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27 February, 2010

Ticking Time Bomb

There are millions of people on the planet that believe in one deity or another and that their deity is the only one out there; that everyone else is not only mistaken, but needs to be told they are mistaken or even slaughtered for not realizing it.

I am no psychic. In fact, it would take a lot for me to even believe in that kind of thing anymore, but with the rising numbers of members in Islam, the increasingly political Christians in the US and the hatred harbored by different nations over borders for centuries, I believe that religion will either someday disappear completely or destroy the entire human race. That bothers me.

I was listening to NPR today and heard something that struck me. Turkey's military has a lot of power. It was set up to protect a secular constitution. In order to join the EU, the military has to be scaled back and the power it has must come from the people, who are mostly Islamic.

This is one of those times when I think of Nietzche (who I acually disliked in Philosophy class). What if I am wrong about this guy? He basically said that it was up to a small number of people (nobility, for example) to use the large number of lower class people in order to create the best world for themselves. I completely disagree. But when I see something like the balance of power going from secular, reasonable, thought to passionate, irrational religious beliefs, I tend to wonder if Nietzche's ideas aren't so crazy after all in some context.

It's the same with representative democracy in the States. Democracy says that 51% of the nation can make decisions for 100% of the nation. Religious people are more likely to have more children than non-religious people because non-religious people don't count on God to clean up after them when the world gets polluted and unsustainable. They don't like by the "Go forth and multiply" creed of religions like Catholicism and Mormonism. In a few generations, this country will be in the grips of the superstitious, zealous, paranoid war-mongers that are bred by church doctrine. Is that right? Shouldn't the smarter, more educated, more protective, secular population find some way to prevent this?  I don't know. I myself hope that if it gets too bad, I can move to Europe or Canada. But is there an answer?

I want to say no, but the fact that there are people out there that actually believe the world is 6,000 years old and want that belief taught in science class sinks my heart to my chest. Thinking about the future of my country is the same feeling as thinking of a diabetic who insists on eating pie for breakfast, lunch and dinner. What is the general feeling in the secular community regarding these questions? I'd like to know.

23 February, 2010

Stifling Free Speech in the Name of God

Why does it bother religious people so much when atheists put ads on the sides of busses or on billboards?

What are they afraid of? Billboards are all over the Central Valley near where I live that literally say, "Jesus died for you." It's not even open to consideration. I might even take to them better if they said, "God is probably real and if he is he loves the heck out of you." Regardless of their obtrusive and presumptuous billboards, I wouldn't vandalize them or try to get them taken down. They have the money and the free speech rights, but religious people (who claim the Bill of Rights was Divinely Inspired) are so afraid of atheism that they would fight to the point of vandalism to silence the skeptical community.

These attitudes are left over from the Dark Ages and the Inquisitions. It's almost in the blood of religious people to react this way, and it has been excused for two thousand years. I can only hope that these examples will wake up those who are agnostic or undecided when they see that the religious "doth protest too much" in defending their sacred beliefs. After all, if their Truth really is Absolute and there really is no doubt as to the existence of God, why would they be so worried about some words on the side of a bus?

21 February, 2010

Regarding Developmental Disabilities

I have worked with adults with disabilities for three years now. Down's Syndrome, Angelmans, Cornelia DeLange, Autism, Asperger's, Cerebral Palsy, etc. I started working at the facility that employs me, using my extensive college training in Human Services that, in the end, I found could only be used as simple guidelines rather than rules when dealing with real people. The job is so much more complicated and the people and situations so much more complex than the Law and Ethics guidelines and Empathetic Communication Handbooks can begin to portray.

I also learned about the human spirit, the innate want to belong and to feel useful to society, the creativity and compassion that occurs when the complications of abstract thinking and the pressures to be at the top of the corporate ladder are simply not important. These people aren't dumb for being hugely excited over a $5-$30 paycheck for two weeks of work, their joy is the essence of human experience-the joy of a job well done no matter what the reward. It's a beautiful and refreshing outlook that I am lucky enough to witness five days a week at my job.

