29 December 2008

So what's so wrong with a "WYSIWYG" world?

On a recent post on my blog ("Humanist Parents Recreating Religious Community"), some of the reader comments touched on a variety of questions:
  • Are words like "bright" that some use to describe people with a naturalistic worldview useful?
  • Are words like "super" used to describe people with a supernatural worldview useful?
  • Are "bright" and "super" worldviews are mutually exclusive (this is the assumption voiced by The Brights organization)?
  • Do the assumptions behind the words "bright" and "super" impose a literalism that allows no room figurative understanding?
Here is Fausto's comment on this because it provides an excellent summary of these concerns:
The positions they [the terms "bright" and "super"] attempt to describe are not either-or, but fall within a varying range. There are "supers" who find truth primarily through empirical means, there are "brights" who do not deny the possible value to others of mystical experience even if they themselves have not found it helpful, there are "supers" who do deny the value of mysticism, there are naturalistic mystics who deny supernaturalism, and so on. Moreover, it sounds as though both "bright" and "super" as defined may allow only for literal understanding and exclude the validity of figurative expression.
Personally, I disagree with the assumption that a naturalistic "bright" worldview is somehow incompatible with valuing figurative expression.

Humans are a part of the interdependent web -- the fingerprints of our biological roots that we share with the rest of creation are all over us. For example, the Hox genes in humans show our biological connection with jellyfish and fruit flies -- not to mention all bilaterally symmetrical animals.

If we are a part of the web of creation, then I consider it reasonable to view our behavior and the things we create as natural phenomena (the same way we view the dancing of bees and bee honeycombs as "natural phenomena").

I think the amazing creation that we live is a "WYSIWYG" place - "what you see is what you get." I think that this physical plane of existence is all that we can really can know is and it's wonderful.

Given the amazingness of the natural world, do we need to "gild the lily" by adding a supernatural layer to this world we live in?

The stories and religions that we create are valuable not because they contain "literal truths" or even "figurative truths."

These human-created figurative expressions are natural phenomena and they are valuable because they tell us something about what it means to be human and perhaps lead us to a better understanding of ourselves.

23 December 2008

At least Barack Obama didn't ask this religious leader to speak at the Inauguration ...

With all the blog commentary about Rick Warren being selected give the invocation at President-Elect Obama's Inauguration, it's a good thing that he didn't ask for Pope Benedict XVI to speak.

Check out the recent news story from England with the Benedict's comments on how we need to "save the world" from homosexuality:
"Pope: Saving world from homosexuality like saving rainforests"
In comments at the Vatican that are likely to provoke a furious reaction from homosexual groups, Benedict also warned that blurring the distinction between male and female could lead to the "self-destruction" of the human race.

In his address to the Curia, the Vatican's central administration, he described behaviour beyond traditional heterosexual relations as "a destruction of God's work" and said that the Roman Catholic Church had a duty to "protect man from the destruction of himself".

It is not "outmoded metaphysics" to urge respect for the "nature of the human being as man and woman," he added.

"The tropical forests do deserve our protection. But man, as a creature, does not deserve any less."

The Catholic Church teaches that while homosexuality is not sinful, homosexual acts are. It opposes gay marriage and, in October, a leading Vatican official described homosexuality as "a deviation, an irregularity, a wound".

The Pope said humanity needed to "listen to the language of creation" to understand the intended roles of man and woman.

He also defended the Church's right to "speak of human nature as man and woman, and ask that this order of creation be respected".

21 December 2008

Humanist Parents Recreating Religious Community

I saw a link to this Washington Post news story on Hemant Mehta's "Friendly Atheist" blog -- "Humanist Parents Seek Communion Outside Church."

It reminds me of the Time magazine article about "Atheist Sunday Schools" that I blogged on back in November 2007.

Here's the introductory part of the recent Washington Post story:
They are not religious, so they don't go to church. But they are searching for values and rituals with which to raise their children, as well as a community of like-minded people to offer support.

Dozens of parents came together on a recent Saturday to participate in a seminar on humanist parenting and to meet others interested in organizing a kind of nonreligious congregation, complete with regular family activities and ceremonies for births and deaths.
The news story gives the following background on humanism:
Humanism is both a formal movement and an informal identification of people who promote values of reason, compassion and human dignity. Although most humanists are atheists, atheism is defined by what is absent -- belief in God -- and humanists emphasize a positive philosophy of ethical living for the human good.
And here's the rationale behind this conference:
The seminar's organizers wanted to reach out to people like the Proctors -- first-time parents scrambling for guidance as they improvise how to raise their daughter without the religion of their childhood.

"I'm often told that when people have kids, they go back to religion," said John Figdor, a humanist master's of divinity student who helped organize the seminar. "Are we really not tending our own people?"
Regarding the idea of re-creating a church environment (community, values, ritual) without traditional religion, the interesting thing on Hemant's blog was that two readers recommended Unitarian Universalism instead of "reinventing the wheel" for humanist parents (blog comments found here and here).

In fact, one reader described Unitarian Universalism as "community without the religiousness."

The news story describes this conference happening in Boston at Harvard University. Boston is the home of the Unitarian Universalist Association and Harvard University has ties to Unitarian Universalism.

