A Zen story

Zen storyThere are all sorts of great stories, great tales of wisdom and enlightenment, to be found in Zen Buddhism. They often have that sort of eternal depth and universal meaning to our lives, regardless of your personal beliefs. The one below came back to me, last night, while I was walking my dog and pondering why some people remain so angry over little things, why they can’t move on. It goes like this…

Two Zen monks, a young and and old one, were walking along the road on the way to visit a monastery in the hills. They came to a river that was swollen with water from the recent rains, and the ford was deep under the muddy, rushing water.

On their side of the river was a young woman, dressed in a rich new kimono and sash, unable to cross, looking fearfully at the water.

The elder monk went over, spoke quietly to the woman, then picked her up, and carried her across the river while his companion struggled through the water behind him. The monk put the woman down on the further bank, bowed, and the two monks continued their journey. The woman went off down another path and they never saw her again.

After many hours of walking in silence, the two arrived at the monastery. They greeted the master, had dinner, sat in meditation, then retired to their cell to sleep. While they were preparing to go to bed, the younger of the two could no longer restrain himself.

He suddenly burst out angrily, “I can be silent no more! What were you thinking? You know we’re not supposed to have any contact with women. Yet you carried that woman across the river without a second thought. Don’t you know that’s against the rules? How could you do something like that?”

He railed on for a couple more minutes.

The elder monk simply stood still and listened. When the younger was finished, and had exhausted himself, the elder said, “I put that woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

Wonderful tale, isn’t it?


This story comes from a wonderful collection called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. I was given a paperback edition of this book in 1968 and I still have it, the same, somewhat battered copy, in my book collection. I have a couple of other editions, too, picked up over the years.

I have read the entire book many times over during the time I’ve had it, and probably will read it many more times. It’s the single, most-read book I own and one of the few I would always want to own.

You can read the tales online at many sites, including here, but I do recommend you get a printed copy for yourself. It’s a rich treasure trove of inspirational, educational and often entertaining material.

Okay, I embellished the telling a bit. The original tale is much shorter and has a few variants (you can read it here and here and here). Wisdom tales abound in all cultures and I have a few similar books from other lands and times. I think I will reprint a few more stories here in the future.

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ID’s deep roots in creationism

Fundamentalist folliesProponents of creationism often try to deny that “intelligent” design (ID) is merely creationism wrapped in a fake lab coat to make it look like it’s pals with science. It isn’t. They’re not buddies, didn’t go to school together, and don’t ‘like’ each others Facebook pages.

ID is merely a tawdry, paper-thin attempt to hoodwink the gullible who can’t see past the plastic pocket protector that there’s a bible in the pocket. In part this is because the popular notion of what a theory is has devolved into a synonym for guess or an unproven assumption. But that’s not the scientific meaning of the word: “…a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science… Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge.” Scientific method

ID is not even a hypothesis: it’s a statement of faith and its pseudo-scientific arguments have been well-debunked on better sites than this (i.e. Skeptico). It starts with belief and looks for ways to prove it, rejecting anything that counters that preconceived theology.
creationism masquerading as ID

The National Center of Science Education defines ID this way:

“Intelligent Design” creationism (IDC) is a successor to the “creation science” movement, which dates back to the 1960s. The IDC movement began in the middle 1980s as an antievolution movement which could include young earth, old earth, and progressive creationists; theistic evolutionists, however, were not welcome. The movement increased in popularity in the 1990s with the publication of books by law professor Phillip Johnson and the founding in 1996 of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (now the Center for Science and Culture.) The term “intelligent design” was adopted as a replacement for “creation science,” which was ruled to represent a particular religious belief in the Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987.
IDC proponents usually avoid explicit references to God, attempting to present a veneer of secular scientific inquiry. IDC proponents introduced some new phrases into anti-evolution rhetoric, such as “irreducible complexity” (Michael Behe: Darwin’s Black Box, 1996) and “specified complexity” (William Dembski: The Design Inference, 1998), but the basic principles behind these phrases have long histories in creationist attacks on evolution. Underlying both of these concepts, and foundational to IDC itself, is an early 19th century British theological view, the “argument from design.”

Despite angry denials from creationist supporters that ID is not the same, and instead ID is a form of scientific research, that’s balderdash. It’s the “wedge” strategy- the ID movement’s published methods for inserting their religious content into the secular world.
Creationist bingo

All they’ve done is use cut-n-paste to replace terms like creationism in their documents with scientific-sounding phrases like “intelligent” design. They haven’t changed the core religious nature of their argument. Common Sense Atheism documents this as a clumsy, but failed attempt to mislead the reader:

…consider how the term “intelligent design” was born. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that “creation science” could not be taught in public schools because it advances a particular religion. That same year, a Creationist textbook called Of Pandas and People had been published using terms like “creationism” over 150 times. But after the defeat of Creationism in court, the editors replaced every instance of “creationism” with “intelligent design” and every instance of “creationists” with “design proponents.” In one case, part of the original term, “creationists,” was left behind by the editing process, rendering “cdesign proponentsists”… That the editors merely replaced “creationism” with the new term “intelligent design” is abundantly obvious when one compares various drafts of Of Pandas and People (originally called Biology and Creation)…

ID supporters universally identify the need for a “designer” as the mechanic behind the curtain, and all say it’s their own particular Christian deity. Wikipedia notes:

Intelligent design (ID) is a form of creationism promulgated by the Discovery Institute, a politically conservative think tank. The Institute defines it as the proposition that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” It is a contemporary adaptation of the traditional teleological argument for the existence of God, presented by its advocates as “an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origins” rather than “a religious-based idea”. All the leading proponents of intelligent design are associated with the Discovery Institute and believe the designer to be the Christian deity.

A designer, logically, has to be a deity* but why only this particular one? I have yet to run across a single ID proponent who will say that designer is Shiva. Or Kali. Or Moloch. Or Ra. Or Odin. Or Zeus. Why not each one working as a team (because there’s no God in team)? All of the hundreds of other deities (thousands?) in world mythologies and religions are ignored and just one is elected as the only possible designer: the hairy thunderer of the New Testament. Not only are non-Christians excluded from ID, but so are Catholics. Only fundamentalist literalist Christians need apply.

