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Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

Charles DarwinToday marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, his landmark work about Evolution and Natural Selection. Controversial in his day, Darwin’s book continues to cause controversy today, not for a lack of evidence or a scientifically questionable theory, but because of it unavoidable conclusion that man is not a divinely inspired creation, but a product of Natural Selection over billions of years.

Evolutionary Biology is not just a white-tower theory in the halls of academia. In his article titled Evolutionary Biology: Technology for the 21st Century, Jim Bull explains how it is used to track infectious diseases, create vaccines, and enhance agriculture among other things. As Evolutionary Biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (who was also a Russian Orthodox Christian) said in his 1973 essay, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is a cornerstone on which the biological sciences rest. It has withstood the test of time since Darwin released his work 150 years ago. It has arguably undergone more intense scrutiny than any other scientific theory in existence, but has remained as the best and most complete explanation for the development of life on this planet (not the origin). It has done so because of the vast amount of evidence that exists to support it… and the complete lack of evidence that does not. Some minor details of the theory have been modified since Darwin’s book was published, but the basic premise remains untouched and well-grounded.

Why, then, does there seem to be such a controversy surrounding Evolution and Natural Selection? The controversy exists not among the scientific community, but generally between Creationists and those who accept the facts along with the accompanying inevitable conclusion. The facts are there. The evidence is there. Research from multiple branches of science completely support Darwin’s theory.

Natural Selection removes the protective cocoon of “divine creation” from humankind. Since all living things evolved from a common ancestor over billions of years, homosapiens are not necessarily the pinnacle of God’s intentioned creation. We are simply one current tip of a branch on the evolutionary tree of life. We are no more divine than any other creature on the planet and are not “special” children of God. From that is where the controversy springs.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, Creationists refuse to accept the Evolutionary Theory and continue to treat the bible (or their alternate chosen holy book) as the literal word of God, maintaining that God created humans to rule over the earth and all its inhabitants, that human beings are divinely created, not evolved from ancient prokaryotes over billions of years. Evolutionary Theory removes, for them, their reason to exist.

It removes the meaning from their lives instead of creating an overwhelming sense of awe at the relationship of all living things on this planet… that joyous feeling of inclusiveness that we are not alone and we are not isolated. We have a glorious connection to every creature that flies in the air or walks on the earth or swims in the oceans. We are part of something greater than ourselves, something indescribably more vast, and something almost unimaginably ancient. We are part of an awe-inspiring process that has developed single cells into such a diversity of forms that it all but overwhelms our minds with wonder.

We are part of life.

Saudi Judge Sentences Rape Victim

The Saudi Gazette reported that a District Court in Jeddah sentenced a gang-rape victim to 100 lashes and a year in prison… for committing adultery, becoming pregnant, and attempting to get an abortion.

The District Court in Jeddah pronounced the verdict on Saturday after the girl confessed that she had a forced sexual intercourse with a man who had offered her a ride. The man, the girl confessed, took her to a rest house, east of Jeddah, where he and four of friends assaulted her all night long.

CONFESSED?! She CONFESSED that she had forced sexual intercourse? Just the phrasing insinuates that this woman is the guilty party in this case… that she is the one who should be looked upon with disgust and disdain.

This woman was evidently raped repeatedly by five men and she is the one who receives the punishment? What kind of sick, twisted legal system allows that kind of thing to happen? Is this the kind of law that is derived from Islam? I have yet to read the Koran, so I don’t know the exact teachings and shouldn’t make accusations, but this kind of thing seems to be happening in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations on a relatively regular basis. One can come to the reasonable conclusion that this atrocity is spawned by faith in Islam. I don’t see this happening in Switzerland or Italy or the United States.

This type of action is sick and disgusting and should generate a scorching outcry from the rest of the world.

Thanks to Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for the heads up.

“Prayer hotline… Please hold.”

PrayerPrayer is such an important part of religious life. Whether it’s praying to thank a god for bestowing his blessings or praying to ask for something or praying to help someone else, prayer is used constantly and touted as being the “direct line to God” for those who pray.

It seems the fact that it doesn’t actually do anything is irrelevant. I will acquiesce and admit that perhaps prayer helps the mental state of the one doing the prayer, much like meditation, but other than that… nothing.

