Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bumper Stickers, Squirrels, and the NY Times

I'm still trying to un-bury myself from the pile of work our move left me with, but there are a few things worth mentioning.

I saw an unfortunate bumper sticker the other day, on a car decorated with several dozen peace/love/etc. bumper stickers (on all sides). There are many really appalling bumper stickers, and I suppose as far as these things go it could have been a lot worse. What really stuck me about this one, though, was that the heart of the message was in the right place, it was just the reasoning that was flawed.

Don't take life too seriously. It's only temporary.

I agree with the concept of not taking life too seriously (emphasis on the 'too'). But calling life temporary implies, obviously, that there is something else beyond life that is the "real" life. Taken seriously or not, this denigrates the value, beauty, and preciousness of life.

While I don't think that life should be taken too seriously, I do not think it should be taken too cavalierly, either. This is it. This is your life. Don't waste it. It's all you've got! Do good things. Be remembered. Live on forever in the history books and in the memories of your friends and families. Don't be stupid. Don't do stupid things. Better yourself at every opportunity. But have fun while doing it.

Speaking of being a little too cavalier, here's a funny story. We have some new birdfeeders, put up recently after our move. I enjoy watching the birds while I work from my home office, and I keep a pair of binoculars and a bird guide on my desk. We've recently been having a squirrel problem, though -- specifically, he's climbing up and eating all of the bird food.

At first, all I had to do was bang on the glass of our patio-style door between the office and the front yard. Then I would have to open the door a tad and slam it shut. Then I would have to open the screen door. Then step outside and wave my arms. Then take a few steps towards the squirrel. He kept coming back. He finally got used to me trying to keep him away. He got bold.

Yesterday he was happily eating on the other side of the feeder, so all I could see was his tail hanging down. I walked outside. He peeked around the side of the bird feeder and took a look to make sure I was keeping my distance, but quickly resumed eating. I walk a few steps to one side so the bird feeder was more directly between us, and so that if he peeked around again I wouldn't be there anymore. Then I snuck towards the feeder.

I got close enough I could have grabbed his tail if I'd had gloves. I don't know if he really didn't hear me -- I was barefoot on grass -- or if he was just that bold. I guess he wasn't taking life seriously enough. He kept eating. I got my head really close to the bird feeder and peeked around and went "BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA!" I was eye to eye with him. Not four inches away. He did a little squirrel version of clutching his heart and peed a little in his fur. Ok, not really, but his eyes just about popped out as he was tripping over his tail trying to get away. Oh, it was brilliant.

He's learned his lesson, though. He is much more content with eating off of the ground now. Although he does occassionally get on the feeder again, he won't eat on the far side of the feeder anymore, and if I step outside he stops everything and doesn't lose eye contact with me until he runs off or I leave.

One quick link before I get back to work -- the NY Times has filled their science page up today with only evolution-related stories. Good on them!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Prayer as a Weapon

In a recent post, vjack describes the act of schoolyard "prayer circles" and how they are used to attack non-fundie children.
The children start calling you names and hurling insults at you. If you happen to be Jewish, you will hear things that would make neo-Nazi's proud. You are a sinner. You are going to burn in a lake of fire. You will rot in hell. They form a circle around you, holding hands to make sure you can't easily escape. They tell you that the only way you can save yourself is to accept Jee-zuhs. They begin praying around you loudly to "save your soul."
I have never been a prayer circle victim, thank reason. My school was full of good ol' southern Baptists, but I doubt there were more than two or three really fundie families in the whole school.

Socially, what exactly are these prayer-circle attacks? Are they some kind of fundie-centric bullying? Some kind of misguided attempt at an intervention? I'm trying to figure out what the childrens' point is. Are they just trying to be mean? Are they trying to convert their target, as if to say, "Hey, all you have to do is say 'yes, I accept jesus' -- it doesn't matter if it's the truth or not -- and you can be mean to the next kid with us!" Does it matter?

Because deep down, all they are really doing is highlighting one of the great inconsistencies of religion -- specifically, of prayer. Theists, at least those that believe in an active, personal god, believe that if you pray to him/her, your prayers will be answered. They are quick to gloss over the 'unanswered' prayers, and point out the 'answered' ones, to maintain evidence that their god really has listened to them. In reality, the answered/unanswered ratio is exactly what you would expect from chance. If you pray for the sun to rise on time tomorrow morning, then your prayer will almost certainly be answered. If you pray for a second moon to appear in the sky tomorrow night, your prayer will almost certainly be ignored.

A good example of this, as noted in Dan Barker's wonderful song, "Nothing Fails Like Prayer," are those who pray for lottery winnings. If god answers prayers, and people pray to win the lottery, then why are the odds for winning the same as are predicted by statistics? A theist might reason that it is because everyone has prayed for their ticket to win, therefore everyone has equal odds for god to have chosen to answer their prayer. So why pray in the first place?

(I should also point out not everyone will have prayed to win, as there would be plenty of atheists and lazy theists with tickets. Prayer suggests a tendency for devout theists to win the lottery, but this is not the case.)

