Friday, December 30, 2011

IDHEF - Chapter 1: Can We Handle the Truth?

This is part of my breakdown of the book "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist." Related posts can be found by clicking here.

   The chapter starts out with quotes from A Few Good Men, particularly the famous line, "You can't handle the truth!" The authors then go on to point out the hypocrisy that people tend to demand truth in everything else but religion and morality.
...Why do we demand truth in everything but morality and religion? Why do we say, "That's true for you but not for me," when we're talking about morality or religion, but we never even think of such nonsense when we're talking to a stock broker about our money or a doctor about our health? (p36)

Thursday, December 29, 2011


   This is in response to people like my father who use this argument that "it's possible God could exist" as one to support the position of letting religious people believe what they want to believe. The problem is that lots of things are possible. If we wish to discuss the origins of the universe, perhaps a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. Perhaps the universe was created by an extraterrestrial named Ted who accidentally blew up his apartment while trying to make beer.

   Maybe most of the world leaders are actually shape-shifting lizards. Maybe our bodies are host to immortal alien spiritual beings called thetans that are here because Xenu blew them up with hydrogen bombs...or something like that. Hey, it's possible!!!

   I could go on and on and on. The point is that I don't give a crap about what is possible because, again, lots of things are possible. What I'm interested in is what's probable. All of these things that I have listed are possible, but they all lack evidence to support them. Thus, they are highly improbable. And I'll continue to ridicule people who actually believe in any of these things without any or even just lousy supporting evidence.

What you talkin' about, Perry?

   Rick Perry's ad have been quite comical. A few of them have been him or his wife bragging about their Christian values. Too bad for him his god didn't pull through for him on the Texas drought. 'Nough said on that!

   In his latest ad, he is bragging about his idea for a part-time Congress. Apparently he brought this up in a debate. See the video and more comments below.

The part that really got my attention was when he said, "Let them get a job like everybody back home has." OK, Rick, which planet are you from?!? Oh...right...Texas! The Washington Post recently released an article showing the growth in the net worth of Congresspersons since 1984. That net worth has more than doubled since then and the median net worth is reported to be $725,056. (Click on the graphic to the right to enlarge.) The majority of these people don't need to "get a job"! Rick Perry, I don't mind your idea of cutting their pay in half, but the rest of your proposals fail to address any of the real issues with Congress as you don't seem to be in touch with reality.

Note: The bottom 25 members of Congress all have negative net worth's. Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean they are poor folk; it just means they have more debt than assets. The Congressperson with the lowest net worth (see the link) has a net worth of almost -$5 million. Someone like me would never be able to obtain the loans necessary to get that far in debt. Anyway, the point remains that Perry is an idiot.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Labeling - Why is it such a big deal?

   Recently, the Seattle Atheists have launched an ad campaign promoting the idea that 1 in 4 Washingtonians is an atheist. The group has received some slack over the claim, but they have defended their numbers by pointing out the main consideration when counting atheists: many atheists do not self-identify as atheists. (I personally know at least five people who are atheists who do not self-identify, two of whom have even explicitly rejected the term as being an appropriate label.) The one area where I do have issue is they themselves say that only 1 in 5 statewide is an atheist; the 1 in 4 concept is for the Seattle area only, which is where the ads appear. So...slightly misleading.

   But it's not the slightly misleading statement that I am here to write about. My complaint is with the response to this from Ask an Atheist, a Seattle-area radio show. The following is part of their response to the ad campaign:
Labeling people as atheists when they intentionally avoid the phrase is a misstep. While the wider discussion we have on atheism here on the show would include many of these people, we believe people reserve the right to label themselves.
I find this statement a bit frustrating in part given the fact that the hosts of this show, even in the same episode in which they presented this statement, recognize that there is a social stigma around declaring non-belief in a deity. This is frustrating because I recognize, as I suspect the hosts of the show do as well, that these stigmas will not go away unless more people who are atheists are open about it.

   The other part that I find frustrating is the idea of considering "atheist" to be nothing more than a label in the sense of branding someone as part of a group. This is the type of labeling one will see when stereotyping, which is what I think is the real problem here. People don't want to be part of group A because then people will incorrectly attribute characteristics X, Y, and Z to them. So this frustrates me for two main reasons: (1) By refusing to be labeled, people are avoiding having to address the real problem of stereotyping. It should go without saying that a problem typically does not go away when avoided. (2) Labeling should be seen as descriptive—without the stereotypes. In fact, the Free Dictionary defines it as "a descriptive term; an epithet." If someone lacks a belief in gods, then I'm going to label them an atheist because that is what they are. I'm not going to be afraid, to borrow a phrase Sam Harris commonly uses, to call a spade a spade! I am a white heterosexual male atheist, as well as a number of other things. Is that labeling myself or just stating the facts? Or both? Would anyone believe me if I said I'm a black homosexual female Christian?

   Once upon a time—actually, it is still present today, but is fading away—it wasn't cool to be gay, and I don't mean "happy." Things that are lame or even abnormal were considered to be gay. According to Urban Dictionary:
[O]ften used to describe something stupid or unfortunate. originating from homophobia. [Q]uite preferable among many teenage males in order to buff up their "masculinity." "Man, these seats are gay. I can't even see what's going on!"
But thanks to homosexuals "coming out of the closet," people know more homosexuals and are realizing they aren't really any different than most heterosexuals. Hopefully the profane use of the word "gay" will soon fall out of use. Either way, that is how you combat a stereotype—you face it head on! That means taking on labels and being true to yourself.

   This is something the atheist movement is trying to do. People who are not believes in deities are being encouraged to come out of the atheist closet. Now, I understand that some people cannot be open about their lack of belief. I know one such atheist who is a Muslim apostate. The punishment for that can be death. While I know this person to be an atheist, I am not going about announcing this fact to other people. But for people who have nothing to worry about? Yeah, I'm going to label them.

   The one objection I can see with labeling people as atheists is not being able to confidently know that they are indeed atheists, as it is impossible to read minds. It's not as easy as, say, labeling a person like me as white; my skin color clearly gives that one away. It's not even as easy as identifying gender. (As one who is married to an intersex individual, I recognize that gender isn't..."black and white.")

   Now I certainly give kudos to the Ask an Atheist crew because they are there to help combat the stereotypes. But then again, they have accepted the label. Where we differ, I think, is that they are trying to present a more welcoming environment in which theists can even feel welcome. I am more of what are called the "firebrand" atheists. I'll give people a metaphorical kick in the ass if I think they need one.

Monday, December 19, 2011

In Rememberance of Christopher Hitchens - Hitchens plays "What if?"

   For those who have not heard, Christopher Hitchens died back on Thursday night. I haven't written about it yet, but I may start posting some videos of people getting "Hitchslapped". I was reminded of this video (or rather it's just audio) of Hitchens appearing on Todd Friel's show. The host is annoying and can't seem to grasp the fact that Hitchens won't accept his Christian theology, even assuming it is true.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"Science is always changing its mind!"

   This post surrounds the topic of Pluto. I previously sent some of this information to my family in an email, but I'm updating it to clarify the point I was trying to make.

   There is this misconception on how science works in our society, and it often rears its ugly head in regards to Pluto. It is the idea that science can't be trusted because it is always changing. Pluto is used as an example based on the idea that "it used to be a planet, but now it's not!" The reality is that the declassification of Pluto as a planet has nothing to do with scientists just changing things on a whim as such statements imply. Rather, the change had much to do with obtaining new data.

That new data surrounded the discoveries of other round, planet-like bodies in the beginning of the last decade. Three of these newly discovered bodies, as well as Pluto, were then classified as "dwarf planets." These dwarf planets include Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. Eris is about three times further away from the sun than Pluto (though its orbit varies so much that, at Eris's closest point to the sun, it is closer to the sun than Pluto if Pluto were at its furthest point). Perhaps more importantly to this discussion is that it is thought to be more massive than Pluto and could have potentially been the 10th planet of the solar system. This fact was a motivational factor in getting the International Astronomical Union to define what a planet is.

