Archive for August, 2009

Sunday Sermon: What if God was one of us?

god_brainSo some creationists are trying to be happy about a recent scientific study that says the appendix isn’t as useless a vestigial organ as was previously thought.

As has already been pointed out, the study is based on a phylogenetic analysis of various critters, including humans — that means the results are based on the assumption that humans and those other critters all evolved from a common ancestor.

But creationists have a long-standing explanation for the evolutionary relationships between various critters (again, including humans). They say it’s “common design” rather than common descent. After all, when we design things, we often reuse the same components for different designs, don’t we? So of course it’s not surprising that God would do the same thing.

There are lots of problems with this — ask yourself why the same bone structure would be ideal for a bat’s wing, a human hand and a dolphin’s fin — but what interests me about it is its sheer anthropocentrism. Why would an all-powerful, all-knowing deity, whose mind we can’t begin to fathom, do things the way ordinary humans tend to do them?

It’s funny how when humans describe how God works, it always seems to be pretty much the way humans work — except when God does something no self-respecting human would ever do.

When God tells a loyal follower to tie his son to a slab and plunge a knife into his heart, or instructs a tribe to kill all the men, women, boys and babies of a rival tribe, saving only the young girls for themselves, or tells a couple to let their teenage son die rather than seek medical help —  suddenly God’s ways become mysterious and unfathomable by us puny humans with our tiny brains.

Wright is wrong

religion_evolutionRobert Wright’s NYT commentary on science vs. religion makes some good points, but glosses over the arguments militant atheists use against God, and the arguments theists use against evolution.

Wright says militant atheists “might even grant that natural selection’s intrinsic creative power — something they’ve been known to stress in other contexts — adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god.” How does that makes sense?

If a purely natural process has intrinsic creative power, how does that argue for the existence (or increased possibility of existence) of an intrinsic creative power outside of nature? That’s like arguing that the ability of a television broadcast to create the appearance of little people inside the TV screen adds at least an iota of plausibility to the notion that there are actually little people in the TV, and your 3-year-old has been correct all along.

Wright also suggests that religious folks are within shouting distance of getting the concept: “The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).” Yeah, right, Wright.

The problem isn’t that there are a lot of people who think evolution needed a bit of divine nudging here and there once it started, the problem is that there’s a disturbing number of people who don’t accept evolution at all — who insist that God created everything in 6 days, a few thousand years ago, just like a literalist interpretation of the Bible declares. And those people have a ridiculous amount of influence in our society. Nudging the moderate folks a bit more toward science isn’t going to do anything about the (pardon the lapse in etiquette) yahoos who are still driving the religious discourse in America.

But Wright has some good points as well, like this one: “Of course, religion doesn’t have a monopoly on awe and inspiration. The story that science tells, the story of nature, is awesome, and some people get plenty of inspiration from it, without needing the religious kind.” As the late Douglas Adams said, “I’d take the awe of inspiration over the awe of ignorance any day.”

(cartoon via Palmyria)

Sunday Sermon: Motes and beams

christian_hypocrisyFor quite some time, there’s been a steady stream of Christian schoolteachers getting in trouble for using the classroom as a pulpit, preaching religious messages to their students. Whenever these teachers are called out for their unconstitutional (and unconscionable) attempt to use their position of power and authority to pound religion into the heads of impressionable children, various religious groups are quick to whine about oppression, making the bogus claim that being denied the ability to ram their religion down other people’s throats is tantamount to being denied freedom of speech or freedom of religion.

But now, the shoe is sort of on the other foot — but the big difference is that the other foot doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

Hemant Mehta is an atheist — he calls himself “The Friendly Atheist” on his blog, which makes him something of a rival of mine (a friendly rival, as I’m pretty sure I’ve linked to his blog in the past). He’s also a schoolteacher. Does he use his position to “preach” atheism, or otherwise promote it? No, he does not. He keeps his views on religion out of his classroom.

But he doesn’t keep them in the closet. He has a blog on atheism, and he’s active in other ways as well. Because of that, the Illinois “Family” Institute wants him fired.

First, they wrote to his school board to complain about his non-school activities, and when that didn’t work, they started writing letters to parents of kids in his school, urging them to insist that their kids be removed from his classes.

PZ Myers makes an excellent point: If this is how a “Friendly Atheist” gets treated, where’ the motivation to be friendly?

(Pic — and shirt — via

Beer summits: Not just for race relations anymore


Sneak baptism So, a atheist with a new baby gets a visit from his Christian father-in-law, and walks in to the kitchen to find him performing a “sneak baptism” on the kid.

