A fool hath said in his heart, 'God is not;' They have done corruptly, They have done abominable actions, There is not a doer of good. - Psalm 14:1

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19 June 2009

Happy Birthday to Blaise Pascal

"If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is ... you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then without hesitation that he is."


The above is known as Pascal's Wager and is among the most popular arguments in support of belief in god. Personally I consider the proposition fairly dangerous since anyone following such advise is essentially bluffing god - who, if he exists, presumably knows if your faith is sincere or if you're simply hedging. To be fair Pascal did recognize this flaw, insisting believers should actually bring themselves around to honest faith, but people who try and use the Wager as an actual argument in favor of religion rarely include this corollary.

Even so, it's an eternally fascinating line of reasoning which offers no real end to academic contention. Just take a look at this link if you don't believe me:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/

Blaise Pascal - mathematician, physicist, religious philosopher, born June 19, 1623. If his bluff worked, he's been in Heaven for nearly 350 years now.

Happy Birthday. (Yeah, he's French...)

18 June 2009

The Cost of Hate

Not really some deep meaning here. I could wax poetic about the hidden costs of hatred and how people damage the very fabric of a democracy by spreading ignorance-fueled, odious diatribes against our fellow citizens.

I could, but I don't need to. Hate is apparently not cheap on a monetary level either.

A Roman Catholic adoption agency which lost a battle to defend its pro-marriage ethos from new ‘equality’ regulations says it has been left with “a big dent” in its reserves.

The Leeds-based charity, Catholic Care, was recently told it must consider gay couples as potential adopters under the Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs), despite its belief that children need a mother and a father.

Chief Executive Mark Wiggin said the charity had needed two barristers and five solicitors to help wade through the detail of the case.

Things became even more complicated when the Equality and Human Rights Commission was allowed to intervene against the group.

The case was one of the first to be heard by the new Charity Tribunal appeal system, which promised to make the process quicker and cheaper for groups to challenge decisions made by the Charity Commission.

But Mr Wiggin said: “The costs are prohibitive for most people; it has made a big dent in our reserves.”

Poor bastards. According to this source, Catholic Care spent £150,000 on this little project, or almost $250,000 American (per today's conversion rate).

In a similar effort, Arkansas added Act One to their state constitution in 2008, a measure which not only stops gay couples from adopting children, but actually prohibits any unmarried couple from doing the same. Support costs? Around $50,000 from one end (addition to ballot) to the other (passage). In retrospect this sounds like a fairly low amount of money for such a sweeping law, but this is Arkansas we're talking about.

Over here we have Proposition 8 proponents who raised $28.2 million nation-wide. (Sadly the opposition raised even more and still lost.) In 2006 Colorado voters passed a ban on gay marriage, along with rejecting a separate proposal to offer "spousal benefits for same-sex couples," which only cost supporting organizations $1.2 million, give or take. Once again pro-gay groups outspent the support campaign by millions and somehow managed to lose anyway, which makes a person wonder if the disparity here is one of public opinion or organizational leadership.

And finally this profile shows another $13 million spent on 2004 marriage amendment contests across the country.

Now I could detail the number of meals these dozens of millions of dollars could buy for the homeless; or maybe project the number of lives which could be saved through public health campaigns in places like South Africa. I could, but I won't waste my time. The truth is we all know the alternatives. Instead of putting a "big dent" in Catholic Care's budget, they could have used money to encourage adoption and put a "big dent" in the troubled lives of local foster children.

Unfortunately I don't see that kind of about-face happening, especially not here in the States. Groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council - both as ironically anti-family as a group can get - are simply wastes of money and space. What they do is nothing short of buying the ballot and there is very little in this process which doesn't violate restrictions on direct political support in spirit, if not the letter, of the law. (And isn't the spirit what these people supposedly worry about most?)

As far as I'm concerned these groups can inject as much money into the political process as they can raise, but a secondary cost for doing so should be removal of their tax exempt status. If they want to fund campaigns of bigotry every election season, I see no reason why part of the money raised shouldn't also go for worthwhile projects. At least then something good could come out of the process.