   Additionally, there is a body known as 90377 Sedna that can get up to about 31.6 times further away than Pluto! Another interesting tidbit is that there is another dwarf planet that is in the asteroid belt, called Ceres. Also interesting is that, according to Wikipedia, "for half a century it was classified as the eighth planet." (This would have been before the discovery of Neptune or Pluto.) So, here we are talking about how "Pluto is no longer a planet" when the same thing happened to Ceres many years ago!

   With all of this information, either these bodies would also have to be classified as planets or else what is classified as a planet had to be changed. It was the classification that changed.

   What people really need to do, though, is stop thinking about this as change. Do people care, for example, that cellular phones can now browse the Internet, record video, play music, etc. when only a decade ago they could do no more than make phone calls? Do people care that televisions now have 3D technology? No...with the possible exception of being upset that they cannot afford the latest technology. They often welcome the change. Nor would most people call this "change." They would more likely call this "advancement" or "improvement." People need to start thinking in these terms when it comes to other aspects of science, including the reclassification of Pluto. This should be thought of as an advancement or improvement of our understanding of the solar system in which we live and not a change.

   Science does not "change." It improves, advances, and refines.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thoughts on the Las Vegas Marathon

   So, I have not been blogging for a few days as I have been out of town on vacation which has included running a marathon. I finished in just under 5 hours and 5 minutes, but that is besides the point of this post. What I want to address is the sights along the way.

   In about the first mile (and certainly within the first two), there were three people promoting Christianity. There signs said quite a bit, so I wasn't able to read them in their entirety, but I'm quite sure there was some message about repenting for sins and how Jesus loves us. It seemed to be quite an odd place to be sending such a message, as it contradicts other messages Christians occasionally send. Just the day before, I was watching this show called The Real Winning Edge, a Christian show about teenagers and their accomplishments. On the episode I watched, there was a kid who was into surfing who claimed his friends started getting involved with girls and drinking, and giving into those temptations was bringing down their surfing abilities. (My thought was that maybe it had more to do with his friends not practicing as much because they changed their priorities, regardless of what those priorities were. In other words, if they would have done something that would not be considered sinful in this youth's mind, like volunteering for charities or maybe studying more, their surfing abilities would have gone down doing those things as well. But I digress!) So, if living a supposedly sinful life is going to bring down one's athletic abilities, these marathon runners cannot be living that bad of lives. Even if these people don't share the belief of the surfer kid, they were still trying to tell marathon runners, people who are trying to achieve something that is often considered a great accomplishment, that they are horrible people in need of saving. In short, it seems to me that they were trying to deliver their message to the wrong crowd.

   The other thing was that somewhere along the strip was a billboard that said "WHERE IS THE REAL BIRTH CIRTIFICATE?" I really have nothing to say about that than it is just pathetic how people cling to their absurd ideas.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Catholic Church vs. Harry Potter and Yoga = Irony!

(via Blag Hag)

   Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican's chief exercist (yes, the Vatican has a chief exercist in the 21st century!), says "Harry Potter and yoga are evil." Oh no's!!!
Father Gabriele Amorth, who for years was the Vatican’s chief exorcist and claims to have cleansed hundreds of people of evil spirits, said yoga is Satanic because it leads to a worship of Hinduism and “all eastern religions are based on a false belief in reincarnation”.

Reading JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books is no less dangerous, said the 86-year-old priest, who is the honorary president for life of the International Association of Exorcists, which he founded in 1990, and whose favourite film is the 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist.

The Harry Potter books, which have sold millions of copies worldwide, “seem innocuous” but in fact encourage children to believe in black magic and wizardry, Father Amorth said.

“Practising yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter,” he told a film festival in Umbria this week, where he was invited to introduce The Rite, a film about exorcism starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as a Jesuit priest.

“In Harry Potter the Devil acts in a crafty and covert manner, under the guise of extraordinary powers, magic spells and curses,” said the priest, who in 1986 was appointed the chief exorcist for the Diocese of Rome.

“Satan is always hidden and what he most wants is for us not to believe in his existence. He studies every one of us and our tendencies towards good and evil, and then he offers temptations.” Science was incapable of explaining evil, said Father Amorth, who has written two books on his experiences as an exorcist...
   Wait a minute, reading Harry Potter encourages children to believe in black magic and wizardry, but exorcism and Catholicism with it's "the Eucharist is the actual body and blood of Christ" doctrine don't? I'm not sure whether to facepalm or laugh hysterically.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jacko fans, forget Murry, what about Burzynski, Wakefield, and worse?

This post was to have been released last night (Nov 29), but it seems Blogger was not working well and I received errors trying to post.

   I caught ABC World News this evening, and it seems one of their top stories was about Conrad Murry. And all I really have to say is with all the other quackery out there in medicine, why must we worry about Murry so much?

   A big story that broke yesterday (not in "mainstream" media) on the blogosphere is about a clinic in Houston, TX, that charges hundreds of thousands of dollars for fake cures for cancer. How these businesses survive for many years, as this Stanislaw Burzynski has been up to this for roughly 35 years, is beyond me! I actually suppose it's the same type of thinking that allows people to believe in psychics, astrology, personal gods, and--of course--homeopathy. Desperate times call for thoughtless measures.

   Granted, it would seem that Burzynski isn't necessarily killing anyone; the cancer is the more obvious culprit. But what he does is rips off families who are looking for hope. Then again, Michael Jackson seems to have set himself up for disaster, but so many want to see Murry suffer. Where are the calls for Burzynski to be locked up?

   And it doesn't stop with Burzynski, as suggested by the post's title. There is the damage Andrew Wakefield has caused by making people afraid of vaccinations due to his fraudulent claim that they cause autism.

   Then there are all the TV quacks, such as Dr. Oz, even Dr. Phil (though admittedly not as bad as others), and many other quacks Oprah has promoted, like Deepak Chopra.

  ...Speaking of which, I am now watching Lawrence O'Donnell on which Chopra is going to be on as a guest. Chopra is another quack that deals in pseudoscience and was apparently a friend of Jackson. WHY?!?!? Can we please stop listening to these people??? On top of that, people are going to be upset with Murry when Jackson hung out with quacks like Chopra? Seriously, people! How many people has Chopra potentially killed and/or ripped off by promoting bullshit? And people want to bust out the pitchforks and torches on Murry!

   The point of all of this is that there is tons of bullshit medicine out there, yet all the focus as of late is on Murry. The sad part is that it's not really because of his unethical practice that people are outraged; it's because Michael fucking Jackson died in his care. That is what bothers me the most--it's all fun and games until a world-famous celebrity dies.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

100th Post, Writer's Block, and Janeane Garofalo

   The Midwest Atheist blog has reached its 100th post! Where's the cake?

   In other news, I'm feeling a bit of a writer's block. I do have some drafts in the works, but I'm just not feeling "it." And I'm running out of ideas for topics. If anyone wants to send me suggestions, that would be cool.

   Otherwise, I leave you with a clip from last week of Janeane Garofalo on "Countdown." (The clip does not start at the beginning of the segment, so checkout the transcript below for the rest.)

DAVID SHUSTER: If the right wing is good at one thing, it is creating attack lines. They usually have no basis in fact, but are catchy and scary.

In our number-one story — the latest right-wing attack on President Obama appears to be a retread. No, not the "Obama is a secret Muslim" line, but painting the Obamas as arugula-eating elitists who — more than anything — are "uppity."

It was in 2008 that then-candidate Obama said Americans were bitter over the American government's failures to fix the economic situation. The right-wing response, led by their candidate John McCain, was to paint the interracial child of a single mother as elitist. But, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, the right wing is using its leftovers and bringing that attack line back. The re-launch of the attack started last week, when Rick Perry brought his fledgling campaign to Sean Hannity to discuss the out-of-context sound of Obama calling the government "lazy."

(Excerpt from video clip) SEAN HANNITY: This is not the first time that he's gone after the American people. What does it reveal to you about his mindset and his thinking?

(Excerpt from video clip) RICK PERRY: It reveals to me that he grew up in a privileged way. He never had to really work for anything

SHUSTER: Of course, in 2008 the elitist attack failed. So this time around, the right wing decided to paint the whole Obama family as elitist. Enter Rush Limbaugh. He took it upon himself to explain the NASCAR fan's disrespectful reaction to the first lady from over the weekend.

