Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

April 14, 2009

Atheist Behaving Badly

Filed under: politics, religion — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:11 am

In general, I don’t like criticizing other atheists. For example, I am not going to criticize Dan Barker and the Freedom From Religion Foundation for his display at the Washington state Capitol even though I would have added “We believe” as a preface. Nor am I going to criticize the atheist bus campaign of “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” although I would personally have preferred “almost certainly” as opposed to “probably.” My attitude is: at least they are doing something.

I understand that atheism constitutes a diverse set of people and views. As such, it is unlikely that one that there will be complete consensus on every issue. For example, I’ve criticized Hitchens for his stance on the Iraq war. I’ve also criticized Shermer for his assertions about free market capitalism. I was disappointed with Harris’ stance on torture.

In some ways this is unfortunate because if Hitchens deserves criticism for his support for the Iraq war, then William Kristol deserves as much if not more. There are many things I deeply respect about Hitchens. I think it was exemplified by his willingness to be water-boarded in order to determine if it were torture. I can only wish Harris had an iota of that integrity. But, I find these issues separate from advocacy for atheism, for which I want to show some degree solidarity even if I might disagree with particular tactics or would do things differently.

That said, I ran across these videos where an atheist was suing for libel over a bumper-sticker and I feel it would be disingenuous not to criticize it. One reason is that it is so beyond the par. The second reason is that it encapsulates the same line of reasoning that I criticize religious people for employing. Therefore, it would show a definite lack of integrity if I was aware of it and didn‘t criticize it.

Here is Patrick Greene explaining his lawsuit on the Atheist Experience.

Threatening baseless lawsuits is a bullying tactic and it is counterproductive. No one has the right not to be offended. We may think less of people who are unnecessarily provocative or offensive (Ann Coulter comes to mind), but the best way to handle it is to ignore them or to criticize them. Show these people that they have no place in civilized discourse until they change their ways. Don’t sue. A baseless suit gives them credibility as a victim and feeds into every negative stereotype one could have about atheists.

As it stands today, atheism only exists as an aspect of a free society. We are wholly dependent on our ability to hold and share views that others find offensive. While I do feel that criticism should be somewhat proportional to the size of a person’s forum, taking legal action is equivalent to using the nuclear option. Suing the state for violating the separation of church and state is one thing; suing individuals for expressing their views on their own property is another. Patrick Greene is a fool for thinking otherwise.

March 12, 2009

Liberty University Students Test Their Indoctrination Against Reality

Filed under: Education, politics, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:54 am

The Washington Post has an article on students from Liberty University taking a trip to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, presumably as a test of their religious indoctrination. Yes, they could claim that it is, I, who is indoctrinated with “Darwinism.” But, see, there is this little thing that I like to call reality. Evolution is true for the same reason the theory of gravity is true, they were arrived at by the same method. Believing in creationism requires a complete distortion of cosmology, astronomy, biology, geology, physics, along with countless other scientific fields. Steve Hendrix, the author of the piece, calls this “challenging the conventional wisdom.” I call it being in denial.

It seems to pass Hendrix without additional mention that at one moment DeWitt bemoans that some of material in the museum was out-of-date, pointing to a 1980’s-era introductory video, while one of his students is taken aback at Grandma Morgie.

Now, I’ve been to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum recently. The morganucodon is at the end of the exhibit on the dinosaurs. The overall point, which seems to have been entirely missed by this student, is that the dinosaurs go extinct, and when they do, mammals, like us, take their place.

This is not a trivial point. Evolution says that you share a common ancestor with all other forms of life on this planet. Yes, there is a common ancestor between us and chimpanzees, which usually draws the most attention. But, there is also a common ancestors between us and dogs, dinosaurs, fish etc. Richard Dawkins wrote a book examining our connections with this “Tree of Life” in The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. Neil Shubin wrote more specifically about our fish ancestors in Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

Somehow, I don’t feel the education of these students is lacking because they don’t have access to the latest information. Instead, it seems that they have no mastery over the basics.

