Grant Rants

Archive for the ‘science’ Category

I get feedback: Creationist logic edition

- July 23rd, 2014

Greetings heathens, zealots, web denizens and the rest of you!

So apparently my column on the nature of science reporting has some creationists all tied up into knots.
The thrust of my piece was new BBC guidelines for its reporters that insists when reporting science that journalists actually report, you know, science. Creationists do not like this idea much because they want their particular origin myth to be factually true. It’s a line of reasoning that says if their version of the creation myth isn’t true, then nothing in the Bible is true, and their entire universe will collapse.

Of course, creationism isn’t science, has no scientific evidence, creationists produce no research and have discovered nothing. Which isn’t surprising, since religion isn’t science.

Doesn’t stop some of them from trying to claim it is. Take Herman Hunter of Niagara Falls, for  instance, who writes:

Grant Rant July 14 “Science reporting should be based on science.” Grant rants as if evolutionary scientists have answers to where life began. He claims that invoking a supernatural act by a creator who is beyond our time/space universe is unscientific. But the naturalistic view of the origin of the universe has to explain how nothing became everything by itself. This view violates the known laws of science. The humanistic, material energy, chance world view, intolerantly uses every form of force at its disposal to make its world view the exclusive one taught. It is rather naive to think that nothing gave rise to something, that non-living matter gave rise to life. What was the first cause that caused everything else? Where did matter and energy come from? Where did intelligence originate? Are we to think of the universe as a massive perpetual-motion apparatus with some sort of impersonal “intelligence” of its own? Or is there a intelligent designer who created everything from nothing and set it all in motion? Evolution is really a fairy tale for grown-ups.

This is a common creationist line of thinking. They like to think it is logic. It is more like a highly selective constipated thought process. And it’s one that can be easily broken down thusly:

1) “He claims that invoking a supernatural act by a creator who is beyond our time/space universe is unscientific. But the naturalistic view of the origin of the universe has to explain how nothing became everything by itself. This view violates the known laws of science.

This is all kinds of wrong. First off, the theory of evolution by natural selection describes how life forms on Earth change and adapt over time and how new species arise. It does not, in any way shape or form, discuss the origin of the universe. That is described in the big bang theory and related fields of science. These are entirely different scientific theories, describing different things, from different fields of study. Their only point of contact is that they do not invoke a god, which can be said for every single scientific theory. Because it’s science, not religion.

So Herman, you cannot say something violates the “known laws of science,” if you don’t know what science is.

2) The humanistic, material energy, chance world view, intolerantly uses every form of force at its disposal to make its world view the exclusive one taught.

Well, if you are talking about what is taught in a science class room, then yes. You see, in a science class you teach, you know, SCIENCE. Not religion. You can preach your origin myth all you want in your churches and temples. This is the great hypocrisy of the creationist. They want to preach in religion in science classes and have the Bible included as a science book. But you don’t see scientists knocking at the doors of Sunday school classes insisting on “equal” time for the germ theory of disease or evolution do you?

The creationist and like minded people appear to me to need a “them” to feel like they are under assault. Refusing to allow religious dogma into the science class or the lab is not religious persecution. It’s just good science.

Oh and by the way, while change plays a role in evolution in the form of mutation, evolution by natural selection is not a chance process. It is, in fact, a non random process. If it wasn’t, it won’t work.

3)  It is rather naive to think that nothing gave rise to something, that non-living matter gave rise to life. What was the first cause that caused everything else? Where did matter and energy come from? Where did intelligence originate? Are we to think of the universe as a massive perpetual-motion apparatus with some sort of impersonal “intelligence” of its own? Or is there a intelligent designer who created everything from nothing and set it all in motion? Evolution is really a fairy tale for grown-ups.

And here is where the creationist babble gaff completely falls apart.
See the creationist likes to think they have a checkmate argument by saying “Well, how did the universe arise from nothing? That makes no sense. It had to be god.” Then when you say “Ok, and where did god come from?” they  say  “oh, well, ah, you see god always existed…or created himself…or something. Doesn’t matter.”

See, as Carl Sagan pointed out, if you want to postulate that the universe has a creator and that creator was never itself created, you really have explained nothing. You might as well skip a step and say the universe created itself. It makes as much sense.

What science ACTUALLY says is rather different from what Herman, and indeed most creationists will tell you science says. When it comes to the absolute origin point of our universe, science as three words: “We don’t know.”

