Thank you

I want to say thank you to many people. Here’s the shortlist:

PZ Myers
Richard Dawkins
Michael Shermer
James Randi
Eugenie Scott
Steven Novella
Bob Novella
Jay Novella
Rebecca Watson
Evan Bernstein

But really, my thanks go out to all the skeptical, freethinking, humanist communities that have been so informative. I still have a lot to learn about the world we’re in, but I have come so far in the past eighteen months.

This morning, my landscaping company came. Awhile after they started working, the doorbell rang. I figured it was them, telling me they’re done. I thought it took a little bit longer than usual, but I went to the door and opened it without looking. There stood an older couple, the man with a bible and some Watchtower magazines in hand.

I’m just not rude enough to shut the door in someone’s face. I mean, I will if they prove themselves particularly obnoxious, but I at least give them the warning that they’re about to be face-to-door. So this guy starts by asking my name, and telling me it’s very pretty. It feels a little condescending, but hey, icebreakers aren’t everyone’s forte.

Then he tells me that he and his wife are going around the neighbohood with this magazine issue that discusses life beyond the grave. “Do you believe there is life after death?”

And this is the point where I have to say thank you to everyone already named. Because no matter my beliefs, in the past, I would have humored the guy, taken his literature, then put it in the trash after he left. And admittedly, I considered it. But by the time he asked me this question, I had eliminated the option. I didn’t want to be held hostage at my own door. So I said, “No, I don’t.”

Honestly, he seemed to hold back some surprise. Do that many people tell him yes? Do so few say no? Anyway, he says, “But you believe in the creation, right?”

“No. I believe in evolution.” (Okay, so I don’t really “believe” in evolution; I accept the evidence as fact. But I didn’t feel like getting into an etymological debate, and figured I’d speak his language.)

“So you believe this all happened by chance?” And this is where I particularly have to thank PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. What little I can say I understand about evolutionary biology, I attribute to them. They’ve made the ideas so accessible, that even my mind – which struggles mightily with most sciences – can understand it.

“No, not by chance. Evolution is not a matter of chance.”

“So you think that out of some soup of sludge, we all came into being?”

“Yes – ” He didn’t let me finish.

“You know, the greatest scientific minds say the brain is the most complex piece of machinery, and there’s so much about it we don’t understand. It must have a designer. Do you really think that just happened?”

So I told him that we don’t have all the answers, that science still has a lot to learn. I told him that we shouldn’t assign a god to it, and accept that – we wouldn’t have modern medicine or understanding of the stars if all men had just accepted a god or gods. And no, just for the record, evolution doesn’t just “happen.” It is a series of events where the creatures that survive are the creatures whose evolutionary path puts them in the right place at the right time, in simplest terms.

It felt pretty good to turn the sermon around. The difference, though, is I wasn’t trying to convert him. He said, “So I guess you wouldn’t be interested in reading the articles here?”

“No, sir.” Then I added, because I wanted him to know that not all atheists are heathens who just don’t know any better, “I want you to know that I was raised Christian. I was very close to God at one point. What I’ve told you today is the result of more than a year of intense investigation, both internal and external. This decision was not taken lightly. There’s nothing in your magazine I haven’t already explored.”

There was nothing militant in what I said or how I said it. The man and his wife were still pleasant when they left; they just recognized that they wouldn’t change my mind.

I research and I learn for my own edification. I want to understand the world and universe I live in, and the evidence I’ve found points to a naturalist view. I have not had the opportunity offline to use what I’ve learned in a true conversation about religion. I don’t seek out such opportunitites.

But I am so very grateful that when the opportunity came knockin’, I was ready to stand up to the challenge, and not be ashamed or unprepared to declare that I am an atheist, and it is an informed choice. So thank you to everyone who has contributed to my education and confidence.

