Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Happy Birthday Linus!

Today is Linus Torvalds' 40th birthday.  Linus initiated the development of the Linux kernel, which is the core of all Linux-based operating systems (such as Ubuntu, Fedora, Mandriva, etc.).  He is a quasi-celebrity in the computing world, particularly within the free and open-source community.

I don't normally talk about computer-geek stuff here, but I wanted to bring it up for a few reasons.  First, Linus is an atheist, so he's kinda-sorta relevant here, and he's been outspoken about it in the past:

Margie: How about religion?

Linus: Hmmm, completely a-religious—atheist. I find that people seem to think religion brings morals and appreciation of nature. I actually think it detracts from both. It gives people the excuse to say, “Oh, nature was just created”, and so the act of creation is seen to be something miraculous. I appreciate the fact that, “Wow, it's incredible that something like this could have happened in the first place.” I think we can have morals without getting religion into it, and a lot of bad things have come from organized religion in particular. I actually fear organized religion because it usually leads to misuses of power.
Margie: As in holy wars?
Linus: Yeah, and I find it kind of distasteful having religions that tell you what you can do and what you can't do. Catholicism is an example of that kind of non-permissiveness, and I think that is very easy to get into if you are an organized religion. Religion is a very strange area. In Finland, nobody cares. Many people are religious in Finland, but it's not a political issue. Over here, religion has become politicized, so you have the fringe people in the news. And then people are afraid to talk about it because it has political implications, and that's usually not true in most of Europe. Religion is a personal matter, but does not matter for anything else. That's how I think it should be done.
Margie: Yes, we were founded to keep the two separated. Then the Moral Majority found out what a large constituency they had, and...

Linus: Yeah, it's kind of ironic that in many European countries, there is actually a kind of legal binding between the state and the state religion. At the same time, in practice, religion has absolutely nothing to do with everyday life. Maybe the taxes to the church, but that's it. They don't have any political power.
Margie: Here it's called tithing, not taxes.
Linus: Actually, in Finland they call it taxes—you pay taxes to the church. If you are a member of the church, you pay 2% tax to the church. And that's the amount of legal binding between the church and the state. Apart from that, they are completely separate. In the U.S., church and state claim to be very separate, but you still see the church has a lot of power in politics.

But more importantly to me, I am a big proponent of both the free and open-source software movements.  I've switched over to using Linux a few years ago*; I rarely use Windows, or any proprietary software any more.  (The only reason I still have it on my machine is for a class I teach, where Microsoft Access is part of the curriculum.)

The other thing that makes this post somewhat relevant is that I think we can learn a lot from the differences between the free and open-source movements, and how the groups interact despite those differences.

Just a short introduction to both of the movements: the Free Software Foundation has been headed by Richard Stallman since 1983.  The open-source movement sprung from the free software community in the late nineties.  Both groups pretty much do the same thing: they write software that is non-proprietary.  The source code (code that is written and readable by humans) is made available, so that anyone can use, modify and improve it, and the licensing gives everyone the opportunity to release their own version of the program.  Note that the word "free" does not indicate free of charge, it means that users have certain freedoms when it comes to using and modifying software.    The standard slogan is "Free as in 'free speech', not 'free beer'."  In almost all cases, software that is free is also open-source, and vice versa.

The difference between the movements is in their philosophies.  The free software movement believes the issue of whether software should be free and open source is an ethical one.  As the FSF has said:

To use free software is to make a political and ethical choice asserting the right to learn, and share what we learn with others. Free software has become the foundation of a learning society where we share our knowledge in a way that others can build upon and enjoy.

The FSF has a page describing the problems that come with proprietary software, and how free software prevents these issues here (I have also had a link to that page in my sidebar, it's the big yellow image at the bottom).

The open-source movement exists because a number of software developers found that people were uneasy about using a word like "freedom" and discussing the ethics of free vs. proprietary software.  They focus more on the practical advantages of open-source software.  They claim that allowing large communities to modify programs leads to better software over time.  The changes made are for the benefit of users, unlike proprietary software, which often have more incentive to make changes which benefit the company, regardless of the user experience.**

What I find most refreshing is that these two communities have serious disagreements regarding their philosophies on software development, and they certainly don't hold back when they discuss them.  Richard Stallman is quite pointed in his criticism of the open-source movement, and there are equally passionate people on the open-source side of the argument, including Linus.  However, these two communities work together all of the time.  There are very few free/open source projects which don't include proponents of both movements.  While debates about philosophy are intense, they put aside their differences to work toward a common goal.

This is almost the exact opposite of what often happens during a schism of a church.  Churches often split over minor theological differences (not always, of course, but often), and once this happens they are usually unwilling to have a relationship, even for issues on which they agree.  The free and open-source movements have incredibly difference philosophies, often discussed in ethical terms, and yet they are able to work together.  They don't play the hurt feelings card, or act as if one group has some type of high-ground where their position cannot be criticized. 

To me, I think we can all learn a valuable lesson from this.  As atheists, we should continue to argue our case, and point out problems with religion.  And yet we can, and should, work together with liberal religious people when our common goal is to stop extremism.  We can put aside our differences and stand united for causes such as gay marriage, separation of church and state, etc.***

And for the religious folk who become offended when an atheist criticizes their ideas, understand that there is a difference between attacking an idea, and attack you as a person.  It may be unpleasant for some to think about, but on the god question, one of us has to be right, and the other is therefore wrong.  As adults, we need to take responsibility for our beliefs, and defend them based on sound reasoning and evidence.  It's not impolite for us to disagree and ask questions, and we should still be capable of coming together to fight for what we do agree on.

So happy 40th to Linus, and may the free and open-source communities continue to be an inspiration for collaboration and mature, spirited disagreement.

*  You don't have to be a computer geek to make the switch.  If you're tired of fighting with Microsoft or Apple's proprietary stuff, check out some of the Linux distros listed above, or even just try some free software like OpenOffice.org instead of Microsoft Office, GIMP instead of Adobe Photoshop, or VLC instead of Windows Media Player. 

** Some might argue that negative effects to the user experience would drive people away from a particular product, but it practice that just doesn't happen.  Microsoft Office, for example, changed file formats for its 2007 version of Office, meaning users using the old versions had to update in order to keep compatibility current.  Yet very few people are turning away from Microsoft products, even though there are great alternatives (e.g., OpenOffice.org) available.  Vendor lock-in is a powerful tool that Microsoft has at its disposal, and most non-technical users don't know about their alternatives to paying hundreds of dollars for software for no good reason.

*** In some cases, atheists may have to criticize religion in order to successfully argue our point (e.g., arguing that the Bible is not grounds for prohibiting gay marriage).  These cases are difficult, and I'm not sure what the best strategy is.

NOTE:  I'm a little late posting this, so it's actually now past Linus' birthday.  Sorry!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas All!

I'm off the Pennsylvania to visit family for a few days, and won't be posting.  I hope everyone has a joyous holiday season!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

What grounds our morals?

I finally got around to watching this video on Hemant Mehta's Friendly Atheist website (which has a snazzy new, anagram-tastic banner, by the way):

The Painted Door's Panel Discussion on "Collision". from Parable Media on Vimeo.

This was a discussion following a viewing of Collision, a movie showcasing Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson debating the point "Is Christianity good for the world?".  The discussion features Hemant and Dr. Chad Meister, Professor of Philosophy at Bethel College in Indiana, and was moderated by Pastor Mark Bergin of The Painted Door church.  

While watching the video, Dr. Meister brought up the question of where atheists get justification for their morals.  This question comes up so often, and its probably one of the harder questions to answer, especially if you haven't really thought about it.  While I think Hemant did a good job of explaining his views on where morals come from, I don't think Dr. Meister really understood the points he was making.  He was not willing to accept that moral principles can emerge naturally from complex relationships between people.

