Saturday, March 21, 2015

Links for 3/21/2015

I can't call this a link round-up for the week because some are just not news, but they're interesting.

Not religious per se but a blog about coming back from the cultish naturalism fad:  Back from Nature.  Extremist naturalism is as cultish and dangerous as extremist religion, at least in the family.  Some of the posts are really disturbing, and read like the posts from faith-healing cult survivors.

Our minds can be fooled, as can our senses:  Five Mind-blowing Ways our Senses can Lie to You Every Day.  Things like that remind me that even if every story of the Bible were true, we'd still be relying on the fallible senses of people who claimed to have seen and heard magical things.

Muslims are mocking ISIS in scathing parodies.  Considering ISIS's penchant for video propaganda, this has to hurt.

The principal of the White Oak, TX, high school will no longer be reading daily Bible passages over the P.A. system.  After a student recorded this and sent the sound files to Hemant Mehta, FFRF sent a letter.   These people aren't just clueless about the First Amendment, they apparently are clueless about the nature of the age they live in. Every kid has a cell phone that can record audio and video.  They can't keep their secrets within school walls anymore.
The Onion explains the greatest mystery of all.  Apparently prayers aren't answered because most of God's Gifts burn up in the atmosphere!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Some random links and stuff

Why is/was Farmville so addicitve?  It's the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

James Randi has a moral duty to debunk.  His biopic, An Honest Liar, is reviewed by the New York Times.

Letters to the Guardian newspaper argue against John Gray's What Scares the New Atheists (which is not worth reading but I link it anyway -  apparently every bad thing an atheist movement ever did taints the current movement)

...or it could be that angry atheists get more press.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Sharia Law in the U.S. -- in 1923!

An Ohio teachers' union posted this to their Facebook page recently.  It's a contract for teachers in 1923.  Note that they have to travel only with a male family member - no neighbors, dates, or friends.  Does this sound familiar?

I wonder what went on in downtown ice-cream stores.  And how did the school verify the number of petticoats?  Did they lift up the teachers' skirts to see what was underneath every morning?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: Just Babies, by Paul Bloom

Just Babies: The Origin of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom

This is one of many books on morality published recently, but it's not specifically written to fight the canard that religion is the foundation of morality.  Nor does it claim that morality is totally innate and the result of evolution.  Rather, Bloom presents an interesting and nuanced view of human morality.... which just happens not to rely on religion.  I plan to read some of the other new books on the topic, especially Michael Shermer's new book, The Moral Arc but I thought I'd start with Bloom's book.

Bloom cites several studies of babies in this book, hence the title.  The studies are fascinating, showing that it may be instinctual to show compassion.  It may also be instinctual to be "evil," so the answer to the question of whether people are good or evil is:  Neither.  The answer to the question of whether religion promotes morality is: Possibly.

Before we get to baby humans, there are primate studies that show instinctual behaviors previously thought to be human traits.  Bloom cites a Frans de Waal's study of capuchin monkeys.  The TED talk showing video of this became rather viral:

Elephants have the intelligence to figure out how to cooperate for a task:

Bloom does spend quite a bit of time on studies with babies and toddlers.  Lacking language, the challenge for baby studies is to find a way to ethically study their brains.  One method is to train a camera on the baby's eyes.  This shows the amount of time the baby spends on one image vs. another.   This is called eye tracking.  Studies have shown that a young baby will focus longer on an image that doesn't make sense.  They also favor pro-social images.

Babies who viewed a puppet show in which one puppet was cooperative and one was anti-social prefer the cooperative one.  Paul Bloom discussed this in the New York Times. and 60 Minutes visited the Baby Lab at Yale, where he and his wife do the studies:

Check out Paul Bloom's Video Presentation:

He expands from here to cover racism and the expanding circles of community.  Babies relate first to their mother, then their family, then their small community, etc.  Until recently we never encountered people from other communities, much less people of different races or from different continents.

The book is worth a read, but the videos above are also great.

The idea that humans are born evil, because of Adam & Eve or because of our "sinful nature," is baloney.  Babies are just babies, capable of learning how to get along in society where selfishness and cooperation are both necessary for survival of both the individual and the species.

