Saturday, May 31, 2014

May 31 Link round-up

Laci Green contextualizes the UCSB shooter's toxic combination of misogyny plus a sense of entitlement -- he's not the first mass murderer to kill women out of a sense of entitlement.

The court system once again supports the notion that "In God We Trust" is a secular tradition. And yet Christians keep pointing to the slogan on American money as proof that America is a Christian nation. I think the fact that it's been used that way should trump the claim that it was meant to be secular.

Is "atheist chaplain" an oxymoron? The Atlantic looks at military chaplaincy. It seems to me the problem isn't that atheists are stigmatized, but that psychological counseling is.

Atheists in the Bible Belt: a Survival Guide by CNN

That idiotic Duggar couple is still trying to conceive baby number 20 but they learned it's unlikely. (found via No Longer Quivering)

The Duggars' cult hero got busted for sexual harassment and attacking women. How are the Duggars handling it? As if it never happened.

The true origins of the religious right? Nope, not anti-abortion. It was pro-segregation.

The true origins of modern neo-paganism? Nope, not Ireland. The Irish Atheist sets the record straight.

And speaking of abortion and Ireland, in the good old days when girls didn't get abortions, they and their bastard kids moved into the "home" where they died at a rate of about 50% according to the Friendly atheist.

Six signs of medical quackery.

Sudanese Christian woman imprisoned for apostasy (her father is a muslim) is freed from prison. Islamic countries will perhaps grow up just a wee bit as the rest of the world puts pressure on them for their ridiculous policies.
Update:  No, she wasn't freed from prison

Some videos of the week:

Atheism TV interviews Maryam Namazie about her Bread and Roses internet TV show:

Dusty Smith watched "God's Not Dead" so you don't have to:

Friday, May 30, 2014

High School principal gives sermon/prayer at high school graduation

He's so incredibly a) ignorant or b) dishonest Either way, he should lose his job and become a preacher, which is apparently his true calling.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Random Link Round-up

It's been awhile but some of what I've been reading just has to be shared.

The kid who killed six people in Santa Barbara wrote a 140-page autobiography, which he calls a magnificent story.  Narcissistic much?

A 17-year-old good girl who followed the rules of her homeschool prom dress and behavior codes nevertheless got kicked out because the creepy homeschool dads thought she was too sexy.

There's no such thing as too much cowbell, as this Dixieland band discovered.

Eight pseudoscientific climate claims debunked by real scientists.  Of course, it's become a religion to deny scientific reality but we can try.

Washpo contextualizes Boko Haram -- Nigeria is basically a mess.

Austin Atheists help the homeless (most of the story is behind a paywall - boo)

Former fundamentalist Christian: Everything we were taught is a lie

Not atheism, but the war on women has even reached the operatic stage, where being a bit plump is now a fault.  We used to expect opera singers to be fat!

Video of the week:
Also not atheism, but freaking cool:  Solar freakin' roadways:

Book Review: Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design

Book Review:  Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design, by John C. Avise

I borrowed this slim (165 pages of text) book from the library thinking it would be easy reading about freaks of nature, tailbones, and other obvious disproofs of "intelligent" design.  Nope, it is a very technical but fascinating discussion of the types of errors and detritus inside the actual ACTG sequences of actual human DNA.  I have never taken a microbiology course, and I think that might have made this book easier reading, but I got through it thanks to high school biology, a college course on genetics, and keeping up with sciency books and magazines written for the layperson.  Even so, I did have to renew it because it was rather slow-going.  Despite the hard work, it was a real eye-opener for the detailed descriptions of various genetic processes.

There is a glossary and if you don't have much background in biology you will definitely need it.  He does define most terms, but you have to remember them as they come up over and over.  There is also quite a bit of alphabet soup.  It's no wonder people with lower than average I.Q.s prefer the Bible's stories to actual science!  But even if you have to go slowly, this book is worth the trip.

