Sunday, 13 November 2011

On Indoctrination

Part of this post is inspired by my continuing journey from 'weak' atheism to 'strong' atheism, which is continuing apace as I attempt to logically justify the things I've come to believe. This will be the subject of another post, to come probably sooner rather than later.

It's a fairly standard line in the skeptical community: indoctrination is bad. We give religious communities all kinds of flak for indoctrinating their children, and for good reasons, given that in the absence of evidence, or even logical sense, indoctrination is the only way that religion continues to survive.

But of course, we try to be as intellectually honest as we can, and we try to avoid double standards, and so we hold ourselves to the same expectations. I see many posts by atheist parents who talk about how their children we allowed the benefit of a choice, who were given all the information, and who have, far more often than not, chosen non-belief. All this is, of course, fantastic.

Recently, however, I've been wondering if 'indoctrination' is a word that applies to the teaching of atheism to children. It is, logically and scientifically, the standpoint that's most likely to be true - and I do realize that the religious will say the same thing about their viewpoint, but please bear with me.

I now see the non-existence of god as a fact - I cannot justify this, but it's how I think. Given that, how is the teaching of atheism to my child indoctrination? I also intend to teach him/her that the sun is fusing hydrogen into helium, that evolution is true, and that physical activity is good for you. None of these things are viewed as indoctrination - because they're all simply, indisputably, true. It's not indoctrination to pass on facts.

And lately, as far as I'm concerned, the fact is that god does not exist.

This is, I realize, a risky position for me to hold. I cannot fully justify this belief. But at the same time, I cannot fully justify my believe that centaurs do not, and never have, existed. It's the outright, worldwide lack of evidence for centaurs, along with the physiological improbability of them, that causes my belief that they do not exist - and the same is true of god. There is not, nor has there ever been, a speck of credible evidence for god, and his existence would flatly contradict our entire knowledge of physics. He is, to put it shortly, so unlikely to actually exist that the probability is a number indistinguishable from zero.

The gist of all this is that I plan to teach my child that he or she is growing up surrounded by people who believe a myth, as well as all the various reasons why they believe it. I intend to teach the non-existence of god with the same certainty as I will teach mathematics, physics, chemistry - and so on. As simple fact. And I do not consider this indoctrination.

I'm still working through the implications of this. It's true that I'm setting myself up in a double standard - the religious consider the existence of god to be a fact in this exact same way, and I still think of that as indoctrination. The rising tide of atheism belies this point of view, however. Their certainty is based on myth and faith. Ours is based on science, evidence, and logic. It is, in short, a defensible position, where theirs is not, and it shows in the reams of people abandoning the church.

This is not to say that, should my child ultimately reject this point of view and become some kind of religious fundamentalist, I would abandon them. They are, as ever, free to choose, and I do intend to present all points of view. But I intend to also teach that one point of view is fact, and the rest are myth. Should my child turn his/her back on science and embrace religious fundamentalism, it would undoubtedly cause strain on the relationship, but I would not turn my back. I do, however, consider this outcome highly unlikely, for the reasons listed above. A mind trained to accept reality as it is, and to evaluate facts and claims based on evidence, is unlikely to start to accept fairy tales on faith.

I'm eager for feedback on this. Am I committing a fallacy? Would I be doing my child a disservice? Or would I merely be teaching the ability to see reality as it actually is, without unneeded religious filters? I think it's the best way to go, but outside perspective on my ideas is something that, as a free-thinking individual, I crave. Anyone?

So it's been a while.

I haven't been active, at all, for a period of a couple of months now. This is primarily because I've been working like a mad person, putting in a lot of overtime, in order to get my financial situation back in better order. The urgency of this has passed, somewhat, though I continue to put in hours trying to get out of where I am now, and into the field I -want- to be in. Which will, if I'm successful, eat up even more of my time, but I hope I can make it work.

Also, my internet connectivity went through a period where it did not, for most intents and purposes, exist at all.

These problems have abated somewhat, and so I make my triumphant return. I've been busy, but it's been interesting as well; I work with a guy who's one of the more devoted Christians I've ever personally met, as well as a woman who is deeply pagan, with a touch of conspiracy theorist, and the discussions have been interesting. Combined with that, one of Greta Christina's latest offerings has re-inspired me; it may not seem like it at times, but we're having an effect. It's working - and everyone who contributes their voice to the atheist effort adds impact to that.

My collection of atheist swag is increasing rapidly, and shortly I'll likely have a nice tattoo.

But for now, the idea for my next post is already half-written in my head, and I'm rather proud of it. So why don't I hop to it?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Religious 'morality' and selfishness

I've been pondering over this one for quite some time now, but only recently have I manged to boil the concepts down into words that make sense. It comes, as these things so often do, from a discussion I had with a Christian in real life. I find that speaking my ideas out loud, and being forced to defend them, is the best way for me to clarify and structure them when they may have previously been unformed, nebulous things, floating around unpolished in my skull.

You've all seen the argument before, I'm sure; that atheists either cannot be moral without a belief in God, or that we're moral because, even though we're not aware of it, we follow God's absolute morality. Total nonsense, we're all aware, but why?

The fellow I spoke to was one of those people who ask why, if I don't believe in Hell, don't I go around murdering and stealing and doing whatever I please? At the beginning of our conversation he was adamant that if he didn't believe in Hell, he'd be out doing all these things, which is terrifying. I think they do this because their cognitive dissonance about God's morality forces them to choose SOME side when pressed, and they automatically come down on the side of God. Happily, by the end of the conversation I managed to show him why, no, he wouldn't do these things, and left happier for it.

And it got me thinking. How is that moral? They claim they have a handle on absolute morality, through God, but they'd be willing to commit horrible crimes without him, if there were no Hell? That's not morality. The best definition I've been able to come up with for morality is the choice not to do harm do someone, because of the harm it will cause. This is based on empathy, something that the majority of us have and use daily. We're able to empathize with the pain and suffering of others, and thus choose not to cause pain and suffering. But avoiding immoral acts because of the threat of punishment or the promise of reward is not a moral decision. It's a selfish one, because the decision being made is not about avoiding harm to others.

It's about avoiding harm to (or gleaning reward for) oneself.

If I really, really like stealing cars, but I keep myself from doing so because I know how negatively it will affect those I steal from, I have made a moral choice. I don't want to harm the owners of those cars. I don't want them to suffer.

But if I really like stealing cars, and I keep myself from doing so because I think I'll go to Hell, my decision is not based on avoiding causing suffering to others. It's about avoiding causing suffering to myself. I don't want myself to go to Hell.

Further pondering on this was spawned by a article I read last night. It's an older one, from 2007, and I actually quite agree with most of it. The one bit that stuck in my craw, though, was point number three, which you can find at the top of the second page. In it, the writer claims that we, even all unknowingly, behave as if there's a 'platonic model' of morality that we're following. That when we want justice, it's not because there's a 'wrong' molecule floating around, alerting us to the fact, but because we're comparing what's happened to the absolute moral model.

Which is a load of bunk. We're comparing events to the morality that our society has impressed upon us, and deciding if something was immoral or not based on that. And the morals of societies, I think, are unquestionably relative. Societies will often clash on moral questions, and will sometimes live in fear and disgust at each other for their moral practices. Which, then, is the one that conforms to this 'absolute'?

Why, the one I agree with, of course!

Nonsense. All morality is subjective. Yes, Bible-thumpers, even yours. The Bible condones slavery. Do you? No? Then you have made a subjective moral decision.

I would argue the exact opposite of this writer's point. We atheists do not, unknowingly, follow an absolute standard for morality. It's you believers who, unknowingly, make subjective moral decisions based on your ability to empathize. The basis for morality, even yours, is not based on God's word. This is obvious enough; I've already shown you one brief example of where you'll disagree with the Holy text, and there are hundreds more. You disagree with it because you're able to empathize with the theoretical victims of these Biblical crimes and punishments. You -know- somethings wrong there, because of the suffering of the people referred to, even if it's written in the Bible, even if you claim to agree with the Bible 100%.

You merely haven't sorted out your cognitive dissonance yet. I'd get started on that, if I were you. Atheism is quite freeing.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Oh, my atheist god!

We've all seen it, even if it is often said in jest. "You can't say 'oh my god!' you're an atheist!". As if our disbelief in deities precludes us from using any religious language that has percolated it's way into popular vocabulary.

It's a silly idea, but the more you think about it, the sillier it gets. Christians are commonly told not to take their lord's name in vein. I get chastised sometimes for exclaiming 'Jesus Christ!' when I'm surprised or startled, because it's disrespectful. If doing such a thing is indeed disrespectful... then are we not, in fact, the very people who should be using such exclamations? We don't believe your god even exists, let alone that he needs to be accorded respect. When I say 'Oh my god!' in a disrespectful manner, this fits in perfectly with my worldview that religious ideas are silly and should be abandoned.

When you tell me that as an atheist, I'm not allowed to use such utterances, you're implying that you, as a Christian, are allowed to do so. And in doing so, you're disrespecting the very deity that you profess to love and worship.

