Sunday, August 31, 2008
How many of these religious zealots would abandon their beliefs after their first child died, then their second, then third... Just how strong is their faith in God's will? If a vaccine was just a short drive into town, and half their children were six feet under the ground, would they really still believe that this is what God wanted?
Just a hundred years ago, almost half of all children died before reaching adulthood, yet today, thanks to vaccinations and responsible parents, most kids today reach adulthood having never seen anyone die. They never see any one crippled from polio, disfigured by smallpox, blinded by syphilis, or deaf from an ear infection. These religious zealots are far removed from the reality of "God's will." According to their beliefs, we should let half the children in America die, even though we could prevent it.
That is immoral.
I respect most religious beliefs (although I certainly don't share them). But I object to this hypocrisy – they're using the rest of us as a shield, loudly proclaiming their virtuousness, while actually taking no risk.
My older brother was one of the last people in America to get polio. He was fortunate; although he was very ill, and had to undergo intensive physical therapy, he didn't suffer any long-term paralysis. But most of his friends at the recuperation center weren't so lucky; they ended up on crutches or in wheelchairs, and some even died. Before the Salk vaccine was introduced in 1955, polio was so common that almost everybody knew a victim. Now, thanks to scientists and to responsible parents, no child in America has to suffer this crippling disease.
While living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was a personal victim of these Christian zealots: I contracted whooping cough. Most of you have no idea just how awful this is potentially fatal disease is, because it is all but eradicated in the United States, and you've never seen the horrors it can bring. In New Mexico, a group of irresponsible parents refused to have their children immunized. When these kids reached school age, they all were concentrated in a single place (school), where the percentage of unimmunized kids crossed the critical threshold at which herd immunity stops working. And, just as the epidemiologists predict, there was an epidemic of whooping cough among the unimmunized kids. Unfortunately for me and an number of adults in Santa Fe, the whooping cough vaccine only lasts about thirty years, and one day I woke up coughing my lungs out. I always wondered how a cough could kill you; now I know. It was by far the most painful disease I've ever had, for which I can thank a bunch of Christians in New Mexico.
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Sarah Palin is the worst vice president candidate in recent memory. We can ignore her utter lack of relevant experience – that's like shooting fish in a barrel. No, the real issues are her opposition to virtually every ethical advance we've made as a society over the last few decades. She opposes gay/lesbian rights, opposes abortion rights, and in spite of heart-wrenching stories last week of starving polar bears swimming 25 miles in the open ocean looking desperately for food, she opposes adding them to the endangered-species list, and instead wants to drill, drill, drill for more of Alaska's oil, so we can melt more polar ice and kill the rest of the bears.
As if that's not enough, Gov. Palin has advocated teaching creationism alongside evolution! George Bush ... well, his IQ is somewhere in the modest double digits, so maybe a basic understanding of obvious scientific facts is just too much for the poor man. But Sarah Palin appears to be an otherwise intelligent woman, in spite of her conservative agenda.
One can only hope that Sarah Palin at least believes in woman's rights and equality for all races. Given the rest of her neocon views, one has to wonder...
(Shameless commercial: It's another example of just how highly evolved and infectious the religion virus is. Only now, after years of research and thought, do I finally understand how intelligent people get infected with these ideas, and why the ideas are so hard to kill.)
As far as I can tell, Sarah Palin is a typical victim of religion's Anti-Rationalism Meme, one of religion's best tricks. The Anti-Rationalism Meme convinces "the faithful" that faith, not logic, is the road to truth. If logic and rational thought lead to a conclusion that disagrees with the Bible, then faith wins.
Anyone with an open, rational mind who visits Alaska can't help but marvel at the raw power of nature, and the overwhelming evidence against creationism. Glacial valleys that took millions of years to form, stately mountains that have stood guard for tens of millions of years, volcanos that laid down layer after layer after layer, recording history in their lava ... the evidence is all there, laid out in its raw beauty. How anyone can live in such magnificence, and still think the Earth was created just 6,000 years ago, staggers the mind.
