April 6, 2009

Rise (and kneeling) of the machines

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:59 PM

Via Tyler Cowen, this looks like a good way to scam people who subscribe to a very odd theology:

Information Age Prayer is a site that charges you a monthly fee to say prayers for you. A typical charge is $4.95 per month to say three prayers specified by you each day.

"We use state of the art text to speech synthesizers to voice each prayer at a volume and speed equivalent to typical person praying," the company states. "Each prayer is voiced individually, with the name of the subscriber displayed on screen."

Prices, however, are dictated by the length of the prayer. As noted in the Information Age Prayer FAQ, "A discounted prayer will cost less than other prayers of similar length."

The scam is not that they don't provide any value: presumably they supply some kind of peace of mind to the sort of person who goes for this, although I'm not sure it's $4.95/mo worth of peace of mind. The actual potential for scamming here is there's no way of verifying that they've performed the promised service at all, short of visiting their physical location (if it even exists). Then again, verifiability is unlikely to be a dealbreaker for someone credulous enough to find this idea attractive. It seems to hinge on some unusual assumptions about prayer, specifically that it's a kind of magic spell that needs to be vocalized, but having a machine vocalize it is a valid alternative to doing it yourself. (On the other hand, to hear Fred Clark tell it, the notion of prayer-as-magic-spell is a prevalent feature in the bestselling Left Behind series, so maybe this isn't such an unusual assumption after all.)

Entertainingly, the Yahoo News article goes from reporting on this service to cataloging occurrences of praying robots in science fiction, naturally including the Cylon religion in the recent Battlestar Galactica. However, Information Age Prayer seems to be less akin to the frakkin' toasters than it is to, well, ordinary toasters.

August 20, 2008

Historical precedents

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:53 PM

Perhaps the silliest part of this article about aggressive Christian proselytizing by the U.S. Olympic archery coach is this near the end:

To be an effective archer, Lee said, athletes must learn to clear their heads and focus. "If you are Christian," he said, "then people can have that kind of empty mind."

Asked if people of other faiths could learn to focus in the same way, Lee said he was not sure.

He's not sure? Is he really unaware that Zen Buddhists used this very technique for centuries in Japan? It seems like an Olympic archery coach should know this.

Anyway, it's hard to get too worked up about archery, but clearly this guy should be fired—his faith-based coaching described in the article is completely inappropriate and unquestionably could drive away talented athletes who aren't Christian. And even if those archers don't leave the team, I can't imagine that it helps them focus.

June 5, 2007

Frank Tipler {TECH}s up the Bible

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:01 PM

When I was in high school, a physicist named Frank Tipler published a book called The Physics of Immortality. The book purported to show that modern cosmology was not only compatible with Christianity, but predicted something like Christian theology including the concept of an afterlife. At the time I was still a believer, and was becoming interested in physics, so I was curious to see what the book had to say.

It was bad—really bad. So much so that even with only a high school knowledge of physics, and a predisposition to accept its conclusions, I found it ridiculously implausible. It wouldn't even have made it as bad science fiction (although Charlie Stross borrowed the concept in a more interesting way in Iron Sunrise). Years later, taking Caltech's intro astronomy course, I had the pleasure of hearing the professor deliver a very unflattering digression on Frank Tipler.

I was reminded of all this when I found out (via Sean Carroll) that Tipler has a new book out: The Physics of Christianity. And it sounds even sillier, if possible. It seems that Tipler is now interested in explaining various Biblical miracles though physics, for example: (from Victor Stenger's review)

In the case of Jesus walking on water, protons and electrons in the normal matter in a layer of water under his feet are annihilated. The neutrinos produced go off invisibly downward with high momentum, the upward recoil enabling Jesus to keep from sinking.

This is actually similar to what you see in other The Physics of... books, such as in The Physics of Harry Potter's explanation of how the Sorting Hat could be implemented with SQUID sensors. But those books are, as Sean Carroll points out, just fun exercises in comparing fictional worlds to the real world. On the other hand, Frank Tipler is trying to explain supposed actual historical events, and it's hard to see what the point is of making up some story about a hypothetical decay process underpinning various miracles. Does it really change anyone's understanding, believer or not, to go from "Jesus could walk on water because he's omnipotent" to "Jesus could walk on water because he could annihilate protons with electrons on demand, because he's omnipotent"? It doesn't do any explanatory work.

And so what all this suggests to me is that Frank Tipler thinks the Bible should be more like Star Trek. A while back I found this post on an RPG-related blog, which explains how technical language gets inserted into Star Trek scripts:

I am told that the writers of Star Trek scripts do not usually come up with all of the jargon that the characters use. Instead, they just make the notation {TECH} wherever the characters should say something technical, and someone else will come along to fill in each such instance with some chunk of technobabble. This has an important story consequence: since the science is completely arbitrary, it's necessarily the case that the plot can't really hinge, in a compelling way, on the technical and scientific choices the characters face. It's all just {TECH}, and at best technobabble can provides sci-fi color, and at worst it's an excuse for a deus ex machina resolution.

So I imagine that Frank Tipler reads the Bible and sees a bunch of {TECH} notations that he feels compelled to fill in himself. And the last sentence of that quote describes the effect pretty well, which is why even as a believer I found Tipler's book unsatisfying.

Permalink | Tags: Christianity, Physics, Psychoceramics, Religion

May 14, 2007

The parable of the priest at the atheists' group

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:46 PM

It's been a long time since I've written an excessively long post on religion, but I was inspired today. Normally I would put most of it below the fold, but I haven't posted in like a week, so I'll just let it fill the empty space on the front page.

Fred Clark has a couple of interesting posts at Slacktivist: the first one about what he calls "Biblical illiteralists"—fundamentalist Christians who don't understand literary device and insist that obviously metaphorical stories from the Bible are historical fact—and the second post about the same tendency among some atheists—those who claim that, because some stories in the Bible are risible when interpreted as historical accounts, this casts doubt on the entire religious enterprise. This latter struck me as a bit straw-man-ish at first, but when I thought about it I realized that I do hear these kinds of simplistic arguments for atheism at times. In fact, it reminded me of an experience I had when I first came to Berkeley.

During my first semester here I didn't know very many people, so I sampled some of the student groups in the hopes of meeting some friends. One group that looked interesting was a kind of weekly discussion group for atheists with topics centered around morality, metaphysics, and religion (as a societal institution). Hoping perhaps for a continuation of the classic late-night dorm room bullshit sessions, I showed up for a few meetings.

