First it was “Creation Science,” then it was “Intelligent Design,” and now… “Non-Evolution”

So there’s this legislator in my home state who seems to think that simply stating the opposite of a well-established scientific principle counts as a theory in itself. Despite the fact that his “theory” has no evidential leg to stand on.

We (and by “we” I mean “they,” and by “they,” I mean “ill-informed zealots” which are actually the worst kind of zealot) used to call this “Creation Science,” employing the popular-yet-misguided notion that adding the word “science” makes something scientific (to see why this is complete bullshit, one need look no further than Scientology). Certain irrational citizens of our country thought that it should be taught alongside evolution, which is kinda like saying that Rick Moranis deserves to play in the NBA. No… actually it’s like saying that Lucky the Lucky Charms Leprechaun deserves to play in the NBA.

Long story short, they were wrong, and the courts agreed.

After that, they made yet another attempt to teach religion as science, only this time they called it “Intelligent Design.” Same tired arguments. Same utter lack of evidence. So, naturally, the results in the judicial system didn’t change.

Now they’re back, echoing the same vacuous sentiments, dressed up in yet another pretentious title: non-evolution. With any luck, this story will be the last we hear of it, but if history is any indication, I don’t think it’s likely to stop here. Quite fitting when you think about it… the movement rallying against evolution refusing to evolve itself?

The irony is not lost on me.

Joe Nickell on Demon Possession

As these examples from my own work as a skeptical demonologist show, belief in demons and the Devil merely harks back to a time of ignorance and superstition. We may well wonder—if we are to use the word at all—what has possessed the Roman Catholic Church to believe, or pretend to believe, otherwise.

…and with that, Joe Nickell officially solidifies his position of a Grade A badass in my book.

For those unwilling to read this brilliant and short breakdown of some of the more ridiculous aspects of Christian superstition, I’ll save you some time. There is no devil. There are no demons. Belief in either is sad, misguided, irrational and completely useless (except at allowing a believer to absolve oneself of responsibility for his or her actions).

Fox News Says Heaven is Real. Evidence: a Little Boy’s Hallucination.

Most hilarious line: “So many people want to know what you now know…”

Come on, people. Is this how you want our generation to be remembered? In thousands of years, when future generations unearth our culture, do you really want them to say, “Wow! Look at this. These people actually thought that one little boy’s anesthesia-induced hallucinations were valid evidence for an afterlife!”

Seriously, if you would actually recount this story to someone as evidence for an afterlife (in any context other than a joke), I’d like you to wear aluminum foil on your head, so’s we know who you are.

The Short Rebuttal (which any one of the idiots down at Fox News could have done, if they’d taken literally five minutes to do the research):

  1. Experiencing hallucinations while under general anesthesia is a well-known, common phenomena. There’s nothing unusual about seeing things that aren’t there, feeling like you’re “outside your body,” or having intense feelings of euphoria when you’re being put under.
  2. Even ignoring the anesthesia, NDEs and OBEs are also very common phenomena, occasionally triggered when the brain loses oxygen. So what we have are at least two natural, common, well-documented explanations that were completely ignored by Fox News’ crack research team. Figures.
  3. A bronze-age Palestinian Jewish carpenter with blue eyes? Srsly?!
  4. Even if the god this boy saw was big enough to hold the world in the palm of his hand, he’d still be infinitely smaller than the universe itself. So… proportion fail.
  5. Let me get this straight… there was absolutely no way that the kid could have known that at least one of his very religious parents would be praying for him as he was about to be cut open? (See: definition of “naive“)
  6. It’s Fox News.
  7. If this boy had seen Allah and Muhammad while under the influence of general anesthesia (akin to what happened to this woman, for instance), I’m willing to bet my life savings that it would have been dismissed as a meaningless hallucination in no time.

Sex

Okay, humans…

It’s one thing to assert the tired old canard that, because science can’t explain something, a god must be used to explain it.

It’s quite another to go on to claim that one particular patriarchal Hebrew sky god is responsible for the phenomenon in question.

And it’s still yet another thing to further assert that this invisible creative force actually gives a shit about where I put my penis.

I’ve yet to hear any theological explanation for this, other than “God said it, so there,” (which is the fastest way to completely lose any intellectual currency you may have). And yet even a cursory glimpse at human history shows a clear pattern. Religion, it seems, is obsessed with with the penis and vagina.

