International Blasphemy Day

Today is International Blasphemy Day, a day meant to counter the anti-blasphemy laws present in some countries. I personally like that it counters the idea that religion inherently deserves respect, but to each his own.

Anyway, Jesus is a silly fictional character. God is an awful fictional character. And it’s awfully silly that people think Jesus was God.

Thought of the day

The average schlub does not appreciate rhetoric. Keeping that in mind, let’s go to the comment section over at Pharyngula where the user Pteryxx recently said this:

We’re not dealing with honest participants in a discussion here. We have unconscious bias. We have institutionalized sexism. We have stereotype threat. We have widespread apologetics and denial. We have constant, systemic silencing attempts using every tactic from harassment to shaming to tone-trolling to death threats. And we have evidence that a large subset of sexism-apologetics have as their goal the continued oppression of women.

And they pretend their oppression is actually rational discussion, SO THEY DON’T GET CALLED ON IT. They need the guise of social acceptance for freedom to operate. Rhetoric WILL NOT WORK here – in fact, it’s ceding the point at the outset.

This would be risible were it not so pathetically stupid. This person has used nothing but rhetoric in a post in which he advocates against its use. He obviously has zero understanding of what rhetoric even is or why it matters so much in everyday life.

I think I expect too much out of the average schlub.

When PZ does not help women

I write from time to time about the use of rhetoric in communication. When most people hear that word, they think of empty phrases that have no real substance behind them, but that’s not correct. Yes, there is a lot of empty rhetoric out there, but the vast majority of it – even when people don’t realize they are utilizing it – is really an art.

I was thinking about this earlier right around the time I was also thinking about PZ’s posts on feminism. He uses rhetoric which stays within his general style of being brute and harsh, but I don’t think that’s a good thing at all. It isn’t that I’m being a tone-troll – people can swear and curse and insult and say whatever other mean things they want and I don’t mind. The issue here is that I don’t think PZ is being effective.

In my view, the core point of rhetoric is to communicate a particular idea to someone in a way that meets a goal. Generally the goal is to convince another person that Concept X is correct, but that isn’t always the case. Take for instance the harsh rhetoric of Gnu Atheists. It can be cordial yet forceful, and when that happens I think the point is to convince a person to believe a particular idea. But when the rhetoric is rougher, more insulting, less kind, the (primary) point is not necessarily to get a person thinking, “Oh, yeah, that guy is right.” No, instead the point is to break taboos. Referring to God as a sky-daddy or calling religious thinking irrational and silly goes against the grain because it is expected for one to respect and accept beliefs if they are religious beliefs. That’s horseshit. Breaking that taboo is important in breaking the hold of religion; make it okay to attack religion and maybe it won’t be held in such unjustified revere. PZ is good at doing that, just as many other Gnu Atheists are. (Richard Dawkins even begins The God Delusion by talking about undeserved respect.)

But when it comes to promoting feminism, PZ is not usually effective. He often blames men, calls people sexist merely for not agreeing on controversial, nuanced topics, and sometimes he even lies. This is par for the course when it comes to caricature feminists; all those things people stereotype feminists as being come to the surface, and that is harmful. Confirming false ideas which many people see negatively does not demonstrate effective rhetoric.

This would be fine, though, if PZ could justify his rhetoric as getting at another point like with the Gnu Atheists. But I doubt he can. What more could he want, after all, than to promote equality for women? He may do that in some ways, but when he uses bad rhetoric, he overshadows his primary goal. And if he isn’t achieving that goal, he is not helping women. In fact, his failure to achieve his goal goes to the left on the chart: He is actually hurting women because he is confirming stereotypes and putting a stop to productive discussion.

To use an anecdote, I’ve had my run-in with feminists. I still stand by my core arguments on some issues (a picture of fat women objectifies obesity first – and that is a good thing, anyway), but on other issues I have become more aware of my biases. And the reason has absolutely nothing to do with the caricature feminists who say men who disagree with them are promoting rape and other absurdities. No, it has to do with the people who actually took the time to explain their arguments. It’s weird, but women acting hysterically somehow does not promote viewing them as rational.

Now take this recent post by PZ. He says atheism has a sexism problem which is being denied, but he doesn’t go off the deep end. He focuses on things like female leadership and the need to be more aware of a lack of women at events and conferences. He does say obtuse men (and, surprisingly, women) are an obstacle, but he specifies that it is a small minority, not all men (or women). I agree:

Our one obstacle? The small number of indignant people who will be in denial, and take recognition of a common problem as an insult. Get over it. Appreciating women as partners actually doesn’t hurt, and the only insult here is the bizarrely obtuse attitude of some men and women.

