Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Scientific Survey: Religion Gives Self Control?

Does religion give believers more self control? That's what the authors of a scientific survey conclude, based on a survey of 30 years of scientific articles. According to John Tierney's blog on the New York Times, Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby (University of Miami) surveyed 80 years of scientific literature and found that, "... devoutly religious people tend to do better in school, live longer, have more satisfying marriages and be generally happier."

Tierney then goes on to challenge his readers: Are McCullough and Willoughby right, or have they overlooked something? I posted an answer, but there are rather a lot of respondents so I'll repeat it here for the record:
The answer to Q3 is simple: People in ANY situation have more self control if they think someone is watching them. You can see this over and over in sociological studies. My favorite example is hand washing in a public restroom: Most people will wash if someone else is in the restroom, but will skip it if they think they are alone.

Since all of the Abrahamic religions promote the idea that God is watching ... all the time ... it is hardly a surprise that Christians, Jews and Muslims exercise more self control than Atheists and Agnostics. It has nothing to do with religion specifically; Orwell's "Big Brother" might be just as effective.

Note that I say "exercise more self control" rather than "have more self control." I'd be willing to bet that if you could create a situation where all of the test subjects thought a human was observing them, the apparent differences in self control would disappear. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the Atheists could exercise MORE self control, since they've had to learn to self control based on their own internal moral compass, not because the mythical, magical man in the sky is watching.
If you have any thoughts on this, I encourage you to go to Tierney's blog and add a reply. The first few dozen respondents were mostly non-religious and quite insightful, but then Christians took over for a while. I suspect a Christian blogger got hold of the article and sent his/her readers over to Tierney to add their voices to the debate.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christian Puppies?

As many of my faithful readers will recall, our old friend Skittle the Dog passed away last month. But the circle of life goes on, and two weeks ago I was hijacked by my wife to go shopping because she needed to "get something," which turned out to be the cutest little Corgi puppy you've ever seen.

And of course, there is a special-interest web site called But what really startled me was the special-specialty group, Corgis of Christian Owners! With 68 members, they're the second-largest subgroup of (only exceeded by the 94 members of the Awkwards Little Sleepers Club, for puppies that "sleep and relax in strange positions!").

Not to be completely left out, there is also a Pagan Corgis Club, with a surprising 10 members.

One of the things that baffles me about Christianity is it's pervasiveness. Christians aren't content to worship Jesus in private – for many of them, their religion has to be "worn on their sleeves," and made a part of everything they do, even irrelevant activities, such as your dog's web site. Why is that?

Out of curiousity, I started googling around for other Christian activities. I quickly found:
  Christian surfers
Christian sailors
Christian naturists (nudists)
Christian dog owners
Christian skydivers (ok, maybe that one makes sense!)
Christian scuba divers
Christian shoppers
Christian gamers
... the list goes on and on. There is hardly an activity you can think of that doesn't have a Christian subgroup. Ok, there was one search that didn't turn up anything: "Christian wife swappers."

Monday, December 22, 2008

Jesus and Elvis - Coincidence or Cosmic Plan???

Time for a holiday break, so how about a little fun?

JESUS is the Lord's shepherd.
ELVIS dated Cybill Shepherd.

JESUS was a carpenter.
ELVIS' favorite high school class was wood shop.

JESUS was part of the Trinity.
ELVIS' very first band was a trio.

JESUS' entourage, the Apostles, had 12 members.
ELVIS' entourage, the Memphis Mafia, had 12 members.

JESUS is a Capricorn. (December 25) [though may actually be September 23]
ELVIS is a Capricorn. (January 8)

JESUS was the lamb of God.
ELVIS had mutton chop sideburns.

JESUS was first and foremost the Son of God.
ELVIS first recorded with Sun Studios, performing what are still considered to be his foremost recordings.

JESUS' Father is everywhere.
ELVIS' father was a drifter, and moved around quite a bit.

JESUS said, "If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink." (John 7:37)
ELVIS said, "Drinks on me!" (Jailhouse Rock, MGM:1957)

JESUS fasted for 40 days and nights.
ELVIS had irregular eating habits. (eg: 5 banana splits for breakfast)

JESUS said: "Man shall not live by bread alone."
ELVIS liked his sandwiches with peanut butter and bananas.

Matthew was one of JESUS' many biographers. (The Gospel According to Matthew)
Neil Matthews was one of ELVIS' many biographers. (Elvis: A Golden Tribute)

"[JESUS'] countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow." (Matthew 28:3)
ELVIS wore snow-white jumpsuits with lightning bolts.

JESUS said: "Love thy neighbor." (Matthew 22:39)
ELVIS said: "Don't be cruel." (RCA 1956)

JESUS walked on water. (Matthew 14:25)
ELVIS surfed on water. (Blue Hawaii, Paramount:1965)

Mary, an important woman in JESUS' life, had an Immaculate Conception.
Priscilla, an important woman in ELVIS' life, attended Immaculate Conception High School.

JESUS H. CHRIST has 12 letters.
ELVIS PRESLEY has 12 letters.

No one knows what the "H" in "JESUS H. Christ" stood for.
No one was really sure if ELVIS' middle name was "Aron" or "Aaron".

JESUS wore a crown of thorns.
ELVIS wore Royal Crown hair styler.

JESUS had his famous Resurrection.
ELVIS had the famous 1968 "comeback" TV special.

JESUS lived in a state of grace, in a Near Eastern land.
ELVIS lived in Graceland, in a nearly eastern state.

Got this in an email in 1993. The author of this fantastic spoof is lost on the internet somewhere.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Homeopathy: A Truly Dangerous Religion

Several years ago, a friend's religion killed her. No, she wasn't part of a mass suicide, or burned at the stake, or stoned to death. She was the victim of a deadly combination: breast cancer and the "homeopathy religion."

My friend was young and healthy, and although we were all dismayed to hear of her diagnosis, the cancer was discovered early, giving her a high probability of a successful cure and a long, healthy life.

Sadly, my friend believed in the medical religion called homeopathy. Rather than seeking proper medical treatments that could have (and likely would have) cured her completely, she went to Mexico to a clinic that offered homeopathic treatments. Six months later, quite predictably, she was dead. The homeopathic medicines had absolutely no effect on the cancer. She might as well have stayed home, resigned herself to an early death, and enjoyed a little more time with her husband and two small children.

Why do I call homeopathy a religion? Let's turn the question around and ask, "What is religion?" We'll will discover that homeopathy fits the definition of religion pretty well.
Based on faith. Advocates of homeopathic remedies turn to faith and anecdotes to justify their claims.

Magical forces. A religion claims there are "essences," magical beings (spirits or gods) or other magical forces that can't be measured by science. Homeopathic medicines are said to retain the "essence" of the curative compound, even though there is none of it left in the water.

