Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Target acquired"

I had a brief conversation with a guy in a restaurant today. I was talking to my elderly father about the various military personnel in the restaurant, and wondering why the Navy guys wore green camo, instead of the usual blue camo, and the guy next to us kindly explained why they sometimes wear green. (He wasn't really barging in on our conversation; even with hearing aids I have to speak pretty loudly for my father to understand me!). I noticed his shirt said something like, "Old pilots never retire; they just find a new target," and I almost struck up a conversation with him, because I guessed he was retired Air Force, and my father was in the Army Air Forces in World War II. I thought better of it, because no one really wants to talk to my dad about World War II, as the conversation can get painfully long and involved. So I kept my silence.

As the guy got up to go, I glimpsed the word "atheism" on the back of his shirt, and had a brief moment of excitement. I haven't met many "out" atheists. But then I saw the back of his shirt read, "Target acquired," and beneath it was a target symbol including various words such as atheism and "Mohamadism"-- presumably bad things he wanted to get rid of (if not literally shoot at). I was very grateful I hadn't continued the conversation at that point. Imagine the awkwardness: "Hi, I'm an atheist, and I'm one of the targets you want to take aim at."

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"The yuck factor"

People keep quoting the post from the Gospel Coalition's Thabiti Anyabwile about gay sex. I've ranted about it on Friendly Atheist and Love, Joy, Feminism, so I'll rant about it here, too. Anyabwile says that fundamentalists need to:

"Return the discussion to sexual behavior in all its yuckiest gag-inducing truth... I think it would be a good thing if more people were gagging on the reality of the sexual behavior that is now becoming public law, protected, and even promoted in public schools....That sense of moral outrage you’re now likely feeling–either at the descriptions above or at me for writing them–that gut-wrenching, jaw-clenching, hand-over-your-mouth, 'I feel dirty' moral outrage is the gag reflex. It’s what you quietly felt when you read 'two men deep kissing' in the second paragraph. Your moral sensibilities have been provoked–and rightly so. That reflex triggered by an accurate description of homosexual behavior will be the beginning of the recovery of moral sense and sensibility when it comes to the so-called 'gay marriage' debate."

Absurd. This guy is actually proposing, straight-faced and seriously, that all religious fundamentalists need to do is describe what happens in gay sex, and Americans will all suddenly be horrified by the dreadful reality of it, realize their mistake, and rush to outlaw gay rights. Is he really so naive that he thinks Americans aren't already conscious of how sex in all its various forms works? And is he really so naive that he doesn't realize a lot of straight Americans are not at all revolted by gay sex?

I've mentioned slash fanfiction and gay erotica elsewhere, but let me offer a concrete example of how revolted Americans fail to be by descriptive gay sex. J.R. Ward has written a long series of heterosexual paranormal romances/urban fantasies, all of which are pretty hot. When she finally wrote a book getting two of her guys together (which many fans had been waiting for), the book was a number one New York Times bestseller. (And that was the hardback release-- when the paperback releases in October, that one will probably sell plenty of copies, too.) Odds are most of the readers of this book were heterosexuals, and odds are most of them were not revolted (the book has over 1600 reviews on Amazon and a 4.4 star average). And while this book did unusually well, there are lots and lots of gay erotica and erotic romances out there, and many if not most of their readers are straight.

Thabiti, most of us already know what gay sex involves. We're not stupid. And unlike you, we also realize that straight sex involves many of the same activities that so repulse you (manual stimulation, oral sex, anal sex, and so on). If we need to ban gay sex, we'd better ban straight sex while we're at it. Good luck on that.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Wiping out disease

Here's an article on eight deadly diseases we've pretty much wiped out, at least in the US. How? Every one of them has been eradicated, or close to eradicated, by vaccination. Horrors like smallpox, polio, and rabies have been eliminated, or significantly reduced, due to vaccines. Anti-vaxxers really ought to be required to be educated on the statistics of death by these diseases before vaccines were developed, and made to look at pictures of people suffering from them, before they decide not to vaccinate their kids.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

