Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Scientology Causes Schizophrenic Teen's Death

As someone who deals with mental illness in my home daily, this article infuriated me. According to the story, a Scientologist father convinced his schizophrenic son to stop taking his medications, AND he placed a loaded gun on the teenage boy's nightstand. Not surprisingly, with the sudden withdrawal the anti-depressants, the young man's voices began tormenting him again, and the boy killed himself.

Anyone who lives with a person afflicted with schizophrenia knows what a terrible affliction it is. The victims are often terrorized by voices, running 24/7, that are so realistic, so convincing, that they lose track of reality. They believe these are real people. And these voices are not nice – often they're yelling, saying horrible, insulting, or degrading things to the patient. All day long.

Schizophrenia is not something that these patients make up. They don't just feel a little bit off, or unhappy. They can be completely incapacitated by fear from the unrelenting voices that yell at them, curse them, or just whisper awful things to them, day after day, year after year.

Getting back to Scientology, they are flat out WRONG about the causes of schizophrenia. It is not a matter of poor diet, or "allergies," or of psychiatrists getting patients addicted to drugs they don't need. Schizophrenia is a terrible disease. Nobody knows the cause. Nobody knows the cure.

Scientologists, in my opinion, are acting immorally and irresponsibly when they, with no scientific or medical training, diagnose illnesses, contradict the best scientific and medical advice available, and convince a patient to stop following the doctor's prescribed treatment plan.

Only a religious group could get away with such immoral and outrageous behavior.

Modern medicine doesn't have all the answers, but in this case, I can say from first-hand personal experience, as well as a thirty-year career working with some of the finest medical researchers in the world, that Scientology is wrong. And in the case of this teen who shot himself, they're dead wrong.

As far as I can tell, Scientology has always been, and continues to be, a destructive religion. It was a complete fraud, perpetrated by founder Hubbard, from day one, and it's disgraceful that so many have fallen into its grip. I hope those responsible, directly and indirectly, for this young man's death will be punished. Unfortunately, the reality is that they'll probably get a "Get out of Jail Free" card, because their quackery was done in the name of religion. They can make any wild-ass claims they like, and the government can't stop them. Even if someone dies.

I can understand many things, but Scientology's stance on psychiatry and mental illness is beyond belief, beyond rationality. It's just cruel.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why Abraham is not the story to guide you

An open letter to my cousin – someone advised him to read Abraham to help him understand some of the difficult things going on in his life.

I disagree – Abraham has no lessons for us.

In times of trouble, Christians and Jews point to the stories of Abraham, Jonah, and other men who were severely tested by God, and draw parallels to our own troubles. God, it is said, has a plan for us, and sometimes our loving God knows that we need to suffer in order to be better people, or in the service of some greater good.

Abraham was ordered to kill his own son Isaac, surely the most precious thing a man has. What task could ever be harder than that? Abraham was surely as unhappy as a man could be, yet he knew that one must serve God's purpose, no matter what.

The modern interpretation tells us we should take comfort from this during our own times of trouble. We should obey God's will no matter what, and accept fate just as Abraham did. God has a plan for us, our unhappiness has a purpose, even if we can't fathom it.

That's the modern interpretation, but it's wrong.

The first mistake in this interpretation is that most modern Christians think that Abraham's God (or rather the God who was worshipped by the author of Genesis) is the same God that we worship today – all powerful, full of love, fatherly, and wise. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The ancients who told this story, and the biblical author who first wrote this story down, worshipped a completely different idea of God. They thought their god was a flesh-and-blood god, made of the same stuff as you and me, but with god-like powers. He was the God of Armies, not our Almighty god. Abraham's God was not a nice guy. Back in Abraham's time, warriors were brutal, death was commonplace, and God was believed to be sort of a super-warrior.

