Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pew Poll Pablum

When you study religion in college, your knowledge
Goes straight to your memory, missing your heart;
For people who lack the emotion, the notion
Of putting down faith makes them feel really smart.
Unless it’s a testable question, suggestions
Of heavenly forces are mocked and ignored;
The good-hearted folks who find kneeling appealing
Are held in contempt by the atheist horde.

The godless remain where they started, cold-hearted,
While god-fearing people’s emotions are moved;
They’re different from real human beings, I’m seeing,
So clearly it’s shown, I consider it proved!
The godless are never excited, delighted,
Feel love unrequited, or sorrow unplanned;
They’re robots! Their whole human backing is lacking—
It’s clear as a crystal--they don’t understand.

The battle of Pew Poll is being spun in multiple directions. Atheists are smarter; atheists claim they are smarter; atheists know more trivia; the test was general, not specific; does knowledge cause atheism or vice versa; knowing about something is different from knowing something... and more. Atheists reject religion because they do not know it in the same way as the faithful... except that so many of us were once among the faithful, and have not forgotten what it felt like. At the time, my religious conversion experience was perhaps the most overwhelming thing I had ever felt. I was a part of that community, too, and would never deny that part of the appeal. I have since had more overwhelming experiences (hey, I am a parent, after all), and have been part of different communities.

I am slightly insulted by the insinuations in the argument. I am not arguing out of a place of ignorance, either in the trivial knowledge part or the emotional, community, spiritual, etc. part. It is not that I do not know that view. Rather, it is that I know that view and so much more.

There is definitely misunderstanding going on. I just don't think the fingers are pointing in the right directions.

Cuttlecap tip to PZ, again.

Blasphemy Day Again?

Calloo, Callay! It's blasphemy day!
When we tug on the beard of the prophet;
When we say to the pope, "you're a miserable dope;
That ex cathedra chair? Just get off it!"
We point out that god is an impotent sod--
If indeed we assume god exists--
Just a vanishing fable, forever unable
To step from mythology's mists.
Here's your chance to express what you think of this mess;
If you haven't before, you should try it!
If you try just one bite, just one blaspheme, you might
Find a welcome new dish for your diet!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Miracle Butterfly!

I thought I saw a butterfly,
Of all unlikely things,
Pure white against the utter black
An angel’s fragile wings
It led me on to safety
Through the darkness of the mine—
A messenger from Heaven, it
Was God’s Own Holy Sign—
A tiny little butterfly
To show His Will Divine.

It fluttered in the mineshaft
A half a mile below,
Though how it could have gotten here
I think I’ll never know;
It must have been a messenger
Sent down by God above
As a physical reminder
Of the mercy of His love
While He chose, with His omnipotence,
To give the rocks a shove.

Though He could have stopped the rockfall
And could thus be held to blame
We will marvel at His mercy
And sing praises to His name.
Let our voices rise to Heaven;
Let a joyous noise resound!
Let us praise our God, almighty,
For the butterfly we found
In the middle of the chaos
Half a mile underground.

It must be boring. Boring, that is--boring a hole half a mile down to reach the trapped Chilean miners. So we get human interest stories, rather than "yup, the drill is still progressing." The latest human interest story seems to have some people excited and others embarrassed--it is the story of "the miners and the butterfly".

Copiapo, Chile (CNN) -- In Chile's dry Atacama desert, folklore mixes with superstition and superstition blends with religion.
Just like, oh, pretty much everywhere else.

