Monday, December 22, 2008

Commenting on Trolls and Abusers

It's interesting to see how paranoid and delusional some get when a little bit of their freedom to spew hatred and insults gets curtailed. Late last week, I tried something that I've not done before (mainly because I didn't know how it would work) -- comment moderation.

What it did was put any new comments in a queue (that's a line, for those non-bilingual folks) that must be first viewed and approved by the blog owner -- yours truly. As I've only had a few people reading this blog, and one is extremely virulent and ugly, I thought perhaps that might work as a way to get him to slow down and think a little.

Alas, I was wrong -- it not only didn't slow him down, it increased his insults and attacks. I've now re-opened the comments (it was a short experiment just to see what would happen). I didn't remove any comments (you can look here, here and here to see the comments he posted while waiting for me to "approve" them). It appears that when caged, trolls get even uglier and more viscious.

Given the recent hubbub in upstate Washington over displays in the Capitol building, I thought it was an interesting test - I went from a completely open commenting section to one with a minor restriction, and the troll exploded. Just like the religionists up in Washington (and across the nation) when told that the fully open display ordinance would allow someone to -- GASP! -- put up a sign that was dismissive of religious belief. Good Heavens! We can't have that!

I've now restored the previous order -- comments are no longer moderated or held up prior to posting. I've also put through all the troll-ish comments and personal attacks so everyone can see the effect that even minor limits cause. I can't understand the level of hatred, vitriol and ignorance displayed by this particular troll, but if he wants to continue spouting his attacks and childish pouting, I'm not going to stop him.

It's like the theists are acting as trolls (or vise versa). Both want all the freedom they can get, but can't tolerate either inclusion of other views, or any limits on their actions. Sorry -- you can't have your cake and eat it too.

Friday, December 19, 2008

What's so special about humans?

I'm a human, and I'm going to make an enormous "leap of faith" and assume that everyone who reads this is, too. I happen to like being human, I think I'm unique (as is every other human), and I have a natural self-selecting bias in favor of other humans - especially those most closely related to me - over other species. But then again, all species probably have a prejudiced "species-ist" mentality. But just because I happen to prefer humans over, say . . . spiders or jellyfish, doesn't mean I think we're "special", just that we're different from other species.

Everything living has through its history evolved the same amount (somewhere around 3.8 billion years and counting). So I've got to ask: What’s so special about humans, anyway?

What I mean by this is that no matter which religious believer you ask, or which holy book you consult, the conclusion is that humans are the final product of whatever process was used, and that God was subtly (or not so subtly) guiding the process to develop humans to their final form. To me, this is the ultimate ego trip.

Let me explain.

It’s fairly obvious that there exist thousands of fossils from species that went extinct sometime in the past. Some argue that a Noachian-type flood wiped them out, others that there were multiple creative events that were necessary to “clear the way” for humans to arise and still others claim that evolutionary processes did it. But all assume that with the arrival of humans, whatever process was used is basically finished.

My question is – why are humans the stopping point? After all, who can truly say that humans are the end result that God (or whichever deity you prefer) was looking for? Perhaps we’re just another “dinosaur age” that is needed to prepare the Earth for the next stage? Personally, I think it is the height of arrogance and egotism to assume that humans are the end result, given the size and scope of the universe as we know it.

How can we know that we haven’t been given religious inspiration to further some other cause or “chosen” species in the future? Every religion says that humans are fallible and cannot know God’s mind or intentions. Perhaps God is using us or our planet for seeding the ultimate creative process, and gave us misleading or incomplete information to keep us docile and complacent? Unfortunately, there is no way to test this or any similar theological quandary. The only thing we can continue to do is explore, investigate and test the universe in the only way we reliably can – naturally and through scientific methods. Perhaps someone can provide a logical and rational explanation as to why we are the “final product” of creation, but I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime, I'll keep being human and trying my best to help out everyone I can -- human and/or otherwise.

This is an Oldie (but still applicable)

I was going through some old files on my computer today, and came across this gem. For those reading this who are metaphorically challenged, it's a sarcastic take on sanctimonious religious proselytizers who (dis)grace the doorsteps of many residences. It's even been done on video (, but I think the text does more justice to it - beside, I can easily picture John and Mary in their Sunday finest trying to be serious about this.

Kissing Hank's Ass

This morning there was a knock at my door. When I answered the door I found a well groomed, nicely dressed couple. The man spoke first:

John: Hi! I'm John, and this is Mary.

Mary: Hi! We're here to invite you to come kiss Hank's ass with us.

Me: Pardon me?! What are you talking about? Who's Hank, and why would I want to kiss His ass?

John: If you kiss Hank's ass, He'll give you a million dollars; and if you don't, He'll kick the shit out of you.

Me: What? Is this some sort of bizarre mob shake-down?

John: Hank is a billionaire philanthropist. Hank built this town. Hank owns this town. He can do whatever he wants, and what He wants is to give you a million dollars, but He can't until you kiss his ass.

Me: That doesn't make any sense. Why...

Mary: Who are you to question Hank's gift? Don't you want a million dollars? Isn't it worth a little kiss on the ass?

Me: Well maybe, if it's legit, but...

John: Then come kiss Hank's ass with us.

Me: Do you kiss Hank's ass often?

Mary: Oh yes, all the time...

Me: And has He given you a million dollars?

John: Well no. You don't actually get the money until you leave town.

Me: So why don't you just leave town now?

Mary: You can't leave until Hank tells you to, or you don't get the money, and He kicks the shit out of you.

Me: Do you know anyone who kissed Hank's ass, left town, and got the million dollars?

John: My mother kissed Hank's ass for years. She left town last year, and I'm sure she got the money.

Me: Haven't you talked to her since then?

John: Of course not, Hank doesn't allow it.

Me: So what makes you think He'll actually give you the money if you've never talked to anyone who got the money?

Mary: Well, he gives you a little bit before you leave. Maybe you'll get a raise, maybe you'll win a small lotto, maybe you'll just find a twenty-dollar bill on the street.

Me: What's that got to do with Hank?

John: Hank has certain "connections."

Me: I'm sorry, but this sounds like some sort of bizarre con game.

John: But it's a million dollars, can you really take the chance? And remember, if you don't kiss Hank's ass He'll kick the shit of you.

Me: Maybe if I could see Hank, talk to Him, get the details straight from him...

Mary: No one sees Hank, no one talks to Hank.

Me: Then how do you kiss His ass?

John: Sometimes we just blow Him a kiss, and think of His ass. Other times we kiss Karl's ass, and he passes it on.

Me: Who's Karl?

Mary: A friend of ours. He's the one who taught us all about kissing Hank's ass. All we had to do was take him out to dinner a few times.

Me: And you just took his word for it when he said there was a Hank, that Hank wanted you to kiss His ass, and that Hank would reward you?

John: Oh no! Karl has a letter he got from Hank years ago explaining the whole thing. Here's a copy; see for yourself.


From the desk of Karl

1. Kiss Hank's ass and He'll give you a million dollars when you leave town.
2. Use alcohol in moderation.
3. Kick the shit out of people who aren't like you.
4. Eat right.
5. Hank dictated this list Himself.
6. The moon is made of green cheese.
7. Everything Hank says is right.
8. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.
9. Don't use alcohol.
10. Eat your wieners on buns, no condiments.
11. Kiss Hank's ass or He'll kick the shit out of you.

Me: This appears to be written on Karl's letterhead.

Mary: Hank didn't have any paper.

Me: I have a hunch that if we checked we'd find this is Karl's handwriting.

John: Of course, Hank dictated it.

Me: I thought you said no one gets to see Hank?

Mary: Not now, but years ago He would talk to some people.

Me: I thought you said He was a philanthropist. What sort of philanthropist kicks the shit out of people just because they're different?

Mary: It's what Hank wants, and Hank's always right.

Me: How do you figure that?

Mary: Item 7 says "Everything Hank says is right." That's good enough for me!

Me: Maybe your friend Karl just made the whole thing up.

John: No way! Item 5 says "Hank dictated this list himself." Besides, item 2 says "Use alcohol in moderation," Item 4 says "Eat right," and item 8 says "Wash your hands after going to the bathroom." Everyone knows those things are right, so the rest must be true, too.

Me: But 9 says "Don't use alcohol." which doesn't quite go with item 2, and 6 says "The moon is made of green cheese," which is just plain wrong.

John: There's no contradiction between 9 and 2, 9 just clarifies 2. As far as 6 goes, you've never been to the moon, so you can't say for sure.

Me: Scientists have pretty firmly established that the moon is made of rock...

Mary: But they don't know if the rock came from the Earth, or from out of space, so it could just as easily be green cheese.

Me: I'm not really an expert, but I think the theory that the Moon was somehow "captured" by the Earth has been discounted. Besides, not knowing where the rock came from doesn't make it cheese.

John: Ha! You just admitted that scientists make mistakes, but we know Hank is always right!

Me: We do?

Mary: Of course we do, Item 5 says so.

Me: You're saying Hank's always right because the list says so, the list is right because Hank dictated it, and we know that Hank dictated it because the list says so. That's circular logic, no different than saying "Hank's right because He says He's right."

