Questionable Motives

January 31, 2010

How does an American liberal become an islamic jihadist in a distant land?

This eleven page story from the New York Times describes how Omar Hammami from Daphne, Alabama, has become a key figure in one of the world’s most ruthless Islamist insurgencies. That guerrilla army, known as the Shabab, is fighting to overthrow the fragile American-backed Somali government. The rebels are known for beheading political enemies, chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning women accused of adultery. With help from Al Qaeda, they have managed to turn Somalia into an ever more popular destination for jihadis from around the world.

So how does one go from being a smart, popular, and talented young person with a bright and promising future into an active jihadist half way across the world? Omar explains:

“They can’t blame it on poverty or any of that stuff,” he continued. “They will have to realize that it’s an ideology and it’s a way of life that makes people change. They will also have to realize that their political agendas need to be fixed.”

Dena, Omar’s older sister, offers this conflicted reply.

“I think it’s admirable to stand up for what you believe in, but it gets hairy when you affect the lives of others,” she wrote.

Hairy. That’s an interesting way to describe killing, maiming, beheading, and stoning others.

Hammami responded that he understood how strange it might seem to “fight for beliefs,” especially as he had once been a liberal (under the influence, he wrote, of the teacher he still referred to as “Mrs. Hirsch”). But he had come to the realization that “we don’t live in a utopian society.”

So what needs to change? Well a good starting point according to Omar is a recognition that, “Human rights,” he said in an audio recording released by the Shabab last July, is “the Western form of democracy which cannot be reconciled with Islam.”

And it is religious belief that is the more important of the two, according to far too many people. And therein lies a good part of the explanation. I think it is that kind of assumption – a willingness to reduce the secular rights and freedoms of people to be subordinate to some other ideology, some other belief set – that clears a path for the transition from responsible citizen to murderous terrorist, a perspective that is essential to have in order to allow people to continue to think well of themselves while they carry out everything from small acts of righteousness like voting to reduce civil rights of others to horrendous acts of brutality on behalf of some ‘higher cause’ against other people. I am disgusted that the salve offered by religious belief about so much unnecessary suffering is so easily excused by assuming belief that all of us are merely preset pieces within God’s preordained plan. “You take solace in knowing that it’s in God’s hands,” said Shafik, Omar’s islamic father sunken in his armchair, as Debra, Omar’s southern baptist mother nodded. “And there is nothing you could have done to change it.”

I think that’s a cop out. I think we need to educate people to better understand and appreciate that what makes individual freedom possible is our collective and primary allegiance to and respect for secular enlightened values of equality, dignity, and fairness. There are far too many of us who think allegiance to the state and the religious majority it supposedly represents is where our allegiance properly belongs, but this misdirection and misunderstanding is as much to blame for creating more Omars as is the religion of islam. As the push in Western democracies continues to promote government support for christian values, the greater is the danger we face that we will lose our freedoms. We need to wake up, get off the fence, and push back any encroachment by anyone who campaigns or acts against the primacy of secular values.

January 30, 2010

Does research back up the popular belief that children need both a mother and a father?

“The bottom line is that the science shows that children raised by two same-gender parents do as well on average as children raised by two different-gender parents. This is obviously inconsistent with the widespread claim that children must be raised by a mother and a father to do well,” Biblarz said.

Stacey concluded: “The family type that is best for children is one that has responsible, committed, stable parenting. Two parents are, on average, better than one, but one really good parent is better than two not-so-good ones. The gender of parents only matters in ways that don’t matter.”

This study is published in the February 2010 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

From ScienceDaily here.

Why does gay marriage need to be made legal?

Filed under: Equality,Gay Marriage,Homosexuality,Law — tildeb @ 8:22 pm

ROBERTSVILLE (Missouri) — When Highway Patrol Cpl. Dennis Engelhard was killed in a Christmas Day traffic accident near Eureka, the agency described him as single with no children.

Gov. Jay Nixon called on Missourians to pray for Engelhard’s family, who “lost a beloved son and brother.”

Neither statement tells the whole story.

