The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

The Ultimate Easter Quiz

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 27, 2016

Easter is upon us, and while I do not celebrate the holiday (seeing as how I’m not Christian) I think it is worth noting it due to its out-sized presence in U.S. society and around the world. Specifically, in the spirit of educating about the various mythologies and misconceptions surrounding Easter, I would like to share with you the Ultimate Easter Quiz from my friend Phil Ferguson’s Skeptic Money blog (at the appropriate time, feel free to also check out his post about the related Ultimate Christmas Quiz).

For the full details, as well as the answers to the questions, you’ll have to click here. But before you do, try your hand at the questions below, then check your answers and see how well you did. Then share the Quiz with others to test their knowledge!:)

[Addendum: for those interested, you might like my related, earlier post that asks What is the Physical Evidence for the Existence of Jesus?]

The Ultimate Easter Quiz

By David Fitzgerald

1. When did Jesus get crucified?

a. At the 3rd Hour (9am), on Friday, the morning of Passover.
b. Shortly after the 6th Hour (noon), on Friday, the day before Passover.
c. He didn’t really get crucified, his identical twin Thomas Didymus did.
d. He didn’t really get crucified, he only appeared to be crucified.
e. We don’t know for sure, since the gospels disagree irreconcilably.

2. What supernatural events occurred at his death?

a. An earthquake hits Jerusalem (actually, two); strong enough to break stones.
b. Supernatural darkness covers all the land.
c. The sacred temple curtain spontaneously rips in half.
d. A mass resurrection of all the Jewish holy men, who crawl out of their graves and appear to many in Jerusalem.
e. All of the above, depending on which Gospel you read.

3. What historical evidence do we have for those supernatural events?

a. Every major ancient writer of the time worldwide mentioned them.
b. Many important writers in Judea discuss them.
c. Several writers in Jerusalem mention them.
d. No one mentions them, but we do have archeological evidence for them.
e. There is not a single lick of evidence for any of them, written or otherwise.

4. How many women went to the tomb?

a. Three: Mary Magdalene, James’ mother and Salome.
b. Two: Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.”
c. Lots:  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, James’ mother Mary and other women.
d. Just one: Mary Magdalene.
e. No way to know, since none of the Gospels agree.

5. What did they find there?

a. A young man, sitting inside the tomb on the right.
b. Two men, standing inside.
c. Two angels sitting on each end of the bed.
d. An armed guard of Roman soldiers standing watch, when suddenly a great earthquake occurs, and an angel descends from heaven, his face blazing like lightning and his clothing white as snow; the Roman guards are utterly terrified and all faint dead away; the angel rolls away the stone and sits on it.
e. No way to know, since none of the Gospels agree.

6. What happened after the visit to the tomb?

a. The women ran away in terror and never told anyone what they saw.
b. Jesus appears, is initially mistaken for the gardener, and then is tenderly reunited with Mary.
c. The women tell the disciples, who don’t believe them.
d. Peter runs and beats everyone to the tomb; or possibly gets beaten by one of the other disciples.
e. No way to know, since none of the Gospels agree.

7. Where/when did the risen Jesus first appear to the disciples?

a. On a mountain in the Galilee (60-100 miles from Jerusalem), just as the angel told them he would.
b. We don’t know; we aren’t told anything after the women run from the tomb.
c. He appears to two followers (not disciples) on the road to Emmaus (seven miles from Jerusalem)
d. He materializes in a locked room in Jerusalem as the disciples are at dinner.
e. No way to know, since none of the Gospels agree.

8. When/Where did Jesus ascend back to heaven?

a.  Jesus returns to heaven on the same day he arose, right after dinner, from a room in Jerusalem.
b. We don’t know exactly, but it’s at least 8 days after the resurrection, when the despondent apostles have gone back to being fishermen on the sea of Tiberias.
c. After his resurrection, Jesus spends at least 40 days of teaching his disciples in Jerusalem before ascending to heaven from the Mt. of Olives.
d.  Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven; he met his disciples in the mountains of Galilee and told them he would be with them always.
e. We don’t really know; Luke is the only gospel writer who actually mentions the ascension.

