Jon Stewart on Fox News' Reaction to the Violence in Norway

In this clip, Jon Stewart perfectly crystallizes the rampant and unfettered hypocrisy that has infected both politics and the cable news channels that cover politics. With blinders on, these organizations incessantly fling accusations of which they themselves are guilty, and cry victim when they are not too busy doing the victimizing.

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Ask A Humanist, Vol 6: Isn't It Sad To Live Without Faith?

(Part 6 of an ongoing, meandering stream of undefined scope.)

Sad Panda has no religion.
Many people of faith have a hard time understanding what it's like to live without religion. On many occasions, I have heard believers express pity. "That's sad," they might say, about someone who does not engage in a relationship with a deity.

Many find it inconceivable that someone could find happiness without God and everything that accompanies belief in God: the promise of eternal life, the assurance that events in our lives are occurring in accordance with God's plan, and the feeling that an all-knowing, loving entity is looking over us and protecting us. Certainly, they think, without these assurances, life would be joyless, meaningless, and cold.

Much of these insinuations are due to misunderstandings about the nature of non-belief. There is a common misconception held by the religious in which non-theists are viewed as people who have known God, but have rejected him due to anger or impatience. Another common misconception is that non-theists rejected God due to the hypocrisy often found in organized religion.

I can assure you that the relationship between most non-theists and God is nothing like a relationship between two long-time friends that has soured. In this latter scenario, these former friends still exist and go about their lives, apart from each other. Non-theists, by and large, either never entertained the idea of a supernatural being, or were brought up religious and later realized they couldn't entertain with honesty the idea of a supernatural being. God, to most non-theists, is simply not part of the fabric of their reality.

You're doing it wrong.
The best way for a believer to understand a non-theist's relationship with God is by reflecting upon their own relationship with, say, Zeus. It would be silly to assume that religious people lead sad lives because they do not have a relationship with Zeus. They simply don't go about their life with Zeus informing their daily actions or thoughts. As difficult as it may seem for the religious to view the Zeus example as a parallel, it is as accurate as any. Most non-theists simply characterize current religions as an extension of a religious lineage that contains Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, and countless others. A Christian's atheism towards Mithra is not much different than the non-theist's atheism towards the Abrahamic God.

Even if the believer understands a non-theist's relationship with religion, it does not explain why a lack of religious faith is not accompanied by feelings of sadness and emptiness. While letting go of religion can certainly be an emotional endeavor (any time we no longer entertain a long-held belief there is emotional fallout), ultimately it can be one of the most liberating experiences one can imagine.

A few of the ways in which letting go of religion has led to happier, more fulfilling lives for many non-believers:

This life has to be enough: When we come to terms with the fact that there is no evidence for an afterlife, we can focus on the limited time we have in this life. When we accept that our time is finite, we place a higher value on every minute that we have. When we let go of the concept of final judgment, each decision we make must be based on the effects our actions have on this life, on the lives of our fellow humans, and on our environment. We are lucky to be alive, and it is this realization that fills us with wonder, joy, curiosity, and gratefulness. The world is filled with so much beauty and joy that none of us will be able to experience even a fraction of its offerings in our lifetime. While non-believers are not without a sense of gratitude, we choose to spend our days focused on this life and making the most of it. Our acknowledgment of our finite existence is not a source of sadness.  It is a reminder that each day is a gift.

Death: While death will always be a source of anxiety and sadness, the longing associated with separation from our loved ones is less painful when we no longer view it as a separation. When we reject the human constructs of heaven and the afterlife, we can accept that the deceased are not aching with longing, regret, or separation. In fact, they are not feeling anything at all. 150 years of neuroscience has taught us that consciousness, memory, thought, and any sense of self whatsoever require a physical brain with electrical impulses and biochemical activities occurring in and between our neural cells. When a loved one dies, they simply cease being, period. Sure, the end of life is never a jovial affair, but to remove the supernatural concept of a reunion in the afterlife is to remove the longing and heartache that accompanies this anticipation. We also remove any and all anxiety associated with our afterlife destination when we reject the constructs of heaven and hell.  Our 'afterlife' is achieved by living a life that reverberates beyond our death -- affecting lives still being lived, and lives that have yet to be lived. Our legacy is our afterlife. We live on through those we have affected, through the changes that we have helped bring about (good or bad), and through the values and wisdom that we impart on those we leave behind. When we understand that our legacy is our afterlife, we are driven to ensure that the lives we lead resonate beyond our deaths, and we take time to explore, along with our families and friends, the legacies of those who have gone before us.

A life free of metaphysical baggage: In societies steeped in religious ideology, it seems even the most banal occurrences are fraught with metaphysical baggage. Humanists reject the assignment of meaning to coincidences, statistical anomalies, natural occurrences, and random events. When someone overcomes a lethal form of cancer, it's not a miracle. This does not make it any less remarkable, but if we must credit anyone or anything, we should credit a complex constellation of factors, including modern medicine, human perseverance, environmental factors, diet, genetics, the support of medical staff and loved ones, and the evolved, complex inner workings of the human body. When a catastrophic earthquake causes death and destruction to a region of the world, it is not divine retribution. It is the unfortunate result of sufficient stored elastic strain energy driving fracture propagation along a fault plane.  Certainly, events in our lives can be meaningful -- any event can awaken us to larger truths -- but it is silly to assign metaphysical meaning to things which, however remarkable, fall within the confines of the laws of nature.  This understanding helps to shed the anxiety that accompanies tragedies both personal ('Is God punishing me?'), and universal ('Are these catastrophes a sign of the End Times?').