(Excerpt from video clip) RUSH LIMBAUGH: NASCAR people, the rest of us, we do not like being told — "steak and arugula." We do not like being told that we can only eat what's in her garden. We don't like being told what to eat. We don't like being told how much to exercise. They understand it's a little bit of uppity-ism.

SHUSTER: Maybe Rush is right. There is nothing more "uppity" than the first lady of a nation with a growing obesity epidemic encouraging people to exercise and eat right. Who needs to do that when an obese person can simply pay a Florida-based weight loss center to feed them low-calorie foods and supplements to help them lose 90 pounds? Why encourage every citizen to display self-control when you can just pay a company to lose the weight for you. Right, Rush?

Let's bring in comedian and friend of the show, Janeane Garofalo. Janeane, thanks for your time tonight. For putting up with that line.

JANEANE GAROFALO: Thank you for having me.

SHUSTER: This idea of the Obamas being uppity and privileged — coming from a party that has the likes of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich running for the nomination — do they not have a mirror?

GAROFALO: Well, what he means, I think, by "privileged" — Rick Perry is saying that — what he's really saying is that he did not have to work for what he got. It's affirmative action. He — he was the beneficiary of all of these liberal, social engineering. He didn't deserve to get into the schools he got into. He doesn't deserve to be where he is. He's — you know, that's what he means by privileged. And when he also talks about pretending Obama said Americans were lazy. He is picking that word, again, because that's a conservative meme — the welfare mothers and they want handouts and people, you know what I mean, poor people are lazy and they want the government to do things for them.

SHUSTER: Except when the poor people are conservatives or Republicans?

GAROFALO: Oh, it's always a double standard when it's conservatives and so forth.

But uppity is — it's the hack-est — you know what I mean, the most obvious thing and that's why Rush Limbaugh says it — but how dare a black woman, no less, tell people to eat healthy and to show up at NASCAR, which is the bastion of real America. It's just one of those things where, as usual, the conservative movement of the Republican Party — because their pool of applicants, if you will, is shrinking as modernity sets in and time moves on and more and more people in our culture and society become more enlightened and become more forward thinking — they have less and less people who are going to be Republican and conservative and that old chestnut, Libertarian, which is really nothing more than a conservative. So, they have to do things like use divisive language or —

SHUSTER: But why do it in such a way that's so reminiscent of 2008, when it didn't work?

GAROFALO: What have they got? What other material — it's a hack medium. You have to get some new material. The thing is — it always works on a certain segment of the population. If you are trying to appeal to the worst in us — quite literally the worst in us — and trying go to the limbic brain of anxiety, fear, intolerance, hatred, bitterness, ignorance —you have to just use these very simple, as they say, dog-whistle words and things to get to them.

SHUSTER: How does it work, then, for Father of the Year Joe Walsh? He recently called the Occupy protesters un-American, among other things.


SHUSTER: Is the GOP that far into the pockets of the banks that protesting the banks is some how protesting America in Joe Walsh's world?

GAROFALO: They have to pretend that's the case. This is a party of "Freedom fries." Do you remember "Freedom fries" and "Freedom toast?" Two of the more embarrassing things that have ever happened in this country — at the commissary, post 9-11. That you could not say French toast and French fries. And I believe French toast is from Belgium — or French fries are from Belgium and French toast, I think, is from Buffalo, New York originally.

Be that as it may — and Michele Bachmann wanted that American test — how American are you? It's just so silly, it infantilizes us all. And unfortunately, the mainstream media is quite willing to help them to this. Quite willing to let these things slide. But they do love a black man like Herman Cain and Michael Steele and — is it Ron Christie? — any of these pundits who pretend we are in a post-racial society. They like that kind of black person.

SHUSTER: What kind of reaction would we get, or what would the right — how would they react — if the pepper spraying at UC Davis had been on tea party ralliers?

GAROFALO: Oh, my God! Well, pepper spray would be banned, first and foremost. And if you think about it, the tea party — many of them claim to be armed? Right? — they were very pridefully saying, "I have my gun at this health-care town hall," or "I am not armed this time." They had signs that would say that.

So, how is linking arms on a college campus an act of aggression, but saying you have a gun and you are willing to use it and it's time to secede into revolution and you don't recognize this government as legitimate? How is that not seen as some type of aggressive thing? It's one of those things that, again, it is just so silly, and it makes you feel like you are the crazy one when you see these things.

But the double standard that exists for the tea party, which is not, by the way, a grassroots movement that is concerned with deficits and government expansion. They are an Astroturfed, fully funded by the Koch brothers and Freedom Works and supported by Fox News — they are a group -- they are a subset of the Republican Party, primarily motivated by racial intolerance.

SHUSTER: Well, Janeane Garofalo it's always a pleasure to have you here to talk about these fun issues.

GAROFALO: Is there not more? Can we talk about how to kill a turkey? There are better ways to kill a turkey. Let's drag it behind a car.

SHUSTER: Thanks, Janeane, we appreciate it.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Quiz Time!!! - Answers and how I did

The following post contains answers to the Christmas Quiz posted earlier. If you'd like to take the quiz first, click here. Otherwise, answers are below the fold.

Here are the answers:

1. What year was Jesus born?

a. We don’t know for sure, since the gospels disagree irreconcilably.
b. We don’t know for sure, but the gospels agree it was during the reign of Herod the Great (died around 4 B.C.).
c. We don’t know for sure, but the gospels agree it was when Quirinius was governor of Syria (6 A.D.).
d. We don’t know for sure, but the gospels agree it was the year the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars.
e. D’uh! The year zero, of course.

Note: Only two of the gospels even mention Jesus’ birth. Matthew tells us it happened during the reign of Herod the Great. Luke tells us it was when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Which is a problem, since Herod died c. 4 B.C., and Quirinius wasn’t governor until 6 A.D., so one (or both!) of them can’t be right…


2. According to the Gospels, what day was Jesus born?

a. Dec 25th.
b. Dec 24th.
c. No date is given in any gospel.
d. The day of the Winter Solstice.
e. The third night of Hanukkah.

Note: Originally Christians didn’t celebrate birthdays at all; that was what heathens did. Being born into this sinful world was nothing to celebrate; what mattered was leaving it! So they celebrated feast days of saints on the date of their glorious deaths. It wasn’t until the fourth century that Christians began wanting a birthday for their god, too. So they stole the date from…


3. What pagan holiday did later Christians “borrow” to celebrate Jesus’ birthday?

a. The Greek Brumalia festival of Dionysus
b. The Roman feast of Saturnalia
c. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”)
d. All of the above
e. None of the above

Note: All of the above and then some! Throughout the ancient pre-Christian world pagan gods like Mithra, Sol, Elah-Gabal, Frey, Dionysus, Adonis, Horus and many, many, more all had their rebirth on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, and their worshippers rejoiced at the Sun’s “rebirth.”

Likewise, there were plenty of pagan demi-gods who were sired by a god and born of a mortal woman. Funny, but Matthew and Luke are the only gospel writers who think that Jesus was born of a virgin. Mark’s Jesus appears to be a completely human being who becomes chosen by god to become savior, and then immediately gets sent to be tested in the wilderness by Satan (that was helpful of him) for 40 days to see if he’s up for the job, and John plainly states that Joseph – not God – was Jesus’ father (1:45) without making any fuss about it.


4. So what day was Jesus really born?

a. Jan 6
b. Feb 2 (Groundhog Day)
c. March 25
d. We can’t be certain.
e. During Sukkoth, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles

Note: Actually, different Christians have argued for all of these dates and still more. January 6th became the traditional date of Jesus’ baptism and Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas and the traditional day the Wise Men visited the baby Jesus). Interestingly enough, it was also the date of the solstice on the older Zoroastrian calendar. This Dec. 25 vs. Jan. 6 dispute was a real contention among believers; the Syrians and Armenians refused to accept December 25, accusing the Romans of sun worship and idolatry. In Eastern Orthodox tradition, January 6 is still the most important day of the Christmas season and Armenians consider it Jesus’ real birthday even today.