So the correct interpretation of Abraham and Isaac is that God was deliberately being cruel to Abraham, putting him to a very harsh test, just to prove to himself that Abraham was reliable. It was hardly more than a modern hazing or gang initiation rite. There was no kindness in God's actions, no great lesson for Abraham to learn.

The second mistake in the modern interpretation of Abraham is that it is part of the "slave mentality" of Christianity, a way to keep Christians in slave-like servitude to the church and the monarchies of the middle ages. People were taught that when your life is miserable, rather than rising up to change things, rather than fighting to make things better, we should accept our fate. It's God's will – after all, look at Abraham and the test God put him through. Whatever is wrong in our lives, just accept it as your fate, and be strong and loyal like Abraham, who didn't complain but just followed orders.

Cousin, the lesson to be learned from Abraham is that it sucks to have mean people in control of your life. Don't let them! If your life sucks, get out and make it better. If something is wrong, fix it. If someone is trying to manipulate your life, tell them to take a hike. If you're unhappy, find out why, and start making your life better.

And in addition to rejecting this slave mentality, we should also help our friends and family to become better people. We need to teach them to reject oppresion, to reject unhappiness, and to always fight to make things better.

Blind obedience is for the timid, the unhappy. To be genuinely fulfilled in life, you have to make it happen yourself.

You made a good start at the memorial service. Keep it up.

The Scandal of Creationism

There is a scandal at the heart of Creationism.

In my blog about Ben Stein's embarrassing "documentary", Expelled, I hit on something that I want to expand on:
Creationists insult their own constituency by relying on their ignorance.
In other words, creationists know that their followers are largely uneducated in the sciences, mathematics, formal logic, and philosophy, and they take advantage of this mercilessly.

One of the core, most crucial, arguments for creationism is "irreducible complexity," the idea that living systems are so complex that they couldn't possibly have evolved. And the key to this argument is convincing your audience that something is "complex," without defining the term. Since most creationists don't have the opportunity to study physics, chemistry and biochemistry, not to mention sub-topics like entropy and information theory, virtually all of the details of biology will seem magically complex.

If I could build a time machine and take any one of dozens of modern devices back two hundred years, I easily could have convinced 99% of the world's population that I was a genuine magician, simply by relying on their ignorance. Even something as simple as a pocket laser pointer would seem magical. When I came back to modern times and bragged about my exploits, and belittled the people of the 1800's for their foolishness, would you be impressed by how clever I was? Would you compliment me for fooling intelligent people with my magic? Of course not, you'd be disgusted by my arrogance.

Creationists are no different. They're just like the time-traveling charlatan, preying on ignorance and superstition. It's no surprise that belief in creationism is inversely correlated with education: Knowledge exposes their tricks.

It's also no surprise that creationists are the ones opposing the spread of scientific knowledge by trying to block the teaching of evolution. They know all too well that creationism can't survive in the light of real knowledge.

But the real scandal of creationism is that its main proponents knowingly rely on the ignorance of their constituents, and that they actively work to maintain that ignorance.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Expelled: Ben Stein's Big Embarrassment

I may be the last Atheist blogger in the world to see Ben Stein's Expelled, but I think I have something new to say: This movie is so bad, we should have ignored it completely.

Expelled was embarrassing to watch, nothing more than a glaring piece of hack propaganda. I used to really admire Stein, and when I heard about Expelled, I was genuinely worried. A man of his intelligence and wit could, in theory, deal a real blow to science and to the rational view of the universe.

Instead, I was shocked at the amateurish propaganda techniques, the laughable conspiracy theories, and the discredited "scientists" he picked as his "victims." I thought Ben was better than that. I thought he'd present a well-reasoned, articulate, balanced documentary, one that really challenged the scientific community.

Instead, he wrote and narrated a piece of trash. The only people who will be influenced by this garbage are creationists, people who are already in his camp.

In fact, the most embarrassing part is that Ben Stein insults the very people he is trying to defend. Ben Stein counts on his audience's ignorance of science and the scientific method. For example, he has a long sequence showing the incredible complexity of cellular biology, which is mostly intended to baffle an uneducated audience, and then basically says, You're too dumb to understand this, so God must have created it.

