The editorial comments of Chris and James, covering the news, science, religion, politics and culture.

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Faith kills again

Another innocent child has fallen victim to the irrational religious faith of her parents. The 11 year old girl died of diabetes because her parents turned to prayer as a substitute for medical treatment. The couple's other three children have been removed from the home, but the local police chief expects that they will be returned when the investigation is complete. The chief also said this:

"There is no intent. They didn't want their child to die. They thought what they were doing was the right thing," he said. "They believed up to the time she stopped breathing she was going to get better. They just thought it was a spiritual attack. They believed if they prayed enough she would get through it."

Intent or not, the parents' unconscionable ignorance and backward religious superstition is responsible for the girl's death. Religion is no excuse for an unnecessary death. Religion itself is the disease that ultimately killed this girl, and it is a preventable disease. There should be consequences for beliefs that interfere with saving any life. Justice is owed to children who are harmed by such stupidity.

Imagine this ad absurdum scenario:

Some organization, for bizarre reasons, launches a massive information campaign encouraging people to pray instead of dialing "911" in emergency situations. They have TV and radio commercials, pamphlets, newsletters, school seminars and door-to-door visits. They manage to convince a significant swath of the population that 911 is unnecessary or even harmful to the "spiritual healing" that is required.

In this fictitious scenario, the organization is spreading only misinformation designed to interfere with emergency services. There must surely be laws that can be applied to halt such harmful mischief. Regardless of their apparent sincerity, the people behind this misinformation should be held accountable for the deaths and injuries that result from their message.

This scenario may sound ridiculous, but it is not substantively different from recommendations made by many religions. One example is the Mormon healing ritual of pouring olive oil on the sick and injured. I have heard some credible anecdotes of Mormon elders delaying emergency treatment so that they can perform this absurd action. If any child were to die or suffer compounded injury due to this practice, then those elders should face criminal charges for interfering with rational and necessary care. It would be nice to see the religion itself held accountable for propagating backward, irrational and harmful practices.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

It takes more faith to be an Atheist.

This post is partly a response to an article by Mike S. Adams on Townhall.com, titled "Is Atheism Only a Bundle of Sentiments?" More generally, this post is a response to the perpetual and cyclic rediscovery of ancient cliches about Atheism, as echoed in Adams' article:

  • Atheism is "more a bundle of sentiments than a coherent doctrine" (quoting Dinesh D'Souza).
  • Atheism requires more "faith" than Christianity.
  • [Often implied if not stated outright:] Atheists usually chicken out of public debates setup to argue these points.

It is quite understandable to me if any Atheist chooses to avoid "answering" these bizarre and ideologically loaded points. The arguments are cheap sophistry designed to start the Atheist in an incompatible philosophical context which (s)he must spend the entire debate correcting. Its a purely childish and annoying bait for a dysfunctional argument, but nevertheless I'd like to offer a straight, blunt, quick dismissal of these exhaustingly typical fallacies.

Atheism does require more faith than Christianity. It requires faith that, in the long run, your own careful reasoning and mental discipline is more likely to yield at least one correct belief than submission to statements from arbitrary religious authorities. It requires faith in one's own self, which might better be called courage.

Atheism is not a coherent doctrine. It never claims to be. Atheism is the sentiment that it is better to live your whole life without a holding single belief than to cling to a "coherent" system of beliefs which are collectively false. If in the end I've managed to secure only one justified true belief, then my life will have had more meaning than the most devout monk who's end-of-life satisfaction is a mere intoxicating delusion. I hope to live and die with my eyes open and my mind sharp, the way an evolved human being should. Yes, this is a "bundle of sentiments," no different from the bundle of sentiments at the foundation of any belief system. Every system of rituals and beliefs is ultimately rooted in the practitioners' sentiments about what kind of thing they want to be. I want to be a thing that is awake, aware, honest, and not afraid to stand on my own.

Sunday, February 03, 2008


In a previous post ("What punishment fits sex abuse," April 2007) I described how convicted sex offenders in Miami, Florida, can find no place to legally reside within the city after they are released from prison. As a result, they were forced to live on the beach under a bridge that links Miami to one of the Key islands. Bridge-dwelling sex offender communities evidently sprang up in several places across Florida.

In a follow-up to that story, the sex offenders are now being evicted from their homes under bridges. Having lost this last scrap of shelter, they are effectively banished from everywhere. But because most of them are parolees, they are not allowed to leave town. They are trapped in a bizarre legal paradox that is probably much worse than prison.

Regardless of what crimes these men committed, banishment is an unusual practice in the United States. When convicted criminals are released from prison, it is assumed that they are ready to re-integrate with society (at least to some degree). Regulation and close monitoring are obviously essential for parolees, but the state should at least ensure that the conditions of release are logically achievable.

The Florida law is trying to effect a passive-agressive banishment of sex offenders. It would be impossible for the law to banish sex-offenders directly, because they would have to go somewhere, leading to a diplomatic can of worms with Florida's nearest neighbors (see, for example, the simmering debate over a sex offender who was banished to Canada in 2006). Perhaps Florida is hoping the sex offenders will somehow disappear themselves.