9. Who wrote these gospels, anyway?

a. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – I mean, come on, it says so right there.
b. Actually, none of the gospels even claim to be written by eyewitnesses – all were originally anonymous and written at least a generation later.
c. Well, it’s more like the end of first century for Mark and sometime in the early to mid 2nd century for the others, if you must know.
d. Hold on – Not only that, but Matthew and Luke just reworked Mark gospel, adding their own material and tweaking Mark’s text to better fit what they thought it should say.
e. Get this – if all that weren’t enough, all the Gospels have been edited and added to by later editors, and for the first 200 – 300 years, we have no way to determine how faithfully the originals were preserved.

10. Where does the word “Easter” come from?

a. From the Aramaic word for Passover.
b. It originally was “Eastern Holiday” – referring to the Passover celebrated by Jews in the eastern part of the Roman empire.
c. From est ova, Latin for “Where are the eggs?”
d. From an ancient Celtic pun that means both “Bunnies” and “Chocolate.”
e. from Eastre/Eostre, the pagan Goddess of Spring.

Click here to see the correct answers (scroll down the page)!

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The Tenth Anniversary of Dover & the Demise of Intelligent Design’s Wedge Strategy

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2015

Ten years ago today, on Dec. 20th 2005, skeptics, scientists, and science-boosters celebrated a huge win in the perpetual creationist war against evolutionary science: the historic ruling in the Dover v. Kitzmiller trial. The ruling by federal judge John Jones in the Dover case was a no-holds barred beat-down against the notion of so-called “intelligent design” (ID) as science.

Judge Jones

Judge John Jones – my hero:) (image source)

For those who don’t know, it is important to understand the historical context: in the early 1990s, creationists were trying to figure out a way to move forward after having suffered a major setback when, in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that creationism wasn’t science and therefore could not be taught as such in public schools. Through the 1990s on into the early 2000s, creationists came up with a new way of branding their ideas, which they called Intelligent Design (ID). The Intelligent Design Movement (IDM – which is just another way of saying “creationist movement”) put together a slick and well-funded think tank known as the Discovery Institute, whose sole purpose at the time was to write about and promote the whole notion of ID as a scientific concept. However, some digging revealed that ID was simply a thinly-veiled attempt to rename and relabel the old-fashioned creationism that had been defeated time and time again through both scientific analysis and courtroom rulings; further investigation also showed that the IDM’s motives were explicitly religious in nature and had little or nothing to do with science. In fact, the IDM’s own stated goals were to, among other things, completely overturn and re-define the entire endeavor of science so as to be in keeping with their narrow religious worldview; in fact, the IDM explicitly stated as much in their now-infamous Wedge Document (an actual PDF of the original document can be found here) in the section titled Goals

Governing Goals

  • To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
  • to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

Five Year Goals

  • To see intelligent design theory as an accepted alternative in the sciences and scientific research being done from the perspective of design theory.
  • To see the beginning of the influence of design theory in spheres other than natural science.
  • To see major new debates in education, life issues, legal and personal responsibility pushed to the front of the national agenda.

Twenty Year Goals

  • To see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science.
  • To see design theory application in specific fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, paleontology, physics and cosmology in the natural sciences, psychology, ethics, politics, theology and philosophy in the humanities; to see its influence in the fine arts.
  • To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life. [emphasis added]

The IDM pushed the idea of ID in the popular press, trying to avoid any religious overtones, attempting to make it look like a scientific concept. But all along, the real goal of the IDM and Discovery Institute was to get a federal court ruling in their favor stating that ID itself was a scientific concept so that they could “push the thin edge of their Wedge” into public school science classrooms as part of their larger goal to, in their own words, have their narrow religious beliefs “permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.”

In 2004 the IDM got what it wanted in the form of a federal court case wherein ID was put on trial after the school board of Dover, PA tried to force science teachers in the town’s public school district to teach ID as science. The IDM and Discovery Institute thought this case was going to be a slam dunk for them, partly because Judge Jones was both a Republican and appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush and they thought he would be sympathetic to their worldview, but also partly because they really believed they had good arguments. As it turned out, they were wrong on both counts. Here’s just a taste of what Judge Jones had to say in his ruling of Dover v. Kitzmiller (a more thorough break down, including the all-too-predictable reaction from creationists, can be found here)…

(from p. 63 of the ruling):

“After a searching review of the record and applicable case law, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position,ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.”

