left biblioblography: March 2014

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Rattling The Cages Of The Anthrocentric Anti-Intellectuals

Cross posted @ the Atheist Oasis


I’m tired of ignorance held up as inspiration, where vicious anti-intellectualism is considered a positive trait, and where uninformed opinion is displayed as fact.”
Phil Plait

Honestly, I have to admit that items like this fill me with a childish glee:

Cosmic terror: Why Neil deGrasse Tyson has religious fundamentalists so freaked

The new Cosmos TV series airing on Fox is a worthy reboot of Carl Sagan’s original. Following in Sagan’s footsteps, host Neil deGrasse Tyson takes viewers on a voyage through the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond, showing how our sun is just one star out of a hundred billion in the majestic spiral of the Milky Way galaxy, and even the Milky Way itself is a speck in the observable universe. As in the original series, he compresses the history of the universe into a single year, showing that on that scale, the human species emerges only in the last few seconds before midnight on December 31.

Sagan’s Cosmos was due for an update, and not just because our computer graphics are better. Since the original series aired, we’ve sent robotic rovers to Mars, sampling its rocks and exploring its history. We’ve detected hundreds of alien planets outside the solar system, finding them by the slight gravitational wobble they cause in their home stars, or by the brief dips in light as they pass across the star’s face as seen from Earth. We’ve found the Higgs boson, the elusive and long-theorized particle that endows everything else with mass. We’ve discovered that the expansion of the Universe which began with the Big Bang is accelerating, driven by a mysterious force called dark energy. All these scientific advances deserve to be recognized and celebrated.

The story of Cosmos is also the story of human beings. For the vast majority of our history as a species, we were wanderers, small hunter-gatherer bands. Civilization is a recent innovation, arising within the last few thousand years, and science is more recent still, appearing only in the last few hundred. But in just those few short centuries, we’ve made dramatic strides, from wooden sailing ships to space shuttles, bloodletting to bionic limbs, quill pens to the Internet. We’ve drawn back the curtain on ancient mythologies and glimpsed the true immensity of time and space. Compared to that vastness, we’re unimaginably small and insignificant; yet we possess an intelligence and a power of understanding that, as far as we still know, is unique among all the countless worlds. As Carl Sagan said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

However, not everyone accepts this as a positive development. There have always been those who prefer a small, comprehensible cosmos, with human beings placed firmly at the center. The religious belief systems that posit such a universe were our first, fumbling attempts to explain the origin of the world, and they rarely share power gladly. Those who clash against conventional wisdom, who dare to suggest that the cosmos holds wonders undreamed of in conventional mythology, have always found themselves in grave peril from the gatekeepers of dogma who presume to dictate the thoughts human beings should be permitted to think.

The first episode of the new Cosmos graphically illustrates this with the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century monk who argued that the sun was a star like all the rest, and that every star had its own planets and its own living beings. Bruno wasn’t a scientist, as the show makes clear: his cosmological views flowed from his mystical, pantheist theology, not from evidence. But that made no difference to the Inquisition, which imprisoned and tortured Bruno, and when he refused to recant, burned him at the stake. His statue still stands in the Campo dei Fiori where he was executed, facing the Vatican as if accusing those who murdered him.

There’s also Bruno’s contemporary, Galileo Galilei, the astronomer who discovered the moons of Jupiter and argued for the heliocentric solar system. As a reward for his revolutionary scientific work, he was judged suspect of heresy by the Inquisition and forced to abjure his own work under threat of torture; his books were banned and he was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. The story of Galileo’s persecution is so well-known that I’d hesitate to retell it yet again, if it weren’t for the fact that church apologists like Jay Wesley Richards are still defending and soft-pedaling it.

In fact, even Bruno’s torture and execution still have their defenders, like the creationist site Evolution News and Views, or professional outrage-monger William Donohue of the Catholic League, who ludicrously claimed that the Spanish Inquisition was a good thing. A Catholic cardinal, Angelo Sodano, likewise said in 2000 that the inquisitors who condemned Bruno “had the desire to serve freedom and promote the common good and did everything possible to save his life.”

