Friday, November 30, 2007

Quote Of The Day

God used to be the best explanation we'd got, and we've now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining.

Douglas Adams

Friday Frog

Today's frog is a very cool customer, the only frogs found north of the Arctic Circle. Wood Frog is the common name of Lithobates sylvaticus, the amphibian formerly known as Rana sylvatica. In winter, as much as 35-45% of their bodies can freeze. Ice crystals form beneath the skin and interspersed among the body's skeletal muscles. The frog's breathing, blood flow, and heart beat cease when they freeze. Special proteins prevent intracellular freezing and dehydration. Now is that cool, or what?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Quote Of The Day

During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.

James Madison

Badass Bible Verses has an article about badass Bible verses, including my personal favorite, II Kings 2:23-24, with the pithy moral nicely summed up too!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"I regard monotheism as the greatest disaster ever to befall the human race. I see no good in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam -- good people, yes, but any religion based on a single, well, frenzied and virulent god, is not as useful to the human race as, say, Confucianism, which is not a religion but an ethical and educational system."

Gore Vidal

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Quote Of The Day

I believe in the religion of reason, the gospel of this world; in the development of the mind, in the accumulation of intellectual wealth, to the end that man may free himself from superstitious fear, to the end that he may take advantage of the forces of nature to feed and clothe the world.

Robert G. Ingersoll

Monday, November 26, 2007

Quote Of the Day

Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.

Bertrand Russell

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?"

Carl Sagan

Astonishing Lack of Comprehension

A theist named Scott Caan opened a ridiculous strawman argument on the Atheism, Logic and Truth forum on Facebook:

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth” -- Genesis
“The cosmos is that that is, or ever was, or ever will be. ” – Carl Sagan.

The two statements above are both statements of faith. Neither can be experimentally verified and both make assumptions. The two statements also offer a remarkable contrast. The first statement indicates:
1. There was a beginning.
2. The beginning was caused.
3. The cause was God.
The second statement indicates:
1. There was no beginning.
2. The cosmos is self-existing and thus uncaused.
3. The universe was not created and thus is the product of non-intelligence.

Amazing, isn't it? As I said in my reply,

The Sagan quote does not support any one of the three things you claim it does. It is simply a definition (not a "statement of faith") of the word 'cosmos' as being inclusive of all phenomena throughout all time; it does not even address the existence or not of an origin point, nor does it address causation or processes of the cosmos.

It's a pretty astonishing feat of reading incomprehension to so totally misread so short a quote you selected yourself, or indeed even to select a quote from someone whose body of work so totally fails to match the position you want set up in opposition to your preferred conclusion.

To give you the citation, the Sagan quote you used is from the first textual page of the first chapter of 'Cosmos' - page 4 of the book. Had you made the scholarly effort to read the remainder of that chapter - all the way to page 21 - you would have found this:

"We now know that our universe - or at least its most recent incarnation - is some fifteen to twenty billion years old. This is the time since a remarkable explosive event called the Big Bang. At the beginning of this universe, there were no galaxies, stars or planets, no life or civilizations, merely a uniform, radiant fireball filling all of space."

Needless to say, this is in total opposition to the viewpoint you chose to attack, that the universe has always existed in its present state - a viewpoint Sagan never held, and which no astrophysicist of any stature has supported since the COBE cosmic background measurements in 1964 at the very latest.

You make really shoddy strawmen, my friend, and you should work on your quote mining too. Granted that you don't really understand basic physics (Hint: the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a *statistical* observation), it still behooves anyone with pretensions to intellectual honesty not to totally misrepresent another person's stated positions.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"If God were alive today, he'd be an atheist."

Kurt Vonnnegut

Friday, November 23, 2007

Quote of The Day

"The very concept of sin comes from the bible. Christianity offers to solve a problem of its own making! Would you be thankful to a person who cut you with a knife in order to sell you a bandage?"

Dan Barker


When it comes to the emotional bases of religious belief we atheists tend to talk most about the theist's attempts to avoid disasters, especially that whole death thing, by sucking up to the invisible superbeing(s). (Then there's the piling on of the imaginary after-death disasters, but that's another issue.)

