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Archive for July, 2011

So, you know how the Old Testament has a bunch of ridiculous and unrealistic rules in it, about not wearing clothes made from two types of fabric, and stoning disobedient children to death and whatnot? And how Christians sometimes inconsistently explain this away by saying that those laws aren’t for us? How they point out that, while the Bible’s still obviously infallible, it’s just that those were old rules for the ancient nomads of the time, and we don’t have to abide by them any more since Jesus came along and wiped the slate clean?

Is there any reason why the same logic doesn’t also excuse us from the Ten Commandments?

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I’m still not an anarchist, but I’m still finding the literature interesting. Even outside of the extreme anti-statist stuff, it’s giving me things to think about with regard to democracy, capitalism, and the class structure of society.

Most people aren’t anarchists. Most people reckon there are worthwhile benefits to having a system of elected government representatives taking care of some things.

There’s plenty of disagreement about the role government should play, and the extent to which it should intrude on ordinary citizen’s lives. But at times some people’s ideas of what government is for get completely out of control, beyond anything that can be justified even by non-anarchists.

For example, from a news story about a town in Arkansas:

The City Council adopted an ordinance last week making it illegal to form any kind of group without its permission.

Yep. This is the kind of thing politicians start thinking they can do once you let them take charge. Just start telling everyone else that they’re not allowed to form groups for any reason.

In particular, they passed an ordinance (and overruled the mayor’s veto) which got rid of the existing Citizens Advisory Council in the town. The most damning thing to be said against the advisory council quoted in the article is that it had been “causing confusion and discourse among the citizens”.

So the few in charge decided that the people couldn’t be trusted with discourse, and outlawed the founding of any new organisations “without approval from a majority of the City Council”.

It’s really important that, if we’re going to have elected officials in roles where they get to make executive decisions that affect people’s lives, we don’t forget why they’re there, and why we put up with them making any decisions on our behalf. To think that laying down this kind of fascist and dictatorial rule, seemingly crushing people’s freedoms for the sake of maintaining their own authority, is even close to what the elected officials we deign to tolerate are for, is to have a colossally misguided mindset about the nature of government.

(h/t Reason)

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I’m an optimist.

At least, I try to be, but it probably won’t work.

One of the ways in which I like to hope that things will all work out okay in the end, without any real justification except not wanting to feel depressed, is that kids won’t be permanently screwed up by stuff like this. It’s creepy as hell watching children repeating any kind of dogmatic nonsense their parents have clearly drilled into them, possibly without even really understanding what they’re saying, but in time they’ll grow up and be able to make their own decisions about this, right?

I mean, this kid‘s clearly just enjoying the attention he’s getting from making a lot of noise like he’s seen some grown-ups do. He’s not been irreversibly indoctrinated with anything. He’s still got a chance to grow up into a rational thinker of some kind, right?

Right?

Well, it turns out that sometimes this desperate optimism isn’t entirely misplaced.

In the UK, the “Nazi teeny boppers” of the American band Prussian Blue – also the name of a compound used in gas chambers in Hitler’s Germany – are probably best recognised from the Louis Theroux documentary made about them some years ago. The band consisted of two young sisters, who started performing from age 9, driven at least in part by their white supremacist mother.

They were cute and blonde and innocent-looking and played guitar and sang songs about how the Holocaust never happened and black people are ruining their country, and it was creepy and wrong for all the obvious reasons.

But these days, they don’t do that any more.

The sisters are 19 now, and “pretty liberal” and want to exert “love and positivity”.

They’re still not so sure about the whole Holocaust thing. But, it looks like they might be growing up in exactly the kind of way my na├»ve optimism would have blindly hoped for. Frankly, I have more respect for them than for the people who sent them death threats in the name of tolerance and liberalism when they were twelve years old.

(h/t Orac)

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No, I’m not there. But in the absence of any particularly interesting reporting from me lately, I highly recommend catching up on what’s been going on lately in Las Vegas, at the latest Amazing Meeting. There’s a lot of info on the site, a continual stream of news on the Twitter #TAM9 hashtag, and The Friendly Atheist has a lot of liveblogging going on, recapping each morning and afternoon in separate chunks, with plenty of photos (including here, here, here, and here). There’s a lot of geeking out over Bill Nye going on, and numerous other attractions too, for those (like myself) for whom The Science Guy doesn’t have the childhood nostalgia draw he holds over some.

I’ll make it to one of the Vegas meetings someday. The London ones were great, but it doesn’t look like anyone’s gearing up for another one of those anytime soon, sadly. More blogging will happen later, when there aren’t more fun things to be doing. (I’m going to start watching The Killing, for one. If it turns out to be rubbish I shall be very annoyed with you, internet.)

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PZ Myers recently gave some sensitive, measured, and wise advice to a young religious girl.

This maniac must be stopped.

That might be going a bit far, but Ken Ham’s not happy with him. Ken is a prominent creationist, and blogged about a nine-year-old girl called Emma, who’d got in touch with Ken to tell him about a conversation she’d had.

Ken advises people, when confronted by cocky scientists or arrogant atheists who claim to know what happened millions or billions of years in the past, to ask if they were there to see it happen. Like the formation of moon rock, or the evolution of life. Did anyone see it happening?