Engelhard, hit by a car that lost control in the snow, was gay. He left behind a partner of nearly 15 years who was not mentioned in his obituary or official information released by the Highway Patrol, although members of the agency knew about his sexual orientation.

If Engelhard had been married, his spouse would be entitled to lifetime survivor’s benefits from the state pension system — more than $28,000 a year.

But neither the state Highway Patrol pension system nor Missouri law recognizes domestic partners.

A fraternal organization that provides benefits to the families of troopers killed in the line of duty is also unsure if it will help Engelhard’s partner.


January 29, 2010

Why can’t a Pope be honest?

Filed under: Catholic Church,Politics,Pope Benedict XVI,Religion,Secularism — tildeb @ 3:50 pm

Once again, our favourite Holy Father – affectionately known by many as Pope Palpatine – steps into the public domain and vilifies those who struggle to establish human rights and dignity into law by associating their secularism – their worldly concerns about real people undergoing real suffering – with a heavenly host of evils like indifference, relativism, hedonism, abuse of Creation, an enemy of the common good, a force against peace, an attack against the centrality of the human person, promoting misery like hunger, poverty, illiteracy, and a cause of unequal distribution of goods. In other words, in the mind of this Pope and his predecessors, secularism is the common enemy of The One True Faith, which just so happens to be the Catholic Church, of course, and the only spiritual institution that is FOR a kind of human rights and dignity agreeable to a misogynistic god.


A good thing that Pope Nazinger has properly identified the culprit that continues to wreak such havoc in the world… you know, the one that brought us those disgusting anti-church (read anti-god) Enlightenment values. And yes, the sum total of these worldly values established by law in liberal democracies is called secularism. And it is under attack by the promoters of superstition. Again.

So what is a good christian to do?

“In a world marked by religious indifference, and even by a growing aversion towards the Christian faith, a new, intense evangelization is necessary, not only among people that have never known the Gospel, but also among those in which Christianity has been spread and is a part of their history,” Pope Benedict said emphatically.

“While we are on the path towards full communion, we are called to offer a shared witness against the ever more complex challenges of our time, including secularization and indifference, relativism and hedonism, the delicate ethical themes regarding the beginning and end of life, the limits of science and technology, dialogue with other religious traditions,” Benedict XVI urged.

There’s saved, and then there is saved. I’m sure that’s what the call to shared witness means when discussing delicate ethical themes – not with evil secularists who are obviously the root cause of so many problems but with other religious traditions. There’s nothing quite like having a dialogue with a tradition to find consensus.  Oh, wait… The One True Faith doesn’t seek consensus. It seeks only a one way conversion to obedience… from those who hold wrong beliefs to those who hold right beliefs.  That’s it. That’s the whole point to the Church regarding humanity with anything close to respect and dignity. But why should these believers in religious totalitarianism have anything meaningful to say about ethics at all? Based on what? Dogma? Why should the religioun fascio be granted a platform to have their unenlightened say about anything at all concerning real people in the real world, never mind beginning and end of life issue and the limits of science and technology? The Church leadership consistently cares only about conversion and obedience, and they are not honest about having a meaningful dialogue with anyone knowledgeable about delicate ethical issues nor actually addressing, never mind solving, worldly problems. Such secular concerns have already been assigned proper blame, ridicule, and scorn by all Catholic Church authorities.

But rest assured: the one thing you won’t hear from any Pope before, during, or after intense evangelization is honesty.

Evidence for the power of natural selection: Robotic evolution. How so?

Filed under: Biology,Evolution,Science — tildeb @ 2:23 pm

Excerpt from PLoS Biology:

These examples of experimental evolution with robots verify the power of evolution by mutation, recombination, and natural selection. In all cases, robots initially exhibited completely uncoordinated behaviour because their genomes had random values. However, a few hundreds of generations of random mutations and selective reproduction were sufficient to promote the evolution of efficient behaviours in a wide range of environmental conditions. The ability of robots to orientate, escape predators, and even cooperate is particularly remarkable given that they had deliberately simple genotypes directly mapped into the connection weights of neural networks comprising only a few dozen neurons.