John: Now you're getting it! It's so rewarding to see someone come around to Hank's way of thinking.

Me: But...oh, never mind. What's the deal with wieners?

Mary: (Blushes)

John: Wieners, in buns, no condiments. It's Hank's way. Anything else is wrong.

Me: What if I don't have a bun?

John: No bun, no wiener. A wiener without a bun is wrong.

Me: No relish? No Mustard?

Mary: (Looks positively stricken)

John: (Shouting) There's no need for such language! Condiments of any kind are wrong!

Me: So a big pile of sauerkraut with some wieners chopped up in it would be out of the question?

Mary: (Sticks her fingers in her ears) I am not listening to this. La la la, la la, la la la.

John: That's disgusting. Only some sort of evil deviant would eat that...

Me: It's good! I eat it all the time.

Mary: (Faints)

John: (Catches Mary) Well, if I'd known you where one of those I wouldn't have wasted my time. When Hank kicks the shit out of you I'll be there, counting my money and laughing. I'll kiss Hank's ass for you, you bunless cut-wienered kraut-eater.

With this, John dragged Mary to their waiting car, and sped off.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reading -- paper or virtual?

OK, so I've had a Sony PRS-505 Reader for a little over a year, and I really like it. With this little device, I can carry around a full library with hundreds of books -- and it only weighs as much as a typical paperback.

I've been able to read (and re-read) tons of classic works (Arthur Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, Poe, Darwin, Wilde, etc), along with plenty of new books. I've read Terry Brooks, Matt Ridley, John Scalzi, and many other new authors releases. And the best part is -- none of the "ebooks" is more expensive than a regular paper book, and most often they're cheaper by 15-50%.

While there are some features that the Sony reader doesn't have (wifi access, touchscreen, larger screen size, etc), all in all it is a fantastic little device. I've had tons of people ask me about it when they see me reading, and I've probably been an unpaid salesman for the thing -- I know of at least three people who've bought one because of my recommendation and demonstrations.

One of the best things on the reader is it's ability to reflow PDF files, so I can easily read a scientific journal paper (two column) without having to actually print it out. And in low light or when I'm really tired, I can increase the font size.

If anyone has questions or wants to see one of these amazing gadgets in person, just let me know. I hardly ever buy a paper book anymore (unless the author is a Luddite who refuses to allow their books onto electronic media -- there are a few).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Don't Steal Jesus!

It's happened in the past, it's happening now, and it will happen in the future.

Jesus is being stolen from nativity scenes.

I don't personally think this is a good idea -- stealing is wrong and it violates the trust and honor of those who put their beliefs in an open display like most creches.

Even in government buildings -- where I don't think they belong -- vandalism and theft are not the answer. Education of the public about free speech, a secular and agnostic governance, and the proper usage of public trust and space is essential. If a local, state or federal government agency erects (or allows to be erected) an obviously sectarian and divisive display, then they should have no problem allowing all sectarian and/or non-governmental displays.

It's what has happening in Olympia, Washington, and I'm sure those legislators and the governor are very happy for the publicity and attention their city is garnering. After all, where else can you go to see baby Jesus next to a sign proclaiming there are no gods, a Festivus pole standing proudly beside a Christmas tree, Fred Phelps lovely holiday message declaring "Santa is evil" juxtaposed against a backdrop of fervent Christians avowing the sanctity of such a wonderful Christian holiday? The only problem would seem to be a lack of space -- there are far more religions, personal viewpoints and non-governmental displays that potentially could be on display.

Interestingly, although there has been a lot of talk about legislative removal of the atheist sign, whether the Festivus pole is appropriate, or if the odious Phelps clan should be allowed to put up their sign, there is no indication at all that the state government is actually doing the "right" thing -- remove ALL such displays and signs. The creche and Christmas tree no more belong there than does a picture of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (PBUH).

When will the religious zealotry end? When will the prosecutors of this unholy "war on Christmas" finally figure out that they are actually promoting ideas and concepts antithetical to the founder's vision of a free, open and secular society?

At this rate, the governor of Washington might just have to move out of his office to clear room for all the displays. I hope he's as good at working out of his house as the Mayor of KC!

The only way that seems to work (in most cases, not necessarily in Washington) is a dramatic and overwhelming increase in the number of displays and viewpoints in contrast to the "standard" Christian ones. At some point, we have to hope that the leaders of the respective polities recognize the futility and arrogance of only allowing one (or a select few) viewpoint on the public stage. There are a few options open, and only one is reasonable, logical and legal:

1) Try to ban those whose views you disagree with, and you're gonna lose a lawsuit.

2) Try to accomodate all views, and end up miserably crowded and despised by all.

3) Simply follow the Constitution and avoid all pretense of sectarian preference. Allow no public displays of religious viewpoints, sectarian causes and private opinions. Reserve the secular public square for non-judgemental and free access to all, without regard or prejudice.

The decision shouldn't be difficult or tedious -- but the blindness to the reality of secular government caused by personal religious fervor can prevent even the most intelligent from seeing what should be clear and obvious to all.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Wouldn't things be simpler with NO displays?

It seems the Olympia Statehouse atrium is getting a little crowded these days. Not only is there a giant "Holiday Tree" and a large nativity scene, there is also the controversial FFRF sign. Now they're getting requests from all over to display even more things - signs, displays, protesters, etc. Now the controversy has gotten even worse, because the absolute bottom of the barrel religious protesters -- the Westboro Baptist Church -- has gotten into the act.

The last thing a federal, state or local government needs is to appear like it's supporting/advocating for the hatred and bitterness spewed by Fred Phelps and his notorious clan. Yet, based on the precendents set in the last month by the government in Olympia, they'll probably have to allow Phelps to add to the chaos.

Given that there is probably a church right down the street with a nativity scene, I wonder why there also has to be one in the building that houses the representative government of ALL people -- not just Christian, but Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist and every other belief and worldview? When it was just a nativity or menorah, it was easy for the governor and legislature to ignore the protests and complaints about lack of acceptance and diversity of views. But once they opened the floodgates, they're going to drown in the cesspool of their own making.

Phelps is the worst of the bunch so far, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the KKK, the Nation of Islam and many other divisive, aggressive and obnoxious groups lobby to post their own signs. Add in the protests and counter-protests that will ensue, and the entire statehouse will become a madhouse.

It seems like there is a very simple, easy solution to all of this -- leave the religious displays out. Rather than put up ANY displays, simply point out that individuals and groups are free to put any and all such displays up on PRIVATE property (such as a church, house, business, etc), and leave the arena of public representation open and free for ALL to feel welcome and undisturbed by sectarian displays and platitudes.

There are Atheists in Foxholes

In my fifteen years as a member of the US Army, I was one of the few I knew who had no belief in God. I wasn't vocal or outspoken about it, but when questioned about my views or asked to go to "services" on Sundays, I was always honest about it.

Some people in far more difficult circumstances than I was put in have had their "lack of faith" tested even more strenuously. Benjamin Tupper is one of them. His story is both enlightening and heart-rending. That he was able to maintain a strong role in such a difficult situation, leading both Christians and Muslims in battlefield conditions, is inspiring. Even though those serving with and beneath him continually told him he was 'going to hell', he didn't relent and he lead them with honor. He even won the respect of the Afghani interpreter who was assigned to his unit (although the boy remained a Muslim).

Not everyone who serves is religious -- and those without religion are just as dedicated, caring and inspiring -- perhaps more so because they do it without promise of a heavenly reward (and often in the face of those who would have them 'hellbound').

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Got a Prayer Request -- Stick it in the Wall!

Apparently, there is some semi-obscure tradition that God answers prayer requests if they are written down and stuck in the cracks and chinks in a Jerusalem wall. Apparently, even if God is omnipotent and omniscient, he won't see/read/hear your prayers unless you've taken the time and effort to get your request to the proper authorities (Israeli postal clerks, apparently), who will then proceed to deliver them to God (via a wall?)

I don't know -- it all seems a little hokey and contrived to me. Why would letters stuffed in the cracks of a wall (not just any wall, but the crumbling outer retaining wall of Jerusalem's Jewish Temple) be answered?

According to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz, prayers of people all over the world “ascend through this holy place.”

Huh? A prayer said in earnest 10,000 miles away has to travel (apparently on paper) to this wall just to be heard by an omnipresent deity?

I have to wonder if any of the rabbis or letter writers have bothered to think through the implications of their bizzare rituals.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hell on Earth - The Beginnings of Life?

Life obviously began on earth at some point in the past -- even the Bible clearly states that when it was first formed, it was "void and without life". So somewhere, somehow, life started.

Obviously, the Christians and other religionists will insist that it was the "hand of God" or some other mythical conjecture. They all seem to envision it was done with a peaceful, gentle waving of some magic wand and a sprinkling of pixie dust, and then POOF! Life begins!

Of course, science and reality are never that cute and cuddly. Some bits of life's building blocks take far more "oomph" to get started than just a magical wave -- it takes conditions that exist in Dante's Inferno.

In this recent article in Science News, researchers at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan subjected basic chemical constituents to a brutal test -- encapsulating them in small stainless steel cylinders and firing them at extremely high speeds at a solid wall. This wasn't done just for the satisfaction of watching things moving at high speed go "BOOM!" (although that can be a lot of fun, too), it actually had a valid scientific purpose.

