29 June 2011

“If the battle is waged on a level playing field, our victory is assured”

Secularism is on the rise, and religious groups aren’t happy about it. A favourite pushback tactic of theirs is to cry discrimination, that their rights are being trampled on by the godless. If they’re referring to their right to be bigots, to be shielded from criticism, to be accorded special privileges like tax-exempt status and unelected political power, and above all to be unquestioningly respected, then yes, such ‘rights’ should be denied to them. Religious groups demand these pseudo-rights because they understand – and fear – the consequences of not having them: they would be forced to compete with more liberal, rational, progressive and humane ideas on equal terms.

A level playing field in the great social debate humanity has with itself is a prospect that frightens the religious. Daylight Atheism’s Adam Lee makes this clear in his post on the worried reaction of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler to the recent same-sex marriage law passed in New York State. Likewise, the UN gay rights protection resolution passed two weeks ago was condemned by Muslims, who would prefer an international climate more conducive to their religiously inspired homophobia. The sacred task of shaming, assaulting and killing gays becomes noticeably more difficult to execute when global opinion is most emphatically not on your side.

Atheists, humanists and freethinkers know that they have a better than good chance of winning in a fair ideological fight. Religious groups and their accommodationist allies are aware of this, so they try to silence their opponents either by force or by the more subtle yet no less deplorable method of tarring them as supposedly strident, aggressive, militant, arrogant, simplistic polemicists. As Lee writes:

In their furious hushing of atheists and demanding that we be more respectful, in their efforts around the world to pass bills punishing speech that insults or denigrates religion, we see that what the major religious groups and their allies want is to silence dissent. Again, they don't want to compete in a marketplace of ideas; they want society to be their parishioners, sitting in enforced silence while they alone stand in the pulpit and preach.

There's a lesson here for freethinkers: to win the debate, we just have to show up. If we can speak freely and make our case, we've already won. If we can successfully claim the same rights and the same privileges as religious people, we've already won. If ordinary people have friends and family who are atheists, and know that they have friends and family who are atheists, we've already won. If the battle is waged on a level playing field, our victory is assured, because we know that in an open and fair debate, our arguments are the better ones and will carry the day. It's only coercion and prejudice that can hold us back, and both those obstacles are weakening and falling one by one.

Yes, our arguments are indeed the better ones, for they are based on reason, evidence and universal compassion. Which is why the religious would rather we didn’t voice them.


28 June 2011

School chaplains are only to “provide advice”, not “religious instruction”

The Australian government is considering a proposal that chaplains involved in the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) be required to have formal qualifications in youth work or a similar field. School Education Minister Peter Garrett has stated that “whoever’s working in a school environment… should have a level of appropriate training and qualifications,” including NSCP volunteers. The NSCP currently funds “2681 schools across Australia where chaplains or pastoral care workers provide students with ‘general advice, comfort and support’”.

So those who give “general advice, comfort and support” to schoolchildren may soon be required to have proper qualifications. Fair enough. But why do they have to specifically be chaplains?

Mr Garrett has said that the NSCP chaplains are “not there for discipline, they're not there for teaching, they're not there for religious instruction, they're there to provide advice.” So, if chaplains are barred from religious proselytizing, why are religious credentials necessary for the job? A secular youth worker could just as well fulfill the role described by Mr Garrett.

The answer is that religious people are automatically perceived to be virtuous simply by dint of their belief in the existence of invisible, magical beings. It is a result of the common canard that one needs God in order to be good. So by professing a superstitious belief in an authoritarian sky fairy, chaplains somehow acquire moral qualities that unbelievers apparently lack. Why else would people without professional training but who subscribe to irrational nonsense be chosen as school counselors, to minister to the emotional needs and ethical problems of children?

Mr Garrett may be confident that chaplains serve a role that is “free of any religious instruction”. Yet the scandal involving one chaplain provider, Access Ministries, clearly shows that evangelical Christians cannot be trusted to refrain from selling their brand of sky fairyism to school kids. It’s incredibly naïve of people like Mr Garrett to expect devout Christian chaplains not to ‘share the gospel’ with their young charges. In fact, many consider it their moral duty to ‘win disciples’ for their faith.

While it would be good to require all school workers, religious and secular, to be properly trained, the presumption of religious workers’ upstanding moral character is undeserved. On the contrary, religious counselors can act in despicable ways towards the very children they’re supposed to care for and protect.


HT: Russell Blackford and Martin

26 June 2011

Did these people even READ the letter?

The creationist Ken Ham caught wind of PZ Myers’s letter to one of Ham’s brainwashed victims, 9 year old Emma. Ham must have got all riled up over being called “a poor teacher” who gives “bad answers”, so he wrote a Facebook post accusing Myers (who Ham doesn’t name but coyly refers to as “a well known atheist”) and his fellow atheists of being “extremely intolerant people who in their anger, shake their fist at God.”