Next he tries to bamboozle everyone with the tired old information-theory (aka entropy) approach, another subject that requires an advanced college degree and years of study to fully appreciate. He presents just enough to fool an uneducated audience, then repeats the argument that because we're too dumb to understand this, God must have designed it.

This appeal to the ignorance of his audience is insulting, even to creationists who agree with Stein. To real scientists, it's nothing short of fraud.

When he got to the picture of Joseph Stalin, and started associating Atheism with Communism and the Holocaust, I couldn't stand it any more. That sort of guilt-by-association is beneath the dignity of a well-educated man like Ben Stein. The Nazis got the trains to run on time; should we persecute Amtrak's management and call them Nazis if they manage to get Amtrak trains on schedule? The Nazis believed in Einstein's Theory of Relativity and were using it to design nuclear bombs; should we put all of our Los Alamos and Berkeley nuclear physicists and engineers in prison as Nazi sympathizers? The Nazis believed that fresh air and exercise are healthy, should we incarcerate Jack LaLane?

Ben Stein claims to be in favor of science, yet he ignores its most important lesson: Science searches for the truth, no matter how unpleasant! If the Theory of Evolution was responsible for Nazism and Communism, that doesn't make it false. It just means that as moral humans, we have to learn to rise above our natural, animal instincts.

I think the Atheist community made far too big of a stink about Expelled. It is an unimportant movie. By raising such a furor over it, we've given it far more credibility than it deserves. Dawkins refuses to debate creationists for this very reason – it's a stupid debate, you won't win any converts, but by debating them you imply that they are in the same league as real science.

They're not. And neither is Ben Stein. With Expelled, he reduced himself from the ranks of important intellectuals, down to the rank of amateur propagandist.

Courageous Texas Legislators Call Creationism Anti-Scientific

Kudos to two courageous Texas politicians who had the guts to criticize the Texas Board of Education for its regressive anti-evolution, pro-creationism policies. State Senator Rodney Ellis and State Representative Patrick M. Rose wrote an excellent op-ed column in the Houston Chronicle pointing out that if Texas is serious about becoming a center for cancer research, it can't also embrace creationism.

But Ellis and Rose are far too polite. I suppose that's how you get elected.

Imagine this: The Texas Board of Education invites a crystal-ball gazer to its meetings to divine for them which science textbooks to use. The next day, two Texas politicians write an Op-Ed column, in which they ridicule the Board of Education, calling them an embarrassment to the State of Texas, and and demanding the Board member's immediate resignation.

How is this fictional story any different than the Board of Education consulting creationists about science texts? Creationism has no more foundation than crystal-ball gazing. Both are utterly false, disproved by science hundreds of years ago, and have failed every challenge by believers ever since. So why does creationism get respect?

There are many religious questions where I can respect my friends, family and colleague's theistic beliefs. The origin of the universe, the origin of morals, the nature of the human soul, the afterlife – these are questions for which science has good answers, but I can understand why others disagree.

But creationism is idiotic. I'm sorry, but there is no other word for it. I try to be tolerant and respectful, but when someone deliberately ignores tonnes of evidence, and denies the best-proved scientific theory in the history of the world, I just can't respect that.

I hope I live to see a day when a politician in Texas can openly deride and ridicule creationism for what it is, a fraud, the same way he/she might ridicule a crystal-ball gazer, without fear of losing his seat in government.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Criminals at the Heart of Mormonism: Under the Banner of Heaven

I'm only three disks into the five-disk audio book, Under the Banner of Heaven, about the Mormon Church, and already I'm shocked beyond belief at the sordid history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS Church, aka Mormons). The crimes committed by the LDS church founders are horrifying, and well documented. Forget, for a moment, about Joseph Smith's obvious fraud that became the Book of Mormon. Even if you can swallow that unbelievable bit of hocus pocus, the crimes committed by the Mormon "prophets" are beyond what any decent person can accept.

