Atheists of Maine fundraiser for Camp Sunshine

I’ve mentioned from time to time the fundraiser I’ve been doing on behalf of Atheists of Maine, a group I help run. Well, it looks like we’ve exceeded our goal by quite a bit – $600 – and we’re easily number 1 amongst the other teams doing the polar dip in Portland this Saturday. I hope we see a few more dollars roll in before the fundraiser closes on March 31st.

But speaking of late March, AoM will be doing a Hug-An-Atheist booth at Easy Street Lounge in Hallowell on March 30th. It’s no coincidence that this will be the night before Easter; we’re hoping that maybe we can rustle up a little more activity this way so that we’ll have all the more funds raised to donate to a local animal shelter. If you’re in the area, come on down.

Here’s one believers often miss


Next up on the list of what believers miss: Why noting that no atheists spends as much time debunking unicorns as they do debunking gods is asinine.

Thought of the day

I can understand some of the support people have for gun rights. There are valid arguments to be had for why gun ownership should only be regulated within certain limits (at least in the U.S.). However, I will never understand why anyone supports the massively moronic NRA.

And the boots of progress continue…

The Obama administration has just gotten even more active in being on the right side of history:

The Obama administration on Friday urged the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense Of Marriage Act in a brief that calls the law unconstitutional because it violates “the fundamental guarantee of equal protection.”

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argues in the brief that Section 3 of the 1996 federal law prohibits the marriage of same-sex couples and should get the court’s close scrutiny:

“The law denies to tens of thousands of same-sex couples who are legally married under state law an array of important federal benefits that are available to legally married opposite-sex couples. Because this discrimination cannot be justified as substantially furthering any important governmental interest, Section 3 is unconstitutional.”

Emphasis mine. It’s clear that DOMA and other anti-equality measures have always been about a lack of comfort and sexual maturity amongst Christians and those who have been duped by bogus Christian arguments and, often, outright lies.

I, for one, cannot wait to see marriage equality spread across the United States. The only downside is that when absolutely nothing bad happens as a result, I’ll be stuck being associated with the dwindling but still strong base of bigots that pervade my generation and the generation ahead of me.

No, that’s a bad Oklahoma! Bad Oklahoma!

Looks like there’s another creationist bill in another red state:

Oklahoma’s most recent creationism measure has made it over its latest hurdle.

The Oklahoma Common Education committee passed the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act Tuesday in a close 9-8 vote, Mother Jones reports.

Introduced by Republican state Rep. Gus Blackwell, the legislation would “permit teachers, schools, and students to explore alternative theories without repercussions,” the Week columnist Dana Liebelson writes.

“Without repercussions”? Come, come now. This bill is about science denialism across the board, including of global warming, cloning, and especially evolution. A person cannot grow up in the 21st century and expect to be proficient in an ever more complex world when our schools are forcing scientific illiteracy on them. Just look at what one of the sponsors of the bill said:

While creationism bills have often been linked to religion, Blackwell insists that the legislation’s focus is scientific exploration.

“I proposed this bill because there are teachers and students who may be afraid of going against what they see in their textbooks,” Blackwell explained to Mother Jones. “A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations.”

Highly complex life – indeed, all of life – is explained not merely by chance, nor merely mutations. There are a whole host of mechanisms which contribute to life’s erratic march, such as genetic drift and, of course, natural selection. (I say “erratic march” because, as Stephen Jay Gould noted, life does not evolve towards complexity, but rather diversity.) We cannot expect students to write coherent papers on this matter when there are people in charge like Blackwell who have obviously never even considered biology at this level.

Hopefully this bill will die just like a similar one did last year, but who knows. The power of the stupid-lobby remains as strong as ever.

Yes, religion is given undue respect and special rights

One of the basic arguments of Gnu Atheism is that religion is given undue respect. Indeed, this argument is aired out in the opening pages of The God Delusion; it’s necessary to establish this obvious fact before going any further with other issues. To do otherwise would be to handcuff one’s self to fighting on the the theist’s sheltered turf. It isn’t usually a fair match when one side needs to tiptoe around the facts for fear of being dismissed purely on the grounds of being mildly offensive.

