Just when you thought it couldn’t get more shameless …

It does.  According to CNN.com, a federal judge has blocked the implementation of a sex ed program in some Maryland schools that tolerates homosexuality.

The reasoning?  Sit down for this one. 

U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams agreed with two groups that sued contending such discussions gave preference of religions that are tolerant of homosexuality over those that reject it.

And of course we can’t have any preference for religions, can we?  Unless it’s OUR One True Religion, that is. 

So now teaching students that homosexuality exists and that homosexuals are people too infringes on someone’s religious right to hate them and urge discrimination against them?

Erik Stanley, an attorney for the groups that filed suit, said the curriculum excludes the viewpoints of former gays and those who believe that “same-sex attraction can be overcome.”

You mean, it excludes the viewpoint that homosexuality is wrong, that it can be eliminated with just a six-week online course, and therefore discrimination against homosexuals is okey-dokey?  I sure as hell hope so.

It’s amazing the lengths to which the Far Reich (thanks, Nunya) will go to fight to keep their religious dominance and their bigotry.

(Now Consi will probably look up something in the court documents and spank me with it, but that’s okay—I like that about him.  wink)



And now for something completely different …

Let’s take a break from arguing about the Bible and turn our attention to other recruiting methods in our very midst.

Read My Little Golden Book About Zogg:

It all makes sense, if you think about it.  And it’s a better argument for Intelligent Design, too.


The personal price of justice.

The story came across on CNN today that U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow, who had presided over the trademark infringement suit involving Matthew Hale and the World Church of the Creator, came home yesterday to find her husband and her mother murdered.

Judge Lefkow had been targeted by Hale as a result of her ruling, and he is being sentenced on April 6th for having tried to arrange her murder. 

I don’t think there is any doubt in anyone’s mind as to who has committed this atrocity and why.  I’m sure Judge Lefkow had no idea what psychopaths she was taking on when she heard a simple trademark infringement case over the ownership of the innocuous-sounding “World Church of the Creator.”

Please, if you can, make a donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center in her name today.

Best gaming online!

What can I say?  This guy, Paul Ford, cracks me up.  In his latest blog entry he showcases three (fictional) games:
Best Overall

America’s Army Special Ops: Abu Ghraib
The United States Army (PC)

The choice of weapons is really interesting, too. You start out with a crate, a cattle prod, and a Bible, and by using them in different ways you get more weapons to use. For instance, after you beat a detainee with a Bible, you get pork and bananas, which you can either (spoiler alert) feed to the detainees or insert into their rectums, or both. But it’s not as easy as it sounds! The detainees will eat the bananas, but they’ll get really angry if they have to eat pork.

Okay, so that was a little predictable.  The last one, though, had me in stitches:
Best Gameplay

Cat Ball Shaver
Otaku Shimbun Kanawasi Studios (XBox, PS2)

There’s just not much more you can say about that one that wouldn’t be putting rubbing alcohol on the … oh, never mind.

I was considering what I would put into a Stupid Evil Bastard RPG.  Would it involve a combination of tech support, meta-games, shooting at a TV showing Fox News, and a parade of “Don’t Be That Guy” people? Would Jon Stewart pop up in a monkey costume?  If you put on a Hawaiian shirt, there would be a little Brock that would run in screaming, tear it off you, and torch it with a Bic lighter.  There would be cats, of course—but with or without balls to shave?  Maybe John Cleese’s voice as the voice of God would speak up every so often and speak non sequitur lines from various holy books to confuse you just as you were taking aim at Donald Rumsfeld, who’d be cowering in an uparmored thong.

Oh, the possibilities …

Why are you here?

This is something that I’ve been wondering for some time and had been planning to post even before the latest go-round with the fresh flock of believers here on SEB.

To the religious posters:  WHY ARE YOU HERE? 

Do you come to this site intending to win an argument against the errant atheists?  Do you think you’re going to make the definitive statement that prompts everyone to say, “By golly, you’re right”? 

Or can you just not stand the idea that somewhere, some people are dissing your god and having fun doing it?  Do you feel you have to defend yourself against any criticism of your belief, otherwise you can’t sleep at night?

There are a few religious posters here who seem to enjoy the discussions without getting frustrated.  Obviously they’re not trying to change anything.  It appears that they just want to represent the other side of the argument and are satisfied once they’ve spoken their piece.

There are some atheists who enjoy going over to religious forums, but I don’t.  I don’t see the attraction of engaging in discussion where the point of the site is antithetical to my position and the members are there to discuss their own beliefs, not to change their minds based on any argument I could offer. 

So for those who are perfecting their Daniel impressions:  Why are you here?

A new translation of the Bible.

I read in this CNN article today that a scholar named Robert Alter has brought forth his own translation of the Tanach (the five books of Moses):

His argument is that past translations either get the Hebrew wrong or mangle the Bible’s syntax or lose the power of the work or even are so up-to-the-minute that they become too conversational to be accurate or interesting.