Creationism poster

As Wikipedia also notes:

Scientific acceptance of Intelligent Design would require redefining science to allow supernatural explanations of observed phenomena, an approach its proponents describe as theistic realism or theistic science.

In other words, yes kids, Santa Claus really does put those presents under the Xmas trees of good children every year, millions of them simultaneously, all over the world, delivered from a sleigh that travels faster than light and, while seemingly small, actually has an infinite storage capacity. Never mind those wrapped boxes you found at the back of the closet last week. Those aren’t proof of another, more logical explanation of how the presents arrive. Belief is more important than observation, so don’t question our explanation. We’ll tell you what you need to know.
Creationist continuum
As noted in another article on the NSCE website:

Following creationist tradition, IDC proponents accept natural selection but deny that mutation and natural selection are adequate to explain the evolution of one kind to another, such as chordates from echinoderms or humans and chimps from a common ancestor. The emergence of major anatomical body types and the origin of life, to choose just two examples popular among IDC followers, are phenomena supposedly too complex to be explained naturally; thus, IDC demands that a role be left for the intelligent designer — God.

About.com sums it up very well:

Intelligent Design is, like all other creationist movements, more about politics and religion than about science. Where Intelligent Design differs is that it was originally and deliberately conceived in explicitly political terms whereas earlier creationist movements tended to acquire political goals and principles over time. This is very important to understand because it reveals as false the pretensions of Intelligent Design apologists that they are involved in a scientific enterprise.

The US judicial system recognized the similarity between the two, as well (see this article). Judge Jones noted in the Dover School case:

ID uses the same, or exceedingly similar arguments as were posited in support of creationism. One significant difference is that the words “God,” “creationism,” and “Genesis” have been systematically purged from ID explanations, and replaced by an unnamed “designer.”
Demonstrative charts introduced through Dr. [Barbara] Forrest show parallel arguments relating to the rejection of naturalism, evolution’s threat to culture and society, “abrupt appearance” implying divine creation, the exploitation of the same alleged gaps in the fossil record, the alleged inability of science to explain complex biological information like DNA, as well as the theme that proponents of each version of creationism merely aim to teach a scientific alternative to evolution to show its “strengths and weaknesses,” and to alert students to a supposed “controversy” in the scientific community. In addition, creationists made the same argument that the complexity of the bacterial flagellum supported creationism as Professors Behe and Minnich now make for ID.

ID cartoon
Talkreason.org has many good articles critiquing ID, but this one is particularly good because it deconstructs a description from the “Discovery Institute” (the political and religious organization that developed and promotes ID, and spreads the wedge):

Right away we are told that ID is a program conducted by “scientists, philosophers, and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature.” Basically this is an admission that their program is not about gathering data and allowing the evidence to lead them wherever it may, but rather a mission to find evidence which supports a predetermined conclusion — that being that an intelligent agent created everything. In this way, the ID “researcher” confines himself to analysis of only those findings which he may have use for as a buttress for the conclusion he has already arrived at. It goes without saying that this is not science. To presuppose automatically the existence of a (perhaps supernatural) designer is to preclude real, thoughtful, scientific research in accordance with the scientific method, since science deals only with observable, measurable, phenomena.

You can’t research an act of god. Any god. What happens when you find something you can’t fully explain or understand? IDers would assign it to “the designer” then move on. Scientists would investigate further to try and provide an answer that doesn’t involve a supernatural cause. They would look to see what existing laws, theories or hypotheses are related and whether they apply. They would test, then retest, and test again until something made sense, long after IDers had shrugged their shoulders and given up looking.
ID trial arguments
ID is, like the notion of the flat earth, based not on observation, research and experimentation, but simply on blind faith.
Intelligent geography
Why would ID deserve any more research that, say, phrenology? ID has already decided the answer, so anything scientists find that explains outside that answer will be rejected by the IDers. They already start by rejecting science – evolution, cosmology, biology.
Common Sense Atheism does allow that creationism and ID are, semantically, different terms (although joined at the hip by their theological basis):

Here’s how I like to think of Creationism and Intelligent Design. I tend to use “Creationism” to refer to theories informed by the Bible or Christian (or Muslim) theology. For example, a theory including a 6,000 year old Earth is obviously Creationism.
In contrast, I tend to use “Intelligent Design” to refer to modern attempts at natural theology, which are not dependent on scripture or doctrine. The method of natural theology is to make an inference from observations of public, natural evidence to the existence of some kind of Designer or First Cause. This method does not allow you to assume any properties at all about the Designer that cannot be inferred from the observations of public, natural evidence… Remember, “intelligent design” and “creationism” are just words. They mean whatever we say they mean.

I agree, but I prefer to call it “ID creationism” so that the concept is not mis-identified by those who are not aware of the historical or political origins of the ID movement, and somehow mistakenly think that ID is actually something scientific.It isn’t. It’s claptrap masquerading as an “alternative” to science. Why should we pretend otherwise?

Watch Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial on PBS. See more from NOVA.

* Clearly the whole argument fails if you don’t believe in this or any other deity. If it wasn’t Ganesh who made the world and all the cute bunnies and squirrels, then I ain’t buying it… but you don’t have to be an atheist to believe in evolution: a modest education, and an open mind are all you need.

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The other conspiracy theories….

Red Queen and AliceAfter writing about the nonsensical “chemtrail” conspiracy theory and its tin-foil-hat brigade believers, I amused myself by reading up on some of the other conspiracies-du-jour on the internet. And no, I don’t mean your garden-variety secret-mushroom-farm, PRA dome, lobbyists-and-rec-facilities, aliens-in-disguise-running-the-library, Eddie-Bush-is-falling-down, Scoop-is-working-for-the-town or other local conspiracies. I mean real conspiracies: meaty stuff shared by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of wingnuts. Maybe millions…

Wikipedia – gotta love that site, even though it may be a conspiracy itself (see below) – has a list of popular conspiracy theories. Now it’s not a full list (there’s not a single mention of a mushroom, but a search for “mushroom conspiracy” on Google produces nearly 3,000 pages, and 1.92 million without the quote marks – but curiously, mushroom conspiracy collingwood produces 2.04 million…), but it has oodles of entertaining conspiracies to pursue.

