5.27.2011

'Children Full of Life': Lessons in Compassion

We keep hearing about the decline of empathy in America's youth.  Empathy is an evolved trait, and is not confined to humans, or even to primates.  Infants have been shown to exhibit empathic behavior.

Although it's unclear what could account for a decline, Sarah Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor theorizes that increased isolation in recent decades has played a significant role.  It's not that we are no longer "hard-wired" for empathy, but that it is more fluid than we had perhaps believed.  This is not necessarily bad news.  It means that, although we can become less empathic through increased isolation, we can encourage and nurture empathy to create a more empathic society.

Enter homeroom teacher Toshiro Kanamori and his 4th grade class in a primary school in Kanazawa, northwest of Tokyo. He, and his class, are the subject of an award-winning documentary entitled Children Full of Life. The film was released in 2003, but I was only recently made aware of it, and I think it deserves much wider circulation. Thankfully, for those like myself who missed this gem, the film can be viewed online in full.

The film should serve as an example to parents and educators everywhere. It is a powerful reminder that happiness is an important part of living a successful life. And in order for us to live happy, successful lives, especially in our modern and increasingly isolated society, we must learn the importance of compassion, openness, and communication.

From the NHK Japan Prize Jury Comments:
This is a simple story, well told, that captures the essence of education. The program is an intimate portrait of a teacher and his classroom which subtlety presents a path for all educators who face the challenge of preparing students for life. Unobtrusively capturing extraordinary moments of drama and emotion inside a single Japanese classroom, the documentary demonstrates how individual teachers occasionally exhibit remarkable powers to shape the future of their students.
The documentary elicits tears of laughter and sadness as students and viewers discover the value of sharing powerful emotions, giving meaning to the life and death issues that arise in the classroom. Incidents of bullying, language instruction and outdoor activities are all opportunities to educate in this “School of Life”. Never preachy nor pedantic, the documentary reduces the myriad issues in education to a simple message - learning to care.
It is a powerful and inspiring piece of work.  It underscores the important role our educators play in our children's lives.  It urges us to address the changing educational needs of children in our rapidly evolving and increasingly complex societies.

Part 1 below (each successive part can be accessed at the end of each part):



5.26.2011

What Does Science Have To Say About Life After Death?

Physicist and cosmologist Sean M. Carroll sure did step in it. Hot on the heels of Stephen Hawking's assertion that heaven (or any afterlife, for that matter) was "a fairy story for people afraid of the dark," Carroll has published a Scientific American piece entitled Physics and the Immortality of the Soul, that is quite clear on what physics has to say on the topic. And for such a nice guy, he certainly doesn't sugar-coat it.

Now there are many who, like Stephen Jay Gould, assert that there are things on which science and religion do not overlap. Many cite this non-overlapping magisteria when arguing the existence of God, the afterlife, or souls. However, we can't discount the degree of improbability of life after death given the laws of physics.

Carroll explains:
Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there's no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren't any sensible answers to these questions. Of course, everything we know about quantum field theory could be wrong. Also, the Moon could be made of green cheese.

Among advocates for life after death, nobody even tries to sit down and do the hard work of explaining how the basic physics of atoms and electrons would have to be altered in order for this to be true. If we tried, the fundamental absurdity of the task would quickly become evident.
Further on:
Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV. The questions are these: what form does that spirit energy take, and how does it interact with our ordinary atoms? Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can't be a new collection of "spirit particles" and "spirit forces" that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments. Ockham's razor is not on your side here, since you have to posit a completely new realm of reality obeying very different rules than the ones we know.
Carroll then goes into The Dirac Equation and demonstrates, as simply as a particle physicist can, that it requires an amazing amount of metaphysical shoehorning and the chucking out of everything we know to put any credence in the afterlife concept.
There's no reason to be agnostic about ideas that are dramatically incompatible with everything we know about modern science. Once we get over any reluctance to face reality on this issue, we can get down to the much more interesting questions of how human beings and consciousness really work.
I'm reminded of Carl Sagan's feelings on the afterlife:
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
If we think about where the concept of the afterlife originated, we must look to our ancestors -- ancestors who, if they were lucky, lived only a fraction of the time we will live.   These ancestors had only a fraction of the knowledge we now have at our fingertips -- knowledge of the interconnectedness of all living things, knowledge of the world, and of the cosmos.  Perhaps, as our knowledge and our lifespans continue to increase, we will find (as we are beginning to see in modern European secular societies), that we do not need the promise of an afterlife.  Isn't this life more than enough?