God's moral law

Here's an opinion piece on Fox News by Todd Starnes complaining that we're raising a nation of "savages" (no doubt meant in an entirely nonracist way *rolls eyes*) who kill people and kittens for fun. The reason? Starnes consulted with "noted author" and pastor Robert Jeffress, who explains the root cause of the violence plaguing our society:

"Parents have absolutely failed in their most basic, fundamental responsibility as parents...And that is to instill God’s moral law in the hearts of their children....As long as you continue to tell teenagers they are nothing but a biological accident, we shouldn’t expect them to act in accordance with a Creator-God who has basic laws concerning life and death...Our culture continues to deny or marginalize the existence of God...We shouldn’t be surprised that teenagers would ignore the most basic laws of God – like thou shall not kill."

I am taking these words to heart and will immediately make sure my children are acquainted with the Word of God. I think I'll start with the story of Abraham being told to murder his own child by God Himself, then move on to the story of Exodus, in which the Hebrews were told to lay waste to all the inhabitants of the civilizations they encountered (except for the girl virgins they kept as sex slaves), then discuss the forty-two children who teased Elisha and were ripped to shreds by bears (again sent by God Himself). That's only a start, but surely that will be sufficient to help show my kids that violence isn't the way, and prevent them from falling into "savagery."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Women are treated with respect"

Here's an article about a British "model who regularly bares almost all," who met a Tunisian man and will be converting to Islam when she marries him in the spring. She says her husband told her that "once we are married my body is for his eyes only," and she adds, "These are the kind of values I love about their culture... Women are treated with respect and they also respect themselves and their bodies. They don’t do one-night stands or casual flings."

Uh-huh. Personally, I think a woman can "respect" her body and still have casual sex, and I think a woman can be married and let other people see her body as well (she covers up from shoulders to ankle for her future in-laws when she visits them now, so we're not talking about parading around in sexy lingerie, but about covering all of her). But it's her choice-- and once she actually makes it, I suspect she'll have a hard time getting out of it. I have a feeling that a woman brought up in a liberal and relatively sexually free culture is going to have a hard time making this transition, but I could certainly be wrong. I just hope she doesn't regret it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Atheists are smarter

This article says, "Religious people are less intelligent than non-believers, according to a new review of 63 scientific studies stretching back over decades." There are various possible explanations offered, such as more education-- or as fundamentalists would put it, secular humanist brainwashing-- less need for the psychological benefits of religion due to higher self-esteem, and the fact that intelligent people are apparently more likely to get married. It's also possible the researchers are dead wrong, which does happen from time to time:-).

But assuming this is true, I think the most likely reason is simply that people who become atheists in this society are likely to be smart, determined, and analytical, simply because they have to swim against the flow of society and shed the mythology that's been inculcated in them since birth. It takes a certain level of smarts to shrug off your cultural conditioning and think for yourself. None of which means that some atheists aren't dumb as plums.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

You can't name your baby "Messiah"

A judge in Tennessee has ordered a seven-month-old's first name changed. The parents were in court because they couldn't agree on a last name, but the judge decided they couldn't keep the first name "Messiah," either. She felt the name could "put him at odds with a lot of people" in the mostly Christian county and said,"The word Messiah is a title and it's a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ." The mother says she will appeal, because as she said, "Everybody believes what they want so I think I should be able to name my child what I want to name him, not someone else."

The article mentions in passing that "Messiah was No. 4 among the fastest-rising baby names in 2012, according to the Social Security Administration's annual list of popular baby names." I guess more judges better get busy and change the names of all those other Messiahs, too. We wouldn't want parents to have the right to choose names for their children, after all. Next thing you know people will start getting the crazy idea that this is a free country. Can't have that!

Friday, August 9, 2013

A guardian angel

Here's a story about a crash victim, a nineteen-year-old hit by a drunken driver, who was trapped in the front seat of her car until a "guardian angel" showed up. Quote:

"...With her vital signs failing fast, she asked rescue crews to pray with her. 

