30 August 2010

Glenn Beck and the threat of theocracy

Christine Vyrnon has a post up on Glenn Beck's religious-revival rally yesterday, asking readers for their assessments of the threat of theocracy in the US and what can be done about it. My own response:

I'm a lot less worried about the threat of theocracy than I was in the late 1990s when the Christian Right had a lot more momentum and support.

Consider what's happened over the decade from 2000 to today. The percentage of fundamentalists in the population has declined and the number of non-religious people has roughly doubled. Public support for gay marriage has risen steadily and, according to one poll, recently passed the 50% mark -- something which would have seemed incredible a decade ago. The recent NOM anti-gay-marriage bus tour had pitiful turn-out for its "rallies", and supporters were outnumbered three-to-one by pro-gay counter-protesters, even in places like Iowa and Missouri, even the day after Judge Walker's ruling in California.

(I cite attitudes toward gays and gay marriage because they're a useful barometer of how strong fundamentalist ideology among the general public actually is -- more likely to be accurate than things like self-reported church attendance, which is greatly exaggerated -- actual counts show attendance much lower than what people tell pollsters.)

The increasing agitation, anger, and occasional terrorism on the religious right reflects the fact that they know they're losing the culture wars. The election of Obama was the last straw, not because he's black (I don't buy the "all teabaggers are closet racists" line), but because when the Republicans lost their control of Congress and the Presidency, it meant that power had slipped from the grasp of the fundamentalists' allies.

When an ideological movement is shrinking, it tends to become more and more shrill and extreme, because that's the kind of people who stay when others lose interest or give up. That's what's happening to the Christian Right.

As for Beck's rally specifically, he claimed he was going to get 300,000 attendees and actually got 87,000, by the only neutral estimate I've seen. Yes, he and Limbaugh and the rest of them do have an audience, but an audience of 20,000,000 can seem huge and yet still be only a tenth of the adult population.

The Republicans' prospects for large gains in Congress this year rest entirely on the fact that unemployment remains high. The nomination of extremist candidates in teabagger-dominated primaries is hurting them, not helping -- Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio may well lose races that more moderate Republicans would almost certainly have won.

What can we do? Keep doing what we're doing. Keep speaking out against religion and educating people about it. Keep telling the truth about the Republicans' extremism and obstructionism (many people are genuinely not paying attention).

And don't feel disappointed if there's no visible result. I never expect that any blog post of mine is going to convert a Christian reader to atheism in one fell swoop. That's not how it works. What I hope is that my writings may move 100 people each 1% of the way towards giving up religion. Other things that those people encounter will help them a little further, and so on.

But in the long run, I feel very confident of victory.

To add your own input to the discussion, go here.

Update 1: For another view of the rally, here's a report from a blogger who was there.

Update 2: Beck's present rhetoric must be judged in the light of his record.

28 August 2010

What I've been reading lately

The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens, 1995

A very thin (but also revealing and funny) exposé of one of the great sacred cows of modern religion -- Mother Teresa. It's all here: the celebrity photo-ops, the fatuous "miracles", the callous cruelty behind the charity, the use of her fame to promote the most evil and dangerous Catholic dogmas. Anyone could indict Jerry Falwell or the Pope -- it took Hitchens to tackle this.

The Atheist Camel Chronicles by "Dromedary Hump", 2008

A collection in book form of 105 essays from 2008 and 2009, this volume covers a wide range of the evils of religion, from the most abstract to personal experiences. The most essential, to me, is #51, "Christianity the Cult of Death" -- we are so used to Christian mythology and symbolism that we seldom notice how saturated it all is by "one enormous obsession with death and dying". #52, "Atheist in a Foxhole" about religious bullying in the US military, would be almost unbelievable were it not for the recent news of similar abuse in Virgina. Other essays deal with Islamic honor killings (#98), the Christian Right's obsession with other people's sex lives (#72), how fundamentalism is pushing the Republican party toward totalitarianism (#65), and more. Ordering info here.

