A fool for the ages

Over the past weekend, I noticed a link to a video entitled “America First, Netherlands Second”. Out of curiosity I gave it a click to see what it was about. Perhaps some of you already know or have seen other versions of similar videos. I tried to embed the one I saw, but the sharing was blocked for copyright reasons. However, you can also follow this link to find links to over 10 videos and growing that all mock our current president for his announcement that he was going to ensure that America was always first.

When the page opens, click anywhere in the European map to open a page that will include a list of 11 different countries in Europe that have produced their version of the “America First My Country Second” videos. Each touts the worthiness of their country to at least be second if America must be first. They use Trump’s easily identified verbal quirks, his poor use of grammar and his constant use of superlatives. Some do a good job of imitating his voice. I’ve noticed that a large number of other countries have had comedians produce additional videos. They may eventually be listed on this page, but you can also find them on YouTube.com by searching for “America first”.

It has become a comedy contest around the world to see who can do the best job of mocking him and promoting their own countries in a self-deprecating and hilarious fashion. Here we are, less than one full month into his presidency and he has achieved world wide wide fame not for setting a standard for leadership, but for being an uninformed, chauvinistic dunce. I always thought giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama early in his administration was a bit premature at best, but now Trump has achieved a position of world wide leadership which cannot be denied and is completely earned.

I recommend taking the time to watch at least one or two more of the videos. You will get good laughs from all of them.

Darwin Day 2017

Sunday, February 12th is the official Darwin Day in celebration of the birth of Charles Darwin, one of the most important figures ever in science. We are planning an event in commemoration of this day, but we’ve set it for Tuesday, February 14th at 7:00 PM because we will be using facilities at ICC and they aren’t open on Sundays.

We will be showing a video that explores a small piece of the mountain of evidence that is explained by the theory. The video is titled “Great Transformations” and covers the notion of transitional species in the process of life evolving on our planet. A prime example will be the wolf-like creature that evolved over time into giant creatures that exist only in our oceans, the whales. It also looks at the common ancestry that all life on the planet shares, no matter how different it seems. For example, a fruit fly and a mouse sharing a gene which is responsible for the development of eyes in both organisms. This single gene can be switched from the mouse to the fly during embryological development and still produce a normal eye. Evolution doesn’t start from scratch when a new species begins to appear. It works on what exists and kind of “improvises” from there. In the far distant past, the gene for eyes appeared and it has been used over and over again in countless species. The embryological environment with multiple genes in action determines how the gene for eyes is expressed in each case. Shared ancestry indeed.

The video runs a bit over 50 minutes and we will try to generate some discussion afterwards and maybe even some debate over the contents of the film and the theory of evolution in general.

Join us on Tuesday, February 14th on the campus of ICC in Wilson 120 at 7:00 PM. This event is being sponsored by the Philosophy Club at ICC.

Our monthly meeting for January 24, 2017 – Religion evolves?

This is the first post about the content of our monthly meeting in quite some time. Meetings in the recent past have focused on live presentations and discussions which were difficult to present in written format, but the most recent meeting featured discussion about the video embedded below.

The topic was the differences between christian churches representing different denominations and displaying very different views of what is important. Many churches cling to a very fundamentalist orientation while others have more flexible and “modern” versions of the dogma, rituals and atmosphere. Yet most of them are seeing a continued decline in membership as the number of people claiming no particular religious affiliation continues to grow. The “nones” as they are typically described don’t necessarily lose all their faith, they just don’t find church involvement to be particularly important.

In this environment, many churches are seeking answers as to how they should change or evolve to make themselves relevant for the future. This has often led them toward increasingly liberal positions on issues such as women’s rights, gay rights, etc. This evolution has been slow and sometimes painful as membership can decline further when members find the liberal positions less to their liking.

At our meeting we watched a video made in 2013 in which the pastor of a church in Toronto, Ontario Canada responds to question about here decision to define herself as an atheist and the difficulties reconciling this with the members of her church. While many left, others have stayed and the church has continued to explore its new role as a welcome place for those who have no faith or have a very limited faith.

