Archive for September, 2008

Why Pastor Gus Booth opposes religious freedom

September 24, 2008

While listening to NPR this afternoon, I happened to hear an interview with Pastor Gus Booth of the Warroad Community Church in Minnesota. Booth, along with 30 othe preachers around the country, has pledged his intent to commit a flagrant violation of the constitutional separation of church and state by endorsing a presidential candidate in his sermon.

You see, for the last 54 years, federal tax law has forbidden churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates. This is because churches are tax-exempt institutions, so such meddling in politics would be construed as the use of tax-free dollars to engage in a political campaign. In other words, what Booth plans to do is blatantly illegal. It may not yet be clear, however, why that means that he (and the Alliance Defense Fund, which spearheaded the Pulpit Initiative”) opposes religious freedom. I’ll spell it out.

  1. The public endorsement of a religion violates religious freedom.
  2. The public endorsement of a political candidate by a religious organization indicates that that political candidate supports the ideals of that religion.
  3. Therefore, the public endorsement of a political candidate by a religion amounts to the public endorsement of a religion.

It’s not rocket science. The Constitution dictates that religion must stay out of politics, and vice versa. People like Pastor Booth and the Alliance Defense Fund are working to undo the protections that ensure freedom of and from religion in this country. They will fail, but it saddens and enrages me that anyone would want to try.

Dishonesty in Palin’s speech?

September 5, 2008

Another post on Sarah Palin? I’m sorry. I’m not sure why, but that woman fills me with vitriol. The main reason (and I’m not proud of this) may simply be the fact that she has proven so exciting to Republicans, and so may increase substantially the chances of a McCain presidency. I’m not very happy about that possibility.

I do have respectable reasons for disfavoring Mrs. Palin, however. For one, her pro-ID statements worry me deeply, as does her generally strongly social conservative policies. What is most irksome, however, is her platform of reform, and how much her record belies calls into question her commitment to it.

Consider, for example, her speech Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention. She made much of her record of fighting Congressional earmarks while governor of Alaska, but made no mention at all of the now well-known lobbyist, Steve Silver, that she hired specifically for the purpose of securing earmarks while mayor of Wasilla.

Even more galling is this statement from the speech:

I told the Congress “thanks, but no thanks,” for that Bridge to Nowhere.

The “Bridge to Nowhere” to which she referred was a proposed project to link the city of Ketchikan, Alaska with its airport, which then and now must be reached by ferry. While governor, Palin vocally supported the bridge, and the need for federal dollars to build it. In addition, she was in no position to say “thanks, but no thanks” to Congress. As is plainly stated in this article from 2005, the earmark requirement to use the federal money on bridges was removed before she became governor. More on that in this excellent post.

In short, she lied about her record as regards earmarks. As, again, this CBS news post spells out admirably, she lied about a lot of other things too.

It’s exciting to see a female vice presidential candidate nominated by a major party, to be sure. But that’s no reason to vote. Given what Sarah Palin has said on pretty much every topic, I have no desire to see her within a heartbeat of the presidency.

FYI: GOP VP pick is pro-ID

September 4, 2008

This will be very old news by the time this post is automatically published, but I’m frightened enough not to care. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s pick for running mate, is vocally supportive of teaching creationism alongside evolution in public schools.

This issue is unlikely to concern most Americans; Palin’s stance on energy policy and abortion will probably get a lot more press. Be that as it may, if you needed another reason not to vote for John McCain, this is it. Palin favors injecting religion into science class. She favors the manufacturing of scientific controversy where none exists. By the logic with which she defends her position on creationism, we could just as easily teach astrology and flat earth theory (as the article linked above points out.) In short, her position is in direct opposition to good science, whether she realizes it or not.

Like my mother before me, I have never voted for a successful presidential candidate. I hope the curse will be lifted this time. Obama’s my man, and not just because McCain isn’t; his position on science is very positive, and very much what we need.

Communing with your inner fish

September 3, 2008

Continuing (and concluding) my series entitled “Books I Bought in Seattle,” I will now regale the reader with my impressions of Neil Shubin’s recent book, Your Inner Fish.

