Skepticism, Religion Archive

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Microcosmic Hell

CreationJust for the sake of argument, let's say that one day, we discover how to create an alternate universe that we can have complete control over. We can even create souls. And just for the sake of argument, imagine that we can control time in the created universe, so that we can witness how it changes over the eons. Imagine, basically, that we get to play god*.

Now, imagine that Person A visits Person B, while Person B is playing with their creation, and the following exchange takes place.

Person A: So, whatcha doin'?

Person B: Oh, just torturing one of my creations.

Person A: Really? Why? Did it do something horrible?

Person B: He doesn't believe in me.

Person A: Did you give him a good reason to?

Person B: Well, a couple weeks ago, I was playing around with the little guys. I noticed they'd started developing religions, so I gave one of 'em a personal revelation. I told him to start a new religion, and to tell everybody else about me.

Person A: But, the one you're torturing now - did you give him a good reason to believe in you?

Person B: Well, he had the stories from when I visited, didn't he?

Person A: But how fast is time running in that universe?

Person B: Oh, it's probably been a few thousand years in their time.

Person A: And you haven't been back since?

Person B: Nope.

Person A: And you expect them all to keep on believing a two thousand year old story, even though they already had other religions going on, and you only revealed yourself to one of them? And you're torturing that one little guy right now because he doubted you?

Person B: Yeah, that's about right. But they are my creation. I can do whatever I want to them.

Person A: ...

When you think about it that way, the concept of eternal damnation to Hell seems like a pretty horrible concept. Now, when you're talking hypotheticals, it's possible that the creator of our universe could be such a petty, vindictive bastard that he'd punish people for simple doubts. But it really goes against the whole 'God is love' thing that most people these days want to believe in. It also seems a bit silly.

*Yes, this is very much like Theodore Sturgeon's short story, Microcosmic God.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

In Which I Actually Somewhat Sympathize with Pat Robertson - Divorce

Pat RobertsonI've been way too busy this week to write a good blog entry. So, I'll just post something a bit thought provoking.

If you haven't heard yet, Pat Robertson has once again landed in hot water, this time for suggesting that it might be okay for a man married to a woman suffering from Alzheimer's to divorce her. Many people have jumped onto his statements, but not always fairly presenting all that he said. Here, from the New York Times, is one of the fuller accounts I've seen of the conversation.

“His wife as he knows her is gone,” the caller said, and the friend is “bitter at God for allowing his wife to be in that condition, and now he’s started seeing another woman.”

“This is a terribly hard thing,” Mr. Robertson said, clearly struggling to think his way through a wrenching situation. “I hate Alzheimer’s. It is one of the most awful things, because here’s the loved one — this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years, and suddenly that person is gone.”

“I know it sounds cruel,” he continued, “but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but to make sure she has custodial care, somebody looking after her.”

When Mr. Robertson’s co-anchor on the program wondered if that was consistent with marriage vows, Mr. Robertson noted the pledge of “till death do us part,” but added, “This is a kind of death.”

He said the question presented an ethical dilemma beyond his ability to answer. “I certainly wouldn’t put a guilt trip on you if you decided that you had to have companionship,” Mr. Robertson said, apparently suggesting divorce as a way to avoid the sin of adultery.

So, why do I sympathize at all with Robertson? Well, this is a tough issue. It deals with identity, our obligations in a marriage, how to handle stressful situations, etc. And in fairness, he did specify that the man should ensure that his (soon to be ex-) wife is taken care of.

Why do I only somewhat sympathize with him? It's his glaring hypocrisy. He has no trouble promoting traditional marriage when it's used to support his bigotry in denying homosexuals the right to marriage, but he's willing to ignore traditional marriage when it's an inconvenience to a heterosexual spouse. There's also his inconsistency in saying that this is a type of death, which would make sense to a materialist, but not to a mind-body dualist like him. Plus, I'm not so sure I like his answer. Marriage is a commitment we make that should be taken very seriously, and unless a couple has made some type of agreement before something like this happens, I'd say that a person is obligated to care for their ailing spouse.

Anyway, I'd love to give this more thought and write something better, but I just don't have time right now.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Special Privelages

LiquorThere's an abandoned convenience store near the entrance to the development I live in. Just recently, we found out that someone's planning to buy it and make it an active store again. But, we also have a church nearby, and somebody asked if there was a problem with a store selling alcohol (beer & wine) being so close to a church. Somebody else in the neighborhood pointed out the city ordinance, 5430.A, which deals with that. I guess I'm sheltered, because I'd never heard of this before. Anyway, here's what the ordinance says:

The sale of alcoholic beverages within the city by any dealer whose place of business is within 300 feet of a church or public hospital, the measurements to be along the property lines of the street fronts and from front door to front door, and in a direct line across intersections, is hereby prohibited. This section shall not apply to temporary sales authorized under section 5420, subsection 5.

