Sunday, May 31, 2009

Doctor George Tiller Murdered in God's Name

Well, it finally happened. Dr. George Tiller, a physician who provided legal abortion services, was murdered in the name of Jesus and God. He was shot while attending church services on Sunday morning. This tragedy is only mitigated the tiniest amount by the fact that all of the mainstream anti-abortion groups denounced the murder. This is just the final chapter in a long string of harassment, threats, vandalism and and even another shooting – in 1993, Dr. Tiller was shot in both arms. Dr. Tiller must have known that sooner or later the threats would turn to action, yet he carried on.

This is religion at its worst.
  • The murderer is completely intolerant of other viewpoints than his own.
  • It represents an absolute certainty about morals, so much certainty that the murderer believed execution was warranted.
  • Religion allowed the murderer to believe he is above the law, and can decide which laws to follow and which to ignore.
  • It shows that these religious fanatics believe that, no matter what crimes they commit here on Earth, they'll be forgiven and actually rewarded in the afterlife.
In other words, this murderer doesn't believe in the rule of law. He believes that any one of us can murder another, just based on our own personal beliefs.

It is nothing more than anarchy in God's name. If we follow this to the logical conclusion, then each of us is free to do whatever we like, so long as our personal religion, whatever god or gods we worship, tell us it's OK.

Well, this assassin is wrong. There is no salvation in his afterlife. Nobody is going to forgive him. He won't live happily ever after. Nobody will be singing his praises. He is not a hero. He is nothing more than a cold-blooded murder, anarchist, and self-important fool.

Instead, the State has already captured the man, and he'll be found guilty of first-degree premeditated murder. He'll spend the rest of his life in prison, and may even be executed by the State.

Which is as it should be. Nobody is above the law.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, and surely others, will decry this murder, saying that God does not approve or condone such behavior in His name. But they're wrong – just look in the first few books of the Bible and you'll find many, many instances of people, families, cities and even whole lands, murdered on a whim or for trivial offenses, or for the misdeeds of just a few, or even just because God wanted them out of the way. These horrifying tales of murder and genocide are taught to children and adults alike as moral lessons.

When a murder takes place in God's name, like the murder of Dr. Tiller, all the Christians and Jews can do is find yet another quote from their Bible, "'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' sayeth the Lord." (Romans 12:19). But that's a pure cover-up. The Bible is such a pile of conflicting morals and baffling lessons, anybody can claim just about anything they like, and find a passage of the Bible that backs them up. Apparently this murderer didn't get to Romans, he read Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus and learned his lessons about murder and genocide there.

Those of you who think that this murder doesn't represent your religion, think again. This is exactly why the Bible is a terrible source of morality.

Friday, May 29, 2009

How to Make a Terrorist Talk

Americans have for centuries been willing to sacrifice our comforts and even our lives for our principles and morals. We believe that freedom, dignity, and human rights are important enough to fight for, and even to die for.

One of the greatest embarrassments of my lifetime is that my country used torture in the name of freedom and safety for Americans. The men (and a few women) who carried this out believed that possibly saving American lives was more important than saving America itself. For what is America, if we've forgotten our principles? Being an American means being willing to take risks and make sacrifices to protect our principles. These torturers are not true American patriots – they're nothing more than cowards who have turned tail at the first sign of danger. Only they're not running from battle, they're running from what it means to be an American.

That's why I was so moved by How to Make a Terrorist Talk in Time Magazine. Normally I write about topics related to religion, irrationality, atheism and related topics, but today I was so impressed by in Time magazine I had to share it.

It turns out that not only is torture un-American, it's also ineffective. Some of the strongest, and now most respected, critics of torture are the CIA and FBI's senior interrogators, the very men who have gotten real, useful information without resorting to torture. The Time article quotes Eric Maddox:
"There is nothing intelligent about torture. If you have to inflict pain, then you've lost control of the situation, the subject and yourself."
And Maddox should know: he is the Army staff sergeant whose interrogations led to the capture of Saddam Hussein himself.

