Monday, February 28, 2011
OK and Some Not OK Memes: The battle for Union Rights
Looked at this way genes are reproducing and infective specialists with side effects for hosts who need to survive environments to reproduce. Dawkins generalized this idea to propose that our mental life includes entities, which he called memes, that are similar to genes but a unit of cultural transmission. They are ideas that play in a mental host and "seek" to replicate themselves in one mind after another. Having a host with advanced skills (think of early humans making tools) and communicative abilities allows better reproduction of ideas, especially if they are selfish in spreading themselves. So without conscious intent (let along divine ones) our memes infect host-minds, copying themselves not for host interests but for their own reproductive ability. The idea is more of a framework than a well worked out theory but people like Daniel Dennett think that considering the meme focus on “who profits” answers some key evolutionary and cultural ideas, such as chain reaction of one innovation leading to and affording another. A simple example is the idea of a belonging meme for human gregariousness. The concept of staying with others is reproduced, since there was safety in numbers for our ancestor’s tribes.
Dennett and Dawkins along with others have applied the idea vigorously to discuss various memes that they hypothesize are involved in propagating religious ideas. In this formulation ideas giving people a feeling of belonging to a group (say a religious group) have an advantage. There is also the idea of distinguishing oneself by doing something new, innovative, or significant. An individual with memes about how to find food, shelter, and stands out from the crowd is more likely to find a potential mate. Religious leaders stand above others and so a religious story meme is likely to be reproduced as they are voiced by what a tribe recognizes as favored mates.
But other non-religious cultural advances and economies of scale efficiencies may also be propagated by a concentrated population. One group economy of scale comes with such innovations such as farming which requires stable groups. Population concentration also then works to increase mate choices and possibilities, who in turn can pass on innovations.
I was reminded of the meme model by 2 recent things. The first was a light BBC article called 'How did the word "OK" conquer the world' which illustrates why some ideas spread and take over. The article was based on Allan Metcalf’s book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word in which he traces the word’s journey from “joke to business tool and then to staple of everyday conversation and an attitude toward life.” "OK" like "you know" or "I mean" crops up in daily speech dozens of times every day, although it seems habitual and carries little real meaning. My personal knowledge of OK’s origin was limited to what was declared in a Pete Seager song - "All Mixed Up". This asserted that OK came from Native American Choctaw - Okeh. But as Allan Metcalf explained the sound is also similar to Scottish German, Finnish and Greek affirmative words. Some idea-thing like OK is a good viral candidate in part because it sounds distinct but has simple acoustic components that are familiar to a multitude of languages. Thus its sound travels well and its graphic balance of the round /O/ and a /K/ made of straight lines makes it stand out clearly, easily distinguished from other words. These are good distinctions for a “Virus of the Mind” as Richard Brodie notes in his book of the same name. They help a meme virus get into the system and be communicated to others via a diffusion network. You can see some diffusion networks for recent memes that are afforded by the internet and social media online.
But as Dawkins noted early on, we are now aware of memes and so are at a new stage where people can intentionally design mind viruses. Those of us aware of the danger or having an interest can track some forms using a tool like Truthy .
Viral marketing is now a well known phenomena, which brings me to the 2nd phenomena that reminds me of memes – the attack on organized labor and the various memes of conservatives echoed my a mostly passive and tame media. It starts with simple sounding quotes as recorded in a NY Times article on dueling protests in Madison WI.
“‘You don’t care about this country! Shame on you, you’re selfish,’ one supporter of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal told union supporters, wagging his finger as he spoke.”
Eric Alterman, for one, believes the issue of selfishness implied here isn’t merely rhetorical, but something we need to understand. It is dangerous. Alterman asks how did our country become a culture where “poor and middle-class folks willingly engage in internecine class warfare against one another, with one side essentially acting as a cat’s paw for mega-wealthy conservatives intent on undermining every worker protection in existence.” See http://www.thenation.com/blog/158844/whats-matter-wisconsin for the full article and the analogy to crabs fighting to escape a steaming pot. Altermann thinks that Thomas Frank framed an understanding of deceptive efforts by conservatives in his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? The problem is that many of us have fallen for well designed memes disguised as populist, conservative messages that are in fact in conflict with the middle and working classes best interests. These have been called truthy memes since they rely on deceptive tactics to represent misinformation and half truths as fact. In a phrase we are infected with some bad ideas, which we are also in danger of passing on. They are spreading through the culture in part because they are driven by some basic fear of decline and by being packaged in a simple, relatively message about who to blame. Easy targets make for simple messages, which move along more easily than cognitively complex ones.
One thing that makes these messages difficult to resist is that the mainstream media has adopted conventional storylines as their hot button topics. This is done while crowding out competing and less sexy memes that provide the larger context digging into the real causes of the accelerating budget deficits seen in Wisconsin and elsewhere around the country. The real story might be to understanding the confluence of the failed housing market, high unemployment and Wall Street speculating and wild leveraging. These, rather than meme stories about public-employee union activity, are much better predictors of which state’s revenues are now in the red. But they are not simple, “OK” stories. They appeal to higher understanding and not the sexy, fear-based, scapegoating message being pushed.