There is nothing wrong with not knowing. It means we have more to learn. Big Bang cosmology has brought us very far in terms of understanding the origin of our universe. But there is still more to know and discover. And scientists are working toward better answers all the time. What scientists don’t do is fill in our ignorance with whatever fair story happens to appeal to them. Herman, on the other hand, is throwing up his hands and saying in effect “magic man did it,” and then claiming that is science.

The brilliance of science is that it works through evidence, observation, experiment, and constantly attempting to prove its own conclusions wrong. And it does not hide from it’s own ignorance.

Sorry, Herman, but you can’t make an effective argument if you don’t know what which you are trying criticize. Go back to school, son.

How much do you know about science? Take the quiz!

- March 18th, 2014

Greetings heathens, zealots, web denizens and the rest of you!

So we have two brilliant of episodes of Cosmos in the can, and I am completely blown away. The last episode on evolution and how life develops was amazing. This is every bit as good as I had hoped and a worthy sequel to Carl Sagan’s original.

The next episode airs on Sunday night, so as a bit of fun while we wait, hop over to the Christian Science Monitor which has a very good “Are you scientifically literate?” quiz.

I scored 84 %. Didn’t do so well with some of the chemistry questions, but then chemistry was never my strongest subject.testscore1

Give it a try, report your score here and don’t forget to watch Cosmos!

I get feedback: Creationists don’t like me edition

- February 27th, 2014

Greetings heathens, zealots, web denizens and the rest of you!

So in my recent column about the location of the new south Niagara hospital, I pointed out that denying some basic facts about the hospital is like denying the facts about evolution:

“To deny these facts is like denying evolution. Sure, you can do it, but you end up looking like a loon. Just ask Ken Ham.”

Well, as is always the case when I bring up the big E word, creationists go bananas, including one Harry Huizer of 
St. Catharines, whose response attempts to point out how evolution is really just a matter of opinion. Just to show how far creationists play in a world without facts, I think it worth responding to the points Harry makes.

“Grant LaFleche spoiled his article on the proposed south Niagara hospital with his insult to those denying evolution. To say they end up looking like loons is disrespectful and unwarranted. As an atheist, Grant doesn’t have much choice but to believe in the theory of evolution and we have to be respectful of his opinion.”

Harry goes right off the rails out of the gate here.

First, there is nothing to compel anyone to be respectful of anyone else’s opinion. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion and express it freely. That is what free speech is. But that doesn’t mean we have to respect the content of those opinions, or even be nice about them. This is particularly true about religion, where believers will regularly try to make the case that my disagreeing with them, by holding up their beliefs to scrutiny and even ridicule goes too far because, well, they believe it so. The honesty of their belief, they argue, should protect the content of those beliefs from being questioned or mocked.

I believe H.L. Mecken put it best when he said “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”

Creationist do end up looking like loons because they deny the facts to such an extreme degree they end up looking like people who live in a fantasy world. Just consider at the recent debate between science educator Bill Nye and creationist guru Ken Ham. Ham ended up looking like someone who lives life by jumping into bed and pulling the blankets over his head. The only “facts” he accepts are the ones  he reads in his bible by flashlight. But this doesn’t stop people like Harry from offering up extraordinarily strange arguments.

“However here are a few “facts” that Grant and others should know: The fossil evidence from thousands of years ago shows not a trace of evolution. Animals and man seem to have suddenly appeared. The origin of life is the Achille’s heel of evolution since scientists have shown that the chances of assembling even one living cell is virtually impossible.”

Ugh. I don’t know what is worse about the creationism crowd, that they know nothing about probabilities, that they know nothing about biology and its related fields of science, or that they flaunt their ignorance as though its a badge of honour.

The fossil evidence is one of the best sources of evidence about evolution. It has become so detailed that scientists looking to tract the path of the evolution of a particular species can predict where they should find fossils that demonstrate the evolution of a particular trait. This is how Canadian scientists were able to find Tiktaalik, a critter that helps us understand how creatures that lived in the water evolved into those that lived on land. Because of the fossil record, the scientists knew where on the planet and in what layers of rock the fossils should be found. If those fossils were never found, you would have a serious challenge to the theory.

We’ve been able to track the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, and the evolution of feathers in the fossil record. We can watch the evolution of human beings from our primate ancestors. There is no “sudden appearance” of “man and animals.” Rather we see their development over long periods of time through small changes. Harry is just ignorant of what the fossil record shows.