I could be extrapolating too much, but the course is titled “Advanced Creation Studies” so it is more likely that this is just the tip of iceberg on nonsense that would spew forth from the mouths of these students upon a little more prodding. In the end, it is just a travesty that Liberty University is an accredited institution.

March 4, 2009

Re: Don’t Say a Word

Filed under: politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:17 am

Christopher Hitchens has a piece in Slate called “Don’t Say a Word” which raises concerns about a non-binding U.N. resolution on “Combating defamation of religions.” Non-binding U.N. resolutions are pretty ineffectual. They are more or less a litmus test for general attitudes in the world and high-minded platitudes. Now a particular irony comes from the fact that this particular resolution appears to come out of Commission for Human Rights. As Hitchens points out, many member states do not have spectacular Human Rights records.

Whether Hitchens falls into the camp of “Islamophobia” as he calls it, I’ll leave up to the reader. However, I will note that he is an unapologetic defender of the invasion of Iraq.  I will also note that there was a good deal of violence directed towards Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11. That isn’t to say that there is any type of moral equivalence, but just as it was wrong for hijackers to kill scores of innocent people, the same principle applies to the innocent victims of assaults and beatings because they happened to share the same faith as those who attacked the US. I feel the non-binding resolution tries to address the second problem while acknowledging the first.  Hitchens makes no mention of the violence directed at Muslims in the wake of 9/11.

As for gagging of criticism of Islam, Hitchens establishes some credentials as a wing-nut. However, there is this absurd notion that religious convictions should be free from criticism. This is not unique to Islam, since many Western countries promote the same idea. The basic premise is that all people should have the right to have a set of beliefs which are free from criticism. These beliefs are generally religious. Now, the reason why people want a set of beliefs free from criticism is obvious, there are beliefs that people would like to hold but cannot be defended.

America has already gone down this road to a certain extent, as it is considered rude to bring up religious or political topics in polite company (taboos on politics is a particularly baffling aspect of the culture since the United States is a participatory democracy, that is, public opinion is supposed to matter). Although, the country is so doctrinally Christian at this point, not being able to criticize those other false religions, especially the scourge of secularism or Islam, is unlikely to go over too well. Hence, the extraordinary indignation over this essentially meaningless resolution.  It is this same demographic that generally wants the United States out of the United Nations. This resolution just adds fuel to the fire.

Now, it may seem strange that we have an atheist and Christians banding together to promote scares about secret Muslim plots to take away treasured American freedoms.  However, the Hitchens/Christian alliance against Islam is not unprecedented because we see similar tag-teams surrounding the implausibility of Scientology.

Rampant paranoia aside, the wrong-headedness of this resolution is laid on the foundation that there should be beliefs free from criticism. The premise of the U.N. resolution is shut up and get along, which is the antithesis of freedom. Free societies are not utopias. There will always be tensions between conflicting ideas. There will always be those who are intentionally provocative or offensive. The individual human freedom that we are defending is precisely the freedom of those who annoy us most. Otherwise, we don’t have freedom; we have tyranny.

January 26, 2009

Jerry Coyne and Secular Reasoning

Filed under: politics, religion, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 8:34 am

Jerry Coyne has a new book out called “Why Evolution Is True.”  He also wrote a piece in The New Republic called “Seeing and Believing” where he examines the tensions between science and religion particularly around teaching evolution.  Mr. Coyne examines two books that try to reconcile the apparent incompatibility and thoroughly demolishes them.  In particular, he destroys the argument that science and religion are compatible because there are Christian scientists.  As he puts it:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) 

Coyne does a good job pointing out the incompatibility of liberal theologians and various religious apologizers.  He defends Dawkins attacking mainstream religious belief in “The God Delusion” because that is what people actually believe. As Coyne points out in the following video, 63% of Americans believe in angels, only 40% believe in evolution.

