Thursday, April 24, 2008

Abstinence-Only Programs

Reuters is reporting that Abstinence-Only sex education programs, which the Bush Administration has allocated over a billion dollars for over the past eight years, are under attack by some health groups in testimony before Congress as being ineffective.

These programs are the darlings of religious conservatives who oppose teaching teenagers about birth control which is typically included in more comprehensive sex education programs.

Based upon the current evidence it appears that Abstinence-Only programs don’t work. There is some disagreement as to whether the more comprehensive programs work either but most of the health groups involved in the hearing felt that they did.

Fully seventeen states, including California, New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Colorado, have opted out of the Federal Abstinence-Only program and have refused to apply for the Federal Funds to which they are available.

It’s not the “Abstinence” part of the program that folks are objecting to; it’s the “Only” part.

Everyone agrees that abstinence is the best defense and should be emphasized and promoted. But, if the message doesn’t take, as often it doesn’t, the rest of a comprehensive program, including birth control information, becomes rather critical.

The reaction of some proponents of the Abstinence-Only program, as reported by Reuters, is interesting.

“Republicans said even if some abstinence-only programs do not work, others do, and it would be wrong to end the funding.”

Do you have EVIDENCE that “others do” work or are you just assuming they do?

“Rep. John Duncan, a Tennessee Republican, said that it seems ‘rather elitist’ that people with academic degrees in health think they know better than parents what type of sex education is appropriate.”

Because clearly parents are so well trained they’re more expert than the experts. That’s total nonsense. Parents, and I am one of the guilty, don’t know squat and tend to make stuff up as they go along. I suppose the opinions of “elitist” doctors, “elitist” dentists and “elitist” educators should all be made subservient to what parents think as well?

“Charles Keckler of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the Bush administration believes abstinence education programs send the healthiest message.”

How healthy can a message that doesn’t work be? This is a totally meaningless statement which is about what one expects from the Bush Administration.

I also found an illuminating quote from a member of the National Abstinence Education Association.

"We know abstinence education offers the best for them. Now is the time to put more emphasis on that message, not less."

Never mind if it doesn’t work, they “KNOW” what’s best. Probably because that’s what the bible says.

I have to agree with the critics here. By all means push abstinence as hard as possible. It’s clearly the best option and the only one guaranteed to work. But you can’t leave things at a dead end when hormones overcome rationality and nature takes its course.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why Tie Politics to Science?

I continue to be shocked at the relationship between political conservatism and religious conservatism. To be honest I’ve always considered the two to be very different, perhaps because in my mind one has nothing to do with the other.

Specifically I didn’t think it possible to predict one’s view about the Theory of Evolution based upon one’s political viewpoint. For instance, I was absolutely flabbergasted to learn that Ann Coulter is of the opinion that Evolution is a “discredited theory.” Whatever one might think of Ann’s political opinions, and lord do most of them stink to high heaven, she is clearly an intelligent and educated individual.

Similarly, I don’t often agree with L. Brent Bozell’s editorials but I was absolutely stunned to read a recent article by him entitled “Ben Stein Vs. Sputtering Atheists”
applauding Ben Stein’s so-called documentary “Expelled,” for exposing that due to “PC Liberalism” ”the concept of Intelligent Design is stifled in academic circles.”

Really? And here I always though it was because “Intelligent Design” is not science. I call “Expelled” a “so-called” documentary due to the reports of getting scientists to participate under misleading premises and the fact that no pre-screening was made available for participants to review. The latter usually indicates an intention to play fast and loose editing games to get your opponents to appear to say want you want them to say or to look stupid saying things that contradict your position. Anyway, I posted the following response to Mr. Bozell’s editorial.

“Dear Mr. Bozell, allow me to explain (one more time) that "I don't know how that happened, therefore GOD DID IT" is not a scientific hypothesis. Actually though, to be fair, academia considers itself smarter than the rest of us and doesn't suffer what it considers to be fools gladly. Often they're right, and often they're not. How would you like it if someone with absolutely no training or understanding of journalism began to pontificate on how you should write or publish based upon what someone that predated Guttenberg said. That's often what these guys encounter when talking about Evolution.