Inevitably, the group contained a number of what Fred Clark calls "sectarian atheists", which is partly why I was reminded of this. I was also surprised and amused to see an older man with a priest's collar at each meeting. He was in fact a priest, ordained in the Anglican church, and attended the meetings not just to tweak us atheists (although he did seem a bit mischievous) but to participate in the dialogue, and generally made positive contributions to the discussion.

The standard format called for an invited speaker each week who would get the discussion started by talking on some topic of interest. One week the priest himself was invited to give his side of the story. He talked about his view of religion and his role as a priest, and some of his comments were strikingly similar to what Fred Clark says in the posts I linked above. He discussed literary devices, metaphor in particular, and emphasized that metaphor is a natural mode of communication for humans, employed heavily by the Bible, and it's a mistake to try to read metaphorical passages as historical accounts. Of course he was talking not only about religious fundamentalists but about atheists who insist on this very naive reading of religious texts, some of whom were in the audience.

Two things struck me as I listened to his talk: first, that the priest was making a lot of sense even if I didn't see things the same way, and second, that many of the people in the room simply didn't understand what he was saying. Judging from the picayune and tangential objections they were raising, they had entirely missed the point and were convinced he had to be wrong simply because he was religious. When Fred Clark talks about sectarian atheists, these are the people I think of. That was the last meeting I attended; I was unimpressed by an atheists' group where the most sensible person in the room was a priest.

Going back to Fred Clark, in the first of his two posts he points out that (for example) the Noah's Ark story has precisely the form of a just-so story (in the original Kipling sense), where the point of the story is not an accurate recounting of facts but to pass on some more abstract principle. Whether one is religious or not, to read it as something other than a parable is crazy or obtuse. But because of the emphasis on Biblical inerrancy in some circles, people on both sides get hung up on whether Noah's Ark happened exactly as it says. I agree with Clark that this is extremely silly.

But it seems to me that this silliness is not limited to the "Biblical literalism" crowd; in fact, it extends to almost all Christians. I imagine one can get a sizable fraction of Christians to agree that Noah's Ark is just a parable, and likewise the creation story, and Jonah-in-the-whale and the story of Job and so forth. But what about the virgin birth of Jesus, or the resurrection? My sense (I don't have polling data) is that the historical truth of the resurrection is a core Christian belief, and almost all Christians believe it. And yet, if Noah's Ark has all the trappings of metaphor (and it does), so does the resurrection story. Journeys to the underworld and returning from the dead were extremely common tropes in ancient mythology, with clear metaphorical connotations. There's no reason to read this particular instance as a historical account, but almost all Christians do.

Indeed, many will argue that someone who doesn't believe in the resurrection of Jesus isn't a Christian at all. Reading the obviously-metaphorical parts of the Gospel as metaphor removes the divinity of Jesus, makes him perhaps a notable quasi-historical figure like Socrates or Buddha, about whom some tall tales were told to illustrate his teachings. And the same could be said about the Bible as a whole. Once we view the book as a collection of fantasical morality tales, God becomes a fictional character, a narrative conceit that links the stories together. And so it's very strange indeed to turn around and say, well, this was all just metaphor but this one character in the story really exists!

So I don't see why a sophisticated reading of the Bible, recognizing metaphorical passages as such, doesn't lead directly to atheism. Probably in a lot of cases people set apart the sections corresponding to core beliefs, like the resurrection, and refrain from analyzing them in this manner, while freely interpreting more disposable stories (like Noah) as parable.

Can someone be a Christian and yet interpret the Bible consistently as metaphor? I once met such a person—the priest who spoke at the atheism group. As he explained his beliefs, the resurrection of Jesus was an illustrative story and God was a metaphor for a kind of collective property of humankind, not a distinct metaphysical entity. His Christianity was then based around his belief that this metaphorical structure was extremely valuable for understanding human nature. (This would be the part I didn't agree with.) Nevertheless, if the word atheist has any meaning, it means someone who doesn't believe in any gods as actual metaphysical entities, and so to my mind, this man was an atheist—one of us! Unfortunately the more dogmatic atheists in the room couldn't see past his collar, and never grasped what he was trying to say.

And that's the parable of the priest at the atheists' group. Although this one did really happen.

Permalink | Tags: Atheism, Religion

November 27, 2006

A world of atheists

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:34 PM

There's a really interesting post by Matthew Yglesias from last week that I only got around to reading today. The topic is the argument one sometimes hears that the widespread nature of religious experience is somehow evidence of the supernatural. The whole post is worth reading, but here's the punchline:

There's clearly a significant human predilection for not-supported-by-science beliefs of various sorts -- in the existence of a god or gods, astrology, fortune-telling, alien visits to earth, the healing power of crystals, etc. -- but there's no particular convergence of these beliefs on anything in particular. Meanwhile, on many of the particular question you might ask about religious subjects, atheists are going to be in the majority. Like most people on earth, atheists don't believe that Jesus Christ died for man's sins. Similarly, just like most people, atheists don't believe that Muhammed was Allah's greatest prophet or that the Hidden Imam will return. And, again, like most people atheists don't believe that you'll be reborn on earth after death in a new body.

I'm reminded of the famous quote from Stephen F. Roberts: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

Permalink | Tags: Atheism, Religion

November 17, 2006

Religion at its most disturbing

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:50 PM

Could Christian fundamentalism get any more creepy? (Without whispering?)

Exhibit A: "Purity Balls". Kind of like proms, except your date is your dad, and you pledge to be sexually abstinent until your dad gives you away in marriage. There's no equivalent for boys, of course. You can watch a squicky promo video, but you might wish you hadn't. Subtexts: misogyny, incest.

Exhibit B: "Quiverfull". As detailed here, the Quiverfull movement is based on the idea that women should reject all forms of birth control and become baby factories building an army for Jesus. Quiverfull devotees often have upwards of ten children, and the number of kids even becomes a status symbol. What's really sad about this is that many of these families can't afford to raise so many children, and get stuck in crushing poverty. Much of this movement is driven by paranoia about higher birth rates among Muslims or minorities in general. Subtexts: misogyny, racism.

Exhibit C: Ted Haggard's "Spiritual Restoration". This article quotes a Focus on the Family spokesman explaining what this might involve. One gets a certain mental picture from quotes like this:

"I see success approximately 50 percent of the time," said H.B. London, vice president for church and clergy at Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian ministry in Colorado Springs. "Guys just wear out and they can no longer subject themselves to the process."
"It will have to become almost a confrontational relationship," he said. "You've got to confess your sins and you've got to have a group of people around you who will not let you whitewash the issue."

And this:
"From the Christian perspective, we think in terms of prayer, we think in terms of what we call godly counsel, where godly men who are clean themselves insert themselves in the life of the one who is struggling," London said.

