Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Baggini: Take a rational, critical look at religious claims and stories

Some thoughts by Julian Baggini of the Humanist Philosophers Group.

Much of [religious education] is about presenting a range of myths and belief systems as a kind of metaphysical smorgasbord from which children can choose. But, like vegetarian sausage rolls at a buffet, the provision of alternatives to the dominant faith is largely token and not expected to be taken up by many. What's more, all are expected to eat up.

This way of teaching religion presents faith as a kind of fact of life which does not need to be justified or explained, merely described. You're taught what sacred texts say, but not to question their divine origins. You're taught what people of different faiths do, but it is considered disrespectful to question if they are right to do it.

Believers themselves are often resistant to the idea that religion should be challenged more, but if you do not believe that your most fundamental beliefs can stand up to the relatively superficial kind of rational scrutiny possible in compulsory education, that does not exactly express confidence in their robustness.

The kind of rational scrutiny I want to see brings in more of the history, philosophy and psychology of religion. The history is particularly important, for it is that which makes the human hand behind our myths of the divine abundantly clear. Christians, for instance, should know that there were numerous versions of the life of Christ purporting to be written by the apostles in circulation, and that what we now see as the New Testament didn't take shape until the Council of Rome in 382.

I cannot see how anyone could take a rational, critical look at the Bible and not conclude that even if it was the infallible word of God, so much had been added or subtracted in the translation that we would be fools to take it as such. I have much sympathy with Isaac Asimov, who claimed that: "Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived."

Children should also understand about the psychology of religious belief: how humans have an instinct to see causes and purpose where there is none; and how we have a need to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups. The philosophy of religion should also be taught so they can understand why intuitively plausible ideas such as that the universe must have had a divine first cause or that morality vanishes without God are much weaker than they first appear.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Shermer: The joys of life without God

Learned about this fine Salon.com interview with Michael Shermer from Randi. Excerpts:

Why do we reach so hard for a divine force to explain life?

The natural inclination in all humans is to posit a force, a spirit, outside of us. That tendency toward superstitious magical thinking is just built into our nature. What's more, it doesn't cost anything to have a false positive, to assume there's a force behind the lightning or a spirit in the rock. In the ancestral environment, when we evolved, we might think spinning around three times is going to bring rain. Well, once in a while it works and makes everybody happy. And it doesn't cost much to keep doing it. It doesn't take you out of the gene pool.

You sound so benign. Yet your day job is debunking pseudo sciences like rain dances and astrology. There's no harm, then, in me thinking that because I'm a Libra I just might get what I wish for today?

[Laughs] No, for most people astrology is just light entertainment. But the problem with taking it seriously is it can lead to other irrational beliefs. And presumably in an educated democracy we want to have a certain level of education, as Jefferson says, so we can have a serious national discussion about problems. I mean, people who believe in astrology tend to believe all kinds of goofy things. All the pseudo sciences -- astrology, Tarot cards, psychics, mystic healing -- use the exact same principle. They work because we have a selective memory and a confirmation bias. We look forward to finding evidence for what we already believe and forget the rest. In an hour reading, a psychic will make 200 or 300 statements. If a person walks away with half a dozen things the psychic got right, he's ecstatic. It's like Skinner with the rats. You don't have to reinforce them every time. In fact, they'll press the bar even faster if you give them intermittent reinforcement. It's the same with slot machines. You just have to pay off every once in a while and it will keep us pulling the levers.

Do you think the impulse to believe in God is the same as believing in astrology?

Yes, it's a similar foundation of magical superstitious thinking. And our need to be spiritual takes all forms. Given that traits vary in populations, it's natural that some people will gravitate toward New Age spiritualism and others toward conservative Christianity. Even secularists believe in all kinds of transcendent things, such as "mind." This is the Deepak Chopra school. He says, I don't believe that Christian conservative stuff, but the universe is intelligent, it's alive, it knows we're here. What? You're goofier than the Christians!


What's your best answer for why there is no God?

It's not why there is no God, it's why there's not compelling evidence to believe in God. That's a better way to put it. And from my perspective, it's just not there for me. With training in science, I have high standards of evidence. If you said God is real, and you sent your evidence to the journals Science or Nature for publication, you'd be laughed out of the room; you wouldn't get past the first reviewer.