Of course, there are plenty of examples of this undue respect all around us. TGD gives a number, and there are new ones literally every single day. I’ll stick to just one:

A devout member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster had the cops called on him by employees at a Dayton, New Jersey, Motor Vehicle Commission facility after he demanded to be allowed to wear a pasta strainer on his head for his driver’s license photo.

25-year-old Aaron Williams, a practitioner of the mostly satirical anti-creationism “religion” of Pastafarianism, says he was told that motor vehicle policy prohibited the wearing of head coverings in license photos excepting those worn for religious reasons.

“I take it as seriously as anybody else when it comes to religious beliefs,” he later told

There really was no reason to call the police it seems, but that isn’t what’s important here. What’s important is that New Jersey allows individuals to wear headgear for religious (among a few other) reasons. Aaron Williams should have been allowed to have his photo taken with a strainer on his head. To say otherwise is tantamount to saying that the government is allowed to pick and choose what religious beliefs are protected under the First Amendment.

The first objection, I think, that many people will have (besides outrage at having the very idea of religion mocked – the horror!) is that Pastafarianism is not a religion, so there’s nothing to discuss here. That isn’t entirely true. While it isn’t a sincere religion, it does reflect a sincere religious position. That is, Pastafarianism specifically addresses the silliness of certain religious dogma, doctrine, and teaching. It isn’t necessarily related to atheism, but it does deserve the same protection atheism is given under the First Amendment. (Though atheism is also not a religion, the First Amendment provides for freedom for and, as a natural and necessary extension, from religion.)

Williams will be taking his request to state officials higher up the ladder, so it remains to be seen what happens, but I think it’s worth taking a look at the laws of other states. Let’s take a gander at Maine:

An individual may be photographed wearing a turban or the customary wear of a nun. Headgear is also allowed for medical reasons. No other exceptions are provided. “No one will be allowed to wear a hat or other headdress when their photo is taken, except for a Nun who may wear the headdress as part of their ‘habit,’ or a turban may be worn in conjunction with religious beliefs. A person undergoing chemotherapy and requests to wear a kerchief, hat, etc., is allowed to do so.”

This is one of the most absurd special rights granted to religious driver’s. Not only is it saying that special laws apply to people based upon their religious beliefs, but it’s going one step further and specifying two specific groups who don’t have to follow the same laws as the rest of us. So you got that, Jews? You listening, Mennonites? No hats for you.

I only pray to his Noodley Goodness that these laws may one day change.

PZ Myers snub?

Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have a movie coming out later this year:

‘The Unbelievers’ follows renowned scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss across the globe as they speak publicly about the importance of science and reason in the modern world – encouraging others to cast off antiquated religious and politically motivated approaches toward important current issues.

This is interesting in and of itself, but what really grabbed my attention was the list of speakers:

The film includes interviews with celebrities and other influential people who support the work of these controversial speakers, including:

Ricky Gervais
Woody Allen
Cameron Diaz
Stephen Hawking
Sarah Silverman
Bill Pullman
Werner Herzog
Tim Minchin
Eddie Izzard
Ian McEwan
Adam Savage
Ayaan Hirsi-Ali
Penn Jillette
Sam Harris
Dan Dennett
James Randi
Cormac McCarthy
Paul Provenza
James Morrison
Michael Shermer
David Silverman
…and more.

These are the same people listed at the end of the trailer and I don’t believe anyone not on the list makes it into any of the preview clips. So that leads me to wonder: Was PZ Myers snubbed? Once one of the most prominent members of the online atheist community, he has fallen into a very narrow band of caricature-feminist thought where he wants to promote philosophically-ignorant claptrap that presumes a non-descriptive nature to atheism. (Atheism is only descriptive.) He even said some pretty stupid things about Richard Dawkins over all this feminist malarkey:

Let’s stop the shouting that Richard Dawkins is some kind of raving misogynist. What’s happened here is that he is at some remove from all of the details, and this issue got blown up by lunatics who felt their manhood threatened and who exaggerated the situation to an absurd degree. I think he is wrong, but what he was arguing against was a cartoon of feminism which far too many people have been peddling on the blogs.

The so-called “lunatics” were saying much the same thing as Dawkins. PZ never bothered to give any of them a backhanded defense, interestingly. I think Dawkins recognized this, as well as PZ’s general lack of common sense, so now the bridge between the two may be burned (or at least severely charred). This is a far bigger blow to PZ than it is to the good doctor from Oxford; I hope it’s why I’m not seeing PZ’s name anywhere on this movie.