The symbolic laying on of hands may also be a part of the recovery, London said.

...which suggests something other than a "spiritual restoration". Subtexts: Spanish Inquisition, BDSM.

I recommend reading these articles while listening to The Thermals' album The Body, The Blood, The Machine, a pop-punk indictment of the religious right in America. (I happened to be listening to it when I found the Quiverfull article.)

Permalink | Tags: Christianity, Religion

September 14, 2006

Shouldn't the companion be named Norton?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:31 PM

Via Dynamics of Cats, the "dwarf planet" whose discovery led to Pluto's demotion has been named Eris, losing its previous informal name of Xena. Steinn responds with an appropriate "Hail Eris!", but then wonders if dwarf planets should have dwarf names.

As a sometime-admirer of the Goddess (one of the patron deities of Kaos Alley), I am pleased to see her recognized here, even if it is a dinky little dwarf planet. (At least it has an appropriately eccentric orbit.) In her honor, I suggest going bowling, eating hotdogs (especially tomorrow), or generally doing something chaotic. Initiates can go here, and click randomly in the table of contents.

Via Pharyngula, the Bad Astronomy blog finds a wingnut who thinks that this naming choice is... a vicious liberal attack on George W. Bush. His argument is based on the fact that the Caltech is in California and therefore must be a major liberal enclave. I would like to propose a slightly more plausible theory, in which the game Illuminati is an accurate representation of world affairs, and the Discordian Society has just added the IAU to their power structure.

Permalink | Tags: Caltech, Randomness, Religion, Science

July 20, 2006

And I feel fine

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:13 PM

I was pretty sure this was going on, but Harper's actually mined some apocalypse-oriented message boards for quotes from crazy people who are ecstatic about the war in Lebanon, because it is apparently a clear sign that the Rapture is approaching. Not the band, which would be equally fearsome, but that peculiar item in some flavors of Christian eschatology where God kills off spirits away all the believers and children, leaving the rest of us poor bastards to endure the tribulations that follow. To prevent us from making smartass remarks about the potential upsides of all the hardcore conservative Christians vanishing from the Earth, this version of the end-times calls for demons and plagues and rivers of blood for the infidels. So you can see why it's something to be joyful about.

But wait a minute, exactly what prophecy is being fulfilled here? Basically, the book of Revelation makes the bold statement that there will be violent conflict in the Middle East. So a war breaks out involving Israel, something which has happened approximately every fifteen minutes since the dawn of time—surely this is a sign of the apocalypse! Really, these guys should at least wait for Jesus to appear on a tortilla (or, um, God on an alligator) before they break out the Rapture champagne sparkling cider.

Permalink | Tags: Apocalypse, Christianity, Religion, World

July 17, 2006

Putin and his robot army battle Cthulhu

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:08 PM

When he's not getting advice from Bush on how to emulate the free and stable democracy of Iraq, Vladimir Putin is addressing the important issues of the day:

Asked about the possible awakening of the giant mythical octopus Cthulhu, the fourth-most popular question among the more than 150,000 sent to Putin, he said that he believed something more serious was behind the question. Cthulhu was invented by novelist H.P. Lovecraft and was said to be sleeping beneath the Pacific Ocean.

Putin said he viewed mysterious forces with suspicion and advised those who took them seriously to read the Bible, Koran or other religious books.

[The original article seems to have gone behind a subscription wall; excerpt via Majikthise.] It's good to see that some world leaders are concerned about this issue. Someone should ask Bush about his Cthulhu policy, although I suspect that he too would say, "Read the Bible." (Or possibly, "I thought you were going to ask about the pig.")

Permalink | Tags: Cthulhu, Culture, Religion, World

July 13, 2006

Eulogy by the Medium Lobster

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:11 PM

It takes a true master of bullshit to out-do the quote in the previous post for sheer ridiculousness, so naturally it would be a reverend at the Ken Lay funeral who pulls it off:

The Reverend Dr. Bill Lawson compared Lay with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus Christ, and said his name would eventually be cleared.

Words fail me. (Via Pharyngula.)

UPDATE: Via Lawyers, Guns, and Money I find that there's more:

Lawson likened Lay to James Byrd, a black man who was dragged to death in a racially motivated murder near Jasper eight years ago.

"Ken Lay was neither black nor poor, as James Byrd was, but I'm angry because Ken was the victim of a lynching," said Lawson, who predicted that history will vindicate Lay.

As far as I can tell, the only thing Lay had in common with the other three is that they all died.

Permalink | Tags: Religion

May 30, 2006

Christian video games, where Jesus is the resurrection, the life, and the 1-up.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:12 PM

Via Pharyngula, here's a slightly alarmist article about a video game based on the Left Behind novels.

This game immerses children in present-day New York City -- 500 square blocks, stretching from Wall Street to Chinatown, Greenwich Village, the United Nations headquarters, and Harlem. The game rewards children for how effectively they role play the killing of those who resist becoming a born again Christian. The game also offers players the opportunity to switch sides and fight for the army of the AntiChrist, releasing cloven-hoofed demons who feast on conservative Christians and their panicked proselytes (who taste a lot like Christian).

Is this paramilitary mission simulator for children anything other than prejudice and bigotry using religion as an organizing tool to get people in a violent frame of mind? The dialogue includes people saying, "Praise the Lord," as they blow infidels away.

The article focuses on the disturbing eliminationist elements in the game, but I think any game that lets you play as the Antichrist can't be all bad. I can just imagine playing this game as Team Evil, cackling madly as I unleash my demonic horde. Sounds like fun!

More seriously, I'm never quite sure how I feel about games like this (or the similar jihadi video games that show up in the Middle East). The usual worry is that the eliminationist scenario and dehumanized opponents will make the player more inclined to real-world violence. But the counter-argument is that video games provide an outlet for political frustration and revenge fantasies, and hence reduce the amount of real-world violence. I'm not thoroughly convinced by either argument: really this is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of paranoid and apocalyptic rhetoric in the conservative Christian subculture that comprises Left Behind's target audience, and thus is merely a symptom of a larger problem.

Permalink | Tags: Apocalypse, Christianity, Games, Religion

The problem of evil strikes back

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:13 PM

We've probably had enough discussion of the problem of evil on this blog, but I can't help pointing out it's appearance in the news. Apparently one world leader, upon visiting Auschwitz, had the following reaction:

"In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dread silence, a silence which is a heartfelt cry to God -- Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?

"Where was God in those days? Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?"

Indeed, these are questions any religious skeptic might ask, but it's surprising to hear them from Pope Benedict. It seems like the sort of thing a guy in his position should have the answer to. (Via Majikthise.)