No, sorry Senator McCain, your "surprise" choice of Sarah Palin, which you hoped would make you look progressive, is going to backfire. Sarah Palin's views on women's reproductive choice, gay/lesbian issues, and the environment, all inspired by her infection with religion virus memes, will be your downfalling.
You'd almost think the Democrats had picked McCain's running mate for him!
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
This article demonstrates why sexual reproduction is a prerequisite to the evolution of complex biological structures. Using information theory and a statistical viewpoint, I also show that while sexual reproduction may be "costly" in the short term, it is beneficial to the survival of a gene in the long run.
I've read a lot about evolution, and as far as I know, nobody has ever explained sex adequately.
Sex and the Single Gene
by Craig A. James, February 2007
One of the apparent paradoxes in evolution is: Why is there sex? Or more properly, why is there sexual reproduction, meaning the process by which two individuals share genetic information in the process of reproducing? Sex cuts the chances for a gene's replication at least in half.
As with everything else in evolution science, a seeming paradox like this means we haven't yet discovered the benefits of sexual reproduction. The fact that it exists in spite of this extremely harsh penalty means there must be an even more potent benefit. A 50% reduction in a gene's chances to reproduce is monstrous. This is the paradox of sex: It seems to defy explanation.
Cross-discipline approaches can often bring new insight into old problems. The problem of sex in evolution, as described Dawkins' The Ancestors Tale, in the chapter The Rotifer's Tale, jumped out at me. As a computer scientist who has studied information theory, the sexual reproduction appears inevitable; I would go so far as to say information theory predicts sexual reproduction.
An Information Science View
The first lesson of information science is that perfect information transcription is theoretically impossible. At the molecular level, Planck's constant is a significant factor, and Heisenberg tells us there will be transcription errors. In addition there are external forces, such as radiation and reactive radicals, that can damage the information contained in DNA.
The second lesson of information science is that you can correct for just about any error rate via redundancy. Even very error-prone copying methods can be made "error free" (where "error free" means reliable to any arbitrarily-small error rate you'd care to pick) with enough redundancy.
Redundancy comes in many forms. Mathematicians and computer scientists have some very efficient error-correcting methods, but these sophisticated mathematical algorithms are beyond the reach of evolution. A much simpler form of redundancy is replication of information, such that if one copy goes bad, other copies are available.
From an information-theory point of view, there are two reasons sex is inevitable (where "transcription errors" are what a biologist would call a mutation):
1. Transcription errors that are bad (detrimental to survival)
2. Transcription errors that are good (enhance survival and reproduction)
With sexual reproduction, the first is mitigated, and the second is amplified. In a nutshell, it boils down to the fact that with asexual reproduction, each gene is on its own, whereas with sexual reproduction, a gene can benefit from good mutations in other genes, and can survive mutations in other genes with which it shares a body. Let me amplify.
To begin, I must clarify the critical concepts on which my arguments stand. I will coin new words to clearly distinguish five very different concepts:
A "gene-individual" is a particular molecular fragment that happens to reside on a strand of DNA in one individual.
A "gene-class" is collection of identical single genes, spread across a number of individuals, and usually across a number of species. The gene-class also has an abstract (i.e. human) conceptualization as the "perfect" instance of this gene: The base pairs that, when present on a strand of DNA, cause the scientist to say, "this gene is present in this individual".
A "gene-pool" is used in the customary sense: A set of genes spread across a number of individuals in a breeding population.
A "gene-contingent" is like a gene-pool, but for one specific gene. It is a set of gene-individuals that are in the same gene-class, and additionally are in an interbreeding population such that they may "cross paths" in the future.
The last one, the gene-contingent, is the key to the information-theory argument that sex is beneficial to a gene, in spite of the two-fold penalty of sexual reproduction.