Here's an analogy that I think might help:  Economies exists wherever there is a large group of people who rely on each other for goods, even if there is no governing body regulating it.  This completely laissez-faire economy still has a set of standards for all merchants selling their goods.  Merchants who sell well-made, useful products for reasonable prices will do well, because people will continue to buy from them, and tell others about them.  Merchant who overcharge for crappy products, on the other hand, will lose customers as long as they continue to be bad merchants.  Over time, good merchants are rewarded and bad merchants are punished.  Therefore these rules and principles of selling good merchandise for fair prices exists, without the over-arching hand of god telling us "Thou shalt not overcharge."  These natural laws occur without divine intervention.

Morality works in a very similar way.  Certain moral rules emerge because the community naturally enforces them.  I am more likely to be rewarded by others if I treat them fairly.  On the other hand, if I consistently try to take advantage of others (by lying, cheating, stealing, etc.), I will be punished, by losing their trust and ostracism.  Detainment or physical punishment could even occur, if my immorality is has enough of a negative effect on the community. 

But why does the community enforce certain moral rules in the first place?  We (meaning humans) evolved as social animals, originally living in small bands of a few dozen.  It was important to cooperate with everyone we interacted with for survival.  It is no surprise that characteristics would be selected for which cause humans to value each other as ends in themselves, rather than means to an end (to paraphrase Kant).**

Of course, these natural processes are not perfect, just as natural selection does not produce perfect organisms.  This is why for both the economy and morality, governments exist which formalize the rules we have to follow.  This makes rewards and punishments more uniform, and limit the amount of damage a bad entity can do.  But that does not mean that the economy or morality completely falls apart if there isn't an overarching entity enforcing all of the rules.

What probably frustrates me most about this argument, is that theists will argue that an atheist cannot justify their moral principles.  However, when a theist is asked to justify theirs, they evoke god, without any further explanation.  However, when we think about this a bit, we realize that there are serious considerations to be made if we want god to be the origin of moral precepts.

If we argue that the following statements are equivalent (for any action, or set of actions X):

"X is a moral action"
"God commands you to do X" or "God wants you to do X"

then we have to determine which truth causes the other.  As Socrates asked Euthyphro: "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"

The first part ("Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious"), is equivalent to saying that "If X is a moral action, then god commands you to do X."  The morality of X causes god to command you to do X.  If this is the case, then god is not deciding whether X is moral or not.  X is moral regardless of what god does, and god is therefore bound by morality, just like everyone else.  God is only a dispenser of moral knowledge, not the originator.

The second option is to reverse the causality, which is what I believe Dr. Meister was arguing.  In this case, we are saying that "If god commands you to do X, then X is a moral action."  This is also known as divine command theory.  But this leads to other problems.

First, if an action is moral if god commands it, then our morality is completely arbitrary.  If god had commanded us to rape and murder, then those actions would be morally permissible, or even obligatory.  One might say: "But god would never command us to rape and murder."  The problem is, you don't have any legs to stand on any more, since there are no moral truths above what god commands.  We think that god wouldn't command rape and murder because their immoral, but its only immoral if god hasn't commanded it, according to divine command theory.  If he decides to command it, its no less moral than anything else he could have commanded. 

It also means that calling god omnibenevolent (all-good), is meaningless.  If "good" in the moral sense means "whatever god commands", this is basically equivalent to: "god does whatever he commands himself to do."  (I personally don't take much stock in this objection, since it doesn't really refute anything.  But I do think its important to realize how we would have to re-think god and morality if we accept divine command theory.)

More objections are described on Wikipedia's page for divine command theory, as well as some responses (although I must admit they are fairly weak in my estimation).  My main point is that the theist still needs to defend their belief that god is the prime cause for the morality of our actions.  Although there a many different theories trying to explain morality in natural terms (either by evolution, or some other mechanism), at least they are presented with evidence and logical arguments.  We must demand that divine command theorists do the same.   

**I know there are other evolutionary explanations for our morals.  Regardless if you agree with my assessment or not, it is clear that we do have moral beliefs, and there are a number of plausible evolution-based explanations for that.  If any of these are accurate, that means our morals do not come from an authority figure (i.e., god).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Same Sex Marriage

Here's a disturbing graphic:

 Yes, it is legal to marry your first cousin in 25 states, while gay marriage is legal in only 6 (plus D.C.).  Gotta love that sanctity of marriage...

(from Erin K on Sex and the Windy City)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Worst Idea of the Decade

The Washington Post is running a series of opinion articles titled:  The Worst Ideas of the Decade.  And the top worst idea on the list:  Vaccine scares.  And I couldn't agree more.

Clive Thompson explains how not only do anti-vaxxers put people at risk directly by convincing them (or their parents in the case of children) not to get vaccinated. This anti-vaccine sentiment is keeping the U.S. health officials from making use of effective treatments such as adjuvants in flu vaccines, which could improve immunity and make the flu vaccine more available:

They were too worried about spooking anti-vaccine activists, many of whom claim adjuvants contribute to autism. This almost certainly isn't true: Adjuvants have been widely used for years, with no reputable study suggesting a link between them and autism. But federal officials feared people would avoid the H1N1 vaccine if it included adjuvants. As Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in congressional testimony last month, "The public's confidence in our vaccine system and in vaccines in this country [is] very, very fragile."

 And anti-vaxxers contribute greatly to the anti-science sentiment that pervades te U.S. today:

The subtler but more insidious effect of the vaccine-autism movement is philosophical. The anti-vaccine folks have whipped up anti-science sentiment by painting scientists as corrupt elitists on the take from Big Pharma, cackling sadistically as they force us to get shots. This paranoia flows equally from woo-woo Hollywood liberals and the anti-government right; few other subjects can unite Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey with Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

Of course, the cranks over at Age of Autism have something to say about Thompson's article.  Actually, I take that back.  After reading the entire article, its surprising how little is actually said.

Normally I would point out the logical nonsense in an article like this, but its basically just a giant conspiracy theory polemic, without actually addressing anything in Thompson's articles.  Its the same nonsense that has been printed over and over again at AoA.  No real evidence, just claims that scientists are in the pockets of "Big Pharma," and prods for scientists to perform unethical studies of unvaccinated children, which would do little to change the mind of these ignoramuses anyway.

So I must say thanks to Clive Thompson for pointing out how harmful this anti-vaccine sentiment is.  I hope the message gets through to some people, though I'm not too optimistic.

More Tim Minchin!

...in the form of a 9 minute beat poem about New Age bullshit.  Enjoy!

The Catholic Church, Copyright © AD 1 - 2009

The Holy See has declared that the figure of the Pope should be protected from unauthorized use.

The declaration alludes to attempts to use ecclesiastical or pontifical symbols and logos to "attribute credibility and authority to initiatives" as another reason to establish their “copyright” on the Holy Father's name, picture and coat of arms (emphasis mine).

I let the laughter subside before I continue.

To be safe, I guess I should say the following:

This blog is in no way endorsed by the Catholic Church, a group who spreads misinformation about condom efficacy in Africa, exacerbating the spread of AIDS throughout the region, covers up the rape and physical abuse of children by their own clergy, actively promotes sexism and anti-gay bigotry, and believes that a cracker and red wine miraculously turns into the body and blood of an ancient Palestinian man who has been dead for nearly 2000 years when a priest (who must have testicles) says some magical words over them.

Now where will my credibility come from?!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

This is what happens when we stop vaccinating...

There is currently an outbreak of mumps in New York City, with 600 confirmed and suspected cases.

