Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Court Takes Daughter Away from Christian Bigot

Christianity has many wonderful teachings, but its intolerance meme is not one of them. The so-called "evangelical" version of Christianity teaches hate and bigotry.

Today, it's a mother who can't see her own child, because the other mother (they were lesbians, legally married in Vermont) converted to evangelical Christianity, rejected her former lifestyle, and refused to let her divorced partner see their child. The Court ordered visitation, the biological mother refused, and in exasperation, the Court had to take custody away from the biological mother completely. Sadly, the woman's Christian bigotry was so strong that rather than obey the Court and the law of the land, the biological mother stole the daughter away and disappeared.

I can understand someone who has a change of heart about their sexual orientation, or adopts a new religion, or both. But I suspect in this case there's something more sinister afoot: I'd lay odds that her fellow Christians encouraged her lawless behavior (which is probably a criminal act in itself). They believe that the lesbian lifestyle is so hateful that it's justified to break the law, and your own promises to your former partner.

Why must these conservative Christians be so hateful of other people's lifestyles? This is not true Christianity, and I hope real Christians across the nation condemn this act, and all acts of intolerance and bigotry.

Christians go Nuts: Bible Says God Did NOT Create Universe!

What happens when you insist that the Bible be taken literally ... and it turns out there is a big mistake in the translation? For example, what if the original doesn't say God created Heaven and Earth?


It's a perfect example of what happens when you let irrational faith trump scholarship and rationality: every time a new fact comes along, your defense of your beliefs has to get even more contorted and far-fetched than before.

According to Professor Ellen van Wolde, the story of Genesis was mistranslated, and badly. God didn't create the universe, it was here already. He just sorted it all out and made sense of it. Sorting out the heavens and firmament, and the waters from the land, and so on, would be a mighty task, one worthy of any ordinary god. But it's a far cry from creating the universe itself ex nihlo.

If Professor van Wolde is right, it puts Yahweh in the same league as gods like Thor, Zeus and Baal: mighty gods, but of-this-universe rather than creator of the universe. Instead of being omniscient and omnipotent, Yahweh would just be more like an ultra-magical human. Quite a downfall.

While this academic debate over a single Hebrew word is interesting and amusing, it's the reaction of Christians and Jews that I find far more instructive, and sad. Professor Van Wolde's short thesis has spawned hundreds of replies on the newspaper's web site, and some of them fill pages with their arguments.

To a scholar, this sort of thing is fun and fascinating, and the debate is just part of an ongoing, somewhat esoteric, effort to expand knowledge. If this were any book other than the Bible, it would be left in the dry, dusty attics of just a few linguists and historians.

But because it affects one of the core beliefs of conservative Christians and Jews, it has to be refuted. Never mind that in a scholarly debate, everyone might eventually conclude that the professor is right (or not ... that's what scholarship is about). No matter what the facts are, these conservative Christians and Jews have to concoct dozens of reasons why the experts must be wrong.

The refutations fall into three main camps:
  1. Professor van Wolde's translation is wrong (this from people who don't even speak Hebrew).
  2. The word "separate" can be taken to mean "create."
  3. The original Hebrew is irrelevant, because the Bible is God's inerrant word and the current translation is His divine will.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog that is relevant again:
There is no objective truth for religion, no foundation. When religious people argue, they're arguing about opinion, and they can argue forever. But when scientists argue, it's over facts, and sooner or later, the facts prevail. One theory will win out because it is true, and the others will be forgotten. And the scientists will then move on to the next question, to expand our knowledge even more.
That's the beauty of true scholarship, that ultimately, through hard work and clear thinking, and by ignoring our own wishes about what we'd like to be true, we find a core truth that everyone can verify for him/herself. And we move on to the next question.

Religion's reliance on faith, and belief in things that can't possibly be true, makes it impossible to move forward. People waste days, years, and even whole lifetimes, concocting silly explanations to justify two-thousand-year-old mythology, simply because some priests or rabbis declared it to be from Yahweh's own mouth. It's a terrible waste of human intelligence.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Foul Language

When you write a blog, it's there for all the world to see ... friends, enemies, strangers ... and family. And sometimes you discover your readers unexpectedly, like when over Christmas dinner your Mom gives you grief about using strong language!

She reminded me (and of course, she's right) that any time you want to use a word that some might find objectionable or course, there's almost alway a better, and even more powerful, way to express the same thing. So from now on, I'm going to endeavour to do so.

So Joe Lieberman, I'm sorry I called you a bad name. I should have been more clear: you're an arrogant, ignorant, insensitive jerk who should retire from politics.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

How to Enslave a Modern Woman

My brother-in-law posted a beautiful, inspirational video called The Invisible Woman by Nicole Johnson. It really is a very moving story ... and I despise it. It illustrates perfectly how religion is used to subjugate women.

Karl Marx got many things wrong, but he famously wrote, "Religion is the opiate of the people." The message is simple:
You work your ass off, and nobody cares. But God cares, and He sees you even if you are everyone else's invisible servant. So be a good girl, accept your fate, and get back to work.
But no woman should take this crap from anyone, much less her own husband and children. It is wrong to be treated like dirt, yet this "God cares" message is nothing more than an opiate, designed to get women to shut up and get back to their tasks.

What horrifies me about these messages is how insideous and alluring they are. A woman works sixteen hours a day, her children, husband and friends are disrespectful and uninterested, and she begins to feel worthless. But wait! There's a man, not just any man, but a kindly, loving, fatherly man, who loves her with all his heart. This man is everything her husband and children are not – appreciative, admiring, concerned, thankful, and probably handsome too. Who wouldn't want to believe this, true or not? So she goes back to her chores, happy that at least one person cares about her.

But step back for a moment, and think what might happen if women around the world rejected this opiate. Instead of feeling that inner contentment, knowing that God cares, some would surely become more depressed than ever. But maybe some would actually do something about their mistreatment.

Maybe instead of being invisible, they'd demand the respect that they deserve. And maybe they'd actually get it. Wouldn't that be novel?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Moving day...

A brief note to all my faithful subscribers: I'm moving, so I haven't been posting as frequently as usual. Stay with me, I'll be back!

Lieberman is an Ass

Joe Lieberman is an ass. I can't believe I once contemplated voting for that man. He is now acting the little bully, holding the entire Democratic Party hostage for his one vote on the health-care reform bill, because if he doesn't get his way, he's going to go running to his Republican buddies and join their filibuster, which would bring the Senate to a halt and derail the entire bill.

Last week, the House and Senate worked out a compromise in a way that exemplifies good politics and government. The two sides, who had very strong opinions about the issues, took some hard choices and worked out a deal that was satisfactory. It included a semi-public option that was not the liberals' first choice, and it extended Medicare to the 55-65 crowd.

That was democracy and good politics in action, an illustration of how the country should be run.

Now Lieberman, who already abandoned the Democratic Party that put him in power in the first place, has single-handedly decided that he, not the voters who elected all the Members of Congress, should get his way. He is bullying the entire country, simply because he can. Instead of participating in the debate, and respecting the compromise worked out the men and women who were elected by the majority of voters, Lieberman is forcing his opinion on the entire country.

Lieberman has single-handedly forced the removal of the two key elements of the compromise, gutting health reform. As far as I'm concerned, without at least some public option, the whole exercise is worthless. Why bother.

I have never once seen a filibuster that was good for the country. Why hasn't the Senate ended this despicable process that lets a minority of Senators hold the whole country hostage to their demands?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Will Immortality piss off God?

So, birthday. Fifty six – is my life half over? What are the chances I'll live to be 112 years old? Oy.

I had this weird thought. We, you and I, are all in a peculiar spot: we don't know if we'll ever die at all. It is conceivable that, before I die, scientists will discover the secrets to biological immortality. In fact, it's almost impossible that science won't someday achieve immortality for humans. Maybe not in my lifetime, but certainly within 100 to 500 years.

So what happens to Heaven and Hell when people stop dying? Seriously, this will be a real problem for the the Big Three, the Abrahamic religions. Christians, Jews and Muslims all rely on that life-after-death concept to keep believers in line, and as a sort of antidote for all of the trouble that we find here on Earth.

Life sucks? Don't worry, you'll get your reward. Saddam Hussein killed a couple hundred thousand of the Iraqi people? No problem, he's going to suffer forever in Hell.

The Heaven and Hell memes bring a balance into people's lives. They're very comforting, and assure people that, in spite of the apparent unfairness of life caused by government, society and "acts of God," everything will be smoothed over in the end.

