Back to Blogging

January 5, 2009

Throughout my last few years of college, blogging provided an invaluable outlet as I struggled to develop a personal philosophy/worldview in a relatively isolated and non-progressive corner of these United States. Becoming a secular humanist in a small Arkansas town while attending a private, extremely conservative Christian university wasn’t exactly the easiest transition possible. But, the Interwebs were a great blessing, and gave me the chance to engage with a broad range of people both near and far.

Then all of a sudden I graduated (relief!) and moved to Washington, DC (more relief!) where I soon realized that, to most people, religion just isn’t that big of a deal. I think that most secular people are not raised with the intensity of belief and/or clarity of philosophy that comes from being raised in and around a Christian university/community. Really, this applies to most religious people as well. So, since writing about theology, philosophy, and politics and dialoguing with people outside of Arkansas were large reasons for my blogging habit, life in the District alleviated some of those needs. The other factor that led to my blog silence from July to December ’08 was that a good chunk of my work time involved blogging. Since I’ll be starting a new job in a week, and I’ve gotten a little more settled into life in DC, I think it’s time to get back to blogging.

This Spring should be an interesting time. I’m living in a group house with great housemates, enjoying the biweekly meetings for a fellowship program I’m in, training for a the National Half-Marathon, possibly taking evening Chinese classes and working toward a medium-term goal of teaching English and studying Chinese in China, working a new job, and, of course, going to Barack Obama’s Inauguration and following the fascinating political developments ahead! Should be busy, eh?

So, in my spare time, I think my blogging will focus a little on each of the following:

Book Reviews–that is, if I have time to read.
Politics–I’m a blogger in DC. This is obligatory.
Religion–It’s fascinating, no matter where you stand on the details.
Rocketry–I’ll be getting the small mid- and high-power rocketry fleet I brought with me to DC ready for some flights this spring and summer, and watching how the Obama administration shapes its space policy.
Photography–Some from my cross-country road trip in August, some from around DC…
Science–Trying to keep my interest in molecular biology and other fields up to speed (I love ScienceBlogs).
China–Big and getting bigger.

It’s good to be back!


I Don’t Heart Lee Strobel

January 5, 2009

Largely because I don’t understand why someone would continue to stand behind a book that’s so atrociously bad that it’s been demolished again and again.

But props where they’re due: Strobel is engaging with Hemant Mehta and his readers at the Friendly Atheist.


Yes, Some People Enjoy This

April 8, 2008

carman witch

And not just for the humor.

Carman’s “A Witch’s Invitation”

Some of the lyrics:

One peaceful afternoon I picked up from my mailbox the strangest looking letter I’d ever seen, a chilling little envelope bordered with flying bats, and serpents whose eyes were tinted green. The letter was addressed to me so as I opened it I froze. What I read turned my complexion three shades of blue. It said, “My name is Issac Horowitz. I’m a male witch, a warlock and I feel I need to spend some time with you.”

You know, there are more homoerotic undertones here than in The Lord of the Rings. I’m sure it was unintentional though.

He had the house you’d expect, the old English cottage, a “Nightmare on Elm Street” special right to the core, the overgrown ivy, the gate that creaked when opened, somehow you’d expect Freddy to answer this door. The doorbell rang, a hollow gong, the knob twisted then opened, and Issac stood before me with a grin. His jet black hair and well trimmed beard flowed with his black silk clothes. My skin crawled as he said, “Please come on in.”

Actually, all the warlocks I know live in incredible well-kept single room flats in dense urban areas. Guess Carman met one of the rare suburban warlocks.

Then he led me to a high backed chair as he meticulously began to unfold his scenario with evil patience.

Bet that chair will bring a pretty penny on eBay.

I was given a giant leather bound book jammed with newspaper clipping, thus the reason for this witch’s invitation. With eagerness he pointed to each article with pride. He said, “I healed this woman through a Babylonian chant; See this man, I cured him while performing druid worship; I was paid to curse this man with AIDS by his aunt.”

Which really sounds familiar to the superstitions you run into in Africa about AIDS. Sigh…

And later. . .

I knew then how Moses felt, how when his rod turned to a serpent and the three Egyptian magicians did the same.

Man, I hate it when my rod turns to a serpent.

At the end:

Then Issac jumped up from his chair and screamed, “You must leave now!” I said, “I will, but one last obligation-Next time think twice before you rumble with a man of God!!! ”

That’s what Ted Haggard said.

h/t Lame-O Weblog


Case Studies in Ignorance

April 7, 2008

#2 article on the Chicago Tribune’s website:

Did you hear about the state legislator who last week blasted a Lutheran minister during a committee hearing for spewing dangerous religious superstitions, and then attempted to order the minister out of the witness chair on the grounds that his Christian beliefs are “destroying what this state was built upon”?