Being good for goodness' sake: When we let go of religion, we don't fear that we will start cheating, stealing, and killing. Why? Because cheating, stealing, and killing tend to result in being rejected by our communities -- not because this behavior is sinful (sin, yet another human construct steeped in the supernatural), but because it threatens the well-being of others, and threatens the cohesiveness of society. This has been the case for as long as humans have lived in groups. Our morality evolved -- it was not handed down to us by God -- and it predates monotheism. As societies evolved from tribes to villages to towns and nations, our morality became the basis for many of our laws.  Religion certainly has influenced many of our laws, but many of the laws which crossed over from religious law have no bearing on actual morality (blue laws, for example, are rooted in the concept of the Sabbath). Non-believers are no more inclined to commit crimes than the religious.  In fact, many non-believers are more ethical and compassionate than the religious, especially those who use religion to justify their actions (see: LGBT equality, hate crimes, genocide). We take great care to ensure that our actions cause no harm to others, even if that harm is condoned by a religious text.  In other words, humans don't need God to be good.  We have evolved the capacity for empathy and compassion. Humans are so adept at knowing what is wrong and what is right that we can look at behavior condoned by scripture and conclude that it is immoral.  When we do harm, we feel bad. (We evolved the capacity for empathy.) When we act with the intention of reducing suffering, we have done good, and we feel good.

Embrace the unknown: Throughout history, religion has been used to explain the unexplainable. As we gained knowledge about the natural world, many religious explanations were no longer necessary. We no longer use religion to explain earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, thunder, rain, droughts, floods, winds, or fertility, as we did long ago. And as we learn more about the mind, the earth, and the cosmos, it is inevitable that we will use religion to explain less and less. Non-theists embrace the fact that it's okay to not have an explanation for the mysteries of life and of the cosmos. We are confident that, although perhaps not in our lifetime, science will answer most of these mysteries. Because we don't yet understand does not mean we must assign a supernatural explanation. We remember that even thunder once had a supernatural explanation. Hundreds of years from now many of our current supernatural explanations may seem as silly as Zeus' thunderbolts.  Most non-theists are perfectly fine accepting the unknown. It does not make us uneasy to not have the answers.  It adds to the beauty and wonder of the cosmos, and there is great joy that accompanies this sense of awe.

We give our lives meaning: Many believers think that a life without God has no meaning, no purpose. They may say, "If we just simply evolved over millions of years with no thinking, caring, omniscient being watching over us and guiding us, then life is meaningless."  This couldn't be further from the truth. We must cultivate meaning and purpose through our actions and their effects on the world around us.  No one is born with a purpose, other than to survive. Purpose and meaning are products of our upbringing, our experiences, our wants and desires, and our principles. We have our entire lives to cultivate meaning. This is a gift of empowerment capable of providing a lifelong sense of fulfillment. But that is up to us.

Life, by its very nature, provides a broad spectrum of experiences. None of us are immune to pain or suffering.  All of us will feel great pleasure and joy. Religion comes with no guarantee that we will experience any more, or less of either extreme (neither does a life lived without religion.)  While religion certainly does provide many of its adherents great comfort, those who live without religion find comfort in ways that may not be apparent to those who can't envision life without God.  We find comfort in the understanding that we share an ancestor with every living thing on earth. We find joy in nature, in the beauty of music and art, and in the possibilities afforded by our own (highly improbable) existence. We find meaning in our journey, in which we aspire to better the world for our descendants, so that they may have even greater possibilities than we have been afforded.

More 'Ask a Humanist' entries...


50 Renowned Academics Speaking About God

Speakers in order of appearance:

1. Lawrence Krauss, World-Renowned Physicist
2. Robert Coleman Richardson, Nobel Laureate in Physics
3. Richard Feynman, World-Renowned Physicist, Nobel Laureate in Physics
4. Simon Blackburn, Cambridge Professor of Philosophy
5. Colin Blakemore, World-Renowned Oxford Professor of Neuroscience
6. Steven Pinker, World-Renowned Harvard Professor of Psychology
7. Alan Guth, World-Renowned MIT Professor of Physics
8. Noam Chomsky, World-Renowned MIT Professor of Linguistics
9. Nicolaas Bloembergen, Nobel Laureate in Physics
10. Peter Atkins, World-Renowned Oxford Professor of Chemistry
11. Oliver Sacks, World-Renowned Neurologist, Columbia University
12. Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal
13. Sir John Gurdon, Pioneering Developmental Biologist, Cambridge
14. Sir Bertrand Russell, World-Renowned Philosopher, Nobel Laureate
15. Stephen Hawking, World-Renowned Cambridge Theoretical Physicist
16. Riccardo Giacconi, Nobel Laureate in Physics
17. Ned Block, NYU Professor of Philosophy
18. Gerard 't Hooft, Nobel Laureate in Physics
19. Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford Professor of Mathematics
20. James Watson, Co-discoverer of DNA, Nobel Laureate
21. Colin McGinn, Professor of Philosophy, Miami University
22. Sir Patrick Bateson, Cambridge Professor of Ethology
23. Sir David Attenborough, World-Renowned Broadcaster and Naturalist
24. Martinus Veltman, Nobel Laureate in Physics
25. Pascal Boyer, Professor of Anthropology
26. Partha Dasgupta, Cambridge Professor of Economics
27. AC Grayling, Birkbeck Professor of Philosophy
28. Ivar Giaever, Nobel Laureate in Physics
29. John Searle, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
30. Brian Cox, Particle Physicist (Large Hadron Collider, CERN)
31. Herbert Kroemer, Nobel Laureate in Physics
32. Rebecca Goldstein, Professor of Philosophy
33. Michael Tooley, Professor of Philosophy, Colorado
34. Sir Harold Kroto, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
35. Leonard Susskind, Stanford Professor of Theoretical Physics
36. Quentin Skinner, Professor of History (Cambridge)
37. Theodor W. Hänsch, Nobel Laureate in Physics
38. Mark Balaguer, CSU Professor of Philosophy
39. Richard Ernst, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
40. Alan Macfarlane, Cambridge Professor of Anthropology
41. Professor Neil deGrasse Tyson, Princeton Research Scientist
42. Douglas Osheroff, Nobel Laureate in Physics
43. Hubert Dreyfus, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
44. Lord Colin Renfrew, World-Renowned Archaeologist, Cambridge
45. Carl Sagan, World-Renowned Astronomer
46. Peter Singer, World-Renowned Bioethicist, Princeton
47. Rudolph Marcus, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
48. Robert Foley, Cambridge Professor of Human Evolution
49. Daniel Dennett, Tufts Professor of Philosophy
50. Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics


This NASCAR Prayer Comes With Sponsorships

The following pre-race prayer was served up at the Nascar Nationwide series race in Nashville, TN on July 23, 2011.