There is a somewhat less puerile reason for wanting there to be a Big Sky Daddy who made it all, though. This is a pretty amazing universe full of totally cool phenomena, and many feel a strong need for someone to thank for it all.

You have to admit, that's kind of cute, if naive - downright adorable in a child, in fact. In an adult it's a little callow, but essentially harmless and springing from a good impulse. The universe is definitely something to appreciate, and I suppose it's easy to blur the line between that and gratitude. Giving thanks to nothing for everything is probably not a satisfactory substitute, emotionally speaking.

Still, it's not as if there aren't plenty of places to put gratitude. Family, friends, teachers, pets... why try to add gods or honest politicians? No need for it, really.

Anyway, thanks for reading!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Quote Of the Day

A dogma is the hand of the dead on the throat of the living.

Lemuel K. Washburn

Quote Of The Day

Some of the nicest people I have ever known have been human beings, and some of the nastiest people I have read of were gods.

B.T. Murtagh

Missing and Maintaining

So yes, kids, I did indeed miss another Quote of the Day. Since at this stage I have a readership of maybe two or three, I doubt that anyone's world foundation is rocked by my failure, but who knows?

After all, as I was just reminded today by one of those million dollar bills which Way of the Master devotees use to get out of leaving real tips (and, less intentionally, for demonstrating that even the most classic of jests can have all the humor sucked out of them by ideologues), if one has ever even once in the course of a lifetime lied or stolen or had an impure thought about a woman who 'belongs' to another man, then one is a LIAR and a THIEF and an ADULTERER, and can only be redeemed by the One Who Mastered Sin, yadda yadda yadda.

(I've noticed, by the way, that WoM-men always lay a huge emphasis on on how they are particularly prone to the latter sin. Even in their rejection of what they consider sin, they want to borrow the cachet of that one to deflect any perception which people may have that they are girly-men - apparently there's something about declaring one's self utterly pwn3d by a virgin pacifist who got his ass nailed to a tree two millennia ago which threatens the machismo. It's always phrased unashamedly as "lusting after another man's woman" too, not "disrupting a relationship" or anything modern like that. The unconscious troglodytism is truly appalling.)

I can understand the appeal of this line of thinking, truly. When I was studying for my associate's degree I got all A grades up until my final semester. The pressure I put on myself to maintain the 4.0 was intense and only grew more intense with each passing semester. I finally blew a B in my last semester and screwed the whole thing up... because half my credits were transfers it meant I could only graduate magna cum laude instead of summa cum laude. Oh, the Humanity! (The Science? AS, not AA.)

Then I went on to work on my baccalaureate degree. There I got a B in Data Structures in the first semester (by virtue of wiping my entire final project with a misconfigured makefile after making no backups), and the relief was enormous! The As I got afterward were by virtue of enjoying the learning rather than in order to maintain an artificial and unsustainable (by me) perfection. Note that I did get As, I wouldn't want you to miss that even though I don't consider it a sin! Oh, I got laid too, honest I did! Really!

So I do understand the trick, but I also see through it. Makeout artists, I'm told, use a similar technique called 'negging' to get women to have sex with them ('score'); they begin the evening by insulting the targeted woman, preferably in connection with whatever aspect of themselves the women consider most attractive to men. The idea is that the women are then compelled to prove to themselves that they are, too, attractive, by pursuing the dickwad who insulted them. Apparently it works quite well on women who have been emotionally wounded to the point of being temporarily or permanently crippled (sadly a not uncommon state in our society), and hucksters from the Way of the Master or the Church of Scientology are trained and eager to exploit that kind of weakness in men and women alike.

Guilt is a tremendous, out-jutting handle on our psyche, and one which can be exploited easily by any ruthless bastards with insight into its workings. Poor, sick, can't look after your kids? It's because you didn't follow the teachings of the Church, or the Party, or your Mother. Life's good? Well, you know you don't really deserve it, and a hard rain's a-coming if you didn't follow the teachings of the Church, or the Party, or your Mother...