The scientists were trying to replicate the conditions that would be encountered in a meteor strike on the early earth to see what sort of reactions and combinations would be created. Sure enough, they got some novel and very promising results. Glycine, fatty acids, amines, and other organic chemicals were formed from the tremendous heat and pressure of the impacts. Not only that, it is clear from the isotope of carbon (C13) that was used that no contamination occurred from outside the cylinders.

It seems that every day, new information and findings are providing tremendous support for the idea that the precursors of life, far from being rare and statistically improbable in the universe, are actually very common and readily found in just about every place we look -- from the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean all the way to interstellar space. We've got several potential habitats within our own solar system that could evolve life (not including our own little planet) -- Europa, Titan, and Enceladus all have liquid water oceans under a thick ice crust. At some point in the future, we're going to be able to pull a sample from one of those distant places, and I wouldn't place bets against the possibility of finding some alien critters out there.

By all indications, the starting blocks of life weren't formed in a quiet, peaceful little pond, but in the hellish and violent conditions of interstellar space and high impact collisions.

A Polite Request for Discussion

Wow -- I've actually got some people reading my little blog. That's really nice (although not all the comments have been).

It's been mentioned several times, both here, on Bill Tammeus' blog and in the KC Star's Faithwalk section, that some of the more vocal theist defenders have "listened in on" the atheist meetups around town. I have a polite request for those who do -- why don't you gather up your courage, gird your loins, and join in the conversations face-to-face? Why "spy" on others, when you could join in the conversation and perhaps actually provide something other than sniping, anonymous comments on blogs?

Here's a idea (and a challenge) -- I'll meet anyone, face-to-face/one-on-one to discuss religion, belief, faith, politics, etc. All you have to do is show up. I don't record, video, or take pictures -- just talk and maybe have some coffee. This Thursday from noon to 1:00, I'll be at the Border's bookstore (119th and Strang Line Rd) in Olathe. I'll be sitting quietly at one of the coffeeshop booths reading a book on my Sony digital reader. If any of the theists is brave enough to have their worldview challenged and questioned, please stop by and chat.

If you can't make it at that time, feel free to email me (or leave a comment here) to arrange a different time/location. I'm generally fairly flexible on scheduling if I have enough notice.

I'm looking forward to meeting you (maybe).

Are the seeds of life found in interstellar space?

This article from Science magazine talks about a new finding from observations made of an interstellar region where new stars form. Apparently, one of the basic chemical building blocks of RNA has been detected in fairly significant quantities in the star-forming region G31.41+0.31 of the Milky Way (about 26,000 light years away).

Astronomers have detected a building block of RNA floating within the hot,
compact core of a massive star-forming region in the Milky Way. The molecule
appears to have formed with all of the other stuff that makes up planets,
suggesting that many other worlds are seeded with some of life's ingredients
right from birth.

This adds to the already impressive array of data and evidence that the conditions and precursors necessary for life to begin are not only available in the universe, but appear to be rather common. Not only have we discovered extrasolar planets (over 300 have been identified in just the last decade) orbiting stars trillions of miles away, but even in our own solar-system backyard, we've discovered several places with water oceans, which most biologists and chemists agree are necessary for the formation of earthlike life.

We're getting closer and closer to finding "aliens" out there. Of course, based on the track record here on earth, technologically sophisticated intelligent life is a long shot (we've only gotten that to happen once in four and a half billion years).

This is an amazing and exciting time to be a scientist -- it's findings like these that not only answer older questions, but provide the fodder and grist for new and even more interesting and fascinating ones, too.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Christmas Confusion - Why Christians should get their own holiday

The trouble with how Christmas is celebrated by Christians is that they stole the date, symbology and meaning from other religions. Christ wasn't born in the middle of December -- read the bible. According to it, the shepherds were "in the fields with their flocks", which is an indication of sometime in mid-to-late spring, when the lambs were being born (hmmm, I wonder why Jesus is called the "lamb of God" -- couldn't be a coincidence, could it?).

Non-Christian religious festivals, holidays and celebrations were numerous in mid-winter long before Christianity -- Sol Invictus and Mithras were the two most prominent deities worshipped and celebrated in the Roman world. Most of the rituals and symbols used by Christians were lifted without alteration from those older, established religions -- blood sacrifice, the cross, rising from the dead in three days, wise men coming at his birth, gifts of incense and gold, born in a manger surrounded by animals, eating the "body and blood" of the savior, etc were all part of Mithraism and Sol Invictus religions hundreds of years before Jesus came along.

If the Christians were truly sincere in their efforts to fight the secularization of Christmas, perhaps they should clean their own closets first. Be honest and admit that Dec 25th is actually an non-Christian holiday that was stolen, your rituals and symbols are not "Christian", etc. Leave the Winter Solstice celebrations to those of us who don't follow your deity.

In other words, GO GET YOUR OWN HOLIDAY! (and don't even get me started on Easter -- that's an even worse transgression of symbol and date stealing!)

Somehow, I doubt that many would be willing to do that.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Converting Strict Religionists (or "How Not to Come Off As an Arrogant Bastard")

How do you get through to a religionist that atheists aren't scary, evil, uninformed or immoral without the conversation degenerating into angry shouts and flaring tempers? Over the years, I've found that trying to stay calm, rational and focused on the issues works much better than direct confrontation and blithe dismissal of the believer's errors.

One idea that I've developed over the years is that a person's religious and political views end up not only coloring how they interact with the world, but also how they see and define themselves. In most households, religion is a permeating and everpresent fog that envelopes a child from the day he is born until the day he sets off to college (or work, or wherever). In such a climate, it is natural not only that an individual gathers in the views and opinions of his parents, but also that such views and opinions will come to define the image of "self". Being told time and again that one is a "Christian" or "Muslim", while seemingly innocuous, is actually forcing a child into a mold that didn't previously exist -- and is damningly difficult to escape from.

After a while, especially in a strict fundamentalist upbringing, those beliefs come to define the person. When later in life such a person is challenged about their religion or beliefs, the believer sees them as questions or attacks on not just the religion, but on the person. This is one of the most insidious and diabolical ways that religion pervades, infiltrates and takes over minds. By coopting the egotistical and natural sense of self-protection, religions can avoid direct challenge and argument.

However, this can leave the believer in a very tenuous state. If their entire sense of self-worth and self-image is tied so tightly to their religion that the two become essentially unified, then any perceived or real error, mistake, or omission in the religion becomes an error, mistake or omission within themselves, too. This is how fundamentalism and dogma assert themselves, and it takes a lot of patience, trust and time to overcome. Most YECs fall into this mold - and anyone else who is taught that their "holy book" is innerent and infalliable.

So, how does one deal with such people?

I've found over the years that you have to take things very slow. If you wade in from the start with a whole list of errors and mistakes from their holy texts, you'll never make any progress. All such frontal assaults will do is cause the believer to throw up an impenetrable wall that cuts off any chance of communication and rationality. Not only that, it will just reinforce what he or she has always been told about "unbelievers" -- that we're trying to get them to go to hell, too.

I prefer to start with trying to understand the believer as a person, and ask "searching" questions to get a dialogue going. Although I might have an answer I'm satisfied with, this allows me to express an interest in the believer's views and show that I've got respect for them as a person. It also can, if done skillfully, push the believer to begin to rationally and critically examine their beliefs in a safer, less confrontational setting. Usually, I start with tangential issues -- I never challenge them to "prove there is a God", because 1) that's not realistic, and 2) it ends up pissing them off, and they end up throwing up their wall of silence again.

Instead, I try to get to know them, gauge how deeply held their beliefs are, and try to find out what areas they are themselves somewhat uncertain or curious about. This not only leads to a shared experience, but generates some beginnings of trust and mutual respect that are essential when dealing with a person's self-esteem and ego. Depending on the level of discussion and the frequency, as well as how deeply embedded their beliefs are within themselves, getting fundamentalists to take those first steps onto the path of rationality and reason can be a frustratingly long process. I've personally "converted" a few -- and in each case, it took patience and a lot of time. You have to start with small victories and work your way up to the larger ones. In the end, most didn't fully drop their religion, but what they had was a less restrictive and more accepting version that allowed them the freedom and self-confidence to travel their own path, and to generate their own questions and challenges without fear of destroying who they thought they were.

Just getting a YEC or strict fundamentalist Muslim to admit that their holy books might not be perfect and innerent is huge. It might not seem like much to most, but that is the critical -- and necessary -- first step. If they can accept that just because their Bible or Koran isn't perfect, that it's not a reflection of imperfection in themselves, then they are on the path to a freer, more open dialogue and understanding of the universe. By severing that "belief=self" connection, the religionist is then able to begin the ardurous and often painful process of shedding the strictures and bindings of religion, and they begin to see the possibilities and beauty of life without faith.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Decline and Fall of Newspapers?

It looks like at least for the time being, the KC Star is healthy enough to survive the current economic crisis and continue publishing a printed edition for the forseeable future. That, to me, is great news (pun intended).