Polygamous marriages don't bother me, if it's all between consenting adults, who cares? But that's not what the "apostles" of the church did. No, they received "revelations" from God that they should rape girls as young as twelve, under the guise of "marriage." Except that these marriages were not voluntary, and were not between adults.

The crime that practically knocked my off my chair was the Mountain Meadow Massacre, in which a wagon train of pioneers – roughly 120 men, women and children – were mercilessly slaughtered by the Mormons. Only children under the age of eight, "two young to be reliable witnesses," were spared. The story is complex and accounts vary, but there is no doubt that Brigham Young was directly involved and at least partly responsible for the massacre.

Whether Young directly ordered the attack (which would make him a mass murdered) or not is in dispute. But his actions after the fact are still despicable: He desecrated the grave site of the dead. When he visited the Mountain Meadow and saw the stone monument that covered the grave of the victims, Brigham Young had the monument destroyed, saying, "Vengeance is mine, and I have had a little."

These were not evil people, or even enemies of the Mormon Church. They were simply Arkansas people passing through Utah at an unfortunate time, who happened to have a lot of money, valuable cattle, and a top racehorse, in their possession. The Mormons were nothing more than murders and thieves.

How anyone can worship at a church that has this criminal, evil man as one of its prophets is beyond understanding.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why Death is Good for Religion

Saturday I had the honor to attend my uncle's funeral in Arizona, to remember his life and mourn his death. He was a good man: an artist, musician, corporate executive, father, husband, and so much more.

Uncle Ted was also a devout Christian, of the sort that I respect. His religion was personal and simple: When he needed help, he prayed for guidance, when things went well, he gave thanks. He didn't push his beliefs on others, but if you asked him about it, he'd tell you. I don't share his beliefs, but I respect Uncle Ted's honest, straight-ahead approach. Uncle Ted's religion was moral, honest, and light-years ahead of the destructive, dishonest, aggressive tactics of the evangelical ultra-conservative groups that dominate the news and politics.

His memorial service was conducted by a Christian minister, a very sweet woman and good friend of Uncle Ted. Listening to her prayers, at that emotional, sad time, I got a deep understanding of the appeal, of why religion makes so much sense to so many people. I wrote about this extensively in my book, in fact it's the core thesis: Religion is an evolving species that has had thousands of years to adapt to fit the human psyche perfectly, to be incredibly appealing (irrespective of whether it is true or made up).

Listening to The Lord's Prayer at Uncle Ted's memorial, I finally understood emotionally what I knew intellectually. We just don't want to say goodbye, forever, to Uncle Ted. The thought that his life, and everything he ever had, is gone, is sometimes too hard to bear. All those wonderful cowboy songs, his beautiful voice, the way he strummed his guitar, his talent with a paintbrush, his gentle but mischievous smile, his generosity (unless you were playing cards against him!), his charity work, his wise advice ... all gone forever. How can this be? Isn't there another answer, a way that, even though he is gone from us, that somehow he's not really gone? Can't we see Uncle Ted again someday?

Alas, no. He's really gone, and all that's left of him is the good memories, and the lessons he taught those of us who were lucky enough to have him in our lives.

And I now have a deeper understanding now of just how appealing religion is.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mississippi Atheists: Why Textbook Disclaimers are Wrong

I have to leave town for a funeral and don't have time for proper blogs, so here's a pointer to something that VJack sent me:

Understanding What's Wrong With HB 25

It's an excellent summary of the typical obfuscaction and hand waving that creationists are fond of. While I'm gone, here are a few of my own blogs relevant to this topic:
The Five Dumbest Arguments for God
Don't Call it the 'Theory' of Evolution!
Darwin's Evolution Science: The Best-Proved Theory in History
See you next week.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Scientologists: Psychiatrists caused 9/11 attacks!

