Having a purpose strengthens your brain

Cartoon StockA story in Science Daily caught my eye recently. It was titled, “Greater Purpose in Life May Protect Against Harmful Changes in the Brain Associated With Alzheimer’s Disease.” That suggested a different approach to brain ailments than what I’ve usually read. Most are medical or surgical. This one is philosophical.

I’m not one for either self-help or New Age palaver. Most of it strikes me as unmitigated pap that borders on the religious. It’s like the gazillions of diet books and websites. I’m not sure which would rake in the millions faster: to form a new religion or a new diet plan.So when I see something about a “purpose-driven life” I tend to shy away in case it involves angels, spirit guides, auras, ghosts or ten people you’ll meet in heaven. Or hell.

But when someone in the science community comments that purpose has more use than filling one’s days or creating fodder for self-help gurus, that it may have medical and biological implications, then I perk up and listen.

“Our study showed that people who reported greater purpose in life exhibited better cognition than those with less purpose in life even as plaques and tangles accumulated in their brains,” said Patricia A. Boyle, PhD.
“These findings suggest that purpose in life protects against the harmful effects of plaques and tangles on memory and other thinking abilities. This is encouraging and suggests that engaging in meaningful and purposeful activities promotes cognitive health in old age.”

In other words, as I read it: purpose makes you think better. Well, council watchers may want to debate that issue.

I know people today, including many people younger than I am, who don’t read to exercise their brains, don’t play interactive games (like chess, go, bridge), don’t do anything creative as a hobby (like write, play music, garden, take photographs). They work, they watch TV, they sleep. TV – a passive device programmed by media giants who want to control your life and consumer habits – is their main source of information, entertainment, opinion and education. What sort of purpose in life does watching TV fulfill?

By the terms of this study, they’re dementia patients in the making. Anyone who wastes hours of their life watching such dreck as “Survivor” or “American pickers” probably won’t notice the onslaught of dementia…

Boyle and her colleagues from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center studied 246 participants from the Rush Memory and Aging Project who did not have dementia and who subsequently died and underwent brain autopsy. Participants received an annual clinical evaluation for up to approximately 10 years, which included detailed cognitive testing and neurological exams.
Participants also answered questions about purpose in life, the degree to which one derives meaning from life’s experiences and is focused and intentional. Brain plaques and tangles were quantified after death. The authors then examined whether purpose in life slowed the rate of cognitive decline even as older persons accumulated plaques and tangles.

What the study suggests is that doing something creative or goal-oriented that requires some effort to start, develop and complete a project helps stave off some of the physiological problems that are seen in Alzheimer’s and other senility-related ailments. Obviously TV watching isn’t goal-oriented.

The study didn’t look at or correlate other studies that have shown how reading stimulates brain activity and also helps ward off dementia and senility. Which is unfortunate, because I believe the two have an obvious relationship. Reading is probably the most powerful activity you can do to keep your brain active and engaged.

The start, I suggest, to developing goals and purpose, is to turn off the TV. The next step is to find something creative to do. Build a deck. Plan a garden. Paint a room. Write a blog. Take photographs. Learn a new word or a new language. Play a game of chess or backgammon. Do a jigsaw puzzle. Play a musical instrument (or learn one). Train your dog to do a trick. Better yet, train your cat.

Do something active, something with a goal, a focus. It doesn’t have to be very big, or exciting or momentous. As long as you get off the couch and away from the TV.

At the very least, read a book. Books will give you ideas, goals, will inspire you, tease your imagination and make you smarter, wiser, more cultured and better looking (okay, maybe not the last one). Books will serve you much better than TV ever will. You don’t have to give up TV for good; just share your time with things that make you smarter, better, wiser, more educated, more intelligent and less prone to dementia than TV.

Just lay off the self-help books. Once you wean yourself from the TV you’ll probably find that tour life has a lot of purpose and meaning and you won’t need the self-help gurus.

3,032 total views, 5 views today

So-called psychic healers don’t see auras: they’re just ill

So-called psychicA story on Science Daily News this weekend reports that seeing so-called auras may in fact be the result of a neurological disorder, not simply another pseudoscience scam.

Self-described psychics who have bilked the gullible based on reading these alleged auras will have some ‘splaining to do. So-called psychic healers – aka charlatans – are likely to be in line for some big lawsuits once this story gets out!

The disorder is called “synesthesia.” People who are afflicted by it have regions in their brains cross connected so that they see sounds, taste colors, smell textures and so on. Their brains confuse sensory input and they mix up sensations.

This is the first time that a scientific explanation has been provided for the esoteric phenomenon of the aura, a supposed energy field of luminous radiation surrounding a person as a halo, which is imperceptible to most human beings.

In basic neurological terms, synesthesia is thought to be due to cross-wiring in the brain of some people (synesthetes); in other words, synesthetes present more synaptic connections than “normal” people. “These extra connections cause them to automatically establish associations between brain areas that are not normally interconnected,” professor Gómez Milán explains. New research suggests that many healers claiming to see the aura of people might have this condition.

If self-described psychic healers merely suffer from synesthesia, then what they’ve professed to see is not some paranormal effect, but rather the result of normal sensory input intruding on the input of another sense. They are not gifted with some sort of supernatural ability, just confused. Those auras were just sensory hallucinations.

We can forgive those among them for believing they actually saw auras, although one still has to wonder why they insisted in their belief after decades of scientific research showed no empirical evidence for their imagined auras.

Of course that only satisfies the explanation for those “psychics” who actually do believe they could see “auras” as the result of this disorder. What about those who are simply charlatans and scam artists? I would suggest that reflects the majority of self-described “psychics.” They don’t see or feel anything out of the ordinary; no auras, no vibrations, no spiritual resonance. They simply tell their marks that they do, and collect the money from them.

Once the sincere, but neurologically challenged among them realize their ailment, I would hope we will see a flurry of apologies and retractions. Those who are honest enough to recognize the problem (and their illness) will want to make amends and return the money they have accepted over the years. Once they admit that their “psychic” abilities are pure bunk, they will probably be forgiven by their victims, too.

It will be easy to recognize the charlatans and hucksters: they will be among those who do not recant or return the money they have bilked from their gullible clients. That will make it much easier to identify them for lawsuits.

Thanks to this research, “psychic healing” will soon join the Nigerian email scam and the Russian bride scam as one of those well-recognized frauds the majority steers clear of in the future. Well, we hope it does…

Another blow struck for science against the ignorance of superstition. One fraud down, a million left to go…

5,360 total views, 5 views today

The End of the World is Nigh… Again

666 TattooSigh. And you thought election time was silly season. The last year has certainly been silly season for apocalyptic predictions. From the so-called Mayan end of days to the failed “rapture” of Howard Camping, it’s been a great time for conspiracy theory and cult watchers.

The latest prediction for the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI) is from Jose De Jesus Miranda, a US-based fundamentalist religious preacher (of course).

According to Miranda, the world will end on June 30, 58 days from today (as I write this). A story in the HuffPost noted that Miranda predicts a massive earthquake and other catastrophes will make a lot of the continents disappear, except for a place for the “elect.”

But Miranda is bringing his own unique twist to the Apocalypse-faithful. While promising the “complete destruction of the bad seed,” the minister promises that he will emerge as a sort of superhero — with the power to fly and even walk through walls

Miranda is quite a guy. He’s apparently the messiah, having passed through being an apostle along the way:

What we do know of Miranda is that he was, in fact, born mortal — in Puerto Rico in 1946. By his own account, Miranda was visited by Jesus in 1973 — apparently the Messiah walked up to him and entered his body.
Hence, De Jesus.
From there, his pronouncements have only gotten more interesting.
In 1988, Miranda disclosed that he was actually the Apostle Paul. Not long after that, Miranda took it to the next level, calling himself both Jesus Christ and the Anti-Christ — a one-stop shop for all your Reckoning needs.