Of course you didn’t, because it didn’t happen and would never happen. Not to a Christian, not to a Jew, not to a Muslim or to anyone who subscribes to any faith.

OK, so that’s a bit of an overstatement. Something like that would happen, but it would definitely cause outrage from many, many areas.

Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) interrupted atheist activist Rob Sherman during his testimony. . .and told him, “What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous . . . it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! . . This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God. Get out of that seat . . . You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.”

For the record, Rep. Davis attends Trinity United Church of Christ, the same place Obama attends. Someone please remind me why Obama (an otherwise an excellent candidate) should go to this church, or how he ever saw political benefit from being a member there?


From Darwin to Hitler?

March 30, 2008

charles darwin adolf hitler

“From Darwin to Hitler,”–that’s what Ben Stein has said he would have preferred the title of Expelled to be. Well, he didn’t get his way, but the early reviews do report the movie goes back and forth between shots of Nazi gas chambers and modern evolutionary biologists with disturbing and rather obvious implications.

Of course, the Nazis did draw heavily on so-called “Social Darwinism,” which is/was a rather ignorant application of the biological principle of natural selection (the description of which is a statement of what “is”) to the field of social policy (the prescription of which is a statement of what “ought to be”). How well Social Darwinism was rooted in actual Darwinian evolutionary biology is debatable. But whether or not the application of Social Darwinism to society has horrific results has no bearing on the underlying biological truths of universal common descent and natural selection. To argue that it does is an appeal to consequences.

Since he was one of the scientists conned into being in the film, Richard Dawkins, has been vocal in responding to the film. For the record, I really enjoy Dawkins’ science writings, but I have some quibbles with Mr. Dawkins myself, some of which are described well here, but in this case he hits the nail on the head”

The alleged association between Darwinism and Nazism is harped on for what seems like hours, and it is quite simply an outrage. We are supposed to believe that Hitler was influenced by Darwin. Hitler was ignorant and bonkers enough for his hideous mind to have imbibed some sort of garbled misunderstanding of Darwin (along with his very ungarbled understanding of the anti-semitism of Martin Luther, and of his own never-renounced Roman Catholic religion) but it is hardly Darwin’s fault if he did. My own view…is that there are two reasons why we need to take Darwinian natural selection seriously. Firstly, it is the most important element in the explanation for our own existence and that of all life.

Secondly, natural selection is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian). It is one of the classic philosophical fallacies to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Stein (or whoever wrote his script for him) is implying that Hitler committed that fallacy with respect to Darwinism. If we look at more recent history, the closest representatives you’ll find to Darwinian politics are uncompassionate conservatives like Margaret Thatcher, George W Bush, or Ben Stein’s own hero, Richard Nixon. Maybe all these people, along with the Social Darwinists from Herbert Spencer to John D Rockefeller, committed the is/ought fallacy and justified their unpleasant social views by invoking garbled Darwinism…

Anti-Semitism was around long before evolutionary theory. And maybe we could make a better case for blaming the Holocaust on scientists such as Pasteur and Koch whom Hitler actually quoted, unlike Darwin. Or Mr. Luther.

For those of us raised Protestant, it’s easy to think of Martin Luther as a hero who rebelled against the dogma of the Catholic Church when he nailed his 95 Theses to that door. Because our time for history is short, and the facts our inconvenient to our mythologizing, we don’t always get the complete picture.

Luther wrote a thesis in 1543 helpfully entitled On the Jews and Their Lies. Please note that this was a full 316 years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Because he was such a thoughtful guy, Luther included this list of recommendations on how to get rid of the Jews:

1. “First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. …”
2. “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. …”
3. “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them. …”
4. “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. …”
5. “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. …”
6. “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them. … Such money should now be used in … the following [way]… Whenever a Jew is sincerely converted, he should be handed [a certain amount]…”
7. “Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow… For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. No, one should toss out these lazy rogues by the seat of their pants.”
8. “If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews’ blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country” and “we must drive them out like mad dogs.”


Sound familiar??

So, we already knew Ben Stein wasn’t up on his biology, but now we know he is ignorant of history as well, and likely purposefully so. Oh well, at least he’s got his movie career going for him.


The Power of Conspiracy Theories

March 30, 2008

They’re. All. True.