I say, you, as a believer, are the one who isn't allowed to take the lord's name in vain. Me? I disrespect gods all the time. It's kinda what I do. Makes perfect sense that I'd do so in the arena of expletives as well.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Ah, original sin...

A boy in the UK - possibly an entire class - was made to eat a piece of paper with the word 'Sorry!!' written on it, in order to apologize to God.

And not in a Church, either. This happened in his school.

It wasn't a punishment. He hadn't done anything wrong. This is a part that really kills me about the Church. He was made to apologize to God simply because he existed.

The claim is often made that God is love, but he's also justice. What tripe. To say that a baby, newly born and never having committed any act, let alone a sinful one, is culpable for Eve's original disobeying of God? That's neither love nor justice.

The boy came home in tears, and now apparently refuses to sleep alone. He was also given a Bible to "make him good", when he hadn't done anything bad in the first place. What nonsense. I'm not usually one who promotes the view that religion is inherently child abuse, but I'm beginning to come around. This child came home wondering what he'd done wrong, why he'd had to say sorry. What torment to put an innocent child through, for no reason whatsoever. How disgusting.

In response, assistant pastor Steve Cowie said: "We are sorry that anyone should be upset, we have no intention to upset, we do not intimidate, we do not force anyone to do anything." You don't see how telling young children that they're evil could be upsetting? That they need to apologize for something they didn't do - and need to do so by eating paper?

The boy's been pulled from school, and so has at least one other student. What strikes me as frightening is that every single student wasn't pulled. A school allowing religious visits in the first place is a violation, but for the school staff to not intervene and stop this kind of madness - I don't even have the words.

Monday, 25 July 2011


I require more facebook friends, and such. Am I behind the times? Perhaps. I've made a Google+ account as well, but I rarely touch it yet. The same thing happened to me before - I was slow to adopt the book of faces, and even now I tend to Twitter more than anything. But I've been getting into some stuff there lately, so, add me, or something.

The face of Parsley.


Sunday, 24 July 2011


I have seen numerous people, in the last few days, display an appalling level of outright hypocrisy. I mean direct, immediate, undeniable hypocrisy, and they have done so shamelessly.

When the bomb went off in Oslo, a number of people reacted immediately, placing the blame squarely on the head of Muslim terrorists, doing so without the barest shred of information. Sadly, among these was American Atheists Inc, who have since apologized for jumping the gun.

A number of those who leapt to this conclusion did so, obviously, because of their general anti-Islam sentiments. A number of them were far-right leaning Christians, denouncing Islam, mocking the way it's called 'the religion of peace' by some. The usual cry and hue went up, that Islam is a religion of terror, that Muslims are terrorists, and must be scourged from society.

And then the news hit that the guy was a Christian.

By the same logic, then, Christianity is a religion of destruction. This guy did what he did because of his beliefs, among them that Jesus is the messiah.

But no. Outrage, that we would even suggest such a thing. He wasn't a TRUE Christian. He couldn't have been - look at what he did! No, he was just masquerading as a Christian. You can't denounce Christianity because of the actions of a few Christians. Er, I mean, pretend Christians.

Well, why can't we, when you so gleefully do exactly that to Muslims? You don't get to have it both ways. No, you really don't. If you cannot judge Christianity based on the actions of a few extremists, then you equally cannot judge Islam based on a few extremists. Doing so is deeply hypocritical, and it adds a whole new level of disgusting to the typical Islamophobic sentiments I see all the time.

The 'no true Scotsman' fallacy is alive and well, as we're all aware, but rarely is it trotted out in a way that's so blatantly, obviously, -wrong-.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Omniscience and free will

Among the religious, these are two oft-made claims - that their god is omniscient, all knowing, and also that he has granted us, made in his image, free will.

These two concepts are so deeply at odds that it always shocks me to see believers making use of both of them. They're mutually exclusive, on a fundamental level.

If your god knows everything that has ever happened and will ever happen, that means that events will follow a predictable course. We may not know what this course is, but that doesn't mean that it's not pre-determined. If, thousands or millions of years ago he knew I'd be sitting here writing this, and here I am, then what choice did I have in the matter? It had to happen. I had to be here, this morning, typing away.

If I had free will, then perhaps this morning I would have gone for a walk or something, and wouldn't have been sitting here typing this, at odds with God's knowledge that I would be sitting here typing. In this case, free will is real - but God had to be wrong for that to be true. I had to deviate from God's knowledge of the future - and he's therefore not omniscient.

You might argue that he knew I'd try to foil his plan, and in choosing to go for a walk instead of writing, I would actually have been following his plan all along. That's fine - but then we're back at square one. He knew I'd decide to try and foil him, and take that walk. If he's known I would do that, and I did it, it's the same thing. I'm still following his thread - with nothing but the appearance of being able to choose.

You can't have it both ways. If he's omniscient, then our lives are following a known, unchangeable thread. If we have free will, then he can't know everything. Simple logic.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Well, that sucks.

Psalm 14:1: "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God."

Matthew 5:22: "...but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."

Looks like whoever wrote Psalms is screwed.

A Madmad or Something Worse

Peter Brietbart has some pretty interesting things to say about the morality of Jesus. I've thought that Jesus, if he existed, was nothing more than a man; I've also always thought that for the time he lived in, he had a pretty decent moral message. This may still be true; he did have some good things to say. But we don't live in those times. We're more evolved now. So why are we still following the teachings of a man 2,000 years dead who failed to speak out against rape, racism, sexism, who condemns homosexuals and anyone who doesn't believe in him to eternal torture? These two videos spell it out excellently. I recommend watching them both, though I fear that those who need to take the most away from them - the dogmatic, the zealous, the devout - will either not watch them, or will close their minds entirely to what's being said.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The weak anthropic principle and you.

I got into a discussion with a pandeist yesterday, my first ever. I've been fine tuning my arguments against deism for a little bit now, and I was eager to see how they'd work out against a believer.

The thing that became increasingly obvious to me as the discussion went on was that a large part of his arguments were identical in a way to those used by creationists. In his parlance, it was proof of 'purpose' in the universe rather than proof of a creator, but the argument was more or less the same; that the universe is fine tuned for life, and if cosmological constants were slightly different, life couldn't exist, and therefore it all had to be designed.

We all know the arguments against this, I think; first, that the universe has the appearance of design not because it was designed for us, but because we came to be within it, and therefore we had to evolve to suit it, not the other way around. See Douglas Adams' sentient puddle. And secondly, that if the universe were not as it is, we wouldn't be here to see it.

That second part is what I'm focusing on right now. Most often, when I point this out to those I'm debating, it's either scoffed at or ignored. Of course we wouldn't be!, they shout, What does that prove?.

I think there's a nuance to the weak anthropic principle that a lot of people are missing out on. Indeed, they're quite right; it certainly doesn't prove the non-existence of a creator. What it does do is highlight exactly why their idea of a fine-tuned universe is not evidence of a creator.

How's that? Well, the universe is observably suited for life. Nobody argues with this; if gravity was just a little different, planets and suns either wouldn't form, or would form immediately into black holes. If the nuclear forces were a little different, perhaps atoms as we know them wouldn't be able to exist. There's a laundry list of items like these.

But what does this tell us about how the universe was created? Precisely nothing. Imagine two neighboring universes, side-by-side. They're identical in every detail, except that one had an intelligent creator, and one formed from wholly natural events. The cosmological constants happen to be the exact same, and so if you were look at these two universes billions of years into their developments, how would you be able to distinguish between the created one and the natural one?

You couldn't.

This is the point, I think, of the whole thing. We can't. Looking out into the depths of space, we see that the universe is suited for life, but how can we tell if it's natural or created? We can't, not just by looking at them. The argument of the fine-tuning of the universe - used by creationists and deists alike - is null. It's not evidence of anything, either way. You can go on forever about how unlikely it is that a universe would form that was exactly suited for life, and I'll keep saying the same thing. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be here to care. That we are here shows only that the universe exists as it does. That's all.

Why, then, would one not believe in a creator? I've just admitted that by the fine-tuning argument, the one is exactly as likely as the other. Simply put, believing so brings nothing to the table that needs to be there. We have naturalistic hypotheses for the origin of the universe as we know it, and we're learning more every day. I see no reason to not to believe that given enough time, these hypotheses will become theories, and we'll actually know how the universe came to be. Such is the history of science; the unknown becomes known with astonishing frequency. To say 'we know how all this happened naturally... but a god kicked it all off' is unnecessary. It's redundant. It's like adding 1 + 1 + 0 to get two. The zero doesn't need to be there. Neither do gods. And given the history of the supernatural - given that every supposed instance of things existing outside of nature has been debunked - I can't see any reason to suppose that the universe has an origin outside of natural law either.

Especially when natural law explains it so very, very well.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Dogma and the socratic method.

