Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fact Deniers are Hurting America

Once again I found myself having to defend a very-well-established scientific theory to a bunch of knuckleheads on an Internet forum. Nobody has to defend quantum theory, relativity theory, or the atomic theory to religious nut-cases, because they don't see these as threats to their precious bible. But evolution is different. God said he made all living creatures in six days so that must be the truth. Except that no one has any evidence that God said any such thing.

Evolution is not pseudoscience or imaginary. It is one of the best-supported theories in all of science. It is just as valid as theories about gravity, relativity, and quantum mechanics. Evolution theory is based on the same scientific principles as all the other scientific theories that fundamentalists happily accept. In fact, fundamentalists have no problem using all the life-enhancing products of science, even evolution science. Yet they still reject evolution, even though they don't really know anything substantial about it.

Evolution has been thoroughly tested for more than a century and has withstood the test of time. There is no doubt whatsoever that it is factual. At least 97.5% of biologists worldwide accept evolution as fact. Most of the others are bought and paid for by creationist organizations or Ken Ham. I dare say there are far fewer people who call themselves Christian that believe the bible is the literal word of God. The vast majority of Christians worldwide have no problem accepting evolution as fact. That includes the pope, his cardinals, bishops, and priests. That includes the United Church of Christ. It include Disciples of Christ. It includes the United Methodists. It includes the Episcopalians. It even includes the more moderate Baptists.

Now, I know that some people will come back with the standard reply that these are not "true" Christians. The fact is, conservative fundamentalist Christianity hasn't really been around that long. Going back to the ancient Christian scholars, it was understood by almost all of them that the bible was allegorical, not literal. A literal interpretation of the bible didn't really catch on until the 19th century.

Even a little consideration of what Genesis is saying should tell anyone with half a brain that a literal creation is utter nonsense. It's very disturbing to me that so many Americans (yet very few people anywhere else in the world) believe that this bible nonsense is really true. Its especially disturbing to me because I'm a biology teacher and I have to spend considerable time each year trying my best to un-brainwash my students. It makes me sad for these kids, and not fair to them that their parents fill their heads with superstitious nonsense. It's not at all surprising that America fails so badly when comparing its science education to the rest of the modern world.

If this kind of religious zealotry continues much longer, I fear for America's future. It's fine if someone feels the need to believe in a god, but when a belief in God necessitates the denial of facts, that's when a nation is headed for trouble. It's unfortunate, but true.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Zygotes have Rights Too?

It really pisses me off when a certain faction of society tries to limit the rights of everybody else by trying to force their own limited view of morality onto society as a whole. There are lots of examples but the abortion issue is one of the most contentious. And with few exceptions, it's the right-wing, evangelical Christian crowd that is the fondest of making everyone else toe the line of morality, or at least their morality. But I am very confused as to how they think the whole thing works when a woman terminates a pregnancy, or even if it terminates spontaneously. According to most fundamentalists, life begins at conception. They believe the soul is attached to the body at the moment the sperm attaches to the egg.

But that creates quite a quandary once the aborted fetus gets to heaven. Will heaven be populated by the souls of a bunch of wandering fetuses? Most evangelicals believe that at the end of time, our bodies will be resurrected. But what about fetuses that were aborted early? What about embryos? Embryos come before fetuses. They are smaller than a peanut and about the same shape. After the resurrection will heaven be flooded with peanut-shaped embryos with wings fluttering about like little butterflies? None of them will be old enough to have experienced anything at all in life. There were no memories formed, no bonds with family, most likely no sensations of any kind, and yet according to fundamentalists their souls will be in heaven with the rest of them.

And what about a zygote? A zygote is a fertilized egg before it has had a chance to divide even once. After cell division starts it becomes an embryo. Later, it becomes a fetus. But what if the egg gets fertilized and then it dies? Or what if the morning after pill kills the fertilized egg before it has a chance to divide? Do zygotes have rights, too? Will heaven also be filled with winged zygotes flying around, completely equal with all the executed murderers who got "saved" while on death row?