Anti-science. When science shows that homeopathic remedies are useless, advocates dispute or belittle the scientific studies, or even claim that the scientific method itself is invalid. It's common to hear claims that science is incapable of measuring the spiritual forces that make homeopathy work.

Impossible claims. The fundamental claims of homeopathy violate fundamental rules of chemistry and physics.

Use Anecdotes. Although homeopath advocates deny evidence from large, double-blind scientific studies, they're not adverse to evidence, so long as it's not statistically significant. In other words, they rely on anecdotes (one datum), but reject meaningful statistical samples.

Appeal to desires, not logic. Going hand-in-hand with the anti-science attitudes, homeopathy appeals to what people want to believe, rather than reality. Homeopathy assures people that they can be cured without expensive visits to a doctor, without altering unhealthy lifestyle choices, without painful treatments, and without side effects. It also claims to be able to cure conditions that science-based medicine can't, such as allergies, cancers, arthritis, ageing, impotence, and many others. In fact, perusing a homeopathy web site, it appears that homeopathy can cure everything from broken bones to psychosis.

Unfortunately, the majority of Americans are raised in a religious home, where they are taught from an early age to accept faith, magical forces, impossible miracles, and anecdotal "evidence" without question. These beliefs are directed at Yahweh and Jesus, but more importantly, children are taught to reject the evidence of their senses and the techniques of rational thought.

It's no surprise, then, that this same system of faith-based beliefs is easily transferred to other false claims. Homeopathy isn't very different from any religion.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Don't Call it the 'Theory' of Evolution!

What's in a name? A lot. How many times have you seen the argument, "Evolution is just a theory. It's never been proved!"

Evolution is, without a doubt, supported by more evidence than any other field in the history of science. Genetics, immunology, diseases and parasites, taxonomy, fossils, dozens of radiometric techniques ... the list goes on and on and on – thousands and millions of facts and observations, every one of them in agreement with the predictions of Evolution.

It's time to stop calling it a theory. It's Evolution Science.

Scientists use the word "theory" in a different way than the general population. To a scientist, a "theory" is a model that describes a system in an accurate and predictive way. But to the public, a "theory" is something uncertain, something tentative, something that may very well turn out to be false.

The valance model of chemistry is a wonderful theory (roughly, the "ball and stick" model of molecules). It describes a great deal of organic chemistry remarkably well, but falls apart when the electrons' orbitals start to span more than two atoms. Is it "just a theory"? Does the fact that the valence model breaks down for complex aromaticity, tautomers, metal bonds and hydrogen bonds, make it "wrong"?

No! The concept of right and wrong doesn't apply to scientific models. The right terminology is useful. The valence model is useful for most organic compounds, and beyond that, you have to use a quantum-mechanics theory – another model. Quantum mechanics are far more predictive, under a much wider range of atomic configurations, than the valence model, but even quantum mechanics breaks down under extreme heat (relativistic velocities), and doesn't tell you much about radioactivity. Is it "wrong"? No, it's just not useful outside the constraints of the model.

Here's where we scientists are doing ourselves a disservice. The concept of modeling a complex system is fairly esoteric philosophy. The average non-scientist wants to know, "How does it work?" Or, "Is Einstein right or wrong?" The concept of a model's domain (the conditions under which the model is predictive) is not something you're going to read about in the morning newspaper.

We need to start using the same terminology as the general public. It's time to abandon the Theory of Evolution. It's Evolution plain and simple, right alongside Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology and Astronomy.

In the common parlance, evolution is a science. It's a model of a very complex system, the system of life on Earth. The basic facts of evolution have been proved so far beyond any reasonable doubt, that it would be fair to call it 100% certain. Sure, there are interesting details, we're still finding unusual species that force us to rethink some of the details. We're still filling in the corner cases and details. But to say that the core ideas behind evolution science are anything but 100% proved is a huge mistake.

So stop calling it a theory. And whenever you hear someone else say, "The Theory of Evolution," consider a gentle reminder that the proper term is "Evolution," or "Evolution Science."

One Nation, Indivisible ...

There is a great irony in the "One Nation Under God" debate regarding our Pledge of Allegiance. The very next word of the Pledge is "indivisible." By inserting the phrase "under God" into the Pledge, the religious conservatives have divided America.

The Pledge of Allegiance was supposed to remind us that, in spite of our varied heritages, languages, religions, races, and politics, America is truly one nation, a single nation, united by our beliefs in democracy and equality, united by our strong beliefs in free speech and freedom of religion, and united by our love of this great land.

In 1951, the Roman Catholic fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus of New York City, decided to divide America, to exclude all Americans who didn't share their concept of God. They incorporated the words "under God" into their version of the Pledge. This idea spread to other Knights of Columbus organizations nationwide. The Knights ultimately lobbied Congress and inserted their religion into the Pledge.

Now, thanks to a bunch of New York Roman Catholics, somewhere between 10% and 40% of Americans, depending on who you ask, are cut off, divided from the rest of the nation, unable to honestly and wholeheartedly recite their pledge to their flag, the symbol of this indivisible nation.

It is a terrible irony that the words "under God" were inserted in front of the word "indivisible."

If Programming Languages were Religions...

For all my readers who are also a bit geeky ...
If Programming Languages were Religions...
by Aegisub. I got a great laugh out of this!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Amish Civil Disobedience Leads to Drugs, Polygamy and Murder?

When does religion exempt you from secular law? The Amish apparently think they're exempt from building codes:
Attorneys acting on behalf of the Amish argue they have a constitutional right to religious freedom. They don't have to conform to building regulations that require them to use architectural drawings, smoke detectors, quality-graded lumber and inspections, Steve Ballan, an assistant public defender assigned to the Amish in Morristown wrote in court documents. "They should be allowed to practice their religion and their religious traditions without interference from the government," he said in an interview.
On the one hand, I do empathize somewhat with the Amish – I think their beliefs are misguided, but they're sincere and honest, and I respect that.

But where does it end? If you make this exception, how can you refuse the next group of religious fanatics?
  • Should we allow hallucinogens for anyone who claims them as part of their religion?
  • Should parents be allowed to withhold lifesaving medical treatment for their young children?
  • Should we allow polygamy?
  • Should we allow 60 year old men to "marry" 12 year old girls?
  • Should we allow human sacrifice?
  • Should we allow mass suicide?
It's the classic "slippery slope." Once you decide that the Amish are exempt from the rule of law, you can't make any rational argument to ban any of the other activities in the list above. And these aren't hypothetical, as we all know!

We're either a nation of laws, or we're not.

Christian Trick Would Ban Free Speech in Olympia

This morning in Olympia, Washington, we had an example of Democracy at its very best: Christians, Atheists, and various bystanders, all raising their voices on the street in front of the state capitol. The Christians have every right to protest the Atheist sign that was placed next to their nativity scene. The Atheists exercised their right to counter-protest, the bystanders to watch the whole thing in amusement, and the Governor to listen. There were even neutral demonstrators too, whose message was, "Get over it! We have wars, the economy ... stuff that matters!"