Not many people know much about mumps, because it is so rare to hear about someone being infected.  That is due to a very successful vaccine which had all but eradicated the disease, starting in 1967.  Since then, we went from seeing an estimated 100,000-200,000 cases to fewer than 300 cases annually in the entire United States according to the New York State Department of Health.  We went from 300 cases in the entire United States per year, to 600 in New York City along.  In addition, in 2006, over 6,000 cases of mumps were reported in the U.S.  That's a twenty-fold increase.

The disease can cause deafness and encephalitis, among other serious complications, in case anyone thinks this isn't a big deal.  And the blame falls squarely on the anti-vaccination movement.  These opinions come from obvious misinformation.  It doesn't matter how often the Wakefield study is discredited, or how many new studies come out showing that vaccination and autism have no correlation.  Once misinformation is out there, there are too many scientifically illiterate people to wade through the bullshit and really think about the evidence presented.

The mumps cases are almost exclusive to a group of Orthodox Jews, and many of the parents of children who came down with mumps said they did not vaccinate their children because of their religious beliefs.  However, Jewish leaders in the area claim that it is not the case that Judaism should prevent anyone from being vaccinated:

But local religious leaders said there is nothing in Jewish law that prohibits vaccination.

"That's ridiculous," said Rabbi David Eidensohn, a frequent Orthodox Jewish commentator on family issues. "Any parent who doesn't get their child vaccinated is being foolish and endangering the entire community."

Dr. Yakov Tendler, a Monsey internist whose patients include many many of the Orthodox community, said that he has treated some adults with mumps who had been fully immunized but contracted the disease from a child.

"There are a lot of crazies out there who are putting their children and everyone else at risk," he said.

Religious leaders have to make it clear that children must be vaccinated, he said.

"The rabbinic community has to chastise congregants who are not vaccinating," he said.

The fact is, this religious excuse is used often as a way for parents to get out of vaccinating for their own personal opinions, which don't appear to actually come from their religion.  Children are required to be vaccinated by schools.  One of the few ways parents can get out of it is by a religious objection.  However, it is very clear that religious leaders do not oppose vaccinations.  In fact, they appear to encourage vaccination, and want to chastise those who are not vaccinating their children.  What's most frustrating to me, is that it is  highly doubtful that this evidence will affect the parents' ability to continue using their "religious" objection to keep from vaccinating their children.

No other objection could be clearly disproven, and still allowed to be used without question.  If I objected to vaccination based on scientific evidence, and my evidence was shown to be faulty, I would not be able to continue using that objection.  Yet here, it has been clearly disproven that Orthodox Judaism is opposed to vaccination.  I would be thoroughly shocked if parents were not allowed to continue using this objection. This double-standard is too often overlooked.

So there you go, a rant against both anti-vaccination nonsense and the ability of religion to completely side-step the burden of rational evidence.  How many points do I get for that?!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Abortion requirements challenged in Oklahoma

A law requiring the information about women who get abortions to be posted online is currently being challenged.

The law, passed in May, requires doctors to fill out a 10-page questionnaire for every abortion performed, including asking the woman about her age, marital status, race and years of education. In all, there are 37 questions the women are to answer.

There is no reason a patient should have to make that data publicly available, in order to have an abortion.  It's an obvious invasion of privacy, regardless of what State Senator Todd Lamb thinks:

Lamb, who is running for lieutenant governor, rejects that notion. How can it violate women's privacy, Lamb said, if their identity is kept confidential?

Unfortunately Lamb is ignorant of the fact that there is plenty of research regarding the indentification of people from seemingly anonymous data.  Netflix was just recently sued, because it was found that the "anonymous" data they released for their Netflix Prize competition still made it possible to uniquely identify the user in 87% of the cases.  With just the information listed above, it is quite possible to vastly narrow down the number of possible women each data point could represent.  Add in 30+ more questions, and the fact that some will have knowledge of a pregnancy, and it is very clear that identification is certainly not impossible, and may even be likely, depending on the questions asked.

What annoys me most, though, is what else Senator Lamb has to say about the legislation:

"If we collect this evidence, we can better treat, we can better counsel, we can better provide alternatives," Lamb said.
"I'm pro-life," he said. "Oklahoma is a conservative state. We are a pro-life state, and I believe it's important public policy to stand on the side of sanctity of life."

This has nothing to do with protecting women, its about trying to sidestep Roe v. Wade and making abortions less accessible.  If your goal is to simply get data to make it easier to treat and counsel women, then why not make it optional?  You'll still get plenty of data.  Why must the data be made public?   Even when the CDC, or another government agency, collects data on other procedures the data remains private.  This is obviously meant to embarrass women, and coerce them not to get an abortion.  It's a dirty tactic, and I sincerely hope this challenge stands up in court.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tim Minchin - White Wine in the Sun

Tim Minchin is one of my favorite performers.  Scathingly funny and skeptical, yet thoughtful and endearing, all at the same time.  His moving Christmas song, White Wine in the Sun, has been making the atheist and skeptic blogs.  Here's the video:

I must admit it was hard getting over my hemisphere-ism, to imagine spending Christmas in the sun. (Tim is Australian)

I celebrate Christmas without qualms about its being a "religious holiday".  The vast majority of the traditions come from pagan religions, not Christianity.  Most cultures have celebrated the winter solstice with lights and a feast as a way to remind us that spring and summer will come again.  Exchanging gifts comes from the Roman solstice holiday, Saturnalia.  Even the date, December 25th, was borrowed.  It was the alleged birthdate of Mithras, the Persian sun god, and a popular diety in the 4th century AD.  For more of the pagan roots of Christmas, check out http://www.zenzibar.com/articles/christmas.asp (this was the first site I found with a decent list, I'm sure there are plenty more).

Some contemporary traditions are even condemned in the Bible.  My favorite Bible verses for this time of year are Jeremiah 10:2-5:

2Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

3For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

4They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

5They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

That makes this Christmas tree all the more ironic.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Awesome Prank

This is probably the most original prank I've ever heard of a best man playing on a groom.  While the bride and groom were on their honeymoon, he was watching their house.  He put a pressure sensitive mat under their mattress, than can sense when the happy couple are having sex.  The mat automatically tweets this information on twitter, including how long and vigorous the action was.  He got most of the tech here

You can follow the twitter feed here, if you're into text-based voyeurism.  (Don't worry, the best man is remaining anonymous, and is not telling who the happy couple are.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's Done!

I've been working non-stop on an NSF grant proposal this week, which explains my lack of posting.  We finally finished tonight, and will be submitted in the morning.  So what did I miss this past week?

- Evangelist and charlatan (I know, it's redundant) Oral Roberts dies at age 91.  My favorite byline:  Oral Roberts has finally been killed by God for not raising enough money

- Lieberman is ruining the Democrats' chances of passing health care reform, which would be more frustrating if Lieberman was a DEMOCRAT.  There's a reason he's an Independent, I'm not sure why so many people are surprised by any of this. 

- Vaccines still don't cause autism

- Deepak Chopra is still jabbering on incomprehensibly.  (There's a great response here, I couldn't do half as well as this.)

- And I found a new favorite SMBC comic!

I'm exhausted, going to bed.  Maybe I'll post something real again tomorrow!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ayaan Hirsi Ali weighs in on Swiss ban of minarets

In case you're not familiar with the story: in a surprising move, the Swiss government voted to ban minarets from being built a few weeks ago.  Minarets are tall spires with crowns at the top, built on or around mosques.  Those who support the ban claim that minarets represent a political ideology, and not a religious one, since minarets never appear in any Islamic canon.  Thus, they are protecting the country from political influences of fundamentalist Islam.  Those against the ban view this as a clear hindrance to freedom of religion.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who fled her home country of Somali to escape a fundamentalist Muslim family, and is now a fierce critic of Islam, wrote an opinion piece supporting the ban, called Swiss ban on minarets was a vote for tolerance and freedom.  She echoes the claim above:

The recent Swiss referendum that bans construction of minarets has caused controversy across the world. There are two ways to interpret the vote. First, as a rejection of political Islam, not a rejection of Muslims. In this sense it was a vote for tolerance and inclusion, which political Islam rejects.