The gene-contingent of sexual and asexual species are critically different: For a sexual species, the gene-contingent to which a gene-instance belongs is spread across the breeding population, whereas for asexual individuals, the gene-contingent and the gene-instance are identical: one individual.
Beneficial and Synergistic Mutations
In The Rotifer's Tale, Dawkins captures the second half of the information-theory argument regarding sex when he says: "... genes are continually being tried out against different genetic backgrounds ... [those that cooperate] tend to be in winning teams." In other words, when a beneficial mutation occurs in any gene-individual of a sexual species, every gene-individual in the "gene river" has the possibility to eventually pair up with the new, better gene.
What is the probability that a beneficial mutation will occur in the gene pool of a sexual species versus an asexual species?
Since an asexual species is always a "species of one", the chances are vastly less. In an asexual species, each gene-individual only benefits from good mutations in the specific individual in which it resides. The chances of a good mutation happening to one of other genes in a specific individual are many orders of magnitude less than the chances of it happening somewhere in the whole species.
By contrast, in a sexual species, a gene-contingent can benefit from any good mutation anywhere in the species.
Now consider synergistic mutations. Suppose there are two beneficial mutations that could occur, that together are also synergistic, or alternatively, where the second mutation's beneficial properties depend on the first mutation being present. In a sexual species, the first beneficial mutation will will propagate through the gene pool, so that when the second mutation occurs, the synergy will be realized.
By contrast, in an asexual species, the two mutations will almost certainly happen in different lines of descent, and the synergy will never be realized. Because of this, we can predict that asexual species will not be nearly as adaptable, nor will they evolve as quickly, as sexual species.
Complexity simply cannot arise in asexual species. Consider the odds: Imagine a very simplified ecosystem that can support one billion individual single-cell creatures that divide once per day. Each day, half of the individuals die, and half go on to the next generation. And image that, on average, one mutation occurs somewhere in the population per day.
Complexity in lifeforms requires a long sequence of mutation and selection. In our hypothetical population, suppose two mutations occur that together would result in a more complex creature. The chances are one in a billion that they will occur in the same individual's line of descent. In other words, the two mutations would never “encounter” one another.
By contrast, if our same population of a billion creatures uses some form of DNA exchange, and if both of these mutations are individually not detrimental (or only slightly detrimental) then the chances approach 100 percent that sooner or later, both mutations will be “inherited” by an individual, increasing the complexity of that individual. The added benefit conferred by the pairing of the two mutations will quickly cause the pair of genes to spread throughout the population. And once this happens, the third and subsequent mutations that further increase the complexity of the creature are again a billion times more likely to encounter the first two in a sexual species than in an asexual species.
Using this logic, we can make a prediction: Any species that changes from sexual to asexual will not evolve significantly once asexual reproduction begins. Or, if it does, it will be at a rate that is billions of times slower than sexual species in similar circumstances. Such a species can survive indefinitely if it was already well adapted to its environment prior to becoming asexual, but it cannot evolve further. We can predict that such species will all become extinct sooner or later, due to a change in the environment, or to an encroaching species that competes in the same ecological niche or preys on the species.
Information redundancy is only available to sexual species, where the gene-contingent spans many individuals. The survival of the gene-contingent is not dependent on any one individual; transcription errors don't terminate the gene-contingent. By contrast, in an asexual creature, mutation of a gene-individual ends the gene-contingent forever.
One might argue that asexual species have information redundancy because the gene-class spans many individuals. Indeed, the loss of one gene-individual does not make the gene-class extinct. But this argument is flawed: The gene-class is not the entity on which evolution operates. Only the gene-contingent matters from an evolutionary perspective.
This goes to the very heart of Darwinian evolution, and what is meant by natural selection. Once speciation occurs, each species' gene-pool only "cares" about its own survival and reproduction. The fact that that two recently-split species share a gene-class is irrelevant; the two gene-contingents are in competition rather than cooperation, and the demise of one can often improve the survival of the other, even though the gene-individuals in each species' gene-contingent are identical. This is reflected Dawkins' statement, "... the entity that is carved into shape ... is the gene pool."
