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.