In other words, we are rejecting Islam's intolerance, therefore being more tolerant.

While I greatly respect Ms. Ali**, I have to disagree with her on this issue.  Being a free society means that we must allow everyone to hold and express their beliefs, even those that we disagree with.  I may vehemently disagree with the bigoted and irrational views of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, but I also believe they have the right to hold and express those beliefs, as long as they do not encroach on others' rights. It is not more tolerant to disallow Muslims to express their religious or political ideology***.  In fact, by passing this law, the Swiss government rejects the same tolerance and inclusion that Ali claims is rejected by Islam.

Ali claims later in the article that immigrant Muslims "feel that they are entitled, not only to practice their religion, but also to replace the local political order with that of their own."  That may be the case, but it does not mean that they actually are replacing Swiss political order with that of their own.  It's still illegal in Switzerland to enact sharia law, regardless of the minarets, and what fundamentalist Muslim may desire.  Feeling entitled, even irrationally, is not a crime.

It's up to the Swiss government to enforce rational, Western laws on all citizens, regardless of their religion.  That means that fundamentalist Muslims don't get special treatment to practice their religion in a way that is violent, as some do in the Islamic world.  However, that also means all citizens, including Muslims, are entitled to the same freedoms and protection thereof.

Allowing Muslims in Switzerland to freely hold and express their beliefs is not equivalent to accepting or embracing them.  Their freedom is matched by the freedom of other, rational people to rebuke those beliefs loudly and publicly, as should be done to any fundamentalist group touting hysterical 7th century ideology of conquest and brutality.  The Swiss government should allow them to lose in the marketplace of ideas, not stoop to their level by denying the outgroup their rights.

**I highly recommend her autobiography, Infidel, if you're curious about the treatment of women and children in the Islamic world.

***I should note that I am not personally making a claim about whether the minaret actually is a political symbol or only a religious one.  I don't know enough to make that decision, and it is irrelevant to my argument above.  I also didn't address the difference between banning the minaret as an architectural feature, as opposed to banning expression in other ways.  Since all of the arguments for the ban focus on the political message of the minaret, the reasoning is solely about the message sent, not the structure itself.***

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Kent Hovind's Dissertation Leaked

"Doctor" Kent Hovind, noted young-earth creationist and founder of the Creation Museum, and the "school" where he got his "degrees", Patriot Bible University (their wikipedia page has a good description), have been criticized in the past for not releasing Hovind's "doctoral dissertation" to the public.  (I really hate using all of the quotation markings, but I have no choice but to express all the irony in that last sentence.)  PBU is basically a degree mill, with absolutely no accreditation (they don't even have a .edu domain name). 

Well, it has been posted on WikiLeaks, and it is everything I could have ever hoped for.  110 pages of nonsensical rambling, misspellings all over the place ("epic" instead of "epoch", "immerged" for "emerged"), and not a single citation (I expected to at least see bible verses at the end).  Check out the introduction:

Hello, my name is Kent Hovind. I am a creation/science evangelist. I live in Pensacola, Florida. I have been a high school science teacher since 1976. I've been very active in the creation/evolution controversy for quite some time.
A first grader must have helped him on that one.

The ramblings are pretty standard, but its always entertaining to see a long, fleshed-out argument from theses loony tunes.  Short sound-bytes just sound like plain-old ignorance, but being able to talk uninterrupted from 110 pages really shows how warped their intellect really is. 

When I feel overwhelmed by work on my own dissertation, I can look at this and think "We'll I know I have to at least do better than this!"  If you've got some time to kill and want a good laugh, check it out.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Carnival of the Godless #130, Featuring Yours Truly!

The new Carnival of the Godless is up at Nonreligious Nerd, and one my blog posts made it!  Thanks go out to the powers that be that decided my post was worth adding to the lineup.  Go check it out, and read some of the other blog posts as well (I haven't had a chance to read them yet, since I've been grading papers and working like mad this whole weekend, but I'm sure they are excellent, they usually are).  And if you're an atheist blogger and want to submit a post for a future COTG, you can submit them here.

Speaking of working like mad, I have been working on my letter to the Catholic Church that I blogged about a few weeks ago.  But since I've had lots of real work to do, being near the end of the fall semester and all, I've had to put a lot of writing off to the side.  By next week I'll be done with school work for a bit, and I'll have time to write a lot more.  So stay tuned!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Justification for Religious Belief

Greta Christina posted this fantastic article on AlterNet, about religious believers and their unwillingness to provide evidence for their beliefs.  Here's a teaser:

In my conversations with religious believers, I'll often ask, "Why do you think God or the supernatural exists? What makes you think this is true? What evidence do you have for this belief?" Partly I'm just curious; I want to know why people believe what they do. Plus, I think it's a valid question: it's certainly one I'd ask about any other claim or opinion. And if I'm wrong about my atheism -- if there's good evidence for religion that I haven't seen yet -- I want to know. I'm game. Show me the money.

But when I ask these questions, I almost never get a straight answer.

Check out the article for the rest, its well worth the time.  And if you're not following her blog, start. 

(I guess I should warn you that while she blogs about atheism and religion, Greta also writes about her own sexuality and erotica as well, which may make some readers uncomfortable.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's that time of year...

It's time for the annual War on Christmas:

Happy holidays everyone!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Trailblazing: The Royal Society's Interactive Timeline of Science

The Royal Society of London is celebrating the beginning of its 350th anniversary in 2010 by releasing free PDFs of some of their most fascinating and influential papers, from Issac Newton's theories on light and color in a letter written in 1672, to James Lovelock's 2008 paper on Geoengineering.  All the papers are shown in chronological order on their Trailblazer timeline, which also includes some short introductions to each work, along with other historical events for context.  

One of my personal favorites is a memoir of Barbara McClintock, a geneticist who made important discoveries regarding gene transpositions and, strangely enough, inspired and shaped a lot of my own research processes and ideas.  Take some time and check these papers out. 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Accomodationism Debate

There has been an ongoing debate in the atheist/science communities, about whether religion and scientific theories, most often the theory of evolution, are compatible.  One one side are atheist stalwarts, such as P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne, who claim that believing in evolution is incompatible with religion.  On the other side are people like Eugenie Scott, and most recently Michael Shermer.  These "accomodationists" claim that there is no conflict, and that "religion [and] evolution can live side by side" as Shermer has claimed in an editorial for CNN.  Jerry Coyne has gone on and responded to the article on his blog.

But it seems like the two sides are talking about two very different things.  Scientists like Coyne seem to be arguing that we believe the theory of evolution because it follows from the scientific method.  And because religion is based on faith and not evidence, religion is incompatible with someone who uses the scientific method, and therefore should believe evolution.  And so someone who holds a belief in evolution for the right reasons also should not hold religious beliefs.

The accomodationists, however, are arguing the reverse, that someone who holds religious beliefs can also hold a belief in evolution.  If a person who holds religious beliefs begins to believe that evolution is true, does she become more or less rational?  If you're already willing to hold beliefs based on faith, it is now possible for that person to hold other beliefs, be it evolution or fairies, and justification becomes almost irrelevant.  In that sense, I don't think its any more or less irrational for a religious person to believe in evolution than it is to hold religious beliefs in the first place.

That said, I also don't think scientists should be parading around commending religious people who happen to believe in evolution.  At best, those people are capable of scientific thinking, but are unwilling or unable to apply the scientific approach to their religious beliefs.  At worst, they are incapable of taking a rational or scientific approach and they believe in evolution for irrational reasons.