Nor do you get much hard to resist messages about how the new cohort of Conservative governors have (or are) enabling state budget deficits by slashing corporate tax rates. Ron Brownstein had a column on a new war front role that Republican governors are playing in Washington's conflicts now –“American politics increasingly resembles a kind of total war in which each party mobilizes every conceivable asset at its disposal against the other. Most governors were once conscientious objectors in that struggle.” Instead of these ideas being widely discussed we hear echoes of misinformation dressed up as good statistical analytics. One cited example is the talking-point meme-statistic used by GOP politicians around the country. It appeared in USA Today in this form in August during the campaign:
“At a time when workers' pay and benefits have stagnated, federal employees' average compensation has grown to more than double what private sector workers earn.” USA Today, August 10, 2010
This notion of public union employees milking excess benefits from local government while the rest of the middle-class is simultaneously struggling sparks much of the public’s resentment. But it is a designer meme that is easily refuted by grounded realists like Ezra Klein of the Post who pops meme bubbles like Organized labor is in the hands of the teacher's unions. Klein points out that, "Wisconsin public-sector workers face an annual compensation penalty of 11%. Adjusting for the slightly fewer hours worked per week on average, these public workers still face a compensation penalty of 5% for choosing to work in the public sector."
That’s a meme we need to hear more about. Like conservative stories it needs to be made ubiquitous and give some organic growth time to put down hardy roots into the public’s mind. This is what Conservative memes echoes over their media and do it religiously. When they are wrong on an issue, based on a hard look at the facts, they ignore the facts and keep repeating their meme story. Dangerous designer memes...Beware.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
An Open Letter to Progressive Voters
As a registered Democrat, I feel that I can speak as a member of the family. But as a relatively recent convert from Republican and then Independent voter status, I can speak with an outside perspective.
One of the most obvious problems you have is that Democrats have no party loyalty, and trying to get all of you to point in the same general direction at once is like herding all of those silly cats everybody is always failing to keep in one group.
Yes, I know, there are so many groups that call themselves Democrats that they all have different agendas, but that is why I am using the term “progressive voters” in this letter. All of you should be agreeing on one thing: beating the Republican Party and preventing them from getting into office is the number one priority, that should override every single other issue you may have.
But you don’t. You still are capable, in a fit of pique, of staying home and away from the polls to punish the President for not being as left wing as you are.
WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?
Almost every single crazy right wing bill sidelining women’s rights, targeting labor unions, making religion an official part of various governments’ activities, the impending shutdown of the Federal government and what will certainly turn out to be a two year gridlock of government at the Federal level is due to to an increased testosterone level in Republicans’ political activities that is virtually certain to be traced back to their being convinced that they won the 2010 elections because more people are thinking like them.
And they are able to think like this BECAUSE TOO DAMN MANY OF YOU STAYED HOME!
If you had gone to the polls and voted as you did two years ago, chances are that the Republicans’ wins in 2010 would have been much more diluted, if not much fewer and further between. It would have been much harder for them to claim some victory out of the whole thing if you’d just gone to the polls and voted for Democratic candidates.
But, that is water under the bridge, and can’t be changed.
What can be done is to get yourselves together to fight everything the Republicans are doing, everywhere! There is everything to win and a hell of a lot to lose.
I have some suggestions.
First, every progressive voter should, after finishing this essay, pick up the phone and call the White House. Urge President Obama to get on Air Force One and fly straight to Madison, Wisconsin, put on a pair of walking shoes and join the protestors in fighting this nasty, unconscionable attempt to destroy union power in the United States. Remember, it is your livelihood the Republican are trying to attack. And by destroying the unions, they will also destroy your Party’s ability to affect national elections in a major way. Which is their purpose!
Second, if you are a private sector employee who has no pension, a lousy health insurance policy and what you consider a poor salary compared with other people in other companies doing the same job, call a union. Seriously, CALL A UNION! If your complaint about public sector employees is that they have better pensions, health insurance and a better chance of keeping their jobs, CALL A UNION! Don’t help the Republicans destroy the livelihoods of others out of jealous spite, do something about your own poor situation!
Third, join other progressive voters in organizing for the next elections. Organize for elections at all levels, local, State and Federal. All over the country, elections are held every year at all of the various levels, and it is important - very important - that progressives get elected at all levels.
Fourth, at every opportunity, when faced with the insanity of the right wing, respond! Write letters to the editor, write your Congressional Rep and Senators, even if they are, no, especially if they are, Republicans. Let them know that they are opposed, that you think they are wrong. Be respectful but write them! Post on web sites where comments are allowed, talk to your friends, do anything you can to get out the progressive vote! Don’t let the right wing crazies get away with their insanity!
Fifth, VOTE!! It doesn’t matter whether the progressive candidate is perfectly in line with your political views or if he’s recently made you angry by ignoring your personal issue, if he is a Democrat, and the only other choice is Republican, vote for the Democrat! Don’t stay home, VOTE!