The story has morphed with the retelling. The original, best as I can tell, was written by Jorge Galeguillos, one of the trapped miners:
"We had been up to the workshop and as we were driving back down, a slab of rock caved in just behind us. It crashed down only a few seconds after we drove past. Just ahead I saw a white butterfly," Galeguillos wrote in the two-page letter to his brother Eleodoro, also a miner.
"After that, we were caught in an avalanche of dirt and dust. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. The tunnel was collapsing and the rocks buried a backhoe. A water tank lower down was almost completely buried too," he continued.
By the time the story is told around firesides (the CNN reporter tells us), the butterfly was a guardian angel, bringing the miners to safety. In the comments to the CNN piece, we see that the miners stopped to watch the butterfly, and by doing so were saved from the collapse. Note that Galeguillos specifies that the cave-in was behind them, and the butterfly ahead, such that if they had stopped to watch, they'd have been crushed, but let's not let that get in the way of a good story.

Details are irrelevant when it comes to miracles. And isn't it miraculous that, as rock fell around them, eventually trapping them underground (where good planning of emergency shelters--not prayer--saved them), they saw... an insect?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Holy Compost!

As we bury these books full of hatred
We notice that nobody mourns
And we wonder, though roses were planted,
Might it only grow briars and thorns?

But no--we'll see beautiful blossoms
And the reason (it seem so, to me)
Is, the carbon long bound to this folly
Is delighted, at last, to be free

And the earth could be covered with flowers
And the world could be given a chance
If we hammer our swords into plowshares
And recycle our myths into plants

Cuttlecap tip to PZ, of course.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Ballad Of Christine O'Donnell

One Saturday morning, a beautiful day,
With nothing much better to do,
I thought I’d examine a question I had,
So I went off to visit the zoo.

The monkeys were swinging on bars in their cage—
I watched, the entire day long—
But not one of the monkeys evolved to a man;
That’s how I know Darwin was wrong.

Empirical study (like mine) has disclosed
That a theory is never a fact;
Since we never see monkeys evolve into men,
It’s time “evolution” was sacked.

With Darwin defeated, it’s time to explore
What they claim is the age of the earth;
“Tectonics” makes mountains and continents move
If the theory retains any worth.

So I hopped in the car, and I drove to the shore
With the cliffs overlooking the sea;
I watched the day long, while they moved not an inch—
The question is settled, for me!

When scientists tell me their method is best,
I agree—cos I’ve used it myself!
And I’ll take what I see with my very own eyes
Over dusty old books on the shelf.

And since monkeys are monkeys, and people are people,
And mountains are solid as stone
I’ve falsified science, and better than that,
I figured it out on my own!

Cuttlecap Tip to PZ, here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Minds Of Machines

My telephone wants my attention;
I can tell by the way that it yells.
It announces these things by the way that it rings
Its annoying cacophonous bells.

My car wants to see the mechanic,
And says so by flashing a light;
I'm quite apprehensive--it's always expensive
When something goes wrong (and it might!).

My laptop computer, it hates me
(And the feeling is mutual, jerk!)
No warning light flashes, just 'click' and it crashes
And vanishes all of my work.

When I don't understand their construction,
And their actions are hard to explain,
There are times that I find I just call it their mind--
And the same thing is true for my brain.

This comment over on the confabulator brain post at Pharyngula has not quite got it right. We do infer inner causes--wants and desires--in our machines, but not in the circumstances he uses as examples. "My lawnmower wants to mow the grass" is, I agree, not the way we speak of "want". But my lawnmower does not want to start on cold mornings--it wants to be warm. It wants a new oil filter--it tells me in smoke signals. My computer wants me to back up files. My car wants an oil change. My kids want ice cream. I want a job that pays.

"Wanting" implies that, given the opportunity to do X, we will. I cannot know the internal state of my computer's desire for backup, but I also cannot know my kids' internal state. Nor do I know the internal state of those who taught me the word "want", so I have no way of knowing if my feelings are the same as theirs--I only know that my behavior matches. "Want" works just as well--in the appropriate situations--for machines as it does for people or animals.

We use inner cause words in other situations, too--those situations in which causality is not easily determined. If my computer crashes because of a power surge that also takes out the transformer down the block and puts half the town in the dark, it is clear what happened; if my computer crashes for no apparent reason, it is because it has a mind of its own. Or it hates me.