Silver Bullet Gun Oil: Laced With Pig Fat to Deny Muslims Paradise

The Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch blog reports on a mysterious company selling a product called Silver Bullet Gun Oil. The gun oil is targeted towards the US military, according to their dubious online pitch, and is laced with 13% pig fat with the intention of denying Muslims entrance to paradise.

The Website exclaims (in ridiculous overuse of ALL-CAPS):
SILVER BULLET GUN OIL, is a HIGHLY EFFECTIVE Counter-Islamic terrorist force multiplier. SILVER BULLET GUN OIL was designed specifically to put Demoralizing FEAR and TERROR into SUPPOSEDLY "Fearless" Islamo-Fascist terrorists. It was created with the "TRUE BELIEVER'' in mind. According to the Koran, Allah states, "Any of my followers contaminated by swine at the time of his death will be denied entry to my paradise forever, I HATE THE STENCH OF SWINE."

SILVER BULLET GUN OIL can be used in or on ALL weapons and weapons systems. Put a drop on the remains of ''suicide bombers'' for the same effect-No Paradise! FOR MAXIMUM IMPACT DOWNRANGE; USE ''SILVER BULLET'' AND MAKE SURE THE ISLAMO-FASCIST COWARDS KNOW IT!
The company makes the claim that their product has been used widely throughout the US Armed Forces and by police tactical teams.

It's important to note that the company (which lists no physical address or contacts) claims it isn't at all discriminatory:
THIS PRODUCT IS FOR USE ON ARMED MUSLIM TERRORISTS ONLY.
WE DO NOT PROMOTE DISCRIMINATION AGAINST ANY RACE OR RELIGION, ONLY TERRORISTS.
Upon seeing the Website, most would likely wonder if these guys are for real.  The folks at the SPLC wondered the same thing, and sent off for the oil:
The gun oil arrived in a box postmarked from Courtland, Va., a town of about 1,300 people 50 miles southwest of Norfolk. Included with the gun oil were decals and playing cards – the ace of spades printed with the words “One Shot, One Soul” to put on the bodies of dead Muslims. Also included in the package was a biography of a World War I American general who supposedly executed 49 Muslims in the Philippines with bullets soaked in pig’s blood.
A gentleman who goes by the name "The Midnight Rider," a self-proclaimed "Servant of Yaweh" has a lot to get off his chest.   A few paragraphs into his description of the company's production, he unleashes a wandering, page-long diatribe that would make Ted Nugent blush, featuring nuggets like the following:
"We the PEOPLE" are sick of playing with a bunch of COWARDLY Voodoo Heathen cave dwelling
baby murderers. Believe what you want for your so-called "Religion of PEACE" but DON'T try to make
AMERICANS believe the ravings of MOHAMMED the pedophile murderer,or his sycophant followers
who advocate the wholesale slaughter of women and children and non-believers in the Muslim
Sharia type of NAZISM.

LAY DOWN YOUR WEAPONS AND GO BACK TO YOUR HOMES OR HOVELS OR whatever SHITPIT you come from or SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCE OF DEATH AND THE UNENDING PAIN OF ETERNAL HELL.
But let's be clear: they do not promote discrimination against any race or religion.

Can I Interest You In The Severed Head of the Saint of Genital Disease?