But Ham does not provide a link to Myers’s letter.

Is Ham afraid that if he actually allowed people to read the “extremely intolerant” letter “attacking” Christians, they would realise that he lied about the nature of that letter? And judging by the comments of his fellow supernaturalists, they’re sure quick to jump to conclusions about how mean and vicious atheists are without having even read Myers’s letter.

Some choice ejaculations from the God-botherers responding to Ham’s post:

I am so glad that the world is still filled with far, far more people like Emma and her mom than people like these atheists who will stoop to anything, including viciously attacking a little girl. You don't attack kids, atheists. You just don't.

Only someone who didn’t even read Myers’s post will think that a kindly, professorial letter is a vicious attack on a little girl.

My husband works in the museum industry. While at a conference he challenged the speaker about evolution presented as "fact" on the exhibits. I believe if the speaker had a gun he would have shot him... no kidding. These people are militant.

Yes, because ‘militant’ atheists are the ones going around shooting people who violate their ideology.

And atheists claim to be the authority on logic and have morality without Christ in their lives. Their behavior simply goes to show their ignorance and intolerance of anything biblical. Ken has every right to block these people from his blog and his FB page. All they do is complain and troll.

So atheists are ignorant and intolerant, but Christians like Ken Ham who teach kids to reject science and knowledge while censoring critics are obviously not.

Lately I’ve been trying to be more sympathetic to supernaturalists like Ken Ham and his fellow Jesus fans, avoiding excessively mocking language and caricature in my posts. But such ridiculous supernaturalist antics sorely test my resolution to be a kinder critic of kookery. In this instance, the stupid just burns.


UPDATE: I've noticed that comments on Ken Ham's post that were critical of him and his religion but were in no way rude have been removed. They were there when I started writing this and linked to Ham's FB post, but have since vanished. Christian courage and tolerance on full display.

23 June 2011

Every kid should get this letter

His Tentacled Majesty, biologist and science communicator PZ Myers has written what is perhaps the most lucid letter explaining how science works. His (hypothetical) letter is addressed to a (real) 9 year old kid who has sadly been led astray by creationist rubbish. In clear, simple language, Myers shows why asking the right questions is so important if we want to know the “wealth of wonderful truths that reveal so much about our universe.”

Myers is currently working on a book slated for publication either this year or next. If his prodigious blogging allows time for it, maybe the Squid Overlord should follow up with a children’s science book. His letter shows that he has a knack for introducing good ideas to young minds at their level of understanding.


21 June 2011

What exactly is a person’s ‘true self’?

Person X is usually kind, generous and courteous. But sometimes she can also be mean, petty and boorish. Which description would she regard as representing her ‘true self’? Which one would her family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances consider to be her ‘real’ character?

Now let’s expand on the above. Say that Person X is characteristically kind, generous and courteous. But when she gets drunk, she undergoes a Jekyll and Hyde transformation into a mean, petty and boorish person. So, which version of Person X is her true self?

In the first case, one might say that Person X is a complex combination of both positive and negative traits, though she may prefer to consider the positive traits as her true self while others may choose to focus on her negative qualities. In the second case, there are two possible responses:

  1. Person X revealed her true, horrible self when drunkenness made her drop her fake mask of good character.
  2. Person X is really a kind, generous and courteous person, since it required something as drastic as getting absolutely pissed in order to change her personality.

This thought experiment presumes that there is such a thing as a ‘true self’. But does such a thing actually exist?

20 June 2011

Even chicks look good in classic menswear

Not trying to get all essentialist here, but as per my recent post on the return of classic menswear, you know a style has got something fundamentally appealing about it when it looks classy on either gender.


Photo by Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist

Steven Novella defends science-based medicine

Dr Steven Novella is a neurologist, educator and dedicated proponent of science-based medicine (SBM). He maintains an excellent website, NeuroLogica, where he writes well-argued criticisms of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), among other scientific and philosophical topics. I enjoy reading Novella’s eloquent, straightforward essays where he calmly yet firmly corrects common misconceptions of both SBM and CAM. He neither rants nor abuses his ideological opponents; in fact, Novella often responds to his critics with admirable patience and professionalism (especially considering that these critics repeatedly make the same flawed arguments either supporting CAM or opposing SBM).

Novella’s qualities are displayed in his response to an article by David Freedman in The Atlantic. Freedman had interviewed Novella to get the SBM side of the story for his article on CAM versus SBM. Unfortunately, the published article turned out to be sympathetic to CAM (its title, ‘The Triumph of New-Age Medicine’, pretty much declares its bias). Novella may be a gentleman ideologue, but he’s also bloody tenacious. Not letting this gross misinformation go unchallenged, the good doctor has written a lengthy, detailed rebuttal to both Freedman’s arguments in his article and his comments on NeuroLogica and elsewhere defending his journalism.

