Darkness Gathers Over Pakistan

    "When we consider the founders of our nation - Jefferson, Washington, Samuel and John Adams, Madison and Monroe, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and many others - we have before us a list of at least ten and maybe even dozens of great political leaders. They were well-educated. Products of the European Enlightenment, they were students of history. They knew human fallibility and weakness and corruptibility... They attempted to set a course for the United States into the far future - not so much by establishing laws as by setting limits on what kinds of laws could be passed.
    The Constitution and its Bill of Rights have done remarkably well, constituting, despite human weaknesses, a machine able, more often than not, to correct its own trajectory.
    At that time, there were only about two and a half million citizens of the United States. Today there are about a hundred times more. So if there were ten people of the caliber of Thomas Jefferson then, there ought to be 10 x 100 = 1,000 Thomas Jeffersons today.
    Where are they?"

—Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World. From Chapter 25, "Real Patriots Ask Questions", p.428.

That passage has stayed with me ever since I first read it. Where are the modern world's Thomas Jeffersons? Is it that the philosophical climate that once produced great men like this has changed, so that the people who could have been them never come into being, never take the right paths down the tree of contingency? Has the world grown more politically settled, so that there's less room for them to make their mark? Or has the world just grown so much bigger and more complex that their contributions are harder to notice?

I don't have the answer to this question, but it's hard for me not to think that a man who was one of those thousand, or someday could have been, was just murdered:

...Pakistan has become a country so scared of the inciters of religious violence that liberals stay silent for fear the assassins will come for them; a land so benighted Jamaat-e-Islami and other mobster theocrats can get away with blaming Taseer for his own death and treating his killer as a hero for enforcing the will of god.

The reason offered for Punjab governor Salman Taseer's murder was that he advocated the cause of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. For fundamentalist death-worshippers, not only is any speech disagreeing with their religious beliefs a capital offense (although blasphemy accusations are often used to settle village vendettas), but defending someone accused of such, or calling for the reform of these barbaric statutes, is also worthy of death. As recently as a month ago, Taseer was scornful of the screaming maniacs calling for his blood:

Mr Taseer responded with characteristic insouciance. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Who the hell are these illiterare maulvis to decide to whether i’m a Muslim or not?” Earlier, he tweeted: “Tomorrow mullahs r demonstrating against me...Thousands of beards screaming 4 my head.What a great feeling!”

Even in the glimmerings of a Twitter post, you begin to get the idea of what we lost with his death. Taseer was a brave man who believed in human rights; his killer was one of the violent, death-worshipping thugs who believe that the first, last and only response to people speaking their own minds or doing anything they dislike is to pick up a gun. Their guiding principle is that the rule of murder is the only law they need, and that they can kill their critics faster than they arise. The frightening thing is that they may not be wrong. The virus that infects their minds is spreading so fast; when Taseer's murderer was being brought to court, jubilant crowds cheered and showered him with flower petals.

It's tempting, so tempting, to take the eschatological route: to write off Pakistan as hopeless, a lost cause, and say to the few rational and enlightened human beings left there, "Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues." But giving up and turning one's back on the world has never worked, and it won't work here. For one thing, there's still the question of Pakistan's nuclear weapons - one of the few innovations of science that the fundamentalists gladly accept in a land benighted by the absolute darkness of superstition - and, in any case, we're seeing the same mentality breaking out in America as well. In the war of reason against superstition and conscience against hate, we can't afford to surrender any ground, because it only emboldens the enemy to press harder and to advance further.

But the struggle is so hard, so wearying, and it seems as if our adversaries are inexhaustible. They have seemingly limitless reservoirs of hate to drive them, and in any case, they're so many and the guardians of reason are so few. If anything gives me the motivation to fight on despite all their evil and their barbarism, it's words like these from Taseer's son Shehrbano Taseer, who argues passionately that the cause of human rights in his country hasn't been silenced. For humanity's sake, for the sake of all we've accomplished and may yet accomplish, I hope he's right.

January 11, 2011, 8:38 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments

Caution: The Pope Is Coming!

