19 July 2012

Our Lady of Guadalupe visits Jersey

Courtesy PuffHo.
A few days ago, there were varied reports of a defect on a tree in West New York (which is apparently in New Jersey) that looked like the virgin Mary - and the famous Our Lady of Guadalupe in particular.  The religulous went predictably nuts over it.

The local archdiocese called it only a "phenomenon," but that wasn't enough to stop the faithful from acting like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert.  (There's videos of the foolishness at PuffHo.)

Here's my favorite explanation: it's a coincidence.  That is to say, if I could examine every tree in the world, I'll bet I can find all manner of shapes.  I'll bet you I can find... Jimmy Durante!  Would that mean Jimmy is still with us?  That Jimmy is god?  Of course not.  In our fantastically diverse universe, all kinds of things look like all kinds of other things.

Courtesy Astrobioblog.
Wait.  That's no moon!

See what I mean?

So why does a worn bit of tree truck make some people freak out so much?  Because they're biased.  They're predisposed to take certain coincidences as significant only because they've been primed by years of brainwashing to do so.  But if the image had been of anything that fell even slightly outside the usual religious memes - well, then it would have just been a mark on a tree.

...hang on; I'll be right back.

Just to show you how easy it is to see things that aren't there: I just went outside and looked around my front yard.  Within two minutes, I'd found something amazing - The All-seeing Eye!

Yes, this is in my front yard.
These are all cases of something called pareidolia and it's a very well-documented phenomenon.  One of the key abilities of living organisms is to pattern match.  Being able to pattern match a tiger hiding in the shrubbery went a long way to helping our progenitors survive.  It's something the brain can do without conscious thought, so it just happens whether we want it to or not.  It shouldn't surprise anyone that we see things - even when we see puppies in the shapes of clouds - that aren't really there.

And under pretty much every other circumstance but the religious one, any reasonably mature human will recognize the oddity as just coincidence.

But when it comes to religion, all bets are off.

I think this really underscores the insidious nature of religious belief: it puts one in a frame of mind that blocks our rational brain from drawing correct conclusions; it obscures our rationality; it deprives us of one of the few characteristics that make humans distinctive among all the forms of life on Earth.

Really now.  Can't we do better than this?

(For the record, when I look at that tree in West New York, I see a dildo.  Just sayin'.)

12 July 2012

Ideals matter

I posted about the importance of ideology and ideals at my other blog.  I thought it made more sense to put it there since it regards issues broader than just atheist/humanist ones.

Still, it would be interesting to try to enumerate some of the ideals that are common to both atheists and theists.  I suspect, if the theists are moderate, it would be a long list.  It bothers me that the commonalities are rarely discussed.

09 July 2012

The twisted logic of American catholics

Adam Lee recently posted a great article at Big Think, The Chasm of the Middle Ground, that considers the bigotry that seems to be the current fad in American religious fundamentalism.  I just want to comment on one passage from Adam's post (I've emphasized key parts).
We saw this in the fights over the American health-care bill, where Roman Catholic bishops asserted that any employer - not just a church employer, but any employer, even the manager of a Taco Bell - should be able to deny his employees insurance coverage for any medical procedure to which he objects on religious grounds. Since most major medical procedures are ruinously expensive if not covered by insurance, this is equivalent to saying that employers should be able to dictate their workers' access to medical care. In the same vein, when there was a rash of teenagers committing suicide after vicious homophobic bullying, evangelicals in the Anoka-Hennepin School District vehemently objected to a proposed anti-bullying policy, claiming that it was an unconstitutional restriction on their religious freedom. Evangelical spokespeople have also explicitly endorsed this logic, that "if gays are not the ones being discriminated against, then Christians will be".
The first instance alone may warrant several long essays to explain fully the utterly twisted logic being employed by the religulous.  Here's just an abbreviated list of some of the problems:

  • That an employer has a moral obligation to police the morality of his/her employees in their personal lives as well as their work.  This is clearly just a case of the catholic church seeking to subvert labour relations into being its weapon, by promising the employer afterlife brownie points.
  • That the employer is morally responsible for decisions made by the employee regarding the employee's own health just because the employer is paying for the health services rendered. This is playing the "guilt card" - something at which catholics are experts - to coerce employers fearful for their immortal souls into removing from others a fundamental freedom of choice.
  • That religion has any role to play at all in labour relations.  Morality, whether set by religious dogma (bad) or rational and philosophical considerations (good), stands apart from labour relations.  Morality is codified in documents that identify the principles for which a nation stands, documents which inform the legal system, which in turn sets bounds on labour relations to (presumably) ensure the well-being of the citizenry.  Morality is so far removed from labour relations, it's rather like saying your doctor will prescribe medicine based on quantum mechanics.
  • That insurance coverage can be predicated on religious grounds. This is just pathetic, and a sure sign one's nation is heading down a similar road taken by islamic theocracies.  And look what it got them!
The second instance is a classic case of both category error and false dichotomy.

The category error involves lumping all christians into the group of sanctimonious pricks who think its discriminatory to stop them from discriminating against LBGT folk.  There are many christians who have no problem with LBGT rights.  That mainstream christians aren't far more vocal against the fundiots in their midst bothers me tremendously, but their silence (though harmful in itself) is at least no where near the vile hatefulness of the truly religulous.  Beyond the fetid stink of the rants of the fundiots, moderate christians should be properly incensed by the fundiots speaking on their behalf.

The false dichotomy (that either gays are discriminated against, or christians are) ignores at least one possible alternative: that neither gays nor christians will be discriminated against.  There is no reason to exclude this alternative a-priori... unless, of course, one grants the (factually incorrect) categorization that all christians are anti-gay.

It's all childishness.  Stupid, hateful, school-yard homophobia borne of a church that was never interested in well-being but really only in power and control.  I really don't care if the religulous want to persist in their ignorant irrationality.  But that their crude philistinism is granted equal standing to rational, evidence-based positions that promote true equality and well-being sickens me as little else can.