Reproduction in Ireland

It’s all very confusing, and I’m not quite sure how they managed all these years…all those Irish children must have been the product of some amusing and peculiar accidents. At least the quacks are profiting from the confusion — here, for instance, is a mysterious bottle of an over-the-counter “organic” menopause relief remedy.

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It’s the limitation that is the stumper: “Do not use if pregnant.” Are there many women bumbling about in the pharmacy thinking that they need to be relieved of this problem of menopause?

And then there’s this headline, “I’d lost my baby then somehow fell pregnant thanks to acupuncture“. There are clear and unambiguous causes of pregnancy — “somehow” isn’t usually a word associated with the process — and, well, acupuncture isn’t any of them. Although I suppose it could be an insulting reference to her partner’s penis size.

Why did our government give special preference to Christian pseudo-insurance companies?

This country recently managed to pass a rather lame compromise on health care: there is now a mandate that requires everyone to have health insurance, even if it is from a hodge-podge of insurance companies, with the intent of fairly distributing the expense. Unfortunately, one group got singled out with an exception from this requirement. Can you guess who?

Yep, Christians.

Did you know that if you are a Christian you are exempt from the taxes, penalties and regulations imposed by the recently enacted health insurance law?

All you have to do is to affirm a statement of Christian beliefs and pledge to follow a code that includes no tobacco or illegal drugs, no sex outside of marriage, and no abuse of alcohol or legal medications and pay a monthly fee to join a religious health care sharing ministry plan, a plan that specifically does not guarantee the payment of your medical bills in any fashion and holds members solely responsible for payment of said bills.

And the reason for this exemption? According to the spokeswoman for the Senate committee responsible for writing much of the legislation, lawmakers granted the exemption out of respect for religious freedom.

That’s a rather large loophole, and it’s also preferentially sectarian. It’s also non-surprising. What it means is that a few Christian scam-artists get to get richer, while lots of gullible Christians get screwed. The con is to set up a Christian “bill-sharing” cooperative in place of a real insurance plan; members send in monthly premiums, which can be quite substantial, but do not have to buy in to any other insurance plan, and then the bill-sharing program offers to help cover medical expenses, but “The payment of your medical bills…is not guaranteed in any fashion.” It’s a great deal for the Christian bill-sharing plan; if your medical expenses get so high that they cut into their profits, they can just elect not to pay, and then you have to go begging to join some other insurance pool.

Absolutely brilliant. Send me money now, and maybe, if I feel like it, I’ll help you out with some bills later. But I am not obligated.

And this is such a profitable plan that they managed to lobby congress to support it, all under the cloak of Christianity.

How to tell you’re arguing with an idiot

There are some useful tells. My favorite has the been the classic quotemine, where creationists quote one sentence of Darwin’s — “To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree” — to claim that Darwin was stumped by the evolution of the eye. As everyone who has read the Origin knows, what he was doing there was setting up a rhetorical question, which he then followed by three pages of detailed description of exactly how such an eye could have evolved. When you hear some creationist say “absurd in the highest possible degree,” you know right away that they haven’t read the book.

There’s another great example, though, that’s an even better demonstration of your opponent’s illiteracy. That is when someone cites The Selfish Gene and then goes on to rail against the horrors of evilution and the way it encourages people to be righteous bastards who kill and steal and rape their way to dominance. They haven’t read the book! All they’ve done is scanned a three word title and leapt to a series of absurd conclusions! (Yeah, Mary Midgley, I’m givin’ you the squinky eye.)

Ken MacLeod exposes the inanity of this claim in some detail. It really is astoundingly common for people to expound on how Richard Dawkins was arguing for the rightness of Thatcherism or whatever reactionary conservative policy they think he was endorsing, and get the whole story completely wrong — it really is a great tell. Unfortunately, it seems to expose left wing idiocy more than that of the right, but only because I think the righties make the same invalid assumptions, but since they like that error, they tend not to criticize.

Frenetically catching up with Molly

I told you I was bad and neglectful, but we’re getting there. The Molly award for December 2010 goes to a long-dead Seleucid monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes…on the condition that he promises to leave Egypt alone, and occupy himself with conquering trolls on Pharyngula instead.

Now you get to leave nominations for a Molly winner for January 2011 right here in the comments.