But what happens when nobody dies? This is going to be a huge theological problem for Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

I'll make a wager, any amount of money you like, that when the day arrives that science defeats old age, religious leaders will declare that it's a sin, that it violates God's design for us. I'll even bet that it will be taken as yet another sign of the approaching Armageddon.

Of course, I can only pay up if I live that long...
If I knew I'd live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.
– Mickey Mantle (American baseball player)
For those of you interested in reading more about immortality, I'm not the only one who thinks we may live forever. Raymond Kurzweil even wrote a book about this immortality, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. He claims that if we can manage to live long enough (like, to 120), science will have cured most or all diseases and even conquered old age itself. And it's actually not an unreasonable claim. I fully expect to live to 100 just by taking care of myself.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Green is a Conspiracy to Overthrow Christianity!

Damn, we've been caught! Cliff Kincaid over at Right Side News finally saw through our ruse, to the true purpose of the green movement and environmentalism: It's just a cover to subvert Christianity and begin "the reconstruction of a pagan world order."

Wow, and I thought environmentalism was about ... the environment! You know, trying to ensure that there's something left for my grandchildren besides a hot, stinking mess. But ol' Cliff set me straight:
... these forces "have infiltrated Christian higher education by careful placement of teachers and teaching materials on environmental activism in [Christian] schools... Many of these schools are conservative in politics or theology. What they teach ... will surprise their supporters. ... Little by little wolves try to douse Christian resistance and lead sheep by troubled waters to accept the inevitability of a divine environmental movement.
And if that's not enough to convince you, consider this:
...attempts by Church leaders and Christian organizations to synthesize a Christian environmentalism can succeed "only by exorcising truth, and ultimately, by expelling Christianity..."
In other words, Christianity and environmentalism are incompatible.

According to Kincaid, environmentalism is nothing more than a new religion (I wish it were so, maybe it would have a chance!)
[Environmentalism] is a religion with a vision of sin and repentance, heaven and hell. It even has a special vocabulary, with words like 'sustainability' and 'carbon neutral.' Its communion is organic food. Its sacraments are sex, abortion, and when all else fails, sterilization. Its saints are Al Gore and the InterGovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
If only it were true. Religious memeplexes are, without a doubt, the most persuasive and persistent in history. Hey, maybe Kincaid has something there. Maybe I'll be the founder of The Church of Green, and I'll be its Pope! Hey, Saint Al, you ready?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

American Home Grown Terrorists - Islamic Roots

Among atheist bloggers, I'm a misfit: I don't believe religion is the root of all war. Atheists tend to blame religion for most of the world's evils, especially war, but not me. I believe wars are really about power and money, not religion, and that religion is merely used cynically by military leaders and dictators to achieve their ends. It's a tool, not a cause.

But with the rise of a new brand of home-grown American terrorists, it's hard to see how religion, Islam in particular, can escape the blame.

These new terrorists are Americans who have taken up the radical Islamic calling, and hope to kill Americans using terrorist tactics. (I, along with the vast majority of Muslims, am very careful to distinguish between mainstream Islam and radicals, just as I don't lump all Christians in with the likes of McVeigh).

These are not desperate young men with no future who were recruited by the Taliban, nor are they well-educated middle-class Saudis fighting colonialism (i.e. the 9/11 terrorists). These new American terrorists are ordinary young men who have been seduced by religion into a life of crime and terrorism.

It's hard to see how religion can escape the blame for this new brand of home-grown terrorism. The holy texts of all three Abrahamic religions have so many conflicting, confusing, and ambiguous passages that anyone can interpret them to justify anything. Combine that with the idea that God is on your side, and it's easy to justify mass murder. Not right, but easy.

Without religion, these young men (and it's almost always men) would probably be radicals, malcontents, and other types of societal misfits, but they wouldn't be mass murders. It takes religion to turn a malcontent into a terrorist.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Christian Judges and Lawers - Constitutional Idiots

Instead wasting the Supreme Court's valuable time, let me see if I can explain this clearly to the Christians: DISCRIMINATION SUCKS, and you DON'T have right to force others to support your ancient, outdated "morality."

The Christian Legal Society (CLS), a group of Christian lawyers and judges, bans gays from becoming voting members or officers. The problem is, they're not satisfied just discriminating – they want to force Hasting College to endorse their anti-gay policy by making CLS an official college group.

Now I'd be the first to defend CLS's right to discriminate, based on any criteria they like. A lot of people think discrimination is illegal in all circumstances, but it's not. I'm perfectly free to ban anyone I like from my own home for any reason at all, be it race, religion or the color of their hair. You and I can form a club and be as hateful as we like, ban anyone we want for any reason, however despicable, and it's nobody else's business.

But what we can't do is force someone else to share our bigotry, and that's exactly what these Christian judges and lawyers are trying to do. They want to discriminate against gays, and they also think Hastings College should be forced to support their discrimination, with money and official recognition.

According to CLS's press release:
"Public universities shouldn't single out Christian student groups for discrimination. ... It's completely unreasonable–and unconstitutional–for a public university to disrupt the purposes of private student groups by forcing them to accept as members and officers those who oppose the very ideas they advocate."
Do these guys think the Supreme Court justices are stupid? Nobody is forcing the CLS to do anything. They're free to discriminate all they like, as long as they do it within their own organization. It's the CLS that is trying to force Hastings to violate its own ethical standards.

I have faith in our United States Supreme Court, and I predict that the Christian Legal Society's case will be thrown out, as it should be.

And the Christian Legal Society should be ashamed of itself for demonstrating such an egregious misunderstanding of the United States Constitution.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Facebook Hate-Islam Groups

Warning: Adult Language

Where does free speech end and hate speech begin? Is it OK to say, "Fuck Islam" or "Fuck Christianity" or any other religion? How about "Fuck religion"? (And let's not forget "Fuck atheism"!)

If you go to Facebook.com and search for "Fuck Islam", you'll find over 500 groups. And many, including several with large memberships, are Islam-bashing groups with lots of nasty things to say.

But just scroll down a bit in the list and you'll find lots of "Ban the 'Fuck Islam' Facebook group" groups. Or boycott, protest, demand-censorship, and so on. And paging down through the groups, you find "fuck the fuck Islam group" and even deeper parody.

When I first saw the "Fuck Islam" group on Facebook, I was up in arms. Although I am an atheist and don't care for most religion, I try to always keep the debate respectful (except in the rare case where I believe religion hurts or kills people or appears fraudulent).

So is "Fuck Atheism" a form of hate speech? I don't know. One comment I read says no – hate speech has to suggest violence, some sort of action, and this expression merely indicates contempt. I thought this was an excellent point.

On the other hand, this sort of speech surely doesn't help anything. It further divides an already-divided world, it ends dialog, and it angers Muslims (or whatever group is being insulted).

Should "Fuck Islam" groups be banned from Facebook? If I were in charge at Facebook, I suspect I'd favor free speech over censorship.

But I would never join such a group.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Is Christianity Dying?

The other day I wrote about the shortage of young priests in Ireland, which started me thinking (again) about the more general question: Why is Christianity slowly dying? It's clearly on the wane, especially in Europe but even in America things look grim. Just google for "decline of Christianity" and you'll even find major Christian writers lamenting this trend.

There are many hypotheses, most of which include news reports of pedophile priests, "militant" atheists, or a vague "decline in morals" of some sort. And I'm sure these are all contributing to some degree.

But I have my own theory, which I can sum up in one word: Education.

Education is the enemy of religion, plain and simple. Hundreds of years ago, it was easy to keep people "in the fold," because many couldn't read, and priests could pretty much tell them anything plausible and they'd believe it. The Bible's many inconsistencies and immoralities were easy to cover up.

Then came literacy, and with it a lot of questions. My fellow blogger Sarah Trachtenberg writes wonderful stories of people's journey from religion to atheism, and a large number of them tell of how, when they really read the Bible, it raised more questions than it answered, and when they tried to ask for help, were rebuffed, told to pray for guidance, or that "God works in mysterious ways." Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God is a wonderful example of this.

So literacy itself proved a problem, but that was just the beginning. I believe the real decline of Christianity (and all organized religion) started in the 1950's when science became a priority in our schools. World War II had shown the world's leaders that scientists were critical to the war, on every front. Submarines, nuclear bombs, jet engines, cryptography, radio, and so many more scientific contributions were crucial to defeating the Nazi and Japanese war machines. That was followed by Sputnik and the "space race." American children started learning about science in record numbers.

