Friday, December 11, 2009

My Faves

Sometimes it's handy to have lists. Here are some of my favorite people, books, and ideas. I'll work on this as I have time.

Mark Twain - The first and last word in American literature. Hilarious, skeptical, and thought provoking. Among my favorites are A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, The Innocents Abroad, Huckleberry Finn, and Letters from the Earth.

Carl Sagan - I love the PBS Series Cosmos, and the book The Demon-Haunted World.

His Dark Materials, a trilogy of fantasy novels by Philip Pullman.

Dr. Seuss. He can provide great moral lessons using simple rhyming language and wonderful illustrations. The Sneetches, The Lorax, The Butter Battle Book, Yertle the Turtle, and others.

The Hubble Ultra Deep field in 3D.

TED talks.
Globe Forum.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Question Boldly, Mr. Jefferson

When I was in college, I gained a strong appreciation for Thomas Jefferson, and the role he played in the development of American notions of liberty. The Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom are perhaps the two most critical documents of the American Revolution. They established, at that point in time, an entirely new relationship between the state and the individual.

I was always fascinated by Jefferson's religious views, and how his lack of faith in the Christian God shaped his perspective on morality and liberty. The Jefferson Bible, formally known as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, is a version of the Bible with most of the supernatural and spiritual elements removed. It offers an amazing insight into Jefferson's religious notions, and how he viewed the life of Jesus as noteworthy, but not divine.

Among his numerable quotes regarding religious belief, I find a paragraph regarding religion in a letter written to his nephew, Peter Carr, August 10, 1787, to be extremely enlightening:

Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. In the first place, divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, and the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand, shake off all the fears & servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.

Jefferson encourages us to read the Bible as if it were a history from Tacitus or Livy, which I did myself during my sophomore year at UT. It's been a fascinating ride ever since.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Basava Premanand

Basava Premanand wrote a final letter declaring his non-belief in gods or the afterlife. He felt it necessary because so many "godmen" have claimed death-bed confessions for non-believers, Albert Einstein among the more notable.

His life is one about which I'm interested in learning more. Being a rationalist in the midst of a very spiritualistic India could make for a compelling biography.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Atheist Experience: Jonathan Park and the Mind Pathetically Misled: a rant

The Atheist Experience: Jonathan Park and the Mind Pathetically Misled: a rant: "This is why we fight. Minds are at stake. Somewhere in the world is a student who will go on to cure AIDS, extend human life expectancy, and solve other ills that befall us, and that student will have to understand evolution. Creationists fear this, and want this destroyed at all costs. Religion doesn't care what destruction it leaves in its wake, as long as it comes out on top in the end."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Believe what you want, but don't force it on me

Religious people have every right to believe and worship and live according to their faith, as long as their actions do not harm others. However, these people cannot force others to believe their myths or obey their religious tenets. It's as simple as that.

PZ Myers blogged about a story that illustrates the point effectively. The short version is that a journalist in Israel was attacked for reporting on a story about a parking lot that would remain open on the Shabbot. She was attacked because she herself wasn't observing the Shabbot, even though she wasn't Jewish.

PZ's opinion here is much like my own:

This is something too many religious people fail to understand — you can practice your religion, other people can practice their religion, but you don't get to tell other people that they must practice your religion. If your crazy superstition says you aren't allowed to push a button on a certain day of the week, then don't. If your old myths claim that your god turns into a cracker when the right ritual is carried out, go ahead and believe that. If your dogma dictates that you should visit a certain magic rock before you die, then go ahead, make your pilgrimage.

But excuse us, everyone who doesn't have these wacky ideas has a perfect right to push the button, disrespect your cracker, or stay home and skip the crowds…and we also have the right to point and laugh at you.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A shocking statistic

Today I ran across one of the most interesting pieces of Biblical scholarship that I've ever seen. Steve Wells at
Dwindling in Unbelief has tallied up all of God's killings and massacres enumerated in the Bible. The total? 2,301,427.

This jaw-dropping number would be even higher if he included massacres that are unnumbered (such as the slaughter of the Midianites that I mentioned in my earlier post).

He is also retelling all of the stories of God's killings. It's a most extraordinary exercise.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Credulity vs. Skepticism

The perspective from which we evaluate claims of truth is a major factor in our view of the world. Claims about the existence of (or immediate experience with) extraterrestrials, bigfoot, paranormal abilities, and gods are met with an immediate reaction.

From one side, the credulous accept these claims at face value. On the other hand, skeptics don't believe such claims without evidence.

