29 April 2012

Link round-up for 29 April 2012

This will be a Dull and Boring partnership.

Vote Republican!

Check out these 10 reasons you might be a political d-bag.

Murr Brewster looks at the global-warming denialism scam.

Who's better off in Michigan?

I wonder if the South will actually do this someday.

Here's a romantic marriage proposal at a California military base.

Maybe the Buffett rule needs a different name.

Creationism is too stupid to argue with, but blogger BR gives it a try anyway.  PZ Myers has more.

An apparently-famous "alien" photo is debunked (found via Mendip).

Ever wonder where the KKK gets those robes?

"James the Preacher" is an idiot.

Here's the problem with nuts:  too many clashing flavorsMore here.

Charles Johnson looks at another Fox News lie.

If you're a liberal blogger who gets persistent right-wing commenters, even if you don't think of them as trolls, read this (and this) and take another look at their tactics.  (Yes, I know it's questioned whether Karl Rove actually wrote it.)

A study shows that analytic thinking can reduce religious belief.  Here's a comment thread full of people who are, er, not into analytic thinking.

The NDE rubbish has surfaced again; PZ Myers reviews how massively it's been debunked.

Romney promises to appoint theocrats to the Supreme Court.  Bryan Fischer is demanding even more.

A juicy read:  a conservative laments impending defeat in the fight over gay marriage, while commenter "Dammerung" has some blunt words.

The Republican party seems to have a demographic death wish.

Social issues are now a winner for the left, provided we don't start attacking gun rights.

Young people continue to abandon religion.

This post on Republican delusions includes a mind-boggling Chris Matthews quote.

Hey Catholics, it's time to quit.

Capitalism works, if properly regulated

The wingnuts may be working on another sting against Planned Parenthood.

Jon Huntsman says the Republican party has become so extremist that even Reagan couldn't win its nomination today.

Christians pray for atheist women in the military to get breast cancer.

The American heartland shows the effects of decades of conservative economic policies.

Romney is the perfect exemplar of the parasite class.  His assessment of Obama is flagrantly dishonest.  And he behaves like a man with something to hide.

Religion makes you hate yourself for being human.

Enthusiasm gap?  Check this out.

It's not good to be the anti-women party -- or the anti-everything party.

Extremists have re-defined Christianity, and other Christians have allowed it.

Republicans are in no position to make a fuss over the Secret Service prostitution scandal.

The Vatican's crack-down on nuns is worse than we've heard.  But the hierarchy welcomes others.

This is how the enemy thinks -- see especially comments 24 and 28-29.

Romney lacks Bush's freedom to pivot.

Tax cuts were the biggest contributor to the growth of the debt -- which tells us what to do to fix it.

Romney favors the same policies that have failed in Europe.

Austeritards won't back down even though austerity policies have produced disaster wherever they've been tried.

Norwegians rebuke Breivik in song.

Discarding the usual fudging and obfuscation on the subject, Mona Eltahawy delivers a scathing indictment of the Arab world's abuses of women.

The Gulf is still suffering the effects of the BP oil disaster.

This kind of thing is why I use only flash drives to back up my stuff.

27 April 2012

Quote for the day -- the freedom to suppress freedom

This is the best capsule summary of libertarianism I've seen:

"The Libertarian party line is that nothing calling itself 'the state' or 'the government' should be able to interfere with employers’ and landlords’ interference in the personal lives of those they control. Libertarians only 'support' marriage equality and reproductive freedom in that they think the ability to repress individual choice shouldn’t be handled by a representative government but should be devolved to property owners."

Commenter "M Groesbeck" here

24 April 2012

The liberation of Europe -- France leads the way

Here are the results of the first round of voting in the French Presidential election on Sunday the 22nd:

François Hollande (Socialist):  28.6%
Nicolas Sarkozy (UMP/conservative):  27.2%
Marine Le Pen (Front National):  17.9%
Jean-Luc Mélenchon (FDG/far left):  11.1%

(Six other candidates divided the rest of the vote.)