Via the BBC:
The severed head of a man said to be the patron saint of genital disease will go on auction in County Meath on Sunday.

The skull is allegedly that of St Vitalis of Assisi, an Italian Benedictine monk from the 14th century.

It belonged to an Anglo-Irish family from County Louth, and is housed in a Queen Anne case dating from the 17th century.

There has been no official verification of the claim.

St Vitalis was born in Umbria, Italy, and is said to have lived an immoral and licentious youth.

In an attempt to atone for his early sins, he later undertook pilgrimages to shrines throughout Europe, eventually entering the Benedictine monastery at Subiaco.

After leaving the monastery, he lived the remainder of his life as a hermit near Assisi.

It is said that he wore only rags and shunned all material wealth, with the exception of a basket which he used to fetch water from a nearby stream.

He died in 1370, and word of his sanctity soon spread due to reports of numerous miracles performed on those with bladder and genital disorders.
The head could fetch up to $1,650 at auction. Unfortunately, Michael Jackson is unable to bid.

Study: Born-Again Believers Have Smaller Brains

A new study from Duke University Medical Center suggests that mainline Protestants have larger brains than born-again Christians, Catholics, and the religiously unaffiliated.

The study, which examined the hippocampus region of the brain, found that Protestants who did not have a "born again" experience had significantly more gray matter than either those who reported a life-changing religious experience, Catholics, or unaffiliated older adults.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Templeton Foundation, included at least two MRI measurements of the hippocampus region of 268 adults between 1994 and 2005.

It found an association between participants' professed religious affiliation and the physical structure of their brain. Specifically, those identified as Protestant who did not have a religious conversion or born-again experience — more common among their evangelical brethren — had a bigger hippocampus.

What does this all mean?

The hippocampus helps regulate emotion and memory, among other things, and shrinkage of it has been linked to Alzheimer's, dementia, and depression. Although the researchers believe there needs to be more research, they have speculated that perhaps the shrinkage in this case could be related to the stress of belonging to a minority group. (Atheists, if included in the religiously unaffiliated, would certainly be a minority as well.)

However, sociologists aren't so sure about this assumption. While born-again Christians are certainly a minority, they make up 40% of the population. The percentage increases as you move into the South. This is not exactly a minority in the truest sense.

If stress is indeed the reason behind the shrinkage, it would certainly dovetail with another recent study showing that those who deny evolution are more likely to experience anxiety about death (and we know that born-again Christians are more likely to deny evolution).

The research seems to present more questions than it answers: Could geography -- factoring in genetic, cultural, and environmental factors -- have something to do with the findings (the pool of participants were somewhat geographically constrained)? And most pressing, was this really a federally funded study?

5.25.2011

The Batshit Files: News Roundup | 5.25.11

  • Multimillionaire hatemonger and failed doomsday prophet Pat Robertson's organization calls multimillionaire hatemonger and failed doomsday prophet Harold Camping a "Fringe Preacher." (CBN)
  • A class on gender diversity "featuring all-girl geckos and transgender clownfish" at an Oakland, California elementary school has conservative groups in an uproar. What's next, asexual aphids? Oh, wait. (Towleroad)
  • Oprah Winfrey, whose final interviewee is apparently Oprah Winfrey, reveals that "Nobody but Jesus could have made this happen for me." (Gather.com)
  • Herman Cain never said he wouldn't have any Muslims in his administration. Except that one time when he did. (Right Wing Watch)
  • Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) says women should plan ahead for rape: "I have a spare tire." (ThinkProgress)
  • Peter Fonda is training his grandchildren to use rifles. Why? "Well, I’m not going to say the words ‘Barack Obama’, but …” (Balloon Juice
  • St. David Hasselhoff: The Hoff claims to have brought kids out of comas. (OpposingViews)
  • The Arizona shooting that killed 6 and wounded Gabrielle Giffords? Just a government hoax using actors, says conspiracy theorists. (New York Times)
  • Anti-vaxxers continue to fuck up herd immunity; their choice not to vaccinate affects those too young to receive the vaccination. (BoingBoing)


Church Congregation Doubles Under 29-Year-Old Pretty Blonde Vicar


Via the Daily Mail...