In a slightly parallel story, Mark at Cosmic Variance watches as Billy Graham comes very close to endorsing a skeptical outlook on religious claims. I must say this is a promising trend among major religious figures toward inquiry and empiricism, but somehow I don't see it lasting very long.

Permalink | Tags: Catholicism, Christianity, Problem of Evil, Religion

April 18, 2006

Yet more religion blogging: Genocidal gods

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:19 PM

I don't mean to be obsessed with religion lately, but I keep seeing opportunities to blog about it. Blogger Mark Kleiman sometimes posts notes from his Tanakh study group; I usually skip these posts, but the latest was of interest. It discusses one of the most disturbing passages in the Bible, 1 Samuel 15. I'm particularly interested in this passage because it's the first place I go if I want to argue that the Bible should not be regarded as having any moral authority.

The Samuel of the book's title is a Hebrew prophet, and this chapter occurs during Saul's reign as king of Israel. Now, God is pissed off at another tribe, the Amalekites, for how they treated the Israelites during their escape from Egypt, which was hundreds of years prior at this point in the Bible. So he has Samuel instruct Saul to do the only thing consistent with a just, moral God: kill every man, woman, and child in the Amalekite tribe. Also, Saul is to kill all the livestock to show they mean business and aren't just after spoils. So, Saul takes the Israelite army and commits divinely mandated genocide, wiping out the tribe—except that they spare the Amalekite king and some of the livestock. Naturally God gets angry with Saul and strips him of his kingship, because his genocidal instructions were not followed to the letter. Samuel's so angry he personally grabs a sword and messily executes the Amalekite king.

So, you see the problem here. No god that orders such an atrocity is worthy of worship; in fact, basic morality requires that one actively oppose such a god, even if this results in being smited into ash. I was curious to see what Kleiman's notes would say in regards to this passage; he seems disturbed by it and looks for some justification in the text, but finds little:

We found nothing to say in defense either of the genocidal attack on the Amalekites (except that HaShem's actions are not taken as guides for human actions) or of Samuel's final bit of brutality (which lacks the excuse of a Divine commandment). We hoped that the text might mean that Agag was beheaded first and then the corpse chopped up — as disgusting as that would have been — but the text doesn't say so, and the more natural reading would seem to be Samuel sliced Agag limb from limb while he was still alive.

I don't buy this bit about "HaShem's actions are not taken as guides for human actions". For one thing, it's humans that are actually carrying out the genocide on God's orders. And furthermore, it's not clear why I should hold God to a lower moral standard than I hold mortals. Now, one approach is to say that God is the one who gets to define morality—after all, he's the one handing down the stone tablets—so by definition nothing God does can be immoral. If that's the case, then fuck morality; I am going to adhere to a different system of ethics, which I call "schmorality", that holds (among other things) that genocide is always wrong. Come on, this one doesn't pass the laugh test.

Another important point, and this is sort of a Humean argument, is that even if it's ok to commit genocide when God commands it, one should never obey apparent commands from God to commit genocide. After all, if I hear a voice claiming to be God and instructing me to murder a bunch of people, I am going to consider several possibilities. Maybe it's actually God, or maybe I've gone crazy and am hearing voices in my head, or maybe it's a malevolent being impersonating God. This goes double if it's not a voice in my head, but some dude named Samuel. Then I'll consider how probable it is that it's really God and not one of the other possibilities, and weigh this against the enormity of the crime I am going to commit. Probably it's not God, and even if it is, the worst that can happen from disobeying is that he smites me and tries to get someone else to do it. Whereas if I'm wrong about it being God, I've just killed a bunch of people for no reason. So basic morality demands that one disobey these sorts of commands.

A different defense one can take regarding 1 Samuel 15 is to say that it's not an accurate description of events, but is fiction. If one still wants to preserve the rest of the Bible as a moral authority, one then has to decide if it was rightfully included as a kind of metaphorical tale or parable meant to teach a lesson, or if it was mistakenly included and is merely Bronze Age tribal propaganda. If I were religious, I would reject the former possibility out of hand. It would seem to me the foulest of blasphemies to ascribe such behavior to God. Whatever lesson this is supposed to impart, it's the wrong one, since one should actually disobey these commands from God. On the other hand, if it was wrongfully included, the judgement of the mortal editors compiling the Old Testament or Tanakh is therefore suspect. Clearly these guys had no moral or spiritual authority themselves, or they would have recognized that this passage did not belong with the other books. And this in turn undermines the authority of the rest of the Bible: if you can't trust the inclusion of this book, why trust any of the others? And so I think this chapter is a huge problem for any religion that claims the Old Testament as a holy text.

Permalink | Tags: Christianity, Religion, The Bible

April 16, 2006

The true spirit of Easter

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:59 PM

Warning: this post is profane and blasphemous. Well, more so than usual.

I rarely promote a religious message on this blog, but today I would like you all to consider the spirit of Easter. No, not Jesus and brightly colored candy; the true spirit of Easter: fucking. After all, it is commonly thought that the Christian Easter was an assimilation of pagan fertility rites, which undoubtedly entailed lots of wild pagan sex. Now, my exhaustive research based on one or two Wikipedia pages indicates that the fertility goddess Eostre was actually invented by some dudes well after the fact. But this just puts it at the same epistemological status as Jesus coming back from the dead, so I don't see any problem.

So let's bring Easter back to its apocryphal orgiastic origins, and put the erection back in resurrection. I'd like to encourage everyone to celebrate the day by grabbing a hot specimen of your preferred gender and screwing like (Easter) bunnies. You're single? No problem, this isn't goddamn Valentine's Day. Just go out and find a willing participant for some casual, no-strings-attached sacred springtime rituals. Lots of people will be hanging around churches today so you might start there.

Just don't take the "fertility" part too literally—if I end up on a plane with a screaming baby as a result of this post, I won't be pleased. Besides, you can annoy many sects of Christianity even more by using birth control.

And what will I be doing to celebrate the holiday, you so weren't going to ask? Well, actually... I'll probably be in the lab. But in the spirit of Easter, I'll be measuring a pair of coupled qubits. And you know qubit sex is pretty hot, when they can take on all possible positions simultaneously. Don't think of me as a physicist, think of me as a quantum porn photographer.

