Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Health care, Les Paul, Answers in Leviticus and the Rwandan genocide

August 14th, 2009 by Reinder

It's another episode of "Interesting stuff I'm reading":

Answers in Genesis refuses God's command and Ken Ham should repent (from Answers in Leviticus

Les Paul Youtube Friday an old Crooked Timber post rounding up music by Les Paul, pioneer of the electric guitar and multitracking, who died this week aged 94. One they missed, at Lawyer's, Guns and Money.

Also at Crooked Timber, a rather wrongheaded attempt at understanding the basis of Megan McArdle's position on healthcare reform (wrongheaded because engaging McArdle's opinions or indeed taking them seriously at all is a waste of time and only encourages her to post more) nevertheless leads to some good discussion on European health care systems.

But since people do take McArdle seriously for some reason, here's The Hunting of the Snark countering the argument that changing the health care system in the US will stifle innovation.

Also on health care, Cell phone service and healthcare at Angry Bear was good for a chuckle.

Daniel Davies, again at Crooked Timber, examines the claim that humanitarian intervention in Rwanda would have stopped the genocide and concludes that it wouldn't, because it didn't.

Finally, does anyone know if anything that looks likethis creature is common in Austria? Many years ago while vacationing there, I was spooked by a large twitchy insect thing with false eyes, and seeing this picture brought it all back. The critter in the picture is a click beetle and was shot in the United States

[Einar] Proof by Assertion

December 18th, 2008 by Adam Cuerden

Proof by assertion is an interesting logical fallacy. Basically, it's just saying things that haven't been proved has, and hoping people believe you.

The Institute of Creation Research evidently love this one. I was glancing through the articles on their site today. a good 75 to 90% follow this format:

  • Here's a recent scientific paper.
  • Evolution/The Big Bang Model couldn't explain this, no matter what the stupid authors of the paper says.
  • Hence, this paper proves us creationists are right!

Don't believe me? Let's see two examples:

In the first part, they're discussing an interesting paper from the Public Library of Science, which, like all PLoS papers, is freely available online. The researchers analysed the walking style of dogs and cats, and discovered that animals who specialise in chasing down their prey over long distances use energy efficient running motions, but being energy inefficient can also have benefits: the stealthy movement of cats is inefficient, but allows them to creep up on their prey, saving energy in the long term. I'll quote part of the abstract - it's a little overly-wordy, but reasonably clear:

However, animals that are not specialized for long distance steady locomotion may face a more complex set of requirements, some of which may conflict with the efficient exchange of mechanical energy. For example, the “stealthy” walking style of cats may demand slow movements performed with the center of mass close to the ground ... An important implication of these results is the possibility of a tradeoff between stealthy walking and economy of locomotion. This potential tradeoff highlights the complex and conflicting pressures that may govern the locomotor choices that animals make.

The ICR, in an article with the completely inaccurate title Inefficient Cat Motion Remains a Mystery for Evolution claims that since stalking is inefficient, this proves that stalking your prey cannot evolve, so Goddidit:

But animals did not choose their modes of locomotion any more than humans “chose” nervous systems that allow them to acquire and process higher information. According to evolutionary thinking, cats “counterintuitively” developed into creatures that compromised or traded efficiency of gait for stealthy crouching. However, this is not counterintuitive to the creation model, within which it makes perfect sense that a Creator would have especially equipped different basic kinds of creatures with such different yet functional modes of locomotion.

Let me put this simply: The PLoS article simply points out that efficiency of movement is not the only factor that can be selected for. In cats, stealthiness was selected for over efficiency, allowing cats, instead of chasing their prey 100 feet (with great efficiency) to instead creep up 10 feet less efficiently but silently, and pounce.  So long as the stealthy movement does not (using the hypothetical numbers) take ten times the energy of chasing the prey, it's still a viable strategy. If sneakiness was not a viable strategy - and thus capable of being evolved, then why would the creator curse the poor cats with ineffecient sneaking?

But even when there's no evidence whatsoever, the ICR boys can still pull something out of their arse. Where Did Flesh-eating Bacteria Come From? never actually answers its question.  It describes flesh-eating bacteria, and asks where such horrors might come from in a word created by god and declared by him "good".

"Well!" say the ICR idiots, "we don't know, but..." and they begin. One scientist proposed that cholera toxin might have evolved from signalling molecules used in a symbiotic relationship with squid (I thought they didn't believe in evolution?), they say, pointing to another ICR article, which claimed that a scientist talking about possible evolutionary pathways for cholera clearly proves creationism.