As expected, Hollande and the incumbent Sarkozy will advance to the run-off on May 6, and polls show Hollande winning easily to become France's first Socialist President in 17 years.  The surprises came with the third- and fourth-place finishers.  Mélenchon did substantially worse than the polls anticipated, while Le Pen did better, winning the FN's best-ever result.

Hollande's win expresses voters' frustration with economic stagnation and the austerity policies which have exacerbated it (background here and here).  Europeans in general are unhappy with austerity. In most countries unemployment is already much higher than in the US, and austerity is making things worse. Also, in most countries (though not France) austerity has been imposed at the behest of the EU, regardless of what elected national governments and their voters want.  France, however, is too large (the second most important country in the EU, in fact) to be bossed around in such a manner.

It's Le Pen's high score that has the media in a lather, but be cautious about the knee-jerk designation of the FN as "far right". In the days of her father, that was a fair description. Now, though, the party has ditched much of its radical platform and in fact sounds quite leftist in most ways -- its economic position is paternalist and protectionist to a degree US Democrats would never dare, for example. It's true that it is highly nationalist and anti-immigration, but in Europe immigration largely means Muslims, the less-assimilated among whom are Europe's equivalent of our Christian Right (in Europe's secular societies, Islamists are the chief proponents of creationism in the schools, anti-gay discrimination, anti-Semitism, etc.). It's not really comparable to the immigration issue in the US.

Sarkozy is the odd one out among the four candidates, with his support of failed free-market economic dogmas which have never been popular in France. My guess is, many of Le Pen's voters will easily go for Hollande in the second round.

At almost the same time, the coalition government in the Netherlands splintered because Geert Wilders's Freedom party rebelled against austerity policies.  His party, which is anti-immigration and anti-Islam, is routinely tarred as "far right" in the media as the French FN is; however, Wilders was taking a stand against cuts to the social safety net mandated by the EU.  As the Islamists are Europe's closest equivalent to our Christian Right, so the EU is its nearest equivalent to American economic conservatives.

The architects and proponents of the EU and its austerity-mania can scowl and fume, but the liberation of Europe is under way.

Video of the week -- Eight Miles Wide

Portland lady Storm Large sings!  Found via Mendip (NSFW lyrics).  I recognize the area where the part starting at 2:10 was filmed -- it's a strip of blocks downtown which have been kept as parks -- I've been there many times (though unfortunately nothing like this was going on).

22 April 2012

Link round-up for 22 April 2012

God's power just isn't what it used to be.

Is Easter newsworthy?

Here's an illustrated history of the Hovercat War.

Wow, what a big load of nonsense.

Creationism is too stupid to argue with, so here are some funny pictures instead.

Know the difference between religions and cults.

Here's a handy Republican-to-English translator.

This old post of mine got a new comment about subjective spiritual experiences.  See my reply and also this.

Carolina Parrothead finds suburbia to be a dismal wasteland of McMansions, snoops, and "surface dwelling Morlocks".

I found this brief ode to our fishy heritage evocative.

J. Taylor Wallace crafts the perfect artistic rendering of Sarah Palin.

Ted Nugent gets booted from a concert, probably for derangement.

Here's some letter-to-the-editor fun from Kansas on birth control.

America's future is being submerged by a wave of stupidity.

Orrin Hatch isn't crazy enough for Utah teabaggers.

Green Eagle makes in interesting new case for progressive taxation.

I've known home-schooled kids who turned out superbly, but there are too many cases like this.

Sandra Goodick's path to atheism was her feminism.

Check out which states have the highest and lowest teen birth rates.  Overall the last 20 years have seen real progress.

Zero-class religionists turn a funeral into an opportunity for their usual bullying.  Here's another such case -- read the comments too.

Republican extremism means Democrats have a duty to win.

Could Arizona be in play this November?

The Vatican scolds US nuns for "spending too much time on poverty and social justice concerns and not enough on abortion and gay marriage"; some nuns push back.  Andrew Sullivan has more.