The West Hill United Church of Canada has now begun exploring joining the Oasis program which connects other churches or groups embracing a secular humanist view and seeking to redefine Sunday morning services as serving a primarily humanistic purpose. We shall see if this evolution helps to preserve their existence or if they are just another step on the extinction of religion.

Blog Issues

The blog experienced some problems last week when I attempted to install some routine updates to the themes, various plugins and the basic WordPress program. The updates failed because the system was unable to remove the older versions that the updates would replace. There wasn’t any explanation of why the old versions couldn’t be removed and the consequences weren’t immediately obvious. Later the content of the public blog website went completely blank and this made it impossible to see any of the content or make any changes.

I contacted technical support and they worked with the site to restore the ability to see and edit the content. I’m not sure what the problem was, but it took more than a day for them to figure it out. This work was completed as of Thursday, April 21st.

When the blog was restored, some of the settings were not preserved and the main security plugin had to be reinstalled. So far this appears to have worked, but the appearance of the blog has been changed to a different theme and header image. I haven’t restored the original theme, but will try to do this soon. In the meantime, if you post a comment or create new content, things should work okay. If you find things are still malfunctioning in some fashion, let me know.

Make plans to see “Spotlight”

I didn’t watch the Oscars this year and I haven’t watched them much for several years. But this year a picture I wanted to see won the Oscar for best picture. I hadn’t seen it because it never played in Grand Rapids during its initial release. Now, all of a sudden after the Oscar win, it shows up in town. So Carolyn and I made a very rare middle of the week trip to see it on Tuesday night. I was concerned that it would be gone before the weekend and didn’t want to miss our chance. It was well worth taking the time. I’m still puzzled as to why it was so delayed in coming to Grand Rapids. I suspect the Catholic church is very unhappy with it, but I don’t know that they would have raised a stink in town that the theater operator would care about.

The movie documents in a dramatic format the pursuit by the Boston Globe newspaper of a story about the abuse of children by pedophile priests in the Boston area. This occurred in the early 2000’s and involved an investigative reporting team name Spotlight. A team of four journalists who are asked to take on the story by a new editor who has just taken over the news operation. He is responding to some information he noticed in the paper about a single case of abuse that seems to point to a larger problem and wonders why the paper didn’t pursue the story further. The answer is that no one thought it would amount to anything – just a single bad apple priest. The editor challenges them to find out if that is true.

Eventually the team realizes that the problem is massive involving more than 80 priests in the Boston area, hundreds of victims and a community wide effort to suppress the story involving not just the Catholic Church, but government attorneys, the police, a host of public figures and, most disturbing, Cardinal Law and others in the upper reaches of the church hierarchy. Also embarrassing, the Spotlight team realizes that some of them also contributed to suppressing the story when they were in other positions at the paper. They had followed everyone else in deciding it was a limited problem and the church shouldn’t be subjected to further embarrassment for the “good of the community”.

This story is compelling and the dramatization of it is straight forward and feels completely honest. No one comes off as a unblemished hero, but the willingness of the Spotlight team to follow the story to its end regardless is admirable. Almost all of them are portrayed as lapsed Catholics, but we are left to wonder if this story put the nail in the coffin of their faith for good. I also wondered how badly the church in Boston was hurt by this story. The level of disgust and disappointment with the church seems intense at the end of the film. It would be nice if some details on the impact for the church were easily available. Maybe they are, I just haven’t looked hard enough I suppose.

In the end, Cardinal Law is pulled out of Boston and hidden away in the Vatican where he remains. As I recall, the whole scandal fueled the flames of investigation all over the world and we now know that the Catholic Church has been complicit in thousands of abuse cases with hundreds of abusive priests and nuns. It is now suspected that the retired Pope Benedict was up to his ears in the cover up of the problem and resigned to avoid further problems for himself. I’m not sure that the current Pope, Francis, isn’t also guilty at some level. The Vatican is clearly a criminal organization at this point.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is intense and compelling. I don’t know how long it will be in town. Go see it if you can.