Anyway, back to Wikipedia:

The list of conspiracy theories is a collection of the most popular unproven theories related but not limited to clandestine government plans, elaborate murder plots, suppression of secret technology and knowledge, and other supposed schemes behind certain political, cultural, and historical events. Some theories are meant to cover up the accusers’ own schemes, such as Holocaust denial.

Conspiracy theories usually go against a consensus or cannot be proven using the historical method and are typically not considered to be similar to verified conspiracies such as Germany’s pretense for invading Poland in World War II.

Got that? Unproven. Keyword here. Okay. Scroll down the page to “paranormal” (aka wiki-wacky wingnut) conspiracies. Click on “evil aliens.” Opens to a page about “reptilians.” Now if you thought chemtrails made Scientology look smart, the reptilian conspiracy goes well beyond into  the loony tune zone:

According to British writer David Icke, 5- to 12-foot (1.5–3.7 m) tall, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system, now hiding in underground bases, are the force behind a worldwide conspiracy against humanity.[7] He contends that most of the world’s leaders are related to these reptilians, including George W. Bush of the United States, and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Icke’s conspiracy theories now have supporters in 47 countries and he frequently gives lectures to crowds of 2,500 or more. American writer Vicki Santillano ranked the notion that “Reptilian humanoids control all of us” as one of the 10 most popular conspiracy theories.

Reptilian HilaryPopular, of course, doesn’t mean smart. Or logical. Or even sane. But David Icke clearly has some brains: he makes money off this silliness. He sells his ideas, including through a premium membership on his website. Non-subscribers have to put up with the annoying Google ads and invitations to join to get to only a portion of the tin-foil-hat stuff. Icke’s stuff is a treasure trove of nuttiness that encompasses a wide range of weirdness. Be prepared to spend at least an hour reading his stuff and giggling aloud at it.

So I can guess Icke’s reasons for promoting this silliness (money is a powerful motivator). But what motivates the people who follow him or who have spun off their own theories from his? What motivates the self-described “Nibiruan Council“?

Welcome to the official site of the Nibiruan Council, a multidimensional off-world council whose members are connected to the people of the planet Nibiru and the Nibiruans’ ancient ancestors, the 9D Nibiruans.

The Nibiruans’ mission is to prepare humanity to take their rightful place in the greater galactic community. The Nibiruans are especially interested in assisting starseeds and walk-ins. Multidimensional ascension tools along with an accelerated program for DNA recoding will prepare them to be the teachers and wayshowers needed today. Jelaila Starr is the Nibiruan Councils’ messenger and channel. Through her articles, workshops, and lectures, the Nibiruan Council’s message has touched the hearts of many people around the world inspiring hope and understanding.

Or the Alien Nation?

The reptilian and other entities, which are manipulating our world by possessing “human” bodies, operate in frequencies between the Third and Fourth densities. These are referred to as “hidden spaces and planes unknown to man”, in the apparently ancient Emerald Tablets, which I quote from in “Children of the Matrix”. For simplicity, I refer to this “between world” in my books as the lower fourth dimension.

It is from here that they police our vibrational prison – the Matrix – and seek to addict and restrict us to the dense physical senses. This world was once far less dense than it is today and the “fall” down the frequencies, caused by the manipulation of incarnate consciousness and DNA infiltration, has made it so much more difficult to maintain a multi-dimensional connection while in physical form. We are now in a cycle of change when the vibration of this “world” will be raised out of dense physicality and return to where it once was. In doing so, the reptilians’ ability to manipulate our physical form will be removed and this is why they are in such a panic at this time to prevent this shift from opening the vibrational prison door.

The reptilians and other manipulating entities exist only just outside the frequency range of our physical senses. Their own physical form has broken down and they can no longer re-produce. Thus they have sought to infiltrate human form and so use that to exist and control in this dimension. They chose the Earth for this infiltration because it most resembles in vibration the locations from which they originate. These reptilians are addicted to the dense physical “world” and the sensations it offers and they have no desire to advance higher. Their aim in this period is to stop the Earth and incarnate humanity from making the shift from dense physical prison into multi-dimensional paradise.

A conspiracy theory explains an event as … an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public. Wikipedia.

Conspiracy theories aren’t new by a long shot. They’re as old as humankind. I’m sure there were residents of Nineveh, 2,600 years ago, meeting in dark storerooms to mutter “Ashurbanipal is a secret agent for the Egyptians.” But in the age of mass media, these conspiracies gained a lot more traction than they ever had because they could be shared among millions with ease. And they have become a lot stranger and less believable than ever. But that doesn’t seem to deter the True Believers.

Rational Wiki has a longer list of conspiracy theories, but even it can’t cover the sheer number of conspiracies that have erupted online over the last two decades (although you have to read about the conspiracy that a Yiddish secret society is using Wikipedia to dominate the world!).

There must be a thousand different paranoid right-wing conspiracies about President Obama’s health care plan alone. Hell, Obama himself has generated a gazillion truly astounding conspiracy theories, including that he visited Mars as a teenager (really…)

List25 has a list of (you guessed it) the “top 25” conspiracy theories. Frankly it’s a bit thin, and lacks any links or proper explanations. But it does include the “phantom time” conspiracy, which is so entertaining you should look it up. This conspiracy says 297 years of history between 614 and 911 CE (the early Middle Ages) never happened. Instead, these dates were added to the calendar by historian conspirators who faked all the artifacts. ‘Nuff said. have fun: it’s on par with UFOs and Bosnian pyramids.  Spoiler: Skeptoid debunks it.