He begins with a brief history of the "problem of [natural] evil" and creationism as a movement.
The "eternal paradox" is the first chapter's title.  This is the paradox of how or why a creator-god made so many diseased individuals if he was so perfect. The attempt to answer this quandary is called theodicy, and Avise traces its history a bit.  He also talks about where natural selection fits in as a broad explanation:

It is also an unconscious and amoral artisan, totally devoid of intelligence, foresight, and ethics.  From among the multitudinous genetic variants that arise in each generation via the now well-understood hereditary processes of mutation and recombination, natural selection in effect makes choices about which genes survive and proliferate to populate each new generations. (p.17)

FYI, that's one of his more readable sentences.  Avise is a microbiologist at the University of California- Irvine (faculty bio page here)  He knows his stuff!  But he also knows the claims of Intelligent Design, and dispenses with their mischaracterization of natural selection (Michael Behe, a microbiologist & ID proponent, is his favorite target) in the first chapter:
  • Evolution does not equal unsophistication
  • Evolution does not equal random chance (though it is not devoid of chance/stochastic elements)
  • Natural selection does not ensure that only favorable genes establish
  • Complexity does not equal evolutionary improbability
  • Natural does not equal proper (ethical)
  • Evolution does not necessitate atheism*
*note, he makes many accommodationist statements in this book, but he does not seem to be a fan of religion.

The sequencing of the entire DNA genome of human beings led to a series of surprising discoveries, some of which explain where and how inherited diseases make their mischief within the genome.   I was also very surprised by some of the findings of new genomic science.  Each chapter after the first two discusses parts of the genome, and he lists diseases caused by malfunctions in each of them.

Chapter two has a lovely title:  "Fallible Design: Protein-Coding DNA Sequences."  He includes some history of biochemistry, which is a relief because he talks about people after Darwin who figured out the details, something authoritarian Christians seem to ignore (or are ignorant of).  He also summarizes some of the concepts, and he is not writing for fourth-graders:

In the ensuing decades (after the Krebs cycle was discovered in 1937), biochemists gradually elucidated operational details in dozens of metabolic pathways within the bustling biochemical factories we call cells.  These pathways interconvert, shuttle, or otherwise manipulate various organic molecules of diverse classes including lipids, proteins, vitamins and cofactors, simple and complex carbohydrates, and nucleic acids as well as constituent parts and secondary compounds from all of the above. (p44)

(I put the above quote into a reading level analyzer and it registered as 22nd grade, and that's just an average passage - there are some I had to read several times to grasp)

A few genetic disorders were the gateway to discoveries with broader significance, and he starts his discussion with some of them.  One is Huntington disease, which is fatal.  While discussing the research on this disease, Avise casually drops a small detail that made my jaw drop:

When human and mouse cells are mixed in a test tube, they often fuse spontaneously into hybrid cells that contain an initial full complement of chromosomes from both species.  Through successive divisions of these hybrid cells, the human chromosomes tend to be lost more or less at random, sometimes until only one remains.
This little fact enabled a researcher named Nancy Wexler to identify the gene that causes Huntington's!

I was also astonished to see a diagram (p 57) of "the morbid anatomy of chromosome 2 in humans showing the mapped positions of genes underlying various inherited disorders."  There are 22 of them, including red hair, colon cancer and obesity right next to rare and fatal diseases!

While I had hoped to find circus-worthy pictures in this book (there are no pictures), some of the diseases he describes painted mental pictures that were worth the read.  My favorite is "maple syrup urine disease," which makes a person's urine smell like maple syrup!  Another one I'd never heard of is Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, which causes children to compulsively vomit and hurt themselves.  Another disorder makes people smell like rotten fish  You can't make up this stuff!

More well-known diseases in the same category of genetic error include Alzheimer's, Marfan Syndrome, and retinitis pigmentosa (one of my high school classmates had this).

The various parts of the genome were a big surprise to me too.  "Junk DNA" includes sequences that came from viruses, which then replicated within the germ cells over countless generations.  There are also genes that belong in the genome but over-reproduced, then became nonfunctional "pseudogenes" while the correct version continues to do its job.

I love this passage:
At face value, pseudogenes hardly seem like genomic features that would be designed by a wise engineer. Most of them lie scattered along chromosomes like useless molecular cadavers.  This sentiment does not preclude the possibility that an occasional pseudogene is resuscitated asuch that it contributes positively to cellular operations; several instances are known or suspected in which a pseudogene formerly assumed to be genomic 'junk' was later deemed to have a functional role in cells... such (exceptions) hardly provide solid evidence for intelligent design; instead, they seem to point toward the kind of idiosyncratic genetic tinkering for which nonsentient evolutionary processes are notorious.