And of course, evidence is not limited to just the fossil record. Genetics has proved to be a powerful tool to understanding evolution. And like all scientific theories, evolution makes specific predictions that can be tested, such as the theory’s explanation of why we have one fewer pair of chromosomes than chimps:

Finally there is this bit about the origin of life being “impossible.” No, we do not know everything about how life arose on this planet. But we are learning more and more all the time and the picture is increasingly looking like it all beings with simple chemistry. Once you have something that can self replicate, you have something for natural selection to work on. Just because we do not understand something, does not automatically make a religious explanation suddenly valid scientifically. When we do not know something, we do not know it. QED.

Of course, what Harry completely misses is that the theory of evolution is NOT about how life got started. It explains how the variety of life we see now developed. The precise details of the absolute origin of life as we know it is outside the theory’s scope. But science gets closer to understanding that mystery all the time.

Consider the alternative Harry presents here: a sky god with no origin, that always existed, magically created the world, made a man out of dirt and a woman out of a rib and from these two magical people, the entire population of human begins arose. (Apparently inbreeding wasn’t a problem for Adam and Eve’s children.)

Where is the evidence for any of that, Harry?

Oh and one final point. Harry is trying to say evolution didn’t happen because the odds of life arising from chemistry (the development of a single living cell as he put it) are “virtually impossible.” He does not know the difference between “improbable” and “impossible.”

Consider poker for a moment. The odds of getting a royal flush is something around 650,000 to one. Not good odds at all. And yet, players do get dealt royal flushes all the time despite the odds being “virtually impossible.” Long odds are not the issue here. What matters is what happened and what we know happened, regardless of how improbably it may seem, is that life developed on this planet by the process of evolution.

“Many prominent scientists have come to the conclusion that there is an intelligent designer behind all creation.”

Actually, no, Harry. This is an outright falsehood. Because of the overwhelming amount of evidence for evolution, scientists support it as the best explanation we have for life. Those who do not accept evolution are neither “prominent” and have produced no scientific work that support the outright religious idea of “intelligent design,” which is little more than creationism dressed up in a lab coat. It’s religion in drag.

To claim otherwise is like saying “many important scientists have come to the conclusion that gravity isn’t real and concluded that the sun goes around the earth.” Sure you can say that, but that doesn’t make it true.

Intelligent design by the way, is a complete discredited idea that was cooked up by a bunch of American creationists who were looking for a way to get around a Supreme Court ruling that forbade creationism from being taught in public school classrooms. There is no scientific work to support it, no peer reviewed work, no theory to be tested. Just an idea that says “god did it.” It was part of a strategy to teach creationism without explicitly mentioning god, who is replaced by the phrase “intelligent designer.” It is frankly a more pitiful attempt at political camouflage than the Progressive Conservative’s recent effort to hang onto right to work policy ideas without actually using the phrase “right to work.”

The organization that was behind the entire intelligent design thing is a group called the Discovery Institute, which operated on a premise that became known as the Wedge Strategy, which stated that if they could overthrow evolution as the primary paradigm in biology, they could introduce the idea of an intelligent designer, and eventually sway people to believe in Christian creationism.

The entire ID thing was exposed a few years ago in Dover, Pennsylvania during a trial where the history, methods and truth behind the Discovery Institute and ID was brought to light. Here is a very good documentary about it:

Which brings us to Harry’s last point:

“Michael Denton, a molecular biologist says it best: “Evolutionary theory is still, as it was in Darwin’s time, a highly speculative hypothesis entirely without factual support.” I think Grant needs to study all the facts before making his comments and conclusions.”

Yah, so Michael Denton works for, you guessed it, the Discovery Institute. They produce a lot of books, but no scientific work. Harry thinks he has made a point by telling us that Denton is a molecular biologist. His creds mean nothing if his conclusions are unscientific and discredited.

Better luck next time Harry.

A royal baby? Who cares? Cosmos returns!!!

- July 22nd, 2013

carl-sagan

“The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

I have a rule when I am on vacation: no news writing. I do not write any news while on holidays because I use my time off to recharge. It is a rule which has, for the last two weeks, been beyond frustrating.
More scandals in the Catholic church (and to mention the hilariously moronic push by the Vatican to forgive sins if believers would just follow the pope’s Twitter page), the prime ministers official enemies list, and news that that pox upon humanity known as Glee is doing a two our special on the Beatles — Listen, you vile pestilence upon music, keep your hands off the Fab Four! You’ve already butchered KISS and AC/DC, leave the boys from Liverpool alone for frak’s sake!