Brian Dalton – Our monthly meeting for February 23, 2016

Brian Dalton has been a person of interest from the beginning of our group. First as Mr.Deity and then as the Ray Comfort spoof The Way of the Mister. Now he has created a third “channel” called The God Distraction.This is a series of talks about his serious dissatisfaction with the notion of g*d. The general theme is “I don’t care if God exists and neither should you.”. I don’t know how many presentations he will create on this topic, but there are now 3 episodes. We skipped the first, introduction segment which is short and moved on to the second one called Arguments. In this episode he critiques the whole idea of debating g*d’s existence using nothing but arguments (aplogetics). What he considers essential at the start is some evidence. If there is no evidence, who cares what the arguments are or how strong they are. If you can’t establish the existence of this entity via evidence, you are wasting your time with arguments unless you just like arguing for arguing’s sake.

For the sake of being complete, I’ve embedded both the introductory talk and the first “chapter” regarding arguments.

This stuff is a bit more serious than Dalton’s earlier stuff although if you watch carefully, you will catch phrases and images that reflect his quick wit. Post your thoughts and comments below.

In which I take a stab at returning to the blog

It has been a long time since I added anything to the blog other than links to videos we have watched at our monthly meeting. I’m not entirely sure why I found it less appealing. Perhaps it was feeling overwhelmed with the ability of people like Jerry Coyne to produce a mammoth volume of well written and interesting posts on a daily basis while I struggled to do any kind of post more than once a week. Guess I should approach it more the way I do learning to play the guitar. I’ll never be all that great, it’s just fun to be able to do it at all.

So what is happening now? Well, next week I will meet with a guy named Jerry Nagel who is involved in a project with the Blandin Foundation in which some people (I don’t know who), will receive training (I don’t know what) to be influential in leading groups to achieve a broader understanding of their world views and how those views act as a lens through which they perceive the world…or something. It was suggested that he meet with me as a “leader” of a group with a “world view” and as someone who had entered into a discussion with others holding different world views, i.e. the CPC group now known as World Views Uniting.

My initial response after agreeing to meet was to take a look at the website for his consulting business which is WorldViewIntelligence.com. It seemed the best place to gain an understanding of whether this was mostly woo or something more substantive. It looked like woo through much of what I read. Lots of stuff about world views driving us hither and thither via an unconscious channel. While I suppose you can demonstrate an unconscious channel in various situations, I’ve never been overly fond of the idea that we are walking around clueless to our real thoughts, emotions, brain events, etc. I’ve known plenty of clueless people, but I’m not sure they were clueless because they were unconscious. I think they were clueless because they lacked an interest in developing and nurturing a self-examined life. I for one don’t really think I stumbled into a secular/humanist perspective and remain unaware of how it colors my view of the world. I spend the better part of my life examining and evaluating that perspective.

So what will I discuss with Nagel? I’m actually supposing that he will take responsibility for aiming the conversation in one way or another, but have been making guesses as is my style. So here are some thoughts.

GRAF as a group does represent a world view of sorts, but what we share is mostly discomfort with the idea of a g*d and after that things get a bit messy. A fair number of us value a scientific view of the nature of reality and how to learn more about it, but that isn’t a dominant feature of the thinking process of everyone in the group. We also have a pretty strong skeptical orientation and avoid buying into other ideologies without evidence or reason and logic, but there again, we have different levels of skepticism in the group. The list of differences that exist within our group and between members is substantial after you get through the shared stuff.

So what I think is that I will have less to say about our world view and more about how the larger community is clueless about us, assigns qualities to us that aren’t accurate and often views us a threatening presence. I am reminded of that almost daily as I read the scary stories being presented by the religious announcing that the coming election may be the last one if they don’t shove a g*dly candidate down our throats (an image they seem overly fond of for some reason). Cruz will save the world by finally bringing the theocracy into being. Or maybe it will be Rubio or even Jeb!. Trump won’t save us at all even though he now claims to be as g*dly as anyone else. They don’t seem to realize he is a religious pretender. He certainly isn’t one of us. Just a sociopath who says whatever he thinks might make the con work. The “take our country back” meme is prominent in this political season, but I wonder if it reflects a dim awareness that religion is losing on a lot of fronts.