Once a rotifer reproduces, each gene is "on its own" and no longer "cares" whether its "brother and cousin" genes survive or not. In fact, the opposite is true: Speciation occurs at every reproduction for the asexual rotifer, so all gene-instance of a gene-class are in direct competition with one another.
Because of this, there is no information redundancy in an asexual species, no opportunity to correct errors. Each gene is completely on its own, and the chances approach 100% that it won't survive in the long term.
Evolving the Ability to Evolve
Sexual species have an enormous advantage over asexual species because they can support variations.
Although each gene-contingent "wants" to replicate perfectly at each generation, it can (ironically) benefit from the imperfect replication of other gene-individuals in the gene pool. To understand this, we must view evolution from two perspectives: Long term and short term, which roughly translate to "stable environment" and "changing environment".
In the short term, evolution favors uniformity. Suppose we could create a completely stable environment, and we could prevent mutations. For sexual species, sex shuffles the gene combinations, working towards an optimum; after a while, a single "perfect" individual would emerge, and all variability would be lost. For an asexual "species" in the same environment, we would expect after a while for one line of descent to dominate and all other lines to die, resulting in what appeared to be a single species (all identical individuals). The net result in either case is the same for both sexual and asexual species: A uniform gene pool.
(Strictly speaking, this latter case isn't completely true; only the phenotypes would be uniform. Variation in the genome that have no effect on the phenotype are irrelevant, so variations in the genome would remain. But our core argument remains sound: stability results in uniformity.)
However, over the long term, a changing environment favors a certain degree of variability, rather than uniformity, in the gene pool. If the environment is suddenly hotter, more acidic, a competitor arrives, etc., variability increases the odds that at least some of the individuals will survive.
Seen over a very long time scale, each species must be able to adapt to changing conditions, so one would predict that variability itself is an important survival strategy.
This leads to a paradox: Species without variability are less likely to survive over the long haul, yet evolution favors uniformity as long as the environment is stable. In the short term, most variations are bad, but in the long term they ensure survival.
Thus, we predict that evolution should have created a mechanism where stability and faithful reproduction of the genome is ensured, yet variability is not only tolerated, but is actually necessary.
Or, to put it another way: A mutation that produces a competing gene-contingent is bad for the original gene-contingent, yet the gene-pools benefits from its ability to support competing gene-contingents. “You mutate.” “No, YOU mutate. It will be good for us!” “If it's so good, then YOU do it.”
How can we resolve this paradox? Again, information redundancy gives the answer.
For the asexual individual, there is no solution to the paradox. Its genes have no redundancy, so it must favor extremely accurate reproduction of its DNA. In fact, I would predict that asexual species' DNA is more "robust" and resistant to mutation than the DNA of sexual species. Mutation to the DNA of an asexual individual is almost always the end of the line for those genes, so any gene (or any gene's phenotype that is part of the DNA copying and repairing mechanism) that was slightly more susceptible to mutation than a competitor would quickly be eliminated from the population.
By contrast, the redundant information stored across the gene pool of a sexual species allows it withstand many orders of magnitude more errors than an asexual species. Sex allows for imperfect gene replication, which ensures the long-term survival (adaptability) of the species, yet the information redundancy provided by the extended gene pool means that errors are not fatal.
Imperfect replication (mutation) is necessary to ensure for long-term survival, but perfect replication is required for short-term survival. The answer is information redundancy: With sex, information is replicated, errors can be tolerated, and variability within the species gene pool is possible. The paradox is resolved.
Seen from an information-theory point of view, sex has evolved to provide redundancy of information across a gene-contingent, so that transcription errors can be tolerated, and so that beneficial mutations can be shared. This has two important consequences.
First, it provides a mechanism to spread favorable mutations across a gene pool such that sequential mutations "encounter" each other rather than occurring on separate lines of descent.