Whatever it was that Stephanie ‘Steph’ Nadarajah brought to the masses, the Word quickly spread.

In six months since taking up her new ministry, the 29 year-old former NHS manager has seen Sunday congregations double in size from an average 75 to a respectable 150 plus.

Leave it to the Daily Mail to go with this cheeky caption to Nadarajah's photograph:

Reverend Stephanie Nadarajah has swelled the congregation at St Mary the Virgin Church in Caterham, Surrey

Certainly Naradjah is more than a pretty face:

Steph is a far more modern thinker – she has a Facebook page, keeps fit by running, enjoys fine wine and loves shopping. And yes, she is only too aware of what TV’s Vicar of Dibley had done for women in the church. ‘It’s mentioned all the time,’ she said.

‘It did a lot for women’s ministry in making it acceptable for women to be ordained. But let’s make it more ordinary.’

Parishioner Andrew Spencer, 52, welcomed her arrival: ‘It’s great to see an attractive young lady at the church,’ he said. ‘She’s not just a pretty face though – she’s intelligent and a great listener.’


5.24.2011

Reflections on The Rapture That Wasn't

It appears that we needed the rapture more than it needed us.  The cultural and political landscape was ripe for Harold Camping and his May 21 prediction.  We have witnessed earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, and tornadoes that rival the most devastating natural disasters on record. We have seen, time and time again, religious leaders state that these events were doled out as punishment, or warnings, from an angry god.  We have heard repeated claims that President Obama is the antichrist.  This was simply the next step in ratcheting up the heightened religious rhetoric of recent years.  But Camping and his ilk are really not as crazy as we'd like to think.

In America, 38% believe that God employs natural events to dispense judgment.  If we look at evangelicals, this number jumps to 60%.  So, clearly, this idea of an angry god who punishes non-believers is far from fringe stuff.  Nearly 4 out of 10 people actually believe that God punishes humans through violent devastation and catastrophic loss of life.

Is it really a stretch to go from belief in an angry, punishing god to the belief in the rapture?  Based on modern interpretations of the rapture, the wrath doled out during the tribulation would include war, disasters, famine, sickness, etc.  The same stuff, yet on a grander scale.  And approximately the same numbers believe in the rapture as believe God punishes us with disasters: 41% say the rapture will occur within the next 40 years (80% believe the rapture will occur at some point in time). 

So, when we look at Harold Camping and Family Radio, most of us see a bunch of loons.  Yet so many of us believe the same things Harold Camping believes.  How do we reconcile this?  There is only one detail that separates him from 80% of Americans: the fact that he believed he knew the date. It reminds me of the Woody Allen joke:

This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken." And, the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, "I would, but I need the eggs."

Family Radio is a tax-free non-profit venture. They own 66 radio stations worldwide, and are worth $72 million according to 2009 IRS statements.  Most of us find this to be maddening.  He has amassed a fortune by swindling people into believing his crazy stories!  Yet, his story is one with which 80% of Americans agree -- except that one detail: the date.  If he preached all of the same stuff, yet never set a date, he wouldn't be any different from the majority of us.  This should be alarming.

I wonder if perhaps the difference between Camping and the other 80% of Americans who believe the rapture will occur is the fact that Camping (and many of his followers) were willing to put their money where their mouth was.  If the 80% of rapture believers were put to some kind of test -- whether putting their face on a billboard that says, "I believe that the rapture will occur!" in the town that they live and work, or, for those who believe the rapture will occur in the next 40 years, signing over all their belongings at the 40 year mark, I wonder how many would think again.