Even Christians know that prayer doesn’t work, but you won’t get them to admit it. Daniel Florien at Unreasonable Faith makes this point that really drives it home. If Christians (and practitioners of other religions) really believed that prayer worked, they wouldn’t have to bother doing many things that the rest of us take for granted: see the doctor, drive to work, pay the bills, go to school, etc. They could just pray.

I recently had someone tell me that while working with Habitat for Humanity building homes in Louisiana (quite admirable), the heat was almost overwhelming (she’s around 65) and she didn’t think she was going to be able to continue working. She sat down and said a little prayer to God to help her with this and “He sent a gentle cool breeze that was so refreshing.”

This same person told me that one day, after repeated failed attempts to load a lawn mower onto a truck by driving it up some ramps, she was so frustrated that she stopped, said a little prayer, and successfully drove the mower onto the truck the very next try.

Divine intervention?… or perhaps coincidence in the first case, and “taking a deep breath and calming down” in the second case. Why didn’t she pray for God to instantly create an already-built house in Louisiana? Why didn’t she just pray for God to fix the mower so she wouldn’t have to load it onto the truck?

Because prayer doesn’t work.

Prayer is the ultimate random cold reader. Guys like Derren Brown and Penn Jillette (both magicians) use cold reading in their acts to show they have psychic powers. They don’t and they say they don’t, but the way cold reading works is by using a shotgun approach to gaining information, repeatedly “missing” and eventually getting to a “hit,” making the target think that his mind was just read. Using this approach produces many, many more misses than hits, but more of a big deal is made out of the hits, and the audience, focusing mainly on the hits, is amazed.

Prayer works the same way, but less efficiently and more randomly, with considerably more misses than hits. The hits are touted as incontrovertible proof that God is listening while the misses are explained away as not being “God’s will” or as a test of faith. Sometimes, the misses are even explained away as hits, such as praying for a sick person to get better, only to have them die, in which case they got “better” by being taken home to Jesus.

Two anonymous quotes to sum it all up…

The hard work of one does more than the prayers of millions.

…and…

Nothing fails like prayer.

Amen to that.

Scary Church Signs

FireI try to take note of the church signs I see in my area and usually see the generic notifications of sermon times or guest speakers. A few churches, however, always try to have clever sayings out front, which is much more entertaining for me. One in particular seems to have some very clever ones and sometimes even makes me smile or chuckle.

Most of the more clever church signs are harmless puns, but every now and then, one makes me narrow my eyes and raise an eyebrow.

I saw this one yesterday:

Remember the banana. When he left the bunch, he got skinned.

It’s a clever play on words, indeed, but its whimsy hides one of the more sinister sides of religious belief… using fear as a tool to coerce obedience. Stay with the church or you’ll be doomed.

Another church sign read:

Try Jesus. If you don’t like him, Satan will take you back.

Clever. It’s also somewhat cute if you block out the image of burning in a pit of Satan-created fire for not liking Jesus.

Christianity tends to preach all about a just, merciful God and loving, forgiving Jesus. God’s love is immeasurable and glorious. Jesus is your loving and understanding savior. You’ll be swept up into glorious Heaven where paradise awaits you and you’ll be able to walk hand-in-hand with Jesus in eternal bliss.

All you have to do is believe what they tell you to believe.

Of course, if you refuse to accept Jesus as your savior and refuse to worship God in the way that is demanded, you’re going to be punished for all eternity in unspeakably torturous ways with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, doomed to spend an infinite amount of time surrounded by hellfire and brimstone and subjected to incomprehensible pain and agony.

But to avoid that horror, all you have to do is believe what they tell you to believe…

…regardless of whether it’s true or not.

There are FOUR lights! *

(* geeky Star Trek:TNG reference)

Ted Haggard and the Sparkling Gem of Hypocrisy

Ted HaggardI just finished watching the Alexandra Pelosi documentary The Trials Of Ted Haggard. Before watching this documentary, I had always felt that Ted Haggard had gotten what was coming to him. I had an empathetic feeling of sorrow for his wife and five children, but thought that he deserved the public scorn and humiliation that was assailing him. After watching this documentary, my opinion changed a little bit.

Now make no mistake, Ted Haggard did lead a life of double standards to be sure. There is video example after example of his preaching that homosexuals are sinners who need help, and all the while he was using methamphetamines and partaking in the massage skills of Mr. Mike Jones, a known homosexual prostitute.