I've heard some whacked stuff from Scientology, but this one takes the cake. The Scientologists have a weird hatred of psychiatry that goes beyond the normal anti-science you often find with fringe religions. But now it's over the top: Scientology claims that psychiatrists caused the 9/11 attacks! According to this video (which I don't recommend, it's a half hour of ranting and babble):
It was [doctor] al-Zawahiri, trained in Cairo, who convinced bin Laden to establish al Qaeda. ... [During an interview], al-Zawahiri claimed credit for the attacks [while] bin Laden sits beside the doctor, muttering to himself while caressing his beard. The exact methods utilized by al-Zawahiri to influence bin Laden are as yet unknown. But more than one source has reported that the doctor, is also a psychiatrist. ... bin Laden has been been know to take psychiatric drugs, or anti-anxiety pills. ... Freedom [Magazine] found the influence of psychiatrists, psychologists, and their methods in terrorist groups to be strong and pervasive.
The video goes on and on, digging deeper into their pile of imagined plots and conspiracies and other manure.
Techniques of drug-induced mind control were already being tested by North American Psychiatrists fifty years ago... [in] experiments conducted under the aegis of the U.S. Intelligence Agencies. One aspect of such experiments was to find the exact combination of drugs, hypnosis, and other forms of psychiatric and psychological methods, to produce individuals who could be programmed to commit acts of violence, including assassination.
By the end, they've condemned them all: The entire psychiatric profession seems to be to blame for all terrorism worldwide. If you believed this drivel, you'd be convinced that getting rid of terrorism would require nothing more than rounding up all of the psychiatrists and psychologists. Wars would stop, terrorists would recover from their drug-induced stupor and go back to being normal, productive citizens. They even drag Hitler and the Holocaust into the act, claiming that psychiatrists were behind the Nazi regime and the atrocities of WWII.

It would be funny if it weren't for the collateral damage the Scientologists' cause. Their anti-psychiatry conspiracy theories have prevented more than one person from getting adequate help, including some recent high-profile cases.

Followup: 'Holocaust Bishop' is Fired

Some good news. I wrote about the 'Holocaust Bishop', a Roman Catholic priest who denies the holocaust yet was having his excommunication lifted by the Pope. Happily, things are being put right. Bishop Williamson was fired from his post as the head of a Roman Catholic seminary in Argentina.

Sadly, although the Vatican ordered him to repudiate his claims about the holocaust, he is refusing. The BBC quotes the Bishop: "I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against, is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler." Let's hope the Pope takes very strong action indeed to distance the Roman Catholic Church from this man.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Aussie Professor Turns Logic on its Head to Criticize Dawkins

Evangelicals and ultra-conservative Christians often vilify atheism by misrepresenting the atheist position, but it's surprising to see a well-educated, apparently thoughtful, professor of theology at a respected university make a glaring error of logic in his blog, and grossly misrepresent the atheist position.

Professor Tom Frame of Charles Sturt University has confused what science predicts with what scientists approve. Professor Frame's writes:
The problem I face is weariness with science-based dialogue partners like Richard Dawkins. ... He won't take his depiction of Darwinism to logical conclusions. A dedicated Darwinian would welcome imperialism, genocide, mass deportation, ethnic cleansing, eugenics, euthanasia, forced sterilisations and infanticide. Publicly, he advocates none of them.
This is a surprising error on Frame's part, a glaring gap of in the logical process. Frame should heed the words of Charles Darwin himself:
A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, a mere heart of stone.
In other words, the scientist's primary job is to discover how things are in nature, not how he would like them to be. Or, from a Christian perspective, the scientist's job might be seen as discovering the rules that govern the universe that God built, whether we like God's rules or not.

If a scientists discovers a horrifying parasite that bores into your eyeballs, does that mean the scientist advocates eyeball-boring parasitism? Of course not. If the scientist discovers that polygamy is predicted by evoltion science, does that mean the scientist advocates polygamy? No, the scientist's opinion on the matter is irrelevant.