Those who believe life begins at conception just haven't thought it through. It's a serious subject, otherwise it would be outright comical to imagine what happens to aborted embryos and fetuses in heaven. And it's just as comical to think that people actually believe this crap. Except that they do, and they have a loud voice in society that tries to force everyone into compliance with their delusions. Embryos are not little humans. They are connected to a living, breathing woman who has been granted societal rights. Embryos have no such rights, and for good reason.

The abortion debate is silly. It makes no sense to a rational mind. It would make more sense to have a debate about what the cut-off point is of where an abortion should be allowed, as long as everyone agreed that the abortion itself was the woman's decision. Some people might lobby for the cut-off point to be the moment the baby, after it is born, takes its first breath. That is the position supported by Scripture.(Gen 2:7) Or is it? According to Numbers 3:15-16 a baby isn't really a human until it is one month old. So according to this view, killing your baby before it is a month old should be perfectly fine. Of course, I do not advocate for either one of these biblical views. Some may advocate for the point where the umbilical cord is severed. Some would lobby for the actual birth itself, when the baby's body is completely out of the birth canal. I side with those who claim abortion is fine only prior to the point of viability, when the baby could survive on its own even if premature. That would be right around the six-month mark of pregnancy. It's a decent compromise. But to draw the line at conception makes no sense either from a practical point of view or from a biblical one.

Now, there are those who can point to other verses of the bible that tend to contradict the two I mentioned above. But that just go to show you can't really use the bible to prove a point, because on every single topic you're debating, the bible takes up multiple positions and is basically useless as a tool to prove a point. So taking the bible completely out of the debate, there is no reason whatsoever to oppose the right of a woman to choose an abortion other than just trying to stick one's nose into somebody else's business. And that's really what it's all about for the conservatives. They just can't be happy campers unless they're messing with someone else's personal freedoms.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Truth about Truth

I was having good conversation at my weekly CFI Sunday Social when the topic for discussion turned to truth and whether or not it exists outside our human perception. As a left-brained, science-oriented teacher, my position was that of course truth exists. It doesn't matter whether we know what it is or understand even how to arrive at it, but truth certainly does exist. My point was that everything can be boiled down to a series of dichotomies until you get back to the original truth, that we may never actually understand as humans. The two individuals I was debating had a different perspective. Truth has as much to do with our perception of what is real. And it is not always so black and white. There are shades of gray surrounding many issues and sometimes there is no single truth.

But I was unsuccessful at getting them to understand that I was not talking about a spectrum of opinion on one topic or another. I was talking about ultimate truth: How did we get here? Why then instead of another time? What is the answer to the time equation? Why are the laws of the universe the way they are? I'm pretty certain all these questions can be linked to a single, underlying truth that astrophysicists have been searching for, for a long time. This kind of truth exists. Certainly, there are shades of meaning when it comes to smaller ramifications of the truth. Does God exist or doesn't he? That is a dichotomy. God cannot almost exist, or exist in principal. He exists or he doesn't. But within that dichotomy can lie a spectrum of opinion: We can be theists, agnostics theists, agnostic atheists, hard atheists, etc. That says a lot about what we think, but it answers nothing at all about the truth: Does God exist or not? The truth seldom affects what we think about it. And how we believe doesn't affect the truth. Let's also not mistake our search for the truth for the truth itself. Take evolution for example. Either organisms on Earth change over time until they become a different species, or they don't. But let's not confuse whether or not macroevolution and microevolution are two different phenomena with the basic truth that species evolve. We can argue process. We can even argue truth. But none of our opinions and arguments about what is true changes whether or not something actually is true.

While I was in the middle of making that point, I detected that one of the other participants was feeling a little put off or uncomfortable that I was being recalcitrant. To her, it must have seemed as though I was a closed-minded fool. So the fellow across from her at the table jumped in and quickly changed the subject to a conversation about coffee. I was a little offended because it was like I didn't even exist from then on, even when I went along and said something about their new favorite subject, Dunkin' Donuts coffee. So I changed tables and started listening in on a discussion about the NBA. I wasn't at all interested in that so I decided to call it a morning. At least I have a blog that allows me an opportunity to conclude my thoughts, whether anyone takes them seriously or not.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Science Supplies the Answers

I don't know of any scientist that would claim that science has all the answers. But what scientists will claim is that science is the best thing we have to acquire the answers - real answers, not wishful-thinking answers. The problem is with the implication that since science doesn't know everything then we still need to look to God for the answers. No we don't. We just need to keep applying science to the question.