Beware! You could lose your job for reposting or passing on the following image:

Caution: The Pope Is Coming

This altered image, which looks to me like a perfectly reasonable and important warning to children, got a man fired from his job - specifically, Hugh Dallas, an official for the Scottish Football Association, who was fired this week after forwarding this picture in an e-mail in reference to the Pope's recent visit to that country.

I've read several news articles about this, none of which make it clear whether Dallas passed this along using his work e-mail - which admittedly would be a legitimate reason to fire someone, albeit an obvious pretext - or whether the SFA is just taking the initiative to police its employees' thoughts in their spare time. But what is certain is the involvement of the Catholic church, specifically a "nasty little weasel" (as Richard Dawkins called him) named Peter Kearney, of the Scottish Catholic Media Office. Like the red-faced bigot William Donohue and his Catholic League, the sole purpose of this group's existence is apparently to seek out things to be offended by:

Mr Kearney warned: "Let no-one be in any doubt, with this shameful episode, Catholics in Scotland have drawn a line in the sand.

"The bigotry, the bile, the sectarian undercurrents and innuendos must end. Such hateful attitudes have had their day. They poison the well of community life. They must be excised and cast out once and for all."

..."Our grandparents and even our parents suffered intolerance and persecution. We will not tolerate it. We will not laugh it off or see the funny side – because there is no funny side."

It's a brazen act of arrogance for this church, which engaged in a decades-long global conspiracy to shelter child rapists and still refuses to reveal the full extent of its culpability, to label it "bigotry" for people to point this out, whether humorously or otherwise. The level of violence and anger of their rhetoric is new, even if their hypocrisy isn't - but it may be that this shrinking, aging, scandal-ridden institution is starting to panic as it senses its moral credibility slipping.

Be that as it may, Kearney, who has no sense of shame or proportion, has made it clear that his goal is to intimidate and silence people who raise criticisms of his church that are rooted in facts. And he did succeed in getting one man fired, but we can ensure that it's a Pyrrhic victory by disseminating this image far and wide. That's why I wrote this post, and that's why I encourage you to do likewise.

December 2, 2010, 10:16 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink8 comments

The March of Tyranny in the Middle East

The invasion of Iraq was cheered by right-wing Christians as a way to bring democracy to a people oppressed by tyranny. And, on paper at least, it achieved that goal. But in reality, Iraq as a nation hardly exists anymore. The anarchy of the invasion unleashed a wave of sectarian bloodshed, and the fragile stability which the country now possesses survives mainly because the ethnic cleansing is essentially complete - because all the mixed Sunni/Shia neighborhoods have been destroyed, their people fled or murdered, and those who remain live in isolated enclaves kept separate by blast walls and armed militias.

The religious right, of course, neither knows nor cares about any of this, about the suffering and disaster they've visited on the people they supposedly wanted to help. But maybe this gloomy story will drive it home for some of them: the invasion now seems almost certain to result in the extermination of the Iraqi Christian community, one of the oldest in the world.

Statistics vary wildly, but according to the US State Department, there are between 550,000 and 800,000 Christians left in Iraq, compared with 1.4 million in 1987 when a census was taken. Those numbers may be an over-estimation, but it is generally agreed that the number has halved since Saddam's fall as members of the faith flee the pogroms. Iraqi Christians say they are in graver danger now than at any time in their history.

..."To the Christian, we would like to inform you of the decision of the legal court of the Secret Islamic Army to notify you that this is your last and final threat," the letter read. "If you do not leave your home, your blood will be spilled. You and your family will be killed." With its chilling echoes of similar missives delivered to Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, it is little wonder that Iraqi Christians fear extermination.

Although Saddam Hussein was a ruthless and bloodthirsty dictator, his government actually afforded Christians more protection than they now possess. Last month's horrific attack on Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation Church was a tragic illustration of that, and campaigns of terrorism and intimidation by Islamists are ongoing.