After the shooting of children in Sandy Hook, “truthers” (a pejorative for conspiracy theorists who call their wacky ideas “truth”) developed a raft of conspiracies around the tragedy that ranged from there-was-no-shooting to the-government-killed-the-children-to-take-away-your-guns. More than 40 YouTube videos claiming to expose the “”Sandy Hook hoax” had more than 100,000 views. YouTube is a godsend* for “truthers” (and self-alleged “psychics” who share the same level of truthiness…)

Time Magazine has a list of ten of the top conspiracy theories, most of which are pre-internet doozies most of us know and have waded into:

  • The JFK Assassination
  • 9/11 Cover-Up
  • Area 51 and the Aliens
  • Paul Is Dead
  • Secret Societies Control the World
  • The Moon Landings Were Faked
  • Jesus and Mary Magdalene
  • Holocaust Revisionism
  • The CIA and AIDS
  • The Reptilian Elite

The internet has allowed every fruit loop to publish online and garner an audience of starry-eyed idiots. Who needs critical thinking when you have the internet?

Since the vaccination conspiracy doesn’t show on the Wikipedia list, I did some searching and was able to pull up hundreds of wingnut pages in which vaccinations are blamed for all sorts of improbable acts and evils, usually perpetuated by the anonymous, secretive but authoritarian “government.” For example, this site warns (comically but very sincerely):

…the government places miniscule tracking devices in these vaccinations. These tracking devices act as beacons for various satellites. In this way, similar to the technology found in controlling airplane traffic, the government knows where we are at all times. Indeed, it is unclear how much information is provided in these beacon devices… As new technology has developed over the years, the need to vaccinate each and every one of us has become more creative, particularly with older citizens. Enter the Flu Vaccination. The flu vaccination has provided a perfect way for the government to implant updated beacon devices, particularly for those individuals who recieved vaccinations fourty or more years ago, whose beacons may not have had the benefit of various technological advances. These vaccinations are also used for experimental weapon purposes as well. The government not only implants various forms of biological and chemical warfare within the citzenry for experimental purposes, but also for mind control techniques, such as implanting specific types of criminal or anti-social behavior — also for warfare experimental purposes. In conclusion, the vaccination process has provided the government with a convenient way not only to plant beacon devices within the entire citizenry, but also to test experimental warfare and mind-control techniques.

I know, I know. It’s hard not to guffaw. But vaccination theories are dangerous, not just foolish: they are killing people gullible enough to believe that it’s safer not to vaccinate your kids or yourself. Despite hundreds of children’s deaths from measles in Pakistan (there were 306 deaths from measles in 2012 alone), one woman has written a book encouraging children to delight in the joys of this and other potentially lethal childhood diseases.

What will she write about next? The fun of polio? Happy meningitis? The delights of diabetes? This anti-vaccination stuff is seriously DANGEROUS.

If you want to read how insidious this particular stupidity is, just spend a few minutes on Google. Look at the list of madness a search for “vaccination conspiracy” produces. One site associates vaccinations with fracking, cannibalism, GMO foods, government education, nuclear power, fluoride and cancer. All at once. This is really scary, not fun. It’s worrisome that these people can not only vote, but can own guns and are not locked away in institutions.

And that’s just part of the problem. People who willingly delude themselves about one bit of bizarre pseudoscience like chemtrails or homeopathy** will usually swallow the rest of the conspiracy Kool-Aid and accept pretty much all of these wacky ideas wholesale, just abandoning all common sense and critical thinking. It’s a stunningly short jump from believing governments are vaccinating everyone through airplane exhaust at 25,000 feet to believing reptiloid aliens are masquerading as humans and running governments.

For example, the author quoted above isn’t done with vaccinations. He links these vaccine-inserted nano-beacons with highway building projects, information technology, West Nile virus, supercomputers and the CIA:

Indeed, although states are replacing water pipes, they are also, unknowingly, installing millions of miles of fiber optics and other receptor cells. As discussed earlier, these wires are used to monitor everything, sometimes as a backup to satellite system monitoring or to more specific monitoring strategies to fill any gaps of satellite technology…
The West Nile Virus, or other types of viruses with different names, will likely “spread” to other parts of the country. This will prompt public outcry — which is manipulated by the media — for more sprayings…
The partnership between this unnamed drug corporation and the United States Military continues.
In the late 1940’s, the government created a supercomputer, known as Ergo9. Ergo9 was used, in conjunction with various satellites, to spy on the Russians….

Uh, I hate to break your bubble, Mr. Fruity Loop, but the first satellite – Sputnik 1 – was launched in October 1957. The USA didn’t launch its own satellite – Explorer 1 – until 1958. The first reconnaissance satellite was not launched until 1962, (GRAB).

This site also seems to be the source for the Ergo9 reference, which gets repeated on a few other paranoid conspiracy-theory sites, but hasn’t grown legs. Yet. These things require time to gestate into full-blown ludicrosity – even though Ergo9 is almost as daft as the local “Rick-owns-your-mortgage-and-your-car,” “Elvis-is-still-alive” or “pro-wrestling-is-real” conspiracies. Spoiler alert: supercomputers weren’t invented until the 1960s when Seymour Cray designed the first one. The small-building-size Eniac computer of 1946 was hardly a “supercomputer.”

Most of the conspiracy theory sites are a mashup of the bizarre, the curious, the angry, the paranoid, the gullible, historically and factually incorrect, and the stupid.They’re often based on either misunderstanding or misrepresentation of facts. Particularly the angry. The amount of vituperation is incredible. People writing about these conspiracies get angry and then angrier as they cobble their theories together.

And it’s not just the Tea Party supporters who walk the conspiracy trail into the deep woods of angry paranoia (although illiterate, right-wing Christian fundamentalists seem particularly prone to them – just Google the Westboro Baptist Church wackos). It almost seems infectious. Once you believe in one impossible thing, you start to believe in them all, from mushroom-farm conspiracies to vaccinations-implant-homing-beacons-for-the-government to reptilians-are-masquerading-as-municipal-councillors…

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll: Alice in Wonderland.

Although these crazy conspiracies give the rest of us a fair bit of entertainment, we can’t ignore them just because they are ridiculous: some of these crazy, deluded people are in government (or plan to be). Some of them are already among policy makers and bureaucrats (for example there are creationists in government, even holding on the US Congress Science Committee!). Can you imagine people who believe in vaccine conspiracies getting appointed to a ministry of health? Or someone who believes in chemtrails getting onto a national research council board?

