Archive for November, 2008

Something to anger atheists

November 30, 2008

Richard Dawkins’ website recently reposted a rather disturbing column from a Northern Ireland newspaper: apparently, the atheist bus ads running in London are pulling London down the S-bend of morality, and this is no surprise, because atheists are the scum of the Earth. Here’s a highlight:

The advertising campaign has cost around stg £100,000. It was all started up by — predictably — Professor Richard Dawkins, the neo-Darwinist scientist and atheist campaigner. He put down a deposit of some £8,000, and the rest came from public contributions — mostly from readers of The Guardian newspaper, in which the campaign was publicised.

It says something about the affluence of Guardian readers that, in a time of recession, they can contribute £90,000 to a bus campaign dissing the notion of God.

One note: Richard Dawkins did not begin the campaign. It was started by the Guardian. I thought fact-checking was still a part of journalistic practice. Another: It’s true that over 100,000 pounds were raised, but it is also true that over 8,500 people donated to the campaign. That’s about 15 pounds each, on average. That must count as affluence to this deluded person.

I’ve never yet met an atheist with a sense of joie-de-vivre (unless, in the case of one well-known public atheist, a certain drunken cordiality) most of them seem to be miserable blighters.

How many atheists does she know? Perhaps more pertinently, how many religionists does she know? What does sexual repression and subjugation of women do for people’s happiness? After all, most of the world’s believers live under such conditions, or worse. Have I hit her problem on the head?

Well-meaning folk might suppose that atheists are simply searchingly honest persons who, doubting the tenets of faith and committed to reason and logic, conclude that they just cannot commit to faith.

There may be some of this ilk, but militant atheists, in particular, are deeply unpleasant and caustically intolerant. Any time I have written about this subject, I have received offensive e-mails from militant atheists. While professing themselves to be campaigners for “freedom of thought”, “reason”, and “logic”, their main tool of argument is often personal abuse; they quickly start shrieking that believers are simply “stupid”, or, in the case of a female believer, “a stupid cow”.

“Caustically intolerant”? She must have forgotten what “caustic” and “intolerant” mean. She would have remembered if she had read her own writing. And she wonders why she gets offensive e-mails?

Now, we all know that believers of this particular stripe find the very existence of atheists offensive. The very fact that we are not daily struck by lightning, or found grovelling in leprous huddles in our own filth, is an affront to their worldview. But that does not excuse the use of truly offensive language in countering their delusions.

That said, I feel entirely justified in saying that Mary Kenny, the author of this deeply offensive and profoundly ridiculous column, is stupid.

She is a stupid cow.

(Here’s a nice letter to the newspaper in question that politely puts Mary Kenny in her place.)

New Star Trek Trailer

November 23, 2008

As with most things, I’m pretty late on this. The new Star Trek trailer has been up for almost a week now, after all. Still, I decided to hold off on writing my impressions until they’ve had time to gestate a bit. Now that they’ve reached full term, I’m finally ready to birth them into the world, with an ugly placenta to follow afterward. (How’s that for imagery?)

My first impression is that six months is an uncomfortably long time to wait. I’m a Star Trek fan, after all. I’d go see this thing if it were titled Star Trek: Klingons on Ice! (Come to think of it, that sounds pretty awesome.)

My second impression is one of trepidation. I’m of course not alone in this. The makers of this film are in a position to manhandle the very heart of Star Trek canon. By recasting the original characters and setting the film in their pre-Enterprise days, they are in a position to completely undo the foundation of the original stories, or even to start Star Trek over from scratch. (The former is known in Nerdish as “retconning.” The second has become known to those prone to fan-rage as a “reboot.”)

From what I’ve seen, J.J. Abrams and the rest don’t intend to let this happen. They intend to stay true to canon. And to their credit, the cast they’ve assembled so far seems to fit with that intention. None of them looks badly out of place in the shoes they’re trying to fill. (Except perhaps for the young James T. Kirk, but no amount of handsome young faces are going to fill those shoes.)

I like what glimpses of the design of the film I’ve seen. They have the bright, clean feel of the original series, with the high-tech gloss that a 1960’s TV budget couldn’t bring to bear. The starship design manages to be new and interesting, while also true to the aesthetic of the show. I’m nothing but excited by the design so far.

That leaves me with one last point of concern. I’m just old enough to have lived through about ten years of Hollywood revisitations of 1960’s and 1970’s TV shows. I’ve sat through enough Brady Bunches, Beverly Hillbillies, Dukes of Hazzard, and even Rocky and Bullwinkles to know that no decade of television is safe from being realized on the big screen, if the whiff of profit is on it. I fear that Star Trek will see this treatment. I fear that there will be too many moments of “Ooh, look how nice the Enterprise looks now!” too many CG-powered space battles, too many strings of technobabble (and “bairns”) and not enough attention to advancing our understanding of the original characters. This is not a rational fear, but I feel it nonetheless.

In any case, I’m extremely excited about this movie, and I’ll be first in line to see it when it opens. Maybe even in uniform. I’ve been known to be precisely that nerdy sometimes.

