Sarah Haider – Our Monthly Meeting on June 23, 2015

Sarah Haider is one of the co-founders of the Ex-Muslims of North America organization. She spoke at the American Humanist Association convention in May of this year. The subject of her talk was “Islam and the Necessity of Liberal Critique”.

In this talk, Sarah voices a complaint against the presumed progressive/liberal portion of the population who appear to object to anyone voicing criticism of Islam. She is surprised that they will fault her as an Islamaphobe because she dares to voice these criticisms. Like Ayann Hirsi Ali, she is puzzled by the willingness of atheist progressives to attack the other Abrahamic religions and show restraint when the topic is Islam. The idea that Islamic extremism is a reflection of the underlying nature of the Islamic faith seems to be completely unacceptable. The extremism is often attributed to problems with prior colonialism, poverty, other problems associated with countries not yet experiencing success entering the modern world, etc. etc., but never to the stated rationale of the extremists themselves which is their religious beliefs. Faulting the religion is often out of bounds even though many secularists would have no difficulty faulting Christianity under similar circumstances. So this video may be controversial, but confirmation bias shouldn’t contribute to turning away from an uncomfortable message…amiright?

Gay Marriage Legal!

It’s about time, but the Supreme Court finally did the right thing and ruled that marriage between GLBT people is legal.  Because this is a human rights issue, this is a victory not just for the GLBT community, but for all humans.

And for those conservative Christians who predicted the end of civilization if this happened, I now boldly predict that they will be proven wrong.

Faith vs. Fact – Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible

Jerry Coyne’s new book referenced in the title above has now been published. I have a copy and I’m reading through it in my usual style of two or three pages at a time which guarantees that I won’t remember most of it and, therefore, can be excused for reading it over and over. He is starting to go through various book tour events and one of the first was held at Politics & Prose, a famous book store in Washington, D.C. A recording of his presentation is available here and is worth a listen.

The talk runs about 35 minutes and then is followed by another 30 minutes of Q & A. His publisher/agent advised him not to talk about what was in the book, but about why he wrote it, thereby being more likely to entice audience members to buy the book since they’d be more curious about what was in it. So Jerry tried to do this although he does give away some of the contents.

If you’ve followed Jerry on his “Why Evolution Is True” website for any length of time, you are probably familiar with his arguments about the incompatibility of science and religion. The book goes into more detail on some of his points and is an easy read so far. The position he takes is that science and religion make competing claims about the nature of reality even if religion also delves into issues of meaning and purpose. It’s the religious claims about reality that are most invidious because they are never supported by any evidence at all; they are simply assertions. There is no way to detect or correct errors within religion itself. It has no tools, no tested process by which to ascertain which of those claims, if any, is true. Hence, we have thousands of religions each making claims denied by some other religion. Science on the other hand, has a highly refined and thoroughly vetted system for searching out and identifying what is likely to be true. Hence, there is only one science, not American science or Chinese science or German science, etc. There is just the one system and it has succeeded in spectacular ways.

Jerry knows his book will be controversial and draw all sorts of challenges and complaints. His first presentation at the University Club of Chicago a couple of weeks ago gave him a taste when the wealthy old white men who make up the club invited him in to talk about his book. They were not amused. I wonder how they managed to invite him in the first place?

Back to Politics and Prose. The Q & A is also worth listening to primarily because of two people who wanted to make speeches instead of ask a question. The first is a nurse who claims that her work with patients relied heavily upon her faith and without said faith she fears she wouldn’t be successful in caring for others. Jerry points out that the word she should be using is ‘confidence’ rather than faith. She has confidence in her skills and those of her co-workers based on training, experience and knowledge. She misattributes this sense of confidence to a religious faith that really seems to play no real part. She is unconvinced.

The second is a fellow who describes himself as a rabbi and wants to lecture Jerry on how he needs to study religion even more since he doesn’t really understand his Jewish heritage. Too bad that Jerry didn’t talk at length about what was actually in his book. The rabbi falls into the trap of claiming that you have to read every single book on religion before you can criticize it. The correct reply of course, is for the rabbi to read every science book and then come back to talk.