Just below that, there was some wording that caught my eye, "5500. - Sexually oriented commercial establishment." It had a similar ordinance at 5510:

A person commits an offense if he operates or causes to be operated within 1,000 feet of a church, a public or private elementary or secondary school, a United States military installation which contains a training school for armed forces members, a residential dwelling unit in which one or more persons maintain a residence, a public park, or another business of a type hereinafter enumerated in this section, a business of one of the following types:

A. An adult bookstore as hereinafter defined.
B. An adult motion picture theater as hereinafter defined.
C. A business or enterprise which offers for a consideration nude human modeling.
D. A business or enterprise that offers for a consideration physical contact between persons when one or more of such persons are nude or semi-nude.
E. A bar, nightclub or other similar commercial establishment that offers as entertainment, for the purpose of providing sexual stimulation to the customers of such establishment, live performances by a person or persons who expose specified anatomical areas or who perform specified sexual activities.
F. An adult arcade as hereinafter defined.
G. An adult motel as hereinafter defined.
H. An adult theater as hereinafter defined.
I. An escort agency as hereinafter defined.

Why did churches get thrown in there? Schools and hospitals are public buildings providing a valualbe service, and I can sort of see why people wouldn't want liquor stores, porn shops, or strip bars nearby (though I don't necessarily agree with the alcohol sale restriction). But churches? They're private organizations. Why should they get any special consideration? What makes them different from the Elks Lodge, the Women's Forum, the Kemp Center for the Arts (which happens to be across the street from a bar), the Boys and Girls Club, or the Y?

It's just one more example of the undeserved special treatment that religion gets in this country.

(It's also kind of funny that you can't have an adult bookstore within 1000 feet of the base. You have to be 18 to join the military, so they're all adults.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dinosaur World's Dishonesty

Dinosaur WorldThis has already made it around the skeptical blogosphere, but it's interesting for the people that might not have heard it, yet.

The company, Dinosaur World, runs three roadside attractions - one in Plant City, Florida, one in Cave City, Kentucky, and one in Glen Rose, Texas. Just this past weekend, I saw the billboards for the Glen Rose one on a trip to drop my daughter off at a Girl Scout camp down the road, so this story has some personal interest to me. The attractions are life size dinosaur replicas, with a bit of information about the dinosaurs, a small museum, and a gift shop. Here's a picture from their website to give you an idea of what the place is like.

Theropod Dinosaur on Grounds of Dinosaur World

Now, there's nothing particularly noteworthy about any of that. It's the type of campy road side attraction that people have come to expect in America, and there are similar attractions all over the nation. What makes this story interesting is the blog post that appeared on their website this past Monday.

Educational information at Dinosaur World

At Dinosaur World, we present interesting facts about each dinosaur. Examples include, what they ate and unique charactaristics of each. However, we do have many books in the giftshop including information on creationism. Below is an example.

Why is so little known about dinosaurs? Despite all the new dinosaur discoveries, little is known about the dinosaurs because all information comes from fossils and a lot of "educated guesses" have to be made.

Where did dinosaurs come from? God created the entire universe and everything in it including all animals (Gen 1:20-25; Exodus 20:11; Genesis 1; John 1:3).

Are dinosaurs in the Bible? Dinosaur-like creatures are mentioned in the Bible including "behemoth" and "tannin". Perhaps the best example is in Job 40.

What were the dinosaurs like? Man and dinosaurs lived together and man were masters over all God's wonderful creatures. (Gen 1:26, 28) In the first early days, all animals were friendly and under man's control. None of the animals ate meat or killed. God provided for all. There was no sin, no death, no evil and no disease. It was after the flood that things changed.

What happened to the dinosaurs? The Bible says that a great flood covered the entire earth. All but those on Noah's ark were killed, including dinosaurs.

Were dinosaurs on the ark? The Bible says one set of every air breathing land animal was on the ark. (Gen 6:12-20; 7:15-16). Young dinosaurs would be small and easier to care for than the full grown ones.

What happened after the flood? After the flood, the earth was very different and temperatures had changed. Some places were very hot and some very cold. Many parts of the world were too harsh for the dinosaurs to live and much harder to find food to feed their enormous bodies. It is not just dinosaurs that have become extinct. In the last 350 years alone, almost 400 species have disappeared. After the flood man also was responsible for killing many animals. The wooly mammoths and mastodons where wiped out by humans.

What about "millions of years old"? Just because something is fossilized does not mean it is millions or even thousands of years old. When conditions are right, a bone can become filled with minerals quickly. The main ingredients are quick burial, water and minerals. Conditions during the flood were ideal for creating fossils.

So, the attractions are a kind of stealth creationist museum. They're not overtly creationist, but they tone down on actual information that might contradict a literal reading of Genesis, and they sell creationist information in their gift shop.

What makes the story perhaps even more interesting is how they've handled the attention they've received over that particular blog post - they deleted it. I guess they don't like people knowing their true motivation.