Atheist Bus Campaigns

November 17, 2008

Yes, this is old news. Yes, I’m still going to write about it. Tough, I say!

You’ve probably read about the atheist ads being purchased on buses in London and Washington, DC. The one in London reads, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The one that will run on DC Metro buses reads, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

Predictably, a lot of religious folk are already screaming “War on Christmas!” Said American Family Association Tom Wildmon:

It’s a stupid ad,” he said. “How do we define ‘good’ if we don’t believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what’s good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what’s good, it’s going to be a crazy world.

Said Matthew Staver, chairman of the Liberty Counsel:

It’s the ultimate grinch to say there is no God at a time when millions of people around the world celebrate the birth of Christ. Certainly, they have the right to believe what they want but this is insulting.

(Both quotes from this Fox News article.)

So, we have the tired “how can you be good without God?” crap, and the notion that suggesting that there might be no god is insulting. OK.

If this ad should be insulting to Christians, then what am I to make of Gideon bibles in hotel rooms? Are they insulting to us non-believers? What about church billboards? What about people standing on the street preaching for Jesus, or handing out tracts? Are they offensive enough to warrant being shut down?

To my mind, the response to the DC Metro ad demonstrates why these campaigns are necessary. As long as some people are comfortable in declaring that atheists have no grounds for morals, that their very attempts to express themselves are offensive, that their very existence is offensive, than forms of expression like these ads will be needed to show them why they’re wrong.

No one needs God to be good. God is more than sufficient to make some people bad. Can’t we just leave Him (or Her, or as I prefer, It) aside, and be good for goodness’ sake?

The Seven Aphorisms

November 17, 2008

As you’ve probably noticed in the news, the Supreme Court has begun hearing the case of the Summum religion, who tried to erect a monument displaying their Seven Aphorisms in a public park in Park Grove Utah, and were turned down by the city. This, despite the fact that the park has a prominent display of the Ten Commandments.

Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog has a great interview on the case, the arguments being presented, and the direction the court will take. The primary disagreement seems to be whether the monument would be private speech, in which the government would not be permitted to quibble based on content, or government speech, in which the government gets more latitude about what it says.

I find that a bit puzzling. What does it matter if the monument is private or government speech? In either case, the Ten Commandments monument, and its proposed Summum counterpart, are religious statements on public land. They are promotions of religion. Either they should all be allowed, or none should be allowed at all.

The silliest opinion seems to have come from Justice Scalia. He holds that the Ten Commandments are not a religious display of all, because of their historical importance to America. Right. I suppose he doesn’t think the Establishment Clause holds much historical importance, then.

Personally, I think Park Grove should go in for a monument to the Eight I’d Really Rather You Didn’ts of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That would be a real show of support for religious freedom.

Who cares if he’s black?

November 4, 2008

Election day fever has me in its throes! As I write this, Obama is projected to have won 207 electoral votes, and John McCain 138. At this point, if Obama continues to win all the states that John Kerry picked up in 2004, he will be the next President of the United States. As a big fan of science, health care, and rationality in general, this is fantastic news! I’ve also never voted for a successful presidential candidtate in all my 26 years, so it would be nice to break the trend early. (Knock on wood.)

Anyway, the Internet has election coverage up the wazoo, so I’m not going to add to it. I’m going to discuss the historic nature of this election, and how it relates to a rather touchy topic: Senator Obama’s race.

The obvious reaction is to be excited. Barack Obama stands very likely to be the USA’s first black President. (And it only took 222 years!) For a lot of Americans, this development captures perfectly the American dream: that anyone, regardless of race, creed, or sex can aspire to the nation’s highest office. The feeling was just as potent during the primaries, when it became clear that, should the Democrats win the White House, we would either see the first black man or the first woman to take the Oval Office.

The other side of it is a bit less excited, and a bit more rational. Race does not matter an iota. It is a non-issue. It signifies nothing more than the color of one’s skin and some minor points of bone structure in one’s face. It has no impact at all on one’s ability to fill an office, and a voter’s choice should not take it into consideration for a moment. I certainly didn’t when I filled out my absentee ballot. If Obama had run on McCain’s platform and vice versa, I would have checked McCain’s box without hesitation. The historicity of Obama’s campaign has not entered my decision, and I think that’s true of most other Americans as well.

In the end, however, and acknowleding fully that a candidate’s race is wholly immaterial, I have to admit to being excited. My country is showing that it has grown beyond petty discrimination based on superficialities. My country is showing that it can choose a commander in chief based on the issues that matter.

Forgive the plug, but that’s change I can believe in.

The Distant Origin Theory

November 2, 2008

Lately, my preferred method of wasting time has been watching old episodes of Star Trek Voyager. I never watched it during its original run, but, consummate nerd that I am, I recently decided to check it out. I’ve found much of it decent, some of it appallingly bad, and some more of it rising to the heights of sci fi excellence characteristic of Star Trek at its best. One such episode had me rapt: Distant Origin. I found fascinating parallels with issues in the news today.