Good Old-Fashioned Bible Burning

I'm admittedly a bit late to this bandwagon, so it's highly likely just about anyone visiting this blog would have already heard of the "Christian Civil Liberties Union" and their attempt to confiscate a book from a Wisconsin public library for the purposes of burning it.

Yes it sounds like satire. No it isn't satire.

A group calling itself the Christian Civil Liberties Union filed a claim with the city of Milwaukee seeking the right to burn a public library’s copy of a young-adult book with gay content, according to the American Library Association.

The CCLU presented trustees of the West Bend Community Memorial Library with the complaint on June 2, asking for the right to burn or otherwise destroy in public a copy of Baby Be-Bop. The group also demanded $120,000 in damages for being exposed to the book on display, and requested the resignation of West Bend mayor Kristine Deiss for allowing the title to be viewed by the public.

Let's be honest here: how boring would the world be without groups like CCLU? What would people like me have to do in our spare time? The truth is we secretly appreciate such lunatics, even while publicly ranting against them.

So in honor of the CCLU, I think it only fair the West Bend Community Memorial Library also provide a copy of the Bible for fiery consumption. Unfortunately burning the Bible is much like burning an American flag - many consider it a proper method of disposal (in the case of flags, U.S. code actually mandates incineration). This being the case I would suggest the only way to make sure of maximum offense would be a mass Bible burning. The best part is it wouldn't cost anything for the books, although a permit for public burning might be fairly expensive if not impossible to acquire considering the intent.

Then again, something similar to this Harry Potter burning (without the church or raised arms anyway) may not be the better public relations image.

A larger benefit would be media attention. Burning a homosexual-themed book only seems to rate around the edges of mainstream news, especially with the mess in Iran to keep media outlets busy. What if you douse a colossal pile of Bibles in accelerant and start roasting marshmallows over the flames of Heaven?

Sure it's dramatic, but I guarantee a media event. Depending on what's going on in the world, you may get national coverage. Depending on who takes notice, you may have a week or more of said coverage. The absolute best part would be hate mail. I'm sure some LGBT group somewhere is sending the CCLU fundazealots nastygrams, but they wouldn't hold a candle to the hypothetical mountain of you're-going-to-Hell-like-tomorrow messages from loving followers of Christ all over the U.S. At the same time I'm sure supportive packages of fresh Bibles would also arrive.

I should probably stop this post now... it's beginning to sound fun enough to actually organize something and I don't know if my Karma is high enough.

17 June 2009

God vs Satan? God Wins



Normally I don't like letting images carry a post (1,000 words be damned), but I'm nothing if not flexible.

Limitations of Monotheism

I'll just give the bottom line now: monotheism is boring. One god, one Truth, no options. What kind of world would be complete with only one of anything? Sure you can factionalize monotheistic faiths and entertain yourself with ensuring controversies, but the foundation doesn't change. Ice cream has over 12,000 flavors, but eventually it's still frozen dairy.

And if you thought that was a terribly simplistic analogy, here's another in image form:

It may be the natural progression of religious faith to end up with singular deities, or perhaps the format itself became systemic to human civilization and now we're stuck with it. It seems most likely that the authoritarian nature of demanding observance of one god lends itself as a bridge to political control of populations through similar means.

In any event we lose something when ignoring broader mythologies. Classic heroes and antiheroes of ancient mythologies, truly original legends of creation, and culturally significant lessons in morality and history. One of the primarily detestable components of monotheism is how it excludes even the knowledge of other faiths.

2 billion Christians and 1.5 billion Muslims and despite the various differentiations between them the end result is nothing more than arguing over whether the blue unicorn is better or more powerful than the purple one. (The Invisible Pink Unicorn being understandably exempt.)