Is your first reaction to believe such claims, or to ask questions? Which is the better position? Is it better to believe something that isn't true, or to disbelieve some truth? I think this question is critical in determining how we perceive the world aroud us.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rethinking the Republican party

The Republican party has announced a new effort to rebrand its image: Boston Globe Article

Starting today, the National Council for a New America will begin work to resurrect the Republican image and recapture its viability as a national political party.The Republican party must do two things to appeal to a broader base than it currently reaches.

First, it must divorce itself from the religious right. Forcing religious dogma into public policy will not work in a pluralistic society. The religious fundamentalists have far too much influence in the Republican party as it stands now. We are becoming more diverse as a nation, and need a secular framework for our government.

Second, the party must demonstrate that it can return to its much-ballyhooed principle of financial conservatism. Record deficits and out-of-control spending have been the norm for the past few Republican administrations. Republicans must propose an approach to budgeting that will cut spending to their own sacred cows (i.e. corporate welfare), recommend a tax structure that does not alienate the poor in favor of the wealthy, and pay down the massive debt that is accruing at our children's expense. The Republicans will have to implement improved fiscal policies at the state and local levels to convince skeptics that their revitalized apprach is serious.

These two changes - a secular approach to government and a return to fiscal responsiblity - would result in an appealing platform for a large number of Independents, Libertarians, and moderate Democrats. I don't think they'd lose much of their base, though a fringe Christian party could emerge. The potential gains in the middle far outweigh the losses on the periphery.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Dangers of Woo

Antivaccinationists scare the hell out of me because people with no understanding of science will listen to their gibberish and believe it. I've had a negative view of pseudoscience for a long time, but it's only snice becoming a parent that I've really come to grips with the scope of the horrors that lurk among the scientific illiterati.

Our herd immunity is compromised when there are groups of unvaccinated individuals. Kids are now dying from measles and whooping cough because parents aren't vaccinating their kids. Antivaccinationists are scaring people into preventing their own children from getting sick, and many are dying from preventable illnesses.

Autism isn't caused by vaccines. This myth has been debunked in study after study. We've spent millions to combat an alleged connection that has never been shown to exist. Yet windbag celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, neither of whom has the slightest idea of how science works, go on national television and claim that there is a link between vaccines and autism. Whether or not they've got good intentions, they are wrong about the science and are endangering people's lives.

Peddlers of woo are not only scientific illiterates, but they are a danger to society.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

How I became an Atheist

Time to change my blog to something I'll be more likely to maintain. My interests as a skeptic, secular humanist, and atheist will be the primary topics.

I'll start by describing my deconversion from fundamental Christianity. This isn't my argument against faith, but is a story of my own personal journey to enlightenment.

My upbringing was notably devoid of religious instruction. My parents were Believers in a general sense, but not practitioners of any faith. It wasn't until I was in high school that I developed any interest in religion. I joined a Christian church after attending with some friends for a while. Within a few months I was an energetic Bible-toting true believer. My entire life seemed to revolve around my faith during that time.

While I was in college, my Shakespeare professor assigned us to read a book of the "Old Testament" in the King James translation. The reason was simply to compare the linguistic conventions between Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

Not having read much of the OT, I chose to read the book of Numbers. What I found there shook my faith and made it crumble. I could not believe the acts of cruelty, blood lust, and absolute evil that Moses exhibited, and God apparently approved.

In Numbers Chapter 31, Moses' army, under God's direction, destroys the Midianites. The army slaughters all of the adult males, and then captures the women and children. When Moses discovers that his soldiers left the women and children alive, he bellows: "Have you saved all the women alive? Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." Num 31:17-18.

So Moses' army went back and killed all of the little boys in this city, along with their mothers. An exception was made for the young virgin girls, who were kept by the soldiers. The not-so-subtly implied prurience here is horrific beyond belief.

There is more indiscriminate killing throughout Numbers, but reading this specific passage enraged my sense of justice and destroyed forever in my mind the image of a loving God. Any God who would do such evil is not worthy of reverence. Those who would willingly follow such a God exhibit a shocking moral deficit.

My commitment to Christianity began crumbling then, accelerated by ongoing critical analysis of the Bible, a formal education in history, mythology and science, and an application of my natural skeptical worldview into religious matters.

I soon dispensed with the notion of the literal truth of the Bible, so my days as a Christian were numbered. I considered myself a deist for a long time, believing that perhaps there may have been a god at some point, but such a god didn't have any direct contact with our culture now. I don't think there's much of a difference between deism (like that of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine) and atheism; both contend that no supernatural being directly interacts with human society or the natural world around us.

When the "new atheism" began to gain some traction a few years ago, it was like a breath of fresh air. Embracing a skeptical, rational approach to truth is a liberating way to dispel unsubstantiated claims of paranormal, superstitious, and pseudoscientific charlatans.