He stops short of calling them zombie genes, but I bet he knows we're thinking that!

The final category he describes had me floored:  "mobile elements" or "jumping genes" are bits of DNA that replicate all over the genome, apparently without function or deleterious effects... most of the time.  One category of these comprises 20% of the human genome, and the total is 44% !   These things may have come from retroviruses or bacteria, waaaaay back in our genetic history, meaning that 44% of the "human" genome is not human at all!  These parasitical sequences are not just hanging out in the genome, though.  Sometimes they help enabled mutations that drove natural selection and sometimes they help regulate genes.

Other times, they cause horrible diseases, such as specific types of hemophilia, breast cancer, colon cancer, neurofibromatosis, lymphoma, muscular dystrophy, and Tay-Sachs disease.  It takes over two pages to list them (128-130).

One point that made me go "hmm" is that scientists have been able to correct defective genes in the laboratory, and this brings us back to the Problem of Evil and theodicy.  If humans can fix defective genes, but God can't, what does that mean about God's omnipotence?

The final chapter takes on Behe directly, though if you have read the other chapters, it's impossible to buy any of the Intelligent Design ideas.  Likewise, any theological explanation for allowing genetic disorders seems as silly as a talking snake or worldwide flood. 

So after thoroughly explaining how genetics disproves any "intelligence" in the "design" of life, you'd expect him to point and laugh at religion.  Unfortunately, in the end he claims that religion and science don't have to be enemies.


Apparently he has also been trying to convince scientists of this, as Jerry Coyne described:  "Does Evolution Improve Theology?"

Despite his accommodationist leanings, I'd recommend the book for anyone wanting to know how (not why) things can go so badly wrong in our DNA.

Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True and Michael Shermer's Why Evolution Matters are also great books.  If you haven't read them, I recommend reading them before tackling this one if you are leery of microbiology.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bible-Believing Pastor's Homophobic Rant in the Muncie Paper

James C. Johnson: Coverage of gay NFL player an unwelcome sign of times

The Muncie Star Press published this revolting editorial from a local Baptist pastor - a pastor for the church that sponsors the local Christian "school." There is natural disagreement about what constitutes prejudice against homosexuals versus homophobia, and I think this is a clear example of the latter. This man is afraid. He's not afraid of his vengeful, whimsical, genocidal god. He's afraid of homosexuals (emphasis mine):

Mother’s Day, Sunday morning I turned on my television to ESPN, like I do most days, to see slam dunks and half court shots. It is typical for my three boys (ages 8, 9, 10) to hear the TV, and emerge from their rooms wrapped in their blankets and sit on our couch. 
This Sunday morning was no different in that way. Even with sleep in their eyes, and bed-head hair, they are always eager to find out who won the NBA playoff games the previous evening, and what is going in the world of sports. 
Mother’s Day Sunday morning was made startlingly unique by the repeated showcasing of Michael Sam, the 249th pick in the NFL draft, kissing his male partner. 
As a Christian father, I found it repulsive and unnecessary. After my initial feeling of deep disgust, my heart transitioned into deep concern for the direction of our society.
That sounds like fear to me.  He's afraid that society will transitioned into one where people who aren't carbon copies of himself will have the same rights that he does.  Oh noes!

Many in the Christian community are outraged by this promotion of sin, but are intimidated to speak out because of social pressures.

Well at least he's not too afraid to speak out on behalf of all those cowards out there who are afraid they might be wrong.   Or maybe they're more afraid of a twitter twitstorm than of their vengeful, punishing god.

In a rhetorical tour de force, this jerk turned Obama's praise for Sam as someone who was rewarded for what he did rather than who he was into somehow making it praise for who he is.  Then he goes right for the jugular of humanity:  original sin.