(from p. 88-89 of the ruling):

“After this searching and careful review of ID as espoused by its proponents, as elaborated upon in submissions to the Court, and as scrutinized over a six week trial, we find that ID is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community. ID, as noted, is grounded in theology, not science. Accepting for the sake of argument its proponents’, as well as Defendants’ argument that to introduce ID to students will encourage critical thinking, it still has utterly no place in a science curriculum. Moreover, ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM [Intelligent Design Movement] is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.”

(and the money quote, from p. 136 of the ruling):

“The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

More juicy quotes from Judge Jones can be found here and here.

So after this high-profile defeat of their pet “theory”, what did the IDM do? Sadly, they kept on doing the same thing: misrepresenting evolution and science in an attempt to give ID some thin veneer of credibility. But it was too late, because Dover clearly showed the emperor had no clothes, and only those already committed to the creationist cause kept up their attempt to promote ID as science.

Some years after the Dover ruling, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Casey Luskin, who at the time worked for the Discovery Institute, and I was interested in seeing whether or not ID’s biggest proponents had lived up to their talk of ID being science. That’s because actual science adapts and evolves, refining theories as a result of observation and experimentation. But I saw no evidence of this in Luskin’s talk; in fact, I saw quite the opposite: little more than a sad rehashing of the same tired old creationist arguments against evolution, lame attempts to label ID as science, ranting against the evils of materialism, and a  general collapse of all arguments under even the barest scrutiny. Here is my more detailed account of Luskin’s talk, and here is his response to my criticism. Lastly, in the spirit of throwing Luskin and his colleagues at the Discovery Institute a bone, I even came up with an experimental method for testing a key aspect of ID, but – ironically – they have yet to take up that (or any other) challenge and actually test out this supposedly scientific concept.

Of course, to say that creationism is dead and buried would be incorrect. After all, once the IDM could no longer promote ID as science, they fell back on the time-honored creationist tactic of attacking evolution and science in general, and these attacks still continue; a great way to keep track of attempts by creationists and others to tamper with science education is to stay tuned to the National Center for Science Education. Fortunately, the evidence suggests that creationists are, slowly but surely, losing the fight as more and more Americans become accepting of evolutionary science and view creationism with suspicion. It’s been a long, hard fight, but it’s one well worth having, given the stakes. And we’ll continue the fight as long as it takes.

Last, but not least, I cannot help but point out the irony of the timing: right around now is when the writers of the Wedge Document stated that they had hoped to have ID “permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life”, and – thanks in large part to the Dover ruling – that certainly hasn’t come to pass.

Happy 10th birthday, Dover v. Kitzmiller:)


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Santa, Skepticism, and the Holiday Season

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 19, 2015

A recent article posted by skeptical writer Greta Christina titled No, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus over at Freethought Blogs caught my eye. In it, she makes a compelling argument for why it is that children should be skeptical of some adults’ attempts to hoodwink them…

… You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there’s no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that “childlike faith” — i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true — is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.

Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you — about Santa Claus, or anything else — when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That’s a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don’t believe in this lie they’re telling you… you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.

I agree wholeheartedly with Greta’s thoughts on this matter, and I recommend that you read her entire post on the topic. That said, I’d also like to take this opportunity to share (or re-share) some of my previous work on the entire matter of skepticism, education, Santa Claus, and the Holiday Season in general.

1. If Santa ever existed, he didn’t live for long

This is perhaps what I’m most famous (or infamous) for on this topic: I use physics to kill Santa Claus; to be more accurate, I use physics to kill the idea of Santa Claus (because it’s impossible to kill something that doesn’t exist in the first place). Originally, I made a post years ago outlining how, assuming the jolly old elf existed in the first place, Santa would be simultaneously fried to a crisp and squashed into jelly in his attempts to deliver presents on Christmas Eve.