But Professor Frame makes this exact mistake: He claims that if an evolutionary scientist discovers that imperialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, eugenics, etc., etc., are traits that natural selection would favor, it must mean that the scientist advocates these behaviors. Nothing could be further from the truth. Professor Frame's argument is completely without foundation.

Dawkins is a skillful author and lecturer, one who has done much to educate the public about complex scientific principles. Anyone who reads his books can quickly see that not only does Dawkins not advocate genocide, eugenics and other horrors, but in fact quite the opposite. Dawkins is a man of high morals by any standard.

Professor Frame has wandered far from path of logic with his claims about Dawkins.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Christians Twist Fairness Doctrine into Censorship

Look out, the Christian right is at it again, twisting "freedom of speech" to mean their speech only! Somehow, the Fairness Doctrine is being twisted into a sinister censorship plot against Christians. It's so ludicrous it would be funny, except that these people are serious.

The Fairness Doctrine, which started in 1949, requires broadcasters to present issues of public importance, and to present a variety of views. They can't just broadcast sports, or sitcoms, or Christian sermons, all day long. And they can't present just one side of public issues; they have to give time to opposing and divergent views. It was the price you paid for getting a monopoly to use a radio frequency: It is a public resource, so you have to serve the public's needs. Democracy would be threatened if every TV and radio station in the country was owned by a few big businesses that completely controlled what was broadcast.

The Fairness Doctrine was rescinded in 1989 by Republicans under President Regan, but now there's talk of reinstating it – and the Christians are howling. The idea of sharing their monopoly, and presenting all sides of issues of importance to this Republic, has been twisted into "censorship." That's right, if they have to present their point of view alongside opposing points of view, it's censorship.

How embarrassing for them. If these Christians, who I hope don't represent mainstream Christian views, are so afraid of a real debate, what does that say about their faith? Not much.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why Does the Christian Anti-Sex Meme Survive?

Of all the tenets of Christianity, the prohibition against their priests having sex is the most perverse and unnatural. Requiring healthy men to ignore nature's strongest instinct is simply a recipe for disaster. Our sexual desires are almost impossible to suppress, and when we try, it's like trying to hold the steam in a boiling pot: Sooner or later it will burst, and do all sorts of damage.

If today's story was just another about a Catholic priest molesting young boys and/or girls, it would barely even be newsworthy – there have been so many. But in this case, one of the most charismatic and influential Catholic leaders in modern times, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, is not only accused of molesting a number of boys, but he also had a "regular" affair with an adult woman, and fathered a child.

Ironically, it was his child that brought his reputation down, not molesting young boys. Go figure.

Unfortunately for the Legionaries, they are taught to revere the founder, to identify with him spiritually and emotionally, to read all of his works and study his life for guidance. With the revelation that their leader was, in fact, a sexual predator, and had fathered a child, the group has quite a problem on its hands.

While researching for my book, The Religion Virus, I read dozens of books, studied Christianity's history in depth, and I came to understand many things. Using cultural evolutions and a memetic approach, most of the tenets of religion and churches, which superficially are baffling to those not raised in a religious environment, are actually quite predictable. Concepts like heaven and hell, monotheism, an asexual god, and so forth, are all memes (evolving ideas) that are plainly "fit for survival" in the Darwinistic sense.

But I've never been able to understand why Christians vilify sex so much, why that meme survives. Why do they hold abstinence and chastity in such high regard? How are those memes more fit for survival in the dog-eat-dog world of religious-dogma memes?

When Christianity started, it was quite the opposite. The Jews believed that sex, wine, and other pleasures were God's gift to humanity, to be enjoyed &ndash with proper moderation and respect. To deny oneself these pleasures was to reject God's gifts. The Jews even today expect their rabbis to marry and have children, after all, a rabbi is supposed to set a good example for his people.