"Teaching Evolution in Muslim States" in Reports of the NCSE vol. 30 #3, May-June 2010

This article compares just two Muslim states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, but the contrast between them is vast. Saudi education rejects evolution entirely, denouncing it as a false theory and affirming the Koran (whose creation story closely resembles that of the Old Testament) as the final word on the origins of life. Iran's schools not only fully accept evolution, but provide a more solid and detailed grounding in it than most American schools probably do. The roots of the difference lie in history and culture. Saudi Arabia is one of the world's newest organized countries, while Iran is one of the oldest; Iran's society is much more complex, it has been urbanized for much longer, and its aspirations to be taken seriously as a great nation preclude chaining itself to the absurdity of creationism, even under the wretched theocracy which now rules it. One more sign that, when that theocracy finally goes, Iran will likely join the modern world with startling speed.

The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins, 1982

Most of Dawkins's books are aimed at the general public; this one is aimed mainly at his fellow biologists, and it is thus considerably more technical. The rewards of reading it, however, are profound -- there is far more to genetics than the popular mind dreams of. Dawkins views organisms as mechanisms constructed by genes to further the successful replication of those genes, not necessarily of the organisms themselves. Genes compete for survival not only with the genes of other organisms, but sometimes also with other genes of the same organism. Genes interact in subtle ways with other copies of themselves in groups of related organisms. Genes can extend their influence beyond the organism in which they exist, shaping the external environment and sometimes even the behavior of other organisms. As Dawkins puts it, pretty much any animal behavior that you see exists to promote the replication of the genes which cause the behavior -- but those genes are not necessarily in the animal which is exhibiting the behavior. The world of living things will never again look quite the same to you.

Meditation #3 -- the bond of fire

We humans are used to a world more or less tamed and ordered for our benefit and comfort; we see what we choose to see. Yet the universe offers sights to chill us with awe, if we could only gaze upon them.

Consider Beta Lyrae, which appears to be an undistinguished star some ways south of Vega in our sky. Also called Sheliak (from the Arabic name al-Shiliyâq), Beta Lyrae is eight hundred and eighty-two light-years from Earth; its light which we see today left it in the era of the Normans and the Crusaders. But if you could see that fleck of light as it truly is -- what a spectacle you would behold!

Beta Lyrae is a double star, and an unusual one. Our own Sun is larger than most stars, but both stars of Beta Lyrae are larger yet, and far brighter. They are also young as stars go, having existed only a few million years. Most strikingly of all, they are extremely close, perhaps almost in contact; their orbital period around their common center is less than thirteen days.

Streams of glowing, fusing hydrogen flow between the two stars, a bond of fire across the narrow gap separating them. Further, the rapid rotation of the pair spins off a coherent jet of the very same star-stuff, which moves outward from them in an exuberant spiral, still aglow.

Beta Lyrae's planets, if there be any, must be stark worlds indeed -- flooded with the dazzling light of the two suns, bathed at regular intervals by the warm wash of the hydrogen spiral as it sweeps across them. We expect that any such worlds should be lifeless, considering how recently the system was formed; but if there are eyes to see and minds to understand, then the myths and visions inspired by such a favored place in the universe must far outstrip our own unimaginative efforts.

Someday we will see.....but for now, we can only imagine.....

Link roundup for 28 August 2010

Some Paultards want their own separate communities.

Did Jesus preach openly or secretly?

The ugly practice of bear-baiting continues in South Carolina (sent by Mendip). And the gas stations there aren't very nice either.

That Mississippi school which was allocating student offices by race has changed its policy.

As Glenn Beck's religion-fest attempts to usurp the anniversary of Martin Luther King's greatest speech, Progressive Eruptions looks at what top conservatives back then actually said about King and civil rights.

Some teabaggers aren't on board with Beck.

Frum Forum blogger RD claims the Republican party is dropping its anti-gay stance, but apparently not everyone has gotten the memo.

The Republican resurgence in the polls is due almost entirely to gains in one demographic group.

Some right-wing bloggers are being paid for their work.

Teabaggerdom isn't just concerned with economics -- it embraces the modern right's theocratic, anti-abortion essence.

Andrew Pavelyev laments the continuing radicalization of the Republican party, from which Democrats hope to benefit.

Insana D writes about confronting the religion from which one has escaped (found via The Whore of All the Earth).

End the abusive relationship -- divorce Jesus!

After ditching religion, the next step is to ditch the prudishness it inculcates.

Craig at The Loathsome Joy blog looks at Mormonism's self- delusion and the reality behind its claims of rapid growth (found via The Whore of All the Earth); check out the links in the second comment, especially this one.