And there were plenty of other guesses about Jesus’ birthday. Clement of Alexandria reported that some used the Egyptian calendar, placing it on 25 Pachon (May 20), others on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi (19th or 20 April). Other traditions used the Jewish calendar and had Jesus born during Hanukkah (which falls anywhere between late November and late December) or during Sukkoth, the Feast of Tabernacles (which comes anywhere from late September to late October). Clement dismissed them all as superstitions – and maintained Jesus’ real birthday was November 17, 3 BCE.

Today Bible scholars are in no better shape and can only point to the clue that the shepherds were in their fields, concluding it must have been sometime in the fall – or maybe the spring… Still other birthdates for Jesus celebrated by Christian sects have included February 2 (Yes, Groundhog Day!) and March 25, (which is also the Spring Equinox) now celebrated as the Annunciation and considered the date of Jesus’ conception; Needless to say, even though December 25th finally won out over January 6th and the rest of the competition (in the West, anyway), no one had any idea what day Jesus was really supposed to have been born – if he was ever a real person at all in the first place… (see my book Nailed for more details on that…)


5. According to Mark (the oldest gospel) where was Jesus born?

a. He doesn’t say.
b. By the chimney, with care.
c. In his parent’s house in Nazareth.
d. A manger in Bethlehem.
e. A cave in Bethlehem.

Note: Biblical scholars overwhelmingly agree that Mark is the original text that Matthew and Luke borrowed from to create their own gospels (Luke contains 50% of Mark, and Matthew a whopping 90%). But in Mark, nothing is said about Jesus’ birth at all. He arrives on the scene as an adult, at his baptism. It’s only Luke who has Jesus born in a manger in Bethlehem. Christian tradition says the manger was actually in a cave – today the Church of the Nativity is built over it. Interestingly, in pagan mythology (not to be confused with Christianity), many other sun gods were born in a cave, and in fact, the Church Father Jerome noted that the cave of Jesus’ birth had also been a sacred shrine to the pagan god Adonis…


6. According to Luke, who were the Wise Men?

a. The Magi, a group of 2 – 12 Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia.
b. Three kings of orient bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from afar.
c. There were no Wise Men.
d. Cupid, Donder and Blitzen.
e. Melchior of Persia, Caspar (or Gaspar) of India, and Balthazar of Arabia.

Note: There are no wise men in Luke’s story – they only appear in Matthew’s story. He has the unnamed, unnumbered group of “wise men from the east” follow the miraculous star of Bethlehem to Jerusalem and panic wicked King Herod with their news that a new King of the Jews has been born in Bethlehem. This incites Herod to kill all the baby boys in that region, and causes Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt with baby Jesus. When an angel later gives them the all clear, they return, not to their home in Bethlehem, but to a new home in Nazareth. (Incidentally, you would think Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia were all three bad things by Christian standards, wouldn’t you?)


7. According to Matthew, who showed up on the night of Jesus’ birth?

a. Shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night
b. An angel and a multitude of the heavenly host
c. The prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna
d. Ten lords a-leaping
e. No one.

Note: another trick question – in Matthew’s story, no one witnesses Jesus’ birth at all; he simply says Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king (2:1) with no details. It’s only Luke who tells the story of Mary and Joseph coming to Bethlehem from Nazareth for a Roman census, finding no room at the inn and being forced to give birth in a stable, attended by humble shepherds and a host of angels.


8. What happened after Jesus’ birth?

a. Impossible to say for sure – two of the gospels tell completely contradictory stories, and the other two say nothing.
b. Good tidings were brought for him and his kin; and then figgy pudding, for they would not go until they get some.
c. Scary stuff: An angel warns Joseph to flee their home in Bethlehem for Egypt. Herod kills all the baby boys in the region. After Herod’s death, they return to Judea but are afraid of Herod’s son, so they move to Nazareth in Galilee instead (evidently Matthew forgot that Galilee was ruled by Herod’s other son…).
d. Happy stuff: The shepherds spread the good news to all, baby Jesus is circumcised, and after the obligatory 40 days for ritual purity, brought to the temple in Jerusalem where prophets hail him as the Christ. They return home to Nazareth and go back to Jerusalem every year for Passover until Jesus is twelve.
e. We aren’t told, the gospels immediately cut to his adulthood.

Note: Mark and John’s gospels ignore Jesus’ childhood years. Mathew and Luke’s do tell of his birth – but they tell two completely different stories. The two nativity tales contradict each other at every point. For just one example, Matthew has Joseph finally arrive in Nazareth for the first time only at the very end of the story; while in Luke Mary and Joseph not only both start out in Nazareth, but they go back and forth from Nazareth to Jerusalem for Passover every year during the time when Matthew has them hiding out in Egypt! Remember too that Matthew’s takes place sometime before 4 B.C. and Luke’s takes place sometime after 6 A.D. and gap of at least a decade. By the way, each also presents a competing genealogy of Joseph (Matthew 1:16; Luke 3:23) – even though Joseph isn’t even Jesus’ real dad (and the Bible warns against genealogies besides; see 1 Timothy 1:4 and Titus 3:9)!


9. Which of these traditional Christmas elements were originally pagan?

a. Christmas Trees, Christmas Wreaths, and Yule Logs
b. Caroling, Christmas Ham, Christmas candles
c. The Birth of the Savior
d. Boughs of Holly and Sprigs of Mistletoe
e. All of the above

Note: Are you really surprised? There aren’t too many fir trees in the holy land, but they were revered in pre-Christian northern Europe for thousands of years. Their pagan midwinter fest, Yule, gave us Christmas trees, wreaths and yule logs, and the Yule Boar, now our Christmas ham. There’s still a Yule Goat tradition in Scandinavia, though they are now straw ornaments and decorations, instead of sacrificial meals. The practice of door-to-door Christmas caroling came from wassailing, which has pagan Anglo-Saxon roots. Originally a blessing of the harvest, in some periods it was more like a drunken version of trick-or-treat.

Holly and Mistletoe were sacred plants to many ancient peoples, including the Celtic Druids, the Saxons and Scandinavians. Both were venerated for their ability to stay green during the winter, the symbolic colors of their red and white berries, and other traits such as mistletoe’s golden hue and holly’s prickly leaves. The 3rd century church Father Tertullian, who could be fairly prickly himself, actually condemned the practice of decorating the house for the holidays with boughs or lamps, comparing it to dressing your house up like a heathen temple or a new brothel!

And as we already saw earlier, the winter solstice marked the birth of many savior gods – So many, in fact, that early Christian apologists like Justin Martyr and Firmicus Maternus insisted that the Devil must have foreseen the coming of Christianity in advance and created all the counterfeit Christianities centuries before the real Christianity arrived(!), fuming “The Devil has his Christs!”


10. Where does the word “Yuletide” come from?

a. It’s an abbreviation of the Latin ultimus ides, “last holiday of the year.”
b. From Germanic/Old Norse “Jul-time” or “Jól-time” (the midwinter fest).
c. Named after Julius Caesar, who invented Sanctus Clausius, the Roman Santa Claus.
d. Named in honor of Hywll Tydd, ancient Welsh god of reindeer and socks.
e. Pagan Nordic priests copied the name from the Christian Christmastide.

Note: Only b. is true; the others are completely made up.


11. Who started the War on Christmas?

a. True American Christian Fundamentalists & the Founding Fathers
b. Richard Dawkins
c. Godless atheists, the liberal media, gays and lesbians, activist judges, science teachers, lawyers, the ACLU, democrats and everyone else we hate.
d. The Jews
e. Al Qaida

Note: Believe it or not, the first enemies of Christmas were Christians. When Oliver Cromwell’s forces took power in England in 1653, the new totalitarian Puritan Parliament made Christmas illegal. In the American colonies, from 1659 to 1681, celebrating Christmas was punishable by a fine. But even after the American Revolution, Christmas was still not widely celebrated. In fact, the Founding Fathers didn’t even bother to take the day off to hold the first session of Congress on Christmas Day, 1789. Christmas would not be declared a national holiday until nearly a century later.


12. Our familiar modern American “Santa Claus” is based on all these earlier figures, EXCEPT for:

a. The English Father Christmas, Charles Dickens’ characters and the Victorian cartoons of Thomas Nast.
b. The Dutch Santa, Sinterklaas or Goedheiligman
c. A de-horned, sanitized, anagram of Satan.
d. Mighty Norse thunder god Thor’s father, Odin
e. St. Nikolaos, 4th-century Greek bishop and patron saint of children.

