This Weeks Reader March 23, 2008  

Sunday, March 23, 2008

On The Amazingness of Atheists... And Why It's Doomed
The recent debate here about the morality of atheists and believers is what reminded me of this, what made me decide to finally write about it instead of just musing about it in my head. See, I think this is part of the reason some atheists are inclined to think that atheist morality is more mature than theistic morality. Because right now, the atheist community is largely made up of people with a very mature, well-thought-out sense of morality and ethics. We've had to be. The assumption that morality comes from religion is very deeply ingrained in our culture, and those of us who've rejected religion have had to think long and hard and carefully about what our morality is and why. (Many theists have also thought about this carefully -- in the same way that many straight people in the 80's and 90's had a thoughtful and perceptive understanding of gender -- but coming out as an atheist today means having that thoughtfulness thrust upon you.)

garfield minus garfield
Who would have guessed that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life? Friends, meet Jon Arbuckle. Let’s laugh and learn with him on a journey deep into the tortured mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness in a quiet American suburb.

Why Math Matters
"You need to know it," I said, "because it's the core of the physical sciences. Because it's the closest we are able to come to understanding how the world works." I spent some time talking about e and natural logs and Golden Rectangles and nautilus shells and such.

I was clearly losing her. Blah blah blah. I re-grouped.

"You need to know this because science education in our society is dismal. Because there are people out there who want to control you, and who will use the fact that Americans know virtually nothing about science to exercise that control. So when you go in to get birth control, someone will deny it because they think it's the same thing as abortion, which it clearly isn't."

How to fix co-op gaming
The result of their brainstorming session resulted in what Vrignaud has labeled The Co-op Gaming Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is divided into two sections, one for things which could easily be implemented in current games and one discussing potential—and much more challenging—design possibilities. While some of the suggestions don't seem all that likely, one that is easy to get enthused about is the following: "A game that allows co-op online play should also support co-op play locally, either through LAN or split-screen (ideally both). An online subscription should not be required to play co-op locally on a LAN."

Game Review: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Rings of Fate (DS)
The addition of some pretty hardcore platforming elements makes the entire experience much more engaging, as players will not only be allowed to stray from the pack but at certain points will be required to do so. As a result, the game's many dungeons are extremely varied. The platforming adds some interesting environmental puzzles to the game, which range from jumping puzzles to some interesting challenges that involve picking up and throwing each other to reach previously unreachable spots. At the core of the game play, though, is still the timeless hack-and-slash, mob-looting, boss-killing action that fans of the genre will enjoy—all with the added Square-Enix shine.

Game Review: God of War: Chains of Olympus (PSP)
But we can only drool over the graphics for so long; the question is whether or not the game is fun. It is, because God of War is fun. This game takes the mechanics, attacks, and style of God of War 1 and 2 and uses them in a new adventure. It doesn't push the series in any major new directions, but it didn't need to: as a prequel to the first two games, this explores who Kratos is and the lengths he will to go to do what he has to do. There is a scene later in the game that involves tapping the O button during a cinema where you're actually asked not only to watch Kratos giving up more of his humanity, but to participate in it. By the end of the game I was more than satisfied with the story and the experience, and also more than ready for the inevitable PlayStation 3 release that is teased about on the game's instruction manual.

PC game developer has radical message: ignore the pirates
"The reason why we don't put copy protection on our games isn't because we're nice guys. We do it because the people who actually buy games don't like to mess with it. Our customers make the rules, not the pirates. Pirates don't count," Wardell argues. "When Sins popped up as the #1 best selling game at retail a couple weeks ago, a game that has no copy protect whatsoever, that should tell you that piracy is not the primary issue."

Bush says White House 'on top of the situation'
Bush said “our financial institutions are strong” and “our capital markets are functioning efficiently and effectively.” He praised Paulson for working with the Fed and showing “the country and the world that the United States is on top of the situation.”