In general, I don't think banishment (whether overt or covert) is a legitimate approach to criminal justice. It is, at best, no better than dumping one's garbage in a neighbor's yard. At worst, it is a genuine injustice to those who might be truly striving for rehabilitation, and for some whose crimes were not really as severe as their convictions imply.

For further reading, the Objective-Justice blog has a short collection of articles about banishment for various crimes in the US.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

"Placebo effect" is no excuse for fraud

In a refreshingly candid ruling, a judge has found that the "Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet" is nothing better than fraudulent "poppycock." The Q-Ray bracelets sold for as much as $200, and supposedly eased chronic pain conditions of their wearers by making use of the "placebo effect." The judge in the case wrote that "Defendants might as well have said: ‘Beneficent creatures from the 17th Dimension use this bracelet as a beacon to locate people who need pain relief, and whisk them off to their homeworld every night to provide help in ways unknown to our science.’"

It feels really good to see such a straightforward ruling in favor of blunt logic (obviousness even), against the kind of bullshit artists that seem so ubiquitous. It feels like a long time since the scientific world-view got any willing support from our government branches. May this be a sign of better things to come.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Vatican excorcist squad is go for launch

It's always the 5th century at the Vatican: "The Pope has ordered his bishops to set up exorcism squads to tackle the rise of Satanism." By Satanism, do they mean the worship of Satan (which would virtually require being a Catholic in order to believe in Satan in the first place)? Or do they mean Satanism as in "wavering faith in the church and its magical capabilities?"

The Vatican sees the need to place "trained exorcists" in every diocese in the world because "People suffer and think that turning to the Devil can help solve their problems. We are being bombarded by requests for exorcisms." How does one turn to the Devil? In what media is the Devil so successfully advertising his services?

I might suggest that the rise in exorcism requests is correlated with three social factors:

  • Rising cost of mental health services.
  • Uninsurability of mental health patients, forcing people to turn away from credible medical care out of fear that they'll lose coverage.
  • Declining educational standards and the world-wide trend toward religious mysticism over scientific thinking.
I wonder how many exorcists are trained to recognize when a person needs to see a psychiatrist rather than sit through a prayer ritual.

AP violates family's wishes for no good reason.

In a story carried by ABC News, Associated Press writers Jordan Robertson and Marcus Wohlsen disclosed the names of two victims from the recent tiger attack at the San Fransisco zoo. The article notes that "Their names were provided by hospital and law enforcement sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the family had not yet given permission to release their names."

These writers (and their editors) evidently felt it was worth wasting a few inches of column space for no other purpose than to wag their middle fingers at the concept of family privacy. What public interest is served by disclosing the names of these victims at this time? I, for one, don't care what their names are, but their families obviously cared enough to request anonymity. It seems bizarre that these writers, their editors, and "hospital and law-enforcement sources" would collude to disclose this information against family wishes. Perhaps they are expecting some random person to step up and say, "Kulbir Dhaliwal? I know him! I've seen him taunt tigers all the time! He just can't help himself around a tiger cage."

Actually, I hope that's exactly what happens. May these events unfold to prove my outrage frivolous (more than it is already).

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Mass murderer doubts God's existence

Fox News is not exactly known for prioritizing their facts in any rational or even sane structure. Today they are reporting on the mental health history of the teenage Omaha mall shooter. The first and most significant fact in the story, according to Fox News, is that the boy was "Satanic." The article seems to clarify in the first paragraph that "Satanic" means "he is not sure if there is a God or life after death and that when he dies, he'll probably go to hell." The remaining nineteen paragraphs detail a long history of depression, suicide attempts, broken homes and other psychological challenges that the boy dealt with. Why, I wonder, does his wavering religious faith get top billing in the first paragraph? And why does the headline amplify a mere state of doubt to Satan worship? What could motivate such wild distortions of basic factual information? Perhaps the Fox News writers are no less deranged, their minds no less trapped in a delusional world of devils and demons, than the mind of a mentally ill teenager who picks up a gun in order to make sure his suicide becomes everyone else's problem rather than just his own.

Here's the first three paragraphs of the story:

The teen gunman who killed eight people and himself in a mall this month once told social workers he was satanic and acknowledged that he often acted before thinking of the consequences, according to newly released court records.

Robert Hawkins' file includes hundreds of pages of court transcripts, drug tests and letters from caseworkers, therapists and family members. They give the clearest picture yet of a young man who told a therapist in April 2005 that "he is not sure if there is a God or life after death and that when he dies, he'll probably go to hell."

More than two years later, on Dec. 5, the 19-year-old Hawkins walked into a department store in the Westroads Mall and shot 11 people, then committed suicide.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

More sex math

According to the New York Times, men are staying married longer than women among couples who married in the 1980's:
About 80 percent of first marriages that took place in the late 1950s lasted at least 15 years. Among people who married in the late 1980s for the first time, however, only 61 percent of the men and 57 percent of the women were married 15 years later.

Another math miracle. Okay, so it may not be a miracle: the statistics are limited to those who married "for the first time" in the 80's, and may be skewed if a significant number of couples included one partner who had been previously married. The data would therefore seem to imply that, during the 80's, divorced women partnered with men who had never married slightly more frequently than the converse.

Wait, why was I interested in this?