According to the Time article, and many other articles I've read, torture has not led to one documented case of preventing a terrorist attack, whereas traditional interrogation, which employs psychology, not cruelty, has resulted in many, many critical pieces of intelligence that led to the capture of terrorists. It may be that torture worked in a few cases that are still classified; maybe we'll know some day.

But at what price? The use of torture has weakened America itself. We're reviled around the world, and we've lost the very principles that make us Americans. It will take a long time to get that back.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Scientology finally prosecuted in France

At last some good news about the "church" called Scientology: They're being put on trial for criminal fraud in France.

I've written about Scientology before, especially their crazy, misinformed attitudes about psychiatry. Anybody who can form a rational opinion can easily deduce that Scientology is nothing but a money-making corporation, and their business is taking money off gullible people under the guise of religion.

Well, the French government finally had the courage to call a spade a spade: Several Scientologists stand accused of organized fraud, and ironically (given their strident claims that psychiatrists over-prescribe medication) they're also accused of illegally prescribing medicine. France doesn't categorize Scientology as a religion, so they have no special protection.

Yet, this makes me wonder: Why should any church enjoy special protection anywhere? Why is it that by claiming to be a church in the United States, a business can enjoy a tax-free status, special insulation against lawsuits, and immunity from all sorts of criminal charges?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Christian Rock and Roll: Memetic Evolution in Action

Here is another example of religion shooting itself in the foot. As one who studies religion as an evolutionary phenomenon, this one is fascinating, because it shows a branch of the "tree of descent" of religious factions that will likely go extinct due to being poorly adapted to the modern "ecology." Simply put, they're going extinct because they're losing the battle-of-the-fittest for survival.

A couple weeks ago, Tyler Frost was suspended from his Christian high school for the horrifying sin of attending his girlfriend's prom, where there would be (gasp) rock and roll music. The school's principal Tim England said "When the school committee ... set up the policy regarding dancing, I am confident that they had the principle of fleeing lustful situations in mind ...should a Christian place themselves at an event where young ladies will have low-cut dresses and be dancing in them."

Today, another news article caught my eye. What would Mr. England think of the Christian Rock Festival going on here in San Diego this weekend? This is a family-oriented event, yet ... they're playing rock and roll, teens are dancing, the girls are screaming when their favorite rock stars come on, and worst of all, it's a beautiful, sunny Memorial Day weekend here in San Diego, and you can just drive past the fairgrounds and see plenty of pretty teen girls in sexy shorts and tank tops, very attractive indeed. And you know those teen boys are going to be dancing with the girls, staring at their cleavage and their rear ends, and lusting, as teen boys do everywhere.

As a cultural evolutionist, one who studies culture, and religion in particular, using methods similar to Darwin's principles of evolution, this is a classic case study of evolution in action. On the one hand, you have Principal England's oppressive policies that alienate teens, who are pretty much hormone driven, not to mention that they are instinctively rebelling against parental authority, trying to establish their own adult identities. It's very easy for an adult to become the laughing-stock of the teenage crowd, which is exactly what Mr. England did with his puritanical, sanctimonious declarations about low-cut dresses, dancing, and rock music.

On the other hand, you have a group of Christians who recognize teens' love for rock music, for dancing, and for live concerts by the beach in the hot Southern California sunshine. Instead of pious prohibitions, this group embraces the kids' natural desires, and channels it into a healthy, family-oriented weekend of great music, hot dogs, carnival rides, dancing, and fun.

Which of these two philosophies, Principal England's, or the Christian Music Fair organizers', is more likely to become extinct in the next 100 years? This is evolution, memetic evolution, in action, and it sure is fun to watch.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Rep. Paul Broun's un-American "Year of the Bible" Bill

U.S. Congressional Representative Paul Broun's Bible Bill, which would declare 2010 the "year of the Bible," is the most blogged about topic this week, and no wonder. Even his conservative colleagues thing it's a terrible idea, a clear violation of the Constitution. I don't need to add my voice to the thousands condemning this idiotic proposal.