Yes, he went there.  That is how backwards this guy is:
Truly, the Bible is clear that homosexual relationships are sin, but there is a greater problem with our president’s statement. How can we be judged by what we do, and not who we are, when who we are dictates what we do? It is impossible to divorce the two concepts. Romans 3:10-11, (along with a plethora of other Scriptures), teach that human beings are born sinners.
This is who we are: sinners. The curse of sin has impacted every aspect of creation ever since Adam and Eve. It is our human condition; we aren’t sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. In other words, who we are (sinners) dictates what we do (sin).
He's a sinner, alright.  He has committed the sin of hubris for assuming that his narrow-minded bigoted view of the world has to be shared by everyone else, even if they don't belong to his religion:
We have seen a massive cultural shift in recent years. The sin of homosexuality was once a source of chagrin, but slowly crept into our society. Pop songs and sitcoms began to glorify this sinful behavior, but professional sports were largely unaffected.
The drafting of Michael Sam seems to be a turning point. The major sports and news networks decided to show two homosexual men embrace and kiss ad nauseam. They no longer focused on what athletes do that makes them great, but who they are.
The battle cry of the LGBT revolution is to accept people for who they are, but Almighty God does not accept people for who they are. Jesus Christ told Nicodemus in John 3, “Ye must be born again” because man has been “condemned already.”
Again Jesus, speaking to the woman taken in adultery in John 8, told her to “go, and sin no more.” The truth is, God does not accept anything and everything; it is only after we have been saved by grace that we are “accepted in the beloved." 
Homosexuals, just like any other sinners, need to accept Christ’s sacrifice as their payment for sin to be truly accepted by God. Christians need to pray for America more now than ever, and speak their faith in a bold and loving way.

First, how does he know that Sam isn't a Christian?  I have known plenty of gay Christians, though I want to smack them all.   If a straight person can ignore all the insanity of the Bible and embrace an immoral religion, I wouldn't deny that dubious right to gay people.  It's just slightly more inconceivable when a gay person is religious.

Second, if he doesn't like ESPN's coverage of a peck on the cheek, his beef is with ESPN.  Also, it was only ad nauseum if you had ESPN on all day ... on Mother's Day!  He could have changed the channel.  There was probably some good old-fashioned Christian ranting on the many Christian channels in this area.

The book of John.... *sigh*  That's the latest of the gospels, and the one least likely to truly represent Jesus's teaching.  Yet it's the favorite of this type of Christian bigot.  This is where the born again idea comes from?  Would someone's homosexuality be erased if they became a born-again Christian?  That's just ridiculous.

So... while his wife was presumably cooking in her bare feet the men in the family were huddled in the living room watching a peck on the cheek and subsequent coverage so long he could describe it as being "ad nauseum."

Is it just me, or is it likely that he secretly enjoyed watching that peck on the cheek and subsequent coverage?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Happy Mother's Day from a non-Mother

"Childless by Choice" is an expression I haven't heard in years, but I still say it occasionally when I talk about my life choices. 

As a baby boomer, I grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation, with the Doomsday Clock ticking right alongside my biological clock.   I was a bright enough child to understand just how stupid our world leaders can be, but also to extrapolate from the Saturday afternoon scifi films of the 50s that replayed in the 60s.  One of the biggest questions of the post- World War II generation was:  Could the concept of mutually-assured destruction prevent the use of nuclear weapons?

From 1945 until now the answer is perhaps "yes."  We also have the examples of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima to remind us that even local nuclear damage is devastating.

The other doomsday clock of my time was world overpopulation.  When it was first presented to me, the world population was 3.5 billion.  It's now over 7 billion.  How many people can the Earth sustain?  Will we find out the hard way?

Well, we seem to have survived both threats... so far.  We turned out to be smart enough not to nuke ourselves, and we developed high-yield grains to feed ourselves.   Now our greatest threat now seems to be global warming.  Do the children of today think, like I did as a child, "Why bring a child into this world only to watch it die in a horrible man-made disaster?"
They don't seem to be thinking this way.  I was apparently the minority to think this way in my generation, too.  (It didn't help that many of the men I dated were scarred from their Vietnam experience or that my family's gene pool isn't really a source of pride for me)
In hindsight, I realize there was another influence on me:  the Bible.  I was a weekly church-goer for almost all of my childhood.  I sat through the readings and sermons barely paying attention, but what child isn't a sponge?
Reading Bart Ehrman's books brought up the issue of Christ as an apocalyptic preacher, which puts Paul's advice into context.
1 Corinthinans:  What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
Is it any surprise that a church-going impressionable child should have apocalyptic fears?