None of the people I work with are truly "disabled" unless they themselves think they are. I got that bit of wisdom from a consumer confined to a wheel chair with cerebral palsy who also holds a job, rents an apartment, and has a wife.

I used to be like all the other "normal" people who haven't been educated or haven't had exposure to people with developmental disabilities. I would say that this guy or this lady that did something stupid was "retarded." I used to think Carlos Mencia was funny when he talked about arguing with a disabled person over why they get to cut to the front of the line at Disneyland.

Our society breeds this kind of attitude and misinformation because the surprisingly large population of disabled people is kept out of the spotlight. In movies, they are always portrayed the same way, functioning enough to not make the audience uncomfortable, but slow enough to be endearing. "Cutesy," in a way. At school, they have segregated classes and lunch rooms.

As advocacy groups run by the consumers themselves continue to grow and get a voice and as organizations like Special Olympics gets more exposure, there has been some progress. (Almost) gone are the days when families would hide a disabled family member in a locked room when company came over or send a child to a state facility. The "R" word is now a word that any public official or media personality will be rebuked for using, although this usually leads to a firestorm against "those P.C. assholes" usually with many expletives and the use of the "R" word itself. (How often have I spoken up against the use of the "R" word in internet forums, only to have some brilliant mind tell me that "People who don't like the word 'retard' are 'retarded'").

However, there is still a very long way to go. Which is why it is so hard to hear people like Sarah Silverman exploit the condition of disabled people for schock value and then see that there are people that actually support this kind of behavior. At the end of the above mentioned article, the writer of the HuffPost article, Alex Leo, pretty much throws his support behind Silverman by mentioning that "we kindly disagree" with the AOL co-founder, Steve Case saying that Silverman is not funny and mentions that she received a standing ovation from half of the audience. A standing ovation. making jokes out of using the "R" word for her own gain.

And the comments below the article talk about how the people that found her offensive are "closed minded." This is what is so troubling, that people actually think that making fun of disabled people is some open-minded, free-thinking, bold and funny ideal.

Our society still has a long way to go before people like Silverman are finally put in their place on the margins of the media and largely ignored or rebuked for their ignorant, bigoted behavior. Hopefully that won't be long.

19 February, 2010

Religulous Justice in the UK

In the UK, ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife, a Roman Catholic Crown Court Judge, is suspending sentences based on the religiosity of offenders. A man fractured someone's jaw because of a dispute while waiting in line at a bank and Mrs. Blair suspended his sentence, stating, "You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour." But wouldn't that mean that he just shouldn't have hit the other man in the first place if he knew better? Shouldn't everyone know better and therefore be treated equally under the law?
But this is what happens when politics and justice are looked at through the lens of religion.

15 February, 2010

Dear Christian Friends

Dear Christian friends, I was pondering the idea of God Given Free Will when it struck me that I don't remember ever reading that in the Bible. I don't remember God saying, "I give unto you free will." If I'm wrong, let me know, but please also include an explanation for the numerous passages in the Bible where it says God predetermined before birth or creation who was going to go to heaven and who was not.


Individuality and Accomplishment in Religion

What is it about religion that demands that the followers be held in contempt by the being that created them? What purpose does this serve man to be so far removed from good, even though they are supposedly God's favored creation?

The answer is that it doesn't serve man at all. Religion does not thrive on happy individuals who acknowledge their own triumphs and accomplishment. Religion thrives on taking away individuality and self-esteem. Religion could not thrive if little children aren't taught to hate themselves in the eyes of the Lord and get their entire self worth from the fact that God loves them, regardless of their accomplishments in school, work, etc. These children grow up to serve that same church, using their talents and skills to benefit the religion rather than themselves or their communities, all the while giving a silent, invisible being all the credit.

This demand for Bad Souls doesn't come from any human desire to tear itself down. It comes from the need for control of the masses and the squashing of individuality that makes it so easy for kings and priests to manipulate. Religion is inherently destructive to individuals, but gives enough of a false sense of community to keep the sheep in the fold.

