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  • Susan Jacoby: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

    Susan Jacoby: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
    Excellent overview of the prominent role that freethinkers (atheists, agnostics, and deists) played in America's past, including the founding of our country, the abolition of slavery, and giving women the vote. (*****)

  • Sam Harris: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

    Sam Harris: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
    One of the most frightening books I've ever read. Among numerous other topics, Harris argues that it is almost inevitable that atomic weapons will fall into the hands of religious radicals -- if not terrorist, then perhaps a nation with religious radicals in charge. (****)

  • Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

    Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion
    Highly recommended. Despite what you might have heard, Richard Dawkins does not spew venom in this book. Flames do not shoot out when you open it, nor does bile drip from the pages. Far from being an hysterical, rabid diatribe against religion, it is a quite measured, logical explanation of the evidence against God and why religion should not be treated with such reverence. (*****)

  • Daniel C. Dennett: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

    Daniel C. Dennett: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
    I highly recommend this book for anyone who is about to embark on studying religion and atheism. Why do people enjoy music? Why do we like to socialize? Why do we sometimes become violent? Science has attempted to answer each of these questions. Dennett proposes that science attempt to answer another: Why are people religious? Even if one of the religions is true, that still means that billions of people believe religions that are not true. Why? What is it about our evolutionary past that makes us willing to believe? (*****)

  • Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

    Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
    Why wasn't Europe invaded by ships carrying gun-wielding Native Americans or Africans, rather than the other way around? This is an excellent explanation of why some societies became quite advanced, while others remained primitive. (*****)

  • Richard P. Feynman: "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character

    Richard P. Feynman: "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character
    Very entertaining and thought-provoking collection of anecdates from the life of perhaps the best-known physicist of the 20th century. (****)

  • Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack S. Cohen: The Science of Discworld
    You'll have to visit Amazon UK to locate this one. This book explains science concepts by comparing them to the decidedly different physical laws of the Discworld series. (****)
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Religions, Cults, and Miracles

December 01, 2009

"Letting Go of God" on Showtime

Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" will be airing on Showtime, Showtime 2, and Showtime Showcase.

Here's the description:

Actress and comic Julia Sweeney chronicles her tumultuous journey of faith from lapsed Catholic recommitting to the church to Buddhist, New Age mystic, and finally atheist whose philosophical transformation upsets her family in this fascinating one-woman stage show that follows up her acclaimed "God Said, 'Ha!'"

Here's the schedule:

  • Dec 2, 10:45 AM (Showtime Showcase)
  • Dec 2, 9:35 PM (Showtime Showcase)
  • Dec 5, 1:30 PM (Showtime Showcase)
  • Dec 7, 8:00 PM (Showtime 2)
  • Dec 8, 5:30 PM (Showtime)

I haven't seen it yet (and I don't get Showtime), but I have heard the CD version (the audio of her one-woman show), and that is very good. It's interesting, funny, and poignant, and I highly recommend it.

Here's the trailer:


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March 31, 2007

Atheist attacked publicizing talk about "God: The Failed Hypothesis"

As I've mentioned before, in June our local skeptics and freethinkers groups will be hosting Victor J. Stenger, author of God: The Failed Hypothesis, on this leg of his book tour. As a result, I've been keeping an eye on any news related to the book. Generally, this means reviews, but this week I found something different:

An atheist group leader says he is the victim of a religious hate crime.

Freethought Association of Canada president Justin Trottier said he was assaulted at Ryerson University earlier this week while he and a colleague were hanging posters for a coming lecture.

[...]

Mr. Trottier, 24, and his colleague were hanging posters Tuesday night announcing a lecture by Victor Stenger, author of God: The Failed Hypothesis, when they were approached by two men.

[...]

One of the men hit him in the face twice, and butted him on his face, causing his nose to bleed, Mr. Trottier said.

So, was it a hate crime? The university and the police aren't treating it as such.

Were the attackers religious? (One might immediately object that they weren't acting religious, but that's a separate question. There's plenty of precedent to argue that attacking a non-believer is a very religious action, but we can debate that some other time.)

Assuming that the attackers were motivated by the fact that Mr. Trottier was publicizing an atheist event, would that make it a hate crime? Seems to me like it would. If Mr. Trottier was attacked because he was publicizing a Jewish event or a Muslim event, I don't think anyone would hesitate to call it a hate crime, so the fact that it was an atheist event shouldn't make any difference.