He is almost trolling by calling people out for being in denial – I haven’t read the comment section, but given that it is nearly 700 posts deep, I have no hope for it – but the important thing is that he hasn’t gone and blamed men or atheists in general. The issue, in part, is a lack of awareness, and that does not place direct blame on people. (Also at issue is a legacy of society where men rise to higher positions more often than women – most Gnu Atheists spokespeople are accomplished in academics – and that is beyond the scope of atheism.) He points out ignorance, communicates a precise issue he has seen in his class (see post), and promotes the talent of women. This is hopeful because rather than attack others, he has taken a positive position. That is what is needed if PZ actually does want to help women.

It’s just effective rhetoric.

Thought of the day

Even if the Red Sox make it into the playoffs (something they hardly deserve), they’ll be out in the first round.

My money is on Philly to go all the way.

More negative impacts from religion

I was under the impression we were still using the constitution, but I guess that’s not the case in Alabama:

The small town of Bay Minette, Alabama is telling people convicted of small crimes to choose Jesus or choose jail.

Starting this week, the city judge will implement Operation Restore Our Community (ROC), which gives misdemeanor offenders a choice between fines and jail or a year of Sunday church services.

“Operation ROC resulted from meetings with church leaders,” Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland told the Alabama Press-Register. “It was agreed by all the pastors that at the core of the crime problem was the erosion of family values and morals. We have children raising children and parents not instilling values in young people.”

This is a problem that comes from things like religious-based sexual immaturity and a general lack of education. (I know, I know. Poor education in Alabama? I’m shocked, too.) And besides that, I don’t think it’s too out there to say that most of the offenders in Alabama, even the young ones, believe in God already anyway. It’s impossible to live anywhere in America and not be inundated with Christianity. That is especially true of the south, including Bible-thumping Alabama.

Pastor Robert Gates told WRKG that the program was a win-win for everyone involved.

“You show me somebody who falls in love with Jesus, and I’ll show you a person who won’t be a problem to society,” he said.

Westboro Baptist Church, Somalia, Nigeria, George Tiller’s murderer, Catholic Church officials, Kent Hovind, Spanish Inquisitors, the Crusaders, Republicans, so on, so forth.

But you know the religious have really gone overboard when this is the case:

Think Progress’ Ian Millhiser noted that the program would even be considered illegal under conservative Justice Antonin Scalia’s view of the Constitution.

“In his dissenting opinion in Lee v. Weisman, Scalia wrote that the state may not use the ‘threat of penalty’ to ‘coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise,'” Millhiser wrote. “Telling someone — even someone convicted of a crime — that they must participate in a religious service or go to jail clearly fails Justice Scalia’s test.”

This is just going to cost Bay Minette a bunch of money in legal fees.

Why this neutrino business is not worrying

It may have been noticed over the past couple of days that Christian and creationist blogs have been in a bit of a tizzy. Recent findings at CERN have shown something interesting about neutrinos and the cosmic speed limit:

Physicists on the team that measured particles traveling faster than light said Friday they were as surprised as their skeptics about the results, which appear to violate the laws of nature as we know them.

Hundreds of scientists packed an auditorium at one of the world’s foremost laboratories on the Swiss-French border to hear how a subatomic particle, the neutrino, was found to have outrun light and confounded the theories of Albert Einstein.

“To our great surprise we found an anomaly,” said Antonio Ereditato, who participated in the experiment and speaks on behalf of the team.

An anomaly is a mild way of putting it.

Going faster than light is something that is just not supposed to happen, according to Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity. The speed of light — 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers per second) — has long been considered a cosmic speed limit.

This is exciting to the anti-science crowd because of a religious and/or ignorance mentality. That is, with religion we have doctrine and dogma and ingrained beliefs which are not to be challenged. If they are, it’s going to take some big steps to reconfigure things. Take the Catholic Church’s insistence that Earth was at the center of everything. It was embarrassing to find out just how wrong they were and they had to re-think a lot of their baseless declarations. But science isn’t so stubborn. And even with more secular ‘skeptics’ ignorance can be a problem. ‘What? Science has changed? But if it was right, it wouldn’t have changed!’

