Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In God They Trust: On Tribal Competition

A chain email came to the BA inbox today, which encourages citizens of quality and conscience to write "IN GOD WE TRUST" on the back of all the envelopes they send through the US Mail. This message has been making the rounds, it seems, garnering many enthusiastic gruntings in the blogosphere. The email reads:
Payback is fun!!!!!!!!!!!!! WRITE IT ON THE BACK OF YOUR ENVELOPES or front WE THINK THIS IS A GREAT IDEA. WE'LL START WRITING IT ON THE FRONT OF OUR ENVELOPES, TOO! ----------Including Bills You may have heard in the news that a couple of Post Offices in Texas have been forced to take down small posters that say 'IN GOD WE TRUST ,' The law, they say, is being violated. Anyway, we heard proposed on a radio station show, that we should all write ' IN GOD WE TRUST' on the back of all our mail. After all, that's our National Motto, and ----- all the money we use to buy stamps. We think it's a wonderful idea. We must take back our nation from all the people who think that anything that offends them should be removed. If you like this idea, please pass it on and DO IT. The idea of writing or stamping......... 'IN GOD WE TRUST ' on our envelopes sounds good to us. SOME PEOPLE ARE HAVING A STAMP MADE TOO.........lets use it as our signature on e-mails, too! It's been reported that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore, we have a very hard time understanding why there's such a mess about having 'In God We Trust!' on our money and having God in the pledge of Allegiance. Could it be that WE just need to take action and tell the 14% to 'sit down and shut up'? If you agree, pass this on, if not, delete!!! BUT REMEMBER IF YOU DELETE THIS, that's one reason why this world is in the mess we're in now. WE SIT BACK & LET IT HAPPEN!! IN GOD WE TRUST
This message, with its characteristic orthography and paranoia, might be seen as frightening. Who are these irrational people, who believe in absurd gods? Who live vicariously through the Bible, instead of being present here in the real world, which so desperately needs their attention? Do these people vote -- and if so, what kind of irrational policies do they support? Do they raise children -- and if so, what kind of awful indoctrination are these kids having to suffer through?

I could understand being frightened by these thoughts. But I'm not really bothered by it. I see a lot of this kind of glurge going around the web, but it is in decline, and where it is seen, it is definitely not mainstream. People simply have less tolerance for this kind of befuddled tribalism. That's a good way to think about it, actually. I'm not frightened -- I'm irritated, by the members of the Jehovah Tribe.

One of the many reasons why this world is in a mess -- why we never come close to fulfilling our potential as citizens and neighbors and fellow human beings -- is because some people are tribalistic. When they see the markings of their tribe being degraded, they react with gleeful defiance, and often with violence. They circulate messages online, encouraging their fellow tribespeople to "take back the nation" from people who disagree with them. They tell those other people to "sit down and shut up."

Call me an optimist, but I happen to think that this kind of primitive thinking is on the way out. It isn't compatible with a modern world, in which computers enable communication between distant parts of the globe, where economic plenty means longer lives and higher standards of living than ever, and where easily accessible education means an escape from Bronze Age tribal beliefs.

There are too many problems that need our attention, to waste time dealing with the hooting ignorance of tribespeople. Who cares if they mark the back of their envelopes with the signs of their superstitious tribe? It will keep them busy while the adults among us keep busy with the real business at hand.

I don't mean to sound disdainful. Most of these folks -- near all of them -- are a lot better than the beliefs they profess. But beliefs can be insidious and hard to uproot, especially without disturbing all the values that they would have anyway but which have become entangled in those religious doctrines. I don't feel disdain for the people who are scared to realize that Christianity is on the wane; I feel bad for them. They have a tough time going. One thing they can feel comforted by is that "the other team" isn't tribalistic, and doesn't have any reason to be anything but reasonable and compassionate. We're all in this together -- notwithstanding the sneering of some folks who would rather be members of tribes locked in competition for national predominance.

