A dear friend of mine posted some disturbing videos from Indonesia of people being stoned to death for one religious offense or another on her Facebook profile to highlight the terrible violence that religion continues to inspire. She changed her profile photo to

I found what I consider to be a much more accurate version of the Coexist sign above,

*by Used with permission.

I’m not a graphic artist, but I’m sure if I had the talent I could come up with other signs that contained more “truthiness” that the Coexist one.

Of course, the Coexist message represents something to strive for and as such it serves its purpose well. If religious coexistence was a fact, we wouldn’t need the logo in the first place.

While I fully support efforts for peoples of all faith to coexist, my feelings, as I said in my response to one of the videos, is that to coexist we must see each other as fellow humans, not as believers and unbelievers and until we can throw off all vestiges of religions, that can never happen. As long as people allow religion to guide how they live their lives, the violence and hatred will continue. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but we need to be realistic about just how insidious the influence of religion really is and how very difficult it will be to change that.

Have I Read The Bible, Hell Yes! That’s Why I’m an Atheist!

A childhood friend on FB responded to my post, The Bible is the Literal Word of God; Except When Its Not. Here is what he said:

“have you read the Bible? or are you simply regurgitating ignorance from others? I have offered answers, yet I have not been taken up on this. Again, it is very irresponsible to propagate unsubstantiated opinions. Why this venom towards Christians and the Bible? If you wish to be an athiest be one, that is your right. Why the all out war on the belief of others. What is freethinking? Oh just freedom to think apart from responsibility and accountablity? Freedom from any form of religious thinking? Maybe free thinking should be folks who examine an issue and think for themselves. Not simply robots who cannot originate a though for themselves. Freethinking is a misnomer”

Yes, I’ve read the bible, cover to cover, at least twice, and many parts of it, the New Testament especially, many, many times over the years. It was this almost continual reading of the bible that made me see more and more contradictions that I just couldn’t rationalize away. Then I studied the history of the writing of the New Testament, how there were originally hundreds of gospels and competing camps of bishops supporting one version of the theology against the others. I learned about the political machinations that took place to arrive at the New Testament we have now. It was, totally and completely, cover to cover, created to fulfill political agendas of the most powerful bishops and the rulers who backed them.

Why do I have such venom toward the bible and the people who misuse it (I refuse to lump all Christians into one group as this would be irresponsible)? Ask Madeline Neumann, a 12-year-old girl whose parents, based on their religion, allowed her to die of diabetic ketoacidosis rather than save her life by allowing physicians to administer insulin and fluids. They thought prayer would save her. It didn’t. Ask the thousands of people who have been killed over the last 2000 years for their refusal to follow the prevailing version of Christianity. Ask the irresponsible ministers and political leaders who wish to brand homosexuals as immoral, second-class citizens. Ask the 156,000,000 women who’s reproductive organs are held hostage by a religiously motivated white, male, privileged class of cretins.

I wage an all out war on anything that conspires to take rights away from people. That includes holier-than-thou Christians, militant, closed minded Muslims, Zionistic Jews willing to steal and kill to get their land, white supremacists who wish to overthrow the U.S Government, wide-eyed, white, privileged Greenpeace and PETA people who would rater see millions starve and die of disease than allow GM foods and medicines tested on animals be developed that could save countless lives.

Christianity is my main focus because, almost without exception, all of the people in this country right now who would seek to take rights away from others self-identify as Christians and claim that their sense of morality comes from their religion. If things change and the largest group of privileged people in power become Muslims or Hindus or Wiccans, I’ll fight them just as loudly and forcefully.

I don’t claim to be able to tell people how to live their lives. As long as no one is being harmed, taken advantage of, or being forced either by law or by custom to kowtow to some group’s beliefs, then I say let people believe whatever they like. You can believe in God and Jesus, you can believe that Homosexuals will go to hell, but keep that belief within your churches and homes, don’t force it on others.

I don’t go door to door trying to get people not to believe in God. I don’t support any law that would outlaw any kind of religion or religious belief. I don’t lobby for my personal beliefs to be the law of the land, but don’t try to tell me that Christians aren’t doing that every day, in every town and state in the country. When the Christian majority (and yes, you are well over a 70% majority) tries to tell the rest of us what we can do and say and believe and think, then yes, I will fight for my rights and the rights of everyone else who are forced to listen to people tell us we are less American and less patriotic than they are because we don’t believe in their god. This country was founded on religious freedom (freedom for and from religion) and freedom of conscience, not on Christianity or any other religion. Yes, I will fight for that kicking and screaming, every fucking step of the way.

Sex Acts Shouldn’t be a Moral Issue

Sex is one of the most basic activities that we as humans engage in. Next to quest for water, food, and shelter, sex is the most compelling force that drives our actions and emotions. That may sound crass to some, but sexual desire takes many forms such as our longing for romance, companionship, affection, and love of other caring adults.