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The Scientific Method

I am beyond frustration by this argument:

“Understanding that both Intelligent Design and Evolution are both theories, and theories can not be proven, only disproven…”

It is way too overabundant, and has even been used by educators to justify teaching pseudoscience in our schools. I composed a response to the blogger I linked to above, but since the comments are moderated, and I have a dissenting opinion, I have little hope that what I wrote will see the light of day. And since I want to vent to the world, here is the gist of what I wrote, peppered with the passages that inspired my own comments:

In April of 2004, Myers wrote on his blog that a professor promoting Intelligent Design should not get tenure: [the link to the actual blog entry is here]

“I get to vote on tenure decisions at my university, and I can assure you that if someone comes up who claims that [Intelligent Design] ‘theory’ is science, I will vote against them. … If someone thinks fairies live in their garden and pull up the flowers out of the ground every spring, I will vote against them. Tenure decisions are not pro forma games, but a process of evaluation, and I’d rather not have crackpots promoted.”

You have to be amazed by the absolute hypocrisy of the existence of Myers.

Understanding that both Intelligent Design and Evolution are both theories, and theories can not be proven, only disproven, in reading Myers’ posts he constantly treats his theories as absolute proven sciences underscored by his complete intollerance of anyone else’s views other than PZ Myers’.

The poster obviously have little to no grasp on the scientific method. In its simplest form:

1) Observe
2) Hypothesize
3) Test
4) Analyze
5) Duplicate
a) If test results repeatedly support the hypothesis, you’ve essentially got a working Theory.
b) If they don’t, you go back to the drawing board

Evolution has made a great number of predictable claims (a few can be found here), such as what fossils we can expect to find, and where in geologic time to look for them, and every time such a fossil is found, then Evolution has been tested and deemed successful.

Intelligent Design has made no testable claims, thus cannot and should not be taught as science. Science is the scientific method. Without it, you have guesswork and philosophy – which belongs in another department at any university. Myers specifically says that he will vote against anyone who claims these beliefs are ‘science.’ They are not, and should not be taught as such. Far from hypocritical, this is as true to scientific principles as one can get. Myers’ recent controversy has nothing to do with the science he teaches, and has no need to be a part of his classroom at all, unlike a science professor who has declared he intends to teach unscientific claims.

Moving on to the blogger’s next point:

On RateMyProfessor.com, a web site where students rate their college professors, Myers over the past few years has received an average score as a college professor. In the 3.5 range out of 5. He’s average, nothing more; nothing less. There are a few students that think he is great, there is an equal amount that don’t. But the last student to rate him on his review, done after this controversy, offers insight to this situation and speaks of his ability to never again be viewed as a legitimate college professor going forward:

“Really disappointed in this guy. He obviously has no respect for his students beliefs that might be different from his own. Read Pharyngula and you’ll see what i mean. Scary”

These are the words from a University of MN Morris student. Not my words. Nor the Catholic League’s.

According to the class schedule posted on the school’s web site, it appears that Professor Myers’ largest available class in the Fall is full (at least, that’s how I interpret the class size in red, and the complete addition of a second section). If I’m interpreting correctly, that would suggest to me that maybe a concern about unfair treatment has been seriously overblown.

And as far as the http://www.ratemyprofessor.com deal – first, does anyone find it at all striking that this was posted on 7/24/08, well after the controversy started, in the middle of the summer, long after spring classes ended? Going back to the first review for Prof. Myers on his RMP page (2/4/03), there’s not one single complaint about unfair treatment because of a student’s beliefs. Not one student stopped by there to warn other students of this potentially egregious behavior.

All that aside, it’s important to note that there’s no telling whether or not this 7/24/08 review is from a student, since a person doesn’t have to be registered on the site (the review in question was not posted by a registered user), nor provide any proof they’re a student at all in order to post a review. In fact, I just posted one there myself, and I’ve never had any association with the university at all. For all any of us know, this could easily be the original poster’s words, and it doesn’t ‘stretch credulity’ to believe they could be Bill Donohue’s.