The whole concept of humanity's "last days" being within our sights is a form of child abuse.  Will global warming wipe us all out at once?  Of course not.  We would experience mass starvation, mass drowning, and mass murders but the population as a whole will dwindle, perhaps to a more manageable proportion.  I'm more optimistic than I used to be, but still glad that I didn't bring any children into the world.  They would now be having grandchildren whose task would be to undo the damage of Republican obstructionism and anti-environment legislation.  Their offspring should be the ones to clean up their mess.
 Oh yeah, and I have time to write a blog.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Religious Wars on Women

I haven't posted a link round-up in awhile but I've been following the "news."  It's not easy, because television "news" lately has fallen to an all-time low.  CNN has been obsessing about the missing Malaysian airplane, and then cutting away to obsess about the Korean ferry.  MSNBC continues to obsess about Chris Christy, because they want to scrap his presidential hopes for 2016.  Fox continues to obsess about Benghazi, because they want to scrap Hillary Clinton's presidential hopes for 2016.

There's an old saying:  when you have one foot in the past and one foot in the future you're pissing all over today.  That's what our "news" channels are doing.

One of the stories that the Big Three "news" channels paid scant (if any) attention to is the April 14 kidnapping of Nigerian school girls from their school dormitory - a dormitory that had armed guards!  I read about this the day after it happened, while looking for stories for the link round-up I didn't post.  I thought surely it would be so well publicized that there would be no need to post on it.


I continued to follow the story, and as it turns out this is only partly about women.  The kidnappers belong to a group called "Boko Haram," which means "Western Education is Sin."  They are an extremist sect of Islam that operates in Northern Nigeria and neighboring countries.  These people killed 29 teenaged boys earlier this year and has conducted several massacres over the past few years.  If the girls haven't been killed yet, it is probably because they are being sexually abused by abductors or people who have bought them from abductors.

This was all basically unknown until the mothers protested.  Now CNN is reporting on the threat to sell the girls.  Apparently Allah wants him to do that.

One CNN show I make must-see TV is a Sunday morning show about the media called "Reliable Sources."  It usually features several middle-aged white men talking about journalism and how a story should or shouldn't be handled.  Finally, they ask the question I've been asking:  Why isn't there more coverage of this atrocity?  Here are some snips from the transcript:

So there you have it.   There was no coverage because it was hard to get video, unlike the situation in Korea & Malaysia.  All those talking heads who have been opining about Malaysian Air debris or the number of students on the Korean ferry were just filling air time between video clips of grieving families.  Likewise, Fox has senate hearings and talk show interviews about Benghazi to rehash and MSNBC has no shortage of Christy footage.

The story is getting attention now only because of the demonstrations.  Video of crying mothers and angry fathers make better TV than the old days when they just read out their scripts.  This story is like the 9/11 story:  a radical group that gets away with murder -- literally -- until finally doing something big enough to get the attention of the media.  (I still remember the summer of 2001, when CNN was obsessed about Chandra Levy's disappearance, while al Quaeda was totally unheard-of)

But there are (at least) two layers for all these stories:  the immediate story and the bigger story of what the immediate story means.

The missing airplane and sunken ferry are part of the bigger narrative of "disasters in transportation."  We don't watch because we care about other people ... not that much anyway.  We watch because we worry that these things could happen to us.  And to soothe our worries, CNN spends some of its many hours of coverage on possible changes to the design of both aircraft and ferry boats after these events.

But what is the bigger narrative about the kidnapped girls?  It's the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Africa and the suppression of women.  It's about the attack on education by Islamic fundamentalism.  It's 200+ Malala Yusafzai's and perhaps more to come.  Why no outrage over this bigger issue?

Christian fundamentalists and Jewish fundamentalists are also against education for girls, and they're not fans of higher education, either.  That's why the media won't criticize an anti-education movement.  They're afraid of offending the same types in the U.S.

So in effect, they're colluding with the religious movements that repress women.  Fortunately, we know how to use the internet.

edited to add:  After posting this I turned on CNN and Anderson Cooper led with the story and spent 20 minutes on it, with video of the dorms & an interview with a girl who escaped.  Apparently their commenter shamed them.  Cooper made a point of prodding the reporter to say how difficult it was to cover the story.  After that segment ended I flipped to Fox News - they were droning on about Benghazi.  MSNBC was doing a segment on guns.   So... kudos to CNN finally.