On his website, linked above, in a video he says that he “governs the earth” with technology.

He seems to have attracted quite a following – the story goes on to say how his followers are tattooing the number “666” on their skin to mark the doomsday event, just like bikers and criminals. but, Miranda tells them, it’s really a positive symbol. from this Doomsday blog:

He even goes far enough to say that the numerical value of 666, most notable referred to as the sign of the devil is actual the symbol for the anti-Christ; meaning the second coming of Christ or new Christ. In the interview with a CNN correspondent, José Luis De Jesús Miranda says, “666, the Antichrist, do not put your eyes on Jesus Christ of Nazareth… put it in Jesus Christ after the cross”. Mr. Luis De Jesús Miranda Miranda then goes on to say, “thats him, [the anti-Christ].”

If everyone who has a 666 tattoo is going to heaven, Miranda is sure going to have a hard time explaining what those Hell’s Angels are doing in paradise…

Even among the more rabid fundamentalist Christians, Miranda is too far gone in his nutiness to be taken seriously: “According to 1st John 2:22, Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda is a LIAR and an ANTICHRIST. To no surprise, he uses reverse psychology, openly admitting to being an “Antichrist,” which confuses his victims. But one thing Mr. Miranda won’t admit to is being a BIG LIAR. Anyone who perverts the Gospel message, or denies the Lord Jesus Christ is a LIAR! 1st John 2:22 calls Mr. Miranda a “LIAR.””

Strong words for a Christian, I suppose. I have others I’d use that are less polite. What’s a polite synonym for scam artist?

Despite the evident silliness of his claims, Miranda seems to have a strong, passionate and equally loony following. In a 2007 story from CNN,

De Jesus says he learned he was Jesus reincarnate when he was visited in a dream by angels.
“The prophets, they spoke about me. It took me time to learn that, but I am what they were expecting, what they have been expecting for 2,000 years,” de Jesus says.
Followers have protested Christian churches in Miami and Latin America, disrupting services and smashing crosses and statues of Jesus. De Jesus preaches there is no devil and no sin. His followers, he says, literally can do no wrong in God’s eyes.The church calls itself the “Government of God on Earth” and uses a seal similar to the United States.
If Creciendo en Gracia is an atypical religious group, de Jesus also does not fit the mold of the average church leader. De Jesus flouts traditional vows of poverty.

Well, so does every fundamentalist US preacher I’ve ever read about, but Miranda is pretty showy even compared to the typical tvangelist. Ostentatious display of the money he’s bilked from gullible followers is not what makes Miranda special, however. Nor is it his slick self-promotion, his advertising, self-aggrandizing cable TV show, or his claims of divinity. It’s rather than he claims there is no sin, so you’re basically free to be a hedonist, a la Aleister Crowley. I wonder if there’s a Hedonism beach resort reserved for Miranda’s followers.

As the Houston Post reported:

His message is simple (you know, once you get over the whole “I am Jesus” thing). All sin died with Christ on the cross. Anytime a priest or a preacher calls you a sinner, he’s a liar who’s trying to steal your money. In fact, other churches should be picketed, which is something his followers have done in Miami and Latin America.

I wonder how his culties will feel on July 1, when the rest of America is waking up on that Sunday morning, thinking nothing has changed. Probably like ol’ Howard Camping’s followers who sold all their belongings and quit their jobs for the ‘rapture” that never came. I’d like to own a tattoo removal franchise in Miranda’s home town next July.

I guess I just don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who follow – and fund – wingnuts like Miranda.

4,870 total views, 5 views today

Analytic thinking can decrease religious belief

I read a story in Science News today about a study that shows, “analytic thinking can decrease religious belief, even in devout believers.”

“Our goal was to explore the fundamental question of why people believe in a God to different degrees,” says lead author Will Gervais, a PhD student in UBC’s Dept. of Psychology. “A combination of complex factors influence matters of personal spirituality, and these new findings suggest that the cognitive system related to analytic thoughts is one factor that can influence disbelief.”

The findings, Gervais says, are based on a longstanding human psychology model of two distinct, but related cognitive systems to process information: an “intuitive” system that relies on mental shortcuts to yield fast and efficient responses, and a more “analytic” system that yields more deliberate, reasoned responses.

“Our study builds on previous research that links religious beliefs to ‘intuitive’ thinking,” says study co-author and Associate Prof. Ara Norenzayan, UBC Dept. of Psychology. “Our findings suggest that activating the ‘analytic’ cognitive system in the brain can undermine the ‘intuitive’ support for religious belief, at least temporarily.”

HouseHmm, I mused to myself. Is the reverse therefore equally true? Does lack of religious belief lead to more analytic thinking?
Perhaps instead of trying to de-program cult victims, we can just get them to do sudoku puzzles. In fact, if I were in charge, I’d start putting sudoku puzzles in hymnals and church programs right away…

Okay, more seriously, what does this mean for psychology and genetics? That people with lower capacity or ability for analytic thinking are more likely to be religious, and will pass that tendency down the generations? Will the same hold true when two analytic thinkers mate? That raises the spectre of the old nature-vs-nurture debate.

I would like to see that experiment done with the fringies – the people who believe in pseudoscience like psychics, ghosts, astrology, crystal healing, magnetic therapy, homeopathy and other claptrap. See if the results still hold true.

How many chess puzzles do you have to solve before you suddenly wake up and realize, “Hey, I don’t actually have an aura! It’s all bunk!” And then start wondering why you’ve been paying that charlatan for years to “read” nothing…

How’s this idea: make anyone who has posted any saccharine, “inspirational”, warm-n-fuzzy quote or image on Facebook have to complete a test on algebra before they are allowed to post anything again. That includes any sayings with images of puppies, kittens, bunnies, centaurs, angels, or Gandalf.

Future studies will explore whether the increase in religious disbelief is temporary or long-lasting, and how the findings apply to non-Western cultures

The study was done at the University of British Columbia with 650 participants. The original UBC press release is here. I’m going to have to get that issue of Science to read the whole story.

3,504 total views, no views today

Psychiatric help would be better than exorcism

The ExorcistThe headline reads, “Exorcist Expertise Sought After Saskatoon ‘Possession'” At least the editors of the CBC News story had the good sense to put the word possession in quotes to indicate it is alleged, not a fact. As did the Toronto Star.

However, both news agencies took the story seriously enough to write it up. And then it got picked up by the Huffington Post. Must have been a slow news day (surely there was something about the F35 or robocalls to fill the space…)

Like ghosts, spirits, pixies, goblins and other imaginary beings, demons are figments of our own minds. If people believe they are real and controlling their actions, then they need medical and psychiatric help.

As the Catholic Encyclopedia describes exorcism:

Exorcism is (1) the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice; (2) the means employed for this purpose, especially the solemn and authoritative adjuration of the demon, in the name of God, or any of the higher power in which he is subject.
…exorcism is a strictly religious act or rite. But in ethnic religions… exorcism as an act of religion is largely replaced by the use of mere magical and superstitious means, to which non-Catholic writers at the present day sometimes quite unfairly assimilate Christian exorcism. Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite.

I find it a bit disingenuous to suggest that everyone else’s exorcism is superstitious bunk, but their is legitimate. Outsiders may not see much difference between them. I see this statement as circular reasoning: “…the conclusion of an argument is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises.”

Sure, an exorcism may have a placebo effect. But like “faith healing” the effect is usually temporary and not a cure. A lot of con artists like this one prey on gullible people by pretending to cure them this way, usually bilking them of considerable cash along the way.