When I was but a whelp in high school, I had a fantastic teacher in one of my history classes. He was the one who first brought to my attention the Socratic method. He asked for a volunteer to help him demonstrate how it was used, and I, brash and cocky, raised my hand. The questions he posed were about bravery, and stupidity, and the thin line between the two. Every question I answered, he'd turn right around into my face, making it look like my answer was silly, or nonsensical, or contradictory to something I'd said earlier.

Bring in my mid-teens at the time, of course, I was upset at being made to look foolish in front of my friends, but I've never had much of an ability to be embarrassed, so that wore off quickly. And as it did, I thought more and more about the things he'd said, and how he'd forced me to take a concept I thought I'd had totally in hand and really, deeply think about it, in a way I never had before. I worked on those bravery vs stupidity questions for months, working them over in my head, trying to come up with definitions that seemed to me to have the least number of logical flaws.

What I didn't realize at the time, of course, was that I had taken the method and begun applying it to myself, holding debates in my head, playing devil's advocate, working through the flaws in my thinking and learning to truly understand the things I was thinking about rather than just knowing them.

For that teacher, it was probably no more than perfectly normal day. He's probably used that demonstration dozens or hundreds of times, before and since. But if there was one teacher in time in school that I'd like to go back and thank, it'd be him, for that moment, for giving me the method I needed to learn to think critically instead of just parroting information.

All of this relates very deeply with the concept of dogma, to me. In my debates with theists, I use the Socratic method constantly, throwing question after question at them, hoping that as we go around and around they'll take a moment, stop, and think about it. That they'll learn see the contradictions they're espousing, the logical errors, the circular arguments, just as I did all those years ago.

But it never seems to happen.

Why? If you know me, you know the answer to that: dogma. That an idea is incontrovertible. Beyond question, beyond reproach. Once an idea becomes beyond question in someone's mind, it halts all progress. The idea can no longer evolve. It doesn't matter if it's a good idea or a bad idea; the concept of evolution shouldn't be dogmatic in someone's mind anymore than the idea of god should.

It feels like trying to hammer a wall down with a toothpick. An idea that's surrounded by a thick barricade of dogma is and idea that the Socratic method can't reach. It's an idea that, no matter the evidence, no matter the contradictions or the awful logic or anything else, cannot change.

I've seen believers who claim to have the 'truth', and call themselves critical thinkers. This is a contradiction. If you hold an idea - any idea, any at all - to be incontrovertible, unquestionable, then you cannot think critically about it. If you are unwilling to see the flaws in your idea, then you are incapable of reconsidering or abandoning the idea when those flaws are exposed, and you will wind up going in circles, ignoring valid points, and struggling to invent absurd arguments to show that your idea has no flaws, no matter how obvious these are.

In short: Dogmatic belief and critical thinking are mutually exclusive. Guess which one I think needs to go?

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

A question for creationists.

I'm well aware that this blog doesn't yet have a massive readership, but my view count continues to go up quasi-steadily, so I'm going to go ahead and try this and see what I get.

I posed a question today to a YEC I debate with fairly often on Twitter. He gave me a brief and unsatisfying answer and then disappeared before answering my clarifying question. Life happens to us all, and I'm hoping he'll be around later to further refine his answer. Of course, at that point, I may just ask him to do so here.

The following question is for those who believe in a literal Creator, be it old-Earth or young-Earth. It's for those of you that think abiogenesis is simply too improbable to be believed, and the first inklings of life must have been Created, whether or not you believe evolution took over from there.

Two of my recent posts have focused on scientific findings, findings which help to erode the idea that a Creator is necessary at all. They're indirect evidence, I know, but every bit helps. I posited in one of those articles about the logical conclusion of this science, and I'm curious as to how that conclusion would affect the creationist community.

Suppose that tomorrow a revolutionary scientific finding was announced. A scientist has been working in a lab for the past however-many years, and he has managed to get life to form itself. By this I mean, he set up a sterile room, filled it with water, ammonia, methane, perhaps some other simple organic chemicals, flooded it with sunlight, perhaps created artificial tides and tidal pools - in other words, simulated the Earth as we believe it was ~4.5 billion years ago. And in this mishmash of chemistry, water, and light, self-replicating molecules formed, and began spreading. He's held off announcing it, though, and he kept watching, and now, after years of study, these molecules have - all on their own, without any prompting - formed simple pseudo-cells which have begun competing with each other.

In short, he's created brand-new life watched brand new life form, using only simple chemistry and time.

The question, then, is how would this discovery affect you? Would it be a crack in your faith? After all, if it can happen over the course of a few years in a lab, certainly it must be possible over millenia on Earth. Would it destroy your faith, to prove that life literally needs no creator? Or can you think of arguments against it, arguments that you think shows that all of this doesn't prove that a creator is unnecessary?

I'm genuinely curious. This experiment, of course, has not happened yet, but I'm betting that it will, and I don't think it'll be all that long. Harry Lonsdale, a very-wealthy very-atheist has just recently announced that he's going to give someone a rather large grant to attempt this very experiment. What if they succeed? How will you react? What will you say?

Are any creationists willing to play this hypothetical game with me? I'm hoping so.

To all my lovely atheist readers, if you're curious about the answers to this question as well, spread the word. I know it sounds like a cheap plug, but the more creationists we can gather in here, the more answers we can get, and I'm just not that popular yet. Give me a hand, if you can!

Friday, 24 June 2011

Way to go New York!

I just got to watch live as the State of New York passed a bill granting equality to all of it's citizens. It still baffles me that equality needs to be voted on, but make no mistake; this is a good thing. It's going to be a while yet before true, actual equality is achieved, before open homosexuals no longer walk some neighborhoods in fear just for loving who they love, before being gay is just considered to be another trait of a person, like having blue eyes or brown hair.

There'll be setbacks. Cases like this will come up in other states, and they'll be lost. The bigots will have their local victories. But make no mistake. Every day, in every way, they're losing ground. If we keep fighting, and keep educating, and keep showing everyone that no, being gay isn't a horrible disease, eventually we WILL win.

Watching my twitter feed scroll past immediately after the successful vote, and seeing at least one or two all-caps tweets from people I like, loudly proclaiming to the world that they're going to go out and get married now, makes all the battling worthwhile.

A sampling of the joy this decision has brought:

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Creationism being eroded - yes, again.

Yep, it's true. Another of creationism's so-called unanswerable questions has been dealt with.

This one pertains to the gap between unicellular and multicelluar life. Why, they ask, are there no multicelluar organisms with very few cells? The smallest multicellular life we know of starts at about ~100 cells. You obviously can't skip straight from one cell to one hundred. If evolution was true, why this gap? How did life cross this bridge?

Of course, just because there are no organisms with two or ten or whatever cells today doesn't mean there weren't in the past - the opposite is quite obviously true. But now we've got some compelling evidence to show it.

Voila. By applying pressure that selects for multicellular life - in this case centrifugal force - the single celled yeast began clumping together and forming tiny multi-celled organisms.

Objections? Of course there are.

Some will claim that nowhere in nature is centrifugal force going to be a selection factor. This is likely true. But nothing here indicates that the weight of the organism need be the only selection factor that would select for multicelluar arrangements. Even if it were, centrifugal force need not be the only way in which weight can be a selection factor - how about buoyancy, for starters?

There are those who claim that since yeast USED to be a multicellular organism, it's simply retained the traits for being multicellular. Possibly a factor; this may help explain why the trend towards being multicellular occurred as quickly as it did. But it really doesn't matter. What this shows is that life can and does exist in small (>1 <100) groupings. It's viable. You can see that it happens. So why assume that it couldn't have happened in our deep past?

Finally, why do no such organisms exist in nature today? I've never seen a scientist's answer to this question, but I have what I think is a valid hypothesis; there may be some powerful advantage once an organism reaches the ~100 cell marker that allows it to out-compete the smaller multicellular organisms, and therefore drive them to extinction. Perhaps once 100 cells or so are reached, it allows the organism to specialize it's individual cells in certain ways that give it massive advantage, or some such thing. No small multicellular organisms exist in the wild, therefore, because there's no niche for them. They came, existed, and were eliminated by more suitable organisms.

It's like I love to say - unknown does not mean unknowable. As science advances, it leaves creationism - and religion as a whole - less and less of a leg to stand on. And I do so love to watch it advance.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Creationism as a science - evolution as dogma

I've probably written about this topic before. I probably will again, frankly, because it keeps coming up, and to my mind it's part of the more ridiculous of the claims of the Biblical literalists.

First off, something that I know I've dealt with before: Creationism is, by it's own definition, not a scientific field. 'Creation science' is an oxymoron. The very simple reason for this is that science - that which follows the scientific method - never begins with a conclusion. Science never consists of "X is true - so let's prove it'. Rather, it begins with a a question: "Is X true? Let's find out".

The problem with creationism calling itself a science should become immediately obvious. It begins with the unmovable conclusion that the Bible is true, in every sense. Indeed, they tout this as often as they can. From Answers in Genesis' Statement of Faith:

  •  The scientific aspects of creation are important, but are secondary in importance to the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ as Sovereign, Creator, Redeemer, and Judge.
  • By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information.