But why stick with something that has a grain of science buried deep within it? They continue:

In addition, the Creator may have provided these “toxins” in part for their medicinal potential, as in the case of botulin, knowing that they would be needed in a fallen world.

Gee, thanks, creator! All those deaths due to botulism are totally worth it: A fallen world needs Botox to help remove wrinkles in aging celebrities: Almost all uses of botulism toxin is for cosmetic purposes.

They mention a patent on using another toxin to treat connective tissue disorders - which is not the same as having the toxin approved for their treatment, then come to their grand conclusion, explaining just how flesh-eating bacteria fit into creationism:

While it is not yet known what best explains the presence of flesh-eating bacteria, current scientific observation is consistent with the fall of creation, as recorded in Genesis.



[Einar] Noah’s Ark

December 14th, 2008 by Adam Cuerden
Gustave Doré - The Deluge

Gustave Doré - The Deluge

A few days ago I found a copy of the Doré Bible at a just-about-affordable price, and snapped it up.

The Doré Bible is an 1866 publication of the Bible with illustrations by Gustave Doré, usually considered one of the master engravers alongside Dürer and Hogarth.  It's a very interesting glimpse at what the Victorians took out of the Bible, compared to us.

Take the image to the right. This is one of Gustave Doré's two illustrations for the story of Noah's Ark, both of which emphasise the death and destruction of the "sinners" that were left behind. (Click on it for a link to Wikipedia, where I uploaded a 600dpi scan)

It's really quite shocking to modern eyes - a story now considered a Children's story  was, in the eyes of Doré and his very popular edition of the Bible, one of horror, of parents trying desprately and futilely to save their children, of beasts trying to get their cubs to safety.

Indeed, Doré seems to actively shun the "obvious" choices. There is no illustration of Jesus in the manger: The Christmas story is instead illustrated solely by an image of the Wise Men and the Flight to Egypt. We don't get the Garden of Eden or the Creation, but do see Cain and Abel's sacrifices.

Oh, and the Apocrypha, not even published in most modern bibles, is lavishly illustrated.

Doré's Bible is a strange to modern eyes, with the illustrations emphasising the death and horror far more than any modern preacher or edition ever would, but do not sensationalise it - instead merely presenting it as what happened.

Frankly, one has to believe that the Victorians truly believed in the Bible far more than any modern Christian - for what Modern Christian really thinks about what the stories mean for those God vanquished? - but, at the same time, did not have the same belief in God's Love. When you look at Doré's illustrations of Noah's Ark, the story changes from a silly Children's story to a tale about the horror of those God set out to kill. It's hard to see that God as one that loves humans.

[Co-blogger Einar] The Screwtape Letters, or, The Art of Seemingly-Plausible arguement

November 24th, 2008 by Adam Cuerden

I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian (I got better). For those fundamentalists who don't think the Bible is the only book you ever need, C. S. Lewis is perhaps the most popular apologist. Having particularly heard The Screwtape Letters constantly praised all my youth, when I saw it in a charity shop,  I thought I'd see what all the fuss was about.

The Screwtape Letters are a series of letters from the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood (a diabolical version of a guardian angel) about the man that Wormwood has been assigned to lure to the clutches of Hell. Screwtape's letters - we never see Wormwood's responses - lecture the young demon on ways to corrupt the man.

A disaster happens early on: The man becomes a Christian, and the two demons must race against time to lure their victim back into the fold. It's actually rather a lot like this Chick tract but better written - though, of course, that's not saying much: researchers have discovered that, in comparison to Chick, it only takes the output of one monkey typing on a typewriter to at least seem like the works of Shakespeare. This has proven a problem with experiments in infinite monkeys, where the poor metaphysical researchers trumpet their monkey's reconstruction of The Tragedy of Ejsbwv, Ffhvs of HSafas, only to discover that that is not, in fact, by Shakespeare.

Well, let's look at the actual book.

It's done as a series of 31 letters. The first sets out the theme of what is to come: Thanks to the work of demons influencing the culture:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily "true" or "false", but as "academic" or "practical", "outworn" or "contemporary", "conventional" or "ruthless". Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don't wate time making him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous - that t is the philosophy of the future. That's the sort of thing he cares about.

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the enemy's own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?

