Personal Heroes

Ken and I were fortunate enough to take part in the Amazing Adventure 5: Skeptics of the Caribbean sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation randi.org It was a wonderful, rum-soaked seven days full of laughter, bonding and skepticism.

We were also treated to the presence of the Amazing One himself, James Randi. For those of you not familiar with Mr. Randi, go to YouTube and search. He has been working to expose charlatans for a good number of years. His favorite adversary was Uri Geller. Yes, that spoon-bending guy.

Scientists actually studied what they called The Geller Effect. Mr. Geller never admitted that what he was doing was nothing more than a trick. He constantly swore that he was just doing something that came naturally to him. Scientists were actually fooled by this. If he were, after all these years, to admit what he had been doing, he would be sued for fraud by multiple agencies.

Randi also took part in the first card trick ever done in outer space. He created the Alpha Project projectalpha.html which fooled paranormal researchers for over two years. Banachek, who grew to have a full career in stage magic and mentalism, was one of the Alpha Kids.

He was also kind enough to take a personal interest in my own journey as a fledgeling skeptic. I have been very fortunate to be able to spend some one on one time with him. Thanks to Randi’s kindness and advice, I’m finding my footing in the skeptical world.

Another personal hero that I’ve mentioned in previous articles is the wonderful George Hrab of Geologic Podcast fame: The Geologic Podcast Home. His humor and insight have influenced my development as a skeptic. He’s the one that taught me, and keeps reminding me, that personal heroes are people just like me. Even though they’re giants, they still put their pants on one leg at a time.

From George I also learned patience in dealing with non-skeptical people. He was the first person I heard say that you cannot change the mind of a True Believer but you CAN plant the seed. He uses an adage from Patrick Swayze’s movie Road House. “Be nice. Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.”. And so, I try very hard to be nice even when I want to apply a baseball bat upside the head to knock some common sense into some of these people.

On the other end of that spectrum is my personal hero, Penn Jillette. From Penn I learned that it’s okay not to believe what everyone else believes. I’ve never really been part of the herd even though I spent most of my life trying VERY hard to be just that.  Please don’t misunderstand me, Penn is a very kind and compassionate man. It can be seen in some of the Bullshit episodes and his video blog episode about the man who gave him the Gideon pocket Bible. He just has zero tolerance for so-called psychics or other charlatans that cause harm or take advantage of people. This is evident from ANY of the episodes of Bullshit. I hope one day I’ll get the privilege of meeting him so that I can tell him personally what a difference he made in my life.

I am an adult, but I’ll tell you what; THESE are the people I want to grow up to be.

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Elton John: “Jesus Was Gay”

The premiere of my series “Why It Doesn’t Work has been preempted by Elton John.

It’s been the talk of the news media and the blogosphere for days now. Elton John was quoted in an interview with Parade magazine over the weekend as saying “I think Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems. On the cross, he forgave the people who crucified him. Jesus wanted us to be loving and forgiving. I don’t know what makes people so cruel. Try being a gay woman in the Middle East — you’re as good as dead.”.

Unfortunately in his attempt to make sense of the figure of Jesus, he outraged a metric crapton (yes that IS an actual measurement) of religious groups. Of course it really doesn’t take much to outrage religious groups these days. So it’s not surprising that Sir Elton’s attempt to make sense of religion really pissed some people off.

Church leaders and biblical scholars rushed to dispute John’s views of Jesus.

Lecturer Joan Taylor, of King’s College London, insisted Jesus was celibate or “sexually ascetic”.

Stephen Green, director of Christian Voice, said the gay claim was “a desperate cry for attention”.

A kinder take on Sir Elton’s ideas from Catholic Herald editor Luke Coppen were: “Someone once said we all try to remake God in our own image. It’s just possible that Elton John might be guilty of that.”

A Church of England spokesman said insights on Jesus were “perhaps best left to academics”

Bloggers have come out of the woodwork decrying Elton’s quotes as well:

One blogger known as Rhardin tells Fox News’ 411 blog, “I will never listen to this man’s music again. How dare he speak of my Lord in such a disgraceful way. He should not speak on things he knows nothing about. I hope and pray that all Christians will take a stand on this one. Elton John’s lifestyle speaks for itself.”