With these thoughts in mind, I returned to the World Views Intelligence website and then did a short search for videos to get a bit less of the woo and more of an explanation of what they are up to. It seems to come down to helping people overcome their prejudices, the use of stereotypes and other sorts of clouded thinking. Could such problems exist in this community?

If that works to include us along with all the other loathed, hated, despised and feared minority groups, maybe that is a good thing. I suspect that as we have found in our conversations with the CPC group, it may be a revelation of sorts to him to discover that atheists actually exist in rural America and can be the object of unconscious or conscious fear. He may also be surprised that there are enough of us to raise a stink with the help of the FFRF in a tiny town like Grand Rapids. Might be fun shaking his World View. More to come after next week….

Muslim Opinions and Demographics

I came upon this video somewhat by accident and was interested in hearing from another Muslim I had not seen or heard of before. Her name is Raheel Raza and she is associated with something called the Clarion Project – Challenging Extremism | Promoting Dialog. I must confess that I had never heard of that organization before either. In any case, she presents a brief talk on a topic that Jerry Coyne and others have mentioned. That is the significant number of Muslims who endorse many of the more disturbing attitudes and beliefs associated with Islam. While it is true that a small minority of Muslims engage in the most violent and extreme behaviors we are all becoming familiar with, there is a disturbing acceptance and tolerance for that kind of extremism that pervades large segments of the Muslim community. Calling Islam a peaceful religion seems a bit more wishful thinking than realistic. Watch the video and see what you think.

I know that our group includes lots of different opinions about how to deal with radical Islam and many fear the development of a broad hostility to anyone inside the Muslim community. Our country is certainly full of crazies who are always on the watch for the next big enemy – I’m looking at the Republican candidates – and we need to challenge their prejudices. But we also do need to come up with some ideas about how to counter the possibility that Islam harbors a large contingent of people who are in conflict with enlightenment ideas, humanistic values and tolerance for diversity. They appear to be keeping those thoughts mostly to themselves except on surveys.

The “prayer vigil” – dealing with state/church issues locally

As most of you probably know, the Sheriff’s department in Itasca County sent a letter out ostensibly from the department’s chaplain (who knew they had a chaplain?). The letter was on official letterhead and gave the clear impression that the “vigil” was sponsored by the Sheriff. The “prayer vigil” was to be held on November 21st at the courthouse and was scheduled to last 24 hrs. The praying was to “benefit” the law enforcement, fire department and medical first responders in the community. What benefits were to be received was a bit vague.

Since sponsorship by the Sheriff would constitute a state/church violation of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, I contacted FFRF and provided them with a copy of the letter. They wrote to the Sheriff and other county officials advising them of the problem and requesting that the vigil be cancelled and the chaplain position be abandoned.

Nathan Bergstedt who was still with the newspaper did some interviews including the County Administrator in plans for publishing an article on the situation. He also interviewed me as a representative of GRAF. While there was plenty of time for the paper to publish the article about this prior to the 21st, the article never appeared, until this Wednesday, the 2nd of December.

The article was a bit late and out of date since the vigil either did not occur or was moved to some undisclosed location. Several GRAF members drove past the courthouse on the morning of the 21st and saw no evidence of any vigil although the street was partially blocked off and various equipment that might have been used was setup on the sidewalk and street. There were no signs indicating what happened with the planned vigil.

So, chalk one up for the county abiding by the requirements of the first amendment. Give the Herald Review a D- for waiting so long to publish “news” and neglecting to find out what happened. The community was left to wonder if the vigil was held, whether the county had responded to the FFRF letter and requests, etc.

Testing Religion and Offense – Our monthly meeting for November 24, 2015

This is a relatively brief (18 minute) video on the difficulties of sorting out different interpretations of religious tenets, dogma and such. The main point is that religious moderates can only be distinguished from extremists by a matter of degrees on a continuous scale. We can’t sort them into neat categories and declare extremists to be easily distinguished from moderates or progressives. Depending on the issue, we might find individuals to occupy different locations on the continuum of beliefs.

While brief, the video is rather chock full of information and ideas that can be thought provoking. It may take more than one or two times through to understand the scope of religious ideas and those who hold them. This video is part of a series by the same individual. I’ve only watched a couple, but they seem to be well done and generate a lot of thoughts.