The Origin of Life, or abiogenesis, on the other hand is a totally different story. The fact is that nobody has a clue how life began and I guess "GOD DID IT" is probably as likely as any of the other hypotheses being thrown around. The problem is that once one accepts "GOD DID IT" the need for any additional inquiry ends. That's why science can never accept that as a conclusion and has to continue searching for a naturalistic explanation even if one may not exist. That is the very nature of science and I guess the arrogance of scientists sort of comes as a byproduct of that nature that we'll have to live with.

But would you really want it to be any different? If it were up to religion we would have stopped searching for answers 2,000 years ago and just sat around and waited for the second coming. By all means, if you’re of that mindset, sit around and wait, but let those of us with a different mindset work like hell searching for answers while you’re waiting. I also don't see what PC Liberalism has to do with this? This is a question of science vs. not science. It's as simple as that.”

Bozell got 22 comments, most of which were negative and none of which he’s going to read. Mine was actually one of the more polite ones. One guy complemented Bozell on his courage in publishing an article that demonstrated such a degree of ignorance.

Mixing politics and religion is very, very dangerous but either conservatives are doing it more and more, they're just making it more obvious or I just realized what's going on. Giving political arguments for religious issues or religious arguments for political issues strikes me as a formula for disaster.

Do liberals do the same thing? Since most liberals don't really have strong religious ties I don't think they do and I doubt atheists let their atheism dictate their politics although I guess it's possible. Any mixing of that sort on the left is just as dangerous as on the right. People being people one can't avoid having different aspects of one's life influence other aspects. But to my mind influencing is far different from using one to justify the other.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Supreme Court Declares Lethal Injection Constitutional

The Supreme Court released its decision in Baze vs. Rees yesterday and, to make a long story short, declared lethal injection, as practiced in the state of Kentucky, constitutional.

Apparently the court’s decision was extremely narrow addressing only the questions raised with regard to the Kentucky procedure. Basically the court ruled that the petitioners failed to make their case.

Predictable the decision has re-opened the flood in states with a history of execution activity including Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma. Other states, such as Ohio and Arkansas, seem to taking a more measured approach and say they want to study the Supreme Court’s decision more closely.

The vote was 7-2 so even some justices with reservations about the death penalty in general concurred with the majority opinion.

So, there was no magic wand this time around. A conservative court, with a bent toward narrow interpretations, came up with about the most narrowly focused decision it could. Folks are saying that the decision gives states a roadmap for setting up legal execution procedures. Perhaps, but it also provides some clues as to how one might go about toppling the death penalty.

I Have a Guilty Secret

My guilty secret is I read web sites arguing positions with which I do not agree. I also read web sites that champion positions I’m sympathetic to but everyone does that. I’m not too concerned about being fooled or bamboozled. I’m well enough trained to avoid the most obvious pitfalls and intelligent enough to VERIFY any claims or arguments.

Specifically I tend to read lots of papers and articles pitching creationism and what I’ll call conservative fundamentalist Christianity. Recently I’ve begun developing some concepts related to the story of Adam and Eve so I’ve been looking at Christian sites which cover Genesis.

They are absolutely unbelievable. Here are a few quotes from a typical page.

“God told Adam that he was free to eat from every tree in the garden, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”

This is true. God told ADAM. The bible doesn’t say anything about God telling Eve. Do you suppose that Adam passed this information on to the little women? That’s hard to say since Eve didn’t even have a name yet. But she does seem to have some inkling since she tells the serpent God said that she’s not allowed to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden.

The key point here is that neither Adam nor Eve understood good and evil. In other words, they couldn’t tell the difference between right and wrong. Now if Adam couldn’t tell the difference between Right and Wrong, how the hell was he supposed to know that he was supposed to obey God?

How about a more basic question, what, in the supposedly idyllic environment of God’s perfect creation even comprised evil? Here’s another question, why did God create a tree of knowledge of good and evil? Who was he expecting to eat the fruit?