In another illustration that democracy alone doesn't always improve human rights, there's also this from the allegedly democratic Palestinian Authority:

Residents of Qalqiliya say they had no idea that Walid Husayin — the 26-year-old son of a Muslim scholar — was leading a double life.

Known as a quiet man who prayed with his family each Friday and spent his evenings working in his father's barbershop, Husayin was secretly posting anti-religion rants on the Internet during his free time.... He now faces a potential life prison sentence on heresy charges for "insulting the divine essence."

Many in this conservative Muslim town say that isn't enough, and suggested he should be killed for renouncing Islam. Even family members say he should remain behind bars for life.

"He should be burned to death," said Abdul-Latif Dahoud, a 35-year-old Qalqiliya resident. The execution should take place in public "to be an example to others," he added.

It's still possible that Western governments will put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to spare this young man, who stands accused of nothing besides voicing his opinions - an intolerable crime in the world of Islamist thought control, where dogma receives higher protection than human lives. If you live in a Western country, please contact your representatives and ask them to take action!

And finally, just to show that the Middle East isn't entirely benighted by fundamentalism, I present this lone, pitiful spark of meager progress:

When Saudi King Abdullah appeared in a newspaper photo with 40 veiled women in April, he broke a taboo by mixing with the opposite sex in public.

Since then, the 86-year-old monarch has crimped the power of conservative Muslim clerics more than any of his five predecessors since the foundation of the kingdom in 1932. He prohibited unauthorized religious edicts, or fatwas, and shut some of the websites where they’re issued. In the past month, he backed supermarkets employing females for the first time.

Granted, women working in supermarkets - or being allowed to mingle with men in public, in full shroud and veil, for one day per year - is hardly an advance worth celebration. But it's noteworthy that even this tiny step toward female equality is being ferociously opposed by the mad, wretched Wahhabist clerics of that country. It says something unfortunate that this improvement, pitiful as it was, had to come from the monarchical tyranny that is Saudi Arabia rather than one of the nominal democracies that exist throughout the Middle East. As long as these countries are populated by those whose minds are poisoned by religion, it's unlikely that significant moral progress will ever occur there.

November 19, 2010, 2:23 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink60 comments

Free Speech on Trial, Continued

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Russia's increasingly hostile and repressive attitude toward speech which criticizes the state-sponsored church. Now another Russian artist is facing persecution:

Mavromatti, 45, fled to Bulgaria in 2000 after the Russian Orthodox Church complained about a movie he was shooting in which he is crucified. He was accused of violating a criminal code that includes inciting religious hatred and denigrating the church, an offense punishable by as much as five years in prison.

What shocks me the most is that the Russian authorities and their clerical henchmen weren't satisfied with chasing Mavromatti from the country. They're still actively in pursuit, trying to revoke his passport, trying to get Interpol to issue warrants for him. I'm proud to say that my senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, has been pushing to secure refugee status for this martyr of free speech. I've sent her a letter to let her know that her efforts are appreciated and to urge her to continue - if you live in the U.S., or if you don't, please consider doing the same.

It's obvious that Russia's rulers see themselves as the new tsars, absolute monarchs reigning over both the state and the church. They're using the Russian Orthodox church as their instrument, a tool to wield in the service of promoting nationalism and unquestioning allegiance among the people, and the church itself is only too glad to join in this game. Like all churches everywhere that gain state favor, their first step was to call for the silencing and imprisonment of everyone who presumes to criticize their beliefs, as well as people who merely fail to treat them with the level of deference they demand.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had a brief season of democracy, but that noble experiment is fading. It's rapidly regressing to a dictatorship, a theocratic state where any criticism of the glorious leader is forbidden (as is also evidenced by its brutal, across-the-board crackdown on journalists and reformers). And as always, as people's freedom slips away, the churches are there working hand-in-hand with the powerful, ordering the masses to obey and gladly trading their alleged spiritual authority for temporal rewards.

On a related note, the trial of Geert Wilders is finally beginning. As I wrote back in January, a Dutch court ordered the firebrand politician tried for "inciting discrimination and hatred" after a series of interviews where he voiced harsh criticism of Islam.