For the record, the phrase "In God We Trust" was not recognized as an official U.S. motto until 1956, though it appeared on some coinage as early as 1865. I prefer "E pluribus unum." As for the facts behind the original message, in 2002 the USPS ordered the removal of "In God We Trust" posters that had been printed and distributed by a private party to some post offices in Texas. The problem wasn't the slogan, but rather postal regulations that prohibit "depositing or posting of handbills, flyers, pamphlets, signs, posters, placards, or other literature (except official postal and other governmental notices and announcements) in interior public areas on postal premises."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Politics and Irrationality

Johann Hari considers the relationship between Republicans, religion, and unreason, over at The Independent. From the column:
How do they train themselves to be so impervious to reality? It begins, I suspect, with religion. They are taught from a young age that it is good to have "faith" – which is, by definition, a belief without any evidence to back it up. You don't have "faith" that Australia exists, or that fire burns: you have evidence. You only need "faith" to believe the untrue or unprovable. Indeed, they are taught that faith is the highest aspiration and most noble cause. Is it any surprise this then percolates into their political views? Faith-based thinking spreads and contaminates the rational.
Not that theistic belief compels one to hew to one side or the other of any political divide... we all know intelligent and contentious people who vote for the other party. If you don't, then you should get out there and make some more friends. Political miscegenation saves us from putting on blinders ourselves, and means we're doing our part to mitigate the influence of The Other Team on its adherents.

Given the tenor (read: venom) of the ongoing town hall events, I think this is a good time to affirm the utter rationality of abstaining from prejudicial political denouncements of those with whom we disagree. Has anyone else been struck sober and cold by the fury -- formed by and fed by irrational beliefs -- shown at these recent political events? Just goes to show how valuable critical thinking can be, if its absence can lead to such derangement.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Farewell, Therese

BA member Therese -- you'll know her as being very pleasant and mostly Swedish -- is going to be moving away from Boston shortly. Sad news for us, but good luck to her. As a parting salvo, she's sent us a link to her blog, USAtheists -- a "lighthouse for believers in a life after death." Judging from the most recent entry, this will be worth checking regularly:
America took a good step against religulous intolerance last week when the American Psychological Associations officially declared that homosexuality is natural and cannot be cured. This ethical standpoint is based on extensive examination of the last 40 years of research.

How will this scientific evidence affect the religious fundamentalists in America? Likely not at all as they perceive homosexuality as work of a "devil". Many churches still refuse homosexuals into their clergy (what ever happened to that "thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself", Leviticus 19:18?) but others go even further to create victims. This youtube clip from a Connecticut church shows exorcism performed on a 16 year old boy who is in convulsions on the floor.What year it took place? Well... 2009.

But now we have it in black and white: homosexuality cannot be cured. And just to make things absolutely clear: heterosexuality cannot be cured either.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Poem: "Creationism at Calvary Chapel"

And here's to the city of Boston!
The land of the bean and the cod:
Where Harvard taught science to Jeanson
But Jeanson hears nothing but "God".

by Adam Cuerden

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Report on Nathaniel Jeanson's Creationism lecture

Member Steve Wertheim went to the 7:00 session of yesterday's lecture at the Calvary Chapel in the City worship service, a program entitled "Evolution: Bankrupt Science. Creationism: Science you can bank on" on 8/16. He wrote a report on his observations for the BA message board, which corresponds in large degree to my own experiences at the earlier presentation of the same lecture earlier that day. He writes:

In front of a church group audience, seemingly composed of young people with no background in science, Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson, a recent PhD graduate of Harvard:

1. Distorted the nature of science and the scientific method.

2. Distorted the meaning of actual scientific work, such as that of the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.

3. Denied the reality of the single most important unifying concept in biology, that of evolution by natural selection.

4. Presented junk science as reliable, such as that of Michael Behe, John Morris and Russell Humphreys.

5. Repeated discredited arguments for the existence of the supernatural, such as "irreducible complexity". For this he used his own research, claiming that the 6 interacting components in the vitamin D regulatory cycle could not have been produced by evolution and must have been created by a supernatural intelligence.