Of course, it's certainly possible that the attackers were motivated by nothing more than alcohol and boredom, in which case it was just a random event. However, unless there's something I'm missing here, it would seem prudent for the police to at least accept that this might have been a hate crime and investigate it as such to determine the truth.

(For those who wonder what the big deal is about hate crimes: If someone is going around killing everyone named "Sarah Connor" and your name is Sarah Connor, that is an implicit threat against you. It isn't just the immediate crime; it's the implicit threat against others that makes a hate crime worse.)

Links:

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March 05, 2007

More Stenger News

God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor J. Stenger has now shown up at #21 on the March 11 edition of the New York Times Best Seller List in the Hardcover Nonfiction category. The God Delusion is at #12 and Letter to a Christian Nation is at #24.

Blogcritics has an interview with Victor Stenger.

There's also an interview with Victor Stenger in the March 3 Point of Inquiry podcast.

ExChristian.net has a brief article about the book and the advertising campaign.

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March 02, 2007

"God: The Failed Hypothesis" at #21 on NYT list

I received an email from Jill Maxick, Director of Publicity at Prometheus Books,  saying that God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor J. Stenger will appear at #21 on the next New York TImes Best Seller Hardcover Nonfiction Extended Best Seller List. (Coincidentally, #21 is where Letter to a Christian Nation is on the current list. The God Delusion is currently at #10.) Once it gets into the top 15, it will show up in the printed New York Times Book Review.

Incidentally, there's a 38-page PDF excerpt from the book available from the Prometheus web site.

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March 01, 2007

Three Atheist Books on New York Times Best Seller List

Yesterday I received an email from Victor J. Stenger, who said that he had just learned that his book, God: The Failed Hypothesis, has made the New York Times Best Seller list. He doesn't know where it ranks yet, just that it will be on the "extended list" (i.e. the top 35 of hardcover nonfiction). At Amazon.com, it's #292 of all books.

This means that there will be THREE atheist books on the NYT best seller list at the same time:

Aside from it being pretty exciting that there are 3 atheist books on that list, I'm also happy because Victor Stenger will be speaking to our local skeptics group, the Rational Examination Assocation of Lincoln Land (REALL), on June 5. Being able to tell the local newspaper that a "New York Times Best Selling Author" will be speaking to your group sounds like a good way to get ourselves a little bit of publicity!

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February 02, 2007

Nightline covers the Blasphemy Challenge

The Rational Response Squad and their Blasphemy Challenge were covered on Nightline the other night. Here's the video:

I found the whole piece a bit frustrating. The reporter, John Berman, seemed obviously biased against the group, at times bordering on hostile. I found the complaint that they were targeting teenagers to be particularly annoying. Religions target teenagers, so why can't atheists?

Berman also found it strange that people would spend their time opposing religion. Well, some people devote their whole lives to promoting religion, even swearing off sex and marriage to do so. I'm wondering whether he would be just as willing to label ministers and priests as odd?

Berman seemed to be unable to wrap his mind around the idea of God, Heaven, and Hell not existing. As a result, he seemed unable to grasp why atheists aren't worried about saying, "I deny the Holy Spirit".

And there was the usual "what if you're wrong" question, which should have been answered with "what if the Muslims are right and worshiping Jesus condemns you to Hell? What if the Hindus are right? What if the Norse were right? What if the Mormons are right? Which god should I worship?"

Speaking of the Holy Spirit, this reminds me of an event that happened to me in second grade. (For those of you outside the U.S., that means I would have been about 7 years old.) We had recently moved, so I was attending a new school. It was lunch time, and some kid was talking about ghosts. He asked me whether I believed in ghosts, and I said, "No".

Then he asked, "not even the Holy Ghost?", and I again said, "No". This got a shocked reaction as he immediately turned to the kids at the next table and exclaimed, "He doesn't believe in the Holy Ghost!" It was at that point that I realized that what he was calling the "Holy Ghost" my church called the "Holy Spirit". I was extremely embarrassed at my faux pas and couldn't bring myself to explain my misunderstanding.

I find it somewhat odd that I still remember that event 37 years later. I guess it must have been really dreadful, the feeling of being viewed as a heretic -- even though, at the time, I believed in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, just because everyone else did (or so I thought). It was another 10-15 years before I became an atheist.

If you haven't already seen it, here is the video promoting the Blasphemy Challenge:

Oh, by the way, I deny the Holy Spirit.

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January 29, 2007

Dogma protester Kevin Smith

I really don't have anything insightful to say about this, but it is just too funny to not post. Here's Kevin Smith, the guy who wrote and directed the movie Dogma, talking about the time he participated in a protest against... the movie Dogma.