But even as I fought the temptation to rant about these things and more, I was bombarded by news that Kate Whatsherface — the rich woman who married the British prince — is having her baby. It’s apparently a boy. Coverage of the birth of yet another privileged member of the impotent monarchy has become so nauseatingly wall-to-wall and given such a sense of importance that I’m expecting three Persians to show up at Buckingham Palace bearing gifts of gold, frankincense  and myrrh.

I cannot muster up even a little enthusiasm for the arrival of this child, who will one day occupy tabloid headlines and inherit a throne that is to Canadian politics what the appendix is to human anatomy.

And besides, there is way more exiting news than the spawn of a prince. Cosmos is back baby!

In 1980 the original Cosmos: a Personal Voyage was a 13 part TV series hosted by the late, great Carl Sagan. It was about history, discovery, science, astronomy and our place in an unthinkably vast universe. It was brilliant and for many people, myself included, an the perfect introduction the power and glory of science and reason and beautifully bizarre mysteries of the universe we inhabit. The series and its companion book left a deep imprint on my psyche.  From the moment I saw the first episode as a kid, I was hooked.

Since Cosmos aired, there has been talk of a sequel. But the show was not a quick knock off. It was an expansive series, using (at the time) state of the art special effects to add verve to Sagan’s commentary and lessons. It was as entertaining as it was educational and inspiring. Alas, Sagan passed away before any sequel could be made.

But the man many regard as Sagan’s successor as the public educator of science par excellence, Neil deGrasse Tyson is hosting the sequel titled “Cosmos: a space-time odyssey”. It is aSagan-Calrissian-Tyson-600x337lso 13 parts and will air next year. The trailer looks incredible. Tyson, who is basically what you get when you cross Carl Sagan with Lando Calrissian, is the prefect man for the job of filling Sagan’s shoes.

Interestingly, it is being aired on Fox in the United States, not exactly a television network known for broadcasting programing with intelligence. What this means, I think, is that the kind of wonder about the universe and science Sagan created in 1980 will reach the eyes and ears of those who normally might not watch a show about science.

Be prepared to feel gloriously small in a beautifully vast universe. No royal baby will ever be able to create that kind of wonder and light the fire of curiosity like Cosmos can:

Scientists are awesome!!

- May 13th, 2013

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

Just a couple videos for your entertainment, highlighting the recent awesome of scientists Commander Chris Hadfield and his music video from the ISS and biologist Richard Dawkins awesome Hitchslapesque comment on the utility of the scientific method.

Canadian Space Oddity

 

Science works…bitches.

The stupid, it burns: Dante’s ghostly criticism edition

- December 6th, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

One of the unavoidable effects of being a journalist, particularly one who also writes opinion column, particularly one who criticizes religion, is that one gets his fair share of hate mail and critics. Par for the course.

On occasion the criticism is thoughtful. I have had, for example, a long running conversation/debate with a reader by email on the subject of god and religion. We don’t agree with each other much, but our exchanges are lively and interesting. More often, however, the criticism comes from those who take shelter in the anonymity the internet provides, taking pot shots from the dark, never having the courage to voice their opinions in the same light of public consumption as the journalist does.

Case in point is a blogger who calls himself Dante Alighieri after the titan of poetry and theology. (Ironically, the blogger claims to be a non-believer. The real Dante most certainly was.) But since this fellow’s name certainly isn’t Dante, I’ve decided give him a random name. I’ve settled on Sean.

Sean is not a fan of mine and recently devoted a blog entry to what I presume he believes is some manner of rhetorical take down of me and my work.

Normally, I would not bother replying in detail, but Sean’s effort isn’t particularly long and mirrors some common criticism of not only myself, but other writers who publicly take exception to the efforts of the theoretically minded. And since he wanted to bring down the thunder by calling me out on Twitter, here we go:

“In a small local paper belonging to the QMI Corp. there is a regular columnist who exemplifies the worst of the fundamentalists, he rails against those whose ideas differ from his, mocks their ideas and world view, wishes their banishment from public view, wants their views suppressed, by the state if necessary, and calls them all types of names. His views seem to be supported by a large cast of “me too’ers” who join him in his vitriolic campaign.”

While I will often criticize religion, most often when religious activity attempts to shoe horn dogma into science class, attack the rights of other citizens, or claim a special status over others, I have never once called the suppression of anyone’s views – not even fans of Glee – even when they disagree with my own. In fact, the opposite is the case.