That's not to say that guilt itself has no uses; the very reason I instituted my regular features of the Daily Quote, the Friday Frog and the Monthly Poem was to guilt myself into maintaining this blog. It has more or less worked, too; I've been much better about keeping this thing alive since I instituted those. Several QOTDs piled up makes me nervous; two FFs too close together are a Big Red Flag; if I get two MPs separated only by quotes and frogs, Parliament likely wants dissolving (and then where would the country be?).

Guilt is not in itself a bad thing, then; it is a tremendously useful neurological reminder that we have not met goals which we consider important. (The important thing is not to let others decide what is important!) If we don't keep to our diet, exercise, take out the trash on time, recycle, refrain from theft, let a person handicapped by age or pregnancy or simple tiredness take the free seat on the bus, forgive our cat for testing his claws on our air mattress... guilt.

That last - you may have guessed, you clever minxes - is one I recently experienced personally. Oh I was mad! I was steaming. I fumed pretty badly, until my boy reminded me "Don't be too mad at her, Daddy, because she does love you, after all." He's confused about the cat's gender, of course, but his instincts about the cat's wrongdoing and my reaction were spot on.

The saying goes, "To err is human, to forgive divine." Bullshit, says I; forgiveness is entirely human also. The impulse to call it divine is only a reflection of this absurd idea that we have no inherent goodness in ourselves, that the good in us comes always from some divine Master - not our selves which are, and can only be, sources of weakness and evil. What utter crap! Some of the nicest people I have ever known have been human beings, and some of the nastiest people I have read of were gods.

So I missed a QOTD again; admit it, the previous sentence isn't a bad quote in itself, if I say so myself! ;) So I'll put that one up to stand in for yesterday, and a real one for today, and I trust you'll forgive me - because I really do love you, after all.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Birth Of Anger

a cold dead drift of dust
across my unfeeling shoulders
is your life, my heart, my
failed dream of human warmth.

I thought I could feel you
or your breath, at least,
across my face, warm and sweet,
blood-warm breath, sweet life,

but no. You left me, left me
cold and empty and alone,
left me breathing your breath
that you left behind, empty

of warmth, empty of you,
of me, of love, empty, oh love,
my heart my heart, where did
you go, why does your sweet

slender body no longer touch
mine, why am I so alone
with your memory? Where the
fuck are you, bitch? Huh?

B.T. Murtagh

Quote Of The Day

We would be 1,500 years ahead if it hadn't been for the church dragging science back by its coattails and burning our best minds at the stake.

Catherine Fahringer

Monday, November 19, 2007

Quote Of The Day

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Quote Of The Day

I believe in the religion of reason the gospel of this world; in the development of the mind, in the accumulation of intellectual wealth, to the end that man may free himself from superstitious fear, to the end that he may take advantage of the forces of nature to feed and clothe the world.

Robert G. Ingersoll

Friday, November 16, 2007

Quote Of The Day

Belief in the supernatural reflects a failure of the imagination.

Edward Abbey

Jesus's Poor Communication Skills

Jim Benton, guest-blogging over at Aardvarchaeology (winner of the coveted "Most Difficult To Spell Scienceblog" award), has put together an absolute barn-burner of an article on the above subject, expanding on an earlier piece by an ex-minister named Joseph writing at Debunking Christianity.

As Jim says in the comments of the latter,

If Jesus was who Christians say he was, he must have been boneheadedly dumb, totally without foresight, and addicted to doing things the most inefficient and least sensible way possible, someone totally incapable of getting his ideas across, and delighting in contradicting himself right and left. Some God!
The real Jesus, as far as we can tell, would have thrown a table at these idiots, not just for calling him divine, but for so insulting the God he believed in.

Nothing I haven't thought and written about before, but I'm in awe of the clarity brought to bear on the issue, and don't really have anything to add at the moment beyond saying that both articles are well worth the read. Go enjoy!

Friday Frog

Can you tell exactly what species this is from the picture? Well, no, not even if you're a real herpetologist, and not even if I tell you it's a Cope's Gray Tree Frog. You'd have to hear it to be sure whether it was an example of Hyla chrysoscelis or Hyla versicolor, because they're identical in appearance but have different songs. Both kinds actually come in a wide variety of colors, but always have a grayish cast and camouflage pattern.