And the simple fact is that, in spite of what the Pope and Francis Collins claim, Christianity is incompatible with science. You can believe one, or you can believe the other, but very few people (Collins being a notable exception) who truly understand science can believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, performed miracles, and was resurrected. It just makes no sense.

Furthermore, the most fundamental rules of science teach us that amazing claims require amazing proofs, and the Christian religion is full of amazing claims that have no proof whatsoever. When someone is given a solid education in science, they almost inevitably begin to question what they learned in church.

To me, the decline of Christianity is no mystery at all. As long as we, as a society, continue our quest for knowledge, and continue to educate our children, to fill their heads with the latest wonders of science and mathematics, religion will continue to fade. I doubt it will ever disappear, but I predict that within my lifetime, America will become at least 50% non-Christian.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ireland Running Out of Priests

Ireland, once called the "most fruitful of mothers" as a breeding ground for Catholic priests, is now so short on priests that it's turning into a crisis. The Diocese of Dublin, the center of the country that Pope John XXIII once considered a bastion of Catholicism, now has 46% of its priests over 80 years old, and just two who are under 36 years old.

The reasons for this are obvious to anyone with a brain. The Church itself is focusing on the celibacy requirement; it doesn't take a genius to figure out that asking a young, intelligent man to be celibate isn't exactly a win. The Church leaders are actually contemplating a change in this requirement, which is amazing.

But I think the biggest problem facing the Catholic Church is all of the sexual abuse scandals over the last decade. It seems that every time we turn around, there's another horrifying story of a priest who molested 10, 50, 100 or even more children, and lately the stories have turned to how the Catholic Church itself was complicit in shielding these child abusers, and worse, placing them in positions where they could repeat their crimes.

It used to be that being a Catholic priest was an honor. Mothers would beam with pride when introducing their priest sons. Now, imagine Mom telling your friends that you decided to enter a seminary to become a priest – your Mom would be embarrassed. It's rather sad.

There's a third reason for the decline, too. Christianity, and religion in general, is in a massive decline throughout Europe, and Catholicism is just part of that general trend. But I don't think that fully explains the shortage of priests in Ireland. This one is the Catholics own fault.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Why an Atheist Hates Christmas

I don't hate Christmas for the usual reasons. There's plenty that's wrong about Christmas, for sure. Christians stole the Winter Solstice holiday, which sucks. I'll bet a pagan holiday, celebrating fertility and stuff, and doing dances in the sunrise to encourage the sun to come back up in the sky, would be a lot more interesting than worshipping a little baby whose mother didn't even have sex first. Besides which, Jesus as we know him probably didn't actually exist. But that's another story.

No, the reason I hate Christmas is the same as the reason I hate weddings. The best thing you can hope for at a wedding or at Christmas is to just barely meet expectations. And 90% of the time, you won't, and someone will be pissed off about something.

I actually like the Christmas "spirit" sentiment, of gathering with family, sharing, forgiving ... that's really good stuff. Christians didn't invent it, but they've really developed it into something extravagant.

But expectations are too high. We expect a joyous time, where everyone gathers in peace and harmony, Santa brings exactly what the kids wanted, dinner is perfect, you get Christmas cards from all the relatives and friends you care about and none from the folks you'd rather forget, and there's just enough snow to be pretty but not enough to get stuck.

With expectations like that, you're lucky if you barely make it, and nobody is pissed off. But chances are, one or more expectations won't be met, and someone will be disappointed. Maybe Uncle George and Aunt Georgine are late and dinner is a little cold, or Johnny gets the wrong Lego set, or cousins Geraldine and Maybelle renew that fight they started last Christmas.

So now I boycott Christmas. I have no expectations, because to me, Christmas is just another day. I tell my kids and family that it would be wonderful to get together at the end of the year some time, just to celebrate the year gone by and look toward the new year. But we do it one a day when it's convenient for everyone, and we have a nice simple dinner. We get out our instruments and play a few songs, play charades or fictionary, and have a great time. We have no big expectations, and every year, we manage to exceed those expectations and go home happy.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Lie Called Thanksgiving, and Squanto's True Heroism

Thanksgiving? It's complete historical bulls**t.

You know the story: Pilgrims land, a bad winter, things look worse the next year, the local Indians, including the special friend Squanto, showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn and catch fish, they finally have a wonderful fall harvest, and everyone, settlers and natives alike, sits down at a table groaning under the weight of plentiful food to give thanks.

Nothing but lies.

The true tale is far more fascinating. Lies My Teacher Told Me is a fascinating book by historian James Loewen, which I highly recommend.

Tisquantum, who we know as "Squanto," was an amazing man. American schoolchildren are taught that he was a simple Indian who befriended the Pilgrims, but in fact he was nothing of the sort. Tisquantum was captured and enslaved, and taken to Europe, where he learned English and European ways.

After his first enslavement and return to America, he was captured and enslaved again, to be sold in Spain. He was rescued by some Spanish friars who took control of the slaves and tried to convert them to Christianity. After four years and at least one aborted journey, Tisquantum made his way back to America, only to discover that his entire family and village, everyone he knew, had been killed by a plague, probably smallpox.

This was the Indian who helped the Pilgrims survive the second winter – a man who was enslaved twice, forced to learn English ways, and who had just discovered everyone he loved was dead.

The American Myth called Thanksgiving paints the Pilgrims as hard working and resourceful. In reality, they landed in a virtual paradise, with the previous farmers all dead from smallpox, and their fields cleared and ready to plant, and fish aplenty, and yet they still nearly starved to death. Tisquantum, in spite of the mistreatment he'd received at the hands of the English, and in spite of the tragedy of losing his people, decided to help the Pilgrims. Historians agree that without Tisquantum's help, the Pilgrims would probably have starved to death.

And the most fascinating part is that Tisquantum may have been the only man alive who could do this. He knew how to fish, how to farm American crops, and he also spoke English well. His presence in the Plymouth area changed American history.

So why has this fascinating story of a resourceful and kind Native American been replaced by the boring story we now tell at Thanksgiving? The answer is remarkably parallel to religion itself: People believe what is most appealing, not what is true.

In the case of religion, memeplexes like the Christain religion, with its promise that the meek will inherit, and that all of this suffering on Earth is nothing compared to the wonderful rewards to come, are very appealing. The atheist will tell you that when you're dead you're dead, and so it goes. Which do you want to believe? The Heaven myth is much more appealing, so that's the meme that survives. Truth has little to do with it.

Thanksgiving is very much like that. We want to think of the founders of America, our spiritual forefathers, as being strong, capable explorers who opened up the "new world." The fact that we exterminated the Native Americans with disease, war, slavery and simple murder is an embarrassing footnote that we'd like to forget.

So when the stories are told (America's history memes), they evolve. The memes that make the Europeans look better get retold, become the memetic survivors in the "survival of the fittest" battle of stories. Conversely, the memes that make Tisquantum and his kin look like clever, resourceful people get diminished. Ultimately, we get a story in which our ancestors endured hardship but prevailed through courage, etc., etc. to found this great nation.

It's a damned shame, because the true story is one in which there were many heroes and many villians. If that story were told, instead of the myth that we call Thanksgiving, we'd all be richer, and our view of current events would be far more mature.

One small footnote: It happens that one of my ancestors was aboard the Mayflower, and became one of the very Pilgrims who Tisquantum helped. If not for Tisquantum, I wouldn't be here today.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Scientology is a Criminal Organization: Australian MP

Another courageous politician has come out and frankly called Scientology a criminal organization. Senator Xenophon, a Member of Parliment in Australia, yesterday said the Church of Scientology hides behind its "religious beliefs," and implied that their beliefs are fake anyway.
"Do you want Australian tax exemptions to be supporting an organisation that coerces its followers into having abortions? Do you want to be supporting an organisation that defrauds, that blackmails, that falsely imprisons?"
Mr. Xenophone went on to say he'd received "extensive" allegations of criminal activity from his constituents, some of which were truly shocking.

There are many things that churches do that I don't like (and many things that I heartily approve of), but Scientology stands out from all other religions: It appears to me to be dishonest to the core. I also believe it was created purely for economic gain, that its founders and current leadership don't believe any of their own drivel that they call religion, but push it on innocents who are looking for answers to life's difficult questions and are easily victimized.