It could happen. That’s just one reason we have to push more rationality, critical thinking and plain common sense online. Let’s keep debunking and ridiculing this stuff so that it doesn’t get any further grip on the gullible among us.


* What would an atheist say instead of “godsend”? Are there any good but secular synonyms that carry the same sense? Imaginary-deity-send doesn’t quite cut it. Words like blessing, miracle and, manna carry a religious sense, too. Calling something a stroke of luck or windfall suggests it was mere coincidence, which godsend does not mean. Have to think about that… Apple lovers probably use Jobs-send…
** This is also true of those who believe in so-called psychics, palm readers, astrologers or faith healers. Once you believe in the paranormal, you’re doomed to misunderstand and mis-appreciate science. You’ll start believing in creationism and all sorts of codswallop, like phrenology, homeopathy, numerology and other crackpot ideas.

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ForgedForgery. It’s something that one normally associates with criminals; passing counterfeit bills, scammers, online pirates, people selling fake relics or fake ID. It’s something I would not normally associate with religion. But it’s a significant problem in the book millions of people cherish as infallible, perfect and absolute: the Bible. At least that’s what Bart D. Ehrman contends in his latest book, Forged.

If you are not familiar with Bart D. Ehrman’s writing, then you are in for an intellectual treat. He writes about a fascinating subject: the development of early Christianity, including all the fringe groups, challengers like the Gnostics, docetists, Marcionites and others, their alternate beliefs; about the development of the canon and the fight to establish orthodoxy.

Gripping stuff, if you are a history buff. But even if not, if you have any interest at all in faith or religion, it is well worth the read. As a lay historian, I find the history of Christianity fascinating. It’s a rich story; replete with politics, murder, armed insurrection, sex, violence, intellectual and philosophical challenges, forgers, liars, cheats, madmen, cults, deception, secret agents, assassination, sorcery and war. Its threads run through all of Western history.

While reading the whole history of Christianity may be a bit much for some folks (but if you’re up to it, start with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 1,000-page tome, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years), Ehrman’s books break down some of the more interesting bits into more digestible chunks. The early bits, that is – Ehrman’s focus is on the first three or four centuries of Christianity. But it is easily the most important period for the development of what we know today as Christianity: he delves into how it developed, how the beliefs were established, what challenges the early church faced, what groups were contending for the upper hand in the battle for orthodoxy, and –  perhaps most critically – the creation of the canon we know today as the New Testament.

I’ve been reading some of the alternate texts and books that either never made it into the Bible or were later cast out, since the early 1970s. Then I came across an odd title called, Lost Books of the Bible and Forgotten Books of Eden. It was first released in 1926, and remains in print today. The description at Amazon.ca says

This is the most popular collection of apocryphal and pseudepigriphal literature ever published.

It was certainly influential for me. It led me to read about and the texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library, and various collections of apocrypha and Gnostic writing – books that still fill my shelves today. Some of this stuff is amazing. Some of it is crazy. Some of it seriously challenges existing beliefs; and some of it contradicts the canon in remarkable ways. Some of it is beautiful, some awkward. And some of it is simply too odd and wacky for comfort.

Ehrman’s books (26 in all), along with a few others about the same topic*, answered many questions I had wondered about: who wrote the books of the Bible and when? Who chose what books were included? What books didn’t make it and why? And the answers were sometimes astounding. (NB: You can also get his lecture series called Lost Christianities from The Great Courses – among other related courses – good audiobook stuff!)

I had realized long ago that many of those biblical books were not written by the people whose names they were associated with. In the Old Testament, for example, the books of Daniel, Isaiah and Ecclesiastes were written not by Daniel, Isaiah and Solomon, respectively, but a few centuries after they lived, by now unknown authors.

Most of the “pseudepigrapha” and wrongly attributed works are in the New Testament.** Some of these are deliberate forgeries, Ehrman contends (his blog has even more controversial claims).***

Ehrman’s latest book confronts the issue of authorship and he clearly states that many NT books were forged in the name of apostles or Paul. While that’s not really new, Ehrman is the first I’ve read to call these fakes forgeries, rather than find some philosophical or theological excuse for them. He makes it clear that they were written to deceive readers about theological or liturgical issues. And he both defends his position and dismantles counter-arguments from apologists.

What’s fascinating – for me at least – is the question: who knew? Did the early church fathers who accepted and rejected various books and created the canon (Irenaeus, for example) know or suspect that some of these books were forgeries? And what does that mean to the Bible and its followers today?

* Barrie Wilson’s book, How Jesus Became Christian, Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ among them, both highly recommended.
** Authorship is questionable even in the synoptic gospels, and scholars argue about who actually wrote them. The attribution to the apostles is from early church fathers and based on tradition, rather than evidence.
*** One of the problems for people like me when trying to follow these arguments is that I have never read the Bible. I have, like most of us, read a translation (or rather, several translations) of it, but in order to claim to have read the Bible, one has to have read the actual books – in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

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Four words about the Mayan Apocalypse

Mayan calendar cartoonFor all of you New Agers who expected something momentous to happen, December 21, because an obscure, millennium-old calendar ended on that date, and are disappointed that the world didn’t end, I have four words for you:

I told you so.

Let me further educate you with a few choice bits of practical wisdom in case the lesson of Dec. 21 hasn’t yet sunk in:

New Age classesAstrology isn’t a science. Homeopathy isn’t a science. UFO-ology isn’t a science. Numerology isn’t a science. Iridology isn’t a science. Reflexology isn’t a science.  Allopathy and aromatherapy aren’t science. Bioharmonics isn’t a science. Acutonics isn’t a science. Creationism isn’t science. Therapeutic touch isn’t science. They’re all codswallop.

Predictions, prophesies, ancient texts in languages you can’t read, messages muttered by self-described psychics, and the voices in your head don’t predict the future.

The position of the stars and planets, the lines on your palm, the bumps on your head, the fall of the tarot cards, the stone carvings of a dead civilization, and the entrails of a dead chicken don’t predict the future.