Permalink | Tags: Christianity, Religion, Sex

April 13, 2006

Thoughts on neurotheology

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:08 PM

I don't mean to repost all of Pharyngula's links, but here's an article about neuroscience experiments into religious experience. One scientist claims to be able to produce religious sensations in 80% of subjects by applying magnetic fields to their brains. This doesn't surprise me very much; more amusing is that he gave the test to hardcore atheist Richard Dawkins and it had no effect. The article speculates that this might be evidence of a kind of "talent for religion", but I wonder if it could be the opposite: since Dawkins never goes to church, he doesn't exercise that part of his brain so it becomes less sensitive. I know I've seen experiments that show that certain types of mental exercise will have a measureable effect on brain physiology. But you neuroscience people can correct me if I'm just making this up.

One issue that I haven't seen raised is that, at least in my experience, the sensations one has in a religious context aren't unique to religion. Back when I was a believer and a regular churchgoer, I would have feelings of oneness and a kind of glowing happiness that I thought at the time came from the presence of God. But I also get these feelings while out running, or at a good rock concert, or when I have some new insight about physics (either through my own experiments or hearing about some new and interesting result). So is this the kind of feeling that the neuroscience experiments are inducing? The article also mentions a "sensed presence", which I've never had in church or elsewhere (except for sleep paralysis experiences, but I think that's a bit different). So do most people get the sensed presence in church, and I'm just insensitive to it like Dawkins? It's an interesting thought, that the experiences of most religious people might be qualitatively different from those I had when I was religious.

Permalink | Tags: Atheism, Neuroscience, Religion

April 9, 2006

The Gospel of Gazebo

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:42 PM

I had a bit of writer's block with regard to the blog the last few days, so it's been quiet. But when I need inspiration, I can always turn to Jesus—or rather, writing inflammatory posts about Jesus. Specifically: everyone seems to be talking about this Gospel of Judas that has been discovered, and is now being promoted by National Geographic. This is of course not something that has much relevance to me personally, but it's interesting to see some of the reactions.

Consider, for instance, this post by conservative blogger Stephen Bainbridge:

If you don't read the news accounts relating to the much ballyhooed Gospel of Judas carefully, you might come away with the impression that it is a legitimate alternative to orthodox Christian theology. Indeed, National Geographic is essentially billing it as such. In fact, however, what we know about the document suggests that it is yet another example of the Gnostic heresy.

The Gnostic heresy! Sounds pretty sinister. But if Bainbridge is worried about mainstream publications promoting heretical ideas, there is a much larger example of this that someone should bring to his attention. After all, Protestantism is chock-full of doctrine declared heretical by the Catholic church, and it gets a lot more media attention than Gnosticism.

But it's easy to see why Gnosticism is actually a more dangerous heresy than anything Martin Luther came up with. After all, Protestants may differ from Catholics on certain bureaucratic issues and arcana like transubstantiation, but they still use basically the same Bible and interpret it the same way. On the other hand, Gnosticism is a radically different interpretation of Christianity that actually makes a lot more sense. Well, that's not really true: there were lots of variants of Gnosticism in the ancient world and the various corresponding doctrines are mostly impenetrable. However, one of the general themes is that the world we live in is a flawed world created by an evil god, referred to as the demiurge. So already they've addressed the problem of evil. But in a stroke of brilliance, at least one Gnostic variant associates the demiurge with the god of the Old Testament, and has the god of the New Testament as a different god who will save humanity from the flawed world.

This neatly solves a big literary problem in the Bible where the god of the Old Testament has a vastly different character from the god of the New Testament (as well as changing his mind on a number of issues, which is an odd thing for an omniscient eternal being to do). Until Jesus comes along he's all about the smiting and the plagues and the wars, and afterwards he's suddenly a god of love and salvation and forgiveness. (Ok, and the lake of fire for nonbelievers, so some things haven't changed.) The Gnostic interpretation makes the New Testament god more plausible by disassociating him with the Old Testament, correctly judges the Old Testament god to be evil, allows one to throw out all the silly tribal laws associated with the evil god, and explains the problem of evil. If I were a Christian I'd convert to this instantly.

So one can understand why the church would worry about this. On the other hand, just because some interpretation of the Bible is more plausible doesn't mean it'll catch on. After all, my preferred interpretation is more plausible yet than the version above, but somehow the notion that it's all a bunch of made-up stories doesn't seem to be very popular in this country.

Permalink | Tags: Catholicism, Christianity, Religion, The Bible

March 23, 2006

Is there hope for Arkansas?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:31 PM

Doesn't look like it:

“Bob” is a geologist and a teacher at a science education institution that serves several Arkansas public school districts.
Teachers at his facility are forbidden to use the “e-word” (evolution) with the kids. They are permitted to use the word “adaptation” but only to refer to a current characteristic of an organism, not as a product of evolutionary change via natural selection. They cannot even use the term “natural selection.”
In his words, “I am instructed NOT to use hard numbers when telling kids how old rocks are. I am supposed to say that these rocks are VERY VERY OLD ... but I am NOT to say that these rocks are thought to be about 300 million years old.”

It's just insane that in the 21st century, young earth creationists are de facto deciding the curriculum in some parts of this country. In this case we should just refer to the Kung Fu Monkey motto: "Everybody who wants to live in the 21st Century over here. Everybody who wants to live in the 1800's over there. Good. Thanks. Good luck with that."

Permalink | Tags: Creationism, Evolution, Religion

March 2, 2006

Are the dolphins embarrassed too?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:46 PM

Via alicublog, Peggy Noonan has a hilariously crazy column up in which she asserts that (a) she is such a delicate flower that she feels violated by the fact that modern culture does not adhere to Victorian standards of propriety, and (b) for Lent, she is giving up not being an obnoxious prude. One might wonder how we would know the difference, but fortunately she's come up with a catchphrase:

Lent began yesterday, and I mean to give up a great deal, as you would too if you were me. One of the things I mean to give up is the habit of thinking it and not saying it. A lady has some rights, and this happens to be one I can assert.

"You are embarrassing the angels." This is what I intend to say for the next 40 days whenever I see someone who is hurting the culture, hurting human dignity, denying the stature of a human being. I mean to say it with belief, with an eye to instruction, but also pointedly, uncompromisingly. As a lady would. All invited to join in.

Can you believe that someone wrote that, and it was published in The Wall Street Journal? Peggy, you are embarrassing the humans. Anyway, I for one look forward to seeing her quoted on Overheard in New York trying out her new slogan.

Permalink | Tags: Psychoceramics, Religion

March 1, 2006

ID Whack-a-mole: Nevada

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:19 PM

Shellock sends along this story about a guy trying to get anti-evolution provisions into the Nevada constitution. Fortunately, he seems to be one of the less organized species of crackpot:

Las Vegas masonry contractor Steve Brown filed his initiative petition with the secretary of state's office, and must collect 83,184 signatures by June 20 to get the plan on the November ballot. To amend the Nevada Constitution, he'd have to win voter approval this year and again in the 2008 elections.

