Thursday, February 28, 2008

Why isn't McCain's candidacy FINISHED??

Tim Russert of NBC news confronted Barack Obama with the fact that Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan recently "endorsed" Obama. Fair enough. What do you have to say for yourself Barack?

"You know, I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments. I think that they are unacceptable and reprehensible. I did not solicit this support. He expressed pride in an African-American who seems to be bringing the country together. I obviously can't censor him, but it is not support that I sought. And we're not doing anything, I assure you, formally or informally with Minister Farrakhan."

In context Russert asked Obama, in an earlier debate, if he agreed with some position of Harry Belafonte! HARRY BELAFONTE! Harry Belafonte who, at least at the time, hadn't even SUPPORTED Obama!

I digress from the real point of this post.

Do you know who Reverend John Hagee is? You probably don't. I don't get a whole lot of Christian fundamentalist readers here. If you aren't "into" it, then you probably don't know him. Just like most of you probably didn't know Pastor Ted Haggard before the scandal broke. Even though you should have. We all should have because these guys are the enemies of rational thought. Know your enemy. Here's what he looks like.
So... John Hagee has endorsed John McCain for President of the United States of America and John McCain has expressed great pleasure at receiving the endorsement. Please take a moment and read this from the NY Times.

I just want to know if the national press is going to destroy John McCain's candidacy over this. I can't think of a greater disqualification than openly accepting the endorsement of a racist maniac. Are these words too harsh on Hagee? Can an honest comparison be made between someone like Hagee on the one hand, and Louis Farrakhan on the other?

He has called for the U.S. and Israel to join forces in launching a nuclear strike on Iran, in part to hasten the "Second-Coming".

He has made statements that ALL Muslims are "programmed to kill" and that we can NEVER negotiate with them.

He thinks that New Orleans was the recipient of the judgement of god. He even points out that there was a HOMOSEXUAL PARADE scheduled for the week after Katrina.

He seems to believe that one of the future heads of the European Economic Union will be the Antichrist.

You tell me if I'm being unfair in my characterization of the good reverend.

Does the national press go ballistic? Does Tim Russert hold McCain's feet to the fire? Not simply because a really bad dude endorsed him; but mainly because of this:

All I can tell you is that I am very proud to have Pastor John Hagee’s support.'’

What if Obama had warmly received his endorsement from Farrakhan? Would his campaign been finished?

You tell me. Need more? Listen to Reverend Hagee's own words on an NPR interview from 18 months ago.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Me and Memes

We don't get along.

I almost always turn them down when they come along. So this this one of the few times I'm going to do one. I haven't written anything in a while and this meme gives me the opportunity to talk about one of the greatest figures in the history of science.

Ridger from The Greenbelt has tagged me with "the historical meme". Simple enough rules (mostly they are):1) Link to the person who tagged you.2) List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.3) Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.4) Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.

Who Else? Charles Darwin:

1. Was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin who actually was one of a minority of intellectuals of his day who thought there was something to the idea of “evolution.” The problem was that no one could come up with a plausible mechanism by which it could occur.

2. Was headed into the clergy at the time of his trip around the world on HMS Beagle. His first try at a profession was to go to medical school (following in his father’s footsteps). His sessions watching surgery performed without the benefit of anesthesia (for the patients or for Darwin)were enough to convince him he had neither the stomach nor heart for it. His father informed him that the only occupations available to him would be law or the clergy. So he headed off to Cambridge to study for it.

3. He was so fabulously successful as the ship’s science officer, sent back so much valuable scientific data from abroad, that his career was set as a “gentleman naturalist”.

4. What he didn’t do on the voyage, including during his time on the Galapagos, was come up with the theory of evolution.

5. He was a radical abolitionist and this was only made stronger by what he saw of slavery in South America.

6. The idea of evolution really took root with him upon his return. As he sought help from a friend in identifying different species of birds he had found in the Galapagos, he found out that they were all finches with different features which he concluded (correctly) had evolved to fit the various environments of different islands.

7. Darwin was never a declared atheist, though he certainly said and wrote many things that would confirm this point of view. It is a myth that he recanted (recanted “what”?) on his deathbed.

I tag Lynet, Yinyang, BJKeefe, Slut, Kelly, Chappy and Brian. Chances are if any of you tag me back later, I'm not going to do it. So feel free to consider that when deciding.

Monday, February 18, 2008

There is nothing to fear but Bush himself

Once again, a Keith Olbermann "Special Comment" that speaks for itself, unencumbered by the weakness of my own additional thoughts.