Elsewhere, bobj72 tells TheDailyBeast.com, “While I have had some appreciation for Elton John’s music…he could not be further from the truth on this matter regarding Jesus. It is clearly stated in Leviticus 18:22, 23; that Christ sees homosexuality as an abomination.”

Upon investigation, Jesus did not say anything of the sort in that passage. Jesus wasn’t even quoted because Leviticus is one of the books in the Old Testament. Even in the Old Testament (NIV version) homosexuality isn’t called an abomination. It is called “detestable” : ‘Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable. Technically homosexuality isn’t referred to at all.

Some Biblical scholars even claim that the interpretation is wrong and that quote actually means that two men shouldn’t have sex in the marriage bed that a hetero couple share.

All that aside, I think that too many people put far too much stock into what celebrities say. If I said that Jesus got it on with Mary Magdalene and they had a kid just like Dan Brown said in his novel, no one would give a rat’s hind quarters because 1) I’m not a celebrity and 2) most people know I’m a non-believer and would expect me to say something like that.

Lots of people worship a black Jesus, a European Jesus or a Spanish Jesus. They seek to make their god something they can understand and relate to. Elton did the same thing. Nothing more. I have no belief in any divine being, but I can relate to that.

Cardinal Cormack Murphy-O’Connor “Atheists Not Fully Human”

Many previously thought that Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor was a little off his rocker. Earlier this week in an interview he stated that “atheists are not fully human” because we do not “search for transcendent meaning”. In other words, because atheists do not seek the answers to larger questions such as “why are we here?”, “Where do we come from?” and “Is this all that there is?”, atheists have not fully developed their humanity.

This is, from my perspective, a huge presumption on the Cardinal’s part. As an atheist, asking the bigger questions is one of the major reasons many people become atheists. Rather than reaching the conclusion that there is a higher power or grand designer involved, we choose to listen to science and let logic and fact answer those bigger questions. Skeptics weigh the information at hand, weed out the fact from the fiction and use the scientific method to evaluate the facts.

When Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor says things like this, he is speaking out of ignorance. I say ignorance and not stupidity because ignorance can be educated. He seems to be a cognizant man capable of clear thought. He is simply misinformed.

Yes, I understand that what I just said sounds like I’m delusional and living in a candy-coated world. I would just prefer to give the Cardinal the benefit if the doubt. Because if I don’t and he really did know what he was saying, that implies a number of horrifying thoughts.

If atheists and other non-believers are not fully human, or less than human then we can be treated the same way African-Americans were. They were once thought of as less than human and summarily treated like animals. Dictators through the ages have used that “logic” to commit genocide. If the Cardinal truly believes that we are less than human, to what lengths will he go to assure our “humanity”? Are we in for a  modern Inquisition? The ramifications of the Cardinal’s comments are horrifying.

The insult is secondary. I am fairly certain if he was sincere in his statement that it was meant to insult the atheist community as a whole. Perhaps he feels it is justified. After all, high profile individuals in the atheist and skeptical community have said some unkind things about the Catholic Church. Apparently it’s okay to stoop to petty vengeance. Again, that is IF he understands the ramifications of what he said.

I may want to live in a candy-coated world but I’m not naive. I believe that the Cardinal knew full well what he was saying and what it implied. And to that I reply, “Fuck you, you sonofabitch”.

Sorry, dear readers. Sometimes I just can’t be a good skeptic.

***Unfortunately YouTube removed the video of the interview for violations. Please google “Cardinal Cormack Murphy-O’Connor “Atheists Not Fully Human” for other perspectives on this interview.

Expelled: Intelligence Not Allowed

This morning I saw the last 10 minutes of Ben Stein’s documentary ‘Expelled: Intelligence Not Allowed”. I had heard nothing about this until now and I have plans to record a showing on the morning of the 20th so that I can review it in full.