And from Carl Sagan’s original series, one more cautionary tale: the story of Hypatia of Alexandria, a philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who lived in fourth-century Egypt in the waning days of the Roman Empire. Christianity was on the rise and bent on stamping out pagan ideas, and Hypatia was despised by the local bishop, Cyril of Alexandria, who hated her for her friendship with the governor and the different worldview she represented. Despite the personal danger she was in, she continued to study and to teach until, one day, she was assaulted in the street by a mob of Christian fanatics who dragged her from her chariot and hacked her to death with tiles. Her works were destroyed, her books lost. Cyril was made a saint. (Hypatia’s life and death were dramatized in the 2009 film Agora, starring Rachel Weisz.)

But this kind of persecution isn’t just a relic of ancient history. While we’re thankfully past the days when scientists could be stoned in the streets or imprisoned by church tribunals, the anti-science spirit is alive and virulent in the world today, waving away facts that disagree with its ideology and seeking to silence or intimidate those who speak inconvenient truths.

We can see this most clearly with one of the most urgent issues confronting the human species, the danger of global climate change. While it’s a matter of uncontroversial fact among scientists that the burning of fossil fuels is changing the Earth’s climate in perilous ways, climate science is far less accepted among the public, driven by fierce resistance from those who have an ideological reason for disbelieving it.

The renowned climate scientist Michael Mann, whose work forms the basis for United Nations climate reports and the famous “hockey stick” graph that illustrates global temperature rises, has been the subject of continual harassment by conservative legislators, including frivolous subpoenas by Ken Cuccinelli, the former right-wing attorney general of Virginia, accusing him of scientific fraud. In other localities, the right-wing response to climate change has reached epic levels of head-in-the-sand denial, such as when the North Carolina legislature passed a lawforbidding science to be used in forecasting future sea-level rise.

Religious groups have joined the banner of climate-change denial as well, calling the environmental movement a pagan religion and arguing that global warming is a nonissue because the Bible says God won’t allow the Earth to change too much. When moderate evangelical Richard Cizik argued that Christians should devote more time to environmental issues, he was pressured and eventually forced to resign his vice-presidential position in the National Association of Evangelicals by religious-right groups who said that talking about global warming would “shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time.”

The theory of evolution is, if anything, even more convincingly established than climate change—if only because it has the benefit of over a hundred years of diligent scientific work in support of it—yet it too runs into roadblocks of resistance from religious conservatives.

A Pew poll from last year found that a majority of Republican voters are creationists, and church-state separation groups routinely hear reports of creationists working as teachers in public schools and preaching their beliefs in the classroom. Just last month, Bill Nye the Science Guy publicly debated Ken Ham, a creationist who believes the universe is only 6,000 years old—which is, for the record, considerably younger than the oldest cities on the planet—and who wants to build a theme park dedicated to the genetically and geologically impossible proposition that every species on the planet is descended from just two individuals who sailed on Noah’s ark.

But while future generations will suffer the consequences of climate change, and rejecting evolution deprives us of a keystone in the scientific understanding of our place in the world, the deadly consequences of the anti-scientific mindset can most clearly be seen in the anti-vaccination movement.

Thanks to the unsubstantiated fear-mongering of celebrities with no medical or scientific credentials, vaccination rates are declining and herd immunity has weakened—with the entirely predictable consequence that highly contagious diseases like measles and whooping cough have reemerged, including in cities and countries that had long been free of them. Vaccination is one of the simplest, safest and most effective medical interventions ever invented, and the diseases it prevents are killers (yes, even chicken pox). There’s no reason whatsoever why people (mostly children) should still suffer and die from them, other than a foolish and tragic lack of trust in scientific knowledge.

These stories go on and on, from antichoice groups pushing the pseudoscientific myth that IUDs and other contraceptive methods cause abortions or spreading falsehoods about the health risks of abortion, to the gun paranoia lobby demanding prohibitions on using public money to study gun violence. But no matter the field or the discovery, the ideologically driven rejection of science diminishes and impoverishes us in ways even beyond the immediate, practical harm it causes.

