May 2008

From Herald-Tribune:

SARASOTA — Citing the burden they place on taxpayers who pay for government workers’ health insurance, Sarasota County officials announced Monday that they no longer will hire smokers.

From Herald-Tribune:

SARASOTA — This is the most costly place in Florida to blast your stereo, with a new law that gives police the authority to impound cars if they can hear the tunes from 25 feet away.


From Wired Science:

Creationism ‘Education’ Still Widespread

By Wired Science

A survey of 900 high school teachers has found that 1 in 8 still teach creationism as a “valid scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species.” Did we mention that these are science teachers?


“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” So said Albert Einstein, and his famous aphorism has been the source of endless debate between believers and non-believers wanting to claim the greatest scientist of the 20th century as their own.

A little known letter written by him, however, may help to settle the argument – or at least provoke further controversy about his views.

Due to be auctioned this week in London after being in a private collection for more than 50 years, the document leaves no doubt that the theoretical physicist was no supporter of religious beliefs, which he regarded as “childish superstitions”.

Einstein penned the letter on January 3 1954 to the philosopher Eric Gutkind who had sent him a copy of his book Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt. The letter went on public sale a year later and has remained in private hands ever since.

In the letter, he states: “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”

Einstein, who was Jewish and who declined an offer to be the state of Israel’s second president, also rejected the idea that the Jews are God’s favoured people.

“For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.”


I Am Evolution
by Holly Dunsworth

Weekend Edition Sunday, May 11, 2008. I believe evolution. It’s easy. It’s my life. I’m a paleoanthropologist. I study fossils of humans, apes and monkeys, and I teach college students about their place in nature.

Of course I believe evolution.

But that is different from believing in evolution.

To believe in something takes faith, trust, effort, strength. I need none of these things to believe evolution. It just is. My health is better because of medical research based on evolution. My genetic code is practically the same as a chimpanzee’s. My bipedal feet walk on an earth full of fossil missing links. And when my feet tire, those fossils fuel my car.

To believe in something also implies hope. Hope of happiness, reward, forgiveness, eternal life. There is no hope wrapped up in my belief. Unless you count the hope that one day I’ll discover the most beautifully complete fossil human skeleton ever found, with a label attached saying exactly what species it belonged to, what food it ate, how much it hunted, if it could speak, if it could laugh, if it could love and if it could throw a curveball. But this fantasy is not why I believe evolution — as if evolution is something I hope comes true.

After all the backyard bone collecting I did as a child, I managed to carve out a career where I get to ask the ultimate question on a daily basis: “Where did I come from and how?”

If our beliefs are important enough, we live our lives in service to them. That’s how I feel about evolution. My role as a female Homo sapiens is to return each summer to Kenya, dig up fossils, and piece together our evolutionary history. Scanning the ground for weeks, hoping to find a single molar, or gouging out the side of a hill, one bucket of dirt at a time, I’m always in search of answers to questions shared by the whole human species. The experience deepens my understanding not just about what drives my life, but all our lives, where we came from. And the deeper I go, the more I understand that everything is connected. A bullfrog to a gorilla, a hummingbird to me, to you.

My belief is not immutable. It is constantly evolving with accumulating evidence, new knowledge and breakthrough discoveries. For example, within my lifetime, our history has expanded from being rooted 3 million years ago with the famous Lucy skeleton, to actually beginning over 6 million years ago with a cranium from Chad. The metamorphic nature of my belief is not at all like a traditional religious one; it’s more like seeing is believing.

So I believe evolution.

I feel it. I breathe it. I listen to evolution, I observe it and I do evolution. I write, study, analyze, scrutinize and collect evolution. I am evolution.

Independently produced for Weekend Edition Sunday by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

From the Associated Press:

Body of woman, 90, found on toilet in inhabited Wis. home

NECEDAH, Wis. (AP) — A sheriff’s deputy discovered the remains of a 90-year-old woman on a toilet in a house she shared with a woman and two children, authorities said Friday.

Juneau County District Attorney Scott Southworth charged 35-year-old Tammy Lewis and 57-year-old Alan Bushey (pronounced “boo-SHAY”) with two felony counts of being a party to causing mental harm to a child. Lewis was also charged with obstructing an officer, a misdemeanor.

By Friday night, the children had been placed in foster care, both adults remained in custody and an autopsy had been done but results won’t be available for some time, said Sheriff Brent Oleson.

“At this time we don’t know what the cause of death was,” he said. “Quite frankly it might have been natural causes.”

He described the one-story home in the town of Necedah as in decent repair, although the residents had been using “makeshift” toilet facilities because of the situation in the one bathroom.

“It’s a sad case and we’ll continue to investigate it and try to ascertain just what occurred up there,” Oleson said.

According to the criminal complaint, Bernice Metz contacted the Juneau County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday and asked if a deputy could check on her 90-year-old sister, Magdeline Alvina Middlesworth. Metz said no one had heard from Middlesworth for some time.

When Deputy Leigh Neville-Neil arrived at the house, she encountered Lewis, also known as Sister Mary Bernadett, the complaint said. Lewis initially refused to allow the deputy to check on Middlesworth, telling her Middlesworth was on vacation and saying she had to check with her “superior” first.

But she eventually let the deputy in.

The house smelled of incense and burnt wood, had religious materials everywhere and also had hymns playing on the stereo, according to the complaint.

As the deputy opened doors in the house, Lewis again told her Middlesworth wasn’t home.

When the deputy opened the last closed door, she smelled “decaying matter” and noticed something piled on what appeared to be a toilet, and Lewis told her it was Middlesworth’s body, the complaint said.

