Saturday, November 29, 2008

How We Excuse Slavery

I thought you all should know - slavery's alright. Alright, it's "not wrong." Just thought you should know. Clear that up. You know. Because it's okay.

Evolved and Rational (a great blog anyway) has a really good take down of this. Let me give you the basic argument:

Slavery's okay because Christians are supposed to be slaves to God, wives slaves to husbands, and children slaves to their parents. If we try and claim slavery is wrong, then society will collapse because children won't obey their parents and wives won't submit to their husbands, etc, etc. Also, Paul says it's okay and Jesus doesn't say it's not.

Great. I'm going to try to collect myself before the jump...

Okay. Let me see about this. Slavery is wrong - it is a system of abuse in itself - it is not wrong because sometimes owners abuse their slaves, but because the system of relationship is abuse itself. In this way, sometimes a marriage or relationship between people can be abusive in itself. It doesn't require physical abuse. Of course, we've also seen that this woman is perfectly fine with mental abuse.

I'm sorry. I almost threw up a little over that one (another hat tip to Evolved and Rational).

Now, for another perspective, I'm going to turn to Tom Sheepandgoats, a guy I've had arguments with before, but whom I respect a good deal.

Tom argues that we seem to rabidly condemn people from another age, as if we would not have fallen victim to the same ways of thinking. Well, when that's true, it should be argued against - that is an important lesson for any historian. There is a certain leniency that you can grant when you're talking about people's social situations.

Now, likewise, you have to be really careful with that kind of forgiveness - "Oh, it's just their culture" is a dangerous path to tread. I'm not a fan of strong moral relativism, as I've noted before. Tom wants to argue that times were different back then, that we shouldn't condemn the actions of our ancestors because they lived in a different context, and that biblical slavery, as compared to modern capitalist socio-economic divides, wasn't all so bad, and, of course, that there was a voluntary element to it, and that Christians are slaves to God.

Well, first, yes, times were different. I don't condemn people in ancient times for owning slaves. I find it regrettable, but I don't banish them from history or argue that they shouldn't be listened to at all. The extent that I go to is to say: "It's unfortunate that so-and-so held this view on slavery or society, but he's a product of his time, like all of us, and I'm not surprised that he didn't see far past it." Now, another important point that Tom raises is the sometimes voluntary aspect of Biblical slavery - you sell yourself for a period of time to an "owner," you get certain protects, you do your work, and then you're set free.

Maybe this is pedantic, but that's more like indentured servitude. Actually, in some ways, it's more like a contract job. I wouldn't call this slavery, although that is the word the religious would use themselves (sorry, I take an etic perspective). Basically, if you get poor enough, then you can sell your services for a period of seven years, and then he'd be given his hereditary property back. In some ways it sounds like a pretty sweet deal. In some ways, it's a smart move.'s not slavery as we understand it, or as was practiced towards non-Jews among Israelite society. That's one of the little things that Tom almost manages to brush away - this is a very specific system of relations among Jews in Israel. These agreements do not hold towards others, like prisoners of war.

Lastly, Tom argues that our solutions to poverty, in fact our modern world, is really much worse off than this agreement was or would be (if we were all Jews...or Jehovah's Witnesses...I'm not really sure). Here's the really interesting part for me. Instead of saying "Man, slavery...pretty bad. Here's an interesting kind-of-like-slavery system in Biblical times, and it's unfortunate that it would ever have to be used, but it works better than modern poverty...maybe we should do something to improve that," we instead get "Modern society is terrible. Even slavery is better. Actually, this form of slavery is actually good, and approved by God. They were better off. It's okay."

That's the interesting twist for me in both of these posts - it's not an argument that people were wrong to practice slavery in their times (although, I'd argue they were, even if they were justified in doing so [Thank you, Jeffery Stout]), but instead it's a rejection of the modern world. It's an argument that whatever was going on in Biblical times was okay and approved by God, and thus it had to be better than the modern world. But this is the scariest part, and where I severely disagree with Tom. In doing this, they perpetuate the systems of thought which make things like slavery and abuse in the name of religion, country, or family okay. They continue to bear the torch of our ancestors and try to bring these ancient systems of practices and beliefs into the modern world. They want a critical rupture in modernity - the breakthrough of ancient paradigms into modern life. It's an extreme form of Romanticism.

And that's the exact problem - the truly religious among us still carry with them and want to enforce ancient modes of thought and social relations. This is not an argument about the glory of "progress" or the "wonderful modern age." We have a hell of a lot of problems today, very serious ones. My argument is simply that arguing from ancient paradigms and trying to return to ancient worldviews and modes of being is not the answer to any of our problems today. In fact, it's a major hindrance. I'm arguing that we should deal with what problems we can, and should be open to all possible solutions, including progressive, forward-thinking ones.

Otherwise, we run into situations like these. Situations in which religious, denialist, or general anti-scientific thinking leads to a real body count. To the suffering and death of children through wholly preventable diseases. These are real world problems being affected and effected by the kinds of thought-patterns I've been discussing. And it's heartbreaking.

Actually, I'm really too tired to get into this in a truly intelligible way right now. Maybe I'll come back to it later. In the mean time, what's your guys take on all this?

General hat tip to PZ for inspiring this all.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Preparing for Atheist Martyrdom

I'm regularly stunned into silence by things I come across, though often for very different reasons. I'll let you guess my reasons for this one:

Video embedding disabled, follow the link.