So far, evolutionary robotic experiments have been conducted mostly by computer scientists and engineers. Their primary interest has been to exploit the power of artificial evolution to automatically generate novel or better control systems and body shapes for specific problems. For example, the method of evolutionary robotics described in the context of cooperative behaviour has been successfully used to generate the control systems of a swarm of micro aerial vehicles that must locate rescuers and spread so as to establish a radio communication network based uniquely on signal strength of the rescuer mobile phones and of the robot emitters, a problem for which existing engineering solutions require the use of absolute geo-localisation information provided by GPS signals .

The use of real robot features are particularly useful in an evolutionary perspective where behaviour and ensuing complex physical interactions can significantly affect the interaction with the environment and performance. Therefore, evolutionary robotics also offers new opportunities to address issues such as sexual selection, division of labour, speciation, and, in general, the open-ended evolution of diversity and complexity in behavioural systems.

January 28, 2010

Is atheism fundamentally a Straw Man argument?

There is a reprehensible opinion piece posted online at the New York Times by Ross Douthat that supposedly offers us an “illustration of militant atheism’s symbiotic relationship with religious fundamentalism.”

Specifically, Douthat criticizes Dawkins for using Pat Roberston and his diatribe of god-sanctioned blame for the devastation suffered by Haiti as an example of a ‘real’ christian (read my previous comment on Dawkins’ article and why he argues as much). This is a failure of critical thinking by Douthat. By asserting that atheism requires a Straw Man approach, Douthat fails to comprehend Dawkins’ central argument: that a willingness by today’s theological apologists to grant any credence to a religious interpretation of some holy text that focuses on what is meek and mild without accounting for the parts that are vicious and genocidal is intellectually dishonest.

Douthat’s counter argument that quotes New Testament passages to negate Robertson’s interpretation is exactly Dawkins’ point: one biblical reference is not any closer to being true or accurate than the other. The only difference is that Robertson’s interpretation takes into account the capriciousness and violence of the christian god, making such an opinion based on biblical interpretation more ‘real’ in a christian vein than one like Douthat’s which simply ignores the Old Testament’s accounts of a god that is unconscionably cruel and immoral in favour of specific passages that casts Jesus as benevolent and forgiving. Let us all remember, however, that it is from Jesus we first gain a biblical account for eternal damnation… hardly one that enhances the CV of hope and love people so often attribute to Jesus’ message.

I have read repeated criticisms of Dawkins and other New Atheists as creating a Straw Man religious argument, that is to say, that these atheists create a Robertson-ian god as the one that defines the christian god and then tear it down by revealing its obvious malevolence. But the god worshiped by most christians, this argument points out,  is not this god – the one believed in by some fringe and/or extreme fundamentalists as the one so vehemently opposed by ‘militant’ and ‘strident’ atheists – but one that is actually benevolent and wise and compassionate. The faulty conclusion then held by so many moderate religious apologists is that Dawkins and his cohorts aren’t criticizing their religious beliefs but merely the ones held by hard core fundamentalists.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

New Atheists care about what is true. They care about knowledge – about what’s probably accurate, probably correct, probably true. They care about coming to a better understanding of the natural world, of promoting honest intellectual and scientific inquiry. They also respect the rights and freedoms and dignity of individuals within a secular society. They are concerned about any influence that intentionally impedes any of these cares, and there is no greater single impediment than the false certainty of religious belief. But rather than criticize specific people’s beliefs, the New Atheists’ approach is to enter the public forum and expose unjustified beliefs – regardless whether the unjustified belief is religious, superstitious, supernatural, or just poor thinking. To do this, New Atheists point out why the unjustified foundational belief of a Robertson is no different in quality of belief than someone who insists on holding a Jesus is Love assumption. Nor is there any difference in the unjustified foundational beliefs upon which the complimentary and alternative medicine industry has been built. Belief in the supernatural, whether it be god or evil spirits or the memory of water, cannot be honest knowledge: because such ideas are beyond our ability to be examined in the natural world under natural conditions subject to natural forces and natural efficacy all which can be naturally measured, supernatural belief cannot be justified by any other measure other than more assumption and assertion. Assumption and assertion that cannot by definition undergo natural testing and rational criticism because it is supernatural is immune from honest critical inquiry. Asserted beliefs are assumed to be true because they are believed to be true. That is not a justification for the truth value of the belief but an excuse, an allowance, a willingness to suspend critical inquiry. So it doesn’t matter whether or not it is a Pat Robertson’s unjustified belief or an Ayatollah’s unjustified belief or a Pope Benedict XVI’s unjustified belief or a Sarah Palin’s unjustified belief – the common denominator pointed out by New Atheists like Dawkins is that supernatural beliefs in their entirety are equally unjustified.