I’ve argued against creationism, using public schools as religious soap boxes, faith healing, religious attacks on homosexuals, gay marriage and women, the violence of jihadists ranging from honour killings to terrorism, suppression of free speech by religious groups and Scientology. Never, in any of that, have I once called for the suppression of free speech.

I am fairly certain that I have taken a much more strident view on free speech publicly than Sean has. I’ve done it several times. My opinion is  a long standing matter of public record. I have long argued that free speech is as close to sacrosanct an idea as there is. I have, on many occasions, argued that the state’s ability to limit free speech ought to be extremely limited and, as regular readers of my column will know, I like to drive the point home using an excellent quote from Noam Chomsky:

“Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.”

So while I will take up the argument against unwarranted religious intrusion into our public institutions, mock end of the worlders, and insist that dogma does not belong in a science class, I have never called for the state to shut up the religious. In fact, as recently as September, I defended the right to free speech of that Christian zealot who made the idiotic anti-Islam YouTube video that triggered all manner of violence in the middle east. I pointed out an idea that has been well known in secular circles since the 19th century that says  you do not throw away free speech because some people, in this case radical Muslims, start an orgy of violence, even if the speech in question was stupid on the highest order. You combat bad speech with more speech, not censorship and violence.

So, sorry Sean, but you rather missed the boat there.

NEXT!

 I watch with amusement as he rants and raves against their intolerance and bigotry, unaware that he is acting in the same way that he accuses others of being. He is, not a religious bigot of the Fred Phelps/Westboro Baptist Church type, but of the new fundamentalist type, the atheist fundamentalist.

Ah, yes the claim that the atheist is a “fundamentalist” or a “militant.”

This too, fall well short of the mark. Fundamentalism, originally a term used by a brand of American evangelical Christianity, got it’s name because believers wanted to get back to the “fundamentals” of their faith. Because this involved a belief in Biblical inerrancy (including literal belief in a six day creation, the dead rising from the grave, miracles and several, non-textual beliefs regarded as so important they cannot be questioned) the term “fundamentalist” has become a kind of pejorative to describe any religious person who interprets their religious texts this way and then acts accordingly. Today, this mostly refers to some stripes of Christianity and Islam, though that is probably a limited view.

At their best, fundamentalists are intolerant bigots, obsessed with making sure gay people can never marry, women have little or no say over their bodies or that science is replaced by bronze age theology.

At their worst, fundamentalists murder abortion doctors, fly planes into sky scrappers, throw acid into the faces of little girls in Afghanistan for imagined crimes, and generally seek to find new and exciting ways to murder non-believers.

So what exactly is an “atheist fundamentalist?” The term makes no sense. There are no texts that are regarded as so important they cannot be challenged, no idea so invincible that it cannot be questioned, no argument so powerful that it can never be discussed.  Although being compared to Fred Phelps, you don’t see atheists protesting at military funerals, advocating the death of others, or the tearing down of democratic institutions. I certainly have never made any similar arguments.

“Fundamentalists” atheists write books and articles and advance arguments, with which others can agree or disagree. The worst of religious fundamentalists blow up buildings. The difference is not trivial, Sean.

Or it can be put this way:

Fundamentalists: believe 2+2 =5 because It Is Written. Somewhere. They have a lot of trouble on their tax returns.

“Moderate” believers: live their lives on the basis that 2+2=4. but go regularly to church to be told that 2+2 once made 5, or will one day make 5, or in a very real and spiritual sense should make 5.

“Moderate” atheists: know that 2+2 =4 but think it impolite to say so too loudly as people who think 2+2=5 might be offended.

“Militant” atheists: “Oh for pity’s sake. HERE. Two pebbles. Two more pebbles. FOUR pebbles. What is WRONG with you people?”

NEXT!

He seems to be offended by anyone who publicly states a belief in any sort of god-like entity, but really focuses his attention on those of the Christian faith. You never see him slagging or criticizing those of the Islamic faith. Although if you question him on it, he will respond with “well those too, as well”. He dislikes people who pray near him or open meetings with a prayer, place in public places symbols of their faith; mangers at Christmas etc.

I have said, in several columns that no one has a right not to be offended. I cannot recall a single instance where I have ever said I was “offended” by someone who publicly states religious belief. In fact my criticism is almost exclusively focused upon religious groups who attempt to hijack public institutions, such as public schools or elected houses of government or the courts.