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January 25, 2007

Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Joe Alston to Retire

I received an email from Tom Martin of River Runners For Wilderness that pointed me to a news release announcing the retirement of Grand Canyon Superintendent Joe Alston. Superintendent Alston is the person who had ordered the removal of the bronze plaques at the canyon overlooks, had tried to block the sale of the creationist book in the canyon bookstores, and was apparently the one who responded "no comment" when asked by the LA Times reporter about the age of the Grand Canyon.

Is it purely a coincidence that he's retiring in early February, or is this somehow all related to the brouhaha surrounding the PEER news release? Is he leaving because he's ready to go, or is he being pushed? These are probably questions that we'll never know the answers to.

Link: GC Announces Alston's Retirement - RRfW
Link: Joe Alston hangs up flat hat after 31 years - NPS (PDF)

Update: In case you missed it earlier, PEER's blog now includes a post addressing the controversy.

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January 12, 2007

Flat out wrong! Medieval Dogma and the Shape of the World

A couple of months ago, I got an iPod for my birthday. All the kids are doing it these days, and with the 2-year-old having control of the stereo, it seemed like my best option for listening to something more challenging than Laurie Berkner. Don't get me wrong, Laurie is great, but how many times can a grown man listen to "We are the Dinosaurs" without going nuts? Well, more nuts.

After installing iTunes, converting hundreds of albums to AAC format from WMA format (okay, I was foolish), and loading them into the iPod, I turned my attention to podcasts.

I had heard mentions of podcasts numerous times in the past and I understood the basic idea. Someone records a show and makes it available over the Internet; you download it to your iPod and listen to it. Simple. However, since I didn't have an iPod, I didn't pay much attention. After I got an iPod, I looked into the matter some more -- and learned that you don't actually need an iPod to listen to them. Oh sure, now you tell me! For anyone out there who is under the same misimpression that I was, all you need is a way to play MP3 files. Windows Media Player on your PC will do just fine.

Anyway, so I poked around the iTunes store and found several related to skepticism. My favorite so far has been Logically Critical, particularly the episodes Live! From the Realm of the Dead and Vintage Monsters, both of which are extremely funny.

But that's not what this post is about.

This post is about a point raised by Derek in an early episode of Skepticality, "the official podcast of Skeptic magazine". I feel like I'm required to say that last bit, almost like it's part of the full name of the podcast. (The intro to this post was just to explain why I'm writing about a podcast that was first broadcast more than a year and a half ago. I'm a bit behind the times.)

In the episode for May 14, 2005, "Flat Earth, Private Property, Sweden...", Derek objects to the claim made by atheists that Medieval Christians believed that the Earth was flat. This, Derek said, was a false claim that was perpetrated by atheists and still exists today. One example he gave of how this myth persists was the book The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin.

This caught my attention because a couple of years ago, I gave a presentation to our local skeptics group about this very subject. The title of my talk was "Medieval Dogma and the Shape of the World". One of my main sources of information in preparing this talk was The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin.

What the...? Had I fallen for a bit of bad information? I immensely enjoyed reading The Discoverers. It was an extremely interesting topic to me and was well-written. But was it also wrong? Or was Derek the one who was wrong?

So I began searching on the Internet to find the answer.

In his book, Boorstin didn't claim that people still believed the Earth was flat at the time of the voyage of Christopher Columbus. However, he wrote that for around a thousand years, 300-1300 AD -- the Great Interruption, he called it -- "Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers." I had found that part of the book particularly amazing. But was it true?

In my initial searches of the Internet to find the answer, the first sites I checked that addressed the issue were those coming from an obviously pro-religious perspective. Had Derek fallen for some pro-religious propaganda? Sorry, but I generally don't consider the Discovery Institute or William Dembski to be reliable sources of information.

However, I eventually located The Flat Earth: A Detailed Study of Personal Bias and Historical Thinking at the Ethical Atheist. In this article, the author explains that, sure enough, it is a myth that the belief in a flat earth was widespread in Medieval times (at least among the educated). This article was particularly interesting because it was a revision of an earlier version of the article which had reached the opposite conclusion!

The question is not whether people once believed that the earth was flat -- they definitely did. The question is when did they accept that the earth was a sphere. More specifically, when did Christians come to this view, since the issue is the role that the church played in opposing scientific advances that conflicted with the bible.