On the other side, the best evidence that there probably isn't a God is that belief in God is so deeply culturally embedded. When you study world religions, it's obvious that, throughout time, all of these different people are making up their own stories about God. If you lived 1,000 years ago, hardly anybody would be a Christian. If you were born in India, you'd likely be a Hindu. What does that tell you? From a Christian perspective, it means we need to get more missionaries over there to tell them the truth! From an anthropological perspective, it's another case. Christians today might say, I don't believe in Zeus, that was a silly superstition. Yet for many people that was a real god.

So it turns out there are 10,000 gods and yet only one right one. That means we're all atheists on 9,999 gods. The only difference between me and the believers is I'm an atheist on one more god.

Must be pareidolia season

Not at all happy that her son is stealing the limelight, the mother of that Semitic deity makes her appearance as well.

A Chicago woman claims the image of the Virgin Mary has appeared on the stomach of a pet turtle.

Shirley McVane, 81, says it appeared on a sand turtle bought by her grandson, reports the Chicago Sun-Times.

Shirley's daughter, Dolly Fordyce, 58, said: "I thought we were going crazy the first time I saw it. I looked at it and said, 'It can't be.' But then I looked again. I mean, you can't deny it."

Mrs McVane added: "She came to a holy house. I think she came to visit us so God knows she's happy and safe."

Dianne Dunagan, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said: "If something like that causes people to think about God and pray, that's a good thing.

"Time usually takes care of these things. If it gets to the point where people are flocking to this thing, the church will call in experts. If people forget about it, it may just fade away."

(via Edifying Spectacle)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

More pareidolia by the deluded

That Jesus is popping up in the oddest of things and places. Here are his latest appearances:

1. Inside an oyster found by a couple in Florida waters.

I don't know about you but I say that's Bin Laden. Oh my gosh! It's a pre 9-11 omen!

2. In an MRI of someone's spine

Pretty hefty bun that dude's got there. Complete with the, uh, orifice.... Or maybe that's his front rather than his back. So could it be his you know what?

(via God is for Suckers)


The thing is I'm feeling kind of low right now. The results are consoling my ego ... Good for about 10 minutes.

Very Well-Rounded

You have:

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Punishing the yet to be conceived

The following just made me wince in disgust. That wacko (former) judge Floro now claims that he

was ordered by Luis ... to cleanse the Philippine Judiciary and Government of corruption and evil via the flashing of the highest lights, VIOLET and WHITE, thereby, inflicting temporal punishment of sickness, lingering illnesses, accidents, KARMA, CURSE and the SPELL upon those who receive BRIBES and abuse power (upon their loved ones and up to the 7th generation). [emphasis Floro's]

Punishing even the children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, great great ... of the culprits?! In his zeal to ferret out corruption, he too has become corrupt--morally. Using imaginary dwarves as a pretext he yearns to punish the offenders to the very hilt and even beyond what is called for such that he wishes to afflict the innocent, the unborn, and even the yet to be conceived! How awful a failure in ethical thinking. It's so ironic that one who dispenses justice would crave and exact such unjust, inhumane, and tyrannical retribution.

Floro should ask himself whether it is right and just that he, his parents, his children, his grandchildren should be punished for offenses, however grave, that any of his ancestors up to the seventh generation had committed.

This guy is a real goner.

Feeding time

It's those Indian statues sipping milk again. No matter how many times Rationalist International debunks these "miracles" Hindus just keep going gaga over Ganesha drinking milk. Sigh.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians thronged temples across India on Monday in the belief that statues of Hindu gods were drinking milk.

"I put a milk-filled spoon to Ganesha's mouth and he drank it," exclaimed Akhilesh Shukla, a trader in Lucknow, capital of northern Uttar Pradesh state.

He was among the countless devotees who carried milk in glasses and pitchers to northern Indian temples where Hindus worship Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of good fortune and wisdom; Shiva, the destroyer, and Durga, the goddess of strength.

"It is a miracle," said Sudhir Mishra, a priest at a Shiva temple in Lucknow. He said that at least 10 liters of milk had been offered at his temple on Monday.

"Look at the floor it is fairly dry. Where's the milk gone? It should be visible on floor. Can you see that."