Natural selection is a serious problem for theism

Natural selection is the process by which different traits and, ultimately, alleles spread or shrink throughout a population over time. It is a key mechanism in evolution and an understanding of it is necessary to knowing anything important about life itself. It demonstrates how we can have such a long history with so many seemingly lucky ancestors, culminating in such a massive variety across the planet. But perhaps most importantly, it sheds light on some of our most fundamental questions about existence.

I’ve spoken in the past about Richard Lenksi’s E. coli experiment. He has been tracking a dozen different lineages of the bacteria for the past 25 years, carefully cataloging the genetic changes that take place and when they happen. What he has found is that mutations are often contingent, meaning that for Mutation #2 to happen, Mutation #1 is first needed. However, in his most interesting finding, it turns out that neither of these mutations will necessarily be useful at first. That is, they are neither advantageous nor deleterious, instead merely being neutral, as is so often the case. Yet they persist. It is only by chance, so it is a lucky persistence, but it happens. And, with time, Mutation #3 (or 4 or 5, etc) happens, and it is that mutation which is advantageous. Here natural selection goes to work, causing the new allele to near or reach fixation. But this does not happen in every lineage. Indeed, when Lenski re-runs his experiment using generations he had frozen earlier, he has found that sometimes the mutations all happen again, but more often they fail to occur. The reason is clear: there is nothing but chance that can maintain a neutral mutation. (This is why microsatellites are great for studying short-term generational changes, but not deep evolutionary time.)

I bring this up because Lenksi’s work crystallizes in experiment the words of Stephen Jay Gould:

Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.

Gould went further, however, than us. No single trait, and certainly no entire species, is inevitable in evolution, he rightly said. Perhaps some features are more likely than others – the eye is said to have evolved independently 40 different times – but no specific feature (such as wings or bipedalism) can be firmly predicted. Indeed, Gould spent much of his time arguing that evolution drives not towards complexity or specificity, but rather diversity; life finds itself at many forks, but it never ‘knows’ which road it will take.

This presents a significant problem for theists. For the young Earth variety, the issues are glaring. That group of people is nothing but woefully ignorant, denying even the most obvious and established science. They don’t deserve any more of my time here. For the older Earth variety that opts for theistic evolution, however, the problems they face are merely buried just far enough away from mild, easy thinking to be ignorable for most. That is, they’ve admitted to the fact of evolution, but they are necessarily ignoring that if humans evolved just like everything else, there was a point where our ancestors weren’t human; we were no different from any other mammal in the distant past. (It is only time and space which allows us to define a species.) That destroys any argument that says, in the eyes of some deity, we might be more special than, say, a giraffe.

The counter to this, as per the Catholic Church and others, is to simply declare that we were infused with souls at some unknown point in our evolutionary history. This isn’t much of an answer: No member of a species gives birth to a different species; evolution is continuous. So to believe the theist’s argument, we must conclude that at some point in our ancestry, a mother with no soul gave birth to offspring that did have a soul. That is, one was not essentially human while, magically, the other was.

The one version of theism that gets around some of this is where it is declared that all of life is equally special, so it doesn’t matter that no particular species or even traits are inevitable. This, however, has its own problem. Namely, it makes the given deity (or deities) entirely superfluous. It’s no more a viable position than seeing a door blown inward from the wind and declaring that there was also a ghost pushing from the outside.

For me, I find it far easier to simply accept natural selection and its clear implications. I have no need to make seemingly comfortable lies comport with contradictory facts.

Thought of the day

It strikes me that the major reasons for our fiscal, economic, and military industrial complex problems trace back squarely to the baby boom generation.

And the march continues…

Deciding that the right side of history is where they want to be, the U.K., France, and Illinois have all taken steps this month toward putting into law a requirement that same-sex couples be allowed to marry. I think we can expect to see more of this in parts of the world that tend to be enlightened. And if we’re lucky, the U.S. Supreme Court will follow the 14th Amendment and declare that marriage for same-sex couples is required so long as a state decides it wants to have marriage at all. (As I’ve said before, I expect Political Figure Scalia to contradict previous arguments he has made and principles he has stated, but I hope I’m wrong.)