Getting everyone to believe in the theory of evolution should not be the goal.  It should be scientific literacy, and the ability to think critically.  And that is incompatible with holding religious beliefs, if you're willing to apply the same standards to all of your beliefs.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Intelligence Squared Debate: Is Atheism the new Fundamentalism?

The next Intelligence Squared debate considers the motion:  "Atheism is the new Fundamentalism" this Sunday, November 29th, at 7:00pm GMT (that's 2:00pm Eastern time).  It pits Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling (against the motion, obviously), against Richard Harries, the former bishop of Oxford, and Charles Moore, former editor of The Daily Telegraph, at Wellington College, Berkshire. It will be chaired by the Headmaster of Wellington Anthony Seldon.  It's also the first I2 debate that will be live-streamed, right here, starting the live feed at 6:45pm GMT (1:45pm Eastern).

There is also a twitter hash tag, #iq2atheism, where you can post questions that may be posed to the panel during the Q&A session.  

I urge everyone to tune into this one if you're not stuck in holiday traffic driving back home (Hopefully I get home in time, driving from New York back to Boston).  I greatly enjoyed the previous I2 debate I watched:  "The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.", in which Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry made Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop John Onaiyekan look completely foolish.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Technorati Claim


This is just a post to get my blog up on Technorati. Its a bit difficult to weave the code number into the conversation. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain :-)

Facilitated Communication Scam

So I read this article on CNN, about Rom Houben, a man who was supposedly misdiagnosed as being in a vegatative state for 23 years, but has been discovered to be conscious, and able to communicate. 

Rom Houben was 23 at the time of the near-fatal car crash in 1983 that left him paralyzed. Doctors presumed he was in a vegetative state following the accident and they believed he could feel and hear nothing.
Neurologist Dr.Steven Laureys of the University of Liege, in Belgium carried out a brain scan using state-of-the art scanning system and discovered that Houben's brain was fully functional.

Sounds like a horrible misdiagnosis, and such a shame for a man to spend 23 years unable to tell anyone that he is actually conscious.  It is horrible, but for a much different reason that is uncovered as we dig further:

In an interview with the UK's ITV news Monday, Rom communicated by typing on a special keyboard attached to his wheelchair, and aided by his carer.
But taking a look at the video, the carer seems to be doing more than just aiding him.  This is known as facilitated communication, and has been shown in most cases to be either a complete scam, or at the very least that the facilitator is unknowingly influencing the supposed communicator.

In some cases, for patients with cerebral palsy, for example, FC is effective in allowing a person with a physical handicap to communicate. However, in many others it has been shown to be the facilitator actually communicating.  One thing about the video suggests to me it's very unlikely that this is real communication from Rom:  sentences are being typed at very high speeds.  Regardless of how functional his brain actually is, his body is still only partially functional.  It's very unlikely he could signal her to type that quickly.  I can't believe that the reporter is actually falling for this without the slightest hint of skepticism. 

If this communication is part of the evidence used to determine this man's consciousness**, than it needs to be properly tested.  James Randi has done test before, and its not complicated:

I went there and I told her, 'If you satisfy me that facilitated communication actually does work, then we'll talk about the possibility of telepathy.' 'You know, there's no need for that Mr Randi, it works, we know that it works.' I made up before I went a bunch of cards with random words on them: 'basket', 'car', 'ball', 'cup', and then with the facilitator sitting there and with the child sitting there, I reached in and took one at random, turned it over; if it said on it, 'car', and I would say to the child, 'The word is car, c-a-r, car' and show the child the card. I would say, 'Now I want you with Florence's help, would you type out the word 'car'. And Florence would take the hand and 'c-a-r' would come out on the tape. We did this eight or ten times. And I would say, 'Now we're going to continue the experiment with one change only. I want Florence to leave the room for a count of 15, and then come back into the room.' So she'd leave the room, and while she was out of the room, I would select a card at random, say to the child, 'The word is 'basket', b-a-s-k-e-t, basket.' Florence would come back into the room, and guess what the child typed? 'Boy', 'man', 'woman', 'brother', 'sister', and when I said, 'No, I'm sorry, all of those are wrong. The facilitator looked down at the keyboard with a determined look on her face and using the child's hand, typed out a message which read approximately, 'I don't like this man from Florida Florence, he's trying to take you away from me. You are my only connection with the world. Florence, please send him away; he's a very bad man.' Now I don't think that Florence thinks that she is doing the typing. I honestly think that Florence believes that the child is doing the typing.

Note that I'm not necessarily suggesting the facilitator is knowingly trying to deceive anyone.  As Randi suggested, in many cases the facilitator is honestly surprised to find out that they are influencing the responses.  It's similar to the ideomotor, or Oujia board, effect, where very tiny movements you don't realize you're making, along with some reason to believe the movements are coming from somewhere else (whether it be a ghost or a partially paralyzed man), can cause you to believe that an object is moving, and you have no influence over that movement. 

Whether this is trickery or an honest attempt to help a paralyzed man, it's a horrible tragedy for a family to be given false hope of the ability to communicate with their loved one, when it's most likely not really him their communicating with.  I would imagine that eventually this FC claim will be tested, and the family's disappointment is going to be very tragic indeed.

If it turns out that this is, in fact, charlatanism, than it is a most disgusting and vile act.  Praying on people's despair and hope of being reunited, in a sense, with a loved one is a gross power play, no different from cold readers like John Edward (a.k.a. The Biggest Douche in the Universe) taking advantage of those mourning their deceased family and friends.  I sincerely hope that isn't the case here.  But more importantly, I sincerely hope the family will be able to emotionally handle learning that this communication is not real, because the evidence suggests it is not.

**The article says that the doctor used "state-of-the-art scanning equipment" to determine that his brain is functional, but consciousness is generally assessed by using standardized behavior tests, such as the JFK Coma Recovery Scale (CRS-R), which tests various abilities such as responding to visual and auditory stimuli, arousal, and ability to communicate.  The article mentions the CRS-R, but is not clear on whether it was used in this case.  The brain scans were only mentioned, and not described in enough detail to consider the validity of the doctor's methods.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Love This

I love watching someone getting caught up in their own nonsense.  Especially Deepak Chopra:

It's a microcosm of Deepak's entire belief system:  completely inconsistent with reality, and with itself.

Way to entirely miss the point

Billboards and bus ads for atheist and humanism organizations have been around for a while now, both throughout the U.S., and in other countries.  The latest ads by the British Humanist Association touch on a subject that Richard Dawkins talks about in his book, The God Delusion:  that labelling children with their parents' religious beliefs is wrong.**

The message is that calling a child a "Christian child" or "Muslim child", for example, is incorrect.  Children don't have the ability to understand what this label means.  Just as we would never call a child a Democrat or Republican, socialist or capitalist, deontologist or utilitarian, we should not give children religious labels.

I think the message is fairly clear.  It says nothing about atheist children, because that would be equally ridiculous.  Unfortunately, not everyone seems to get the point, including Ruth Gledhill, who wrote an article about the ads on Times Online.  Let's start with the headline:

Children who front Richard Dawkins' atheist ads are evangelicals.

Really?  WTF?

First, the obvious.  THEY ARE NOT FUCKING EVANGELICALS!  It's as if she can't read.  Second, these aren't Dawkins' ads, he is not affiliated with the British Humanist Association.  Nor are they pro-atheist ads, its equally silly to label children as atheists as it is to give them a religious label.

At least she correctly identified them as children. 

The kids in the ad are children of Brad Mason, a Christian pastor.  He says:

“It is quite funny, because obviously they were searching for images of children that looked happy and free. They happened to choose children who are Christian. It is ironic. The humanists obviously did not know the background of these children.”