Believe it or not, this obvious breach of pastoral etiquette is not the hypocrisy to which the title of this story refers.

No. I am, in fact, referring to the hypocritical treatment that the Haggard family et al, received from their New Life Ministry “leaders.” Once again, allow me to be crystal clear that I am not defending Ted Haggard. He got what was coming. I just found it over-the-top crazy that these religious leaders felt the best way to shepherd their lost sheep (Haggard) back into the fold was to publicly humiliate him and force his family into a settlement requiring exile from the state of Colorado.

I am not a Christian but I do believe this is not what Jesus would have done (I also believe that rising from the dead was something that Jesus would not have done…but I digress). These leaders are men who preach forgiveness, loving the sinner but hating the sin, and the power of redemption. The best they could come up with was exile? Now we’re getting biblical.

Did Haggard wander around a desert after his exodus? Yes… although it wasn’t Egypt and it didn’t take 40 years. Haggard explains how he enjoyed going to the desert in Arizona, reading scripture, and praying to God for guidance.

Here is what I believe was the bottom line. Reverend Ted’s actions could undermine the faith of New Life Ministry’s parishioners (customers) and the leaders (religious business men) of New Life Ministries didn’t want their church (business) to be tainted (drop in revenue) because of  Reverend Ted’s behavior.

If I were a parishioner of the New Life Ministry I would be just as ashamed of its leaders as I was of Reverend Ted.

Tony Blair at the National Prayer Breakfast

During the National Prayer Breakfast, which itself causes some consternation among atheists, former Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a speech stating that “restoring religious faith to its rightful place” is crucial to our world’s future.

There’s a clip on YouTube of part of his speech. I listened to it today and was saddened. While his speech was definitely appropriate for the venue, it highlighted some things that many atheists (and some non-atheists) feel are huge barriers to civil, benevolent behavior and scientific progress in our world.

I believe restoring religious faith to its rightful place as the guide to our world and its future is itself of the essence.

The 21st century will be poorer in spirit, meaner in ambition, less disciplined in conscience, if it is not under the guardianship of faith in God.

I beg to differ. I think recent history has demonstrated, rather vividly, just the opposite. From the atrocities in Iraq (before and after the U.S. invasion) to the situation between Israelis and Palestinians to the oppression in Saudi Arabia to the sexual indiscretions of Catholic priests, religious faith has undeniably demonstrated its function as a catalyst for mean-spirited ambition, inexcusable behavior, subjugation of human rights, and horrid acts of violence.

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Photo Op!

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

Today, I went to visit the new Dover, PA “Praise Darwin” billboard with Craig, my co-writer on this site, to take a few pictures. It took us a bit longer than we expected to find it because we were heading north and the billboard is viewable for south-bound drivers. I kept looking, but when driving north, it’s hidden behind a grove of trees, so I missed it, but it was easy to spot on the way back.

It’s actually very unobtrusive (much to our dismay!), but is very tasteful. It makes the complaints by area residents seem all the more silly considering you’d have a good chance of missing it if you weren’t actually looking for it.

So that’s me on the left and Craig on the right. Later this month, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is going to organize a larger group photo with as many area members as they can muster, so perhaps I’ll have another photo to post after that takes place. It should be good fun meeting other members in person!

‘Praise Darwin’: Creationism proponents have not ‘moved on’

Newspaper Op-Ed

My aforementioned letter to the editor of my local paper was way over the word limit for letters, so someone from the paper called me to tell me that they were goint to run it as a guest Op-Ed piece instead. I was delighted!

It’s in the paper today (and in the online version, obviously).

The comment area is enabled at the newspaper’s site, so feel free to leave comments there (or here!). I’m very excited that my response made publication… even if it is just a local paper.

Obnoxious and Rude? Definitely.

This month, the Freedom From Religion Foundation erected two new billboards in honor of Charles Darwin, one of them in Dover, Pennsylvania which is about 15 minutes away from where I live and where I grew up. Today, in our local paper, there was an opinion editorial by Larry Hicks, a regular contributor to the paper. In it, he accuses the FFRF of being a “gloating winner” and that by putting the billboard in Dover, they are being obnoxious and rude.

I responded via a letter to the editor and decided to post my letter here as well.

