At first glance, I thought this story was good news: Oklahoma is going to build a Christian prison! About time, I thought, I can think of a few Christians who deserve a few years for faith-abuse. But no…it's a prison to be administered by Christians to give Christian criminals special privileges. Not quite as appropriate, but more in line with what we've gotten used to from our dominant faith tradition.
We're getting more of the same from Congress, too. Religion is being given permission to intrude on science once again, with the sanctimonious Orrin Hatch (abetted by a pair of Democrats, Kerry and Kennedy) sponsoring a provision in the mangled health care football to allow prayer to count as medicine. It's specifically a sop to Christian Science, that nonsensical superstition that believes that medicine is a betrayal of faith and that wants to charge sick people money to pray over them…and also get reimbursement from the government. Let the Christian Scientists get a foot in the door and official recognition of mumbling to Jesus as a billable service, and you know the Scientologists and Jehovah's Witnesses and Amish and Mormons and, of course, the Catholics will be surging through to take advantage of the opportunities.
I may just have to convert to Catholicism under this bill so I can charge the US and my insurance provider to cover my near-sightedness treatments at Lourdes. And the French Riviera.
You laugh. But look at the absurdity of existing loopholes.
Karen Armstrong has once again published a pile of meaningless twaddle in defense of religion. In this mess, she takes a series of statements about god that she says need rethinking…but as always, her "rethinking" is merely a reworking of apologetics for maintaining the status quo. It's almost as if she thinks it is a new and brilliant idea to just keep going to church and accepting Jesus into your heart. It's not.
Here's her little list of truisms that she aims to puncture.
"God Is Dead."
Armstrong says this isn't true, and points to fundamentalist upheavals as evidence that "God has proven to be alive and well". I think it means she doesn't understand Nietzsche.
Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute has published an opinion piece in the Boston Globe in which he makes a rather anachronistic argument for ID: Thomas Jefferson was a supporter. I knew the creationists were sloppy scholars and had a poor grasp of history and science, but this is getting ridiculous.
Here, I have to help them out.
|Writes the Declaration of Independence|
Ends his term as President of the US
Writes the quote Stephen Meyer will find so appealing:
The old fossil is Pat Buchanan, who has published a freakishly antiquated diatribe against Darwin. It's extremely old school — he uses arguments straight out of 1960s era "scientific creationism", trying to tar Darwin with guilt by association with Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler. He is apparently inspired by a "splendid little book," The End of Darwinism: And How a Flawed and Disastrous Theory Was Stolen and Sold, by a creationist crank named Eugene G. Windchy. You can get an idea of Windchy's level of scholarship by this quote:
That Darwinism has proven "disastrous theory" is indisputable.
"Karl Marx loved Darwinism," writes Windchy. "To him, survival of the fittest as the source of progress justified violence in bringing about social and political change, in other words, the revolution."
"Darwin suits my purpose," Marx wrote.
John Lynch has rebutted this claim; I rather doubt that Marx could love someone as bourgeois as Darwin, a prosperous landowner and investor, a fellow who thought his greatest success in life was his talent as a businessman, and I can be fairly confident that any affection would not have been returned. And please, don't even mention the false claim that Marx wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin.
It's not enough to link Darwin to Marx; Windchy also has to turn Hitler into a committed Darwinist. You'd think he'd stop to marvel at the idea that Darwin could have inspired two such antagonistic philosophies, but Windchy and Buchanan aren't quite that thoughtful.
Darwin suited Adolf Hitler's purposes, too.
"Although born to a Catholic family Hitler become a hard-eyed Darwinist who saw life as a constant struggle between the strong and the weak. His Darwinism was so extreme that he thought it would have been better for the world if the Muslims had won the eighth century battle of Tours, which stopped the Arabs' advance into France. Had the Christians lost, (Hitler) reasoned, Germanic people would have acquired a more warlike creed and, because of their natural superiority, would have become the leaders of an Islamic empire."
Charles Darwin also suited the purpose of the eugenicists and Herbert Spencer, who preached a survival-of-the-fittest social Darwinism to robber baron industrialists exploiting 19th-century immigrants.
For being a "hard-eyed Darwinist", Hitler certainly seems to have failed to make much use of the theory. Read Mein Kampf and you will find nothing about Darwin or evolution, but you will find much about God. And don't his strange notions about an Aryan Islamic empire simply mark Hitler as a crazy crackpot, and say nothing at all about Darwin?
They do make some outrageous accusations against Darwin: he was a thief and a liar who stole his whole theory from Wallace.
Darwin, he demonstrates, stole his theory from Alfred Wallace, who had sent him a "completed formal paper on evolution by natural selection."
"All my originality ... will be smashed," wailed Darwin when he got Wallace's manuscript.
