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!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Some Sanity in Federal Marijuana Policy?

Wow, my head is spinning. Maybe I smoked too much of the ganja, because it seems like it's legal now? Wait ... no it's not, but if I smoke it, I won't get busted any more ... or maybe I will, but nobody can seem to tell me ... I'm so confused, where'd I put my lighter?

Let me see if I can sort it out...

It's legal for medicinal use. Right, got that. And medicinal, yeah, right I have anxiety syndrome doc! I worry all day about getting busted, doesn't that make it medically necessary? Thanks, doc!

But the feds say it's illegal. How can that be, it's grown and sold right here in California! There's no interstate commerce, so no federal authority, right? But the feds have been throwing folks in jail for decades, so I guess that "states rights" stuff in our United States Constitution is only good if the states have the courage to stand up to the feds. Apparently none of the states had any backbone in the drug-hysteria days when these laws went on the books.

But wait, the feds won't bust me anyway? They have "better things to do" than enforce this law? Isn't a law a law? Aren't we supposed to obey the law, not pick and choose?

I'm so confused. I'd feel stupid, but all three of the last three Presidents, Obama, Bush (W) and Clinton, openly admit that they smoked marijuana, so I guess I'm in good company.

Federal policy is still bone-headed dumb, but I guess we can be thankful that there's a little motion in the right direction. At least they won't be busting people in states where marijuana is legal any more.

(I've written before about how America's drug laws are a direct result of religious intolerance. And for the record, I have smoked marijuana before, but don't any more, nor do I use other recreational drugs of any sort. Ok, I do like caffeine.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Science of Luck - Really!

When I saw the headline, "Be Lucky – It's an Easy Skill to Learn," I thought, "Oh boy, here's another unscientific bit that might be fun to deconstruct!" Imagine my surprise and pleasure to instead find that this article about good luck was actually scientific, well researched, and fun to read!

Prof Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire (UK), according to his own web page, "has gained an international reputation for research into quirky areas of psychology, including deception, humour, luck and the paranormal." He has a REALLY cool blog with some great illusions and puzzles.

Many people, perhaps most, think their luck is a metaphysical phenomenon, controlled by beneficent or malevolent forces of good and evil, or maybe god, fairies, devils, what have you. When bad things happen, they are victims; when good things happen, they don't take credit.

Wiseman took the approach of a true man of science. He studied it, and discovered that the people themselves caused their own fortune and misfortune. After interviewing hundreds of self-described lucky and unlucky people, he discovered the underlying reasons:
  • Lucky people were able to spot opportunities quickly and take them. Unlucky people overlooked opportunities, even obvious ones.
  • Lucky people were optimistic and relaxed, unlucky people were anxious and worried.
  • Lucky people listen to their intuition, unlucky people do not.
  • Lucky people had positive expectations, unlucky people expect the worst.
If that were the end of it, you might imagine that unlucky people were pessimistic and shunned their intuition because bad luck had taught them bitter lessons. But Professor Wiseman went a step further: he offered lessons in how to improve luck, and it worked!

This is real science, and it's refreshing. All too often in this blog, I find myself criticizing yet another silly quasi-religious pseudo-scientific theory, whether it is homeopathy, scientology, or faith healing. It's too bad there aren't more men and women like Professor Wiseman, showing world that our fates are really in our own hands, not some mythical, mystical world of demons, fairies and gods. Life is much better when we live in the real world.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Legal abortions save lives

Are the conservatives who oppose abortion committing evil, even by their own standards?

A new Guttmacher Institute report released today demonstrates clearly that the best way to reduce abortions is to improve family planning.


Don't get me wrong, I applaud the Guttmacher report – it will add solid science to the debate. But I have to wonder: Why is such a report even necessary?

The irony is that conservatives, in their zeal to prevent abortions, have blocked family planning, thus increasing the number of abortions performed, probably far in excess of the "babies" they've managed to save.

Twenty or thirty years ago, I heard an interview with Dr. Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the first birth-control pill. He was pro-abortion too, but when someone criticized him on his beliefs, he said something like, "The thing we all agree on is the hope that one day no abortions will be neccessary." He went on to explain that birth control was the solution to the abortion problem. If families and women have access to effective family-planning services, abortions can become a thing of the past.

So ironically, the conservative agenda that opposes abortion and withholds other family-planning services, causes abortions to increase, exactly the opposite of their intention. If the Bush administration had simply funded family-planning services worldwide, and ignored the fact that some money was being used for abortions, they could have reduced the total number of abortions, surely a good thing from anyone's point of view.

Unfortunately, there is a terrible connection between AIDS and abortions, too. It's been shown time and again that the most effective way to prevent AIDS is with condoms. Abstinence programs are 100% ineffective, and in some cases I've heard they're even counterproductive.