The guy turns to Reddit for advice, and is told to make sure Pops understands that it’s not cool to be doing that. The interesting part? It seems to have a happy ending:

“I just laid the law down per this post and we cracked open a couple of beers. Honestly he is a really good, tolerant, intelligent person, I just don’t know what he was thinking (and he admitted that he didn’t either).”

I guess Obama’s not the only one who understands the power of beer! And atheists aren’t the only ones who understand the power of trying to be polite (especially after you’re busted).

(pic via Planet Weissman)

Sunday Sermon: Wafer controversy revisited

religion_vs_scienceA few weeks ago, I touched on the controversy sparked by PZ Myers when he desecrated a communion wafer, and noted the double standard at work — apparently people who believe a cracker turns into the flesh of Jesus when you say a magic spell should be respected when they act on that belief, but people who believe it’s just a cracker don’t deserve the same respect.

But in reviewing that post, I can see that I went way too easy on the nutjobs. It’s not merely that there was a double standard in how they claimed the two camps should be treated, there were different standards in what the two camps had already done.

What PZ Myers did was, he obtained a communion wafer and desecrated it. He publicly ridiculed the beliefs of a group of people. What the other folks did was, they mounted a massive hate-mail campaign against him and tried to get him fired from his job. So let me amend my earlier post with an addendum.

Here’s the thing: No matter how people may criticize or even ridicule you for your views on Holy Communion, nobody is trying to interfere with your belief that a Communion wafer is the body of Christ, or your actions based on that belief.

Nobody is mounting a hate mail campaign against you because you consume the Holy Eucharist.

Nobody is taking to the airwaves to denounce you because you like to eat the body of Christ in church.

Nobody’s trying to get you fired from your job because you like to eat a piece of Jesus for Sunday brunch.

So lighten the (bleep) up.

(cartoon via Ruining the Internet)

Who’s helping who?

atheist_extremistsExtremists are useful to accommodationists, but not vice versa.

In a political struggle, i.e. to get a law passed or struck down, extremists need moderates, because even if there are some extremists in the body of lawmakers, there usually won’t be enough to pass the legislation on their own.

But in a purely social struggle, or even (especially) a more personal struggle (e.g. one person trying to figure out how to deal with the rest of the world), extremists don’t need moderates at all, and indeed the moderates aren’t generally very useful to them.

On the other hand, extremists can be very useful to moderates, by highlighting how moderate the moderates are. As long as there are extremists, moderates can say “hey, I’m not one of those extremists,” and distance themselves from others who basically share the same outlook.

The key concept here is the Overton window , based on the observation that newcomers to a debate will gravitate toward what’s seen as the “center,” with fewer and fewer of them agreeing with positions that are further and further from what’s perceived as the center.

Therefore, if you’re trying to “move the window,” it helps to have extremists on your side, since if the “window” ranges from an extreme position on one side (call it “X”) to a moderate position on the other (“Y”), the “center” appears to be roughly in the “moderate X” range.

Likewise, if you can paint moderates on the other side as extremists, and extremists on your own side as moderates, you can “move the window” much further toward your own side of the spectrum. And it’s a lot easier to do that when the other side’s moderates can’t point to prominent and visible examples of people on their side who are more extreme.

So when we look at the ongoing intra-atheist struggle between the “New Atheists” (some of them, anyway) and the “accommodationists,” we can see that the latter group benefits from the existence of the former, and their struggle against the former, than the “New Atheists” benefit from the existence of the latter, or from any squabbling with them.

What does that mean, in the grand scheme of things? I’m not sure. But for some reason I think it’s interesting.

(cartoon via Atheist Cartoons)

Sunday Sermon: Nuts of all stripes, revisited

god_snake_farsideSodini’s ex-pastor can’t explain the hatred

So, the pastor of the church attended by the nutjob who shot up a health club in California is shocked — shocked! — to learn that one of his parishioners used his religion to justify his twisted hatred for women (and some other folks besides).

Weird. Are we talking about the same Bible? The one where God destroys a city because he’s so homophobic? The one where God drowns nearly everyone in the entire world because he’s so disappointed with the people he created?

The one where God strikes down the firstborn son in every household in an entire country just because of the actions of the despot who happens to be in power there? The same God who dictates that rebellious offspring should be stoned to death?

The news account quotes the pastor thusly: “It’s clear that this man acted on his own,” he said. “From bitterness and rage.” Sounds pretty Godly to me.

(thanks to commenter “satanhimself in PA” for the article)