Where is all of this going? Spiritual education is not only important for anyone who honestly wishes to understand the mind of the faithful, but also entertaining. With that principle in mind I've decided Wednesdays are as good as any to pull up some basic information on obscure, but engaging polytheistic religions. The truth is a lot of us atheists tend to avoid an active understanding of faith and we do so to our detriment. So without further delay -

Asatru

Ásatrú is an Icelandic/Old Norse term consisting of two parts: Ása (Genitive of Æsir) referring to the gods and goddesses, and trú meaning faith. Thus Ásatrú literally means faith in the gods. It is commonly misunderstood to mean 'true to the gods'. The faith is also referred to as Norse or Germanic Heathenry. The Old Norse term for 'heathenry' is "heiðni". Yet another Old Norse designation is "forn siðr"; the ancient custom.

The faith may be regarded as an indigenous ancestral faith much like Shinto, Native American spirituality, and Judaism. It represents the indigenous pre-Christian beliefs of the Germanic peoples. This included the peoples of present-day Scandinavia, England, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, among others. Ásatrú might be viewed as the northern branch of several philosophical offshoots of an earlier Indo-European religion, analogous to the way in which the proto-Indo European language evolved into such off shoots as Sanskrit and the Germanic and Slavic languages. Religious siblings of Ásatrú include the Greco-Roman religion in southern Europe, and early Hinduism in the east. Numerous scholars such as Georges Dumézil, H. R. Ellis Davidson, Hans Gunther (author of "The Religious Attitudes of the Indo-Europeans") have commented on the philosophical similarities of these religious systems. Friedrich Nietzsche laid some important groundwork in his works in which he felt the pagan philosophical system of the Greek religion of the ancient heroic and classical era was vastly superior to Christianity, which he felt suffered from a "transvaluation" (or inversion) of healthy instinctive values.

http://knowledgerush.com/kr/encyclopedia/Asatru/

16 June 2009

Passing the Matthew Shepard Act

Anyone who doesn't know the name Matthew Shepard should probably start here. We'll wait for you to get back.

Good? Good. Enter the Matthew Shepard Act, legislation which would extend federal hate crimes laws to cover crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The bill would also provide these requirements (more Wiki coming):
  • remove the current prerequisite that the victim be engaging in a federally-protected activity, like voting or going to school;
  • give federal authorities greater ability to engage in hate crimes investigations that local authorities choose not to pursue;
  • provide $10 million in funding for 2008 and 2009 to help State and local agencies pay for investigating and prosecuting hate crimes;
  • require the FBI to track statistics on hate crimes against transgender people (statistics for the other groups are already tracked).

Of course the Matthew Shepard Act has been introduced in one form or another for 9 years. And in one form or another (Republican opposition, President Bush's veto threat, or Democrats too cowardly to stand up to him) the bill has been defeated. President Obama has made passage an objective of his administration and with a Democratic congress the prospects look better than ever.

What's a good Christian Conservative Legislator to do? Repeal all hates crimes laws, of course.

WASHINGTON — Conservative Christian leaders are fighting a bill that would provide federal hate-crimes coverage to gays and lesbians, prompting questions of who, if anyone, should be protected by such laws.

With a Democrat-controlled Congress and a president who has indicated his support for the Matthew Shepard Act, time may be running out for its opponents. To stop the legislation, a few Christian leaders have suggested repealing all hate-crimes law, which would undo historic protections for race and even religion.

"The entire notion of hate-crimes legislation is extraneous and obsolete," said Matt Barber, director of cultural affairs with the conservative nonprofit Liberty Counsel, adding that he believes hate-crimes laws are unconstitutional.

In addition, a number of Christian conservatives have raised fears that pastors would be prosecuted for inciting hate crimes if they had preached against homosexuality, despite assurances that the law only targets physical violence.