Note: The original St. Nick was St. Nikolaos of Myra, said to be a 4th century Byzantine bishop, now patron saint of children (as well as archers, sailors, and pawnbrokers, oddly enough). As the Nordic Yule festival became subsumed by Christmas, some aspects of Odin and Old Man Winter also made their way into our celebration. But despite the condemnation from some religious groups, Santa has no connection to Satan apart from closeness in spelling.

Interestingly, our Santa Claus is a surprisingly modern construction. Tom Flynn’s The Trouble With Christmas argues that the majority of our Christmas tradition today is largely a product of the Victoria era, and most of the traits we associate with Santa actually come from quite a small handful of 19th-century writers.

Washington Irving (of Headless Horseman fame) actually invented the Dutch Sinterklaas character outright, and inspired Charles Dickens with his Christmas literary inventions, like Santa’s flying sleigh. In the 1880’s, cartoonist Thomas Nast created Santa’s appearance, located his workshop at the North Pole, created his Naughty & Nice list, and many other traits of St. Nick. And of course he continues to evolve and spread into different forms around the world – just like Jesus.


Bonus Question! (re-gifted from the Ultimate Easter Quiz)

13. Who wrote these gospels, anyway?

a. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – I mean, come on, it says so right there.
b. Actually, none of the gospels even claim to be written by eyewitnesses -all were originally anonymous and written at least a generation later.
c. Well, it’s more like the end of first century for Mark and sometime in the early to mid 2nd century for the others, if you must know.
d. Hold on – Not only that, but Matthew and Luke just reworked Mark gospel, adding their own material and tweaking Mark’s text to better fit what they thought it should say.
e. Get this – if all that weren’t enough, all the Gospels have been edited and added to by later editors, and for the first 200 – 300 years, we have no way to determine how faithfully the originals were preserved.

Note: Technically all of these are true, except for a.

So how did I do?
  1. My Answer: A    Correct Answer: A
  2. My Answer: C    Correct Answer: C
  3. My Answer: B    Correct Answer: D
  4. My Answer: D    Correct Answer: D
  5. My Answer: A    Correct Answer: A
  6. My Answer: C    Correct Answer: C
  7. My Answer: B    Correct Answer: E
  8. My Answer: B    Correct Answer: A  
  9. My Answer: E    Correct Answer: E
  10. My Answer: B    Correct Answer: B
  11. My Answer: A    Correct Answer: A
  12. My Answer: C    Correct Answer: C
  13. My Answer: B, C, and D   Correct Answer: E (and B, C, and D)
Considerations: For 13, since E apparently was chopped off the quiz that I took, I didn't even know it was an option. If it would have been, I would have selected it, too. For 8, seems like this was a typo or perhaps a copy-paste error. First, the explanation I gave doesn't match my answer and, second, I should have known it was A! I'm going to give myself credit for these answers. Additionally, I got #11 correct, but I was pretty much wrong on my reason for the answer. I'm still goint to count that. So, 10/12 plus the Bonus.

UPDATE: On Nov. 28, I found the paper on which I wrote down my original answers, and it has an "A" for #8 on it. Sadly, it also has an "E ?" for #7; it seems I should have stuck with my gut instinct on that one.

Monday, November 21, 2011

I wonder why this book doesn't have any reviews???

   I was poking around Amazon to find the link for the Christian apologetics book I recently finished, and I found this book, "Apologetics Never Saved Anyone," listed 3rd in the search list. The description is just awesome! (Emphasis mine.)
Christians should always be ready to present the reason for the hope that we have in Christ. However, this is completely different than attempting to win people with arguments and words. What we often fail to remember is that the Holy Spirit is deeply involved in the process of saving souls. We need to rely less on ourselves, and more on Him. Either He opens eyes, or He does not. Debate often does nothing, except create pride and a false sense of being right, when the "winner" of the debate might be bathed in error. Presenting the Truth in love is what we - as authentic Christians - are commanded to do. Debating does not usher people into the Kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit does that. Our job is to tell them the truth, whether they listen or not.
YES! By all means, please, please, please, PLEASE rely more on Him!!! You have no idea how much more foolish that will make you look! ...Oops! I wasn't supposed to give that away, was I?

   Well, looks like it doesn't really matter anyway. The book has been out for two years and there isn't a single review for it on Amazon. Maybe Christians realize that relying on the Holy Spirit isn't going to help them at all or maybe they simply figure they can get such advice from their local pastor and can save their money for tithing. We may never know for sure.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

IDHEF - Introduction

This is part of my breakdown of the book "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist." Related posts can be found by clicking here.

An update was made to this post on Nov. 23, 2011 around 4:02 PM CST.

   The introduction starts off with Frank writing about his experience in a secular class teaching about the Old Testament. We actually get some good factual information related to Judaism, which I feel is worth repeating. (Also see the suplemental material.)
...[The professor] immediately affirmed the theory that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible, and that many of the Bible's supposed prophetic passages were written after the fact. He also suggested that the Jews originally believed in many gods (polytheism), but that one God ultimately won the day because the final editors of the Old Testament were "religious-fanatic monotheists."

"Money doesn't exist!"

   The video below is from July, though I only discovered this version recently. I had always seen one titled "Atheists Bitchslap" that ended after the woman, Kate Smurthwaite, said, "...I'm not an idiot." It was harsh, but a point with which I agree - it's not smart to believe in things without evidence. However, this extended clip shows the theists proving her point by claiming that she has faith that money exists. That's just a load of bull, and she gives some examples of why that is.

   I think I understand where they are coming from, though. Money symbolically represents something else that has value. Money is essentially the solution to an overly complex barter system. By that I mean to ask what do you do if person A has something that person B wants, person B has something person C wants, person C has something person D wants, and finally person D has something person A wants? You can't necessarily get all four people together to exchange items, so you instead create something, money, that represents the value of the items. Nowadays, with computers, the exchange of money has even become symbolic. So you have symbology on top of symbology which creates an even greater disconnect from the physical objects that are represented. At some level, they know this, and I think the best response that I saw that would reveal this would be to ask them for some large amount of their nonexistent money. After all, if it doesn't exist, that shouldn't be an issue.

IDHEF - Foreword and Preface

This is part of my breakdown of the book "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist." Related posts can be found by clicking here.

This post was originally released on Nov. 19, but was pulled due to missing information.

   It may be a bit pointless to do, but I do actually want to start with the foreword to IDHEF as there are some interesting bits in there that I wish to cover.

   The first head-scratcher is from the second paragraph.
   Proof, of course, is no substitute for faith... (p7)

Friday, November 18, 2011

I share the DREAM!

YouTube user GrapplingIgnorance has a dream. I share in his dream. (Text below.)

Note: The reason for the grim reaper getup, as I understand, is that this man is a teacher in the South, so he's hiding his face to reduce the chance that he can be identified as that would put his career at risk.