It is hard to debate religion with believers because they are keen to attack science where it is weakest (like first cause, the various physical constants of the universe, or uncertainty in quantum mechanics).  That isn’t to say these are particularly convincing arguments for a deity, but they do represent biggest gaps in current scientific understanding and therefore finding a role for a god there seems most plausible. Such gaps rely on ignorance and usually become more implausible over time.  For example, a virgin birth resulting in a production a male offspring seems more plausible when one knows nothing about chromosomes and the role of sperm in contributing the Y chromosomes, however, with modern genetic understanding such a scenario becomes less believable.  

Likewise, the apologist is hard pressed to defend the weakest aspect of their position, which is the internal consistency of their scripture.  They will twist language, deny plain meaning and arbitrarily pick and choose those parts which they find convenient to defend.  It is this process of picking and choosing, and attacking the language that makes apologetics so detestable; at least the fundamentalist is consistent in principle.

Coyne also points out in the video that simply trying to teach evolution better won’t work.  It is not the strength of the case for the evolution that is the problem, it is that people reject it because it conflicts with their religious beliefs (I find it is dishonest to say that it doesn’t).  Therefore, in order to get people to accept evolution, religious influence has to be rolled back.  

Evolution is a litmus test for a secular society.  If people are rejecting evolution because it conflicts with their previously held superstition, then there is no reasoning with them and any hope for consensus is lost.  In addition, there is no telling what other issues they will dogmatically and stubbornly cling to in the face of contradictory evidence.  A person who is unwilling to change his/her beliefs, especially in the face of overwhelming physical evidence, is a person who does not truly believe in the freedom of belief.  If one is looking for the seed of totalitarianism, there it is and woe for those of us who want to use reason to build a better world.

January 21, 2009

A Perfect Metaphor

Filed under: politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:00 am

Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States yesterday.  Still, there were reminders of the Bush legacy as Chief Justice Roberts managed to bungle the oath of office

Several news commentators expressed their disgust for people in the crowd who had the audacity to boo and taunt the 43rd.  I think Bush deserves no more respect than he has shown.  There are those who would say we should act like bigger people and be gracious in victory.  However, it is that very graciousness that would allow Bush to whitewash the past.  If the public does not repudiate Bush then who will?  The lapdog press?  No, it has been and will continue to be the people.  If Chris Matthews doesn’t like it then it is because his nose is too brown and must have come to the conclusion that everything now smells like roses. 

It is beyond a reasonable doubt that Bush has committed war crimes.  The United States has water-boarded prisoners, Bush has admitted to authorizing it.  

Call me cynical, but it is not clear whether Obama will prosecute.  Failure to prosecute Bush for his crimes would demonstrate a supreme lack of principle and moral courage on the part of the Obama administration.  He may deem it impractical or too alienating, but the simple truth of the matter is that Barack Obama would find himself face to face with injustice, with the power to stand for what is right, and would turn his back like so many others.  Denying justice would be an action of a small man.  Yes, it might grease the wheels with some Republicans to help pass a stimulus package, but such victories are fleeting, and such compromises seldom last.  It is impossible honor an agreement between two parties without mutual respect, and likewise, it is impossible to respect a man who compromises his principles.

But regardless of what Obama does, I will continue to call for justice.  Unlike Obama, I cannot drag George W. Bush into a court of law.  All I can do is voice my disapproval, and emphatically point out that George W. Bush never represented me or what I believe in.

January 13, 2009

The Enron Economy

Filed under: capitalism, economy, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:49 am

Paul Krugman called our economy the Madoff economy back in December.  With all due respect to Mr. Krugman, I would tweak his description and call what we are experiencing the Enron economy.

60 Minutes ran an investigation into the price of oil.  It is not a coincidence that banks going south the same time the price of oil dropped.  