Ahem *cough*. Well, that sounds pretty bad. You were just sitting there, worshiping your little hearts out. And some mean, nasty gays came along and ruined the party. Threw coffee on you, even? Man...that must have burned. So badly it didn't leave a discernible mark. Oh, sorry, that's a bit of snark coming through. Wait...wait, what? You were preparing for martyrdom? MARTYRDOM?! Okay, we've hit crazy land. I'm sorry.

Full story below the fold:

Apparently what went down was something along these lines: a group of christians regularly goes into the Castro district of San Francisco, for about the past 3 years. They sit down on a corner and sing their songs and praise the Jesus. Also, they try to convert people and tell them about their sinful and hell-oriented ways. Nice folks, those. "Hey, Jesus is great, you're going to die in a fire! Kthxbye!" Sort of a hate the sin, love the sinner type thing...which really just turns into hate the sin, restrict and oppress and (oops!) hate the sinner.

Oh, and of course, Bill O'Reilly picks up the story and talks to the woman who was "beaten with a Bible." Notice the inconsistencies in the two stories. In the first, the Bible was ripped out of her hands. In this one, she was just sitting there and someone picked it up. And the police saw it. But they didn't see it. And they didn't arrest him, because she didn't want to press charges, even though they're legally required to if they witness an assault. And Bill, to his small credit, actually mentions this, but then just lets it go. Ah, hard hitting journalism.

Oh, and you notice the few clips that Bill shows there. They're from this video, which at the moment is the only footage I know of the whole event:

Oh...riot gear? You mean the one dude with a helmet and kevlar? ...FUCK!

Alright, let me break this down as best I can, though I feel that Abbie over at ERV has already done a better job.

If you want to be a jackass and go to a district of a people that you have just stripped of one of their legal rights, set up shop in front of a monument of a man who had just died the week before and was well known for his fight in the gay-rights movement, and sing your happy songs about the Jeebus and how Prop 8 passed (you California...), and tell anyone who asks that they need to come to Jesus and be cured of their homosexuality...that's fine. It's within your free speech rights.

If people in that district are horribly offended by you and your actions and your continued holier-than-thou gloating and want you to leave them alone, that's fine too. If they want to have a peaceful protest and march you out peacefully, well, public demonstration.

Violence should not be condoned in these situations, and according to the police, there was no violence. One guy apparently throw an iced coffee at some of the christian group, but he was hauled off by other gay men to the police.

Ugh! The self-righteous and pompousness gets to me, especially this early in the morning.

Oh, and what's that you say? Our economy is failing because we don't say Merry Christmas?! Well! Okay! That does it! I'm out, I'm done with the human community. I'm packing it up. I'm moving to the Satellite of Love and am just going to build some friggen robots and watch movies. Movies like Mad Max, which, apparently, we're going to be emulating soon if we don't say MERRY EFFING CHRISTMAS to one another and smile!


Nevermind the fact that religiosity in a 1st world democracy correlates with absolutely offensive behavior. Nevermind that it wasn't the atheists in charge of government, or the banks, or regulatory agencies, or the significant block of people buying up sub-prime mortgages...but no, no, no. It's the atheists' fault. Of course it is! We don't celebrate Christmas! Well...wait, actually, most of us do. We just celebrate it secularly. We still say Merry Christmas...oh, oh, I'm sorry. I just let facts get in the way of your ideology.

Sorry for the rant. But. For Christ's cracker-sake, people. Are we getting that stupid and gullible?


Friday, November 21, 2008

CNN...Dropping the Ball

...I'll probably end up watching this...but from this blurb, it looks really terrible.

Also, "I want to see a V-Shaped Martian head...little rotini thing, not so interesting." Oh, please.

I'm going to go ahead and through it out there, CNN, one of the worst preview blurbs ever. Ever.


I'm...speechless. I appreciate what the interviewer's trying to go for, but...I also see how the external criticism is going to do nothing. I think this is going to require me to start posting on theories of religion and end up with Jeffery Stout, who argues that we should be able to use our comprehensive doctrines as reasons for public policy (i.e., argue on religious grounds in the political arena), so long as we are committed to the democratic process. This guy is obviously not. And re-appropriating history...ah, it leaves a smell the air.


Running with the Red Queen

Phil Plait, aka The Bad Astronomer, regularly blows my mind with his science posts. He's got a market on really fascinating astronomy items, but let me try to steal two:

First, something weird is going on with our cosmic ray data. There appears to be a mysterious source that's pumping out a surplus of cosmic ray electrons in the 300-800 billion eV range. That's high-powered, which means that the source has to be fairly close - within about 3000 light years. Phil goes into the speculations on what's causing it, and I have to agree with him. What if we determine its direction as coming from "everywhere"? Wouldn't that be interesting? Here's a link to a ScienceDaily abstract from the article itself.

More below the fold...

Some new and exciting news from Mars! Subterranean glaciers! Woo! Total Recall was right! Now if only we can get Arnold in a mechanical woman's suit and...oh...wait...nevermind.

Guys, let's go back to the Moon. Let's get it right, get the technology down, and then head to Mars. We need this as a species. For the inspiration, initially, for the science, second, and for habitation last (but perhaps most importantly). I hope our President-elect is as far-seeing as he has made himself out to be.

Along the lines of making Mars habitable and new findings, to bring it a little closer to Earth, here's an article that details some new extremophiles. Now, this has implications for Mars exploration, if for nothing else then just showing how extreme of conditions life can withstand, if it ever developed on Mars in the first place. W00t! Go life!

Also still in the spacey mood, I'm a little late in posting about this, but a Universal Declaration of Human Rights has launched into space. Symbolic? Yes. Inspirational? I hope so. Likely to do much good? ...Eh. We'll see if this even hits the media.