When a Pat Robertson makes another disparaging public statement about suffering people deserving their suffering and backs it up with theology, it is an opportunity and not a requirement for atheists to once again point out that if not for the acceptance of the moderately religious, then the foundation of unjustified religious beliefs would be treated with the same scorn and disgust aimed at Robertson for his outrageous truth claims. Robertson and his ilk have an audience because there is widespread acceptance by religious apologists to excuse, allow, and suspend legitimate criticism in matters of religious belief. That’s a public problem and it requires a public solution.

Is unjustified belief in the supernatural and all its various promotions in the public domain in need of public criticism? My answer is an unequivocal Yes. The New Atheists like Dawkins don’t just say a meek and mild yes to this question in the privacy of their own minds; they DO something about it by bringing their arguments and expertise into the public domain to tackle the problem of a Robertson, an Ayatollah, a Pope, a Palin, head on.

So the answer to the title is No, atheism is not fundamentally a Straw Man argument but a call to action, a growing movement that will continue to challenge anyone who doesn’t care about what is true but what is unjustifiably believed to be true, and who would allow unjustified beliefs the right to take a place at any table in the public domain.

January 27, 2010

But isn’t evolution ‘only’ a theory?

Filed under: Evolution,Medicine,Science — tildeb @ 2:50 pm

Not in medicine as an applied science; it is a basic and necessary understanding.

A recent series of article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) discusses the role of evolutionary biology in modern medicine. The authors collectively make a forceful point – medicine is an applied science. It is based upon a number of basic sciences, and one of those basic sciences is evolution.

Many examples in medicine provide a compelling case that evolutionary principles are important to understanding populations, genetics, infectious disease, diet, and other issues of public health – in diagnosis, treatment, and research. Therefore, the authors argue, evolution is an important topic for medical professionals to understand .

Increasing the basic science standards for medical students can only help the goals of science-based medicine, and I am glad to see that evolutionary biology is being recognized as the core basic science that it is.

From Steve’s post Evolution in Medicine at Science-Based Medicine

January 26, 2010

Is this what is meant by religions promoting fairness and equality?

Filed under: Christianity,Faith,God,Law,Liberty,Religion,rights and freedoms — tildeb @ 3:28 pm

To hear many Christian apologists, one might think that it was their religion that championed such enlightenment values as equality and freedom to the fore of Western civilization. That’s a lie. Christianity has had to be dragged kicking and screaming away from its righteous and pious grasp on political power and beaten into submission by law to take its place in the modern secular liberal democracy. But the fight is not yet over.

From Britain comes this appeal by the Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter and Chair of the Church Legislation Advisory Service, and Rt Revd Peter Forester, Bishop of Chester. Note that they are all men. This appeal is regarding the Equity Bill that threatens to subject the Church of England to – gasp – the same kind of equality ‘enforced’ on businesses and public services. Shocking, I know. Let’s read how these men phrase their concerns regarding the secular value of equality their faith supposedly champions:

“This Monday, as Peers meet to consider the Government’s Equality Bill, they will be asked to vote on an issue of great importance to Christians and all people of faith. At stake is how we, as a liberal democracy based on Christian values, strike the right balance between the rights and responsibilities of different groups to be protected from harassment and unfair discrimination and the rights of churches and religious organisations to appoint and employ people consistently with their guiding doctrine and ethos.

“The Christian Churches, alongside many other faiths, support the Equality Bill’s wider aims in promoting fairness in society and improving redress for those who have suffered unjust treatment.”