Oil has been the prime factor in the economy taking a turn for the worse.  Living in the suburbs, or exburbs became unaffordable because of transportation costs, rising food prices, and the rising prices of other basic necessities.  The root of all of these problems were oil prices.  Prices that were artificially inflated to feed speculative traders, and it was the productive economy that took the hit.  The direct parallel to this is what Enron was able to do to the California electricity market, not the Ponzi scheme Madoff set up.

The potential political ramifications were nearly as concerning.  Enron, whose former CEO and figurehead of the company had intimate ties with the Bush family, played a key part in getting Democratic governor Gray Davis recalled.  This resulted in the election of Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The parallel between this and “drill, baby, drill” is left for the reader.

Enron was not just the story of one company, it was the canary in the coal-mine.  The first one to go.  Enron did not just implode on its own, it took the law firms, accounting firms, government regulators and investment banks to look the other way.  However, in reality, the facts are so much more damning than that.  It isn’t that these institutions merely looked the other way, they were actively complicit in the fraud.  No, they didn’t know everything, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know anything.

When history looks back on the first decade of this new century, I think they will label it the age of fraud and negligence.    The defining characteristic will be incompetence, a contempt for the rule of law, and the failure of institutions to properly check and balance other centers of power.  It is all born out of a ideology that abhors rules, and the very notion of democratic governance.  Now, we are all experiencing its benefits.

January 6, 2009

Coulter Gets Bumped

Filed under: media, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 8:58 am

Ann Coulter apperently got bumped from the Today Show.  Matt Drudge uses anonymous sources to then construct a liberal conspiracy at the network.  

NBC has been a popular target for the wingnut right.  They like to link NBC to MSNBC and claim the peacock has gone off the deep end.  

I do find it relatively ironic that the main figure catalyzing right wing ire is Keith Olbermann.  I mean, for all their clamoring about a liberal media, it is amazing what a tizzy they get into when one unapologetic, left-wing partisan is on the air waves.  The right wing motto seems to be: your liberal media, no liberals allowed.

However, if the news networks had a modicum of respectability, they wouldn’t give Coulter a platform.  Media Matters obtained an advance copy of her new book and found numerous misleading claims.  At some point, the people who are consistently and unapologetically wrong need to removed from public discourse.   Corporate news networks are perfectly capable of ignoring people or stories.  I mean, look at how they handled the Pentagon’s military analyst program.  Never even mentioned it.  I look forward to the day Coulter drifts into irrelevance.  The bump may indicate that day is closer at hand than I would have first surmised.

January 1, 2009


Filed under: history, politics — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 9:52 am

I happened across the above video recently where Maher was defending the Vietnam war and Hitchens was criticizing it.  It is a bizarro moment because in more recent discussions I have seen between Hitchens and Maher about the Iraq war, they are in the opposite position.  Hitchens is for the war; Maher is against.  It floors me particularly because the arguments are essentially the same for the war, the actors are different.

Maher, when supporting the war in Vietnam, feels the need to stop the advance of communism.  Hitchens, when supporting the war in Iraq, feels the need to stop the advance of Islamic extremism.  In both pro-arguments, the particular war is seen in the context of a larger war of civilizations.  

In truth, both wars were started for essentially imperial reasons.  Vietnam was, to a first approximation, an ideological war.  Iraq was, to a first approximation, a resource war.

The fear of Vietnam was a type of domino theory, although not as it is usually described.  The fear was that a colonial or client state would obtain some degree of prosperity through nationalistic or socialistic reform and would become a model for popular uprisings in other colonial or client states.  I’m somewhat surprised when people say the United States lost the Vietnam war.  Lost?  Lost what?  It isn’t like the Vietnamese invaded Washington D.C.  Not a single U.S. city was even attacked by the National Liberation Front.  Vietnam was bombed and devastated to such an extent that it did not become a model for countries elsewhere.  The United States failed towards one goal, the country did not relent and submit to a puppet regime, thus proving armed resistance could succeed if one was willing to endure massive casualties and mass devastation for the principle of self-determination.  What a Pyrrhic victory for the Vietnamese!  Why the United States continued the war, even after its government knew that the installation of a puppet regime was not going to work, was to increase the cost of this victory.