The linked song mp3s are from the Cope's Gray Tree Frog page of Frogs and Toads Of Georgia, where you can also find a lot more pictures and information about these lovely frogs.

(Oh, and if the suspense is killing you, the one pictured is actually a Hyla chrysoscelis! ;)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Quote Of The Day

We despise all reverences and all objects of reverence which are outside the pale of our list of sacred things and yet, with strange inconsistency, we are shocked when other people despise and defile the things which are holy for us.

Mark Twain

A Child Can See It

Theists are fond of claiming that morality can come only from an absolute overlord laying down the law; that there is no other possible source for moral behavior. My ten-year-old son proved them wrong.

It's not, of course, that he came up with some brilliantly convoluted theological argument; he's bright and all, but he's just an ordinary kid, and far from being steeped in theology, he's been kept well clear of it. He has a variety of religious viewpoints around him, from a quite religious sister to a strongly atheistic father, but none of us proselytize him - we are all letting him be until he expresses an interest, and then he will be free to make up his own mind.

No, what he did was demonstrate the basis of morality, by insisting that he wanted to invite all the kids in his class to his birthday party, even the ones he didn't know, because "it's no fun not to be invited." Simple as that.

That, my friends, is where it all comes from. Not from Big Sky Daddy standing over you with a cat-o-nine-tails in one hand, a ticket to Candyland in the other hand, and a stone-clad rulebook in the gripping hand, but from simple human empathy for how others will feel.

"But-but-but... What's to stop an atheist from doing anything, raping and killing included, if there's no Cosmic Cop? How can you have absolute morality without an absolute master telling you what's moral?"

The answer's right there; my son did the Right Thing not because of any fear of punishment - he was actually being encouraged to limit his guest list, not expand it - because he empathises with his fellows, and cares about how they feel. That's not new, or deep, or unusual, by the way; every normal human child cries when hearing crying, laughs when hearing laughter. Most of it's inborn, and a judicious application of reward and punishment (saying "What a good boy!" and "I don't like it when you act that way." is sufficient in most cases) produces human beings who
behave morally without the necessity of either coercion or reward.

As for absolute morality - there isn't one, if by that you mean a set of absolute rules which, if followed absolutely, are absolutely always moral. Absolute rulebooks usually end up causing misery and resentment and hatred, and by their fruits are therefore evil. Guidelines are a
much better way to go, and every normal child understands the most important one instinctively; do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Am I using enough Biblical language to get through here? There's good stuff in there too, you don't have to get stuck on the
sexual hangups and bigotries of the authors.) It's no fun not to be invited, so invite everyone you can; that's a good moral decision, reached by a kid applying a very simple principle - not blindly
following a rule, but using his empathy and common sense to decide how to behave. If resources were too limited to invite his whole class (luckily not the case), then he'd have to figure out a fair compromise, but again, he'd be figuring out a realistic moral choice without the need for supernatural supervision.

If people concentrated less on trying to divine some absolute set of stone rules, and put more effort into figuring out how best to be kind and fair, even if that involved adapting their responses to fit specific cases, this would be a happier, more harmonious and yes, more moral
world. Perfect, no; people will always find a way to talk themselves into mistakes, even if you do try to predetermine their every allowable move. And no, I am not recommending anarchy; a society needs rules, laws, and enforcement mechanisms for them, and the decision of what to
allow and what to outlaw always involves moral as well as practical concerns.

None of that requires a ghostly overlord, though; simple human empathy and common sense are all that is needed. Don't hurt people. Make their lives better and happier where you can. If they're not hurting others, leave them alone.

Is that so hard?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Quote Of The Day

Pray, v.: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.

Ambrose Bierce

Praying Weather

Modern Christians talk a good game about the ineffable (vague) qualities of their God, and the sophisticated (sophistic) nature of their theology, but when push comes to shove what they do is the same old fashioned praying for rain (mewling for help from their invisible friend).