Blogger Mother Hen has done some research on what the Ground Zero mosque / community center will actually be like.

Islamists and the Christian Right have much in common.

Stupid Evil Bastard defends getting tough on nonsense. Looks like anti-religion activists in New Zealand aren't pulling their punches.

Russell Blackford clears up confusion about freedom of religion.

Udo Schuklenk looks at the Falun Gong and finds it just another ordinary religious cult with the usual prejudices.

Stalin's tyranny had religious roots.

Germany's economy is booming and optimistic, a vindication of its superior economic model (found via Mad Mike's America). Britain too is seeing impressive growth, but Greece is still in trouble.

Ozawa Ichiro is back in the news, and his grasp of the concept of tact is as lousy as ever.

China suffers yet another tainted-food scandal (found via Mendip).

Why isn't more aid reaching Pakistan's flood victims? Maybe it's because aid workers are being threatened.

Iran's conventional weapons aren't all they're cracked up to be.

China's income inequality is among the world's worst, raising concerns about the country's stability.

Some plants under attack can call on insects for help.

PLX4032 shows some promise in treating melanoma.

25 August 2010

The Christian Right strikes again

The Christian Right has just won a major, if perhaps temporary, victory in its fight to obstruct life-saving medical research and drive it overseas. A federal district judge, ruling in support of a suit by miscellaneous religious crackpots, issued a temporary injunction which will restrict federal funding of embryonic stem- cell research even more severely than the Bush administration did. Think Progress looks at the background of this judge and of the three-judge panel which ruled that the plaintiffs had standing.

One of the groups represented in the suit consisted of researchers working with adult stem cells who argued that they were being "irreparably harmed" by having to compete for federal funding with scientists who were not bound by Christian-Right embryo-fetishism. Perhaps there should be a counter-suit by the millions of people suffering from multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, stroke, macular degeneration, spinal-cord injuries, and the many other conditions for which embryonic stem-cell research has already shown promising results in animal testing -- who are certainly being "irreparably harmed" by the prospect of further delays in developing and implementing cures.

Scientists in the field are outraged and frustrated, as work which they began after Obama's executive order last year is once again plunged into a confusing legal limbo based on medieval taboos.

The Justice Department has announced that it will appeal the ruling. But make no mistake -- if this latest roadblock can't be cleared away in a reasonable time, the most skilled and talented scientists may well decide that the research environment in the United States is hopelessly insecure even under a Democratic administration, and take their work elsewhere. Ideological interference with science could cause our country to fall far behind in one of the critical technologies of the coming decade -- just as Stalin's support for Lysenko crippled the Soviet Union in the field of genetic science.

23 August 2010

Video of the week -- Irish comedian Dara O'Briain

Check out this one too.

21 August 2010

Link roundup for 21 August 2010

It's the greatest show on Earth -- the Republican circus!

This chick is really into Ray Bradbury (NSFW).

Many people have quit their jobs. Few have done it with this much style (found via Mendip).

Some fundies seem to think a religion doesn't deserve respect unless people die for it.

Driving instructor Four Dinners continues to face challenges with his immigrant students.

Sissy conservatives recoil from rugged, manly liberals.

Hot-for-Jesus looks at Jesus fashion.

The British city of Bradford faces a scary invasion from South America (found via Mendip).

Green Eagle has some ideas for re-designing American currency.

How about switching around the Social Security tax?

Grand totals from the NOM tour: 22 "rallies", 1,274 supporters, 3,419 pro-gay counter-protesters.

Palin isn't pulling in the crowds any more, either.

Tom Tancredo's third-party candidacy for Governor of Colorado is hurting the Republican's chances.

Rand Paul's former huge lead over Jack Conway has now shrunk to a tie.

Eli Lehrer explains why a "double-dip" recession is unlikely.

Have the banksters screwed themselves?

Robert Creamer looks at the real Republican strategy.

68% of Americans oppose the Ground Zero mosque, while only 29% favor it (even some moderate Muslims, including Miss USA, are uncomfortable with it). If you don't think this ludicrously-overhyped "issue" is a vote-winner for the right wing, you're dreaming. Howard Dean talks sense.

Don't be misled: the Christian Right is declining in the US, both in numbers and in the respect it gets from the public. Interesting predictions here.