Given my views on free speech, it would be odd indeed to get offended by public statements of faith. Nor have I taken exception to prayers in public meetings. In fact, I only once addressed the issue of prayer in government meetings when Premier Dalton McGuinty argued that it was time to dump the Lord’s Prayer from Queen’s Park. I agreed. Our elected houses are not churches and temples. They are secular and, as McGuinty correctly pointed out, should stay that way.  The business of government has nothing to do with appealing to one god or another, saving souls, or whatever else religions are up to. QED. We have lots of temples and churches for that sort of thing.

On the issue of “never” criticizing Islam, it’s pretty clear that Sean hasn’t really being read the Grant Rant. I have devoted considerable ink criticizing Islam on a number of fronts. I wrote extensively about the case of Muslim students in Toronto attempting to suppress free speech by using the human rights courts to silence a McLean’s Magazine writer. I have written several critical columns about the Taliban, the theocratic government in Afghanistan and the deplorable treatment of women and girls in Muslim countries.

NEXT!

He attacks the Christian through Human Rights complaints and court cases complaining that he is made uncomfortable by the actions and beliefs of the religious.

I have never, ever, used the human rights tribunal system in this province. EVER. For any reason. In point of fact, I have been a long standing critic of the human rights tribunals in Canada. For the most part, they have been used by religious groups, principally Muslims who have attempted to use the system to prevent public criticism of their religion. In Canada, atheists are not arriving to the tribunals in droves in order to shut down religious activities. Locally, the only such case was a Grimsby man who doesn’t want the Gideons to use his child’s school as a forum to win converts. And I quite agree.  It had nothing to do with being “uncomfortable” with religious belief, but a Christian group wanting the right to try and convert grade school students.

In point of fact, I have argued against the very thing Sean says I endorse – banning religion. I’ve argued, rather, that we shouldn’t shelter people, including school children, from the religious views of our world.

NEXT!

Now, I haven’t been in a church in over 20 years and that was for a wedding of a in-law. I couldn’t name more that 4 books of the bible, and have no beliefs in a “greater spirit”. Yet I don’t get palpitations when I hear someone professing a belief in a god, nor do I get cold sweats at the sign of a crucifix/cross in a public area, the sight of a manger on a city hall lawn at Christmas does not send me into uncontrollable spasms of rage. But for the Atheist Fundamentalist, all of the above seems to be a daily occurrence.

Oh Sean, this is not the sort of thing one should be proud of, especially for someone who claims wants to channel the memory of Dante! I don’t believe in any of the supernatural claims of the Bible, but I have read it several times. Being ignorant of it isn’t a badge of honour. Believe in the faith or not, there is no denying that the Bible is a key book of western history. Putting religion aside, you cannot hope to understand major works of literature if you don’t understand the Bible. Moby Dick and Hamlet, for example, are replete with Biblical references. Dante’s Divine Comedy makes no sense without knowing the Bible. The writers of these books, and many, many others, assume their audience has a working knowledge of the Bible.

To have not read the Bible is like not having read Homer or Shakespeare. One cannot claim to be culturally and historically literate unless one has an understanding of these stories. Sean, you may want to rethink your handle.

As for this nonsense about arguing against a city hall manager display during Christmas, well, it’s a pure fabrication. In fact, I have more than once argued that people need to get over the burning stupid that is the “war on Christmas.” A manager scene (Christian) a Christmas tree (Pagan) and other religious and quasi religious symbols used during Christmas do not violate the separation of church and state. They are quaint traditions that, frankly, few people give much thought to. It’s a non issue.

NEXT!

“If one is so afflicted that their daily lives are so disrupted, rather than seek to shut everyone down, a far simpler and less disruptive solution would be to seek the counselling needed to be able to co-exist within a community of diverse views and ideas. I do hope that he does seek out that counselling, I really do. Grant, I do feel your pain, although I don’t understand why you are so afflicted.”

I’m not “so afflicted” in my daily life by religion. Most of the time, it rarely crosses my mind. Professionally, I do write  more about it than most of my colleagues. And when the day comes that creationists stop trying to put their theology into science classes, stop trying to use public schools as a captive audience, stop trying to tell women what they can and cannot do with their bodies, stop trying to undermine free speech, stop selling faith healing to the credulous and the ignorant…then I will happily lay down my pen. There are things worth defending, even in print, important things like democracy and free speech. I make no apologies for having done so.