The alternative is to allow the conservative, religious fundamentalists to win.
And if they win, democracy loses, as we’ve seen clearly in Wisconsin.
Friday, February 25, 2011
Moving toward free and fair elections in Egypt
In 2005 and 2006, the Elections Commission opposed international monitoring and severely limited monitoring of polling stations by Egyptian civil society. Nevertheless, donors, including USAID, funded thousands of civil society monitors. USAID even funded unofficial international monitoring missions organized by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. While some of the monitors were prevented from entering polling stations, the combined monitoring operation provided a clear picture of widespread fraud and election abuses. I experienced vote selling first-hand. As a USAID employee, I joined a group of Embassy employees monitoring the parliamentary elections. At one station, a woman leaving the polls came up to me and asked for the money she was promised in return for voting NDP.
In efforts to address severe criticism of the electoral process, the Constitution was amended in 2007 to establish the High Elections Commission as an independent and judge-led election management body (Article 88). It has independent legal status and an independent budget. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, it recognized that abuses took place in many electoral districts, but declared the elections were run properly and reflected the will of the people. It condemned those monitoring groups and media who gave the impression that abuses were widespread and systemic. Many Egyptians believe the Commission cannot avoid bias. Four of the Commission's eleven positions are public figures selected by the Parliament, both houses of which have been controlled by the NDP.
Cynicism about the election process led Egyptians to insist that judges monitor the polling stations and receive complaints. A Supreme Constitutional Court ruling in 2000 required judges to monitor all polling stations in three rounds of voting. In most cases, judges have carried out their responsibilities seriously. However, a 2007 constitutional amendment (Article 88) prevented judges from covering all polling stations by requiring that elections take place in one day. Egypt has only enough judges to oversee a third of the polls in one day, and the remainder must be overseen by Ministry of Interior employees, in whom citizens have little confidence. Removal of Article 88 was one of the major objectives of the pro-democracy movement.
Even when judges are monitoring polling stations, their authority is restricted to the inside of the stations. They have no jurisdiction over abuses by security personnel and party officials outside of the stations, including vote-buying, establishing barriers to entrance and improper campaigning.
Citizens who wish to vote must present their voter card or present some form of photo identification and verify that they are registered at the polling station. One obstacle to voting is gaining an identification card. Millions of citizens, particularly women and the poor, have either not attempted to get IDs or have faced obstacles in doing so. They also are unable to register to vote for most of the year. Voter registration is only possible during a few months of the year. Consequently, many citizens are disenfranchised.
The seriousness of the Military Commission's commitment to democratic reform will be demonstrated by its support for revising Article 88 and other Constitutional provisions that prevent free and fair elections. The Commission intends to submit the changes proposed by the Constitutional Review Committee for public debate and then for approval in a referendum. I am confident that citizens will be much more engaged in this process than they were for the Constitutional referendums organized under President Mubarak, which were met by voter apathy.
I am less confident, however that Egypt will be ready to hold free and fair elections within the six month time limit set by the Military Commission. The challenges are enormous, requiring reform of the Ministry of Interior, attacks on systemic corruption and a change in the mentality of thousands of government officials. Civil society must be vigilant in holding election administrators accountable. It is certain, however, that the courage and commitment of those who overthrew Mubarak will serve them well in moving towards free and fair elections over the next few years.
From Post-Revolutionary Egypt
Love by Robert G. Ingersoll
One of the prizes of the Ingersoll Oratory Contest was a really beautiful vintage poster featuring a photo of Bob and his two grandchildren. It also features the poem he wrote titled "Love". I remember seeing this poster for a quick second the previous year during the awards ceremony, but it wasn't until I received a copy was I able to read it and was honestly quite touched by the words. For the benefit of those in my situation, or just fans of Ingersoll or anyone who could be inspired by a few words...
Kevin Slaughter - Winner of Ingersoll Oratory Contest in 2010
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Kern Spurned: Oklahoma Legislator’s Backdoor Creationism Bill Bounced
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Universal Declaration of Human Rights & People's Freedom
Thursday, February 17, 2011
The Battle over Egypt's Secular and Muslim Character
Americans: not as religious as they think they are
Americans: not as religious as they think they are
[Fred Edwords in a recent presentation asserted that Americans were as irreligious as Europeans. This seemed like an astonishing and very interesting claim. When I investigated his references it turned out that some of the date was about 18 years old. I wanted something more current. When I found this well crafted post by Tom Rees I very much liked his data and presentation. It is available to everyone under Creative Commons (see reference at bottom). I like this concept also. Perhaps our bloggers will want to use it to get our ideas more widely distributed. Comments on the Creative Commons concept from blog viewers are also most welcomed. Don Wharton]
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Thank you, Paula Kirby!