Investment Banks Are Liars And Thieves, According To Investment Banks Enabled By The Bush Government
That’s the Republican version of the free market. Use taxpayer money to save the butts of rich people who chose to take risks in the financial markets. Whatever happened to the Republican mantras of personal responsibility? Of being accountable for your actions? Apparently those only apply to racial minorities and working class white people and non-Republicans, but not to rich Republicans, and certainly not to Republicans in Congress and the Administration.

Joseph Story’s Unitarianism
In other words, orthodox Trinitarian Christians, who didn’t believe Unitarianism to be “real Christianity” were ignorant bigots. But in any event, according to the men who wrote and expounded upon the text of the First Amendment in the Founding era, if “Christianity” were to have any special rights or organic connection to civil government, this (what the orthodox regard as) false, heretical system of “liberal unitarian Christianity” had at least equal rights with orthodox Trinitarian Christianity. Indeed, arguably unitarianism was more important than Trinitarianism because unitarinianism more meaningfully connects to the ideas of America’s Declaration and Constitution than does orthodox Trinitarianism.

Are (or were) Meghalaya and Kerala matriarchal societies?
One wonders however if the change to patriarchy which is the ‘modern’ way will affect the status of women in a bad way. It may not happen in Meghalaya as the state is surrounded by other other states where women are relatively free and heinous crimes against women are not practiced, but Kerala is surrounded by strongly patriarchal societies. In fact even within the state of Kerala itself, amongst the present population, the communities that used to practice matriliny are in a minority.

Another point I wanted to make: If women in patriarchal societies get a raw deal, then men in a hypothetical matriarchal society would get a raw deal too. I guess the men are lucky that there aren’t any matriarchal societies around!

The Great Tantra Challenge!
Sharma didn’t think this through, since they challenged him to come back that evening. The best part of all this was that India TV, the channel that showed this, got huge ratings and promoted this as “The Great Tantra Challenge.” And when, of course, Sharma did nothing except amuse Edamaruku that night, ripping up peieces of paper with Edamaruku’s name on it and burning them, throwing mustard seeds into the fire and burning an effigy of Edamaruku made of wheat flour (really), millions of people watched him make a fool of himself — which is probably better than the murder rap he might have faced if he’d succeeded.

Facilitated Testimony in the Courtroom
A recent case in Oakland Colorado shows all of the folly of using FC in the courtroom, and elsewhere. The parents of a 14 year old autistic girl were lead to believe that FC had unlocked their daughter’s hidden inner mental life. That, of course, is the allure of FC - what parent of a non-communicative child would not want to learn that their child is vibrant and intelligent after all? But the parents, victimized by the promoters of FC into this false hope and illusion, were then doubly victimized when a new teacher’s aid at their daughter’s school, Cindi Scarsella, after two hours of FC training, immediately began to “discover” that the girl had been raped by her father for that past eight years while the mother knowingly allowed it.

Massachusetts lawmakers debate ill-advised video game law
You'll recall that this new definition mirrors a law passed in Louisiana, where a Jack Thompson-helmed piece of legislature used very similar language to define what made some games harmful to minors. Federal Judge James Brady disagreed, striking down the bill as unconstitutional.

In fact, every such piece of legislation aimed at making it a crime to sell games to minors has failed in the courts, often at a very high price to taxpayers. The considerable powers of the gaming industry are also beginning to mobilize to fight the Massachusetts bill, as the Electronic Consumers Association has sent out an alert urging its members to get involved and to contact the Massachusetts government to stop the bill.