Willum Geerts' 'Sorry (Bible)'

Dutch Artist Willum Geerts has taken correction fluid to all letters of a Holy Bible, except for S, O, R, R, and Y, in that order.

A close-up can be viewed here.

In his artist statement, Geerts says, "I share my astonishment about our absurd everyday life and ask the viewer to re-address the complex world around us. I enlarge the banal by isolating it from its regular context, mixing it with apparent opposites and by adding dramatic, theatrical elements to it."

He writes of how, in complex modern life, individuals deal with the chaos of "constant impulses and [try] to canalize these by conforming, losing oneself in material solace or falling into conditioned behavior. With superficiality, alienation, passiveness and banalities as a result.'

More of his work can be explored here.


Woody Allen Interviews Billy Graham

One of the great things about YouTube is discovering great (often little-discussed) moments in television history that you never knew existed, or that you have never seen. Scott Ross of NBC Philadelphia called the below gem "the kind of encounter made in TV heaven: the neurotic intellectual New York Jew and the fire-and-brimstone televangelist arguing about what it all means."

Good stuff.


Douchebag Of The Day: Bryan Fischer

Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis at hate group American Family Association, is a huge douchebag.  I've called attention to his insanity in these pages on a regular basis, so nothing he says is ever terribly surprising, sadly.

Fischer tweeted the following today:

It cannot be stressed enough that Fischer is not part of the lunatic fringe.  He is in bed with many high profile religious right politicians, including current Texas governor and potential President of the United States, Rick Perry (The AFA is paying for Perry's 'Response' prayer rally in Texas.)


How To Reach Atheist Teenagers: An Evangelical's 'Rules of Engagement'

Greg Stier of Dare 2 Share Ministries
Over at the Christian Post, Greg Stier (president of Dare 2 Share Ministries) has a post called How To Reach Atheist Teenagers.

Dare 2 Share Ministries' mission statement reads: "Mobilizing teenagers to relationally and relentlessly reach their generation for Christ," so I can't really fault him for doing what he has the right to do. He's an evangelical, and that's what evangelicals do. But his Christian Post piece left a bad taste in my mouth, for more than a few reasons.

From Stier's playbook:
1. Mock religion as early as you can in the conversation
In other words, right off the bat, approach your mark and misrepresent yourself and your agenda. It's the old 'gotcha' trick employed by snake-oil salesmen, pickup artists, politicians, and predators. It's cynical, dishonest, and misguided. It's easy to see where Stier is going with this:
Gain this common ground as soon as possible with atheist teenagers. When they see you sickened by the hypocrisy that inevitably accompanies religion, the emotional barriers that often keep them from taking a second look at Christianity can begin to fall down.
He continues:
2. Focus on Jesus. 
Jesus was a radical, rebel and revolutionary. This same “vibe” often appeals to atheist teenagers, many of whom consider themselves the same.

Show them stories in the Bible where Jesus healed lepers, hung out with “sinners” and bucked the religious system. Paint the picture of Jesus as a hero of the downtrodden (because he was) and his death as the ultimate injustice (because it was!) When they begin to see Jesus’ willingness to suffer injustice so that they could be justified the code of unbelief can be cracked in their souls.
In other words, if you can show teens that Jesus was rad like you, hung out with societal rejects, and gave it to The Man on occasion, then they will be able to accept that he was the son of God, was born of a virgin, was able to suspend the laws of the cosmos at will, died and came back from the dead, and rose up to this place called Heaven, body and all.

Then Stier comes in with the  old 'if you say it enough times, it becomes true' ploy:
3. Speak of God as if he exists.

Instead of assuming they are true atheists, speak of God as a reality.

He then applies the tired old 'no atheists in foxholes' trope:
At the end of the day there are no true atheists. In the deepest parts of their soul every atheist, according to Romans 1, truly believes in the existence of God but doesn’t want to give glorify him or give him thanks.
So, there are no true atheists because a guy said so in a book that has no supernatural significance to atheists. Would you also say that there are no true Muslims, Greg? No true Jews? Keynesians? Pacifists? Vegetarians?

And, because, at the end of the day, there is only so much you can do, Stier finishes off with:
4. Pray, love, repeat.
I've been trying to put a finger on what exactly bugs me so much about Stier's piece. (There are a lot of things to dislike.) Beyond all the creepy, stealthy, dishonest stuff, I think it's the reminder that the faith community still doesn't understand atheism.

Atheism comprises a broad spectrum of individuals, with varying philosophies. The only uniting characteristic is an absence of a belief in a deity.  The 'atheist' moniker could be applied to agnostics, secular humanists, Buddhists, Hindus, nihilists, anarchists, or any number of life stances that do not require a belief in a deity.

Stiers seems to perceive atheists as simply people who are anti-religion, or who have had bad experiences with the church and organized religion. Are there atheists who fit this description? Sure. But this description would only fit a small subset of atheists.

It's easy to see the pointless nature of Stier's approach when we substitute the atheist with a vegan and the Christian with an omnivore.  Let's take Stier's own words and see how silly it becomes:
1. Mock meat-eating as early as you can in the conversation.

Gain this common ground as soon as possible with vegan teenagers. When they see you sickened by the hypocrisy that inevitably accompanies the commoditization of animals, the emotional barriers that often keep them from taking a second look at meat-eating can begin to fall down.