Placebo effects work because people have faith in them, which means that the placebo is as much a part of the problem as the solution. In other words, you can’t get help from an exorcism unless you believe in demons, hell, and all the trappings of the religion in the first place. An atheist cannot be possessed by something he or she does not believe in, any more than a conservative can be possessed by socialism.

The placebo effect itself is problematic. Most studies that have examined it are inconclusive because they begin with the assumption that the placebo itself effected a cure, and other potential causes are ignored. These are “false impressions of placebo effects.” More recent studies have also found “little evidence in general that placebos had powerful clinical effects.” The effect is, at best, inconclusive.

Things like natural regression of a disease, or the “natural history of a disease (that is, the tendency for people to get better or worse during the course of an illness irrespective of any treatment at all)” are overlooked in many studies.

The preconception of a result plays a big part in both placebo and medicine, which is how “faith healers,” palm readers, homeopathists, psychics, crystal “therapists” and other New Age wingnuts manage to con people.

One study of the effect of Prozac concluded that “…the expectation of improvement, not adjustments in brain chemistry, accounted for 75 percent of the drugs’ effectiveness.”

Thus if someone believes he or she is possessed, then he or she will also believe that an exorcism will be a cure because the two are emotionally and psychologically linked in the user in same casual relationship as a painkiller is with pain.

As noted in the Skeptics’ Dictionary article:

A person’s beliefs and hopes about a treatment, combined with their suggestibility, may have a significant biochemical effect, however. Sensory experience and thoughts can affect neurochemistry. The body’s neurochemical system affects and is affected by other biochemical systems, including the hormonal and immune systems. Thus, it is consistent with current knowledge that a person’s hopeful attitude and beliefs may be very important to their physical well-being and recovery from injury or illness. But it does not follow from this fact that if the patient has hope will she recover. Nor does it follow from this fact that if a person is not hopeful she will not recover.

There’s an ethical question here, too. Is it ethical for a doctor to deliberately deceive patients by providing a placebo? If a priest has any doubts about the actuality of demons or possession, is it ethical to perform a medieval ritual as a cure for mental disorders?

I was somewhat mollified to read that the whole thing isn’t just a Hollywood-style exercise in spectacle and ritual, but rather the church has a more cautious approach. Apparently a commission has to first determine “…whether there’s some kind of psychological or psychiatric explanation to a situation.” The commission’ however, remains “open to the possibility of demonic possession.”

Anglican priest Colin Clay told the CBC that “…the topic of exorcism touches on questions that go back centuries. The issues revolve around the nature of evil and how to respond to people who claim they have the devil in them.”

Evil as an external force rather than an internal one is, for me anyway, very problematic. It requires some outside agency to establish what is evil, which therefore implies an outside agency also establishes what is good. And that suggests some absolute good and evil, rather than a situational one: good and evil are not based on our own actions or value judgments, or measured by the circumstances but rather by what an outside force has established a priori to the act.

Let me provide an example. Is is evil to kill a child? Most people would say yes, of course. But is that always true? What if that child is in a hospital full of other children and strapped with enough C4 to kill hundreds of people? Is it evil NOT to kill that child before it pushes the trigger and kills many more people? Are both acts inherently evil? Or is one heroic?

As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, you need to learn to be good or bad depending on the necessity of the circumstances. Good and evil are not simply the creation of external agencies, they are choices we make according to the situation. This has been explored in many great works of literature – Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (when is it right to kill a tyrant?), Les Miserables (is it right to steal to feed starving children?) come to mind.

No one in the article ever seems to ask what the circumstances are that would cause someone to believe in possession so deeply that he acted it out. Let’s face it: if he had not been inculcated with the belief in demons and possession before hand, he would not need an exorcism. The cure is part of the problem.

Clay said some churches will say, “Well that’s the devil, and the devil is at work in the world and we’ve got to deal with it,” while others would say “there’s certainly evil in the world, whether there’s an actual Satan or devil, there’s certainly evil in the world, and it has a terrible effect on people’s lives,’ and so we’ve got to respond to it.”

Yes, by all means respond, if that response is part of a larger program that includes psychiatric and medical help, counselling and observation. If the placebo effect will help the patient, then use it, but not by itself. No “faith healer” has ever cured a broken bone or cancer – it still needs medical treatment and monitoring. By itself, I see exorcism as unethical and deceptive.

4,945 total views, no views today

It’s not an Apache blessing, it’s just a Hollywood script

Not from an Apaches!“May the sun bring you new energy by day,” begins this saccharine saying that has enjoyed a continued life outside Facebook through the fridge magnet and huggable-puppies-and-kittens-on-posters and wedding planner industries.

It gets passed of as an “Apache blessing” or “Apache wedding blessing” on Facebook, usually with some hunk-ish Indian brave pictures beside the words or some faux-Indian animal fetish images.

The rest of the alleged “blessing” reads:

…May the moon softy restore you by night;
May the rain wash away your worries;
May the breeze blow new strength into your being;
May you walk gently through the world and know its beauty all the days of your life.

I get all glassy-eyed-nauseous with such gooey sentiments, and feel like I should throw myself onto some aromatherapy, or reiki healing, or some other New Age folderol.

The quote is, however, pure Hollywood. According to a column in the New Yorker, May, 2007, it’s lifted straight from a 1950 film, Broken Arrow:

…what I was able to find was that the blessing seems to have entered the popular consciousness through “Broken Arrow,” which was—except for the wedding scene, the critics say—a very accurate depiction of the Apache people. A version of the blessing was also in the book that the movie was based on. The book was historical fiction, but the prayer was an invented part of the fiction.

It’s part of an interview with Rebecca Mead, who coined the term “traditionalesque” to refer to those instant “traditions” made from modern ideas and quotes, that are like Internet memes in that they spread rapidly through the culture, mostly through commercial efforts. As she notes, this faux “blessing” is in the book of almost every modern wedding planner, so it gets passed around over and over and over.

These fake quotes seem like something that should have been said by someone wiser, someone of another generation, even another culture, so we just assume they were, and repeat them without ever once stopping to verify the source. Or question our own wisdom. After all, if we like them, if they inspire us, and they turn out to be hoaxes (like so many are!), then it reflects on our own gullibility.

…there are a number of reasons that people might buy into invented traditions…”

It’s not that people are stupid or lazy – sure, some are, but by and large not most people. We are a society accustomed to instant gratification and looking up a source takes work – critical thinking, reasoning, research and investigation – we find that effort odious and onerous. We want immediate answers, immediate solutions, immediate wisdom. Looking something up interrupts that.

We’re also not comfortable confronting others who believe in the reliability of these sayings, so we don’t want to prove them wrong. Easier to agree that the saying is hugely inspirational and brightened our day, rather than tell a friend his or her favourite quote comes from a greeting card, not Gandhi, or Buddha, or an Apache warrior.

The Wikipedia entry for this “blessing” notes that,

It is not associated with any particular religion and indeed does not mention a deity or include a petition, only a wish. It has no known connection to the traditions of the Apache or any other Native American group.
It was written for the 1947 Western novel Blood Brother (novel) by Elliott Arnold. The blessing entered popular consciousness when it made its way into the film adaptation of the novel Broken Arrow, scripted by Albert Maltz. The Economist, citing Rebecca Mead’s book on American weddings, characterized it as “‘traditionalesque’, commerce disguised as tradition”.
The first line of the original poem was “Now for you there is no rain” and the last “Now, forever, forever, there is no loneliness”. Since 1950, there have since been several different versions of the poem. The film text begins “‘Now you will feel no rain” and ends “And may your days be good and long upon the earth.”