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Post-Revolutionary Egypt: Mubarak's Exit and Foreign Intervention
Secular Views on the Egyptian Revolution
International Public Science Events Conference, Science Festivals and Science Cafes
When I describe my philosophical stance I usually place a few adjectives together so that my self-label comes out something like, “a rational-scientific, secular humanist”. I often squeeze the term “pragmatic” in there, but rational-scientific holds a key place. The Greek idea of searching for a rational explanation to the natural phenomena is dear to my heart. DC is a good place for discussing the Scientific endeavor and I see that the there is a 2011 International Public Science Events Conference (IPSEC, Feb. 16-17) at the Convention Center as part of the pre-conference of the 2011 AAAS Annual Meeting. You can see a schedule of events (including a Tuesday evening 6:30 – 9:00 Evening science café at Clyde’s of Gallery Place: 707 7th Street, NW, Washington DC Can paleontology (help to) save the world?) at http://sciencefestivals.org/news/126.html
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Not the start of an advice column...
As my first post, I decided to write something personal, in the sort of detached way I'm willing to discuss personal things. I’ve taken a few simple insights presented by neuroscience, specifically the notions presented in “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not” by Robert A. Burton and the results of an experiment published in “Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things" by Richard Wiseman. It is not solely based on these books, but they’ve provided the most memorable examples for me to draw from.
Saturday, February 12, 2011
Attacks on Science: Scrambled Eggs and Social Darwinism
Friday, February 11, 2011
On Double Blind Experiments and “Scientism”
Thursday, February 10, 2011
Recognition of Darwin Day - H. Res 81
Support H. Res 81 in Recognition of Darwin Day! Call Your Representatives Now!
Representative Pete Stark just proposed H. Res 81 to Congress, expressing support for designation of February 12, 2011, as Darwin Day and recognizing the importance of science in the betterment of humanity. This resolution is a culmination of collaboration between Representative Stark, 2008 Humanist of the Year, and the American Humanist Association.
In a statement, Representative Stark said, “Darwin’s birthday is a good time for us to reflect on the important role of science in our society. It is also a time to redouble our efforts to ensure that children are being taught scientific facts, not religious dogma, and to fight back against those who seek to undermine the science of climate change for political ends.”
This resolution could not have come at a more important time. The New York Times recently reported that only 28 percent of biology teachers present evidence for evolution as recommended by the National Research Council, while 13 percent “explicitly advocate” creationism. Furthermore, with climate change quickly gaining speed, and anti-environment regulation law-makers denying its impact, a true grasp of science is the strongest defense against global warming. You can read the text of the resolution in its entirety here.
Use the form below to contact your representative now and tell him or her to support Representative Pete Stark’s H. Res 81 in recognition of Darwin Day today!
From AHA Action Center:
Wednesday, February 09, 2011
Defense of Book Burning
The Manhattan "Ground Zero Mosque" was also in the news:
When the Terry Jones story first came out, I wrote the following article. I was reluctant to publish, because I don't want WASH in the same category as Terry Jones. However, I'll post it here, and readers should feel free to comment:
Humanists respect knowledge, so it is difficult to advocate for any kind of book burning. However, Terry Jones and his tiny Florida Christian church got an absurd amount of coverage from the nationwide media for planning to burn Qurans. The sheer amount of attention makes it very tempting to do something similar just for the publicity. Not only that, everyone seems to have agreed that it was a bad idea to burn Qurans, from the major media to the Secretary of Defense. Muslims would find it insulting, of course.
But in the U.S., the conclusion was because some people thought that it would make some Muslims become violent, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This sounds like bowing to blackmail from only the possibility of violence. Does this willingness to accommodate religious oversensitivity and violence mean that the terrorists have won?
I disagree that it is bad to burn religious books, either Qurans and Bibles. I would give the following reasons.
The religious books are the most widely published books in the world. The Bible was the first book printed by Gutenberg after the printing press was invented. Both books are readily available in electronic form, so they can be copied almost limitlessly with the touch of a button. As a result, we don't expect that burning a few paper copies will affect anyone's access to reading or possessing the books.
The books are burned only for symbolic reasons, of which there are two very good ones.
The first reason has to do with freedom of expression for the religious and the non-religious. Religious freedom in the U.S. is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, and it is one of our most valued freedoms from government interference. Muslims want to build a mosque a few blocks from the World Trade Center site, and they are free to do it. But if non-Muslims choose to burn a few copies of the Islamic foundational text, they are also free to do it.
An important aspect of the freedom is to accept that the freedoms also apply equally to other people, even without agreeing with them. So if Muslims accept the freedom to build a mosque, they must also accept our freedom to burn a Quran. We should remind them, and ourselves, that we have the freedom, and we must exercise and defend the freedom. A freedom that no one uses because they are afraid of violence, bullying, or coercion is not a freedom at all. We refuse to let threats of violence destroy our freedom.
The second reason to burn a few copies of Qurans and Bibles is to remind ourselves about what is really important about them. The importance is not the physical paper and ink. Some superstitious people may think that these books are sacred, and they will be protected by God so disaster will strike anyone who mistreats a book. But these books are discarded and burned all the time, as are many other books. Individual copies don't matter. The books are only good to the extent that people read them, understand them, and use them to make their lives better.