You can’t “channel” angels, ghosts, demons, alien abductors, telepathic spirits, invisible fiends, auras, your dead aunt, or ectoplasmic muses because they aren’t real.

Crystals and magnets don’t heal you. Prayer doesn’t heal you. Psychics don’t heal you. Waving tuning forks over you, making exuberant flicking gestures over your sore limbs, sniffing lavender or clove, and sticking needles into your skin don’t heal you, because they aren’t medicine. A placebo effect may make you feel better for a while, but it isn’t a cure.

Chakras aren’t organs. Chi, prana, orgone energy and auras are not organs, or bones or any other part of the body you can touch, photograph, tune, manipulate or measure. They’re imaginary.

Exorcising stupidityYour dog, your cat, your parrot, the police and your next door neighbour aren’t telepathic.

Obi Wan Kenobi isn’t real. He’s a fictional character from a movie. So was Commander Spock. People from your or anyone else’s past lives who give you advice today are fictional, too. Aliens who speak to people through brain implants aren’t real either. Crop circles are hoaxes made by human pranksters, not some alien artwork.

You weren’t abducted by aliens and had probes inserted into your orifices. You weren’t Cleopatra or Napoleon in a former life. You didn’t speed time in another dimension, on some astral plane or traveling out of your body. Those are just daydreams or hoaxes.

And lastly: the Mayans made a calendar. They didn’t carve a prophesy into the stone. All that claptrap about the end of the world was in your own imagination. You and your friends made it all up. You drank the silliness Kool-Aid. And we’re laughing at you. It’s a self-inflicted wound.

Now get on with your lives. You might want to start paying attention to science. Or economics. Politics. Mathematics. Literature. Anything instead of all this superstitious New Age claptrap you’ve been pursuing. Learn to think; be skeptical, question strange stuff that seems illogical because, if it includes crystals, auras, astral planes or angels, it is.

PS. Watch these characters. They will entertain you and you might get a little education at the same time:

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Evolution, Creationism, and Elections

Jesus and dinosarsEarlier this summer, Gallup released the results of its latest poll on American belief in evolution, creationism and “intelligent” design. The results are among the most depressing numbers ever posted about the decay of American thought and education. Yet although this should set off the warning bells to both US presidential candidates that something needs to be done to stem this problem, none of this has been raised in the debates or on the campaign trail.

How can this have happened in one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world? How is it that the only nation to put a man on the moon, a nation that can put a rover on Mars or a satellite into orbit around Saturn with pinpoint accuracy, has so many superstitious dunderheads?

American fundamentalism is becoming increasingly pronounced in the political process, and has interfered at many levels in the education system to force its beliefs into curricula. Surely some of the American policy makers recognize this disturbing trend, but none have, so far, addressed it.*

In the excellent TV drama, The Newsroom, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) attacks the American fundamentalists in politics – the so-called Tea Party wing that has hijacked the Republican party – calling them the American Taliban. It’s easy to see the parallels between them – they both want a faith-based curricula, to punish non-believers in their particularly myopic faith, to merge that faith with the political process, and to repeal women’s rights and return them to a subservient role as chattel. McAvoy’s statement, made in the final episode of series one, is easily understood by anyone who has been watching recent US election campaigns.

The question about belief in evolution or other notions has been asked by Gallup since 1986 and the results have been fairly consistent. Gallup asked the following questions. The current and historical results are charted below.
Gallup poll on evolution vs superstition
Forty-six per cent of respondents believe in magic and myth rather than the copious scientific proof for evolution. That is nearly half of all Americans! That number has not dipped below 40% since Gallup started asking the question. A third of Americans (32%) believe humans evolved, but under their god’s guiding hand.

Gallup has asked Americans to choose among these three explanations for the origin and development of human beings 11 times since 1982. Although the percentages choosing each view have varied from survey to survey, the 46% who today choose the creationist explanation is virtually the same as the 45% average over that period — and very similar to the 44% who chose that explanation in 1982. The 32% who choose the “theistic evolution” view that humans evolved under God’s guidance is slightly below the 30-year average of 37%, while the 15% choosing the secular evolution view is slightly higher (12%).

The American belief in the science of evolution**, as a natural process independent of deities or magical intervention, has never risen above 16%. It’s at 15% today. Only one in seven Americans believe in one of the most important, most most heavily documented and evidenced laws of biology. So why isn’t this failure of education in the front lines of the presidential debate?

Some of this is the result of the unrelenting political and social campaigns and lobbying by the Christian right and its anti-science organizations to reinforce their fundamentalist grip on US politics. And they seem to have succeeded in getting may of their supporters into office.

The presidential candidates are likely too scared to confront this army of ignorant believers – especially Romney, whose Republicans make up the largest group of superstitious believers, as Gallup noted:

Majority of Republicans Are Creationists
Highly religious Americans are more likely to be Republican than those who are less religious, which helps explain the relationship between partisanship and beliefs about human origins. The major distinction is between Republicans and everyone else. While 58% of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, 39% of independents and 41% of Democrats agree.

But Obama is equally silent on the issue to, maybe because the poll showed 41% of Democrats are equally superstitious and believe in creationism.

Yet both candidates (and see here) have admitted they believe in evolution, not creationism, and oppose teaching creationism in schools. So why don’t they say so on the campaign trail, especially in states that have brought this nonsense into schools?

No one, it seems, wants to confront the idiots who support creationism, and rub their noses in their ignorance. And by not doing so, politicians have allowed the fundamentalists to set the political agenda.

Madness. I’m not the only one concerned about how the religious right as hijacked the political debate – almost any topic from abortion to gay marriage to science to other faiths comes with a heavy doze of fundamentalist disapproval. As Katherine Stewart recently wrote,

The far right’s fixation on same-sex relationships is so ludicrous that it defines a sub-category of camp. But let’s take a step back for a moment. The big question, the one that keeps coming back in every one of these skirmishes in the culture wars, is: why is the loudest religion in American politics today so much about hate?

(A comment on the GOP’s religiously-fuelled policies over women’s rights and abortion can be found in a recent HuffPost blog by Ethan Rome.)