Regardless of what you think about Wilders himself - I tend to think he's a hypocrite, since he's called for a ban on the Qur'an despite his rhetoric about free speech - it shouldn't be hard to see the dangerous precedent set by banning the public expression of an idea. As far as I know, no one is claiming that Wilders has ever encouraged violence. As long as that's true, what harm can there be in letting him speak? The court's decision to charge him for expressing his opinions, however harsh, implies that Muslims are too immature to have their beliefs challenged and need to be sheltered from criticism for their own good - a far more condescending and belittling view than anything Wilders himself has ever uttered.

What makes this trial especially bizarre is that Wilders' political party, the PVV, holds the balance of power in a fragile three-party coalition government with a mere one-vote majority. It's unclear what the effect on the government would be if he were imprisoned. (The PVV's coalition partners have promised to consider Wilders' platform, including a burqa ban, in exchange for their support on other issues.) Ironically, all the media attention over the trial has caused Wilders to skyrocket in popularity, and is likely responsible for the PVV's tiebreaking power in the current government - an excellent demonstration of the principle that trying to suppress an idea by force only makes it more popular and its advocates more sympathetic. If Wilders is convicted, that injustice would probably provoke the backlash against Muslims that the Dutch authorities fear.

Punishing Geert Wilders would be doing nothing but shooting the messenger. The reason his party has come to power is because the Dutch are concerned, and rightly so, about the growth of an Islamic minority that's an incubator for violence and terrorism - as evidenced by the brutal 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh and the ongoing death threats against his collaborator Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It does no good to say that not all Muslims are guilty of these crimes, not when the radical strains of thought that inspired van Gogh's killer still circulate so freely among them.

Wilders has risen to prominence only because he's expressing views that many others hold, and imprisoning him would do precisely nothing to stop the spread of those views. If this problem is going to be solved, that solution must begin with a free and open debate, and putting people on trial won't ensure a peaceful solution. If anything, it may make the day of reckoning far worse when it finally arrives.

October 6, 2010, 8:00 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink33 comments

Qur'an Burnings and Manhattan Mosques

I haven't commented until now on this "Ground Zero mosque" - a ridiculous misnomer invented to inflame prejudice, since it's not at Ground Zero and it isn't a mosque - because, honestly, I don't think there's much that needs to be said. America still has the First Amendment, it still has freedom of religion, and Muslims have the same rights as anyone to build their religious centers anywhere they want. Unless they're directly advocating or planning violence, there's nothing that the government or anyone else can do to stop them, and that's as it should be.

The idea apparently motivating the resistance to Park51 is that Muslims bear some sort of collective responsibility for 9/11, which is absurd. Muslim Americans died on that day, along with the other victims, and al-Qaeda itself spends a great deal of time and effort killing other Muslims. There are violent undercurrents in Islam, ones which command the allegiance of a disturbingly large number of people, that must be fought - but that's no basis for a blanket denial of all Muslim building projects, in Manhattan or anywhere else. (I would add that the compromise solution preferred by many politicians, namely to move the Park51 center a few blocks away, makes absolutely no sense. Why is a Muslim community center four blocks away more respectful than one that's two blocks away? Is there an invisible line somewhere?)

On the subject of pseudocontroversies, I'm sure you've also heard about this Florida pastor who plans to burn copies of the Qur'an. He's repeatedly changed his mind about whether to do it, and as of now the burning is off, but there are some things that should be said regardless.

First of all, the same comments as above apply: America has freedom of religion, which includes the freedom not to believe and even the freedom to treat other people's holy symbols disrespectfully. This includes the freedom to treat wafers in ways Catholics dislike, to draw Mohammed even if others think we shouldn't, and so on. Having freedom of religion means that religious beliefs are not encoded in state law. It's ridiculous that so many Muslims have worked themselves into a frenzy about this. Did they not realize that Christians reject many of their beliefs?