I like to read the paper in the morning, and not just for the comics and crossword puzzle (although those two things are high on my list of desirables for a paper). No, it's because I get news in an easily viewed, highly visual, thorough and broadbased way. In the newspaper, I can scan the headlines quickly and easily, but also dive directly into articles without waiting for pages to load, ads to swim across the viewing area, etc. And if I decide I want to read something else, all I have to do is shift my gaze, not mess with a mouse to find the "back" button and search for another article!

Additionally, reading the newspaper is one of the most effective and easiest ways to be informed and knowledgeable about the world -- in fact, the recent ICI report made that conclusion, which I blogged about here.

While some may decry the "liberal bias" of the editorial staffs of traditional newspapers, I find that the general reporting of the actual news stories is identical to what is found online (on both conservative and liberal websites). In fact, those websites often use the stories from the papers as their sources! And most websites don't have the dedicated and trained journalists to track down, verify and coherently write a good investigative article, especially on highly local issues and concerns (like the KC Star has done on Mayor Funkhouser or the Overland Park Soccer fields). CNN and FoxNews aren't going to care what the wife-crazy mayor of KC is doing, or how great it will be for OP kids to play soccer in the rain. No, we need the paper -- I need the paper -- to stay informed, stay connected, and stay intelligent.

If I were to guess, most of those self-proclaimed politicians who scored so damned low on the ICI test of civics don't read the paper -- they just have their staffs edit and condense the news into soundbites. What a waste and a sad indictment of our nation.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Interfaith in Kansas City - A dinner unlike any other I've attended

I got to attend my first KC Interfaith Council Thanksgiving Dinner service last night. I took my wife and kids, and all of us ended up participating in a small way to the ceremony and liturgy of the evening. In fact, my youngest son got the most enthusiastic response of anyone!

It all happened because I became friends with Vern Barnett after my Faithwalk columns were published in the KC Star. He and I have met several times, and he invited me to be the "freethinker" representative at the event. He told me that although he has pushed for a long time to include this vastly underrepresented minority in the InterFaith Council, he hadn't found someone who was clear in their views and articulate in the explanation -- until me (or something to that effect).

It was a nice dinner service at St. Paul's Cathedral in midtown KC, and I got to meet several very interesting and diverse people. My kids all thought it was boring (but I would expect most kids would feel that way about having to stare at food for two hours before getting to eat). Some aspects were fun, though, and the food wasn't all that bad once we got to eat it.

The evening started with acknowledgements and the Interfaith Council annual awards, followed by a "blessing" read by a representative of each of the faiths (of course, I was asked to read the "freethinker" part -- which was basically an acknowledgement of the wisdom of the nation's founders to separate church and state, and for the opportunity to pursue any faith tradition or none at all. The event then proceeded to a liturgical-style prompt/response exchange. Dr. Barnett was the interlocutor, and he walked around the room of about 200 people, tapping individuals on the shoulder to indicate they should read the responses as written.

Most of it was interesting, with some history thrown into the mix. At the end, 11 children were tapped to ask a series of questions about the symbols and foods that were involved. Finally, my youngest was given the honor of asking "IS IT TIME TO EAT?", to which the entire room responded with a hearty (and hungry) "YES!"

One of the questions I got asked was why an atheistic freethinker would want to attend an obviously theistically-biased event. I was asked this by a self-professed non-observant, non-theistic jewish man (who acknowledged that his views matched closely to those of Einstein, among others). I explained that first, I was invited by Dr. Barnett because it was his intention and desire to include all people -- even those without "faith". And second, I feel that freethinkers and atheists/agnostics are part of the social and civic structure of the community, and that our views and beliefs should be recognized and acknowledged with as much dignity, respect and value as any of the religious faiths.

All in all, it was a worthy event. Although it was a little too "churchy" for my tastes (hey - I'm an atheist, after all), the inclusiveness, openness and fellowship of the evening won me over. Seeing Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jainists, Freethinkers and Pagans all sharing an evening without acrimony or dispute, with a grand showing of acceptance and warmth, was very encouraging to me.

Although I have to wonder how many of the people there realized that "freethinker" is a code-word for "atheist".

Amurikins is stoopid!

It says so right here:

Yes, just a few weeks after a national election that to many was a referendum between the folksy ignorant and the elite intelligensia, we get this report. Although it appeared that the "elite" won the election, we're all losing the real battle -- education and basic operating knowledge of the world.

Not only that, the most frightening thing about this report is that we seem to be willing and eager to elect people who are even dumber and less informed than the average citizen (which probably helps explain why Sarah Palin was so damned popular!). Yes, it's as bad as you think: Politicians are woefully uninterested and uninformed on how the GOVERNMENT works. You know, that organization that they were elected to run?

I was most heartened by the fact that I -- a scientist who hasn't had a course on civics, government, history or other social science for over 17 years was able to score 87.88%. And the ones I missed were questions I stuggled with narrowing down the choices to two and ended up picking the "wrong" one.

The fun part -- you can take the test, too. It's only 33 multiple choice questions, and you can get your score instantly. Find out how you stack up against the best and brightest in our government. After all, you only need to score a 45% to beat the average politician!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I'm writing a book -- what are you doing for the next month?

It's semi-official. I've decided to finally write my "great American novel", and I'm going to do it in that typical American fashion: quickly.

I was in the bookstore about a week ago, and there was a table of books for sale that were about writing novels and books in a short time (usually about a month). It was in recognition of the National Novel Writing Month, which is in November each year.

Of course, I picked up one of the how-to books and skimmed through the first few chapters while standing there in the store. I was hooked -- I know I can do this, and I've got just the story to write. I bought the guide and was on my way.

Of course, I didn't start in November -- I'm too eager to get moving. I started on Wednesday, Oct 22d, so I should have the rough draft finished (about 50,000-75,000 words) by Thanksgiving (assuming I stick to the schedule). It's been five days, and I've got well over 6,000 words on paper (electrons?) now. It's amazing how liberating it is to just write -- not worry about grammar, overall cohesiveness, editing, or anything else. Just writing, pure and simple, as fast and as prolific as possible. Now that the story is starting to move, it's getting easier. I've got about half the backstory fleshed out, and now comes the fun part -- the action and adventure!

I'll keep this blog updated periodically to let everyone (ok, both of you) know how I'm doing. Even if I get the first draft done by the end of Nov, it still won't be ready for publication. Lots of edits, rewrites, adaptation, changes, etc have to go into a novel. But if the story comes out half as good as I am imagining it will, I think this will be a fantastic read. At the very least, I can get an official rejection letter from a publisher!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What's the universe designed for?

Religionists insist (at least the vast majority of them do) that the Earth and the rest of the universe were specifically designed to nurture and entertain humans.

But that seems absurdly weird. After all, there is very little in the universe itself that is habitable (far less than a few trillionths of a percentage of its volume), and even on Earth, most of the planet is inhospitable to human life without tremendous technological attempts to modify either the planet or ourselves.

So, given all that, and yet for the sake of argument accepting the religionist premise that the universe is designed -- what could it be for?

Well, it's clear that carbon-based life isn't it -- too much of the vastness of the universe is hostile to the existence of such things. And if you are only considering a single species, well now the possibility is just idiotic.

But there is one thing that a superdesigner might have use for in making our universe -- supermassive black holes.

Think about it -- according to cosmology and physics, the formation of supermassive black holes (at least a few hundred-thousand times heavier than our sun) is fairly commonplace (one exists at the heart of the Milky Way and every other galaxy, for instance), and the energy potential of such constructs is tremendous. Think about it -- E=MC^2. A black hole with the energy potential of our sun would fit into a space about 3 kilometers (two miles) across. This would be a very convienent way to store and transport potential energy sources, wouldn't it?

On top of that, because of the tremendous gravitational and quantum effects that occur in black holes, it is possible that near the singularity within the black hole, a breach or tear in the fabric of our spacetime into another universe could be created, where the energy of the black hole could be tapped. Granted, we don't know if this is true -- but it's no more fanciful than thinking some magical sky fairy listens to our every wish and grants our every prayer.

If the universe is designed for black holes, not humans -- where does that leave us? Obviously, we aren't too important -- a black hole the mass of the earth would only be a few millimeters across, hardly worth mentioning! In fact, I would bet that if there were a "designer" of the universe, life on a small rock orbiting a second tier star in the backwater subdistrict of a minor galaxy wouldn't even register as a blip on their screens.

We're just the spandrel waste of the universe, and I for don't regret it for an instant. If nothing else, this possibility gives me the hope that someday, humans might just figure out how to harness the knowledge and power of such a designer, and make our own black holes (of course, the LHC might just do that before we're ready).

Monday, October 6, 2008

Palin-tology -- Why should we put up with lowered expectations?

After ruminating on things for a few days, I've come to some conclusions about the VP Debate last Thursday. Everyone -- and I mean EVERONE -- was saying that the expectations for the two VP candidates were different. Joe Biden was expected to have the knowledge and experience of 30+ years on his side, so his "expectations" were to not be exasperatingly boring and obnoxiously condescending.

Palin, on the other hand, has shown numerous times that she's got no experience or knowledge when it comes to federal issues, foreign policy and fiscal policy. Therefore, her "expectations" were simply to not make a complete fool of herself.