Which it does.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On Hallucinogens As A Path To Enlightenment

I've seen the light--the other light--
The real one! Really seen it!
It's more than real, it's really real,
(That's how you know I mean it)
It's more than just "agreed upon
By others who observe it"--
Your thinking's far too linear;
Take lots of drugs and curve it.
I know it's real, despite the fact
It violates your "laws";
And when you ask me how I know
I'll simply say "because."

So take some pills, and try this new reality I've tasted--
And if, by chance, you disagree... so what? We're fucking wasted!

The comments on this thread were infested by a troll of a particular variety, the sort who has had more experience with drugs than with science, and is therefore convinced of the superiority of the former as a path to knowledge. I've run into this sort before (in a previous life--ha!); they are openminded to virtually every possibility in the universe, except that they might be mistaken.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The War On Christmas Comes *Really* Early This Year

(cuttlecap tip to BlagHag) (sorry about the formatting)

No, really. It's apparently real--not a spoof. And it's got a Baldwin brother! Extra points to anyone who made it through the whole trailer without either laughing or facepalming.

No wonder people look at me strangely when they find I'm an atheist; this movie presents what they think atheists are, and I am not at all like that. Come to think of it, nobody is like that.

This is a beautiful piece of propaganda; in the trailer alone, the revisionist history about both the holiday and the country shine through. As most of us know (except, of course, the people who need to the most), the beginnings of Christmas in America (home of The War On Christmas, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fox News) were not festive in the least. The Puritans had better, purer things to do on December 25th (for a couple of decades in the 1600's, Boston even had a law prohibiting the celebration of Christmas!); a Christmas holiday as we know it did not begin until the 1800's. Interestingly, celebrating Christmas (as opposed to observing it) spread with the notion of Santa, "The Night Before Christmas", and commercial connections to stores and products, not with the story of the birth of god's human sacrifice.

Those who wish a return to the traditional values of Christmas, away from the secularization, are welcome to stay inside, draw their curtains tight and stick their noses in their bibles. I will expect them to show up at work on the 25th (as, indeed, Congress did in 1789, the first Christmas under our constitution). Myself, I will gladly take the opportunity to celebrate with Cuttlefamily and friends. We will probably feast, and may even sing--such decadence would surely have been frowned upon, even fined, by the founders of our Christian Nation (TM).


A repost, from earlier wars on earlier christmases:

From the Cape of Good Hope to the Newfoundland islands,
The sands of Iran to the Panama isthmus;
From Outback Australia to Inverness Highlands
It’s time to take arms in the War Against Christmas!

My weapons are mistletoe, Christmas trees, holly,
A yule-log, and caroling out in the snow;
Sleigh-rides and snowball-fights, eggnog and Jolly
Old Santa Claus, laughing his loud “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

We’ll make them forget all the Truth of the season—
The sacrifice planned by a god up above—
And have them believing some bastardized reason
Like giving, or kindness, or caring or love!

I’ll cruelly and callously help out a stranger
Who’s down on his luck or has suffered some loss,
I won’t even speak of the babe in the manger
Whom God sent to Earth to get nailed to a cross;

When the winds of December conspire to freeze us
I’ll help collect sweaters and coats for the poor,
Neglecting to make any mention of Jesus,
Whose torture is really what Christmas is for.

My hatred of Christmas will focus my labors
On weaving an atheist fabric of lies—
For instance, I’m giving to all of my neighbors
Gift baskets, cookies, and fruitcakes and pies!

I’ll say “Merry Christmas!” I’ll say “Season’s Greetings!”
I’ll say “Happy Holidays—Joyous Noel!”
Intending of course, that with each of these meetings
The Truth About Christmas can just go to hell.

The truth is that Christmas is not about presents
It’s no time for songs, It’s not time to be nice
It’s not time for feasting on turkeys or pheasants—
It’s sin, and redemption by blood sacrifice.