Evidently, in C.S. Lewis's world, materialism - read atheism - is illogical, and only seems rational if you are being actively tricked by demons. However, the Bible, with its virgin births, miracles, self-contradictions, emphasis on faith, not proof - and all the rest, is perfectly logical, and awaking someone's reason is a sure way to send someone to Christianity and Heaven.

However, Lewis is in control of reality for the purposes of this book: In the next paragraph he details how an atheist was nearly saved from Hell when rational thoughts began to arise in his mind, but luckily, the demon was ale to get him to put off thinking about it until after lunch.

How did the demon then save him from being saved?

Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paoer, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with books, a healthy dose of "real life" (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy( was enough to show him that all "that sort of thing" just couldn't be true. He knew he'd had a narrow escape and in later years was fond of talking about "that inarticulate sense of actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic...

That's right. Newspaper sellers and buses: A surefire way to prevent someone from using logic. Lewis appears to be arguing that even the slightest connection with reality leads to the abandonment of all logic - and that logic inevitably leads to Christianity. Lewis himself, of course, is completely out of touch with reality, and so is an excellent Christian apologist.

But this isn't the stupidest argument to be found in this book. Oh, goodness me, no! He argues that:

* People should marry people they aren't in love with, simply to avoid having sex outside of marriage.
* If you think you don't need to kneel when you pray, you are being tricked by demons: The position of the body is crucial to getting the soul ready for communion with God.
* God allows millions of infants to die in childbirth in order to protect them from the temptations of the world, and snap them up to heaven, safe from demons.
* Evolution is evil, because it looks to the future, which is unlike God's eternity, being unproven and uncertain. Don't look at me to explain that one:. It's part of a Fauxlosophic narration about how the present and eternity is where mankind's attention should be, only looking to the future enough to prepare for it today what is needed for later. Because the future is uncertain, but eternity is.
* Historians, English departments and the historical method were created by demons in order to prevent people reading ancient texts uncritically, which might let them find the ancient wisdom that would point them towards God. Instead, people are encouraged to look at the sources, the reasons for the text being written, and the author's reasons for writing it, which protect them from any truths contained in the manuscript.

In short, propped up in Lewis' dry writing, we have the most patent of patent nonsense disguised as an academic discussion. Lewis' writing style does a decent job of concealing how stupid many of his arguments are: For instance, rhetorical tricks used in cold reading such as making a lot of either-or statements that seem very specific, but actually cover most of the spectrum of possibility. If the reader identifies with one of the possibilities, Lewis' descriptions of human nature seems a lot more accurate, and since they don't know any of the materialists or atheists Lewis bashes constantly, they're more likely to accept Lewis' views of them as true.

This book really is a disappointment. I used to enjoy Lewis' Narnia books. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is actually a rather nice modern-day Odyssey, and you no more need to believe Christianity to enjoy it than you need to believe the Greek myths to appreciate the Odyssey. Of course, any discussion of Narnia needs to mention The Last Battle - which noone likes: Sure, the ending's pretty well-written, but it appears that Lewis spent all his time writing a good description of Heaven, and so was unable to fill the rest of the book with anything more than bashing evolution, atheism, rationalism, and Muslims, while derailing the character arcs of all the characters from the previous books and making everyone idiots, so that they'll submit to slavery and persecution simply because they're told God says so.

...Of course, given Bush's regime and the last few years in America, maybe that last isn't so far off. Pity Lewis evidently thinks that's the correct reaction to being told God says so.

Saudi government to execute “witch” after extracted confession

February 15th, 2008 by Reinder

I've seen a lot of justified outrage over this: The trial and conviction of an illiterate woman as a witch in Saudi Arabia. Yes, the Saudi legal system and government really are that backward, vicious and barbaric. As Human Rights Watch writes in its original report on the case:

The religious police who arrested and interrogated Fawza Falih and the judges who tried her in the northern town of Quraiyat never gave her the opportunity to prove her innocence against absurd charges that have no basis in law.

“The fact that Saudi judges still conduct trials for unprovable crimes like ‘witchcraft’ underscores their inability to carry out objective criminal investigations,” said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Fawza Falih’s case is an example of how the authorities failed to comply even with existing safeguards in the Saudi justice system.”