Christian child-rearing books love to quote this passage, which they don't attribute correctly if at all (it comes from a 1958 study of delinquency that determined delinquency comes from an unloving household, not from evil)
Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish and self-centered. He wants what he wants when he wants it: his bottle, his mother's attention, his playmate's toys, his uncle's watch, or whatever. Deny him these and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness which would be murderous were he not so helpless. He's dirty, he has no morals, no knowledge, no developed skills. This means that all children, not just certain children but all children, are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in their self-centered world of infancy, to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a thief, a killer, a rapist.
When you google that passage you come up with dozens of articles, sermons, and books.  Well-meaning parents are hearing this message from books and pastors, and not hearing that their babies are good and even sometimes noble.

If they could be disabused of that idea they'd see that their kids don't need to be "saved."  They just need to be nurtured.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Inspirational Songs for Atheists

"But without Christianity there'd be no B Minor Mass!"  If you haven't heard this objection to atheism yet, you will one day.  My answer is that Johann Sebastian Bach composed what his employer wanted, and he also composed the Brandenburg Concertos.  So it's a bogus argument.

But there is a small point there -- we don't have our own arts.  We have satirical art based on Christian art, but not our own.  ... Unless you count all other art everywhere that isn't based on a religious story.   Gaugin's paintings were gorgeous and not a Virgin-and-child among them!

But we could use some inspirational stories.  The song, "The Mary Ellen Carter" has always been inspirational to me, and in this video you can see it's been inspirational to at least one other person:

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Do Atheists Need to Dial Back the Rhetoric?

My answer is:  "NO!"

And this grad student who has a column in the WaPo agrees. Excerpts:
No, atheism does not need a moment of reckoning... Neither does Christianity, Islam, or any other group

After the discovery that the man who murdered three Muslim students in North Carolina on Wednesday was an atheist, it was a matter of hours before the media conversation shifted from simple horror and mourning to a discussion of the attack’s implication for atheism.

But connecting the killings in any way to atheism rests on a dangerous underlying principle. To begin with, the link between the religious or political persuasions of criminals and their criminal behavior should always be approached cautiously. While the “parking dispute” narrative pushed by Richard Dawkins is thoroughly discreditable, the violently insane have all manner of obsessions and can crib any set of principles to rationalize their acts. To suggest that the atheistic beliefs of Craig Hicks turned him murderous is akin to saying that Jodie Foster caused Reagan to be shot, or that Judaism caused the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre.

The blaming of communities of belief for the lunatics among them is precisely what lets atheists wrongly tar Christianity itself for the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller. Viewing such acts as a necessary consequence of the belief, of the belief “taken to its extreme,” unfairly blames a demographic for the seeds of violence in its metaphysics, rather than grappling with the violence in human nature more broadly.

A similar discourse was applied to civil rights protesters after two police officers were shot in New York by a man who had voiced anti-police sentiments on social media.

Atheism has needed new spokespeople for a long time. But to draw links between Richard Dawkins and a deranged triple-murderer is spurious, and rests on a principle that is rightly rejected when applied to other groups. By all means, speak of atheism’s failings, but do not do so in the context of this tragedy, whose only political meaning is that bigotry and violence are as poisonous as ever.

But I disagree on one small point:  religious zealots do need to dial back the rhetoric.  Here's why:  To quote Ken Ham, they "have a book."  The example of the social warrior rhetoric in this piece was apt for us atheists.  Someone with a mental disorder that creates a fixation on one idea would naturally express their mental illness according to their beliefs.  John Hinckley is one example.  Many less famous people have been killed or terrorized by individuals with obsessions.  You could make the case that Craig Hicks may have had enough impulse control to resist shooting someone who wasn't a Muslim, but these muslims weren't exactly dressing "foreign."   From what I've seen, this particular couple had violated his sense of parking right-or-wrong once too many times, and instead of taking his gun to menace them he took his gun with him to kill them.  The situation is as much an argument against handguns as atheist rhetoric.  If he hadn't had a gun he might have keyed the offending car instead.

The difference with religious nutters is that the broader society supports the framework for their obsession -- supernatural justice.  The murderer of Doctor Tiller probably thought he was going to be forgiven by God.  Suicide bombers get rewarded in Heaven (and their families get a big payoff for sacrificing a son).  They have a book that is bigger (to them) than the rhetoricians who may have stoked their anger.  And they don't have to be off their rockers to be pushed over the edge toward violent behavior.  A true believer could be persuaded to a delusional point of view in the absence of mental illness.  An atheist or parking spot social justice warrior cannot.