These two speech makers take up a chunk of the Q & A time and Jerry has to be a little testy with them given the total number of people wanting to actually ask a question during the time available. It always amazes me when people try to use a Q & A to launch their own presentation instead as though their perspective is so important that they can impose it on the entire audience without permission or invitation. Jerry will likely need to practice his skills at telling people to shut up and sit down. I don’t think he enjoys doing that, but he doesn’t want to listen to the rants either.

 

Atheists: Inside the World of Non-believers – Our Monthly Meeting on May 26, 2015

This month’s program was a documentary produced by CNN in response to the continued rise in the number of those in the U.S. population who choose “none” when asked for their religious affiliation. While most of the “nones” seem reluctant to go as far as declaring themselves to be atheists, the percentage of atheists in this country continues to inch up. Combined with those who have simply walked away from organized religion, all of the “nones” constitute the fastest growing segment of the religious population, now outnumbering Catholics. It seems a bit odd to identify the “nones” as a religious group, but that’s how they tend to be portrayed in the media.

The documentary is a fairly balanced look at what atheism entails, the consequences one can encounter when giving up their faith and being open about it in public and how atheists remain decent people without god. So, a decent presentation that may counter some of the misunderstandings that are often encountered by those who are now part of the “nones”.

King of the (Prehistoric) Seas–Mosasaur

I’ve been dragging my heels with these prehistoric creature posts, but with “Jurassic World” just around the corner, I decided to get off my buns and post about one of my all time favorites: mosasaurs.

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Shamu’s got NOTHING on this sh*t!

Mosasaurs ruled the oceans of the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic Era of Earth’s history, biting sharks in half while T-Rex was doing the same with anatosaurs.  A close relative of modern-day monitor lizards and snakes (more on this in a minute) mosasaurs were the dominant marine predators for the last 20 million years of the Dinosaur Age, an age where the seas included plesiosaurs and Ginsu sharks–25 foot long ancestors of the great white and named for the Ginsu knife.  Evolving from small lizards that lived in swamps and lakes to avoid dinosaurs, and later made the transition to oceans, mosasaurs ruled their environment with a number of different weapons, not least of which was their size, which ranged from roughly the size of a Labrador, to the 60 foot long Mosasaurus.

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You can always count on Suicidal Size-Comparison Alan to make things real

But what did such titanic beasts even feed on?  Luckily for mosasaurs, everything during this time was just too big.  Sea birds as tall as a man, carnivorous fish the size of motor boats, sea turtle that dwarfed life-rafts, and of course the sharks and plesiosaurs I mentioned earlier, mosasaurs had their pick of what to eat.  Mosasaurs tracked their prey with two keen weapons, the first of which were pressure sensors in their snouts.  Like modern day crocodiles and Cretaceous Era Spinosaurus (the star of Jurassic Park III) mosasaurs had pockets of nervous tissue in their snouts that allowed them to detect the pressure waves made by all swimming creatures.  Their second weapon was a forked tongue that, like those of their modern snake and monitor lizard cousins, could be used to track scents, even underwater.

We can make the assumption that mosasaurs had these forked tongues by looking at their modern relatives, and we certainly know who those are.  By looking at the skeletons of mosasaurs, as well as soft tissue imprints–which show small, triangular scales like those of snakes–we can see the similarities they possess to snakes and monitors.  Not just that, but the lower jaw of a mosasaur was double-hinged, just like those of modern snakes, which mean that they could move their bottom jaws forward-and-back as well as up-and-down.  You’d think that meat hook teeth and Satan’s own mandibles would be enough, but mosasaurs also possessed a second set of teeth in the upper jaw which would hold prey, as well as shred it to pieces, as it used its double-hinged snappers to drag up to four feet of flesh down its gullet at a time.  Pay attention to the inside of the mosasaur’s jaws in the Jurassic World trailer and you’ll see those devilish teeth yourself.

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“Well, hello there killer-shark-lizard!”

