Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Grieving with God... or not

There's a great editorial on CNN entitled, "Why must the nation grieve with God?" It discusses the apparent expectation that whenever there is a national tragedy, we must all come together to pray. From the editorial:

"Why must it be a natural expectation that any such national tragedy will be accompanied by prayers, including from the president, to at least one version of the very God, who apparently in his infinite wisdom, decided to call 20 children between the age of 6 and 7 home by having them slaughtered by a deranged gunman in a school that one hopes should have been a place or nourishment, warmth and growth?

"We are told the Lord works in mysterious ways but, for many people, to suggest there might be an intelligent deity who could rationally act in such a fashion and that that deity is worth praying to and thanking for 'calling them home' seems beyond the pale...

"...the question that needs to be asked is why, as a nation, do we have to institutionalize the notion that religion must play a central role at such times, with the president as the clergyman-in-chief?"

Exactly. No one would argue that many people derive comfort from their religion in times of grief. But having the president offer prayers, without even acknowledging that some of us don't worship a deity, is more annoying than comforting. The endless discussion of religion in the media doesn't help, either. Some members of the families of the victims may not be religious, and there are certainly nonreligious people in America trying to come to grips with this tragedy. Offering some thoughts of a more humanistic nature might help comfort them. Offering religion up as the only possible consolation doesn't.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A menorah, but no Christmas tree

Oddly enough, a local city park in Virginia Beach, where I grew up, has displayed a menorah every Hanukkah since 1981, but Christian symbols there have been erratic (at various times there have been a nativity scene and a Christmas tree, but no one has bothered to do it regularly). It appears that the menorah is provided by a Jewish group that says it's "publicizing the Chanukah miracle." Someone this year asked about it, and the city told him he could put up a display, with the caveat that if he used lights, he had to provide an electric generator and $500,000 worth of liability insurance (this is probably why the Jewish group is the only one to have bothered). He did so, and now there's a Christmas tree up there, too.

This is interesting to me because the menorah has been there for years and years, and no one's argued about it. (In Googling, I did find one editorial about it, mostly complaining that if we evil atheists argue about nativity scenes, we should argue about this, too-- a point I find hard to dispute, even though I disliked the editorial in general.) It's prominent, too, being displayed along the major interstate that runs to the Virginia Beach waterfront. One of the articles adds, "Those interested in displaying a symbol - a menorah, Christmas tree or manger scene, for example - must apply with the city's Parks and Recreation Department, which takes requests on a first-come basis." It appears that the city has no awareness that religious symbols in a public park may be a problem. After all, it's a tradition.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Fox News talks about evolution

A surprisingly positive video from Fox News about evolution, letting Bill Nye talk quite a bit and explain his position, is here. The best argument the host comes up with is arguing that 46% of Americans believe in young-earth creationism (which Nye points out means we simply aren't teaching science well enough), and the comment, "There's no evidence of that spark that created actual life... why can't that be God?"... an observation which is irrelevant to a discussion about evolution vs. creation. But as far as I can tell (as a nonwatcher of Fox News), John Stossel seems to be a libertarian rather than a religious right-winger, so that probably accounts for it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

It's the end of the world as we know it

According to a recent survey, "Thirty-six percent of Americans say that the severity of recent natural disasters indicate that we are at the precipice of Jesus’ second coming and the end of the world." Fifteen percent believe the world will end during their lifetimes.

What a scary and negative world these theists live in. If there's one thing I'd really like to eradicate about religion, it's the idea that God is a savage, capricious monster who's going to wipe out the world just for the hell of it. All too often, the fundamentalist version of God makes me think of Q, but without the sense of humor.

I know that these theists would assert that some people (probably including themselves) will be saved, and that the "end times" are proof of God's glory and mercy, rather than proof that he's a vicious son-of-a-bitch-- but to me, it seems like an infinitely depressing viewpoint. What's the point in working for a better world if God can just get up one morning and decide to wipe it all out? And why would anyone worship such a nasty, destructive deity, anyway? Would you really want to go to a heaven where perfectly decent people were excluded and left to burn in torture forever, just because of their religious beliefs, or because they just didn't measure up somehow? I sure wouldn't.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Proof of Noah!

Just as I suggested in this post, some people are already taking the "Noah's flood" story as proof of the Bible. Case in point, the always precise and careful journalism of Fox News:

"Robert Ballard, the underwater archaeologist famed for discovering the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, claims to have found evidence of the biblical flood that Noah fled, surfing the waters for 40 days and 40 nights, according to Genesis. He says the Black Sea was once merely a freshwater lake -- until an enormous wall of water from the Mediterranean 200 times more powerful than Niagara Falls swept it and everything else away. Including Noah and his ark."