This is absolutely wonderful, and is what Democracy is all about: The right to free speech, to open discourse, and public debate with out fear of reprisal.

But then, the Christians blew it, big time. Their trick is very subtle, very clever, but Atheists MUST NOT GIVE IN. There is an insidious attempt by the Christians to suppress free speech under the guise of equality for all.

What is this subtle trick?
Dan Orr [a Christian protester] said he questioned the legality of having any sign with words posted in the state Capitol, as opposed to a wordless display.
In other words, "free speech" to them means that, as the dominant religion, they can post their widely recognized icons and idols on the lawn (which virtually ever American is familiar with), and the Jews can put a Menorah or Star of David on the lawn (which most Americans will at least recognize as being of Jewish origin), and the Atheists can put ... the red "A" logo from the "Out" campaign? A picture of Jesus with a circle-and-slash through it?
bizarro 'we're atheists'
As the dominant religion, banning signs with words gives Christians a massive advantage. They can create a wordless display like the nativity scene, and everyone knows what it is. They could also put up a wordless scene of angels, Satan, sinners and unbelievers being cast down to Hell, all sorts of elaborate anti-Atheist messages, and virtually everyone who passed by would get the message.

Banning words will effectively ban speech by non-Christians, while leaving the Christians free to shout their message from the Washington State Capitol lawn. And in case anyone thinks this is just a bunch of nice people spreading good cheer, consider these words from one of the state representatives:
State Rep. Jim Dunn, a Vancouver Republican, called for the crowd to continue their energy and prayers. "It is time to chase out of the house of God all the unbelievers and evildoers," Dunn said.
This is modern Christianity at its worst.

A far better solution is to follow the United States Constitution: Keep church and state completely separate. Let people put their nativity scenes on their own lawns, on their church lawns, even at the supermarket – that's what American freedom of religion is all about. But not on the government's lawn.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Christmas in Washington: The Great Land Rush of 2008

Dear Governor Gregoire,

I have a solution to your problem! I'm referring, of course, to the hysterical circus that ensued when you allowed a Christmas display on your state capitol grounds (as I learned from the great commentaries by my fellow bloggers PZ Myers and Atheist Revolution). It seems everybody wants in on the act! Every religion or non-religion wants to be sure THEIR message is displayed your lawn! I can understand how this must upset you.

But there's a simple answer: Governor, just appoint a date and time, when people of all faiths, religions, or no faith, can line up outside your gate with their wagons, loaded with nativity scenes, those nasty atheist signs, Hanukkah menorahs, heaps of flying spaghetti, maybe some trees or something for those druids... Whatever they think their God wants them to display to lure or threaten their fellow citizens into believing their particular brand of superstition.

Then, at the appointed hour, Governor, you can raise your starter's pistol into the air, and BANG! Off they go, racing to claim their 6x12' plot on your front lawn, fighting for the prime real estate. First come, first served! Stake your claim now!

I know it's a nuisance trying to decide who has a legitimate religion and who is just being cranky, Governor, but this will take the problem out of your hands, and put it where it belongs: Back to the pioneering spirit of America! Yes, I know your front lawn might get a bit cluttered, but at least nobody will blame you any more for letting those damned Atheists and Spaghettists put up their signs. It will be out of your hands, just the American Way!

Yours Truly,
A Helpful Citizen

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Death of a Dog, the Death of a Man

Last week I had the bittersweet task of helping my dog, Skittles, for the last time. I had to help her die, by taking her to the veterinarian to be "put to sleep." The task was incredibly sad, because she was a great dog, a good friend, always happy, and an integral part of our family. Yet, it was a task that I did out of love and duty. Even when death is inevitible, when there is no hope, the body doesn't want to give up; the heart keeps beating and the lungs keep breathing, only prolonging the suffering. When a beloved pet's death is inevitable, and the animal is only suffering, most pet owners, out of true love for their pets, help their pet one last time by gently and kindly helping them to die.

Why is it that we can't do the same kindness for the people we love?

Yesterday, television viewers in Great Britain had the opportunity to see a man commit suicide, a real suicide, in the documentary about Craig Ewart's death. Ewart had a degenerative motor neuron disease that left him paralyzed and suffering. As he put it, "If I go through with [this suicide] I die, as I must at some point. If I don't go through with it, my choice is essentially to suffer and to inflict suffering on my family and then die."

Mr. Ewarts case struck very close to my heart, because my own father died of the exact same disease, except that he had to let nature take its course. It was a terrible thing to watch, seeing my father suffer a long, drawn-out death, with weeks and months of unnecessary suffering.

The sad memories of my father's death came rushing back to me as I was helping Skittles for the last time, when the veterinarian said, "Can you imagine, we can do this kindness for our pets, but not for our own mother and father?"

One of the greatest tragedies that religion has inflicted on us is the idea that humans are somehow different than animals; that because we possess a "soul" that was put there by some mythical god in the sky, we have to wait for that same mythical god to take the soul away. Worse, like many other religious ideas, this one has become part of our legal system.

Mr. Ewart chose to take his life early, while he still could. My father wanted to kill himself. We talked about it many times. But as the paralysis gradually took over his body, he was faced daily with a terrible choice: Do I kill myself today, while I still can? If I wait too long, will I become incapable, and end up suffering for years, paralyzed in a hospital bed, in discomfort and pain, wearing a diaper, unable to read a book or even watch television? The terrible dilemma was that, as long as he was able to take his own life, his life was still good, still worth living.

If he'd killed himself when he still could, he would have lost a year of a life that, while not perfect, was still decent. He wouldn't have heard about his granddaughter graduating high school. He wouldn't have learn that his grandson won the World Juggling Championships. He wouldn't have gotten to see videos of his other grandson playing a mean saxophone. But the price he had to pay for that year was very high indeed – he became too weak to take his own life, and had to suffer through a "natural" death.

I don't mind if religious people want to choose a painful, lingering death for themselves or their loved ones. But why can't my family and I choose the moral and ethical route. Why is it that we can help a mere dog, but not help our own parents, wives, brothers and sisters, when their time comes to die?

Death is part of life, and life is good. Skittles knew that, and if she could have talked, I know she would have thanked me for helping her. Here's a funny little tribute to Skittles. This is what happens when you give an engineer a new MacBook pro dual CPU with 4 GB of memory, two dual SATA 750 GB disks, a hi-res second monitor, Final Cut Pro movie-editing software, and Soundtrack Pro music editing software. He makes a video of his dog. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

F18 crash reveals that God's hand is ... not there

Yesterday I made my lunch and sat down to enjoy the noon news. But when I flipped on the TV, I was greeted by the tragic videos of smoke billowing from a neighborhood just a few miles from me, where an USMC F-18 fighter jet had crashed just two minutes earlier. Sadly, four people were killed: A mother, two very young children, and their grandmother. Four wonderful lives, snuffed out in an instant, by utterly random chance.