9/11 world trade center dust image

Just kidding.

I’ve blogged before about the “9/11 Truth” movement/ conspiracy theories. But I came across a great summation and rebuttal of many of this sub-culture’s beliefs and suspicions that I thought was worth sharing. On eSkeptic, Phile Molé gives an account of a convention hosted by 911truth.org in Chicago, goes through details of their many spurious claims, and then has this fascinating conclusion of the “power of conspiracy theories.”

We need to return to a question posed near the beginning of this discussion: Why do so many intelligent and promising people find these theories so compelling?

There are several possible answers to this question, none of them necessarily exclusive of the others. One of the first and most obvious is distrust of the American government in general, and the Bush administration in particular. This mistrust is not entirely without basis…The revelations of Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, and other nefarious schemes great and small have understandably eroded public confidence in government. Couple that with an administration, that took office after the most controversial presidential election in more than a century, and one that backed out of international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, misled citizens about the science of global warming and stem cell research, initiated a war in Iraq based on unsupportable “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction, and failed to respond in adequately to the effects of a hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, and you have strong motivations for suspicion…

[However,] the mistakes made by our government in the past are qualitatively different from a conscious decision to kill thousands of its own citizens in order to justify the oppression of others. Most importantly, there is the fact that most of what we know about the bad decisions made by our government is only knowable due to the relative transparency with which our government operates, and the freedom to disseminate and discuss this information.

The full irony of this last point hit me while I was at the conference. Here was a group of about 400 people gathered to openly discuss the evil schemes of the U.S. government, whom they accuse of horrible atrocities in the service of establishing a police state. But if America really was a police state with such terrible secrets to protect, surely government thugs would have stormed the lecture halls and arrested many of those present…

It is notable that conspiracy theorists (and this likely applies not just to 9/11) tend to be clustered at the extreme right and left of the political spectrum–you’ll find few apathetics or moderates dedicating this much time to activities this far out of the mainstream.

Another reason for the appeal of 9/11 conspiracies is that they are easy to understand. As previously mentioned, most Americans did not know or care to know much about the Middle East until the events of 9/11 forced them to take notice…The great advantage of the 9/11 Truth Movement’s theories is that they don’t require you to know anything about the Middle East, or for that matter, to know anything significant about world history or politics. This points to another benefit of conspiracy theories — they are oddly comforting. Chaotic, threatening events are difficult to comprehend, and the steps we might take to protect ourselves are unclear. With conspiracy theory that focuses on a single human cause, the terrible randomness of life assumes an understandable order.

This may be the major thread connecting conspiracy theories to Creationism. And actually, for some believers Creationism really does function as a conspiracy theory, where they see a nefarious band of scientists denying evidence and making up fossils and such. Or just kicking the intelligent-design proponents out of academia, as the upcoming “documentary” Expelled asserts. Here Molé makes the conspiracy theory / creationism connection even more clear:

The great writer Thomas Pynchon memorably expressed this point in his novel Gravity’s Rainbow: “If there is something comforting — religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” The promiscuity of conspiracy theories toward evidence thus becomes part of their appeal — they can link virtually any ideas of interest to the theorist into a meaningful whole…

With the standards of evidence used by conspiracy theorists, there is no reason why the Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, or the Elders of Zion cannot also be involved in the 9/11 plot — it just depends on what you find the most solace in believing. As it turns out, some conspiracy theorists do throw one or more of these other parties into the mix, as a popular and bogus rumor that 4,000 Jews mysteriously failed to come to work on 9/11 shows.

Solace is something all of us needed after the horrible events of 9/11, and each of us is entitled to a certain degree of freedom in its pursuit. However, there is no moral right to seek solace at the expense of truth, especially if the truth is precisely what we most need to avoid the mistakes of the past. Truth matters for its own sake, but it also matters because it is our only defense against the evils of those who cynically exploit truth claims to serve their own agendas. It is concern for the truth that leads us to criticize our own government when necessary, and to insist that others who claim to do so follow the same rigorous standards of evidence and argument.


A Straight-Shooting Questionnaire

March 27, 2008

This questionnaire is for “self-avowed heterosexuals” only.

1. What do you think caused your heterosexuality?
I’m pretty sure I was born this way, but how would I know?

2. When and how did you first decide you were a heterosexual?
Well, I guess I’ve just always been attracted to girls.

3. Is it possible your heterosexuality is just a phase you may grow out of?

Possible, but how can you ever know at the time? I’m just living my experience as I know it now.