Then, last year, I decided to up my game a bit. I got commissioned to write an article for a UK Education periodical on the topic, and I went so far as to perform the explicit calculations showing that not only would Santa have to absorb the equivalent  energy of 20 Tsar-Bomba nuclear weapons every second due to air drag, but he’d also experience roughly 192 million g’s worth of acceleration in the process – more than enough to make short work of him!

Now, I’d like to share with you the specific PowerPoint I use to annihilate the Santa Claus myth. Feel free to download and use it as you will :)

Physics of Santa 2.0

Physics of Santa

2. The Santa Myth isn’t all bad and can serve a skeptical purpose

I’ve argued before that I think the myth of Santa Claus can actually be a very useful tool to promote skepticism and critical thinking in young children. Please note that my argument here is not in any way, shape, or form in opposition to Greta Christina’s well reasoned post above; I simply think that it is good for children to work out for themselves that Santa isn’t real, and once they’ve done that they should give the stink-eye to anyone who tries to give them grief or make them feel bad for not believing in the fairy tale. Even better, once kids figure it out, they should go forth and argue with their peers about the existence of Santa; what could be better than skeptical children promoting critical thinking to other kids?

3. It isn’t all about Santa

While it is perhaps true that Santa Claus is the most popular aspect of the Holiday Season, it certainly isn’t the only myth of the Holiday Season. Once children become skeptical of the existence of Santa Claus, then why not encourage them to ask questions and become more critical of other aspects of the season? For example, they can take the following myths and misconceptions quiz on the issue, examining everything from the more pagan aspects of Christmas to blatant falsehoods regarding the Gospels in the Bible. After all, once one starts to question one myth, then why not another?…



Posted in education, humor, physics denial/woo, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Progress on Evolution… Slowly But Surely

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 30, 2015

Over the years, I’ve spent much time on this blog discussing science education and the need to combat pseudoscientific notions in the sphere of public education. In the United States, this fight is most evident in the seemingly endless attempts by creationists (and by “creationists” I mean young-Earth creationists, though there are many other kinds of creationism) to insert their religious ideology into the public school science classroom by either trying to disguise it as science or by undermining the teaching of evolutionary science.

Fortunately, due to many high-profile defeats (such as court decisions like Edward v. Aguillard and Dover v. Kitzmiller), the creationist movement has failed utterly in trying to convince anyone who isn’t already one of their followers that their ideas are in any way scientific – the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) does a good job of explaining why creationism shouldn’t be taught as science.

This failure on the part of creationists to push their ideas as science leaves them only one route: to tear down or block the teaching of evolutionary science in public schools. Often this takes the form of trying to pass so-called “academic freedom” laws to demand “equal time” for creationism or by advocating for “teaching all views” (which is easily refuted with a witty counter-argument), though those efforts have been met with, at best, mixed success. Another tactic employed by creationists is to try dumbing-down science textbooks by using various political and procedural maneuvering – such as ignoring expert scientific advice and even by watering-down the definition of an “expert” like the Texas Board of Education has done.

But, over time, it seems the creationist movement in the United States has suffered defeat after defeat, and all they appear able to do is adopt a bunker mentality wherein they attempt to keep the teaching of evolutionary science away from their children and others within their immediate sphere of influence.

Well, it appears that they are failing even at that, because – according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center – the number of Americans who accept evolution is at an all-time high. But the best news in this poll is the breakdown of who is most accepting of evolution: the youngest demographic…


… That idea [rejection of evolution] appears to be changing according to recent data released by the Pew Research Center. According to the most current survey, around 73 percent of young people now believe that species evolved over time as opposed to beginning in their actual state at the dawn of time.

Young people aren’t the only ones drifting away from an opposition to evolution. In every age group, a majority of people said that they believed the genetic makeup of species had undergone change. In the 65 and older range, which had the smallest margin, 54 percent agreed that evolution had taken place. …

Now I, for one, view this as a positive development, because as this younger generation, which is most accepting of evolution and least accepting of creationism, ages and matures it will signal a significant demographic shift in favor of good science education and against the creationist movement. Whether or not this has to do with wider societal trends regarding the rise of the non-religious in the United States is an open question, but regardless I think the creationist movement is going to have an even harder time of promoting their nonsense in the future. And that’s good for all of us:)


Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Ken Ham’s “Ark Encounter” Sinking Under the Weight of Heavy Lies?

