights.

Atheists are not fighting against your rights. We actually fight for them. But rights belong to everyone; if you want special treatment (say, the ability to have the government support your view exclusively), that is not a right, that’s a privilege.

So, back to your question:

So, exactly what makes your perceived right not to have to view religious symbols in public places and hear people pray in public, trump my actual right to display such symbols and to pray in public?

Let me fix that, because it’s just not true.

What makes your perceived right to have government support for your religion, trump everyone else’s actual right to be free from government intrusion into their religion?

Believing In Both God And Evolution

You believe in evolution
In this modern Christian day
Though your God was the Creator
Evolution was His way
So you see no contradiction
And you tell me I am wrong
When I say that God and science
Really cannot get along

You believe in evolution
As a Christian, so you say,
And that blind, uncaring Nature
May be altered, if you pray
And the products of selection
Are selected by His hand
You believe in evolution
But you do not understand.

You believe in evolution
And that Eden was a myth
You could see a world without a God,
But still prefer one with
And you think that, maybe, sometimes,
There’s a chance God intervenes
You believe in evolution
But you don’t know what that means.

You believe in evolution
You believe it deep inside
But a sort of evolution
That depends upon a Guide
Are your two beliefs compatible?
You say they are, although,
Since that isn’t evolution
You’re describing… I’d say no.

Over on the HuffPo, MIT physicist Max Tegmark presents some data he and colleagues collected on the compatibility of religion and science, and some comments on the reaction to these data. Today’s article (the latter) focuses on Tegmark’s surprise at getting so much blowback from the atheist community. That’s not the point of my verse, though, and not what I want to talk about.

The problem is not that religious people believe their faith is compatible with their view of evolution (which is what Tegmark’s data clearly show). The problem is that the view of evolution that their faith is compatible with is not evolution by natural selection, but evolution by some sort of guided selection. Evolution that has God pulling the strings, or nudging variables toward a particular goal (oddly human in appearance and behavior), or intervening miraculously to save a life (does praying to get pregnant count as a reproductive strategy?) is not evolution by natural selection.

Change over time is not the defining feature of evolution; the blind and indifferent mechanism is. Tegmark’s data, interpreted as “there is no conflict”, are perhaps more accurately described as “not being aware of the conflict.” Because to the extent that their beliefs include a God that can (and occasionally does) act in the world, their beliefs are incompatible with science. I’ve said it before, it cannot be science when God intervenes.

I can believe my toaster and my bathtub are compatible, and behave accordingly. That doesn’t make it true.

There Are Times I Just Hate The Brain

Your brain does this; your brain does that;
Your brain does other stuff.
Your brain controls your body, and
(If that was not enough)
Your brain makes all your choices, and
Your brain dreams all your dreams—
So much of what you are is in
Your brain… or so it seems.

I’ve learned about neurology,
Psychology, and more;
I’ve learned about the brain, its parts,
And what each part is for;
My books, and journal articles,
Have overflowed my shelf
And still, I’ve never found a brain
That did it by itself.

Your brain is in your body
And your body moves around,
And you interact with others
And to others you are bound
And the world is full of stimuli
Which influence your brain—
Your brain is not the cause, but just
A link within the chain

Of course the brain’s important, but
It isn’t where things start.
It relies upon your kidneys; it
Relies upon your heart.
It depends on your environment,
And everything you do…
The thing that does such wondrous stuff?
It’s not your brain. It’s you.

Dammit. We got rid of Cartesian dualism, and still I can’t swing a dead cat without hitting seventeen examples of a de facto brain-body dualism that maintains the same annoying tradition. I swear, today I saw it in blogs, in newspaper articles, and now sitting down and watching “Through The Wormhole” with Morgan Freeman (in particular, the episode on “did we create God?” or some such–“the brain sees patterns”, “the brain makes connections”, “the brain blah blah blah…”

No. The brain does not see patterns. The brain is a major part of how we see patterns. The brain does not do so without the eyes, and it does not do so without two very important sets of environmental histories–the individual’s interaction with the environment (literally beginning with the environment in the womb, in development), and the interaction with the environment over millennia that is reflected in the genes. The brain is not magic (which Descartes’s concept of “mind” was, technically); it is part of how we gather information from the environment and act upon that environment. Other parts include our eyes & ears, our bones and muscles, our teachers and histories, our communities and our cultures.

As one of my commenters (sorry for forgetting your name) said a while ago, the brain is necessary but not sufficient. In context, that meant “for consciousness”, but it’s pretty much true for the rest of what we do, innit?