I'm going to toss a can of worms out there - the newest article I've found on the eusociality/superorganism debate. E.O. Wilson's latest work hasn't been well received by a lot of biologists, and I can imagine that this is only going to stoke those flames higher. It's not a debate I'm competent enough to engage in intelligently, so...have at it bio-guys!

Lastly, some articles more in my field:

First, we've learned that neurons do not regenerate in part because of a down-regulation in the mTOR pathway. Active during cell development, but as the neuron matures, this pathway gets basically cut off. Scientists recently used genetic techniques to silence some of the key parts of this down-regulation mechanism in mice. Lo! And Behold! Neuronal regeneration!

Now, let's be clear. Of the neurons that sustained injury, about 50% survived in the mutant mice, but this is compared to 20% in the normal mice. That alone is a significant finding. More interesting, however, is that about 10% of the surviving cells in the mutant mice regenerated axons, and regrowth increased with time. That's fascinating! Of course, it does not yet provide proof that such regrowth is functional - more time and study is needed before we have a clear idea about that, but this is a great first step. It also tells us that maybe we've found one key in the puzzle - maybe we can get more than 10% of surviving cells experiencing regrowth. Again, the answer is more and better studies.

Lastly, a neurology article that suggests that pure sensory processing accounts for a great deal of our decision-making behavior. As I've said before, I do agree with determinism, but I don't find it depressing, and I can understand how it's a useful heuristic to talk about free will. This article is interesting to me because of its mechanical perspective - these are the kinds of things that we can and should model in neural networks. "But is it conscious?" should become a relatively unimportant question - this is complex behavior that appears conscious, even though it's just signal weights in the brain. Good stuff.

I also just want to say that I'm really busy right now with school, work, and Ph.D. applications. I'll be back next week, but don't expect much from me this weekend unless I just can't handle staring at my regular reading and such anymore.

Other blog writers, do you guys have anything to contribute? I'd appreciate it greatly.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Savage Love on Proposition 8

This is an interesting video in many respects.

It's a conversation between Dan Savage, aka, Savage Love with D.L. Hughley, who has a new segment on CNN. Now, I'll admit. I frequently read Dan's syndicated column in the A.V. Club. I think he's a great writer and offers some good advice. So, in the interest of full disclosure, yes, indeed, I am biased towards supporting Dan in this. I also found his response to Proposition 8 very poignant and funny.

One of the most fascinating elements to me is Hughley's comments about his own background and how minorities might have felt looking at the ballot - basically the idea that there is no section for "I don't agree with the gay lifestyle, but I don't think the government should be involved." Well, to me, that's mealy-mouthed. The second clause of that sentence seems to be much more important. I.e., while I may not agree with a particular lifestyle, if it is my principle that it is a matter in which the government should not get involved, the answer is to check the option where the government does not get involved. Leave it up to the states, or to individual citizens. There's your answer. There is no need for an additional check bullet.

This is not to say that I don't understand where Hughley's coming from, or that I want to disenfranchise his religious conscience. He is fully able to argue what he wants from that viewpoint, but when it comes to a government policy decision, if he really believes that it should not be a government matter (as other blacks that he spoke with apparently did), then that is what they should vote for. Instead, apparently, if Hughley's anecdotal evidence can be taken at face value, we have people who strongly disagree with government involvement in this issue, but are willing to allow it anyway on the basis of a religious conviction. This is the pernicious aspect.

So, what are we left to do? We can argue, with John Rawls, that comprehensive doctrines (such as religions or overriding philosophies) have to be left out of the political process - we have to agree to the basis of public reason and that justice is free-standing - it can be arrived at purely through rational argument. Now, this sounds pleasant, but seems to be internally inconsistent - it seems that you are asking for an impossible promise - to have people admit that their comprehensive doctrines are irrational and do not matter for questions of public policy. No true religious adherent agrees with this - it's inconsistent in that it makes a comprehensive doctrine non-comprehensive.

Another solution, a la Franklin Gamwell, that it is true that the "comprehensive question" is a rational one, and so despite what some doctrines may claim for themselves, they can be debated rationally. They should be allowed to enter and stand their own in the public arena and fall where they may. The major danger of this, of course, is that you have a great deal of religions (especially in Christian circles) that claim their faith is inherently irrational (despite the long history of apologetics and medieval scholasticism...but who cares for history, right?) and thus, you run the risk of utterly disintegrating democracy. Our choices at that point are rather undemocratic - disenfranchise those who refuse to play by the rules of public reason and democracy (the Jehovah's Witnesses have sort of self-segregated on this matter), lock them up, or take over by force...if you want democracy to continue. Otherwise, you have the rule of an unruly, authoritarian, and dangerous mob.

Democracy is a fragile, fragile thing. We have fought for a long time to even begin to establish it, and it is nowhere near perfect. We have to constantly work at it, and we see continued efforts to erode the democratic tradition that we have inherited. This should be a matter of major concern for you all.

Both Hughley and Savage back away on the "civil rights" issue. I think Savage's comment is coherent, and probably true...this is not the scope of The Civil Rights Movement, but it is an incredibly important civil rights issue on its own. We have to ask ourselves these questions:

1) Is this person given human rights? I.e., are they a human being?
2) Is this person a citizen, and thus granted the rights of a citizen?
3) If they are human and a citizen, then why are they not allowed the same rights as other citizens? What coherent, "reasonable" arguments can be offered for such restrictions on their rights and privileges?

