Archive for February, 2010

Sunday Sermon: Poe Strikes Again

There’s an article making the rounds that has Pat Robertson claiming the earthquake in Chile shows God’s anger toward that country:

Citing what he described as the “the persecution of a great hero who rid their land of Godless communists” as a possible cause, prominent TV evangelist and amateur seismologist Pat Robertson today argued that the 8.8 magnitude of the earthquake that struck Chile early this morning should serve as a warning to the population that “God is even angrier with them than he is with the people of Haiti.”

“If I had to guess, I’d say it must have to do with Chile’s persecution and attempted prosecution of their great former leader, and a personal hero of mine, Augusto Pinochet – who, it should be noted, had never been convicted of a crime when the Lord called him home three years ago.”  The popular host of ‘The 700 Club’ and longtime bingo circuit icon also added, “General Pinochet not only assisted the CIA in the overthrow of Chile’s Marxist government, but is widely credited with personally arranging the meetings of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of his countrymen with Jesus.”

How far into that article did you get before you were convinced it was satire? I got to the last sentence (though in hindsight, “amateur seismologist” should have been a tip-off). The rest of it, while jaw-droppingly wacky, is actually in character for Robertson, who is known for blaming natural disasters on the victims, and who defended Pinochet in a 1993 book called “The Turning Tide.”

That’s the problem illustrated by Poe’s Law, which states that it’s hard to parody religious fundamentalism, because no matter how bizarre and over-the-top you try to make your parody, there’s a good chance that some fundamentalist actually agrees with it.

(pic via Attending the World)

Searching for self-affirmation

Google and confirmation bias:   Massimo Pigliucci makes some excellent points in his blog post asking, “Is Google making us less rational?” While this explains why people often hold on to religious or political (or other) views even when there’s an abundance of evidence to the contrary, it’s worth noting that it probably also applies to us atheists as well.

Certainly there are some atheists who seem to go out of their way to seek out reinforcement for atheism, or examples of the sort of religious idiocy that MetaFilter often shorthands as “LOLXtians.” If you (consciously or unconsciously) surround yourself (online or in “RL”) with intelligent atheists and stupid believers (or intelligent believers and stupid non-believers), confirmation bias can be a bitch.

Of course, it’s not just Google. The Internet in general makes it easier for people to self-segregate into mutually reinforcing communities (although it also makes inevitable some contact with things that are way outside — sometimes way, way, way outside — your personal preferences).

I don’t know what the solution is, unless you’re so noble that you go out of your way to find stupid atheists and smart Christians. I suppose the important thing is just to remember that skepticism is important when considering your own views, just as much (maybe even more so) than when considering other views being presented to you.

(pic via a nice article from CXO)

Sunday Sermon: Teaching the “Controversy”

I’m kind of busy right now, so no time for a proper Sunday Sermon. But the funny video above provides a nice illustration of what’s really going on when the forces of religious oppression try to hide behind the mask of tolerance or skepticism or open-mindedness.

The invention of …

Think it’s tough telling your parents or friends that maybe there isn’t any god, or any afterlife? Try telling a 4-year-old who’s frightened of dying — and who just happens to be your daughter.

The author, Dan Kois, doesn’t describe himself as atheist or agnostic, but he does start out by trying to explain to his daughter that some people don’t think you keep living after you die.

But from an atheist POV, the story has what could be considered a sad ending: “A few weekends after that day in September, we put on our Sunday clothes and drove around the corner to Rock Spring Congregational.”

Is this how religions get started? People making up stories to comfort other people who are frightened of the unknown? Ricky Gervais and others behind the film “The Invention of Lying” seem to think so.

Sunday Sermon: The (Placebo) Power of Prayer

Did you know that  a rain dance is 100% effective? It’s true! You can try it for yourself:

In the evening as the sun’s going down, find an outdoor spot facing the setting sun. As soon as the bottom of the sun touches the horizon, start dancing, and keep it up until the top of the sun vanishes completely. Do the same thing every evening at sunset, and I guarantee you’ll get rain.