Not to single the Christians out too particularly, mind; Muslims were praying for Allah to keep the rain of Cyclone Sidr off Bangladesh just as hard, with no doubt even greater urgency but to equally little effect. There's a significant CHristian minority there too, of course.

As a commenter on Pharyngula pointed out, the call for prayer went out after the forecasters, using their heathenish science, had already predicted some light showers - not enough to significantly affect the drought conditions, mind, but no doubt enough to let the ignorant fools think that their wishful thinking had had an effect.

Too bad about Bangladesh, though. Obviously God chose to test them, rather than hear their pleas. He's a funny old bugger that way, God is. Unpredictable. Except maybe by heathenish scientists, and they only predict and encourage preparation; they can't affect the outcome, because they aren't the chosen ones of Big Sky Daddy.

(when, oh when, is the rest of the human race going to grow up and face reality?)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Quote Of The Day

In Christianity neither morality nor religion come into contact with
reality at any point.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Monday, November 12, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"Geology shows that fossils are of different ages. Paleontology shows a fossil sequence, the list of species represented changes through time. Taxonomy shows biological relationships among species. Evolution is the explanation that threads it all together. Creationism is the practice of squeezing one's eyes shut and wailing: 'does not!'"

Dr. Pepper


Carnival of the Godless #79 is up at Aardvarchaeology. That is all.

(I swear, I'm going to find time and energy for a proper post soon. I am!)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"What, me worry about the historical Jesus? The gospel writers made up their story; the church fathers invented the virgin birth on the winter solstice; the pope thought up the immaculate conception; so I can imagine any damn thing I please about Jesus, or the Spook, or about the big guy himself."

Theologian Franz Bibfeldt

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration--courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth."

H.L. Mencken

Friday, November 9, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"The people who are regarded as moral luminaries are those who forego ordinary pleasures themselves and find compensation in interfering with the pleasures of others."

Bertrand Russell

Friday Frog

Anyone who uses the very nice bittorent client Azureus will recognize today's frog, the lovely and talented - ah, toxic, that is - Dendrobates azureus, the blue poison dart frog. Serenely confident in a "you don't dare eat me" kind of way, this blue diamond is a native species of the Sipaliwini Savannah of Suriname, South America (say that seven times suddenly). As the name implies, its skin secretes toxins which can paralyze or even kill predators and are eminently suitable for poison darts with which to shorten the queue at the Post Office.

Photo graciously made public domain on Wikimedia Commons by Arpingstone.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Richard Dawkins

Truth in Fiction

The Catholic League has started an email campaign to promote boycotting the film version of Philip Pullman's book The Golden Compass - yeah, I know, Catholic censorship, contain your shock. The reasoning is as predictable as it is revealing:
The Catholic League wants Christians to boycott this movie precisely because it knows that the film is bait for the books: unsuspecting parents who take their children to see the movie may be impelled to buy the three books as a Christmas present. And no parent who wants to bring their children up in the faith will want any part of these books.
Yes, Heaven Forbid a child should watch any films or read any books which aren't perfectly respectful toward the Church. Introducing any alternate point of view during the critical years of childhood could result in independent thought, which would inevitably lead to questioning of the basis for the clergy's spiritual authority, and a perspicacious child might even come to rebel against a corrupt and tyrannical system.

Farfetched? Well, probably not; that's actually the central theme of the book. The Catholic League is quite correct in discerning that that message is implied in Pullman's dark little fairy tale. What's amusing, in a sad and bitter kind of way, is that by reacting this way they are actively demonstrating the truth of the accusations implied in the fiction.

They're probably correct, too, that exposure to these books is dangerous to a child's faith in the Church. What are the parents going to do, explain that in Lyrah's make-believe world of talking bears and daemons the priests are mostly domineering control freaks who think nothing of abusing children, while in the real world of pregnant virgins and resurrected corpses the priests are, uh, isn't it your bedtime sweetie?