I will never forget telling someone that the fact that I quit smoking after a flu-like illness was pretty good proof of a Higher Power of some kind because I hadn't been able to quit before. The response I got was, "But you did quit and now you don't want to give yourself credit for finally overcoming your addiction." That hit home pretty hard, as I hadn't really prayed to God for a flu or to quit smoking. In fact, I hadn't even completely made the decision to quit when I got sick.

In April, I'll be four years free from cigarettes. Thank, me. :)

13 February, 2010

Jesus and the Sinners

I find it funny that there are so many stories of Jesus favoring those that don't deserve God's love over those that are so pious that they must be walking on water themselves, and yet, hardly a Christian Conservative will treat a prisoner with compassion in their words, deeds or their hearts.

I heard a Christian today say that privatizing the prison system and saving money by feeding them bread and water is just fine. While it was a funny remark and did touch on the anger that Californians feel over the fact that prisons get more of the budget than our public university system, it was a remark that struck me as completely un-Christian. The person later retracted the part about privatization because there might be the possibility of liberty not being protected, but never went back to the comment about letting them live on bread and water.

This man is young, pretty well set in his opinions and is the typical rural, white American neo-libertarian Christian, so I can't blame him for not quite thinking all the way through what he said. Private business is something that should be protected at all cost and I'm sure that's been drilled into his head for the last twenty years that the country has become more and more polarized. At the same time, though, I can't really excuse the bread and water remark. He seemed like he really meant it, but then again, I might even say something like that just to express my frustration at the budget situation while knowing all well that if the practice were going on, I would probably say it was bordering on cruel and unusual punishment and fight to stop it. But something about my experience with many of these same types of Christians tell me that while he wouldn't actively try to turn it into law that prisoners only get bread and water, he certainly wouldn't actively try to stop the practice if it were really going on. That, I think, is the difference between a Christian Conservative and an Atheist Liberal.

08 February, 2010

From my other blog

There's a direct correlation between high IQ, atheism and liberalism, so I'm going to go ahead and assume that any atheist reading this will also be interested in liberal politics, so I'm going to post a link to my latest blog post from my wordpress blog. I've had it for some time, but I hadn't been updating it regularly until recently.

Anyway, hope you enjoy. Here it is.

07 February, 2010

Rejected Super Bowl Ad

Will reason one day prevail? One man has hope.

Why Science Works

The biggest "gotcha" used by many Young Earth Creationists is that scientists or archeologists have published studies on data that turned out to be entirely wrong or even hoaxed. Conveniently omitted by people like Kirk Cameron is the fact that it has been scientists that have exposed these flaws in studies or these hoaxes.

An example of the effectiveness of peer review has just come out in the news recently, regarding autism and measles/mumps vaccines. Said vaccines have saved millions of lives of children since the practice of inoculation was first implemented.

Then, in 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet, a British medical journal asserting a direct connection between the measles/mumps vaccines and autism. This was landmark, as the cause of autism was, and still is, largely unknown. However, the results could not be reproduced by other independent studies and so the scientific community was largely against the hypothesis.

Sadly, however, parents of autistic children became activists against the vaccines and the number of children vaccinated went down as more and more parents feared that the mercury in the vaccines would cause autism. Despite finding no correlation between the mercury and any health issues, the manufacturers of these vaccines greatly reduced the already very low amount of mercury or excluded it altogether in 1999, according to the CDC. Many of the staunchest anti-vaxxer celebrities either ignore this fact or are ignorant to it.

Diagnoses of autism continued to rise despite the lower rate of vaccination and the removal of the mercury. Finally, after much peer review and investigation into Andrew Wakefield's methodology, the entire paper has been retracted by The Lancet.

The public rejection of Wakefield, who apparently was being funded primarily by trial lawyers, has been a long time coming. Without the sensationalism of our media, our affinity to conspiracy theories and the activism of well-meaning but ill-informed parents, this might have just been a blip in the medical journals. Alas, the damage is already done as the mistrust of vaccines grow, despite the overwhelming evidence that vaccines have saved millions from pain, suffering, crippling disability such as Polio, and even death.