Barney Frank talks about Congress and how things really work.

Is there a Mormon version of taqiyyah?

This website is assembling responses to right-wing talking points (found via Politics Plus).

David Frum isn't worrying much about the deficit.

Yes, we can kill an idea, and we must.

The war on women is real, and here's what it consists of.  It's a war with real casualties.

Romney's flip-flopping doesn't mean he isn't dangerous.

What if the great religion-mongers of the past were just plain old liars?

Here's an episode from the life of Jackie Robinson (found via Green Eagle).

Yet another top NRO figure has white-supremacist ties.

Here are some stories of former Muslims who left Islam.

Here's another voice of sanity on the drug war, this time from the north (found via Preliator pro Causa) -- and there's a glimmer of hope in California too.

Canada now has a glow-in-the-dark dinosaur coin

In some fields, the private sector is just naturally less efficient than the public sector.

A Muslim "British" lord puts a £10 million price on Obama's head (found via What Would Jack Do).

Experiences overseas illustrate what Obama is trying to do.

France and Germany want to re-introduce border controls to limit illegal immigration; EU enthusiasts whinge.

Muslim proselytizers in Germany accidentally use the right word.

Even the IMF now recognizes that austerity is wrecking weak economies, not saving them; more here.

A small Swedish town is shocked by a brutal child exorcism committed by fervently-religious immigrants (found via Republic of Gilead).

Czechs stage a massive protest against austerity, while the Dutch Freedom party resists.

Kuwait approves the death penalty for blasphemy (found via Reddit).

Religious fanatics resort to poisoning water to discourage girls from going to school.

The key dividing line in the 21st century is between open and closed societies.  After the ultimate closed society of North Korea bungles yet another missile launch, the world's biggest open society shows how it's done.  Another anti-openness regime is having technological problems.

Shawn Lawrence Otto looks at the feebleness and fakery of global-warming denialism (found via Preliator pro Causa).

Soon you may be able to print your own drugs.

20 April 2012

Flipping the bird at the Ten Commandments

Lady Atheist has a fascinating post up about eagle behavior. These big birds are remarkably attentive to their offspring, providing not just food but extras like twigs to play with. They form permanent mating pairs (as humans are normatively supposed to do) and work for each others' well-being as well as for that of their offspring. And they do all this without any Ten Commandments or threats of Hell-fire.

It's fairly obvious that most of these behaviors contribute to the eagles' reproductive success (that is, their likelihood of producing offspring that survive to produce offspring of their own). Even the twig-supplying behavior, for example, helps the eaglets get used to manipulating twigs, which will help them later when they're building their own nests -- playfulness in young animals comes from an instinct to fiddle with the environment and see how it works, which builds skills useful for dealing with it later. So genes which promote all these behaviors would be more likely to be passed on and become fixed in the gene pool than rival alleles which don't, because the bearers of those rival alleles would be less likely to produce offspring that survived.

This is highly relevant to where human morality really comes from, of course. Human morality is basically an instinctive inhibition or revulsion against certain kinds of behavior which, if they were widespread and accepted, would be extremely disruptive to social groups. It's almost impossible to imagine a stable society in which murder, rape, theft, etc. were considered normal and acceptable behavior and happened routinely. Over time, as human social groups grew more complex and we became more dependent on their stability, individuals born without those inhibitions (the ones most likely to be "sociopathic rapists, killers, and thieves") would have been poor survivors, likely to be killed by neighbors who felt threatened by their behavior. That is, genetic profiles which omitted such inhibitions would have tended to get weeded out of the population.