Sex is very simple. And awesome. A natural, zesty enterprise. So why is it that most of the Abrahamic religions seem to react to sex (particularly the homosexual variety) with such contempt?

Granted, the modernized factions have found a way to upgrade the Scriptures to fit with our current “secular” sexual moral constructs. Some branches of Christianity are accepting of homosexuality and extramarital sex. Some are okay with any kind of sex, so long as it’s done within the confines of holy matrimony. But there’s still a good number of religious followers who would contend that sex exists merely for procreation and should only be done inside a heterosexual marriage. No exceptions. And if you’re enjoying it, you’re doing it wrong.

Scratch that. Only if the woman is enjoying it, are you doing it wrong.

And it’s not enough for these people to decide to live that lifestyle of their own accord. It’s absolutely imperative to them that everyone be taught to live that particular lifestyle, and that governing bodies should exalt that world view as superior. Regardless of what biology, statistics, or medical science has to say about it.

That’s one thing that annoys me about some Christians, particularly those that lobby for “abstinence-only” sex ed in public schools.

Thing is, I’m totally a fan of arbitrary promises. An arbitrary promise proves, irrefutably, that we as human beings can make and live by our own rules, and that we can choose to give up any vices we decide to give up, be it of sex, substance, or habit.

So if you want to decide, on your own, to remain celibate until some arbitrary date–say, your wedding night–then fucking go for it.

But that’s exactly what it is. Arbitrary.

There is, in fact, no good reason to make such a random decision.

I’m sure everyone reading is already sagacious enough to be aware of the hard data concerning this issue, so I won’t delve any deeper into it outside of the basics. In short, not only are abstinence-only sex ed programs completely useless in curbing teen sexual activity, but abstinence in practice doesn’t make you any healthier, physically, nor does it make your relationship any healthier (or happier) than that of your premaritally-boning counterparts.

Supporters of abstinence-only sex ed usually pull out the usual slew of supposed advantages of abstinence. The most popular, and usually touted as the “best,” reason is the threat of teen pregnancy. Then comes the risk of STD infection. Both of these risks, however, are drastically lowered to the point of being entirely negligible, if teens are given a good education on the proper use of birth control.

“Oh, but there’s still a chance that condoms could fail and that birth control pills won’t work.” True. A very small chance. So small, that no reasonable person should see any cause for worry. If we’re going to accept this kind of reasoning, then abstinence shouldn’t be considered safe either, since there’s still the very small yet very real chance that you can catch the clap from a toilet seat or that you can be raped.

“Married couples who abstained until marriage feel closer, since they’ve only had each other. Hence, they’re happier.”

Anecdotal. Irrelevant. I could just as easily say that married couples who didn’t wait until marriage were able to find out whether or not they were sexually compatible before they decided to commit to each other, similar to how you don’t buy a car until you’ve taken it for a test drive to see if it gives you the ride you’re looking for. Hence, they’re happier.

Any way you slice it, there’s no good, objective reason to save oneself for marriage. Not to say that everyone should be taught to be promiscuous. In fact I’m saying the opposite.

I’m saying we should be allowed to make our own choices concerning sex, without certain people who claim that their imaginary friends told them that their way is the best way and the only way, and who are somehow exempt from having to provide solid evidence for this claim. If you feel like sexual abstinence is right for you, by all means, indulge yourself. Or… don’t indulge yourself, actually.

But, if I may put it bluntly, my dick is none of your business unless I make it your business (consensually, that is). Nor are anyone else’s private parts, for that matter.

Dubious Christian Claims: Demon-Possession

Another common reason I hear from my Christian friends for their belief in Christianity, aside from prophecies, special pleading, and stuff that looks Christian-ey, is that they’ve seen people healed from diseases and demon-possession via the “power of prayer.”

I’ve already explored the faith-healing nonsense in a previous post, so I won’t bring it up again here, except to say that if the Christian god were really interested in showing his “power” through healing, he should pick less ambiguous ways of doing so. Like growing back amputated limbs, for instance.

Instead, I want to focus on the demon-possession claim, and why I do not believe that demons (a) exist, (b) possess humans, and (c) can be exorcised by a believer.

The first and most obvious reason why you shouldn’t believe that demons exist is because there is absolutely no evidence that demons exist. None. Zip. Zero. Nada. According to Christian mythology, demons (and their leader, the devil) are fallen angels who lost their “angel” status and were banished from heaven when they were convinced to rebel against Yahweh.