4. Could it be that your heterosexuality stems from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?
Quite likely. Look at where I go to school!

5. If you’ve never slept with a person of the same sex, how can you be sure you wouldn’t prefer that?

Um.. body hair?

6. To whom have you disclosed your heterosexual tendencies? How did they react?
My friends and parents know, and they’re mostly understanding.

7. Why do heterosexuals feel compelled to seduce others into their lifestyle?

Why don’t you stop beating your wife?

8. Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality? Can’t you just be what you are and keep it quiet?

I was thinking of starting an annual parade actually.

9. Would you want your children to be heterosexual, knowing the problems they’d face?

Probably not. The dilemmas of rejection from the gay community and ethical questions concerning having children are just too great a burden to bear.

10. A disproportionate majority of child molesters are heterosexual men. Do you consider it safe to expose children to heterosexual male teachers, pediatricians, priests, or scoutmasters?
Probably not. We really shouldn’t let children be around men at all given these stats. That’s why I advocate schools, hospitals, churches, and scout troops with all female leaders.

11. With all the societal support for marriage, the divorce rate is spiraling. Why are there so few stable relationships among heterosexuals?
It’s hard being an oppressed majority.

12. Why do heterosexuals place so much emphasis on sex?
Because we can make babies. Deal with it.

13. Considering the menace of overpopulation, how could the human race survive if everyone were heterosexual?
Birth control?

14. Could you trust a heterosexual therapist to be objective? Don’t you fear s/he might be inclined to influence you in the direction of her/his own leanings?
I just don’t trust therapists in general.

15. Heterosexuals are notorious for assigning themselves and one another rigid, stereotyped sex roles. Why must you cling to such unhealthy role-playing?
Patriarchy.

16. With the sexually segregated living conditions of military life, isn’t heterosexuality incompatible with military service?
Probably so. I prefer the Sacred Band model.

17. How can you enjoy an emotionally fulfilling experience with a person of the other sex when there are such vast differences between you? How can a man know what pleases a woman sexually or vice-versa?
It’s probably not possible. We’re all doomed to live lives of disconnected, ambivalent oblivion.

18. Shouldn’t you ask your far-out straight cohorts, like skinheads and born-agains, to keep quiet? Wouldn’t that improve your image?

I ask them all the time, but I can’t control how they live their lives. If they want to get married to just one woman, and try and raise children who are only straight, who am I to stop them?

19. Why are heterosexuals so promiscuous?
See #12.

And then there are some more…

h/t Ian.


Gay Scientists Isolate Christian Gene

March 26, 2008

The Blank Faith

March 25, 2008

obama

Barack Obama’s religious beliefs are a sort of blank slate. People from different backgrounds look at him and come to strikingly different conclusions.

There are, of course, the crazies who think Obama is a wicked Muslim Manchurian candidate. A friend of mine was recently giving a campus tour to a prospective student and the student’s parents. They walked by a TV in a lobby showing Fox News (of course) and happened to ask my friend who she was supporting. She replied that she was an Obama supporter, and the mom leaned in and said in a conspiratorial tone, “Well, don’t you think it’s possible, just possible that he’s a plant from Al Qaeda?”

So there are those people. (I’m certain the child will choose my school)

Then are the sincere, likable evangelical Christians who are turning away from the GOP in favor of Obama. They see his religious expressions as more genuine than the professions of prior Democratic candidates, and like his rhetoric that incorporates their religious heritage into policy directions they are generally in line with. They are passionately pro-life and generally against gay marriage, but they are coming to question the Iraq War (if they ever supported it), they see poverty and climate change as moral issues, and they’re more likely to feel compassion than fear when considering immigration.

When I was a freshman, my school’s College Democrats sold 15 t-shirts and counted that a milestone. By this year (five years later) the student Facebook group supporting Obama has 150+ students. I chock this up to a combination of disillusionment with Iraq, feelings of being used by the right-wing-machine, and Obama’s personal appeal and newish approach to religion (at least for a Democrat). The only Hillary supporters I know here are two faculty members and a student from Guyana.

And another friend of mine is a self-described “third-generation secular humanist,” and she sees Obama’s faith in a different light:

Me: “Frankly, I miss the days when the Republicans were the ones associating and apologizing for the nutty religious leaders, and you knew the Democrats were pleasantly secular with a window-trimming of gentle religion for political purposes.”

Her: “Actually, I think Obama is only socially religious and doesn’t really believe in God. I’ve read his books, but I think a lot of that’s political; you have to do that to run for office.”

To each their own?