The second statement is particularly telling in this regard. If it contradicts scripture, it cannot be true. In what way is this scientific? Science seeks the truth, and attempts to do so without bias. Nothing is sacred. Any scientific theory can be overturned, given sufficient evidence. But here we have a clear statement that no, this cannot be overturned. It's sacred. It's not science.

The opposite, of course, is true of scientific theories - including evolution. Creationists frequently tout Darwin's mistakes and ignorance as evidence against evolution, as though Darwin was an infallible god. In fact, evolutionary theory has itself evolved over the years, as more and more was learned. How is this dogmatic?

Dogma: A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.

Darwin could be reasonably called an authority on the topic, at least for his time. But incontrovertibly true? It's changed. It's evolved. It's not absolute; it's a theory that alters to fit the facts as they're discovered. This isn't dogma. It's science.

Comparing the two, it's easy to spot the dogma. And therein lies the problem with the Biblical literalists. It's dogmatic, not scientific. This is why they twist and squirm and bend words to wedge the science to fit into the Bible; if any part of the Bible is proven wrong, the book cannot be 'incontrovertibly true', and their entire worldview collapses. This is why no matter how high the evidence piles, they cannot accept it.

And yet they continue to try to pass off their faith as scientific.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Well, *I* thought it was funny.

Abiogenesis? Yes please!

Throughout religious history faith has been forced to evolve as science advanced. When we learned where lightning and thunder came from, thunder gods became irrelevant. When we discovered the heliocentric model, sun gods went out of style. And so on.

And yet, despite the long-standing tradition of religious belief being outed by science, the trend continues. Today, instead of asking "If there's no Thor, then where's thunder come from, smart guy?" they ask "If there's no God, then how did life come from non-life, cupcake?". They don't like that we have theories. Abiogenesis just doesn't have enough evidence for them - this, in spite of the total lack of evidence for any gods whatsoever. But, I digress.

Science marches on. After more than a decade of work and effort, Craig Venter, an American geneticist, has created the first ever synthetic life form.

Now, don't get super excited or anything. He didn't build an entire self-replicating cell from nothing but ammonia and methane, or anything quite so grandiose. What he did do, however, was create an entire bacterial genome from scratch. From point one. He inserted it into a bacterial 'shell'. The result? A form of life never before seen on this planet, that didn't evolve, and required no gods to create. Synthetic life.

It's not proof positive of abiogenesis, not yet. Doubtless the believers will have their talking points. They'll say it's more evidence that life requires a designer. They'll say it's no proof that a cell can assemble itself from the primordial soup. They'll have arguments I can't even think of - their best 'scientific' minds will no doubt be hard at work dismantling this further evidence for the naturalistic formation of life.

But that doesn't matter. I'll continue making the point that 'unknown' does not mean 'unknowable'. This is another small piece to that puzzle, another dent in the armor of religion. Sooner or later, someone WILL coax non-living organic chemistry into forming an enclosed pseudo-cellular environment, using nothing but the building blocks of life, air, water, light, and time.

When that happens, I expect the fundamentalists to go into collective apoplexy trying to explain it away. Again, they'll have their arguments. But slowly but surely, as the mysteries of life and the universe are unraveled, those arguments are becoming less and less rational, less and less relevant.

Inch by inch, the light of science is pushing back the darkness of religion.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

New York, New York

In New York state, the controversy over legalized same-sex marriage is currently raging. They're within a hair's width of passing it; the vote was expected to come to a head yesterday, but as far as I've been able to determine, it's been delayed - possibly as a play by the GOP to delay the vote until next fall. I'm not 100% sure how it all works.

It seems that one more vote is still needed to make it happen, and it also seems that there are two more GOP senators still sitting on the fence. I have no doubt that the National Organization for Marriage, and other such groups, are leaning on them hard to oppose it, which is why we need to show them just how many people - in New York, America, and around the world - oppose the NO4M and their intolerant message. We need to show them that it's time for equality, and make the case that it needs to happen sooner rather than later. With that in mind, I sent the following email to the two undecided senators. I would urge everyone reading this, regardless of where you live, to do the same. Let's show them that in voting for legalization, they'll have the world behind them.

To: Mark Grisanti
Stephen Saland

I write to you today not as one of your constituents, but as a resident of the wider world. Your decision cannot affect my vote, as I have none in your election, but I urge to you hear the voices of the people not only in your state, or in your country, but people around the world who are watching the controversy going on in New York with deep interest.

As far as I'm aware, you're both GOP candidates who remain undecided on this important issue. I realize that voting in favour means crossing your party lines, and possibly alienating the more hard-line Republican voters. But I think you're aware that the anti-gay viewpoint is falling by the wayside at a nearly unprecedented rate. The push for civil rights and equality is growing stronger. As I'm sure you're aware, for the first time ever a majority of Americans, according to Gallup, stand in favour of making marriage available to all, without discrimination. This number has risen despite the vocal backlash against it, and will only continue to do so. By casting your votes in favour of granting equal rights to all your citizens, you will be showing your willingness to defend them against intolerance, and you will be shown to have been on the right side of history.

I believe you know that this will happen, sooner or later. As I've said, tolerance is increasing rapidly. I urge you to help make it happen sooner, rather than later. Set an example for the rest of your country. Show them that you care about all Americans, without prejudice about their sexuality.

As a final note, I ask you to look at the track record of my own country. I'm from Canada, born and raised; we legalized same-sex marriage across the nation in 2005, and it has had no adverse impact. Our society has not crumbled. Marriage has not been undermined. We have not descended into anarchy. We've merely extended equal rights to all of our citizens, and we're better off for it.

Please. I, and a growing majority of the citizens of your country and the world, urge you to do the right thing.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

More goodness from Twitter

The following began it's life as a Long Tweet, written by Atheist Shrew. I stumbled upon it quite by accident, and felt that the message it had to tell about the dangers of following religion over science was so compelling it had to be spread. I asked for and received permission to re-post it here.

Here, again, is my initial response to Peter Kreeft's arguments for god which you again, linked me to:

You can give me all the evidences for "god" that you want but if they are the same tired ones that I have read for DECADES (and at one time used as a former apologist for the Christian faith), they are going to come up empty. They are logically unsound and, no, I'm not going to waste my time dissecting them for you beyond what I've already done. You have a brain; use it.

Besides, the point is that I'm not saying that I *know* that there is no god. I'm an "agnostic atheist" (as most atheists that I know or have heard are, including Richard Dawkins, though we choose to just go with "atheist" for simplicity's sake). We aren't claiming, "We know with certainty there is no god!" We are only saying that we reject the claims of others that there *is* a god due to lack of evidence. There might very well be a god. There might also be universe creating invisible pink pixies but until I see direct evidence of them, I'm not going to believe they exist or include them in my worldview. The same goes for god. And it is dangerous and harmful to assert there is a god without evidence and then assert you know what he/she/it wants you to do and not do!

You claim that the universe is clear evidence for god. I used to say the same thing for years and years but I've since come to the realization that it simply isn't. Once upon a time, people thought earthquakes or lightning were clear evidences of a supernatural deity because such events defied their understanding of the natural world. Since that time we've come to understand that these occur through normal, natural processes (e.g., plate tectonics) that are not "supernatural" in the least. But religious people seem to never learn their lesson and keep playing this game. For example, I notice that you frequently spout the "Nothing from nothing doesn't make sense so something must have created it" argument. This seems to be a good argument on the surface for myopic thinkers (though it is far too overly simplistic) but we are increasingly discovering that it might not be so far-fetched. For example, you do realize, don't you, that no true "physical" things exists, at least not in the way that we perceive them to be physical? Everything is 100% energy. Furthermore, science is increasingly coming to the conclusion that the sum total of all the energy in the universe is a sum total of ZERO. Google it if you don't know what I'm talking about. Now add to these ideas such things as (a) the fact that we KNOW that the complex things that we see today developed over time from extremely simple one (that is a basic natural process), (b) the same laws of cause and effect do not appear to apply on the quantum level, and (c) the laws of space and time may not have existed prior to the universe's current state and, therefore, the universe could be "infinite" without "infinite regress" problems. The *necessity* of there being a god to explain everything becomes less and less, well, necessary.

But even with all of this, the answer at this point is still largely "we don't know." But there *are* a multitude of possibilities for the existence of the universe as we currently know it which do NOT necessitate a god. And we have barely begun to scratch the surface on many of these scientific issues.

But so many religious people seem to have a real problem with saying "I don't know" and they use that as a justification for their absurd and unfounded beliefs. There is nothing wrong with saying "I don't know" so long as it leads us to further inquiry rather than jumping to supernatural conclusions. "I don't know" should not lead us to say "Therefore god." "I don't know" should lead us to "I don't know, so let's investigate more."