Its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was a weirdo, intelligent and yet unbalanced. Have you ever watched this video, made in 1968 on his ship? He made the mistake of granting an interview, which has turned into one of the biggest publicity nightmares scientiologists ever faced. Just watch this video and you'll have no more doubts about the origins of scientology.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Did Noah Give These Crocs the Boot?

I only have time for a short blog today, lots of fun vacation stuff is in the works and keeping me busy. A friend sent me a link about a fantastic new scientific find, three ancient crocodiles that lived around 100 million years ago.

And the natural question is: How did Noah get a pair of twenty-foot ferocious crocs onto the Arc? Maybe that's why they're extinct. I'll bet Noah took one look at them and slammed the door shut.

Or maybe the crocs were eating the unicorns or something, and Noah got pissed off and kicked them out. Yeah, that makes a LOT more sense than this evolution stuff!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

H1N1 inspires religious immunity

I now have the H1N1 vaccine in my body, running around stimulating my immune system, in a "fake fight" that will prepare my immune system for the real thing. And this got me to thinking about how religion does the exact same thing, but via ideas (memes) that it uses to inoculate the young against atheism and "false" religions.

One of the cool things about studying religion via cultural evolution, called "memetics" (the application of Darwin's "survival of the fittest" to ideas as they move across society and down through history) is that religion exhibits all of the same survival mechanisms as biological life, including a robust immune system. Just as your body reacts to threats, so does religion.

How do you keep a child from "catching" a religious "disease," that is, from straying from your faith? It's simple. Starting from an early age, you have to implant immunity "memes" (ideas) into the child, ideas that make the child resistant to the "disease" (other religions, or atheist ideas).

There are two parts to this immunity: First, you teach the child that your religion is great and wonderful, and that the rewards for staying on the "true" course are magnificent. And second, you teach your child that the other religions are false, and that if the child strays from your path, unimaginable punishment awaits.

Once these ideas are implanted in the child, it becomes very hard indeed for any other ideas to infect the child. He or she can be turned loose into adult society, and will resist all other religious infections for a lifetime.

It's critical to get my H1N1 vaccine before the disease strikes, because without immunity I'm likely to fall victim to the virus. And not surprisingly, this is also true of religious immunity: If you wait too long, the child might be infected by the wrong memes (other religions, or even atheist memes) before you've had a chance to develop the child's immunity via your own memetic inoculation.

That's why all major religions have highly-developed programs to teach children starting from a very young age. It's never too early to begin the religious indoctrination. To those of us who study memetics, it's exactly parallel to the H1N1 inoculation that is now circulating through my body.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No, Jim, Obama is not a Muslim Terrorist

An open letter to my cousin...

Dear Jim,

I'm sorry, but I have to ask you to take me off of your mailing list. While I respect family, and enjoy a lively discussion, your recent emails are too much.

I put up with any number of times when you called my beliefs "unAmerican" or "unpatriotic." But this latest disrespectful video propaganda, which accuses the duly elected President of the United States of being a Muslim and traitor, goes beyond civilized discussion. It's hate speech, it's unpatriotic and disrespectful to both the President himself and the office of President, and it shows a remarkable ignorance of the plain facts.

It's sad that American conservatives have stooped to this low form of dialog. Rather than discussing policy, conservatives use character assassination. Rather than bipartisanship, conservatives have become obstructionists, even at the cost of hurting the American people. At every turn, conservatives are blocking progress, shouting "The sky is falling!", and throwing mud on everyone in sight.

Never forget, Jim, that every single problem that Obama is trying to fix was created by a Republican President. Two unfunded wars that will force huge increases in taxes, attacking Iraq while ignoring the nuclear programs in North Korea, Iran and Pakistan, letting the Talilban slip away from Afghanistan because Bush's oil friends needed Iraq ... the list goes on and on.

And since it was the "He's a Muslim" video that finally prompted me to write this letter, let's talk about that.

First, what if Obama is Muslim? All of those things he says in the video excerpts about the accomplishments of Islam and Muslims are true. Maybe you didn't read your history, but I did. The Muslims did, in fact, preserve much of civilization's knowledge through the Middle Ages, when the Christians were trying to snuff it out. The Dark Ages were a Christian creation. Algebra was invented by Muslims. Astronomy, philosophy, medicine ... Islamic scholars were way ahead of Christians during the Middle Ages. And all those other compliments Obama paid to Muslim history, they're actually true.

Why is that so hard for you to accept?

Second, where do you get the idea that the President can only be a Christian? Every American has the right to be part of our government, it's right there in the Constitution. If you were in the United States Navy, didn't you swear to defend that very same Constitution? Didn't you ever learn what's in the Constitution?

Third, I find it very ironic that while some conservatives accuse Obama of being Muslim, others accuse him of being an Atheist. Which is it? He can't be both, but I guess to a evangelical Christian, Muslims and Atheists are about the same. Still, it would be nice if you guys could coordinate your fabricated stories.

And finally, Obama is, in fact, a Christian. If you'd taken the time to watch the original videos of Obama's speeches, as I did, you'd see that he never once claimed to be Muslim. That hack piece of video propaganda you sent cut him off in mid-sentence many times, a stupid propaganda trick that any fool can see through. It's just plain dishonest.

I know you're sincere in your love for America, and I want you to know that I am too. But I consider your emails to be unAmerican. To be a true American, you have to accept that this is the land of freedom, the land where we respect one another's beliefs, and the land where our President is everyone's President. I didn't like George W. Bush, but I never once accused him of being unpatriotic, nor did I ever disrespect the office of the President. Obama was elected in an honest and fair election. Your side lost. Have some respect for your fellow Americans and take the loss gracefully.

When you sent that video, you wrote, "If you do not like this, don't let me know because it will cause me to question your patriotism to the United States of America and as a US Navy Veteran, that offends me more than you will ever know." Well, too bad, Jim. It goes both ways. Your right-wing unAmerican propaganda offends me more than you will ever understand. Family harmony has kept me silent, but no more.

I enjoyed some of the stuff you sent, especially good, fun jokes and stories. But I just can't ignore your intolerance and hate mail any more. So I hope you'll remove me from your mailing list. Thanks.

Your cousin,

P.S. By the way, you were wrong about this picture, too. You called our President a "PIECE OF ANIMAL EXCREMENT" because he was being disrespectful to the veterans by not saluting. In fact, the President is not supposed to salute. He's a civilian, and only those in the armed forces are supposed to salute. The man with his hand over his heart was the one making the mistake, that gesture is for the Pledge. In fact, Obama is showing his respect correctly, by standing and bowing his head, as all civilians should. The President may be the Commander in Chief, but he is not in the military. That's one of the most unique things about our country, that our armed forces are headed by a civilian. So please don't call your President "ANIMAL EXCREMENT" when you haven't even checked the facts. Something smells like excrement here, but it's not the President.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Do Not Scatter your Ashes when you Die!

According to the Catholic Bishops, scattering your ashes when you die shows "contempt" for the Catholic faith, and encourages the idea that people become "nothingness" when they die. We wouldn't want people to think that when they're dead, they're really ... well, just dead!

And even cremation, while not prohibited, is discouraged. Never mind that Italy's cemeteries are all just about full, the good Bishops have decreed that everyone has to be buried in a cemetery, even if they're cremated. Apparently, it helps hold the Catholic Church together if you bury the dead together. (No, I'm not making that up, it's the bishops' official teaching.)

Maybe they figure the world will end pretty soon. I mean, in 10,000 years or so, won't the whole surface of the Earth be a graveyard, with no place left for the living? But if there's going to be Armageddon, it probably doesn't matter, we'll be gone before the graves take over.

I particularly like this part: The Roman Catholic Church only ended its official ban on cremation in 1963, when they finally realized that cremation does not affect the soul, "nor prevents the omnipotence of God from rebuilding the body." You'd think if God created the universe, he could put a few ashes back together for His big resurrection day. But apparently it took the Catholic Church a couple thousand years to figure this out.

I guess I'd better get Grandpa's ashes off the fireplace and hike on over to the graveyard...

Should an Atheist Argue with a Dying Person?

Here is an interesting asymmetry.

The other day a terminally ill friend was talking about how he'd come to grips with his fast-approaching death, and that while he was sad about it, he was comforted by the knowledge of what awaits him in heaven. "Oh, no," I replied. "There is no Heaven or Hell. When you die, you're dead, and your soul, which is a made-up concept in the first place, simply ceases and your life is over. It's really a very comforting thought, you know, that you won't have any more worries."