Veganism, like atheism, is not a condition that develops due to a misunderstanding the opposing stance. (Most vegans have a very good understanding of what meat-eating is all about -- often they are more educated than the omnivores.) It is most often a life stance that has resulted from a great deal of research, self-reflection, and critical thinking. By showing a vegan that meat-eaters can be good people, generally free of hypocrisy, you have done nothing to eradicate the ethical dilemma that is at the core of their veganism. No matter how many rad omnivores exist, or how convincingly a covert omnivore pretends to also despise animal products, the central philosophical viewpoints remain.

Even if Stier's ploy made sense, how incredibly weird would it be if some person came up to you (a vegan) and pretended to also be a vegan, befriended you and gained your trust, when in fact they weren't vegan at all, and only wanted to convert you?

I have had believers approach me with the same angle as Stier's approach. The assumption is often that I am not a Christian because I was turned off by the church's stances on social issues, or perhaps by the hypocrisy that often accompanies religious figures and religious politicians. Or maybe something bad happened at church. Maybe I was molested by a priest. Who knows?

Sure, I do get upset when religion is used to justify inequality, greed, and exceptionalism. Sure, I get angry when authority figures in the church abuse their power and prey on children. But if all these things suddenly were eradicated from the church, it would not change the fact that I simply cannot accept the tenets of Christianity.  My inability to believe is as real as anything else about me. It is as real as my preference for certain melodies or works of art. It is as real as my aversion to violence, or my attraction to certain physical characteristics. My disbelief is very real to me, even though I grew up in a wonderful church full of wonderful people, many of which I am still very close to today.

It's not that I choose not to believe in the fantastical claims made in scripture, it's that my brain will not allow me to suspend disbelief in order to accept those claims.

Stier might want to reconsider his stealth plan to bring atheists into the fold. I would first suggest he differentiate between teens that don't like church and teens that do not accept the supernatural claims of religion.  There is a difference between teens that haven't made up their mind about religion and teens who have come to the conclusion that they can't accept the existence of a supernatural being based on the evidence that they have examined through critical thinking.

If he doesn't understand the difference, then he is probably wasting his time.

Bill Maher On Why Liberals Don't Like Bachmann And Palin

Bill Maher does a great job of demolishing the accusations made by conservatives as to why liberals give Palin and Bachmann such a hard time. It's not because they're women. It's not because they're Christians. It's not because they're pretty.

It's "because they’re crazy people. People who are not that bright and full of awful ideas. Pretty much the exact same reasons we didn’t care for George Bush and made jokes about him. So trust me, it’s not because they have breasts. It’s because they are boobs."


Communion Wafer Turns 'Blood Red': When Miracles Aren't

The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras (500 BCE – 428 BCE) was onto something when he stated that the sun was not a god, but rather a red hot stone. (It's also worth noting that he was imprisoned for saying as much.) Granted, Anaxagoras was a little off on the physical properties of the sun, but he knew that there was a natural explanation for even the greatest mysteries of the cosmos.

Fast forward a few thousand years to St. Paul, MN where a communion wafer has turned "blood red" after being placed in a cup filled with water.

The Pioneer Press reports:
[Rev. John Echert of St. Augustine Church] said the host fell to the floor as a member of the laity who is appointed to assist priests was distributing Communion at the 7 a.m. Mass on June 19, the Feast of the Holy Trinity. It was put in a ciborium, a container for the Eucharist - which is typical practice - with the expectation that it would be poured in a sacraium, a kind of special sink where items are washed into the ground not into a sewer system.

When the Rev. Robert Grabner, the church's parochial vicar, next looked at the cup the following Sunday, Echert said, "he noted a red color in the ciborium." Normally, he added, the host would dissolve in water within a day or two.

Grabner asked Echert to examine it.

"The host was a very bright red," Echert said. "On one side, it was completely red, and on the other side, it was red around the perimeter and it looked almost like the white of the host tended to have an appearance of a cross."

Echert said he transferred it to a glass bowl the next day. A day later, he saw the blood-red color.

"It appeared to be like the blood red of tissue," he said. "If I had not known what it was, I would have thought that there was maybe a small bloody piece of tissue. It was striking enough that there was no way I could have disposed of the remains of the host at that time with good conscience."

Clearly, this was the stuff of miracles:
"It was notable enough that, clearly, it was some phenomenon and not the ordinary way in which a host would dissolve...that we're familiar with," Echert said.

The archdiocese, which now has the host, is taking a "very cautious stance on the matter," spokesman Dennis McGrath said.

"I make no claims, and the archdiocese makes no claims, as to the likelihood of this being supernatural," Echert said. "But it is enough of a phenomenon, or unusual, that we will continue to examine this host."

He added: "I've never in my 24 years as a priest seen or been aware of a phenomenon where a consecrated host placed in water turns to this bright-colored red and continues in what I would call the blood-red color."

Word of the wondrous wafer eventually landed on several Catholic websites and blogs, sparking discussion and conjecture by some that it resembles the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

Anyone with a knowledge of religion is sure to have noted that the supernatural claims and miracles associated with biblical writings were far more fantastical, and more frequent, than those of modern day. It also might be worth noting that we didn't have the scientific understanding in primitive times that we have today, nor the luxury of crowdsourcing.

In simpler times, news of this bloody wafer might have spread via telegraph or word of mouth, and soon enough, people would be making pilgrimages to lovely St. Paul to view the flesh of the Lord. But thanks to the Internet, and to science, many pilgrims have been saved the trouble.
One blogger has raised the red bacterium, Serratia marcescens, as a possible explanation for the communion wafer turning red.

According to Microbe Zoo, a website developed by the Center for Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University, the bacterium grows on bread and communion wafers that have been stored in a damp place.

The site goes so far as to cite Serratia marcescens as the probable cause of the bloodlike substance that a priest discovered on communion bread in 1263, referred to as "The Miracle of Bolsena."