******************************************************************************************************

7/28/08, ETA: I just had to laugh at this… I announced that I entered a review on Rate My Professor to show it could be done, and someone ran over there to request a review of the entry. Fine by me, because it doesn’t need to be there, anyway. But did they question the other questionable review? Nope. Awfully suspect, no?

Nice, huh?

I’d just like to point out that there was not even a BIO3101 class on the Spring 2008 schedule, nor Fall 2007. The last time it shows up on a published schedule is Spring 2007. So this student waited over a year to post this, just waited for the perfect time? I know there are those of you out there that want to argue a fear of retribution finally being overcome by the need to speak out in the face of controversy. Yeah, okay, except this was posted by an unregistered, completely anonymous user. If this was a student afraid of being recognized, then this problem can’t be too widespread, can it?

Just sayin’…  😛

All for you, PZ!

Apparently, August 2008 is Officially “Pray for PZ Myers Month.” This could easily top every study ever done on the effectiveness of prayer. Not only will there surely be a great number of Christians praying like crazy – with sincerity no less – for the good Doctor’s soul, but there will be a testable, measurable result. If only we could harness all the self-righteous Christians who love this sinner enough to believe he could be the next disciple to be queued up for sainthood. Then we could really determine… just how many prayers does it take to get to the center of a godless liberal’s soul?

Oh, but wait… seriously, it gets better. Not only will they be praying faithfully out of love and conviction, but they (well, some… I can’t imagine they’ll all buy into this one) will attempt to incur God’s pity in order to move him to actually do something about PZ:

So beginning next Friday, August 1, let us all join in prayer for the conversion of PZ Myers every day, until Sunday, August 31. Let us pray Rosaries for his conversion, offer up the Mass for his conversion, engage in abstinence and fasting for his conversion, and spend time in Adoration for his conversion.

It all sounds pretty par for the course, right? Only one more week before you can officially start praying! On your mark, get set… you, in the back, do you have a question?

Oh, yeah, but hey… about that abstinence thing. How does that work again? So, okay, let me get this straight… If I can go 31 days without getting laid, even by my spouse – with whom I regularly have God-sanctioned lovin’, by the way – then this man that I’ve never met, and have no reason to care about except that he’s a real plight on society, will come to Christ and stop offending my sensibilities on a regular basis? Wait, what? I can’t have food, either? Aw, hell… er, heck, PZ: When you convert, you better come over and bless my house, kids, dog and bed (especially my bed – it’s gonna need it after 8/31) to thank me for this sacrifice which will save your eternal soul. I’m such a swell Christian.

Is Anyone in the Asylum Listening?

The asylum hasn’t seen much progress – there’s just way too much crazy out there to be battled, and so many insane folks that they’re running the nuthouse, and the country and, it seems, the world. The sane people who should be in charge of distributing the daily dose of reason are being overrun – trampled, ignored, and in extreme cases, eradicated. Some of them have even lost their own minds in the melee.

And then there are the strong ones – the rational men and women who stand their ground against the onslaught of madness, who plant themselves in the middle of the asylum’s halls, yelling their message into the screaming bustle of loons who would topple them at any opportunity.

It always amazing me, then, that these pillars manage to find some new way to say the same thing they’ve been shouting, be it poetic or idiomatic. One of the leading proponents of sanity managed that today, from the midst of a cyclone of inmates, attacking him from every direction. One can only hope that, being so close, some of them may actually hear.

Please, if you’re currently screaming about anything PZ Myers did yesterday or wrote today, please stop for just a few moments. Please consider this message. It is not written (nor copied) as a result of hatred, bigotry or intolerance as so many would claim. It is a genuine cry for the world to work together to move forward for the sake of our descendants yet to come, rather than living our lives for the sake of those who have lived and gone. Please, simmer down for long enough to read and absorb this paragraph.

Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanity’s knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind.

Maybe you understand what he’s saying, and you will decide to teach your children about a real hope, about a world governed and improved by the glory of science, rather than a whimsical God who has made little progress over the past two millenia. Maybe you’ll tell them about the beauty of a plan they can be a part of, that they can build on, rather than a plan they have been assigned by a God who seems to only care about a human’s needs when they mesh with his own.