Unfortunately for their thesis, Darwin's writings are preserved to an amazing degree — the history of his idea can be traced almost to the day. We know that he was putting together an outline of his theory within a few years of returning from the voyage of the Beagle; we have an early draft of his thesis written in 1842, well before the contact with Wallace; we have his correspondence where he bounced these ideas off his colleagues. He didn't steal his theory at all, but had it well formulated before Wallace wrote his fateful letter, triggering him to finally publish.
I'm warning you. It's a disaster waiting to build: when the newspapers start reporting creationist versions of stories without questioning them, without providing explanations of the fallacies, and without even bringing in authoritative scientific voices to knock their claims down, all you do is feed the confidence of the creationists. It's even worse than "he said she said" journalism. That's exactly what the BBC has done, though, with a piss poor story about attendees at Ken Ham's preposterous creationist "museum".
I'm going to be charitable and assume the author intended to hang the creationists with their own words; the quotes from the people going to the "museum" do make them sound like ignorant hicks. In particular, one pull quote — Why is Darwin buried with kings at Westminster Abbey? He's not a king. — is a great big flashing idiot light, and will be especially noticeable in the UK (hint: they don't just bury kings in Westminster…unless, of course, Isaac Newton and Herschel and Lyell and many other scientists were crowned when I wasn't looking).
But still, look at the article as a creationist would. It's going to go in a scrapbook or on a wall of reviews at the "museum", and the gomers will stroll through, read it, and nod approvingly. Those quotes affirm their own beliefs; all they'll see is that the BBC approvingly quoted sentiments they share. And there will be readers in England, even, who will be oblivious to the very understated sarcasm, and will be cheered further in their support of creationism. And other reporters will see that as a perfectly reasonable way to write a news story, and the plague of bland reporting will spread.
Oh, how I despise PETA. Now they're putting up new billboards in Kansas —can you guess why?
Lindsay Rajt, campaign manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the billboards were prompted by the recent shooting death of abortion doctor George Tiller, who was killed Sunday at his church.
"The discussion of the value of life is front and center right now in the public conversation," Rajt said today. "We think we would be irresponsible if we don't talk about how we're all guilty of extreme cruelty to animals every time we sit down to a meal that includes meat."
They have two billboards: one that says "Pro-life? Go vegetarian" and the other says "Pro-choice? Choose vegetarian". PETA reminds me of the undertaker in Yojimbo: a town is tearing itself apart, and the only one prospering is the ghoul who's happily selling coffins to both factions. I can only hope their ham-handed campaign repulses both sides.
Grim tales are emerging from an investigation of the Irish Catholic Church. For years, they've been running reform schools which sound more like hellish work camps, where sadistic priests were given free rein. I found it ironic that some of these workhouses were used to make religious paraphernalia, like rosaries, that were sold to the faithful. I wonder how many hail marys have been said on beads assembled by child-slaves who were raped or beaten as a reward? It does add a rather sinister gloss to Catholic prayers.
A quick summary of the findings:
a history of official cover-ups of pedophiles within the church since the 1930s.
a pattern of beatings, abuse, and molestation in church-run workhouses.
molestation and rape were "endemic" at the boys' workhouses.
ritualized beatings and personal abuse and denigration.
Santino is my hero. He was kept imprisoned in a cage, and his response was to throw rocks at his obnoxious captors. He'd scavenge the prison yard at night for whatever loose stones he could find, and he'd cache them for the morning. When there weren't enough rocks, he'd pound the concrete retaining wall to knock loose chips of stone. Then when the jailers would show up, zip, zip, zip, a rain of stones on them. You have to respect that kind of defiance and planning.
Santino is a tough guy. Santino is also a chimpanzee.
Doesn't that make you wonder a bit? Chimpanzees fight back at being caged, and they do so with forethought and resourcefulness. I imagine our ancestors felt the same way at every obstacle to their life, from marauding leopards to bad weather, and they stoked a bit of rage to fight back (which was probably ineffective in dealing with a thunderstorm, requiring slightly cleverer strategies). It's a start; it's a way of using your brain to resist, and I think it's a very human approach to a problem.
It's an ugly little open secret that Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas have constitutions that explicitly forbid atheists from holding state office.
These laws are archaic and unenforceable in principle -- they were all ruled unconstitutional in 1961 -- but of course they're still in effect across all 50 states in practice, since public opinion makes it almost impossible for an atheist to get elected to high office.
Now, though, a representative in Arkansas has submitted a bill to amend the Arkansas constitution and remove the prohibition of atheists. This could get very interesting, or it might not. If the Arkansas legislature does the sensible thing and simply and efficiently removes an old law that can't be enforced anyway, I will be pleased, but there won't be much drama.