This didn't really happen, of course. But that fictitious scene was inspired by a close friend of mine whose wife is dying right now. Many years ago, he and I sailed together for thousands of miles in the South Pacific, and although I haven't seen him in decades, he's on my Facebook Friends list and we communicate. Every day, he posts his wife's ups and downs, and every day, their close Christian friends offer support and prayers. And although I feel very much sadness for their dilemma, and wish them the very best, as an atheist it's difficult to know what to say when a close friend asks for prayers.

This got me to thinking about the asymmetry of the situation. If I were terminally ill, most Christians I've known would have no hesitation about praying for me, and telling me that they were doing so. In fact, they'd have no trouble at all telling me my atheist beliefs are simply wrong.

Why is it that in extreme situations, it's OK for Christians to express their beliefs, but not for atheists to do the same?

It happens that I'm very content with the facts. I consider this life to be a magnificent journey, one that must be lived in the here-and-now, because when when it's done, I'm gone. I've done many good things in my time, raised some wonderful children, worked in the environmental and medical sciences to improve the world, and generally lived a moral life that, I hope and believe, has made the world a better place. I know that my life has been worthwhile, and that's enough. I don't need any promise of an afterlife to make me feel better, or to distract me from this life.

More importantly, I don't need religious people trying to convince me that I'm wrong, or offering their sincere but ineffective prayers. If someone told me, "I'll pray for you," what they're really telling me is, "I don't respect your beliefs, so I'm going to waste my time doing something ineffective that won't help you, rather than spending that time doing something for the living."

We need to live in this world, and make our lives good now, because this is the only chance we get.

Monday, November 16, 2009

New Saudi University Torpedoed by Islam?

Conservative Islam is once again showing that it is the enemy of knowledge.

This morning's National Public Radio had a wonderful report about the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). With one of the largest endowments in the world, a whopping $10 billion, KAUST promises to bring education and technological diversity to a country that is highly dependent on oil. Although the Saudi royal family is known for its heavy-handed rule, in this instance there is no doubt that King Abdullah was truly looking to modernize his country, to help foster a strong technology base that will outlast his country's oil supply. He saw that education, not money, is the key to the future.

The university opened with great fanfare and excitement, with journalists from all over the world reporting on this exciting new opportunity. Then, perhaps inevitably, religious obstructionism set in, in the form of a popular Islamic cleric, Sheikh Saad al Shethri.

The Sheikh declared that men and women shouldn't study together, that was unacceptable. Moreover, ideas like Evolution are irregular and alien, and shouldn't be taught. And to try to prevent the University from ever making real progress in educating young Saudis, the Sheikh decided that religious "scholars" should review the University's curriculum, to ensure that it doesn't contradict the Qur'an.

The good news is that Sheikh Saad al Shethri didn't get his way. He was widely criticized in the press, and was fired from his job on an advisory panel to the King. But he was able to keep his teaching job at an Islamic university, and his words have sparked a battle between reformists and conservatives in the country. His actions caused significant damage to the open flow of ideas and knowledge in Saudi Arabia. Where once journalists were free to visit KAUST and report on this amazing new center of education, they are now banned, and the University is trying to keep a low profile while the storm rages. Who knows what damage this obstructionist cleric's opinions might bring?

Conservative religions are justifiably afraid of progress. They rely on ignorance, they teach a "world history" that is just plain wrong, and their morals and laws are outdated by several thousand years. If we lived by their idea of progress, we'd still be wandering in the deserts and watching our children die of starvation and disease.

They know all too well the dangers of education: Their beliefs don't stand up in the face of real knowledge.

So we should expect this sort of behavior from conservative Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, whenever real knowledge is being taught. It's up to more reasonable people to push forward anyway, to fight to keep humanity moving forward.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Forcing Christ on Little Jewish Schoolkids

Here's another misguided Christian who wants to force her religion on everyone. Ms. Merry Susan Hyatt (yes, that's really her name, Merry) and her brother have started yet another petition to put Christianity back in California schools, specifically, to require the state to let Christmas carols in schools!

It's laughable, and would never pass even the first court challenge by the most conservative judge in the state. Unfortunately, laughable or not, it's going to cause trouble. Ms. Hyatt's initiative will get the attention of the news media, they'll hype the whole issue, and conservative Christians will once again cry "persecution!" If the measure somehow passes, the state will waste a bunch of time, energy and money in court battles to rescind this ignorant woman's anti-American baloney. Ms. Hyatt is yet another misguided American who believes we are a Christian nation, which is flat-out wrong.

If my child were in Ms. Hyatt's class, I'd insist on a transfer. The woman is a bigot. When asked how non-Christian children would feel about being excluded and sent off to study hall, she said, "I don’t think I’ve ever had a Jewish child in one of my classes. If so they never said anything.” I've got news for you Ms. Hyatt. You've had LOTS of children who were Jewish, Muslim, atheist, and probably many other faiths. They were just intimidated by you and knew better than to speak up. Your so-called Christian love is nothing more than bigotry and intolerance, wrapped in a layer of Christian hypocrisy.

Maybe I'll start a petition to require kids to sing John Lennon's Imagine in class, starting in kindergarten.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Give the Ft. Hood Shooter the BEST Lawyer in Town!

Wolf Blitzer of CNN doesn't get it.

Blitzer was interviewing Nidel Hasan's military lawyer, and posed the usual question, asking how he could defend such a horrible person. At the end of attorney Colonel John Galligan's answer, Blitzer made a terrible mistake, saying:
"I'm sure he will get a much fairer hearing than those 13 Americans who were brutally gunned down the other day. I'm sure he will get all of the rights that are applied by the U.S. Military Code of Justice."
Blitzer is completely missing the point.

There's all this ballyhooing about how you're "innocent until proven guilty," which is absolutely true and a foundation of American Democracy. And there's all that stuff about, "Better to let ten guilty men go than convict one innocent man." Also very true, and the sign of a great nation.

But that's not why I want Hasan to have a great lawyer.

I want Colonel Galligan to be the best lawyer in the country. I want the Colonel to put up the best defense any lawyer ever mounted. I want him to poke into every nook and cranny, explore every possibility, grill every single witness ruthlessly. I want Colonel Galligan to really try to get Hasan off the hook.

Because then, when the jury finally pronounces its "Guilty!" verdict, as we all know they will, I want Hasan to go in front of that firing squad without any hope of appeal, and chance of clemency. I want him to be as hopeless and helpless as his victims were. And only Colonel Galligan can make Hasan completely hopeless, by doing his job well. I don't want even a hint of a mistake that could cause a mistrial, or get an appeal granted, or make anyone have any doubts at all. I want him to be found guilty, in spite of the best defense possible. I want him to be utterly and completely without hope when this trial is done.

Wolf Blitzer, you're not seeing this the right way. Let the Colonel do is job, because that is how justice will be served.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

AMA Tells the Government Off about Gays

Today's headline, "AMA: Government Policies Hazardous to Gay Health," illustrates perfectly the difference between religion and science. Religion is harming and killing people with its two-thousand-year-old morality leftover from tribes that were wandering around in the Middle Eastern deserts, whereas science is trying to prevent deaths and make people happier and healthier.

The American Medical Association, the nation's largest group of doctors, adopted a resolution at their bi-annual meeting in Houston yesterday, which states unambiguously that the government's policies are harmful to gays.

First, the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy means that gays can't talk about medical issues with their doctor, because doctors are required to report a gay man to superior officers. That's bad for the patient, and violates a doctor's duty to keep patients' medical information private. And second, bans on same-sex marriage leads to health-care disparities. Gay couples become second-class citizens when it comes to their health.

It's hypocritical when conservative and evangelical religious people claim to "hate the sin, but love the sinner," yet their actual politics harms and kills people. Those who deny equal rights to same-sex couples are showing their true colors: they are bigoted and hateful, plain and simple. Anyone who would deny health care to another human, regardless of that person's sexual orientation (or sex, or religion, or color, or ...), is not a moral person.

Science, by contrast, has proved again and again its inherent morality. (And I include progressive religious people when I say "science.") Down through the ages, virtually every advance in the human condition has been through the hard work of scientists, not popes, priests, rabbis, or clerics. At just about every turn, scientists have met resistance, and even persecution, at the hands of the conservative religious zealots. In spite of this, scientists have pushed forward. They learned about human anatomy, discovered that microbes are responsible for disease, discovered evolution and how it is the foundation of our immune systems, invented thousands of drugs, and helped guide politicians to set sensible health policies.