Friday, February 15, 2008

You can not deny Jesus

At least, you can try to use all the rational arguments in the world and still not be able to make a decisive case. The name “Jesus” in the post title could be Jehovah, Allah, Brahma, Zeus, Odin, Ra or any other supernatural deity that people have chosen to worship and to believe represent the ultimate explanation of the Universe.

So why try? Let them believe that Jesus loves them and will greet them in heaven and don’t even make the logical case against it. Again, it’s not that you can’t make a pretty good case – in at least outlining why such a belief is extremely unlikely to be representative of any sort of reality. You can make the case, but you can’t – as we in the atheistic, rational, skeptical, scientific community well know – demonstrate it with empirical evidence. We don’t have evidence that there is no god (and we never will. By the very nature of the question, we can’t prove a negative). We can prove that a proposition is so, but not that which is not so.

So is it being advocated that we just shrug and accept the boatloads of non-sense that float into our lives every day, everywhere in the world? It would be defeatist to make such an argument and things are not hopeless. Things are bad, but they aren’t hopeless. What we need to do is adjust tactics. By changing tactics, I’m not talking about using a different weapon. I’m not saying we should use humor instead of reason (although, as an occasional weaponry adjustment, that can be good). But “tactics”, in this case, means looking at the larger battle field of rationality and seeing where it is that we can make the biggest impact. It’s not the corner of the arena where sits the throne of god.

While there is no real need to worry about the supernatural beliefs of others, there is a lot to be concerned about any time and any where that those supernatural beliefs stray into the parts of the field that contain reality and nature. That’s where it gets interesting – because it is indeed possible to clearly demonstrate that people are wrong in those areas. They will not accept the evidence immediately. In some cases, for some of them, they may never accept it. But when the vast majority of people accept a given proposition as being a truthful and accurate representation of reality, then those on the extremities of the argument become so marginalized as to be a non-factor in the discussion.

It is a historical fact that a mere 550 years ago, no one on this planet had heard of Copernicus and if anyone thought the planets (including ours) moved in orbit around the Sun, they weren’t saying it out loud. Indeed, they would have known that doing so would mean a certain death warrant from the Christians (The Catholic Church, specifically, which was the Christian Church at that time). It would have meant their execution, because the Christians (along with believing that Jesus was up in heaven waiting for them) thought that the Earth was the center of the Universe. So a factual claim from faith came in to direct collision with science when Copernicus and then Galileo demonstrated otherwise.

We might like to believe that once the scientific knowledge was out there, the Church quietly accepted it and within a short time the entire world had a new view of the cosmos. Oh, that reason could work so quickly! True believers disputed the facts of science for hundreds of years until today it seems almost quaint that many folks once denied the fact. But deny it they did, and for a very, very long time. Can we draw any modern day corollaries? It seems like there are quite a few that continually frustrate us. It appears that, no matter how strong the evidence is, we can never get it into some peoples’ heads. But we can! That’s the nature of evidence. It’s on our side today and it will be on our side in a thousand years. The Earth, 550 years later, has not slipped back into its geocentric position. Over enough time, and with ever increasing, never decreasing evidence, virtually every person on the planet today accepts the truth.

Most of the repugnant factual claims associated with major religions (specifically, but not exclusively Christianity, Islam and Judaism) have already been firmly shown by science to be “other than believed”. Our job is to keep battering away at the gates of ignorance. We may have to say some things 10’s of thousands of times and acquire more and more evidence. But we have the facts on our side. Theists can still run to refuge in their little castles in the sky, which can not be disproved, but those will become lonelier places for those who continue to seek comfort there.

Resist the obvious temptation to debate the generality of god, redemption, salvation, heaven and hell. This is where most arguments with theists will begin, and, while undeniably silly, are not subject to your knowledge, rationality, reason, logic or science. Instead, immediately turn the discussion to the factual claims made by whatever religion is being debated. Some of these claims (certainly not all) will include:

Evil acts are exclusively the result sin (separation from the holy spirit) in a context of free-will as given to us by god.

The power of prayer has an effect on natural events.

The world was created pretty much as is, in 6 days, between six and ten thousand years ago.

Evolution can not be a fact because god created all of the life on earth, exactly like you see it.

An abortion in the first months of pregnancy is the same as killing an adult human being.

Homosexuality is a sin, a perversion and an abomination in the eyes of god.

Homosexuality is unnatural and is a choice made in a context of free-will as allowed by god.