It is ironic that Sean should get my body of work on the subject so horribly wrong. There might be something actually worth discussing here. As it stands, his blog reminds one of the Shakespeare’s poor player who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

PS. Sean asked me on Twitter to  “point out where separation of church & state are mentioned,” and I will indulge him on this last point. I presume Sean means where is it mentioned in the Canadian constitution. Of course, it is not there. The concept was enshrined in the US Constitution (a vastly superior document to ours, in my view.) with the establishment clause, but cannot be found in ours. In fact, our constitution makes a single reference to god in the preamble.

Ironically enough, Canada has rarely had the mix of politics and religion we see south of the 49th. And while our constitution does not have an establishment clause, the logic of the document does indeed support the separation of church and state and a secular government. Moreover, we have been functioning that way since before we even had our own constitution. Canada has always had that wall between church and state, we just basically took it as the way we do business,  much like most of Europe. When it appears that wall will be breached – like John Tory’s plan to fund faith schools a few elections back – Canadian voters take a very dim view of it.

And it is also worth noting that although our constitution makes one, vague reference to a god, it doesn’t reference a particular faith, certainly never mentions Jesus or Christianity or assigns religion any role in the affairs of the state beyond making a clear statement of freedom of religion.

QED.

“Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

-Mark Twain.

 

 

Grant Rants hits television.

- December 3rd, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

I’ll admit from the start here that I don’t actually watch Vision TV. It’s dedicated to religious programing, and from the ads I saw Friday night, also Irish folk dancing. Not sure exactly how that all fits together, but they sure like their gods and dancing Irish over at Vision TV.

I turned it on because I made a short appearance (if you fill forgive the shameless self promotion) on a program called I Prophecy about Christian rapture theology – basically those who believe Jesus is coming back any day now to open up a can of whup ass on the world.

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Hey look, I’m on TV…but WHAT is going on with my hair?

The show was, well, a little heavy on the crazy for my tastes, with a couple of preachers going on about their end of the world ideas, giving no thought the impact that has on the gullible and the ignorant who sell their homes and leave their jobs in anticipation of being sucked up in god’s holy transporter beam.

I was basically there to provide the rational response, I suppose, and my ultimate point (which fortunately made it into the final moments of the program) is how rapture theology and the preachers who push it, are really committing an emotional con job which has ruined the lives of far too many people.

I’ve written about this subject before, particularly last year when an end of the world group actually purchased a billboard in St. Catharines warning us of the specific date we were all going to die. I’ll allow you to judge how accurate their prediction was.

Watch the show and let me know what you think about the subject.

PS. If you missed it and want to watch a show on a subject with more meat that end of world types, check out my appearance on the History Channel’s “Outlaw Bikers.”

Friday Hitchslap for Nov 23, 2012 starring Richard Dawkins

- November 23rd, 2012

HITCHSLAP: The process of utterly obliterating an opponent’s entire (usually religious or political) argument, usually in one or more succinct or terse statements, orally or in writing; employed almost exclusively by Christopher Hitchens.

Biologist Richard Dawkins is an interesting and brilliant guy, but doesn’t posses Christopher Hitchens  rhetorical whit. His arguments are great, but often doesn’t have the kind of rapier to the heart style of speaking that The Hitch perfected. Nonetheless, every once in a while he comes out with a zing. Here are two.

Dawkins on Creationism:

Dawkins vs. Neil Degrasse Tyson:

Some final thoughts on Savita Halappanavar

- November 21st, 2012

Greetings web denizens, heathens, zealots and the rest of you!

So this week’s Grant Rant was about Savita Halappanavar, a dentist in Ireland who died because while her pregnancy was killing her and the fetus could not be saved, she was denied a life saving abortion on the grounds that Ireland is a Catholic country and abortion is wrong.

The reaction from some readers, as I have briefly noted, decided to take some shots at me rather than talk about the issue. Which is fine. It comes with the job. But the issue itself is, in fact, what matters. A spectrum of responses  in the comments section to that column are worth taking a look at.

They all share one thing in common: they ignore the fact that a woman is dead and fall into two broad catagories: Abortion is always wrong and religion is never wrong. Here are two key ones worth exploring.