They happen to choose children who are Christian children of Christian parents, because the majority of people in the UK are Christians.  But again, it doesn't matter, because the kids are not Christians.  Their parents are Christians, and in all likelihood, they will end up being Christians due to that influence, but they don't yet have the capability to make those decisions themselves.

In fact, the BHA said as much, later in the article:

The British Humanist Association said that it did not matter whether the children were Christians. “That’s one of the points of our campaign,” said Andrew Copson, the association’s education director. “People who criticise us for saying that children raised in religious families won’t be happy, or that no child should have any contact with religion, should take the time to read the adverts.
“The message is that the labelling of children by their parents’ religion fails to respect the rights of the child and their autonomy. We are saying that religions and philosophies — and ‘humanist’ is one of the labels we use on our poster — should not be foisted on or assumed of young children.”

If I haven't mentioned it before, I enjoy a well-designed figure: a simple, graphical representation of some complex data.  I'm a big fan of Edward Tufte's books. Jen over at Blag Hag gets a nod from me for representing the complexities of this article in a great graphic:

Well done.

**Dawkins argues that this is actually a form of child abuse.  You may disagree with this particular argument, but its not that important for the ad.  It's enough to realize that labelling a child is incorrect, because they don't have the capability of understanding and really accepting freely the label.

Formal Act of Defection from the RCC

About 6 months ago, I read a blog entry by Jim Gardner on his blog, How good is that?.  I knew prior to reading this that because I was baptized as a Catholic, the church still considers me a member.  The statistic of 1.131 billion Catholics that's most often used includes me, and anyone else who has been baptized, regardless of current practices or beliefs.  That number even includes those who are gay, divorced, have had an abortion, etc.; as long as you were baptized, you're still counted.  What I was unaware of is that according to Roman Catholic canon law, I can request a "formal act of defection" from the faith, which results in a note on my baptismal record stating that I have left the church.  Jim followed up with the letter he has written to his archdiocese requesting this act.

I wasn't a regular reader of Jim's blog (I am now, he's in my Google Reader account), but I found the article because I had been very angry, as was Jim, about hearing that the pope was telling blatant lies about condom use being the cause of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, and about the news coming out about the sexual abuse going on in church.  I had always had a bit more virulence towards the Catholic Church than others, since I had the more experience there than with any other church.  That said, I was never that concerned with my former religion, as opposed to others.  It seemed more benign, since it was so much more about strange ritual and tradition, and not so much about preaching eternal damnation, at least in my experience.  However, hearing this pronouncement pissed me off to no end, and made me realize that while my parish, and the church my family went to was fairly boring and uncontroversial, the Catholic Church has enormous amounts of influence across the globe, and is generally using it to spread misinformation and nonsense.**  I was reading a lot of atheist blogs that talked about it to blow off some steam, and read about what others were thinking and feeling about the situation.

When I read Jim's post, I felt this was something all of us who are no longer Catholic should do.  I know a lot of people are content with just no longer going to church and getting on with it.  They may feel that taking time out to write a letter getting formal recognition for no longer being a Catholic from the RCC is like writing a letter to Santa Claus to tell him how ridiculous the idea of flying reindeer are.  The main concerns I'm addressing in my letter, however, are not necessarily my atheism in terms of theological beliefs, but about kindness, thoughtfulness and morality, and the lack of it in the Catholic Church.  I think it's important to call them out not because I think they're wrong, but because the are becoming a real hindrance to progress in the world.  If many more former Catholics do this, the RCC might even begin to reconsider some of their positions (I know its unlikely, but its more likely than if no one says anything.)  Even if the church itself doesn't change, a large number of Catholics officially renouncing their religion will certainly be made known, and will affect many others. 

I'm rather embarrassed to say, however, that halfway through writing a letter to my own archdiocese, it got stored away in a directory on my computer, and I forgot about it until now.  Luckily, while thinking about ideas for posts here, I stumbled back upon my letter, and decided that I should finish it and send it along.

I'm posting here before I finish because I think some other Catholics might be interested in knowing about this.  I suspect few Catholics are aware of this. I'd love to see many more people writing their archdiocese to be officially recognized as no longer Catholic.  The letter so far includes some background about my involvement with the church, and a short outline on the reasons I am requesting this defection. It is fairly similar to Jim's letter, not because I'm too lazy to come up with something more creative, but because 1) I think Jim's letter is excellent, and 2) I want to make sure I include the necessary information, and since Jim had already spoken to a clergyman, I assume he has included what is needed.

I'll post my final letter once it's finished, as well as any news afterward.  Wish me luck!

** I know that the RCC also does a lot of charity and good in developing countries, but I contend that the bad far outweighs the good.  I would watch the recent Intelligence Squared Debate, considering the motion "The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world" if you disagree (or if you'd enjoy watching Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens wittily and completely obliterating their opponents, Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Anne Widdecombe)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Great resource for countering Anti-Vaccination rhetoric

Brian Dunning at the Skeptoid podcast just did an episode on ingredients in vaccines, which are often claimed to be harmful by anti-vaxxers (the link also contains a text transcript of the audio).  These claims are baseless, and the podcast addresses the most commonly cited ingredients.  Some are just plain lies (aspartame, anti-freeze, aborted fetal tissue), others are just scary sounding, without any real negative effects (formaldehyde, aluminium), and some are much more complicated than any anti-vaxxer is willing to think about (mercury, live viruses).  If you ever have to deal with intellectual lightweights and their anti-vaccination arguments, this is a really nice, compact resource.

And if you're not subscribed to the Skeptoid podcast, do it now!  It's a great listen, and each episode is only about 10-15 minutes long, so he gets the pertinent information to you without a lot of filler.


Well no sooner did I post this than I read all over the blogosphere that the king anti-vaxxer himself, Bill Maher, published a post on the Huffington Post, a bastion for pseudo-scientific nonsense, titled Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having.  Its complete rubbish; basically trying to argue that he's the open-minded one, because he's willing to believe any woo-based conspiracy that invokes the fear of "Big Pharma."  Opac at Respectful Insolence already posted a devastating rebuttal here, check it out.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Catholic Church in D.C. Will Pull Services over Gay Marriage

The Catholic Church isn't happy about D.C.'s same-sex marriage bill.  Ho-hum, no surprise, of course.  They've now resorted to the "I'm taking my toys and going home..." tactic:

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said Wednesday that it will be unable to continue the social service programs it runs for the District if the city doesn't change a proposed same-sex marriage law, a threat that could affect tens of thousands of people the church helps with adoption, homelessness and health care.

Because outdated dogma is more important to Catholics than compassion and helping their fellow man.  The Washington Post article continues:

Under the bill, headed for a D.C. Council vote next month, religious organizations would not be required to perform or make space available for same-sex weddings. But they would have to obey city laws prohibiting discrimination against gay men and lesbians.
Fearful that they could be forced, among other things, to extend employee benefits to same-sex married couples, church officials said they would have no choice but to abandon their contracts with the city.

This is nonsense.  The Church can't discriminate against many other marriages it does not recognize:  people who have been divorced, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, etc.  Why has there been no outcry over any of these?  This is obviously just bully tactics from a group of religious thugs with no compassion for their fellow human beings. 

From the archdiocese's spokeswoman:

"If the city requires this, we can't do it," Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Wednesday. "The city is saying in order to provide social services, you need to be secular. For us, that's really a problem."

No, the city says that if we give you money for services, then you have to play by the same rules as everyone else.  The government can't give you special dispensation; there's this pesky separation of church and state stuff.