Brown said Tuesday that he hopes that volunteers will help him collect the signatures, but at this point has no name-gathering organization set up. A Democrat and member of a nondenominational church, he said he hoped for broad support from people who share his views.

(Emphasis mine.) Presumably some creationist lobbying group could step in and help gather the signatures, but I don't think even the Discovery Institute is that dumb. I know it's a bad idea to bet against the stupidity of the American people, but I expect this particular proposal to fizzle out. Actually, given that the movement here consists of one dude, I wonder why it's getting any press coverage at all. There are plenty of crazy guys on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley whose theories and legal proposals are equally newsworthy.

(I see Pharyngula also has this story.)

Permalink | Tags: Creationism, Evolution, Psychoceramics, Religion

February 28, 2006

Fasting and Religious Markets

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:21 PM

The Catholicism Cafeteria is getting so popular that even Protestants are dining there. Or not dining, rather: as this Slate piece explains, some Protestant churches are taking up fasting for Lent and other traditionally Catholic rituals of the season.

Over the last few years, more Protestant churches have begun daubing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in Western Christianity (March 1 this year). Fasting, long familiar to Catholics as a Lenten fact of life, is increasingly popular with evangelical Christians striving for spiritual awakening. A few mainline Protestant churches even conduct foot-washing services on Maundy Thursday—the traditional commemoration of Jesus' washing the feet of his disciples—that takes place on the Thursday before Easter.

It seems sort of silly at first glance—wasn't the whole point of the Reformation to get rid of all the arbitrary rules and rituals?—but thinking about it, it makes some sense. Most major religions have an element of asceticism, clearly people find it spiritually appealing, so it's not surprising that fasting would cross denominational lines. Fasting for Lent has the advantage of being a particularly temporary and limited form of asceticism, so it's not too much of a sacrifice to adopt.

More interesting was the statistic that one-third of believers change churches at least once in their lifetimes. This number is almost certainly much higher than it once was, as historically people have tended to remain in the sect they were born into. One might expect churches to become more market-driven under these circumstances, and then mixing and matching of rituals like this is a natural consequence. (I suspect one can also attribute the rise of megachurches to the increasing importance of market forces in religion, sort of a Wal-Martization of churches. Or is the Catholic Church the Wal-Mart of churches?)

One more thing—John Calvin deserves some kind of unintentional irony award for this:

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin criticized Lent as a "superstitious observance."

Right. As opposed to the empirical science that is Calvinism.

Permalink | Tags: Catholicism, Christianity, Religion

February 6, 2006

But I still... haven't found... a solution to the problem of evil.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:43 AM

Slacktivist has excerpts from U2 frontman Bono's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. Mostly, it's good stuff, in which he chastises George W. Bush for not doing more to fight poverty around the world. But there's one section that I thought was very self-defeating, because while Bono wants to make this a religious mission, he runs right into the problem of evil (which I've written about before). I have to wonder if Bono is really thinking about what he's saying here:

I mean, God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill … I hope so. He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff -- maybe, maybe not. But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor.

God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.

Bono is describing people who live in abject misery, and if we are to assume that God exists, the obvious question to ask is, why does God permit such suffering at all? It seems to me that one of the following statements has to be true:

1. God doesn't know about the suffering of the poor.
2. God knows about the poor but does not care.
3. God knows about the poor and cares about their suffering, but is powerless to help them.

Now religious people generally try to obscure the issue rather than admit that one of these things is true. But Bono in the above remarks has just ruled out statements 1 and 2, so we are left with the disturbing fact that Bono believe in a god who has less power to help the poor than George W. Bush, or Bono himself. Why even refer to such a being as a god? Seems more like sort of a concerned spirit, or something.

One could argue that God works his will through the charitable actions of humans. This doesn't reflect well on God's character: basically, he's the lazy manager who gets his subordinates to do all the work, and then takes all the credit at the end.

Or one could argue that the charitable impulse itself comes from God. This, in addition to resembling a common and vicious slander against atheists, argues for a very weak god indeed, as (by Bono's own admission) there is not nearly enough charity in the world.

So what good is it to the poor if God is with them? If man living in a cardboard box could trade the presence of God for a roof over his head, shouldn't he do it?

Permalink | Tags: Atheism, Christianity, Problem of Evil, Religion

February 4, 2006

Swallows might be more efficient

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:03 AM

"Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?"

"Not at all. They could be carried."

Via Boing Boing.

Permalink | Tags: Movies, Randomness, Religion, World

January 3, 2006

Fire and Ice

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:59 PM

Despite the best attempts of American Airlines to stop me with delays and mechanical failures, I have returned to Berkeley. Luckily there was no new flooding, but the rain continues. Meanwhile, in Connecticut I saw actual snow. Here are a couple of pictures I took while I was there:

This one is of a reservoir in New Canaan, which was partially iced over. It had been above freezing for several days and the ice was melting away.

ice over reservoir

New Year's Eve was on the last night of during Hannukah, and the party I attended (at Shellock's house) celebrated both. The full display of eight menorahs was quite impressive:


Permalink | Tags: Connecticut, Photos, Religion

December 25, 2005

363rd Newton's Birthday [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:34 AM

It's time once again for us to celebrate Newton's Birthday (which has a Wikipedia entry!). Some physics carols may be found here. Also check out that issue of Physics Today for physics songs. (Was it August '05? I don't have my collection here.)

Enjoy the holidays! Here's an open thread.

Permalink | Tags: History, Physics, Religion, Science

December 5, 2005

Musings on Narnia

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:53 PM

Like PZ Myers, I read the Chronicles of Narnia at an age (I think I was eight) where I was too young to notice the Christian allegory. My ability to understand metaphor actually turned on fairly late; even in my senior year in high school I was unable to handle questions in English class that required sophisticated textual interpretation. Nonetheless, in retrospect it seems pretty obvious, once I am reminded of the details. I mean, the lion dies and gets resurrected? (Well, Lord of the Rings did that too, but supposedly Tolkein himself was unimpressed by Narnia's heavy-handedness.)

Anyway, at the time I read them I liked the books well enough, and they were probably the first fantasy novels I read, but I soon moved on to other authors and didn't really return to Narnia (and I remember basically nothing of the plot of any of the books). I think I made it through the entire series once, where by comparison I read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series about 8,000 times. As children's fantasy goes, the latter series is far superior, with more interesting characters, wittier dialogue, and more emotional impact—scenes from that series are seared into my brain in ways that C.S. Lewis never accomplished. Wonder if that one had Christian subtext too, or if it was all Welsh folklore. But I digress.

