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.

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.)