In the few minutes I saw, Stein uses the imagery of the Berlin Wall as being the barrier between scientists and intelligent design. He proposes that more be done to investigate the notion that if not some kind of god, then some sort of greater intelligence is responsible for the beginnings of life on this planet and the Universe as a whole. Of course this has been done with an additional emotional appeal to the ideals of freedom.

He even interviews Richard Dawkins. You can see that Mr. Dawkins is trying very hard to be kind and patient with Mr. Stein in answering his questions. I do wish that Dawkins would have explained that his lack of belief in a god has to do with a lack of testable evidence.

At one point Stein brought up the quote about the god of the old testament. Dawkins read the complete quote about that god being a blood thirsty misogynistic ethnic cleanser, etc. Then Stein asked if he believed in a kind, loving, gentle god. That would be the god of the new testament if I’m not mistaken.

Isn’t Ben Stein Jewish? My understanding, and please kindly correct me if I’m wrong, is that the Jewish people follow the old testament and the Torah, a book I am not familiar with. My reading of the old testament shows precisely what Mr. Dawkins says.

I’m looking forward to watching the entire documentary and I’ll post a review soon.

Skeptical Theists

There is, in the skeptical community, an overwhelming number of skeptics who think that it is not possible to be a skeptic and a theist at the same time. The fine folks at www.nonprophetsradio.com have voiced the opinion that while a theist can say they are skeptical about something such as homeopathy or astrology, they cannot call themselves skeptics. According to their statements, if someone still believes in a god, they can only refer to themselves as skeptical.

On the other hand there is Per Johan Rasmark at Skeptic Report (http://skepticreport.com/sr/?p=200) who thinks that it “should not be necessary to explain how it is possible to believe in a God and still be a skeptic, my point of view is that the two things do not overlap…”

My experience with the skeptical community is that a skeptic is a person who has examined their own beliefs and rejected those that have been found to lack a scientific consensus of truth. In other words, if you once believed that homeopathy worked and rejected it on the basis of the evidence then you call yourself a skeptic in regards to homeopathy. Many skeptics think that ALL beliefs should be thoroughly examined and those that do not stand up to scientific scrutiny should be rejected. Unfortunately those who do not reject their religious beliefs have “lost skeptical street cred” according to the Non-Prophets.

I have heard that sentiment echoed throughout the skeptical community. People who still hold a belief in a higher being or beings are scoffed at and not considered skeptics. It has been said that those who maintain a belief can call themselves skeptical but cannot own the title of Skeptic because of that belief.

This sort of bias is damaging. It is one of the reasons that skeptics have such a bad image. We come off as superior and snooty. It seems that if you have a belief in the intangible you can’t come in our clubhouse. This sort of exclusivity has GOT to stop. We ought to be working on growing our community. There are a good number of people out there looking for a skeptical home but because they still hold a belief in a divine being, they are either rejected out of hand or treated as less intelligent. At least until they “come to their senses”.

It is my opinion that someone can maintain a belief in a higher power and still be a skeptic. Analytical thinking is a skill that can be learned by anyone willing to use logic, deductive reasoning and the scientific method. The title of skeptic should not be withheld from those willing to learn and use these new skills.

Every skeptic has started somewhere. Not all of us were born knowing how to be skeptical. Most people have had to overcome their upbringing or self-imposed magical thinking. For those like me, it was an uphill battle and friends were lost along the way. It takes time to become a skeptic and as far as I’m concerned it’s not like earning a boy scout merit badge. If you are learning to be more skeptical, then by damn you ARE a skeptic. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

31 Flavors Of Skeptic

Just like Baskin-Robbins, there are many different flavors or types of skepticism. As a whole skepticism can be described as making a judgement about a claim based on the evidence presented. That evidence must be testable. Those results must also be repeatable within a specific margin of error ala statistics. In other words it is a logical fallacy to claim that just because one test yielded a specific result, that result proves the claim conclusively. (For new readers please see previous entries concerning the various types of logical fallacies.)

For instance I read on a science forum that some people are able to see into the near infra-red spectrum. This could explain the claim of being able to see auras. I have not had an opportunity to investigate this claim. There may be evidence to support this. There may not be. In the mean time I am keeping an open mind.