Science is the most powerful tool ever invented for the expansion of our intellectual horizon, and even besides its concrete benefits, it’s done us the immeasurable service of helping reveal our place in a vast, ancient and wondrous universe. Through following the scientific method, we’ve learned that we are congealed stardust, the heavy elements of our bodies forged in supernovae; we’ve learned that we were shaped by evolution, our DNA reaching back in an unbroken chain of descent to the origin of life on Earth, expanding outward to bind us to every other living organism in a tree of kinship.

These profound revelations ought to have far more power to move and inspire us than any human-centered mythology — and they ought to expand our moral horizons as well, by showing us our fragility and fundamental equality at the genetic and cognitive level. While science can be misused to create tools of terrible destruction, there have been at least as many times when it resolutely refused to confirm popular prejudices, and so it’s no surprise that it’s so often hated by regressive, superstitious, authoritarian world views both religious and political.

Other than my perception of science as a tool in and of itself, a glorious point.

On a personal note, I recall when my family moved from a bad part of Union City into the pretty suburbs of Pleasanton. Thinking, “oh, but this place has got to be different”, I proceeded to show off the intellect I had had to go to great lengths to hide in my prior environment.

Boy, was I wrong. It resulted in some boyish bruises and more lessons hard learned.

My somewhat anecdotal point is this: tribalism has outlived its usefulness. Perhaps at some point in the collective gestalt/conscience of our species will rise past these inept, insane, unnecessary defense mechanisms. How many other children in the world have been harassed, bullied, horrendously mistreated, for the innocent crime of being smart? It’s a pre-programmed response in this country now, that dates back to whom knows when.

And that’s a whole lotta work for those of us who understand that – because if the bleat goes on, so does the struggle. And educating others can be exhausting sometimes.

Till the next post, then.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Accomodationists Across The Pond

Cross posted @ the Atheist Oasis

Theocracy‘A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything’ – Nietzsche

In a world where the faithful are rewarded for their willful ignorance, this is unsurprising news:

Islamic law is adopted by British legal chiefs

Islamic law is to be effectively enshrined in the British legal system for the first time under guidelines for solicitors on drawing up “Sharia compliant” wills.

Under ground-breaking guidance, produced by The Law Society, High Street solicitors will be able to write Islamic wills that deny women an equal share of inheritances and exclude unbelievers altogether.

The documents, which would be recognized by Britain’s courts, will also prevent children born out of wedlock – and even those who have been adopted – from being counted as legitimate heirs.

Anyone married in a church, or in a civil ceremony, could be excluded from succession under Sharia principles, which recognize only Muslim weddings for inheritance purposes.

Nicholas Fluck, president of The Law Society, said the guidance would promote “good practice” in applying Islamic principles in the British legal system.

  And if that wasn’t sufficient to cause a sputter of outrage, likely this will:

Christian beliefs should be 'accommodated' under law – top judge

Christians with traditional beliefs about issues such as homosexuality should be given “reasonable accommodation” in law, Britain’s most senior woman judge has said.

Lady Hale, deputy president of the Supreme Court, said the UK is “less respectful” towards people with religious views than other countries, despite its long Christian traditions.

She questioned whether the current “hard line” approach to discrimination claims, based on EU law, could be sustained in the long term.

Her comments, in a lecture at Yale law School in the US, follow a series of cases in which British Christians claimed to be suffering religious discrimination but lost their cases.

They include Shirley Chaplin, a nurse from Exeter, who was banned from wearing a cross at work as well as Gary McFarlane, a former Relate counsellor, and Lillian Ladele, a marriage registrar, who both lost their jobs after resisted performing tasks they said went against their religious beliefs.

Belief is no commodity: its very ubiquity renders it meaningless. Yet its inflated value has been drummed into us from birth, another legacy of saturation. Should we then respect Aztec worshippers rights to sacrifice virgins? Why give preferential treatment then?

‘That’s the way it is’, by the way, should not be considered a sufficient answer.