Update 2/15 - For an explanation of the change, please see the Exterminator's comment.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Evolutionary Art

I don’t think I’ve ever done an “art post” before and as long as I’m going to do it, I want it to be kind of different. Ilana Yahav's work is definitely unique (at least to me - never seen anything like it). With the depth of my artistic knowledge it's quite possible that this is a very common artform that I know nothing about. It’s a combination of painting and performance, done with sand instead of paint. I really like this particular one. The You Tube version is not as crisp as the one at the site, plus he she has many more there. I suggest leaving here and going there to enjoy his her work.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

Portrait of Darwin at about the age of his historic voyage on HMS Beagle

Today is the 199th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. I've said more than enough about Darwin in the past couple of years on this blog and won't go into one of my usual evolution rants. Suffice to say that Darwin is a personal hero - certainly one of my favorite historical figures. He was born on the same day, in the same year, as Abraham Lincoln. Please give a thought today to what both of these towering figures did and how our world, nearly 200 years later, is so much better for their lives.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Why do Christians hate America?

At this time in our nations’ history, we all need to be aware of any persons who demonstrate Un-American tendencies. I’m not sure it’s true that all Christians hate America – but it certainly looks like it. Can anyone explain the following:

Christians favor an overlapping of their faith and our government in clear violation of our Constitution. Is this god belief more important to them than the clearly defined separations that the Constitution demands? When they demand that the 10 Commandments be placed in our public arenas are they elevating these in importance over our Constitution?

Christians demand that our entire country stop its energetic activities and pay homage to their religion at specific times that they hold as holy and obviously more important to them than the welfare of the nation.

Christians list god as the most important thing in their lives – even more than their country. Can we depend on the patriotism of people like this?

Christians only want to Pledge of Allegiance to our flag if it includes “under god”. Again, they put an imaginary being over the country of their birth.

Christians only want to use American money that says “In god We Trust” on it. American currency isn’t good enough for them without the word “god” on it? Would they exchange their dollars for Euros if “god” came off the dollar?

Christians want American schools that say prayers in them. Worse, they have to be prayers to a specific god - demonstrating that it isn't some veneration of value of religion in general.

Christians only vote for a Presidential candidate who declares himself as being with their god. Will they turn traitor if a good American who is non-Christian gets elected? I don’t see how we can be sure.

Christians want to teach creationism in our classrooms. Since all biological science is completely dependent on the underlying Theory of Evolution, our children will fall hopelessly behind the rest of the world.

Christians want to prevent crucial medical research utilizing stem cells from fertilized eggs. They think a zygote with a few dozen cells is equally sacred to a human being with trillions of cells. This could lead to the unnecessary death and disease for millions of truly patriotic Americans.

Christians will only defend our country in times of war because they believe god is on America’s side. Can we trust these people? What if they decide that god is on the side of some other country? Will they fight against us?

I have given 10 very serious charges of potential and actual unpatriotic activities on the part of these cultists. When people put superstitious belief ahead of patriotism, the rest of us can never sleep easy. There will always be doubts about their true loyalty. Is it to us, their fellow countrymen, or to some imaginary being that the rest of us can’t see?

Until we have Congressional hearings into potential Christian traitors, I will suggest that anyone who insists that something called “god” is the most important thing in their lives not be permitted to serve in any position in the United States Government that requires a security clearance.

The utterly ironic fact is that, knowing that they should be the ones under suspicion of hating America, they attempt to turn the tables on true patriots who put the Constitution ahead of a make-believe sky-daddy! I can only guess that they do this to avoid the scrutiny that they so richly deserve and have managed to avoid up until now.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Podcast for Atheists and other free-thinkers

This is an invitation to a podcast. What kind of a podcast? Why, it looks like “Another Goddamned Podcast”!

A few bloggers here in the Atheosphere have gotten together for some friendly free-thinking banter that you might get a kick out of. You might actually enjoy it more if you just go listen, rather than me telling you what I think it is. Whatever you think – be sure to leave your comments. Particularly any comments on how to make it better would be appreciated

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Highly moral - yet highly irrational. Steven Pinker and the colors of morality

When we hear people who express horror at things like homosexuality, stem cell research, abortion, taboo language, inter-racial marriage etc. we tend to think they are either irrational in their world view or evilly attempting to exert their power over others and shamelessly using these issues as an extension of that purpose.