This story, like the virgin birth of Athena, or the battle between Rama and Ravana, is impossible to verify. Apart from that, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. To accept this story as true, we would have to believe that Lucifer was able to convince a third of heaven’s legions (which, for all you math majors out there, is a clear minority) to rebel against their creator, whom they all knew was all-powerful and all-knowing.

Did Lucifer actually expect to win? That would make him so unbelievably stupid, that we should hardly consider him a real threat. Didn’t Yahweh know that this would happen? Presumably, even before he created Lucifer? Couldn’t he have just erased the traitors from existence, rather than unleashing them on Earth to wreak havoc? Plus, doesn’t this go against the traditional view of heaven as a place without war or conflict? If heaven is just like Earth (plus mandatory eternal servitude and groveling), why should we aspire to go there?

Let’s get off the impossibly flawed logic of this story, and just assume that it’s true. Why would demons possess humans? Isn’t it in Satan’s best interest to be on the down low, to convince people that he doesn’t exist? And probably the most obvious logical shortcoming of all… why is it that these “demon possessions” only seem happen in a church or at a church function–the very place that would have people qualified to stop it? That’s like staging a robbery at a police station.

This is the common thread in nearly all demon-possession stories recounted to me. “So-and-so got possessed by a demon during a church meeting, or a youth retreat, or a prayer rally.” It never seems to happen anywhere that isn’t “hallowed,” like the mall, or at parties, or in our evil, secular public school classrooms. (If you dispute this, I require proof. A newspaper article would do.)

Know why? Because if I’m at the mall and I see someone start convulsing and drop to the floor, I’m calling an ambulance. Because they’re having a seizure.

The more I hear these stories about demon-possession and exorcism, the less credible they sound, and the more gullible the story-tellers start to seem. And I have little incentive to take people seriously who can’t learn to be rational about these kinds of things. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

And that’s about all I have to say about that. For now.

Jerry Coyne on Michael Shermer

The Templeton Foundation has two major goals, promoting capitalism and blurring the line between science and faith. So it’s hardly surprising that their Big Questions online magazine would publish an article claiming that capitalism is an important source of human morality.  And it’s not thatsurprising that they’d also claim an evolutionary basis for this wonderfully fortuitous and Gekko-ish conjunction of greed and ethics.

What is surprising is that the argument is made by Michael Shermer.

Shermer is a well known—and well respected (including by me)—skeptic, author of several good books (Why Darwin Matters, Why People Believe Weird Things), columnist for Scientific American, and publisher of Skeptic magazine.  So it’s really, really sad to see him pushing the Templeton Thesis on the Templeton website.  Templeton is, after all, devoted to effacing the demarcation between science and woo, a demarcation that Shermer has vigorously defended for years.  And it’s disturbing to see him once again in the pay of the Templeton machine, making an argument that, while supporting their mission, seems pretty thin.

It’s really annoying to hear a scientist I respect paint another skeptic with such a broad brush over his economic viewpoint.

Michael Shermer is every bit as open about his libertarianism as he is about his skepticism. So I could understand liberal skeptics getting a little defensive when they see his economic musings in a Templeton publication. But it seems Jerry Coyne here is stopping short of calling Shermer a sell-out, based on that one article alone… while completely ignoring Shermer’s first article for Big Questions, which was highly critical of religion in science and the new-agey woo woo peddled by the likes of Deepak Chopra.

Shermer hasn’t sold out. He just has a different perspective of the market. One that, in my opinion, is a lot less naive and wasteful than the standard liberal view, but still. If skeptics on either side of the political spectrum start ostracizing other skeptics just because of their personal politics (which have no scientific justification), what hope is there of successfully spreading skepticism?

Why We Need Assholes (and Not Just in the Literal Sense)

I felt I should weigh in on the ongoing debate within the atheist community over whether or not rationalists and skeptics should refrain from “being dicks,” as Phil Plait so eloquently put it.

A good number of atheist bloggers have already given their opinions (or lack thereof) on this matter, including Friendly Atheist, Woo Fighters and Non Prophet Status, so I think I might be a little late.

Regardless, this is a pretty big issue that isn’t so cut-and-dried, and I think my own personal story can offer a bit of a different perspective to the dialog.

In short, I would not be an atheist right now if it weren’t for an asshole.

Let me explain.