Let me touch briefly on the exorcism issue that you brought up. This is one of the many, many examples of how dangerous and harmful superstitious religious beliefs can be (and one of the reasons I'm now so outspoken against religion). There is zero evidence that demon possession takes place and, furthermore, there is zero evidence that demons exist in the first place. What were once mistaken for demon-possessions (due to ignorance of natural processes) were actually such things as mental illness and epilepsy. Go look up stories of people who are schizophrenic and some of the ways they behave looks an awful lot like "demon possession" doesn't it? What's more is that I have experience with this issue. My younger brother began exhibiting unusual behavior when he was about 17 years old which my numbskull parents mistook for "demon possession" (and much of his behavior *was* very reminiscent of what was traditionally described as possession by demons). So rather than taking him to a doctor, they took him to various pastors and put him through numerous mentally and physically tortuous exorcism rituals. When none of that nonsense worked, they eventually did the *right* thing and took him to doctors. My brother was diagnosed with a severe bi-polar disorder which (due to the fragile nature of the mental processes of the brain) was believed to have been significantly exacerbated by the inane "exorcisms" my superstitious parents put him through. My brother is now completely mentally FUCKED for life now with little if any hope of every living anything resembling a normal life. He still lives with my dad at the age of 41 and he continues to be tormented with religious issues. He has tried to commit suicide on numerous occasions. His brain is so screwed up now thanks to religion that they can't get him on a proper medication; all those that he has tried have either had a severely negative impact (making his behavior even more erratic) or turn him into a mental "zombie." What's interesting is that I have several friends who are also bi-polar but they have been able to cope with this mental illness because they did NOT resort to barbaric, superstitious exorcism rituals but instead got help from science. Their lives are not free from problems, but they are largely happy and balanced.

And don't give me your horseshit stories about "levitation" as evidence for exorcisms as I read in one of your earlier tweets. I, and others who are rational, need more than people's "stories" (imagined, made up, dreamt or otherwise) as evidence for such unfounded baloney. You need to seriously get into reality and stop screwing up gullible or impressionable people's minds and lives with such utter nonsense.

By the way, I've continued to watch the "To Hell and Back" video as I have time and I'm truly enjoying it. It's one of THE most ham-fisted attempts at providing "evidence" for Christianity. For example, I love how they discount the NDEs that some people have (non-Christians and atheists who *don't* see hell in their NDE) saying they are deceptive but they treat as "gospel truth" those NDEs that agree with their pre-conceived notions. And the two stories at the beginning are PRICELESS. Absolutely childish, silly and nonsensical from start to finish. I'm going to have my wife and daughter watch them as they'll get a kick out of them.

As I've said in previous messages, I realize that I'm not going to convince you. You have drunk the kool-aid far too deeply. I don't mean that so much in that you have become "brainwashed" (though there is always some element of that with delusional, superstitious belief and you seem to have quite a bit of that). I mean it more in that you have already committed your life and livelihood to religious practice (by becoming a priest and no doubt devoting numerous years of study and preparation prior to that). You are literally *invested* in this belief and pretty much HAVE to find a way to believe it in order to justify the decisions you have made in your life. That's going to make it difficult for you to escape superstitious, delusional thinking, but there's always hope. For myself, I'm just glad that I came to realize what a load of hog-balls Christianity was before I fully sunk myself into working as a missionary (which I was working through college to become). I also almost didn't marry my beautiful wife and best friend (who has been with me for the past 23 years) due to a strong "conviction" that god wanted me to do otherwise. What a mistake that would have been. I wonder what things *you* have given up unnecessarily for this unsupported, childish, and superstitious belief that you hold?

Sunday, 12 June 2011

A brief note on Prop 8

Tomorrow, apparently, California is again voting on a Prop 8 issue. The idea is that since one of the judges who ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional is a gay man, he has a bias on the issue and should have removed himself from the vote.

Well. If we're going to do that, maybe we should remove all the Christian judges from the vote as well. After all, their Biblical views (i.e., that homosexuality is an abomination) undoubtedly give them a bias on the issue as well.

I don't usually resort to personal comments on issues like this, but this one deserves it. These people, pushing an unconstitutional law on the basis of an absurd claim, are assholes. Fuck 'em. I hope they're roundly defeated tomorrow.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Why abortion isn't morally wrong

From the perspective of one who is very scientifically minded.

I am, of course, an atheist; this means that I do not believe in the existence of an immortal soul. This is, of course, very important in this debate, and it's the reason why I believe that the majority of the anti-abortion movement is based on religious reasons.

The religious argument against abortion is simple; they believe that at the moment of conception, the now-fused cells are invested with the soul, and become a human being in the eyes of their god. I'll give the argument this much; it's internally consistent with the rest of their superstitions.

I think I overuse semicolons.

For those of us who do reject the existence of the soul - and science must do so, for no evidence of it's existence has ever been presented - the question is less straightforward. When does a fetus become a person? What, for that matter, makes a person in the first place?

I wish to state for the record, unambiguously, that I agree with the right of a woman to choose, regardless of the circumstances. It's her body, and while the fetus remains inside her, completely dependent upon her body for it's life, I don't get to decide. I will be leaving these arguments by the wayside in the following, but I do believe in them.

That being said, we return to the question; what makes a person a person? The only serious difference between us and the rest of the animal kingdom is our minds; our intellect, consciousness, and sentience. If there is no soul, where do such things come from? In the eyes of science, it's all biochemistry. I'm nobody's idea of a biochemist, but it's widely accepted that the makeup of an individual personality, as well as memory itself, is stored in the synapses, the connections between brain cells. Each cell is connected to a number of other cells; the more connections, the more complexity, and the more powerful the brain. This, then, is what makes us people, what makes us individuals. The specific synaptic connections that we have are unique, which is why we, as individuals, are unique. In short, it's our complex brains that give us those distinguishing traits from the rest of the animals.

Fetal brains, of course, do not develop instantly. This is the crux of my argument here. Looking at BrainMind, it says under the heading "FETAL BRAIN-BEHAVIOR AND COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT":

Cognition has been inferred based on alterations in fetal heart rate (FHR) and habituation to airborne sound, response-declines to vibroacoustic stimuli, and what appears to be neonatal preferences for the maternal voice as well as melodies and stories presented up to six weeks prior to birth

Take note of that timeline; six weeks prior to birth. Halfway through the seventh month. That's really late, as only up to one percent of all abortions are performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy (citations [here] and [here]. In fact, going back to the first paragraph of the BrainMind article: the 25th week demonstrates stimulus-induced heart rate accelerations.

This is the very first indication of anything beyond simple autonomic responses, the first time that an outside stimulus can be shown to affect a fetus in any way at all... and it doesn't begin until 25 weeks.

But does some form of consciousness, however rudimentary, begin before this? We're back to brain structures and synapses, again. The cerebral cortex is widely considered to be the site of the higher-brain functions. The fetal brain begins differentiating in the second month, but the cerebral cortex does not come into it's own until it separates into it's two lobes - during the sixth month.

So, in short, we have development of the higher brain coming into it's own at six months, and true proof of cognition coming at seven and a half months, both well after the 20 weeks that the majority of abortions are performed. The majority of those performed after this date are, sadly, performed on wanted babies and done for medically necessary reasons.

I realize that that was long, and full of jargon, but it needs to be said. A fetus does not have a brain that's well developed enough to argue that you're killing a person, a human being. It's a clump of cells. It has the potential to become a human being, certainly, this is irrelevant. Destroying a clump of cells, no matter the potential, cannot be called murder. It can't be murdered if it's not a person yet.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Growing up as a species

When we're very young, we believe anything we're told to. We're wired to do so; we need to learn the skills and habits that have proven useful in survival, so we start out very impressionable. Most of us no longer live in an environment where selective pressure is so strong, but the patterns remain. And so, for our first years, we learn very quickly, easily, and accept just about anything.

But as we grow older, we leave this tendency behind. We start questioning the things we're told, determining for ourselves what's true and what isn't; the lack of this skill at questioning - skepticism, if you will - is called gullibility. It's a necessary part of our growth that we stop believing whatever we're told, lest we spend all our days buying bridges.

At the same time, our increasing maturity enables us to accept harder and harder truths without becoming overloaded. We've all heard stories of families who tell a child, after a beloved pet has died, that he ran away. He's safe, he's fine, he's just not here anymore. It's a story told with the realization that one day the truth will come out, but when it does, the child will be older and better able to deal with reality.

These two things go hand in hand. We tell children comforting lies, to avoid stressing them too much before they're ready for it, and with the full expectation that when they grow up, they will see these lies for what they are, and move past them.

I believe that much the same can be said of humanity as a whole. If we look at ourselves, across our ~2 million year history, I think many parallels can be found. The scenario I've outlined above is of particular poignancy for me, as a very active atheist, when it's put parallel to religion.

In our beginnings, when we were first coming to sentience, the world was a scary place. We developed the ability to think about things, mull them over, long before we developed any tools to find out what they actually were. Thunder was terrifying. Fire could kill. People got sick and died, for no apparent reason. Herds would move, or change their patterns, or plants wouldn't grow, or the nets wouldn't be full, and a lean winter would be had by all. But why? What could cause these things? We had, at the time, no way of knowing. And so, like children, we made things up.