As atheist, all I ask for, is that everyone be treated equally. Which dictates something of an ‘in for a penny in for pound’ dictum.

And since it is too much to ask for, apparently we’ll have to fight all the harder for it.

Till the next post, then.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Fractured Fairy Tales – Keeping An Even Keel

Cross posted @ the Atheist Oasisnoahs-gunboat

“And why does this same God tell me how to raise my children when he had to drown his?”
― Robert G. Ingersoll, Some Mistakes of Moses

Let me go on the record (for the nth time), that it’s ridiculous that all these idiots are getting puffed up over specific renditions of a fucking fairy tale:

Darren Aronofsky's Noah faces ban in Muslim countries

Darren Aronofksy's Noah could be banned across large swaths of the Middle East and parts of north Africa for contravening Islamic rules on the depiction of prophets, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The fantasy epic, which stars Russell Crowe as the biblical patriarch, has already been refused a licence by censors in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Egypt could well follow suit, with Jordan and Kuwait also expected to outlaw the film on religious grounds.

"Al-Azhar renews its rejection to [sic] the screening of any production that characterises Allah's prophets and messengers and the companions of the Prophet [Muhammad]," said one of Egypt's leading Sunni Muslim institutes in a statement. "Therefore, al-Azhar announces the prohibition of the upcoming film about Allah's messenger Noah – peace be upon him." The institute, which is influential but does not have the final say on censorship, added that the movie "contradicts the stature of prophets and messengers ... and antagonises the faithful".

Noah is currently due to open in Egypt on 26 March, two days ahead of its US debut. The film has already caused controversy amid reports that US fundamentalist Christian groups were dismayed at Aronofksy's decision to produce a loose adaptation of the Bible story rather than a literal retelling. Studio Paramount, which is desperate to court religious filmgoers, last week issued a statement making clear that the movie is not intended as a direct translation.

Aronofsky famously gave up final cut on Noah in return for a $160m budget. But he nevertheless appears to have convinced executives to show his version of the film in cinemas, rather than the reported half a dozen alternative cuts put together by the studio in an attempt to keep churchgoers happy.

"The controversy is all about the unknown and about the fear of people trying to exploit a Bible story," Aronofsky told Variety this week. "It will all disappear as soon as people start seeing the film."

The director of Black Swan and The Wrestler hinted he was likely to return to smaller, more intimate movies after the travails he has faced bringing Noah to cinemas.

"I love big movies and small movies and television," said the film-maker. "I love storytelling, but I'm not going to make another [nine-figure-budget film] tomorrow. I need a break."

Oh wow. So let’s get this straight: religious idiots are carrying on about details and accuracy in a demonstrably unproven fairy tale? There is absolutely no evidence that the ‘great deluge’ ever occurred (a few stories in different cultures doesn’t count – it only proves that interesting stories travel, and/or that our ancestors didn’t know how to interpret fossils), let alone any proof that all the animals across the world inexorably marched to the Middle East, nor that any of the people involved in this ‘event’ actually existed. In fact, I find the show ‘Gilligan’s Island’ to be far more accurate and realistic than any campfire stories told by some Israelite shepherds centuries ago.

It’s well past time our species outgrew these kindergarten nonsenses. Religion is Man’s effort to force his own shadow upon the universe.

Till the next post, then.


Sunday, March 09, 2014

More On The Madness Of Muslims: More Comic Book Nonsense

Cross posted @ the Atheist Oasis

jesusandmodepicition“Man, you straight outta a comic book” – Jim Kelly, Enter The Dragon

  This is more pathetically hysterical than irritating:

Malaysia censors Ultraman comic for 'irresponsible use of the word Allah'

Malaysia has banned a translation of an Ultraman comic book after it referred to the popular Japanese superhero as "Allah", authorities said.

The home ministry, which is in charge of domestic security and censorship, said the Malay-language edition of Ultraman, The Ultra Power contains elements that can undermine public order and morals.

In a statement, it said Ultraman was idolised by many children and equating him with Allah would "confuse Muslim youth and damage their faith".

It further warned that irresponsible use of the word could provoke Muslims and threaten public safety.