Russell Blackford dissects an anti-atheist diatribe; PZ Myers crushes an atheist-bashing e-mail; and Jen McCreight responds to -- well, I'm not sure what to call this.

Feminists should be atheists, and vice versa.

The Creation Museum is a sad and intimidating place.

A Saudi court is considering surgical paralysis as a punishment.

Atheist Ireland looks at a vestige of state religious propaganda.

Wendy Lewis has been named "Britain's most disgusting person" after urinating on a war memorial.

The French government is starting to deport Romanian Gypsies living illegally in France.

Asia welcomes some long-overdue signs of remorse from Japan for its crimes during World War II.

Sorry, AGW denialists -- sunspot activity is at a historic low.

The Immortality Institute is funding a new research project on mitochondrial uncoupling -- a promising strategy against the aging process.

19 August 2010


Today marks four years of blogging; coincidentally, this happens to be my 1,900th post. And I'm not going away.

18 August 2010

Where the Prop. 8 battle goes from here

The question of where the Proposition 8 legal fight goes after Judge Walker's recent ruling is a vexed one. Many have assumed that the best-case scenario is an appeal by the pro-8 camp to the Ninth Circuit and then the Supreme Court, on the assumption that Walker's powerful and carefully-crafted ruling would prevail at each step. If so, the Supreme Court would be declaring laws against gay marriage unconstitutional nationwide, bringing marriage equality to the whole country at a stroke -- a victory spiced by the fact that it was the other side's own efforts, in the form of Proposition 8, which served as the ultimate catalyst for the final defeat of their cause.

But it's a risky gamble. No one can be sure in advance what the Supreme Court would do. The assumption is that Justice Kennedy would provide the critical fifth vote -- Walker's own ruling makes use of arguments from Kennedy which he would presumably still endorse -- but who can be sure? And a defeat at the Supreme Court would embolden the bad guys, while implicitly legitimizing their tactic of making civil rights subject to the will of the electorate (and that could take the country, or parts of it, in some very frightening directions, well beyond gay issues alone).

Recently the possibility has arisen that the plaintiffs' appeal could be rejected on the technical grounds that they lack "standing" in the case. If so, the most likely result would be that the matter proceeds no further; Walker's ruling would stand, gay marriage would be legal in California, but there would be no direct effect on the rest of the country. While this might seem disappointing in comparison with a nationwide win at the Supreme Court, it would still be an important step forward; victory in the largest state would inspire activists elsewhere and help normalize the concept of gay marriage in the mass public mind, while Walker's ruling would remain in force to be cited in legal battles elsewhere.

More on these issues is here. I would note as well that a Supreme Court fight in the very near future might be less promising than one in the longer term; assuming Obama is re-elected, for at least the next six years the composition of the Court will not get any worse, and may get better. (Obama arguably has a better record on gay issues than most realize.) There is also the slight possibility that the plaintiffs, if they lose again, might choose not to appeal to the Supreme Court, preferring not to risk an unfavorable ruling and nationwide defeat.

But looking at the range of legal possibilities and the evolution of public opinion, it's clear which side has the momentum. Within five or ten years, one way or another, this fight will be over.

Why are we still offshoring?

At a time of high unemployment in the US, General Motors, newly profitable again and a former recipient of bail-out funds from the US government, is investing $500 million in a factory in a foreign country, which will create 390 jobs (in addition to 11,000 GM jobs which already exist there).

Found via The Oracular Opinion, which has some serious points to make about this once one hacks one's way through the thicket of leftist-bashing. If the government is a majority or at least major shareholder in GM, why is it not using that influence to push GM to consolidate manufacturing capacity and jobs back into the US, or at least making sure that new investment goes here? (Never mind that a lot of right-wing bloggers would find grounds to condemn such "interference" -- it would be the right thing to do.) Is this a case of some lower-level functionary dropping the ball, or did higher-ups in the government know about it?

More to the point, of course, is whether this is an isolated case or a symptom of a broader policy failure. The Bush administration did nothing to discourage US companies from moving jobs overseas, but I would expect a Democratic administration to take a much more active role in pressing companies to keep jobs at home. Are they doing so?

The Ground Zero mosque

I haven't said much about the Ground Zero mosque/cultural center, on the theory that whenever the bad guys (Islam and the right wing, in this case) are fighting each other, it's best to just stand aside and let them get on with it. In any case, regardless of whether one thinks it's a bad idea or not, the First Amendment issue is straightforward; there is probably no realistic way of stopping the project, unless its proponents were to voluntarily abandon it.