None too surprising that neither candidate met the expectations set for them. How hard is it for Biden to be polite and respectful of others for two hours? How difficult was it for Palin to recite her answers (answers that she admitted right off were not necessarily in response to the actual questions posed) and look cute and perky.

My problem is, when we lower expectations, we get exactly what we deserve. This contest is for the second-highest position in the US Government -- and we're most concerned with how cute and perky the VP candidate is? Why isn't the standard held the same for all candidates? Since when did taking a qualification test get easier just because you're new on the job?

Palin and Biden both met the expectations set -- but only Biden met the expectations and criteria for the actual job. Palin may have put on a good show, but it was clear that she doesn't know anything about the issues that will be faced by a VP.

Finally -- some rationality in the FaithWalk

It's about time! Finally, another atheist in the KC Star Faithwalk column. I've been getting sick of all the sappy religious platitudes and panderings for the last couple months. And not only that, but Be-Asia looks to be a proud, intelligent and extremely rational woman.

Her column about how she grew in understanding and eventually threw off the shackles of blind devotional faith is inspiring. Her attitude of self-help and positive thinking is a role model we should all aspire to.

Congratuations, Be-Asia! Great column and I look forward to seeing more in the coming months.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Complicity of Good - Absolutes Fester into Evil

The attempt on the part of believers to claim “absolute knowledge” about anything – the delay of an adoption, God’s opinion of terrorist attacks, whether God ‘created’ evil or not, etc – is arrogant and divisive. Without some external, empirical means of testing and evaluating those absolutist claims, they are no more valuable nor insightful than any other unsourced and unsupported claim.

Religious believers of all stripes have made exactly the same type of assertions as all others, they come to many different conclusions, and attribute their absolute “truth” as the will of their deity (be it Jehovah, Allah, Vishnu, Brahma, Odin, Zeus or any other human-created conception). The only reason Christians think it’s the Christian God is because that is the culture and upbringing they had instilled from childhood.

I have no problem with someone taking comfort in their beliefs, in using their beliefs to provide a means of dealing with uncertainty, sorrow and joy, etc. It is their right to hold whatever beliefs they wish, and I don’t dispute that, nor would I attempt to deny them that right. My issue is with the claims of absoluteness that all believers make – that what they know is “true” based on dreams, imaginings and retellings of ancient parables and fables.

I have a few open-ended questions for believers to answer. At least give them some consideration:

  1. Is it possible that you are wrong? I am asking a serious, introspective question here. I know you claim certainty and truth, but how can you, as a mortal human being, imperfect and finite, possibly know “for sure”? If the possibility exists that you are wrong, however slight, does that in any way alter your feeling of certitude and view of “truth”?
  2. You say that “his spirit lives inside” of you. Could you be misinterpreting it or be deceived by some other spirit or supernatural entity (like Loki the Trickster or Satan)? (Remember, you are not perfect nor all-powerful, you are just another human in this finite world)
  3. If you were born and raised in another part of the world where Christianity is not the dominant religion, do you think would you still be Christian? Why or why not?
  4. Why should anyone accept that your god is more “real” than any other? What evidence can you provide that is UNIQUE and EMPIRICAL that differentiates your chosen deity from all the others?
  5. A Muslim would say the same things to me – that because I don’t believe in Allah, I can’t truly understand the meaning of the Koran and what Allah has “freely given us”. Why is your statement more ‘true’ than a Muslim’s? How can someone who is not part of either belief system choose between them, logically and correctly?
  6. You say “The God I know asks me to love my neighbor as I love myself. My faith is certainly not in the same category as someone whose 'god' is telling them to kill others.” But isn’t that disingenuous – isn’t it true that there are numerous instances described in the Bible where God directly commands individuals, groups and nation-states to kill others? Just because YOU haven’t been told to “kill others”, why do you assume that no one else has been told to by your god?
  7. And to bring it all together – is what God does good because it’s from God, or because it is inherently good? If the former, then God can do evil and still call it good. If the latter, then there is a standard outside and above God that exists to evaluate actions, and God is not supreme. Can you provide any justification or explanation why your conception of God counters this?

Most believers are genuine, honest, caring and kind. I have nothing against them personally. My concerns, as described above, are entirely about getting believers to understand the damage that claiming “absolute truth” can cause.

It’s devotion to “absolute truth” that gave the hijackers of Sept 11th their inspiration.

It’s devotion to “absolute truth” that let the Crusaders slaughter hundreds of thousands of non-Christians.

It’s devotion to “absolute truth” that erased the Middanites (Numbers 31) and Amalekites (Exodus 17:11-16).

It’s devotion to “absolute truth” that the followers of David Koresh, Jim Jones, Charles Manson and other mass murders used to justify their actions.

It’s devotion to “absolute truth” that allows children to die of neglect (

It’s devotion to “absolute truth” that allows mothers to kill their own children (

While I don’t think most believers would commit such heinous and unethical acts, the problem is that there is a complicity in their views because by claiming “absolute truth”, it gives legitimacy and grants clemency to all those others who would take it beyond decency and commit atrocities.

Because reasonable and moderate believers claim the same absolutes, it allows a safe haven and respite for those who aren’t moderate and reasonable to shelter under. And that is where the festering wounds of evil infect and spread – with the unwitting assistance of otherwise good, decent and honorable people.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

We've nearly create "life in a test tube" -- does that mean we are men or Gods?

Biologists from Harvard are working on creating "proto-life"

I have to wonder what goes through a creationists mind when he tries to read scientific literature that completely and totally demolishes his cherished beliefs. In this case, it doesn't quite fully demolish their arguments, but it's getting really close to being a nuclear warhead into their foundational idea -- that only God could create life.

Yup, it certainly appears that within a few years (perhaps a decade at most), some scientist somewhere will create an "artificial lifeform" that doesn't use the same genetic code as the rest of the evolved life on this planet. Not only that, but given the implications of Szostak's protocells, the end result will be an EVOLVING, LIVING, CREATED LIFEFORM!

Yes, Dr. Szostak will have, in accordance with creationist claims, become a GOD.

Of course, I highly doubt any of the other researchers and scientists will bow down before him and proclaim his greatness -- science is all about finding problems and tearing holes in old ideas and findings. I'm sure Venter and others will be hard at work creating their own evolving life, thus proving that there isn't just one god, but a plethora of them.

In a few years, we're going to be looking at a whole polytheistic scientific community!

Friday, September 5, 2008

And I thought you needed wings!

How to Fly

Look who's a hypocrite!

Jon Stewart of the Daily Show has a segment from 9/4 where he demonstrates the blatant and rampant hypocrisy of the Republicans when discussing their choice for VP, Sarah Palin.

Not only does this montage of clips from Karl Rove, Dick Morris, Bill O'Reilly and others show just how low they will stoop to get their side elected, it demonstrates that within only a few weeks or months, they can forget their previous words and utter nonstop contradition without batting an eye.

Gahh!! The STUPID!!! It burns!!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Who is Sarah Palin -- and why she's a threat to all that America represents to the world

Sarah Palin is the Republican nominee for Vice President. Good for her - I'm happy to see that even Republicans realize women are capable of high office in this enlightened age.

But that's where my approval ends.

You see, Sarah Palin is not worthy nor capable of being VP. She's a vaccuous creationist, a vindictive shrew and a manipulative politician.

She's tried to fire a librarian (because the librarian refused to ban books that Palin disapproved of). She claimed just two months ago that our military invasion and occupation of Iraq was a "task from God". She has been trying to Christianize the Alaskan government and force creationism/ID down the throats of their children. She supports abstinence only education (notoriously, the worst way to keep kids from getting diseased and pregnant).

Worse than that, when Governor of Alaska, she tried to use her influence to get her ex-brother-in-law (a state trooper) fired. When the head of the Alaskan law enforcement wouldn't do it, she fired HIM, and then threatened his replacement with the same treatment if he didn't comply. It was only after being found out and put under an ethics-violation investigation that she backed down.

Additionally, although she claims credit for opposing the 'bridge to nowhere', it's clear from her record and her statements that it was only AFTER the debacle was made public to the rest of the US populace that she took that stance. When it was still a hidden pork project, she enthusiastically and aggressively pursued the millions -- just like the other politicians.

In her small-town mayorship, she increased taxes, decreased public services, increased pork spending, and left the town with a HUGE deficit (from a surplus when she started, to over $20 million in the red when she left). And she's got no qualms about showing off her ignorance and hatred of all things "science" -- from climate change to stem cells, evolution to end-of-life decisions -- she's on the wrong side of the facts.

From what I've read, seen, heard, and discovered about Gov. Palin, she's an aggressive, ambitious and arrogant bitch who will use whatever power she gets to bludgeon those opposed to her and mete out her own version of vengeance and retribution on her political and personal enemies. And she has the balls to claim that what she does is sanctioned "by God".