We needed to make sense of our lives, and of the world around us, because to do otherwise was to be overwhelmed with fear and grief. We needed comfort. And this, I believe, is how the concept of religion came to be. The people needed answers, and so particularly creative individuals from whatever culture stepped forward, and told stories. They explained why the sky was crashing. There was a huge, all-powerful thing up there, and he was mad; but that's okay! We can make him happy, and when he's happy, he'll be nice to us. The stories from there, obviously, grew and merged and morphed, until we have the various pantheons of history.

As an aside, I'm convinced this is why the majority of religions throughout history have been polytheistic. Since there were so many things to try to explain, it only makes sense that each category will be headed by a god of it's own.

But then we started to grow up. We started looking around us and noticing inconsistencies. We developed tools, we took measurements, we weighed and built and scoured our world for data. And like children beginning on the path to skepticism (questioning, for example, how Santa could possible visit all the houses in the world in a single night), we began to wonder.

We, as a species, have reached this point. More and more of us are beginning to look, to see, to learn, to ask questions, to stop accepting things dogmatically. It's a hard enough process for a child to let go of treasured beliefs in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny; how much harder is it for an entire people to let go of cherished beliefs in gods?

This is particularly true in terms of the comfort aspect of it all. Letting go of the belief that after we die we'll go to a safe, wonderful place forever. That our departed loved ones are there already, happy, waiting for us, eager to greet us with open arms. That there is an eternal, all-powerful being who loves us and wants nothing more than to free us from suffering. It's like a security blanket for the psyche. It's hard to let something like that go.

We're ready to step into adulthood, I think. We have the knowledge, now, that the universe isn't such a scary place. We have the maturity, as a species, to be able to look at what's actually out there, to see the truths, and to not be overwhelmed by them. And with the ability to do these things comes the responsibility to do them. As Greta Christina has said, I care that my beliefs be true.

The time is coming. Atheism, skepticism, and evidence-based beliefs are on a rapid rise, on a level and with a speed unprecedented on this planet. We're growing up. I hope to see it happen in my lifetime that religious belief is discarded by humanity as a whole just as most individuals discard the comforting lies of their childhood. I think it's got a good chance of happening, and I'm working to hasten it.

I believe that leaving behind superstition and woo, and embracing reason and evidence and logic, and putting a much greater portion of our resources towards science and discovery and education will lead us, humanity, into a new renaissance. If we can just get through these difficult years, decades, and make it to maturity, I think we can become something great.

Even though I won't see it all happen, because I will have long ceased to exist, I take a great sense of pride and accomplishment that I will have, in some tiny way, contributed to our advance as a species, and to the making of a better way of life for my own descendants and those of everyone around me.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Tales from a former creationist

First-ever guest post. You might be tempted to think people are -reading- this thing. Many thanks to @CommonDescent.

I talk with some pretty interesting people on twitter. One of these is the author of this post, who holds a degree in biology and evolutionary theory and is now a science teacher. I follow a number of science-educated types, and love seeing the perspective of those who are more learned on the topic than I am.

So imagine my surprise when I saw Common Descent say that he had, in the fairly recent past, been a staunch creationist. The topic was too good to pass up; as I've said before, I have a lot of trouble understanding the mindset, so the chance to quiz someone who can speak my language seemed like gold. We had a brief conversation, and he agreed to write up his experiences in discarding creationism for science. Without further ado, then:

The evolution / creationism debate has been of great interest to me for several years now. I feel that I have a unique perspective on it because I’ve been on both sides. As pro-evolution as I am now, there was a time when I was just as adamantly against it. The magnitude of a change like this is interesting to some people, and that’s why I’m writing this blog post. I met the author of this blog on Twitter, where I routinely tweet about creationism and occasionally debate the topic. I mentioned how I used to be a creationist on there and was asked to write about it in more detail. So here’s my story.

I’ll start out by describing what I used to be. I first learned of evolution my junior year of high school, in AP biology. Up until then I hadn’t thought much about it, but I held the view that it wasn’t true. My family never discussed the issue, but we went to a fundamentalist church that held a literal view of the bible. The church itself never mentioned the issue from the pulpit but sometimes it would come up in bible class. I had one teacher in particular who told us about the Flood, creation, and how it all could have happened. We were always told that it was literally true. So that was my foundation heading into biology class.

I remember being fascinated with natural selection when I first learned about it, because it was so simple. It made so much sense and also explained a lot of things. This got me more interested in evolution, even though I thought it was wrong. Natural selection intrigued me to do more research on evolution. Somehow I ended up on the website of Answers in Genesis, the headquarters for young-earth creationism. I was amazed that they had an answer for every topic imaginable. I began reading through their archives until I felt that I had a good grasp on things. AiG shaped my views on evolution, astronomy, geology, and many other scientific topics. They made things seem easily explainable, and I was comfortable with their teachings. My senior year of high school, I did an informative speech on creation/evolution. I presented both sides fairly, but I definitely had a personal opinion.

This takes me up to college. I remember repeating some of the common creationist talking points. I discussed with a friend how microevolution is obvious, but species don’t change to other species. I believed that God created genetic diversity that accumulated mutations over time (creationists refer to “kinds” here). I told people that creationists and evolutionists all used the same data, but just interpreted it differently. I felt superior when textbooks referred to any uncertainty as to how life began. I was certain, even if they weren’t.

But college was when I began to change. I started to test ideas that I had been taught at home. If they were still good, I’d keep them. If they weren’t, I’d make my own opinions. This started with politics but eventually spread to religion, and thus, creationism. Shortly before college, I read Richard Dawkins’ “The Blind Watchmaker”, mainly because it was about natural selection and that topic had interested me so much. The book didn’t change my mind, but there were parts of it that made a lot of sense to me. One example is when he explains that a partial structure is better than anything less than it. Half a wing is better than 40% of a wing. Creationists often ask “what good is half an eye?” or something to that effect. That became a non-issue for me.

To get to the point, the way that I left creationism was through opening my mind and doing a lot of reading. My willingness to accept that I might be wrong led to me realizing that I actually was wrong. In addition to Dawkins, here are three more books that really helped me to understand that evolution is true: “Finding Darwin’s God” by Ken Miller, “Evolution: the Triumph of an Idea” by Carl Zimmer, and my evolution textbook written by Doug Futuyma. The textbook’s excellent description of transitional forms and their fossil evidence was the one moment when it finally clicked for me: all of this is true. It makes too much sense not to be. There are also some good websites for learning evolution, but Wikipedia alone is enough to make the case.

I want to finish with a few points. First, how did this affect my view of the bible? As I started to suspect that evolution was true, I began to try to twist the story of Genesis to include the science. I said that maybe Noah’s Flood was localized. I believed that Adam and Eve were the first humans that God gave a soul, and that the Genesis story picked up from there. But over time, I realized that it was too hard to make everything fit. If one side (science) is literally, objectively true and the other side (the Bible) can be interpreted many different ways, then it’s clear which side needs to change. When the Bible doesn’t match science, that’s the Bible’s problem. People who want to continue to follow the Bible have to decide for themselves how to reconcile that.

Lastly, a word to both sides. To those who accept evolution: Don’t give up on creationists. I spent a long time (too long, maybe) describing what I used to believe to show that it is indeed possible for someone that far in can still change. A majority of creationists will never change. But a few will. So don’t just assume they’re a lost cause. To creationists: don’t be afraid of the evidence. Truly look into it and read about it. If you want to be a creationist that’s your choice. Just don’t make it an uninformed decision. I’m doing fine after accepting evolution. I haven’t lost my morals or started acting like an animal or anything like that. I simply understand how the world works a little better. Keep an open mind and you may be surprised at what enters it: the truth. When you learn the reality of evolution you can then give up all the mental backflips required for creationism. It really does feel good to accept things as they really are.

Current status of the story: I have degrees in evolutionary biology and teaching, and am currently looking for a high school biology job. You won’t have to worry about creationism sneaking into my classroom.

Twitter: @CommonDescent

EDIT: Since I posted this, CD has created his own blog, which I'm sure will wind up full of interesting stuff. It can be found here. Enjoy!

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Karen Armstrong

I've just cracked the cover on Karen Armstrong's 'A History of God', and already I know I'll have trouble putting it down. I was inspired to read it by this video by someone calling himself Evid3nc3, who was in turn inspired to make it by reading the book.

The video quite literally captured my attention. An archaeological review of monotheism? No dogma, not based on the Bible, or the Torah, or the Qu'ran, but based on verifiable evidence culled from the historical record?

Oh, yes please.

The video gives a fantastic overview of the likely paths that were taken from the polytheistic Babylonian faiths into Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with no Abraham, Moses or Jesus required. It's fascinating. I have no doubt the book will delve much deeper into the topic. I've seen people say things like 'If there was no Jesus, no Resurrection, etc, then how did Christianity come to exist?'.