There are grumblings on the TALK section of the WP article about the passage of the bill itself being an infringement on religious freedom, according to the First Amendment.  Patrick Deneen is an associate professor of government at Georgetown, and says:

There is a basic conflict here between the claims of those seeking the legalization of gay marriage and the claims of religious liberty - not only for religious institutions per se, but individuals (such as individuals who might offer privately contracted services, such as wedding photographers, whose faith beliefs could be compromised by providing their service to a gay couple, and who would be subject to anti-discrimination lawsuits). Another area where there is a conflict is the right of religious organizations not to provide certain services or benefits, such as certain spousal employment benefits or adoption services. More broadly (going beyond the gay marriage issue), without exemptions, religious organizations can be forced to act in ways that go against their tenets, for instance, in being forced to provide contraceptive benefits in health care policies. Here the various claims run against the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. In these sorts of instances, there is a demand that religious organizations essentially act as secular organizations.

To the best of my understanding, the First Amendment does not require the government to check with every religious organization before passing any single law.  The Catholic Church is free to do as it pleases, UNLESS it wants tax money, in which case, it DOES have to act as a secular organization (see: Separation of Church and State).  As long as everyone has to follow the same set of rules, no religious group gets any advantage.  

I'm curious if there are secular or more tolerant religious groups that would be willing and able to take over the charity work that the Catholic Church.   If they can find alternatives, this could be a good thing in the long run.  I hope there are groups in the D.C. area letting their government know that there are people out there willing to pick up the slack, and will gladly extend the same benefits to same-sex couples as all others.  And the D.C. Catholic Church could be the one who loses big.

One can hope, right?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Murder and Religion

In the wake of the killings at Fort Hood by Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a Muslim, Arsaian Iftikhar has written a piece arguing that these murders were not a religious act.  I can't say either way whether Maj. Hasan was motivated by his religion to do what he did, because I haven't seen enough evidence for his particular case.  But Iftikhar tries to argue that all cases murder have no religion.  His main point is this:

Simply put; murder is murder and has no religion whatsoever.

If murder cannot be a religious act, then religion could not have been a significant motivation for the act.  Iftikhar completely fails to show that religion cannot be a motivator of murder, or even that it wasn't a motivator in Maj. Hasan's single case.

He starts off suggesting that the Quran forbids the taking of human life:

Most of the world's 1.57 billion Muslims know that the Holy Quran states quite clearly that, "Anyone who kills a human being ... it shall be as though he has killed all of mankind. ... If anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he has saved the lives of all of mankind."

Cherry-picking verses from a holy book is something Christians are notorious for, but its equally useless for the Quran.  There are plenty of verses I could choose to paint a completely different picture.  In fact, the verse he cites (Sura 5:32), with the context he conveniently omitted, has a different interpretation:

Because of this, we decreed for the Children of Israel that anyone who murders any person who had not committed murder or horrendous crimes, it shall be as if he murdered all the people. And anyone who spares a life, it shall be as if he spared the lives of all the people. Our messengers went to them with clear proofs and revelations, but most of them, after all this, are still transgressing.

And considering what counts as a "horrendous crime" (just take a look at the examples from the Skeptic's Annotated Quran for an idea), this does not prevent fundamentalist Muslims from killing most non-Muslims. 

But it doesn't even matter what the Quran actually says.  There are a significant number of Muslims who admittedly commit murder because they believe they will be rewarded in heaven, specifically because of their religion.  Most Muslims, however, believe that their religion forbids it.  Regardless of what the Quran actually says, you cannot claim that either group's motivations are something other than their religious beliefs.  Their beliefs are mutually incompatible, and yet both are motivated by primarily by them.   

Iftikhar is committing a No True Scotsman fallacy here.  Because his and many others' view of Islam is as a religion of peace, No TRUE Muslim could be motivated by their religion to commit murder. But of course, this making the definition of a Muslim include someone who holds this belief.  Iftikhar is assuming his conclusion in his argument, rather than proving it.

Iftikhar continues by criticizing the conservative media for playing up the fact that Maj. Hasan was a Muslim:

True to form, many conservative media pundits wasted little time in pointing to reports that Hasan had said "Allahu Akbar" (Arabic for "God is great") at the start of his murderous rampage. News coverage continuously showed the looping convenience store black-and-white videotape footage of Hasan wearing traditional white Islamic garb.

I agree with him here; the media's overplaying of Hasan's religion sends the message that being a Muslim is a warning sign, that we should be wary of anyone who practices Islam.  Its prejudicial, and the media should stick to the facts at hand, rather than focus on a specific character trait which may or may not have been a factor in the crime.  However, he goes on to say something that I can't imagine anyone would actually believe:

First of all, someone simply saying "Allahu Akbar" while committing an act of mass murder no more makes their criminal act "Islamic" than a Christian uttering the "Hail Mary" while murdering an abortion medical provider, or someone chanting "Onward, Christian Soldiers" while bombing a gay nightclub, would make their act "Christian" in nature.

This is bordering on absurd.  Is he really suggesting that bombing an abortion clinic or a gay nightclub isn't religiously motivated?  What other motivations for these actions are there?   Many Christians have made it very clear that their faith is the overwhelming reason behind their position against abortion and homosexuality.  Similarly, there is a venerable history of Muslims who have made it clear that it is a duty to kill infidels, and its quite possible that Maj. Hasan holds similar beliefs. 

I understand that a Muslim saying "Allahu Akbar" or a Christian saying "Hail Mary" is not necessarily proof that their crime was religiously motivated.  There are other explanations.  For example, perhaps a religious person would pray before committing a crime in order to ask forgiveness in advance, knowing his actions are wrong and not condoned by their faith.  But without other evidence, the most likely explanation is that faith motivated the actions.

Iftikhar then quotes Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan:

"One most certainly does insult Muslims by tying their religion to movements such as terrorism or fascism. Muslims perceive a double standard in this regard: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols would never be called 'Christian terrorists' even though they were in close contact with the Christian Identity Movement. No one would speak of Christo-fascism or Judeo-fascism as the Republican[s] ... speak of Islam-o-fascism. ... [Many people also] point out that [it was] persons of Christian heritage [who] invented fascism, not Muslims."

I absolutely agree that there is double-standard in this country.  We are willing to call Muslim extremists "terrorists", while we shy away from the word when it appears that a Christian's religious ideals motivated their crime.   There absolutely are Christo-fascist groups of people in the U.S., and more should be done to point out the fact that their beliefs are chiefly motivated by their religion.

But the point is not that either all terrorists are motivated by religion or none of them are.  The fact is there are a variety of reasons why people commit heinous crimes.  That does not mean we should shy away from the fact that some use religion as a justification for them.  It doesn't matter who invented fascism and what religion they were.  Each fascist group has their own motivations, some religious, some not.  Our euphemistic language designed to shy away from blaming religion is harmful, because it makes us less able to combat extremism effectively.

Iftikhar goes on to make a suggestion to the U.S. military:

Thus, with thousands of patriotic American Muslim women and men proudly serving in our United States Army in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps it would behoove our army leaders to consider sending a strong message of American unity by appointing an American Muslim to be a part of the prosecution team against Hasan.
This would help show that the mass murders allegedly committed by Hasan have nothing to do with the teachings of our religion.

It would show nothing of the sort.  It would show that, just as in every other religion, there are good and bad.  There are those who have religious faith and act morally and justly, and others who use it to justify atrocities.  In Islam, and other religions, the majority of believers fall into the first category.  But we must not deny that the second does exist, and is significant.  Pretending that religion does not motivate these people is denying the real problem, and will hurt everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Dealing with Death

XKCD is one of my favorite webcomics, and the comic up on Friday stirred up a lot of thoughts and feelings for me this weekend.  Here's the comic:

Hemant at Friendly Atheist already wrote about the virtues of being an organ donor, and I won't repeat them here. Hemant did say something that resonated with me, and something I thought about when I first saw the comic as well:

The latest XKCD offers a beautiful explanation of why most atheists don’t fear death — we know that it’s possible for us to make a difference even after we die.