Religionists like to claim that morality is rooted in religious taboos and that humans would not be moral without those taboos. Objective data show that this is nonsense -- there are basic moral inhibitions that exist in all known human societies, regardless of religion (though in primitive societies they sometimes apply only to behavior toward members of the in-group, not toward outsiders), and atheists are no less moral than religious people -- likely more so, in fact, given the statistical under-representation of atheists in prison. If anything, religious pseudo-morality has largely served to legitimize behavior which normally moral people would find too revolting to engage in -- shunning of gay family members, mass killing of people who believe the "wrong" religion, etc. Even most modern religious people are repulsed by the more disgusting parts of the Bible such as the sacrifice of Abraham or the offering of Lot's daughters, rejecting them as moral guidelines on one grounds or another -- showing that they, too, have a higher innate basis of morality which they use to judge the Bible, and which therefore does not come from the Bible.

Behavior in many animal species resembles human compassionate or moral behavior because it's the product of the same evolutionary forces. Where it differs, most likely the selective pressures are different. Eagles, for example, probably have little or no instinct for compassionate or "moral" behavior toward other eagles other than their own mates or offspring; they don't depend on tight-knit social groups like many other species (such as humans) do, so there are no selective pressures operating to generate rules for behavior toward unrelated but socially-connected individuals.

So with these selective pressures working for millions of years, why aren't we all perfectly moral? For the same reason we don't have perfect eyesight or perfect eye-hand coordination, despite relentless selective pressure to refine those things. Natural selection can work only on the genetic variability available, which in turn is limited by the range of random mutation which happens. And just as occasionally people are born with a missing body part or color-blindness, so some rare defective individuals are apparently born without moral inhibitions -- sociopaths, people who sometimes go on to become serial killers or other destructive types. Evolution, unlike what one would expect from the religionists' imaginary divine creator, produces imperfect results.

[Image at top found via Lady Atheist -- how could I resist?]

18 April 2012

Videos of the week -- this is the enemy

As the Republican primaries have reminded us, the Christian Right remains a real power within the Republican party. Here are a couple of refreshers from Frank Schaeffer, whose roots are in the Christian Right and who thus knows it far better than most of us do.

16 April 2012

The liberation of Europe

Is the euro crisis over and the EU back in the saddle in Europe?

As the April 22 French Presidential election approaches (background here), Socialist candidate Hollande has fallen to near-parity in the polls with conservative incumbent Sarkozy, mostly due to the rise of the far-leftist Mélenchon dividing the leftist vote. But France, unlike the US, holds a run-off election if no candidate wins an absolute majority -- and Hollande is projected to win that run-off by 12 points.

Hollande's victory will shatter the tight alliance of Sarkozy with German Chancellor Merkel (so close that they are often called "Merkozy"), and Merkel's open opposition to Hollande's candidacy precludes the emergence of a similar Merkel-Hollande alliance (would that be called "Merde"?). Better still, it will shatter the pro-austerity consensus, and the obsession with deficits at the expense of job creation, which are slowly destroying Europe's economies. Hollande favors large-scale economic stimulus to get the economy moving again, to be paid for by higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations -- and France, unlike Greece or Ireland or even Spain, is a big enough player to defy the EU and actually enact such policies with impunity. Pundits, financial markets, and rating agencies will burst out in the usual hysterics, but if Hollande stays the course and France shows clear signs of recovery, other countries will follow his example.

France is not the only country threatening to defy the EU. Ireland plans to hold a referendum on the "fiscal compact", the latest EU scheme to save the ever-floundering euro currency -- and while all the major parties support the compact (and the media will try to scare voters), the Irish people may well feel otherwise and will have a chance to say so. Greece's troubles, and the civil unrest provoked by the EU's prescriptions for them, are far from over. A major, if not mainstream, Dutch party has called for the Netherlands to abandon the euro. Spain has already held a huge general strike and is feeling pushed to the brink of rebellion. Support for the UKIP, a party whose goal is to take Britain out of the EU entirely, has risen as high as 11% in one poll, and the Conservative party is clueless about how to handle the challenge. A Greek exit from the euro, or even a complete break-up of the currency, are no longer seen as utterly unthinkable, but as possible outcomes to be managed, if they occur, with an eye to minimizing trauma.