That said, this doesn't mean I'm fully behind this pastor's deed. For one thing, many of his former parishioners describe him as a vicious, deceitful cult leader. But more importantly, the act of burning a book has historically been intended to convey the message: "Your ideas should be destroyed so that no one has a chance to read them." I'm opposed to Islam as I am to every other religion, but I'm absolutely not in favor of destroying the Qur'an or any other book. Even when an idea is bad, I think it should be preserved so people can study it and recognize the fallacy, not eradicated so they can't make up their own minds.

Even in the infamous wafer incident, PZ wasn't doing it just to make Catholics mad. It was a protest against bullying, tyrannical religious groups who try to make everyone, including nonmembers, live by their rules - and he said so very clearly. Similar with the Mohammed cartoons: they weren't a pointless provocation of Muslims, but a specifically pointed commentary on press freedom and intimidation - a protest aimed at religious theocrats who think their private beliefs should be binding on everyone. I see no such free-speech message in the Qur'an burning.

Whether it's Muslims or Christians rioting in the streets, the Twin Towers burning or the Taliban in Afghanistan, the lesson from all these stories is the divisive effect that religion has on humanity. It encourages us to group people into Us and Other, to battle and hate each other over ultimately inconsequential differences. If we all had the well-being of our fellow humans as our highest goal, rather than the worship of invisible entities and obedience to arbitrary rules, there would be that much less reason for people and nations to fight one another.

September 11, 2010, 4:58 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink60 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

• President Obama signs a law to fight British libel tourism by barring such judgments from being enforced in the U.S.

• My esteemed guest author, Sarah Braasch, has an article in the latest issue of The Humanist on the French burqa ban.

• After a scary brush with mortality, everyone's favorite squid-loving atheist professor is back in action. Visit his blog and leave some get-well-soon comments!

Did a Catholic priest carry out an IRA bombing? And if so, did the church help cover it up and shield him from justice?

• Susan Jacoby contemplates the theodicy of the bedbug.

• And last but not least, An Apostate's Chapel has this outstanding example of the eloquence, wit and wisdom of Robert Ingersoll, written in response to a Salvation Army-organized vigil of several thousand Christians praying simultaneously for his conversion. (Spoiler: It didn't work!)

August 27, 2010, 12:12 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments

The Iron Curtain of Censorship

Well, it looks like we can add Russia to the list of countries where it's illegal to criticize religion:

Two Russian museum curators were found guilty of "inciting religious hatred" for displaying a painting of Jesus Christ with Mickey Mouse's head superimposed.
    A Moscow court ordered the two men, Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev, to pay fines of £4,200 each.
    They ruled that a 2007 exhibition in Moscow called "Forbidden Art" had caused psychological trauma and moral suffering to Christians.

"Psychological trauma and moral suffering". You know, I always thought the Bible told Christians to be glad when they were persecuted:

"Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you."

—Matthew 5:11-12

but apparently this verse, like many others, has been left by the wayside. In the writings of the church fathers, there are stories of Christian martyrs who gladly suffered torture and even death in the service of their faith. Whatever else I might think about their beliefs, I can give those people points for toughness, if nothing else. But now, instead of welcoming persecution, modern Christians in many nations have become delicate flowers, so protective of their fragile psyches that they can't even bear to see Jesus with mouse ears.

And no, it's not just the state taking action to shelter and coddle Christians against their will. The church, as you might expect, took an active role in the trial:

The two convicted curators said they would appeal against Monday's verdict, while the Russian Orthodox Church complained the fines were too small.

Well, naturally. The fines have to be cripplingly large, because if they aren't, these two hooligans might not learn their lesson. They might even be tempted to criticize Christianity again in the future, and that would be lethal to the poor, helpless Russian Orthodox church. Their weak nerves couldn't possibly survive another Virgin Mary sculpted from caviar!

We're seeing something firsthand that America's founding fathers knew well: any religion that gains secular power will abuse it, no matter how much experience they have of being in the minority. Decades of repression under the Soviet government apparently taught the Russian church absolutely nothing about tolerance of dissenting views, because as soon as they regained state favor, they immediately set about trying to outlaw all opinions they disapprove of; whether it's this case, or a similar story from 2007 about them lobbying the government to outlaw homosexuality; or from 2005, when the organizers of another sacrilegious art show were convicted and fined.