They just don't get it. Here's a beautiful example: Kurt Warner, the hyper-pious quarterback for some pro football team, has No. 13 on his jersey. Why?
"A lot of people believe 13 is an unlucky number," Warner said, "but I've kind of embraced it.
"A lot of negative things come with the No. 13. My life is never dictated by superstitions. My faith is first and foremost. If you believe that God's in control, there is no reason to believe in superstitions."
Believing in bad luck is superstition, but thinking that rituals dedicated to a great hairy ju-ju in the sky will let you carry a football across a chalk line in the grass is not? Bwahahahahaha!
Man, I'm glad the magic space man made him lose his big ballgame on Sunday.
It's a bit too phenomenological, and definitely too animal-centric, but who cares? David Attenborough's tree of life is very pretty and gets the gist of the story of life on earth across.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/v/H6IrUUDboZo&color1=0xb1b1b1&color2=0xcfcfcf&hl=en&feature=player_embedded&fs=1 expand=1]
This is not an auspicious beginning. Guess who is going to deliver the invocation at Obama's inauguration? None other than the smilin' face of right-wing fundamentalism, Rick Warren.
As we've pointed out several times before, in 2004 Warren declared that marriage, reproductive choice, and stem cell research were "non-negotiable" issues for Christian voters and has admitted that the main difference between himself and James Dobson is a matter of tone. He criticized Obama's answers at the Faith Forum he hosted before the election and vowed to continue to pressure him to change his views on the issue of reproductive choice. He came out strongly in support of Prop 8, saying "there is no need to change the universal, historical defintion of marriage to appease 2 percent of our population ... This is not a political issue -- it is a moral issue that God has spoken clearly about." He's declared that those who do not believe in God should not be allowed to hold public office.
Obama had a chance to set a non-sectarian, progressive tone at this event, and he has chosen to kow-tow to the wretched evangelical movement.
This is too much. Sarah Palin gave a policy speech today in which she claimed that she wanted more support for children with disabilities, more tools to test for disorders, and while also decrying the expense of scientific research.
I am appalled.
Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? […] You've heard about some of these pet projects they really don't make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.
The Democratic National Convention is going on in Denver, and I'm really not at all interested in what's going on inside the convention center: it's a bunch of people saying feel-good platitudes to get themselves elected, all studiously avoiding saying anything substantial that might annoy a voter. It's much more interesting to see what's going on outside the convention, where people are trying to make their real opinions heard. That is actually a bit troubling.
The Coalition of Secular Voters protested the interfaith alliance garbage. This demonstration went well, but was largely ignored, of course -- the democratic leadership has their sights set on yet another faith-based political experience.
The primary reason that we chose to demonstrate at the Interfaith Gathering was because repeated appeals had been made to the organizers of the event to include a non-religious speaker among the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist speakers, but all of these appeals were turned down. In addition, the organizer, Leah Daughtry stated, "Democrats have been, are and will continue to be people of faith - and this interfaith gathering is proof of that."
Peter Wood has an interesting commentary in the Chronicle today. At least, it starts out well, but by the end it turns into a bit of a train wreck. The good part is a discussion of a growing deficiency in science and math training in the US. The usual ignorant reaction to this problem is to flog the students and demand more drill-and-practice in the classroom, more testing, incentives and punishments for the schools ... the familiar Republican litany of No Child Left Behind, which treats the problem as a superficial one that can be corrected with more multiple-choice tests, or by marshaling market forces to make that engineering job in adulthood more attractive to 8 year olds. That's not the answer.
The precipitous drop in American science students has been visible for years. In 1998 the House released a national science-policy report, "Unlocking Our Future," that fussily described "a serious incongruity between the perceived utility of a degree in science and engineering by potential students and the present and future need for those with training."Let me offer a different explanation. Students respond more profoundly to cultural imperatives than to market forces. In the United States, students are insulated from the commercial market's demand for their knowledge and skills. That market lies a long way off -- often too far to see. But they are not insulated one bit from the worldview promoted by their teachers, textbooks, and entertainment. From those sources, students pick up attitudes, motivations, and a lively sense of what life is about. School has always been as much about learning the ropes as it is about learning the rotes. We do, however, have some new ropes, and they aren't very science-friendly. Rather, they lead students who look upon the difficulties of pursuing science to ask, "Why bother?"Those of us who are scientists did not go into this field because we calculated the economic benefit (we'd need to be profoundly innumerate for the answer to that one to come up positive), nor was it because our middle school teachers gave us lots of tests. It's because we were inspired by the dream of learning more about the world around us, and we were motivated in spite of the difficulties of the subject.