Back to Narnia, my excitement about the movie has thus far been limited, but not due to the allegorical aspects. After all, Lord of the Rings had that, and I was still excited about the movies, because they were good stories. And one of the reasons a lot of people find Christianity appealing is that it draws from universal narratives about sacrifice and redemption, which are certainly appropriate for epic fantasy. No, what turns me off about Narnia is that I tend to be uninterested in stories in which the protagonists are children. Of course, that wasn't the case when I originally read the books, but maybe that's why I never returned to them as I became more interested in mature perspectives. Likewise, the Harry Potter series has become more interesting to me as the characters age (although I am still one book and two movies behind on that one). Speaking of which, another thing that worries me is that filming the Chronicles of Narnia right now is a transparent attempt to jump on the LotR/Harry Potter fantasy bandwagon, and while this doesn't mean the movie won't be good, it means the filmmakers have less motivation to do a good job if they think it's a sure thing commercially. (Remember that Fellowship of the Ring was a huge risk for New Line and Peter Jackson!)

All that said, I do have a certain curiosity about how the Narnia movie will handle the source material, so I'm likely to end up seeing it anyway.

Permalink | Tags: Books, Culture, Movies, Religion

December 4, 2005

Keep Christmas, ban the music

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:49 PM

As many other bloggers have noted, certain conservative blowhards are once again pushing the "War on Christmas" meme this year, the idea being that us secular liberals are somehow forcing businesses to say "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas", and that this is an issue of apocalyptic significance. Bill O'Reilly in particular seems to have been driven completely insane through his obsession with this fictional issue. Needless to say, there is no sinister conspiracy to cancel Christmas, and even I, as secular and atheistic as they come, am not bothered by "Merry Christmas"—in fact, I'm likely to respond in kind.

The fact is that a large component of Christmas is already secular, and even if I don't go to church on Christmas Eve I can participate in much of the celebration. I have, in the past, been accused of being a massive hypocrite for doing so, but I enjoy seeing my close relatives and giving them gifts, so why shouldn't I take part? Exchanging gifts isn't exactly a sacred rite on the order of taking communion—it's a fun tradition with little if any spiritual aspect. (I guess the religious connection is supposed to be through the gifts of the Magi? But this always struck me as more of a rationalization than some deep scriptural mandate.) Besides, I think the trees and lights are kind of fun, most of the traditions have their roots in pagan solstice holidays anyway, and I'm happy to celebrate the birthday of a great man who made immeasurable contributions to civilization. (I'm referring, of course, to Sir Isaac Newton.)

However, there is one unavoidable element of the season that makes me want to enlist in the nonexistent War on Christmas, and that is the saturation of Christmas music in stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places of business (presumably the same ones that are being forced to say "Happy Holidays" by Grinch-like liberals). It used to be that I'd only start getting sick of the music around Dec. 20th, but these days I cringe when I first hear some lame rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" come over a retailer's loudspeaker (usually around Oct. 3rd). Now maybe I'm overly sensitive to this sort of thing—I like a certain amount of variety in the music I listen to, and I have an elaborate set of iTunes smart playlists to prevent any given song from playing too often (and that's for music that I like to begin with)—but I know I'm not alone, since I hear more and more complaints about this every year. Fred Clark at Slacktivist, perhaps out of the same masochistic impulse that has led him to produce elaborate page-by-page analyses of the horrific writing in the Left Behind series, has been listening to one of the all-Christmas, all-the-time stations, and produced a couple of interesting posts on the subject. And via his comments I found this series of short reviews of Christmas music by a witty and theologically-knowledgable atheist. None of this really soothes the pain of having to listen to "Jingle Bell Rock" for the millionth time, but at least I know I'm not alone in this.

Permalink | Tags: Christianity, Music, Religion

November 27, 2005

"Mechanistic, Naturalistic and Evolutionistic Philosophy"

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:01 PM

Via Katie in e-mail, the NYTimes has excerpts from textbooks for "Christian schools", published by (who else?) Bob Jones University.

And yes, there's a Physics for Christian Schools. It's disturbing that someone thought physics was too atheistic and needed to be all churched up. Physicists, on the other hand, are pretty godless compared to the general population. Anyway, here's an excerpt:

Some people have developed the idea that higher mathematics and science have little to do with the Bible or Christian life. They think that because physics deals with scientific facts, or because it is not pervaded with evolutionary ideas, there is no need to study it from a Christian perspective. This kind of thinking ignores a number of important facts to the Christian: First, all secular science is pervaded by mechanistic, naturalistic and evolutionistic philosophy. Learning that the laws of mechanics as they pertain to a baseball in flight are just the natural consequences of the way matter came together denies the wisdom and power of our Creator God. ... Second, physics as taught in the schools of the world contradicts the processes that shaped the world we see today. Trying to believe both secular physics and the Bible leaves you in a state of confusion that will weaken your faith in God's Word.

I have this perverse curiosity as to how exactly they remedy the mechanistic and naturalistic approach in "secular science" (a redundant phrase, I believe). Perhaps the equations are presented in the form "F = ma, because of Jesus."

Reminds me of the classic anti-evolution Chick tract in which it is asserted that the strong nuclear force is a falsehood, and that atomic nuclei are compelled to hold together by the power of Christ. And speaking of evolution, I can only imagine what their "biology for Christians" text is like. Good for the UC for not crediting some of these courses.

Permalink | Tags: Christianity, Physics, Religion

October 5, 2005

Cain and Abel seem to still be causing trouble

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:26 AM

I tend to have pretty harsh words for the Catholic Church, but this deserves applause: Bishops in Britain are actively trying to discourage literal readings of the Bible. Via Pharyngula:

Catholic Church no longer swears by truth of the Bible
THE hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has published a teaching document instructing the faithful that some parts of the Bible are not actually true.

The Catholic bishops of England, Wales and Scotland are warning their five million worshippers, as well as any others drawn to the study of scripture, that they should not expect “total accuracy” from the Bible.

“We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision,” they say in The Gift of Scripture.

Excellent. Hey, can we get that printed as a warning label on Bibles, like the ones the creationists try to put on biology textbooks?

Permalink | Tags: Catholicism, Christianity, Religion, The Bible

September 15, 2005

Ok, you can stop now.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:53 PM

Michael Newdow is still at it:

Judge Rules Pledge of Allegiance in Calif. Schools Unconstitutional

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 14 -- A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the law requiring the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional and said he was ready to issue an injunction to three California school districts to halt the daily reciting of the pledge.