Disgruntled students of history throughout the ages have heard the same replies from their teachers when asking what relevancy studies of the past have on the present. "Those who do not learn their past are doomed to repeat it." If this phrase is true, it seems humanity has not yet had a single generation that truly knew its history. It seems that despite the rapidity with which our technology has advanced over the last several centuries, our civility has advanced on the opposite end of the alacrity spectrum. We carry in our pockets today devices capable of untenable magic by the standards of just decades ago. Conversely, as a human species, we remain doomed to repeat the bloodiest and most vitriolic of our traditions, such as groundless discrimination, unjustified ostracization, and bloody warfare. George Washington wouldn't have a clue what an iPhone is, but if he saw a bullet fly through a soldier today, he'd certainly be able to relate. I guess some things never change- but I have a dream.
I have a dream that though civil progress has been slow to this point, one day we as a human species will turn to the pages of our history books, and learn as much from their lessons as our scientists have from the science books penned by those who preceded them.
I have a dream our children will look back on the pages of our time in their own history books and look at us with genuine curiosity, wondering how we got so much so wrong- how we repeated so many of the same mistakes from the chapters that proceeded ours. How American soldiers could fight to save the Jewish people from oppression and ruthless prejudice during World War II in a time when their country was aching for equality itself.
I have a dream that one day people like Martin Luther King Junior will cast aside the very bible that condones the enslavement of his people, rather than praising its perfection while preaching against its message.
I have a dream that one day adults who believe religious fairy tales will be revered by the general public in the same way as those who believe in any other kind of fairy tales. With that I dream of the day when politicians hoping to win the popular vote on a flagship of religious faith rather than matters of policy will garner the same kind of reaction I would receive today if running under the platform that I have a close personal relationship with Goldilocks, and she has a plan for us.
I have a dream that one day people across the planet will be mature enough to realize that matters of language, proximity, and resource availability divide us enough naturally, that we don't need human-manufactured forces such as religion to contribute to that division without providing a single thing that a secular force couldn't provide with equal or greater efficacy.
I have a dream that one day all men, women, boys, and girls can express a mere disbelief in superstition without receiving mockery or cruelty from the general populous because of it. On that day I dream too that the superstitious, religious, and other wielders of illogical beliefs will receive more honest questions than ruthless mockery.
I have a dream that one day the money in my pockets will not make a painfully vague and demonstrable false declaration of belief on behalf of an entire nation that circulates it.
My dreams show the day that 10 arbitrary rules, only a few of which are congruent with actual laws, are NOT prominently displayed in a court of law. On that day if I am witnessed in that same court, I will not be required to swear on a holy book to pledge my oath of honesty. History has surely shown that swearing on that book has never served as an inhibitor of lies before, and in the future of my dreams, we will have acknowledged that.
I have a dream that hearing these hopes of mine will raise the same confused looks that Doctor King's speech would have evoked, had it been read in the year 2010 someday. Then my friends, on the day that my lofty dreams are common place events, the real progress can begin.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Robert Reich notices a First Amendment problem.

   It's a short article, so definitely go read it! Skipping from one paragraph to another really seems to sum up the problem we have with our country at the moment (emphasis mine).
...The Supreme Court’s rulings that money is speech and corporations are people have now opened the floodgates to unlimited (and often secret) political contributions from millionaires and billionaires...


Yet when Occupiers seek to make their voices heard — in one of the few ways average people can still be heard — they’re told their First Amendment rights are limited.
Yeah, I'm sure this is exactly how the Founding Fathers intended it to be! 8-)

This is one KICK ASS old lady!!!

Title says it all except that I want to be like her when I grow up!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Respect my Polish roots, yo!!!

(via Crommunist)

Apparently, Poland has an anti-clerical party, the Palikot Movement. Part of this movement is now Poland's first transsexual and gay MPs! According to the BBC report, the party "campaigned for the legalisation of abortion, gay marriage and marijuana." Kudos to Poland for this progressive push to the left.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sorry? - 2nd Addendum

   Here is another video, this time with PZ Myers, discussing how atheists should be happier being free from religion. Previous installments can be found here and here.

The Problem of Common Sense - Another Preview to IDHEF

   I've been reading further into IDHEF and have been noticing they are asking the readers a number of questions, primarily "What would you do?" questions. I assume the point is to appeal to the reader's common sense. By definition, there is a huge problem with common sense. The Free Dictionary defines it as follows:
Sound judgment not based on specialized knowledge; native good judgment.
Using common sense is fine when people are dealing with things that don't require specialized knowledge, but, all too often, people try to apply common sense to things that are beyond, well, "common" knowledge.

   I have observed this quite regularly recently with conservative politics in regards to economic policy. When it comes to debt control, for example, there have been many politicians comparing government budget management to the way people manage their personal budgets. The idea is that people have developed a "common sense" toward budget management and this can be applied to the government. The problem, though, is that government has different goals and serves a different purpose than an individual, not to mention that it operates on a much larger economic scale (macroeconomics for the government vs. microeconomics for an individual). UPDATE: I have learned that this flawed thinking is known as a false analogy. Yet, it would seem that the flaw is a result of using simple "common sense" thinking.

   Another favorite case of mine is the Monty Hall problem. Just watch the video for starters.

   As the guy said, most people, including myself, initially think it is 50/50. And, if you read the comments, you will likely find people who still think it is 50/50 after the solution is explained. The confusion comes from people appealing to their "common sense." If a person entered the problem with just the choice of two doors, it would be 50/50. Common sense recognizes this, but fails to recognize that the initial choice in a door and the revealing of a goat adds information to the puzzle. Ultimately, common sense ends up being wrong.

   Getting back to IDHEF, I have been seeing, as previously stated, questions where the goal seems to be to get the reader to use their common sense. I think common sense ends up being wrong in many of these instances. I won't go into any particular examples here, but I want readers of the book to be wary of this and to think questions through thoroughly. It also wouldn't hurt to apply this in real life as well.

   UPDATE: Another example I have seen a bit of involves this question:
A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Apparently a lot of people will answer $0.10. What they seem to do is just subtract that $1 from the total. But if the ball costs $1.10, then the bat has to cost $1.10, bringing the total to $1.20. Yet, the total was given as $1.10. A little extra thought has to be put into this to figure out that the ball actually costs $0.05 (and thus the bat costs $1.05).

   The webpage I found that had that example also has a nice probability question that makes for a good example:
Now, think about tossing a coin six times. Which is more likely: heads-heads-heads-tails-tails-tails or tails-tails-heads-heads-tails-heads?

You might think that the second one seems more random, so it's more likely. That error would fall into what Kahneman and Tversky would call the representativeness heuristic or, more specifically, the misconception of chance -- in other words, we tend to go on our intuitive notions of what an unrigged coin toss should look like rather than actually calculating.

If you think about the probabilities of each, you'll realize the two combinations are equally likely.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

It's confirmed - I'm not a Libertarian

   Unfortunately, but to little surprise, there are Libertarians involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and particularly the Occupy Iowa City movement. I was there two weeks ago, and picked up some propaganda.
Have the Republicans and Democrats let you down? You're not alone. Find out if you're a Libertarian.
Following this, they have a quiz with Libertarian positions to which the quiz taker is to respond whether they agree (20 points), disagree (0 points), or are a maybe (10 points). (Apparently, there is even a Wikipedia page for this thing!) The first five are social issues and the second five are economic issues. Following these is a matrix on which the quiz taker can use (see image on right) to determine if they are liberal, statist (in favor of big government), conservative, libertarian, or someone who fits in the centrist middle.

   Below I will post the positions with my answers in curly brackets {}.
How do you stand on PERSONAL issues?
  • Government should not censor speech, press, media or Internet.
    {Agree, for the most part. I'd say hate speech is an exception in certain situations. There may be other exceptions I cannot think of in the time being, too. But give me 20 points.}
  • Military service should be voluntary. There should be no draft.
    {Yep. 20 points.}
  • There should be no laws regarding sex between consenting adults.
    {Chalk me up another 20 points.}
  • Repeal laws prohibiting adult possession and use of drugs.
    {Well, based on the position as written, I suppose they can mark me up for 20 points. However, I am first not in favor of legalizing the selling of many drugs, though I doubt many Libertarians would disagree with this either. Second, I am also in favor of government keeping track of people who have had drug addiction problems and providing, and sometimes requiring, rehab programs for such people. Libertarians may not necessarily agree on this point.}
  • There should be no National ID card.
    {I'll have to put myself down as "Maybe" on this one. I think it is good to be able to easily identify people, but I do understand the concerns, though they push the boundaries of paranoia, of such a system being abused. 10 points.}
That brings me to a 90 on the social scale. This already prevents me from being a centrist, statist, or conservative based on the matrix. That means I can either be a liberal or libertarian at this point. Let's continue.
How do you stand on ECONOMIC issues?
  • End "corporate welfare." No government handouts to business.
    {I think I have to put myself down as a "maybe" for this one. 10 points. I think government should be supportive of businesses that manufacture products that are beneficial to the public, but are otherwise not economically viable. Products that make use of renewable energies like wind and solar is a good example.}
  • End government barriers to international free trade.
    {No, I think I'm going to have to disagree on this one. 0 points. No, free trade is a bad idea. Not to pay service to nationalism, but some other nations just don't treat their citizens very well (I know the USA doesn't always either). I just don't think it's right to trade freely with such nations. I know that is a difficult thing to do, because how is the government supposed to decide which countries haven't earned a right to free trade.}
  • Let people control their own retirement: privatize Social Security.
    {Hell. No. This pretty much defeats the whole concept of Social Security, which is to have a safety net for those who failed to save up for retirement. The idea is to take retirement out of the hands of people. And more so to help out the poor. I'm fine with this system. 0 points.}
  • Replace government welfare with private charity.
    {NO!!! Gosh, Libertarians frustrate the hell out of me on this issue. They want to spend their money how they see fit. And, of course, they donate lots of time and money to charity! Or so they say. Frankly, I often suspect what they do isn't much more than paying lip service. More importantly is what do you do about the people who don't give to charity? How do you make sure they contribute? I am afraid Libertarians probably aren't really worried about such a problem, because that's all part of an individual's freedom. But that's not how a society functions, which is by the individuals making sacrifices, as necessary, to their personal betterment in favor of the betterment of the society. (I often get the feeling, in cases like this, that Libertarians tend to be fairly privileged individuals who are not worried about being on the disadvantaged side of society.) Anyway, 0 points.}
  • Cut taxes and government spending by 50% or more.
    {I'll mark this as "Maybe" only because I wouldn't mind seeing some cuts in spending, especially military spending. Otherwise, as there are areas where I would not cut spending as per some of my answers above, I can't see any possibility for tax cuts, especially when there is a huge deficit to pay off. 10 points.}
Well, I only scored 20 points on the economic issues. I needed 50 or more to be a libertarian. So, turns out I'm a liberal. Who knew!?!