So the “Apache wedding blessing” under its many names and guises goes into the same trash heap as the many other Internet memes – bad or mis-attributed quotes – I’ve been debunking these past few years. And good riddance, too!

90,329 total views, 70 views today

Why does Canada need an “Office of Religious Freedom”?

Religious Freedom?Why did the Harper Conservatives establish an “Office of Religious Freedom” within the Department of Foreign Affairs? I don’t get it. Was there some pressing issue in Canada where religious rights were repressed, so it needed a multi-million-dollar government agency to oversee compliance with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

That charter clear states, in section two, that all Canadians have four “fundamental freedoms:”

  1. freedom of conscience and religion;
  2. freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  3. freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  4. freedom of association.

Well, since the ORF is within the DFA (excuse my initialisms), it must mean Canadians are going to enforce religious freedoms outside our own borders, right? So we’re going to become the faith police for the world? Do we send in the army when someone’s faith is being oppressed? Or just mail hurt and sad diplomatic notes? Perhaps something like this one will appear in a Taliban mail box soon:

“Dear Mr. Taliban:
We are truly distressed and hurt that you want to enslave women and turn children into suicide bombers in the name of your religion. We also feel we must protest against the destruction of those irreplaceable, millennia-old Buddhist statues you had dynamited and shelled in the name of your religion. And we are really, really upset that one of your followers threw acid into the faces of young school girls because he was angry that women were being educated. Finally, it was very naughty of you to execute those women for shaming their families by being raped. Stoning goes against our Canadian values.

We sincerely hope you won’t do any of this again.

In the name of love and peace,
Canada.”

Yeah, that’ll change them. One look at a warning letter from Canada and these frothing mad religious zealots will just crawl back into the Dark Ages whence they came. Right.

Given the fundamentalist-right leanings of some of the Conservatives, I am leery of this government – any government, in fact – overseeing rights and freedoms of any sort. But having them oversee religious freedoms is to me like letting the fox guard the hen house. I can’t quite believe a Christian evangelist is going to be fighting for the rights of persecuted Muslims or Buddhists in some developing nation. Maybe it’s just me, but I expect they’re more likely to try to convert them…

Don’t get me wrong: I’m an advocate for religious freedom. As a non-believer, I still support the right of anyone to believe anything they want, no matter how silly, stupid or humorous – right up until the moment it interferes with another human being’s life or rights. Sure, you want to believe the world is going to end and you’ll get carried away safely in a spaceship, go ahead. That’s your right. But you don’t have any right to demand anyone else drink the Kool-Aid with you.

Your religious freedom extends as far as your own skin, and not a millimeter further. It doesn’t allow you to tell anyone else what to believe, what to read, what to think.

protesting TibetansBut why, I ask again, does the government need an office to enforce religious freedom? Will it have its own police force? Will it, for example, send diplomats to Tibet to protest the ongoing, brutal Chinese oppression of Tibetan religious freedom – or just send the PM to Beijing for some chop suey and photo ops while inking some more trade deals and to hell with the Tibetans?

In mid-March, Helene Laverdiere, NDP foreign affairs critic, stood up in the House of Commons and asked the government how this office was formed, who wanted it, what its mandate was, and what it could cost Canadians (full text of her question and the response is here).

The government’s nebulous response was, basically bafflegab, but it did state the office (or rather, as the reply noted, the Office of Religious Freedom Office) would get $5 million a year for a staff of five, for at least the next four years. One million dollars per person per year. Wish I could tap into that salary… This new expenditure comes at a time the government has announced budget cuts in health, food, safety, heritage and the CBC, among others.

Is this all government balderdash, as several bloggers (like this one) think? Just pandering to the Conservatives’ Christian roots, while scoring extra points in the multicultural communities for looking pro-active (of the six-member panel created to consult with religious groups in closed-door sessions, four were Christian. None were Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist).

Should our government even inject “religion into a secular foreign policy” as the Toronto Star asked. I just can’t help but feel – given the government’s history and makeup – that this is just being used to further another agenda.

5,771 total views, 5 views today

This is about keeping schools secular, not about atheism.

Diversity?I stumbled across a story this week about a school district in Ontario that had decided to disallow free distribution of the Bible by the Gideons in its schools. My first thought was, “Wow. I didn’t even know the Gideons were still in business.”

Then I wondered why anyone was distributing bibles at a secular school in the first place.

The story actually originated in the Toronto Star. The Gideons have been distributing bibles since 1908, and in Canada since 1911. I’ve only seen the New Testament in any hotel where I’ve stayed, but their website says they distribute both “complete” and New Testament-only bibles. By “complete” I assume that the apocrypha is not included, just the Old and New Testaments.

The decision not to allow bibles to be handed out was made by the Bluewater School Board’s policy committee this week. The committee debated the issue for months (which strikes me as very indecisive) but eventually voted to ban distribution of all religious materials at its 53 schools. The other suggestion was to allow any religious organization to hand out literature. That could open the door to all sorts of fringe religious groups, from creationists to Scientologists. None was the better choice.

Well, not for Kevin Larson, chairman of the board’s policy committee. He said he was disappointed by the decision. “I believe open to all is the way we should be going with the increasing diversity in the world.” Duh. I wonder how he would feel if someone was handing out Korans? The Book of Mormon? Dianetics? The Dhammapada? Bhagavad Gita? What about some Wiccan text? Or something by Anton Lavey?

How would he answer all those complaints from parents whose kid brought home a screed from the Satanic Church? Would he tell them they should relax and enjoy the “diversity”?

An opponent of the decision, Dorothy Adams, commented: “It is an atheist thing and they’re doing harm to the children. What are we trying to do? Destroy our children?”

No, just keeping the separation of church and state. You don’t have to be an atheist to believe that religion does not belong in a secular school.

According to the Gideons’ website, “In 1946, Canadian Gideons began the program of presenting New Testaments to all grade 5 students in Canada whose parents consented. These have become commonly known as the “Little Red Bible” by the thousands of people who received them.” If it’s just the New testament, it’s specifically a Christian text.

The Gideons aren’t apologetic, either. They state clearly they are proselytizing for Christianity:

The main reason for this is because our primary goal is to introduce people to Jesus Christ. If we can ask people to read one thing in the entire Bible, it’s the stories that revolve around the character of Jesus and who He is. We want them to start there and then explore the whole story, including the Old Testament, as they dig deeper into the Bible.

Bluewater’s decision is hardly the first: many other school boards have disallowed distribution of the bibles, as well as all other religious material, in public schools. And so they all should.

Obviously this decision didn’t sit well with the religious right, who packed the committee meetings, waving their Gideon Bibles, and when they went home spent time flooding trustee inboxes with with emails, making phone calls and writing letters.

Adams said Gideon supporters would continue to lobby trustees to avoid the decision being ratified by the full board, in April. She told the paper:

“We believe in the children and bringing up children to have a happy life. If they had the Lord in their life, they wouldn’t be tempted by a lot of the things that are out there.”

So if they had Krishna in their life, children won’t be tempted? Or Mani? Ganesh? Avalokiteshvara? Buddha? Mithra? Prince Xenu? Allah? Or just one of the three Christian gods? Didn’t seem to keep a lot of priests from temptation with altar boys.

I somehow doubt Ms. Adams or any of the opponents give a damn about “diversity” – just about teaching children their own faith. And that’s a good enough reason to stop the group handing out bibles to kids in publicly funded schools.

4,025 total views, no views today

Crystal crazy: self-professed psychics on Facebook

Claptrap card gameThe Internet has provided a virtual continent for the colonies of faith healers, psychics, astrologers, UFO hunters, ghost and haunting sightings, crypto-zoologists, promoters of angels, spirits, demons, auras, and a wealth of pseudoscience and claptrap. In a culture where the critical thinking, quest of knowledge and skepticism that characterized the Enlightenment have given way to superstition and fundamentalism, the Net has proven a rich source of believers and followers for the charlatans and hucksters.