(Atheist writer Sam Harris has an overview of the broader issues here; try to put the "Islam is a peaceful religion misinterpreted by extremists" clichés on hold long enough to read it with an open mind.)

In any case, mosque opponents are not wrong about Islam being evil; what they are wrong about is the proper way to respond to evil. We've been through this kind of issue before with groups like the American Nazi party, NAMBLA, Fred Phelps, etc. However repulsive their ideas, the proper solution is not to prohibit the expression of those ideas, but to refute and attack them with free expression of one's own. That's how conflicts in our society should play out; that's what the First Amendment was intended to provide for.

Rather than trying to stop the mosque from being built, how about trying some of that "free expression of one's own"? One possibility would be a museum or center in the same area, dedicated to Islamic crimes against humanity and their firm roots in Islamic sacred texts and theology, encouraging people to get the truth for themselves. There are ex-Muslims such as Ibn Warraq and Ayaan Hirsi Ali who could serve as consultants on such a project (the biggest challenge would be to prevent it from being co-opted by some other cause like the political right or Christianity). Based on the level of opposition the mosque has aroused, financial support wouldn't be a problem. For that matter, on balance the mosque itself is probably already a public-relations loser for Islam, and a vote-winner for Republicans (especially given some liberals' knee-jerk denunciation of opponents as bigots) -- which is their real reason for raising a fuss about the issue, of course.

16 August 2010

Video of the week -- priestly lusts

Warning: seriously creepy. Background here.

14 August 2010

Thought for the day -- the future

Two hundred years ago we humans were few in number, weak, poor, and almost completely at the mercy of the natural forces of the universe.

Two hundred years from now we will be numerous, powerful, rich, and in charge of the universe.

What we are living through now is a period of transition.

All else is mere detail.

Link roundup for 14 August 2010

Ordering a vegetarian meal at a British airport may red-flag you as a terrorist (found via Mendip).

Businesswomen strike back against religious harassment.

Google isn't cool any more -- there's more to its evil than threats against net neutrality.

The trend towards public acceptance of gay marriage seems to be accelerating; one poll now shows support over 50%. Andrew Sullivan explains why court victories, so far from provoking a backlash, have helped public opinion along by exposing the weakness of opponents' case. George Takei comments (sent by Ranch Chimp).

Conservative legal doctrine on "standing" could ironically stymie the supporters of Proposition 8.

The Catholic Church has a new set of talking points on marriage.

Arisha Michelle Hatch has some powerful reflections on racism and gay equality.

Green Eagle has another wingnut wrapup.

Rand Paul is evasive on the "Aqua Buddha" story. More here.

Politics Plus and Jack Jodell clarify the issues surrounding the Bush tax cuts.

The Village Voice looks at right-wing revolutionaries (found via Green Eagle, who proudly points to a home-state example).

Unemployment varies dramatically by level of education.

I think the proposal for a gay bar near the Ground Zero mosque (or "institute" or whatever) is a good one. If the Muslims respond with bigoted outrage, it will remove all doubt about who the bad guys are; if they don't, it will show that the mosque is probably nothing to worry about.

Many family-values-preaching right-wingers are hypocrites. Newt Gingrich is merely more blatant about it.

Les Francis explains why this year's elections won't be a re-run of 1994.

Republicans' generic-ballot polling advantage is mostly confined to the South.

Obama could learn a political lesson from the British Conservative party, and it's not too late. Frank Rich has a slightly different take (found via Demwit).

Johann Hari celebrates the collapse of religion in Britain, but warns of the continuing threat posed by religious schools. Four Dinners comments here and I respond (see end of thread).

Austria, too, is seeing large-scale abandonment of religion.

Eastern Europe is recovering its history, but much remains to be done.

Islamotards hope that a new giant clock in Mecca will challenge GMT as the global time standard. PZ Myers has a few choice words.

Scientists at the University of South Florida say the government tried to suppress their findings on oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico. Mother Jones has more on BP's secrets.

Having rejected evolution and anthropogenic global warming, the crackpot right is now targeting Einstein's theory of relativity. More at Politics Plus and Progressive Eruptions.