I mentioned soft tissue deposits, which, as you may be aware, rarely fossilize.  Well, remains in Harrana, Jordan (which was underwater at the time) were so well preserved that scientists were able to study the softer, squishier bits that don’t often survive millions of years of being buried in the dirt.  This is how they know what the mosasaurs’ scales were like, how they know that the organs were arranged much like those of modern whales, and how they know that mosasaur had a tail like a shark’s.  This design being in modern sharks and fish is no accident, it optimizes how much water is displaced with each stroke from the tail, allowing more efficiency for a swimming creature.  While things are more ambiguous for the smaller species, larger specimens like the Mosasaurus itself were unlikely to pursue prey long distances.  Like modern great whites, they likely patrolled populous waters until they found a good spot before laying in wait for something to swim too close, tagging their chosen prey with a great burst of power.

With the depletion in fish stalks that occurred after the KT Event–otherwise known as the meteor-based bitch slap that rebooted life on planet Earth–larger predators simply couldn’t continue; they simply couldn’t survive on the smaller fish left behind.  The implications that it took an event of cosmic proportions to send these beasts into extinction speaks volumes of their rule.  Even had dinosaurs died out and left the mosasaurs alive, the world would be much different; there would be no whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals or sea lions or walruses for one thing.  They wouldn’t be able to compete, mammals simply couldn’t take to the seas, which raises more implications about man’s place in a world like this.  Even if we evolved at all, we wouldn’t be able to conquer the globe like we have today.  Fishing would be too dangerous an enterprise with 60-foot sea beasts patrolling the best places, early man would not have been able to travel as far afield across the oceans in rafts and small boats.  Much of our current success is a result of our ability to harness the resources of the oceans, the domain of the mosasaurs.

Steven Pinker – Our monthly meeting on April 28, 2015

Steven PInker’s well regarded book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is considered an excellent read, but at 800 pages, clearly not a quick one. Fortunately for us, Steven is not only an excellent writer, but also an excellent speaker. In the video below he quickly gives us an overview of the massive book, hitting all the high spots and providing an easy to follow description of where his research led him and where things may continue to head. Here is his presentation at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in March in Minneapolis.

Pinker describes this as the most peaceful age in human history and provides a broad array of evidence in support of this claim. He ends with a description of the primary factors behind the dramatic decline in violence across the planet. In short, they include: empathy, self-control, the “moral sense,” and reason. Note the absence of religion. While religion is discussed in some detail in his book, getting to key points and arguments, Pinker clearly feels that he has no need for the “god hypothesis”.

A Matter of Grave Concern

A couple of days ago in my ethics class, the topic of children’s rights came up.  I asked if parents have absolute power over their kids, or if children have rights which the state should, when necessary, intervene to protect.  As an example, I pointed out that some parents don’t believe in blood transfusions, and would rather let their children die.  This, of course, tends to be on religious grounds, with Jehovah’s Witnesses being the primary offenders.  Well, it turned out that one of my female students happens to be a JW, and I think she mentioned previously that she is pregnant, but that may or may not be the case.  At any rate, she stated that she does not believe in transfusions, and would not allow her child to have one.  Class ended, but at our next session, other students wanted to pick up the discussion.  I am cognizant of the fact that in my official capacity, I am a “state actor,” and have to be careful how I respond to matters of religion (this is NOT to say that I respect silly beliefs, but that I respect limitations placed on my by the first amendment).  So I tried the Socratic approach — asking her where her beliefs come from.  Well, the bible, of course.  But how do you know which parts of the bible to follow — doesn’t the bible say that women should cover their hair?  Well, some parts of the bible have been superceded.  How do you know which ones?  Well, of course, the Watchtower society makes that decision.

About this time, one of the more naive students asked her what biblical passage prohibits blood transfusions (and it really doesn’t anyway — the biblical authors knew nothing about blood transfusion or other modern medical procedures).  She looked up the passage, and the little naif immediately said, “Oh, I guess I can respect that!”

