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Friday, August 29, 2014

Et Tu, NPR?

Two Bronze DoorsOkay - not NPR exactly, but KERA, the local public radio station. On my car ride in to work a couple days ago, I heard a story on KERA that should have been interesting, about a couple of art curators who work out of their rented house, turning it into a neighborhood art gallery / gathering place for artists. The opening of the article, Two Bronze Doors Creates A Home For Artists (And Maybe a Ghost?), describes the atmosphere pretty well:

Local band Dome Dwellers play to a small crowd in the living room of Two Bronze Doors under dim Christmas lights, surrounded by abstract paintings and sculptures.

It sounds like a cool place, and a story I'd be interested in hearing. But the story that should have been about the art and the people was marred by a diversion into the paranormal. Early on, there was a bit of discussion about the psychic who used to live in the house and who Foisset and Vaughan (the curators) had visited - brief enough as to not be too distracting, but an ominous sign of things to come (yes, I'm being melodramatic). Starting at 1 minute, 45 seconds, the story veered off in a direction I would have never expected from a respected news source.

And the house also might be haunted.

What followed was around 1 minute, 15 seconds worth of discussion about the supposed haunting of the house, in a piece that was only 3 minutes, 25 seconds long in total - over a third of the story! They even mentioned EVP for crying out loud. Why KERA? Why?

Paranormal complaints aside, the gallery does look interesting. Here are their website and Facebook links if you want to learn more.

Image Source: Two Bronze Doors Website (I have no idea who's performing)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Kevin Sorbo Follow-Up

Kevin SorboI just posted an entry about Kevin Sorbo, Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo. Referring to atheists, Sorbo wondered "how do you get so angry at something you don't believe in?" My entry was a response to that and some other of his comments, trying to explain what most atheists actually believe.

As is normal for me since I do this mostly on lunch breaks, it took me a little while to get that entry written. Well, in the time between when I read the article that prompted my entry and when I actually posted the entry, Sorbo himself has given another example of why atheists can sometimes become irritated. As described on The Raw Story, Sorbo was being interviewed on a radio talk show with some host named Rick Wiles (recording of relevant portion available at Right Wing Watch). After wondering why atheists get so angry, Wiles gave his opinion.

The truth is they know he exists and they hate him. That's what it's all about.

Sorbo agreed, and went on to add this.

I know these guys must believe in something, otherwise they wouldn't get so angry about it and they don't like the fact that there is a higher power out there that is judging how they live their life.

You know how to make someone angry? Call them a liar and imply that they have no sense of morality.

Anyway, there's not much more to add. I already explained in my previous entry why atheists get bothered by religion, so I'm not going to rehash that here. Sorbo and Wiles just provided another example that I hadn't listed before.

Image Source: Christian Post

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo

Kevin SorboI forget exactly how I found it (probably following a link in some comment section on another blog/website), but I recently read an article on the Christian Post about an interview with Kevin Sorbo, Actor Kevin Sorbo Not Too Fond of Atheists; Says They're Always 'So Angry'. He was talking about his recent role in the film, God's Not Dead, which was panned even by Creation.com.

I don't have anything against Kevin Sorbo in particular, but he expressed a couple views that seem fairly representative of a certain segment of the population, so it makes for a good springboard for a response. For example, here's one of his complaints about atheists.

I'm a Christian myself and had to play an atheist. I see the anger of these (atheist) guys on TV and it's like 'wow, how do you get so angry at something you don't believe in?

First of all, I'd like to know which atheists on TV are so angry? Taking a loose definition of atheism as lack of belief in gods (i.e. including people who might call themselves agnostics or 'nones'), here's a short list of 12 celebrity atheists - Brad Pitt, Kari Byron, Hugh Laurie, Julianne Moore, Kathy Griffin, Daniel Radcliffe, Angelina Jolie, Richard Branson, Jodi Foster, George Clooney, Natalie Portman, and Ricky Gervais. If you've ever seen Byron on Mythbusters, or seen an inteview with Branson, I don't think you'd call them angry. Even the atheist I've heard referred to as 'shrill' the most, Richard Dawkins, hardly seems like a ball of rage when you watch him on TV.

Second, the irritation that atheists do express is not at gods, but at religion, and particularly at instances where religion causes harm, people try to push religion where it doesn't belong, or where religion is given special privelege - all things that definitely do exist. I've already written an entry that touches on this, Why Do I Spend So Much Time on Religion, where I listed plenty of examples with links, some horrific like fire bombings or children being persecuted for being witches, others not horrific but still troubling like schools teaching creationism or churches spending large sums of money campaigning against marriage equality. If religion was all soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or even just spaghetti dinners and Christmas bazaars, religious debates could be mainly academic and philosophical. As soon as religious people quit causing so much trouble in the world, atheists will quit getting angry about religion.

It can also get a bit personal. As I've pointed out numerous times before, atheists are among the most mistrusted groups in the U.S. Here's an article from Scientific American that discusses several polls and studies with links to the sources, In Atheists We Distrust. Only around half of Americans would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who happened to be an atheist, a similar number would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist, and 40% of Americans think that atheists don't agree with their view of American society, making atheists more distrusted than any other minority asked about (not that it's a good thing that any of the other minorities are distrusted). So yeah, we can get a bit irritated sometimes.

Here's the other quote from the interview that caught my attention.

"It's funny how they can get nativity scenes pulled down because they say it offends them but they're offended by something they don't believe in. What offends 90 percent of the country is that they take down nativity scenes but apparently the majority doesn't have a voice in the country anymore so what are you going to do?