But sometimes, people read these books and decide that they don't make their lives better at all. Some read the books and use them as an excuse to make war or be violent, or to make lives worse.
To these people, I say that these books are not worth keeping. Many people have become atheists or Secular Humanists because they reject the obsolete, outmoded teachings of these books. To people who reject the worldview of these books, we should say, throw them in the fire. We don't need them. We can live good lives without them. We don't live in fear that there is any god that can or will strike us down for doing it.
In the words of Robert Ingersoll,
"All that is necessary, as it seems to me, to convince any reasonable person that the Bible is simply and purely of human invention--of barbarian invention--is to read it. Read it as you would any other book; think of it as you would of any other; get the bandage of reverence from your eyes; drive from your heart the phantom of fear; push from the throne of your brain the coiled form of superstition--then read the Holy Bible, and you will be amazed that you ever, for one moment, supposed a being of infinite wisdom, goodness and purity, to be the author of such ignorance and of such atrocity."
If you don't like what the book says, and you don't need it to have a good life, then throw it out.
Gnu Atheists - Why so openly critical of Religion?
PZ Myers recently gave his definition of "gnu" atheism:
The Gnu Atheism is a positive movement that emphasizes the truth of a claim as paramount; it is our number one value.
Remember that, we'll come back to it later.
Another well known figure, Bart Ehrman, is about to release a new book, Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, on March 22nd. He has written other books that clearly show not only that the bible is not the book we think it is, but has been added to, taken from, changed and altered to the point that even the experts don't know what is original and what isn't.
Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew
Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them)
Not only do these books tell us how false and unreliable the bible is as a source for truth, but they clearly show that the clergy KNOWS it is false, yet continues to foist its mythology on the world as truth, indeed, as the only true route to an eternal life after death in a paradise to avoid eternal torture.
I don't know about you, but having been raised in the great and sovereign State of Texas, my parents taught me to revere the truth - largely by ensuring that avoidance of it was painful! I was also taught to use my brain in ever more creative ways to think, to be sure that things I was being told were not some kind of fiction. (Alas, that last was NOT obtained from the Texas school system, but a private school!)
So it wasn't hard, once I realized I no longer believed in a deity, to find that I was thinking much like the new atheists, with a strong aversion to belief systems based on untruth. My upbringing in Texas exposed me to an equally strong aversion to confidence men (or women), because that old game is based upon lies and subtle misdirection to completely fool someone into falling for a false story designed to deprive them of, at least, their money.
But the situation is worse than that, much worse.
Constantine made the Christian Church the official State religion of the Roman Empire in 324 CE. In other words, for the last 1,686 years, the RCC (or its splinters) have oppressed, lied to, imprisoned, burned at the stake, meddled in the political affairs of, stolen money from millions of people and used a false, partially forged collection of documents of uncertain origin and virtually unknown authorship to perpetrate the longest and most successful confidence game in the history of the world.
Think about the Vatican for a moment. It's been around for almost all of the period of the existence of the RCC, at least since Constantine made it official. According to the World Fact Book, it is small, less than half a square kilometer. That is .7 times the size of the Mall In Washington DC. It has no natural resources, no arable land, no export industry. Its government is a theocracy, and suffrage is limited to cardinals over 80 years old. It is, therefore, a dictatorship, with executive power invested in the Pope, granting him virtually limitless power. Its population varies, but averages a bit over 800. None of them are reported to have HIV, and all of them are reported to be literate. It has 5,120 telephone lines in use. Its budget is around 350 million dollars per annum.
Sounds pretty modest, huh? Not much to see on paper.
But in person, ah! It is a major tourist destination, and the target of religious pilgrims from around the world. Its churches are filled with fine art worth billions of dollars, and one can only imagine the value of the gilt on the architecture alone. That architecture was built by some of the finest minds in the world, the value of which is virtually incapable of enumeration. It has been collecting this art and architecture for 1686 years on the backs of millions of Catholics who have often tithed themselves into poverty. In spite of the official position of the RCC that priests are supposed to be bound by a vow of poverty, the clergy in that city live in an opulence once known only to kings. (Yes, I know, it isn't THEIRS, but the Church's, so officially, they ARE poor. But they use it like it is theirs, they control it as if it were theirs, so the distinction is minimal.) In reality, the accumulation of wealth in that .44 sq. kilometer is probably the greatest per square foot in the entire world, given the period of time they've had to accumulate it.
All collected through the fiction that the money was being given to God for God's work. Millions of people, over the last 1,686 years, have given of their hard earned money on the word of the RCC that it would literally buy their way into heaven.
And that is only in Vatican City, the Holy See. Around the world, the RCC has been collecting property, much of the oldest by force of arms, for that same period. Some of it is located in some of the most valuable real estate areas, while, admittedly, much of it is in poor rural areas. Collectively, the value of the real estate alone is worth untold billions, maybe trillions of dollars, not to count the furnishings, which are again, often quite valuable and rare art.