Can you imagine an elected politician who sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee making a statement that evolution is a lie “straight from the pit of hell”? But that comment came from Republican Rep. Paul Broun last month.

An ultraconservative congressman whose district includes the University of Georgia campus, Broun told a Baptist church last month that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory were lies spread by scientists out to erode people’s faith in Jesus Christ. He also claimed the Earth is roughly 9,000 years, a view held by fundamentalist Christians based on biblical accounts of creation.

Here are his actual words:

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”

Another recent member of that committee was Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, who claimed victims of “legitimate rape” were unlikely to become pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with American politics in 2012: the religious right. It’s also what is particularly wrong with the Republican Party. And for the life of me, I can’t find anything to disprove Will McAvoy’s statement.


Let me close with a few quotes from this American Taliban:
“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship.”
“This is God’s world, not Satan’s. Christians are the lawful heirs, not non-Christians.”
Gary North (Institute for Christian Economics)
“When the Christian majority takes over this country, there will be no satanic churches, no more free distribution of pornography, no more talk of rights for homosexuals. After the Christian majority takes control, pluralism will be seen as immoral and evil and the state will not permit anybody the right to practice evil.”
Gary Potter (Catholics for Christian Political Action)
“I don’t know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”
George Bush Sr. (former President of the United States)
“The Christian community has a golden opportunity to train an army of dedicated teachers who can invade the public school classrooms and use them to influence the nation for Christ.”
James Kennedy (Center for Reclaiming America)
“Evolution is a bankrupt speculative philosophy, not a scientific fact. Only a spiritually bankrupt society could ever believe it…Only atheists could accept this Satanic theory.”
Jimmy Swaggart (Jimmy Swaggart Ministries)
“Nobody has the right to worship on this planet any other God than Jehovah. And therefore the state does not have the responsibility to defend anybody’s pseudo-right to worship an idol.”
Joseph Morecraft (Chalcedon Presbyterian Church)
“I’m an old-fashioned woman. Men should take care of women, and if men were taking care of women today, we wouldn’t have to vote.”
Kay O’Connor (Kansas Senate Republican)
“Anybody that believes in separation of church and state needs to leave right now.”
Star Parker (Coalition on Urban Renewal & Education)


* In Canada, when PC-then-Alliance-politician-then-Conservative cabinet minister, Stockwell Day, was exposed as a “young-earth” creationist in national media, he was widely ridiculed and criticized for for holding both a top political job and erroneous ideologies. In 2008, an Angus Reid poll showed  “58 percent (of Canadians) accept evolution, while 22 percent think that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.” That’s better than the US, but still way too high.

** Without evolution, almost everything we know and understand about biology fails. It would be like astronomy without believing in the speed of light – which is exactly what creationism is, because without the time required by Darwinian evolution, the distant galaxies can’t be millions of light years away. Cosmology fails without evolution because it means everything we have learned or posited about the development of stars and planets is false.

CreationistsThe law of entropy, which governs all physics – the second law of thermodynamics – is repealed under creationism. We need a new model to teach us how energy behaves. If creationism is correct, then the entropic effects we have measured in stars and galaxies can’t have happened, since they require millions, even billions of years to occur. Einstein’s relativity, too, goes out the window.

Creationism means humans and Mesozoic dinosaurs co-existed. Humans and Permian dimetrodons co-existed, too. Paleozoic trilobites crawled in the shallow water while humans walked the shore, although no fossil record of them exists after the great Permian extinction. The sea giants megalodon, the giant shark, swam in the oceans with reptilian plesiosaurs, mosasaurs, pliosaurs and the giant armoured fishes of the Devonian, the placoderms.

Woolly mammoths preserved in the Siberian ice during an Ice Age that must not have happened, walked the earth while pterosaurs (extinct 65 million years ago) sailed in the skies above them and Tyrannosaurs hunted on the plains. Humans walked under lepidodendrons, the giant Carboniferous fern-trees we thought extinct along with the trilobites, 250 million years ago. Silurian Eurypterids, the giant sea scorpions, hunted in the shallows. Human-ancestor primates like Australopithecus and other species of humans like Neanderthals, must have also shared the earth with modern humans, if creationism is true.

Creationism means no fossils millions of years old. All that life preserved in rock lived no more than 10,000 years ago (and in some schools of creationism, 6,000 years ago). It must have been a frighteningly dangerous time, with all those giant predators on land, in the sea and air. And all of these creatures disappeared from the planet before 3,600 BCE, when the world’s oldest writing system was devised. Why? Because there is no written record of any of these plants, fish, arthropods, dinosaurs and giant mammals.

Or is there? Some creationists believe that nonsense, and have gone to many great lengths to “prove” the impossible: that humans and dinosaurs co-existed before written history. Claptrap. This is not better than the early creationists who claimed fossils are nothing more than natural formations of stone that look like bones, or that their deity inserted millions of fossils into the rocks to test believers’ faith. Some even claim scientists make fossils from plaster in factories in China! (Note that some museums have plaster casts made from authentic fossils.)

Such crap. Unadulterated, mindless, stupid crap.

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A Pyramid Hoax Reappears on Facebook

Ain't Photoshop wonderful?This Facebook headline caught my skeptic’s eye right away: “Energy beam coming from the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun.” After I finished guffawing at the gullibility of some folks, I decided to spend a little time researching how widespread this silliness had become.

As expected, and sad to relate, it was all over the Net. Seems every psychic-New-Age-crystal-therapy-astrology-aura-UFO-conspiracy-theory-Atlantis-Elvis-is-alive obsessed wingnut site has repeated the claims, usually copying and pasting them directly from the original source without even bothering to investigate the claims:

A team of physicists detected an energy beam coming through the top of the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun. The radius of the beam is 4.5 meters with a frequency of 28 kHz. The beam is continuous and its strength grows as it moves up and away from the pyramid. This phenomenon contradicts the known laws of physic and technology. This is the first proof of non-herzian technology on the Planet. It seems that the pyramid-builders created a perpetual motion machine a long time ago and this “energy machine” is still working.