However, science and reason did win out in the end. The same science and reason that has pointed out the other hoaxes and misinformation perpetrated in the early years of evolutionary science. The voices of parents decrying vaccines will lessen and perhaps quiet as now the scientific community can move on from studying vaccines and get to the real root causes of autism. This is how science works.

Hypotheses, peer-review, duplication of results, and an acceptance or rejection of hypotheses based on evidence and clear methodology. It's a process. The occurrence of mistakes using the process doesn't undermine the entire process, especially when those mistakes are brought to light using the process itself. Yet there are people out there who would do everything in their power to get you to believe that this process doesn't ever work and that it is unreliable. Hopefully, the consequences won't be so damaging as the Wakefield case.

06 February, 2010

Was Jesus a Roman Urban Legend?

I was listening to the "Stuff You Should Know" podcast and they were talking about the origins of the most popular urban legends in the US, one being the couple at lover's lane being murdered by a psycho killer.

If there was any truth to the story at all, it is impossible to find out. Oral tradition works in such a way that details in the story such as location and time are constantly change. When retelling the story, people always tell it as coming from someone who knows someone they know, making it just out of reach for the person hearing it to fact check it, but close enough to be believable.

If these oral traditions could survive in our day, even with sites like Snopes that continue to debunk our most favored urban legends, what kind of stories could have been thought up during an age when superstition was the rule and the scientific method was still centuries away?

The earliest writings about the divine Jesus being raised from the dead are estimated to be between 30-60 years after his ascension to heaven. With an average lifespan of 30 years, that is an entire generation away. That and the very nature of oral tradition makes that story almost completely unreliable. In fact, there were other books written around that time that were gathered in the second or third century and decided by the new, dominating Church to be too outlandish, put Jesus in too magical a light, or would undermine the power of the Church and were subsequently thrown out.

This puts a shadow of doubt over the entire Gospel of Jesus, the foundation of Christian authority. And there are people that want us to base our laws on the literal interpretation of these very stories. Seems a bit ridiculous when you think about it that way, doesn't it?

04 February, 2010

Uganda and "The Family"

As much as I am proud to have a person in office with a real education and leaning toward policies that don't favor corporations of individuals, I can't help but be annoyed that the US President, Barack Obama would call the proposed Ugandan law dubbed the "Kill the Gays" bill "odious" and yet, still sit down with the US religious organization that supports the bill in Uganda for the National Prayer Breakfast.

"The Family," which is describe here as "a shadowy, international right-wing religious group" whose official name is "The Fellowship Foundation."

It is bad enough that the abnormally high number of Fundamental Christians in this country have enough power to demand that any leader be at least a member of some Christian sect, regardless of the First Amendment, but that the option to truly rebuke these shady, back-door religious organizations and deny them a leader's presence in the face of their outrages support of such an atrocious law is just deplorable. I find it absolutely sickening that religion calls itself the upholder of morals and still tries to control politics and supports bigotry and hatred at every turn. I have seen some progress since this administration took office, but this is another sign that progress comes very slowly and that some things will seemingly never change.

03 February, 2010

Questioning God

What exactly was it about religion that appealed to me so much when I believed in God? I'm not just talking about when I was very young and Santa Claus and Jesus gave me the same warm-fuzzy feeling that I got when I thought about my mom or dad. I'm talking about even after I shed Christianity altogether. For awhile I called God "Goddess" and then I simply called it "God" and described it as an indescribable, loving being having nothing to do with any holy books.

My case is unique, I believe, simply because at 19 I found that reliance on that simple idea of God saved my life. I understand today that the belief in a higher power is the higher power that got and kept me clean and sober for seven years (seven today, in fact), and that regardless of not believing in God anymore, I still haven't gotten drunk. I am now the second atheist I've ever known in recovery, although I don't often go to meetings anymore.