It may take a few days, or weeks, or even months (sometimes the rain gods like to test your faith), but if you keep doing it every day, you’ll eventually make it rain.

Likewise, 100% of all prayers get answered — but as many devout believers will tell you, sometimes the answer is “no.”  But if you pray for enough things, enough times, eventually you’ll get some situations where the thing you prayed for actually happens.

It’s the same principle explored in this Neatorama post, Why Do People Push Placebo Buttons? It’s also the same reason it’s hard to teach a dog not to bark at the mailman. After all, barking at the mailman always works — the mailman always goes away.

(image via Boing Boing)

Hatin’ on us

So apparently there’s a “furor” over an atheist group’s display at a state capitol building (next to a nativity scene placed by a Christian group). The atheist inscription includes the statement, “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is just myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Certainly, that’s a little harsh, telling religious people that their charished belief system is “just myth and superstition,” etc. But on the other hand, what’s that nativity scene telling us?

Why is that particular birth so significant? Well, according to Christian doctrine, it’s because the baby being born was sent to earth to save us. Save us from what? From our inherent state of depravity so severe that we all deserve to be horribly tortured for all eternity.

Maybe it’s just me, but telling someone they’re enslaved by myth and superstition seems a bit less harsh than telling someone they’re so depraved that eternal torture would be their just desserts.

But what’s also interesting is the specific line of attack being taken by the anti-atheist folks:

“It’s a slam dunk case because it’s hate speech, OK?” Kelly said Thursday. “That sign was hate speech. It has no business being there. The state of Illinois is liable for this because anyone who saw the sign would have assumed… that this was the State of Illinois’ official position.”

To me, the interesting thing about that statement isn’t so much the “hate speech” part (although as I already mentioned, I have to wonder whether a proclamation supporting a worldview that condemns most humans to hell would also qualify), but that last part, about how if there’s an atheist proclamation on government property, it implies governmental endorsement of that sentiment.

Needless to say, that’s precisely the main objection to religious symbols on government property — like the nativity scene right next to the atheist display that offended this guy so much.

Super Bowl Sunday Sermon: Is God taking the points?

Instead of playing one of the usual TV drinking games, may I humbly suggest that as you watch the big game today, particularly the post-game interviews, you decide that every time a player or coach invokes God as a factor behind their victorious* performance (as if God were somehow interested at all in the outcome of a game, and further was helping one team cheat), instead of taking a drink you’ll text “Haiti” to 90999 to send a $10 donation to the Red Cross (a secular group, despite the name).

After all, if there is a God, there’s no real way to undo the damage caused by people praising him as if he’s one of the good guys, but there is a way to help provide concrete relief for the damage he’s caused.

* Ever notice that the losers never chalk up their defeat to the almighty?

(pic — of the Indianapolis Colts, one of the teams playing today — via The Scrooge Report)

Fitting in vs. standing out

Last week’s post on atheist communities, and the ensuing discussion,   alerted me to this discussion of Third Culture Kids.  The key concept is that when you’re raised by parents of one culture in a community with another culture, you don’t really belong anywhere, and you never will.

And the same is true when you go from one culture to another, whether the movement is geographical or philosophical. I’m accustomed to that myself, since my family moved around a lot when I was a kid (I wasn’t an Army brat, but it was somewhat similar), and I got used to being the “new kid.”

In a way, most atheists are Third Culture Kids (or grownups) in a way, since most of us were brought up with a religion that we’ve now left behind. Of course, the upside to not fitting in is that you’re more free to stand out. You know you’re never going to be the best at getting people’s approval, so you’re more likely to choose life paths that don’t depend on other people’s approval. That’s a good recipe for turning out pretty cool.

This is a grotesque overgeneralization (and constrained by small sample size and possible confirmation bias), but  most mixed-race people I’ve known, who grow up not really fitting in with either race they’re affiliated with, have been pretty cool people. I wonder if not feeling like you fit in is a price you pay for being cool, or perhaps if being cool is one of the possible compensations for not getting to feel like you fit in. Or maybe it’s that when the option of fitting in is just not on the table, the option of standing out becomes more appealing.

(pic via Savage Chickens)