It’s a lot to read, but I recommend that you do it. Novella uses his trademark critical thinking skills, measured rhetoric and deep knowledge of the subject matter to show why CAM is pure nonsense, and why promoting it is a serious mistake.

Dr Novella said it best in the conclusion of his post ‘Alt Med Apologetics at the Atlantic’:

Freedman seems to have been overwhelmed by the finely crafted propaganda of the CAM industry. The “triumph of new-age medicine” is not in patient outcomes, or in filling any perceived gap in science-based medicine. The triumph is in pulling off a massive con. They have managed to put together a very slick package of logical fallacies, misdirections, misconceptions, and outright deception that is very effective. They have an excuse for every failure, and have managed to successfully attack their critics – even science itself.

Sowing confusion is easier than careful explanation, however. And it is remarkably easy to sell people something that they want. The appealing lie will always be hard to counter with harsh reality.

A journalist’s job, however, is to tell the harsh reality. Freedman failed in this regard. Despite his intentions, in the end his article was just another advertisement for an industry of pseudoscience.

If you’re too lazy to read the whole thing, you can scroll down to the ‘Conclusion’ section of Novella’s essays, a great feature of all his posts where he summarises the essay’s main points. But c’mon, read the whole damn thing! It’ll be good for you.


19 June 2011

Classic styles are back

I go to church on Sundays.

Metaphorically speaking, of course. My house of worship is a three-storey 19th century building with mod-con refurbishments that contains, among an assortment of businesses, a magazine shop that also makes coffee. My Sabbath ritual involves easing myself into a sinfully comfortable leather armchair on the shop’s second floor, then quaffing a mocha while I peruse the stock, usually art, history, culture and fashion magazines (I avoid reading ‘hard’ stuff like current affairs, politics and science on Sundays, ‘day of rest’ and all that).

Today I read fashion mags. One noticeable trend in menswear (whether on magazine pages or Melbourne streets) is the return of early to mid 20th century styles, in clothing, shoes and accessories like hats or braces. I’m partial to the menswear of that era, so it’s satisfying to see a large-scale resurrection of fitted jackets and vests, smart cardigans and pullovers, tailored pants, dress shoes and boots, hats that aren’t baseball caps, ties both narrow and wide on shirts with all kinds of collars, and satchels or briefcases instead of backpacks.

I’m not going to analyse the causes of the current menswear Renaissance. But this sartorial example from the 1950s may provide some clues to answering this question: why do classic styles have such staying power?

The photo was posted by the owner of the Shorpy Historic Photo Archive website. This was a presumably candid (as in frank, though posed) shot of the photographer’s father in 1955. Yet the distinguished-looking gentleman and his apparel would not look out of place in the magazines I browsed this morning. In fact, they would be very much of the moment. The rich texture of the knitted vest, the clean lines of the shirt (whose elegant minimalism is emphasised by covered buttons!), the warm brown and gold of the tortoiseshell spectacles suitably contrasting with the cool blue and grey of the gentleman’s ensemble and neatly combed hair – all these parts form a complete aesthetic that pleases the eye in some inexplicably fundamental way.

There must be a reason why classic 20th century menswear styles are making a comeback, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. All I can offer is this weak assertion: these styles are back because they look good.


17 June 2011

Theology shmeology

Biologist Jerry Coyne is a persistent, long-suffering man. Or a masochist. Professor Coyne has been reading up on Christian theology, taking mental bullets for Team Godless. He confirms what unbelieving infidels already know, or have at least suspected:

  1. The entire edifice of theology rests on the unproven assumption that God exists. 
  2. Theologians tend to write in impenetrable po-mo gobbledygook (all the better to hide the lack of good ideas or compelling arguments).
  3. There’s plenty of rhetorical hand waving to divert attention away from the gaping logical holes in their prose. 
  4. There’s a lot of appeals to authority, which is basically theologians deferring to other (usually long dead) theologians in an echo chamber of Godspeak.

The examples of theological cryptography Coyne cites are simply atrocious (only a theologian will try to reconcile genocide with divine grace). Even if we grant that Coyne may have selected the most egregious specimens of Godspeak, the rotten epistemic foundations of the whole intellectual structure condemns it to collapse when you tap it with a little critical thinking. It’s all just smoke and mirrors to cover up the fact that, unlike scientists like Coyne, theologians have got nothing of consequence to say about reality. Or at least nothing that couldn’t be said without invoking a magic sky daddy.