Sorbo does realize that the only nativity scenes that defenders of the First Amendment want to see pulled down are those on government property, right? Anyone that wants to put up a nativity scene on private property is free to do so, whether it's a business or a residence. They can make it as prominent as they want. And most interpretations I've seen of the First Amendment don't even outlaw nativity scenes, just the privileging of one religion over another. So as long as a government office/location/branch allows displays from other religions, they're allowed to put up their nativity displays.

My own favorite example of this and of how petty Christians can be involves the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport a few years ago. There's an article about the incident from ABC News, Airport Christmas Trees Gone After Rabbi's Request. The 'request' referred to in the headline was not removal of the trees, but rather the addition of menorahs. As Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky himself said in an interview, "Everyone should have their spirit of the holiday. For many people, the trees are the spirit of the holidays, and adding a menorah adds light to the season." But airport officials, rather than add a little diversity to their mid-winter holiday decorations, decided to just pull down all the Christmas trees. So if Sorbo wonders why people get upset by government endorsed religious displays, this is a perfect example. Had the airport truly wanted to represent the community, they would have put up displays from various religions practiced by community members. Their refusal to put up symbols from other religions shows that they were really just trying to privilege Christianity.

To point out another problem with Sorbo's statement, he seems to be assuming that everybody against government displays of religion is also an atheist. That's simply not the case at all. They're people who take the First Amendment seriously - atheists, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, etc. The wall of separation runs both ways - not only preventing any "law respecting an establishment of religion", but also any law "prohibiting the free exercise thereof". It protects religious freedom by keeping government out of it.

And it's just laughable that Sorbo thinks "the majority doesn't have a voice in the country anymore". Speaking as a former Christian turned atheist, I never even realized just how ubiquitous Christianity was in culture while I was still a Christian, but it really jumps out at you when you no longer practice the religion - cashiers telling me to have a blessed day, PTA meetings starting off with prayers, Christmas decorations going up everywhere (besides government property) the day after Thanksgiving, someone standing at the head of the room to say grace at just about any public banquet, etc. Perhaps Sorbo's referring to a voice in the government. I'll just quote myself on this, something that I wrote back in 2008 in an entry on the War on Christmas, "Christians make up around 80% of the U.S. population. As far as representation in government, in the 109th Congress, there were 11 senators who didn't identify themselves as Christians (12 if you count Unitarians), and only 30 representatives in the House (32 if you count Unitarians). In other words, over 90% of the elected officials in the federal legislative branch are Christians." Continuing with that quote, but moving on to the highest office in the land, "You have to go back all the way to Taft to find a president who said, 'I do not believe in the divinity of Christ' (though he was still a Unitarian Christian), or all the way back to Lincoln to find a deist president, and it seems absurd to imagine a non-Christian being elected to that office anytime soon." And can you even imagine a presidential candidate who didn't end every speech by saying, "And God bless America"? So, as I finished up that passage, "Christians make up a very large segment of the population, and are actually over-represented in government. They are not an oppressed minority."

And as one last comment, this time actually a bit more personal directly at Sorbo, what type of actor can he be, to take on a role and try to perform it, when he admits flat out that he can't fathom the mindset of the character? Aren't actors supposed to have some understanding of the motivation of their characters? (Though to be honest, from what I've heard of this movie, I doubt anyone could have performed the role of the professor as written with an actual understanding of what most atheists believe.)

Like I said, I wrote this not because I have anything personal against Sorbo, but because these views seem to be fairly common, and so far off from the reality of what most atheists believe and how they act. Perhaps if enough people voice their objections to misconceptions like this, people will eventually start to realize their mistakes.

Image Source: Christian Post

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Fastest Bird

Common SwiftA recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic caught my eye. A little boy goes up to his mother to ask her what's the fastest animal, and the comic then shows four different responses from different types of people. It's the biologist's response that grabbed my attention, "a descending peregrine falcon". That's a little factoid you see all over the place. And peregrine falcons are pretty darn fast, with a reported top speed of 242 mph in a dive. But that caveat about it being in a dive is the part that makes the record suspect. Is it really fair to call a peregrine falcon the fastest bird when it's really just falling - not generating the thrust with it's own muscle power. Heck, put me in a spandex body suit and let me jump off a high enough point, and I could briefly become the world's fastest animal. In fact, that's what the sport of speed skydiving is all about, with a record top speed of 330 mph - faster than even the falcons.

So, how fast is the fastest bird that's not cheating? With the manner in which human built airplanes so drastically outperform cars, you might think it's similar in the animal kingdom. If cheetah's can clock in at 70 mph, the fastest birds must surely be in the triple digits, right? Well, maybe not. While there are claims of a few birds being recording flying (not falling) over 100 mph (such as the needle-tailed swift), those claims aren't particularly reliable, and other researchers haven't been able to make measurements to match them. The fastest reliable claim I could find was from a BBC article from a few years ago, Supercharged swifts take flight speed record. The headline was referring to the common swift, not the needle-tailed variety. According to the article:

During the study, they clocked common swifts flying at 75km/h (20.8m/s; 47mph), with one swift registering a top speed of 111.6km/h (31m/s; 69.3mph).

That is the highest confirmed speed achieved by a bird in level flight, the researchers say.

69.3 mph - that's right around what cheetahs can do. And while it's not as blistering as the 242 mph attributed to the peregrine falcon, it's still pretty darn fast. And swifts also happen to be my favorite of all dinosaurs - not just for their high speed, but also for the fact that they spend practically their entire lives on the wing - eating, mating, and even sleeping in the air, only coming down to lay their eggs and raise their young. In fact, that means that young swifts spend their first few years completely in the air until they're old enough to mate.

So the next time someone asks you what the fastest animal is, instead of giving credit to that cheating falcon, you can give dual credit to cheetahs and swifts, while also mentioning the vagaries of determining the fastest animal when they don't exactly willingly participate in races.

More Info on the Awesomeness of Swifts:

Image Source: Wikipedia

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