For example, we do not allow convicted felons to vote. They have broken the "contract" of the civil society, and so have lost some of their rights. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the restriction on the right to vote, but that may be an issue for another post. This is a question about marriage, however, as well as general discrimination throughout society for a group of people arbitrary defined by their sexual orientation. In this important sense, this is every bit a civil rights issue.

I'm sure Jason can come up with a much better and more coherent set of questions/responses to this, and I hope that you'll respond.

Lastly, at the end of the interview, Hughley mentions that he has never met a black atheist. Greydon Square would be one notable figure. It is an interesting problem though - minorities are unrepresented in free-thinker/atheist communities, probably because of the long religious tradition of these communities and the focus on a more practiced, instead of conceptual, religion. It's every bit as dangerous to come out as an atheist in these communities as it is to come out as homosexual.

Dan Savage, I hope you realize that you have a large body of support from the non-religious community, and I hope that you and others will see the similarities of our struggles and desires. We've reached an interesting point in this political climate, and I'm eager to see what we can do to change it.


The Stunning Beauty of Biology

This video was too great not to share - the life of a sea biscuit. It's visually stunning, and the biology going on behind it all is equally fascinating. Enjoy:

A Sea Biscuit's Life from Bruno Vellutini on Vimeo.

Via PZ Myers at Pharyngula through this post.

Also...Prince...I guess Hitchens was right.

I have to ask, Prince, would you still give me diamonds and pearls?

I guess now I'll just go put my headphones on and listen to some "When Doves Cry."


Thursday, November 13, 2008


There's some really excellent exoplanet news coming in today from two studies. Pictures!

Fantastic! Absolutely stunning! And, of course, The Bad Astronomer totally beat me to it.

Well, he is the astronomer, and knows a heckuva lot more about it than me. Go read his summary! It's wonderful!

Woo! Science!


In Which Keith Olbermann Gets it Right

I don't often do this, but I'm going to give a shout-out to Keith Olbermann. I think that he has summed up the issue nicely. Not perfectly, but very well.

Keith, I hope someone in that studio gave you a slow-clap. I know I did.

Here's a more stable link with a transcript of the talk.

Also, something completely beautiful:

Galapagos from Darek Sepiolo on Vimeo.

From Darek Sepiolo. Just, magnificent.

Tip o' the blogging hat to Chuck for these.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

God-Walloping Meathead Writes to Obama - Or, Chuck Norris is an Ass

Apparently Chuck Norris has found enough time from his busy schedule to write a nice letter to President-Elect Obama. Oh...wait. I forgot. Chuck Norris is crazy-deep end dude...

I think Rev. BigDumbChimp does an excellent job of teasing apart the tricky meaning behind all those veiled threats and "suggestions." You have to wonder at the gall of this dude. And, sadly, at how much of the American population he probably represents.

Chuck, this is official. I briefly thought that the whole Chuck Norris internet meme was alright. I may have even watched an episode or two of Walker, Texas Ranger when I was younger...but, buddy, you've completely lost me when you went bat-shit loco.

Thanks to PZ over at Pharyngula for this tip off.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Stop Sylvia Browne

Most of you who frequent this blog probably have a good idea of how I feel about psychics. I think most are outright frauds, and the rest are self-deluded. I've heard the "comfort" argument before, but I don't buy it, because if nothing else, it keeps people clinging to a psychic as a connection to a lost loved one - they never have closure, they can never heal.

I think South Park actually has one of the best take-downs of psychics ever. Ever.

But let me tell you a bit about Robert Lancaster.

Robert Lancaster is the skeptic's dream. He's a kind, considerate guy who always comes off as level-headed. Which is great - he's really a poster-boy for what part of the skeptical movement should be.

Mr. Lancaster runs a very focused site, Stop Sylvia Browne. Now, he was hospitalized not too long ago, and the original domain for the site lapsed. Someone in Sylvia's circle snapped up the site, and so Mr. Lancaster had to move it.

The point of the site is to present the facts about Sylvia Browne. He does not cajole. He does not speculate. He simply puts up articles about people who have fallen out of the movement and how her predictions have turned out. This, despite the fact that Mr. Lancaster has very strong opinions on the whole matter. It's a model that some of us could work towards. Also despite some of the harsher reactions that Sylvia and her fans have had towards him. And an interesting confrontation at one of her shows.

Anyway, I just want to plug Robert Lancaster once again for all of you. Go to and read some. It's encouraging and sad at the same time, but a good read, and a good way to train up some skeptical chops.

Likewise, thanks to tkingdoll's post over at Skepchick.


Some Writing Advice

As I am a role-playing gamer myself, I always love some good advice on creating worlds and writing stories.

Here's a newish podcast that I just found, called Writing Excuses, which is hosted by Brandon Sanderson. Brandon's a cool guy, and a good writer, in my opinion. Also, importantly, he was chosen by TOR books to finish the last book in the Wheel of Time series after the death of Robert Jordan. As an avid fan of that series, I eagerly await to see what he does with it.


Sunday, November 9, 2008

More on Mormons

The idiocy doesn't stop.

Proposition 8 passed, as I talked about before, here and here. Now more and more information about the Mormon connection to it is coming out.

For one, they sent this letter to all their churches in California.

Then there's the fallout...

The passage of Proposition 8 sparked a lot of demonstrations, and a lot targeted specifically against the Mormons, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as they so prefer to be called. There's been a lot of backlash against the demonstrators, summed up shortly by this guy. Read that next to last sentence:

Do the Left not understand that the majority of Californians want to keep the definition of marriage as it has been since the beginning of time?

Ahh...The burns.