"All violent crime is hate crime," said Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at Family Research Council here in the capital. "What drives an individual to commit a violent crime but hate for their victim?"

http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-06-15-hate-crimes_N.htm?loc=interstitialskip

Two issues here. First we'll address the one which has a modicum of legitimacy. Are hate crimes laws unconstitutional? I'm a very strong supporter of the Constitution of the United States. In fact I would give my life to defend it, and yours too, without remorse. When an honest inquiry concerning the constitutionality of a law or government action is raised, I pay fair attention regardless of how I feel on a personal level.

The basic argument here is based on the 14th amendment's equal protection mandate. If a man murders another man he should receive the same penalty as a white man who murders a black man. By qualifying the latter as a "hate crime" while both acts are equal (murder in this case) the government is undermining this principle of equal protection under the law.

In the end this is an analysis which misses (or avoids) the most important element in crime - motive. In an easier world we could just assume everyone committing a crime hates their target. Reality is much messier - most murderers don't hate their victims any more than anyone else. People end up in the wrong place at a bad time. Matthew Shepard was a fag, which meant he was always in the wrong place and at bad times. The goal of a hate crimes perpetrator is terrorism - plain and simple - and if anything we should re-classify these crimes as acts of terror, not repeal them.

The second issue here is much less complicated. The homophobic elements in our nation's government and their supporters (Focus on the Family for instance) know on some level that what they do is dangerously harmful to other human beings. Gays may be thriving in modern American culture, but that doesn't mean the jeopardy inherent in simply being who they are is gone from today's world. The depression and suicide statistics for this demographic are still higher than average and the real-world impact of living through perpetual prejudice are underestimated by everyone who doesn't live it.

I'll admit now I have a special bias on this issue. A friend of mine killed himself as a teenager. He was a strongly religious Catholic who eventually could not ignore the truth in himself. As a homosexual he sat in church every Sunday and realized his fate as an abomination doomed to the despairs of Hell. His suicide note was surprisingly rational. He decided the sin of killing himself wouldn't matter against the sin of being gay, and rather than face another 80 years of personal anguish and external torment, he chose to swallow the barrel of a hunting rifle instead.

Hate crimes don't just affect the victim, but every member of the targeted community. Intimidation and fear and shame and so many more emotions catalyzed by acts of terror all because of a person's skin color or sexuality. So do I believe the motivation behind a crime should be integral to the price paid upon conviction? You're damn right I do, and so does anyone else who is more worried about protecting the innocent before wondering whether they might not be able to tell others how much god hates fags anymore.

15 June 2009

01001100011010010110011001100101

On an otherwise quiet day buried within the next few decades a binary signal will arrive destined to change all major faiths. Not from another intelligent species - even assuming dozens of binary signals floating through our galaxy, the odds of intercepting one are slim, and unnecessary to the point. What we'll get is a signal from a human craft, perhaps an inter-planetary probe dug into the ice of Europa or Titan, sharing with us a discovery such as this one:

Tiny Frozen Microbe May Hold Clues To Extraterrestrial Life

ScienceDaily (June 15, 2009) — A novel bacterium -- trapped more than three kilometres under glacial ice in Greenland for over 120,000 years -- may hold clues as to what life forms might exist on other planets.

Dr Jennifer Loveland-Curtze and a team of scientists from Pennsylvania State University report finding the novel microbe, which they have called Herminiimonas glaciei, in the current issue of the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. The team showed great patience in coaxing the dormant microbe back to life; first incubating their samples at 2˚C for seven months and then at 5˚C for a further four and a half months, after which colonies of very small purple-brown bacteria were seen.

H. glaciei is small even by bacterial standards – it is 10 to 50 times smaller than E. coli. Its small size probably helped it to survive in the liquid veins among ice crystals and the thin liquid film on their surfaces. Small cell size is considered to be advantageous for more efficient nutrient uptake, protection against predators and occupation of micro-niches and it has been shown that ultramicrobacteria are dominant in many soil and marine environments.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090614201734.htm

Or we may get the answer from a next generation telescope.