What we often fail to consider is that most people react on these issues from a moral viewpoint. They genuinely want what they believe is the best for everyone in society and just see things from a different moral viewpoint. What is the mechanism within each human being that makes this so? What could go on inside of the heads of two people, who are both loving, caring, giving and tolerant, to have totally divergent ideas about something like abortion?
I don't claim to have the answers. I don't think anyone yet has close to a rigorous theory of mind that would account for it. But it seems clear that Harvard Professor of Cognitive Science, Steven Pinker, is on the right track and certainly identifies some major points for further research and study. Pinker got my attention (and a whole lot of other people's) when he published The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, back in 2002. At the time The Blank Slate came out, Publishers Weekly said this about it –

"Drawing on decades of research in the 'sciences of human nature,' Pinker, a chaired professor of psychology at MIT, attacks the notion that an infant's mind is a blank slate, arguing instead that human beings have an inherited universal structure shaped by the demands made upon the species for survival, albeit with plenty of room for cultural and individual variation."

Anyone who has read this blog for any period of time will know that I completely buy into the direction of Pinker's studies and conclusions. I very much see evolution as being not only the driving force in species but even in human nature. Certainly my friend The Exterminator is well aware of my position and my feelings about Pinker – that he is one of the truly exceptional researchers and writers working on some of these intriguing problems. With that background, it’s easy to see why Ex recently emailed me a link that I’ll be referring to in this post, and that I hope you’ll take the time to read.

Ex’s link was to this strongly recommended article by Pinker that appeared in The New York Times just a couple of weeks ago entitled The Moral Instinct. Reading it will greatly illuminate my following comments. It's a rather long article, but I feel certain that anyone who takes the time to read it will (a) get the opportunity to see what a scintillating mind Pinker possesses and (b) gain valuable insights into the reasons for moral differences between equally fine people. I'll tell you what - go read it and then come back. I'll wait right here.

You are a fast reader. It took me a lot longer!

I'm sure you read the entire article, but I'm going to ask you to review this short two paragraph excerpt:

"When anthropologists like Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske survey moral concerns across the globe, they find that a few themes keep popping up from amid the diversity. People everywhere, at least in some circumstances and with certain other folks in mind, think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them. They have a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms. They believe that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status. And they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality.

"The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture."

If we assume this to be correct - that there are five "primary colors" of our moral inclinations (in no order of greater or lesser importance), "(no) harm", "fairness", "group loyalty" (also called "community"), "authority" and "purity" - then let's see how these could play out across cultures and even between individuals within a culture.

Now recall that research shows that virtually everyone has these "primary colors of morality" and that everyone has all of the colors in his or her toolkit. None of us (save those handicapped by a disease or disorder, such as psychosis or brain damage) are lacking a single "color". Then why wouldn't rational beings tend to congregate at near-identical conclusions about the moral imperative in any given situation?

Let's think first about two distinct cultures - and I'll use Southeast Asian and Western European. It's very likely, as Pinker shows us, that different cultures would have distinct "colors" that are more heavily emphasized than others. We might expect that in Southeast Asia, the moral values of "authority" and "purity" are given higher moral emphasis. For the Western European cultural community, we might see "harm" and "fairness" as more heavily expressed moral features, while each may treat "group loyalty" approximately the same.

Within cultures you will have this same sort of dichotomy based on politics, religions, race, ethnicities, etc. One group may most heavily weigh "group loyalty", another "purity" and yet a third group views "harm" as the highest moral consideration (and so on).

Remember that we are not talking about mutually exclusive concerns. Everyone will have moral diligence regarding all five of the "primary colors of morality". It's just that the more important ones (for that individual or group) will tilt the scales in their moral reasoning on each issue they confront.

If a woman happens to have a brain that puts its highest moral importance on, first, “authority” which she personally gets from reading a bible and then “harm” which she interprets the bible as indicating that abortion causes, then this is where her emphasis on the issue will reside and one can at least understand the basis for her moral decision about abortion.

No one reading this blog will think I would argue that all belief systems are equally valid or that a so-called “holy book” is a legitimate source of authority. Indeed, as an atheist, I suggest that she has engaged in a flawed use of reasoning and I reject the framework that she is attempting to patch rationality on to. Still, that doesn’t mean that she is in any way acting out of an ulterior motive of “getting us”. To the contrary we are dealing with human beings striving to live morally. Once those of us who attempt to use reason as a major tool in our day to day method of interacting with our environment understand this, we will then be better positioned to deal with irrational belief systems.

Because once we have an understanding of the structural underpinnings of how they arrive at moral intuitions, then we can deal more exclusively with the rational (and evolutionary) basis for morality itself. It’s probably going to be an easier task if we are not approaching the process from the idea that we are dealing with malignant personalities.