The Malaysian government is embroiled in an intense court battle with the Catholic church over the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims, in a case that has raised religious tensions in the majority Muslim country.

Ultraman is a fictional Japanese superhero who fights skyscraper-sized "Kaiju" (monsters), and first appeared on television in the 1960s. The comic gained popularity worldwide, including in Malaysia, where versions dubbed in Malay were screened on TV and comic books translated into the national language.

The home ministry said other Ultraman comic books were unaffected and that only this edition was banned.

The decision has led to widespread ridicule among Malaysian Facebook and Twitter users – including from the youth and sports minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, who asked: "Apa salah Ultraman? (What wrong did Ultraman do?)"

The controversial line can be seen in an image available on social media that describes Ultraman: "He is considered, and respected, as Allah or the Elder to all Ultra heroes."

The ban is enforced under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, a much-criticised law that gives authorities wide-ranging powers over printed material, which was also used to bar the Catholic church from using "Allah" in its publications.

The home ministry in 2007 threatened to revoke the publishing permit of the Herald, the Catholic church's newspaper, for using the word in its Malay edition, leading to a seven-year legal battle that has raised religious tensions.

The church is seeking leave from the nation's highest court to challenge a lower court's ruling last October that sides with the government.

The tussle has led to a wider struggle over whether the word can be used by non-Muslims in their translated scripture or other practices of worship.

Seriously? A comic book? Undermining the moral fabric of society? Where have we heard this hoary old chestnut before?

This is more of a head-shaker than a knee-slapper, though. If your kids are that easily influenced by a comic book, a song, or a movie, then you’re obviously not doing that great a job as a parent. Another by-product of overpopulation coupled with religious nonsense: too many people in the world leads to piss-poor parenting.

The only question left is: will this item become a collectible? Should we go out and buy a bunch of these bad boys, in hopes of making bank a decade later?

Likely not. But one can hope.

Till the next post, then.


Saturday, March 01, 2014

More On The Madness Of Muslims – Of Djinn And Sheikhs

Cross posted @ the Atheist Oasis

The Koran shows every sign of being thrown together by human beings, as do all the other holy books. – Christopher Hitchens

And people wonder why I have no sympathy for the Palestinians. Like it’s not enough they strap bombs to their children and start chopping up their women for imagined or minor slights – kids are dying because of some superstitious garbage.

Palestinian teen dies in exorcism

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — “Are you a male or a female? A Muslim or a nonbeliever? If you are a nonbeliever, raise the index finger of your left hand. If you are a Muslim, raise the index finger of your right hand!” Sheikh Abu Harith screamed the words in Ghada’s ear as she lay in one of the beds in his clinic. He was talking to what he thought was a djinn, a supernatural creature in Islamic tradition, which was possessing her.

He placed a recording device next to her head that played Quranic verses, while her mother and brother stood next to her. Then, Abu Harith asked the djinn to leave Ghada’s body through one of the toes on her left foot. Indeed, her finger moved, though Abu Harith insisted that Ghada was not the one moving her finger, but rather the djinn controlling her body. The girl was still conscious and once she got out of bed, she was asked if she was OK and she nodded.

“I brought my daughter here because she has been constantly hearing words of apostasy and strange noises,” her family told Al-Monitor. They attended the so-called exorcism session of Ghada in one of the Islamic medicine clinics in Gaza City on the afternoon of Feb. 16. Ghada entered and left the clinic in good health.

She died in front of her family

However, not everyone is as lucky as Ghada. Israa Zourob, 17, died at the hands of one of these "therapists" on Feb. 2 in front of her parents and brother. Abu Khalil al-Zamili forced her to drink a liter of water mixed with half a kilogram of salt to expel the djinn that was possessing her.

Um Youssef Zourob, described the moment of her daughter’s death: “I do not know whether my daughter died of asphyxiation when [Zamili] was trying to make her drink salt water, or of salt poisoning. All I saw was that my daughter’s face turned blue as he shoved water and salt down her throat,” she recounted, tears streaming down her face.