Let's think for a minute. There are a few possibilities here. This guy might actually acknowledge that the world is older than humans, and thus, "since the beginning of time" has no real meaning here. Hadrons and leptons do not get married. As far as I know, galaxies don't as well. I have never been invited to a marriage between any Archaea, Bacteria, Fungi, Plants, or the overwhelming majority of animals. Now, I do feel a little snubbed, I'll admit - I imagine paramecia marriages are friggen awesome. So...if we take that line (you know, the line of evidence), he's made a huge non-starter.

Let's be kinder and say, "Okay, well, he really just means since the beginnings of humans." Well...that's interesting. "Marriage" has had a huge number of definitions over human history. Hell, as this guy is "Conservatively Minded," let's just take the Bible as an example. There isn't a helluva lot of discussion about marriage laws in there...and what is there is vaguely uncomfortable to most people here. At what age can people be married? At what age can a man have sex with a woman (or girl, as the case may be)? How many wives can a man have? Can a man divorce his wife? Can a wife divorce her husband? Can either of them get re-married? Are there any restrictions on how closely related two individuals can be and still be married? Why is okay for the King to have an entire harem?

There's a reason the Jews developed the Mishnah and the Talmud. A lot of these questions are not dealt with directly in the text, and it was up to the social order and community to decide how they wanted to live.

Now, it's certainly possible that this guy isn't religious (although, I'm highly doubtful of it. "Since the beginning of time" is really a pretty telling statement). If he is not religious...well, then, I don't really see what argument he has to fall back on, given the varied nature and socially-constructed reality of marriage through history. I'm forced to conclude that this guy has an ideal image of marriage, apparently that between a single man and a single woman, and that there is some religious basis for that.

Enter the Mormons.

Now...historically...since this guy wants to bring it up...The Mormons have had a bit of a problem with what they like to call "traditional marriage." We all know this, and it's something that their community still struggles with today. There are still schism groups that operate under laws of polygamy. But, of course, instead of telling their own church-goers what to do and how to be married, they want to enforce their views on everyone else, and basically bankrolled the entire Proposition 8 initiative.

People are rightly a little upset over this.

And the Mormons are upset that people are upset at them. For instance.

"I am appalled at the level of Mormon-bashing that went on during the Proposition 8 campaign and continues to this day," he said. "If this activity were directed against any other church, if someone put up a website that targeted Jews or Catholics in a similar fashion for the mere act of participating in a political campaign, it would be widely and rightfully condemned."

No sir. You do not get to play the victim card. Not yours.

When you have a huge organized movement, with a sizable population, that can bankroll an initiative in one of the largest states in the country, and you can field a presidential candidate who did quite well...No, sir. No, you do not get the victim card.

This comes dangerously close to an ad hominem attack, I know, so let me address this. I am not saying that the Mormons are stupid, evil people who can't fix their own Church and so want to impose their will on everyone else. I'm not saying their history of polygamy is damning to them now. What I am saying is that this is clearly an initiative entirely based on religious grounds to take away rights from a minority group, that used outright lies and discrimination to achieve its means, and is completely guilty of using weasel-words and slimey rhetoric to persuade voters that those in the homosexual community are not quite human, are in danger of "taking over," and that if gays can be married, then some ideo-typical "marriage," which has never existed, will cease to exist.

It's disgusting. And then, to claim the victim card, and to say that if these campaigns were against Jews or Catholics, everyone would find them, that goes too far. It's not even fatwah-envy. I don't think I have words for how despicable this really is.

Let me put it this way. You, Mormons, can be nice people. You claim a religious and historical basis for your argument about how marriage should be. Religiously...well, that shouldn't be a matter for the law. Historically, you've had your own problems, and continue to have them. Historically, marriage has changed in definition. Historically, we have moved towards giving all human beings basic rights. Historically, "between a man and a woman" is too vague to define what most people think it means, and too specific to not be discrimination against a single minority group. Your arguments are baseless, but you want to play the morality card. And you want to bankroll the morality card. When that comes out, and people are rightly upset at having their rights taken away (and let us not forget the power of precedent), you then want to claim religious freedom and discrimination against yourselves. No. Incorrect. You fail. It's perhaps the most intense act of projection that I've seen in a while.

Here's a kooky idea. How about when people want a voice in government, they are required to pay some sort of membership fee. You know, those things we call taxes. Yes, I know, it's "spreading the wealth," and yes, taxes can be abused. But at their heart, taxes are a membership fee that entitles you to government protection and services. As a citizen, you are expected to pay taxes, and in return, you get the benefit of government programs and a voice in government policies. When you don't pay taxes, you are revealing your non-commitment to the group. When you don't pay taxes and force your opinion into government...well, that's a hostile take-over. If the Mormons, or any other religious group, wants a say in government, let them pay taxes. No more tax-exemption for churches. If they aren't happy with the way our government is running things, let them have a voice as concerned citizens within the system instead of bankrolling propositions from tax-exempt money and playing the holier-than-thou-morality card and out-right-lies card. It's just sickening at this point.

So, to summarize, let me get this straight - you want to "protect marriage" by taking away the right of people to get married. And instead of enforcing your rules within your congregations, you want to enforce your opinions on everyone else in this country...and you expect people to not be upset at you, why, exactly?

For a bit of sanity, I'd recommend Sadly, No! For long-term sanity...I recommend getting involved in politics when and where you can.

Also, major tip o' the hat to Canadian Cynic's post for picking up the issue, and Pharyngula, you know, just in general.