Christopher Hitchens was impressed by the existence of blind cave organisms, and wrote that they argue against a linear progression in evolution. He's quite right; creationism doesn't explain why their god tossed in to salamanders and fish a collection of complex developmental mechanisms that the animals simply throw away and do not use. Evolution does -- descent from a sighted ancestor explains how blind cave animals can still possess the machinery for a lost organ.
Do you think the Discovery Institute would let this challenge pass by? Of course not. They put their top man on the job, so Casey Luskin wrote a rebuttal. After a long weekend and before a busy day of work, it always makes me happy to find a new Luskin screed -- they're so dang easy to shred. Here's his devastating critique:
Hitchens, Dawkins and Carroll can have all the evidence they want that the neo-Darwinian mechanism can mess things up, turn genes off, and cause "loss-of-function." No one on any side of this debate doubts that random mutations are quite good at destroying complex features. Us folks on the ID side suspect that random mutation and natural selection aren't good at doing very much more than that. And the constant citations by Darwinists of "loss of function" examples as alleged refutations of ID only strengthens our argument.
There are days when it is agony to read the news, because people are so goddamned stupid. Petty and stupid. Hateful and stupid. Just plain stupid. And nothing makes them stupider than religion.
Here's a story that will destroy your hopes for a reasonable humanity.
Webster Cook says he smuggled a Eucharist, a small bread wafer that to Catholics symbolic of the Body of Christ after a priest blesses it, out of mass, didn't eat it as he was supposed to do, but instead walked with it.
This isn't the stupid part yet. He walked off with a cracker that was put in his mouth, and people in the church fought with him to get it back. It is just a cracker!
Catholics worldwide became furious.
Would you believe this isn't hyperbole? People around the world are actually extremely angry about this — Webster Cook has been sent death threats over his cracker. Those are just kooks, you might say, but here is the considered, measured response of the local diocese:
Here's the most depressing thing I've seen all week (and I'm grading genetics exams): it's the result of a national survey of high school biology teachers.
At least 16% of our high school teachers are young earth creationists. Furthermore, 12% our our teachers are using biology classes in public schools to teach creationism in a positive light. The majority are still pro-science, but even in the good cases, relatively little time is spent on teaching evolution.
The news isn't all bad. One constructive discovery is that it is neither legal battles nor demanding state standards that determine how much effort is put into teaching evolution Ã¢â‚¬â€� it's how much education the teachers have in the subject. The obvious lesson is that we ought to be encouraging more coursework for teachers; help educate the teachers, give them more material they can use in the classroom, and the students benefit.
Here's the conclusion of the paper, which lays it all out very clearly.
Yesterday, two great pious leaders of the world met in Washington DC. President Bush has immense temporal power, leading one of the richest countries on the planet with the most potent military force. Pope Benedict is a spiritual leader to a billion people, with immense influence and the responsibility of a long religious legacy. What could they have talked about? Mostly, they seem to have patted each other on the back and congratulated each other on their commitment to superstition.
In remarks greeting the pope at the White House, Bush called the United States "a nation of prayer."
Bush was interrupted by applause as he said, "In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred and that each of us is willed."
Benedict responded by praising the role of religion in the United States.
"From the dawn of the republic, America's quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the creator," he said.
I am often told that religion is a source of morality. I've read the Bible myself; I can see that there were moral philosophers at work behind that book, that we have a tradition of law in the Old Testament, with a fellow named Jesus adding social justice and concern for the poor and weak in the New that are actually rather commendable. I also see a lot of myth and error and misplaced obsession with the supernatural that rational people are willing to set aside to focus on the core humanitarian message … or at least they do so in the best of circumstances.
Revere is thinking about how to grow meat without the animal. It's a cool idea that's been floating around in science fiction for a while now, but, well, of course it has problems, and Revere notes a couple.
The two biggest, as far as I can see from a quick perusal of the burgeoning literature, are finding a suitable nutrient to grow the cells in; and then growing tissue that has the proper texture for being a meat substitute. Animal meat is not just muscle cells but a complicated structure also containing connective tissue, blood and blood vessels, nerves and fat. Just growing up masses of identical cells isn't sufficient. You have to reproduce an architecture.I see those two problems as aspects of one much bigger problem. Muscle doesn't grow in isolation: it's always in a solid environmental context. It's made up of cells that respond to activity in a way that enhances performance for the organism, and incidentally promotes flavor and texture and bulk for the delectation of the carnivore. So what do you need to make edible muscle mass, beyond a sheet of myocytes in a culture dish (which, I suspect, would have the texture of slime and would not sell well in test markets)?
An architecture is right. You need connective tissue to form a framework and you need a rigid but motile structure to do work and exercise the growing muscle. Then, because you want a piece of muscle larger than a drop, you need a delivery system for nutrients: a circulatory system, with a pump. This muscle in a vat is going to need a skeleton and a heart.