There is a fine line between skepticism and cynicism. A cynic dismisses claims out of hand because they may sound far-fetched like seeing “auras” in the above example. A skeptic, on the other hand, does the research and examines the data looking for credible sources to either verify or refute a claim. It can be really difficult not to be dismissive of a claim that you have already dismissed or accepted. That’s part of being a good skeptic though; learning how to put aside what you think you know and investigating the data even if it is personally uncomfortable or even painful.

I use to believe in all manner of things that do not have supporting testable scientific data. UFOs, magic, Reiki, crystal healing, psychics…name the woo and most of it I believed. Thanks to Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit” on Showtime I was introduced to the reality of psychics, auras and many other things. I was also introduced to logical thinking and skepticism. Their shows are a great place to start out. So is George Hrab’s Geologic Podcast http://www.geologicpodcast.com/

As I mentioned in the title of this post, there are many different flavors or types of skepticism. James “The Amazing” Randi, a personal hero of mine, has spent his life debunking psychics and those who cause harm with that practice. Other skeptics “debunk” ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, and Nessie.

Other skeptics work on educating the public. At http://www.whatstheharm.net there is information on the kind of harm caused by medical quackery like homeopathy. There are case studies and articles about people who have been permanently harmed or killed by colloidal silver, homeopathy and more.

There are those like the Skepchicks http://skepchick.org/blog that covers a wide array of feminine-related skepticism.

There are skeptics that deal solely with religion. They try to educate people about the fallacies in organized religion. As I said, sometimes being a skeptic can be painful. This is one of those sore points with many people, Here on Fledgeling Skeptic I generally try to avoid mentioning religion since it IS such a sore point.

Then there’s skeptics like me. I try to educate those who are new to the skeptic movement. I talk about what logical fallacies are, how to evaluate evidence, how to use skepticism in daily life and in between I talk about my own experiences and thoughts as a Fledgeling Skeptic.

Kirk Cameron Compares Darwin To Hitler

In a video released today, actor and street preacher Kirk Cameron talks about the upcoming 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species”. He believes that creationism isn’t getting it’s fair share of exposure. According to him, they just want their position to be heard.

He states in the video (linked to here http://bit.ly/iAAP5) that a friend of his wrote a 50 page introduction and then inserted it into 50,000 copies of the book. Those copies will be given away at various colleges across the country a few days before the anniversary of the original publication date.

Why colleges? According to Cameron 61% of college professors consider themselves atheist or agnostic. He also claims that the rate of people labeling themselves in that manner has doubled over the last 20 years in the 19 to 24 age group.

The 50 page insert contains a timeline of Darwin’s life, his supposed connections to Hitler and misogynistic attitude along with various “scientific evidence” as to why his theory was flawed.

He’s a really persuasive speaker, but no matter how you slice it, Cameron’s supposed “evidence” is as full of holes as your average sieve and it holds just as much water. We’ve heard it all before and discounted and counteracted it with scientific information. I’m guessing he and the group he’s working with think that because you’re getting a free copy of “Origin of Species”, this little addition will be  happily accepted by college students. Really it’s just a pretty, shiny wrapper for this piece of propaganda.

Something I find interesting is that along with the “scientific information” that supports creationism, they threw in such personal attacks as racism and misogyny against a dead man who cannot defend himself against such personal attacks.

For that reason, Kirk Cameron has won Fledgeling Skeptic’s first Woo Woo Fluffy Bunny Of The Week Award

What the HELL am I DOING??

Here it is folks. The big admission. I have NO real idea what I’m doing. I’m flying by the seat of my pants with this blog. That’s not to say that the information you’re getting so far isn’t accurate to the best of my ability.

That IS saying that, in all likelihood, I have bitten off a big chunk of “Holy Crap!!” and now am trying to figure out what the HELL to do with this overwhelming task. What IS this task, you ask? My goal is to be a one stop shop for new skeptics. You want to know what skepticism is in a nutshell (and it IS a VERY big nutshell BTW), this is the place to look. You want to find out the easiest way to apply skeptical thinking to your daily life? Here’s the place to look first.

