Posted by: cjobrien | 7 September 2011

Duncan Hunter May Have A Point…

Here in California, Representative Duncan Hunter is essentially defending troops’ right to be homophobic to their fellow gay service members by introducing a bill designed to prevent repercussions for any who do not approve of a gay lifestyle. The bill, in part, reads as follows:

To amend Public Law 111-321 (Dont’ Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010) to require that… members of the Armed Forces are not pressured to approve of another person’s sexual conduct if that sexual conduct is contrary to the personal principles of the members.

Rather than protest the clear purpose of the bill – to enshrine bigotry – I would simply propose the following language be introduced simultaneously with Hunter’s bill:

To amend Public Law 111-321 (Dont’ Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010) – or any other public law that will do – to require that… members of the Armed Forces are not pressured to approve of another person’s religious convictions, customs or activities, nor should members be pressured to participate in military events or activities that are sponsored by religious organizations, contain religious overtones or are perceived as being religious in nature,  if it is contrary to the personal principles of the members, where personal principles includes orientations that are atheistic, non-religious, non-denominational spirituality, or  minority religious persuasions.

I’m sure the MRFF would agree that something like this is needed to protect the personal principles of our service men and women.

Posted by: cjobrien | 12 August 2011

Texas: Hows that “Personal God” Working Out?

“Right now our water towers have no water in them at all,” said Mayor Donald Kile. “According to the weather forecast we got no relief coming. We’re believing and we’re praying for rain.

Of course, it WILL eventually rain substantially in north Texas again..and those convinced of a god who acts in the every day affairs of humans will rejoice in verification of their convictions. Of course it’s a little like praying for light at midnight and then rejoicing in divine intervention at the dawn.

Posted by: cjobrien | 16 January 2011

Have Gun…Will Not Go To Church

[NOTE: I actually wrote this post the day before the Tucson tragedy and for some reason, did not post it right away. After contemplating it for a week, however, I believe my comments are still valid. Gun access was certainly a part of the tragedy, but there are many other factors at play in any shooting like this (and a general atmosphere of insurrection rhetoric deserves a great piece of the blame pie) and additional laws will, as always, act more as window dressing to sooth our fears….until the next tragedy happens. Perhaps prohibition of super high capacity magazines might have helped. But they did that here in California and one of the consequences is that many of us are now so quick at changing 10 round magazines during a shoot that a 30 round magazine is almost superfluous. Again, of all the factors I see that could have reasonably led to someone stopping that incident would have been the presence of additional armed civilians with substantial training. Nothing is a guarantee, of course. So, on with the original post…..]

Greg Laden has had a series of posts on gun ownership over the years. It seems clear that Greg would prefer additional gun control in the country and he frequently cites cases that would seem to support this conclusion. Personally, I am a proponent of firearms ownership (and use) in this country. Unfortunately, there are so many misconceptions about gun ownership (on both sides of the argument) that the seriousness of the issue often gets muddled within the anecdotal and media scare stories that seem to dominate what we Americans use as “logic” these days. Even as an advocate for private ownership, however, I also frequently wonder what the reasonable boundaries should be.

Let me start by saying that I have always been around rifles, shotguns and pistols. I was introduced to shooting sports early as a child, hunted as a young adult, and was an accomplished reloader by the time I was in high school. I therefore grew up in a “gun culture”. I shot competitively in high school and early college, winning several marksmanship awards. I hunted and shot during graduate school (although not as frequently) and have always felt that my hunting knowledge and abilities aided me in my studies of the Hadza and other peoples in Africa. I still “shoot for score” with rifles and pistols at various distances and have started to learn “combat style” shooting techniques (no, not backwoods militia wargames (glorified paint ball with a self-aggrandizing delusional streak if you ask me) – but developing the ability to draw and fire multiple times (and still hit the target!) frequently while moving). I have been fortunate to shoot with law enforcement during qualifying matches and have received personal instruction from a number of them. So, my background probably makes me a bit biased in this discussion, and in this regard, I probably seem like a typical “gun nut”. However, there are some things that separate me from the typical media depictions of people who own and use weapons:

Read More…

Posted by: cjobrien | 4 January 2011

Is God Responsible For Natural Processes?

A couple of commenters on previous posts have raised some interesting and thoughtful issues. I’d like to get to several of them eventually, but I want to start with Dave’s comment several posts ago regarding how infuriating it is to try to deal with creationists. Dave is clearly a good accomodationist – rejecting extreme fundamentalist interpretations of the bible (six day literal creation) while still buying into the concept that there is something larger than natural forces in the world. I understand the logic (and cultural need) behind the sentiment and I traveled that accomodationist path myself for many years. But there is something about the way god supposedly operates in the real world (as described by followers and believers) that never made sense to me and ultimately forced me to reject an omniscient god who has power and dominion over the world. Dave’s last comment gets to the issue:

The point is that everything has a designer, except for one thing. Something that designed it all, something that caused it all. God. Machines don’t create themselves, even living beings don’t recreate themselves.