Facebook and Youtube combine to make the Alexandria Library for the hard-of-thinking. Many of the promoters of this nonsense feed off one another and create their own memes. Charlie Brooker wrote in The Guardian,

In the 18th century, a revolution in thought, known as the Enlightenment, dragged us away from the superstition and brutality of the Middle Ages toward a modern age of science, reason and democracy. It changed everything. If it wasn’t for the Enlightenment, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. You’d be standing in a smock throwing turnips at a witch. Yes, the Enlightenment was one of the most significant developments since the wheel. Which is why we’re trying to bollocks it all up.
Welcome to a dangerous new era – the Unlightenment – in which centuries of rational thought are overturned by idiots. Superstitious idiots. They’re everywhere – reading horoscopes, buying homeopathic remedies, consulting psychics, babbling about “chakras” and “healing energies”, praying to imaginary gods, and rejecting science in favour of soft-headed bunkum. But instead of slapping these people round the face till they behave like adults, we encourage them. We’ve got to respect their beliefs, apparently.
Well I don’t. “Spirituality” is what cretins have in place of imagination. If you’ve ever described yourself as “quite spiritual”, do civilisation a favour and punch yourself in the throat until you’re incapable of speaking aloud ever again. Why should your outmoded codswallop be treated with anything other than the contemptuous mockery it deserves?

Recently I got into a bit of a verbal spat on FB with a character who calls herself (himself?) Higher Connection – Raising Our Vibration. Right away, just on seeing the puerile name, the old bullshit detector started going off. A friend (a real person I’ve met in the flesh, not just an imaginary friend like most Facebook connections are) posted a like/share to the above-mentioned person’s post in which she wrote,

Mass healing time again 🙂 Energetic, Theta Healing, Reiki and Soul Recall.
Put your name (or anyone elses, a pets.. as many as you want!) in this list to receive healings and adjustments. In this healing I will send it out to where any of your imbalances are…. then I will recall all of your soul fragments (when we go through trauma we leave chunks of our energy imprint behind. we need them back.) and I will break any soul contracts or agreements or vows that no longer apply and that you are done with (you don’t have to do anything, don’t worry.) I am also getting told I need to send you all PEACE and LOVE. So we will leave it at that for now. Bit at a time 🙂 Be sure that this healing feels right to you at this time, and choose your friends carefully. Some people are not ready or do not want to heal. Yet I always intend that this works according to each persons higher self decision ?

Whenever anyone I know strays into pseudoscience or superstition, I feel a responsibility to intervene. It’s like seeing a friend wade into a dangerous river. I cannot sit by and watch them drown, whether it be in water or superstitious codswallop.

Seeing his “share”, I felt compelled to comment at the end of several dozen bits of poorly spelled drivel that praised the original writer and added all sorts of requests for “healing”: “Claptrap,” I wrote. “Hookum. Codswallop. Come on, Mike. You’re smarter than this. Or are you one of the Pod people now?”

Ooh. That stirred up a hornet’s nest of the grammatically challenged hard-of-thinking crew. Good vibes or whatever her pseudonym is, responded,”…thats inappropriate. we do not come door knocking at your door. for a reason, its rude. ok?.” And I dove in: “Dear “Higher vibes” – sorry if you’re offended but pseudoscience and superstition always make me cranky. When my friend posts a link to claptrap, I have to comment to him. I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I let him meander down this road without a warning that it leads to silliness and ends up spending your money on “healing” crystals and warm & fuzzy “self help” books. What kind of friend lets a friend buy “healing” crystals?”

Put some stick about, I say. Our vibrating author responded (and these are verbatim, uncorrected quotes): “that is YOUR unimformed opinion. He is not buying real estate. just chill and worry about what you are doing ok.. He is in no danger. If it makes him feel better, how is it hurting him? There’s just no need for it. It’s nice you care about him, but you know nothing of this. It’s way smarter to say hey, WHY do all these other people believe this? Just respect your opinion is different. You don’t have to believe it, thats totally ok with is. ?”

Little heart characters were scattered through the original, but they don’t get translated into WordPress when copied. Small mercies, I suppose. Her comment makes you gooey at the knees, doesn’t it?

Do superstition and pseudoscience hurt someone? Do silly beliefs or falling for the cons of self-described “psychics” and “healers” harm someone? Well, I believe stupidity and self-delusion hurts by making a person more gullible, less critical, less open to knowledge and science, more closed to the real world. Lack of critical thinking leads to all sorts of nonsense: creationism, UFOs, astrology, feng shui, aromatherapy, phrenology, ghosts, spirits, angels, faith healing, tarot readings, auras, Scientology, crop circles, psychics, the Tea Party and Justin Bieber. I feel it’s my role as a rationalist and existentialist to help guide my friend from the dark side. I’m not being rude or nasty intentionally, just honest and caring about my friend’s mental welfare.

I mean, how much do we have to tolerate? Do we always have to respect someone’s beliefs when they’re utterly silly or even dangerous? When should we intervene to give them a metaphorical wake-up slap?

Meanwhile, another poster chimed in with: “She is providing her healings for free! You can rest assured you friend is not being taken advantage of here. As a matter of fact it is quite the opposite :)”

Free psychic energy? Just like free perpetual motion. Free angels. Free ghosts. And yes, free “healings.” Yes, I say: people ARE being taken advantage of: they’re being dragged into the medieval mindset of superstition that binds their intelligence in a dark place where they cannot think except through the lense of psychic hucksterism with imaginary beings guiding them.

Good vibes chimed back in:

…you are obviously not a very scientific man. Psychic ability and the properties of crystals is scientifcally proven. do a little research before making claims, it just makes you no better than blind religious faith, does it not? And….. these healing crystals… are about $2 piece. You are being a bit ridiculous. Everything we are doing here, mostly, is SCIENCE now. Its funny that skeptics and apparent science believers do not keep up with the times. I’m not trying to be rude.. just telling you you are gravely behind the times and uninformed. Do you not want your friend happy? Stop trying to control him then. If a book makes him happy, that is WAY more important than anything else, his feeling of happiness, I would think… what do you suspect is NECESSARY for a watch to runlike it does? An energy conductor AND producer. Called Quartz Crystal. Just sayin 🙂 Go read some 🙂

A watch? Well of course I know how a watch works. Like most watches these days, mine is digital, but it still uses a tiny bit of quartz as its heart. Quartz is used as a replacement for an oscillating mechanical device, not as a source of energy. A small voltage is supplied from the battery to make the quartz tuning fork vibrate (at 32,768 Hz). That vibration is measured as current fluctuations by the electronics in the watch and used to count time. It’s the piezoelectric effect (musicians with passive pickups on their instruments know all about it). Those vibrations are translated into electrical energy which either powers the digital display or a tiny stepper motor that moves the hands. Nothing magical about it. And without the battery, a watch doesn’t run.

But, as Arthur C Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (Profiles of The Future, 1961, AKA Clarke’s third law). Perhaps to people who believe in “spirit guides” and “higher planes,” a digital watch IS magic.

If crystals could heal (they can’t, but let’s pretend), since most of us wear one on our wrist, why buy another? Since quartz is a crystal and quartz is the most common element of sand, why not just stick a handful of sand in your pocket? Why are people who walk on sandy beaches no more healthy or spiritually attuned than people walking on gravel? So many questions to tax their beliefs with.