This book, I'm hoping, will answer that question in great detail.

As I read it I'm going to keep track of the thoughts it inspires; I've had one already. And, quite naturally, I'm going to blog about them, and when I'm done I'll write up an overall review. Can I get a Huzzah for learning?

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Ah, Michelle Bachmann

She's showing off her extensive scientific education again.

Check out the article, it's a laugh riot. There's video, or just a transcript of her little speech if you don't want to wait for it to load. The whole thing is apt to make you either laugh or cry, depending on how you're feeling tonight, but there was one bit in particular that really got me going.

Well, carbon dioxide is a natural part of Earth’s atmosphere. The carbon dioxide is perhaps three percent of the total atmosphere that’s in the Earth. So if you take a pie chart, and you have all of Earth’s atmosphere, carbon dioxide is perhaps three percent of that total.

Is it the idea that natural is equal to good, all the time? No; that's a dumb idea, but it's not what I'm talking about. Is it her saying that CO2 makes up three percent of our atmosphere, when in reality it's about four one-hundredths of a percent? Nope.

It's her saying that if you take something that's three percent of something else, and put it in a pie chart, that pie chart will then show that that thing is three percent of the total!



Wow, she keeps going. I hadn't even finished reading her speech, but that made me laugh so hard I had to post it immediately. But then she comes out with this gem:

Human activity contributes perhaps three percent of the three percent. In other words, human activity is maybe 3 percent contributing to the 3 percent of carbon dioxide that’s in Earth’s atmosphere.

I hate to break it to you, but that's not 'in other words'. It's in the same words, almost exactly.

We don't understand everything. THEREFORE GOD

This is an argument that always kills me. If one subscribes to even the most basic ideas of logic, it's utterly senseless. And yet, it's rolled out constantly, held up to the sky in triumph, and declared to the Heavens that God must be real because we don't know for absolute certain what happened before the first millionth of a second after the Big Bang.

So what? I like to use germ theory at this point. There was a time, not very long ago at all, when we had no idea where sickness came from. There were a lot of people who thought that plagues and epidemics were the work of God, wreaking havoc on a sinful people. Had there been atheists at the time who were as vocal as we are now, they likely would have been saying things like "No, it's not God; there is no God. It must be something else". And they would have been right. Just because we did not, at that time, know why people got sick is in no way proof of God.

The same holds true today. We don't really know how the universe came into being, though we have some pretty good ideas. We don't know 100% how the first life came into being, but we've got some really good theories for that one; I would add the caveat that it's possible that it's just that I don't know how abiogenesis works, and that there are people who do. This would not surprise me.

Complete aside: It upsets me a tiny bit that my spellchecker doesn't know the word abiogenesis.

It's ridiculous to think that the gaps that remain in our scientific knowledge somehow prove God. I wonder sometimes, if tomorrow a scientist was somehow able to prove, absolutely, 100% beyond a doubt, that abiogenesis occurs... would these people then be willing to abandon their religious beliefs? I doubt it. They'd either move the goalposts - sure, you proved that, but what about the Big Bang, huh?! - or choose to ignore the evidence altogether.

That's really the worst part of it, for me. That second point there is already happening. I'm thinking, here, of evolution. It's been proven. Shown. Time and time again, with evidence coming in from well over a dozen different scientific fields... and it all gets ignored. Evolution deniers will ask me questions, thinking them impossible to answer. "Show me the transition between a hippo and an elephant, then!", they scream, tiny beads of froth forming at the sides of their mouths. And when I calmly reply that I can, in fact, explain that to them if they're willing to allow themselves to be educated, I'm routinely ignored, or informed that no, they don't need any explanation. They know what evolution is, and they think it's just stupid. All this while yelling things about evolution that have no basis in the theory itself.

I went off on a bit of a rant, there. The subject does get me really riled up. I have no problem with one keeping one's faith, but don't preach that science has it all wrong. That's lunacy of the highest degree.

Rant aside, the point remains the same. Your ignorance, my ignorance, or the ignorance of the entire human race, does not prove a god. Nor does it imply that we'll never be able to end that ignorance. That's what we scientists are trying to do; increase our knowledge. That's the point. Those that are trying to hold us back from that, who want to retard our progress as a species, are my enemies. And I will fight them. Red, in tooth and claw.

Sunday, 22 May 2011


I've taken the liberty of translating her last post from 'fundie' into 'English':

"Well, I have no answer for that. I could take a moment, consider your point, and maybe learn something, and grow as a person... Or I could continue assuming the Bible is the only path to not getting cremated alive for eternity.

Praise Jesus!!"

I'm happy to politely debate anyone on the topic. I just require that they actually debate.

Damon Fowler

Damon's battle against his schoolboard is being well-covered throughout the atheist world, so though I've been reading a lot about it, I haven't done anything on it other than to offer my support via a comment on the Support Damon Facebook page. If you want to know the whole story, Hemant Mehta has some pretty comprehensive coverage here.

Having just taken a peek at that page, which is being maintained primarily by his very supportive brother - the only member of his family who hasn't kicked him to the curb - it appears Damon himself has made a statement. It's a short paragraph, but the first couple of lines are what really caught my attention.
"Thanks everyone for the support... to everyone else, if you don't agree with what I did, I'm sure crying about it will render it constitutional."

That pretty much sums it up for me. Despite my views as an atheist, despite my opinion that a world lacking in religion would be a much better place, it all really comes down to the separation of church and state. That's why Damon started this whole thing, and that's why we're all yelling about it. Public institutions, run on public money, are required by law to be secular. Full stop.

My own opinion: If your religion isn't strong enough to survive when it isn't being pushed at people in every facet of their lives, then it doesn't deserve to survive.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Ah, the big day!

For reasons I can't even fully define, I've been looking forward to today. I don't think I've ever been so eager for nothing to happen.

It's not like today is going to be a particularly important one. It's not going to make the history books. Most people will go about their business today and not even think about the Rapture; of those that do, most people will do little more than chuckle to themselves, shake their heads at what some people believe, and go on with their lives. Even most Christians think that ol' Harold is a nutcase, so it's not like today is going to have a good chance of mass deconversion.

But what -is- going to happen? That's what keeps me so interested. My curiosity has ever been my bane, and I'm going to be watching the news like a hawk today and for the next few days to see what happens. Will Harold release a statement? Will he backpedal? Will he set a new date? What about his followers? There's that couple with a small child and another on the way who quit their jobs and calculated their finances to dry up today, just in time to be raptured. What's going to happen to them? I feel bad for those kids, and I hope they won't be too proud to accept the charity that will likely start floating their way, if only for the children's sake. Will they, at least, reconsider their beliefs? How about the elderly gentleman in New York who liquidated his life savings to buy rapture billboards?

It's going to get interesting. I can't wait to see what happens after nothing happens.

Friday, 20 May 2011

A Thought Occurs.

When the anti-evolution crowd make their 'arguments' for intelligent design, a common one is that you wouldn't expect a computer to assemble itself if the parts were jumbling around in the back of a truck, or an airplane to be assembled by a tornado hitting a junkyard, or a watch to piece itself together.

Beyond the obvious failing with this line of thought - that the mechanical is far, far different from the organic - there's another basic fallacy that has just occurred to me. It's possible I'm the last person on Earth to realize it, but it makes a certain amount of sense.

It's a disconnect in modes of thinking at a very basic level: These people see humanity as the perfect form. The ultimate, if you will, because they believe we were made in the image of their God. Understanding this, the analogy becomes a bit more understandable. A computer, or a watch, or a plane, has a specific form that we're creating when we put the bits together. Similarly, ID proponents believe that humankind has a specific form, one that is the goal of all those bits being put together.

A thought for those ID'ers reading this: Please understand that we do not believe that human beings are the pinnacle of the evolutionary process. It's a process that is ongoing, and had our evolution taken us down a slightly different path - if, for example, we'd wound up with six fingers as the norm instead of five - that this wouldn't have much affected how we view the world. Even if we were drastically different from what we are now, we would have gotten to that state via the mutations selected for by chance and our environments; we'd still consider ourselves human.

In that, your analogy falls apart. There is no end-state that can be achieved; there is no watch we're trying to assemble. We are what we are. If we were something else, we'd be that.

EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that intelligent design and an anti-evolution stance do not necessarily go hand in hand. True enough. I suppose this post, then, is primarily aimed at those who are both.

Another point of curiosity for me; are there any secularists who would argue against evolution? Why? What are the arguments? Makes me curious.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

What if God did exist?

I never used to like Twitter, but the people I follow on there sometimes come up with some neat stuff that makes me think, in many different ways. In this particular case, I was goofing around with the #IfGodWasReal hashtag, and headlessBortok expressed some incredulity at my line of reasoning. As an aside, I'm fine with that; Bortok's a reasonable, inoffensive guy. But the brief conversation we had made my mind swing onto a path it had been skirting in the few hours since I tweeted that tweet. The question, quite obviously, is largely meaningless to theists, but I pose it to other atheists:

What if God actually did exist? How would the world be different? The potential for answers to this question, at least as far as my speculation goes, is enormous. You can range from enormous implications (We'd all be of one religion, because there'd be actual evidence) to tiny ones (Churches would have better attendance). Or anywhere in between. Or bigger. Or smaller.