The Bush administration's knee-jerk opposition to abortion caused them to withhold funds from places like equatorial Africa. The direct, measurable result of that is a terrible increase in the spread of AIDS. Even if you believe the human soul is injected by God at the moment of conception, and even if you believe that many babies were saved from abortion, more people are dying in the end, from illegal abortions, starvation, and AIDS.

It's the typical head-in-the-sand attitude we see so often from religious conservatives. They get on their soap boxes and yell about some commandment from God, without ever considering the real-life consequences of their actions.

If evil is defined as that which harms and kills, the Republican leaders who set America's international family-planning policy for the last decade or so were among the most evil in history. Literally millions of people around the world today have AIDS, simply because the United States withdrew family-planning money from countries that allowed abortions at their medical clinics.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Catholic Priests: Constitution Cuts Both Ways

Here is a twist: separation of church and state cuts both ways, it seems. A Catholic Priest, angry because he was accused of molesting two boys, sued them for defamation. But the U.S. Constitution, which the Church has used as a shield, cut the other way this time. His case was thrown out because the only way the court case could go forward was to examine how the Church investigates its own clergy. Such an examination, said the court, would violate the separation clause of the Constitution.

So the priest is out of luck. The Roman Catholic Church removed him from his pulpit because there was "reasonable" evidence to conclude he'd molested the boys. He apparently wasn't convicted in criminal court, so legally he's innocent. If his employer was anything except a church, he could have his day in court. But if he wasn't a priest, he'd probably be in jail.

There's no happy ending to this story, but at least for once the Constitution's separation clause protected someone from a clergyman's vengeance.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Ongoing Battle Against Discrimination in California

Just a short blog today, life's other events is keeping me busy.

Former California governor Jerry Brown, who is now our state Attorney General, turns out to be a pretty good guy. My recollection of his governership is of a clueless idealist. But today, he is redeeming himself with his support of gay/lesbian rights in California.

It's a pretty amusing situation: He is offering opinions and evidence against himself in a court case! As state attorney general, he's supposed to defend Proposition 8, the discriminatory law against gay marriage. That means he is the defendent ... yet he is offering opinions to the court that says the lawsuit is without merit, that the plaintiffs are wrong, and that the law he is supposed to defend is unconstitutional.

The judge was so perplexed by this situation that he let Prop 8's organizers pay for an attorney to offer a defense, as otherwise there would have only been one side in the courtroom!

Jerry Brown is to be commended for this, and for a lifetime of public service.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Creationist Film Premier Cancelled, Won't be at Smithsonian

Well, good news, I think. Last week I blogged about a religion film advocating intelligent design that was going to premier at the California Science Center (CSC), a Smithsonian affiliate. Well, apparently I wasn't the only one to criticize the CSC, there was a virtual firestorm of protest, and now the screening has been cancelled.

The ID proponents are, of course, screaming "Censorship!" But the word "censorship" itself shows a gross misunderstanding of constitutional law and the American way: Only the government can be accused of censorship. The rest of us are simply exercising our rights to not listen to silly theories, and more importantly, to not lend scientific credibility to a theory that has no scientific merit by letting it play in a respected venue.

Ironically, I'm somewhat disappointed. I was seriously considering going to the screening, partly for the entertainment value and for the "know thine enemy" aspect of the film. But mostly, I'd started preparing some questions for the Q&A time afer the show, illustrating that this silly "theory" of evolution fails even the most basic tests of a scientific theory. So while I'm glad this drivel isn't being screened by a reputable scientific organization, I was sort of looking forward to the Q&A period after the movie.

The details of the cancellation are murky. The CSC claims it was purely a contractual issue. The ID proponents are screaming about censorship. The mainstream newspapers couldn't seem to make heads or tails of it. But it's my guess that, like most contracts, there were flaws that could have been ignored if both parties were willing participants, but the Smithsonian's embarrassment was too much and they found a convenient loophole.

Maybe I'll follow the news and figure out where the new venue will be...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Christian Cross to Honor Jewish Soldiers? Scalia says yes!

I try to have respect for our Supreme Court justices even when I disagree with them, but Justice Scalia has once again shown a callous and contemptible insensitivity for religious minorities, and a shocking lack of understanding of the principles on which this country is founded.

Scalia can't see why the Christian cross, the very symbol of Jewish persecution down through the ages, might not be considered pleasing to Jews who died for their country:
"[The Christian cross] signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins," [attorney] Peter Eliasberg told the justices. ... Justice Antonin Scalia sharply disagreed. "It's erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all the war dead."
This is so idiotic it makes my head spin. How could anyone, especially a Supreme Court justice, think that a cross is anything but a Christian symbol, and worse, think that Jews would feel honored by this symbol that to them represents hatred and persecution?