Given that McCain is 72 and has had a history of health problems over the last few years, it isn't inconceivable that if they are elected, Palin would end up being the President before the first term is up. If that happens, the US is in for a very, very rough go of it -- you thought Bush & Co. were bad at foreign relations and obnoxiousness? Wait until Pres. Sarah gets in charge.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

"Traditional Values": Neither valued nor traditional

I've heard a lot of talk from the Rethuglicans and religiots about "traditional values", especially in the last week or so. Most of it is stemming from the political conventions and the nominee selections that have been chosen, and some of the questions, concerns and issues raised by those candidates. It seems that 'traditional values' means whatever the speaker wants it to mean, usually a long-ago dreamland virtue from some imaginary 1950's black-and-white drive-in movie, and hawked as being biblically based and "Christian".

In other words, it's crap.

If you want "traditional values" from the Bible, go buy some slaves.

If you want some real "Christian" sentiments, go stone a heretic to death.

"Traditional" simply means "we've always done it this way" -- which in no way implies that "this way" is the optimal or most ethical way. A long time ago (OK, about 150 years ago), a great many people in this country accepted the "traditional value" that blacks were unintelligent and unteachable. Many others accepted the "traditional value" that a woman's place was in the home. Just about everyone accepted the "traditional value" that only white men had the right to vote.

Guess what -- those "traditional values" aren't considered tradition anymore. Why not?

Because culture, social norms and mores change over time (you know -- evolve). As knowledge and education expand and spread, the lies, misinformation and errors of the past are laid bare, and the people adapt to accept the new and correct.

Usually, it seems that people who like to use the term "traditional value" have very little stock in that value themselves, but it is useful for gaining power and prestige over others - because most of the time, those "traditional values" end up de-valuing the worth and respect of others.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Using Compassion and Reason (Not Atheism) to Guide My Life

"I believe in the religion of reason -- the gospel of this world; in
the development of the mind, in the accumulation of intellectual
wealth, to the end that man may free himself from superstitious
fear, to the end that he may take advantage of the forces of nature
to feed and clothe the world."
- Robert Ingersoll

When I was young, I was enthralled by mythology – Greek, Roman, Norse, Christian. To me, the heroic feats of the mortals, the power of the gods, and the glimpses of histories and people of the past were fascinating and inspirational. One day, when I was about 12, I asked my church youth leader about the ancient myths I adored, and was told “those aren’t real, nobody believes them anymore.” But when I asked for a better reason, he couldn’t give me any for why they weren’t true, other than the fact that they were old and they had no followers. I knew intellectually that they were just made-up stories, but I began to realize that there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the stories of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the stories I was hearing every Sunday in church.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the comparisons between the different religions, mythologies and gods. I worked my way through a lot of doubt, confusion and frustration to realize that all the religions – from the ancients to the modern day – were not all that different, and all were attempting to explain the unexplainable, understand the unknown, and provide comfort and guidance for their followers. You may scoff at the idea of dozens of quarrelling gods living on the top of a mountain and occasionally descending to the mortal level to interact with and influence the human cause – but is that so different from what is described in “modern” religions?

Atheism is not a “faith system” like Christianity or Islam. It’s a conclusion, based on rational enquiry, that there are no gods. Atheism is a descriptor of a personal viewpoint, but it is not the sum total of a person’s worth or commitment to life. I use my reason and intellect to examine the way humans interact, and how I wish to be seen and treated in the world. My ethics come from a sense of connectedness to not only the rest of humanity, but to the rest of the universe. Life is cruelty and compassion, heartlessness and joy, tragedy and triumph. I don’t need a supernatural guiding hand to be helpful, reasonable and kind – just awareness that others have feelings and needs. I don’t need a deity’s threatening tirades to avoid causing unnecessary pain and suffering – just a rational compassion and empathy towards the rest of humanity.

I have taken the next step in understanding my beliefs by contemplating and understanding the reasons for why one would not consider any other religion but their own “true”. Try applying the same criteria to your own beliefs, and in doing so, you may just realize that there isn’t any real difference – and make the leap of faith to atheism yourself.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Messiah

No commentary, just read the column below:

From: The London Times

And it came to pass, in the eighth year of the reign of the evil Bush the Younger (The Ignorant), when the whole land from the Arabian desert to the shores of the Great Lakes had been laid barren, that a Child appeared in the wilderness.

The Child was blessed in looks and intellect. Scion of a simple family, offspring of a miraculous union, grandson of a typical white person and an African peasant. And yea, as he grew, the Child walked in the path of righteousness, with only the occasional detour into the odd weed and a little blow.

When he was twelve years old, they found him in the temple in the City of Chicago, arguing the finer points of community organisation with the Prophet Jeremiah and the Elders. And the Elders were astonished at what they heard and said among themselves: “Verily, who is this Child that he opens our hearts and minds to the audacity of hope?”

In the great Battles of Caucus and Primary he smote the conniving Hillary, wife of the deposed King Bill the Priapic and their barbarian hordes of Working Class Whites.

And so it was, in the fullness of time, before the harvest month of the appointed year, the Child ventured forth - for the first time - to bring the light unto all the world.

He travelled fleet of foot and light of camel, with a small retinue that consisted only of his loyal disciples from the tribe of the Media. He ventured first to the land of the Hindu Kush, where the
Taleban had harboured the viper of al-Qaeda in their bosom, raining terror on all the world.

And the Child spake and the tribes of Nato immediately loosed the Caveats that had previously bound them. And in the great battle that ensued the forces of the light were triumphant. For as long as the Child stood with his arms raised aloft, the enemy suffered great blows and the threat of terror was no more.

From there he went forth to Mesopotamia where he was received by the great ruler al-Maliki, and al-Maliki spake unto him and blessed his Sixteen Month Troop Withdrawal Plan even as the imperial warrior Petraeus tried to destroy it.

And lo, in Mesopotamia, a miracle occurred. Even though the Great Surge of Armour that the evil Bush had ordered had been a terrible mistake, a waste of vital military resources and doomed to end in disaster, the Child's very presence suddenly brought forth a great victory for the forces of the light.

And the Persians, who saw all this and were greatly fearful, longed to speak with the Child and saw that the Child was the bringer of peace. At the mention of his name they quickly laid aside their intrigues and beat their uranium swords into civil nuclear energy ploughshares.

From there the Child went up to the city of Jerusalem, and entered through the gate seated on an ass. The crowds of network anchors who had followed him from afar cheered “Hosanna” and waved great palm fronds and strewed them at his feet.

In Jerusalem and in surrounding Palestine, the Child spake to the Hebrews and the Arabs, as the Scripture had foretold. And in an instant, the lion lay down with the lamb, and the Israelites and Ishmaelites ended their long enmity and lived for ever after in peace.

As word spread throughout the land about the Child's wondrous works, peoples from all over flocked to hear him; Hittites and Abbasids; Obamacons and McCainiacs; Cameroonians and Blairites.

And they told of strange and wondrous things that greeted the news of the Child's journey. Around the world, global temperatures began to decline, and the ocean levels fell and the great warming was over.

The Great Prophet Algore of Nobel and Oscar, who many had believed was the anointed one, smiled and told his followers that the Child was the one generations had been waiting for.

And there were other wonderful signs. In the city of the Street at the Wall, spreads on interbank interest rates dropped like manna from Heaven and rates on credit default swaps fell to the ground as dead birds from the almond tree, and the people who had lived in foreclosure were able to borrow again.

Black gold gushed from the ground at prices well below $140 per barrel. In hospitals across the land the sick were cured even though they were uninsured. And all because the Child had pronounced it.

And this is the testimony of one who speaks the truth and bears witness to the truth so that you might believe. And he knows it is the truth for he saw it all on CNN and the BBC and in the pages of The New York Times.

Then the Child ventured forth from Israel and Palestine and stepped onto the shores of the Old Continent. In the land of Queen Angela of Merkel, vast multitudes gathered to hear his voice, and he preached to them at length.

But when he had finished speaking his disciples told him the crowd was hungry, for they had had nothing to eat all the hours they had waited for him.

And so the Child told his disciples to fetch some food but all they had was five loaves and a couple of frankfurters. So he took the bread and the frankfurters and blessed them and told his disciples to feed the multitudes. And when all had eaten their fill, the scraps filled twelve baskets.

Thence he travelled west to Mount Sarkozy. Even the beauteous Princess Carla of the tribe of the Bruni was struck by awe and she was great in love with the Child, but he was tempted not.

On the Seventh Day he walked across the Channel of the Angles to the ancient land of the hooligans. There he was welcomed with open arms by the once great prophet Blair and his successor, Gordon the Leper, and his successor, David the Golden One.

And suddenly, with the men appeared the archangel Gabriel and the whole host of the heavenly choir, ranks of cherubim and seraphim, all praising God and singing: “Yes, We Can.”

Monday, July 28, 2008

Comments on the Iraq War

I want to make a few comments about the Iraq War and the Bush policies. Too many people demonstrate an appallingly bad understanding of the history of the Iraq war and the failed policies that led up to the current debacle. Additionally, they usually have an amazingly poor grasp of the logistics and the realities of post-war occupational requirements.

One guy who takes this view on the CED Yahoo group is "Steve". He said:

> case in point, it took President Bush to send more troops to win in
> Iraq. Military leaders had deceived themselves into believing that we
> had sent plenty of troops as they did in Vietnam.

