July 2010

Tolerance is a virtue.  I know there are many religious people who are very nice, kind, generous, even intelligent and often rational.    Some of my best friends are…..never mind.


  • Evangelical preacher Harold Camping has recently set a date for the return of Jesus (21 May 2011), with the end of the world 5 months later, on 21 October (and I thought the world was supposed to end in 2012).   Note that in 1994, Camping was equally convinced that the world was about to end, and that no one would make it to the end of the millennium.   The faithful are being encouraged to spread the word.   So, an unemployed woman has taken $1200 to buy an ad on a bus stop bench.  “There are things I felt I always wanted to do—get married, have a kid, travel more,” she said. “But it’s not about what I want out of life. It’s about what God wants.”  (Read more here.)
  • Like any 12-year-old, Jamelia was excited at the prospect of a plane journey and a long summer holiday in the sun. An avid reader, she had filled her suitcases with books and was reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when her mother came for her. “She said, ‘You know it’s going to be today?’  Next thing Jamelia knew, she was in the living room, being held down by a number of women, screaming as she had a clitoridectomy and her vulva stitched closed.  Her mother paid extra to have a clean blade. (Read more here.)

HAO member Mark Fournier (who doesn’t post nearly often enough) has put up an excellent essay on the materialist basis of ethics at his blog Tachyphrenia. The next time someone tells you atheists can have no morals, just send them that URL. A sample to whet your appetite:

A recent study has shown that almost 40% of Americans consider atheists to be the worst part of their society. This perception hangs upon several convictions: 1) atheists have no morals; 2) atheists are materialistic; 3) atheists are elitists, and 4) atheists represent the worst of modernity.

To the first, that atheists have no morals: in the absence of divine authority, atheists are required to revisit moral questions in naturalistic terms. This effort has been rewarded on several fronts. First, as the natural order represents no divinely ordained moral order, you cannot get an ought from an is–that is, the status quo is not morally sufficient simply because it exists. There is always room for improvement. This insight is from Hume, a refutation of natural law, though often pressed into dubious service particularly by the religious. Furthermore, absent the interests of a meddling deity, morality is a human concern, subject to human needs and desires. There is no excuse for subjecting the populace to odious measures for the benefit of a mysterious authority, who is in fact the sock-puppet of a theocratic elite. Finally, in the absence of divine omniscience, we are required to establish our own knowledge by submitting ourselves, not to divine authority, but to the authority of evidence. Ours is a harsher discipline, harder won and less forgiving. Believers choose the God who agrees with them, but we do not have the luxury of choosing our evidence. It is what it is, and we must adapt to it. In selecting a deity who is never their opposition, believers are effectively solipsists, alone and unchallenged in their beliefs, which they choose with their God…..

Yesterday, the organization called Wikileaks released what they are calling the War diaries. It is leaked American military reports the were filed on the ground in Afghanistan.

The collection is massive. It contains 90,000 short reports of incidents that have occurred in the war between 2004-2009. The reports can be a bit cryptic to read since they are written in “military speak”. If you decide to take a look at them, you may want to peek at this tutorial first.

Inconsistencies Exposed:

When looking at these reports, we obviously have to be skeptical. These reports have been leaked, but there is no way to verify them, and the various governments involved are already refuting their legitimacy. This is a situation that skeptics are used to, whether it be conspiracy theories, UFO reports, testimony of divine intervention,etc.

These records are extremely thorough however, and many of the records match up perfectly with well known events. This makes them a little harder than usual to dismiss outright.  Some of these records are even shedding light on inconsistencies that are causing people to ask hard questions.

Consider the following news report in which 4 Canadian troops were killed and 6 were injured in an insurgent attack near kandahar on Sept 3 2006 at 4:30 AM (12:30PM our time):


This event is listed in the records, and unfortunately, it sheds completely different light on the incident:


It is listed as a “Friendly Fire” event. The Ottawa Citizen pointed out this inconsistency in this article last night. This is a big problem, if there is truth to be found in these reports. It would show that we are not getting the full story over here on our end.

PZ Myers posted a reflection on the problem that most media outlets are focused on the question of whether or not it was a good idea to release the reports, rather than asking questions about what is inside of them. I am interested to see which way the momentum swings on this story. Will it be an all out attack on Wikileaks’s legitimacy, or will questions like the above mentioned Canadian soldiers killed continue to pop out?

So who runs this Wikileaks site? How legitimately should we take them?

Well, here’s an interview with Julian Assange who is the person that heads this project. He sits down with Chris Anderson at TED to talk about what he is doing with the project.

David Warren has been sounding off again, against a straw bogeyman of  “scientism” (short version: “IVF is against my religion, so I’ll dredge up some flimsy rationalizations about why it’s Baaaad”). Unfortunately, his inability to tell the difference between in-vitro fertilization and artificial insemination renders his argument largely incoherent. Media culpa does a pretty thorough fisking of Warren’s piece, but happens to overlook this ironic tidbit, regarding the difficulties allegedly faced by people who are the offspring of sperm donation:

At age 18 and up, about two-thirds of the children conceived from anonymously donated sperm agree with the comment, “My sperm donor is half of who I am.”….Alas, “half of who I am” has meaning.

Now, while I acknowledge that such people, like adoptees, desire to know who their biological parents are, this way of expressing of it suffers from what I call the Fallacy of Genetic Essentialism. This fallacy asserts that we in some way “are” our DNA — that it is our “essence”.

