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Archive for April, 2008

New statistics are out revealing that atheists are no longer the least popular religious demographic among the American public. Awesome. Our overall popularity is now up to a staggering -32. Public opinion across the pond is clearly massively swinging in our favour. Whatever we’ve been doing to bring people around to finding us tolerable has been working with a resounding success (on 13% of the population). Scientology, on the other hand, languishes 13 points behind, with only a 7% positive rating and 52% negative.

This might, in fact, not seem like quite such a strong result as you would expect. Who are these 7% of people out there who still like Scientology, for one thing? That’s about 1 out of every 14 people who you pass in the street or catch the bus with every day, who have nothing against Scientology, who don’t just not care, but who actively approve of it. I’m kinda surprised it’s even that many.

But despite this, and even though barely even half the people surveyed could muster up the ridicule or distaste to register any kind of negative feelings for it at all, this is still a proud day indeed. Phase One of our mission is complete; the mechanisms set in motion to discredit Scientology and thus boost the profile and public opinion of atheism have become entirely self-sustaining, and we can now move on to the next step.

I know technically I shouldn’t be talking about this in such an open forum, but I think I can trust you, my hypothetical readers, not to let word get out. It’s true: the anti-Scientology protest group Anonymous was an atheist conspiracy from the start. Some months ago, in response to statistics (which I can’t find a link to) suggesting that atheists were the least trusted group in the country, our Grand High Rulers decided that the most effective way to address this matter would be to systematically destroy the reputations of anyone currently seen as more acceptable, more trustworthy, or sexier than us.

Scientology was the most obvious place to start, and turning them into a laughing-stock was a relatively easy task. (Tom Cruise was of huge assistance in achieving this, though I’m not at liberty to say whose side he’s really on.) It will get harder from this point on, but some day, everyone will hate everyone else more than they hate us. And what a beautiful world that will be.

Next stop: Mormons.

(Hat-tip to The Friendly Atheist.)

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Your foremost one-stop shop for a skeptical and rigorous view of the mire of intellectually dishonest nonsense that is Ben Stein‘s movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is now open. Expelled Exposed is a site themed around examining the claims made in the movie, and looking at some of the facts outside of an anti-science propaganda context. Expect plenty of updates now that the film’s had a general release and people are starting to see it in its full ghastliness.

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In today’s news, some guy I’ve never heard of named Gerry Rzeppa has offered a “challenge” to Richard Dawkins. Mr Rzeppa has written a story which is apparently intended as some sort of response to Dawkins’ writings (or perhaps to modern atheism and secularism in general, but Dawkins is specifically named). But unlike Dawkins’ “ponderous tomes”, this is a light, whimsical tale, sure to delight and entertain the whole family.

Or, it’s a trite and asinine rambling of unmitigated glurge, from someone whose interest apparently isn’t held by books that go on for dozens of pages, with no pictures, and don’t even rhyme.

It’s not even good glurge, either. For instance, in a chapter titled “The Sad Part”, we learn that atheists smash babies with hammers. But for some reason, it’s still a lovely happy jolly world, even though it is filled with godless hammer-wielding baby-smashing maniacs, because Jesus is around. (Okay, so he refers to “the maker” rather than any particular deity, but read a few pages and see if I’m reading too much into the subtext.)

The challenge, then, is for Dawkins to join him in front of a live audience, where this guy while read out his poem, and ask Dawkins one question (which will apparently not be revealed beforehand). In return, he’s offering $64,000.

I read the story through (it’s accessible online). Sixty-four grand to listen to that being read by the author? Not worth it.

Well, I’d do it – I’m still financially unsteady enough that I’m entirely prepared to sell out and abandon every principle I have if the money’s right. But why is one of the most successful science writers around supposed to be persuaded by an offer like this?

Y’know, if this wasn’t all about show-boating and trying to make a needless fuss about things, you could just ask the damn question. Don’t try spinning it as some intriguing mystery. You’re not that interesting. If you have something you want to ask about how Dawkins or any other contemporary skeptics think, or some point to make which you think their worldview will be unable to address, then send Dawkins an email, leave PZ Myers a comment on a blog post, poke me here and tell me I’m a cursed heathen but the baby Jesus loves me. Save yourself the expense of your kid’s college fund in the process.

But I’m guessing this is more about Rzeppa making a noise and trying to inflate himself into some kind of big deal. Rather awesome Smullyan-esque beard notwithstanding, I very much doubt this guy actually has anything new to say.

Hat-tip to Pharyngula. The Vogon poetry analogy is not undeserved. Oh, freddled gruntbuggly…

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Once again I’m hopelessly slow to the party. I’ll try and get back to more regular updates in time. But this is worth reappearing for, and is quite awesome enough that, even if some of it is meant to be derogatory or promoting the kind of piffle that Ben Stein’s been yammering on about in Expelled, I really can’t muster up the care. It’s just totally rad, yo. No diggity. Um. Word?