Last, but not least, would you consider a creation that could not tell the difference between right and wrong perfect or flawed?

“Later, Eve was deceived by Satan speaking through a serpent and ate the fruit.”

Actually the bible doesn’t say anything about Satan. It simply blames the serpent and a talking serpent no less which Eve didn’t seem to find all that unusual. Do you suppose all the animals talked? What do you suppose they talked about?

“She then took the fruit to Adam and he ate it knowing he was doing the wrong thing.”

And how, pray tell, did Adam know he was doing the wrong thing? Had he snuck in a taste of the fruit the night before? Because, as previously pointed out, if one has no knowledge of good and evil, one cannot tell the difference between right and wrong so Adam could not possibly have known that what he was doing was wrong. He couldn’t even understand the concept of wrong. Eve, on the other hand, since she had already eaten the fruit, knew perfectly well that she was going to get Adam in big trouble.

“Because they disobeyed what God had explicitly told them and chose to believe Satan, they began to experience spiritual death, and soon physical death.”

Hold it, slow down a little. They didn’t CHOSE anything. If you know no difference between good and evil then everything appears good. Besides, the serpent deceived Eve into eating the fruit and Eve deceived Adam right?

Actually, one could make a case that Eve deceived Adam but the serpent was nothing but 100% honest. When Eve tells him that God had said that if they eat or touch the fruit from the tree they will die, the serpent replies, in Genesis 3:4, "You will not surely die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

He got that one right didn’t he? Adam and Eve did learn about good and evil and they didn’t die as a direct result of eating the fruit. As a matter of fact it’s unclear whether Adam and Eve were ever immortal. Since they originally had no knowledge of good and evil, they probably had no understanding of life and death either.

After they eat the fruit however, they would certainly figure it out eventually. God‘s reason for kicking them out of the garden is in Genesis 3:22, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever."

So here was the deal. Now that Adam understood good and evil he would eventually come to understand that death was something to be avoided and that would lead him to try and obtain fruit from the tree of life so that he could become immortal.

Note that God appears to know, and accept, that Adam would do that even if God commanded him not to. Just as a side issue, one has to wonder who comprises the “us” in the phrase “one of us.”

The counter argument is that Adam was immortal BEFORE he ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, became mortal upon eating the fruit, but could become immortal again by eating the fruit from the tree of life. But the bible doesn’t say anything to justify such an interpretation other than the indirect argument that God said Adam would die if he ate the fruit, God can’t lie and, since Adam didn’t die immediately, God must have meant eventually, therefore Adam must have been immortal before eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge.

“Adam and Eve sinned by placing their desires above what God had told them.”

And what desires might those be? All that the bible says about desires is in Genesis 3:6 “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.”

So what were Eve’s desires? Was she hungry? Not likely given the supposed abundance of food in the garden. If her desire was to gaze upon something “pleasing to the eye” about the last thing she would want to do is eat the fruit. Chomping on something with one’s teeth tends to upset the ascetics of the thing being chomped on. Or was her desire for wisdom?

Why would she desire wisdom? If she didn’t understand the difference between good and evil, could she even comprehend the concept of wisdom? Why would her desire to acquire wisdom be worthy of punishment?

So if I understand this properly, according to Christianity, obeying what God tells you to do is more important than anything else, which brings us back to the Euthyphro dilemma. Are things commanded by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are commanded by God?

I want to end with the biggest laugher on the page. In the bible Adam supposedly lives 960 years and other patriarchs from ancient times have similar multi-hundred year life times. So how come medical science today can barely keep us breathing for 70 or 80 years?

“Some scholars believe that the length of the life spans of the people of this time was due to a vapor canopy in the atmosphere. This may have made the earth's environment more hospitable to human life and increased life spans.”

And the empirical evidence you have to support this hypothesis is?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Polygamists, Textbooks and Illinois Legislators

Three topics but all related to the problem of religion in this country. Let’s start with the Polygamist compound raided near Eldorado Texas.