"That's when first responders say a man who looked like a Catholic priest seemed to appear out of nowhere, despite a 2-mile perimeter blocking the scene. 'He began to pray and use the anointing oil,' New London Fire Chief Raymond Reed said. 'There was a calmness that, to me, seemed to come over the entire scene.'"

Firefighters say their equipment kept failing, and that this "angel" told them to remain calm and that their equipment would now work. At that moment the neighboring fire department arrived, with tools that worked. The priest/"angel" then disappeared before anyone could speak to him. One of the responders said, "I think that this time I've actually witnessed a guardian angel at work."

I will not speculate on what actually happened here, except to remark that if he really were an angel, one would imagine he might be able to get the victim out of her car without the need for a second fire department to arrive. The article refers to his presence as a "miracle," but as far as I can tell he did nothing but pray and anoint-- the fact that the new fire department arrived at that point should surely be attributed to them with thanks, not to him. I imagine "calmness" would be expected if the people he were praying over (victims and firefighters alike) were Christian.

In short, it's fortunate that the victim happened to be Christian, so that his presence was a comfort for her, rather than more stress added to the already horrifically stressful situation. Someone of another faith, or no faith whatsoever, might have found being prayed over and anointed to be distressing rather than comforting.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Two interesting science articles

Here, an article about the feasibility of designing a space station like the one in "Elysium." Quote:

"The premise is totally believable to me. I spent 28 years working on NASA's International Space Station and retired last summer as the director of ISS at NASA Headquarters," Mark Uhran, former director of the International Space Station Division in NASA's Office of Human Exploration and Operations, said. "When I took a look at the Elysium space station, I thought to myself, that's certainly achievable in this millennium."

And here, an article about NASA scientists trying to test a theory on the origins of life on Earth. Quote:

Imagine Earth 4 billion years ago. The world was covered in an acidic ocean, its bottom studded with mineral chimneys or hydrothermal vents. These were not ordinary chimneys. They had pores that allowed selective molecules to pass through, setting up a chemical gradient. 

The vents were the origins of all life on earth, according to a 25-year-old theory proposed by Mike Russell, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, that is gaining traction in the astrobiology community. NASA’s Astrobiology Institute has invested $8 billion in proving the theory.

Sunday, August 4, 2013


Awesome photographs of the earth and space, here. (Yes, it is a Fox News link, but no crazy stuff, just a lot of cool pictures!)

Life at the top

Here's an interesting story about a monk in Georgia (that's eastern Europe, not the US) who has been living at the top of a natural pillar since 1991. Maxime the monk says, "It is up here in the silence that you can feel God's presence." As a young man, the monk "drank, sold drugs, everything," but he decided he needed a change, and became a monk-- and a pretty extreme one, at that.

Stylites (pillar saints) were once common in the area, but the practice was abandoned a long time ago. Maxime has a small cottage at the top (though he originally slept in a fridge), as "it's more about isolation than suffering." His followers send up food and supplies via a winch. With age, his ability to climb the 131-foot ladder is fading, and when he can no longer climb the ladder, he intends to stay at the top till he dies.

People do some pretty extreme things in the name of religion, but looking at the photos, it doesn't look all that crazy. It's a beautiful view, and there's something to be said for isolation. I do suspect, though, that remaining atop a pillar for twenty years could cause anyone to hear the voice of God, just out of sheer boredom and loneliness.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

"Why millennials need the church"

Here's an article on CNN's Belief Blog about why young people need the church. Rachel Held Evans writes, "Like many millennials, I left church because I didn’t always see the compassion of Jesus there, and because my questions about faith and science, the Bible, homosexuality, and religious pluralism were met with shallow answers or hostility." But she's returned to church, and most of her reasons might resonate for believers, but probably not for anyone else.