Here I define sex as responsible, consensual, non-coercive sexual and social relations between adults that takes place in private. This definition applies no matter if the adults involved be straight, gay, bi-sexual, transsexual, transgender, or polyamorous; monogamous or non-monogamous. No sexual act, as long as it is agreed to by all involved, is prohibited and all such sexual acts are considered morally neutral.

I say in the title of this entry that sex acts shouldn’t be a moral issue, but our sexual freedom is and should be. Just as access to shelter, water, and food are moral issues, in that no one can justly keep these things from us, so too is sexual freedom a moral issue. No one has the right to keep us from engaging in responsible, non-coercive and consensual sexual relationships with other adults, or dictate how those relationships must, or must not, be expressed.

There are many people who would try to deny the right of sexual freedom to others based strictly on their own, almost exclusively, religiously motivated beliefs. These people try to make a moral issue out of social and sexual relationships and activities that they have no compelling interest in. How are they harmed or affected by what transpires in petto between responsible and consenting adults? The reality, of course, is that they are not harmed in any way, and any effect the imagined sexual activities of others may have on them is their own issue to deal with, not a matter for public discussion and government interference.

I find it interesting that the same people who attempt to legislate sexual morality are often the same people who cry the loudest about the government interfering with their rights to own firearms, their access to health care, or trying to take away their precious social security and Medicare (where are government programs created by the federal government and which no one has an intrinsic right to).

These same people don’t want to be told by the government how to live their lives and yet they have no problems trying to get that same government to tell others what sexual acts they can and can’t engage in.

The right to practice sexual freedom, as I’ve defined it here, is an intrinsic right that no one except the parties involved have any compelling interest in or standing on. The kinds of relationships that responsible, consenting adults enter into, the sexual acts they engage in, and the various orientations and numbers of people involved in those relationships are sacrosanct as long as they are engaged in openly, honestly and without any coercion.

Finally, A Power-like Band That Does Exactly What It’s Name Suggests

I got my Placebo Bands in the mail yesterday from the brilliant Skepticbros in Australia.

Does wearing two of them make them twice as ineffective as just one?

Placebo Bands are the Skepticbros answer to Power Balance bands and others of their ilk. Unlike the unsubstantiated claims of Power Balance to be able to balance your body’s energy field, the Placebo Bands promise to do nothing, except perhaps becoming conversations starters.

When someone asks me about the band I’m wearing, I can proudly tell them that it is a placebo that does nothing, just like the Power Balance bands. With a knowing wink I will add that unlike the Power Balance bands that cost $29.99, I only paid $2 for mine. According to the Skepticbros, they used some of the same manufactures who make Power Balance bands using the same materials and manufacturing process to make their bands, but they didn’t get nearly the volume discount that Power Balance must be getting. The best thing of all about the Placebo Bands is that the approximately $1 profit per band goes to charity, while with Power Balance, $28.99 per band (with their volume discount, probably more like $29.50) goes into their pockets.

After telling inquisitive people all the stuff I just told you, my favorite part is telling them that the both have the exact same effect, which is none, except possibly a placebo effect for those who are gullible enough to buy into the body energy bullshit claims.

So if you really do believe in body energy and that a silicone band with a hologram in it can help balance it, save yourself $27.99 and go for the Placebo Band. They look the same, they feel the same and, most importantly, they have the same effect, which is to say, none at all.

State Support For The “Persecuted” Majority

I’ve written here before about Christians who feel that they have a right to refuse to do their jobs if something about it conflicts with their conscience. Now we get to hear more about this from Idaho. A pharmacist in a Walgreens refused to fill a prescription, Methergine, which is a medicine used to prevent or control bleeding of the uterus following childbirth or an abortion. This was prescribed by a nurse practitioner from a Planned Parenthood clinic. The pharmacist would not fill it because the nurse practitioner refused to tell the pharmacist if it was being prescribed for an abortion, citing patient confidentiality.

If a person’s conscience is going to be an issue in being able to full carry out the duties of their chosen profession, then they are in the wrong profession and should find a new one.

Sadly, Idaho recently passed a law that gives pharmacists and other health care providers the right to refuse to provide any health care service or dispense any drugs that violates their conscience. Once again, the state is given preference to religious believers, believers who somehow feel they should be protected and excused from simply doing their jobs like the rest of us.

Topic of the Week – Astrology

I haven’t written much about astrology before, except for one entry, and that is because I really have no interest in astrology and never have. I have always viewed it as a silly thing that was a left over from the time before science and empirical reason came to the forefront of human thought.

Growing up, I was fascinated with astronomy and was quite the amateur astronomer in my youth, spending countless nights, even in the coldest of winters, outside with my telescope. Knowing how the universe operated completely negated the possibility that astrology could possibly be anything but superstition and wishful thinking.