Quick edit update: Here's the commercial that everyone's so upset about:

Now, granted, literally taking away the rings and destroying the marriage licenses of already married couples is over the line. But married gay couples in California are in legal limbo at the moment. This is the fear, and in a lot of ways, I could see how it could become a valid one, if any issue regarding an already-married couple appears, it wouldn't be hard to revoke their license.


More from the Obamatron

More coverage of Obama's election and the ripples that it's having in our society:

First, a poll conducted by Democracy Corps conducted a poll on policy issues. Apparently, they have found some evidence to rebut the claim that America is a conservative-right leaning country. In fact, they claim that in policy questions which are not attached to a candidate's name, Americans are trending towards progressive stances. This is interesting, though of course we could argue the language of the questions. It's certainly possible there is a main effect hiding in there somewhere.

More below the fold.

Here's an eye-opener - Senate Republicans are already up in arms over working with Obama. Now...I want you to take a moment and savor the sweet, sweet irony of the next to last sentences. Ah yes, Mr. Senator. Of course you're for filibustering, right after you were against it.

Politics, as usual.

Tip O' the Senate Gavel to Eschaton, a blog of some note, that I found through Afarensis, likewise, a blog of some note.

Did the web-savvy campaign for Obama help him? It's starting to look that way. We saw for perhaps the first time a youth vote that helped edge out some narrow margins, including my home state. If nothing else, that's an important symbolic victory for the Obama campaign - they inspired young people to actually be interested in politics in record numbers. They also showed an application of a particular strategy that I enjoy - the bottoms-up, headless organization. Completely unruly and undisciplined, but ultimately producing a higher-level sense of self and order. This tactic is favored by Anonymous, of course, and Obama has shown that a similar strategy works for political campaigns. The fallout from this will be incredibly interesting to watch. I hope this trend continues.

Just to give you a sense of some of the prime-contenders for important offices in this country, I offer you this. Comment on it as you will. Watch out Michael Feldman. We may just have a progressive party yet.

Some sobering news - November layoffs. We're still waiting to get far enough out of the woods to know we've left the bottom. That will probably continue for a while.

Finally, an opinion/special interest piece. Here's a brief story about a butler, Eugene Allen, who worked in the White House for more than three decades. Stay with it till the last paragraphs.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

I Have Seen Forever, and It Is Full of Stars

A quick update, with a major tip o' the telescope to the Bad Astronomer. Apparently the European Southern Observatory has released the deepest ground-based look at the universe ever taken, mostly in the UV spectrum. It took several years and 55 hours of observation to get this image, so take a look:

Doesn't look like much initially, does it? Well, maybe you should check out the hi-res version (warning: 32 Mb file).

If that still doesn't seem like too much, let me say that there are only a few stars from the Milky Way in that image. One, which is quite interesting, actually appears as a funny sort of rainbow because it moved over the years it took to gather this image (yeah, physics and geometry of optics!) Almost all those points of light...they're all galaxies. It evokes Sagan: "billions and billions." And the other thing, this is a small swath of the sky. Everywhere we point our telescopes, we get more of the same. Also interesting, these galaxies are old...really old.

Head over to the Bad Astronomer for a breakdown of some of the more interesting things he picked out with his first glance.

This is the wonder and beauty of science. The Universe is more marvelous, enormous, and ancient than we had ever imagined.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Obama Making History Again?

The Obama administration has put together a Website Not much unlike the campaign website, the novelty of this site seems to be a direct address to the people to contact the administration under the "American Moment" section, A BLOG(!), and a proto-section on volunteerism. You can also find traditional information on the new administration's plans under "agenda" with topics starting with Civil Rights and ranging to Iraq, Faith, and Taxes and you can sign up for an e-mail list following the transition. Such access seems like a breath of fresh air, but we'll have to wait and see how it actually gets worked out.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Short Follow-Up

Just to drive home the point, I want to link you to these two...I don't even know what to call them.

The first is a forum post from the "Free Conservatives."

The second is from Rapture Ready.

At this point, I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or hang my head and sigh.

Blog tip to ERV.

Also, don't expect this posting schedule to hold up. Today's a rarity in that I don't have a lot of work to do tonight.


The Impossibility of Religious Morality

Let me relate to you a little story. It's terrible. It's horrifying. It will ruin your day. I'm really not kidding about any of this. I'm going to put it below the jump, because, well, if you're having a wonderful day and really, really don't want to wreck it, this time I'm going to give you an out.

Still here?

Here's the story. A girl is raped by three men. Instead of being comforted and helped to try to put her life back together, she is taken before a court of law and made to confess to adultery. Since she confessed, she is liable to sentencing and the full penalty of law. Which, in this case, happens to be death. By stoning. In which she was buried up to her neck while men cast stones at her head until she was dead.

Now, I know, I've talked about things like this before. Each time it's tragic. Every time I feel the urge to throw up. I cannot describe to you the rage that I experience against my fellow human beings in these moments. That we could do this to one another is one of the most terrible things in the world. That we could feel justified in doing so is even worse. I wish I had a poet on hand to put into language just how horrendous this is...but for now, you'll have to deal with the cold rage that I'm feeling.

This story is a little different from the others that I've mentioned before. This is not to put them in any less tragic of a light - none of them should ever have happened. But this one...

First of all, initial reports were that the girl was 23. We now know that that was wrong. She was 13. Thirteen. Sit down and think about that for a moment. Someone's daughter, some tiny girl, was raped by three men and then made to confess to adultery. This of course is where religion comes into the mess. Of course, this all has to do with sexual purity laws. Sharia. This all happened in Somalia, where fundamentalists have a pretty strong hold.