The deputy ordered Lewis’ children — a 15-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy — out of the house because of the stench. Lewis and the children began crying hysterically outside.

Lewis told the deputy Middlesworth died about two months earlier, but God told her Middlesworth would come to life if she prayed hard enough.

She said she couldn’t say anything more until she spoke with her “superior” Bushey, also known as Bishop John Peter Bushey.

When Bushey arrived, Lewis told the deputy Middlesworth appeared to pass out while Lewis was helping her into her underwear.

She said she had propped Middlesworth on the toilet and left the room to call Bushey, who told her to leave the woman be and pray for her, the complaint said. He said he had received signs from God that God would raise her from the dead with a miracle.

Lewis went on to say she thought Middlesworth was still breathing when she put her on the toilet and called Bushey rather than an ambulance. She later told a detective she put the woman on the toilet on March 4.

The boy told a detective on Thursday he referred to Middlesworth as “grandmother,” although the complaint doesn’t explain whether Middlesworth was related to anyone in the home. The boy said he considered running away because he was uncomfortable with the situation.

The boy said Bushey told him Middlesworth looked bad because demons were trying to make it look like she wouldn’t come back to life, and if she were to be discovered he and the girl would have to go to public school and get jobs because Middlesworth paid the bills.

The sheriff told The Associated Press that Middlesworth and Lewis lived at the residence with the children since fall of 2004, and Bushey lived in another residence. He declined to describe the relationship between the children and the adults, to protect the identity of the children.

Middlesworth was not related to Bushey, he said.

“She believed in the same faith as self-proclaimed Bishop Bushey and that was the connection there,” he said.

Oleson said he had no further information on Bushey’s religious affiliation.

Bushey and Lewis are scheduled to make an initial court appearance May 19.

The sheriff said cash bond was set Friday at $50,000 each, but Lewis was allowed to post 10 percent for her release.

Computerized state court records had no attorney listed as yet for them.


An Atheist Goes Undercover to Join the Flock of Mad Pastor John Hagee

By Matt Taibbi, Posted May 5, 2008.

The following is an excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s new book, The Great Derangement” (Spiegel and Grau, 2008).

I pulled into the church parking lot a little after 6:00 p.m., at more or less the last possible minute. The previous half hour or so I’d spent dawdling in my car outside a Goodwill department store off Route 410 in San Antonio, clinging to some inane sports talk show piping over my car radio — anything to hold off my plunge into Religion.

Full article.

From Science-Based Medicine:

Neurologist Robert A. Burton, MD has written a gem of a book: On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. His thesis is that “Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.” Your certainty that you are right has nothing to do with how right you are.

Within 24 hours of the Challenger explosion, psychologist Ulric Neisser had 106 students write down how they’d heard about the disaster, where they were, what they were doing at the time, etc. Two and a half years later he asked them the same questions. 25% gave strikingly different accounts, more than half were significantly different, and only 10% had all the details correct. Even after re-reading their original accounts, most of them were confident that their false memories were true. One student commented, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

Just as we may “know” things that clearly aren’t true, we may think we don’t know when we really do. In the phenomenon of blindsight, patients with a damaged visual cortex have no awareness of vision, but can reliably point to where a light flashes when they think they are just guessing. And there are states of “knowing” that don’t correspond to any specific knowledge: mystical or religious experiences.

Full article.

From The Huffington Post:

Losing Our Spines to Save Our Necks
by Sam Harris

Geert Wilders, conservative Dutch politician and provocateur, has become the latest projectile in the world’s most important culture war: the zero-sum conflict between civil society and traditional Islam. Wilders, who lives under perpetual armed guard due to death threats, recently released a 15 minute film entitled Fitna (“strife” in Arabic) over the internet. The film has been deemed offensive because it juxtaposes images of Muslim violence with passages from the Qur’an. Given that the perpetrators of such violence regularly cite these same passages as justification for their actions, merely depicting this connection in a film would seem uncontroversial. Controversial or not, one surely would expect politicians and journalists in every free society to strenuously defend Wilders’ right to make such a film. But then one would be living on another planet, a planet where people do not happily repudiate their most basic freedoms in the name of “religious sensitivity.”

Witness the free world’s response to Fitna: The Dutch government sought to ban the film outright, and European Union foreign ministers publicly condemned it, as did UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Dutch television refused to air Fitna unedited. When Wilders declared his intention to release the film over the internet, his U.S. web-host, Network Solutions, took his website offline.

Into the breach stepped Liveleak, a British video-sharing website, which finally aired the film on March 27th. It received over 3 million views in the first 24 hours. The next day, however, Liveleak removed Fitna from its servers, having been terrorized into self-censorship by threats to its staff. But the film had spread too far on the internet to be suppressed (and Liveleak, after taking further security measures, has since reinstated it on its site as well).

Full article here.

From Sam Harris:

We are preparing to run another fMRI study of belief and disbelief, and we need volunteers to help us refine our experimental stimuli. This promises to be the first study of religious faith at the level of the brain. By responding to the four surveys I have posted online, you can make an enormous contribution to this work.

Please answer as many of the surveys as you can. If you only have time to answer one, please choose at random (otherwise, we will have many more responses to the first than to the others).

Feel free to post this message to your blog or to forward the relevant links to your friends. We especially need Christians to respond, as one of the goals of these surveys is to design stimuli that a majority of Christians will find doctrinally sound.

Please note: Each survey starts with the same first page of questions.

Belief Survey A

Belief Survey B

Belief Survey C

Belief Survey D

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