The Twitterspace has been, well, atwitter, about astrology ever since the director of the Minnesota Planetarium Society commented in a local newspaper interview that, due to the gradual shift in the orientation of Earth’s axis of rotation, called precession, that the Zodiac signs have changed since ancient times. Precession caused the stars to appear to gradually move over time in relation to fixed points on earth. For example, the current pole star, or north star, Polaris, will no longer be the pole star in another 12,000 years.

The precession also effects the ecliptic plane, which is where the Zodiacal constellations are located. As a result, the supposed sign you were born under is actually now not that sign anymore. As Phil Plait puts is on his Bad Astronomy blog:

“If you were born on March 22, you were an Aries… if you went by the original timing of when the Sun was in Aries. But now, millennia later, the Sun is actually in Pisces on that date. And it won’t be much longer before it’s in Aquarius in late March (hence “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”)”

Basically, astrology is based on the positions of stars and planets as they were known well over 2000 years ago. Their positions in the sky in relation to earth change over time and astrology has no way to account for this, so even if there were something to it (which there isn’t), it would slowly have become more and more inaccurate over time. Or course, there is nothing to it. At all. As Penn & Teller have said on their show, Bullshit, astrology is – bullshit!

I was chatting with a friend today and he related to me a conversation that he had with a friend who believes in astrology. He told her that he thought astrology was a bullshit belief. She got indignant and said something to the effect of, “Oh, you wouldn’t say something like about someone’s religion.” He replied, “As a matter of fact…”. That ended the conversation pretty quickly.

If you really want an excellent explanation of why astrology is complete and utter BS, you can’t do better than Phil Plait’s in-depth take down of astrology. I’d also highly recommend reading his book, Bad Astronomy. In it he corrects many common astronomy misconceptions.

Living In The Real World Is Hard For An Idealist

I just finished watching Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody Allen. I’d never seen it before, nor many of his other movies. The only ones I’ve seen before were Zelig and Sleeper, and those back in college.

A very dear friend of mine suggested to me that I watch the movie, which I watched on Netflix. She also mailed me Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan, and Annie Hall, which I plan on watching in short order. She said that she thought that the themes explored in these movies were the same that I explore here in this blog and after watching Crimes and Misdemeanors, I have to say that she was right.

What I found most compelling about the movie was the struggle that the main character, Judah, has with himself between his life long rejection of religion and superstition and the Jewish religion that his father raised him and his siblings in. As a youngster he questioned his father’s beliefs and as a man, he openly rejected them, but after he commits a terrible crime, he is racked with guilt to the point of a mental breakdown.

At the end of the movie, he is at a wedding reception talking to Cliff, the idealist and romantic, played by Woody Allen. Cliff is despondent over a lost love and sardonically say, thinking about his brother-in-law who got the woman Cliff was in love with, that he was contemplating murder. Judah, knowing that Cliff is an aspiring film director, tells him that he has this great plot for a movie about murder with a twist.

“And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background which he’d rejected are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse-an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person-a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.”

Cliff, the idealist and moralist, says that the murder would never be able to live with what he did and, if he were directing that movie, he’d have him confess to the police, becoming the moral authority of the story. He says that it would be a great tragedy. Judah chides him by telling him that his ending only happens in the movies, he is talking about reality.

The meaning is clear, we can, and do, rationalize away those things that cause us guilt, or else we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves.

I have written quite a bit here about cognitive dissonance, the theory that people, when faced with uncomfortable facts that contradict their world view, will resolve the dissonance by either accepting the truth and rejecting their world view, or rationalizing the facts away, so as to be able to live with themselves. The situation portrayed in the film is very similar, in that Judah had to rationalize away the crime he had committed in order to live with himself. After all, the reasoning goes, if he turned himself in he would destroy his family and himself end up in prison for life, and what would that accomplish; who would that benefit?

It is a very seductive and, in many ways, reasonable way of resolving the guilt he feels. Of course, this goes against our concept of morality. We believe that someone who commits a crime should be held accountable for it. Yet if that person is not the type to normally commit crimes, if they don’t pose a reasonable danger to anyone else, what really is accomplished by confessing and accepting the consequences? It is a tough nut to crack and one that rationalists and ethicists have been debating for thousands of years, and I certainly don’t think that I have an answer.

It is a fascinating topic for reflection and debate. What is the real reason for punishment for those who commit crimes? On the larger scale, it helps keep social order, but what about on a personal scale? It can give the victims a sense of justice, but isn’t that really just rewarding their desire for revenge? Of course, if the offender is a career offender, or has a pathological personality that drives them to commit crimes, then prison makes plenty of sense, and this is probably the case with many offenders. But what about those people who are basically good and decent, but are driven to commit a crime out of fear or mental anguish? Is the same penalty we would give a dangerous career criminal really appropriate for them?