Truth be told, the fundies who insist that their children read only Bible stories (and never, ever indulge in critical thinking about them, needless to say) have the right idea if the object to prevent their progeny from straying into the real world. All the other stuff is dangerous: The Golden Compass, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Once and Future King, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, The Wind In The Willows, even that Christian parent's favorite The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

That's right, even Narnia is a threat, however closely Aslan's character might be plagiarizing Christianity's plagiarism of Mithraism; after all, you can't seriously maintain that the Narnia books are nonfiction, so a bright child is liable to start wondering if the Noah's Ark story is. Even worse, such a child is then not only likely to conclude that the Bible is also fiction, but that it compares pretty badly to the others in plausibility and entertainment value.

So yes, the Catholic League really is correct in opposing the film, given their axiom that having children think critically about the Church is a bad thing. What's more I applaud the fact that they are boycotting the film; I hope they go further and picket the theaters as well.

You see, I loved the book, and even though it's reportedly been watered down a bit, I want the film to be a roaring success, in the hope that kids will indeed go on to read the series. If my own childhood experience with Monty Python's Life Of Brian is anything to go by, nothing could help that cause better than an attempt to censor the movie! :)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"Let the good news go forth: we live in a cosmos, the vastness of which we can scarcely even indicate in our thoughts, on a planet teeming with creatures we have only begun to understand, but the whole project was actually brought to a glorious fulfillment over twenty centuries ago, after one species of primate (our own) climbed down out of the trees, invented agriculture and iron tools, glimpsed (as through a glass, darkly) the possibility of keeping its excrement out of its food, and then singled out one among its number to be viciously flogged and nailed to a cross."

Sam Harris

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Richard Dawkins at AAI

Richard Dawkins gave a rather compelling presentation at Atheist Alliance International:

As is customary, a Q&A followed:

The videos are discussed at Richard's site. I may comment on this later, but I'm a bit short on time right now.

Quote Of The Day

"Acceptance without proof is the fundamental characteristic of Western religion. Rejection without proof is the fundamental characteristic of Western science."

Gary Zukav

Religion, realty, reality - OK, scratch that last

The housing market is a bit tight at the moment. If you're having a hard time selling your house, what's a sensible way to increase your chances? Should you hold an open house? Repaint the exterior? Get your realtor laid? Spruce up the garden with a few new plants? Hire a model to sunbathe on the neighbor's lawn? Spritz cinnamon air freshener everywhere?

Bury a statue?

Oh, the stupid, it burns...

Look, I can see putting a statue of St. Joseph up in your garden; that might even help you sell the place to other religious idiots, though it might lower the price when they see your desperation made manifest in idolatry. But burying a statue of the Saint of Real Estate? If I was a saint (not gonna happen, Mum) I'd be downright offended, both by the disrespect toward my likeness and the dishonesty of hiding the evidence of my attempt to magic up a sale.

The funny thing is, I suspect most of the people doing this would, if it were a Voudoun priestess telling them to bury a chicken head with a house key in its beak, scoff at the silly superstitious idea. A three inch statue of a dead religious leader, though? That's gotta be effective, even if you're not Catholic:

"I wasn't sure if it would be disrespectful for me, a Jewish Buddhist, to co-opt this saint for my real estate purposes," says Luna, a writer. She figured, "Well, could it hurt?"

Only your mind, Luna-tic, only your mind...

Monday, November 5, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"To assert that the earth revolves around the sun is as erroneous as to claim that Jesus was not born of a virgin."

Cardinal Bellarmine (1615, during the trial of Galileo)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Quote Of The Day

"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful."

Seneca the Younger

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Help Thou Mine Unbelief?

One of the things that often puzzles me in conversations with theists (which, given my location, mostly means Christians) is their insistence that they can choose to believe in the face of all logic and evidence. Is that really possible?

A person can choose to profess a belief, and act on a presumption that something is true, and even predicate upon such an assumption a line of thought or an entire philosophy. Is that really belief, though, or only the trappings of it?

I thought at first that the answer was obviously the latter, but I'm no longer so sure. I think I have been misled by a quirk of my own personality, one which I seem to share with an inordinate percentage of my fellow nonbelievers; I place an immensely high relative value on factual truth and on the mental processes which reveal it. Applying logical analysis to statements, parsing out chains of inference, meting out and continually revising estimates of reliability to putative facts - these habits of mind are so deeply ingrained and of such long standing that I'm scarcely aware of using them anymore, unless I make a special effort.