Actually, all of the professional military leaders at the time DID support a far greater number of troops than Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al wanted. In fact, GEN Colin Powell, GEN Eric Shinseki, and numerous other senior military leaders argued that the number needed was on the order of "several hundred thousand".

Guess what:

Cheney was never in the military.
Rumsfeld was never in the military.
Wolfowitz was never in the military.
Bush served as a pilot in the Air National Guard (and never
got above the rank of 1st Lieutenant)

The problem with the combat troop estimates that were actually used by the Bush administration is that the theorists who dreamed them up (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz) didn't understand military and political history.

The only reason Bush and company had to send in the additional troops ("the Surge") was because they failed entirely to understand at the beginning what it would take to not only defeat Saddam's military and depose him, but what it would take to secure a country larger than the size of California that had no government, porous borders, and a mixed ethnic makeup of three historically feuding groups.

Did we have enough troops (~100,000 combat troops) to defeat Saddam and topple his government? Yes. In fact, I would argue that we could have done it just as quickly with just as effective an outcome using only 30,000 combat troops. There isn't a military on earth than can stand toe-to-toe with the US and survive.

But the planners failed to plan for what was left AFTER the combat -- they used too-thick rose-colored glasses, and assumed we'd be hailed as "liberators" and "heros". Unfortunately, not every Iraqi felt that way, and when the provisional government (led by another non-military man -- Paul Bremer) disbanded the military and "de-Bathified" all the remaining political and social structures, they left the door open for a massive wave of fear, anarchy and chaos to set in.

In fact, IMHO, the only reason the "surge" is working with as few additional troops as we've got is because the majority of Iraqis have finally gotten tired of killing and violence, and are simply trying to find a way to survive.

If we had gone with the advice of the PROFESSIONAL MILITARY COMMANDERS and used 300,000-400,000 troops to invade, there wouldn't have been the massive insurgency, there would not have been the violence, and there would not have been need of a 5 year "war". It would have been over in two to three years, with far fewer US and Iraqi casualties, far less bitterness and hatred, and far less meddling from Iran, Turkey and Syria. In fact, it is quite possible that if we had used the appropriate number of troops, we would currently have a stable, democratic, US-friendly nation that was self-sufficient and economically profitable by now.

Instead, we've got a sloppy mess of slimy crap that Bush et al. have "gifted" to the next president. Is it getting better - yes. But far slower and with far more damage and destruction than was ever necessary.

FWIW -- I was in Baghdad only a few weeks after Baghdad fell, and I was able to walk the streets without body armor, purchase goods at local stores, talk with the people on the sidewalk, etc. It was only after the disastrous policies of Bush and Bremer (tied in with the lack of supporting troop presence) that we were forced to retreat to hardened bunkers and heavy weaponry.

"Steve" continues:

> And guess what,
> President Bush believes in Jesus Christ as Creator, Savior, and Master.

And he was also only a first lieutenant in the National Guard. So belief in a deity has more bearing on the ability to successfully lead a theater-scale warfront than actual senior-level military command leadership experience? Does "Steve" really think that -- seriously?

> You know, if more people were biblical Christians in the
> military, they would be smart enough to know how to build a strong
> army without insulting, berating and tearing down the people they may
> have to go to war with.

I have to guess, but I don't think "Steve" has ever been in the military. He's never been to boot camp, or he would know that the whole purpose of basic training is to insult, berat and tear down the people they may have to go to war with in order to "rebuild" them with the training, capabilities and experiences needed to survive it. It's harsh, violent and extremely difficult -- but so is warfare. And if you can't handle the rigors of basic training, how can you expect to function when faced with real life-and-death combat situations (like we read about every day in from Iraq)?

And trust me, there are plenty of "biblical Christians" in the military. In fact, that may be part of the problem, because they see the Middle East as the site of Armmageddon, and don't have too many problems creating chaos and dischord there to (possibly) promote World War III. It's frightening to hear some of the statements by the believers in uniform on the subject.

I was an atheist in the US Army for 15 years, and I can't tell you how many times I had to listen to officially sanctioned and mandated prayers, Christian religious services and forced theism in that time. And the worst was when I was over in Iraq and Kuwait.

> And guess what, that kind of survival fittest
> mentality has done nothing but make you and those like you look very, very bad.

I'll also bet "Steve" has never experienced war. It's too bad -- it might help him understand the basics of logistics, political reality and military necessity. As it stands, "Steve" really needs to go back and re-read history -- especially of the last 40 years in American warfare.

His claims are wrong (in some cases, so bad that they aren't even wrong).

And that sort of ignorance, ineptitude and poor historical understanding are what got us into the Iraq situation in the first place.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Are Collapsing Cranes a Punishment from God?

Cranes have been falling over in what appears to be unusually high numbers across the country this year, and now it appears we might know why. Houston, NYC, Iowa, Las Vegas, Wyoming, Maryland, Kansas City, Denver . . . and now in Oklahoma. God apparently has it in for those who try to build tall things -- like church steeples.

Apparently, old guys in cars aren't immune to God's wrath -- he was a member of the church, and was crushed to death while watching the new steeple getting (unsuccessfully) installed. I really feel bad for his family and his surviving wife (who was in the car with him, but survived). It's a tragedy when anyone dies of random causes.

But consider -- was this random? Don't you think that God could protect a follower from such a horrific and tragic death? And why would He not allow the steeple to be installed? Does God have something against that particular church or their sect - or is it something against Christianity in general?

Things like this have happened before. In 2007, an EF-5 tornado ripped through the small town of Greensburg, Kansas, leaving death and destruction in it's wake. Nearly all the churches, schools, homes and businesses were demolished. Yet, in all that devastation, one building was left nearly intact: the Bar H Tavern (it was used as a makeshift morgue after the tornado).

Apparently, God wants to save the bars and destroy the churches and schools. Either that, or crane collapses, tornados and other disasters are simply the random occurances of chance that we all have to risk in life, and there is no godly intent involved.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

PZ went and did it!

The cracker is now dead.

(for the religiots -- wait three days)

The cracker won't "rise again" because it was unleavened bread.

It was a wonderfully enlightening essay on the history of "host desecration" that I hope every cracker worshipper will read and take to heart. And the final act of PZ's defiance - putting the rusty nail through the wafer and throwing it in the trash, was poetically apropos. Of course, the pages from the Koran and the God Delusion were simply icing on the cake (cheese on the cracker?).

As he says in the final paragraph:

"Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great,
Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic
prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing
humanities' knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in
rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied
ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with
fresh eyes and a questioning mind."

It will be interesting to see the depth of hatred, threats and personal insults hurled at Dr. Myers over the next few days, once this gets out further into "intertubes" space. For his own sake, given the threats of physical harm and death (I'm completely ignoring the threats to his "eternal soul" -- since he doesn't have one), I hope he's taken steps to protect himself (notifying law enforcement, being extra vigilant when traveling, keeping a cell phone handy at all times, etc).

The only benefit of religion I've ever found

I've never seen much good in religion, except for one example while I was stationed overseas. I spent 15 years in the US Army (mostly the Iowa National Guard), including a year over in Kuwait on Active Duty. Not once during that time did I consider taking up a belief in any deity. Was I "pressured" to conform? Occasionally. But it was never too strong, and I was usually able to get out of whatever religious activity was going on by volunteering for something else.

However, the most entertaining push I got was when I was overseas. One of my buddies (an extremely evangelical Christian YECer) convinced me to attend his weekly worship service with him. I really enjoyed it -- seriously. Now, wait! Before you get all worried that I "found" god, let me explain.

We worked seven days a week, for 12-14 hours a day. That seems like a lot, but out in the desert, there's not much else to do. After a month of so of work, I noticed that John would sleep in on Sunday mornings, and then not show up to the command post until after lunch, but he never got in any trouble for it. I asked him what he was doing those mornings, and he told me "going to church". Of course, because it was "faith" related, the commanders all allowed it.

So I got myself permission to go with him. It was great -- I slept in an extra hour or two, went to the PX for a coffee and donuts, read the news (Army Times), and then went to the service. It was almost comical how much propoganda and brainwashing went on there. Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway), I wasn't convinced of their beliefs. But it did get me out of work for a few extra hours a week, which made it worthwhile.

So, as far as I'm concerned, if you want to list the benefits of religion, the best (and only) one is that it can get you out of work once a week!

Just a case of Wiccan bad luck?

OK, this is sort of funny --

A Wiccan ceremony to celebrate a long string of good luck was cut short because the celebrant stabbed herself in the foot with a three-foot long sword. OUCH!

On top of that, it seems that the Wiccan ceremony was being held at a cemetery, and the group may be guilty of trespassing.

It seems the Wiccans might want to hold a ceremony to end this sudden string of bad luck (although I wouldn't recommend using sharp objects in that one).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Polly want a cracker?

I hate hypocrisy and idiocy, and when the two combine in a single event, the results are often catastrophic. There is a college student getting death threats and risks expulsion from his university because he . . . stole a cracker.

Of course, it wasn't just ANY cracker -- it was a communion wafer. It was part of the Catholic cannibalism ceremony known as "eucharist", where the cracker and cheap wine (grape juice, if you're doing Baptist-style) are supposedly "transubstantiated" into the actual body and blood of Jesus. Of course, this is a completely insane and ridiculous concept, but it's also an integral part of the Catholic doctrine, and therefore highly sacred to them.