The movie doesn’t answer these questions. Judah is shown as having moved on with his life, in fact, his life is better than ever. Cliff is left alone with his idealism, even though it has failed him once again. This is as real as it gets, and real life is messy and arbitrary and the film gets that perfectly.

Dealing With Believers – Accommodation VS Confrontation

My dear friend Maria has an ongoing debate on her blog, The Fledgling Skeptic, about Accommodation VS Confrontation in the skeptical community. Her and Rob Smith had and interesting first round of their debate and I suggest that you go read it at the link above.

This is a debate that has been going on for a while now. Phil Plait brought it to the forefront in his, “Don’t be a dick”, speech at TAM 8, and it was a major topic of conversation and debate at Skepticon III.

As I said in my reply to Maria’s and Rob’s first round, it seems that the more we debate this issue, the muddier it gets, and I think it is because every situation is different. What is important is to avoid blatant accommodation of the kind where we are afraid to criticize someone’s beliefs. Beliefs can always, and must always be criticized if they are based on superstition and magical thinking. The important thing is to show respect to the person(s) who’s beliefs you are criticizing, unless, of course, you are dealing with the Sylvia Brown’s, Rush Limbaugh’s, and assorted religious leaders who are doing real harm, where open ridicule is more appropriate. But for your average believers who have only a personal stake of their own beliefs, respect the person, but criticize the beliefs.

I believe that we need to respect the believer and let them know that we respect them and aren’t just writing them or their beliefs and opinions off. At the same time, we cannot give an inch when it comes to calling out their superstitious beliefs. We need to engage them in conversation and ask them to tell use why they believe what they do. Make them defend their beliefs with more than just, “Because the bible says so”, or, “It is God’s plan”. They need to give us real, tangible evidence. Of course, they won’t be able to, but we need to insist on it. The tone we use, sarcastic, sincere interest, etc, will depend on their tone. It is a play-it-by-ear situation and each person and situation will be different.

The really important thing is to gage their mood and level of attachment to their beliefs and then attempt to engage them in dialogue. Unless you are debating a hell bent (that’s an ironic term!) true believer, with whom you will almost surely get nowhere, you need to realize that this person, this believer, is human, with the basic human inclination to assign agency to things in their world (some say it is an instinct, an evolutionary trait developed to protect our hunter/gather ancestors from predators). They don’t realize that they are involved in superstitious or magical thinking because thinking rationally and critically goes against that particular part of our evolutionary development. We need to show them that we can use another product of our evolution, our capacity to reason, to overcome that other evolutionary by-product that is rarely ever needed anymore.

Respect for the individual is the key with dealing with most believers. When they know that you aren’t attacking them personally, you can start to help them separate their beliefs from themselves. Its no small task, but every journey starts with just one step, and showing them that they are valuable not because of their beliefs, but in spite of them, is a good beginning.

Ignorance is Strength

I was thinking about something I read lately about how some preachers are telling their congregations that if it is a choice between science and the Bible, the Bible has to be right. They explicitly teach putting faith over the evidence of not just science, but their very senses.

This thought had been rattling around in my mind for a few days when I happened upon a picture that someone had created based on the slogans of Ingsoc from George Orwell’s 1984. They were:

War is Peace

Hate is Love

Ignorance is Strength

It was the last one that really hit me like a bolt between the eyes and actually gave me a shock. This is exactly what these preachers, ministers, priests and imams are teaching the flocks: Ignorance is strength. It is the same kind of dangerous ignorance that is taught in Winston Smith’s dystopian world; not just the ignorance of the unknowing, but willful ignorance in the face of facts and even your own senses.
How different is what these religious leaders teach from what the Party of Ingsoc taught in 1984?

It is said that if you repeat a lie enough people will believe it. If you keep telling people that God will heal them, that he will fulfill all their needs, that if you ask it will be given unto you, people will stop relying on themselves to make decisions and put their faith instead in nothing but superstition. What is the difference between believing that carrying a rabbit’s foot or four leaf clover will bring you luck and that an invisible entity will answer your prayers? How does one have anymore more validity than the other? The truth is that they don’t because neither has any validity what-so-ever.

Children die because their parents choose to pray for them rather then get them qualified medical help. Albinos in Africa are killed because it is believed that their body parts have magical powers. Women are killed in other parts of Africa because someone believes they are witches. All of these terrible things are the consequences of superstition and magical thinking.

When we allow ourselves to believe that there is strength in ignorance, that learning and education is somehow dangerous because it is a sign of “elitism”, we put ourselves at the mercy of superstition and fear, and lives are destroyed because of it.

Ignorance is weakness of the mind and one of the greatest evils that our species faces and can lead to nothing but suffering and darkness.