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 11, 2015

In the ongoing drama that is Ken Ham’s halting and sadly hilarious attempt to get the Kentucky state government to fund his creationist propaganda debacle, also known as “Ark Encounter”, time and time again it seems that he cannot avoid both controversy and the law. Now it seems as if Ken Ham and his Answers In Genesis organization (the creationist parent organization of both the floundering Creationist Museum and Ark Encounter) are mired in even more controversy: they apparently lied about the number of people who would be attending the new park attraction when they applied for an $18.25 million tax rebate through the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has more details…

Boatload Of Lies: Ark Encounter Gave Ky. Officials Inflated Attendance Projections

Americans United has long been skeptical that Ark Encounter, a proposed theme park in Kentucky that will feature a 510-foot replica of Noah’s Ark, could ever live up to the enormous projected attendance figures claimed by its leadership in order to secure public assistance. As it turns out, the numbers submitted by Ark Encounter were indeed wildly inflated. …

… Now, thanks to an open records request by Ed Hensley of the Kentucky Secular Society, we know that AiG was less than truthful in at least a portion of its application. Ark Encounter claimed it would have 1.2 to 2 million visitors annually. This included an estimate of over 1.6 million visitors in the park’s first year.

But the reality is nowhere near that high. Kentucky sent AiG’s application out for review, and Hunden Strategic Partners in Chicago determined that if the Ark Park remained a purely religious attraction, it would generate about 325,000 visitors its first year, rise to 425,000 in its third year and eventually fall to 275,000 by its seventh year in business. This would mean the Ark Park could create about 514 jobs, Hunden said.

Were AiG to pursue “a mainstream approach to the attraction,” Hunden estimated it could draw just under 500,000 visitors in year one, 640,000 visitors in year three, then drop off to about 400,000 by year seven. Hunden estimated 787 jobs would be created if that scenario played out. … [emphasis added]

At this point, one might think the claim that Ham and AiG were lying is overly harsh, but then there are more details that have been revealed which seems to lend credence to the claim of outright lying (or even fraud). It ends up that there was a potentially huge conflict of interest between Ham and the firm which generated the initial (and wildly inflated) attendance estimates…

… Hunden also noted that AiG’s estimate was provided by the South Carolina-based America’s Research Group, which has ties to AiG head Ken Ham.

“The president of America’s Research Group is Britt Beemer, who is also a co-author with Ken Ham on the book Already Gone,” Hunden said in its report. “Furthermore, research by Beemer and America’s Research Group is featured in Already Compromised, another book authored by Ken Ham.” …

Wow. At this point, I’ll let the reader decide on whether or not the state of Kentucky made a good decision to not award the tax rebates to AiG. It seems that Ham isn’t above skirting both ethics and the law to “do the Lord’s work” in an attempt to get his hands into the public coffers – whatever happened to him being an honest Christian?

Posted in creationism, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Dangers of NOT Offending Religious Sensibilities

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 18, 2015

**This post will also appear as a guest post at the Wrest In Peace blog. Go check it out:) **

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, there has been much soul searching regarding free speech, religion, what is and isn’t offensive, and public safety. In my first blog post here at Wrest In Peace, in the spirit of battling with words and not weapons, I wanted to take this topic head-on and without apology. So here goes…

First, I think that there has been a fundamental error in how much of this discussion has been framed. Too many people, mostly those who wish to not have their “religious sensibilities” offended and their weak-kneed allies, are asking the question of what are limits to free speech and should “offensive” speech which attacks and/or ridicules religion be allowed? This viewpoint isn’t to be dismissed as trivial in light of the fact that almost 20% of Americans think religion shouldn’t be satirized.

I think this is entirely the wrong question to be asking, for the simple reason that it appears to place the onus for responsibility of religious violence in the wrong place: on people whose only crime is to speak their mind openly and freely. There is an implicit and dangerous naivety behind such framing: it makes the assumption that if only people wouldn’t be critical of religion or poke fun at religious figures then murderous violence such as that on display recently in Paris would be curbed.