More-recent incidents have pointed to bacterium contamination, including a highly publicized instance in 2006 when people flocked to a Dallas-area church after a host turned red in a glass.

According to a report on Texas Catholic Online, the Dallas Diocese had the host analyzed by two University of Dallas biology professors who concluded it was anything but a miracle.

In a letter to the parish priest, Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann wrote "... the object is a combination of fungal mycelia and bacterial colonies that have been incubated within the aquatic environment of the glass during the four-week period in which it was stored in the open air."

Archdiocese spokesman Daniel McGrath stated, "The Church does not presume supernatural causes for things that can have a natural explanation," an odd statement coming from the church, especially considering that whole Bible thing.

Belief in Evolution vs. National Wealth: Why Does The US Not Fit The Trend?

via Calamities of Nature:

The United States is an odd bird, clearly. This graph reminded me of a post on PZ Myers' Pharyngula blog in which he discussed an international poll showing the US as being near dead last in acceptance of evolution (just above Turkey, another country with a distinct fundamentalism/modernism issues).

What, pray tell, could cause the US to remain such an outlier?

Well, first there is religiosity:
The total effect of fundamentalist religious beliefs on attitude toward evolution (using a standardized metric) was nearly twice as much in the United States as in the nine European countries (path coefficients of -0.42 and -0.24, respectively), which indicates that individuals who hold a strong belief in a personal God and who pray frequently were significantly less likely to view evolution as probably or definitely true than adults with less conservative religious views.

And then there's this:
Second, the evolution issue has been politicized and incorporated into the current partisan division in the United States in a manner never seen in Europe or Japan. In the second half of the 20th century, the conservative wing of the Republican Party has adopted creationism as a part of a platform designed to consolidate their support in southern and Midwestern states—the "red" states. In the 1990s, the state Republican platforms in seven states included explicit demands for the teaching of "creation science". There is no major political party in Europe or Japan that uses opposition to evolution as a part of its political platform.

As Myers noted, the paper ends on a sad note:

The politicization of science in the name of religion and political partisanship is not new to the United States, but transformation of traditional geographically and economically based political parties into religiously oriented ideological coalitions marks the beginning of a new era for science policy. The broad public acceptance of the benefits of science and technology in the second half of the 20th century allowed science to develop a nonpartisan identification that largely protected it from overt partisanship. That era appears to have closed.

Nigel Barber, in Psychology Today, asks if Atheism will eventually replace religion, as research shows that atheism "blossoms amid affluence where most people feel economically secure."

He writes:
It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people can expect to die young. People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion. Hence my finding of belief in God being higher in countries with a heavy load of infectious diseases.

These findings are not surprising, but his piece does not acknowledge the fact that the US, a developed country where most have access to shelter, healthcare, and education, remains extremely religious (and relatively anti-evolution). Unfortunately, in the US, there appears to be no level of affluence and comfort capable of decoupling religion and politics, despite constitutional assurances explicitly requiring it.


The Batshit Files: News Roundup | 7.14.11

Is it the heat, or the stupidity?
  • Michele Bachmann's church says the Pope is the anti-christ. (Raw Story)
  • Mike Bickle, official endorser of Rick Perry's The Response prayer rally, sees marriage equality as a sign of the End Times and is rooted "in the depths of Hell." (Right Wing Watch)
  • Fox News forgets that 9/11 took place on George Bush's watch, and Dana Perino, sitting right there, fails to correct them. (Raw Story)
  • Sarah Palin on debt ceiling: 'Reload,' don't 'retreat' (LA Times)
  • Michele Bachmann flubs her Jewish cred by mispronouncing “chutzpah” (News Hounds)
  • Tea Party Nation: President Obama is just like Casey Anthony (Right Wing Watch)
  • Rick Perry wants to leave government ‘in God’s hands,’ says ‘God, you’re gonna have to fix this.’ (Think Progress)
  • Wis. GOP state senate candidate: ‘Why not teach creationism’ and put a cross in school? (TPM)
  • Poor Rupert Murdoch is 'annoyed' with all these negative headlines about his company (allegedly) hacking 9/11 victims' private voicemails. (WSJ)
  • Michele Bachmann wants to make sure you know she's not pro-slavery. (Mediaite)


Tim Pawlenty Wants To Tell You (For Six Minutes) That He's A Christian

Sometimes I think that the 2011 GOP presidential nomination is going to be one big Jesus-a-thon, with each potential candidate trying to outdo the other with their over-the-top Christian-ness. Some have gone so far that they may just have screwed the pooch (sorry, bad pun in the case of Santorum). Bachmann is praying the gay away. Perry, although not committed yet to running for the nomination, is presiding over a hate-filled Jesus-palooza. Gingrich and Cain can't stop publicly maligning Muslims. And Romney has made it clear that, although Mormons have some wacky beliefs, Jesus is just alright with him.

In the following video, Tim Pawlenty and his wife look lovingly into each other's eyes and declare their love for Jesus, and for each other, rejecting the separation of church and state and gay marriage along the way. All to the soundtrack of a Valtrex ad.

Jesus, protect me from your followers.

Illusion Turns Pretty Women Into Freaky Monsters

It's called the flashed face distortion effect, and it's one of the freakiest illusions you've likely seen.

The illusion was discovered accidentally by Sean C Murphy, along with colleagues Jason M Tangen and Matthew B Thompson.

According to the abstract:

We describe a novel face distortion effect resulting from the fast-paced presentation of eye-aligned faces. When cycling through the faces on a computer screen, each face seems to become a caricature of itself and some faces appear highly deformed, even grotesque. The degree of distortion is greatest for faces that deviate from the others in the set on a particular dimension (eg if a person has a large forehead, it looks particularly large). This new method of image presentation, based on alignment and speed, could provide a useful tool for investigating contrastive distortion effects and face adaptation.

Follow the instructions accompanying the video and see for yourself.


