Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Faithwalk in the KC Star - A Retrospective

For the last year, I've been a contributing columnist to the Kansas City Star newspaper's "FaithWalk" column. I first got involved about two years ago when the first go-around of the column was started, and I sent an email to the Faith editor complaining about the lack of diverse views and beliefs (all of the contributors to the first year's columnists were Christian and consistently bland). After a few emails back and forth, the conversation stopped until the next year's group was being recruited.

I volunteered to join in the group as the "token atheist". I've tried to be consistent, courteous and respectful of the masses -- while maintaining my lack of faith, adherence to skepticism and rationality, and humanistic perspective. I'm going to re-post here in the next couple days the 4 columns I've gotten published so far, along with some of the comments and responses I got along the way.

All in all, it was an interesting and enriching experience. Because of the limits of the column length, I was forced to distill down to the essence of my views on each topic I wrote about, to the point where I had to review and revise nearly every sentence (several times) to get exactly the right emotion and expression I wanted in the column. I'd like to think I succeeded, although in each column there was always a few words/phrases that I might have changed after seeing it in the paper. Oh, well -- c'est la vie!

I tried to focus on the everyday aspects of my life and views, but to try and also keep the focus on where I derive those views and beliefs. The first two columns were on how I look at the world and the interactions, and that while I still feel an amazing awe and fascination with life and the universe, I don't need or require any gods to bow down to.

I followed those up with a short explanation for why I reject revealed religion and "holy texts" as divine. It was mostly focused on the fact that humans wrote all of them, and because we are finite and falliable, there is no way to reconcile or trust them with the truth.

The fourth column was a little more polemic, focusing on the "National Day of Prayer" and how I -- as a rationalist and atheist -- could effectively and humanely counter the superstition and ineffectiveness of prayer through a selfless act of blood donation.

In my final column (coming out in about two weeks), I focus on the emotional and painful trauma of a loved one dying. I posted a preliminary version of that just prior to this blog posting, so if you're interested, you can get a preview of what's coming up -- I'm sure it will generate a HUGE response, given the emotional topic and my contention that souls don't exist.

I've mostly been surprised that I haven't received any threats, personal attacks or overt discrimination because of the column. Most responders have been polite (if contrary) and curious. Although I've had a few that definitely don't agree with me, for the most part even the theists have been nice. I've even struck up a few good conversations with some of them (at least one to the point of considering it an acquaintance, if not outright friendship). The experience has made me better appreciate the humanity and caring that we all share, and I've learned that I don't need to be concerned with being an extreme minority in a country dominated by those who are different from me.

Bifurcating Your Brain

I find it interesting that believers in "god" will unhesitatingly agree that "god" is unknowable and undefined, and yet in the very next breath, claim to know exactly what "god" wants, desires and needs.

How do they reconcile those two diametrically opposed points without their brain explosively bifurcating? I've always find it fascinating that someone can, with so little apparent effort or thought, portray such ignorance in so few words.

If, as theists say, one can "communicate" with "god" through prayer, then why is it that in all studies done regarding the efficacy of prayer (from the time of Galton forward) has it been shown to be no more effective than random chance? If "god" wants to communicate with us, why use such an inefficent and unreliable means? Can't he come up with something more effective and consistently applicable?

I really find it troubling that an almighty creator deity that believers claim is so damned interested in my personal well being (not to mention, my sex life) is so drattedly incapable of clear and effective communication and responsiveness. It's almost as if "god" didn't exist, and all those prayers, chants, rituals and hierarchies were no better than random mumblings, useless gestures and power-grabbing schemes used by the clever to extort and control the ignorant masses.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Chasing Elysian Bunnies Forever

I lost a dear friend recently. She was a gifted athlete, yet she couldn’t outrun 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 sprinter, 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 for 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.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Want to kill someone? Pray for them!

Guess what -- it looks like it's legal to kill someone, and all you've got to do is pray for them. Yes, time and again, parents, caregivers and clergy have allowed children, the elderly and the sick to go to the "final reward" by simply praying. The latest case from Oregon involves a 16 year old boy who had a minor medical condition that ended up costing him his life.

The medical condition apparently has been ongoing for years, but did his family go see the doctor when he was sick? Nope -- they PREYED (oops, prayed) for him. This young man was ill for over a week, sick with pain, weakness and fever, and did his parents seek medical attention -- not on his life! Instead, they called their church! The doctor quoted in the article says that not only is this condition treatable, it's 100% FIXABLE with minor surgery. But the parents didn't want to "fix" their child, they wanted him to go to heaven (apparently, sooner than they expected). And the really sad/disturbing part is -- this is the second child from the same family that has died in less than 6 months from these faith-healing fools!

The most disgusting part is the parents probably won't even get to spend a night in jail for this murder. I guess if you really, really believe (and can convnice the authorities that you do), you can get away with it. It seems Oregon (and a number of other states) have "religious non-discrimination" laws that make it legal to withhold expedient and necessary medical treatment.

The church this family belongs to (Followers of Christ) believes in faith-healing so much, that they will actually expel members who seek medical treatment. In fact, in the last decade of the 20th century (that's the 1990's, for those of you trying to figure it out), at least 25 church children died of easily treatable/preventable illnesses (some so minor, that a simple course of antibiotics would have cured them). Were the church, families or clergy prosecuted for ANY of those wrongful deaths (murders?)? Not a one!