Years ago, I remember reading about a couple on a canoe trip in Canada for their honeymoon. A beaver just happened to be gnawing a tree as they paddled by; the tree fell and killed the woman. Utterly and completely random.

I did a lot of camping at Yosemite National Park when my kids were young. One year, we heard that a monstrous branch from an ancient sequoia tree broke off and fell on the open upper deck of a tourist bus, killing a number people. When those people woke up that morning, would any of them have guessed they wouldn't live to see the end of the day?

If you believe, as millions do, that God is omnipotent and omniscient, then God knew these people were going to die, and in fact these deaths were somehow part of His plan. For some reason yesterday, God decided to kill a baby, a toddler, their mother, and their grandmother. God decided to leave behind a widowed grandfather, and a father who not only lost his wife, but also his two tiny children.

And you have to believe that, for some inscrutable reason, God had that beaver cut the tree down right when the happy couple were paddling by, leaving her husband a young widower. The same goes for all those people on the bus in Yosemite – God decided to kill them, too.

There are many far greater tragedies unfolding across the world every day, but these simple, small tragedies hit me much harder. Maybe it's because a million starving people are too much to grasp, but a dead family in my own neighborhood is something my brain can understand.

Jews, Christians and Muslims who believe that God is really in charge, and deliberately causes all of these random, horrible deaths, have resorted to some of the most inscrutable and indefensible logic in the history of humanity. The pinnacle of this "logic," the phrase that I find deeply offensive, is: "God works in mysterious ways." In other words, none of this makes any sense, but God is smarter than us, and uses a superior logic that is far beyond human comprehension. God has a plan, and God is good, so killing some babies, their mother, and their grandmother, must be a good thing. But we poor humans are too dumb to grasp the logic that helps God realize why this random killing was for the best.

As for me, I prefer a much more sensible explanation: Random stuff happens, and sometimes you're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Is Evolution only for Smart People?

To Evolutionists, the tenacity of Creationism is baffling: Why do people continue to believe ideas that are thousands of years old, at best unsupported by any facts, and at worst plainly wrong? And as a corollary, why is education (especially in science) inversely correlated with religious beliefs?

Is it possible that only smart people can understand evolution? Is the problem simply that Evolution Science is too complex, too intricate, for a person with an average education to understand? (This is one of those unpleasant questions that you may secretly wonder about, but not want say out loud, for fear of being labeled an elitist.)

Happily, the answer is "No!" And the insight that shows why, ironically, comes from evolution itself: Memetic evolution.

Religion is a highly-evolved memeplex, one that is perfectly tuned to the human psyche. Religion memes appeal to our deepest emotions: fear (hell), hope (heaven and the afterlife), egotism and xenophobia (we're special in God's eyes), and our desire for love (God/Jesus the father). The religion memeplex has been evolving for many thousands of years; at any particular point in history, dozens and hundreds of religions, each with uncountable minor "mutations" (different opinions, interpretations, and misunderstandings) have been competing for survival. The ones that survived are the best of the best.

By contrast, we evolutionists are just children, babes in the woods, compared to our Creationist counterparts. Darwin's ideas, and the memeplex we call the "Theory of Evolution," have only been around for 150 years, a mere eyeblink compared to religion.

And worse, the Evolution Science memeplex evolved in a scientific ecosphere. The memeplex that we call the "Theory of Evolution" spread because it appealed to scientists, who are trained in logical, deductive thinking. Scientists are trained to ignore their emotions, and only accept theories that are based on observable facts and logical deductions from those facts.

Unfortunately, human emotions are far more powerful and persuasive than human logic.

A polar bear is well suited to the Arctic, and a camel to the desert; neither can travel to the other's part of the world and live for long. Each is adapted to the ecology in which its species evolved. If the Evolution Science memeplex is going to spread outside of its evolutionary niche, it too will have to evolve, to be better suited to the needs of non scientists. It will have to develop memes that appeal to human emotions and desires, rather than merely to logic.

To those of us who study culture and history from a Darwinistic perspective, that is, using memes, there is no mystery at all. The answer to our question – Is evolution only for smart people? – is in the memes. It's not evolution itself that is only for smart people, it's just the current memeplex, the one that evolved in an "ecosphere of smart people."

If the Evolution Memeplex is ever going to truly competative with Creationism, it has to evolve.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

One Catholic Priest Destroyed the Entire Mayan Written Language

The New York Times described the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphs as "one of the great stories of twentieth century scientific discovery." Tragically, this decipherment was only necessary because of a one-man Spanish Inquisition, a deliberate, decades-long campaign by a single Catholic priest to destroy the Mayan language and culture. The priest, Diego de Landa, wiped out all knowledge of the written language, and nearly destroyed the spoken language too.

Diego de Landa's one-man inquisition perfectly illustrates the power of the Intolerance Meme, an idea that evolved in the Jewish religion a few centuries before the birth of Jesus, and was taken up with a vengeance by Christians in the third and fourth centuries AD. The Intolerance Meme declares that not only is Yahweh the only god, but in addition, anyone who worships other gods is committing a sin. The Intolerance Meme justifies all sorts of atrocities in Yahweh's name: Murder, slavery, forced conversion, suppression and destruction of other religions, racism, and many other immoral acts.

This was Diego de Landa's background when he discovered that many of his Mayan "converts" had actually incorporated the Catholic Yahweh/Jesus/Spirit, along with the various saints and angels, into their own traditional religion. When Landa discovered "idol worship" among some of his converts, he felt that his "children" had turned their backs on him, and his life's work was a failure.

Being a good Roman Catholic, and a carrier of the Intolerance Meme, Landa was furious – he saw this as a betrayal, and started an inquisition that resulted in torture and death across the Yucatan region. He was determined to wipe out all knowledge of the Mayan religion, and saw the Mayan language and hieroglyphs as a key. Fifty years later, in 1699, Spanish soldiers burned a town that had the last school of scribes who knew the Mayan hieroglyphs. By 1720, not a single person alive knew what the hieroglyphs meant.

The Roman Catholic church's response? They punished Landa. But not for murder, not for torture, and not for destroying an entire culture's history. No, none of these things were worthy of the Church's sanctions. Diego de Landa's crime was that he carried out an inquisition without authorization.

It took over two hundred years, and an international team of linguists, anthropologists, archeologists, mathematicians, an architect, a few brilliant hobbyists, and one twelve-year-old child prodigy hieroglyphics expert, to undo the damage that Landa caused. Armed with their fierce determination and perseverance, they recovered the written language, bit by bit, word by word, symbol by symbol. Thanks to this dedicated group, the meaning of almost 90% of the hieroglyphs is now recovered.

As for Landa, he had to spend a few years under house arrest in Spain, contemplating his disobedience and praying. Once he'd done his pennance, he was promoted to Bishop of Yucatan, and sent back to Central America where he lived out the remainder of his life.