Really?! Not mocking religion means that there’s going to be a reduction of religiously-motivated violence? Try telling that to the thousands upon thousands of Muslims (and others) who are, even now, being enslaved, victimized, and barbarically killed by the extremists in ISIS. I’ll wager that the vast majority, if not all, of those being brutally oppressed and killed by ISIS never said or wrote one offensive word about Islam or Muhammad. Yet they are being slaughtered in the name of radical Islam none-the-less.

In my mind, a much more proper question to ask is this: What is it that it can so easily generate such a murderous certainty among the most ardent, fundamentalist believers of religion? The right way to respond to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and atrocities committed by ISIS isn’t to demand less scrutiny of religion but quite the opposite; we must demand more scrutiny of religion, especially radical, fundamentalist variations.

Second, in order to have any reasonable discussion of these topics, we must ask ourselves who defines what is offensive? Something which offends one person may be little more than humor to someone else. For example, much attention has been paid to the depiction of Muhammad in pictures and how this offends many Muslims; some even go so far as to argue that such depictions should be regarded as “hate speech”!

Would some consider the following depiction of Muhammad as a suicide-bombing terrorist to be offensive?

Undoubtedly, the answer to that question would be “Yes!” But consider this fact: there is a long, rich history of images of Muhammad being displayed within Islamic culture. For instance, this website shows numerous examples, most of them many centuries old, of Muslim artists showing Muhammad in their work. In 1999, Islamic art expert Wijdan Ali wrote a scholarly overview of the Muslim tradition of depicting Muhammad, which can be downloaded here in pdf format. In that essay, Ali demonstrates that the prohibition against depicting Muhammad did not arise until as late as the 16th or 17th century, despite the media’s recent false claims that it has always been forbidden for Muslims to draw Muhammad. Until comparatively recently in Islamic history, it was perfectly common to show Muhammad, either in full, or with his face hidden. Even after the 17th century, up to modern times, Islamic depictions of Muhammad (especially in Shi’ite areas) continued to be produced.

And even the U.S. government has incorporated an image of Muhammad as one of the traditional law-givers on the frieze of the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC…

And there are plenty of other examples available.  My whole point here is that it seems the modern-day Islamic radicals are on a crusade to crush dissent, free expression, and free inquiry not only among the secular critics of Islam in the West, but also those whom would dissent within Islam itself.

And that brings me to my third point: if we allow “offensive” speech to be curbed or outlawed, we run the risk of letting these vague notions of what is offensive to be defined by the most extreme members of religion. Take, for example, the case of Saudi Arabian blogger and dissenter Raif Badawi, who is undergoing a brutal punishment involving receiving 50 lashes a week for 20 weeks, followed by years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. His crime, according to the Saudi Arabian authorities, was “insulting Islam”; Raif had the audacity to run a website called Free Saudi Liberals (now closed down) where he advocated for a secular government in Saudi Arabia. Yes, political dissent is viewed as an insult to religion, justifying – in the minds of the extremists – the most brutal of tortures and disproportionate punishment. Raif Badawi’s torture makes the case that, if anything, religious sensibilities need to be questioned, and if that makes some people uncomfortable or offends them, so much the better!

Now, lest you think this discussion is exclusively about Islam, think again. It has become clear of late that many more than just some Muslims are jumping aboard the “curb offensive speech” bandwagon. Consider, for example, the reaction from various branches of Christianity to the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

Famous religious right and fundamentalist Christian broadcaster Bryan Fisher suggested that God allowed Islamic terrorists to carry out their attack in Paris as punishment for blasphemy. Further, in his radio broadcast he stated “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain… They [Charlie Hebdo] made a career out of taking the name of God, the God of the Bible, the father of the Lord Jesus [in vain].” So, according to Fisher, it wasn’t the satire of Islam that led to the attacks, it was the satire of Christianity and Jesus that is to blame! It should also be no surprise that Fisher is among those who would impose so-called anti-blasphemy laws in the United States.

Not to be outdone, prominent radical Catholic and head of the Catholic League Bill Donohue stated that the victims of the Paris attacks only had themselves to blame for insulting religion and angering people. “Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated,” he explained in a press release. “But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.”