6. Appealed to what has been termed the "argument from ignorance" (reflecting his intellectual limitations). His comment on Vitamin D regulation was "It is difficult to conceive how you could evolve this". I don't claim to be an expert in this field, but I do know that evolutionary mechanisms for all examples of "irreducible complexity" claimed by Michael Behe (a crackpot with tenure who originated the idea) have been provided by real scientists.

[This is especially baffling, consider how well a job I thought I did in the morning presentation at walking him through a rebuttal of all arguments that work from the grounds of "irreducible complexity" (IC). If all science is based on observation, and only on observation, as Jeanson said at the start of his lecture, then it is irrational for a research to look at a complex system and label it IC. To make this claim is to assert that we have been able to observe all the precursor systems that led up to the current system, and that in all of that evolutionary history, there were never any components that are now missing but which when present would have allowed for reducible complexity. The analogy I made was to a stone arch; remove a stone and the structure collapses, but we could only call it irreducibly complex if we failed to realize that there was once a scaffold that allowed the thing to be built in a step-wise fashion, stone by stone. IC is at best an admission of ignorance, but in no circumstances can it be construed as a meaningful biological term. It literally describes nothing. Jeanson might have understood this before his lecture or he might not, but after our exchange he has no excuse for using the same reasoning at the later lecture. -- Zachary Bos]

7. Claimed that "eyewitness accounts" are the most reliable, in science as in a court of law. In fact, eyewitness accounts in legal proceedings are notoriously unreliable, and there would not be much science if we only had our eyes to rely on. But the kicker is that the real points he was making were:
a. The eyewitness account of Yaweh, who was present at the creation, is the most reliable information we have about origins.

b. "One cannot answer historical questions scientifically", because there were no eyewitnesses.

8. Stated that his "colleagues at Harvard" view the lack of a demonstrable mechanism for the origin of life from non-life as the "worst evolutionary problem".
[Is this view shared by former supervisor, Dr. David Scadden of the Harvard Stem Cell Institutce, or by Dr. Catherine Dulac, Chair of the Dept. of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard? -- Z.B.]

9. Made a series of outrageously false claims outside his research field, including:
a. The Earth is 6,000 years old, because the Bible tells us so.

b. There are "no direct scientific measurements for the age of the Earth".

c. The Earth is "at or near the center of the universe".

d. Radiometric dating of rocks (and therefore the accepted age of the Earth) is fatally flawed and can lead to a measured Earth age of 6,000 years as easily as an age of 4.6 billion years.

e. "Evolution says the Big Bang occurred 15 billion years ago." (Two mistakes in one sentence!)

f. Radioactive decay probably happened at an accelerated rate in the past.

g. Geologic formations such as the Grand Canyon and bio-geologic formations such as coal, can and do form rapidly and "catastrophically".

h. There are few, if any, transitional forms in the fossil record.

i. The mind is not a direct product of brain activity, and in fact, to suggest that the mind is directly related to the brain is a "self-defeating statement".

j. Living species did not evolve from a common ancestor, based on molecular biologic evidence. He used comparisons of the cytochrome c protein sequence for this, and ignored the whole genome sequences available for many of the same plants and animals. This was an especially unconvincing tactic for someone who claims to be a biologist.

Suffice it to say that each and every one of his points was either a distortion (e.g. Stephen Jay Gould's theory of "punctuated equilibrium" exposes a weakness in evolutionary theory), an irrelevant red herring (e.g. evolution leads to immorality), or an outright lie (e.g. there are few, if any, transitional forms in the fossil record).

His ignorance of anything outside the creationist literature, coupled with his intellectual arrogance was truly shocking for someone who claims to be educated.

All of this would be laughable if it were not in front of a credulous audience, if the percentage of people who believe in creationism in the US were not at a steady 45% and if the responsible teaching of science in our public schools were not under continual attack from people such as Dr. Jeanson.