This is the first and most important reason why every nation needs a strong separation of church and state. Russia has granted the Orthodox church special status in its laws, part of a dangerous drive by its leaders to promote nationalism, and the erosion of Russian citizens' freedom is the obvious and inevitable result. There are still brave people in Russia, like these Voltaire-esque museum curators, fighting for human rights - but it's all too easy to see a new iron curtain, not made of concrete or barbed wire but nonetheless real, looming and threatening to close around the people's minds.

July 23, 2010, 5:49 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink15 comments

Creationists Flee from Criticism

A few weeks ago, I was alerted by a Google alert to a post, "Conversation With An Atheist", on the site Everyday Christian. Since I'm always interested to find Christians who want to converse with atheists, to see what they have to say about us and to us, I checked it out. It turned out to be a fairly run-of-the-mill creationist argument by a Christian apologist named Jack Wellman.

Since my interest was piqued, I posted a comment in reply to Mr. Wellman, and then another when he responded (you can see them by following the link to the thread). Several others chimed in as well. Wellman kept responding, using the typical creationist tactic of changing the topic to a new argument every time the previous one was refuted. He also posted several remarks that showed a spectacular misunderstanding of evolution, such as inexplicably claiming that the universality of the genetic code was evidence against common descent, rather than one of the strongest pieces of evidence for it. I tried to correct these fallacies in as civil a manner as possible.

However, at some point, it seems that either Wellman or the site moderators decided he wasn't faring well enough in the debate, and simply stopped allowing new comments to be posted. I subscribed to the thread by e-mail and got one final message several days ago, from another contributor complaining that his previous comments had been censored. But when I checked the thread, this comment had been deleted. Since then, no new comments have been allowed to appear.

This was my last comment, which was submitted over a week ago and hasn't been posted. There's been no explanation from the site moderators as to why it was rejected:

"And so you, evolutionists, and biologists had expected to see something that would link a primitive ancestor to the middle Cambrian animal Pikaia. Explain the archeological evidence that Pikaia had a less-complex ancestor then."

Easily done: Haikouella isn't an ancestor of Pikaia. You've jumped to the erroneous conclusion that a species living at time X must necessarily have been the ancestor of a species at time X+Y.

If you really want to understand this, Jack, I'm happy to explain it. Evolution rarely, if ever, works in a single, smooth trajectory of change - species A changes into species B, which changes into species C, and so on. Instead, what we usually see is a path of descent like a branching bush: species A radiates into species B1, B2, B3... and so on. Most of these go extinct, but B2, say, speciates into C1, C2, and C3, and again, some of the daughter species go extinct and others diverge in their own ways. But species don't have fixed lifespans, and there's nothing to dictate how long a particular species will survive before it goes extinct. There may still be living species from the A or B generation existing side-by-side with far more advanced descendants. It's like having an uncle who's younger than you: for humans, it's unusual but certainly possible. But in evolution, it's downright common.

For obvious reasons, it's difficult to reconstruct an exact line of descent from fossils, just as you probably couldn't put together an exact family tree just by looking at photographs. It's possible that either Pikaia or Haikouella is the common ancestor of all vertebrates, or it may be another species we haven't discovered yet. But what's certain is that evolution was doing a lot of experimenting with chordates in the Cambrian, and what's equally certain is that we came from one of those lineages, because true vertebrates - primitive fish called ostracoderms - start appearing in the Late Cambrian and then in greater variety in the next period, the Ordovician. This was why I wrote "Pikaia or one very like it" - all this detail is what lies behind that little phrase.

"Irises and humans have 25% of the same DNA, so based upon your faulty logic, we should be at least 1/4th part Iris."

It would be more accurate to say that irises and humans are very similar when it comes to the most basic functions of life, which is true, and is a prediction of evolution via universal common descent. Really, why are you so surprised by this? Sure, irises and humans don't look much alike, but at the lowest levels of organization, we have a lot in common.