Second, it makes variability possible, which helps ensure long-term survival in a changing environment, because the redundancy provided by an extended gene-contingent make detrimental mutations more tolerable to the genome.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Right road to 'soulgasm'"Ok, honey, I've averted my eyes from other women all day, now take off your clothes, 'cause we're gonna do it now!"
U.S. evangelicals mix hot sex at home with repressive political agenda
Yeah, I like that idea! No romance, no foreplay, no consideration for how my wife's day went or how she's feeling, she's mine, all the time! Sex all day, every day? I think I'll become a Christian! Oh, wait, my wife is Jewish. Darn!
Apparently this group finally realized that men love sex (duh?), but they also love looking at women with lust (duh!). They've been telling men for a couple thousand years that these impure thoughts would send them to hell, but men just keep looking. After all, a quick glance at that cleavage ... God's not going to send me to hell just for that is He?
So they added a new trick: Combine aversion therapy – training men to look away instantly, just as you'd pull your hand from a hot stove – but mitigate the damage by "decriminalizing" sex toys and wild, uninhibited sex. Oh, and by the way, the woman has to become a virtual sex slave to her husband if this is going to work...
The Christian vilification of sex, and sexual enslavement of women, rages on unabated, they've just added this new twist: They've learned the hard way that abstinence is unpopular. Their new memes, which I predict will spread rapidly, are a Christian man's dream: His wife has to submit to his sexual needs 24/7, to "become like a 'merciful vial of methadone for him' by being constantly sexually available." What does the guy have to do to get this subjugation from his wife? He has to pretend he doesn't look at other women. Duh.
Monday, August 25, 2008
Thursday, August 21, 2008
The New York Times has an excellent article that describes how head archery coach Kisik Lee, a born-again Christian, pressures his team members to become Christian, to attend Christian church, and to pray together. Is this another overblown reaction to a humble believer's faith? I don't think so. Lee's transgressions are shameful:
- Lee uses prayer as an integral part of training.
- He gives every new athlete on his team a copy of "The Purpose Driven Life" by evangelical Christian Rick Warren.
- Lee prays with the Christian athletes every morning.
- Athletes are pressured to attend a Christian church, even after asking to be left alone.
- Lee feels he can't coach non-Christians as effectively as Christians.
Any person in a position of power has to take extra care practice complete impartiality in all things. Lee isn't just any coach: He's the head coach. He lives with the archers, trains them daily, decides who gets grants, and decides who stays on the team and who goes. The athletes' Olympic careers are totally dependent on Lee's favor. Whether Lee is actually impartial is almost irrelevant; the simple fact is that he is using his position of power in an immoral way.
Christians, including pastor Rick Warren, should be ashamed of Lee, and should pressure him to halt his unethical, and possibly illegal, religious proselytizing. If Lee were a true Christian, he would know this.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
I had a wonderful dinner with two women from my family and a close family friend on Sunday, and heard three stories about religion that frankly shocked me. We were having a discussion about religion (which got started because they wanted to know how my book is progressing), and they "ganged up" on me arguing for the existence of God. (In a fun way – the women in my family are at least as opinionated as I am, and we have some great discussions.) Each of them told me a deeply moving personal story of how God intervened in a crisis and saved them. Ironically, their stories had the OPPOSITE effect on me; they opened my eyes to a new evil of religion that I'd never seen before
One of these three women, in the late 1950s, was faced with an abusive husband, no college degree, three children under the age of six, and no job. She was in despair, she couldn't leave the man, and couldn't stay with him. God spoke to her, saying, "I am always with you," and in that moment, she knew it would be OK to leave her abusive husband.
The second woman was in the middle of a divorce, and also in despair over her soon-to-be-ex-husband's infidelity, the loss of all her dreams, and worry about how it would affect her two children. A spirit came to her in a dream, and she suddenly knew everything would be OK, and it calmed her and gave her strength.