But what I found both amusing and offensive was Broun's response in an interview with POLITICO:
Broun rejects the critiques leveled at this effort.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with Christianity,” he said in an interview with POLITICO. Rather, he says, it seeks to recognize that the Bible played an integral role in the building of the United States, including providing the basis for our freedom of religion that allows Muslims, Hindus and even atheists to vocalize their own beliefs.
Got that? Even atheists!!

Think about that for a moment. What if Broun had said, "even Jews," or "even Blacks," or "even gays"? How would you feel about that? Why is it that Broun can get away with insulting atheists, when an insult to any other religious or ethnic group would have the media howling for blood?

Jeez, I'm so thankful that thankful that the Bible was the responsible for freedom of religion in the United States! But wait, I thought the founding fathers, the guys who wrote the Constitution, were mostly not traditional Christians. Weren't a bunch of them Deists, agnostics, and at least one an outspoken atheist? Maybe it was their diversity, and their direct, personal experience with religious oppression, the exact opposite of Broun's assertions, that made them realize how important the separation of church and state is.

But Broun shows his true colors with the phrase "even atheists." Clearly he views atheists as a separate, less-than-wholesome subcult of some sort, requiring special constitutional protection due to our radical beliefs.

Mr. Broun should be ashamed of himself. But of course, he won't be. Like all intolerant people, whether racist, sexist, or religious, he probably doesn't even realize what a glaring mistake he made.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mom letting 13-year-old son die for religion

It's hard to know what to say about the mother who is letting her thirteen-year-old son die of cancer (Hodgkin's lymphoma) rather than get proper treatment, because of her religious beliefs. I'd like to call it outright murder, but that requires intent, and her religion has so completely scrambled her ability to form a rational thought that the idea of intent just doesn't apply. I suppose they'll only be able to convict her of reckless child endangerment, contempt of court, and if the boy dies, of manslaughter.

I've blogged about medicine-as-religion and religion-as-medicine several times in the past. All of these stories have an underlying theme: Children are raised on the Bible and Christianity, which by their very nature force believers to reject logical thinking, and accept magical explanations. And because of the weird, contradictory, inexplicable, and even horrifying stories in the Bible, believers also have to accept that "God has a plan" that is unknowable to mere humans, that in God's greater scheme for humanity, there is a purpose to all of the illogic, immorality, irrationality and pain. They're taught to reject their own ability to judge, to make rational decisions and moral judgements, and just accept stuff that doesn't make sense.

It's no wonder that people raised this way become adults who aren't able to distinguish real medicine from quackery, real science from charlatanism.

This story, of the misguided mother letting her son die of cancer, is just another sad data point in the ongoing saga of medicine-as-religion. It's not the first, it's not the worst, and it won't be the last. The only good thing that's coming out of this story is that most American Christians, even the most conservative Biblical literalists, are disturbed by this story. Nobody wants to see a child die from neglect, and no Christian wants his/her religion besmirched by people like this.

Let's hope they catch the mother and her son in time to save him. Without treatment, his chances of being alive in a year or two are 5%, but with treatment, he's got a 95% chance of a long and healthy life.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bush Manipulated by Rumsfeld using Religion?

GQ Magazine published some startling cover sheets for President George W. Bush's top-secret briefings that were prepared by Rumsfeld. Each one features a photo from the Iraq war, with a biblical quote superimposed, suggesting that the war against Iraq was more of a Christian jihad than a war of liberation or to protect American security. With no further insight into who prepared them and why, they're chilling, un-American, unpatriotic, and show a shocking ignorance of the history of colonialism and Islam in the Middle East. If those cover sheets had been leaked during the heat of the Iraq war, there's no telling the damage that would have been done to America's image (that is, if it was even possible for it to get any lower).