Notice that last sentence: “Machines don’t create themselves, even living beings don’t recreate themselves” (emphasis mine). If you actually stop to think about it, this idea has profound implications not just for how we understand the world around us, but also (and more significantly) for our understanding of a potential deity. The assumption here is that Dave actually means that the very act of recreation (we’ll get to what that may mean in a moment)is, in fact, driven by an omniscient god and not by the individual organisms involved in the process. One can only further assume that every act of that recreative event (from the attraction and physical process of mating to the process of embryo formation (yes, we’re only talking about sexual procreation, but the same issues would apply to asexual as well) to the development of an embryo, to the eventual birth of an individual is controlled by god and NOT natural processes. I believe this is what Dave is thinking by that statement and I would suggest that he is not alone. The thought of a supernatural “guiding” influence is a paradigm running through much of religion (usually not explicitly), from arguments against abortion and birth control to the spread of AIDS, to the reason for hurricanes, to the concept of intelligent design. All of these ideas, as espoused by many in the religious community, presuppose the intervention of a supernatural being. In effect, god is responsible for these events and processes.

Of course the implications of this position are profound. Consider just the example of Dave’s view that the process of procreation is guided by god. If that is the case, then when all goes well, we can all clap, laugh and revel in the beauty of a newborn fawn, foal or baby. But what happens when it doesn’t work out?

  1. Is god responsible for point mutations occurring in base pairs that can cause disease and certainly lead to variation among organisms? Is god responsible for Sickle Cell disease?
  2. Is god responsible for deletion/insertion mutations responsible such things as Huntington’s disease?
  3. Is god responsible for transcription errors, or crossing over errors, or recombination errors we frequently see and that may result in horrendous mutations and frequently death of the individual?

If we are to believe that god is responsible at all stages of this process, then what does that say about god? If he is responsible for the failed implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterine wall and subsequent loss of the “life” (we know this as a miscarriage) then is god an….abortionist? If god is completely responsible, then he clearly deserves a lot of blame in the world. If he is not responsible and those processes are beyond his control, then god is not omniscient. If humans, through medical research and good old-fashioned science can “fix” some of these natural processes, mitigate their effects or prevent them altogether (which we do regularly) then are we actually interfering in god’s plan and process? The very fact that we can interfere makes us substantially better than the deity.

Forget natural processes, what about events that many people consider “miraculous” every day (or at least every Sunday). Catholics believe that the bread and wine of the Eucharist becomes the body and blood of Christ. It essentially becomes divine at that point (this is not supposed to be mere symbolism – faithful Catholics are supposed to buy into actually drinking Christ’s blood and eating his body – it was the first belief I dropped on my journey to leave the Catholic Church). If the communion is so divine, then explain how people can be infected with Hepatitis A. What, god can’t even keep the challis and host clean during a ceremony in his honor?

The fact is, that when we attribute natural processes to god’s whim, it becomes abundantly clear that god operates capriciously. There is no pattern to god causing X or fixing Y or preventing Z. In effect, isn’t god just acting…randomly? And isn’t randomness just like…natural processes? Is there a difference between god and nature, and if so, where do you find it?

Posted by: cjobrien | 2 January 2011

A Good Blog Site To Visit

I really wish I had discovered Dr. Robert Cargill sooner. Between Cargill, Bart Erhman, James McGrath and Eric Cline, it would almost be worth going back to school for a second doctorate in religious history, near eastern studies or something along those lines (I say almost only because we have one in college and one about to go – not sure my wife would appreciate me taking up a new endeavor at the moment!).

Cargill, like Cline and McGrath, often writes about one of those areas (like creationism) that really sets me off – the parasitic use of archaeology by “biblical archaeologists”. I have written on the theme of how fundamentalists have really cannibalized archaeology in the Mid-East in order to further their narrow view of biblical history. In the process they have lessened the integrity of biblical archaeology to such a degree that one has to almost automatically question any new discovery that purportedly relates to the archaeology of the bible. I have even had to debunk the archaeology claims of famous creationists such as Carl Baugh who visited our small, conservative town here in Lassen County thinking he had a free shot at peddling the usual falsehoods. He didn’t.

I look forward to reading more on Dr. Cargill’s site.