Friday, November 11, 2011

How to Justify Crime - Joe Paterno

   In discussion with friends, there was the question of what goes through the mind of someone like Joe Paterno. Based on what I've learned from reading "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts" I think I have some ideas on how this works. And it's actually quite simple. It's a matter of taking it one step at a time until you find yourself beyond a "point of no return."

   It could possibly have started out with Paterno convincing himself that "Sandusky is a good man. He wouldn't do that!" Later, Paterno would find out that Sandusky would indeed do that. Then the justification would be along the lines of "Sandusky is still a good man! He's just a little troubled, but there is no reason to taint or even ruin his reputaion and career by bringing the police into this. If we just support him, he will get over this." There will be little to no consideration of the victims in this justification. The cognitive focus will be on the abuser. After all, that is who Paterno knows; he is not emotionally attached to the children being harmed. As horrible as it sounds, this makes them easier to dismiss from the equation.

   At some point, Paterno may have realized that Sandusky is not going to just "get over this." But by this point, he is too committed to change course; he is beyond the point of no return*. He knows that if he goes to the cops now that they will be wondering why he didn't act sooner. When word reaches the media, they will be asking the same questions. See, Paterno has already acheived the roll of accomplice. He knows this. He is no longer just protecting Sandusky; he is also protecting himself, and he likewise turns his rationalizing on himself as well. Now it's "I'm a good guy, but they will treat me as though I am not!" The desire to protect one's own image, unfortunately, all too often is greater than the desire to protect others, in this case, the children that Sandusky was abusing.

   And Joe Paterno has had a very positive image to protect, as should be evident by the way people have been supporting Paterno. This is also why I am disgusted with their reactions. They are demonstrating the same cognitive processes - protecting the public image of a person - that leads to such cover ups.

* The idea of the "point of no return" is that if the person who has been justifying bad behavior stops doing so after this point, their personal reputation will be damaged. They can never be entirely guilt free from their actions. Whereas, if they had stopped justifying early on, they could have been forgiven and no damage would have been done. However, many people wrongly decide to avoid damaging their own reputations by continuing to justify bad behavior instead of fessing up. The reason this is the wrong decision is that, if and when the bad behavior is discovered by outsiders, the damage to one's reputation becomes much worse. In the third paragraph, I talked about how Paterno had reached the point of no return. If he would have reported Sandusky at this point (and it's hard to know exactly where that point is - it's mostly an arbitrary point), his reputation would have been slightly damaged. However, as a result of people finding out about Sandusky through other means, Paterno's reputation is now quite damaged.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Shame of Penn State - Students and Coaches Alike!

   It is bad enough that administration personel and coaching staff at Penn State have been covering up child rape, but what may be worse is the reaction of students and other supporters of Joe Paterno.

   First it was rallying outside Paterno's house in support of Paterno, but now it has turned into rioting in reaction to Paterno being fired. Such behavior is simply indefensible.

   I have also seen support on Facebook, with some people making comments along the lines of "he wasn't the guy who did it." Sure. He wasn't. But, according to the grand jury report, Paterno knew about the allogations and did very little about it. This makes him an accomplice. Supporting Paterno at this point is equivalent to supporting accomplice to rape. That is pretty sickening.

   The one argument I have heard that I can partially accept is that Paterno be given a chance to defend himself. Others have been calling this "Duke II." That's a disastrous situation* to compare this to, but one implication seems to be a concern that a decision was made too quickly. (The other implication is that Paterno has been falsely accused; this seems quite unlikely and I cannot support such a defense.) Even with such arguments, I feel the Board of Trustees would have at least had to suspend Paterno.

   But, in spite of those more valid defenses of Paterno, I cannot help but suspect if this was pretty much any other coach, few would have objected to such quick action. I cannot help but get the feeling that there is special pleading taking place here. And it sickens me. It sickens me for at least two reasons:
  1. This gives special protection to people with privelege and weakens the chance that the victims, when they belong to a less priveleged group, will get their justice or if they'll even report their case.
  2. The support of Paterno sends the message that a significant portion of the populace finds #1 to be acceptable.

   So, Penn State protestors and Joe Paterno supporters, consider yourselves a disgrace to the human race. Whether you realize it or not - and I suspect many of you don't - you have effectively made yourselves part of the problem of covering up for rape.

   As for the Board of Trustees, h/t. Thank you for treating Joe Paterno equally as you would have any other coach. Equal treatment for all is the way society should operate.

* I am disturbed about people bringing up the Duke rape allogations because one of the disturbing parts of that situation was how the accuser was treated. It was one of those cases where she "couldn't have been raped" because she was (1) a striper (and thus probably a "slut") and was (2) allegedly either drunk or drugged up or both. It's the problem where rape is not considered rape by many people because they think the victim "had it coming." And while the accuser in this case was making false accusations, this discrediting of potential victims based on looks and behavior - as opposed to examining the evidence of the case - makes it harder for actual rape victims to speak out honestly, if at all, about their assults. This effectively promotes the rape culture in America.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Deepak Chopra busts out the measuring stick!

(via Atheist Media Blog)

   On Nov. 2, Deepak Chopra was Bill O'Reilly's guest. They spend a bunch of time bashing Richard Dawkins. There are certainly some interesting parts, which I will comment on below the fold.

   Around 1:20, Deepak starts talking about how Dawkins supposedly uses his scientific "credentials" in debates. I don't completely buy that. I have no doubts, though, that Dawkins uses his knowledge of science in debates. There is a difference here. It's not Dawkins using an argument from authority, as Chopra implies. But then he seemingly justifies the use of these credentials when referring to Francis Collins. My guess is that is OK since Collins is on his side. (More disturbing, though, was how he made it sound like Collins was out to prove whose is bigger.) Then, of course, O'Reilly has to jump in on the fallacy, too.

   Then, around 2:05, the typical Bill O'Reilly silliness erupts! Though, I grant that it is a common Christian claim, but this idea that our justice system is based on the Ten Commandments is completely absurd! Only three at the most are part of our justice system. More significantly, the first commandment and the First Amendment of the US Constitution are completely contradictory.

   O'Reilly then makes the stupid point of how the Ten Commandments hang in the Supreme Court. It is my understanding that the Code of Hammurabi also hangs there. Explain that, Bill! (Tides go in...)

   Chopra starts talking gobbledegook shortly after that, including some bullshit about "the laws of physics themselves preclude us from intellectually getting in touch with the source." Yeah, that sounds pretty much made up. Then he starts talking about "listening to the heart," and it seemed to me that he meant it literally! (He's not talking about it as a metaphor for the subconscious!)