So, it seems that if you really don't like someone and wish them dead, you just have to join a church (or make up your own).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lack of complexity -- the hallmark of human design

Religionists often say that things like the paintings of Rembrandt; Beethoven’s symphonies and theatrical masterpieces from Shakespeare are examples of both design and complexity. While I will agree that design is inherent in any work of humans, I have to dispute the complexity that is claimed. These are, in fact, NOT complex. I would argue that the reason they (and all human “designs”) are so noticeably not “natural” is because they are simple and non-complex. Allow me to explain.

Consider a radio. When you tune through the frequencies, you hit lots and lots of static and noise (I’m not talking about the talk-radio hosts). However, every so often, you tune in an actual broadcast station, and then you hear music, commercials, talk, etc. If you compare the complexity of the signal between the static/noise of a non-broadcast channel with the clearly tuned broadcast station, you will see that the broadcast station radio wave is simpler, far less complex, and far more regular than the non-broadcast channel. This is because in order to communicate, we have to use regular, simplified and more pure (i.e., less complex) sounds and frequencies.

Likewise, a painting is also a less complex, simplified application of paint than a completely random splattering of the same amount of colors on a canvas (apologies to Jackson Pollack). It is this appeal to the simplified, less complex, more structured features that humans equate design. And as such, your examples actually appear to show exactly the opposite of what you intended. It's not that a Beethoven symphony, Rembrandt painting or Shakespearean play isn't more "designed" than what a typical gradeschooler could produce, but that the gradeschooler could easily produce a “musical score” that contained more complexity than Beethoven, a picture that was more random (and thus more complex) than Rembrandt, and a string of letters that contains far more complex ordering than anything Shakespeare wrote.

Humans hate “kludges”, those haphazard workarounds that use ill-suited parts to jerry-rig a system to do something it wasn’t originally intended for. Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rube_Goldberg ) don’t appear to be good designs, because they are inefficient, awkward, prone to failure and completely impractical. However, when you examine them, you see that they are far more complex than what any “normal” person would design to do the task. Redundancy, excess steps, using ill-fitting parts to do a job, etc are not what makes a good, efficient, clean design. Take a look at a modern computer -- it's got lots of parts, but few redundancies (only one CPU, only one power supply, only one hard drive, only one way for the wiring to connect, etc). It's well designed by humans, but it in no way resembles a cell. A cell has multiple "CPUs" (chromosomes -- humans have 23 pairs), dozens of "power supplies" (mitochondria), multiple "hard drives" (in eukaryotes, there are at least two copies of each gene, and often hundreds to thousands of copies of each protein), plus the flexibility to be able to access just about any of those genes simultaneously using multiple mechanisms and pathways. And that's just comparing a simplified example of a cell!

When we look at the natural world, we actually see far more of Rube Goldberg than Beethoven, more kludges than Rembrandts, and more haphazard randomness than Shakespeare. It’s not that humans can't produce complexity, but that in searching for patterns, structure and organization, we strive to simplify, consolidate and reduce redundancy – all of which are the OPPOSITE of complexity and the randomness in the universe. In short, complexity isn’t the hallmark of human design, simplicity is.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Inverse effect: More access to information = Less individual knowledge

The world has gotten smaller, the access to information has gotten greater, and the average person has gotten dumber. I know it seems silly to mention all of those "obvious" facts, but it seems to me that all three are highly interrelated. With the advent of the Internet, one can find out just about all the information in the world about almost anything. But access to that vast sea of data comes without any filter or buffer to explain it. You're stuck doing all the translation, integration and formulation on your own -- and to be honest, very few people have the training, understanding or desire to go through all that hassle.

What ends up happening is people become immune to learning - it's not that the information isn't there, it's just too much. So they start to rely only on a few "trusted" sources -- often without any rational reason for that trust (usually, it's simply a case of historical accident). And if those sources lie/cheat/obfuscate? The average joe won't have any idea, and will simply repeat the lies and obfuscations as if they were stone-cold fact.

I see this on the creationism/evolution discussion groups I participate in (see links). The scientists and evolutionists in the discussion have really studied -- they know the science, the data and the theories supporting evolution. Many of them have advanced degrees in the relevant fields, and have spent years (even decades) both professionally and personally educating themselves about some of the most minute details of fact. In contrast, the creationists are almost always ignorant of the vast wealth of evidence that supports evolution, and simply come in with boiler-plate creationist claims, most of which were debunked decades ago. Yet when shown the evidence and given the explanations to demonstrate the failure of their claims, they often either leave in a huff, or simply ignore the facts and repeat the claims.

Price of gasoline -- the Wrath of God?

Well, over the last week, the price of oil has soared to unprecedented heights -- nearly $140 per barrel. Not surprisingly, the price of a gallon of gas has also risen, with the national average now over $4.00 for the first time ever. I've been thinking about the reasons for the current surge in prices, and I've come up with two possiblities:

1) the price is based on speculation, market forces and the dynamics of global political forces, as well as some random fluctuations that result from such a complex interaction of supply and demand forces.

2) God wants high gas prices

Obviously, many economists, statisticians, politicians and scientists are confident that the first option is correct, and that while there is some random fluctuations, it is overall a mostly rational process that drives the price. But what about option #2?

Well, there are a lot of reasons I could give for this, but the most obvious is that "acts of God" are starting to happen over the last few years that are impacting the price -- floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, wars, even lightning strikes. Just last week, over 2,500,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline burned up because God didn't want you to have cheap gas.

I think it's clear -- God is a current-technology hating environmentalist who wants to get rid of our dependence on fossil fuels switch us over to wind and solar power.