No time to be jolly; no time to be merry
It’s time to be solemn, and grim, and devout!
The heathens might find it depressing or scary
But that is what Christmas is truly about.

Yes, Jesus is really the ultimate reason
And Christmas is really redemption and sin;
The war against Christmas is early this season—
For God’s sake, let’s hope that the atheists win!

Friday, September 17, 2010

I Got Yer Tentacles Right Here, Guy!

"Any entity – no matter how many tentacles it has – has a soul."
--Guy Consolmagno, Vatican Astronomer

I have no soul; I have no spirit,
No quintessential vital force;
That subtle voice? I cannot hear it;
My life has no unearthly source.
I have no god; I have no angel,
Devil, pixie, sprite or elf;
I don’t believe that prayer for change’ll
Do more than I do myself.
I have no need for benediction;
Follow no religious creed;
Holy Books are ancient fiction—
Reality is all I need.

In the pomp and circumstance of the pope's visit to Old Blighty, a vatican astronomer (thus, nominally, a scientist?) tells us authoritatively that aliens might have souls, and that he would be willing to baptize them, if they asked. The money quote, of course, opens this post.

Guy Consolmagno tries to puff up his scientific street cred by dissing Intelligent Design, and by demonstrating an understanding of the long odds against actual alien contact. But when it comes to the existence of something far more incredible than aliens, his true colors show:
Responding to Hawking's recent comments that the laws of physics removed the need for God, Consolmagno said: "Steven Hawking is a brilliant physicist and when it comes to theology I can say he's a brilliant physicist."
oooh, burn...

Well... I can tell you, when it comes to the ensoulment of tentacular entities, Consolmagno doesn't have a leg to stand on, let alone eight. Although it is certainly true that the tentacled are his equal when it comes to souls, it is a simple equation: 0 = 0.

Hey, BTW, I'm looking for a Thule fit kit # 151. The local store sez they don't carry it, cos it's obsolete. So if any of you are junking your old car and have a #151, let me know...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Prolate Spheroids

A physicist may be described
(to first approximation)
As a simple prolate spheroid
Of infectious obfuscation.
Attempts to oversimplify
Reveal their odd propensity
To speak of spheroid cattle
Which are uniform in density—
Their perfect planes are frictionless;
Collisions are elastic;
They’re rarely seen acknowledging
The random or stochastic.
The chaos of the world outside
May leave them full of fears;
Such terra incognita
Might be filled with… Engineers!

(Of course, in XKCD, physicists are not prolate spheroids, but lines and circles, in two dimensions. Even easier!)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Deus or Darwin

A universe that’s seen as random
Frightens those who crave control—
They want a god, to walk in tandem;
Faiths arise, cos folks demand ‘em—
Comfort, really, is their goal;
Thus charismatic leaders’ fandom
Sell their brain to save their soul.

With their control in diminution
Some will act to ease the threat;
Hitting on a strange solution,
Lose their trust in evolution;
Try, instead, a different bet—
Some designer’s contribution,
Rather than a blind roulette.

But—frame selection as restricted,
Rather than as simple chance—
Now beliefs are less conflicted;
Life less random, more predicted;
Less chaotic; more a dance:
How god and science are depicted
Determines which one will advance.

(Rutjens, B. T., et al., Deus or Darwin: Randomness and belief in theories about the origin of life, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2010), doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.07.009)

Rutjens, B. T., et al. (in press) explore the contribution of control-threat (that is, the perception of a lack of control over one's events and environment) to belief in some version of design (non-designed Darwinian Evolution vs. Intelligent Design vs the Conway-Morris restricted Evolutionary theory). Control-Threat theory suggests that when our perception of control is threatened, we look for ways to restore control; if science paints a picture that is... what's the word? ... accurate, then we may get the feeling that we are just a tiny insignificant speck, here by the most improbable of chances, in an incomprehensibly vast universe. Rather than being gobsmacked at how wonderful this is, we may instead feel tiny, insignificant, and speck-like, and cast about for ways to restore our former (ignorant and blissful) larger place in The Order Of Things.