Posted by: cjobrien | 2 January 2011

What Christianity Should Be About

When I was a kid going to church was about service to others, regardless of their own views, the message was one of hope for humanity. As an adult (largely after Reagan revived the current conservative movement in this country), church (Catholic) became more and more focused on who you voted for, being anti-choice and anti- gay, being receptive to intelligent design, and generally asking that we set aside our intelligence (and pocket books) in favor of supporting the growing conservative movement. So I and my family left (as did a lot of others I knew). I have since travelled the road toward atheism (note: because of the church, not because of science – although I suspect that would have ultimately followed anyway), but I still look for those esoteric human desires, such as hope, in the rest of humanity. I am not against finding those things in cultural institutions like the “church”, but the message from religion has become more politically and less tangible.

Fortunately, there is the rare occasion when I can read about a church’s activities and find hope (instead of getting pissed off!). Dr. David Platt and his Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama did something absolutely remarkable among the faithful these days:

First we gave away our entire surplus fund – $500,000 – through partnerships with churches in India, where 41 percent of the world’s poor live. Then we trimmed another $1.5 million from our budget and used the savings to build wells, improve education, provide medical care and share the gospel in impoverished places around the world. Literally hundreds of church members have gone overseas temporarily or permanently to serve in such places.

This is the kind of religious effort that gives me hope (not only for humanity, but for the cultural relevancy of religion). My only quibble with the effort is that I think the need is becoming just as great here in the U.S. We have significant numbers of people falling into poverty, no access to health care (perhaps….) and limited education opportunities and all the churches can do is blame the victim. I suspect, with the pro-wealth Republicans we have in Congress now we’ll see more cuts to basic needs and more advantages given to the rich.

Nonetheless, Dr. Platt (note to Sarah Palin: it takes an educated person to truly walk in Christ’s footsteps, not some backcountry moron with a gun and a private property sign). Hat tip to Robert Cargill, who also makes this comment about Christianity:

Christianity is not first about doctrine or dogma, it is about service (specifically, social justice). Until we get the service part down, our doctrine is worthless.

Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) continues to be a thorn in the side of the creationist paradigm. Creationists go to great lengths to discredit the discovery and its implications, which is not a problem as far as it goes, but the total lack of any kind of intellectual honesty used in doing so just emphasizes how much of a scientific and philosophical corner these people are backed into. I mentioned in a previous post how infuriating it is to constantly correct the distortions, misinterpretation, quote mining and outright falsehoods regurgitated ad nausem by creationist proponents. It’s not that it’s difficult. Creationists rely on an audience that refuses to look critically at the information they are being presented and ask some simple questions: Is this true? Did the author really mean that? What evidence is not being presented? Most of us who have any claim to intellectual thought processes actually work at understanding an issue. We spend the (often considerable) time reading, reasearching and thinking about the issue. That includes reading creationist literature (we’re often accused of not reading the “other side” of the issue, but I can tell that’s one reason I don’t a lot of creationist argument in my Anthropology class – students learn really quickly I know the creationist literature much better they do!). I see no evidence that creationists actually make an honest effort to look at the information being presented. Instead, Creationist arguments have to be made by pimping the scientific data for the creationist cause: misquoting exports, cherry-picking information, ignoring information that doesn’t fit, using out-of-date information, and frequently just making stuff up!

While infuriating, the consolation here is that creationists offer us those “teachable moments” where we can engage the public, students, and others with the honest information in a “heads-up” sort of fashion: “Look, you’re going to read or hear X about Lucy…here’s why it’s not true….” The reality is that I teach a lot of creationism and intelligent design in the classroom. I don’t use the terms per se, but you can’t believe how many times I say something like, “Some people will say (or you’ll read on blogs or hear in the media) that Lucy was just an ape….let’s take a closer look at that and see if those sources are accurate”.

So, as an example, let’s consider the circumstances behind Lucy’s pelvis (hip) reconstruction. The following comments from a creationist website I recently visited, although this is not an original idea and the information offered is nothing different from that you would see on any creationist website:

Read More…

Posted by: cjobrien | 30 December 2010

The Next Time I Try To Correct Creationists I’ll Need This

Hat tip to Pharyngula.

As usual, Sam Harris has posted another thought-provoking essay, this one admonishing the wealthy in this country to quit thinking about themselves and consider helping the country. More importantly, he points out that we are a country deluded by fantasies about the wealthy, the manner in which their wealth was attained, and the constant Republican insistence that if we just cut education, infrastructure, the federal workforce and a host of other domestic programs and let the rich keep what they earn, we would all be much better off.