His performance in the Q&A session was no better.

1. When asked if his religious views affected how he practices science, he said that while he does not believe that the vitamin D regulatory loop evolved, the question never came up in the course of daily research. Of course I know that the big questions are not the stuff of most daily research, but when I was a graduate student, all we talked about at the bench, while doing our monotonous tasks, were the big questions – the principles, the hottest new research and what the latest Science or Nature paper meant. It's a shame that Nathaniel Jeanson was impervious to this crucial part of his education. It's a shame he missed out on appreciating the central organizing principle of biology, and one of the greatest achievements of the human mind.

2. He was asked if he was aware that 2 sets of Nobel Prizes have been given for the confirmation of the Big Bang; that the theoretical underpinnings were provided by Einstein, Gamow, Friedmann, Weinberg and Hawking; that a 13.7 billion year age for the universe is accepted by all working physicists; and that (contrary to his claim that one cannot answer historical questions scientifically) the COBE and WMAP satellites have provided pictures of the early universe 400,000 years after the Big Bang. He merely responded that his “colleagues" at the ICR (meaning Russell Humphreys) have "alternative explanations" for these data. When asked if this means that Russell Humphreys is smarter than Einstein and Hawking, he had no answer.

3. When asked about the fossil hominids, he repeated the creationist canard that they are either apes or humans, not transitional forms.

4. When asked about the genome sequencing and bio-informatics work of Prof. Eric Lander of the Broad Institute and MIT, which demonstrates common ancestry and species relationships through analysis of genome sequencing data, he had no response and moved on to another question.

Apparently this is all part of his career path, as he is giving out business cards from his new position at the Institute for Creation Research - a set of hilarious crackpots who claim they are doing "research" that supports the inerrancy of the literal Bible. Of course, they know the answer already, now they are just trying to make the data fit the result they want. Since this is difficult, what they primarily do is write treatises about how science is a conspiracy, why the NSF and NIH grant committees won't fund them, and why no actual journals will publish their "research".

At the ICR, I'm sure that Dr. Jeanson will be well paid, while doing no publishable research, merely because he has a Harvard degree and there is an audience for his message. He will be "banking on" it. I wouldn't be surprised if some of his grad school income came from the ICR all along. It should cause all of us to be wary of the tactics of these intellectually and morally dishonest people.

Thanks for the reporting, Steven. Another first-hand report is up on the Pharyngula blog. Readers may want to grit their teeth and visit CreationWiki, "a free encyclopedia of apologetics that is being produced by an international team of missionaries." Sounds very scientific.

Boston Atheists Report 1.13

Our mid-August podcast, recorded 8/16/2009. Topics: Internet conversion video; Texas law requires students to study Christian holy book this fall; Idaho also plans to teach Christian Bible. Roundtable: evolution and creationism and science, oh my!

Download this podcast from our website, or, look for us on iTunes!

Sources Cited:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The 3 Myths of AA: Myth 1 - AA is not a Religion

This article was originally posted in my personal blog, which has since been deleted when I became an examiner. However, I have decided to rework and repost these articles on AA here, removing some of the more personal aspects and focusing more on the argument and my personal experiences with AA without specifically identifying certain people.

Alcoholism is a serious problem and it is widely believed that the only solution that works is the 12 Step Program, also known as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA also has a related organization known as Al-Anon, which is meant for the relatives and friends of those with alcoholism.

I'm very familiar with how AA operates because alcoholism has affected me through many people in my life who have suffered from this debilitating addiction. I've seen AA work and I’ve seen it fail. I want to clarify my stance on AA before I become critical. If AA works for you, that's great! I’m happy for anyone that can find sobriety using this program, as that’s what is most important. However, at the same time, it's not the only option and people suffering from AA need to be informed of those other options. My only concern is to help people understand what AA truly is, and to seek the appropriate avenue to becoming sober whether it’s through this program or other secular means. My biggest criticisms do not come from AA being a complete and total failure because it's not. My criticisms stem from the misinformation it promotes that potentially damages the ability for other people to get sober. I'm referring to the misinformation that AA promotes as the 3 Myths of AA and they are as follows: 1) AA is not religion 2) Alcoholism is a disease/you're not in control and 3) AA is the only solution.