In many countries, churches are not taxed, so all of that real estate is tax free, and does not add to the tax revenues of the countries involved, no matter how poor. This amounts to probably more billions PER YEAR, so the savings (or loss to society) accumulates annually, resulting in countries with little left for such fripperies as education.
This state of affairs has been going on for 1,686 years. Leaving aside the political implications, the economic affect of this theft is staggering. The policies of the RCC (and truthfully, many of its splinter groups, too) have resulted in grinding poverty for many more millions in the developing world, as the insistence of the RCC on banning contraceptives and condoms has resulted in huge families that the poor are mostly unable to properly feed in the numbers that result from those policies. On top of the tithes, is it any wonder that they are poor?
Now, back to PZ Myers. His definition of the gnu atheists is that we are sticklers for the truth. That is true. We are, therefore, sternly opposed to organizations that publicly proclaim and teach what amount to lies. But these are, as we have seen, not mere lies that equate to social white lies, or even equal to that favorite of the Ten Commandments, giving false witness before a magistrate. No, these lies are, literally, something much more complex, since they support, defend and propagate the greatest, longest and most pernicious confidence game the world has ever seen. A game that has killed, oppressed, stolen from and ground into poverty millions of people over as many as forty or more generations, based on nothing but fiction.
You should be surprised that more people aren't angry.
Tuesday, February 08, 2011
Thoughtful and Shallow Skepticism
Some of it is ideological in nature. So libertarians like Penn and Teller who are general skeptics apply shallow thinking to Climate Change. When Penn Jillette was asked whether he “still believed that man-made climate change is bunk, as he has said more than once, his basic answer was:
" I loathe everything about Al Gore, so since Gore has been crusading against climate change it must be garbage.”
OK, so your loathing emotion means you don't have to examine data and rational arguments???
Both Penn and Teller are well-known libertarians, but also supporters of the libertarian Cato Institute, leaders in spreading doubt about global warming. It is humbling to see people considered both hard-nosed empiricists and skeptics giving way to ideo-emotions that encourage some pretty stupid stances.
Dr. David Morrison (Senior Scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute) states it well when characterizing climate change deniers, “It is fine to be skeptical, but we need to be concerned when skepticism drifts into denial.” And such denial abounds in climate change despite a pretty prominent scientific consensus. This scientific consensus is combated by lots of misinformation/disinformation about climate change (published on the Internet), driven in part by eco-political and economic positions.
I have a neighbor who sends me example of these things, perhaps in an effort to convert me. His self image seems to be of a powerful skeptic. But it usually takes me only Google minutes to find that the sources of his articles are people backed by groups and fronts for Exxon and allies.
I have long wondered why he isn’t skeptical of such backings. When confronted, his “skeptical” response is a knee-jerk negativity - an appeal to the meme-idea that climate scientist receive money for their research and they are just milking the public for more support. He has a reflexive disbelief in the assertions made by climate scientists. He seems unaware of the role rationalism plays in Gardner’s skepticism based on a scientific view of the world. This is a rational skepticism that uses the tools of reason and critical thinking to follow the data wherever it leads. This thoughtful skepticism may start from a simple disbelief, but it qualifies and arms skepticism with an empirical stance; because assertions, no matter how commonsensical, require proof. Proof includes data that is rigorously investigated wherever it leads, which can be an increasingly messy picture for a while.
And of course from a secular perspective, we see simple, deceptive narratives in religious stories that provide comfort, structure, and cultural identity. Acceptance of these is a challenge for skeptics, but once accepted by the gullible they may offer fertile ground for the shallow forms of self protective skepticism. Often such religious stories intertwine as other shallow skeptical deniers support one another with a lacing of stories.
Thoughtful skeptics are not climate deniers for the most part.
Sunday, February 06, 2011
Darwin Day on Saturday
An Open Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury
Clergy are to be urged to be more vocal in countering the arguments put forward by a more hard-line group of atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have campaigned for a less tolerant attitude towards religion.
A report endorsed by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warns that the Church faces a battle to prevent faith being seen as "a social problem" and says the next five years are set to be a period of "exceptional challenge".
Dear Dr. Williams,
This seems as good a time as any to repeat what Christopher Hitchens wrote in the introduction to his anthology, The Portable Atheist:
A terrible thing has now happened to religion. Except in the places where it can still enforce itself by fear superimposed on ignorance, it has become one opinion among many. It is forced to compete in the free market of ideas and, even when it strives to retain the old advantage of inculcating its teachings into children (for reasons that are too obvious to need underlining), it has to stand up in open debate and submit to free inquiry.
I, for one, welcome better arguments from believers, and I suspect that many atheists and humanists do, too. But then, a lot of us argue ideas for fun and to get at the truth by knocking down bad ideas.
And the fact is that an awful lot of apologetics is of very low quality. You might be surprised at how often we're offered Pascal's wager, C.S. Lewis's Liar, Lunatic, or Lord, arguments from ignorance, and even "you just have to have faith" come up. Evidently a lot of theists have no idea how comically weak these arguments are. If you could educate them, we'd appreciate it. Thank you.