The potential here is quite literally unlimited, at least to me. Once you allow an omnipotent being into the picture, violating natural law as he pleases, what isn't possible? He could intervene at any point in time, and do or change anything. The would might be exactly as it is now - which is what theists will, quite naturally, argue - or it could be absolutely anything else.

It's a neat thought exercise. Does anyone have any ideas? How would the world be different if God existed? Let's also assume that he's far more willing to reveal himself than current theists believe him to be. He intervenes; how often? To what degree? What does he change? How does it change our lives?

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Why are we here?

I don't think I mean that in the way you might think I do.

I really like that last sentence, just for the sheer 'huh?' factor.

Anyway, this is a question that occurred to me last night, and it's directed primarily at those that believe in both a Creator and some sort of afterlife, with a specific focus on a paradisaical afterlife. The question, more specifically, is:

Why has your Creator deity put us, human beings, on Earth, rather than simply having us be born in [Heaven]? Why have a life, followed by an afterlife, instead of just having the after- and skipping the before-?

Removing all the religious aspects, the answer from an atheistic perspective is very simple; we live on Earth because Earth formed in an appropriate area around an appropriate star out of appropriate ratios of elements that then came together to form self-replicating molecular structures which then, over time, became more and more complex, eventually resulting in us. We're not in Heaven because there is no Heaven; this is all we get. It doesn't sound all that simple, but in essence all it means is that we're here because 'here' is capable of supporting us.

This question, for me, is kind of half-and-half. On the one hand, I see it as the kind of question that many atheists throw at the religious, trying to convince them of the errors in their logic (this isn't typically a tactic of mine, but I see it used all the time). On the other hand, part of me is genuinely curious. Why muck about being mortal when we could just come into being in spirit forms in Heaven? What's the reasoning there, for whatever religion you happen to subscribe to?

Sunday, 8 May 2011


I want to do something, but I'm too exhausted to write anything coherent, so here's another picture.

Credit to JT

Friday, 6 May 2011

Grady Warren

Oh boy, where to begin.

For those of you who haven't heard of him, Grady Warren runs It's a site that, unsurprisingly, is about the Conservative philosophy, and killing things. As far as the hunting and fishing goes, I have no inherent problem with that, though I do think he's a little too obsessed with his firearms.

As far as his view of how life ought to be lived, however, I see a lot that I can disagree with. He's got a number of videos on YouTube that are worth watching, as long as you can handle incredibly blatant homophobia, racism, -extremely- militant anti-Muslim sentiments, and threats against your physical person if you should dare interfere with him or his followers in any way.

When perusing these videos, something to keep in mind is that I encountered only one of the three videos listed here on sites that called him out for the bigot he is. Two out of these three videos were linked to by people who agree with him, and are lauding him for saying what everyone's thinking. This guy needs to be stopped.

The first inkling I got of his existence was in a video titled A Time for TEAHAD. He begins by calling out the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as several notable black figures, as 'criminals', and refers to them as 'nigra race pimps', as though saying 'nigra' instead of 'nigger' somehow makes him less of a racist. He seems to believe that, he really does, as in the exact same breath he goes on to say "On behalf of the Tea Party, we are sick and tired of being called racist."

All of this is within the first thirty seconds of the video.

He claims that his mission, the sole mission of the Tea Party, is to educate conservative voters on the best Conservative candidates to vote for. That's it.

Really, I could go on and on, but I'd just wind up just quoting his incredibly racist diatribes. Suffice to say that he blames all his country's woes on 'the blacks' and 'the illegals', the You can view the video if you want to see them in whole. I recommend doing just that, if you can stomach it; awareness of this guy needs to be raised, so that he can be -stopped-.

One of my favourite parts is when he describes how Sarah Palin is the fantasy wife to millions of men. I'll admit, I personally find her pretty attractive, if we're going by physical appearance alone, but the second she opens her mouth and begins displaying the utter lack of substance between her ears, my lust drops to zero. That's quite a feat for me; I've got rather a lot of lust to go around.

In the end of the video, amazingly, he admits to being racist.

At this point in the writing of the post, my four-year-old niece has arrived, and so in the interest of not poisoning her developing mind, I'm putting a hiatus on watching these videos until she leaves.

The second video is titled Grady Warren on Illegal Immigration. Oddly, in this one, he seems to hold the 'blacks' as his allies against the invasion of 'chicatos'. I don't know if I've spelled that correctly, as it's the only time I've ever heard it, but he's quite obviously referring to Mexicans. I don't think he really knows how to differentiate between a Mexican-American, living legally in his country, and illegal aliens. Though I have little in the way of a stance on illegal aliens in the States, I find his proposal that they need to be 'encouraged to leave certain areas' and 'rounded up' abhorrent, particularly when he actually compares this policy to that of the Nazis against the Jews. The only word for this is evil.

Oddly, in the middle of this ostensibly anti-Mexican rant, he goes on a sidebar against homosexual House Representative Barney Frank, stating that his behaviour has 'cause his lips to turn inward, caused a speech impediment, throat damage, and some would say even brain damage'. This is, obviously, due to the differences between men and women in terms of lips, throats, and damage to the mind from giving blowjobs. Because I doubt he has any difficulty with the concept of women providing oral pleasure to men. It's an utterly ridiculous claim, and has nothing whatsoever to do with his hatred for those who speak Spanish.

The next part is perhaps my favourite from this particular video. He's made a series of t-shirt, all heavy on the American flag, elephants, and heavy-grade firearms. One of them, in keeping with his distrust of other languages, has nothing but a flag across the front, with the slogan 'We No Speekee Spanish' across the bottom.

Ahem. But I digress.

Several other shirts proclaim the wearer's love of guns, and allude to the fact that s/he may be armed at that particular moment. From that, we get this gem:

"If you see people wearing shirts that say 'Peaceful but Prepared' [showing an elephant wearing a military vest, covered in guns], or, 'We No Speekee Spanish, do not put your fingers in their face, do not put your fingers in their chest, do not provoke them, and please, do not touch them. They are all legally carrying weapons."

Implying, of course, that doing any of the above activities will get you shot. He's obscene.

The final video in the series is kind of the spur that led me to write this piece; it's titled GRADYforPresident, which is a truly frightening thought. Though I doubt it would ever come to it - he's a little too insane for even the GOP to officially support - the fact that people out there listen to and like him for his insane viewpoint causes me some concern.

Besides his bizarre accusations against Obama, this video is primarily focused on a searing hatred for Muslims.

A horrifying list of his promises when he becomes President:
  • Dissolve the IRS
  • Eliminate ALL corporate taxes
  • Reduce all small business taxes
  • Hire thousands of subcontractors [with what money?] to search out fraud in Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Housing, Welfare, and Food Stamps
  • Black Americans will be taught how to become Americans
  • Eliminate the National Education Association
  • Open Re-Education centres for 14-25 year old blacks [who have dropped out of school and are a drain on local crime departments and welfare resources] to learn how to become American men and women. The other races shall follow.
  • A cash program for black and legal Hispanic families to move to sanctuary cities [?!]
  • Complete the Southern border wall in six months, [construction] to be protected by the national guard with orders to shoot on sight for attempted border crossings
  • Set up tent cities to hold criminals and illegal aliens awaiting deportation
  • End the war on drugs; begin the war on Muslims in America
  • Call for the searching of all Mosques for WMDs and caches of small arms
  • Immediate deportation of all Muslims in America
  • Stop military actions and all aid to Muslim countries
  • Reserve the right to use nuclear arms as needed [Holy crap.]
  • Reinstate DADT
  • Fight for 'traditional' marriage
  • Divorce the UN and NATO
  • End all foreign aid 'until America can first feed it's own citizens'
  • Close the EPA and promote fossil fuels and nuclear power
  • Work with all faiths, other than Muslims, to restore God's presence in America
  • Fight the ACLU and 'other Atheist bastions of fear and Christian hate' at every turn

Quite the list. And that's just the worst of it, there's more.

He's a bigot of the highest degree. It seems like there's no possible way to classify people where he can't hate at least one of the groups. He appears, at least based on his missives to the public, to be composed entirely of hate. Note that none of his proposals are in any way constructive; he says nothing about education, the economy, health care, or any other topic that needs attention. Every. Single. Point. is about something he hates and wants to marginalize. I can't imagine living in the kind of chemical stew that his body must produce with that kind of attitude. I can't imagine living a life where I have to decide, every time I wake up, what I'm going to hate that day. That way lies madness.

I feel rather unpleasant for having watched those videos the number of times I had to in order to transcribe what I did. So I'm going to go give my girlfriend a hug and tell her I love her, and then spend the night not hating things.