Now one would expect such nutty rhetoric from commonly-known Christian fundamentalists such as Fisher and Donohue, but what is more disturbing is that the most widely known religious figure on the planet, Pope Francis, who is regarded by many as a “progressive Pope” appears to agree with these sentiments! “One cannot provoke; one cannot insult other people’s faith; one cannot make fun of faith,” the Pope stated on a recent trip to the Philippines. “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others,” he continued. Wow, so much for that “turn the other cheek” nonsense that Jesus espoused.

What I see now is an emerging unholy alliance between right-wing extremists and naïve left-wing multiculturalists against secular critics of religion. The former want little more than power and control, and they view silencing criticism of religion and its related power structures as a way of attaining these goals. The latter are often well-meaning but clueless and unrealistic idealists who believe that sitting in a circle and singing “Kumbaya” will result in less religiously-motivated power grabs and violence. Both groups view secular critics of religion as either an enemy of the faith or callous and disrespectful loud-mouths who are somehow a threat to a healthy society. And this is not simply an academic debate; political correctness, introduced by the naïve among the multicultural left, has now been co-opted by right-wing fundamentalists to justify everything from the denial of contraception to women to the inclusion of pseudo-scientific notions of creationism in public schools. Under the guise of “religious liberty”, these fundamentalists insist that not allowing them to impose their religious beliefs upon the rest of society is offensive.

What needs to happen is that it needs to be shown that an increased secularization of society, as Raif Badawi advocates, is needed to make it more free and prosperous for everyone, believer and non-believer alike. But in order to show the importance of secularism, it is necessary to simultaneously question religion; and as Voltaire famously wrote, “We must have laughter on our side,” because there is often no more powerful force to tear down the high and mighty than laughter. And laughter is the chief weapon of the satirist.

So you see, even if it is considered offensive or blasphemous, the satirical lampooning of religion and religious belief is necessary for a healthy and free society. If we accept a situation where there really are sacred cows that cannot be questioned or made fun of, then that leads to the collection of unquestioned and absolute authority (it’s hard to get much more authoritative than claiming you speak for God). And, as the saying goes, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Posted in free inquiry, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Satanic Temple Convinces Florida School District that Church-State Separation is a Good Thing

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 17, 2015

In recent years, the Satanic Temple has been getting more and more attention as they have been attempting to make themselves more visible in the public eye. In fact, they’ve taken a page from the tactics employed by many Christian churches, and they have begun to demand a place in erecting holiday displays, advocating for religious monuments on public land, and even distributing literature at public schools.

And it’s that last point which is so interesting and ironic: last fall a judge ruled that religious pamphlets could be handed out in public schools in Orange County, Florida. School officials seemed just fine with this scheme as long as it was only Christian literature and Bibles that were handed out to kids, but then along came the Satanic Temple…

Satanists victorious in wild scheme to disrupt Florida school district’s Bible plan

In September of last year the Satanic Temple revealed plans to disseminate the “Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities,” to kids in a Florida school district.

The Satanic Temple along with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) were responding to a ruling, which let the Orange County school district allow religious and atheist organizations to distribute materials — including bibles and other pamphlets — in public schools.

Since religious and atheist materials could be handed out, the Satanic Temple made a request to hand out the aforementioned activity book, while the Freedom From Religion Foundation planned to hand out a pamphlet describing the bible as an “X-rated book.”

Now, the Satanic Temple’s request has the school district rethinking its policy, and the district is currently putting the distribution of all religious paraphernalia on hold, according to WFTV-TV.

“We don’t want our schools to become religious battlefields,” David Williamson, of FFRF, told WFTV-TV. “We’ve advocated all along to close the forum.”

So in a hilarious and embarrassing turnabout, the school district did what they probably should have done all along: they decided that in order to respect the separation of church and state they should probably just not allow any religious organizations to distribute literature in the public schools.