1) Abortions never save a mother’s life:

It seems pretty clear by the facts of the case that have been released thus far that had Halappanavar been granted the abortion, she would have survived. At least the odds of her survival would have risen dramatically. However, the religious pro-lifers make an argument that, medically speaking, no woman ever has been saved by an abortion. This is the argument put forward today in that silly publication, the Holy Post,  by Andrea Mrozek who claims that good medical care saves lives and as medical care improves maternal mortality goes down and therefore no abortion has saved any woman, ever, anyplace.

Yes, thank you, Andrea Mrozek for pointing out that with better medical care few people die. So what? It has less than nothing to do with the case here. It’s a giant smelly red herring. The kind the Knights of Ni will ask you cut down the tallest tree in the forest with. The sad truth is that there are some medical conditions like preeclampsia and tubal pregnancies which, in some circumstances can only be resolved by ending the pregnancy. It’s awful, it’s grim but that is the facts. Fortunately they are not the norm, but they do happen. When they do, you cannot save the fetus. The only option is to save the mother or they both die. QED. At the point, those who want to make the argument that an abortion is NEVER necessary to save a woman have chosen to jump down the rabbit hole of faith thinking rather than deal with reality. And then people die.

2)The non-religious cannot make moral choices, like wanting to save Halappanavar.

This tortured argument goes like this: Saying Halappanavar should have been saved is a moral choice, and since morals cannot be decided by science, the desire to save her is a kind of faith thinking. Therefore, there is no grounds to say she should saved unless one accepts the morals of a religion, in this case, Catholicism.

This is in effect, the old moral argument for god which claims we cannot know right from wrong without divine warrant.

I think the first place to start to answer this one is from Christopher Hitchens, who demolishes the argument better than I can. It’s worth viewing the full interview. But I will say this. We know that our evolved faculties, including our ethical and moral impulses, are innate in us. They are not perfect, but they are there and are powerful. As social creatures we would not be able to even form the smallest groups that function if they didn’t.  Choosing to guide one’s ethics by saying that that reducing or eliminating suffering is a worthy cause neither requires, nor is dependent upon, the guidance of an unseen hand. And science can indeed be a guide by providing us with a clearer view of reality. If morals and ethics can be seen, as they I think they can (and I tend to agree with Sam Harris on this point) about human well being, then science is a powerful tool to help us decide action.

What I have taken away from some of the visceral response to that column is that there is a spectrum of “pro-lifers” who hold human life very cheaply. The death of a woman is vastly less important to them that the often, I dare say, irrational defense of the mixture of theology and politics that lead to her demise. The faith is more important than life. Even though there was no saving the fetus in this case, no exception can be made, even though the consequence was obvious.

When belief in the supernatural trumps the hard facts on the ground, when they contribute the death of an innocent, something has gone very wrong. Those who defend this view, ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Evolution is incredible, but also horrifying

- October 30th, 2012

Greetings ghouls, ghost, zombies and the rest of you!

So staying in the spirit of Halloween, after having trashed some traditional Halloween monsters, I bring you something that is actually terrifying.

I’ve  often been asked why I don’t believe in the divine when I look out at the wonders and splendor of nature, from the beauty of distant nebulae to the miracle of birth.  My usual reply is that while I am awed and humbled by the universe we live and all its mystery and beauty, it’s actually not a very nice place for us to live. If you think about it, most of our own planet – the only one we know of so far that can sustain life as we understand it – is inhabitable by us. We would drown, freeze, starve or just be eaten. To say nothing of earthquakes, monster storms, Glee, and other nasty natural temper tantrums. And that is our HOME. Wander out into space and without advanced tech we die from exposure, get fried by cosmic rays, get spaghettified by a black hole, nuked by gamma ray bursts, or just disintegrated  in a super nova explosion.

Fun place the universe.

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Ewww….just….ewww!

But even more to the point are the horrible, awful turns that evolution takes. I mean, for every beautiful deer or majestic polar bear there are awful parasites, viruses, bacteria all out to survive by, well, killing other species in a particularly nasty manner. Evolution is about, after all, survival by adaption, and there is no guarantee those adaptions will be cute. If you want to see nature in all her glory, you need to see her in ALL her glory before you go on about how a pretty rainbow proves the existence of a god.

So I present you to the Cymothoa exigua or tongue eating louse.  A nasty piece of work by all accounts. It gets into the mouth of the fish, destroys its tongue and then takes the place of the tongue!!!! And the weird part is that the fish gets along just fine with this thing from the Alien movies as it’s tongue. Seriously!

Tell me this handsome fellow isn’t more horrifying than a zombie or the wolfman.