The point is, there are several impending situations where a country could bolt from the EU consensus -- a Greek exit from the euro, or a French abandonment of austerity for Keynesian stimulus policy, or a Spanish revolt against conservative rule -- and in each case, it's likely that the country breaking consensus would visibly benefit from doing so. Once that happens, there are political forces in place in other countries -- Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy, Britain, perhaps even Germany itself -- ready to push for similar reforms. After the first domino falls, the EU, the modern prison-house of nations, could unravel as quickly as its Soviet predecessor did.

[For previous posts on Europe and the EU, see here.]

15 April 2012

Link round-up for 15 April 2012

Be thankful to these people.

I don't watch TV and there's some truth to this.

If I were still a drinker, I'd go here (found via Republic of Gilead).

These Republicans would protect one minority group's right to vote (sent by Mendip).

Looking for a wife? The Bible offers advice.

Get eaten first (found via Mendip).

Of course He exists -- the holy book says so.

BuzzFeed has the best signs from the Reason Rally in Washington (I especially liked #11); Adam Lee has the clueless Christian responses.

Mark your calendars -- May 5, 2012 will be an unusual day of protest against right-wing prudery (found via Ranch Chimp).

Here's a great scheme for making money off of stupid rich people (found via Mendip).

Does Rick Santorum know about this? A French guy named Dr. Fagot is teaching monkeys to read four-letter words.

In Texas, politics becomes personal.

This quote could apply more broadly -- lighten up about jokes.

Getting hit by a baseball can be deadly.

Belief in Hell creates a pointless dilemma for friends of a dead teenage atheist.

Romney ties himself to the unpopular Republican stance on the birth-control mandate.

Indiana leads the nation in two important areas.

Jessica Ahlquist gets some more Christian love, while pastor-turned-atheist Teresa MacBain discovers just how shallow the real thing can be.

A major obstacle to progress is the "plague on both your parties" idiots.

Racist John Derbyshire is no friend of women either. And here's another flagrant racist at NRO. Maybe their readership is the issue. But racism pervades the dregs of society.

Romney will never outrun Seamus.

Now that we've defeated SOPA, we need to defeat its author.

Obama's ahead, but not decisively.

Most right-wingers aren't racist, but most racists are right-wing.

Nazis are a civil rights group, apparently.

School bullying claims another life in Texas.

Paul Ryan and his budget plan are far from centrist.

The Supreme Court is far from non-political.

Arizona Republicans impose a draconian anti-abortion law.

This California family really digs Christian ideas about child discipline.

The experience of earlier Democrats who ran against Romney suggests how best to exploit his problems with women voters.

The right wing claims the ACA mandate is unconstitutional -- but Washington, Adams, and Congress in the 1790s imposed similar mandates.

How resilient is liberal democracy?

The US teen pregnancy rate is at its lowest since 1946 -- but we're still not doing as well as other advanced countries.

European conservatives are different: London's conservative mayor bans ads for the Christian "ex-gay" scam from the city's buses.

Hundreds of women from Muslim families in Germany are in hiding from potential honor killings.

A high-profile case forces Germany to reconsider the taboo on consenting-adult incest.

At last, there's a charge and trial for the mass baby thefts carried out by the Catholic Church in Spain under Franco.

The President of Guatemala calls for sanity on the drug war.

Sign here to stop a Honduran law that would impose jail time for using contraception.

Never forget Du'a Khalil.

Sanal Edamaruku exposed the truth behind a "miracle" -- and that's when the trouble started.

You might be surprised at who was voted Britain's greatest historic military adversary.

So far, 2012 has shattered temperature records across the US -- and this drought isn't normal either.

German scientists have created a long-distance quantum link, the key to uncrackable secret communication (found via Mendip).

13 April 2012

Video of the week -- truth vs. excuses

Ayaan Hirsi Ali talks plain truth as always (found via Ranch Chimp). As for the interviewer, she's typical of those excuse-makers for religion who claim to know better what a religion "is" than hundreds of millions of fervent believers -- who think and act just as Hirsi Ali describes -- do.