But others dismissed the milk-slurping gods as the work of less miraculous forces - surface tension, which pulls the liquid toward the statues, and capillary action, through which the milk is leached into the statues by tiny pores on the surface of the stone.

"Milk disappears the same way water reaches the top of a tree through roots," said A. K. Sharma, a professor at Lucknow University.


[In 1995] a group of scientists visited a temple in New Delhi and fed a statue milk tinted with dye. The milk was quickly absorbed by the idol, and soon permeated the stone, leaving the statue coated by a colored, milky film.

(via God is for Suckers)

That evil bible

It's been two millennia. Haven't these friggin Christians discovered and decided how their imaginary deity wants His Unchanging Word to be read and interpreted? There are very real consequences, you know.

The First Baptist Church dismissed Mary Lambert on August 9 with a letter explaining that the church had adopted an interpretation that prohibits women from teaching men. She had taught there for 54 years.

The letter quoted the first epistle to Timothy: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent."

Friday, August 18, 2006

Take and eat, this is a vrigin's body

Chocolate drippings now being venerated:

Workers at Angiano's gourmet chocolate company, Bodega Chocolates, discovered under a vat a 2-inch-tall column of chocolate drippings that they believe bears a striking resemblance to the Virgin Mary.

Since the discovery Monday, Angiano's employees have spent much of their time hovering over the tiny figure, praying and placing rose petals and candles around it.

If the Catholic Church starts serving transubstantiated Cadbury Jesus, I'd gladly go to Mass every Sunday. They can throw in nuts if they wish (anatomically correct placement would be just fine).

(via God is for Suckers)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Selling out

In January this year Veronica Dennis' home caught fire. The upside of it was that she earned her 15 minutes of fame when she discovered the following simulacra made of soot and smoke, what she describes as an image of the Virgin Mary.

She was optimistic that the find would spell the end of what she said was a streak of bad luck she'd been experiencing. You see, on Friday the 13th she lost her job; the next day her daughter's boyfriend broke his leg; and finally on Sunday, there was the fire.

Well, guess what? Seven months down the road and her Jobian fate hasn't made a turnaround. Dennis was out of work for three months and is now behind in her payments.

"I'm working two jobs now trying to get caught up, but I can barely pay the current bills, but not the past bills. Our life has been a complete mess for seven months," she said.

Because of her financial troubles she's reneged on her initial decision to keep the "apparition" and has already tried selling the Virgin.

Back then, Dennis told news organization that she intended to keep the apparition. "I don't want people to think I'm going to try to make a fortune off it. It's not my intention to put it on eBay," she told the Sun Journal newspaper.

Well, like a number of other religious simulacra this Virgin ended up in eBay. That ought to fetch her a couple of Gs and help ease her woes. That is, if there are any takers.

Dennis listed the starting bid at $2,500 in a posting that described the apparition making "national and international news." But there were no takers before the deadline expired Sunday.

Talk about being totally out of luck.

Darn feckless Virgin.

Monday, August 14, 2006

No, the bench isn't for nutcases

That looney Filipino judge who talks with dwarves and claims to have paranormal/supernatural powers to heal and inflict pain/disease on his enemies is still out of luck with the Supreme Court.

In an en banc resolution issued over the weekend, the Supreme Court affirmed its earlier decision dismissing Judge Florentino Floro of Malabon Regional Trial Court for mental unfitness to discharge the responsibilities of his high office.

I bet the series of defeats is the dwarves' way of testing Floro's faith.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Ever seen a tree taking a leak?

Lucille Pope's red oak tree has gurgled water for about three months, and experts can't seem to get to the root of the problem....

[The Texas Forest Service] have taken pictures and conducted studies, but none have arrived at a firm answer.


Lucille Pope has started to wonder if the water has special properties.

Her insurance agent dabbed drops of the water on a spider bite and the welt went away, she said.

"I just want to know if it is a healing tree or blessed water," she said. "That's God's water. Nobody knows but God."

My advice to the Popes: Beware of AntiJeebus products! Buy genuine healing water only from Vatican-certified outlets nearest you. And maket sure it has the Turin Shroud Hologram™ seal.

As for the leaking tree, Mark Peterson of the Texas Forest Service mused that, "If it is a burst pipe their monthly bill would be enormous." That brought to mind a recent "mysterious" experience of mine.

