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!