But it gets worse. Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote a startling accusation three days ago:
As Draper writes, Rumsfeld is not known for ostentatious displays of piety. He was cynically playing the religious angle to seduce and manipulate a president who frequently quoted the Bible. But the secretary’s actions were not just oily; he was also taking a risk with national security.
Anyone with a brain realized seven years ago that George W. Bush was not in charge of this country; he was too empty-headed. Instead, if Frank Rich is correct, the triumvirate of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft found in George W. Bush a man who was electable and who could be manipulated through smooth words and religion. Apparently, Rumsfeld cynically and deliberately used Bush's simplistic religious views and gullibility to further Rumsfeld/Cheney/Ashcroft's unwarranted and immoral war.

Once again, religion proves to be the tool of evil men. Over 150,000 civilians killed by American bombs, over 4,200 American soldiers killed, and for what? Nothing. And all thanks to a President, conditioned by decades of brainwashing to believe the irrational and conflicting "truths" of the Christian Bible.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Religion Virus: Is it Incurable?

Today I had an email exchange with my publisher, in which we decided to revert back to the original title, The Religion Virus. We'd decided a while back to change it to The Evolution of Religion, because in addition to atheists, we'd like to appeal to people who are still religious but seeking new answers. Our thinking was that The Religion Virus was a bit too in-your-face, a bit too much of a direct affront to people's religion. But several people, including some friends of my mother, who are exactly the demographic we're hoping to find (religious but inquisitive), said they very much liked The Religion Virus as a title, and that they were much more likely to pick up a book with that title than one called The Evolution of Religion, which sounds like a history book or something.

Then, coincidentally, I was accosted on the beach by two Christian women during my evening bike ride, when I paused to enjoy the sunset. I made the mistake of letting them engage me in a dialog, but quickly realized it was hopeless. They were so thoroughly infected with the virus, their condition is "terminal." In the span of a few minutes, they used practically every meme that I discuss in depth in my book: Biblical inerrancy, Heaven and Hell, the fatherly loving God, ... one after the other, in just a few minutes, they demonstrated in very vivid terms, that they were thoroughly infected with these powerful ideas.

It was very discouraging for me to see the religion virus in action in such stark reality; sometimes I feel like it's hopeless, that irrationality and superstition will be with us forever. But then I remembered: That's why I wrote the book. If I can help just a few people, then it will have been worth it. If it becomes popular and helps a lot of people, then I'll have contributed, in my small way, to a better world.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Star Trek: Great Movie, but Why Inject Religion?

Ok, it was subtle reference, and didn't detract from the movie, but why is there any reference to God in a Star Trek movie?

If you're a Trekkie, and haven't seen the new movie yet, you'd better go soon, or you'll be the last person on the planet, and maybe off-planet too, who hasn't seen it yet.

Even with with modern filmmaking techniques and great special effects, it is amazingly true to the original concept. I thought the new actors for the most part did a fabulous job recreating the original roles. Zachary Quinto (Spock), Karl Urban ("Bones" McCoy), and Anton Yelchin (Chekov) were remarkably true to the original characters, yet brought fresh blood to the concept. But Chris Pine (Kirk) was the star, he was true to Shatner's original character, but without the over-the-top Shatnerisms that we know and love.

And the screenwriting was great, special effects and editing, all marvelous. I was a happy Trekkie!

But they had to throw in that one little line, "Godspeed." I can't even imagine why. Why not "Good Luck," or "Take care of yourself"? I suppose it's because the writers, actors, and director, unlike the advanced, highly-scientific civilization they portray, are not themselves scientists. Good writing and good directing are not related to good science or a rational view of the universe.

It was no big deal, but it was completely out of place in a movie about a future that has moved past illogic and superstition.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Juggler Bill Berry: Creation Science to Atheism

Last night I had the pleasure of dinner with creationist-turned-atheist Bill Berry, the fabulous and famous juggler. Bill is a close friend of my daughter, and good friends with my younger son Leo (who is also a champion juggler). You can see his AMAZING three-ball juggling that made him famous.