The compound was a branch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which broke away from the Mormons and still practices polygamy. However the polygamy thing is the least of its weirdness. This is a real life “Big Love” complete with pioneer outfits for the women and forced marriage of girls at the age of puberty to much older men.

That the State of Texas stepped in and removed some 400 children from potential harm is to be applauded. The fact that they used buses from the First Baptist Church to do some of the removal leaves me scratching my head a little bit. Doesn’t that sort of smack of government approval of religion as practiced by Baptists but not of religion as practiced by the FLDS folks? Of course Baptists tend to not break the law and I can’t actually say the same thing for the FLDS crowd. They appear to be breaking lots of laws.

In any event, I agree with the action taken by the State of Texas, in fact they should have done it a hell of a lot earlier, but they made a mistake using the Baptist Church buses that might haunt them should the FLDS folks claim religious persecution.

The other two items are from two different Center for Inquiry (CFI) press releases. The CFI is a hard core Secular Humanist organization founded by atheist emeritus Paul Kurtz and is quite possible the most outspoken secular group. It clearly appears to have the best overall financial backing (I send my dues in regularly) and even has a position as a Non-Government Organization (NGO) at the United Nations.

One press release announced the issuance of a 25 page report identifying factual errors related to a series of topics including Global Warming, school prayer and the interpretation of the Establishment Clause in a civics textbook published by Houghton Mifflin and used in “many secondary schools around the country.”

I read the report and I have two observations. The first is that the errors are pretty extreme as well as pretty obvious. So extreme in fact it’s hard for me to believe they were missed by accident. The second observation is that ALL the errors champion what I would call a Conservative Christian position.

For instance, the textbook declares that the Supreme Court has outlawed ALL prayer in public schools. This of course is a straw man constructed by Conservative Christians. What the court has ruled illegal is school sponsored prayer. Individual prayer, at appropriate times (for instance you can’t decide to stand up and shout the Lord’s Prayer in the middle of a class), is not restricted because to do so would be a violation of the 1st Amendment guarantee of Free Speech.

I was a little disappointed that the report didn’t identify where the textbook was being used but I’m willing to bet that it was mostly in Jesusland. (NOTE: Wrong again! Apparently the book is in rather wide spread use and the initial red flag was raised by a student in New Jersey! Just goes to show how a little extra research can help one avoid making embaressing dumb statements.)

The second press release deploring “intemperate comments from Rep. Monique Davis” of the Illinois legislature during a legislative committee meeting. Apparently atheist activist Rob Sherman was testifying that a state plan to donate $1 million to help restore the Pilgrim Baptist Church, mostly destroyed in a 2006 fire, was unconstitutional when Davis teed off on him.

Some interesting quotes from the diatribe.

“I don’t know what you have against God?..some of us don’t have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings.”

This of course pre-supposes that God exists and is the first boo-boo. As much as it upsets the religious minded, this isn’t at all a given.

“It’s (your philosophy) dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists,”

Dangerous? Sure it’s dangerous, and I’m not sure it’s appropriate to expect children to be able to assimilate such ideas. But on the other hand, as they get older it’s a question that they should be prepared and expected to deal with. To my mind the status quo of doing everything possible to instill the idea of God into children as an unchallengeable axiom is a formula for disaster.

“Get out of that seat ?You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.”

Wow, he really got her pissed off didn’t he? Let’s put this a little in perspective. The Pilgrim Baptist is a site of arguably significant historical importance. It is generally credited as being the birthplace of gospel music and the so-called father of gospel music, Thomas Dorsey, was its musical director from the early 1930’s to the late 1970’s. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1983.

So this is another one of those cases where it’s hard to separate the history from the religion. I’m sure Sherman was technically correct from a religious viewpoint but I’m not sure about from a historical one. I don’t see anything particularly wrong in the state helping to restore an historical landmark even if the day to day use of that landmark is religious in nature.