This isn't the first time Scalia has shown his true colors as a Christian bigot. In an interview recently, he admitted openly that he doesn't believe atheists and humanists deserve the same protection as religious people, according to his twisted view of the United States Constitution.

Justice Scalia is missing that essential element that every judge should have: empathy, the ability to put yourself in the other guy's shoes. He is so immersed in Christianity he can't even recognize that the cross is a symbol of Christianity, not a generic god-symbol.

Scalia reminds me of that idiotic Kentucky lawmaker who argued that, "God is not religion. God is God!" It's laughable when a backwards hick says something like this, but what Scalia is saying is every bit as dumb.

How did this man get on the Supreme Court?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

God is Too Nice: Conservatives Rewriting the Bible

It's so absurd the entire blogosphere is laughing about it: The people behind (the right-wing "encyclopedia") want to rewrite the Bible, because it's too liberal!

According to their ten-point list of goals:
  • God is emasculated. Gotta fix that. All that genocide and war was pretty wimpy. Frying Sodom and Gomorra was child's play. Gotta toughen Him up! Show what a mean dude He is!
  • It's dumbed down. Yeah, some translations are written for seventh grade readers! Gotta stop that, you can't have just any dummy reading this stuff.
  • Keep up with the latest conservative terms. 'Cause you sure don't want anyone to think the Bible is for just anyone. No liberals allowed!
  • Emphasize the existence of Hell. Goes along with that emasculation, something you must stop. If God's going to be the tough guy, He's gotta be willing torture us!
  • Show how God approves of the Republican Party's economic principles. 'Cause everyone knows that God is a free-market economist. (Forget about all that socialistic sharing stuff Jesus said.)
  • Remove recent insertions, like the adultress story. Maybe they should even take Jesus out, since that whole pesky New Testament was inserted later too.
... and a bunch more misguided and misinformed conservative drivel.

Even the mainstream media (the NY Daily News and US News & World Report) are writing tongue-in-cheek articles that can barely contain their laughter.

And it would be laughable except that these people are both serious, and ignorant about their own precious Bible's history. These guys should study that history more before they announce these lofty, misguided projects. It's sort of embarrassing that a guy like me seems to know more about the Bible's history than they do.

Outrageous: Battered women have a "pre-existing medical condition"

I usually write about religious issues, but today's blog is from a colleague's email who found something so outrageous I couldn't ignore it.

"Sometimes I see things in the news that just seem so very, very incredible to me, although by this time I shouldn't be surprised by anything....but this morning I saw some stuff on CNN about this topic, and I couldn't believe it, until I looked it up on the 'net ... here's a link."
Eight states and the District of Columbia don't have laws that specifically bar insurance companies from using domestic violence as a pre-existing condition to deny health coverage, according to a study from the National Women's Law Center.
Got that? In other words, if a woman's husband beats her up, she can't get health insurance any more.

My colleague's email continues, "This is amazing to me, considering the fact that as many as one in three women have been the victim of domestic violence at some time in their life, either as a child, a spouse, a girlfriend, or a parent ... far more women than men ... and this stupid concept that women who have been victimized in these situations are somehow guilty of participating in risky lifestyles and are therefore subject to discrimination in eight states and by four major insurance companies. This is just one more nail in the coffin of today's problematic health care system.

"But worse than that, it's a sad, sad indicator that maybe women have not come all that far, if domestic violence can be used to bar women from getting medical help for themselves when they most need it.

"Hey, I know how we can make this all fair and square! ... why don't we exclude everyone who rides motorcycles, or who jumps out of airplanes, or who has gotten into a bar fight with his buddies, or who is a police officer, or a fireman ... all on the basis of engaging in risky lifestyles?? Oops, no that wouldn't work, particularly since most of the folks who engage in those behaviors are MEN ...... !#$^&*%!!!"

All I can add is, Amen!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Shroud of Turin: The Zombie that Won't Die

The Shroud of Turin received another death blow today, but it's like a zombie that refuses to die!

(I wrote about the shroud once before.)

I understand and respect many religious beliefs. But how can people believe so many things that can't possibly be true? That have been thoroughly debunked? And perhaps even more perplexing to me, why do they so badly need to believe these myths?

These are the very questions that intrigued me years ago when I began studying memes, memetics, and cultural evolution, and that ultimately inspired me to write The Religion Virus.

Religious beliefs can be broadly categorized on a scale from sensible to outrageous. At the sensible end are beliefs that, while I don't share them, I can understand. Questions of the origin of the universe, the nature of the human spirit or "soul," the source of creativity and inspiration – these things are all interesting questions, and I respect those who explore them from a spiritual/religious point of view.