Special thanks to filmmakers David Lebrun and Amy Halpern-Lebrun, who graciously agreed to be interviewed during my trip to the Red Rock Film Festival in Utah. I highly recommend their excellent film, Breaking the Maya Code. You can also watch the shorter one-hour Nova version online, courtesy of PBS and WGBH Boston.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Lori Drew Fallout: Most Atheist Bloggers are FEDERAL FELONS!


A while back, my blog, "Atheists, Get Out of the Damned Closet" pointed out that the majority of Atheist bloggers do so anonymously. In a case that should frighten all bloggers, a recent court decision made this a federal felony. This is no joke, and if the decision is left standing after the appeal, anonymous blogging may be a thing of the past.

There's an old lawyer's saying, something like, "Bad cases make bad law." The tragic suicide of Megan Meier, allegedly triggered by "cyberbullying" on the part of defendant Lori Drew, is one such case. Drew created a account under false pretenses, pretending to be a 14-year-old boy, befriended Meiers, and then started sending hurtful and hateful messages, and Megan killed herself.

Unfortunately, this sort of harrassment, while reprehensible, is not criminal. Lori Drew violated MySpace's terms of service, but did not violate any criminal statutes.

But the prosecutor's office was under intense pressure to do something, so it tried to stretch the law. It claimed that by violating MySpace's terms of service, she was accessing a computer in violation of the CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act), and thus a federal felon. Drew was brought to trial and convicted, and now faces up to three years in prison and $300,000 in fines.

This contortion of the law gives every web-site operator in the United States the ability to write criminal law. If you violate the terms of service of any web site, you are a criminal. A federal felon. Here are a couple examples:
  • All children who use Google are federal felons, since Google's terms of service require you to be 18 or older.
  • The majority of teens who use MySpace are federal felons, since most parents encourage their children to post incomplete or false identifying information.
  • You'd be a fool to use at all, because their terms of service prohibits "bad stuff."
To illustrate what a terrible law this is, I could attach a "terms of use" to this blog that prohibited Christians from reading it, and under the United States v. Drew decision, all Christians who read this blog would become federal felons.

If you would like to learn more about this from a much more authoritative source (or if you don't believe me or think I'm exaggerating), I highly recommend Groklaw's analysis, and especially the amicus brief (PDF - scroll down to "Facts and Summary") filed by the Electronic Freedom Foundation. It's truly frightening.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Peace and Goodwill?

Ah, the Christmas season! The time of peace, goodwill, and love! And it's so nice to open the newspaper and see the headlines, how people really take this message to heart...
  • Mumbai terror rage ends after 60 hours, 195 dead
  • Bases brace for surge in stress-related disorders
  • Death toll over 300 in Nigerian sectarian violence
  • US Jewish, meditation groups' members die in India
  • Witnesses: Fatal shooting followed toy store brawl
  • Iran court upholds stoning death sentence
  • Death sentences for men who bombed Iranian mosque
  • Iranian court sentences man to be blinded by acid
It's so nice to know that religion helps us all get along!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Look Who's Irrational Now: It's the Wall Street Journal

One of my persistent critics left a link to a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, by columnist Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, hoping to show me the error of my ways. Alas for my critic, Hemingway's article is so deeply flawed that I can't let it pass. Someone has to refute this illogical article.

Hemingway tries to claim that Christianity makes people more rational, and less susceptible to superstition, such as belief in ghosts, spirits, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, communicating with the dead, and other superstitions. And indeed, the WSJ cites studies that "prove" this: The more conservative or evangelical a person is, the less likely they are to believe in these superstitions.

Have you spotted the flaw in this logic yet?

The problem is that Hemingway divides the world into three camps: Christian (presumably the "true" belief system), supersition, and Atheist. But that's wrong. The factual foundation for belief in Yahweh is just as weak as belief in ghosts, astrology, communicating with the dead, reincarnation, and thousands of other acts of pure faith.

In other words, there are only two camps, not three: People who rely on faith, and people who derive their understanding from observable facts and rational deductions based on those facts. Thus, where the Christian sees evangelical beliefs as a way to push out false religions, the Atheist merely sees a large number of undistinguished faiths that compete with each other for believers. There is no fundamental difference between Christianity and other supersitions. This is very hard for most Christians to accept, and it frequently leads authors like Hemingway into this same logical fallacy.

From a memetic point of view, there is a large collection of faith-memeplexes that are competing for survival, competing for believers. Christianity is one of the most successful of these memeplexes, because among other things, it developed a strong Intolerance Meme that requires exclusivity from its adherents. Thus, it's no surprise that Christianity and "superstitions" are incompatible.

So all WSJ article really has to say is that the Christian Intolerance Meme is pretty successful. If a person buys into the Christian memeplex, they're less likely to accept any of the other faith-memeplexes.

From an Atheist point of view, the author of the WSJ article hasn't said anything interesting about Atheism at all. All the auther did is show that faith-based systems compete with each other. No surprise there.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Do Ghosts Compete with God?

Interesting ... superstitions make you less likely to believe in God? It hardly seems possible, yet apparently it's true, according to several semi-scientific studies.

Apparently, there's only room for one set of superstitions in the average person's mind. If a person believes in the paranormal, or in ghosts, they are considerably less likely to believe in Yahweh, the traditional Judeao-Christian god.

This could be because the three traditional Abrahamic religions strongly discourage all superstition except their own brands; Yahweh is jealous and demands that His followers stick to just His version of the supernatural.

But whatever the cause, I find it fascinating that belief in ghosts and the paranormal is inversely related to belief in Yahweh. I would have guessed the opposite: That if you can find it in yourself to accept one faith-based system of beliefs, other supernatural beliefs would make sense too.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Roadside Religion: Find GOD in Las Vegas

I found GOD in Las Vegas! Now I'm confused – what happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How Many Died from Religion's Opposition to Stem Cell Research?

European news is carrying a wonderful story about the first woman to receive a new organ made from her own stem cells. The woman's bronchus (part of her windpipe/trachea) was destroyed by tuberculosis, and without the transplant, doctors would have had to remove her lung entirely.

Our scientist colleagues in the UK deserve our congratulations for this wonderful achievement &ndash Well done! – but it also reminds us Americans of yet another sad example of religion impeding scientific progress.

Anti-abortionists brought stem-cell research in the United States to a virtual halt. Who knows what lifesaving discoveries might have been made in the last decade? Who knows what crippling diseases, painful disabilities, disfiguring conditions, and dementia that robs us of our loved ones, might have been cured?

Religion has, once again, shown that it is the enemy of science, knowledge, and progress. The religious zealots (a minority, by the way) whose disproportionate political power forced this policy on America, directly caused thousands of deaths, and many times that many people to live in misery, of people who might have been cured, if stem-cell research hadn't been stopped.

Why does it have to be this way? Why is religion so consistently the enemy of knowledge and progress?