The Iraq war was a war of opportunity.  After September 11th, 2001, the Bush administration saw a historic opportunity to establish American power in the heart of the world’s energy reserves, and they took it.    

As Bertrand Russell put it in The History of Western Philosophy: “The stages in the evolution of ideas have had almost the quality of the Hegelian dialectic: doctrines have developed, by steps that each seem natural, into their opposites (pg. 643).”

For both Maher and Hitchens, both of their respective pro-war arguments are equal in merit in principle, and equally divorced from the particular circumstances of the actual conflict.  The role-reversal is so stark, it seems unlikely they are even aware.  Although, it is said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

December 31, 2008

Harold Pinter

Filed under: culture, history, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:19 am

Harold Pinter was a playwright and critic of United States foreign policy.  In 2005, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Above is his acceptance speech.  Democracy Now! had excerpts on their December 30th show, but the whole speech is interesting in its own right (from outlining the process he used to write plays to giving a passionate defense of the Sandinista government).  

Pinter passed away Decemember 24th, 2008.

September 11, 2008

Media Narratives

Filed under: media, politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 8:19 am

Crooks and Liars has video of Lou Dobbs discussing the “liberal” media with Howard Kurtz and Ken Auletta from the New Yorker.  I am somewhat thankful that Auletta called Dobbs on his assumptions about the “liberal” media.  Auletta is right that one facet of bias is horse race politics, it isn’t the only bias, but for broaching the issue in the mainstream media it is a good start.

Kurtz opines that he has never seen so much positive coverage of a presidential candidate as Barack Obama has gotten.  I will say again, the best indication of bias are not the stories that run, but rather the stories that get ignored.  History doesn’t really allow repeatable experiments, so a reasonable approach is to look at paired examples.  Thankfully, there have been multiple in the campaign and campaigns past that we can draw upon.

First, there are the respective episodes of Reverend Wright and Reverend Hagee.  Obama’s pastor dominated the news cycle.  McCain’s political alliance with Hagee got a brief mention.

Second, we can compare coverage of Kerry and McCain marrying heiresses as Glenn Greenwald did.  The conclusion was that Kerry was a gigolo.  McCain is just living the American dream.

Third, we have McCain saying that Iran is training al-QaedaChuck Todd points out that if either Obama or Clinton had made a similar mistatement, more attention would have been focused on the episode.

The problem with the media is not facts, it is the framing.  A truly objective mainstream media would look at a story from different perspectives and multiple frames.  But, we don’t have an objective media.  The various media narratives for Obama is that he isn’t specific, an elitist, vaguely un-American, and inexperienced.  For McCain, he is maverick, a war-hero, a straight-talker who may be suffering various degrees of senior moments.

It doesn’t matter if the evidence for media narratives are flimsy, it is just a simple matter of repetition.  The “pledge of allegiance” smear has lasting effects beyond that story because it reinforces a particular narrative.

Narratives like the Republicans running a badly mismanaged and unnecessary war in Iraq,  Republicans being the party of irrational fear and cronyism, Republicans being a party of incompetence in times of crisis (i.e. the credit crisis and Katrina), these narratives don’t gain traction in the media.  Yet, the myth of the “liberal” media persists.

The Republican party is the one that wrecked America.  Our infrastructure is in shambles, our economy skirting with disaster, our standing in the world has been severely diminished, our civil liberties have been trampled, none of this leaves the slightest blemish on the Republican party in the eyes of the mainstream press.  No, it is Obama who has received gushing coverage in the eyes of Kurtz with the so-called bitter-gate, alienating-low bowling scores and all.  If this is what Dobbs and Kurtz consider to biased towards Obama then I find their world-view and their expectations for an objective reporting of it inconceivable.

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