The failed rapture prediction was not harmless.  Many sold all their belongings and wiped out their savings.  Families were torn apart.  In Vietnam, hundreds of ethnic Hmong were forced into hiding after security forces dispersed thousands who had convened to await Jesus' return.  There are reports of rapture-related suicides.

One of the more heartbreaking stories involved a California woman who slit her two daughters' throats with boxcutters, before slitting her own throat. Her intention was to save her family from suffering the tribulation. Fortunately, all survived, but certainly the event has caused irreparable psychological damage that will affect this family, and those close to them, for the rest of their lives.  Of course, we do not know if this woman was mentally ill (one would certainly think so), but if we take the rapture claims into consideration, the act could be considered one of great compassion.  When we believe in fantastical religious concepts, we can justify nearly anything.

We are able to cast judgment on others who do things that we believe to be crazy.  We believe these people to be crazy because their beliefs are different from ours.  Often, however, their beliefs are closer to our own than we might realize.  How many degrees separate our beliefs? How many degrees until our beliefs cross the line into delusional?

We often forget that the Bible is full of crazy.  It is full of crazy by anyone's standards.  Let's take a look at a few examples:
  • No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:1)
  • If two men, a man and his countryman, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; you shall not show pity. (Deuteronomy 25:11-12)
  • Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourself every girl who has never slept with a man. (Numbers 31:17-18)
  • Happy [shall he be], that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. (Psalm 137:9)
    • This is what the Lord says: Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass .... And Saul ... utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. (1 Samuel 15:3,7-8)
    • The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The Lord takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and dries it up; he makes all the rivers run dry. Bashan and Carmel wither and the blossoms of Lebanon fade.The mountains quake before him and the hills melt away. The earth trembles at his presence, the world and all who live in it. Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire; the rocks are shattered before him. The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. (Nahum 1:2)
    Yes, a real refuge in times of trouble, it appears.

    I'm not naive. I know that the above scriptures cannot be cherry-picked and paraded around as evidence of God as a maniacal, genocidal, barbaric, egotistical monster. There is context, to be sure. (Although, I'm not convinced that context can explain away some of those examples.)  I also know that we cannot ignore these passages and only cherry-pick those which suit our carefully honed personal idea of God.  You have to accept him, warts and all, or do a hell of a lot of shoehorning. 

    My reason for listing a few examples (believe me, there's plenty where that came from) depicting God as what we would define by modern DSM standards as psychopathic is to illustrate that folks like Camping, and the lady who sliced her girls' throats, are really no crazier than the scripture which likely informed their ideology (and their actions).

    What do you believe? And why? Are your reasons rational? Isn't life and death (and possibly eternal life) important enough for us to really examine the rationale for our beliefs? Are your beliefs supported by anything other than an ancient text which we know to be replete with contradictions, errors, and highly questionable morality? (Yes, there are also many wonderful instances of beauty, and fine instances of morality as well.)  Are these beliefs essential to living a fulfilling life as a contributing member of society?

    There is a thought experiment put forth by Sam Harris in The End of Faith that underscores the fact that most of our beliefs have more to do with tradition and our place in space and time than they do anything else:

    "What if all our knowledge about the world were suddenly to disappear? Imagine that six billion of us wake up tomorrow morning in a state of utter ignorance and confusion. Our books and computers are still here, but we can't make heads or tails of their contents. We have even forgotten how to drive our cars and brush our teeth. What knowledge would we want to reclaim first? Well, there's that business about growing food and building shelter that we would want to get reacquainted with. We would want to relearn how to use and repair many of our machines. Learning to understand spoken and written language would also be a top priority, given that these skills are necessary for acquiring most others. When in this process of reclaiming our humanity will it be important to know that Jesus was born of a virgin? Or that he was resurrected? And how would we relearn these truths, if they are indeed true? By reading the Bible? Our tour of the shelves will deliver similar pearls from antiquity, like the "fact" that Isis, the goddess of fertility, sports an impressive pair of cow horns. Reading further, we will learn that Thor carries a hammer and that Marduk's sacred animals are horses, dogs, and a dragon with a forked tongue. Whom shall we give top billing in our resurrected world? Yaweh or Shiva? And when will we want to relearn that premarital sex is a sin? Or that adulteresses should be stoned to death? Or that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception? And what will we think of those curious people who begin proclaiming that one of our books is distinct from all others in that it was actually written by the Creator of the universe?