The answer is plain when you view religion from an evolutionary, memetic viewpoint. Education and science are not the friends of religion, especially dogmatic religions that cling to ancient ideas. Science has a way of undermining religious scriptures, of proving that biblical "facts" are in fact wrong.

Religion memeplexes always evolve toward survivors, the "fittest" ideas, and the memes that encapsulate anti-science and anti-rationalism ideas are very beneficial to the religious memeplexes. They keep believers from learning the facts and logic that would undermine the foundations of these dogmatic religions.

So, while we can lament the unconscionable setbacks that religion has caused, in this case by delaying medical progress, we shouldn't be surprised. A memetic point of view actually predicts that this will always be the way religious memeplexes – and the people who believe them – will respond to science and rational thought.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An Atheist in the Land of Mormons, part 3: Becoming God

Did you know that Mormons believe – this is no joke – that if you're married in the Temple, you follow certain laws, YOU BECOME A GOD when you die. Not just an angel or a magician, a real god, with your OWN PLANET. You get to create all the creatures and people, plants, rocks, mountains, whatever you like. And when all is said and done, your creation, your people, will worship you, just like good Mormons worship Yahweh from this planet.

As we finish our stories of Utah and the Red Rock Film Festival, some of my readers might be very surprised to learn that my wife, who is Jewish, was a Mormon for several years. Of all the things I learned about her when we were dating, this probably surprised me the most. She even attended Brigham Young University for a semester.

The way she joined the church is pretty ordinary: a fiance' who converted her to Mormonism (much to her parents' dismay, I'm sure).

The Mormon missionaries have a very carefully crafted bag of tricks they use to attract and keep new converts, stories that are selected with two criteria: First, the introductory preaching resonates with "mainstream" Christianity and Judaism. The initial messages make Mormonism sound very pleasant and ordinary, much like just another branch of the mainstream religions, one with a special place for family and community.

Second, potential converts are told of the promise of the Mormon heaven, where peace, love, forgiveness, and happiness, reign, a paradise even more appealing than the typical Christain heaven.

But certain parts of Mormonism are carefully concealed from potential converts. They sound so outrageous to Christians, Jews, and Muslims that most people would reject them immediately. They're only revealed in bits and pieces, slowly so as not to scare the convert away, and only when the convert has become committed and integrated into the Mormon community and way of life.

(Check out The Mormon Curtain if you want to learn more about Mormon excesses, absurdities and abuses.)

Unfortunately for the Mormons, and fortunately for my wife, their indoctrination didn't succeed. Brigham Young University requires all students to take one religion class every semester, and for her introduction, my wife selected "Mormonism and Modern Science," which is essentially Creationism, somewhat repackaged. She now says, "I didn't know enough about science at that time to be alarmed by what they were teaching. But when they got to the part about polytheism – that when a good person dies, he becomes a god and gets his own planet &ndash my limited Jewish upbringing set off an alarm. Jews believe there is just one God. This was very important Jews, and Rabbit Ott, who was a powerful speaker and very well known [with the Sephardic Temple in Los Angeles], would read from the Torah, 'I am your God, the one God, and there are no other gods before me.'"

The idea that every good Mormon would become a god is polytheism, plain and simple. It is probably the single most important difference between Mormonism and the other three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), and most people raised in an Abrahamic religion would never convert to Mormonism if they knew the truth about the Mormon's polytheism beforehand.

My wife goes on to say that when the class got to the part about becoming a god when you die, she was astounded, not by this teaching, but by her fellow classmates. Looking around the room, she realized not a single other person objected. They were all fully indoctrinated.

She completed the semester, but never returned to BYU. Although she'd become skeptical about Mormonism, she continued to attend the LDS Church for a few years, but finally a friend gave her a copy of "The Godmakers" by David Hunt and Ed Becker. The book totally broke the spell, and she never went back to the LDS church again.

But she has some good stories to tell!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

An Atheist in the Land of Mormons, part 2

Breakfast today was a really bad dream come to life!

In the nine film festivals where we've shown our film, we had the pleasure of discovering that filmmakers are, as a group, one of the most congenial, open-minded group of people you'll ever meet. We became friends with filmmakers who made documentaries about Autism, Zen meditation, travel, war, about our veterans, about the environment, films showing the virtues of religions, exposing the abuses of religion, silly films, fun films, serious films, masterpieces, and awful films. But the common thread is that these are people who care, and even more important, people who are open minded and love to hear one another's ideas.

That's why I was really looking forward to the filmmaker's breakfast and awards ceremony this morning. We piled into our little RV, headed west from the beautiful Zion National Park, and enjoyed a lovely drive in the morning sun down to Virgin, Utah, where breakfast was to be served at the Buffalo Trails Trading Company. As we walked into the restaurant, I saw a table with an older couple, both dressed very nicely in their Sunday best. He looked like a man with some stories to tell, not the usual fire-breathing young filmmaker. So we sat down, introduced ourselves, and started asking questions.

What a mistake. First, his main claim to fame was that he produce a documentary about the Shroud of Turin. Not an objective documentary, but rather, the worst sort of pseudo-scientific religious BS. And even worse, the man was completely oblivious to his audience – he didn't even bother to ask us about our religious beliefs, but like a typical religious zealot, just assumed that his point of view is self-evident and shared by all. He was oblivious to the fact that I know a bit about the shroud's sordid history, that it has been thoroughly discredited, that no major church accepts its authenticity, and on and on. Once he got started, the man couldn't shut up, and started spewing the faux science that plagues real scientific progress. He went on and on about how many different ways they'd proved the shroud's authenticity, how its miraculous nature was irrefutable, how hundreds and hundreds of the worlds best scientists had confirmed its authenticity.

Within two minutes of him launching into this, my wife was squeezing my knee under the table with a clear message: Keep your mouth shut! But it wasn't necessary – arguing with this guy would have been a hopeless waste of time, and would have embarassed everyone. His claims were so outrageous I couldn't even look the guy in the eye, I had to stare at his hands, the wall, other people in the room, and deliberately ignore him. He went on – I kid you not – for forty five minutes nonstop, without even once asking us about our film.

But it gets worse! One of the finest films at the Red Rock Film Festival, which in fact won "Best Documentary," was David Lebrun's amazing film, Breaking the Maya Code, inspired by the book of the same name. Eleven years in the making, it documents the two hundred year battle to rediscover the meaning of the Mayan hieroglyphs, knowledge that was lost when the Catholic priest Landa (later Bishop Landa) carried out a one-man Inquisition in the Yucatan and destroyed all knowledge of Mayan writing (the subject of an upcoming blog).

Finally, to my great relief, the man's wife saw my discomfort, very abruptly interrupted her husband, and asked about our film. The man, having talked about his film for forty five minutes, gave my wife a full thirty seconds before he lost interest and changed the subject again to one of his other films. Then, another catastrophe: We asked if they'd seen Lebrun's Breaking the Maya Code. Alas, the man was a Mormon. We should have guessed, since we'd learned he was raised in Utah.