A great deal of the Christian vilification of sex came from St. Augustine, who wrote extensively on the subject, and really laid the foundation for the modern Christian attitudes for sex. But that doesn't answer the more fundamental question: Why did St. Augustine's anti-woman, anti-sex attitudes become Christian dogma? There were many other writers who advocated a more reasonable and healthy attitude towards sex. Why were they ignored?

I'm still working on this puzzle. But in the mean time, the damage goes on. And on, and on, and on.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Pope Makes a Mistake??

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI is supposed to have a direct line to God ... so how is it that the Pope "did not know about British Bishop Richard Williamson's views" about the Holocaust before lifting the Bishop's excommunication?

Maybe I'm confused, but I always thought the deal with being Pope was that you were God's own spokesman for all matters of Christianity here on Earth. Is birth control moral in God's eyes? Abortion? Eating meat on Fridays? Ask the Pope, and he'll ask God, and the answer that comes back is absolute – it becomes a sin when the pope says it's a sin, and nobody can contradict the Pope. After all, that would be the same as contradicting God himself, right?

If the Roman Catholic Church is trying to maintain this claim, then it's hard to understand how the Pope could rescind the excommunication of an anti-Semitic Holocaust denier. Surely the Pope doesn't approve of Bishop Williamson's beliefs. Which can only mean one of four things:
  1. The Pope prayed for guidance, and God tricked him.
  2. God hates Jews and wanted a Holocaust denier in the Roman Catholic Church
  3. The Pope prayed for guidance, but didn't listen to what God said, or
  4. The Pope makes decisions just like the rest of us, using the facts at hand, which are sometimes flawed.
I'd like to think it was #1, because if there is a God he surely must have a twisted sense of humor, given how His world came out.

But, realistically, the more boring conclusion that the Pope is really just an ordinary CEO of a big corporation, and sometimes he gets bad advice from his staff. He makes mistakes, just like the rest of us. And while he's praying, he might be hearing something, but it's just his own brain talking to him.

To Pope Benedict XVI's credit, he did the right thing in the end: He is demanding that Bishop Williamson recant his outrageous claims and admit that the Holocaust did happen, before the Church will lift the excommunication. I applaud the Pope and the rest of the Church's leaders for admitting the error and quickly correcting it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

New Strategies to Combat Creationism

One reason that creationism continues to thrive is that scientists are boneheads when it comes to marketing. As a marketing friend once told me, "This isn't like selling chocolate to women – you have to actually work at it."

Scientists have two fundamental flaws: They're honest, and they're rational. OK, three flaws: They think honesty and rationalism work. Scientists are trained to present the facts about evolution honestly and rationally, and assume creationists will exclaim, "Oh, I get it – I was wrong about creationism!" They don't realize that they're up against the oldest and best marketing organization in the history of the world: religion. And we won't win the battle by staying off their turf.

The creationism-versus-evolution debate is not a science problem. It's a marketing problem, plain and simple. We're trying to sell the public a package of goods that is, to the average religious person, somewhat unpleasant, complex and difficult to understand fully, and very contrary to thousands of years of religious teaching.

Their product, creationism, is far more appealing than evolution to the average person. I wrote a whole book about this one point, and can't do justice to this claim in a short blog. But to put it in a nutshell, it was a two-thousand-year evolutionary (memetic) process that made religion, and creationism, incredibly appealing, perfectly matched to the human psyche.

On top of the pure appeal of creationism, creationists are expert at marketing their product, and use every trick in the book. The creationism advocates would be right at home on Madison Avenue.
  • They rely on emotions
  • They use testimonials of celebrities
  • They appeal to vanity
  • They count on ignorance
  • They use mass media (TV, radio, print, internet) with great expertise
  • ...and many more
In other words, their product could just as well be perfume, clothes, or fast cars. But perhaps the most important single point is this:
These points were driven home forcefully when I listened to a program today about Evolution versus Creationism on my local PBS radio, KPBS of San Diego. Two scientists and a philosopher, all very articulate and knowledgeable, were offering their opinions as to why, 200 years after Darwin, creationism is still thriving and hindering science and medicine. And all three illustrated the very point I'm making: They were being scientific, presenting facts and logic, with little or no weight given to the marketing aspects of their positions.