The Fox article links to the ABC article I cited previously, and if you can read above kindergarten level, you already know that's really not what the ABC article says. Nowhere does it claim that the archaeologist actually thinks he's going to find Noah's ark, or proof that Noah himself actually existed, or even that it was a worldwide flood, as the Bible indicates. What Ballard seems to be saying is that there was an abrupt flood in the Black Sea region, precipitated by the melting of glacial ice, which eventually inspired the stories of Noah and Utnapishtim.

Of course, none of this means that six-hundred-year-old Noah actually existed, that God wiped out all humans but eight, or that there was a magical ark that could somehow hold two specimens of every species on the planet. Ballard doesn't seem to be claiming any of this, but because of ABC's sloppy "reporting" (designed to promote their special rather than to clearly convey facts), it's pretty much inevitable that credulous fundamentalists and the brilliant reporters of Fox News will jump on this and claim it as "proof."

More on Santa Monica

Here's a good editorial explaining why it's not a tragedy for Santa Monica to have its nativity scenes relegated to private property, and pointing out that it's not only atheists who find such displays on public land inappropriate:

"The First Amendment includes two key clauses. One protects the right of every American to the "free exercise" of his or her religion. The other prohibits a government "establishment" of religion. Together they reflect a philosophy that has served us well over the past two centuries: that the best protection for religion and religious people is to give the individual both the power and freedom to practice as they choose, and to give the government neither. The idea that not having a religious display in a public park threatens religion is, to me, ludicrous. Christianity is strong enough in Santa Monica to survive the threat of a handful of atheists. There are many, many private places — shopping malls a block away, churchyards, front yards and the rest — where the birth of Jesus is celebrated."

Exactly. It's always nice to see that some people who aren't atheists "get it."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Evidence Noah's Flood Happened"... not so much

ABC (which is, not coincidentally, promoting a show called "Back to the Beginning," about the so-called history of the Bible) starts off an article entitled "Evidence Noah's Flood Happened" thusly: "The story of Noah's Ark and the Great Flood is one of the most famous from the Bible, and now an acclaimed underwater archaeologist thinks he has found proof that the biblical flood was actually based on real events." The article is accompanied by a photo that's a "replica of Noah's biblical boat."

Thousands of fundamentalists probably read exactly that far, and no further. But of course if you read further, you discover that the archaeologist in question is talking about floods not caused by the wrath of God, but by the melting of the ice caps. He has found a submerged city in the Black Sea, and says there may have been an abrupt flood in that region, and "the land that went under stayed under."

According to the article, "The theory goes on to suggest that the story of this traumatic event, seared into the collective memory of the survivors, was passed down from generation to generation and eventually inspired the biblical account of Noah."

All very fascinating, but of course it's not "proof" of anything. One could just as easily claim it's "proof" of the story of Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh, except that if you wrote that, most people wouldn't know what you were talking about (and it also wouldn't help ABC promote its special). It's not a new idea, anyway. Most scholars believe that the Noah story, as well as other flood stories, are derived from some historical flood or floods. The only thing new about this idea is that this was supposedly a quick rush of water around the "right" time (5000 BC or thereabouts), and that there is actually a shoreline to excavate down there.

Down near the bottom, the author of the article admits, "Ballard does not think he will ever find Noah's Ark, but he does think he may find evidence of a people whose entire world was washed away about 7,000 years ago." Fascinating, but hardly "proof" of the biblical flood story. But how many fundamentalists will hold this up as an example of science "proving" the Bible? Probably quite a few.

Yep, that's unconstitutional, all right

Sometimes it amazes me that it requires a judge to determine that something is unconstitutional. This is one of those times: "A federal judge ruled that North Carolina's new 'Choose Life' license plates are unconstitutional because the state does not offer a pro-choice alternative."

Basically, these plates offer citizens an opportunity to express their opinion on abortion, and "the legislation also mandated that money raised from the sale of the specialty plates would go to a nonprofit that supports crisis pregnancy centers." All of which would be fine, except "North Carolina lawmakers voted down amendments that would have created pro-choice alternatives such as 'Trust Women. Respect Choice.'" This amounts to legislators promoting one political point of view and suppressing another. It doesn't take a judge to see that's wrong.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Atheists are communists, and other howlers