A couple of weeks ago the water company finally connected our line to the new mains they buried along the road. (You should see the mess they made along the entire stretch of the street.) A few days later after water service was back we noticed that the little vane inside the water meter was spinning like crazy. Water was coursing at something like four gallons a minute. That's like having several faucets on our premises open at the same time. And yet every valve we had around was shut. Of course, on the top of my list of guesses was a burst pipe. And yet the man from the company that's in charge of the project for the water company told us we needed to install a check valve. Duh?! I told him we don't have an overhead water tank. How do you get a backflow, and at that dizzying rate?

To cut to the chase, I finally surmised that one of the underground branches (they're all 3/4-inch galvanized iron pipes) must've burst and was dumping water (ergo, lots of money!) right under our driveway. The current water pressure must be greater than it was previous to the rehabilation of the mains such that this section of our 20-year old pipes--probably rusted through pretty badly--just couldn't take it anymore. Cutting off supply to that section immediately solved the problem (had to saw off an elbow and cap the supply pipe) .

In the aftermath two things still baffle me: 1. There wasn't and isn't any telltale sign anywhere on the premises that there was a leak--and I estimate that about 100 cubic meters of water have already been dumped. 2. The soil beneath had presented practically no resistance to the water flow. Now I'm wondering how much erosion has taken place under the concrete driveway. Is it practically hollow under it? Would a fully loaded truck passing over crack it, notwithstanding the steel rebars used to strengthen it?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Did Mayon blow its top today?

Mayon Volcano has been spitting and drooling some very nasty stuff the past couple of weeks. On the news last night I heard that Philippine volcanologists are concerned that it might erupt today because there's going to be a full moon. Did that wake you up? According to these scientists there have been instances in the past when Mayon blew its top during full moons. I was in crap alert level 2 until the reporter said that the volcanologists were hypothesizing that the moon's stronger gravitational pull during a full moon might be the reason for these historical co - incidences. Well, yeah, that may make sense since the moon (and the sun) does account for the tides.

Today the ever dependable astronomer Phil Plait comes to the rescue:

A BBC report report this morning says that "experts" — no names, affiliations, or quotations were given — are concerned that the full Moon may trigger an eruption of the Philippine volcano Mount Mayon. It’s a very active volcano and ripe for an event. It could blow any time now. So is there cause for concern given the full Moon tonight?

I’m gona go with "no". The gravity of the Moon does affect the Earth, of course, mostly through tides. As it happens, tides are strongest when the Moon is full (and when it’s new as well, which the article doesn’t mention), so there is at least some reason to investigate this. And the BBC report says that the full Moon "coincided with at least three of Mayon’s 47 eruptions, including the two most recent ones in 2000 and 2001".

But let’s look at this critically, shall we? First of all, what does "coincide" mean?

First, Mayon is a very active volcano. It has quakes, minor explosions, lahars (mud flows) and such all the time. Certainly some will coincide with the full and new Moon. Let’s be generous and say that the time period around the full Moon is 2 days: a day before and a day after. The Moon goes through a complete cycle in roughly 29 days, so it’s full for 2/29 = 1/15th of the time. If you then look at 47 eruptions, then you expect to see 47/15 = 3 eruptions near the full Moon. And hey, that’s exactly what the report says!

So, statistically speaking, the Moon has nothing to do with eruptions. If it did, you’d expect to see a bump in the number of events near the full Moon. But the number of eruptions near the full Moon is what you’d expect from random chance. In other words, on average it doesn’t matter if the Moon is full, new, first quarter, or whatever. Now to be fair, the article doesn’t say how big a time period they used around the full Moon. Maybe they only used one day, not two. Even then, the correlation would be weak, because 47 eruptions isn’t a big enough sample to choose from. It’s small number statistics, like flipping a coin three times and having it come up heads each time. It’s rare, but it does happen on average one out of every eight times. You need bigger samples to get good statistics.

Now, there is some evidence that the Moon can cause earthquakes, and maybe even near volcanoes. But even then, if this were true in the case of Mount Mayon you’d expect more eruptions near the full Moon. It’s not seen, so again I think the correlation here is very weak.

So I am not totally discounting a connection between the Moon and this volcano, but I am saying that at best such a link is very weak, and probably not worth worrying about. The folks who live on the banks of Mayon have enough to worry about already!