The judges relied on Fawza Falih’s coerced confession and on the statements of witnesses who said she had “bewitched” them to convict her in April 2006. She retracted her confession in court, claiming it was extracted under duress, and that as an illiterate woman she did not understand the document she was forced to fingerprint. She also stated in her appeal that her interrogators beat her during her 35 days in detention at the hands of the religious police. At one point, she had to be hospitalized as a result of the beatings.

The judges never investigated whether her confession was voluntary or reliable or investigated her allegations of torture. They never even made an inquiry as to whether she could have been responsible for allegedly supernatural occurrences, such as the sudden impotence of a man she is said to have “bewitched.” They also broke Saudi law in multiple instances, ignoring legal rules on proper procedures in a trial.

The judges did not sit as a panel of three, as required for cases involving the death penalty. They excluded Fawza Falih from most trial sessions and banned a relative who was acting as her legal representative from attending any session. Earlier, her interrogators blocked her access to a lawyer and the judges, and denied her the right to professional legal representation, thus depriving her of the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses against her. She claims that some of the witnesses were unknown to her and that others had made statements against her only as a result of beatings.

As I say, the outrage is justified, and Saudi-Arabia deserves widespread condemnation and ridicule. However, condemnation and ridicule aren't going to stop Fawza Falih from getting executed. So I've been asking myself and others "what are we going to do about this?"

And I don't have an answer. It's easy to think of fun things you can do to protest. We could threaten to reprint cartoons representing the prophet Mohammed until the Saudis relent, or we could boycott Saudi oil until you forgetthey relent, or, and I should stress that my next suggestion won't be any less feasible than the previous ones, we could collectively travel back in time to September 12, 2001 and put that loathsome backwater in our crosshairs along with Afghanistan and instead of Iraq.

The only thing I can think of that ordinary people can do is to talk to both the Saudi government and their own. Write letters to your Saudi consulate or embassy, write to your MP/congressman/whatever, write to your Foreign Secretary, and tell them, politely (in other words, don't borrow phrasing from this blog post), why you think Fawza Falih should not be executed. Unfortunately, neither HRW nor Amnesty International provide ready templates, but you and I can do this in our own words. Campaign.

By the way... I'm not suggesting that this is the only thing that can be done. Just that I can't think of anything else, but this is likely to be a failure of my own imagination as much as anything else. If you have a better idea, or even a hare-brained idea that might lead us to a better one, tell me.

Contact info for the Saudi embassy in the Netherlands
HRW's letter to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

Can the rest of us have our planet back?

August 4th, 2007 by Reinder

Hear Marcus Brigstocke have a good rant about the Abrahamic religions. Or watch it on Youtube with amateurish but still entertaining graphics.

Or, if you're really in a hurry, read a transcript.
Via Pete Ashton by way of Squeezypaws.

Harry Potter and the Botherers of God

July 29th, 2007 by Reinder

While we're on the subject of Harry Potter (and I suspect we will be for a little longer), Sara Robinson at Orcinus wrote a good piece on why fundamentalists are so bothered by myth-and-magic stories in general and Harry Potter in particular:

The common thread that runs through all of these is magic. And that, I think, is the real burr that gets under fundamentalist saddles. In fundieland, magic is the most frightening and legitimate of all the competing myth systems -- the Devil's own preferred alternative to prayer and submission. Other belief systems (Buddhism, Hinduism, the Greek myths) are viewed as sad and rather pathetically delusional; but anything that smacks of magic is feared as actively Satanic.

Why is magic such a hot button? The reasons go to the heart of fundamentalist theology. At their core, fundamentalists believe that humans are wretched creatures who aren't really even human unless touched by God's grace. (And, yes, this does mean that those of us who are unsaved can rightly be considered subhuman.) We cannot do anything right; we do not deserve to have control over our own affairs; and any notion that we have intrinsic power to achieve good in the world (or even the authority to define "good" or "bad" on our own terms) is a diabolical delusion. Left to our own devices, we will not only screw it up for ourselves; we will ultimately ensure the Devil his victory over the world -- including them -- as well.

Implicit in this is the idea that all authority is necessarily, rightfully external. The fate of the entire world depends on how completely we can give up our desire to control our destinies, and submit to God and his appointed earthly overseers. This obsession with the need for external authority is, in a nutshell, is why fundamentalism is a form of religious authoritarianism.

Stories about magic openly defy this whole belief system. Magic-using characters like Harry usurp the supernatural power and prerogatives of God -- a sufficient heresy in its own right. But it's worse than that: they're also exercising their own internal authority, and acting out of their own agency. And that's the last thing fundamentalists want their children -- or anyone else -- learning how to do.