One of the big problems I’m running into is that now that I’ve gone over some of the basic ideas, what do I do next? Half the time I don’t know much about a topic I want to cover so I have to research. i just don’t know exactly where to get credible information on certain topics. For instance, there is SO much Woo in quantum physics and I’m not a physicist so I don’t know what’s woo and what isn’t.

[[Definition: Woo-woo from The Skeptic’s Dictionary (http://www.skepdic.com/woowoo.html)

woo-woo

Woo-woo (or just plain woo) refers to ideas considered irrational or based on extremely flimsy evidence or that appeal to mysterious occult forces or powers.]]

Of course I don’t want to pass along bad information or proliferate ideas that are based in bad science. So I flounder around whimpering and wringing my hands. In the end I write something different from what I originally planned OR I pass along information I’ve seen on the Skepchick’s blog.

What’s worse is that next week after I get my hard drive upgraded I’m going to start work on the Fledgeling Skeptic podcast. I have NO idea what to do with it really. Rote vocabulary is SO boring and people will tune out in less than 5 minutes.

I’m thinking about doing something similar to the Geologic podcast and have different segments dealing with a variety of topics. I just don’t want to be a copycat. It takes a unique, individual style to make for a good, popular podcast.

I’d love to get suggestions from people. I know there aren’t many of you yet. I could sure use the help though.

Death Of An Atheist

Here’s a little bonus entry for you. I was driving home this morning after a lovely bit of *facepalm* brought to you by hubby Ken. He left this morning for his new job in Atlanta and he left his backpack with his laptop sitting in the living room. So I drove part way to meet him.

I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I don’t drive with the radio on. It’s too distracting. Driving is the time that I get to myself to ponder the things that randomly pop into my head.

This morning, for instance, I was pondering the proper protocol for an atheist’s funeral.

No, no one close to me has died. I just think on the odd topic now and again.

It occurred to me that you can’t simply give the grieving family the usual “s/he’s in a better place” platitudes. Atheists don’t believe in any divine being nor an afterlife. It’s literally One Life To Live: The Home Game.

That leaves the awkward (as if funerals weren’t awkward enough) comments like “S/he had a helluva run, eh?” or the overdone, oft used “I’m sorry for your loss”. How many times can the family hear that second one without getting sick of it?

I’m a rather odd bird. When things like this come up I am reminded of John Cleese giving the eulogy of Graham Chapman. John walked out, sat on the coffin and proceeded to deliver this speech: (http://www.geocities.com/fang_club/chapman_memorial.html) “He is an ex-Chapman.”, he concludes.

James “The Amazing” Randi, said in an interview in SF Magazine recently that he doesn’t want a big memorial. He just wants to be cremated and his ashes blown in Uri Gellar’s eyes.

My hero.

Even when I was a True Believer I felt that we don’t mourn for the person who is gone. We mourn for ourselves because we will miss the one who died. Mourning is an act of self-indulgence. We cry and our heart breaks because we know that we will never see that person again and our life is  a little more diminished for not having that person in it.

So I ponder how to deal with the death of an atheist. What are the right things to say? Seriously, the whole ‘dirt nap’ saying doesn’t play well with others at a funeral. Neither does the Kevorkian plug-n-play euphemism.

I would love to be able to say something comforting that doesn’t sound like a platitude that might make the griever smile even just a little bit. And “I’m sorry to hear about his/her demotion to plant fertilizer” is just NOT gonna cut it.

Okay, okay, I know this post has degraded into really dark humor. All kidding aside, I wonder, is it appropriate to bring up fond memories you have of the deceased? Does that help or hurt? One would think it would help, but I really don’t know.  It’s obvious that even at my age my experiences with death are pretty theoretical.

Going to DragonCon!!

The Fledgeling Skeptic will be at DragonCon this year. Hubby and I are leaving this afternoon so that we can get a jump on the chaos of checking in on Thursday. Look for me there!

I can’t wait to spend time with other like minded people in the Science track, Skeptrack and the podcasting track!

See you there!!

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