Quote for the day -- still true after 2,000 years

11 April 2012

Man-on-dog quits, Dog-on-roof wins.....

.....or does he?

With Mr. Frothy finally flushed away and Romney receiving a new barrage of endorsements, the Sane faction of the Republicans is strongly pushing the meme that the race for the nomination is over, Romney is the candidate, and it's time to unite against Obama. But the Nutty faction, or a lot of it, isn't ready to throw in the towel yet.

Check out the lengthy but entertaining comments thread here for a sample of what I've been seeing a lot of on various right-wing sites. Just as the left is cursed with a small fringe of cranks who denounce Obama as a conservative and no different from a Republican, and threaten to not vote for him or insist it makes no difference who wins -- so the right has its own extremist element who call Romney liberal, socialist, Democrat-lite, and similar names, and just can't stomach the thought of him as the Republican nominee when they had their hearts set on a full-bore crazed theocrat like Santorum.

The problem, from a mainstream Republican viewpoint, is that their loony fringe seems to be a lot bigger than ours.

The further and more immediate problem is that much of the Nutty faction genuinely can't hear the fat lady singing. To those who aren't paying attention to the details of the process, it looks like the race is still wide open. Romney has barely half the 1,144 delegates needed to nominate. The giant Republican stronghold of Texas has not yet voted and might well prefer a more red-meat right-winger over Romney. There's still a serious non-Romney in the race -- Gingrich -- and he's already eagerly putting himself forward as a rallying point for Santorum supporters now cast adrift. Even the Paultards are hoping for a few scraps. Some Nutties dream of a "brokered convention" where some quirk of party rules would allow the primary results to be set aside and the nomination given to Gingrich or even to some dark-horse Nutty idol such as Perry or Palin.

Never mind that actual polling and delegate-allocation rules in the states yet to vote virtually assure that Romney will reach 1,144. Never mind that Gingrich fares even worse than Santorum in head-to-head polling match-ups against Obama. Never mind the explosive consequences if a brokered convention were to brush aside the choice of millions of Republican primary voters. Never mind all that. They just can't stomach the "moderate" Romney.

The right wing is bedeviled by hard-line ideological purists who can't compromise, can't accept the political reality that radical candidates don't win elections, and would rather see their own side lose than see it win with a candidate who doesn't meet their exact and complete set of standards. If they can't unite, and if we can unite, we win.

I hope we're smarter than they are.

08 April 2012

Link round-up for 8 April 2012

I'm rooting for Gaylord Silly.

Religion wasn't designed for the internet.

Read texts from a dog (found via Mendip).

Evolution turns the tables.

Ye do err, not knowing the grammar.

I think we already know what's the hottest movie of the summer.

Hey Romney, try putting this one on the roof.

Republicans have a program -- and a way to sell it.

Which prayers does God answer?

PM Carpenter looks at The Hunger Games.

Here are some questions for Jesus-besotted Republican politicians.

David Javerbaum presents the quantum theory of Romney (found via Smartypants).

Gothic Atheist has an encounter with door-to-door religious pests.

Will the Paultards rally behind Romney? Maybe not.

32% of Americans are not religious in any meaningful sense.

I'd like to see the Pentecostals try "handling" this.

John Cole discusses why he abandoned the Republican party.

Lady Atheist looks at the absurdity of Easter.

Don't be fooled -- class differences exist and affect everything.

Libertarians want you to eat shit and die.

James Dobson's radio platform for bigotry seems to be turkeying out.

There's a stark contrast between Obama's tax plan and Romney's.

Normal people rally around Starbucks after NOM calls for a boycott of it (found via Republic of Gilead).

Nobody -- not even Republicans -- can trust Romney. And his biggest problem isn't his gaffes.

Arizona House Bill 2549 is evil.

Sorry, but on church and state, Reagan wasn't one of the good guys.

The price of gold doesn't mean anything.

Conservatives hate freedom and are causing a moral crisis.