“We bought him half a kilo of salt, which he dissolved in a liter of water in front of us after reading some verses. I do not think they were from the Quran, since he was talking in a fast and incomprehensible manner. He then asked her to drink the solution. When Israa complained of the salinity, he forced her to drink it with the help of her brother, and then she stopped moving,” Um Youssef added. The victim's father, Mahmoud Zourob, said, “My daughter suffered from health problems for several months and we did all kinds of medical tests, but no results appeared, and this is why we sought the help of the sheikh.” Weeping, he continued, “My daughter had many dreams. She wanted to become a doctor.”

Before the judiciary

Al-Monitor met with a police officer at the investigation department in Rafah. The officer said that nine months ago, the police warned the sheikh against practicing this kind of therapy, but he did not comply, leading to disaster. The officer noted that the sheikh holds a master's degree in "Sharia sciences." Al-Monitor tried to meet with the sheikh after he was arrested, but the police refused and ended the interview, noting that meeting him would require authorization from the police station in Gaza City. A police spokesperson in Gaza City, Ayyoub Abu Shaar, said that it is usually difficult for these sheikhs to open a clinic without a license, which requires certain conditions.

“The sheikh who was behind the death of the girl is being held for questioning. The public prosecutor’s office has presented overwhelming evidence against him, and he now awaits the court’s ruling,” said Abu Shaar. He explained that the police had already launched several crackdowns against these practitioners.

Contrary to law

Zourob was not the first victim of spiritual therapy aiming to break magic spells or expell a djinn, according to a study conducted by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Sabira al-Athamna died of severe injuries after being beaten by a sheikh trying to force the djinn out of her. She was paralyzed and fell into a coma before her death in 1998. The study showed that Quranic therapy clinics and herbal medicine have spread to all the cities of the Gaza Strip. Visits to these clinics have become more common than psychiatric treatment. According to the study, these practices violate Article 3 of the Health Practitioner Law, which reads: “It is prohibited for any person to practice, pretend to or show readiness to practice medicine, whether directly or implicitly, unless authorized to do so.”

The Quran is not a book of medicine

Dr. Haidar Abu Sharekh blames a lack of health education and failed political intervention for the proliferation of medical practice by religious figures.

“I have treated at least three cases of bruises and wounds caused by severe beatings by these sheikhs under the pretext of expelling djinns and breaking magic spells,” he told Al-Monitor. He asserted that these sheikhs persuaded the patients that they are possessed by a djinn from the demon world, affecting them and their relatives and toying with their minds.

“Every disease, whether psychological or physical, needs to be diagnosed first before the patient receives any treatment or drinks anything. This phenomenon is rampant in the Gaza Strip, because of the failure of concerned parties to control it. Add to that the lack of health education, which makes the patient go to the sheikh before even heading to the hospital,” Abu Sharekh added. He believes that the solution to this problem requires concerted efforts by the Ministries of Health and Interior and media circles. He added that the Prophet Muhammad never said that the Quran was a book of medicine, but rather there are verses in the Quran promoting education and fighting ignorance.


Sheikh Abu Harith, whose clinic is not far from that of Dr. Abu Sharekh, said that he has no license for his clinic, given the absence of a law governing alternative medicine. Despite this, his clinic is well-known and always filled with patients, some of whom are government officials. He stressed the importance of experience, knowledge and controls when practicing this profession.

“There are some charlatans aiming to earn money or pretending to cure people by using the Quran, but the truth is that they are practicing sorcery and quackery,” he said. Regarding Zourob's death, he said that they usually make the patient drink water and salt to get them to vomit, so that the stomach expels the magic. But the sheikh treating the girl gave her too large a quantity of this solution, causing her to be poisoned and proving that he is ignorant and a charlatan.

  Every exorcist is an ignorant charlatan: a purveyor of spiritual penny dreadfuls, a con man clown waving banners and throwing water everywhere with no effect, a paranoid psychopath who believes the shadows hungrily come for humanity, an adult who cannot outgrow his comic book cosmology.

It is painful to watch sometimes.

Till the next post then.