Thursday, February 28, 2013

Useful things religion gave us

That religion gave us some wonderful cultural or personal goodies is no argument for religion being true, or even useful.   Without religion we would still come up with whatever our psyche demands because our psyche demands it.  People are people.

One example is meditation.  It was developed in Buddhism, migrated around the world, and now can be  completely divorced from the religion that developed it.

I have used it at points in my life and I find it very calming and focusing.  Awhile ago I ran into this article in the L.A. Times about meditation led by a former Buddhist nun.  The local museum here offers it unguided except for downloadable tracks to help you destress at the end of the week.

I'm an art lover, and I can get into a trance state at a concert or at a museum just from the art.  I can also meditate without tibetan chimes or an mp3 over earbuds.  This makes me think that meditation and the resulting feelings could have come about without religion, but without neuroscience people wouldn't understand their illusory mental state.

Neurologists have managed to study the effect of meditation (.pdf) on the brain.  Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows the brain in action, and studies have shown that meditation affects many parts of the brain.  Occam's razor would suggest that meditation is "all in the mind," and not at all supernatural.  I've heard the argument that neurological phenomena that have been interpreted as religious experience are evidence that God has made the human mind such that he can dial in, when the human has made his/her brain receptive of course.  But the same people who make this argument also believe that babies with undeveloped brains, brain-dead people, and people with severe brain damage have souls.  How conveeeenient.  So the soul is in the brain when it's having a religious experience, but it's also in the brain when it's incapable of having a religious experience.
So... religion may have invented meditation, or at least developed it, but it's all-natural and would probably have been discovered at some point anyway.  We discovered mind-altering drugs all over the world.  We would have discovered mind-altering practices, too.  Not to mention, it's possible to have a mental state that feels divine in many different cultures, with many different deities messing with the brain.  If there were one true deity, wouldn't everyone have the same interpretation of their weird neurological states?

And speaking of art, if not for religion, would we have Bach's B Minor Mass?  What about the Sistene Chapel?

Because I'm an art and music lover, this has been lobbed at me by believers more often than any other "argument."  Or perhaps "jabbed" would be the better word, since it is usually said with an implied "Touché."  I try very hard not to sigh before I point out that Bach also composed the Brandenburg concertos and the Mona Lisa is not a religious painting (not by Michelangelo, but still... )

In the past, artists did not have the artistic freedom that they do now.  Michelangelo and Bach had employers, and they had specific job duties.  In some eras, artists worked on commission, but they didn't have a free hand then, either.  They were the best of their generations, so they had employers or patrons with the means to give them a broad canvas so the products were pretty spectacular.  Michelangelo had many "canvases" and Bach had fine singers and instrumentalists to work with.  But Michelangelo didn't have the freedom to paint pagan stories at the Vatican and Bach couldn't tamper with the words of the Mass.  So the argument falls apart because of patronage.  You can turn it around and say something like this:  "Without the greediness of The Church, the best artists of Western Europe would have had the freedom to execute their own vision rather pander in religious sentiment."

The ultimate utility of religion is social control, especially supposed control of supposed morality.  This one gets trotted out often in the letters to the editor in the local paper, and probably all over the country.  A favorite version is: "Since they took God out of the schools there's been a decline in morality and society's going to hell in a handbasket."  Not to mention, Newtown happened because God was expelled.  There are a lot of problems with this, but foremost is that there are two Biblical moralities:  in the Old Testament, God punishes the whole species, or a whole country, or a whole city, based on what only some people are doing.  This terrifies the "good" people who think the rest of us are going to get them into trouble with their brutish sky daddy.  In the New Testament, morality is a total mess, because salvation is based not on works, but on belief, but the main idea is forgiveness.  Except in old-fashioned Catholicism, anything can be forgiven, including murder  (but not butt-sex!)

There is something to the idea that religion influences morality, but not as much as believers think.  First, not hurting other people is something you learn as a child in your family and then extend to your fellow humans in wider and wider circles.  Whether you learn not to hit other kids in school, Sunday school, or the soccerfield, you still learn that lesson.  Likewise, if your family is messed up or you have some brain malfunction and you turn out to be a sociopath, it doesn't matter if you go to church.  A church-going sociopath has a ready-made pool of gullible suckers to take advantage of, and the unchurched sociopath has to make mayhem somewhere else.