    There are undoubtedly spiritual truths that we would want to relearn—once we manage to feed and clothe ourselves—and these are truths that we have learned imperfectly in our present state. How is it possible, for instance, to overcome one's fear and inwardness and simply love other human beings ? Assume, for the moment, that such a process of personal transformation exists and that there is something worth knowing about it; there is, in other words, some skill, or discipline, or conceptual understanding, or dietary supplement that allows for the reliable transformation of fearful, hateful, or indifferent persons into loving ones. If so, we should be positively desperate to know about it. There may even be a few biblical passages that would be useful in this regard—but as for whole rafts of untestable doctrines, clearly there would be no reasonable basis to take them up again. The Bible and Koran, it seems certain, would find themselves respectfully shelved next to Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Egyptian Book of the Dead."
    I know that the above passage will anger many who read it.  We put up defenses when our long-held beliefs (and for many, our religious heritage) are compared to the many dead religions of the world.  Yet we must not hide from the fact that there will be a time when our civilization will share shelf space with the ancient Greeks, the Mayans, or the Egyptians who built the pyramids.  To deny this is to deny the vastness of time.  How and why are your supernatural beliefs going to outlive our civilization? (If the rapture doesn't come first, of course.)  If you, like 80% of Americans, believe that the rapture will occur, why do you believe it?  Most likely, because you read it in a book or heard it in church.

    Dave Muscato, of MU SASHA (University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics) wrote:
    Now, imagine that a pharmaceutical company had a drug that repeated, controlled-condition clinical testing had confirmed did not work. If the pharmaceutical company were to say about this drug, “We know that scientific tests and clinical trials demonstrate that this drug is actually ineffective. But despite that, we believe that it works, and selling this product, including implying and telling people directly that it really does work if you just believe it, too, should not be considered fraud on that basis.”
    Muscato states that there would be an uproar. We would not stand for it.  This is what Harold Camping and his ilk do on a daily basis, tax-free, as they rake in millions of dollars, and continue to scam followers out of their money.  Yet, Camping is a Man of God, and is entitled to do what he does.  He can rationalize his beliefs in the same way you rationalize yours, using the exact same text. 

    Harold Camping was MIA on Saturday, May 21. His Website was scrubbed of any information about the Rapture.  He didn't comment immediately on the failed prediction.  According to the Associated Press, the Family Radio camp has responded to the failed rapture prediction with the following:

    May 21 had instead been a "spiritual" Judgment Day, which places the entire world under Christ's judgment, he said...But because God's judgment and salvation were completed on Saturday, there's no point in continuing to warn people about it, so his network will now just play Christian music and programs until the final end on Oct. 21.

    Certainly, fewer people will be lining up to be raptured as were on May 21.  Once bitten, twice shy.  However, there will be others who continue to believe Camping. Others will ignore the realities of life and march towards Oct. 21 with the expectation that they will no longer have a need for money, a home, a car, or a family.  And Americans will continue to gawk and remark how crazy it is that these people believe that  all the Christians in the world will be gathered into the air to meet Jesus when he comes down from heaven on October 21, when in actuality all the Christians in the world will be gathered into the air to meet Jesus when he comes down from heaven some other time.

    There is no scientific basis for Harold Camping's rapture predictions, or for any religious rapture scenario, period.  There are plenty of ways, explainable in scientific terms, in which the end of the world might actually occur.  Each possibility is extremely unlikely to occur in our lifetime. Each possibility is infinitely more likely to occur than the rapture we find in Christian eschatology. 