Of course that doesn’t excuse Davis. But, I see on Rob’s web site that she has apologized and admitted that her remarks were inappropriate. According to Davis she was upset over hearing about the 22nd and 23rd elementary school shooting deaths in Chicago that year and took it out on him.

Perhaps, and perhaps not, but I guess we can pretend that was the reason since she did apologize.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Prayer Rather than a Doctor

Last week, the parents of an 11-year old girl chose prayer and their belief in the bible over taking their daughter to a doctor. As a result the girl died from a treatable form of diabetes.

To further muddy the waters, the couple claimed their daughter had only shown signs of illness in the last day or two before her death, a claim contradicted by medical opinions that the girl would have had symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst and weakness for at least a month. The fact that the couple removed the girl from school for home schooling about the time when the symptoms would have been expected to start sort of supports the medical opinion.

The case is “under investigation,” whatever the hell that means, and at least temporarily the girl’s three older siblings, ages 13-16, have been removed to the care of family members that don’t apparently share the religious convictions of the parents.

This was the lead article last week on James Randi’s page and Randi was willing to absolve the couple while condemning a society that extends such deference to the superstition of religion. His point was simply how can you condemn the parents when all they’ve done is accept a story line that society not only doesn’t criticize but actually identifies as laudable?

As much as I admire Mr. Randi, I have to disagree. I say hit them with at least criminal negligence if not manslaughter. Giving these people a get out of jail free card simply because they yell religion doesn’t do it for me.

Are the real criminals those that pedal miracle cures to the ignorant? Yes, but it’s unlikely we’re going to resolve that problem as long as we don’t make it absolutely clear that you are responsible for the results of your actions, or lack of actions, regardless of the rationale behind those actions. Just because you base what you do upon religion or being sold a lie doesn’t absolve you. Stupidity is not an excuse.

This might sound a little harsh but I have absolutely no sympathy for these two. I don’t understand how any father could watch his daughter suffering and not take every means available to alleviate that suffering. By all means pray, but take her to the emergency room too. Did you idiots every consider that maybe medical science and doctors might be the tools God chooses to use to answer your prayer?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Another Ten Commandments Case

This time however it’s not Conservative Christians causing the problem, it’s the Church of Summum. Summum is a mix of philosophy and religion incorporated in Utah. It began in the mid 1970’s after its founder claimed encounters with “Summa Individuals” who presented him with concepts of nature and creation.

Anyway, these folks would like to establish a monument of what they call the Seven Aphorisms in a public park in Utah which already contains a display of the Ten Commandments and sued, claiming a Freedom of Speech infringement, to be able to do so. The original case was decided in favor of the city which didn’t want to do any such thing but an appellate court reversed.

The Ten Commandments monument was donated to the city by the Fraternal Order of Eagles and the Church of Summum would like to have the same privilege. The case revolves around the question of whether the Ten Commandments monument is private speech in a public forum or government speech.

If the former, which is the way the 10th Appellate viewed it, then the government cannot censor other public expression in the same forum because it must be by law open to all. If the latter, then as government speech it would not be open to all. But then if its government speech, is the display of the Ten Commandments a violation of the 1st Amendment? I couldn’t find any information as to whether other historical displays existed in the park as well.

So here we are again. If Christianity can display its icons on public property and teach its mythology in public schools, then why can’t everyone else? If you really believe in equality under the law, then either everyone can or no one can.

However we all know that we sort of wink at religious connotations in the public square which are Christian for several reasons. The first is that the overwhelming majority of people in the country claim to be Christian and it cannot be denied that Christianity has played a major role in the history of the country. Therefore often it’s hard to separate the history from the religion.

Will the Supreme Court have the integrity and the courage to finally stop the winking? I doubt it given the current make-up of the court. What it should do is declare the Ten Commandments display as government speech in order to avoid an avalanche of inappropriate display requests and then declare the display a violation of the establishment clause and order its removal from public property.

What I predict it will do is come up with a rationale that will prevent the Church of Summum display yet, at the same time, preserve the Ten Commandments display.