This is where religion can come in. Rutjens, et al., though, show that the grasp for order and control need not reach toward religion. An alternative framing (that word!) of evolution (Conway-Morris, 2005) was preferred by Rutjens's participants over intelligent design. (I find it interesting that Conway-Morris's description of ID was "a theology for control freaks"--the freewheeling, limitless potential of evolution is presumed to be beyond the ID-believer's comfort level, and the muttered safe-word "design" brings the needed control back.) An analysis of Conway-Morris is beyond the current post; what is important is that it was control or predictability, and not god that was craved in times of uncertainty. God just happens to be one means by which an illusion of control may be delivered.

But, hey, I can't claim immunity; I stick to the sheltered harbor of metrical, rhymed verse, avoiding the uncertain currents and swells of real poetry. (Others stick to their favorite foods, or music, or destinations; there, I will gladly embrace the unknown!) I doubt (just a gut feeling) that Rutjens's finding is something that is limited to one's views on evolution, but it is nice to have this particular mosaic tile, this part of the big picture.

Friday, September 10, 2010

One Nation Indivisible

"We are all Americans, we stand together. I think it is absolutely important now for majority of Americans to hang onto that thing that is best in us: a belief in religious tolerance. We have to make sure we don't start turning on each other. We are one nation under God. We may call that God different names, but we are one nation."
President Barack Obama

I’ve always thought it more than odd
To say “One nation, under God”—
It’s laughable; it’s risible:
One thing it’s not is “indivisible”.
My president just cut me out:
My welcome here is now in doubt.
“Home of the brave”; “Land of the free”
But not the godless, can’t you see?

If common values bind us close—
Ideas, small or grandiose—
Those notions, if we care to look,
Will not be found in Holy Book
But in the Constitution’s lines,
The founders’ words, their grand designs,
Where weak or strong may both speak free,
Including godless folks like me.

Extra! Extra!

Pastor Jones
Cries and moans
And spouts his hateful views
He makes it clear
For us to hear
And floods the evening news
As cameras click
He does his shtick
And writers meet their deadlines
Somehow his shit
Is “news that’s fit
To print” and makes the headlines
This Jones, I think,
Enjoys his ink
When writers praise or scoff—
So I suggest
It might be best
To turn the cameras off.

A story in yesterday's NYTimes does a bit of navel-gazing, and ponders the media's role in Pastor Terry "Burn the Koran" Jones. Prior to his surfing the "ground zero mosque" media wave, Jones was an annoying little man who was unknown to the vast majority of us, a small fish even in his own community. He tried to get noticed, but frankly, few cared.

That was then; this is now. Every newspaper, every media outlet, everybody with access to ink or pixels has written about this pathetic man, and he has gladly stood in the center of a ring of cameras and made the most of a slow news period. (Yes, I see the irony in complaining about this while engaging in it. But I am a very small cuttlefish, and the odds of Jones being aware that I have even written his name are infinitesimal.)

The news cycle loves tempests in teapots. That is what this is. Jones has every right to burn [his own] copies of the Koran. The beautiful irony of it is, every argument he might make for exercising this right, is an argument in favor of building the mosque he is so dead-set against. Me? I'm an atheist, so I have no dog or god in this fight. But I would rather not establish a precedent of the government being able to dictate this sort of thing, because I quite selfishly would like to maintain my own right to offend people by writing... well, the sort of stuff you might find if you look through this blog.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Dear CreationConversations...

Dear CreationConversations, could you help me out a bit?
We’re about to study Science, where in truth I must admit
That my knowledge base is lacking, and I really don’t know shit,
‘Cept the science that my pastor says is true—

Like that evolution’s evil, which already I’d suspected,
Cos if God says we’re created, then that doesn’t mean selected;
If my teacher mentions Darwin, then I want my ears protected,
So I’m looking to the experts—namely, you.