Most people simply don't have those priorities built into the way they look at the world. If an idea is rewarding emotionally, that is more important than its truth value. Even people who are well trained in the threshing out of data from anecdota and sound argument from sophistry will simply refuse to apply such methods to the claims they are determined to believe. Such fundamental dishonesty toward one's own self seems to me to be nothing short of a mental illness. Fellow proponents of irrational beliefs will often try to use the legitimate authority which such split minds have earned in one field (by applying sound methods of thinking) to lend a spurious legitimacy to another field (to which they have not applied those methods). It is a signature thinking flaw of irrationality, of course, to think that the legitimacy derives from the person rather than the methodology.

That isn't to say that truth has no value to them, but that value seems to lie more in the perception than in the reality - naming it truth rather than proving it true. I often pass a church sign that says "Avoid Truth Decay - Read your Bible" and have to add mentally "But for God's Sake Don't Think About It." The Christian bible does in fact have a story which is directly on point, a quote from which forms the title of this essay.

The story in Mark 9:14-30 tells of a man who is filled with desperation over his son, a boy subject to seizures, and begs Jesus to heal the boy with his magic powers. Jesus responds with the standard faith healer's escape clause, "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth." (To those of us with a skeptical cast of mind it's a very neat way to make sure it's the victim's fault if the healing doesn't take.) The desperate parent cries through his tears "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!"

Jesus does see the boy through a seizure, of course, and some Christians are wont to take this and only this as the point of the story. More sophisticated Christian readers generally focus more on the same factor that commends the story to my attention; the fact that the father despite his declaration quite obviously wasn't really able to believe, but in his desperation was willing to try to believe, and asked Jesus to help him do so. He was basically begging Jesus, if belief was necessary to save his son, to help him believe.

Most Christians I've discussed this story with tend to take this in some mystical fashion, as asking for Jesus to use his Godly power to infuse the man with faith - a mystical brainwashing,if you will. I'm reminded of Winston Smith's exchange with his torturer in the novel 1984, when told that he must see that 2+2=5:
"Do you want to convince me that you see five fingers, or to see them?"
"To see them! Really to see them!"

One can certainly empathize with a parent willing to compromise the integrity of his thought, if the alternative is the continued torment of his child. It seems to me at least an equally compelling interpretation, though, that the man was expressing more a willingness to accept a hypothesis (that Jesus could help him) provided that a cure was actually forthcoming, in order to help his unbelief. It's notable, though, that like many a modern-day faith healer Jesus and his crew quickly and quietly departed the area. There is absolutely no indication that the boy was actually permanently healed, and one may certainly doubt that the father's 'belief' long survived the departure of Jesus if the boy subsequently continued to have seizures!

Given how many and deep are the contradictions between the claims of the bible and the observable evidentiary facts of the universe around us, not to mention the internal inconsistencies in the collection itself, I most certainly am not willing to accept the claims of Christianity at face value and without evidence. (Just to pre-empt, yes, Zombie Jesus supposedly said to Doubting Thomas Didymus, "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." Well, that doesn't say that Thomas wasn't blessed as well, now does it?) If my belief that God is other than imaginary is important, I'm going to need some serious help for my unbelief; given my firmly entrenched habits of thought, I'd humbly suggest that providing some evidence would be a simpler route than a mystical brainwashing. I'm unlikely to ask for the latter out of my free will.

I value my mind too much to willingly maim it by holding beliefs I can't honestly examine.

Quote of the Day

"It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

William Kingdon Clifford

Friday, November 2, 2007

Friday Frog

Today's contender is the delightfully named Waxy Monkey Leaf Frog, Phyllomedusa sauvagii. How can you not love that? Look how cute, too, and on top of all that its secretions apparently cause an altered state of consciousness. Now that's value for money!

Picture is courtesy of PetraK via Wikimedia, under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Germany License.

Quote of the Day

"So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence."

Bertrand Russell