There may be questions of nature that science will never be able to divine answers to, but that doesn't mean we should stop looking and default to the God answer, because when you do, then you're stuck not only with no answers but with the defeatist notion that there can be no answers other than God. That's the big difference between having a scientific world view and a religious one. With religion, you don't need to look further than God for any answer to any question. Therefore, discovery is moot. Science, on the other hand, has given us the answers to all we know. It is a train of discovery. If we ever discover the answers to everything, science dies. But long before that, God will have been dead a long time.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Top 10 Fallacies of Fundamentalists

Fundamentalist Christians have a skewed view of the world. They live in a world where facts are irrelevant and evidence is what you find in the bible. Because of this slanted approach to reality, fundamentalist beliefs are riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions, and scientific inaccuracies. Here is my countdown of the top 10 fallacies believed by fundamentalists:

10. The world is about 6,000 years old. It and everything on it were created in six literal days.

The only possible way this could be true is if God also created the evidence for an old earth when he created everything else. He would have had to create the fossils and then arrange them in order of complexity. He would have had to create the daughter elements produced by radioactive isotopes in situ. He would have had to create the ancient varves underneath the lake beds in Australia and the layers in the glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica complete with pollen grains of ancient plants and he would have had to create the light beams in transit between the distant galaxies and the earth. And the purpose of all this extra creation? To throw us off so that in the millennia to come scientists would falsely believe that the world is much older and the faithful would have to either believe this worldly baloney or have the strength of their faith to deny the evidence and keep believing. In other words; God tricked us so that only the gullible or the stupid would go to heaven.

9. God is all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful.

Epicurus had it pegged centuries before Jesus was born. An omniscient, omnipotent, and infinitely-loving god is incompatible with the presence of suffering in the world. And there is no way to rectify the situation. All Christians can offer are lame analogies or make up excuses and contrivances for God like, "The lord works in mysterious ways." It also presents a conundrum in logic to say a being is both omniscient and omnipotent. An omnipotent being can do anything, including change its mind. But an omniscient being knows everything, including the future, so he would know beforehand if he were going to change his mind. Therefore, was his mind actually changed?

8. Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for our sins.

The problem with that is that Jesus is supposed to be divine and eternal. How can a perfect, divine being suffer? And even if he did suffer in body, so what? He was supposedly present with God in heaven from the beginning and after he died he went back to heaven to be with God again, so where is the sacrifice? In order to sacrifice something, the thing you're sacrificing has to be lost or destroyed. What was destroyed in the Crucifixion/Resurrection scenario? Nothing.

7. Atheists are angry and mad at God.

Some atheists might be angry. So might some Christians. But if atheists are angry it isn't because they are atheists. And how can they possibly be mad at something they don't believe exists. Those who appear angry might better be described as frustrated. Some of us continue to be frustrated with the fact that so many people we know are still laboring under the delusion that a personal, loving God exists and they use that "knowledge" to inform their decisions, some of which might affect the personal liberties of the atheists.

6. Prayer works.

Prayer cannot possibly work. It can not only be shown that prayer requests are not answered any more often than what would occur by random chance, but even by the Christian doctrine itself, prayer cannot work. Christians believe (because the bible says) that God's will is always done. So if you pray for something that is already God's will, your prayer will seemingly be answered. But since God's will is always done, you would have gotten the same answer even if you had not prayed for it. If your prayer is not part of God's will, then your prayer won't be answered at all. So either way, prayer is useless and never results in God changing his mind to satisfy your desires.