The third woman had severe depression and mental illness, and had already undergone twenty two electroshock treatments, to no avail. Medication, psychoanalysis, she tried everything. Then a Christian faith healer told her she was cured, and she was! She's been well ever since.
Hearing these stories opened my eyes to the most subtle and sad cruelty of religion: It took away the magnificent accomplishments of these three women. They should have each been dancing in the street yelling, "I DID IT! Against all odds, I achieved victory!" It must have taken tremendous courage to leave an abusive husband in the 1950s to an uncertain future, or to find the strength to carry on when all seems lost, or to overcome mental illness through sheer chutzpah. What great achievements!
Instead, they said, "I wasn't good enough. I couldn't do it myself. Only God was strong enough. I failed, and needed help."
Religion lets people avoid personal responsibility by asking, and getting, God's forgiveness, never mind whether the victims agree with God. I suppose that's a pretty good bargain – "Believe in me, and you're off the hook for your sins." But the flip side of that deal is that God also steals all the glory. Everything good is God's doing. Humans get all the blame, and God gets all the credit.
What a terrible way to go through life.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
I'm somewhat disappointed, but not exactly surprised, that most replies were about discrimination and fear of reprisal. The Intolerance Meme is clearly alive and well in America. We don't hang 'em, burn 'em at the stake, or throw 'em in the river any more, so I guess that's progress, but we have a long way to go before Atheists aren't an oppressed minority.
One misperception I'd like to correct: Several writers hinted that I was a bit naïve to suggest anyone could do what I did. But in fact, I understand that many Atheist bloggers can't "come out." It was relatively easy for me – my customers are scientists, and my friends and family are mostly atheists or agnostics and are tolerant, open-minded people. I understand that for some, it's just not realistic.
Yet ... I find it hard to believe that only 20% of Atheist bloggers can blog without fear.
So I reiterate my challenge: Get Out of the Closet If You Can! It's important. And no, it's not risk free, but ending discrimination never is. Women's suffrage, civil rights for people of color, gay rights, these things never would have happened if some of the oppressed hadn't taken a chance. And the more who do, the faster the momentum builds. If those of us who face less of a risk keep hiding, the discrimination will never end.
Saturday, August 9, 2008
And today, I issue a challenge to all Atheist bloggers: Come out of the closet! Don't be afraid, be proud. You're a rational, grounded thinker. You have the courage of your convictions. You've picked a hard path, and stuck to it. Don't hide!
My decision was due to a comment from my book agent, who asked, "What are you afraid of?" I had no good answer to that question. There was just a vague, unsupported fear of persecution and harassment from the religious extremist.
Well, that made me kind of mad. I thought about the courage of our well-known authors, such as Harris, Dennett, Gould, Mills, Dawkins, and especially, Bertrand Russell, who was terribly persecuted for his atheism by the State of New York. If Bertrand Russell stood up to argue my cause, and I don't even have the courage to stand behind him, but instead hide behind the internet's veil of anonymity, then what kind of atheist am I?
I did a quick survey to find out who hides behind internet anonymity, Atheists or Christians? The results are stunning: Atheists, by a HUGE margin. Almost ALL Christians blogers use their real names, but roughly 70% to 80% of Atheists bloggers are anonymous.
To be fair, Christians are the majority, and have no reason to hide. But what about other oppressed minorities whose members have had the courage to take a risk, to stand up for what they believe? Should Rosa Parks have given up her seat on the bus to a white person? Should women have agreed that they weren't worthy of the right to vote? Should gays and lesbians stay in the closet and suffer? What about Bertrand Russell's courage?
Put your name on your blog. Put your name on your web site. When religion comes up at a party, don't be afraid to say, "Well, I'm an atheist, and here's how I see it..."
Oppression is a state of mind, and it takes both an oppressor and a cooperative victim for a human to be truly oppressed. Don't be a victim, be a courageous atheist.