The episode concerns a race of reptilian beings, the Voth, who carry the conceit (they call it “Doctrine”) that they were the first sentient beings to evolve in their area of space. A professor of the Voth subscribes to the “distant origin theory,” which holds that they actually arose on a distant planet, and spread through the galaxy over millions of years, forgetting their heritage in the time. He finds evidence to support his theory, in the form of bones left by a strange creature that happens to share a large portion of its genome with the Voth. The bones, of course, belong to one of the Voyager crew.

It turns out later on that the reptilian race is descended from the dinosaurs. Supposedly a lineage of hadrosaurs evolved sophisticated intelligence, built spacecraft, and escaped the dinosaurs’ extinction. (The dinosaurs’ real descendants, birds, are not mentioned.) The episode, like much of TV and the US in general, shows a sad lack of understanding of evolution. There’s one scene on the holodeck in which the captain asks the computer to extrapolate the evolution of hadrosaurs 65 million years into the future, as if that were possible outside the context of an environment populated with other organisms, and given the random nature of mutation. Still, there was one thing the episode got right, and spectacularly.

The Voth, as I noted, believe that they arose in the section of space they now inhabit. As it turns out, they are extremely hostile to anything that challenges this ideology. They charge the professor with heresy, and refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence in support of the distant origin theory. Beginning to sound familiar? Yep, it’s a perfect vision of what would happen to science if the creationists were to gain control. All findings would be run through the filter of dogma, and those that didn’t fit would be censored and ignored. Chilling, to be sure. The selective blindness and moral cowardice of the creationist movement is perfectly captured in the opposition of the Voth’s ruling council to the obvious truth.

I amused myself with the idea of showing this episode to fundies, to give them a mirror into their own way of thinking. My amusement was curtailed when I realized that most fundies would probably just see themselves in the poor, persecuted professor, and see the evil, godless Darwinists in his oppressors. The selective reality filter of the dogmatic mind is a powerful thing.

Do Atheists Have Morals?

November 1, 2008

Do atheists have morals? The question makes about as much sense as these: “Do horses like rock ‘n’ roll?” “Do cheese wheels pilot helicopters?” “Does TV watch you?” In short, the subject and object have nothing to do with each other, as I hope to demonstrate. First, the reason I felt compelled to write this post.

A Pastor Steve Cornell posted a comment to this post of mine today. For whatever reason, he decided not to make a comment relevant to the post, but simply copied and pasted a screed from his own blog. Maybe he’s short on time. In any case, I deleted the screed and left the link to his blog. Here it is again.

A major point of Pastor Steve’s post is that atheists can have no basis for objective morality. As I said above, this statement is nonsensical. It’s like saying that new wave fans can have no basis for enjoying cheese cake. The two have nothing to do with each other.

This is because atheism is not a moral philosophy. It is not a worldview. It is not a conceptual framework. It’s not even a set of nice ideas. Atheism is simply a name for people with a particular position on one question. We don’t believe that there are any gods. That’s it. Under the definition of the word that I endorse, anyone who doesn’t believe in any gods is an atheist, whether that person is an agnostic, humanist, or someone who is entirely convinced that there are no gods. The word contains no more information about a person’s worldview than the words “Teetotaller” or “abolitionist.”

The claim made by Pastor Steve’s post is that since atheists don’t believe in the supernatural, then they can have no basis for objective morality. I don’t understand what the supernatural has to do with morality, but it’s a fairly common argument among some theists. The answer is pretty simple: people do not obey laws because they’re afraid of God. They obey laws because they’re afraid of being thrown in prison, or hurting their friends or loved ones, or damaging their reputations, or any number of other reasons. Objective morality isn’t necessary. Ordinary, everyday morality is more than enough.

In short, this “atheists have no morals” crap is just another specious canard thrown about to give atheists a bad name. No matter; our numbers are growing, which means that there are more and more of us all the time to explain patiently why this particular argument is full of holes. That will leave Pastor Steve with one less thing to spam our blogs about.

Monkeys in Texas

November 1, 2008

Well, not monkeys per se.  A dramatic fossil find by paleontologists from Duke Univesity reveals that primates persisted in Texas longer than anyone thought, untl at least 43 million years ago.

That long ago, of course, Texas was covered by tropical forest and active volcanoes.  Nowadays, the climate has cooled and the tropical biome is gone, so most would say that the native primates are extinct there, but I would disagree.   Just look at the Texas School Board.

Washington Atheists! Dinesh D’Souza to speak in Spokane

November 1, 2008

2007 Bad Faith Award winner Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative and apologist known best for “debating” such prominent atheists as Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, will be speaking at a free fundraising event at the Spokane Convention Center today.  I put “debating” in scare quotes because, to my eyes (and ears), he seems to shout more than he debates.  In any case, he doesn’t seem to think much about what he says, given his remarks that the New Atheism (whatever that is) is destroying America.

I point this out because it’s an excellent opportunity for atheists and other freethinkers in the Spokane area (not me, unfortunately), to ask a difficult question or two, and see how D’Souza responds.  This is not an occasion to be rude, as he is speaking at a fundraiser for schools (and one shouldn’t have to stoop to rudeness anyway), but I don’t think it would be outside the bounds of propriety to ask him what’s so wrong with atheists, for example.