Bachmann's 'Pray The Gay Away' Business: Undercover Video

Responding to accusations that his counseling service is in the business of 'praying the gay away,' Marcus Bachmann has stated, "If someone is interested in talking to us about their homosexuality, we are open to talking about that. But if someone comes in a homosexual and they want to stay homosexual, I don't have a problem with that."

The hidden video obtained by ABC News begs to differ.

The following health organizations have made statements critical of conversion therapy, claiming that the 'therapy' can be harmful, or even fatal, to patients: the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

Spanish Priest Accused of Homosexuality: 'Measure My Anus'

Andrés García Torres, a priest in the Madrid dormitory town of Fuenlabrada, has been asked to step down after a photo surfaced of the priest in a shirtless embrace with a 28 year old Cuban seminarian.

According to a report, Torres has been ordered by the bishop to undergo psychiatric therapy to ‘cure’ his homosexuality, and to have an HIV test administered.

Torres claims that he and the seminarian are only friends, and has plans to go to Rome to challenge the claims.

"Let them measure my anus and see if it is dilated," said Torres.

Torres says that his mother has cried nonstop since the accusations. The locals of Fuenlabrada reportedly praise Torres as a dedicated and caring priest. He has gained over 1,000 signatures of support.

I'm not sure what is more maddening about this story: the fact that Torres has been labeled as gay based on a benign photo, the fact that being gay is considered to be an abomination by the church, or the fact that Torres thinks that measuring one's anus could confirm one's sexual orientation.

NOTE: There seems to be more to the story than can be gleaned by the English versions of this story (Spanish stories here), but I barely passed Spanish in college. Spanish-fluent readers, feel free to comment/elaborate.


Herman Cain is Dropping Some Gospel Tracks on Your Asses

Herman Cain's gospel album leaked today, and, well, it's something.

According to a Cain spokesperson, the album is unfortunately not new, but is enjoying a bit of a resurgence on the Interwebs due to Cain being a presidential hopeful and all.

You can check out the tracks below. I mean, it ain't no John Ashcroft, but then again, what is?

The Supporters of Rick Perry's Prayer Rally, In Their Own Words

No commentary necessary.

Does The GOP Really Want A President Who Believes We Are In The Last Days?

Bachmann and homophobic BFF Bradlee Dean
For a party that seems to think Obama is out to destroy America, GOP voters seem to really like Michele Bachmann, who seems to believe the end days are upon us.

In 2008, Michele Bachmann served up an insane prayer for her homophobic heavy metal BFF's You Can Run But You Cannot Hide ministry. Remember him? Bradlee Dean? He's the one who said (during the opening prayer at the Minnesota House of Representatives) that Obama is a Muslim.

Anyway, in her prayer for his ministry, Bachmann says all kinds of wackiness, including, "We are in the last days" and "the Harvest is at hand," and how there's a "fire of the gospel" sweeping Minnesota and turning it into a "sweet-smelling incense of praise and sacrifice."

Click play, close your eyes (there is no accompanying video) and imagine this woman as the president of the United States.

What a freak show.


Poll Shows Way Too Many People Take The Bible Literally

According to a recent Gallup poll, 3 in 10 Americans take the Bible literally, saying it is the actual word of God. Although this is lower than the 40% recorded in 1980 and 1984 by Gallup, it is up from the low point of 21% in 2001.

49% say the Bible is the inspired word of God but that it should not be taken literally, while 17% consider the Bible an ancient collection of stories recorded by man.

Additional findings from the poll show that frequent church attendees (those who attend weekly) are most likely to view the bible as the literal word of God, while those who rarely (or never) attend are more likely to view the Bible as the inspired word of god, or mythology.

This may seem benign to many, but let's consider what this means, exactly. Assuming that this 30% is as familiar with the text as they think, we must assume that they believe the following to be true events in history:

God made the heavens and the earth in seven days. Gen. 1; 2

God made a dude out of dirt, and then, later, as an afterthought, took the dude's rib and fashioned a lady out of it. Gen. 1

The entire earth was flooded for 150 days. Gen. 7

A dude built a boat and put two of every living species on Earth on the boat (because God told him to).  He kept all of them afloat and fed for 150 days.  Gen. 6:14-22; 7:8; Matt. 24:38; Luke 17:27; Heb. 11:7; 1 Pet. 3:20

A dude's cane turned into a snake. Ex. 4:3,4,30; 7:10,12

A dude's wife was turned into a condiment. Gen. 19:26

A dude parted a sea. Ex. 14:22.

A dude's donkey talked to him.  Num. 22:23-30

A bush in flames talked to a dude. Ex. 3:2-5; Acts 7:30

A dude was fed by an angel. 1 Kin. 19:1-8

A dude made an entire army go blind. Kin. 6:18

A dude hung out for a while in a fish's belly. Jonah 1:17

A dude turned water into wine. John 2:1-11

A dude fed 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Matt. 14:15-21; Mark 6:35-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:5-14

A dude walked on the sea. Matt. 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-52; John 6:16-21

A dude pulled money from a fish's mouth. Matt. 17:24-27

A dude brought a bunch of other dudes back to life. Matt. 9:18,19,23-26; Mark 5:22-24,35-43; Luke 8:41,42,49-56; John 11:1-46; Luke 7:11-16
A dude healed all kinds of handicapped people (blind, crippled, lepers, deaf, mute, demoniacs, you name it) John 4:46-54; John 5:1-16; Matt. 12:22-37; Mark 3:11; Luke 11:14,15; Matt. 9:27-31; Mark 7:31-37
A virgin had a baby. Matt. 1:23; Luke 1:27,34

A dude came back from the dead. Matt. 28:6,7 Mark 16:6,7; Luke 24:5-7; John 20:1-18

After he came back from the dead, that dude floated up to heaven, body and all. Mark 16:19,20; Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9-12.

This is only a fraction of the fantastical, supernatural claims made in The Bible.  One could fill a whole book with them (oh, wait).