When the EPA isn't moving, the grassroots must.

Mario Piperni looks at the idiocy of Nikki Haley.

The US auto industry's resurgence offers important lessons.

David Frum looks at what happens if Romney loses.

Don't worry about the deficit -- it will go away on its own, unless health-insurance reform is repealed.

Forced to address the war on women, Republican chairman Reince Priebus babbles about caterpillars. More on the real issues here.

The Trayvon Martin case reveals disturbing doublethink -- and brings another outpouring of racism from Fox News commenters.

The Democrats have a real issue to campaign on -- Republican crackpottery.

Racism still cuts deep, especially when unexpected.

Gingrich and Santorum may join forces -- against Romney.

NOM hopes to use minorities as a tool in its attacks on gays.

When the Republicans changed their nomination rules, they failed to anticipate the problem of crappy candidates.

Religion does real harm to real people, every day.

If you're not familiar with the sad story of Romney's dog Seamus, here's an introduction -- and here's what it means.

Fundamentalists' totalitarian mind-set is revealed by their weird taboo on masturbation.

The TSA is astonishingly expensive -- and ineffective.

Santorum talks nonsense about porn.

North Dakota is self-destructing. Alabama isn't far behind.

This Catholic priest needs to label his flash drives better.

Britain's tradition of honoring its best on its currency continues. Someday they should consider this man too.

British actors speak out against the return of sinister bigotry.

For once, British politicians look as stupid as ours -- more here.

Russian bloggers ferret out extravagance and photo-fakery in the case of the Patriarch's wristwatch.

Latin America's leaders admit the war on drugs has failed; when will ours?

Free trade is harming poor countries as well as rich ones.

A flag of freedom flies over Afghanistan.

Santorum doesn't want you to read these health tips.

California researchers discover a promising anti-cancer antibody, while MIT is exploring a nanoparticle approach.

March saw record high temperatures across the US -- more here. Texas must pay attention.

Dolphins have complex social lives, of which right-wingers would not approve.

If the Anglosphere doesn't lead the way into the Singularity, someone else will.

07 April 2012

Quote for the day -- candidates and milk cartons

"So we might see a third Gingrich surge or a third Santorum surge. And then another Romney surge. All of this is going to be accompanied with discontent. It is like the Republicans have three cartons of rotten milk. They’ve already taken a taste out of each carton and, on some level, know the milk is bad in all of them. So they take out a carton, pour a drink, gag, put the carton back in the refrigerator, and take out one of the other two cartons that they’ve already gagged on. And they keep doing it over and over again."

Pete Spiliakos

06 April 2012

Video of the week -- Exterminate!

Daleks are cool!

04 April 2012

The Northwest Free-thought Alliance conference

This conference was held Friday the 30th through Monday the 1st in Renton, WA (near Seattle), and I went -- it's only about 160 miles away, and Richard Dawkins would be there.

About 340 people attended, and it was an unusual experience for me to be surrounded by so many people who were all atheists. Many had come from places significantly less hospitable than Portland -- the first person I talked with at any length was from Spokane, and some others were from small towns.

There was a report from the Reason Rally in Washington DC a week earlier, which had drawn 20,000 people despite rain.

The core of the conference was the lectures and workshops on Saturday. There were three time slots, each with four options (schedule here). For the first two time-slots I naturally chose Dr. Jon Peters's "The Genome and Evolution", which was an eye-opener.

I've known for years that the evidence from genetics is overwhelming; even if there were no fossil record at all, the genetic evidence all by itself would be absolutely conclusive that the theory of evolution is true. Much of what Peters discussed, however, was very recent further discoveries -- from the last year or so. Biology, like medicine and computer science, moves at a very rapid pace these days.

Much of it concerned the genetics of atavistic traits that occasionally appear (humans with tails, whales with legs, etc.), and of various kinds of DNA segments which are non-functional and thus get passed on from generation to generation unaffected by natural selection. Work on these issues has greatly multiplied the number of known phenomena which can be explained only by common ancestry among species -- including and especially between humans and other great ape species.