Of course, none of this is actually worrying in the least. Let’s assume something can go faster than light. That does bring about some significant changes, may have big research implications, and could lead to better insights into how the Universe works. But that doesn’t mean Einstein was wrong, no more than Einstein showed Newton was wrong. Yes, there are corrections, tweaks, re-writes, but that does not dismiss all the other stuff that is right. When Einstein and 1905 rolled around, apples didn’t stop falling from trees. Now that we have these CERN researchers in 2011, that doesn’t mean our GPS systems will stop working.

What I find so heartening about all this is that the majority of the articles I have seen have been done responsibly. For instance, from the article linked above:

If the experiment is independently repeated — most likely by teams in the United States or Japan — then it would require a fundamental rethink of modern physics…

“We will continue our studies and we will wait patiently for the confirmation,” [Antonio Ereditato] told the AP. “Everybody is free to do what they want: to think, to claim, to dream.”

And from an AP article:

Q. How likely is it that this finding is correct?

A. Experts are skeptical. Einstein’s relativity theory has withstood a lot of experimental tests over the years. The scientists who reported the finding say they’re still looking for flaws in their experimental procedures, and they’ve asked other labs to try to duplicate the results.

And another AP article:

The elegance of Einstein’s theory and its proven track record are why nearly every one of the more than a dozen physicists contacted by The Associated Press about the new findings has been cautious, skeptical or downright disbelieving.

Whether we’re talking about something as fundamental as Einstein’s theory or something as side-view as DEET, scientists again and again will say we must wait for confirmation, for scientific scrutiny. Physics isn’t going to get overturned based upon a single experiment. Yes, one experiment may lead to a turnover (and all the textbooks will be sure to note the original finding, not all the confirmations), but it takes repetition for something to be scientifically valid.

As one of my favorite bio professors once said, “Science is all about reproducibility. If you can’t reproduce your data, it’s all a load of horseshit.”

We aren’t a Christian nation, but…

Thought of the day

Obama is not a brown-skinned anti-war socialist who likes to give away free healthcare.

You’re thinking of Jesus.

Nevermind – 20 years later

As of today, Sept 24, it has been 20 years since Nirvana’s Nevermind was released. (I have this post set to be published at 3am EST – midnight in Seattle.) I was only 6 at the time the album came out, a month shy of 9 when Kurt Cobain killed himself (April ’94), so I missed out on the moment. Sort of. I may have been too young to realize the importance of the band, not to mention too young to yet have a distinct interest in music, but with all the interviews, writings, and, ultimately, songs, it would be impossible for anyone to not feel like they were right there when it was all happening.

My introduction to the band came via my brother. He was a fan from either just before Cobain’s death or just after. Either way, he would listen to his Nirvana albums constantly. I didn’t take to them right away, probably in part because of a traditional sibling rivalry (it must be bad if my brother likes it, right?), but then I saw a special on MTV. First they covered a little bit about the band, about Cobain, about his burn out. I was intrigued. Then they aired Nirvana: Unplugged in New York. I was absolutely blown away. I immediately “borrowed” my brother’s album of the show and listened to it again and again and again.

I didn’t know that a bunch of the songs were covers (like the one above by Meat Puppets), but that didn’t much matter. The performance is what counted to me. And it was an incredible one. From David Bowie covers to Lead Belly tunes to Nirvana originals, I couldn’t get enough. I searched listings and watched The Preview Channel constantly in hopes of seeing more Nirvana specials and repeats of performances. (This was before DVRs and, as far as my house went, Internet access.)

(If there is one video you watch from this post, make it the above. Pay close attention to the moment – and it is a moment – at 4:39.)

It wasn’t long before I started moving into the other Nirvana albums – especially Nevermind. Literally every song on that record is a gem – any one of those “Top 100” or whatheveyou lists of the best albums of the 90’s which does not place this at number 1 is invalid. Come As You Are, Lithium, Polly? The assemblage of songs Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl put together back in 1991 can’t be beat. Yeah, I love a lot of other albums – Revolver has one of the greatest string of three songs I’ve ever heard in Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, and I’m Only Sleeping (plus a lot of other great hits) – but the dozen songs on Nevermind will never be topped as far as I’m concerned. (I’ve never had the honor of hearing an original album featuring the hidden 13th song Endless Nameless.)

This was one of those life-changing bands. Cobain’s more liberal views, his detestation of macho bullshit, his love of art, it all influenced me. I grew a distinct feeling of empathy over the idea of rape, something from which I am otherwise relatively insulated. I came to realize there’s nothing wrong with being gay. I picked up the guitar when I entered high school. The course of my life has been shaped in large part by the fact that I started listening to Nirvana back in 1998. That satisfies me immensely.


via Mike