PZ explained to Emma – in the kind and reasonable tones of, basically, a well-meaning teacher speaking to a child – why this isn’t really such a good question to ask. Questions in general are good, and he gave her kudos for speaking up, but asking whether a scientist was around to watch moon rock being formed several billion years ago probably won’t teach you very much. Obviously she wasn’t there.

But the scientists aren’t saying “I know this is how this moon rock formed billions of years ago because I was there to see it happen”. Even creationists don’t think scientists are that crazy. But then where did these scientists get their crazy ideas from?

Well, how about asking them that? When they make some declaration about evolution or ancient moon rock, ask them something you actually don’t know the answer to: How do you know? Now that is almost always a good question to ask.

To see why, imagine the situations were reversed, and a scientist was asking someone like Emma about Jesus. Emma could probably tell them quite fluently what she knows about God sending his son to Earth to save mankind. If the scientist then asked, “Were you there?”, what would Emma say to that?

She wasn’t there when Jesus lived, obviously. But she’s never claimed to be, and it would be a bit of a dead-end question. Whereas, if the scientists asked how Emma knows any of this stuff about Jesus, then she can point to the Bible where it’s all laid out. And now we’d be getting somewhere; now both parties have a better understanding of where the other is coming from.

PZ’s hypothetical open letter was thorough and well targeted. He also specifically stated that he had no intention of trying to send it to a child he doesn’t know who had solicited no such correspondence.

Ken Ham got to hear about PZ’s response, though, and by the time it reached his ears second- or third-hand and became further mangled by his own dissonance-laden brain, the headline became: ATHEISTS ATTACK.

First of all, if you can find anything in PZ’s post that can be called an attack against this kid, then maybe you can next turn your supernatural detective skills to the task of finding the Higgs boson and save CERN some trouble.

Secondly, the agglomeration of deliberate wilful ignorance in Ken Ham’s follow-up post is staggering. He doesn’t link to PZ’s post, and doesn’t seem to have read it. The word “apparently” features multiple times, and it’s clear from his mischaracterisation that he either hasn’t bothered to read it and thus has no idea what he’s talking about, or he’s an outright liar.

Emma’s mother fares no better. Judging by the words Ken quotes, she’s quite bewildered as to why so much anger and energy is being put into calling her foolish and “attacking the enemy”. By atheists who would very happily and gently explain everything that puzzles her, if she simply cared to read anything other than the Bible. But no.

Sigh.

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Okay, there was another thing.

The group headache that is elevatorgate trundles on. And I read a couple of things worth reading about it.

For a start, ryawesome is embarrassed for the skeptical/atheist movement. And it’s not hard to see why. I do take issue with his “don’t throw a tantrum” dodge by which he sort of avoids generalising against all skeptics and atheists – there’s a reason I try not to harangue “Christians” as a monolithic group when discussing homophobic bigotry, not least because I’d alienate every single one of my Christian friends – but there’s no point pretending there isn’t a substantial problem that he’s addressing.

I’ve always been annoyed by the ease and readiness with which “smug” is hurled as invective against atheists in general, partly because it doesn’t match my experience of many atheists, and partly because it’s a pretty limp accusation next to anything you’d use to describe religious fanatics. But I’m grudgingly having to admit that that stereotypical arrogance is exactly what great swathes of the skeptical community exhibited when they decided that a woman was wrong to make an offhand comment about feeling uncomfortable in an interaction with a man she didn’t know.

And perhaps more to the point, there’s been distressingly little humanity on display from a lot of people who I suspect would identify as humanists. This includes some of Rebecca’s critics, and also some of those defending her, such as the lady who looks forward “to watching [Richard Dawkins’] legacy crash and burn”.

I know I’m veering close to just shouting at everyone to stop being shit again, and I know how self-defeating this would be. But… but… gah.

However, Keir Liddle also makes a point that’s bugged me for a while now.

Namely, other skeptics acting like twats or being perceived as twats does precisely zero to undermine the importance of a skeptical worldview. Being an atheist is about not believing in God. Whether or not you’re an atheist has absolutely fuck all to do with how much you enjoy the company of the kind of people who post on atheist message boards and write anti-religious blogs.

And I think the ideas in these two posts are entirely complementary. There’s no contradiction there; in fact, there’s no reason they can’t work well together. If anything, people who do still identify strongly with the skeptical or atheist movement should be the most vocal in rebuffing those serving to give it an embarrassing reputation. I wouldn’t get embroiled in these things so much, albeit often inarticulately and sometimes inconsistently, if it didn’t matter to me how people with whom I share a “skeptic” label behave.

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So, stuff’s been happening. The news seems to be falling apart.

I could do some sort of write-up about the ever-increasing flurry of scandals that began with the News of the World’s collapse, but it’s not like pointing out the horribleness of some of the horrible things some people did will really bring anything new to the discussion. I am utterly devoid of unique insight, and if you’re relying on me for providing basic news-gathering services on something this big, you’ve got problems.

The one thing I will say is that John Finnemore’s editorial on Radio 4’s The Now Show was an absolute blinder:

There’s also an extended transcript here. He knows how to say words good.

I know that’s not much to leave you with, given my relative silence this past week, but I’ve only gone and been and done and gone and got myself a girlfriend, who’s become something of a focus of mine, and at this particular moment is rather more interesting than you lot. No offense. You’re still great. She’s just better. Her name’s Kirsty and she’s a nurse and she has a cat with no teeth.

So, how’s your week been? (I don’t actually care. A girl likes me.)

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