RESPECT it?  How does one respect delusional nonsense that can, and has, led to the death of a child?  This idea that we have to respect religious nonsense has got to go.  It is one thing to respect a person’s humanity, but not all ideas are the same.  Some are just not respectable.  If the JW student in question lost a child because she refused it a blood transfusion, I don’t know if she would be guilty of murder because it was not out of malice, but certainly of manslaughter or something similar.  As for the jerks at the Watchtower Society, they should spend the rest of their lives in jail for the harm they have wrought.  This isn’t merely hypothetical: children have actually died because they were refused blood transfusions.  I say “they were refused” because as minors, they cannot make such decisions for themselves, and this is clearly a case where parents are so dangerously delusional they are in no position to speak for their children.

If an adult wishes to be a fool, let her.  But the idea that she can force her deadly nonsense on her helpless child is outrageous.

Calling all Poets

Hello everyone.  If there is anyone who likes to compose secular philosophical or scientific themed poetry, here’s an opportunity for you.  The English philosopher and blogger Jonathan MS Pearce (who is also an occasional contributor to this blog) is looking for submissions; check out the details here: http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2015/04/16/another-call-for-atheist-humanist-philosophical-and-scientific-poetry/

By the way, Pearce’s blog, “A Tippling Philosopher” which is on the Skeptic Ink network, is one of my favorites, and I encourage anyone, whether poetically inclined or not, to check it out.

Noli Timere Messorem

On March 12th, 2015, the world lost a true master of the written word with the death of Sir Terrence Pratchett, known simply as Terry Pratchett, at the age of 66 after his battle with Alzheimer’s.  Britain’s best-selling author behind JK Rowling–and if Harry Potter is your only real competition, then you deserve all the fame you can get–Pratchett is best known for his Discworld series, a long-running series of comedic novels starring many different characters from beloved long-runners such as Commander Sam Vimes and the young witch Tiffany Aching, to one-off but no less well-written characters like the orc Mr. Nutt.

Pratchett was a risk taker, he wasted no time in utilizing computers for his writing as soon as they became available, and was one of the first authors to use the internet to actively communicate with his fans.  And unlike many other fantasy novelists, he was not afraid to shake up the status quo, as evidenced by his last novel, Raising Steam, which introduced the steam engine and locomotive to his swords-and-sorcery fantasy realm.

In 2007, Pratchett was misdiagnosed as having had a stroke, and was later properly diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, specifically posterior cortical atrophy, which causes areas in the back of the brain to shrink and shrivel.  This “embuggerance” as he called it did nothing to reduce his zest for life and he kept writing and playing video games, proclaiming he had time for “at least a few books yet” and asking his fans not to offer help, though he joked that he would accept offers from “very high-end experts in brain chemistry.”  In his final years, he dictated his words to his assistant, or to voice-recognition software, as he had found it too difficult to write himself.  In 2008, after learning that Alzheimer’s research earns about 3% of the funding received by cancer research, he donated $1,000,000 to help find a cure, and his loyal fans launched “Match It for Pratchett,” raising another $1,000,000.

Pratchett received knighthood and was appointed an Officer of the British Empire for services to literature, was the British Book Award’s “Fantasy and Science Fiction Author of the Year” for 1994, won the British Science Fiction Award for his novel Pyramids and a Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel for Making Money.  He received nine honorary doctorates for his contribution to Public Service, a Carnegie Award in 2001 for The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, Night Watch (currently being converted into a TV series by his daughter) received the Prometheus Award for best libertarian novel, three of the four Tiffany Aching books received the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book.  Going Postal was shortlisted for a Hugo, but Pratchett recused himself as the stress world mar his enjoyment of Worldcon.  I Shall Wear Midnight, the fourth of the Tiffany Aching novels, won the 2010 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.

He was a pretty freaking good author is what I’m trying to say here!

Pratchett is survived by his wife Lyn Purves and daughter Rhianna Pratchett, herself an award-winning videogame writer.  Rhianna is currently working hard at turning Night Watch into a television series and The Wee Free Men, the first of the Tiffany Aching novels, into a feature film.  His novels, cunning social commentaries disguised as genre fiction, are timeless and taught many lessons, not least of which was to not fear Death, who appeared as a minor character in almost every novel Pratchett ever wrote.  And so, let me quote again from the Pratchett Coat of Arms “Noli Timere Messorem,” or in English “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

And from the official Terry Pratchett twitter account:

“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.

Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

The End.”