Nonbelieving Literati
Reading an average book is not the end of the world
The reader is presented with a fundamentalist pastor of a mega-church based loosely on Pat Robertson who goes off the deep end and contrives his own mini-apocalypse by purchasing nuclear weapons to detonate off the coast of California in the hopes of inducing a tidal wave of biblical proportions that will wash away the evils of the Hollywood culture, while simultaneously convincing America that this was an act of the vengeful god of the Old Testament and which said pastor has prophesied. Apparently, doing so will renew and revitalize our country’s love and respect for this “likeable” mythological character. I suppose that Brookemyre can see that this would be a bit of a stretch, even for a billionaire pastor, so he gives him the help of a far right wing militia group which helps him purchase the nuclear weapons and has assassinated 5 scientists who could have led the FBI on a hot trail back to Pastor Evil.

Slam, Bam, Say "Goddamn!"
For those of you who may find yourself wondering about my imagery here, I guess I should mention that one of the main characters in the book is a recently retired, freethinking, porno actress, the modern version of the “whore with a heart of gold.” That sounds more appealing than it turns out to be once you get a closer look. Still, the story might have been far better if someone like her had actually written it — as a year’s worth of daily blogpost dalliances, each one fleeting and forgetable.

Lynch-Mob Morality
So what is it about sex that religion seems to be both attracted to and repulsed by? Why is it that religion finds the pleasure of sex as “an unfortunate side effect that we’d eradicate if we could (and with female circumcision we’re halfway there).” And it’s not just Christianity, but almost all religions (though the Hindus seem to be on the right track with the Kama Sutra). Why does the mob care who we have sex with, when we have sex, what position we have sex in, where we have sex, and whether we’re married at the time? Why are we so afraid of a frank and open discourse on the subject? Why do our children have so little real information about it, while being constantly bombarded with images of it, and why are they the ones who suffer the most from the repercussions of ignorance? And why does our society sit back and allow it all to happen? It seems that all of those concerns are almost always posed in the context of a religious discussion.

gazes also: not the end of the world
When staring at the abyss, at all of those things in life that don't make sense, the abyss does sometimes gaze back at us. But what does it see? And how do we respond? For me Not the End of the World, raised some really interesting questions about how we deal with the world around us and the potential consequences of a world view that sacrifices our very human faculties of reason and skepticism in favor of the "certainty" of belief. Ironically, the certainty itself turns out to be an illusion which creates fertile ground for extremism and the abdication of one's humanity. When one doesn't know how to think for him or her self, they put themselves at the mercy of anyone who claims to make sense out of the abyss.

Nonbelieving Literati: Not the End of the World
But there were some fun interjections by the author throughout the book that made it readable. And while his caricatures largely ruined the book for me, I think there was potential for a good story in there. And I'm not too unhappy about the atheists saving the day.

He’s No James Bond
What’s wrong with this book? The characters for one thing. The villains are all religious kooks. The villains’ disciples are all kooky religious dupes. The heroes are all atheists whose experiences with religion have been unremittingly negative. The primary villain, Rev. St. John was - surprise, surprise - raised by his sexually dysfunctional mother. The secondary hero, or heroine (is that term still acceptable?), porn star Madeleine Witherson, was - surprise, surprise - sexually abused by her father, who is - surprise, surprise - a hypocritical Republican in the United States Senate. And, just in case you haven’t guessed it already, the hypocritical Republican Senator is a good friend of the right-wing religious fanatic villain, who is, in turn, a supporter of the Republican Senator. Good God! Brookmyre compounds his sin of religious stereotyping with that of political stereotyping! Did I miss Wal-Mart’s three-for-one special on cardboard characters? Brookmyre obviously didn’t.

NL: Not the End of the World
We all know the "lying for Jesus" ploy. It's common among certain kinds of Christians (and, if you substitute other deities' names, among all certain kinds of all religious, I'm sure). At its most benign (which still isn't particularly good) it involves lying to people about what others believe (or don't) to keep them "safe" inside the fold. Mind, I'm not talking about people who actually believe the lies - they're dangerous, of course, because if you believe that God will punish the community for the sins of some, then you're likely to take out those some. But they're not lying, just deluded (can I still use that word?). "Lying for Jesus" gets worse, too. At its height, it's "bringing people to God" by any means possible, because as long as they get to God, it's justified.