So I hear we might be learning about animals and plants
And a bit on reproduction, where I think that there’s a chance
That I’ll get a funny feeling near the zipper of my pants
And I’m worried that I won’t know what to do!

Can you help me with some answers? Can you help allay my fears?
Can you help me if some science accidently hits my ears?
Cos the they say it doesn’t matter what a Christian student hears—
It’s their Darwinist-Evangelistic view!

If I hear their godless message, there’s a chance I might succumb,
And that violates my first amendment right to still be dumb!
It’s my right to read the bible till my thinking stuff goes numb!
My religion says that learning is taboo!

I’ll await your thoughtful answer with a keen anticipation;
You can see that I’m concerned about my future education—
If you can’t find a solution to this current situation
Then my dream to be a doctor might be through!

So, yeah... according to PZ, CreationConversations is the place to go for advice on how to handle those pesky presentations of evidence for evolution that play havoc with one's religious world view. I think one or two of my students must have gone there... probably not, but it was fun knowing more about the purpose behind their dog-whistle questions than they themselves knew. Those poor innocent children, naively asking questions they have been fed by utter bullshit artists. But it's nice to give both the answer to the question and the warning against trusting those bullshit artists again. Two answers where only one was expected!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Ex Nihilo

In the beginning, there was a void,
Which left a lot of folks annoyed.
So Hawking thought he’d take the case
And looked through time and space.

He looked to where it all began—
This thoughtful and inquiring man—
To where some say there must be God
And thought, “well, this is odd.”

“From gravity alone, I see
The Universe that came to be—
There need not be a Guiding Hand;
I hope you understand.”

But those who search in vain for Gaps
Where God may hide, just said “Perhaps
It’s God, creating Gravity,
Through his divinity.”

But comments left on news-sites show
That common people claim to know
Much better than a physics prof
(At whom they point and scoff)

Their knowledge-base approaching null,
Still from the vacuum of their skull
Ex nihilo, opinions sprout
And come a-creeping out.

From ignorance comes solid proof
That God is there—he’s just aloof—
And Hawking erred throughout his book,
They know without a look.

As usual, the real fun is to be had not in reading the articles about Hawking's new book, but in reading the comment sections to those articles! Hawking's book, which is not yet available, is already clearly wrong. Apparently faith in god comes with the ability to time travel, or to read so fast that you can finish a book several days before it is released.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Can I Get You Something?

Suppose you were down in the hole
But were not a mole
And were thus unaccustomed to life 700 meters underground
Where you are now found.
And suppose that everything that people could send to you had to fit into a hole barely the size of your fist—
What’s on your list?

Seriously... I have been thinking about this for a few days. The hole is narrower than a wine bottle (besides, the experts are telling them they can't give the trapped miners alcohol--or cigs, for that matter), and some 700 meters long. You are trapped with 32 others, which limits the amount of time available for getting you your own personal stuff. If something gets stuck, it needs to be pulled up again, which further wastes time. Quite a technical problem to begin with, let alone the personal variables!
The logistics of first designing and then sending a world of supplies down more than 2,200 feet through a hole not much bigger than a lemon has challenged the Chilean engineers and their counterparts from around the world, including NASA scientists and submarine commanders.

"That's the size of the tube by which we can supply them," said Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich as he formed a small circle with his hands. "Everything we develop must be this size or smaller."

Manalich described a laboratory of inventors behind the scenes who are designing everything, including collapsible cots and miniature sandwiches for lunch.
So... what's on your list? If you get greedy, 32 people will put you at the back of the line. If you don't speak up, you get nothing.

Me? I've slept on rocks before, I can wait on the cot. Roll some writing paper around a pen or two, and that ought to slide right down. That, and a loaded MP3 player with earbuds, and I'll wait in the back of the line for a long time.