“However, unless the present drafting of the Bill is changed, churches and other faiths will find themselves more vulnerable to legal challenge than under the current law.

Note how these religious men assume that the secular liberal democracy is based not on secular values and secular law, which is the truth, but on this ill-defined notion of ‘Christian values’. The truth is already being twisted here. Then they ask that we recognize that individual equality should be submerged in favour of rights and freedoms for ‘groups’, a set of rights for these groups that are in need of ‘balance,’ which is code for special rights for special groups like…. oh, I don’t know, maybe churches because they are very special and deserve exemption from anything as dirty and mundane as a level legal playing field. Something as dirty and mundane as equal legal rights is properly viewed to be harassment and discrimination! In the minds of these men, not being granted special dispensation to maintain discriminatory practices is… wait for it… discrimination! But let’s be clear, they reassure us, this church is all for promoting fairness and equality… in a ‘wider’ sense… so wide, in fact, that churches and other special interest groups under the banner of religious belief can avoid the equality law altogether so that they can continue unimpeded to discriminate all they want, exempt from prosecution under secular law.

I think it’s time to get ready for more kicking and screaming because these biased, bigoted, bullying, and chauvinistic theologies are not going to ‘champion’ any advancement in secular law that promotes equality and respect of individuals; they will do as they have always done and fight such progress tooth and nail.

Christianity according to Dawkins: a haven for apologetic hypocrisy?

We know what caused the catastrophe in Haiti. It was the bumping and grinding of the Caribbean Plate rubbing up against the North American Plate: a force of nature, sin-free and indifferent to sin, un-premeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery.

The religious mind, however, restlessly seeks human meaning in the blind happenings of nature. As with the Indonesian tsunami, which was blamed on loose sexual morals in tourist bars; as with Hurricane Katrina, which was attributed to divine revenge on the entire city of New Orleans for harboring a lesbian comedian, and as with other disasters going back to the famous Lisbon earthquake and beyond, so Haiti’s tragedy must be payback for human sin. The Rev. Pat Robertson sees the hand of God in the earthquake, wreaking terrible retribution for a pact that the long-dead ancestors of today’s Haitians made with the devil, to help rid them of their French masters.

Needless to say, milder-mannered faith-heads are falling over themselves to disown Pat Robertson, just as they disowned those other pastors, evangelists, missionaries and mullahs at the time of the earlier disasters.

What hypocrisy.

Loathsome as Robertson’s views undoubtedly are, he is the Christian who stands squarely in the Christian tradition. The agonized theodiceans who see suffering as an intractable ‘mystery’, or who ‘see God’ in the help, money and goodwill that is now flooding into Haiti , or (most nauseating of all) who claim to see God ‘suffering on the cross’ in the ruins of Port-au-Prince, those faux-anguished hypocrites are denying the centrepiece of their own theology. It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here.

Read the rest of Dawkins’ On Faith article here.

January 25, 2010

What is Canada’s mental health strategy? Combat Satan!

The new Canadian Mental Health Commission is “a wonderful opportunity” for Christians to be involved in dealing with one of the most pressing issues in our society, according to one of its members.

Chris Summerville is one of 11 non-government members of the new Commission’s board of directors.

Summerville said he hopes to bring a holistic approach to the issue that addresses body, mind, soul and spirit. Summerville said one of his goals is to “bring the presence of Christ” into the different perspectives that will be present in the Commission.

There has been a “prejudice against religion” on the part of some mental health professionals, he said, and “historically clinicians have been reluctant to discuss religion with their clients.”

Satan will use any opportunity to attack, including mental illness, said Summerville, but mental illness and spiritual should not be equated. Summerville said churches often don’t do a good job of dealing with mental illness because they tend to “treat it as a spiritual problem exclusively.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the formation of the commission on August 31. It grew out of a study by a Senate committee chaired by Senator Michael Kirby, who will chair the new Commission. The Commission’s board of directors includes 11 non-government experts and six government representatives. The Commission will receive $10 million in start-up funds until mid-2009 and then $15 million a year after that.

From Canadianchristianity’s website here.

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