Effective Way To Search Atmospheres Of Planets For Signs Of Life

ScienceDaily (June 12, 2009) — Astronomers using the Science and Technology Facilities Council's (STFC) William Herschel Telescope (WHT) on La Palma have confirmed an effective way to search the atmospheres of planets for signs of life, vastly improving our chances of finding alien life outside our solar system.

The team from the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC) used the WHT and the Nordic Optical Telescope (NOT) to gather information about the chemical composition of the Earth's atmosphere from sunlight that has passed through it. The research is published June11 in Nature.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090610133557.htm


I don't consider science as anathema to religion. A successful amalgamation can be built from both, but that doesn't mean the two are equals. Eventually science wins out because the gaps that god fills are erased through innovation and discovery. Finding life on another planet, the ultimate poster child for abiogenesis (which is anathema to religious faith), will mean Zero Hour for millions of holdouts. People who might have left religion years ago if not for the nagging (or wishful) feeling that something bigger must be responsible for the supposed complexity of life.

Make no mistake the day is coming. In a final irony it will be a moment of glory for godless heathens and one of spiritual pain for many of the faithful.

The Bible and Atheism

The Bible has a special place in my heart, and not just because I grew up with it. Yes I was once a Christian (now reformed), but also an Episcopalian, which Robin Williams once rightly called, "Christian Lite." I was never a literalist, which probably made the transition easier. I did (and still do) like the Bible as a work of fiction. It's a good story, for its time, written in two parts. The Old Testament is not so much a book as a Madman's Manifesto. This is what Theodore Kaczynski might have written had he been an omnipotent dude responsible for all creation. The New Testament is much better - both in writing quality and content - serving as an eons old prequel to the Left Behind series (but again, better quality and content). I also like twisting Bible quotes for personal use, but I digress...

I know atheists who have a "know thy enemy" take on scripture, but I'm more of a "know it because it's there" type of atheist. Whatever your personal feelings about Biblical influence, it is one of the the most influential books in Western philosophy. Ignoring the Bible because it is a largely amoral conglomeration of sadomasochistic, sexist, and bigoted commentary on human existence is essentially backwards. The book should be read precisely because of these factors.

So I read the Bible and I find the Internet is particularly useful in doing so. Not only can you find multiple translations of scripture, but they can be read in parallel with each other. I particularly like Biblos.com which provides these abilities along with numerous contextual sources.

In a final analysis the Bible taken as a whole actually serves as a microcosm of societal evolution. The various manuscripts (and later decisions over which to exclude) span a thousand years of verbal and written history. The difference in moral statements and implications of text between the earliest and final writings is profound and serves as proof that faith evolved in a positive direction even then, just as it does now, without most of us even realizing it.

World Wide Blog Graveyard

Choosing the name of a new blog isn't really a fun process. It's vitally important, but in a way sad, and if you recognize the implications, also very sobering. Just pick a name, plug it into Google with "blog" after it, and find yourself looking at the world wide blog graveyard. Long ignored (which in Blogland is the same as dead) blogs escaping to the edges of imagination whose most recent post averages 2 - 3 years old. So many people with things to say; so quickly ended in the rush of life and the exponential evolution of the Internet.

Which doesn't stop people from trying. On an absolute level I embrace the Web. I haven't mailed something through the USPS in a very long time, I don't visit a bank unless forced, and I am still somewhat aggravated I need to shop for groceries at a physical store. More social aspects I boycott. I don't Myspace and I won't Facebook even under penalty of death (I have my dignity, if nothing else). While I may have plenty to say, until now I've been content saying it on message boards or commenting on other blogs.

Unfortunately my favored politics-themed message board has jumped the digital shark, which brings me here. Still with much to say, but lacking the masochistic desire to "debate" with those who think adding pejoratives to the end of another person's name is a paragon of witty retort, I've broken down and opened a blog. Perhaps destined for that same graveyard, or with a little luck perhaps not, but somewhere to share my thoughts regardless.

So there it is. Get some coffee (it's never too early or too late for coffee) and let's begin.
 


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