5. The bible is the inerrant Word of God.

Yeah, right. And I have this bridge in NYC I'll sell you cheap. I can't list them all here, but take a look at this vast collection of biblical contradictions for starters. And it's no better when it comes to stating scientific facts. It says, for example, that insects have four legs, that the earth has four corners, and that Jesus could see all the kingdoms of the world from atop a mountain in the Middle East.

4. The end is near.

The end (Second Coming, Rapture, End of Days, whatever you want to call it) has been near for the last 2000 years. The first person to predict the end was Jesus himself. He told his disciples that some of them would still be alive when God established his kingdom on Earth. The Apostle Paul thought it would happen within his lifetime. And ever since those days, Christians have been waiting and praying for the end of time. There's probably not been a generation pass that Christians didn't think would be the last generation. And it's still going on today. The reason it hasn't happened yet is because it's never going to happen. It's a false belief and those who believe it are deluded.

3. Quoting Scripture is the best way to save lost souls.

From the number of bible verses I get quoted to me I'm sure this one must be true. "Only a fool says in his heart, There is no God." I hear that one all the time. I reply, "Yes, but a wise man says it right out loud." Quoting the bible to an unbeliever in an attempt to convince him of God is like quoting Clement C. Moore to someone in order to prove the existence of Santa Claus. There is nothing in The Night Before Christmas that would convince a skeptic that Santa Claus is real. Similarly, nothing in the bible is evidence that God exists or that Jesus is his son.

2. Believing in evolution (or global warming or the Big Bang) takes just as much faith as believing in God.

Faith is a strong belief without evidence, or in the face of evidence to the contrary. It's often spouted that atheists have faith too - faith that the sun will rise in the morning or faith that a dropped object will fall. That's not faith. It's belief supported by vast amounts of evidence. I know the sun will come up tomorrow because it always has. More importantly, I can go look up the mathematical equations that describe celestial orbits and I can prove the sun will come up with math. We know evolution is true because we have facts and evidence that supports it. We can make predictions based on those facts and evidence and the predictions always hold up. Fundamentalists want Creation taught in science classes. I would almost say go ahead and teach it side by side with evolution if I knew teachers would do it fairly. That's right - list all the empirical evidence for evolution on one side of the board and list all the empirical evidence for Creation on the other side and let the students decide which view has more actual evidence supporting it. Evolution would require more space than the board has. Creation would require no space at all, because there is no evidence.

1. God exists.

Of course it all boils down to this. There is a strong belief among all Christians that the personal God of the bible exists and that Jesus is his son. That belief is why they are called Christians. But why do they believe it? Pick out any single fundamentalist Christian and drill down into the reason he or she believes. They may have a variety of answers - they believe in the bible; they were raised that way; they had a personal experience with the Holy Spirit - but all of those reasons are houses of cards. There is zero corroborating evidence that anything substantial in the New Testament is true. There is lots of evidence that supports the notion that much of it was forged, that none of the Gospels were written by the man whose names appear in the titles, and that it was compiled centuries after the supposed facts by a committee of arguing bishops whose main goals were political. Personal experiences with the Holy Spirit can be easily explained away as normal, natural hallucinations or by a form of mass hysteria. The mind can play lots of tricks that seem real, but which are only natural occurrences. What it really all boils down to is how you were raised. If you were born in the American South, odds are really good that you are a Baptist. If you were born in Saudi Arabia, odds are excellent that you are a Muslim. And someone born in India is likely to be a Hindi. You believe what your parents, friends, and pastors taught you. But they only believe what they do for the same reason. If the entire premise is faulty, then any beliefs that come from it must be wrong. Using historical analysis, textual criticism of the bible, and scientific inquiry, it can be proved that the original premise of Christianity is probably false. Therefore, any and all beliefs deriving from that premise are equally invalid.

Of course, as the demented house therapist said on the original Miracle on 34th Street, when you attack someone's delusions they become violent. With fundamentalists, their knee-jerk reaction to contradictory facts is to dig deeper into their faith and hold on for dear life. Facts and evidence are useless against delusions. But those who are more open minded or who are still trying to make up their minds about religion may benefit from the facts. And this countdown just presented 10 of them.