While I feel good about my decision to be an organ donor, it still didn't help me feel better about the fact that I will die someday.  Being an atheist and a scientist is humbling, considering the vastness of our universe, and how insignificant a part each of us plays in it, but I haven't completely lost my ego.  Considering the idea of not existing anymore was difficult to deal with.   

The idea presented at the beginning of the comic, that the essence of something is not the things it is made of, but the arrangement, the pattern, of those things, brought me back to what originally strengthened my convictions about being an atheist.  I was fortunate enough to be free enough to consider atheism at a young age.  When most atheists I know were questioning their religious beliefs, I was questioning whether my atheistic views were based on a solid foundation.  One of the last problems I had with my position was that I couldn't explain where my consciousness is, and where it came from.  It seemed so magical, so unexplainable, that there was part of me that couldn't accept that a materialistic world-view was justifiable given it.

Luckily, I found Douglas Hofstadter's books: del, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, The Mind's I (co-edited by Daniel Dennett), and I Am A Strange Loop, which introduced me to this idea that the patterns of activity in our brain is what's fundamental to us.  When these patterns became complex enough, they became able to represent self-referential thought (thinking about myself), in what Hofstadter calls "strange loops."  He argues that these strange loops are where consciousness comes from.  This may not have answered all my questions**, but it did convince me that materialism was a better foundation for consciousness than another theory.

So what does this have to do with dealing with the fear of dying?  While reading I Am A Strange Loop on my commute home one afternoon, the book took a turn that surprised and shook me, when Hofstadter discusses his wife's untimely illness and death.  It was a very moving account.  I had trouble fighting back tears while reading it, which doesn't usually happen to me while reading.  It did make it somewhat awkward sitting next to total strangers on a commuter rail train.    During this time, he talks about what it means to be close to someone, to love someone:

...the idea I am proposing here is that since a normal adult human brain is a representationally universal "machine", and since humans are social beings, an adult brain is the locus not only of one strange loop constituting the identity of the primary person associated with that brain, but of many strange-loop patterns that are coarse-grained copies of the primary strange loops housed in other brains.  Thus, brain 1 contains strange loops 1, 2, 3, and so forth, each with its own level of detail.  But since this notion is true of any brain, not just of brain 1, it entails the following flip side:  Every normal human soul is housed in many brains at varying degrees of fidelity, and therefore every human consciousness or "I" lives at once in a collection of different brains, to different extents.

Hofstadter defends his view throughout most of the book, and I definitely couldn't do him justice in a short blog post, so I must highly recommend the book if this is intriguing to you, rather than try to explain it all here.  The point is, although the main pattern may disappear when someone dies, part of that person's consciousness lives on.  It lives on in their family, friends and loved ones.  I'm under no illusions that I will live on forever in the standard sense of being fully aware of myself, my "I", in my own brain, or some surrogate.  But knowing that I am a part of the people I love, and I can have an effect on this world even after I'm gone, not just my physical pieces, but my self, my "I", has given me a sense of peace about my mortality. 

Hofstadter concludes one of the chapters in I Am A Strange Loop with his insights on what happens to these distributed versions of a consciousness over time, and what funerals accomplish in terms of these strange loops.  This passage has given me comfort in the past; it's something that I'd like read at my funeral when the time comes:

Halos, Afterglows, Coronas
In the wake of a human being's death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer, in the collective brains of all those who were dearest to them. And then those people in turn pass on, the afterglow become extremely faint. And when that outer layer in turn passes into oblivion, then the afterglow is feebler still, and after a while there is nothing left.
The slow process of extinction I've just described, though gloomy, is a little less gloomy than the standard view. Because bodily death is so clear, so sharp, and so dramatic, and because we tend to cling to the caged-bird view, death strikes us as instantaneous and absolute, as sharp as a guillotine blade. Our instinct is to believe that the light has once and for all gone out altogether. I suggest that this is not the case for human souls, because the essence of a human being--truly unlike the essence of a mosquito or a snake or a bird or a pig--is distributed over many a brain. It takes a couple of generations for a soul to subside, for the flickering to cease, for all the embers to burn out. Although "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" may in the end be true, the transition it describes is not so sharp as we tend to think.
It seems to me, therefore, that the instinctive although seldom articulated purpose of holding a funeral or memorial service is to reunite the people most intimate with the deceased, and to collectively rekindle in them all, for one last time, the special living flame that represents the essence of that beloved person, profiting directly or indirectly from the presence of one another, feeling the shared presence of that person in the brains that remain, and this solidifying to the maximal extent possible those secondary personal gemmae that remain aflicker in all these different brains. Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in those who remain and who are gathered to remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows. This is what human love means. The word "love" cannot, thus, be separated from the word "I"; the more deeply rooted the symbol for someone inside you, the greater the love, the brighter the light that remains behind.

In fact in some ways, I think my views are more optimistic than Hofstadter's.  I think he's wrong that those afterglows eventually have to go out.  Even though, as generations go by, less and less people will know me by name, those who they do know may have been affected by me.  I know that I would be a much different person if it wasn't for my family members and friends, who have also been affected by their parents and friends.  And I will in turn affect the next generation, who have the potential to affect future generations, which can go on to infinity.

I know that some may not feel much better about the fact that they will eventually pass on after hearing this, but I hope that some can find solace as I have.  And if not, keep learning, reading and absorbing.  You never know when some new way of thinking will hit you, and change your outlook for the better.

**As an example, I still think there is a boot-strapping problem with Hofstadter's explanation, although I can't figure out exactly where it comes from. This suggests to me that it has more to do with my conscious-thinker-centric ego, and this entrenched idea that consciousness should be more complicated, than it being a real problem.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Guess who's complaining about sex toys...

If you said the Catholics, you'd be right...

Researchers at Duke University advertised for female participants in a study on sex toys:

The ads, which were posted around campus and on a research study Web site, sought female students at least 18 years old to "view sex toys and engage in sexually explicit conversation with other female Duke students."

Participants will be asked to complete online questionnaires about their sexual attitudes and behaviors and visit the lab for a "one-hour party" with seven or eight women. Not only will the students be asked to complete a second questionnaire a couple of months later, they will receive a gift bag and be given the opportunity to purchase items at a significantly reduced rate, according to the ad.

But of course the thought of someone enjoying their sexuality without the goal of having children concerns Catholics, including Father Joe Vetter, director of the Duke Catholic Center:

"My understanding is there is a concern on campus about promiscuity," Vetter said.
In recent years, some university health centers have touted sex toys as alternatives to risky sexual behavior and serial promiscuity. The study, Vetter said, was designed by health care workers to see whether such approaches work.
"I'm concerned about promiscuity also," Vetter said. "And to be honest, I don't have the solution. ... My concern is these students are in this developmental phase, and I don't think it's a good developmental practice to just tell somebody to just sit around and masturbate. I don't think that promotes relationships."

Because a celibate priest is the person we should be consulting about healthy, sexual relationships.  He provides no evidence that sex toys hurt relationships, which is potentially what studies like this COULD find out.  (I know that this particular study may not be looking into how it affects relationships, but if it was, I doubt that would change the attitude of most Catholics.)   Nor does owning a sex toy imply that you'll just sit around masturbating constantly.

The fact is, we have sexual desires.  What is the problem with dealing with those desires in a safe way, without the risks of STDs or unwanted pregnancy?  The Catholic Church's position on this is pretty much in line with the rest of their opinions, completely inconsistent with facts and logic.