An interesting aside was that other work in genetics has given us a surprising amount of knowledge about the history of human population sizes. The total human population at any one time could never have been smaller than about 8,000 people.

Peters was not shy about pointing out the implications of these discoveries for religion, which go far beyond merely refuting the Genesis creation myth. Since there could never have been just one pair from whom all modern humans are descended, for example, the story of the Fall and inherited original sin are nonsensical, and thus so is the sacrifice of Jesus -- and there goes most of the core of the Christian belief system. Anyone who thinks that Christianity and modern science can be made compatible with each other doesn't understand the science, and probably doesn't understand Christianity very well either.

Peters mentioned that even some Evangelical Christians who are geneticists, and who worked on these discoveries, had abandoned their resistance to the theory of evolution and are now trying to convince their fellow Christians that rejecting it is no longer tenable. He called 2011 a "Galileo year" for biology. See his website for details on these matters (the boxes on the left aren't clickable -- mouse over the headers at the top for drop-down menus).

For the final time slot I went to "Current Separation Cases", on recent court decisions affecting separation of church and state. The focus was on the conflict between employment non-discrimination laws and the right of religious organizations to conduct their business (including hiring and firing) on the basis of the taboos and general arbitrary weirdness which they exist to promote. Let's just say that the reasoning in some recent decisions has proven pretty arbitrary and weird too, even on the Supreme Court. It's anyone's guess how any given case will be decided (but we definitely need to make sure that there will not be a Republican in the White House to make judicial appointments any time soon).

On Sunday morning Dawkins arrived, along with two leaders of the US branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation -- Elizabeth Cornwell and Sean Faircloth -- who spoke on the ongoing harm done by special legal privileges for religion (religious day-care centers in the South are exempt from the regulations imposed on non-religious day-care, for example, and at least two children have died as a result), and how to work toward a more secular society. Dawkins interviewed two former pastors who had abandoned religion (there is a special atheist initiative, The Clergy Project, to help such people make what is obviously a very difficult transition) and who were dealing with the devastating rejection by bigoted family members and friends which so often accompanies "coming out".

Atheist activism, by the way, now clearly embraces the analogy with the gay movement, and this came up several times during the conference. Gays used to be stigmatized rather as atheists are, by the same kinds of people and for similar reasons; yet they've won much greater acceptance and significant legal successes (such as the spread of gay marriage) in a surprisingly short span of time. Clearly theirs is an example worth studying.

Last of all came the book signing. I'd brought along my copy of The Extended Phenotype for this, and it now bears the great man's signature; unfortunately, given the huge crush of people waiting in line, there was no opportunity to talk with him at any length.

After the conference there was another event in Bellevue a few miles away, where Coldwell, Faircloth, and Dawkins spoke again. Attendance was far larger than at the conference -- I wouldn't be surprised if there were more than a thousand people there -- and the doors didn't open until almost an hour after the scheduled time. But it was well worth it. Dawkins spoke on the need to reclaim words like "pro-life" and "intelligent design" and "morality" which have been seized by religionists as Trojan horses for their various inanities. Faircloth, a passionate speaker, emphasized organization and political activism (for his full program, see his book), while Coldwell talked about what's currently being done, which is a lot.

As she pointed out, it would be very easy for Dawkins to just relax at home in Britain and watch his book royalties roll in; instead, he's touring the US and helping atheists here get active and organized, because he understands what's at stake. Given the tremendous power and cultural influence of the US, the ambitions of American fundamentalism represent a global threat, not just one confined within our own borders.

Dana Hunter has a report on the Bellevue event.

If you've never been to a conference like this, I recommend it. Everyone I encountered was friendly, and the organizers and volunteers were always helpful when I had a question about something. I'm not generally comfortable in crowds or groups, but it can be surprisingly liberating to be among hundreds of people who share one's understanding of the insanity and inanity of religion.