At the other end of the spectrum are things like creationism, homeopathy, Pat Robertson claiming that a hurricane is God's wrath for homosexuality ... and today's topic, the Shroud of Turin. These things are so ludicrous they defy all logic.

And that's where the study of cultural evolution and memes helps me. Every one of the outrageous claims are things that people, for one reason or another, desperately need to believe. Let me emphasize that word, need, because that is what gives us insight into these impossible beliefs.

Evolution favors survival, period. It doesn't matter whether the species is a noble lion or a lowly tapeworm, the individuals that reproduce faster, that survive the challenges better, are the ones that succeed.

In cultural evolution, truth can be nearly irrelevant to survival. An idea propagates through society based not simply on its truth, but on a host of complex factors, including how fascinating it is, whether it purports to explain something mysterious, and whether people want to believe it.

The problem with truth is that it's only one of many factors that affect an idea's survival. Worse, if an idea's truth or falseness is complex, difficult to ascertain, or worst of all, requires an advanced college education to understand, then truth becomes almost irrelevant in the "survival of the fittest" battle of ideas in society.

The Shroud of Turin is a perfect example of a meme that survives. People want to believe it, because if it's true, it means they can be physically close to an artifact that Jesus Christ Himself touched. And people are able to believe it, because the proof that it's a modern forgery uses complex scientific data. Those not versed in chemistry and physics are forced to simply trust scientists, and have trouble distingishing real science from pseudo science.

So, the zombie meme that won't die, known as the Shroud of Turin, has survived another death blow, and I predict it will survive many more.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"Intelligent Design" Film to be Screened at Smithsonian?

This is disturbing news. The religious pseudo-documentary, Darwin's Dilemma: The Mystery of the Cambrian Fossil Record, will be screened at the Smithsonian Institute.

I know the Smithsonian is devoted to enquiry, and encourages honest scientific debate. But there is no debate, no "mystery," about the Cambrian explosion. The Smithsonian should be scolded for letting this pseudo-scientific religious propaganda into their theater.

[Update: See Marc's comment in the comments below. Apparently the Smithsonian is not sponsoring this event. Thanks, Marc, for pointing this out.]

This is yet another example of intelligent-design proponents callously and knowingly relying on the ignorance of their own audience. They find an area of science where there is either controversy, or (as in this case) where a thorough understanding requires considerable study. Then they shout, "Mystery!" "Scientists are baffled!" "They can't explain it!" They bring up arguments from a hundred years ago, quote scientists out of context, and baffle their audience with scientific sleight-of-hand moves.

And finally, when they've built up the "impossibility" of the Cambrian Explosion, they cry, "It must be God," without adding the qualifier, "... because you're too stupid to understand the real science!"

In this case, there is no mystery. The Cambrian Explosion was baffling to Darwin, but that's because he studied its fossils over 150 years ago. Surely we've made some progress since then! In fact, the mystery has been explained, many times. But the intelligent-design proponents who created this piece of religious propaganda are relying on the fact that their audience won't take the time to find the real facts. They're counting on ignorance.

It's a sad testament to their lack of faith in their God that they stoop to such low tricks. If their faith was strong, and their religion was true, it would stand up to scrutiny, wouldn't it?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Exciting New Hominid Found: What's a Creationist to Do?

What an exciting day for anthropology! One of the most important fossil discoveries ever was announced yesterday, of a hominid female who lived 4.4 million years ago. And the way she fits into the evolutionary "tree" is even more exciting. Her arm, wrist, hand and shoulder bones show that she was a tree climber, yet her feet and pelvis clearly show that she walked upright!

I've always wondered: What's it like to be a creationist on days like this? To those of us who understand evolution, and the other sciences that support it such as physics, geology, astronomy, biology, chemistry and anthropology, it's all a wonderful, intricate puzzle, where each new discovery fits so beautifully, like a perfect puzzle piece that we've been waiting for. But to the creationist, it's another unpleasant yet undeniable fact, another ugly wart on the side of creationism. It means the creationists have to do yet another dance around the truth, come up with yet another unlikely story, make up more justifications and rationalizations.

I also had the pleasure of hearing Professor Tim White of the University of California interviewed on CNN. The team that was assembled to study this fossil collection was stellar. The found the remains of at least 36 individual hominids, but better yet, they were in a rock layer that included giraffes, bats, birds, trees, plants, pollen, seeds ... an entire ecosystem. They assembled a team of experts that included physicists, pollen specialists, animal specialists, primate specialists ... altogether almost forty scientific leaders in every relevant discipline. The fossil findings were so extensive – and so fragile – that it took fifteen years to complete the research for yesterday's announcement.

One has to wonder at the sheer chutzpah of creationist like Jerry Falwell who, without any expertise in any of these fields, simply declare them wrong. Of course, "chutzpah" is a Jewish word, so maybe Jerry would object to that, too.