This opinion piece on Fox News about the Charlie Brown Christmas play and the Santa Monica nativity scene gets it all wrong, quite spectacularly. It states that atheists are seeking to "destroy the spirit of Christmas" (trying to stop governmental bodies from promoting a particular religion is not the same as trying to eradicate Christian displays on private property). It claims Charles Schulz was "no stranger to standing firm on faith" (yes, he did insist on that long Biblical quote remaining in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," but the author ignores or is unaware that by the eighties he stated that he'd "come around to secular humanism"). It twice dismisses atheists as a "vocal minority" (polls show that unbelievers are a rapidly growing group, and besides, that's irrelevant anyway-- rights apply to everyone, not just the majority group). It falls back on the hoary old chestnut of stating "Atheism is part of the Communist and Socialist doctrines." It even laughably cites David Barton as an authority. In short, it reads almost like a parody or a Poe, but since it's on Fox, I'm guessing it's intended seriously.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Santa Monica's nativity scene

The Christians in Santa Monica are getting around the ban on nativity scenes in the public park by participating in living nativity scenes and singing, not to mention handing out cocoa and cookies. This doesn't count under the ban, as it's not a permanent display (though it's going on from now till December 23).

Quotes from Christians involved:

"The nativity scenes have been a positive thing for the whole community... and we want to keep it that way."

"We're here to communicate the true message of Christmas, which is Jesus."

"We just want to give back to the community and share with them what we believe is the true message of Christmas."

Note again that the previously displayed nativity scenes are still going to be visible, just on private land. So it's not as if Christmas has been exiled from the city of Santa Monica forever. But to listen to these people, you'd think the lack of a nativity scene was a catastrophe that must be remedied at once.

I'm no lawyer, but I would think this would certainly be permissible as free speech (though one would think a permit might be required for something of this duration and magnitude). But of course if the city doesn't object, then atheists also have a right to go hand out cocoa and cookies in the park and put on a display.  They should put up a sign: Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies!

"There is no scientific debate on the age of the Earth"

When asked about the age of the Earth last month, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida answered less than brilliantly: "At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries."

He stated today that he was taken aback by a sudden shift in the conversation, and didn't feel he'd explained himself adequately because he was "caught off guard." In today's comments, he firmly repudiated young-Earth creationism: "There is no scientific debate on the age of the earth. I mean, it’s established pretty definitively, it’s at least 4.5 billion years old...I was referring to a theological debate, which is a pretty healthy debate. The theological debate is, how do you reconcile with what science has definitively established with what you may think your faith teaches...Now for me, actually, when it comes to the age of the earth, there is no conflict.” 

Here, slightly different quotes clarify further: "Science says it’s about four and a half billion years old, and my faith teaches that that’s not inconsistent...I still believe God did it...that’s how I’ve been able to reconcile that and I think it’s consistent with the teachings of my church. But other people have a deeper conflict and I just think in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever we believe."

So he doesn't believe in YEC. Good for him. My only concern now is wondering what he means by "in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever we believe." I have no argument with this statement, as long as he is talking about my right to teach my children in my own home (I sincerely doubt many people in America would argue with this concept). When I start trying to teach other people's kids wildly incorrect information via the public school system, however, then that becomes a problem. It's still not entirely clear to me what Rubio means here. As long as he isn't saying "creationism should be taught as an alternative to evolution in public schools because many Americans want it taught to their children," I have no further argument with him on the topic.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Update on the War on Charlie Brown Christmas

The church involved in the Charlie Brown Christmas play uproar (which I previously talked about here) has cancelled its matinee performance (which was apparently aimed solely at schoolchildren). The pastor didn't hesitate to whine about it, though (note that this is Fox News, hence the ridiculously biased and overwrought terms such as "plight," and the headline blaming the cancellation on "atheist outrage"):

"The story brought national attention to the plight of church members — who simply wanted to put on a special holiday presentation for school children. 

"Caldwell (the church's pastor) praised what he called the 'courageous stand' that the school’s principal took in 'not succumbing to the pressure of one complaint voice to the Arkansas Society of Free Thinkers and the media.' 

"He said it was clear 'Merry Christmas Charlie Brown' did not pose a constitutional issue.

Of course, right after that the article adds, apparently without irony:

“'Christmas is a Christian holiday — hence it’s (sic) name – Christmas,' the pastor wrote in his statement. 'Our program addresses its origins with light-hearted songs and theatre. The context of the birth of Christ is broadly described in both Old and New Testament texts.'”

Well, golly, that clarifies it. Of course there's no constitutional issue here. It's a program describing the birth of Christ in overtly Biblical terms, and a performance targeted specifically at public schoolchildren. How on earth could those silly atheists think there's anything unconstitutional here?