Over the centuries, religion has erected a protective wall around itself: blasphemy laws, intimidation, social taboos against criticizing religion (often in the name of ecumenicalism), mean that religious ideas have been insulated from criticism for a long time. And as a result, many theists have very little experience defending their ideas against rational arguments. And now that atheists are speaking up, and things like free-speech laws prevent religions from silencing dissent, this fact is becoming more and more apparent.
But if I may, I'd like to offer some advice on arguing with atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, as well as lesser luminaries like PZ Myers and Matt Dillahunty, and even rank-and-file atheists like myself.
The key is to realize that our commitment is to the truth, not to any given set of ideas, tenets, or dogmas.
Philosophers and scientists have done a lot of work in figuring out how to figure out what's true, and how to avoid coming to incorrect conclusions. It is easy to find lists of logical fallacies. You may want to educate your coreligionists on these fallacies and how to avoid them, because people who rely on fallacious arguments will be called on it.
What we're really looking for is arguments for the existence of a god that don't fall apart under scrutiny. If you have such an argument, please present it. If you don't have one (yet), then it would be nice if you could at least say so.
Secondly, when asked for reasons to believe that there are any gods, theists often reply by pointing out the good done by their churches. But of course that is a non sequitur: it may in fact be useful for people to believe in gods, souls, or reincarnation, but that doesn't mean that those things actually exist. Please tell your coreligionists to make sure they're not arguing the wrong topic, because they will be called on it.
I realize that it's easy to see the above as concern trolling. Actually, it's cockiness. I'm so confident that spirited, rational argumentation will bring us closer to the truth (and remember, my commitment is to truth, not to atheism) that I can afford to give the game away, as it were.
So bring it on. And may the best ideas win.
(Thanks to Shelley for forwarding the Telegraph article.)
Saturday, February 05, 2011
Towards a Richer Darwin Day in the DC Area
When I searched for events in the DC area I found 2-3 of the kind I expected. The most on target was a Darwin Day talk “Beyond the Bare Bones: What Human Evolution Means to You” by Fred Edwords, National Director, United Coalition of Reason and former President of the American Humanist Association being held on February 13 from 10:30 AM. to 12:15. (http://www.machar.org/) Continental Breakfast available at 9:30.
Another is WASH Northern Virginia Chapter’s talk by Mike Reid (vice president of WASH and current editor of WASHline) called Foundations of Evolution – see http://http//www.meetup.com/humanism-218/calendar/16034701/
I’m glad that we have both events in the DC area, and there may be other events not registered on the site, but I was surprised to find these 2 as the only ones listed. The larger DC area seems like a fertile ground to have a more generous set of offerings. There was an earlier public Talk sponsored by the Northern Virginia Ethical Society: Evangelizing for Evolution, Hugh Taft-Morales already held Jan 1 at the Green Hedges School in Vienna/VA 22180.
All of the rest of other 7 events listed were for something called “Evolution Weekend” Apparently many Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country (and around the world) are taking part in in the 6th Evolution Weekend, February 11-13, 2011 that brackets Darwin Day. Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church is one in the DC area doing this and another is in Southern Maryland http://www.uufsm.org/uu/content/evolution-weekend-2011). But these present, as they note, sermons and discussion groups on the “compatibility of faith and science”! Michael Zimmerman, the initiator of the project, describes the program this way:
"Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic — to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally … Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy."
At his count, 575 congregations in all fifty states (and thirteen foreign countries) were scheduled to hold Evolution Weekend events. See http://www.grucc.com/files/Evolution_Weekend.pdf.
Well bully for them. And they offer some additionally aspects with some of their communities discussing “earthkeeping” resources and advocacy on environmental issues (from their faith and justice perspective. You can see some of their resources here. UUs are among the gentler religious folks that I know and what might understand there effort as putting their own slant on Darwin. I don’t mind a useful discussion, perhaps many of the attendees are humanists, but I would perhaps prefer to see a wider set of Darwin Day options offered without the religious angle. Discussions of the science-religion outnumber the purely Darwin-Science 7 to 2. This reminds me of the typical situation in climate change. You have the science and then you must have the "other side" which in this case in the religious side. But there are so many sides that it would be good to explore. There are many positions within the secular perspective and these might be featured or might look at the science vs. the philosophical aspects. Another night be the science vs the moral-ethical issues. These could be discussed apart from a religious frame.
My take away is that the secular-humanist community in DC has to get a bit more organized for next year for a fuller set of events. Perhaps we can offer an organized weekend. We would seem to have the talent and venues to pull this off and this site might be one place where a discussion of this can take place.
Friday, February 04, 2011
This past week has been an incredible time to watch the news. To see a wave of revolution begin to sweep across the Middle East is a rare peek into the process of humanity’s yearning for the better things in life, beginning with the very most basic freedoms a culture can ask for.
It has been a pleasure to see the Egyptian people take their lives, their fortunes and their national honor into their hands and demand redress of a repressive government, asking relief from a government that fails to protect its people from economic ruin caused by wealthy corporations, backs the torture of prisoners, jails opponents without trial and protects the wealthy elite from the vagaries of economic cycles, forcing the poor to live without a safety net… wait … hold on, something sounds familiar about that.