In the February 4th edition of The York Dispatch, Larry Hicks wrote a Viewpoint editorial concerning the newly erected “Praise Darwin” billboard in Dover. While I agree with Mr. Hicks that  both sides of the Evolution/Creationism(or Intelligent Design… same thing) debate tend to get a bit touchy about opposing views and freedom of speech, there are a number of common misconceptions perpetuated in his editorial that I would like to clarify.

First, the issue of “Evolution versus Creationism” is not a debate between Christians and atheists. It’s a debate between Creationists and Evolutionists. Framing it as a debate between Christians and atheists not only trivializes the issue by stereotyping each side, but it is inaccurate and dishonest. Not all those who accept the Theory of Evolution are atheists. Far from it (Biology professor Kenneth R. Miller, a key witness for the plaintiffs in the Dover trial, is a Roman Catholic). Nor are all those who do not accept it Christians. The sides consist of those who accept the scientific evidence with its resulting theory and those who do not.

In addition, though the “battle” was won in the Dover case (though not by the FFRF, which was not involved), it is absolutely not over, and the Creationism proponents have most assuredly not “accepted their loss” or “licked their wounds and moved on.” Since the Dover verdict, there have been multiple challenges throughout the country related to this exact issue, one just recently in Texas. The Creationist movement refuses to give up, instead continuing their attempts to corrupt the teaching of science by claiming that supernatural explanations should be placed on equal footing with exhaustively researched evidence.

So not letting “well enough alone” is an accusation that should be leveled against the Creationist movement. It is because they won’t “let well enough alone” that the scientific community has to continually spend an absurd amount of time defending science against the Creationists’ misinformation.

Though I agree with Mr. Hicks that the display of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s billboard is a freedom of speech issue, the issue of Evolution versus Creationism in our classrooms is not. Nor is it an issue of separation of church and state. It is about education standards and intellectual honesty. Anyone who has followed this issue even passively has probably heard that the scientific community generally has no problems with Creationism being taught in schools in a philosophy class or a comparative religion class. It simply has no place in science class… because it is not science. That is the real issue.

I have no doubt that the Freedom From Religion Foundation chose Dover as one of the locations for their billboards because of the fame that Dover now has due to the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial. I’m sure it’s not personal. It’s not a matter of wanting to “rub salt in the wounds” of Christians in Dover. It’s a matter of effectiveness. Location. Location. Location.

Mr. Hicks says that placing the billboard in Dover is obnoxious and rude and that it has everything to do with respect. He says, “Isn’t that what the non-believers were accusing Dover Christians of five years ago? A lack of respect for their point of view.”

No. It wasn’t. Again Mr. Hicks perpetuates a common misconception. The “non-believers” were accusing the Dover school board of corrupting the science education of their children.

The Creationists continually peddle the idea that supernatural explanations are scientific.

And that is what’s obnoxious.

Ironically, he then knocked on wood

I’m not a big pro-sports fan and rarely watch any games on television, but I did watch this year’s Super Bowl because my wife was going to be watching it and I like the commercials (usually).

After the Cardinals’ loss, I was passively wondering what overtly pious quarterback Kurt Warner (who did a phenomenal job in the game, by the way) would have to say. I didn’t actually look for any quotes, but saw an interesting bit while reading a post on Pharyngula about Warner wearing the number thirteen on his jersey.

According to Warner, his spirituality “allows no room for superstition,” and his wearing number thirteen just emphasizes that point for him.

“A lot of people believe 13 is an unlucky number,” Warner said, “but I’ve kind of embraced it.”

He added: “A lot of negative things come with the No. 13. My life is never dictated by superstitions. My faith is first and foremost. If you believe that God’s in control, there is no reason to believe in superstitions.”

I’m sure that glorious bit of irony is lost on Warner. Even though you can’t believe that the number thirteen can somehow bring bad luck to someone, you can believe that an invisible, all-powerful being can be everywhere at once, see everything at once, hear everything at once, do everything at once, and has a dedicated interest in the personal goings-on of your everyday life?

…but your life is “never dictated by superstition.”

Wow.

Now, from what I’ve read, Warner is actually a terrific guy and does a lot of good in the community including putting up a ton of his own money to support Habitat for Humanity, so I don’t want to give the impression that I think the guy is a loser. Far from it.

I just hope he didn’t get a concussion from that irony smacking him in the head so hard.

Knock on wood.