According to PZ Myers' blog, not only did the Catholic Church condemn the "theft" of their cracker, but some of the parishoners actually tried to physically assault and apprehend Mr. Cook as he left the church. Now the kid is getting death threats, legal threats, and possibly even risks sanctions from his university (potentially up to and including expulsion).

All this over a piece of tasteless, stale, flat bread.

I find it absolutely horrific that this sick and twisted ritual (what else would you call sanctified mock anthropophagy?) is given even the most miniscule modicum of respect by any rational human. The fact that it is defended only goes to show the depths to which the collective intellect of the USA has fallen, and points in the direction of where we're going if idiocy and insanity are allowed to continue to rule the minds of the majority.

Actually, I like the response Dr. Myers is planning in comment #276 -- to surrepitously acquire a quantity of eucharist crackers (along with a bunch of other religious symbols) and "desecrate" them all in various and sundry ways. If and when the various deities who are represented by those symbols get offended, then perhaps a stray bolt of lightning will strike him down. Until those deities decide to take action, however, it will be up to the outraged (and outrageous) followers to be upset and offended instead. (you have to wonder at people who worry about insults and offenses to relics and ritual, when it's apparent that the deity itself couldn't care less).

Souls Exist Only In the Memory of Those Who Remain -- Final Faithwalk (July 08)

I lost a dear friend recently. She was a gifted athlete, yet she couldn’t outrun than the pain. She had a heart of gold, but even that couldn’t overcome the hurt and suffering. She was smart, and still couldn’t think of a way to beat death.

Kate was my dog. She was an ex-racing greyhound: a beautiful, black athlete, strong and fast, loving and happy. She enjoyed her “retired” life lounging around the house, chasing bunnies in the backyard, and going on walks through the neighborhood. She wasn’t old when she died, only seven years (that’s 49 in dog years), but somehow she broke her hip (we don’t know exactly what happened), and there was no way to fix it. At the end, she could barely walk without tremendous pain, and yet she never whimpered, complained or cried. She trusted me completely as I took her for the final time to the vet, and the hardest thing I’ve ever done is hold her in my arms as the light left her eyes. The trust, the love and the pain were all gone, and yet I could still feel her warmth as her body lay there, never to run again.

I’ve lost friends and family (and other pets) before, but this was the first time I had ever held someone I loved as they died. It was wrenching, heartrending pain, and yet it was also comforting to know that the last thing she saw, heard and felt was someone who loved and comforted her. In those moments of pain and loss, I recognized the fleeting hopes of a continued soul, so that her wonderful spirit and beautiful life could continue forever.

As I gently removed her collar, I bent down and kissed the top of her head one last time and softly closed her eyes. With tears streaming down my face, I remembered the energetic joy she exuded whenever she ran, the happy tailwagging greetings I got when I opened the door, and the calm, peaceful look she had when asleep. And I knew that the soul doesn’t reside in heaven, but in the loving memories of those who remain. And as long as I keep the memory of Kate within me, she will always be joyfully chasing bunnies through the Elysian fields of my dreams.

Saving Lives Is Better Than Saying Prayers -- Faithwalk #4 (Apr 08)

I'm sure that many readers have heard that Thursday, May 1, is the National Day of Prayer. It's supposed to be a day when believers of all faiths gather to kneel down and pray for healing, hope and peace (at least, I certainly hope that's what people would pray for).

I do appreciate the sentiment, and I know prayer makes those doing the praying feel better, but unfortunately prayer is one of the most objectively ineffective and useless forms of assistance. Other than making those doing the praying "feel better”, numerous studies have shown time and again that prayer fails to benefit those who are prayed for, and at best it is no better than a placebo. As an atheist, that just seems like a tremendous waste of time and personal effort, which I'd prefer to see spent in a more unselfish and demonstrably beneficial way.

For the last two years, I've participated in the National Gift of Life Day (see, which is an organized effort to get atheists, agnostics, and non-believers to donate blood. A single donation of whole blood is one of the most effective proven ways to save lives. It's also a demonstration of selfless sacrifice and altruistic caring about the rest of humanity. I don't know who will receive the blood I donate --he or she could be black, white, asian, gay, racist, Christian, Muslim, or atheist -- and I don't care. I am willing to stand on my feet, giving freely and openly of my own flesh and blood to provide a direct and demonstrable part of myself for the benefit others, as opposed to all those on their knees who are wasting their time doing something that benefits no one but themselves.

I realize that there are some, for whatever reason, who cannot donate blood (sexual orientation, travel restrictions, disease history, etc.). For those who are unable to donate, there are many other things you can do on May 1 to help - volunteer at a local blood center, encourage your friends, neighbors, co-workers, and everyone else you can to donate, publicize the National Gift of Life Day on your blogs, your websites, your calendars, and everywhere else. Don't just sit around. Make a difference for the good of humanity.

Show the Kansas City metro area how ethical, caring and significant the atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists and other non-believers can be. Stand up and donate, and show everyone the way to effectively and rationally make a difference in the world. Do more than bend your knees in ineffective prayer on May 1st – open your hearts to give the most effective, heartfelt and lifesaving thing you possibly can, donate your blood to save lives.

Where I Would Look For God -- Faithwalk #3 (Feb 08)

After discovering that I’m a non-believer, many religious adherents have told me that I need to read the Bible (or the Koran, Torah, Bhagavad Gita, etc) to gain an insight into the “mind of God”. But I have read the bible (and portions of the others) and I don’t see any of them as a realistic testament or autograph of an all-powerful deity. All of the testaments, holy books and other religious sources have the same single flaw – they were all written by humans (who are known to often be in error). Unlike those texts, the evidence of the universe hasn’t been lost in translation, altered by bias or misplaced by history. If anything could be used as a “sourcebook” for a god, the universe is it.

Although I don’t think there are any gods, that doesn’t mean I don’t keep an open mind about the possibility. Were I to decide to search for such an entity, I wouldn’t look to ancient writings of pre-scientific peoples for the answers – I’d go to the one unambiguous and untrammeled-by-humans source, the rest of the universe. Unfortunately, I’ve never encountered any unambiguous and definitive evidence that says “there is a god”. What I have seen are structures, phenomenon and events that arise from well understood naturalistic processes over long ages of time. From the Big Bang onward, the processes and events of nature are fully sufficient and well documented enough to provide a reasonable and nearly complete explanation for how the universe developed, including the development and diversity of life on this planet.

I am not trying to denigrate any particular belief or religion – I just personally don’t find that any are compelling or true enough to warrant my acceptance as “the way”. I don’t claim to know the full truth or all the facts about what is “beyond” the universe, but then neither can anyone else claim such knowledge. Humans are finite and fallible, and no one can claim to actually know “the mind of god”. I trust only as far as the evidence warrants, and I have not seen evidence or support beyond wishful thinking, personal desires and bias for any religion or belief. No, if I am going to look for a creator of the universe, it’s not going to be in the writings of ancient peoples or the religions they inspired. Instead, I will search in the expansive starry fields of the night sky and the unbelievably queer turnings of infinitesimally tiny quanta.

Wonderful Sense of Awe in a Universe Without God -- Faithwalk #2 (Oct 07)

I often find myself feeling a sense of wonder and awe when I think about everything in the universe – from the smallest molecular interactions, to the grand movements of stars and galaxies. On the largest scales, the beauty and spectacle overpower any attempt at full comprehension, and the tiniest bits are so phenomenally weird that no one truly understands them. I realize there are scientific theories and evidences that attempt to explain it, but I am still filled with a wondrous feeling, knowing I’m connected to it all.

Rather than being created apart and unique from the rest of the living biosphere, accepting the fact that humans are part of and intimately connected to the universe makes me care intensely about every little thing that exists. I recognize kinship with not only the rest of humanity, but also with my dog who chases the rabbits, the rabbits who eat the grass, the grass which covers my lawn, and the microbes that inhabit the soils. I know that I am ancestrally related to every living creature on earth and that’s something that can’t be taken away just because I don’t believe in any deity or gods.

Some people have told me that they can’t imagine feeling awe or wonder about anything without including their god in the equation. But is a sunset any less beautiful or a starry night any less romantic if one doesn’t include god? I say that it is the same – romantic, beautiful and awe inspiring, with or without any gods. Even if love, joy, fear and sorrow are the products of a materialistic evolutionary process, that doesn’t mean I can’t experience those things with as much intensity as anyone else. If anything, knowing more about the origins and reasons behind such things only heightens the experience for me.

Carl Sagan once said that we are all “star stuff”, meaning that every single atom in our bodies was originally formed from the supernova explosions of ancient stars. I find that at once tremendously awe inspiring, and also intensely humbling. Not only am I genetically connected to every living thing on Earth, but I am also chemically related to just about every single star, planet, and mote of dust in the universe. Over the course of billions of years, those atoms and molecules coalesced into a tiny planet on the edge of the Milky Way galaxy, and after a few billion more years of chemistry and evolution, here we all are. How amazing is that!