Some of the most compelling reasons she lists boil down to community and healing-- "local churches provide basements where AA groups can meet, living rooms where tough conversations about racial reconciliation occur, casseroles for the sick and shelter for the homeless." Can't argue that too much; although caring for the sick and the needy is not something that must be done by churches, in our society it does tend to be left to the religious. And the ill and needy must be taken care of one way or another.

Other reasons she lists are not particularly compelling unless you believe. Confession and reminding yourself we're all sinners-- thanks, but I can do without the idea that without Jesus we're all doomed to a fiery hell. If there's one thing I regret about my time as a Lutheran, it's that I let my kids internalize this ugly, scary message. Evans writes, "The accountability that comes from participation in a local church gives young Christians the chance to speak openly about our struggles with materialism, greed, gossip, anger, consumerism and pride." Maybe, but this seems like something young people can manage to talk about on their own.

Leadership... well, mentors are all around us, and I rarely met anyone in church who was especially wise. Communion-- yeah, I can do without the ritualistic cannibalism, too. Confirmation and union with Christ similarly don't matter to me. These are things that my atheist self sees as silly, meaningless ritual, and I'm grateful to have left this all behind me.

Overall, this is more of an article about the "spiritual but not religious" young people who've left the church but who continue to believe than it is about nonbelievers. And left unexplained is why doubting young people might not be better off simply turning to atheism, and meeting their needs for community and helping others elsewhere.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Fire the sinner

A gay high school teacher in California was fired from a Catholic high school after a newspaper published pictures of his wedding. The school knew Ken Bencomo was gay, and he even brought his partner to school events and introduced him as his partner, but apparently seeing it in the paper was too much for the school to take.

I admit I don't know what the legalities are here; private schools can fire you for "moral" reasons and often make you sign a contract, but they don't seem to have had an issue with his gayness, just with the fact that it got in the paper. The school is quoted as saying, "While the school does not discriminate against teachers or other school employees based on their private lifestyle choices, public displays of behavior that are directly contrary to church teachings are inconsistent with these values."

But legalities aside, isn't religion just lovely? Nothing says "love the sinner" more than firing him. But there's a nice part to this story, too. "Meanwhile, some of Bencomo’s former students had planned a protest march for Thursday. St. Lucy’s graduate Brittany Littleton, 23, told The Sun of San Bernadino she expected hundreds of people to attend." Littleton is hoping (rather optimistically) that the school will give Bencomo his job back. Even if the school itself can't treat a gay man like a human being, it's nice that his former students can.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Fox vs. NBC

I know, I know, it comes as no surprise to any of you that Fox News and NBC News have a slightly different slant to their reporting. But this one amused me. Fox News says (this is currently the number one trending article on their site):

Archeologists conducting excavations at the site of a church in Turkey have unearthed a stone chest containing a relic that may be part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. 

While NBC News says:

Turkish archaeologists say they have found a stone chest in a 1,350-year-old church that appears to contain a relic venerated as a piece of Jesus' cross. (emphasis added)

The NBC News article goes on to point out that there were plenty of "cross" relics floating around the ancient world. Sure, the relic could be a part of the cross on which Jesus was supposedly crucified, but the odds are against it. As far as I can tell, the archaeologists are not actually claiming this fragment might really be from Jesus' cross, as the Fox News article implies, though it's admittedly hard to be sure without further information. They are quoted as saying simply: “We have found a holy thing in a chest. It is a piece of a cross."

I'll add that I can't find a real quote from the archaeologists anywhere. Here's another article from the Hurriyet Daily News which NBC apparently based their story on, with an odd insertion in the quote from the archaeologist:

“We have found a holy thing in a chest. It is a piece of a cross, and we think it was [part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified]. This stone chest is very important to us. It has a history and is the most important artifact we have unearthed so far."

But what did the archaeologist actually say? The insertion of [part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified] is clearly not the original quote. Did the archaeologist actually imply they thought this was really part of Jesus' cross, or was that implication added by the journalist? Unless there is something very special about this stone chest (like it melts faces when it's opened), I find it hard to believe any serious archaeologist would suggest a wood fragment was part of Jesus' actual cross without much more data.