   I must give O'Reilly some credit, though, for calling Chopra out for taking the idea that the "prophets" "transcended" is, as he put it, "a matter of faith." That's exactly right. And faith is pretty much believing any bullshit you want, because no evidence is required to have faith.

   Shortly after that, though, O'Reilly begins talking nonsense about meteors. Then Chopra starts to say that evolution does not contradict something, perhaps the existence of the god he believes in, but O'Reilly jumps in and says, "intelligent design does not contradict science." Well, if you're talking about science overall, no, it doesn't; it can't. However, intelligent design is not science and, furthermore, it does contradict the well-supported theory of evolution.

   Then Chopra...oh, what a whopper that seems so reasonable. He seems to be entertaining the idea that if humans were ever to create an artificial life form, that life form would have been designed, thus proving that life requires a designer. It's absolute bullshit. You can make the same argument for everything else. Take lightning, for example. Humans can create some powerful "bolts" of electricity in laboratories. (In fact, avionics hardware is tested in such labs to find out how lightning resistant it is.) Since this laboratory lightning is "intelligently designed," does that mean lightning (from a thunderstorm) is intelligently designed?

   Lastly, Chopra pulls the argument from ignorance fallacy. Essentially, since science cannot disprove a deistic god, so Chopra suggests that believing in such a god then becomes acceptable. Science can't really disprove fairies, leprechauns, pink unicorns, or whether or not we live in a matrix. Should we believe in those things too?

Happy birthday Carl Sagan! You will be remembered!

   I have been informed that today is Carl Sagan's birthday and that Nov 12 is apparently "International Carl Sagan Day." Well, celebrating his birthday is sufficient for me. Watching some educational videos seems like the appropriate way to celebrate.

   And, what the heck, let's throw in some comedy for good measure!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Radical!!! - Part 5: The Overton Window

This is part of a 5-part series. Following are the links to the other parts. Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4

   In the first part of this series, I talked about some issues that have changed over time, including allowing women the right to vote, civil rights for blacks, and even acceptance of birth control. One I did not mention that is very important to this discussion is gay rights, particularly the right to marry. All of these issues relate to the concept of the Overton Window. This is a political theory, conceived by Joseph Overton, that deals with the range of politically acceptable ideas in regards to the possible ideas.
Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time. Regardless of how vigorously a think tank or other group may campaign, only policy initiatives within this window of the politically possible will meet with success. Why is this?

Politicians are constrained by ideas, even if they have no interest in them personally. What they can accomplish, the legislation they can sponsor and support while still achieving political success (i.e. winning reelection or leaving the party strong for their successor), is framed by the set of ideas held by their constituents — the way people think. Politicians have the flexibility to make up their own minds, but negative consequences await the elected officeholder who strays too far. A politician’s success or failure stems from how well they understand and amplify the ideas and ideals held by those who elected them.

In addition to being dependent on the ideas that form the boundaries of the political climate, politicians are also known to be self-interested and desirous of obtaining the best political result for themselves. Therefore, they will almost always constrain themselves to taking actions within the "window" of ideas approved of by the electorate. Actions outside of this window, while theoretically possible, and maybe more optimal in terms of sound policy, are politically unsuccessful. Even if a few legislators were willing to stick out their necks for an action outside the window, most would not risk the disfavor of their constituents. They may seek the good of those who elected them, and even the good of the state or nation as a whole, but in pursuing the course they think is best, most will certainly take into account their political future. This is the heart of the Overton window theory.

So, if a think tank’s research and the principles of sound policy suggest a particular idea that lies outside the Overton window, what is to be done? Shift the window. Since commonly held ideas, attitudes and presumptions frame what is politically possible and create the "window," a change in the opinions held by politicians and the people in general will shift it. Move the window of what is politically possible and those policies previously impractical can become the next great popular and legislative rage.
Emphasis mine. In short, if you wish to see political change, your course of action should not be to pressure the politician, but to educate and sway public opinion.

   Now, many people may be skeptical about this. There is the idea that our politicians are "bought" by corporations. Well, I actually agree with this, too. The ideas are not mutually exclusive. The corporatations, in my opinion, have been both moving polititions to their preferred side of the Overton Window as well as moving the Window itself by (mis)educating the population. Take this video, for example:

   See? These big oil companies are really just trying to create jobs and secure our energy future. It's not at all about making huge profits and harming the environment!

   That was, of course, sarcasm, but the point is that I think there is a two-frontal assult on the American people. This is necessary because the power ultimately rests in the hands of the electorate. If you can get the people to vote against their self-interests and get the politicians to vote against the interests of their constituants, you win! (And while I agree an oil pipeline will create jobs, it's a case of the cons outweighing the pros.)

   With regards to OWS, this is a mix of good and bad news. OWS will hopefully send the message that the Overton window is moving and that they had better move with it, or they will be voted out no matter how much money their donors give them. The bad news may be that the election results will not reflect this.

   I say this because I have seen a number of people supportive and even involved in this movement talk about how all our politicians are corrupted, some even going as far as to suggest that people not even bother voting. Based on theories like the Overton Window, that is actually the best way to ensure that things stay the same. Some suggest supporting a "third party," but I suggest that is also silly. (And the ones who suggest that the third party be Libertarians really give me the chills!) The idea of supporting a third party is that they will hopefully have good intentions and won't be corrupted - we'll call them "honest" politicians. But that's just bullshit, too. I occasionally argue with these people that some of the problem is that (1) the honest politions are often not going to win and (2) the more honest ones who do get elected are still going to be limited in what they can do, which (3) means that the honest ones may end up appearing corrupted in order to stay in office. Based on the Overton Window, I think I have been correct in such arguments.

   Just look at what happened last year. First, earlier in the year, there were a few Republicans who lost their primaries to the Tea Party. More importantly than that is a lot of other Republicans shifted their political views to the right. Then, in the general election, a lot of Democrats lost their seats. Additionally, some Democrats (seemingly the ones who were moderate to begin with) even adopted some Tea Party ideas in an attempt to win their elections. Some states had huge swings of power in their state houses (I think New Hampshire was one that had a large Democratic majority to a a large Republican majority), many states now have Republican governors that didn't before, and also the U.S. House of Representatives gained a Republican majority.

   How did this happen? The website where I learned about the Overton Window used a picture of a bunch of people pulling on a rope. While he didn't describe it as a tug-of-war, I think you could. And I therefore suggest that the liberals, for the most part, gave up on pulling for a while, and the Overton Window shifted to the right as those on the right kept pulling. The politicians shifted accordingly. The good news is that hopefully the Occupy Wall Street movement will effectively pull the window back to the left. In fact, that is the most important thing OWS can do. The politicians won't react to a movement unless the movement has demonstrated that it can or has affected election results. So, OWS people, keep pulling! And VOTE!!!

   And vote for people who actually have a shot at winning. I hate to say it, but you have to go with the electable candidate even if they are not the ideal candidate. Yet, keep pulling on the Window! That is ultimately the key. If and when the window fits over your ideal candidate, then and only then will they be electable. But if you give up on pulling the Window because you're discouraged as you can't get your ideal candidate in office, you will never get that cadidate in, nor will you get anyone close to that ideal candidate.

   Getting back to how this relates to the series is that the Overton Window cannot be shifted by people sitting in the window. Moving the Window must come from outside the Window. That means taking a radical position and then popularizing that postition, which ultimately makes that originally radical position the norm. The positions I mentioned at the beginning were once radical ideas. Few would think that today because the Overton Window was moved over top those radical ideas.

   I must add that one thing the Tea Party did correctly was promote the idea of holding politicians accountable as opposed to the idea of all politicians being corrupt. The former idea encourages the reality that people are capable of changing the system for what they think is the better as opposed to the pessimistic, self-defeating idea that there is no chance of fixing things. Additionally, it also encourages voters to evaluate their politians based on their performance, instead of painting them all with a broad brush. One of the other things that upsets me with those who suggest that all of the Democrats are corrupt is that they are also discouraging people to vote for the ones out there who seem reasonable. Take Elizabeth Warren for example. I really think she has the best interests of the people in mind. At the same time, she is registered as a Democrat. So, if you paint all Democrats as corrupt, you then paint Elizabeth Warren as corrupt, too. We can't be doing this or we're going to shoot ourselves in the foot.