The question also isn't whether the church opposed some scientific advances -- they definitely did. Specifically, the church opposed the idea that the earth was not at the center of the universe and that the earth moved. Everyone is familiar with what Galileo went through.

I think it is also safe to say that an objective reading of the bible would indicate that the authors of the bible believed that the earth was flat. For example, Isaiah 40:22 states, "It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth." Many Christians will claim that "circle" doesn't actually mean "flat and round" but instead means "sphere". I think you would only reach that conclusion if you start from the basis that the bible can't be wrong, so therefore it must mean something other than what it appears to mean.

But as to the question of when did most (educated) Christians and the Christian church hierarchy come to accept that the earth was a sphere, the answer appears no later than somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 AD. In any case, it was long before the 1300 AD time period that Boorstin's book stated.

So what happened? How is it that Boorstin (and others) got it wrong? Well, for a full explanation, I highly recommend reading the Ethical Atheist's The Flat Earth: A Detailed Study of Personal Bias and Historical Thinking, as that goes into plenty of detail about the whole subject.

Now I have to figure out how to correct the misinformation that I passed along in my earlier talk. Should I give another talk to explain where the first talk was wrong? Certainly. When I'll get the time to do so is another question, given the aforementioned two-year-old. It's been awhile since I read The Discoverers, so I'd need to read the relevant portions again to figure out which bits were wrong. Oh bother! In the meantime, hopefully this post will help to correct some of the misinformation. (Of course, if it turns out that Boorstin was right and the Ethical Atheist is the one who got it wrong, then I'll have to post a correction to this correction!)

One of my favorite blog posts is one written by hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, Hatred is a Poison, which begins with this quote from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis:

"Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?"

I always try to keep that in mind as I evaluate the various claims and counterclaims that I read about various paranormal, pseudoscience, religious, and political topics. I think it's quite relevant here.

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January 01, 2007

Predictions for 2007 Include Cancer Cure and Return of Christ

I came across an Associated Press story that discusses a recent AP-AOL News telephone poll asking 1,000 Americans to make predictions about 2007. In amongst all of the worries about terrorism and global warming, two predictions caught my attention.

  • 25% expect that Jesus Christ will return to Earth.
  • 35% expect that a cure for cancer will be found.

I find both of those predictions to be quite worrying. I'm not worried that they'll come true, of course. The cancer cure in particular would be wonderful. The return of Jesus Christ would merely be surprising.

What I find worrying is that such a large percentage of the American population apparently expects these things to happen in 2007.

The belief that Jesus Christ will return isn't all that surprising. I've known from previous polls that quite a significant percentage expect Christ to return within the next 50 years. I was a bit surprised at how many expect it will happen this year. On the other hand, I recently read a blog post somewhere in which the author provided several examples of messages posted on a forum at Rapture Ready. In those messages, the writers were discussing how surprised and somewhat disappointed they were that the Rapture hadn't happened yet. It was apparent at least some people wake up every day thinking "today could be the day!"

I just didn't expect that 25% of the American people felt that way.

If they think that the end of the world is likely to happen this year, it's no surprise that it's difficult to get them to consider the long-term impacts of their actions (e.g. global warming). Is this something that U.S. policy makers need to take into account on those rare occasions when they try to plan for the long term?

On the other hand, I can't help wondering whether that 25% figure is inflated. Does some significant percentage just say that they expect Christ to return this year because that's what they're supposed to say? How many of them have significant money in certificates of deposit that won't mature for many years? How many of them are saving money for college for their children and retirement for themselves? If you really thought that the world would end within the next 12 months, it would still be prudent to plan for the possibility that you were wrong, of course. But still... Wouldn't your motivation for long-term planning be diminished?

The other prediction -- that a cure for cancer will be found -- was made by 35% of those polled. I find this to be completely mystifying.

I can understand the religious reasons behind a prediction of the return of Christ, but what could possibly lead 35% of the American people to expect a cure for cancer within the next 12 months? Aside from the fact that there is unlikely to be a single cure for all cancers, medical science has been working on this problem for many years. There are always news stories about "promising" possibilities, but the odds that a silver bullet will emerge this year are vanishingly small.

To me, the fact that 35% expect a cure for cancer to be found in 2007 indicates a depressingly poor ability to evaluate medical news stories. I suspect it's related to the same reasons why so many people put their faith in alternative medicine. (Speaking of which, I wonder what percentage of those people expect that the cure will come from alternative medicine rather than from mainstream medicine? I suspect it's a rather high percentage.)

Link: Americans See Gloom, Doom in 2007.

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