Signed proudly: Craig A. James
About my "survey": Please see http://www.thereligionvirus.com/anonymous_atheists.php for a complete list of the Atheist sites I surveyed, and how I sampled them. Here is a raw list of the URL's.
www.atheists.org www.atheistrev.com ravingatheist.com www.cynical-c.com atheistmedia.blogspot.com atheism.about.com atheistblogger.com beaconeatingatheistjew.blogspot.com www.the-atheist.com yetanotheratheistblog.wordpress.com www.nullifidian.net thinkerspodium.wordpress.com exchristian.net www.atheistperspective.com friendlyatheist.com radicalatheist.com gods4suckers.net atheistself.blogspot.com canterburyatheists.blogspot.com dwindlinginunbelief.blogspot.com holyprepuce.blogspot.com/ www.irreverentmusings.com mereskepticism.blogspot.com possummomma.blogspot.com www.silentdave.net theatheisthandbook.blogspot.com godjeeringatheist.wordpress.com skeptalchemist.blogspot.com uberkuh.com
Friday, August 8, 2008
And on the opposite end of the spectrum, here's a deeply offensive video. Thanks to God Is Pretend for finding this.
This seems so glib, so easy, to compare a woman who has had premarital sex to a sloppy, disgusting, half-eaten meal. But what's the real message here? If a couple has sex, and the woman is left a disgusting mess that nobody would want afterwards, the man must be unclean and disgusting. (And let's not pretend that this ad isn't sexually biased – they never say, "this meal represents the fallen woman," but we all know that the half-eaten meal represents the woman, not the man.)
Christianity's concept of original sin, and villification of sex, is one of the oddest events in the history of humanity. The ironic thing is that the most important philosophical work on this guilt meme was done by Saint Augustine, whose lover (and true love) bore him a son out of wedlock. Some say that it was the agony of being forced to abandon his true love, and enter into a society marriage, that drove him to write his perverse and self-loathing ideas about sex.
So, almost two thousand years ago, a lost love, and a sad man's lament, became entrenched in Christianity, and resulted in this video, which is just one more example of Christianity villifying normal, healthy human sexuality.
Monday, August 4, 2008
While I agree in principle that picketing could be very effective at raising people's awareness of some of the extremist views of these churches, it's a dangerous game. A picket, poorly conceived or executed, could backfire, making the Atheist movement look silly, and increasing, rather than decreasing, people's respect for the extremist churches. Modern political activism is a science, and jumping in head first without learning the science first is foolhardy.
It's a common misconception that pickets and protests are a sort of spontaneous action by outraged citizens. They hear about something, start talking and getting angry, and finally band together, buy some posterboard, sticks, and pens, make their signs, and start marching.
In reality, many or most of these "spontaneous" demonstrations are carefully orchestrated by behind-the-scenes marketing experts. They pick the topic, the town, and the protesters. They decide what the signs will say, they arrange the demonstration so that it doesn't conflict with other news, and gets maximal coverage. The "protesters" who get interviewed by the news media are carefully supplied with sound bytes, crafted by marketing experts to get maximal impact in the five to ten seconds of exposure they'll get on the nightly news.
If Atheists try to play in the same arena with these professionals, without first learning the rules of the game, it could go very badly indeed.
Consider the case of Rosa Parks, the African American civil rights activist who refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. We've all heard Parks' story, but who knows about, Claudette Colvin? Ms. Colvin was a fifteen year old student who did the exact same thing as Rosa Parks in March of 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested. But Colvin was not considered a good representative for the cause, partly because of her age and attitude, but mostly because she got pregnant by an older married man right after being arrested. The NAACP, Dr. Martin Luther King, and other civil rights activists, all agreed that Claudette Colvin wasn't the right person to represent their cause.
Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat was hardly a spontaneous action. Parks was secretary to the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, was an advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, and had been raising money for Colvin's defense before Colvin got pregnant. The African American community in the South needed someone to "take the bullet," and Rosa Parks knew this better than most. Parks, Dr. King, and the NAACP knew that the person who challenged the racist laws of the state had to be a model citizen. Who better than a mild-mannered, middle-aged housewife, highly respected in the community?