The approval of a new contraceptive shows that the FDA is getting back on track after the politicization of the Bush years.

"Biochar" could help fight global warming.

The US military is pushing to develop computers 1,000 times more powerful than today's best by 2018 (found via Mendip).

Alexandre Erler explains why the "tedium of immortality" is a non-issue.

11 August 2010

Video of the week -- Fight Club, 1810

Pepping up Jane Austen a bit.....

07 August 2010

Victory in California -- reactions

Wednesday's ruling striking down Proposition 8 in California was a historic event whose eventual implications could be immense. The gay-marriage ban was declared to be in violation of the federal Constitution -- if the ruling survives the appeals process and is finally upheld by the Supreme Court, it will presumably make gay marriage legal all over the United States, at one stroke.

The day after the decision, NOM held one of its "rallies" in St. Louis. After the news from California, the expected "backlash" should've turned out hordes of furious attendees, right? Actual turnout was 35 people, compared with over 200 pro-gay counter-protesters. And this was St. Louis, not San Francisco or New York. More on the backlash issue at The Crossed Pond.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown won't defend Prop. 8, but this November's election will bring a new figure to that office; not surprisingly, it will make a big difference whether the Democrat or the Republican wins.

Governor Schwarzenegger has joined calls to let marriages resume immediately, without waiting for the outcome of the appeal.

Judge Walker was a Reagan appointee and was once considered to be a conservative, but he's now under hysterical right-wing attack.

Opponents of the ruling don't understand its precedents.

The Supreme Court's decision will depend upon Justice Anthony Kennedy -- and FiveThirtyEight leans toward thinking he'll vote to uphold the ruling.

Dissenting Justice looks at Obama's position and an accusation of bias against judge Walker.

ZJ explains why the ruling is so devastating to the opposition.

DR Tucker asks if there's a conservative case for gay marriage.

TomCat looks forward to the final victory, and posts commentary by Rachel Maddow.

See also more blogger reactions from Gothic Atheist, Hello Mr. President, Mad Mike's America, and Urban Koda. Update: See also Momma Politico.

Hiroshima -- another view

Yesterday was the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and we were predictably treated to a veritable mushroom cloud of hand-wringing clichés.

There are cases where knowing a person from a totally different background can be valuable because it exposes you to a totally different viewpoint. This is one of those cases.

Back when I lived in California, I was involved for five years in a relationship with a Chinese woman (born and raised in China, immigrated to the US as an adult). I once explained to her that many Americans now believe the Hiroshima bombing to have been morally wrong, and asked her what she thought.

She told me she thought this was the stupidest thing she had ever heard of. She further said that she was confident I could search the whole of China and never find even a single person who would believe that the US was wrong to use the atomic bombs against Japan.

Knowing as I do some details of the ghastly atrocities committed by the Japanese occupiers in China and elsewhere in Asia, this reaction did not surprise me at all. Millions upon millions were murdered, often hideously. But to too many Americans today, the Japanese atrocities of that time are just an abstraction. Only Western crimes seem real.

On 6 August 1945, vast regions of China and several other Asian countries were still occupied by the forces of that unspeakably sadistic and ruthless empire. On Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and else- where, Japanese troops had repeatedly shown a willingness to fight with suicidal ferocity even when defeat was certain.

Without the atomic bombs, the war might have lasted -- how much longer? A few weeks, maybe? How many more innocent Chinese, Koreans, and others would the Japanese have murdered in those few more weeks?

My former lady friend was right. The hand-wringers are wrong.

Link roundup for 7 August 2010

Germany faces the menace of radioactive pigs (found via Mendip).

"DNA wasn't invented then."

As the November election approaches, the enemies of the Obama administration are relentlessly talking down the US economic recovery and predicting doom; Scott Winship dissects an example of their efforts.

Net neutrality is under threat again.

AFL-CIO president David Trumka warns that the government must act on unemployment.

Fareed Zakaria talks sense on taxation (found via Green Eagle).

Conservative Professor Bainbridge lists the top ten embarrassing things about conservatism.

Unbelievers need to stick together.

Leah Elliott Hauge posts about the aesthetics of Catholicism (see my comment on the post, though).

The Atheist Camel replies to a Christian e-mail.

There's no baby in the bathwater of religion.

Christopher Hitchens, stricken with cancer, fights on; predictable asinine Christian blather here (more compassion here).