The jaw-dropper though...the moment where I did nearly throw up over myself, was when I heard that this was a public execution. It took place in a football stadium and was attended by about 1,000 people.

Let that sink in. Let it sink in real deep.

One thousand people. One thousand human beings watched a young girl being stoned to death by 50 men. Some few grumbled that it was the wrong thing to do (because she was too young, note...not because it was wrong), but no one raised a hand or a voice to stop it. No one. Now, you can argue about power structures - the people carrying out the murder had guns. That's true. We can link this to the bystander-effect, just like what happened with Kitty Genovese. You can link to simple self-preservation instinct. Those are all nice words. They maybe dull the sting a little.

But it doesn't stop this kind of thing from happening.

It doesn't stop the very structure that makes this sort of thing acceptable in the eyes of people. Am I going to blame this on religion? Oh, yes. But the deeper point is authoritarian dogma/ideology. It's religion's par-excellence, but a totalitarian state is capable of the same thing. Of course, if you agree with scholars like Durkheim, there isn't an analytically significant difference between a religion and a powerful/nationalistic state. The problem, at heart, may be institutionalized power.

But here's the thing - religions arise out of a certain context - historical, sociological, socio-economic. It's no accident that the monotheist world religions are typically very male-dominated. The societies in which they arose had a similar distribution of power. But institutionalized structures like this have a tendency to perpetuate themselves. And not only that, but they justify themselves by reference to a higher authority. So, a religion can self-replicate, perpetuate, and justify itself internally...which leads to all sorts of abuses of power. It provides a logical pathway from "Murder is wrong" to "Murder is quite justified, because God wills it." (To link back to the totalitarian/state argument, likewise, the state can provide a logical pathway to "Just following orders.")

So, ask what point do you think that you could lose all sense of basic human dignity and compassion? What would it take to make you lay down whatever sympathy you may have for your fellow man and murder a 13 year old girl, who was guilty only of being raped by men who apparently got off scot-free?

How about "We will do what Allah has instructed us"?

Is that enough? Apparently, for a great deal of people, it is.

To make this even worse, if that's some point during the stoning, she was exhumed from the ground (apparently her murders thought they had finished the job) and checked by two nurses, who pronounced her still living. So they buried her again.

They buried her again and continued to stone her.

I don't know if you've ever seen someone die of cerebral hemorrhaging. It's not a pretty sight. It's not a good way to go. I cannot imagine the pain and agony that this girl went through in her last few hours of life.

And no one tried to stop them.

You see, this is why I would argue that it is impossible for a religious person to be truly committed to their faith and moral in any sense that we in the modern world would recognize. How could they be? If you go through their "holy" books, what possible example could you offer up to show why this was wrong? Let's be honest - God commands a lot of deaths. God's pretty cavalier about killing people himself. Basically anyone that offends God (morally or otherwise) gets the axe, often in pretty brutal ways. And he's really indiscriminate and imprecise with his rage. He's not against killing an entire city to wipe out a few "evil" doers.

Now, when I say to you "You should not murder someone who offends you. Even if they have offended your moral sense," I would hope that most people would say "Yeah...I might be angry, I would probably argue with them. I might even get in a fight if I were totally drunk...but murder? No, that's too far." But then I look at the religious fundamentalists. They have managed to completely subdue that internal switch. "We will do what Allah has instructed us." In the face of a young girl who had been brutally raped and was begging for her life...they are willing to follow their God and his excuses to commit a cowardly murder.

Now, I can already hear some people howling "But religion also promotes good!" Well...maybe. I'd argue that it's not so much religious indoctrinate, but a self-interested assessment of choices in light of the belief of a moral authority watching over us. Big Brother would promote basically the same ends, towards whatever "morality" he happened to hold. Likewise with religion - it promotes "good," however it chooses to define it.

Here's an interesting observation. I have never opened a newspaper and seen a headline of "Militant Atheists Fly Plane into Building," or "Militant Atheists Storm Capital Building," or "Militant Atheists Seek to Deny Religious Marriages." A related observation - the Bible-belt was also synonymous with the lynching-belt. The more religiously committed an area becomes, the more violence that seems to be perpetrated there. For all of the crazy boogie-man that religions have portrayed us as, atheists really don't do that much. We tend to confine ourselves to books and blogs. Granted, there is a large number of very angry teenagers and kids who have finally had enough of being abused by religion, or being terrified all the time, and become enraged enough to leave. And for a time, they probably carry around a lot of anger, rage, and frustration. I cannot fault them for this. It's probably a natural part of the healing process. Almost all of them grow out of that phase, and most of them become quite sensitive to human needs and suffering.

Now that I think about it, maybe we should be opening papers and seeing headlines about atheists marching. Maybe we should take to the streets and say, finally, "We've had enough. We aren't going to take this any longer. We are not going to allow these things to happen, and we are not going to allow the silence of the world because it interferes with someone's dogma. We are tired of watching fellow human beings being discriminated against and killed because some invisible sky-god, some cultural construct that self-justifies itself, has 'told' his followers to murder someone. It has gone on too long."

We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it any more. (Quick edit - this is in no way a call to violence. That would really be against the whole point I'm driving for.)

Here's the story, via the BBC. That's where I saw it, but I'm giving a definite hat tip to PZ over at Pharyngula for this treatment. I completely agree with his last paragraph.