I'm not sure I have answers. We're scientists because logic and reason is appealing to us, and we find marketing somewhat distasteful. Back in December, I wrote one blog that suggested a solution, but I think we need to take a more active approach.

If we're ever going to win the battle of logic and reason over ignorance and superstition, we need an approach that includes both scientific rigor and marketing skills.

Let me close with this quote, one that my regular readers have seen before:
In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. ... It happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
–Carl Sagan

My New Religion: Punxsutawnism!

Hallelujah! I finally found a religion I can believe in! All these years of searching, and my quest is done. It's Punxsutawinism!

Each year on February 1, we have a pilgrimage. All the faithful come from near and far, gathering on that holiest day, streaming into the holy city of Punxsutawney. And finally, on our holiest day, Phil Day, drawn by His energy, His spirit, His infinite wisdom, we walk – some even crawl to show their devotion – to Gobbler's Knoll, to wait for the appearance of our savior, our guru, our messiah, Phil the Groundhog.

There is plenty to keep the faithful busy, speeches, games, food, and dance, and some of the faithful are distracted by these Earthly pleasures. And television, radio and newspaper reporters are there in abundance, sometimes recording our rapture, but more often they are there to make fun of us, to further the discrimination and persecution that we Punxutawinists face every day. But those of real faith ignore these distractions of the flesh, and shrug off the laughter and derision, because we know we are on the True Path, and the price of faith sometimes includes personal sacrifice and humiliation.

The journey, the cold, the temptations of the flesh, and the ridicule of the unenlightened are all forgotten on February 1. That magical moment, when Punxsutawney Phil finally appears to the faithful, makes it all worthwhile. He comes out, and a silence falls over the crowd. In His infinite wisdom, He tells us our future. Will it snow more? Will the clouds part and bring sunshine? Is winter over, or is the gloom going to carry on?

And then it's over, for another year. Ecstatic from those few moments in His presence, we faithful retreat to the bars and taverns, to our rooms and homes, and share our enlightenment with our faithful brethren. For we know that, while Punxsutawney Phil speaks only of the weather, that it is truly a metaphor for all things in life. War, poverty, disease, the economy ... we know that, if we can truly understand the meaning of His words, we will be very wise indeed.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Julia Sweeney: Letting Go of God

The Atheist blogosphere tends to be a bit ... critical, maybe harsh, when talking about our religious brethren. We can forget just how comforting religion is, and how truly sad it is for a religious person who loses his or her faith. It really is like losing a loved one – maybe even worse. Because not only are they losing God, who most view like a father, they're also losing everyone they ever loved and lost, all over again. The solace of knowing that, in spite of death, you'll meet again some day, is very powerful.

Nobody says this better than Julia Sweeney. The former Saturday Night Live comedian, who has a wicked fun presence on stage, turned her journey from Catholicism to Atheism into one of the best stories ever told. Letting Go of God, her one-woman stage play, is funny, powerful, sad, poignant and yet uplifting and optimistic. It is the story of her attempt to rekindle her faith in God, which led her to really study the Bible, and for the first time in her life, to actually think about her faith.

If you've never heard Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God, you can catch the first hilarious minutes on

Julia Sweeney: Letting Go of God (an excerpt)

If you like this, and I know you will, you can get the full soundtrack on Apple's iTunes – search for "Julia Sweeney." But there's a great excerpt, the core 15 minutes, on "This American Life: Godless America," with Ira Glass. I HIGHLY recommend this CD – it has several other brilliant interviews about separation of church and state in America.