For those of you who don't know, the Book of the Mormon has a huge section describing how Jesus, after his resurrection, came to the New World and preached, and asserts that the Mayan hieroglyphic language is derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs, and many other outrageous claims about the Americas.

Unfortunately, like all religious beliefs, the Book of the Mormon is believed by Mormons to be infallable, so rather than looking at all the scientific evidence objectively, the Mormons' only goal is to find scientific "proof" that confirm their preconceived notion of truth. It's anti-science.

We had to listen to another ten minutes of anti-science, all about how the archeologists and other scientists are proving that the Book of the Mormon's account of the New World is correct. Mercifully, the awards ceremony began, and put an end to the man's unpleasant and embarassing conversation. We didn't win an award at this festival, but I almost didn't care, just getting the man silenced was reward enough for me.

After we thanked the festival organizers and headed west across the beautiful Utah desert, my wife and I both agreed: One of the worst aspects of religion is that it forces its believers to reject rational thinking and accept as truth things that are plainly false. It requires believers to put faith over logic, to accept what they're taught rather than what they can see with their own eyes.

Once they're taught to ignore rational thinking, it seems to be impossible for them to distinguish real science from pseudo science. They're able to believe (contrary to all real science) that Jesus was wrapped in the Turin Shroud, and to believe that Jesus preached in the New World, and that (contrary to overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that the Mayan script is derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

An Atheist in the Land of Mormons

The continuing saga of my trip to Utah...

We hadn't been in Utah for a half hour when Mormonism smacked me in the face. We stopped for dinner at the Chuck-A-Rama buffet (in spite of the name, the food was fabulous), and I swear, I've never seen so many kids in my life. The family in front of us in line: 5 little girls and a pregnant mother. After I paid, I heard the guy behind me say, "One adult and five kids." Kids everywhere.

As we drove through Saint George, my wife pointed out the Mormon Temple, one of the oldest, and told me that the city doesn't allow any taller buildings near it.

I know that Utah is a Mormon state, but seeing it in real life is something of a shock to my rationalist brain.

I have a certain degree of respect for most religions, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) baffles me. Unlike Judaism, Christianity, Islam, even Baha'i, the sordid history of the LDS church's founders is modern, extensively documented, and available for anyone to read. There are hundreds of books exposing the fraud, the abusive beliefs, the racism, sexism, the power struggles, and anything else you'd care to name. There are web sites by the thousands from disillusioned former members.

With the history of the LDS church such an open book, why are there any Mormons at all?

I'm reminded of an experiment that I read about years ago, I believe it was in one of James Randi's essays. A college class saw a demonstration by a man who claimed to have paranormal powers - ESP, spoon bending, and so forth. He demonstrated about a dozen tricks, and convinced many of the students that it was for real. Then someone else came in, and loudly proclaimed, "This man is a fraud!" He proceeded to demonstrate how half of the "paranormal" feats were nothing more than ordinary magician's sleight-of-hand.

Now to my way of thinking, if a man had even one genuine paranormal power, that would be truly amazing, and he'd have no reason to resort to fraud. What did these college students think? Many of them decided that even though half the tricks were fraudulent, they still believed that the man had paranormal powers!

To me, that's like discovering that your accountant embezzled from one of your accounts, yet you still trust him with the rest of your money. After all, he didn't steal from those other accounts, right? So he's only dishonest when it comes to that one account, and the rest of our money is safe.

Does that make sense to you? No, nor to me. And that's why Mormonism is so baffling to me.

Roadside Religion and Film Festivals

I'm on the way to the Red Rock Film Festival, a road trip that is taking us from San Diego north to Las Vegas, then over to the southwest corner of Utah, the Zion National Park area. As background, my wife wrote and produced a movie (I'll leave it to you internet sleuths to find it), a feature-length comedy/drama that has already won four awards at film festivals, including best story/writing, Director's Choice, and Best Narrative Feature. We also got best LGBT, which was a salute to one of our actors who did a fantastic job playing Lola/Lowell, a transvestite waitress. So that's four awards in eight film festivals, and we're hoping for another this weekend.

We just passed by Yermo, the run-down town where Lola is a waitress in our movie. Her employer, Milo the Cook, is being harassed by the town's health inspector, Ed, who doesn't like "people of his persuasion," i.e. gays.

Lo and behold, as we drove past Yermo today, what did I see? Some good Christian had placed a series of signs by the road, the Ten Commandments! They were nicely spaced to give you time to read each one. And probably illegal since the 1965 Highway Beautification Act limits signs near Interstate Freeways.

I'd always thought maybe my wife was a bit harsh on the town of Yermo when she wrote her movie script, but maybe not.

And this again raises the question that I asked in by blog The Jesus Truck: Did the person who went to all that trouble, printing the signs, driving posts into the ground, and bolting the signs on, really think it would ever make a difference to even one person passing by? Like, maybe some truck driver would see the sign and say, "Gosh! What was I thinking! I guess I won't visit that prostitute tonight after all!"

Get real. Those signs are, once again, more for the person who put them up, to bolster his ego.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Atheism's Toxic Effects in the Abortion Debate

Ok, I admit it, the headline is deliberately provocative to get your attention. Vjack over at Atheist Revolution wrote an excellent blog, Religion's Toxis Effects in the Abortion Controversy, in which he demonstrates that religion turns honest discourse about an important controversy into black-and-white good-versus-evil mudslinging.

But my provocative title is apropos to my thesis: There is a solution to the Abortion controversy, but we'll never reach it until we stop trying to debate the abortion issue. It's hopeless. Atheists tend to dismiss the legitimate and heartfelt beliefs of religious people in the abortion debate. These are not a bunch of nut cases with silly beliefs; they are our friends and neighbors, and they honestly believe that abortion is murder. As Atheists, we can see that life and the human "soul" are purely physical phenomena, and it's hard for us to take the religious position seriously. But if we aren't careful, we risk getting into a pointless debate that will distract us from real progress.

The only solution to the abortion controversy is to eliminate the need for abortion completely. Years ago, I heard Professor Carl Djerassi, inventor of the birth-control pill, interviewed on the radio, and he put it best: "Wouldn't it be better if we lived in a world where women have full access to birth control, where no woman ever needs to seek an abortion again?" (Paraphrased, it was probably 25 years ago!)

Almost everyone in the United States, Atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Baha'i, you name it, agrees to a remarkable extent on one topic: Birth control is moral, and is a woman's right. Even the majority of Roman Catholics agree; they think the Pope and official Catholic ban on birth control is simply wrong, and that the Pope is out of touch with reality.

I propose that Atheists, and religious people of a more liberal nature who accept that abortion isn't murder, should stop engaging in the futile debate about when the human soul is created, and instead focus on birth control.