I grew up a devout Christian. But I was always very inquisitive and analytic. And like a lot of Christians, it wasn’t enough for me to believe; I felt a need to intellectually justify my beliefs. And I wanted any “outsiders” to be convinced by my reasons. Or at least, to acknowledge them as somewhat rational, even if they were not convinced by them.

Oh, and I have always been a bit of a smart-ass and a trivia geek.

Anyway, my father (an evangelical minister) was quick to answer any theological or philosophical questions I had regarding faith or the bible, and there were plenty of other resources that gave me scientific “arguments” to defend my religion from any attacks. But for most of my life, the attacks never really came.

I knew several non-believers, growing up. Most of them were the kind that I and other atheists would now call “accommodationists.” If the topic of religion came up, I defended my position, they defended theirs (politely), and we always “agreed to disagree.” I never truly felt challenged. I always figured that I was right, and it was a waste of time and energy to assertively try to prove this to them, especially since they were nice enough to be respectful of my beliefs.

Then there was Alan. (I’m disguising his name here to protect his privacy)

Alan was a guy I worked with at my last job. He wasn’t content with just being an atheist. He wasn’t the kind of person that just let religious discussions slide. If he overheard me talking to someone about god or religion, he’d either call out the things I said as irrational, or he’d demand that we not bombard his ears with god-talk. He seemed to have a response to everything, and would refuse to “respectfully disagree.”

His attitude, quite frankly, offended me. It offended me so much, that I became determined to get back at him. The next time he tried to attack my religious beliefs as irrational, I wanted to come back with counter arguments that would leave him standing in the dust.

That’s when I began to study. But not like before. I mean, really study. Slowly and gradually, I began to examine the tenets of my faith and my reasons for believing in them.

The rest, as they say, is history. I eventually found that there wasn’t a single reason for religious belief that isn’t hopelessly flawed.

What’s my point? Simply, that I would not have seriously examined my religion if I had not been challenged to do so out of an intense desire to shut Alan the hell up.

If he had been the same kind of atheist that I’d dealt with before then, I might never have been inspired to try to establish a reasonable case for Christianity. And I never would have discovered that there isn’t one. If Alan had just let me keep sharing my religious beliefs without getting in my face, or if he had merely “respectfully disagreed,” I might still be a Christian. I would have left those discussions paying lip service to the “to each his own” philosophy, but secretly believing that I was right and he, regrettably, was going to hell (regardless of how nice he is).

But the fact that he wasn’t nice made all the difference. At least, to me.

And that’s precisely what I’m saying. It may be true that “you can catch more flies with honey than you could with vinegar,” but I know from experience that some flies respond better when they’re given shit. I was (and still am) one of these flies.

A lot of Christians and religious people are precisely the kind of Christian I used to be: obsessed with being right, but unwilling to take more than a superficial look into the matter unless it’s to shove the truth into some jerk’s face.

I’m not at all saying that we need people to act like jerks. Alan, looking back on the whole experience, wasn’t a jerk. He was just right. When you’re right (especially when being wrong is so potentially harmful), being assertive is merely one approach to challenging untrue statements and beliefs.

I don’t think I’d consider myself a “dick” about religion, but I’m certain that many of the Christians who read my blog would disagree. I could honestly care less. Whatever works. I’m certain there are those who are turned off by my approach and would respond better to a calmer discussion, or a blog with a nicer tone. But believers, as people, are just as diverse as non-believers, and it’s silly to expect the same passive, accommodating approach to work for everyone.

When it comes to truly harmless beliefs, I’m all in favor of the “live and let live” approach and politely disagreeing. Most of the time, in my everyday interactions with devoutly religious people, that’s exactly what I do.

What I don’t do is turn a blind eye toward untrue statements that would mislead people. If someone posts a verse from Psalms as their facebook status, 99 times out of 100 I’ll just leave them be. But if someone says “true Darwinists should be racists” or “evolution is an atheist lie” (both are actual examples), I get in their faces and I really don’t care if it’s interpreted as rude or not. “You are wrong. Here is the information proving it. Stop lying to people.”

So no, I do not think that the atheist movement would benefit from an overall calming of our tone. I do not think that distancing ourselves from so-called “angry atheists” would be wise. I do not think it’s good advice to “not be such a dick.”

I think a better piece of advice is, above all else, to be honest. I’m living proof that an honest asshole can be just as effective as an honest diplomat.

Because, ultimately, everyone cares more about the truth than their beliefs. Some just won’t go looking for it unless they’re poked, prodded or pushed.