I heard Newdow speak at Berkeley a couple years ago. He seemed like a good, well-intentioned guy, and I agree with him on a lot of things. But I wish he'd put his quest on hold for a while. This is terrible timing: it'll just create a backlash that'll provide lots of support for whatever theocrats Bush nominates to judgeships. Obviously "under God" in the Pledge is unconstitutional, but equally obviously the Supreme Court won't rule that way after two appointments from Bush. So there's no way to win here.

Not to mention that there are ongoing battles over church/state separation on issues that actually have a major impact, like the teaching of evolution. Insofar as activists have limited resources it's probably better not to focus on purely symbolic issues.

Permalink | Tags: Atheism, Politics, Religion

August 31, 2005

Thoughts on religious tax-exemption... with twist ending!

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:06 PM

You know an article is flamebait when it begins with a sentence like, "Thank God for child-molesting priests, I always say." That piece from last week's East Bay Express seems to have been written as an entry in a hate mail collection competition. The topic: why we should collect property tax from churches.

Now, my gut response is generally that of course churches should be subject to the same taxes as other non-profit organizations. But while reading this article, a couple of caveats occurred to me. Maybe this isn't such a good idea...

For one thing, this wouldn't really be a tax on churches, but a tax on church parishioners passed on by collection plate and fundraiser. I seem to recall that church attendance decreases with increased socioeconomic status (if anyone has statistics supporting or rebutting this let me know), so this tax would be highly regressive. This alone might be reason to continue the tax-exempt status. Meanwhile, I would guess that most secular non-profits draw more donations from higher-income donors, so the same argument wouldn't apply. [The relevant statistics for determining whether the tax is in fact regressive would be donations by socioeconomic status; if donation amounts increase faster with income than church attendance decreases, which is plausible, it might not be so bad. These statistics are probably harder to come by.]

Another factor is that churches will streamline operations so as to mitigate the amount of additional funding necessary. This will lead inevitably to the Wal-Martization of churches in the US, with smaller congregations either closing shop or being absorbed into increasingly large numbers of those scary megachurches that meet in sports stadiums with tacky laser shows and bad Christian rock. (I suppose "bad Christian rock" is redundant.)

So this atheist says: don't tax the churches. However, I would like to request tax-exempt status for my own Cathedral of His Noodliness the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Permalink | Tags: Religion

August 30, 2005

Divine wrath, illustrated with cloud pictures

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:47 PM

Via Pandagon: I pretty much expected something like this, although I had no idea it would be so over-the-top crazy:

The image of the hurricane above with its eye already ashore at 12:32 PM Monday, August 29 looks like a fetus (unborn human baby) facing to the left (west) in the womb, in the early weeks of gestation (approx. 6 weeks). Even the orange color of the image is reminiscent of a commonly used pro-life picture of early prenatal development (see sign with picture of 8-week pre-born human child below). In this picture, and in another picture in today's on-line edition of USA Today*, this hurricane looks like an unborn human child.

Louisiana has 10 child-murder-by-abortion centers - FIVE are in New Orleans
www.ldi.org ('Find an Abortion Clinic [sic]')

Baby-murder state # 1 - California (125 abortion centers) - land of earthquakes, forest fires, and mudslides
Baby-murder state # 2 - New York (78 abortion centers) - 9-11 Ground Zero
Baby-murder state # 3 - Florida (73 abortion centers) - Hurricanes Bonnie, Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne in 2004; and now, Hurricane Katrina in 2005

God's message: REPENT AMERICA !

If we still don't get it, presumably God will make the next hurricane actually spell out the letters "REPENT AMERICA". Kind of like really destructive skywriting. I can't wait to see what these dudes say when the Big One wrecks San Francisco and/or Berkeley. Um, assuming I survive.

Permalink | Tags: Politics, Religion

"Yawning gaps in basic knowledge"

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:00 PM

See those dents in my desk? There's one for every time I see the results of a survey like this:

Dr. Miller's data reveal some yawning gaps in basic knowledge. American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.

Excuse me a minute... [bangs head on desk, labels new dent "2005"]

I should figure out what I, as a scientist, can/should be doing to improve basic science education. At least no one is trying to argue that science classes should "teach both sides" of the Earth-Sun orbit controversy... on the other hand, Biblical literalism demands a geocentric system just as much as it demands creationism, and the current Pope considers the Inquisition's persecution of Galileo to have been "reasonable and just", so maybe this is next once Intelligent Design gets established.

Permalink | Tags: Religion, Science

August 11, 2005

Boring Movies for Jesus

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:23 PM

Oh, this is so lame. The producers of the Da Vinci Code movie don't want to upset anybody:

Studio officials have consulted with Catholic and other Christian specialists on how they might alter the plot of the novel to avoid offending the devout. In doing so, the studio has been asked to consider such measures as making the central premise - that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene - more ambiguous, and removing the name of Opus Dei.

"The question I was asked was, 'Can you give them some things they can do to change it, to make it not offensive to the Christian audience?' " said Barbara Nicolosi, executive director of Act One, an organization that coaches Christians on making it in Hollywood. She said she was approached by Jonathan Bock, a marketing expert hired by Sony for his knowledge of Christian sensibilities, and included in the discussions Amy Welborn, who has published a refutation of "The Da Vinci Code" titled "De-Coding Da Vinci."

"We came up with three things," Nicolosi said: the more ambiguous approach to the central premise, the removal of Opus Dei and amending errors in the book's description of religious elements in art.

What, exactly, do the studio officials think is the source of the book's popularity? It certainly wasn't the writing; it was the controversy and the twist on church doctrine. The people who were going to be offended aren't going to see it anyway, and the people who might actually be interested will be turned off by the "ambiguous" version. And who are these Christians who are so sensitive as to get worked up over this? It's a bad sign if you think that the plausibility of your dogma can be undermined by a Tom Hanks film.

Fortunately, most the of the Christians I know personally are unperturbed by such things, but sadly there's a long tradition of this kind of overreaction in Christianity. This goes back through the church's list of banned books and persecution of heretics, all the way to the founder himself:

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. (Mt. 12:31)

So Jesus is only encouraging this sort of thing. Why couldn't he instead have said "Lighten up, it's only a movie"?

Permalink | Tags: Books, Catholicism, Christianity, Movies, Religion, The Bible

August 3, 2005

Fun with ID (and pasta)

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:55 PM

I missed this when it was on BoingBoing (while I was in Italy), but have now been enlightened by PZ Myers: a competing theory of Intelligent Design based around Flying Spaghetti Monsterism is demanding its place in science classes. The best part is this picture:

Also notable for their theory of global warming which involves pirates.

Permalink | Tags: Creationism, Pirates, Religion