We're both made out of eukaryotic cells. We both store genetic information in DNA, copy it into messenger RNA, and transcribe that RNA into proteins. We both use ATP as the cellular currency of energy. We both share basic components of cellular metabolism like glycolysis and the Krebs cycle. We have these and many other traits in common because we (that is to say, animals and plants) are both descended from an ancestral eukaryote that did all these things. We've both inherited a common toolbox of genes for performing the basic functions of life - genes that perform functions so basic, it would be essentially impossible for evolution to change them in any major way - and as the human and iris lines diverged, we each added our own specializations on top of that.

"Incidentally, you failed to mention the fact that the genetic code for protein-coding genes is nearly universal in eukaryotes and prokaryotes. Millions of alternative genetic codes exist, so why do all organisms have nearly the same one?"

Again: because we're all descended from a common ancestor. This is actually one of the most powerful lines of evidence for evolution. Why do you think it should be a problem for us?

Note that an omnipotent creator could easily have created every single species with a completely different genetic code, a completely different way of turning genes into protein. That's the kind of evidence that would prove evolution impossible. Instead, what we find is near universality, with just a few very minor variations - the only signature we could reasonably expect from a process of descent with modification.

If you see anything so inflammatory in this comment that a site moderator would have cause to reject it, please tell me what it is, because I'm stumped. The only conclusion I can draw is that Jack Wellman realized he wasn't doing well and didn't want to deal with any further criticism, and prevailed on the site admins to stop letting it through. (I've also saved a copy of the thread in case they go back and delete earlier comments, which wouldn't surprise me at this point.)

Sadly, in my experience, this isn't uncommon. I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that it's pointless to debate creationists and other religious fundamentalists in any forum that they control, because they'll shut down the discussion as soon as they sense they're losing, even if the contrary comments are polite and on topic. They simply can't be trusted to allow a fair and open debate; they have too much to lose. And this isn't true just on web forums, but in wider society, where religious believers constantly try to shut down criticism with blasphemy laws, "hate speech" claims, threats, and every other method fair or foul available to them.

After some searching, I found Mr. Wellman's own site. I've sent him an e-mail to let him know about this post and to invite him to continue the debate here, or even just to explain why my comments stopped being posted. I don't expect much to come of it, but we'll have to see.

July 18, 2010, 12:38 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink25 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

• It's about time! The SEC has charged a psychic with securities fraud for claiming to be able to supernaturally foretell the direction of the market.

• The staff of IslamOnline, a Cairo-based journalism website that offers a platform for liberal and reformist views, have gone on strike over plans by the Qatari owners to impose stricter editorial controls and force a more conservative viewpoint.

• I'm very glad to report that Ireland's government is now backtracking on the ludicrous blasphemy law it passed several months ago. The government plans to hold a referendum later this year on whether the law should be repealed. Now it's just up to the people of Ireland to do the right thing.

• Less positively, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld religious language in the Pledge of Allegiance, ruling against a new lawsuit brought by Michael Newdow, and reaching the ridiculous conclusion that "one nation under God" is not religious language. One of the judges who took part in the original decision (which Newdow won before his first case was thrown out by the Supreme Court for lack of standing) wrote a scathing dissent. Newdow plans to ask for an en banc rehearing.

• Also, there's a truly outstanding article by Johann Hari interviewing the Ethiopian women fighting back against bride abduction, the brutal practice of men finding wives by kidnapping and raping them (at which point, in agreement with biblical law, they're expected to marry their rapist - since they've been "ruined" and no other man will have them). In the shadow of a vicious dictatorship, there are heroic women, and men, fighting to change a culture where this is accepted and common.

March 20, 2010, 10:01 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink4 comments

Britain, Fix Your Libel Laws!

Legal observers have noted for some time that the laws governing defamation in the United Kingdom are far more plaintiff-friendly than similar laws in the U.S. In the U.S., anyone claiming they were libeled has to prove that the allegedly libelous statements were false. But in the U.K., the burden of proof is reversed: the defendant in a libel suit has to prove that the statements they made were true. This creates a serious hazard to free speech: rich, litigious individuals can file lawsuits and win just by prolonging the court battle until the other side runs out of money to fight, at which point they instantly lose - and then must pay damages and court costs.