If you don’t, then you’re the reason PZ Myers and others keep standing in the halls, trying to teach rational and critical thinking, trying to break through the delusion of religion and pseudoscience. It is not evil or hateful. It is actually an act of love: for our world that is spectacular enough in its own right, for our children who will inherit it, and for those of us who live in it now.

Hero Worship?

Well, not really, but it will probably sound like it… I just want to answer one of the criticisms of PZ Myers and the whole Wafergate thing.

There is this argument – which admittedly has merit, until you think about it a little – that PZ is asking his followers to accept a sacrament that is not meant to be given to non-believers, and is distributed on private property, so what it symbolizes to Christians shouldn’t be an offense to those outside church walls.

I appreciate what these people are saying, but I respectfully disagree.

What Myers is trying to call attention to is the abuse directed toward someone who dared to treat a communion wafer differently than orthodox calls for. One may or may not agree with Myers’s methods, but it is this type of call to reason that has changed the secular and religious worlds before.

Consider Martin Luther, who in 1517 posted his 95 Theses to the doors of churches – using sacred buildings as bulletin boards to denounce church doctrine (most notably, the selling of indulgences) that abused the masses. Luther’s treatise was heresy and blasphemy, but ultimately, Luther’s message caused non-clergy types to think about what they were being asked, expected and often forced to believe, and led to the development of new denominations within Christianity.

PZ Myers is challenging another illogical doctrine which some religious folks are using to justify threats of violence and death towards another human being. Granted, Myers is presenting a secular model, as opposed to Luther’s altered religious ideals, but his message, outrageous as it may be, is still calling people to think about the doctrine of transubstantiation and the abuse the church feels compelled to pile on anyone who dares to disagree with it.

It is an extraordinary action designed to challenge an extraordinary claim. Think about where we would be without revolutionaries like Luther to challenge the church and attempt to balance its constant attempts at power and degradation of the masses.

Goodbye, for all the wrong reasons

I don’t know if you’ve heard of VenomFangX – depending on one’s particular stance in the theist/atheist debates, he is either one to greatly admire or greatly disdain (respectively). I personally find the boy willfully ignorant, smug and juvenile. I don’t think I can make that clear enough. I am not a fan.

Yesterday, Shawn (aka VenomFangX) posted a video on YouTube simply titled “Goodbye.” In it, he describes death threats from someone or some people who have specific enough details about his life/home to make the threats a real concern. So for the sake of his family, he is choosing to shut his YouTube ministry down.

I admit it – I’m not entirely convinced this is not just a brilliant attempt at martyrdom. But the scary thing is, I would be completely unsurprised if his claims are true, and I’m inclined to believe that it is. There are some crazy-ass people in this world. So I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt. If nothing else, he is passionate about his message, and it’s hard to imagine he would walk away out of boredom, or in the face of adversity – he’s been experiencing that pretty much since he started getting noticed on YouTube.

So here’s the deal – I get why atheists and scientists are frustrated with this guy. He refuses to listen to reason, he dismisses evidence against his claims because they don’t support his own personal views, and he continues to propagate erroneous scientific and historical facts to “prove” that God exists. But no person, regardless of creed, regardless of whether they are right or wrong, should be subjected to violence or the threat of such, when his or her message is peaceful and non-threatening to the safety of others. It is disgusting that this is happening, that Shawn and his family are having to experience this. And it does nothing to debate him or disprove his points.

I wish Shawn and his family the best, and I acknowledge that he has to do what he feels necessary to protect himself. I would have preferred to see him shut down his ministry because he finally opened his mind and eyes to reason, logic and science, and not because some Neanderthal bully couldn’t think of words intelligent enough to attempt that, so stooped to swinging his club.