    Religious beliefs have consequences.  Our beliefs should not interfere with the lives of others, specifically those who do not share them.  They certainly should not lead to the cutting of throats of children.  It is in society's best interest to call into question religious claims for which there is no basis in reality, especially those which prevent or impede others' pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness. 

    As Dave Muscato, in the aforementioned MU SASHA blog entry, writes:

    I don’t care one bit if people want to believe irrational things in the privacy of their own minds, so long as their outward actions are in accordance with what logic, evidence, and reason would lead them to do. There is no logical, evidential, or reasonable excuse for not allowing gay people to marry. There is no logical, evidential, or reasonable excuse for barring stem-cell research. There is no logical, evidential, or reasonable excuse for teaching creation myths in science classes. There is no logical, evidential, or reasonable excuse for denying women & transgendered men the right to safe and affordable abortions.
    What does Harold Camping's failed rapture prediction have to do with all of this?  It provides us with an opportunity to see firsthand that our religious beliefs can greatly affect the lives of others.  It provides us with an opportunity to examine the variety of beliefs regarding the rapture.  It provides us with an opportunity to question whether any number of our fantastical, supernatural beliefs culled from ancient texts are reasonable.  It allows us an opportunity to celebrate reason and to remind ourselves that many of the claims of scripture have been explained away (geocentrism, the firmament, the Genesis creation narrative) as we have learned more about the way the natural world works and how our holy books came to be.  Mostly, it reminds us that our religious beliefs are based on traditions -- constellations of beliefs, many drawn from a variety of previous traditions -- handed down generation by generation.   And often these beliefs (such as our modern ideas of heaven and hell) feature post-biblical components.  At any rate, these are not beliefs that are based on evidence.  As such, there are really no religious beliefs any more or less credible than Harold Camping's.

    For now, we will continue on living our lives until the end of the world fails to materialize on October 21. We should have confidence that the scientific community will let us know if and when we have reason to fear a cataclysmic event of global proportions.  But people will continue to make claims about the end of the world -- without a doubt.  We have the evidence to support this.

    5.22.2011

    Happy Birthday, Harvey Milk

    Harvey Milk's 1978 "Hope" speech. America still has a long way to go.



    Sex and The Bible: A Quiz

    From the New York Times:

    Faith is a huge force in American life, and it’s common to hear the Bible cited to bolster political and moral positions, especially against same-sex marriage and abortion. Choose the best responses (some questions may have more than one correct answer):

    1. The Bible’s position on abortion is:
    a. Never mentioned.
    b. To forbid it along with all forms of artificial birth control.
    c. Condemnatory, except to save the life of the mother.

    2. The Bible suggests “marriage” is:
    a. The lifelong union of one man and one woman.
    b. The union of one man and up to 700 wives.
    c. Often undesirable, because it distracts from service to the Lord.

    3. The Bible says of homosexuality:
    a. Leviticus describes male sexual pairing as an abomination.
    b. A lesbian should be stoned at her father’s doorstep.
    c. There’s plenty of ambiguity and no indication of physical intimacy, but some readers point to Ruth and Naomi’s love as suspiciously close, or to King David declaring to Jonathan: “Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (II Samuel 1:23-26)

    4. In the Bible, erotic writing is:
    a. Forbidden by Deuteronomy as “adultery of the heart.”
    b. Exemplified by “Song of Songs,” which celebrates sex for its own sake.
    c. Unmentioned.

    5. Jesus says that divorce is permitted:
    a. Only after counseling and trial separation.
    b. Never.
    c. Only to men whose wives have been unfaithful.

    6. Among sexual behavior that is forbidden is:
    a. Adultery.
    b. Incest.
    c. Sex with angels.

    7. The people of Sodom were condemned principally for:
    a. Homosexuality.
    b. Blasphemy.
    c. Lack of compassion for the poor and needy.

    Follow the link for the answers.