The AMA's resolution is a breath of fresh air in the national debate about gay rights, and is yet another step forward by science, pushing back the dark immorality of the religious right.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Christian AFA Director: Ban Muslims from Military!

You knew it would happen, but it's still shocking: Bryan Fischer, a Christian and the "Director of Issues Analysis" at American Family Association, wants to ban all Muslims from the U.S. Military. This is so unpatriotic and un-American it's a disgrace. They should take the word "American" out of their organization's name, they don't deserve to use it.

I may not agree with their religious views, but I know that the vast majority of both Christians and Muslims are honest, moral, patriotic, and thoughtful people. I've had the pleasure of knowing many Christians, and a number of Muslims in my lifetime, and I honestly can't tell the difference. Both groups believe in Yahweh, the God of Abraham, and have morals that they believe are given by God. Both groups have the usual assortment of mostly good, honest people, a few immoral people, and a few who stand out as exceptionally praiseworthy.

As far as I can tell, Mr. Fischer, a senior director at AFA, doesn't know what it means to be an American, he knows little about Islam, and he doesn't even know what it means to be a Christian. He's also an ignoramus about how sin works, because he's trying to blacken the reputation of all Muslims using the deeds of one. Maybe Mr. Fischer should go back and read about the Oklahoma City bombing by his fellow Christians, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Using Mr. Fischer's logic, maybe we should ban all Christians from the United States military.

While I disagree with most of the politics of the American Family Association, I respect them as fellow Americans. I know they, like me, are interested in making the world and America a better place; we just differ on how to achieve that. But with men like Mr. Fischer in their midst, I have to wonder if they truly understand our Constitution, and the religious freedoms that we all enjoy because of the wisdom and tolerance of our founding fathers.

The one good note in all of this is that another blogger at AFA has issued a rebuttal to Mr. Fischer. Unfortunately, with Mr. Fischer's position as a Director, the other blogger's article seems pretty weak, though well written.

Why the Bible has to be Perfect

I respect many religious beliefs, but what do you do when someone believes something that can't possibly be true? Something that has glaring errors that anyone can see? And what if half of a nation believes it? What's a rational person supposed to do in the face of such beliefs?
We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.
That's not some fringe ultra-conservative quote. No, it's from the official Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, endorsed by a large number of evangelical churches representing millions of Americans.

There are many defenses of the Bible's inerrancy, but the most amazing one – and I'm not making this up – is the "slippery slope" argument. It goes like this:
  1. There are appear to be lots of errors in the Bible, God is a jerk sometimes, and lots of good people get killed for dumb reasons.
  2. If we admit that there is even a single flaw in the Bible, then we must admit there could be two errors, or three, or...
  3. Therefore, we can't admit that there is even one error in the Bible.
  4. Which proves that there are no conflicts in the Bible, only things we can't understand.
Notice that this directly conflicts with everything we've learned about science in the last two thousand years. At its core, science demands that we never start from a conclusion and try to work backwards to make the facts fit. No matter what we want to believe, if the evidence contradicts a hypothesis, then that hypothesis can't be true.

This is the single most important "invention" in the history of the world: We must be open to the truth, and let the evidence speak for itself. Without this philosophy, we'd still be in the middle ages. There would be no medicine, no cell phones, computers or televisions, farmers would be growing just a fraction of what they do today, and 50% of our children would still be dying of diseases before they reached adulthood.

The problem with the theory of Biblical inerrancy is that the evidence flatly contradicts it. The Bible has many internal inconsistencies, geographical errors, astronomical errors, and historical errors. To a scientist, it's simple: The evidence contradicts the hypothesis, so the hypothesis must be wrong.

Unfortunately, those who believe in Biblical inerrancy flip this on its head: They claim that if the evidence contradicts the Bible, then the evidence must be wrong. That is the antithesis of progress and enlightenment.

Most of us believe in and practice tolerance and respect for each other's beliefs. But what do you do when faced with beliefs that just plainly and obviously wrong? And what do you do when they're justified by circular, illogical arguments like the "slippery slope" test?

There are limits to my respect and tolerance, and I have no patience for Biblical Inerrancy.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Religion Afraid of an Honest Debate?

There's a new twist in the atheism debate: It's being taken seriously! That might be good news, but alas no. Instead of debating atheism on its merits, it seems far too many religious writers prefer to use smear tactics and character assassination.

The biggest insult in a debate is when nobody even cares enough to debate you. In years past, you almost never heard any theist seriously attack the atheist position; it just wasn't necessary. Religious people were confident in their position, and atheists were mostly dismissed as unimportant. So I guess it's good news that atheists are raising the hackles of religious columnists and commentators everywhere. At least atheism isn't being completely ignored.

But the theists, rather than address atheist's position in an honest debate, are resorting to rhetoric and innuendo. Go to Google, click on "News" at the top, and search for "atheist" and you'll see what I mean. Here is a small sampling of the sort of name calling that's being used to avoid the real debate:The last article above (the "plague of atheists") is particularly noteworthy because it was written by a respected scholar at a major Christian university in Australia and published by the Sydney Morning Herald. It is rather stunning in its lack of polish, and amounts to nothing more than name calling and mudslinging. It's really rather alarming that a Christian scholar can't do better.

Every dishonest trick and maneuver known to politics and marketing is being used. You'll find personal attacks, name calling, and phrases like "tiresome" and "nothing new." Atheists are being called by disparaging titles such as "militant" or "brigade," in an attempt to paint the entire group as radicals out to demolish the poor, honest theists who are just minding their own business.

What's missing from most of these responses is any rational, thoughtful answers to the questions atheists are posing.

It doesn't speak well for the theist position that they can't address the debate honestly. Are their beliefs so weak that they can't stand scrutiny? Are their arguments so flawed that they're embarrassed to present them? Is their position so tenuous that they dare not even show it?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Repeat Ft. Hood tragedy every day for 34 years? That's Iraq

What if yesterday's tragic shooting of twelve soldiers at Fort Hood by a deranged Army doctor happened every single day for the next week? We'd have 84 dead. What if twelve innocents were killed every day for a month? 360 dead. A year? That would be 4,380 dead innocent people.

It would be awful.

And what if we killed twelve innocent people every single day for the next 34 years? That would be Iraq.

Americans don't know what war really means. It means death. In Iraq, even the United States government admits at least 150,000 innocent civilians – over 60% of them women and children – have been killed by American bombs. Not terrorists, American bombs.

To equal that death toll in America, you'd have to kill twelve soldiers every single day for 34 years.

Except that it wouldn't be soldiers. To equal Iraq, you'd have to make eight of the twelve be women and children, every single day, for 34 years.

Or put it another way: For every soldier who died at Fort Hood yesterday, there are 12,500 dead Iraqi civilians. For every American brother, sister, mother, father, wife, husband, child, or friend, the death of their loved one is an unmitigated tragedy, a sadness that will be with them forever. And for each one of them, there are 12,500 Iraqi brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children, and friends who also mourn the death of a loved one, the tragic loss of a human spirit that was snuffed out by an American bomb.

Humans don't seem capable of understanding large numbers. We gasp in horror when a little girl is kidnapped in Florida, but yawn when ten thousand civilians are killed in an invasion. We're glued to the TV set when OJ is on trial for murdering one woman, but don't care a bit that 400,000 Americans die from tobacco each year.

So when twelve soldiers are killed in one day, I hope it can remind us of the true tragedy we're inflicting in Iraq. To us, 150,000 is beyond our grasp, just a big number, a statistic. But to some little girl in Iraq whose mother was just killed by a brick from a bomb blast, it's her entire whole world.

My heart goes out to the families of those who died yesterday. This tragedy reminds us just how precious life is, and how tragic a death is of someone in the prime of life. And I hope it also reminds us of the magnitude of what we've done in Iraq.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Catholics: Arrogant but not Hypocrites

I've always been of a split mind about Catholics. On the one hand, the Catholic religion is really quite odd by Christian standards, with its saints, idols, the Holy Trinity, and so forth – it's really got a lot of hints of polytheism and paganism in it compared to most Christian religions.

On the other hand, I really admire the Catholic chutzpah. Unlike most Christian denominations, they frankly reject the Bible as an inerrant authority about Christ and God, and say, "We know the real truth, because ... well, ... just because!" They claim to simply know the answers, because their church was founded by Jesus himself (so they say), and they've somehow passed that wisdom directly and unerringly down for 2000 years.