I tried to post a comment on Shawn’s video to tell him that I wished him well, even though I’d never agreed with his videos, but because dissenters are the work of Satan, non-worshiping posters don’t make it to his boards. I hope he took a moment to read the full comment before dismissing it, because I meant it sincerely.

So I’m asking – begging – people to have some common sense. There are things like this flying on both sides of the fence now. PZ Myers has received several death threats from Catholics and other Christians in response to Wafergate, and PZ’s followers have responded to some of the worst of them in kind, much to PZ’s chagrin.

Do people not realize that these threats and vituperations accomplish nothing? They’re cancer and poison and only serve to highlight the other side’s point about overreaction and thuggery. If we’re in this debate, we’re passionate about protecting what we perceive to be the truth, and sometimes it can be like we’re banging our head on a sharp pointy stick over and over again. But there are better solutions that abusing or killing the opposition. That won’t stop their message, it only hurts yours.

So, please grow up, and learn to cope with anger and frustration with more intelligent mechanisms. Don’t spew your venom onto everyone else. Go sweat it out in a rigorous kickboxing routine and let it evaporate.

Godless Liberal vs. Uptight Catholics

It is appropriate that the first thought I had when reading PZ Myers’s blog entry from 7/8/08 was, That’s it. I gotta get out. Somebody point me to the asylum’s exit. Wonko won’t believe this. If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, pick up a copy of So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, by Douglas Adams.

It is Adams that makes the thought so apropos – this quote, excerpted from a speech at Cambridge, is important to remember as I continue:

[Religion] has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That’s an idea we’re so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it’s kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’.

Yet, religion demands it. If that was the purpose of this post, and if I had a while to type, I could expound on my many theories as to why, but that’s for another day. The important thing is that regardless of one’s own personal convictions, we are universally expected to respect and adhere to the sacred convictions of someone else.

So I cheered as read Myers’s rant on the topic of student Webster Cook choosing to not eat his communion wafer, but rather to take it out of the church with him, inciting Catholic fury over the sacrilege:

“We don’t know 100% what Mr. Cooks motivation was,” said Susan Fani a spokesperson with the local Catholic diocese. “However, if anything were to qualify as a hate crime, to us this seems like this might be it.”

We just expect the University to take this seriously,” she added “To send a message to not just Mr. Cook but the whole community that this kind of really complete sacrilege will not be tolerated.”

Wait, what? Holding a cracker hostage is now a hate crime? The murder of Matthew Shephard was a hate crime. The murder of James Byrd Jr. was a hate crime. This is a goddamned cracker. Can you possibly diminish the abuse of real human beings any further?

It gets better! Myers goes on to express his anger and frustration in a statement which has riled Catholics around the nation:

…if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one [communion wafer], and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web.

Admittedly, I couldn’t bear to read much of the inisipid hate mail he posted in a later blog entry – the first twenty or so seemed to say pretty much the same thing (a majority of them ending with promises to pray for Mr. Myers) – but it seems to me that a lot of people took a lot of liberal license in determining exactly what he meant by “heinous cracker abuse.” I’m guessing whatever they believed might be most heinous is what they expected him to do.

Now, they’re after his job, because he dared to link to his non-University-sponsored blog on his University profile page. Interestingly, the Catholic League has referred to this as “the vitriol we have experienced for simply exercising our First Amendment right to freedom of speech,” yet seems to care little about anyone else’s freedom of speech, because it fails to respect their own views (remember what Adams had to say about that?).

For what it’s worth, I do respect the right of everyone to believe what they choose. What I don’t respect, and refuse to support, is the imposition of those beliefs onto those who don’t share them. I don’t care if you believe the cracker is the transubstantiation of Christ. Then you treat it with respect. Cover your own ass. And personally, if my flesh were transubstantiated into a cracker, I think I’d prefer to not be chewed up, digested and pooped out. It seems awfully undignified, don’t you think?

Come on people, let’s have a little common sense and a little less self-fulledness. I don’t think there’s much room left for adding another wing to the asylum.