Yeah, January. I’m behind. I’m going to do an abbreviated round of voting, so I’ll announce the January winner next week, and put up a post for nominations for February then. It’ll work, I think.

Post on Pharyngula, win big prizes!

This happens every year about this time: that first month of the new semester is such total chaos that I let stuff on the blog slide…like failing to take care of the Molly stuff. Now I’m going to catch up quickly.

The first order of business: I proposed a Molly of the Year award, and you people nominated a fair number of well-appreciated people for it. Unfortunately, you couldn’t just pick one, and the results congealed around a trinity…so I’m giving it to three people. I also can’t just call it a mega-Molly or something, so let’s give this a completely different title: Champions of Reason, to be awarded just once a year.

And our three champions are: Sastra, Cuttlefish, and David Marjanović. Congratulations all around!

And of course there are prizes. I ought to be giving out cars and vacations in Cabo San Lucas, but instead you’ll have to settle for your very own limited edition Spaceship of the Imagination and a free imaginary trip to anywhere in the galaxy. That’ll do, right?

If not, I’ll also be sending you a copy of Hank Fox’s Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist — just send me a shipping address and they’ll be on the way. And all you worthy contributors who did not get an acknowledgment this year can simply order the book for yourself.

Ask an Atheist

This week, the University of Minnesota Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists will be hosting an Ask an Atheist panel discussion on Thursday, March 3, from 7:00pm – 9:00pm. This will take place on the UMTC campus, at:

Amundson Hall B75
421 Washington Avenue SE
Minneapolis, MN 55455

Here’s how it is described:

This week we are welcoming everyone from all theological backgrounds to come and learn more about atheists. We want to hear your questions and be able to answer them, candidly, to clear up any misconceptions about atheists that you may have. We will have a panel of an undergraduate student, a graduate student, and esteemed professor and atheist blogger PZ Myers available to answer your questions.

So show up, ask questions!

An Atheist’s View On Abortion

An Atheist’s View On Abortion
by Juno Walker

On the drive home from work tonight I was behind a pickup truck that had a rather large white sign with red letters that read: “ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN” taped to the inside of his back window. In addition, he had a bumper sticker with a picture of a smiling infant and a Bible verse, Jeremiah 1:5. For those who don’t know, this verse reads in part: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” I’ve seen this before; and one of my colleagues cited this verse as the main reason she attends anti-abortion rallies each year in Washington, D.C. But on bumper stickers — and the mouths of fundamentalists — only this first clause of the sentence is ever cited.

On the face of it, it would seem that the Christian — in her mind — has a relatively strong justification for her position of opposing abortion. However, it’s been pointed out by others that, not only is God talking specifically to Jeremiah, but the context refers to Jeremiah’s calling as a prophet. The context of the verse has nothing to do with abortion. But I don’t want to dwell excessively on this particular fact; most agnostics and even liberal Christians can see that this is a stretch. I’d like to talk more about the philosophical and scientific aspects of abortion.

There is much ambiguity and dispute between various Christian sects regarding the “soul.” The first problem is that Christians have no idea what a ‘soul’ is. What is it made of? How is it attached? What are its mechanisms? As someone who was raised in a fundamentalist church, I would say that the consensus — if it could be said that there is one — is that the soul is immortal but not eternal. That is, the soul is created at conception, and will live forever — either in Heaven or Hell — but it’s not eternal, which would imply that it has neither beginning nor end. In most Christian thought, God (or the Trinity) is the only eternal one. In other words, the human soul isn’t eternally existing like God, but is created at the moment of conception; but it will also survive the death of the physical body — to spend forever in either Heaven or Hell.

That said, let’s consider some practical implications. If — as is implied in Jeremiah chapter 1, verse 5 — God somehow knew us before we were born, what could that possibly mean? How could he know us? We only come to know us gradually throughout childhood, eventually developing a coherent, consistent sense of self. In what sense does God know us? Presumably only half of us is formed — i.e., our genetic blueprint. But what about the ‘nurture’ side of us? That hasn’t been formed yet. That results from our life experiences; and obviously we haven’t had any life experiences before we were born.

Of course, if — as many, if not most, theologians believe — God is outside of space and time, and presumably sees ‘time’ as one big frozen block; i.e., He sees past, present and future as one, then God might know us in the sense of knowing our entire lives — past, present and future. In that sense, God would truly know us before we were born. That’s really the only way the Christian could make sense of it. If I’m wrong, then by all means let me know.