Fear of the wrath of the invisible sky-daddy does seem to help some people stay on the "right" side, but only because their beliefs in the supernatural have been a crutch preventing them from developing their natural moral muscle.  Those in the middle, a.k.a. those the Devil and God are battling for, will be influenced by whatever social force is most important to them, regardless of their religion.

So.... does the utility of a religion make any difference in whether it should be followed?  If you think that atheists should join a church even though they don't believe in any of the tenets, then maybe yes (though I strongly disagree on that point)  But if you think that the utility of religion is some kind of proof that atheists should believe in that religion, then the answer is NO!  It's just proof that money, power, and human evolution can sometimes result in something useful.  It's not proof of the supernatural.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Grandma Kills Grandkids, Mom Thinks They're With God

PRESTON, Conn. (AP) — A woman who picked up her two young grandsons from daycare and was supposed to bring them home so the 2-year-old could open his birthday presents instead drove them to a neighboring town and shot and killed the children and herself, state police and family members said.

The bodies of 47-year-old Debra Denison and her grandsons, 2-year-old Alton Perry and 6-month-old Ashton Perry, were found Tuesday night in a car parked near Lake of Isles in Preston, in the southeastern part of the state.

...Family members said Denison, the boys' maternal grandmother, had a history of mental health problems.

...Denison also had a 13-year-year-old son and, in her suicide note, she said in part that God was watching over him on Tuesday, White [the other grandparent] said.

In Facebook postings late Tuesday and Wednesday morning, Brenda Perry [the mom] thanked people for their prayers and said she loved her sons.

"God (has) two beautiful angels helping him now," the postings said. "My boys are in an amazing place we got a few great angels watching over us. love you Ashton and alton."

Well naturally you're going to go right into the God-talk when you yourself allowed your mentally ill mother to be on the approved list of people to pick up your kids even though the kids overwhelmed her.  And did mom know that grandma had access to a gun?  How did that happen?

Guilt and grief are terrible things, but how does imagining that God has enslaved a toddler and infant make things better?

Grandma left a suicide note, acknowledging that she is leaving her youngest child motherless.  God is watching over him?  God couldn't prevent her from offing the toddler and the baby, what good will God do for the teenager?

I seriously hope for the teen's sake that he gets placed in a foster home far, far away from his nutty Christian family.  As crazy as they are, he'd be better off being sent to a Catholic boarding school and being fucked up the ass by a pedophile priest.  At least those priests aren't murderers.

My interview at Deity Shmeity

There are quite a few interesting interviews there (besides my scintillating one).  We atheists are a diverse bunch.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

CNN Interviews: The Amazing Atheist & William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig wants Dawkins to debate him.  Dawkins won't.

CNN has WLC on, and who is the opposition?  Not someone with a Ph.D., but a vlogger who has a propensity to rant.  No offense to Mr. Amazing, but I wonder what Mr. I-want-to-debate-Dawkins felt when he found out CNN was putting up an unlettered vlogger against him.  Yes, even CNN knows that WLC's arguments are so weak that he's on the level with someone who rants in front of a webcam.  What's that in the background?  Could the disciples be carving up some Humble Pie for WLC?

WLC & The Amazing Atheist on the pope's retirement and the rise of atheism in the U.S.:

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Links 2/23

Cut the shit and vaccinate your kids!  This means YOU, Catholics.

That Awkward Moment When Anti-Immigration Protesters Realize They're Immigrants too.  Priceless.

Arizona's attempt to take Medicaid funding away from Planned Parenthood patients gets the axe.  I wonder what would happen if Medicaid were withheld from Catholic hospitals.

CNN offers its Ten Rules of the Internet

Stumbled onto the improbably titled blog, Experimental Theology, which has some posts on something called "Christian A/Theism."   This blog reminds me of the Upton Sinclair quote:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."   The corollary could be "It is difficult to get a theologian to admit to being an atheist when his salary is paid by a religious institution."  This poor soul is twisting into knots trying to craft a theology he can believe in.