So how can one live for years believing in a miracle and suddenly become an atheist? That brings me back to the first question. The idea of God let me do quite a few things when I was getting sober. It let me believe that I wasn't shouldering the whole responsibility of changing my life and my behavior, a task that would have seemed too arduous had I tried to do it on my own. The saying, "God never gives you more than you can handle" was very comforting when trying to put the torn remnants of my life back together. It gave me someone to cry to when I couldn't or didn't want to get someone on the phone. It helped me learn patience when things didn't go my way (all in God's time). It did a lot for me for quite awhile.

Looking back, I didn't originally need a belief in God in order to learn these things. After all, if that were the case, I would have learned them between the ages of 5 and 12 when I went to church and truly believed in Jesus or from 15-19 when I played around with witch craft. It was a predetermined physiology that I was born with a tendency to drink heavily and use drugs and therefore not surprising that I ended up looking for the only solution that I knew (my mother is also in recovery and achieved sobriety when I was six). I see now that it was just that the conditions were right. If my parents had been Scientologists, I would have gone to Narcanon.

The day that my belief began to end was when I was telling someone why I believed in a most basic and mysterious idea of God. I thought how precise the laws in the Universe were and that they seemed so perfect to be holding everything together. My friend told me that the Universe is far from perfect, that black holes can't be explained to serve any purpose, there are fluctuations in the forces that hold everything together and that there are probably multiple dimensions that we just can't sense yet. I remember a large stone dropping in my stomach. From then on out, faith started losing its grip. It took about two years, some investigating of my own, and a philosophy class (taught by a Christian, so no one can tell me the class had a liberal, atheist bias) and I found myself an atheist.

I cried. I did. I'm not afraid to admit it. But since then, I've found it remarkable how free it feels.

Even believing in the basic concept of God while trying to shed the punishing, jealous God of my youth during my recovery, I would find myself wondering if God were punishing me when things went wrong. Did I get a flat tire because I skimped out on working on one of my 12 steps last night? Did God make me an alcoholic because I lied to my parents as a teenager? Did my parents get divorced because I had a cigarette when I was 12? I no longer have those thoughts very often. Out of habit my mind wanders back there sometimes, but it's not often.

The other night I was in a situation in which an event I've been planning with two bands at a local venue almost crashed down around my head. After doing everything I could to calm the situation, I gave up and gave the people involved time to work it out on their own. I remember thinking, "This is usually the point when I used to say the Serenity Prayer and ask God to let everything work itself out." I didn't pray. I told myself that everything would work itself out, band or no band. I went home and ate dinner. Everything worked itself out -- with band -- and God had no hand in it. It was as simple as that, but still profound to me as I've only truly been convinced of the absence of God for a few months now.

That is my own journey to non-belief. I truly think that if someone like me can shed the chains of faith, then anyone can do so with enough investigation. It isn't a pleasant journey all the time, but in the end I have to agree with Carl Sagan. "It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

Morals, Ethics, and the Creationists Argument Tactics

It baffles me that religious people can so readily and easily claim that without God, Man could not have come up with the moral codes and laws that keep our society from chaos while at the same committing shameless and barefaced lies, deception, falsities, and censorship of dissenting opinions throughout their literature and throughout the internet.

The two tactics most common to Creationists are quote-mining and outright censorship. Quote-mining is the practice of taking quotes from books written by scientists out of context and using them as "proof" against Evolution. Charles Darwin, called the Father of the modern theory of Evolution, is the most common victim of this. There are two passages in particular that are most often quoted by Creationists. These passages are passed around the internet by people who have never read, "The Origin of Species" and never will read the book without ever consider the passages that precede or follow the quote in question.

The first of these outrages fabrications of doubt has to do with the eye. Charles Darwin wrote,
"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."

What Darwin is doing here is setting up the argument against his theory and in the next paragraph explains that through examination of evidence and reason one could come to the conclusion that evolution of the eye is in fact possible:
"Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound."

The second quote seems very damaging indeed when taken out of context. It is from a letter in which Darwin writes, "often a cold shudder has run through me, and I have asked myself whether I may not have devoted my life to a phantasy."