You may be asking yourself if the attractions really are creationist, or if maybe there's some other reason that that blog post showed up. I think it's pretty likely that the company really is creationist. Had it been a hacker or a rogue employee, with all the attention that this has received, you'd think the company would have replaced the blog post in question with a bit of an explanation, or at least a disclaimer that their attraction follows mainstream views of the history of the Earth. Their silence speaks volumes.

There's also the fact that they haven't yet disappeared the creationist language from the end of their Teachers Guide (pdf):

Creation Science

Dinosaur World hosts field trips for groups of homeschoolers and students from church schools that teach a literal interpretation of the biblical account of creation. The informative plaques in the park present general facts about the dinosaurs. There are very few “millions of years ago” references.

For more information about creation science, see Science Partners (consultants for home-school and other education programs)

especially their links page -

This whole affair is rather disappointing. For one, I was kind of hoping to go to the attraction in Glen Rose, even if I wasn't expecting a whole lot. Now, I'm not so sure I want to support creationists (and if I was, I'd go to the more entertaining Creation Evidence Museum). It's also just one more example of the dishonesty of creationists. Dinosaur World should just come out and admit their creationist sympathies. They'd still get ridiculed for it, but at least they'd have their integrity. Or better yet, they could go to the library and learn about the actual history of life on this planet.

(Hat tip to Pharyngula)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Texas Education - Follow Up to Science Instructional Materials Debate

TEA LogoWow. I think this might be my first blog entry about the Texas Board of Education where I'm not complaining about them (at least, not much).

I wrote a few days ago about the vote taking place today for the final adoption of supplemental science instructional materials. The worry was that given the past behavior of certain board members, there might be some last minute dealings that affected the adoption process. Of particular concern was the material submitted by International Databases, which explicitly supported Intelligent Design.

Well, the debating took place yesterday and the final vote today is now done. The end result was almost entirely good for our state's kids. The ID material was rejected outright, and most of the panel's recommendations were accepted.

The one snafu in the whole process was the recommendations of a particular member of the review panel, David Shormann, described by Steven Schafersman as "an aggressive and dogmatic Young Earth Creationist." Shormann suggested numerous changes to the biology materials from the publisher, Holt McDougal. TFN Insider has a copy of his recommendations, along with challenges to those recommendations from the publisher. As an example of the quality of Shormann's suggestions, here's one of them:

Whale evolution- 4 fossils is hardly a "transition". 400 intermediates would work. Also, research has shown that there is no reason to believe Pakicetus was ever anything but a land mammal. Also, no complete skeletons have been found, but the picture shows a full skeleton, which a major factual error. It is erroneous to include it in this example. Ambulocetus also shows a full skeleton, which is another major factual error, since no complete Ambulocetus skeletons have been found.

Here's how the publisher responded to that one:

There is no scientific basis to the assertion that hundreds of intermediates would be required to establish a transition in the fossil record. Four forms are shown here as a representative sample to illustrate the transition. There are, in fact, many more species in the fossil record linking the earliest forms in the lineage to modern cetaceans.

The text in this figure explicitly states that Pakicetus was a land-dwelling mammal. However, the panel's comment that "research has shown that there is no reaon to believe Pakicetus was ever anything but a land mammal" is not quite accurate. Research suggests that it was mainly a land animal living in seasonally flooded marshes and likely feeding in aquatic systems by wading and possibly paddling. The ear structure shows it as a taxa near the base of the lineage leading to modern whales. It should be no surprise that basal members of the group would not be aquatic animals, since cetacenas are derived from terrestrial ancestors.

It is true that no complete skeletons have been found of Pakicetus and Ambulocetus, but extensive sets of fossil evidence do exist. See the attached photo of fossil bones for a single specimen of Ambulocetus, which shows a nearly complete reconstruction of the skeleton (Source: website of Dr. Hans Thewissen, leading expert in cetacean evolution) In fact, complete skeletons are rarely found for any species in the fossil record, but it is not necessary to have a complete skeleton to make strong deductions about the form of an animanl, how it lived, and its evolutionary relationships.

As an indication of how some members of the board operate, the publisher was denied the opportunity to defend themselves against Shormann's comments. It also came out that Shormann's recommendations were never agreed to by the other members of the panel, even though one of the ultra-right wing SBOE members had claimed that all members of the panel had signed them off. So, one crank on the review panel had somehow gotten his recommendations to the publisher and into the SBOE debate about the educational materials.

Anyway, after a bit of discussion about what to do with Shormann's recommendations, a compromise was reached, whereby, in the words of Schafersman, "the biology materials can be adopted with the provision that Commissioner Robert Scott examine the eight passages and rewrite them in a way that is scientifically-accurate and satisfactory to the publisher." Schafersman wrote that he's talked with the commissioner, and that the commissioner intends to talk to appropriately qualified experts when resolving this issue.

So, it looks like the recent changes to the SBOE makeup due to the last elections have been good. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come, and we can hope for better results for our children in the future.

More Info:

Updated 2011-07-27 - Added the links to the NCSE articles.


Selling Out