Huffpo blogger thinks sciency atheists should be nicer to sciency religionists.  As a politically expedient tactic, maybe.  But does religion have a role in science?  uhhh NO!

The Anti-Science Left:  Author Alex Berezow on Why Both Parties Fail at Science.

Salon's list of 10 Celebs You Didn't Know Were Atheists.  I knew about Seth McFarlane and Angelina Jolie & Harry Potter.  Hugh Hefner being on the list is just what we need for the "You just want to sin" argument.  How about "You just want to adopt brown-skinned babies?"   Don't hear that one much.

How the U.S.'s five most numerous denominations view homosexuality (with promo of show about Methodists' dilemma)

George Costanza look-alike neo-nazi opens a yeshiva in Ohio.

Anti-Semitism is up in France.  Do the French like anybody?  Jews are leaving France, and they're also leaving HungaryIn Tunisia, anti-semitic activity is on the rise.  What year is this?  1933?

Meanwhile, a film documents how The Philippines rescued 1300 Jews during the Holocaust.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

New Video: "Sophia Investigates the Good News Club"

hat tip: The Thinking Atheist podcast. He interviews Katherine Stewart, who wrote The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children.  She also has a blog.  The Good News Club (not a club, really fundamentalist education with a five-year curriculum aimed at elementary children in public schools, even kindergartners) came to her hometown of Santa Barbara, California.  They're probably in your town too, or they want to be.  They're in 3500 schools nationwide.

She's not the only one drawing attention to this menace.  Check out "Good News Club: A Critique."

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Random Links

7 Habits of Marginally Effective People  I've known a few of these

Wisconsin Republicans tell fundies that transvaginal ultrasound is their top priority.   Total lack of imagination.  I'm sure every unemployed undereducated Wisconsite would be happy to know this... if they could afford the interwebs or could read long words.

Cruise ship is study in dystopia society.  Christians get credit for being the good guys.  I'd love to know how many of the food-hoarding drunkards were Christians and how many of the good guys were atheists.

...and in dystopian India, where drugs are manufactured for American companies, there is only one school of pharmacy, and a government program gives six menstrual pads per cycle to rural teens.  When I was that age, those would have lasted me two days, max... or maxi.

The Vatican is full of old Italian men who don't like change.  And being sent to the United States is punishment.  *lol*

And in more Vatican news, they stonewalled a bishop who tried to get rid of a pedophile priest.

Perhaps they were unconcerned because a Buddhist teacher in L.A. is also a sex offender.

Emory University president praises the slavery-era decision to value blacks as 3/5 the value of whites.  It was a compromise "both" sides could agree on, but if I recall correctly, black people were not consulted on this.

The 30 y.o. pentecostal who headed the Office of Faith-based (and Community-based wink wink) Initiatives, is on his way out.  He e-mailed daily devotional passages to the president... as part of his job duties?  How was any of that Constitutional?  Or for that matter the whole office.  It should close.

Teenage girl gets thousands of dollars for obeying one stupid line in Deuteronomy.

In Missouri, a bill proposes to redefine "science" in a way that permits "intelligent" design in schools.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Epic Rap Battle: Adam vs. Eve

It looked like Adam was winning but then he went too far and it was downhill from there!

Video & Response "Jesus Christ is my Nigga"

Oh my my my my

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Richard Dawkins on Al-Jazeera English

His answers should be familiar to most atheists, but it's unusual to see him being questioned by a Muslim:

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Week in Women

Lately, there have been so many stories that are really about women & girls that I decided to do a link round-up just of stories about women this week:

Drop in NYC teen pregnancy rate proves that sex education and availability of contraceptives 1) reduces unwanted pregnancy and 2) does not increase sexual activity.

Mary Ingalls, one of the real-life girls in the Little House series, did not go blind from scarlet fever, but most likely from "brain fever," a.k.a. viral meningoencephalitis.

Serial flashers in Houston spend little time in jail.  Creepy!

 Al-qaeda goons rape the women of Timbuktu.  Jihad is just a cover for men behaving badly.

Poor women in India receiving unnecessary hysterectomies for the insurance money.