Many theologians are well-read and highly knowledgeable in history, philosophy, literature and yes, even science. Which makes it such a shame that by simply holding an unfounded belief in the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity (whose omnipotence and omnibenevolence, by the way, are constantly negating each other even as theologians scramble to explain the awkward contradictions), otherwise smart people end up doing stupid things. Like suggesting that God allowed the Holocaust to happen because He didn’t want to “take away our humanness”. Theologians just love to hand their God get-out-of-jail cards, lest we come to the logical conclusion that if such a being did exist, He’s either quite pathetic, or He’s an outright bastard.

A few years ago I wrote the following on theologians:

For all their scholastic titles and awards, theologians are nevertheless conmen, though perhaps unwitting ones. Like astrologers, feng shui ‘experts’ and spirit mediums, they are naked emperors whose influence grows in proportion to the number of gullible folk who uncritically accept their proclamations. I’ve recently purchased an English translation of Michel de Montaigne’s ‘Essays’ by M.A. Screech, who is, among other impressive titles, an ordained Catholic priest. Dr Screech is a regrettable example of a highly educated, articulate, intelligent individual who subscribes to mysticism and supernatural abstractions, holding onto such pearls of wisdom as ‘all knowledge is merely opinion’ and insisting that truth is revealed (presumably by the Catholic conception of God), not arrived at through Man’s oh-so-fallible powers of reason.

We can add another theology marker to the list above: Truth comes via divine revelation (“It’s true cos God told me so”), not through examining the evidence to see if it supports a claim.

Professor Coyne’s website is the sort that attracts intelligent readers. You’ll find them taking theology apart in the comments to his post with all the well-honed skill of people who have chosen critical thinking, reason and evidence over mere faith.


15 June 2011

Personal bias: the blind spot of science

Science is indisputably the best tool for us to acquire knowledge about reality, both its contents and mechanisms. Science’s efficacy is its own validation; whether through technology or new insight into the true nature of things, our lives are tangibly affected by the processes and products of science. This is an observation that only a die-hard po-mo theorist or committed supernaturalist would challenge.

But this acknowledgement of science’s preeminence as a path to truth does not mean that science is flawless. Science is carried out by people, and people are not perfect. The subjective beliefs of scientists can, unfortunately, contaminate the objective purity of the scientific process. A recent paper published in the journal PLoS Biology, ‘The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias’, by Jason Lewis et al, reveals how an eminent scientist, in his attempt to debunk the work of another scientist as being tainted by personal prejudice, ironically succumbs to personal prejudices of his own.

In his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man, the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould set out to discredit the ideas of race and intelligence that he found appallingly bigoted and incorrect. Gould’s primary target was the 19th century racial scientist Samuel George Morton, who enjoyed a great reputation in his time for his somewhat macabre studies of the differences – chiefly in intelligence – between ‘races’. In his book, Gould essentially accused Morton of fudging the data he collected from measuring various skulls collected from all over the world in order to ‘prove’ that Europeans were naturally more intelligent than non-Europeans. Gould argued that Morton manipulated the data to arrive at conclusions about European intellectual superiority that the racial scientist already had in mind from the outset.

01 June 2011

Give credit where credit's due

If you're a console gamer, chances are you either know of or have even played Rockstar's latest game L.A. Noire. The publishers of the Grand Theft Auto series and Red Dead Redemption have added another excellent title to their stable. The reviews have been very positive, and from what I've seen the hype and praise are well deserved.

But there's a fly in the ointment. Over 80 people who were involved in the creation of L.A. Noire did not have their names credited in both the game's credits section and the game manual. My brother is one of those people. Like him, these 80+ developers, artists and programmers worked hard during the often punishing production schedule to create a game that has earned accolades and given pleasure to millions of gamers around the world. Their work is still visible in the game; they were left out of the credits for only one reason - they were no longer working at the developing studios when L.A. Noire was completed and shipped.

I've been told that this 'policy' is common in the relatively young games industry. The threat of being uncredited when a game ships is used both as a stick and a carrot to coerce staff to tough out the grueling 'crunch time' towards the end of a game's production. Even if a developer / artist / programmer has worked on a game like L.A. Noire for years and their handiwork is retained in the shipped game, if they have left the company for whatever reason before the game's release, they are omitted from the final credits.

This is blatantly unethical. By not crediting all developers both past and present, many of whom are working in the industry for the first time, Rockstar and their contracted production studios are needlessly compromising the future career prospects of former staff, since they cannot refer to the credits of landmark games like L.A. Noire as evidence of their contribution. For those who are just starting out in the industry, this can affect their work portfolio, with unfortunate results.

A campaign has been started to raise awareness of this issue. There's a website that aims to be the definitive credits list of all those who worked on L.A. Noire, whether they left before it was released or stayed until the end. If you believe in fairness, that credit should be given where it's due, then please show your support by 'liking' the L.A. Noire Credits Facebook page. Your support is essential if we are to set a precedent of crediting all the passionate, talented people who make the games we play and love, and thereby change a pernicious aspect of the games industry. Thank you.