If anyone claimed any of the above events occurred today, we would consider them to be delusional, insane, or a ridiculously gullible victim of someone's tall tale. What gives these fantastical, supernatural biblical events their legitimacy is, quite simply, their inclusion in a text that is believed to be the word of God. This is circular reasoning at its finest: "The Bible is literally true, because The Bible tells us it is literally true. If any of it is not literally true, then we can't trust any of it, and that's not possible."

We must ask ourselves why it is that these fantastical, supernatural events only seem to occur during and prior to the Bronze Age, and in the future.  This leaves us with a large gap of zero fantastical events of a biblical scale.  In between what we think occurred, and what we expect will occur, we are lucky to get a Cheeto shaped like Jesus.

This is not just about debunking religion.  These literal beliefs have real-life impacts. When we believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, we deny human rights, we impede progress in medicine, we condone wars, we are complicit in the submission of women, we subscribe to religious exceptionalism, and we deny the realities of the natural world and of the cosmos.  Until we come to terms with the fact that the Bible includes mythology, legend, and parables, we perpetuate suffering and condone harm. There is impact on decisions that are made every single day in the halls of governments across the country.

And as we have seen from the potential GOP presidential candidates, a few are having a hard time separating their literal religious beliefs from public policy.

The thirty percent finding from Gallup is not a number we can should feel comfortable with.  It is not a stretch to state that 30% of Americans are incapable of thinking critically, do not have a grasp on the fundamental laws of nature, and reject basic science.  And a good portion of those folks are penning legislation at this moment.

4-Year-Old Boy Was Killed By NC Religious Extremist Because He Was Thought To Be Gay

Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty against Peter Lucas Moses Jr., a religious extremist who allegedly killed Jadon Higganbothan, 4, and Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy, 28 in a Durham home.

Jadon Higganbothan was shot in the head because Moses believed that the 4-year-old was gay.

Moses subscribed to the beliefs of the Black Hebrews. Although the beliefs of Black Hebrews vary, according to court documents, Moses allegedly subscribed to the belief that a forthcoming race war would leave African Americans dominant and supreme. Moses lived with multiple women referred to as wives or common-law wives, each of whom referred to Moses as "Lord."

According to the News and Observer:
Sometime in October 2010, prosecutors told the judge, one of the women told the defendant that Jadon had hit another child's bottom, and Moses retaliated because he thought the boy might be homosexual - partially because the child's father had left his mother.

Homosexuality, Cline contended, is frowned upon by the Black Hebrews, so the defendant asked the boy's mother to get rid of him.

Moses then ordered two of the other women to set up computers and speakers in the garage, prosecutors contend, then the defendant took the boy into the garage, where music and the Lord's Prayer in Hebrew blared, and a gunshot sounded. One of the women told investigators the boy was shot in the head.

Some of the women cleaned up his bloodied body, prosecutors said, then put it in a suitcase in the master bedroom until Moses complained about the smell.

Antoinetta McKoy was killed within weeks or months of the boy (the prosecutors are unsure of the exact time of death). Prosecutors maintain that, according to a diary entry, McKoy feared that "Lord" might kill her because she found out she was unable to have children.

McKoy's body was kept in a trash can inside the home before it was buried in a shallow grave near the boy's, according to prosecutors.


Symphony of Science: "Children of Africa (The Story of Us)"

The tenth Symphony of Science offering, "Children of Africa (The Story of Us)" has been released and is well worth a few minutes of your time.
A musical celebration of humanity, its origins, and achievements, contrasted with a somber look at our environmentally destructive tendencies and deep similarities with other primates. Featuring Jacob Bronowski, Alice Roberts, Carolyn Porco, Jane Goodall, Robert Sapolsky, Neil deGrasse Tyson and David Attenborough.

If you're new to the project, take some time to enjoy the nine previous offerings.


From the Guy Who Gave Us 'Veggie Tales': 'What's In The Bible?'

You'd have to have been in a coma for the past 18 years to not know about Veggie Tales, the Christianity-based anthropomorphic vegetable show (and movies) for kids. You'd also have to have avoided a Chick-Fil-A, as it seems there is perpetually some Veggie Tales tie-in with their kids meals. (Chick-Fil-A, of course, being the Christianity-based (and anti-LGBT) fast food chain where actual vegetables are scarce).

Veggie Tales co-creator, Phil Vischer, has created an online network for kids called Jelly Telly. His goal is to grow Jelly Telly into a Christian Nickelodeon of sorts. The venture is partly funded by Focus on the Family, James Dobson's tax exempt non-profit organization founded in 1977. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described Focus on the Family as one of a "dozen major groups [which] help drive the religious right's anti-gay crusade."

Lots of folks would assume that Jelly Telly and its programs are fairly benign, but the association with Focus on the Family should be enough to raise concern about whether any of the 'Christian values' threaded through Jelly Telly's programming also help drive the religious right's ideology into the minds of young children.

One Jelly Telly property that is gaining in popularity is a new DVD series based on the network titled What's In The Bible. The show features a mix of puppetry, animation, and musical performances. Kind of in the same vein as Jack's Big Music Show or The Muppet Show.

In an introduction to the series, Phil Vischer tells us that the Bible is the "most widely owned, least widely read in history. It sits on more shelves, gathering more dust, than any book in the world." I would agree with him there. He continues, "And yet this book holds the keys to understanding our lives." That certainly is the opinion of many.

Vischer says, "We have a crisis in the church today. Sixty-five percent of kids are dropping out of church as soon as they graduate from high school. We need to do something about this."

What's Phil going to do? He continues: "We're gonna walk kids through the Bible all the way from Genesis to Revelation and answer their big questions about who wrote it, and where it came from, and why we can trust it, and what difference does it make."

The series contains 5 DVD's, and I have not viewed the material outside of the clips that can be found online, but from what I can gather, the series steers clear of the tired fundamentalism associated with Young Earth Creationism and biblical literalism. So that is somewhat of a relief.