In the underground labyrinth, in 2010, we discovered three chambers and a small blue lake. Energy screening shows that the ionization level is 43 times higher than the average concentration outside which makes the underground chambers into “healing rooms”.

Even a grade school education will see through this. First of all: perpetual motion. Doesn’t, can’t, won’t ever exist. period. Entropy is a basic law of physics. Then “non-herzian technology”? I assume the writer means non-Hertzian. That claim makes little sense unless you know what the author means by Hertzian. I assume he means that the power of the wave diminishes with the distance transmitted.

Nikola Tesla was experimenting with non-Herztian waves in the late 19th century:

Nikola Tesla advanced the electromagnetism theory into new dimensions, further than Hertz and other scientists of his time could conceive. He described his “wireless” waves being far superior to Hertzian waves, which diminish with distance. Tesla foretold of a brilliant new future for humankind, using his non-Hertian “wireless system,” including the ability to generate power and transmit it to various parts of the globe.

However, the author does not mention the power of the alleged beam, merely its frequency: 28kHz, or 28,000 cycles per second. That’s above the average human’s top end for high pitches (20kHz), but well within the hearing of dogs and many other mammals. This sound would be like a constant, annoying, high-pitched whine to them. Like a shrill dental drill to us. It would effectively drive most animals away from the site.

Healing rooms? Ionizing radiation is a known carcinogen. Negative ions can be a mood enhancer, and reduce air pollution, but I’ve never read any credible research that proves they heal anything. even so, calling a rough pit of sand and gravel a “healing room” is a bit of a stretch. And who are these “physicists” he claims investigated the site? None are named, no labs or universities noted, no test results posted to back up these claims.

Alleged This block of stone is one of the alleged “ceramic sculptures” found under one of the hills. It has been dubbed “K-2” and weighs approx 18,000 lbs. For an advanced society capable of building perpetual motion machines, they seem to have had a remarkably primitive sense of aesthetics. Their “sculpture” looks remarkably like a glacier-polished rock, or perhaps a big limestone accretion. I can easily understand why, if it is man-made, it is buried underground instead of being on the surface for all to see: it’s pretty ugly. These “sculptures” play an important parapsychological role, Semir writes: “Ceramic sculptures are positioned over the underground water flows and the negative energy is transformed into positive. All of these experiments point to the underground labyrinth as one of the most secure underground constructions in the world and this makes it an ideal place for the body’s rejuvenation and regeneration.”

All the right phrases to convince the New Age crowd that this is real magic, not that hokey-baloney fake magic called science. Woo-hoo for positive energy.

The author of this nonsense is Semir Osmanagi, a metalworker and contractor with a degree in sociology (not archeology). Before he started promoting these rocks as “pyramids,” he wrote a book called Alternative History in which he claimed that Hitler and other leading Nazis escaped to an underground base in Antarctica. In his book, The World of the Maya, he claims the Maya had a “mission it is to adjust the Earthly frequency and bring it into accordance with the vibrations of our Sun. Once the Earth begins to vibrate in harmony with the Sun, information will be able to travel in both directions without limitation.” he also claims Mayans descended from the mythical Atlantis.

Osmanagi writes on his site:

The pyramids are covered by soil which is, according to the State Institute for Agro-pedology, approx. 12,000 years old. Radiocarbon dating from the paved terrace on Bosnian Pyramid of the Moon, performed by Institute of Physics of Silesian Institute of Technology from Gliwice (Poland) confirmed that terrace was built 10.350 years ago (+/- 50 years). These finding confirm that the Bosnian pyramids are also the oldest known pyramids on the planet.

Archeology, a respected magazine, takes exception to that claim of age:

Construction of massive pyramids in Bosnia at that period is not believable. Curtis Runnels, a specialist in the prehistory of Greece and the Balkans at Boston University, notes that “Between 27,000 and 12,000 years ago, the Balkans were locked in the last Glacial maximum, a period of very cold and dry climate with glaciers in some of the mountain ranges. The only occupants were Upper Paleolithic hunters and gatherers who left behind open-air camp sites and traces of occupation in caves. These remains consist of simple stone tools, hearths, and remains of animals and plants that were consumed for food. These people did not have the tools or skills to engage in the construction of monumental architecture.”

The Smithsonian reported:

…Osmanagich… points out various boulders he says were transported to the site 15,000 years ago, some of which bear carvings he says date back to that time. In an interview with the Bosnian weekly magazine BH Dani, Nadija Nukic, a geologist whom Osmanagich once employed, claimed there was no writing on the boulders when she first saw them. Later, she saw what appeared to her as freshly cut marks. She added that one of the foundation’s workers told her he had carved the first letters of his and his children’s names…

On another site about these alleged pyramids Osmanagi says:

Almost everything they teach us about the ancient history is wrong: origin of men, civilizations and pyramids. Homo sapiens sapiens is not a result of the evolution and biologists will never find a “missing link”, because the intelligent man is product of genetic engineering. Sumerians are not the beginning of the civilized men, but rather beginning of another cycle of humanity. And finally, original pyramids, most superior and oldest, were made by advanced builders who knew energy, astronomy and construction better than we do.

So what are these structures? Simply natural formations called “flatirons”, possibly used at some point by Romans or others as hilltop encampments, but otherwise not unusual. The European Association of Archeologists has called for an end to the digging because it is ruining real archeological finds, and wrote, “This scheme is a cruel hoax on an unsuspecting public and has no place in the world of genuine science.”

Meanwhile, Osmanagi continues to dig, because, as he says, he needs to “break a cloud of negative energy, allowing the Earth to receive cosmic energy from the centre of the galaxy.” It’s entertaining stuff, but it isn’t science.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 off 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. Were Amerindians really that sappy?

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 revealed in 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 like the convenience of getting told thinsg without the inconvenience of having to actually verify them.

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!

Do yourselves a favour, gentle readers: verify the source before you share on of these alleged quotes. And not on some unverified, tacky website like Brainy Quotes. Do your research, check Wikiquote and reliable sources first. That way you won’t look like one of the sheep who share.

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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,

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.

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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.

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