I wonder if these humanist families don't know about our congregations (as unlikely as that would be in New England) or if our congregations are not meeting their family needs.

Even if these families do not want to join Unitarian Universalist congregations, I wonder if we can find ways to collaborate with humanist groups with programs like the Our Whole Lives lifespan sexuality education programs and other family support ministries that could be used by these families.

17 December 2008

Supporting Atheists As Anti-Oppression Work

Greta Christina has recently posted on her blog a list with nine suggestions for traditionally religious folks who want to be supportive allies for atheists and other non-believers.

Greta has more details on her blog about this but I have copied the main points from her blog for your consideration:
1. Familiarize yourself with the common myths and misconceptions about atheists -- and don't perpetuate them.

2. Familiarize yourself with what it's like to be an atheist, both in the U.S. and in the rest of the world.

3. Find common ground.

4. Speak out against anti-atheist bigotry and other forms of religious intolerance.

5. Be inclusive of atheists.

6. Don't divide and conquer, and don't try to take away our anger.

7. If you're going to accuse an atheist or an atheist group of being intolerant -- be careful, and make sure that's really what they're being.

8. Do not -- repeat, DO NOT -- talk about "fundamentalist atheists."

9. Be aware of how religious belief gives you a place of mainstream and privilege.
You can read Greta's detailed exploration of each suggestion for allies on her blog here.

Greta's suggestions are related to the past suggestions that I have made on my blog about supporting non-Christian Unitarian Universalists in our congregations:
Note: by late Sunday night (21 December 2008), this blog post has 106 comments on it. The conversation has gone into a non-productive rut and I'm closing off comments on this thread.

Strangely enough, a similar thing happened on Greta's blog. She has closed off comments on the original post and has created a new post to comment on her list here. Greta does say that any attempts to use this thread to revive the original shut-down comment thread will result in being banned from her blog.

I'm ready to move on to a new subject like the recent news coverage on humanist and atheist Sunday Schools.

13 December 2008

"Tiktaalik (Your Inner Fish)" Music Video

The music video at the beginning of this clip describes the fossil discovery that Dr. Neil Shubin is most famous for -- Tiktaalik. The video is from the 2008 Penn Reading Project at the University of Pennsylvania.

Tiktaalik is a transitional fossil illustrating the evolutionary development between lobe-finned fishes and tetrapods (four-legged animals like us who are really just a highly specialized form of lobe-finned fish).

Dr. Neil Shubin is a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, popular science writer, and the author of Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5 Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

This book is a fascinating read and it explains many of the oddities in human anatomy are due to our several million year transition from fish to land-dwelling warm-blooded tetrapod.

For example, the convoluted path that the vas deferens takes in the human body makes sense when one realizes that the path of the vas deferens made sense in our fishy ancestors (their testes were inside the abdominal cavity and not in an external scrotum that is now required in warm-blooded mammals for sperm production at slightly cooler than body temperature).

I'm guessing that museums gift shops would profit from selling Tiktaalik plush toys -- they certainly are very cute looking.

And here is a video clip describing how artists create 3-D reconstructions for museums based on fossil evidence and artistic guess-work from observing living creatures:

08 December 2008

Free Video Resource on Critical Thinking

Here's a free video resource on critical thinking that one can watch online or download for free non-commercial use through a Creative Commons license. In addition to YouTube and Google Video format, you can download the movie in various video formats and in .iso image files for burning your own DVDs.

Here's the description from the movie's web site:
Here Be Dragons is a free 40 minute video introduction to critical thinking. It is suitable for general audiences and is licensed for free distribution and public display.

Most people fully accept paranormal and pseudoscientific claims without critique as they are promoted by the mass media. Here Be Dragons offers a toolbox for recognizing and understanding the dangers of pseudoscience, and appreciation for the reality-based benefits offered by real science.

Here Be Dragons is written and presented by Brian Dunning, host and producer of the Skeptoid podcast, author of Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena, and Executive Producer of The Skeptologists.

03 December 2008

National Republican Congressional Committee Does a "Willie Horton" Mail Ad

The National Republican Congressional Committee sent a postcard attack ad to my house today complaining that Paul Carmouche (the Democratic candidate for Louisiana House District Four is soft on crime and just "too liberal."

They have more attack ad stuff on their web site and the special web site they set up for these attack ads intended to influence the vote in the runoff election happening this Saturday.

Given that the recent Republican history of using racially charged imagery in political ads, it's no surprise that the postcard ad has a mug shot of a black criminal defendant -- it's just a repeat of the racially charged "Willie Horton" ads that the Republicans used in 1988.

Why Atheist Advertising is Important

Hemant Mehta (author of the Friendly Atheist blog) received an email from a Washington DC area high school student giving her positive response to the American Humanist Association's bus ads. Here's a short quote from her email:
The American Humanist Association mentioned that one of the reasons they wanted to do this ad campaign was because some atheists feel alone over the holidays. Well, this morning when I had to listen to a Creationist try to convert everyone in earshot while I was heading to a Catholic school where I am one of only a handful of atheists, I felt alone. That ad on the bus reminded me that even when I feel like I am the only one standing up for truth, there are others out there who are doing the same thing.
You can read the rest of her response with Hemant's comments here.