Nonbelieving Literati: Not the End of the World
I know it can be hard for the best of liberals to entirely shake off the complex, powerful memes that surround sex for long enough to perceive the best way for people to enjoy their lives. Heck, I, for one, have had to concede with regard to my own feelings that sexual repression is not just a weird disease they had in the fifties. Finding the best way to view a sexual issue can take time and thought, and even then you won't always be sure you're right. I'd be more inclined to cut Christopher Brookmyre some slack if he wasn't so obviously wanking to the messed-up ideas that he blithely subscribes to.

Another two-for-one
I enjoyed this book because it was the opposite of The Plague: even if the story wasn’t particularly realistic (which didn’t bother me one bit), it didn’t hold back. There are “sexual deviants,” a bloody explosion, the grieving of a husband and wife, and plenty of expletives. I’m not going to ever read it again, or recommend it to anyone with high standards, but I had fun with it.

Nonbelieving Literati Sidetrack
Initially “The Source” was ambiguous; it could be either natural or supernatural. The way it was initially described changed depending on the character experiencing or using it. However as the story progressed through the trilogy, the magical and supernatural aspects of it and the characters became clear. I was a little disappointed by this. The traditional viral explanation for zombieism always left the genre in the category of extremely-unlikely-but-ever-so-slightly-possible and made it that much more intriguing. While I appreciate the twists of the genre to create something new to explore, I still wanted there to be logical explanations, even if the explanations weren’t apparent to the character.

Sunset: Planet Earth

Separation of Church & State
Article. VI. Clause 3 of the constitution of the United States states: "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." and while no religious test has any constitutional sanction we certainly do have a defacto religious test, and it's become standard operating procedure for candidates to play the faith card.

You're Lucky That It Wasn't Podcast #7(A)
The speech was a combination of a lot of things, but it was mostly -- and I think we'd both agree about this -- an attempt by Obama to extricate himself from a sticky situation. I'm saying that (1) if he weren't so taken with religion and trying to prove how tight he is with Jesus, he wouldn't have been in the sticky situation in the first place; (2) he attempted to minimize the impact of what he had been listening to for years in church by playing on the worst stereotype of happy darkies losing themselves in the lawd; and (3) he threw around the phrase "the Constitution," but the whole underlying rationale of his speech is, to me anyway, clearly in opposition to one of its key principles: the separation of church and state. The speech marries church and state and sends them off on a honeymoon together. I fear that the same thing will happen if Obama is elected.

Anonymous vs. Scientology
Also, the idea of thousands of people protesting in Guy Fawkes masks under a code name of “Anonymous” is appealing and exciting, and it sends a very strong message about Scientology’s tactics. But, would it be a stronger statement to take off the masks and show a lack of fear? The Scientologists send photographers to the protests to try to identify people — what would they do with an overabundance of information? How could they possibly track down and harass thousands of people with no identifiable leaders? I’m reminded of the uproar caused by the Danish cartoons of Mohammad. One media outlet printing the pictures is a target for ignorant hoards, but hundreds of media outlets would send a statement of solidarity and strength.

Former Religious Right Leaders Recant
And not on their deathbeds but while still alive. Rob Boston has an interesting article about three former religious right leaders - Frankie Schaeffer, John Whitehead and Cal Thomas - who have rejected the religious right that they helped to build. And these guys are not bit players. Schaeffer is the son of Francis Schaeffer, the most influential theologian among the American Christian right by far. Cal Thomas was the vice president of the Moral Majority. John Whitehead founded the Council on National Policy, perhaps the most powerful behind-the-scenes group among the religious right. Some of the quotes from Schaeffer's new book are priceless.