He was also determined to get back into the book every single “and” that other translators left out, saying that part of book’s majesty is built by its use of repetitions.

The 1611 King James version, perhaps the most famous book ever written by a committee, may reach poetic heights, but Alter says it is fraught with “embarrassing inaccuracies” and often substitutes Greek or Latin words and Renaissance English tonalities and rhythms for biblical ones.

Why do I find this fascinating?  I was raised in Conservative Judaism and lived in Israel, where I studied the Tanach in Hebrew and developed my own feeling for what the Hebrew meant.  I’m very curious to see how he translates things.  Even though I don’t take the Bible as truth, I hold it to be a historical work of art.  It opens a window on a lot of ancient history in that it reflects the life and beliefs of the people who wrote it.  So I’ll be very interested not only to read this new translation, but to see how it’s received among the people who regard it to varying degrees as “God’s word.”  Who’s going to decide how to translate God’s word?

Lacking Gravitas.

The latest Pixar adventure, The Incredibles, opens today, and is getting good reviews so far.  I expect it to be every bit as fun as the other Pixar masterpieces (Toy Story; Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo).  There have been tremendous advances in CGI technology and software since the first movie came out, and Dreamworks has pulled out some doozies too (the Shrek movies).

And yet, something major is still missing from CGI.  It’s gravity.

No matter how complex they manage to get the muscle movements, light, wind, textures and detail, the eye misses the micro-movements that gravity creates:  the slight downward movement of a body as it strains against gravity to jump; the small ripples through a mass as it lands.  No matter how incredibly detailed a body is, it still looks as though it doesn’t weigh anything, and the brain notices in spite of itself.

Pixar has fudged this in the past by animating characters for whom this wouldn’t matter—for example, toys, which you expect to be plastic and lightweight, and that’s how they look.  They moved on to monsters, which didn’t have to look real either.  And then, once they got the algorithms for water down, they went to fish, which float and swim.  Now that they’re bringing out an all-human feature, they buy themselves a little time by making them superheroes, for whom the laws of gravity and motion don’t necessarily apply. 

I always love the animating skill and richness of the Pixar movies.  But my eye always misses something, and the characters will always look especially cartoonish to me.  Ice Age, in my opinion, dealt with this really well by going with it and making the characters very exaggerated and cartoonish on purpose.  I think the animators will have to continue working around this problem until they solve it (which may take a lot more computing power than is possible today).  In the meantime, though, we can enjoy the animation for what it is:  not an imitation of reality, but a welcome surreality.

Girl sues to distribute religious fliers at elementary school.

Now, this one is a stickler for me.  In this CNN article a mother and her daughter are suing to allow the girl to tell her fellow students about Jesus Christ:

The flier, about the size of a greeting card, starts out: “Hi! My name is Michaela and I would like to tell you about my life and how Jesus Christ gave me a new one.” The flier mentions five ways in which Jesus had come into her life.

“This is nothing less than viewpoint discrimination,” said Mat Staver, an attorney and executive director of Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Florida-based conservative legal group that is representing Bloodgood.

According to the lawsuit, Liverpool officials said Michaela could not distribute it because her flier was religious and that there was “a substantial probability” that other parents and students might misunderstand and presume that the district was “endorsing” the religious statements in the flier.

At first glance, it seemed to me to be the right decision on the part of the school.  But then I thought:  should they allow her to wear a t-shirt to school that said “Ask Me About My Life With Jesus”?  Sure, that’s freedom of expression, just as students ought to be able to wear Kerry t-shirts. 

So what’s the difference?

It’s something about the fliers that bothers me.  I’d object to letting a student hand out fliers campaigning for any other religion.  Would I object to fliers addressing a political issue?  Again, probably not.  So what is it about the combination of religious proselytizing and the distribution of fliers that bugs me, that seems like more than a free speech issue?

If you can figure it out, please let me know. 

One bad apple … (Okay, more than a few bad apples.)

This thoughtful piece on Slate.com by the Rev. Chloe Breyer (and you know right there it’s probably not written by a fundamentalist Christian wink) points out that obviously not all Christians are rabid, hate-mongering flat-earthers, so why are the extreme right-wingers getting all the attention?  Where’s the silent, moderate majority?

Last Wednesday, Dr. Bob Edgar, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches, along with other progressive faith leaders, spoke at a sparsely attended press conference in Midtown Manhattan. Their purpose was to encourage alternative religious voices in the public square. These religious leaders staged this meeting in order to launch the Vote ALL Your Values Campaign, which celebrated some recent accomplishments: over 450,000 voters registered; a corps of 400,000 progressive religious activists recruited; hugely successful religion-based ad campaigns; and more than a million voter guides (describing poverty, health care, and education as religious issues) distributed. Citing the necessity of a “faith-rescue operation” from the religious right, the Rev. Jim Wallis proclaimed a beginning of the end of that faction’s “dominance over faith and politics.”