Vandalism of religious symbols

A large menorah displayed in Miami Beach (described in the video as a "tradition") has been vandalized with the words "You killed Jesus." It's been torn down three times in its history, and was first vandalized eleven years ago to the day. The article indicates it's in a "public space," but it's not clear to me whether they mean public in the general sense (as in where people can see it), or on government-owned land. Judging from the video, I suspect it's actually on private land, but it's hard to tell. (This article says that the Miami Beach Chabad house is "responsible for the display," but that still doesn't clarify the question.) It's also not clear to me whether there are other religious symbols there (outside of a dreidel, mentioned in this article). If it's on private land, there is no reason any other religion should be represented. If it's on government land and there are no other religious symbols on display, it shouldn't be there, but that certainly doesn't justify the nasty vandalism and the ugly message.

Toning down the religious message

From this article: "Viewed by many voters as anti-science and too conservative on social issues such as gay marriage, the Republican Party is in danger of losing young and less religious voters for years to come." The article discusses how even young evangelicals are changing (less worried about the supposed "war on religion," more worried about climate change) and suggests that the Republicans will become increasingly irrelevant if they don't moderate their tone and message.

Gary Marx, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said, "We plan to reach out with a softer, pro-family agenda—less emphasis on the sexual points, more talk about family." (As if they don't talk about family enough-- whenever you see an organization with the word "family" in it, you can be almost certain it's a group with a strong evangelical flavor.) Alas, he added, "It is true that gay rights activists have stolen that language of 'family' we've used successfully, and now use it for their purposes."

Stolen? Really? Who knew that term could only be used by conservatives? I would say it hasn't been "stolen," but rather reappropriated by some liberals, who are probably pretty damn tired of seeing it (and words like "marriage") misused.

More on "conversion therapy"

According to this article, "A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked California from enforcing a first-of-its-kind law that bars licensed psychotherapists from working to change the sexual orientations of gay minors, but he limited the scope of his order to just the three providers who have appealed to him to overturn the measure."

The judge's reasoning seems to have been that psychotherapists' First Amendment rights outweigh the rights of minors not to be put in danger. Uh... what? First of all, I'm certainly no lawyer, but I don't see the First Amendment as applying to psychotherapy. Psychotherapy isn't an expression of opinion; it's a way of helping patients. The question here should simply be whether this form of therapy is efficacious or not.

And second of all, how on earth can the right of minors not to be harmed not be paramount? Freedom of speech has its limits; the old example of not shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater seems to apply here. My freedom of speech rights don't extend to the right to actively harm others. I don't see why these people's First Amendment rights should outweigh the wellbeing of minors, either. But it appears the judge felt that the argument that conversion therapy does damage was based on "questionable and scientifically incomplete studies," so presumably that explains that. Never mind that according to the article, conversion therapy "has been rejected as unproven and potentially harmful by all the mainstream mental health associations." The judge apparently knows better than mental health associations.

In any event, this is only a temporary injunction until a trial can be held, though the judge did state he thought they should win the case on constitutional grounds-- and he's the one who will be holding the trial. One may hope that in the long run, sanity-- and the safety of minors-- will prevail. One suspects the case will have to go to appeal before that happens, though.

Monday, December 3, 2012

What war on men?

Here's an excellent response to Suzanne Venker's "addled rant" against feminism I posted about the other day, stating that most men "aren't nearly as unhappy or resentful as Venker suggests." My favorite paragraph:

"Truth is, in her efforts to exalt men, she actually insults us. Who says we can't be happy with fully equal female colleagues and coworkers? Who says we can't enjoy the joys of shared parenthood? Who says that we are biologically programmed to be both rapacious testosterone-driven animals and lazy remote-hogging couch potatoes unable to lift a finger in the kitchen?"

Good questions. Why would anyone in this day and age believe that most men are looking for June Cleaver clones? And even assuming there are men out there who want such wives, what self-respecting woman would want them?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The War on Christmas, Frosty style

It's hard to believe anyone would think a nativity scene belongs on a public school campus, but apparently a Florida town is up in arms after the local school decided not to put up a nativity scene this year. They're still acknowledging Christmas-- in a secular way, with Santa Claus and Frosty-- but evidently that's not enough.

A (thankfully) former board member said with a straight face, "There are people in the community that are threatening to sue the school board (over separation of church and state issues), and it costs a tremendous amount of money to defend something you know you will lose...It’s not that we’re against it; it’s just that the federal law prohibits it." She also called it a "tragic thing" and added, "I know it’s hard to see this happen, because it feels like we’re losing a freedom, but this is the state of affairs in this nation."

What people like this seem unable to understand is that it's a very good state of affairs. Why on earth would anyone think a nativity scene belonged on display at a public school?