I had to thank the vibration lady for the good chuckle I had over her comment that, “Psychic ability and the properties of crystals is scientifcally proven.” I didn’t bother to correct the verb or the spelling, however. If I tried to correct every glaring grammatical, spelling and punctuation error in the morass of her and her followers’ comments, I’d still be typing on that thread. A scan through her FB page shows hundreds of posts and responses from people who appear to struggle greatly with the basics of English. And the keyboard must be an equal mystery since few actually know how to work the shift key.

Here’s one of the author’s own posts:

OMFG are you serious haha!! i SAID IS YOUR STOMACH HURTING.. YOU NEED TEH OCEAN FOR HEALING.. AND YOUR STOMACH HURT AND you (woops) sat down and looked at a ohoto of the ocean… is all this before reading what i wrote or after.?? omg! Anyway…. If the voice is always telling you positive things.. If it NEVER frightens you, says megative or awful things. .. etc etc etc then YES ALWAYS LISTEN TO IT. It is your Guide. He is from Lemuria… Plieadian he is telling me (god i hope that adds up or i will look silly!) and he is trying to help you right now wiht your life purpose. I am trying to get his name… Chimora or Chimpera…. Chimera I think! You ask his name and see what YOU get. I am not certain. But yes, the universe always gives you signs and you should always trust it ?

The head shakes when I read stuff like that. Here’s a post on the FB page from one of her followers:

Its funny these cards came up today, last night I was listening to Judi Satori, that channels messages from other Galxies and from the Angels. And her transmission, well for Feb and March 2012 from the Ascended Masters, was exactly the same message, how we are being protected and guided, and despite everything going on we will be okay. Just have faith, continue on our paths, meditations, grounding and klear karmic energy to prepare ourselves for the transmission of the coming months. Everyone will be safe, despite the chaos and calamities on the earth , we all will come through, even though there may be difficult times ahead from some of us. More validly from above 🙂

I won’t reprint any more of the silliness of these posts, in part because there’s such a treasure trove of drivel, I barely know where to start. Stuff about “higher planes,” angels, “spirit guides,” “clearing exercises,” card readings, “power” animals… the list of nonsense is long and dreary. And the English is often bad enough to cause migraines.

These people are lost, hurting folks; looking for help, for advice, for some rock of stability in an increasingly complex and challenging world. It’s a world where knowledge is the currency for growth and development, and where science and technology seem increasing like magic: obscure, occult and perhaps frightening. I read their pathetic pleas for help with problems in their family, friends, work, love life, with a twinge of sadness and even sympathy. The world is difficult, and they feel themselves adrift on an angry ocean they cannot understand, much less control.

Cognitive dissonanceBut instead of looking for answers, instead of working towards solutions, they choose to hide in the dark superstitions promoted by hucksters, charlatans, con artists and well-meaning but delusional wingnuts. They accept the claptrap and empty but satisfying verbiage of these self-professed healers and “psychics.” They put their faith in imaginary forces or beings. This stuff is like eating potato chips and drinking pop instead of eating real food: empty calories, lots of fat but no substance. Charlie Brooker is more caustic in his advice: “If you want comforting, suck your thumb. Buy a pillow. Don’t make up a load of floaty blah about energy or destiny. This is the real world, stupid. We should be solving problems, not sticking our fingers in our ears and singing about fairies… ”

When believers learn that crystals and spirit guides and “psychics” don’t cure cancer, don’t fix broken marriages, don’t get your job back, don’t stops wars or make them win the lottery, what happens? Cognitive dissonance. A psychological way to deny the truth and fortify your beliefs when when those beliefs are challenged or proven wrong. Ah, but that’s a topic for a future post.

Let me, instead, show you a Youtube video of a self-professed “psychic” as randomly chosen sample of the sort of nonsense that is being perpetuated online. She is (as she says), “one of many, many people who talk to angels.” Note that what she calls “research” any scientists would consider self-delusion. It’s a tough piece to listen to and I couldn’t handle all the claptrap in one sitting, so feel free to turn it off at any point you get intellectually nauseous:
[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfTnwFpSqhI”]
And let me end with this video by Michael Shermer on why people believe weird and improbable things:
[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8T_jwq9ph8k”]

4,266 total views, 5 views today

Why the Republicans are bad for science

Tumblr imageRick Santorum’s recent win in the Mississippi and Alabama primaries are frightening for anyone who values science and critical thinking. Santorum is not the only Republican who frightens me. They all do. But Santorum most of all. The idea of a right-wing, homophobic, fundamentalist, creationist running the biggest and most powerful nation in the world is scary enough to keep me awake at night.

Santorum was the author of a 2001 amendment to the US education funding bill. His pro-creationist proposal was known as The Santorum Amendment. It “promoted the teaching of intelligent design while questioning the academic standing of evolution in U.S. public schools.” “Intelligent” design is anything but: it’s merely creationism dressed up in a cheap tuxedo. Santorum has a long history of “mischaracterizing” and misunderstanding evolution, as chronicled here: “…Santorum doesn’t need facts to back up his side, as long as he makes it sound like the other side has its own problems.”

Since Santorum’s failed attempt to get creationism inserted into the classroom, teaching so-called “intelligent” design has been declared unconstitutional by a US federal judge: “U.S. District Judge John E. Jones delivered a stinging attack on the Dover Area School Board, saying its first-in-the-nation decision in October 2004 to insert intelligent design into the science curriculum violates the constitutional separation of church and state.” The judge declared there was “overwhelming evidence” presented during the trial to prove “intelligent” design “is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.”

That hasn’t stopped Santorum from being an outspoken advocate for creationism in whatever party dress it wears. Mitt Romney, his chief rival for the top spot, has been described as a “theistic evolutionist” based on older quotes, but he has said little or nothing about creationism during the campaign for the Republican candidacy.

In 2008, Santorum commented that, “…the theory of evolution… is used to promote to a worldview that is anti-theist, that is atheist.”

Creationist humourIn November, 2011, as the HuffPost reported, Santorum said, “the “left” and “scientific community” have monopolized the public school system’s curriculum, only permitting the teaching of evolution and leaving no room for the introduction of creation-based theories in the classroom.” Santorum bemoaned his frustration at the “whole ‘science only allows science to be taught in science class scenario.” Uh, Rick, that’s what you’re supposed to teach in a science class.

Creationism is not by itself a significant issue. It’s rather that it links to other, bigger issues. As Martin Wisckol writes,

While creationism itself rarely is the subject of political policy beyond school curriculum, it’s closely tied to high-profile issues that are – including abortion rights, stem cell use, gay marriage and birth control. And the most sizeable portion of the electorate subscribing to creationism are evangelical Christians… according to Pew researcher David Masci.

Santorum has other issues with science and scientific research aside from creationism. As Discover Magazine noted, Santorum doesn’t believe in climate change science. He doesn’t support stem cell research. Santorum called Barack Obama’s environmental policy, “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible” (see here – although that may have merely been a CYA retraction when his words were taken as a faith-based attack on Obama).

Early in the campaign, Romney distanced himself from Santorum’s ‘climate-science-is-political-science’ denial, by admitting he believed, “…the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that.” (see here). But later he flip-flopped and said, “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.” He also supports the rights of gas and oil companies to despoil the environment, including, “…drilling in the “the Gulf of Mexico, both the Atlantic and Pacific Outer Continental Shelves, Western lands, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and off the Alaska coast.” Romney will be as bad for the environment as he will be for science, it appears.