In this post I want to address the first myth that says AA is not a religion. Let's look again at the 12 Step Website where all 12 steps of the program are laid out for you on the main page. Let's note steps 3,5,6,7, and 11. All those steps reference God. But who is their God? That is actually defined in step 2.

"2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity"

Here we have God defined as a "Higher Power" that is the only one who can help you through your addiction. So in order for you to get anything out of this program you must believe in a God and that God has intercessory powers.

Now, let's look at the Definition of Religion:

"A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects."

Looking again at the 12 steps we can see that they are a specific set of beliefs and practices that its members are required to adhere to. You cannot get anymore basic than this. So if you are an atheist and wish to get help, your beliefs are immediately in conflict with the tenants of AA.

I have been encouraged to go to Al-Anon, a subset of AA for people who aren’t alcoholics but are affected by people who are. I knew that AA required a belief in God and I did not see how a group that requires I believe that God will solve my problems would benefit me. You know what the stock response to that objection was every time? "Your higher power doesn't have to be a God; it can be a tree or a rock." My response, which never seemed to register, was: I do not have a higher power. They seem to conveniently ignore the fact that atheism doesn’t deny their god, but every god, and this includes nature worship. We do not accept any higher power at all, therefore we could never possibly benefit from an organization that insists we do. Furthermore, by insisting that a “Higher Power” can be a tree or a rock shows a complete lack of respect for atheists and for the god they are saying helps them stay sober. Let's be honest, if you believe in an intercessory god that saves you from alcoholism, it's not a rock.

The attempt at being an open organization for theists and atheists fails miserably. They fail to understand what an atheist is and pretend it has it both ways by saying your "Higher Power" can be whatever you want it to be. They try to sneak that in by referring to God with the phrase “as we understood Him". I have had people claim it is a spiritual organization, but not only does that leave out non-spiritual people, it is a description that continues to try and pretend it's not a religion when it most clearly is.

It is very evident to me that people in AA are mostly Christian. They will deny that's the case but it is blatantly obvious once you get to know the program. All the tenants of AA match with the ideology of the Christian religion, especially Catholicism. Christians believe they are full of sin from birth of which they have no control over and need Jesus to save them. AA promotes the disease theory, which makes alcoholism beyond their control and they must have God save them from their illness. People in AA know who their "Higher Power" is and it's the Christian God. In Penn & Teller's Bullshit episode about 12 Stepping which I highly recommend watching), they actually visit the AA headquarters and inside the building they had Christian crosses everywhere. Whenever people I know go to an AA meeting it's most often at a Catholic church hall. I've even been to AA meetings and it's very obvious to me what they mean when they say God.

Most importantly, in regards to AA as a religion, it is now becoming unconstitutional to give people a court order to attend AA. One court case example is reported in San Francisco where a Buddhist sued for being forced into a religious program. Another example of this happening is in Wisconsin. The simple fact is that ordering anyone into AA is a violation of Church and State because AA is a religion. End of story.

How can we possibly have an organization that claims to be the only way to keep you sober blatantly exclude those of a non Judeo-Christian faith, especially those without any faith at all? Luckily there is another option. There is something known as Secular Sobriety which is an organization that does not subscribe to any faith or religion as a means to sobriety.

In my next post on AA I will discuss the concept that alcoholism is a disease.

G Hunters

Jay Novella, from the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, has a made a short movie that parodies the popular show Ghost Hunters on SyFy. (Yes, Sci-Fi channel is now SyFy. I died a little inside when I saw that.) Anyway, it's only about 20 minutes long and it's pretty funny. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 01, 2009