A tiny minority of ultra-conservative religious leaders have a monsterous influence on United States domestic and foreign policy. Their conservative views are preventing distribution of birth-control pills, condoms, medication, education and many other services that are desperately needed, here and abroad.

Right now, regions of Africa have stunnning and horrifying rates of AIDS infections, in some cases 25% of the population is infected and will die. These are poor countries to start with; the cost of caring for these people as they sicken and die, and the resulting explosion of orphans, will overwhelm all economic and social progress for decades. It is a tragedy greater than most of the greatest plagues in human history.

And it could have been prevented with an aggresive campaign that included sex education, condom distribution, and medical aid. Sociologists warned of this impending disaster years before it happened, but because the solution included birth control and abortion rights, the funds for birth control, condoms and education were withheld. This completely preventable plague was left to run wild, and will ultimately result in hundreds of millions of deaths worldwide.

So, let's start engaging our religious friends (and those we may not consider friends, too) in a debate about birth control and sex education. Let's break the stranglehold the ultraconservative churches, led by the Pope himself, have on American and world politics. Let's make it so that every woman in Africa has access to condoms, so that we can stop the AIDS epidemic. Let's give every teenager in the world a reality-based sex education (to use vjack's term), so that no girl ever has to have an abortion again. Let's teach young couples everywhere how to be responsible, and plan their families, so that every child born will be greeting by happy, excited parents who planned the event and look forward to raising a happy and healthy family.

The abortion debate is a dead end. We have to hold the line, keep abortion rights from being eroded, but that's it. But the birth-control debate can be meaningful, productive, and have a far greater impact on the health and well being of everyone in the world.

Monday, November 10, 2008

When Gay Marriage Was a Christian Rite

It turns out the Roman Catholic church has, once again, ignored the historical evidence and censored history, in order to support its current homophobic and hypocritical stance on gay marriage. A family member forwarded this fascinating article to me:
When Same-Sex Marriage Was a Christian Rite
The article describes how down through most of the history of the Roman Catholic Church, there were many instances of church-sanctioned homosexual marriages, including a marriage between two Roman saints, St Sergius and Saint Bacchus.

Contrary to the Church's revised version of history, the truth is that the Roman Catholic church has a long history of tolerance and even celebration of homosexual love and marriage. Records of same-sex marriages have been discovered throughout the Christian world, including in the records of the Vatican itself.

Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church, and Christian denominations in general, have a long history of revising the facts, and an amazing ability to get people to swallow their altered history as truth.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Donate food, schoolbooks, or a Christian education?

A bizarre, but cool, catalog arrived in the mail yesterday: The World Vision Gift Catalog ("Meaningful gifts that change tow world"). Instead of ordering stuff for yourself, you buy stuff for people around the world who need our help. It's really a pretty good idea: Charity, packaged for modern consumers.

Among the items you can buy are:
  • $100 – 8 chickens for a hungry family (or 4 for $50)
  • $100 – A goat + 2 chickens
  • $2000 &ndash 28 farm animals, including 2 cows, 2 sheep, 2 pigs, 2 goats, 20 chickens
  • $70 – One llama ("a godsend for a family in South America")
  • $150 – Stock a school with books ("Matching corporate grants multiply your gift x14, $2100 total value")
  • $575 – 2 Oxen and a plow
  • $60 – 10 fruit trees ("sweet smiles on kids' faces")
  • $20 – Mosquito nets for one family
  • $96 – Education for 3 children (tuition, supplies)
  • $240 – feed a child for a year
  • $18,000 ‐ drill a deep well for clean water
  • $64 – Christian education for 2 children ("in former communist countries")

WTF? A "Christian education" is on the same list as food, water, and malaria-fighting mosquito nets??

I can't think of anything less useful to a developing country than Christianity. It doesn't feed anyone, it doesn't cure or prevent disease, it and doesn't improve nutrition. In fact, Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic church, is to a large degree responsible for much of the overpopulation, failure to control the AIDS epidemic, and the resulting famine and death that are currently decimating parts of Africa.

I applaud the motivation behind the The World Vision Gift Catalog, and hope their unique marketing technique is a big success. And I'd like to think that inclusion of a "Christian" education is simply a way to appeal to even more contributors. But I have to wonder: Is there any true Christian who might not contribute to this good cause, but upon seeing "Christian education," decided to contribute? I surely hope not – that would be a very un-Christian attitude, wouldn't it?

In fact, I find it fairly detestable that any Christian would put proselytizing over the food and health of children around the world. I hope this "gift" is one of their least-popular items.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Crazy Christian Logic: Circular Hermeneutics

If only we could build buildings the way Christians have built their religion! We could hang a beam in the sky, then attach another one to it, and then hook the first beam to the second one, and voila! The two beams would hold each other up in the sky, and we could skip that whole nasty business of building a foundation!

A Christian left a fabulous comment on one of Sisyphus Fragment's blogs, with this irrefutable logic:
Actually, you interpreted Romans 2:15 incorrectly. (I find it amusing when atheists try to interpret the Bible, because the Bible itself says that you cannot know the mind of God if you do not have his Spirit, 1 Cor. 2:14-16.)
This is absolutely marvelous – if we disagree with a Christian about his/her religion, we're inherently wrong, because only Christains can interpret the Bible correctly!

It's amazing to me how pervasive circularity is in the Christian religion (and others – I just happen to be picking on this one guy today). We see it everywhere, it pervades all aspects of the religion. Any time you try to have a serious discussion with a Christian, you quickly get dizzy trying to follow the logic.

Circular hermeneutics. I love it. To understand, you have to believe. Once you believe, you can understand.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Jesus in the Toilet?

I drive to Northern California regularly to visit my Mom, a long, tedious 450-mile drive. Last week while making this trip, I discovered Jesus in the Toilets.

The first rest stop along the way, I noticed a little religious pamphlet sitting in the toilet stall floor, with a drawing of Jesus on the cover. I figured someone had dropped it. The next stop, there was a different one, this time on the sink. When I saw yet a third pamphlet in the restroom of a gas station, I thought, "Wait a second, this isn't a coincidence!" So I collected the pamphlets from the last two stops that I made, to document this new phenomenon.

This first one is pretty horrifying. It is the worst sort of Christian mythology and fear-mongering, a cartoon that explains, in language and images aimed at semi-literate readers, how Satan aready owns our souls, and the only way to escape (next to an image of how God lets Satan inflict horrifying torture by burning us alive for eternity) is to believe in the Christian Gods, Yahweh and Jesus.

The second one is in Spanish, and although I can barely read the simplest Spanish, it's pretty clear that it's a traditional "The Kingdom of God is coming" tract. It's more upbeat than the first one, that's for sure.

Is this some new fad, leaving Jesus literature in restrooms all across California and the USA? The weird thing is that these were all different. If it had been a single tract ... ok, maybe some guy is on a campaign. But four different ones, in two languages? Is there some new secret Christian plot that's using restrooms to start a Christian revival?