No: I am not my DNA, and neither are you yours. The genes that my parents (and through them every ancestor of ours back to the Pre-Cambrian) bequeathed me do not define me. Those genes set some basic developmental parameters that determined the likely ranges of my final physique and psychology — but no more than that. The fact that my parents then cared for me, taught me (both by explicit lesson and implicit example), and socialized me for some 20 years is at least as important to who I turned out to be as their DNA is. So are the myriad influences of the external world — falling off my bike at age 10 (I still have the scar on my knee); the evangelists who converted me to religion at age 15; encountering the skeptical side of the internet in my 30’s (the experience of which eventually deconverted me);  having jobs; losing jobs; meeting the girl whom I eventually married; having and raising my own children; every friend and enemy and casual acquaintance over those years — all these are part of who and what I am. To be sure, I have a face and a name and a signature and fingerprints and (yes!) my DNA which are useful as identification for social and legal purposes — but all of those things are just convenient handles to get a hold on me; none of them are “who I am”. I am the sum total of everything I have ever experienced and done and thought and said, and there is no convenient summary or condensed version that you can point to and say “That’s him, everything you need to know!”. Least of all, my DNA ain’t it.

This view of genes-as-identity seems to spring from superficial popular-science accounts of genetics which invoke metaphors like “blueprint”, “recipe” or “program” to explain what genes do (click on the graphic at left for an example). “Blueprint” is a lousy metaphor, and “recipe” and “program” aren’t much better. (As an aside: creationist propagandists get a fair bit of mileage out of that last one). Genes are neither the plans nor the instructions for building and operating an organism: they are molecules reacting chemically with other molecules, in networks of interaction with each other  (and also with the external environment!) to produce the complexity we call Life. But (in another case of inappropriate summarization of  complexity) instead of appreciating the reality of what’s going on, we have somehow extracted a new kind of quasi-Platonic essence, which attributes to genes the property of “defining” the individual.

Genetic essentialism is a very reductionist (in the bad sense of the word) view of human beings. In fact, it’s an example of the kind of “scientism” that Warren spends the earlier portion of the column decrying. But in his eagerness to find a stick with which to beat IVF (or artifical insemination — as noted, Warren doesn’t seem to be sure which) he implicitly endorses the survey respondents’ invocation of the concept — thereby contradicting his own point.

But that’s our David: confused as usual.

Five Mystical Songs[guest post by Diane Schmolka]

A Puzzle to explore:  Music and Religion. Can we Humanists listen to ‘religious’ music, and derive meaning from it?

Dear Fellow Humanists:

I have been a fan of CBC’s Choral Concert for most of my life. For most of my life, I have been a religious doubter,  then agnostic, then atheist. Why then, do I derive such  joy and meaning, (non-religious), from  listening to choral concert?

Given the fact that I am a musician, and not  all the music presented each week is  ‘religious’, I listen to the structure, tone color, rhythm, and pace of the music. I do not really need the text.

What do you listen for in music? Do you need the text, to listen to choral music or vocal music? Do  we Humanists have an inner ‘spirituality’ which is non-religious? I believe we do. In fact, I think that the deep inner core of most humans is non-religious, but is the very essence of our real selves. For me, choral music touches that core.

Peter [Schmolka, not Togni] warns me continually, not to reveal that I listen to choral music, and attend  live choral concerts in this city, because  you might judge me  to be not a humanist. If you look at our principles, and read our philosophers, you can see that our  philosophy’s core truths touch on our eternal energy to question,  and that  our scientists have a depth of love for  the essences and substances of this earth that no theologian can match.

I  have forwarded in this post, a note about 2 or more of  our world’s most famous western composers, atheist/agnostics, who composed  some of the very best religious music even heard, for choirs. You Tube has all works mentioned in the Peter Togni note, so have a listen and  comment on what you might not ever have heard , had you not explored that possibility.

Hearing is believing  (Posted by Jeff Reilly on Jul-22-10 at 11:06 AM)

Ralph Vaughn Williams was a declared agnostic, if not an atheist. Yet he wrote some of the most interesting and beautiful church music to ever come out of England.

Seems very strange. But he really was one of many composers to write mass settings, and other liturgical music without any belief in the Christian church. Verdi, Berlioz, and Brahms were also openly agnostic if not atheists.

So what’s with that? How can someone write music for the church when they don’t even believe in God?

Good question!

I think the answer lies in looking at music itself. People use music to be part of everything we do, celebrations, ceremonies, movies, presentations, you name it – if people are gathered together to do something, music will be a part of it.

So Vaughn Williams had a chance to write a great piece that allowed him to draw upon 1,000 years of musical development in the Christian church. He had a HUGE amount of material to work with and obviously he found that truly inspiring!

Believer, non-believer? Doesn’t really matter, the music stands up on its own in any context.

Peter Togni says Vaughn Williams mass in G minor is  “one of the great unaccompanied choral works of the 20th century” and its worth listening to!

So check it out this weekend, Vaughn Williams Mass in G minor with the Elora Festival Singers on CHORAL CONCERT with Peter Togni  this SUNDAY, July 25th   9:00 – 11:00 am, (9:30 – 11:30 NT)

Guess who looks like they’re going back to the middle ages?


Not only is it discouraging they believe God created ALL life (even the 99.98% that are now extinct, I guess it was allot of trial and error?) but they also believe it was done within the last 10 000 years.

Trudeau said at the time: “it was strange, so long after the Middle Ages that some politicians felt obliged to mention God in a
constitution which is, after all, a secular and not a spiritual document.”

But, a law student defends god in an op-ed on the National Post blog


The “supremacy of God” affirms that our rights and freedoms are not the generous offerings of the state, but are God-given. It recognizes that reason is a mechanical tool, not a moral foundation…Ultimately, the God-clause is a message to an increasingly “secular” Canada, a cautious reminder that the great tower of liberty cannot stand for long without the “moral and spiritual values” upon which it was built.

Here are some more articles, including responses and comments from CFI:


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