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.