You have to admire that sort of unmitigated confidence. Other Christian denominations have to go to the Bible for their understanding of God and Christ, and sadly, the Bible has so many inconsistencies that it's resulted in thousands of different branches of Christianity, each with its own spin on God, morality, the afterlife, heaven and hell, original sin ... on and on. If it's in the Bible, Christians find a way to disagree about it.

But not the Catholics. If there's a disagreement about something, the Catholics are right! End of debate! What could be simpler?

So, while I may not agree with Catholic morality (in fact I vehemently disagree with it), I admire their lack of hypocrisy (regular readers know how much I dislike hypocrisy, or here). Unlike those who hide behind "biblical inerrancy" even though there are obvious contradictions that anyone can see, the Catholics make no such claims about the Bible. They admit that it has errors, that much of it is metaphorical and mythical, and that it is supposed to be used to teach, not as a history of the world. When it comes to spiritual truths, they simply claim to know. And how can that be hypocritical?

That's not to say there aren't Catholics who don't follow Catholic doctrine, witness the flood of priestly immorality. But I'm talking about the Church's overall philosophy, not the failures of individual Catholics.

It's too bad more religions can't just use this simple directness: "We're right, because God told us!" It's simple, it's direct, and it's pretty much the truth.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Religion: Can't Stand the Heat?

A couple years ago some good friends were visiting, and in the middle of a conversation about health, the wife injected her religious beliefs about medical procedures into the conversation ... and the conversation stopped. Nobody knew what to say. As a scientific-type guy, I knew her assertion was simply wrong, and had been proved wrong by scientific experiments. But as a polite host, I couldn't exactly say, "No, your religion is mistaken about that, your beliefs are false."

When religion comes up in social situations, it's as though you're in a boxing ring, and just before the first round, the ref tells you, "Oh, by the way, you can't hit your opponent, you might hurt him!" And just as you are replying that a good honest boxing match is pretty much why you're here, the bell rings and the fight starts...

That's the position many agnostics and atheists face any time they try to have an open, fair and honest debate with theists. For some reason, it's considered a huge faux pas to challenge them outright, to tell someone that you believe their religion is simply wrong. It's like being in a boxing match where you're prohibited from landing a punch.

Why is this? Why is it OK to tell someone their political beliefs are misguided, or that their sports team is a bunch of losers, or that your town is better than their town, but you're not allowed to say anything bad about their religion?

Most of our beliefs are fair game for a good argument. Intelligent people like to debate, and among friends it's not considered bad manners to challenge one another, even sometimes vigorously. It's part of what makes modern democracies work so well, and of what makes life interesting.

But not religions. They're off limits. You'd have no problem telling a good friend, "Your Republican President started a cruel war," or, "Your Democratic President was immoral!" But tell a Christian, "Your God started a cruel war," or "You Catholics have immoral priests," and suddenly you are the pariah. Not God, or the Catholic priests, but you.

It's really an unfortunate and inappropriate "get out of jail free" card for religions. Legally, they can hide behind "separation of church and state." (See my recent blogs about scientology and Catholic priests.) Financially, they're non-profit corporations, but they're trying to change the law that bans non-profits from politics. And socially, they have this "special protection" that holds them to a different standard of criticism than any other topic.

We shouldn't fall for this. Your religious beliefs and mine should be just as valid a topic for dinnertime debate as the next election or the Superbowl.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mel Gibson: More Hypocrisy from the Master

Well, Mel Gibson has once again shown what a nutjob hypocrite he is. I don't know about you, but I try to live according to my own morals, to "practice what I preach." Not Mel Gibson. As a Catholic Traditionalist, Gibson is so right-wing he thinks the Pope is a fake! Yet, although Gibson is married, he just acknowledged that his girlfriend bore Gibson's eighth child, out of wedlock!

Normally I'd have no problem with that, but I hate hypocrisy, and Gibson is the guy who turned the whole Christian world on to the sick pleasures of sadomasochistic voyeurism, with his disgusting movie about Christ. (Even Catholics complain.) And Gibson once said his wife is going to Hell because she worships Christ in the Church of England rather than the "correct" Catholic Church.

I'm not sure why I'm wasting my time writing about the guy, it's more amusing than dangerous. He's such a nutjob nobody really takes him seriously. I guess it's just because hypocrisy is one of my hot buttons. I respect most religions, even though I don't agree with them, but I don't respect those who are all talk and no walk.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Michael Jackson's Religion: The "You First" Adultery Policy

Michael Jackson's This Is It, the documentary in theaters now, is truly amazing, a towering work of art about a musical genius, brilliant dancer, and true athlete. From the reports of MJ's last days and death, we were sort of expecting to see an aging pop star making a difficult comeback, but instead, were awestruck by the energy, talent and musical genius of a man still at the top of his game. If you haven't seen This Is It, you should make a date to do so!

I knew Jackson was a deeply religious man, but I didn't know the details. My curiosity was piqued, so I investigated, and learned that he was a Jehovah's Witness, which surprised me. And oddly enough, even with the hundreds of books I read while writing The Religion Virus, and the thousands of web sites I'd perused, I never once learned much about this particular branch of Christianity. It seemed like a good time to rectify that...

I find their theology to be an interesting variant on Christianity, particularly the idea that when you die, you're dead and gone, with no soul that survives. However, they interpret the resurrection as meaning those who believe in the JW version of Christianity will be resurrected, recreated as it were.

There's a lot more interesting theology, but one bit really caught my attention. It seems that the Jehovah's Witnesses can only get divorced for adultery. But there's an out: if you're divorced for some other reason (like if you'e a woman, and your husband beats the crap out of you), then it's considered adultery for you to get married again, unless your ex-spouse has sex with someone else first.

So I can just picture it ... you split up with your spouse for some reason, and you're both ready to remarry. "Hey, babe, you first, go ahead and have sex, I don't mind..." "No, you first!" "No, you go first!" Whichever of you goes first is the sinner, the other one is off the hook!

Boy, that really puts the pressure on. And it would really make it worth your while to spy on your ex, to find out if he/she had hooked up with someone yet.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Let's All Wear "God Sucks" Buttons to Work

I have an idea – let's get a bunch of big, red "God Sucks" buttons, pin them on our chests, and go to work! If you work in a grocery store, or a bank, or at the welfare office, or maybe even as a Justice of the Peace ... no problem! I'm sure your employer won't fire you. Offend shoppers? Piss off welfare recipients? Horrify the couple you're marrying? It's your right!
Don't believe me? Just listen to this attorney about an identical case, defending her client:
"There are federal and state laws that protect against religious discrimination. It's not like he was out in the aisles preaching to people." – Kara Skorupa, attorney.
But you know, I have a pretty good feeling Skorupa wouldn't take my case if I got fired for wearing a "God Sucks" button. Like many conservative religious people, Skorupa and her client,Trevor Keezor, probably think the law should protect Christians (I'm guessing he's a Christian) who violate their employers' policies, but if an atheist or Muslim did the same thing, I'd be willing to bet they'd sing a different song.

Keezor was fired for violating Home Depot's dress code, which prohibits any and all buttons and badges, except those issued by Home Depot. He took the job knowing full well what was expected of him, and Home Depot's dress code is 100% legal under the US Constitution, yet he thinks that he should be exempt, just because, "I support my country and God."

This is another great example of a "proselyzation meme," a technique that religions have developed down through the centuries as they evolved and mutated in the "survival of the fittest" battle we call cultural evolution, or memetics. Cultural evolution treats ideas as evolutionary raw material, and uses Darwinistic principles to predict how they'll reproduces, mutate and evolve.

It's a lot like sex, in fact, it's exactly parallel. In biological systems, each creature has to have a way of making copies of itself in order to carry on. Whether it's a bacterium splitting, or two whales mating, we all gotta do it! Otherwise our species goes extinct.

And the cool thing about sex is that we like it, because all of our ancestors, every single one of them, liked sex too. If even one of them didn't, well, we'd have never been born.

Religions are like that too. Any religion that doesn't have a way to spread itself, both across society and down through time, will quickly become extinct. More importantly, the religions that have the strongest proselytizing efforts (i.e. the memes that tell members to "spread God's word") are the ones that steal members from other churches and thereby gain memberships.

With sex, the ones who like it the most are the ones who have the most babies, and generation after generation, their descendants will inexorably grow at the expense of those who like sex less.

It's identical with churches. The ones with the strongest proselytizing memes are the ones that grow. Think about the Mormons, for example: They're the fastest growing church around. When was the last time a Catholic knocked on your door? The Catholic church is losing ground as a percentage of our population, and most other Christian churches are shrinking even faster than the Catholic Church.