The book is an exploration of the history of human evolution, in the only place available to us: the bodies of other animals, extand and ancient. Shubin points out the one-to-one correspondence between the bones in our limbs, and the limbs of all other tetrapods, to those of the Devonian fish he helped discover, Tiktaalik. He describes how the general body plan of vertebrates was in place 550 million years ago in the Cambrian, and perhaps even in the Precambrian, as evidenced by the famous Ediacaran fossils. He similarly explores the evolution of vision, of hearing, of the sense of smell, and points out how all our wonderfully complex sense organs have analogues in far more (seemingly) humble creatures.

Shubin’s lively and playful writing captures the breathless excitement that surrounds each new scientific discovery, and I delighted in his accounts of the findings that shaped our knowledge of evolution. He succeeds in portraying scientists as ordinary people, whose job happens to be probing the underlying nature of the universe. I have to thank him also for his clear explanation of the gene Sonic hedgehog. The only complaint I would level against it is that I fear he sometimes dumbs down his accounts too much; there was more than one place in the book that I felt would benefit from the actual terminology, rather than a more general explanation by analogy. But this is a minor complaint, as evidenced by the fact that I did not provide an example.

The fundamental theme of the book is that, as remarkable as we are, we are an inextricable part of the tapestry of life, no more and no less remarkable than anything else that lives. Everything that makes us what we are is derived from something that ran or flew or swam upon the Earth before. Within each of us is an inner fish, and an inner ape, and an inner reptile, and an inner bacterium (trillions of these, actually); reading Shubin’s book is an excellent way to gain acquaintance with them. (Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale is another.)

Some more Galapagos pictures

September 2, 2008

I love the Galapagos! It was hard to leave at the end of our eight-day cruise among the islands. Here’s another handful of photos from the trip.

The marine iguana is a ubiquitous feature of the islands. They can be seen nearly anywhere on the coast, where their dark scales mingle with the black, broken lava of which the islands are composed. This individual is unperturbed by the magnificent shadow of the leather hat I bought the week before in the Andean village of Cotacachi.

The marine iguanas often pile upon each other like this, presumably to pool body heat after a swim in the cool Pacific Ocean. Because of this tendency, I quickly came to regard them as rather adorable.

We were very lucky to encounter several Galapagos penguins, especially since these birds tend to concentrate themselves on the western islands of Ferdinand and Isabella, and our cruise did not include them. I took this shot from the catamaran that bore us to Isla Bartolome; later, while snorkeling in the same area, that very same penguin dove into the water right in front of me. I don’t think I can explain why, but it was one of the most moving experiences of the trip to watch that bird caper in the water, with none of the comic awkwardness of its movements on land.

That’s all for now!

Exercise your right to be offended

September 1, 2008

All of us are constantly bombarded with information. Living as most of us do in places where cultural diversity is the norm, it is all but inevitable that some of this information will cause offense. Christmas lights may delight the person who erected them, and horrify the neighbors. Short skirts, see-through shirts, and other bits of fashion which limit the imagination, delight the eyes of some, and offend the eyes of others. Museum displays on evolution thrill and educate most, and offend the sensibilities of the science-impaired. Every bit of information we encounter has the potential to offend some of us, and so much the better! No founding document of any Western democracy of which I am aware guarantees a right not to be offended. In fact, we enjoy the exact opposite: We have the right to be offended, and we should exercise that right whenever the opportunity presents itself.

(more…)

No really, I mean it this time

September 1, 2008

I think I’ve tried to announce the return of regular posting twice since my return from the Galapagos, but this time I mean it… as soon as I get Internet service at my new apartment.

You see, I’ve recently moved to the beautiful city of Walla Walla, Wa, which contains the nearest habitation to the high school where I will begin teaching science this week. As such, I have no Internet service at home; I’m posting right now from a coffee shop (which, by the way, has the air conditioning cranked up way too high.)

I will not have service until Friday, so I plan to write five posts today and schedule them for automatic posting over the next few days. Please don’t hold back your comments! I don’t get near enough to those.