For example, it was refreshing to see that they describe up front how the Bible is a collection of writings (including letters, poems, etc.) written by over 40 people over the course of 1600 years, instead of insinuating that it's one book written by God which should be taken 100% literally.

However, as a secular parent, I personally am not too crazy about the idea of presenting The Bible in this way to children (Christian or otherwise).  While I certainly believe that some of The Bible's themes (i.e. empathy, good will, sacrifice, compassion, etc.) are important to instill in a child at a young age (these are not unique to Christianity, or to any religion), I think many of the Bible's themes, even some of those simplified and presented here in this series, are capable of doing more damage to a child than people realize.

I'm all for religious literacy.  I think too many people, including the devout, do not know enough about religion.  However, there is a big difference between teaching about religion and religious indoctrination, which is precisely what is going on in What's In The Bible?

We don't learn from the series that "many people believe X and Y." We learn that, "This is the truth, straight from God, and this is the doctrine you must follow to avoid misery in life." Of course, I expect as much from Phil Vischer and Focus on the Family. He's not teaching Religion 101 to children. This is not a Unitarian Universalist show.  He's planting the seeds of Christian faith (and all that comes along with it, good and bad) in the minds of impressionable children who have no reason to reject what they are being spoon-fed.

Phil seems to have taken to heart the Jesuit maxim, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man."

While I am sure that many children enjoy the series (there are quite a few children's reviews on YouTube, many of which aren't terribly convincing), and while I'm sure that many of Vischer's young viewers will grow into fine grownups, I can't help but think about the ones that are being primed for a life of Christian exceptionalism.  To be indoctrinated at a young age with the belief that there is only one route to salvation, and that thinking differently will lead to misery and damnation, is to be primed for intolerance (not to mention undue anxiety and guilt).  Sure, this is just a t.v. show, one that does the same thing that Sunday school did for previous generations, and many of us turned out just fine. But Sunday school was never presented with such production value, and quite honestly most of us didn't pay much attention.  Vischer's intention is to get the child's attention by imitating the entertainment they see on Clubhouse Disney and Nick Jr., and then start in with Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus.

Granted, much of children's programming is irreverent, abstract, and sometimes a little creepy (Barney, anyone?), but I would think some of this series' segments could be rather terrifying to a child, because the show speaks about the child -- about her life (and afterlife), her soul, and her fate as it relates to her behavior and her beliefs.  This, when you think about it, is really quite heavy, and quite disturbing for children's programming.  The child is presented with concepts that appear to have serious implications. Yo Gabba Gabba it's not.

For example, if we view the section on Genesis below, from a young child's perspective, we learn that God is male, that we shouldn't trust ourselves (it will make God angry at us), and that sins are small terrifying monsters that will attack you, ride around on your back forever, and cause facial blemishes.

I kid (sorta), but young children do not need to be saddled with supernatural concepts of salvation, eternal damnation, and sin.  Young children can be taught to be moral, compassionate, and ethical without invoking the supernatural, and without employing guilt, insecurity, and fear.

The truth is, even the above segment, which is actually some fucked up shit to lay on a toddler when you think about it, is tame in comparison to what's really in the Bible.

At what point, Phil, are you going to tell the kids about what else is in the Bible: slavery, selling your daughter, dashing babies against the rocks, killing kids who sass their parents, killing brides who are not still virgins, killing those who follow other religions, women as submissives who cannot teach, killing those who work on the sabbath, etc., etc.  I look forward to seeing those episodes.

My point in bringing up those barbaric passages is that, despite the fact that the Genesis clip above does not contain killing or raping or slavery does not make it any less distressing to a child.  In fact, describing how ancient civilizations committed barbaric acts for their god is much more abstract and less harmful to a child than saddling them with the concepts of sin, damnation, and pleasing an all-knowing, always-watching, supernatural man in the sky who holds their very fate in his hands.

What do I suggest as an alternative to What's in The Bible?  What alternative means do we have to instill our children with morality, ethics, and compassion?  We can best serve our children by teaching them, in real world, non-supernatural terms, why it is important to treat others with compassion and respect, and why it serves society to act morally.  We can best serve our children by teaching them about the world around them -- its people (and their wide range of beliefs), its cultures, and its beauty. We can explain to them why humanity rewards compassion and honesty, and why harmful actions are rejected. We can even point to examples of this that predate monotheism.  We can draw from religion, for sure (religious literacy, after all, right?).  Many religious traditions feature wonderful stories that highlight the merits of being a moral person -- they are literature, after all.  But there are just as many, if not more, wonderful stories (or other means of teaching) that fall outside of religion, and which are just as effective (and which don't have those pesky raping, killing, slave-holding parts to avoid).

While many atheists and secularists believe that children should be shielded from religion, I tend to believe that they need to learn about it.  Our culture, especially here in America, is steeped in religion. Our wars are based partly on religious clashes. Clashes the world over have at their root religious disagreements.  To shield a child from knowledge of religion is not much different than shielding them from history or biology.  However, the key is teaching children about religion in the way that we teach them about different cultures. Muslims believe X. Buddhists believe Y. Christians believe Z. Etc., etc. Teach them that even within each religion, there exists an entire spectrum of beliefs. Teach them that religion can be used for good and evil, and provide them with examples.  And most importantly teach them that they can choose what (or if) they believe when they feel they wish to make that decision.  And most importantly, that they can change their minds.

So, I say, "Thumbs down, Phil Vischer." "Thumbs down, What's In The Bible."  I appreciate that you're not telling children that the earth is 6,000 years old, that people cohabited with dinosaurs, or that homosexuality is an abomination.  But I do think that you're putting blinders on children. (I also realize this might be your intention.)

If there were a way to groom children into a life of Christian exceptionalism, serving up religious dogma masquerading as a Nick Jr.-style musical puppet show wouldn't be the worst way to go about it.