So it's no surprise that most religions have a strong meme that says their members should actively spread God's word. And Mr. Keezor was just helping his Church with the memetic version of sex: spreading the memes, helping them reproduce, making sure that his particular branch of religion will survive in the endless Darwinian struggle of my-God-versus-yours.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Anti-Abortionists Who Advocate Murder?

An article in USA Today shows the darkest side of evangelical Christians: They don't tolerate other points of view, and worse, they think it's OK to threaten those who have other religions, or no religion.

In this case, they're having a disgusting "Burn in Hell" effigy contest, to see who can create the most horrifying video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, being burned.

This is the worst sort of un-American, anti-Democratic rhetoric, and it's shameful that more and more, religious extremists are turning to these types of idiotic and hateful tricks to get publicity.

It's hard believe that any religious person, much less a Christian, would condone this sort of childish political trick. But then, these are the same people who believe all other Christians are going to burn in Hell too, simply for believing the wrong version of Christianity. If you start with that as a premise, I guess you can justify any crime you like – these "sinners" are going to spend eternity being tortured, so a few torments here on Earth shouldn't matter. Right?

Or maybe, just maybe, we could all respect each other. Is that too much to ask?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Scientology Conviction: Why Not Here in the USA Too?

Finally, Scientology is convicted in France for its crimes: The courts say it's just a good old con game. The French courts saw through their religion ruse. According to the French court's verdict, they're guilty of organized fraud, and the court fined the church $600,000 for its criminal activities. For the first time, the church itself (in addition to a number of individuals) has been convicted of a crime.

This was only possible in France because Scientology couldn't hide behind the special protection that religion gets in the United States. Here, the church can claim all sorts of immunity from discovery, and when prosecutors do go after the Scientologists, they scream persecution. But in France, Scientology is classified as a cult, not a religion.

This conviction leads me to wonder: Why should churches get any special consideration under United States law? If the Constitution says Congress shall make "no law" about religion, doesn't that mean churches have to be treated just like any other nonprofit organization?

Let's say that some other non-profit like Greenpeace, or maybe Mother's Against Drunk Driving, were tricking their members into turning over thousands of dollars to participate in purification rituals and to buy vitamins that can be bought over the counter for a few dollars. Wouldn't we expect the government to press charges? Why is it that by claiming to be a religion, the criminal nature of such fraudulent activities evaporates?

If religion is to be truly free of government interference, then they should be subject to the exact same laws as any other organization. Their books should be subject to auditing, their communications should be subject to discovery during legal proceedings, and their leaders should be accountable in the eyes of the law.

After all, if the services they offer are legitimate, they shouldn't be afraid of scrutiny. Only hucksters need to hide.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Halloween Candy, the Evil Pagan Ritual

While recalling fun Halloween memories with friends, one lamented that she'd never been allowed to go trick-or-treating because her parents thought it was anti-Christian, a pagan holiday.

All I could think was, "Geez, get over it!" I mean, let your kids have a little fun! Even kids know it's just a silly leftover celebration from the old days of fall harvest rituals, a bit of fun. Why do some people have to make every trivial little thing into a huge offense?

But then I went back to my "philosophical roots," of looking at everything from the cultural-evolution point of view (memes and memetics). After heaving a heavy sigh, I realized that this sort of extreme behavior is predictable when you understand how churches evolve and compete.

Immune systems are among the most complex structures in our bodies. To a parasite or disease, our bodies are like a huge dinner table, full of ready-to-eat food, and a warm, comfortable place to live and grow. To fight these invaders, we've evolved a huge array of defenses. Our skin is tough and impervious to keep things out. Our blood is full of all sorts of antibodies and attack cells that kill anything that gets in. When we get sick, our bodies heat up with fever to "burn out" the invaders.

Cultural evolution, the way that ideas compete with each other, change, and are propagated across society and down through time, is remarkably parallel to biological evolution. So, it's not surprising to find that memeplexes (collections of related ideas, such as religion) have evolved immune systems too.

Consider, for example, the idea that the Bible is inerrant, the perfect word of God in every respect. It's a widely held believe these days, but it wasn't always so. In fact, for most of Judeo-Christian history, most people couldn't even read, and Catholic mass was even conducted in Latin, so the Bible's many contradictions weren't apparent to most people. People didn't think much about whether the Bible was correct in every detail.

Modern literacy, and widespread availability of Bibles in the last few hundred years, has changed all of that: the many inconsistencies in the Bible are there for everyone to see.

This caused a huge problem for Christian leaders. If they admit, for example, that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection as told in the four gospels doesn't add up, that there must be errors somewhere, then where does it stop? It's the classic slippery slope: Either it's God's word, or else you can start questioning everything.

To solve this dilemma, the Christianity memeplex evolved and mutated a new set of ideas: The Bible is inerrant in every respect. All of those glaring inconsistencies can be explained by the fact that we're not as smart as God and just don't understand God's mysterious ways. Or something.

(This, and many other immunity memes, are discussed at length in my book, The Religion Virus.)

Religions have a fundamental flaw: All of them claim to be have the truth, but there is no scientific test to see which is right. Unlike scientific theories, it's impossible to use any rational method to distinguish one religion from another and say conclusively which one is right. Instead, religions have developed the "I'm right, you're going to Hell," meme, which basically avoids the question by asserting loudly that horrible consequences will befall those who follow other religions.

And this leads us back to Halloween. Christianity has one of the strongest immune systems ever developed, and it's particularly damning of pagan religions. Those who won't let their kids go out trick-or-treating are just victims of the age-old "I'm right, you're going to Hell" meme, a meme that survives because it's been tremendously useful in the "survival of the fittest" battle of religion-against-religion down through the centuries.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Oh, the Catholics, Hate the Protestants...

Today's beautiful lesson in evolution is the question, "Why do Churches inevitably want more members?" It's a lovely illustration: The Roman Catholic Church is stealing people from the Anglican Church over the issues of gay and women's rights. They're even (*gasp*) letting married Anglican priests become Catholic priests!

Today's lesson starts with a thought experiment: Suppose you were head of a church and decided that proselytizing (getting new members) was unimportant, that you'd found the very essence of God's wisdom, and too bad for everyone else. You and your followers worship correctly, follow all of God's laws, and get the golden ticket to Heaven. Pretty cool!

But a hundred years down the road, your church will be completely gone! Some other church, one that happens to believe in "spreading the word," will still be going strong whereas your followers will all be dead and buried.

So, churches inevitably believe in expanding their memberships. It's a lot like sex for humans: We like it because every one of our ancestors did too, and the people who didn't like sex had no children. Proselytism, plain and simple, is a church's version of sex, and all successful churches inevitably have a strong proselytism meme.

So back to the Anglicans and Catholics...

The Anglicans are having a big fight because some of them want to actually give equal rights to women and gays. The Roman Catholic Church is whispering, "Hey, come over here, we're not like those wimps, we still put women and gays in their place!" And not surprisingly, these Anglicans who are still trying to cling to the evil past, the days when oppression and discrimination were tolerated, are jumping from the Anglican ship an into the open arms of the Roman Catholic Church.

This is a perfect example of the proselytism meme hard at work. The Roman Catholic Church can't help itself, any more than humans can't help liking sex. Because if they didn't continue to try, all down through history, to gain new converts and steal follows from other churches, they'd be extinct, and I'd be writing about some other church that fostered a strong proselytism meme.

It is said that 99% of all plant and animal species that ever existed are extinct, that the 1% remaining are the best of the best, the fittest that survived. The same is true of churches, what you see today are the survivors, the memeplexes (the collection of ideas) that had more appeal, better defenses, stronger proselytizing, and kept up with other changes in our culture and environment.

So when you see churches fighting over members, you don't have to ask, "Which is right? Which one is interpreting the Bible correctly?" Those questions aren't relevant from a memetic point of view. All that matters is, "Which one will survive to the next generation?" And the answer to that question has more to do with what people want to believe than what's true.

Giving a person equal rights, whether its a man or woman, gay or straight, is only relevant to a church to the extent that the church gains or loses membership. Worrying about what's right and wrong, what God or Jesus might actually say about it, is fairly irrelevant.

Just for fun, let's go out with Professor Tom Lerher's song, National Brotherhood Week...
Oh the Catholics hate the Protestants
and the Protestants hate the Catholics
and the Hindus hate the Muslims
and everybody hates the Jews!