Ministry reaches out to strippers to help them get out of the biz.  Now this is a cause secularists should take on!  Instead of asking "what does God want you to do?" we should reach out to these women and say "imagine your income if you earn a scientific or engineering degree!"  Of course, there are a lot of women stripping for their tuition money (I knew one personally in Texas), so it would be tough to top that money.

In Egypt, women protesters have been raped at protests.  Now they have even more to protest about.

Women and young people in Saudi Arabia are working against extremism.   Women can't even drive a car there.  They have a long way to go.

Biblical justification for women in combat.  Let's hope this trend doesn't slide down the slippery slope to justifying slavery, genocide, and capital punishment for minor offenses.

The best news, Malala goes home after successful surgery.  I wish she hadn't credited prayer for her recovery, but from the point of view of her cause that's the best thing she could have said.  Women have much greater chances of equality if it can be presented as compatible with religion.  Religion is just a tool for weak men to suppress women.  Strong men don't feel threatened by an educated woman.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Five Bad Arguments for Christianity

These bad arguments come from theistic sources trained in the field of Philosophy, which right there makes them suspect in my mind.  Philosophy only proves or disproves something within its own framework.  It doesn't account for evidence, which is a huge problem.  It also doesn't provide a method for taking down an argument based on faulty premises.  Some Christian arguments have such faulty premises that they're obviously flawed, but I chose these because they're often brought up in debates with atheists.  Some (Christian) philosophers will even snootily put down "evidentialism" or "naturalism" as if the basis for science (a.k.a. the study of reality) is a faulty reasoning system.  They know that the existence of God can't be proved by the scientific method so they fall back on philosophical argumentation.  They live in their own little world and they play by their own rules then claim they win because the rest of us live in reality.

Ontological Argument:  "I can imagine a God so great that there can't be anything greater, therefore God.Or maybe "The idea exists therefore it's real."  The problem with this is of course the hubris of the philosopher thinking that his mind is so great it can define reality.  In The Forest People, by Colin Turnbull, an anthropologist studying Mbuti Pygmies in Africa travels with his guide to a hill overlooking a savannah, something the guide had never seen before.  Animals in the distance appear to get bigger as they approach the hill.  The guide is terrified.  He's never seen an animal grow before his eyes. He had never seen anything at a distance because he lived his life in forests.  Was he stupid?  No, his imagination was limited by his experience.  That's true of all of us, even people who have Ph.D.s in philosophy from Cambridge or Harvard.

Argument from Ignorance:  "I can't imagine there's another explanation for [fill in the blank with almost anything from nature], therefore God."  This argument also sometimes gets used by "UFOlogists" and other delusionals.  This argument proves nothing except the limited imagination of the person making the claim.  It's a favorite of creationists, who will say "Scientists don't know everything, therefore God."   Creationists' favorite is the gap between species in the fossil record.  Fossils don't document every tiny stage of evolution for each species, because 1) fossils are rare and 2) fossils rarely get discovered even if they survive the millenia.  The biggest problem with this argument is that if there's something that's not known, how could it not being known it be proof of anything at all?  It's not known!  You could make up almost anything!  "Scientists haven't discovered the missing link between Austrolopithicus and Homo Sapiens, therefore man is the product of space aliens breeding with Austrolopithicus."

Argument ad Populum:  "Religion is popular, therefore it's true."  A billion believers can't be wrong... unless they're the billion or so who are Muslims.  Or the combined four billion (at least) who aren't Christian.  A variation is the number of people over time who have believed something.  "People have been devout Christians for two thousand years, therefore it must be true."  If time were the main proof of validity of a belief wouldn't Zoroastrianism or Buddhism have a leg up on Christianity?  (This is also called Appeal to Tradition)  This argument never works on me because my grandmother said to me at least once a week all through my childhood "If [kid I liked] jumped off a bridge would you jump off too?"

Cosmological Argument: "The stars, therefore God."  Also, "The Universe, therefore God." This is a favorite of William Lane Craig, "professional philosopher," or more properly "master debater."  (Note, I think Craig is a dumbass)  He wins debates by cluttering up his arguments with red herrings, but the essence of his argument is that it's absurd to believe the universe could come into being without a mind whipping it up.  (Perhaps a kind of ontological argument by proxy)  He conveniently doesn't think it's absurd to believe a god could come into being without some other greater mind whipping it up or else he wouldn't be able to make a living.  Note, this argument has been around for centuries and it's still the best thing WLC can come up with.  With all that populum being believers for all those centuries, shouldn't there be a few good ideas surfacing eventually?