Bill's story of discovering that creationism, Christianity, and even the existence of God, were all false, is fascinating. It started off in the typical fashion: He was studying the pseudo-science of creationism, learning about young-Earth theory, how dinosaurs coexisted with humans, and so forth, and Bill was a total believer. But Bill has a sharp and inquisitive mind (if you're in the juggling business for long, you'll discover that almost all world-class jugglers have world-class intellects, too; it's a very intricate and scientific discipline), and he wanted to learn more, and more ... and it didn't take long for Bill do see through the "pseudo" part of the pseudo-science called creationism. Once the facade started to crack, the whole thing fell apart, and Bill began his real education and conversion to a rationalist, intelligent view of the world.

That part of Bill's story has been repeated uncountable times, by almost every Christian/Creationism who ever opened his/her eyes to real science. But the part I found most fascinating was Bill's reaction: He felt like the world had dropped out from under his feet. Everything he believed in, his entire understanding of everything around him, the foundation for how he lived his life and behaved, all evaporated. Bill talks about how he felt disoriented, almost frightened.

I never thought about that aspect of losing faith. It would be as though I discovered irrefutable evidence that science is false, and the world really does work by magic. It would be very hard to accept.

Luckily, Bill didn't stop there. It didn't take him long to find a new foundation for his world, and now (four years later), he is an avid reader, and is working on a long essay that details his reasons for abandoning pseudo science and magic in favor of a naturalistic, rational view of the universe. Bill is also considering writing a book about his experiences, and I hope he does.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Religious Medicine: Faith-Based Quackery

I live in an insular world, surrounded by scientists, engineers and business people who are, for the most part, non-religious or outright atheists. And since my "day job" is part of the mainstream of modern pharmaceutical research, these same people are by-and-large all well educated in the virtues of modern medicine.

Every now and then, I leave this insular world and meet people from all walks of life, and I'm always startled at the ignorance and outright rejection of modern science. Scientists can be arrogant, dishonest (witness the recent fake scientific journals published by a major science publisher on behalf of paying drug companies), or just plain wrong (e.g. thalidomide). But most of the scientists I know are dedicated and hard working, and genuinely care about helping people, and the science they do is solid, well done, and results in bettering people's lives.

So when a woman I met recently asked me, "What do scientists know?", then went on to say things like schizophrenia is mostly bad nutrition and poor diet, I was appalled. She continued on about a book of herbal remedies that had been passed down to her from her mother and grandmother, some sort of ancient wisdom that science knew nothing about.

Not surprisingly, this same woman was raised in a churchgoing family – I don't remember if it was Lutheran or Catholic, but one of the two. These are religions that, on the one hand, claim that science is the road to knowledge, but on the other hand, that a magical sky-god impregnated a virgin who bore a son, but that son was actually the sky god, who then arranged to have himself tortured to death by being nailed to a cross, where he died, but then came back to life, except that the stories about all of this conflict and you can't even figure out who saw him and when and how long he was alive, and ...

In other words, this woman was taught to deliberately accept hocus-pocus, beliefs that can't be reconciled with reality, and illogic. She was taught this from an early age, and it was reinforced by a culture that ejects non-believers via excommunication and a horrifying promise of burning for all eternity in Hell.

Is it any wonder that this same woman was later able to reject logical, rational science in favor of her great-grandmother's voodoo medicine?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Roadside Religion - The Bahamas

I'm back from vacation, as well as a week or so of leftover laziness. There are many changes in my life, not the least of which is that I find myself a single man again. Vacations can have strange side effects. Oddly enough, it was a pretty good vacation. But I'll spare you the details, my separation and impending divorce are not relevant to the topic of this blog, except to say thanks to all my loyal readers and subscribers for hanging with me as while I took a vacation and weathered a storm.

To get us back on track, here's a fun little item in my occasional theme, "Roadside Religion." (Click for an enlargement.)

Here's a word of advice: If you're building a church, you should try to finish it before words "coming soon" have faded! This picture was taken here on the island of Lesser Exuma (aren't Google satellite images amazing?).

The Bahamas are an overwhelmingly Christian. Even the newspaper had unabashed front-page references to Christian events, morality and theology in seemingly every story. Yet ... a half-built church sits crumbling in the tropical sun.