It’s easy to target Santorum’s fundamentalist-Tea-Party-anti-science myopia and Romney’s pro-corporate-waste-the environment-deny-science position. But as Chris Mooney points out in this piece, even educated Republicans are prone to accept the same fallacies and narrow-minded views that characterize all of the presidential candidates:

Again and again, Republicans or conservatives who say they know more about the topic, or are more educated, are shown to be more in denial, and often more sure of themselves as well—and are confident they don’t need any more information on the issue.
Tea Party members appear to be the worst of all. In a recent survey by Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, they rejected the science of global warming even more strongly than average Republicans did. For instance, considerably more Tea Party members than Republicans incorrectly thought there was a lot of scientific disagreement about global warming (69 percent to 56 percent). Most strikingly, the Tea Party members were very sure of themselves—they considered themselves “very well-informed” about global warming and were more likely than other groups to say they “do not need any more information” to make up their minds on the issue.

Mooney calls it the “smart idiot” effect, and continues:

…well-informed or well-educated conservatives probably consume more conservative news and opinion, such as by watching Fox News. Thus, they are more likely to know what they’re supposed to think about the issues—what people like them think—and to be familiar with the arguments or reasons for holding these views. If challenged, they can then recall and reiterate these arguments. They’ve made them a part of their identities, a part of their brains, and in doing so, they’ve drawn a strong emotional connection between certain “facts” or claims, and their deeply held political values. And they’re ready to argue.

Rationality does not win the day, it seems, even with educated Republicans. Ideology does. And increasingly that ideology seems to be the products of a smaller and select group of uber-right media outlets (like Fox), self-appointed spokespeople (like the harridan Ann Coulter), and vocal Tea Party members. Ideology, as Martin Wisckol writes, is driving the debate about many issues, not facts – information, or empirical data:

…the “facts” used by voters are often subjective, depending on one’s political, philosophical and religious beliefs. The trend is growing, fueled in part by spurious information on the internet, and is a major reason for partisan gridlock in Sacramento and Washington.
Thirty percent of Republicans say manmade global warming is occurring, while 64 percent of Democrats say that’s the case, according to Pew Research Center. Pure creationism – which says man was created by God in his current form – is subscribed to by 52 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of Democrats, according to Gallup. Pew found the difference on creationism to be a closer – but still substantial – 39 percent to 30 percent.
And it’s not just evolution and global warming that are too complex for most voters to thoroughly assess based on data. The comparative efficiency of health-care policies, the effect of a large deficit, the best way to reduce the debt and how to stimulate the economy are other key areas where factual understanding doesn’t determine a voter’s position so much as their preexisting ideology and whose word they’re inclined to trust.

Sad to think that during the Enlightenment, governments supported the quest for learning. In the 21st Century, Republicans want the government to support ignorance and superstition.
[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaNCpc4zNio”]

6,314 total views, 6 views today

NASA latest target of creationist harridans

CreationismA former NASA computer technician has filed an wrongful dismissal suit against his former employer, alleging he was, “discriminated against because he engaged his co-workers in conversations about intelligent design.” Engaged is a mild word. From what I’ve read in more balanced reports, he proselytized and his co-workers complained. The trial began Monday (documents here).

David Coppedge admitted he, “…handed out (religious) DVDs on the idea while at work.” But that’s not all. According to this AP story, Coppedge was also involved in political campaigning at work:

Coppedge’s attorney, William Becker, contends his client was singled out by his bosses because they perceived his belief in intelligent design to be religious. Coppedge had a reputation around JPL as an evangelical Christian, and interactions with co-workers led some to label him as a Christian conservative, Becker said.
In the lawsuit, Coppedge says he believes other things also led to his demotion, including his support for a state ballot measure that sought to define marriage as limited to heterosexual couples and his request to rename the annual holiday party a Christmas party.

Coppedge runs an apologist creationist website that tries to discredit evolutionary and biological science and new discoveries with pseudo-scientific jargon.

The Huffington Post story noted,

While the case has attracted interest because of the controversial nature of intelligent design, it is at its heart a straightforward discrimination case, said Eugene Volokh, a professor of First Amendment law at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.

“Intelligent” design is not controversial unless you try to promote it in your workplace to skeptical coworkers. Creationist advocates get shirty that your efforts get you dismissed. The story continues:

“The question is whether the plaintiff was fired simply because he was wasting people’s time and bothering them in ways that would have led him to being fired regardless of whether it was about religion or whether he was treated worse based on the religiosity of his beliefs,” said Volokh. “If he can show that, then he’s got a good case.”

The CBC story quoted John West, associate director of the inappropriately-named, right-wing anti-science “Centre for Science and Culture” at the creationist defence group, the “Discovery Institute” (aka The Discoveroids*)

“It’s part of a pattern. There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwin and we’ve seen that for several years. This is free speech, freedom of conscience 101.”

The US Constitution protects free speech from government interference. It doesn’t protect anyone’s right to disrupt a workplace. There is no constitutional right to promote creationism in the workplace.

No, it isn’t free speech or conscience. It’s a typical creationist assault on science through a wedge issue. West is using typical pro-creationist/anti-science spin doctoring. In this quote, he tries to reposition the issue from one of a workplace problem to one of constitutional freedom and faith. It is neither. It’s not a war on dissent**. It’s about whether Coppedge was engaged in workplace harassment. The only “war” going on is the constant creationist assault on critical thinking.

Would these people defend someone who actively promoted astrology at JPL? Or promoted Communism? Or is protecting “free speech” limited to defending the alleged right to spout creationist folderol?

Coppedge’s attorney, William Becker, says his client was singled out by his bosses because they perceived his belief in intelligent design to be religious. Coppedge had a reputation around JPL as an evangelical Christian and other interactions with co-workers led some to label him as a Christian conservative, Becker said.
In the lawsuit, Coppedge says he believes other things also led to his demotion, including his support for a state ballot measure that sought to define marriage as limited to heterosexual couples and his request to rename the annual holiday party a “Christmas party.”

Belief in “intelligent” design IS religious. Only religious fundamentalists or biblical literalists believe in creationism. But belief alone won’t get you fired.

Live Science notes:

According to Coppedge’s complaint first filed with the courts in April 2010, JPL supervisors reprimanded Coppedge for handing out intelligent design DVDs to coworkers and discussing his beliefs about intelligent design with them. Coppedge alleges that JPL stifled his right to free speech and created a hostile work environment, demoting him from his “team lead” position in 2009. Coppedge lost his job last year.
“Plaintiff contends that, as a direct and proximate result of Defendants’ conduct and actions, he has been prejudiced and harmed as the result of Defendants’ actions suppressing and constraining protected speech in the workplace on account of viewpoint, content and religion,” reads Coppedge’s complaint filed at the Los Angeles Superior Court in 2010. The complaint has since been updated to include Coppedge’s termination.
According to JPL, it was not Coppedge’s beliefs, but his conflicts with colleagues that led to his demotion. The lab also holds that Coppedge’s firing was the result of planned budget cuts, not his intelligent design beliefs.

Strikes me that handing out religious DVDs or campaigning for a homophobic state proposition in any workplace during work hours are inappropriate acts. The US Constitution protects free speech from government interference. It doesn’t protect anyone’s right to disrupt a workplace. There is no constitutional right to promote creationism in the workplace.

Far more frightening is the rest of the story about the dumbing down of America:

According to the Gallup polling organization, as of 2010, 38 percent of Americans believed that humans evolved with God’s guidance, a position roughly congruous with intelligent design. Forty percent said they believed that God created humans in their present form, while 16 percent said they believed that humans evolved without God’s hand.
The Pew Research Center… in 2005… found that about 58 percent of Americans said the biblical account of creation was definitely or probably true, but the same percentage also said the same of evolution. In August 2005, a Gallup poll found that only 52 percent of Americans knew what the term “intelligent design” meant.
One study published in January found that people’s acceptance of evolution depends on their gut feeling rather than a careful examination of the evidence.
Nonetheless, evolution, creationism and intelligent design remain hot political topics. Legislators in several states introduced legislation this year that would limit the teaching of evolution or promote instruction in creationism.