Yet this notion, it seems to me, would present all sorts of thorny ethical problems for the believer. The most obvious one — and one theologians have debated for centuries, and still are debating — is the concept of predestination: if God knows the future, then he already knows who will end up in Heaven and who in Hell. Indeed, proponents of this theory even cite the Jeremiah verse in question. And some New Testament verses provide strong support for it as well — see Matthew 22:14 and Ephesians 1:3-5.

But how would a non-believer make sense of the soul? Well, first of all, the non-believer probably doesn’t believe in souls. The non-believer probably believes that the soul — or mind — is ultimately the brain, a physical organ. Exactly how the mind is the brain is still up for debate, but the consensus among philosophers and scientists is that material processes give rise to the subjective experience that most people would associate with the ‘soul.’ But here we need to distinguish between the Christian’s ‘belief’ in an immaterial, categorically different soul, and the atheist’s ‘belief’ that the mind is the brain.

The Christian bases her belief primarily on scripture — i.e., what she believes is a direct revelation of God, the Creator of Souls — and her personal intuition. non-believers possess that same intuition — which they believe is a product of our evolutionary heritage — but also come to their conclusion that souls don’t exist based on evidence from the sciences — primarily neuroscience. Anyone who has taken the time to read books by neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio, Michael Gazziniga, or V.S. Ramachandran — or even summary articles in popular media venues such as Scientific American and Science Daily — is quickly presented with some difficult and puzzling questions about the nature of the self and consciousness.

Phenomena such as split-brain experiments, anterograde amnesia, bizarre results of various types of brain damage, or even mental illnesses such as schizophrenia all seem to present an intractable problem for the believer in souls, namely, if the soul is separate and independent from the body (and has ‘free will’), then why can’t the soul overcome these difficulties?

Non-believers believe that the Self (i.e., the mind/brain) develops over time through the genetically-determined growth of the brain as well as the brain’s interaction with its physical and social environment. The Self is ‘conscious’; that is, it is aware of itself, it has desires, it feels pleasure and pain, as well as all gradations in between these two poles. And this is where a non-believer’s view of abortion comes in.

Since the non-believer believes that the Self is the brain, then the non-believer can provide a demarcation between Self and non-Self: the nervous system. Feelings of pleasure and pain presuppose a viable nervous system. Without a nervous system, not only are pleasure and pain not felt, but there is no Self to do the feeling. We could say that this is the baseline test for abortion — if you abort something that doesn’t have a fully-developed nervous system, then you are not aborting a Self. You are not aborting a person.

I don’t believe anyone out there is pro-abortion. Unless you’re a psychopath, you value life over non-life, existence over non-existence. Obviously, women aren’t getting pregnant merely with the intention of aborting a fetus. So the decision to abort is not a whimsical, capricious, or malicious decision (the potential immaturity and impetuousness of some teenagers notwithstanding). What is usually being weighed here is the strife of an unwanted pregnancy versus bringing a human being into the world. So we should have a method for weighing the needs and desires of the adult human versus the non-existent needs and desires of a potential adult human, assuming he even makes it to adulthood. (He’s like the sea turtle hatchling scrambling to get to the ocean before the sea birds get him.)

And this is where I believe the non-believer stands on firmer ground than the believer. The non-believer can present empirical, non-emotional, experience-based evidence in support of a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy that is deemed to be inimical to her life’s intentions and plans — and well-being. The non-believer can present the image of an actual person, with a history, with life experiences, with memories, with intimate and complex social relationships, and with a refined capacity for pleasure and pain, versus a non—Self with no memories, no life experiences — and indeed no capacity at all for pleasure and pain. The believer falls back on — what? — ‘scripture,’ on personal feelings, on intuition?

The truly gray area for the non-believer, in my opinion, is pregnancy terminations beyond this demarcation line. When does a fetus begin to feel pain? Does the nervous system have to be fully-developed? Partially? If so, which parts? Etc. But even if we could say that the nervous system is most likely registering pain, we can’t really say for certain that the Self of the fetus is experiencing it — or that there really is a Self there to be experiencing it.

But given the track record of the life sciences, the non-believer can possess a more justified confidence that these things will be sorted out with the development of new technology and new research methods.