The use of prayer as a weapon in a good illustration of the paradox of conflicting prayers. Imagine two opponents, an attacker and a victim. Both religious. The attacker prays, "God, please help me smite this person!" and the victim prays, "God, save me from this person!" No matter the outcome, one prayer will be answered and one prayer won't be. The victim either gets away or he doesn't -- exactly what would happen without prayer.

So, again, what's the point? Emotionally, I believe it is similar to rooting for a sports team. As long as there are no bets going on, what do you gain from your team winning? You enjoy the victory vicariously, and get bragging rights over your friends and co-workers that rooted for the other team. Prayer offers exactly the same benefits. If your prayer is answered, you get a vicarious high from feeling "the touch of god" in your life. And you get to feel superior to non-believers and the un-saved. It is similar to people that keep rooting for a losing team, knowing that they're bound to win some day, people keep on praying, too, knowing that their prayer is bound to be "answered" some day.

I think this is why it is particularly satisfying for theists to bash non-theists. There is no conflicting prayer. It feels like a victory by default to them -- a sure win.

So, to answer my own question, I think it's just about the bullying. There is no attempt at conversion, because the goal has nothing to do with victim. Just like doing drugs isn't about what's best for the cocaine. The prayer circle attackers are using the victim to achieve an artificial high.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Biblical Truth, or a Propaganda Machine?

Well, it's been a long time since my last post. When I am extremely busy with work, I have to gradually cut out other free-time activities bit by bit. This week was trying to prepare an interactive CDROM for a client in time for a trade show today (just barely made it) and it didn't leave time for much else! It also didn't leave much time for reading all of my blogs, so aside from a few minutes here and there I've just been completely out of the loop. I'm sure PZ has made 800 posts since last I read....

One interesting post I did catch was vjack's article on biblical literalists. A recent Gallup poll revealed that more than 30% of the US population takes the bible literally. I would have liked to have known what percentage of those people have actually read the bible.

Since our recent move, my wife has tried a different church every Sunday, looking for the right one for her and the kids. So far, no luck. "They're all sinners!" she says, referring to a recent sermon that preached how everyone is a bad person and we all have a lot to ask forgiveness for. It was basically a group baptist confession session. Yuck. My wife thought it was YUCK too. Theist or not, if you're smart you know that even if you know people have occassionally doing bad things, it does no good to sit down together and moan about it. What's the point?
You've got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don't mess with Mister In-Between

But what we thought was really horrifying was a service she told me about from a couple of weeks ago. (boy, it really has been a while since I've blogged) She described the children's sermon like this:
A women kneels down on the floor in the front, inviting all of the children to sit with her. When the children had assembled, she opened a newspaper. "Do you want to read the news?" she said. "Let's see what's happening. Do you want to her about all of the soldiers who were killed in the war?" The kids, confused, weren't sure whether to say yes or no. "How about this one -- a singer gets drunk, and crashes her car into a tree! Do you want to hear about that?" More confusion from the kids. It goes on for a little while, and finally ends with this gem, "Or how about this one -- a man rapes and kills his four-year-old daughter. How many of you are four?" She finally gets to her point, "This is all bad news, isn't it? That's why the bible is called The Good News."
And that was it. It sure is a good thing I wasn't there. I would have intervened long before the woman whipped out her punchline. That woman should be ashamed of herself.

Not to mention the hypocrisy! Has she even read the bible? The Old Testament? I'm still reading it myself, but off the top of my head:
  • every human and animal in the world, save for a few of each, is murdered by an angry and vindictive god
  • Noah gets drunk and naked, then curses his own lineage when one son sees him naked and has his kid tell him to get some clothes on
  • god toys around with Abraham, who was about to kill his only son at god's request
  • Lot protects two of his guests from the townsfolk, and offers his daughters as sex toys instead
  • Lot's daughters get Lot drunk and rape him
  • ten plagues, anyone? Despite the pharoah trying to let the Hebrews go seven times, god kept "hardening his heart" so he could do even more terrible things to the egyptians
  • Moses leads warriors into cities, and demanding that not only are the warriors killed, but also the elderly, the women, and the children
  • Joshua does the same, wiping out all of the men, women, and children of 31 cities
  • Someone is stoned to death for collecting firewood on a Sunday
  • Gideon kills a bunch of his friends because they guessed his riddle, then goes off on more killing rampages
  • One of Gideon's sons kills 68 of his brothers
  • Jephthah swears that if he wins a war, he will slaughter the first thing he sees at home as sacrifice -- which was his daughter
  • Another judge pulls a Lot and sends his concubine out to be ravaged by townsfolk, and when he finds her dead later he cuts her up into twelve pieces and sends them to the each part of the land
Gosh, sounds familiar! Soldiers killed in war? Check! People getting drunk and doing bad things? Check! Rape and murder? Check! (except in the bible it was the daughters that raped the father!) So how is the newspaper so bad compared to the bible?

Which brings me back to my question about the Gallup poll in vjack's article. Despite so many people believing the bible is the literal truth -- how many have actually read it? Here was a woman giving a sermon to other people, a position, one would assume, usually granted to people that are familiar with the material. Instead, it comes across more like war propaganda, especially when it is so obviously false.