This is precisely the strategy that thin-skinned billionaires and powerful business interests, many of them not even based in the U.K., have been using to shut down anyone who criticizes them. It's become so common, it's acquired a name: "libel tourism". Most infamously, the Saudi businessman Khalid bin Mahfouz sued journalist Rachel Ehrenfeld in the U.K. courts for her book Funding Evil, which alleged that bin Mahfouz financially supported Muslim terrorist groups - this even though Ehrenfeld doesn't live in the U.K. and her book wasn't published there. Another example is the case of Simon Singh, a science journalist who wrote an editorial saying that there was no evidence for the effectiveness of chiropractic - and was promptly sued by the British Chiropractic Association. That case is still ongoing and has already cost Singh tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours defending himself.

And now, the U.K.'s libel laws are being invoked yet again in what promises to be their most outrageous and absurd application so far. Atheists might have guessed that this was coming:

A Saudi Arabian lawyer has threatened to use British courts to overturn a Danish free speech ruling by bringing a defamation case over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that depicted Islam's founder as a terrorist.

Faisal Yamani, a Jeddah based lawyer, is planning to take a case to London's libel courts on behalf of over 90,000 descendants of Mohammed who have claimed that the drawings have defamed them and the Islamic faith.

...Mr Yamani demanded last year that 11 Danish newspapers remove all cartoon images of Mohammed from their websites and issue front page apologies along with promises that the images would never be printed again.

Yes, it's those Danish cartoons of Mohammed again. Five years after they were first published, the Muslim world just can't move on, and is still demanding that someone, anyone, must be made to pay for their hurt feelings. From angry mobs in the streets and ax attacks on cartoonists, to libel lawsuits and pushing defamation resolutions at the U.N., it's clear there's nothing they won't try to censor and intimidate anyone who criticizes them in any way at all.

But even under the U.K.'s plaintiff-friendly defamation laws, this suit looks even less meritorious than its predecessors. First of all, on what basis does anyone assert the right to sue on Mohammed's behalf? Can a many-centuries-dead person be libeled? And what "factual statement" was made by these drawings that the plaintiffs claim to be defamatory?

But whatever legal issues are raised by this lawsuit, the question of its merit is irrelevant. Like all libel tourism, its purpose isn't to prevail on the merits, but to intimidate and harass media organizations with protracted, expensive litigation and the threat of a catastrophic judgment, thus chilling their speech and making them afraid to offend any deep-pocketed individual. Whether it's pseudoscience groups protecting their cash cow from scientists' criticism or the perpetually aggrieved Muslim mob and their petulant demand that no one be allowed to express any opinion they disapprove of, the strategy is the same, and the result is too often the same as well.

America has this problem too of course, with so-called SLAPP lawsuits - but in our system, with the burden of proof the right way round, it's much more difficult for cults and corporations to succeed in silencing their critics. Britain's libel laws, on the other hand, are far too easily abused by those who flee from criticism and avoid open debate - but eagerly use thuggery and coercion to shut down their opposition if given the chance.

Fortunately, the U.K. has seen the rise of a broad coalition seeking to overhaul the libel tourism laws and put the country back on a more rational footing. But too much damage has already been done, and more is being done, so reform can't come soon enough. If you live in Great Britain, contact your MP and tell them to support this effort! We need to take action before any more scientists, atheists or freethinkers are silenced by the allies of corruption, censorship and superstition.

March 17, 2010, 6:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink29 comments

< Newer Posts Older Posts >

Now available from Big Think!


MUST-READ POSTS (view all)


SITE CATEGORIES (explanation)




see all >













SSA Speaker Page
Find Me on Facebook Find Me on Atheist Nexus
Kiva - loans that change lives
Foundation Beyond Belief
The Out Campaign
Winner of the 2009 3 Quarks Daily Science Writing Prize