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Some brief thoughts on this, simply because I’ve written about it before, and it’s a less intimidating task to redraft an old piece and attempt to make it interesting than to start something new from scratch.

So, there are people who claim that every word of their particular edition and translation of the Bible is absolutely true, and thank Jesus daily for the mysterious and divine processes through which everyone who disagrees with them about anything is totally wrong. A lot of them won’t even qualify the word “true” with more than the scantest of ifs and buts, either. Some will attempt to compromise more than others, by talking about allegory and metaphor, but all that usually focuses on the trippy stuff near the beginning. People still want to be able to call the creation story “true”, even though it places the age of the Earth at around six thousand years, and some things (eg. pretty much everything in the Universe) seem to have been around for longer than that. But I’m not going to address any of that here, or bring pesky “evidence” and inconvenient “facts” into things. I just have an observation about the way people often attempt to reconcile the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.

Using the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible edition, Matthew 27:5 reads: “And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.

And Acts 1:18 reads: “Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.

Ew. They encourage kids to read this stuff, you know. Both of these passages are about the death of Judas, the guy who took the “thirty pieces of silver” idiom way too literally when he betrayed Jesus, and who then went on to marry Mary Magdalene, father the bloodline of Leonardo da Vinci, establish at least eight secret societies which would rule the world two thousand years later, and hide the Holy Grail in Castle Anthrax. (I think it was something like that, anyway. I may have dropped some acid when I watched the Da Vinci Code movie. Good times.)

There would seem to be some problems for the literalists here, inasmuch as reality is ever a problem for these people. The first one says he hanged himself, and the second… I dunno, maybe he tripped and fell on something pointy. Obvious contradiction, no?

Well, not necessarily. The standard justification for protecting people’s minds, and defending against the inconceivability of such a horrifying notion that the Bible might be wrong about something, is to contrive a death scene which, in however roundabout a way, satisfies both of the descriptions given. Judas hanged himself, he died, the decomposition process caused his body to become bloated and corpulent, the rope around his neck frayed and snapped, and he fell to the ground and his guts burst open. Don’t think it couldn’t happen, people. (Seriously, I don’t know much about what would happen to a human body post-mortem in a situation like that, but this sounds plausible enough to me.)

It could even be argued that Matthew never actually claims that Judas died as a result of the hanging – maybe his first attempt failed, so he went and threw himself over a cliff, which could have counted for “falling headlong”, I guess. Either way, it all adds up. Praise the Lord, thank-yoo Jay-sus.

Except… not really. That’s some non-trivial verbal gymnastics we’ve had to go through to make this idea work. The scenarios that we’ve come up with to explain it, while plausible, are both significantly different from what’s actually described in either passage alone. If you just read Matthew, it makes it seem very straightforward: he hanged, he died, no gushing of bowels necessary. But looking only at Acts would lead you to a whole nother picture of what happened to him, leaving out any kind of noose system entirely, and giving Judas some kind of scary Jon Hurt moment, or perhaps just sudden, fatal, explosive diarrhoea.

It seems that we’re being given unhelpfully contradictory clues scattered throughout the complete text, and are left with the challenge of fitting the pieces together ourselves into some sort of coherent structure, requiring an excessively generous dose of deductive logic to do so. It might not be irreconcilable, but it doesn’t help your case when you need to work from the assumption that everything you’re reading is true, and then make stuff up to keep this assumption feasible.

Damn near anything could probably be worked into a coherent scenario with enough mangling of the text, if you’re willing to do some heavy-duty text-mangling to keep your belief system safe. If there was an additional mention of the event somewhere in Luke, say, which described Judas as being burned alive in a giant Wicker Man, then I have no doubt that someone, somewhere, would be claiming that this was a reference to some specific funereal tradition of the time, and that the word “alive” refers to the idea of the soul needing to be released from the body by this ritual, or possibly even something more plausible than the first crazy shit that sprung to my mind. If John claimed that Judas was eaten by velociraptors, then I would totally become a Christian and make this the basis of my entire belief system, and I would concoct as elaborate an explanatory scenario as necessary to convince myself of its truth.

But if you’re going to think like this, then there’s nothing that could possibly prove you wrong, or undermine your position in any way, however much it supports an alternative explanation to the one you favour. And thinking as inflexibly as this is never good, because on the off-chance that you are wrong to begin with, you’re screwed. Even if you decide not to see anything in the Bible as an internal contradiction, then passages like the above certainly shouldn’t lead you to the idea that it supports itself. The convoluted explanation for how Judas died isn’t backed up anywhere else, by any description that directly suggests that that’s what happened, let alone by anything actually credible. Even if you choose not to see it as an inconsistency, something requiring such lateral-thinking problem-solving as this ought to raise a red flag or two, and make you wonder whether there’s enough of a reason outside of this passage to take the contrived work-around seriously.

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