The entire quote, taken in context, shows Darwin thanking a fellow scientist for confirming the evidence of his theories.

For myself, also, I rejoice profoundly; for, thinking of so many cases of men pursuing an illusion for years, often and often a cold shudder has run through me, and I have asked myself whether I may not have devoted my life to a phantasy. Now I look at it as morally impossible that investigators of truth, like you and Hooker, can be wholly wrong, and therefore I rest in peace.

Are Creationists merely mistaken about these quotes or are they deliberately taken out of context and preached to lay people for the soul purpose of propping up their unsubstantiated ideas through the use of the terrible fallacy of discrediting their opponents? Often, a religious person has said, "Well, those quotes are used because they get passed around by word of mouth or some other means. They aren't doing it on purpose." But I can't help but scratch my head at the fact that they wouldn't look up the quote themselves to see if it's true. Obviously, the father of evolution undermining his own theory should seem like quite a shock to them. If I heard that Freud was quoted as saying that psychoanalysis was useless, I'd probably look that up just to be sure the person telling me this had the quote right. It's a natural quality of critical thinking to look at information in this skeptical light.

The second fetid pile of Creationist dishonesty is the habit of censorship of opposing viewpoints. On site like Answers In Genesis, don't even try to leave a quote that might shed any doubt on their creationist theories because it will not get approved. Of course, it is their site and therefore their prerogative to do so. Though unethical and telling of their consternation toward anything that might shake their dogmatic beliefs, it is a decision that is rightly theirs to make.

But what about when this attitude of censorship spills out onto public websites that they do not own? What are their tactics and what are the consequences?

The most prevalent example of this is on the popular video hosting site, YouTube, where the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, or DMCA, is used to flag videos that argue against creationism or intelligent design. To avoid a lawsuit, YouTube automatically takes down flagged videos and suspends flagged accounts while an investigation ensues. The only action the account user has is to file a counter notice, which could eventually put the Creationist perpetrator in front of a judge for perjury. For a detailed account of these YouTube battles, see this blog here that I found.

The other YouTube censorship tactic these Creationists are known to use are votebots. The frequency in which a video comes up in a search is through the rating system on YouTube, not on the number of views a video gets. The rating system is a one to five star system, one being poor and five being awesome. Votebots are set up on fake accounts and vote one star on these videos as often as possible. A pattern emerges in which a person might get a thousand good ratings over a period of months and then is suddenly hit with hundreds of one star ratings, bringing down the average rating of the video. It's a vile and underhanded tactic.

Why do these Creationists continue to insist that without God, man is immoral, but have no qualms about committing these deplorable tactics? I personally believe that it is simply that it takes a very warped mind to continue to believe in thinks for which there is no evidence for and much evidence against. (In fact, this is a reason I believe that many conservatives are Christians as well, but that's a different post for a different day). It is the same twisted logic that allows an anti-abortionist to justify to himself that taking the life of an abortion doctor is what God wants, or a terrorist that flying a plane into a building will put him on the fast track to Allah's glory. Morals, supposedly unshakable and universal to all people according to the Abrahamic religions, are actually fluid and capricious if doing things in the name of God.

How is this morality better than the humanist morality that says that each culture and society decides what is best for the survival of its own people? How is this more moral than group morality that says that what is best for the group is best for the individual and that is how these laws and codes have developed? The idea that morals are greater than man (which requires the premise that man is naturally evil and sinful, as explained in a previous post) and that they come from an unerring, benevolent creator is one of the core beliefs of Western religion. And yet, the most fervent and zealous in their ranks are caught the most often in acts of dishonesty and deliberate misinformation.

This is why it is such an insult to hear religious people say, "Atheists have morals because God gave them morals, they just don't know it." It is absolutely absurd that these people call themselves pious and righteous. Hopefully, the world is waking up to this double-think and catching on to the deceit of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity especially. These people are not moral at all an their book has no impact on the morality of the individual members of the church. This begs the question, "What good is religion at all, then, if not for the teachings of morals?" It has yet to be answered.