Before you get all cocky and assume that this is just the Islamic world, or that this post is focused on isn't. Christianity does not have any better track record. The most salient historical example is, of course, the Salem Witch Trials. The difference between Somalia and modern "Christian" nations is that religion does not have absolute power in the West any more. Democracy has, hopefully, irreversibly altered religion itself to force it into a position of at least toleration. But having spoken with and read the writings of many religious people, I don't really have much doubt on how it'd all turn out if Christianity took total control again. There's a hell of a lot of "fatwah envy" going around in evangelical circles these days. And let's not forget Prop 8.

To paraphrase PZ, your stones may have become more sophisticated, but every ballot vote "yes" was another stone cast against those who offended your "moral" and religious sense of propriety. We have not escaped this impulse.

Finally, for a bit of levity, strongly needed at this point:


State of the Union

I suppose I'll be the first to put up my thoughts about Obama's election for this blog. I apologize for the delay, but I think we've all been busy, and...well, celebrating with the rest of Chicago.

We have reached a historic moment in our country. 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr. laid out his vision, we have elected an African-American president. That it finally happened is something to celebrate enthusiastically. That it took so long is a tragedy. From this day on, for children growing up, it will no longer be an impossibility for a non-white to gain our country's highest office. Likewise, I have to hand it to Senator Clinton, and yes, even the cynical and insipid choice of Sarah Palin, to showing that women are not far behind in this.

This is a moment which we should all celebrate, it's a moment in which I have allowed myself to have some slight hope for American politics. It's evidence that we can, grudgingly and sometimes belligerently, overcome ourselves. We can make a more perfect Union, slowly, painfully, and with back-breaking labor. That, to me, has always been the dream of America, something that we have not, and perhaps never can achieve, but we can always work towards it.

However, I am not overflowing with effervesence and joy at the moment. There are many things that are still troubling.

For one, Proposition 8 passed in California. Similar bans on gay marriage passed in Alabama and Florida. Arkansas passed a proposal to ban unwed couples from adopting (basically, to prevent gays and lesbians from adopting children). All of these propositions were motivated by and funded by religious organizations, and they have succeeded in continuing a policy of discrimination in our country. And that's the thing - it's not simply privileging a religious group's interpretation of marriage, or even the majority's opinion on marriage (because, yes, indeed, it did pass with a majority of the vote), but it is simple and outright discrimination against a minority. That is exactly the sort of thing that our Constitution is meant to protect against - the voice of the majority does not have the power to take away the voice of a minority. So, there's one reason to be upset.

We have elected a black president. But what if he were non-Christian? What if he were gay? Or Latino? There are still huge issues of discrimination in America that need to be addressed. Our work is nowhere near done.

The media's over-jubilant proclamations of "post-racial" America are absolutely ridiculous. Of course there are still racists, and there are still those out there who even now are shining their guns and saying they will never follow a black president. Our country remains divided against itself, and it will take work to even begin to fix these deep wounds.

Our economy remains in trouble. The markets have calmed a bit, and perhaps we have hit the bottom of the recession. Perhaps things will begin to climb upwards again. The problem, of course, is that you can only recognize the bottom in hind-sight.

Our foreign relations and social capital have been utterly obliterated in the past eight years. World leaders are making tentative motions towards Obama, and I can only hope that we begin to rebuild some of the good-will that we experienced years ago.

Our civil liberties have been utterly trampled upon, and for the most part, we have grown complacent about it. You hear the occasional angry voice, but most people don't even think about it. I am a strong believer in the need to fight for the rights of citizens against the government, and this is certainly an area where we have much work to do.

Our science and math education is pitiful. I've mentioned this one many times before, so I don't feel the need to blurb it. All I can say is that when we can have people seriously decrying money spent on basic science (i.e. Palin's fruit flies comments) and McCain's "overhead projector" nonsense about a planetarium...and these people are taken's not a good sign.

Obama has been elected, but despite McCain's rhetoric, he's still a fairly conservative politician working with a Congress that has largely gone along with Bush's policies over the past eight years, and a Supreme Court which cannot be very warm to him. Our political system has shifted, but it's a small shift. I also worry about the total control the Democrats have. The last times this happened, it didn't turn out well (Carter and Clinton, in case you were wondering). We ended up with Reagan and Bush. Keep that in mind. We have to light a fire under our politicians and keep them in line. Keep them working for the people.

These are only a few of the issues that still face us. There are plenty more, and I encourage you to put some down in the comments, if only to remember them and draw attention to them.

So, overall, I want to say that this is not the time for complacency. Celebrate! Rejoice! Sign unto the hills and valleys! But then we have to put our boots back on and go right back into the trenches. Now, more than ever, there is work to be done to combat discrimination, encroachment on civil liberties, and our faults in foreign policy, education, and research. We have taken a first few staggering and fearful steps forward, but we still clutch at apron strings. We will elect a black president, but we will not call gays and lesbians full human beings. This is not the signs of a perfected Union. It's a sign that we have to take stock of reality around us and do what we can to change it for the better.

I am glad that we have elected Obama. I do not agree with him on everything, and on some of his policies I am outright opposed. I do think he was the better choice, and I was glad to cast my ballot for him. I hope...I sincerely hope...that some of the inspiration he has built in our nation will continue its momentum and people will go out and get involved. As I've gotten older, I have come to expect more of both citizens and the government...I hope that others do not sit down and wait for Obama to change things for them. We have as much work to do as anyone.

I hope this finds you all well and recovering from post-election parties.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Racist Black Preacher

Here's a black preacher referring to Senator Tarzan, that "Ni**er." Now, usually I would feel disgusted having heard this soul-staining rant, but I was directed to it by an e-mail sent through my family in NC.

God have mercy on our souls.