One reason the right has reigned despite progress like this is that the tools used for studying and reporting on religion haven’t kept pace with the increasingly complex impact of religious convictions on national and international politics.

Breyer describes the various pollster categories used, and then points out what we often miss:  that strong religious faith does not necessarily equal a literalist viewpoint, nor does it mean that no people who self-identify as very religious can’t also be socially progressive:

Where, for example, would the political views of a member of Evangelicals for Social Actions show up in such a survey? Though she might agree that tradition is worth preserving and that scripture is highly authoritative, she would not qualify as an evangelical “traditionalist.” Why? Because rather than focusing her energies on the single passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans used by antigay members of the religious right, she might instead take seriously the over 2,000 biblical verses relating to poverty and spend her time developing micro-enterprise lending programs in poor countries or advocating increased foreign aid. But she might not qualify as a “modernist” since she could easily disagree that all world religions contained the same truth. This person, like other religious conservatives with socially progressive views, falls below the radar.

Another reference to the Suskind article, this time with a good point that I completely missed:

Suskind’s article does a great disservice to progressive religion. Rather than illustrate why the theology emanating from the White House is rotten from a religious standpoint, Suskind uses all of the muddied definitions of the word “faith” interchangeably—from the most technical to the most prosaic. Purposefully or not, he leads his largely secular, liberal, and affluent audience to indulge their deepest and least rational fears: Every American believer is a potential King Canute, confessing a higher power today and telling the sea to turn back tomorrow. (Steve Waldman wrote more about George Bush as spiritual hallmark in this “Faith-Based” article.)

In other words, Bush is giving his fellow evangelicals a bad name, as another Slate article discusses.
Finally, Breyer issues a call to progressives to get out there and be heard, in the name of battling oversimplification of faith and politics:

[A]t a time when, as Jim Wallis puts it, the answer for many “is not less religion, but better religion,” the general public as well as the person in the pew is entitled to a more thoughtful, nuanced understanding of the potential of religious belief along with its pitfalls.

And I think we can all get behind that.  What we need here is more nuance.  Ironically, what we as atheists would probably appreciate is more religious voices to be heard, this time from the ones with whom we’re more likely to be able to live in peace.


The “God Gene.”

This week’s Time Magazine features a cover article discussing whether scientists have located at least one gene that seems to be more prevalent in people who rate themselves as more spiritual; that is, who can experience what they call “self-transcendence.”  This is described as having three parts:

[…] self-forgetfulness, or the ability to get entirely lost in an experience; transpersonal identification, or a feeling of connectedness to a larger universe; and mysticism, or an openness to things not literally provable.

To me, this doesn’t indicate more than the ability to elicit certain sensations by an act of will.  I can trigger “self-transcendence” given a few minutes of deep concentration; it doesn’t mean there’s anything external causing it or accepting the credit for it.  I would bet that those individuals who “scored” higher in the self-transcendence category would also test high in the ability to hypnotize themselves.

Take for example what many people have done in their youth:  decided (with or without the help of friends) that their house was haunted or someone was watching them through the window and/or trying to break in.  It was fun to scare yourself that way, and you could manage to work yourself up into such a tizzy that every creak and groan of the house’s foundation sounded just like an intruder.  For especially susceptible people, it would take a long time for them to work their way back out of that hysteria and remember that there really wasn’t anything to be afraid of. 

I think a belief in a god or the supernatural in general is the same phenomenon.  Someone suggests the idea to you, and you work on pretending it so thoroughly that you can trigger these sensations of transcendence in your own brain.  The problem is, people then mistake it for an external trigger when it was actually all done internally by a now-forgotten or disguised act of will.

The article goes on to posit that such a tendency towards mysticism may have evolved as a beneficial attribute, one that bolstered “social organization” and therefore survival of the species.  (And wouldn’t it be ironic to have hard-core fundamentalists buy into evolution for that very reason?)  Of course, they also admit that such social organization through religion is, as often as not, a destructive force rather than a beneficial one.  I think it probably evolved as a combination of factors:  a need for reassurance that could only be sustained with the help of like-minded groups, and a need to enforce certain moral behaviors on a population that wasn’t willing to cooperate any other way.  Inasmuch as it made humans more social, it was probably a survival trait to some extent, but humans are fully capable of coming together to kill each other just as easily as they concoct a mass belief.  It’s a mixed bag, and therefore as neutral as any other aspect of our genetic makeup.

All of this, in my opinion, says a lot about our psychological and physiological makeup as a species, but does nothing to support the existence of an actual supernatural entity.  Just because we might “need” a god doesn’t mean he’s actually there.