Subtle sexism in science?
An individual woman ought be able to be ambitious, pushy, vain, and focused and succeed in science without her approach being considered in conflict with her gender. It isn't. Similarly, an individual male researcher can be considerate and giving and helpful without betraying his sex. I want women to succeed in science because I don't want anyone to be hindered in their careers by the imposition of stereotypes, and let's not have women graduate students walk into a lab under the shadow of an expectation that they have to be the liberal nurturers of the research group, the ones who'll be interested in art and music more than the nerdy males. It's a nice reputation to have, I'm sure, but it's also an imposition of an unfair expectation on women that we don't place on men.

In many areas, but especially in sex, this irrational attitude of fearmongering and enforced ignorance has infected society's discourse. Atheists and freethinkers, whose minds are not blinded by dogma, can act as the antidote. We need to de-mystify subjects like sex - that is to say, we need to take the mysticism out of them and treat them with the maturity and reason they deserve.

An end to war?
I'm inclined to agree that people would rather avoid war, and that ending resource scarcity (which I'm not convinced that science can do) would reduce the incidence of war, but I think the article ignores one central source of conflict: ideology. Baboons and bonobos don't seem to have it, but we do, and it can trigger wars for that other resource, human minds. We want people on our side. The Thirty Years War, the American Civil War, the Cold War … were those fought because one side wanted the other side's food or land or minerals? Or over the spread of ideas that weren't satisfied by science?

Am I raising 'atheist children'?
Most young children accept what their parents tell them as true, whether it is the existence of Santa Claus or Jesus Christ. It is important that children understand what their parents believe, but it is also important for children to know about all the options out there. This is tricky if a parent is a true believer of a religion and feels that her way is the only path. But how can children question openly when they are taught that there are absolute truths in belief?

Golden Rule
What comes from the loss of understanding of others in the positive Golden Rule is the actions of its adherents becoming trespasses and impositions upon others, possibly even harming them and taken to it's extreme can be grounds for a most insidious form of tyranny, one where the tyrant is unaware of his tyranny. In fact, such a tyrant will no doubt believe that his tyranny is a gift, a favor, a blessing if you will bestowed upon another out of love. Because of this I see nothing positive coming from the positive variant of the Golden Rule, nor do I even feel comfortable in letting it share the title of "Golden Rule" for its flawed basis carries the potential, often manifested, to run counter to the original Golden Rule in that it leads to harm for others. It is this very disconnect that I see as the primary divisive force between secularists and evangelicals in America and why we will ALWAYS have to battle the encroachments of the evangelicals into both public and private lives. The problem is all their trespasses, they believe, are for our sake, for our greater benefit. Prayer in school? Well of course we NEED that since they feel it's necessary, what with morality being based on their bible. They simply can't fathom our objections because they can't see why we don't want what they want since what they want, they believe, is good. There simply can't be any respect without understanding and as long as they hold true to a philosophy like this that disregards understanding, they will never respect others.

There Goes the Neighborhood
More importantly this shows that homosexuality is actually good for civilization. There are some behaviors that are destructive of civilization and homosexuality (its behavioral elements; homosexuality has both orientation and behavioral elements) is not one of them. Certain types of risky promiscuous sex are dangerous and not good for one’s health — like smoking. But smoking doesn’t destroy civilization. Some types of behaviors are bad for civilization — for instance out of wedlock births by minor teens whose circumstance prevents them from finishing their education. Go and look at the housing prices/levels of civilization in those neighborhoods. And compare and contrast that with gay friendly neighborhoods and you see the polar opposite.

The Skeptologists
Announcing a new skeptical reality TV show - The Skeptologists. At this point the show is being produced as a pilot, and has not been picked up by any network, but we can always hope. The concept of the show is similar to other paranormal investigation shows, except with actual skeptics who will do real science - not kids with fancy toys and no idea what they are doing. It will be a cross between Mythbusters (with fewer explosions) and a family friendly version of Bullshit (with fewer naked breasts). I know how much everyone loves explosions and naked breasts, but we will make up for it with humor and fun.

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