That's why we're hearing all the shrieking hysterics from the fundie side.

Read the rest, and read the comments, as Orcinus is one of those sites where the quality of commentary is usually high.

Bill O’Reilly’s interview of Richard Dawkins

April 24th, 2007 by Adam Cuerden

Bill O'Reilly, an American right-wing pundit recently interviewed Richard Dawkins about the God Delusion. There's a Youtube video here

I think what's most surprising is how nice things were. Yes, most of O'Reilly's points were pretty stupid, but he was calm, polite, and in the end said "I will say, your book is fascinating and thank you for coming on here." O'Reilly's views are probably not far off from a good proportion of his audience's, so having them brought out in the open and the reasons why they're wrong explained politely can only increase the acceptance of atheists and agnostics in America. Given the recent incident of atheists being hounded out of their home and job, this can only be good.

...This was a surprising polite debate, covering some of the (very) basic main points, and letting Dawkins have his say more than I expected. O'Reilly obviously differs strongly from Dawkins, but must deserve credit for allowing - even fostering - debate on his show. Good on him.


Quick links for Thursday

March 15th, 2007 by Reinder

Noteworthy things I've read today:
Digby on religious literacy in the US.
Amanda Marcotte on guns, bad faith arguments and pleasure as a positive good.

The Problem of Evil

March 6th, 2007 by Adam Cuerden

"Mama, he says himself that all troubles and pains and miseries and rotten diseases and horrors and villainies are sent to us in mercy and kindness to discipline us; and he says it is the duty of every father and mother to help Providence, every way they can; and says they can't do it by just scolding and whipping, for that won't answer, it is weak and no good -- Providence's way is best, and it is every parent's duty and every person's duty to help discipline everybody, and cripple them and kill them, and starve them, and freeze them, and rot them with diseases, and lead them into murder and theft and dishonor and disgrace; and he says Providence's invention for disciplining us and the animals is the very brightest idea that ever was, and not even an idiot could get up anything shinier. Mamma, brother Eddie needs disciplining, right away: and I know where you can get the smallpox for him, and the itch, and the diphtheria, and bone-rot, and heart disease, and consumption, and -- Dear mamma, have you fainted! I will run and bring help! Now this comes of staying in town this hot weather."

-Mark Twain, Little Bessie Would Assist Providence

Is the "Problem of Evil" really compatible with omniscience and omnipotence? Let's consider the options:

1. The omniscient, omnipotent deity allows evil to happen because he doesn't really care about it, or is, in fact, evil. A possible answer, but not one that's compatible with most religion.
2. It's all for a higher purpose, to punish us. I can't help but think Twain's satire is all the refutation of that needed.
3. It's all to test our faith. This would make said omniscient, omnipotent being a sadist. Anyway, wouldn't he already know the result if he was omniscient under most definitions of the term?
4. It's all unknowable. Why?
5. Free will. There are several sub-possibilities

5a. When combined with the standard "he creates us individually" arguement, this means that the deity is creating people he knows will turn out to be evil. This again hits the problem of the sadist god.
5b. If the deity doesn't create people individually, then we still run into problems: Do diseases have free will? If not, why does the deity allow them? Are accidents important parts of free will? Is it restricting free will to prevent a car hitting an icy patch that sends it careening off the road? There's a lot of suffering out there that has nothing whatsoever to do with free will.
5c. Looking at willful acts, we still hit problems. At the Columbine High School Massacre, several bombs failed to explode, which prevented the massacre being even worse. Isn't this, and any other event that prevents anything being even worse than it is, an implicit restriction on free will? And if it's acceptable, why shouldn't all human-led acts of that sort be similarly restricted? Why shouldn't acts of great evil be blocked at every turn, with, say, passports of the 9/11 hijackers having gone missing, so they couldn't board? Hitler having a sudden heart attack?

6. In the manner of Krishna, the universe is merely the biological processes of a giant being. I'm actually rather enamoured by this option, but it's hard to see why a specific actin fibre, even a single neuron should expect the body to care about it than any other protein or cell.
7. Any higher beings that have any real interaction with us are not omnipotent, and have extremely limited omniscience, if any. I honestly can't see any other option than this, and thus am forced to reject most of the glib assumptions of standard religious faiths.