The official story is that Parks' action was spontaneous, but I find it much easier to believe that Rosa Parks actions were carefully planned in advance, by a group of very savvy civil-rights activists. I know I would have done the same if I were in their shoes in 1955.
Which leads us back to the original question. If Atheists are going to start conducting protests, they need to carefully orchestrate the event. You can't just send a bunch of hotheads, or worse, a bunch of sarcastic intellectuals, out to face the cameras.
Here are some questions. If you can't answer them, you shouldn't even think about protesting.
Goals. What is the purpose of the protest? What do you want to achieve by protesting? How will your protest achieve those goals?
Message. What message are you trying to convey? Is it clear? Is it something that non-Atheists will sympathize with? (We're talking five- to ten-second sound bites for the news, and one-column pamphlets to hand to passers-by. If you can't say it in ten seconds, you don't have a message.)
Target. Why have you selected this particular group or church for your protest? What have they done that deserves the attention you'll be giving them?
Backlash. What are the potential bad consequences? Will you be drawing attention, empathy, sympathy, or publicity to a group that would otherwise remain obscure? Will the public side with them, not you?
Protesters. Are the people who will be marching good citizens? Have any been arrested or have criminal records?
Atheists are a notoriously free-thinking lot. I predict that the biggest barrier to a good protest will be getting everyone to agree on a plan!
Saturday, August 2, 2008
I can't understand why Creation-versus-Evolution is even a question in this day and age. Darwin's Evolution Science is, by a HUGE margin, the most well-proved theory in the history of civilization. It is the foundation of everything we know about biology. Half of the people reading this would have died before reaching adulthood without modern medicine, and everything we know about medicine rests on the foundation of evolution. Geology, anthropology, sociology, chemistry, astronomy ... even psychology, would all come crumbling down if evolution were proved false.
But it won't be. Darwin's evolution has been proved in so many ways it's hard to count. There has never, in the history of the world, been a science that's been attacked so fiercely, yet withstood the test. Over and over, every fact that's ever been learned, every bone dug up, every new discovery in physics or chemistry, every advance in our understanding of DNA and reproduction, has strengthened, rather than weakened, Darwin's Theory.
Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply wrong. Why dance around and be polite? Creationism is plainly, and OBVIOUSLY, inconsistent with the world we live in. Darwinism explains it perfectly, in every respect.
The odd thing is that religious people don't challenge other scientific theories that are far less proven. Einstein's theory of relativity? The evidence supporting it is pretty strong, but it's just a shadow of the evidence supporting Evolution Science. Why don't Christians object to Einstein? The theory of plate tectonics? Nobody questions it, but it's just a child compared with Evolution Science. Why don't Christians object to earthquake predictions that are based on plate tectonics? Even the fact that the planets revolve around the sun is barely better supported than Darwin's Evolution Science. Why don't Christians object to that?
The real question is this: If you believe in God, and you believe that God gave you a brain, and intelligence, and free will, don't you think He wanted you to discover the beauty and wonder of His creation? He gave you a brain – use it!
The great thing about science is that, unlike religion, if I tell you something is true, the scientific method obliges me to tell you HOW I reached that conclusion, and you can verify it for yourself. I've done the work – I've read dozens of books on evolution, on biology, zoology, natural history. I've even read Origin of the Species, cover to cover; it's a magnificent work. And you can read it too.
Do your homework. Read Dawkins, Gould, Dennett, Wills and even Darwin himself. They're really good reading. You'll enjoy them. If you want to learn more, take a biology course at your local community college. Then take a physics course, so you'll truly understand things like carbon dating and radioactive isotopes dating, and other scientific dating methods. Then maybe a basic course in geology, and learn the REAL facts about the Earth. And then, AFTER you've done your homework, after you've really studied all this stuff, if you still believe in Creationism, well, then come back and argue.