No, could it be? Is it possible?
Man, I’ve been wondering why the Republicans have been so silent about this wave of revolutions. Usually they are so quick to note the similarity between popular revolutions and our own, but this time they have been so quiet. Usually, they praise the courage and bravery of the protesters as they bring down an oppressive government, but strangely, this time, they have not.
Could it be they have noted that the characteristics of the Egyptian government are just a little too close to the new Republican values this time? Think about it. Protection of the wealthy, laws that favor the wealthy elite and their businesses, failure to protect the poor, if not outright exploitation of them. A failure of the Republicans to condemn torture and the unending, indefinite nature of the detainment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay without trial. Sound familiar? It should be, these are the hallmarks of many of the dictatorships in the Middle East, and finally, the Tunisians, the Egyptians, the Sudanese, the Syrians and others are beginning to bestir themselves to bring down these nasty men of little honor.
Please, don’t get me wrong. I am familiar with the requirements of realpolitic and the need of our government to secure our supply of life-giving oil. I know that in the past it has been necessary to be pals with some of the scum of the earth in order to feed our need for energy. Even today, in the midst of this new wave of uprisings, we still need to treat them with kid gloves, lest some of our current crop of scum dictators friends, get the idea that they might be next to get tossed under the bus.
Sometimes, yes, diplomacy means having to hold your nose when shaking hands.
If only politics at home weren’t beginning to have the same scent… er, flavor.
It is interesting that it is the middle east where people have finally woken up to the nasty nature of a political elite that favor the wealthy over everybody else, exploit the poor and deny human rights to opponents before the American people. We are so smug about our superior, modern progressive values that we have been blind to the conversion of an old trusted political party into something that Lincoln would never have recognized, much less accepted.
There was a time when the Republicans honored the values that made this country great. When they did not twist those values into something unrecognizable to the Founders they profess to worship so highly. But now, they not only twist those values, they twist history, intertwining lies with the truth in teaching our youth about the founding of this country, building the basic blocks of theocracy and oligarchic dictatorship while wrapping themselves in a flag that should stand for something else.
We live in dangerous times, when men like Rush Limbaugh can laugh at the attacks of an endangered dictator upon the free press - until reporters of his chosen network of propaganda become targets. When men like Glenn Beck can twist the current events in Egypt into a sinister plot to overthrow western civilization, and his audience not only does not turn him off, but listens, I begin to wonder about the applicability of the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”!
The now famous quote from Sinclair Lewis, 'When Fascism Comes to This Country, It Will Be Wrapped in the Flag Carrying a Cross', is as apropos as ever today, and should be taught in every classroom in the country - right after evolutionary biology and modern physics!
Think again about the protesters in Cairo and every other Egyptian city. They have lived with such a regime for the last fifty-eight years, from Nassar to Mubarak. Civilian puppets bobbing on the strings of a military dictatorship with oligarchic characteristics. Today, they have participated in a massive protest, one the military has tried to hide from view by a coordinated attack on the free press.
Is that the future of this country? Is that what you want your children or grandchildren to live under? Is it possible that the freedoms we have taken for granted could be so easily swept away that it could take a second American revolution to correct the situation?
I know, it sounds so alarmist, so… kooky. Kind of like flying saucers, you know?
But it could happen, and it will, unless the American people can begin to see the illogic of backing a party that professes to honor the principles of individual liberty while backing the use of the power of the State to push one specific religious viewpoint. A party that refuses to condemn torture or indefinite detainment and warrantless surveillance of the American public.
All tools of dictators. Totalitarian governments. Theocracies. Oligarchies.
Nasty words, aren’t they? Conjuring pictures of concentration camps, middle of the night arrests and summary executions.
What can we do? Can we do anything?
Of course we can. We can spread the truth.
Fight for science education in the schools. Fight against religious indoctrination in public schools and the diversion of public school funds into religious schools through innocuous sounding voucher programs.
Every time you hear someone say this country was founded as a Christian nation, set them straight. Loudly and vociferously.
Fight the current trend to post the ten commandments or say prayers at city or county council meetings.
Fight for progressive ideals that protect the poor and control and restrain the wealthy elite.
Above all, if you are part of the silently non-religious that keep quiet because of a fear of being exposed to the majority, SPEAK OUT and make yourself known! It is ONLY through banding together to oppose the use of religion to make this country into a religious oligarchy that we can protect our descendants from having to live under a regime that would curb our freedoms and turn this country into the kind of place that millions have come here to avoid!
Two hundred and thirty four years ago, our forefathers did what no people had ever done before - they fought a king for their freedom and won! It took them over eight long years, but finally, they prevailed.
This week, the Egyptians are fighting for their own freedom. I hope I can honor their sacrifices in actually paying attention to their actions.
So let us take their example, take the lessons of history to heart and do what the Republicans have twisted into their own message - let’s take our country back!