Pascal's Wager:  "If I'm right I win!  If you're wrong you burn!  therefore, God"  (Named for the medieval dude who came up with the idea)  Again, lack of imagination.  There may be more than two possibilities, and betting on only one of them isn't that smart if you haven't investigated every one of them thoroughly.   If someone throws Pascal's Wager at me, I answer: "What if you're wrong and Buddhists are right and you'll have to live through 500 lifetimes as a cockroach because you claimed to know something you couldn't possibly know?"

Christians really believe that these are closers.  It's the best they have, which is really sad.  Well, they sometimes pull out the "I feel the presence of god in my soul" crap, which isn't really an argument as much as an admission of neurological disturbance.  (I've blogged about that here and here)

Fortunately, the Everyday Atheist doesn't have to get a Ph.D. in philosophy to shoot down Christian argumentation.  If this post has put the debating fire in your belly, there's plenty more to stoke it out on the interwebs:

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dangerous Persuasions: Scientology on Investigation Discovery

Dangerous Persuasions.  Season One.  Episode One.

Wow.  This woman joined Scientology, got exploited doing crazyass work, then was promoted to being a spy.  On orders of Scientology, she got a job in a psychiatry office, and she took documents home, had them copied, then sneaked them back into the files.  She also spied on an author, Paulette Cooper, who wrote a book against Scientology: The Scandal of Scientology.  (Available for download at her site)

After spying on a Suppressive Person , she gets transferred to headquarters (Sea Org), and enjoys only a brief period of having some bit of respect.  But at HQ any misstep can result in being rehabilitated.  This rehabilitation consists of menial jobs at HQ, such as janitorial or food service.  The only way out was to write an essay saying how horrible she was and getting everybody else to sign it.  Everybody!  They imposed this ridiculous punishment on her while she was pregnant.

Humiliation served its purpose, making her duly afraid to piss off the superiors.  After this, she and her husband get transferred to Hollywood to oversee the fleecing of celebrities.  They get called back to Sea Org for more rehab, but this time they decide to leave Sea Org and just be regular Scientologists, like regular Catholics, I guess.  She deconverts, and Scientology can't tolerate that.  They subject her to brutal interrogation techniques, or more properly, psychological torture.  After being sent back home, the poor thing snaps completely, and winds up in a mental hospital.  This gets her husband's attention, and he also deconverts.

At the very end, she says how she's at peace, but she looks a little drugged and creepy, which is unfortunate.  She was probably just a little tired, or maybe she was trying to convince herself that she really was on the other side of her experiences.  I wonder how truly peaceful a person can be when they know they are a "Suppressive Person" in the eyes of such an evil organization.

Piers Morgan advertised having a former Scientologist on tonight.  I wonder if it will be her.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A few links

Extreme Sports "star" dies.  Now the only prize he can win is a Darwin Award.

Abortion protester banned from all of D.C.  I wonder how that will stand up in court.  I think considering his latest stunt was climbing a tree in the freezing cold without gloves, he could easily be committed for being a danger to himself or others.

Lawrence Krauss on the difference between science and religion (from the Why Evolution is True blog)

Live by the Sword, die by the sword...  this murder is a shame, but the real question is, will conspiracy theorists blame Jesse Ventura?

India will have a Violence Against Women act finally.  Perhaps they will shame Congress into reauthorizing the U.S.'s Violence Against Women Act.

Perhaps that's because one of Hinduism's sects is called "Smartism."

Pedophile priest still gets a promotion in Newark, N.J.  His name is "Fugee."  Wyclef Jean could not be reached for comment.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese released info on 122 pedophile priests, and relieved Cardinal Mahony of his "duties" for his role in covering up sex abuse.  Better late than never?  (the L.A. Times has some of the documents online here)

There's a new book out on Scientology, but you can't get it in Canada.

Next weekend is Evolution Weekend... in churches!