I wonder: if it does erupt tonight, what will those "experts" say? But more interestingly, what if it waits three days?

Indeed. When these reporters tell us--as had been in the case in the news clip I saw last night--only the hits but not the misses (i.e., the times when Mayon erupted during the other phases of the full moon) those watching can easily be gulled into believing that there is in fact a strong connection (correlation) between full moons and Mayon eruptions. But as the BBC report specifies, only 3 out of 47 have been during full moons. And as Plait so clearly explains and computes, chance alone is enough to explain such coincidences. And even if Mayon were to erupt today, that still wouldn't prove full moons are in fact inextricably linked with Mayon eruptions.

Cum hoc ergo propter hoc.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Another indisputable evidence that global warming is for real

Pat Robertson tells us that he believes that global warming is truly happening. His reason? It's been pretty hot in some areas of the US. Well, here's another reason he should add to his list.

With temperatures soaring Wednesday, Fontaine placed two trays of cookie dough on the dashboard, shut the doors and retreated inside to her air conditioned office.

"My husband wanted me to run some errands this morning,'' said Fontaine, who works at Baldwin and Clarke Corporate Finance. "I said, 'I can't. I'm baking cookies.'''

Fontaine first tested her dashboard oven three years ago. She said anyone can do it; the only requirement is for the outside temperature to be at least 95 degrees, so it will rise to about 200 degrees in the car. Temperatures in the area reached the mid to upper 90s on Wednesday.

Why the zoo even invited psychics is beyond me

Two psychics are saying that Lun Lun the panda is pregant. Of course, that's after the Atlanta zookeepers had artificially inseminated her.

But this is the part that got me all giggling.

Using tone vibration, Helene Frisch attempted to communicate with Lun Lun and then make a prediction.... After communing with the Pandas Frisch predicted Lun Lun is going to be a mom.

That reminded me of Dora in the animated film Finding Nemo when she was trying to communicate with the whale by doing that hilarious ultra slow motion, low pitched talk of hers. Loved that memory-challenged character the best. And what do you know? Dora was voiced by none other than Ellen DeGeneres.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Instead of the baby they see boobs

This photo is offensive?

Huh? What could be so disgusting about a picture showing a mother breastfeeding? Sheesh!

It's so beautfully taken! And the little critter's so adorably cute. Notice the eye contact. Oh the maternal bond.

(via Pharyngula)

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Hats off to this Christian

It'd be great to have this whistleblower on the skeptics team.

[T]here is at least one organization that is successfully exposing spiritual chicanery -- the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation.

Ole Anthony, a prophet with a private detective's license, has successfully exposed the shenanigans of Robert Tilton, W.V. Grant, Benny Hinn and Larry Lea.

Reading about Ole Anthony reminds me of Randi's The Faith Healers. If they were both a couple of decades younger they could team up and give preachers and faith healers hell on earth (not that they haven't given them a taste of it already).

They're calling in the cop in the sky

Since those psychic detectives are doing nothing but television entertainment productions, Lincolnshire residents are being asked to ring up the Head Cop for some badly needed help.

With fewer than one in ten burglaries solved, the power of the law seems to be fading fast.

So police are turning to the power of prayer instead.

Churches are to be given details of break-ins and other unsolved crimes in the hope that parishioners' pleas to God will produce a breakthrough.

Prayer Watch, as the scheme is called, is a 'spiritual twist' on the Neighbourhood Watch programme. Lincolnshire police are hoping it will help improve their crime clean-up rate.

It was proposed by members of the county's Christian Police Association.

Churches will receive regular e-mails about crimes in their area, enabling parishioners to focus their prayers on particular incidents such as burglaries and violent attacks.

Apparently, UK Christian policemen have evidence that supernatural means works:

[Inspector Andy McManus of Lincolnshire Christian Police Association] claimed winter casualty rates on the roads have been cut since the Bishop of Lincoln started blessing the council's fleet of gritting lorries. "We pray over the gritters in the winter and the casualty reduction rate has plummeted, it really has."

Most interesting, Inspector. Now tell me more about this non causa pro causa of yours.

Home Office figures show Lincolnshire police solved 10.8 per cent of burglaries last year, compared to an average of 17.2 per cent for similar forces.

Maybe they should be praying for a more competent police force instead.