I especially like Harris’ assessment of the mythology of self-reliance:

To make matters more difficult, Americans have made a religious fetish of something called “self-reliance.” Most seem to think that while a person may not be responsible for the opportunities he gets in life, each is entirely responsible for what he makes of these opportunities. This is, without question, a false view of the human condition. Consider the biography of any “self-made” American, from Benjamin Franklin on down, and you will find that his success was entirely dependent on background conditions that he did not make, and of which he was a mere beneficiary. There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress. Consequently, no one is responsible for his intelligence, range of talents, or ability to do productive work. If you have struggled to make the most of what Nature gave you, you must still admit that Nature also gave you the ability and inclination to struggle. How much credit do I deserve for not having Down syndrome or any other disorder that would make my current work impossible? None whatsoever. And yet devotees of self-reliance rail against those who would receive entitlements of various sorts–health care, education, etc.–while feeling unselfconsciously entitled to their relative good fortune. Yes, we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can–but it seems only decent at this moment to admit how much luck is required to succeed at anything in this life. Those who have been especially lucky–the smart, well-connected, and rich–should count their blessings, and then share some of these blessings with the rest of society.

I absolutely detest those rich individuals who claim to have worked for their money and achieved it simply because they were smarter, worked harder, or are somehow better than the rest of us. I’m sure there are a few who did, but their number is miniscule. The majority inherited their wealth, or, since Reagan, spent enough of it to fix the political system so that their future earnings could be protected from investing it in the country. They bought up media like FOX and right-wing radio so that the myth of the self-reliant rich could be perpetrated across the country. And they invested in churches so that Jesus’ original message on the irrelevancy of the rich could be re-written to justify the pursuit of wealth and keep the rest of us peasants thinking that we could “someday become rich like them” (the south bought into the lie; they continue to vote Republican and yet largely remain the poorest section of the country).

Personally, I am tired of hearing about the rich and wealthy in this country. They have no allegiance to this country or its principles; their sole purpose in life is collect as much wealth as humanly possible and make the rest of us servants who will fight their wars for them and change their bedding, nanny their kids, clean their swimming pools and otherwise stay out of their way. I appreciate Sam Harris’ plea to the rich that they engage in a little more philanthropy…but I don’t place that much stock in the personal integrity of the wealthy.

Harris asks: “Just how much inequality can free people endure? “. I think history holds the answer. My son came home from college and we were discussing something he had learned about 18th century France and attempts by the monarchy to get the rich to pay a little more to help the nation along. Of course, the rich refused (all of their wealth was completely derived from “self-reliance” don’t you know….). “So what happened after that?” I asked. He thought for a minute…”I think the peasants rebelled”…..

UPDATE: Jerry Coyne has a good post on Harris’ article up at Why Evolution Is True. I like the title: Land of the free-and unequal.

Posted by: cjobrien | 29 December 2010

What Scholarship, Learning and Understanding Are All About

Creationists, Intelligent Design activists, and “Biblical” archaeologists, please pay attention:

James McGrath posts a wonderful essay on Illustrating Differences Between Scholarly Research and Mythicist Blog Conversations that all of us who have any interest in what understanding and scholarship should be all about. Unfortunately, the culture in this country is developing a very warped sense of how to reason and reach conclusions about almost any topic you can imagine. Most people seem to think that knowledge can be attained cheaply and easily, that experts don’t count (read both McGrath’s previous post as well as Duane’s post on the subject), and that anyone with a laptop and access to internet can be become an expert in a field and successfully challenge those who have spent lifetimes learning their field. It is a long post, but here’s a snippet:

And here we see the biggest methodological problem that confronts creationists, mythicists, and other such points of view that ignore scholarship, choosing instead to attempt to figure things out on their own (or with the help of some likeminded conversation partners), in conformity with their own convictions, without concern for scholarship or research, and no need for labs or excavations or knowledge of ancient languages. Whether we are talking about the question of biological evolution, or the question of whether a historical figure of Jesus existed, these are questions for which particular pieces of evidence may be important, but ultimately the decisive consideration is that large numbers of scholars working on different specific areas related to these questions independently produce results that correlate with one another and cohere with the theory.

Ok, one more….

Because that is how scholarship works, whether in the humanities or the natural sciences. It is not any one scholar, but the scholarly enterprise as a whole, that helps us to understand the big picture. And complaining that you are not convinced when you haven’t taken the time to study the subject in a serious way simply illustrates that you have done something far worse than simply ignoring experts’ conclusions or finding them unpersuasive. You’ve failed to understand how expertise is achieved in relation to questions that no one scientist or historian can master alone. And as a result, you’ve left yourself open to being misled, whether by others or by yourself.

This last paragraph expresses my real heartburn with people like Gregg in my previous post. They don’t want to do the work to understand the issue, either because they’ve already made their minds up and are simply protecting their own personal belief system, or they are intellectually lazy. I have always enjoyed James McGrath’s perspectives and posts on various issues – he’s the one individual I can point to that makes me think I may be a bit hard on the religious. To paraphrase commenter David on my previous post: If more believers were like James McGrath, I could find Christianity (and belief in general) a bit more palatable.

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