Yes, the Catholic Church really does consider ordaining women to be as bad as child molestation.

Free-expression hero Geert Wilders has been busy lately.

Green Eagle challenges the left to address its own bigotry.

Many journalists who report from Israel operate in a bubble of unreality.

Here lies a rhinoceros, who died for nothing.

Russia is suffering widespread fires which have engulfed much of the country in smoke, amid its worst heat wave in 130 years.

Have fun inventing your own pseudo-science -- and you may even make money!

The triceratops may not have existed (found via Mendip).

06 August 2010

Video of the week -- elevator ride

Daydreams, and a missed opportunity.....

04 August 2010

Decision day

Judge Vaughn Walker's verdict in the Proposition 8 federal trial will be announced this afternoon. Whatever happens, it won't have much immediate effect, since whichever side loses will appeal.

From the NOM Tour Tracker: Public attitudes in Iowa, where gay marriage has been legal for almost a year, show how the country is moving inexorably toward acceptance.

Update: Victory, for now. More here and here.

Update 2 (5 August): Lots more interesting stuff here.

Non-literal interpretation

Several years ago at work I was talking with my boss about certain policy-enforcement problems the company was having, and I jokingly suggested that we might resort to having the trouble- makers flogged. She laughed and replied: "I can see I need to make you read the company Code of Conduct again." I said, "Oh, I've read it -- it's just that I have a non-literal interpretation."

She thought it was funny, because the very concept of a non-literal interpretation in such a context is clearly absurd. A document like a company policy just means what it means. So why do we let religionists get away with using the same dodge to escape the implications of the insanities that fill their holy books?

Genesis contains a creation myth which, like every other creation myth found in every other religion, bears no resemblance to what we now know about the actual origins and development of the universe and of life on this planet. Some religionists evade this problem by claiming that Genesis should be taken non-literally, as an allegory of the truth. This doesn't work, for two reasons.

First, the story in Genesis is so far removed from what actually happened that taking it as an allegory strains interpretation to the breaking point and far beyond. The physical scale is wrong, the time-frame is wrong, the order in which different kinds of life and different parts of the universe appear is wrong, the mechanisms by which everything happens are wrong. It gets nothing right at all -- nothing. It doesn't offer any similarities or parallels to the true origins of life and the universe, as an allegory must do to some extent, to work as an allegory. It's just like all the other creation myths. For example, Shinto mythology records in part that the primordial goddess Izanami gave birth to the Japanese islands after mating with her brother. You could, I suppose, take this as an allegory for something about real geology, if you were willing to impose a "non-literal interpretation" on the legend which ignored its plain meaning entirely, but why bother?

Second, Genesis could not have been meant as an allegory because it was written by people who could not possibly have known anything about the Big Bang or evolution. Allegories are common in literature, but they refer to things the authors knew about. HG Wells's The War of the Worlds, for example, was written partly as an allegory of the devastation wrought on places like Tasmania by technologically-superior Western imperialists -- showing his own people how it would feel to be on the receiving end of such destruction. But HG Wells knew about what had happened in Tasmania. To interpret a novel as an allegory of something its author could not possibly have known about would be nonsense.

If you were willing to push non-literal interpretation to the same kind of extreme, you could probably "interpret" the works of Jane Austen as an allegorical description of quantum mechanics -- but the fact remains that the said novels cannot independently tell you anything about quantum mechanics, and were not meant to.

In any case, the most offensive and dangerous part of religion is not its creation mythology but its moral and legal codes. In that realm, "interpretation" which ignores straightforward meaning is inadmissible (next time a cop stops you for speeding, try telling him that you saw the "Speed Limit 40" sign but you interpreted it non-literally as meaning that you can actually drive at 60 miles per hour). The laws of the Bible are as plain and dry and clear as any modern statute law. To claim that they mean something other than what their blunt wording says they mean is simply dishonest, just as it would be with the speed-limit sign.

Finally, the whole effort to reconcile ancient religion with modern science and morality seems pointless even if it could succeed. Even if you could twist and contort Christianity (or Hinduism or Islam or Aztec religion or whatever) until it more or less agreed with modern science and morality, why bother? You might as well just go with modern science and morality, since those are the standards you're really using anyway, and forget the myths and taboos lingering from the ignorant and savage past.