Those figures are truly frightening and bode ill for science and critical thinking. Forty percent believe in creationism, while only 16% believe humans evolved without supernatural intervention. That’s sad. So very, very sad.

Creationism is fraudulent pseudoscience***. Claptrap. Codswallop. “Intelligent” Design (ID) is simply lipstick on the creationist pig. It isn’t science any more than “faith healing” is medicine.

The Sensuous Curmudgeon has been following the trial and commenting on the pieces creationist groups have been posting on their websites in their attempt to recast the case as a battle over faith rather than a workplace discipline issue. His archive of posts is here.

One example of the fundamentalist spin is this screed from an uber-right site:

In a developing case indicative of the growing war on religion and in particular Christianity, opening statements are expected Monday in a legal case involving the wrongful termination of a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee…
Anyone who has ever been a Christian in a secular workplace characterized by a decidedly anti-religious environment knows all too well that this kind of “labeling” and discrimination is common place. Though JPL will advance all kinds of evidence to defend its demotion and ultimate firing of Coppedge, most unbiased Americans can read between the lines and see that what really went on here was a coordinated and widespread effort to get rid of that ignorant Christian trouble-maker. Heaven forbid somebody in NASA actually believe in God or Intelligent Design – that is pure unadulterated blasphemy to today’s breed of scientists!

Typical creationist/fundamentalist hookum. Free speech is a canard in this trial.

People are allowed to believe any tomfoolery they want, even creationism, the apex of tomfoolery, up there with with astrology, phrenology, crystal therapy and alien abductions. All of which have many, many followers. But believers can’t annoy co-workers with their beliefs and disrupt the workplace. And that’s what NASA alleges Coppedge did.
~~~~~

* My favourite quotes from the Discoveroids’ website: “The Spanish Inquisition was about testing the sincerity of people’s Christianity.” “Darwinism is the tribal religion of the modern elites, presided over by The New York Times, NPR/PBS and even The Wall Street Journal.” “Ann Coulter is so funny that people fail to notice the well read public intellectual behind the laughing smile and endless blonde tresses.” (Ann Coulter is the poster girl of the uber-right wingnut caucus who personifies the term ‘shrill harridan’). Guffaws all around.
** Many scientists have challenged Darwin’s original ideas. Evolutionary theory has evolved in its own way from Darwin’s day. That’s natural (like evolution). Darwin didn’t know about genetics, DNA, viruses, radiation and other things that affect development and mutation. So of course scientists have had to refine and adapt the original theory in the light of new information. Science grows with knowledge, unlike creationism which stopped thinking about things 4,000 years ago when the Genesis mythology was first penned. Today’s evolutionary biology is far more complex and fuller than what Darwin proposed. But that doesn’t mean Darwin was wrong, any more than Newton or Galileo are wrong simply because we’ve learned new things since either.
*** Creationism is the belief that the first creation myth in the Book of Genesis is fact, not primitive mythology. Curiously, the different and contradictory second creation myth (2:4-2:25) gets ignored.

4,109 total views, 10 views today

Sorry the world didn’t end for you….

Christian Science MonitorHoward Camping is one sorry person. Really. This week he apologized – again – for making an incorrect “doomsday” prediction last year that had hundreds, maybe thousands, of his co-religious wingnuts eagerly selling all their belongings in anticipation of the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI, October 21).

Oops. World didn’t end, but then we knew it wouldn’t, didn’t we? Just like it won’t end this December simply because the Mayans ran out of room on their stone calendar for another long cycle.

I wrote about Camping and his wacky “Rapture” predictions back in May, 2011. Today I read about his apology for miscalculating the end of the world on the Huffington Post and Washington Post.

Camping actually made his first apology in May, 2011, when the “Rapture” he predicted failed to happen. Then he made another apology last October when the world didn’t end. Like I said earlier, he’s a sorry guy.

Well, he said he was wrong, but not everyone thought they were apologies. I agree: they read like excuses to me.

Then Harold apologized (sort of) again, in November, when he retired from “Family” Radio. He wrote: “It seems embarrassing for Family Radio. But God was in charge of everything. We came to that conclusion after quite careful study of the Bible. He allowed everything to happen the way it did without correction. He could have stopped everything if He had wanted to.” So it was God’s fault, not Harold’s that he got the date wrong.

This week Camping posted a new letter of apology on his company’s website. That’s right: his company. Camping is the founder of “Family” Radio, a fundamentalist Christian radio network. Never lose site of the fact like televangelists, Camping’s operation is about business first, and faith second. The network spent millions of dollars in 2011 advertising the alleged “Rapture.” Big bucks: gotta come from somewhere.

“Family” Radio isn’t my personal cup of tea: it offers an unrelenting program of Bible reading and study, with an emphasis on Camping’s own particular (and peculiar) slant on the text (its literal truth as he interprets it). Given his track record on end-of-the-world predictions (he made an earlier one for 1994), his interpretations strike me as pretty screwy and not conducive to anyone’s belief. Some of their stations alleviate the dreary droning with CCM (Contemporary Christian Music). Give me Bluesville any day of the week over CCM. Please.

In his recent letter, posted on the “Family” Radio site, Camping wrote:

The May 21 campaign was an astounding event if you think about its impact upon this world. There is no question that millions, if not billions of people heard for the first time the Bible’s warning that Jesus Christ will return. Huge portions of this world that had never read or seen a Bible heard the message the Christ Jesus is coming to rapture His people and destroy this natural world.

Well, the millennium-bug campaign was equally “astounding” in the same sense that for all the brouhaha, nothing happened with either. Dates came, dates went, computers didn’t crash, Jesus didn’t return. Camping seems to think his failed prediction woke people up to his vision of Rapture and apocalypse. I doubt it: it was grist for many, many comedy routines and much smirking palaver, but aside from the general hilarity, I doubt it convinced anyone. In fact, it probably cost Camping a lot of followers. Especially those who woke up October 22, homeless, jobless, friendless, penniless, rapture-less and still very much on planet earth.

At least he didn’t convince them to drink the Kool-Aid… although there were documented suicides and attempted suicides as a result of his predictions. Some people are that gullible.

Camping’s letter may seem an abjectly humble apology to some, but to me it sounds a trifle hollow; rather defensive or even a bit prideful:

…we humbly acknowledge we were wrong about the timing; yet though we were wrong God is still using the May 21 warning in a very mighty way. In the months following May 21 the Bible has, in some ways, come out from under the shadows and is now being discussed by all kinds of people who never before paid any attention to the Bible. We learn about this, for example, by the recent National Geographic articles concerning the King James Bible and the Apostles. Reading about and even discussing about the Bible can never be a bad thing, even if the Bible’s authenticity is questioned or ridiculed. The world’s attention has been called to the Bible…. Yet this incorrect and sinful statement allowed God to get the attention of a great many people who otherwise would not have paid attention. Even as God used sinful Balaam to accomplish His purposes, so He used our sin to accomplish His purpose of making the whole world acquainted with the Bible. However, even so, that does not excuse us. We tremble before God as we humbly ask Him for forgiveness for making that sinful statement. We are so thankful that God is so loving that He will forgive even this sin.

For all his mea-culpa commentary, Harold doesn’t apologize to all those people who gave up everything to become his camp(ing) followers and ended up with nothing but the ringing laughter of their former friends and co-workers to live on. I suppose we’ll still have to wait for him to apologize fully. Probably until the “Rapture” finally does arrive… or at least until the UFOs land (pick your fantasy scenario)…

3,800 total views, no views today