In closing, I think it’s fair to say that a picture is worth a thousand words:)


Posted in education, politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter Gets Torpedoed by Kentucky State Government

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 11, 2014

Imagine my surprise when I found out today that my home state of Kentucky, which I often refer to as the “buckle of the Bible Belt”, actually took a firm stand in favor of church-state separation! Today the state’s Tourism, Arts, and Heritage Cabinet informed uber-creationist and all-around pseudo-scientist Ken Ham that his over-budget and under-delivered Ark Encounter will NOT be receiving the tax breaks he has so long sought from the state government (which he really needs due to the questionable financial situation of his endeavor).

Why has this happened? Because Ken Ham thinks that anti-discrimination laws shouldn’t apply to his organization in the hiring of employees (he wants to force employees of an organization which receives public money to sign the Answers in Genesis “Statement of Faith”), and the state has decided (wisely) that that is going too far and would be a clear violation of separation of church and state. So, they’ve closed the door on ol’ Ham and his ruse.

The local KY media are weighing in; this from the Courier Journal…

Ark park won’t get Kentucky tax incentives

The state Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet said in a letter Wednesday that the Ark Encounter theme park has changed it’s position on hiring policies since it originally filed for incentives in 2010 and now intends to discriminate in hiring based on religion.

It also said the park has evolved from a tourist attraction into an extension of the ministry activities undertaken by Answers in Genesis, which promotes a literal interpretation of the Bible’s old testament and argues that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

“State tourism tax incentives cannot be used to fund religious indoctrination or otherwise be used to advance religion,” Tourism Secretary Bob Stewart wrote in the letter. “The use of state incentives in this way violates the separation of church and state provisions of the Constitution and is therefore impermissible.”

Officials will “take no further action” on the application, he said.

Of course, what is Ham’s reaction? Why, he’s threatening legal action, because – in his alternate reality – he thinks that his organization should be allowed to both collect public money and discriminate on the basis of religion (or non-religion).  In other words, he wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Sorry, Ken, it doesn’t work that way:

But, Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said it’s unlikely a lawsuit could succeed in federal court.

He said the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that states can deny taxpayer subsidies to religious groups if officials are concerned that funds will support religious activities.

“Kentucky is doing the right thing and is respecting the rights of taxpayers to not be forced to subsidize religious indoctrination and discrimination,” Luchenitser said. “The state is also respecting the fact that jobs that are going to be supported by state subsidies must be open to all.”

I’m sure this ongoing drama won’t stop here; it will likely take Ham and his creationist allies getting smacked down by the courts, multiple times, before they give up this lost cause.

As a final comment, it is with no small amount of irony that I share the fact that in recent days, Ham’s Answers in Genesis organization started a billboard campaign mocking those who would question his grasp of the law. Here’s what the billboard looks like:


Interesting… according to the mythology, Noah didn’t need a crane to build the Ark, did he? — Image source

My response to Mr. Ham: “intolerant liberals” may not be able to sink that ship, but it seems that the Kentucky state government just did a pretty thorough job of torpedoing any hope for those tax breaks.  As the Biblical saying goes: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. It looks like right now Caesar is saying “no dice” on the tax breaks!😀

Posted in creationism, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Denying Evolution and Climate Science Panel at DragonCon 2014 Video!

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 26, 2014

*Note: This is essentially a re-post of this previous post, only including video:)

This past DragonCon, I moderated one panel at the Skeptrack titled “Denying Evolution and Climate Science” which was meant to address the issue of science denial in modern society.  We all know that for decades science deniers (most notably creationists and climate science deniers) have done all they can to sow confusion and doubt on key topics in science.  Throughout the years, they have “evolved” a number of tactics for doing so, and now it appears there is a new one on the horizon.  Recently they have begun to explicitly acknowledge that they aren’t scientists, but that it shouldn’t matter because “why should we listen to those scientists anyway?”  This panel discussed this trend, its implications for science in general, and how to respond to science denial.

Participating with me in this panel was Skepticality’s Derek Colanduno, the SGU’s Dr. Steven Novella, David DiSalvo, and Barbara Drescher.  And thanks to the fine folks at AbruptMedia, we have the video of the entire panel discussion:

DragonCon Science Denial Panel 2014

Click here to access the video!

Posted in creationism, global warming denial, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter Runs Aground on Kentucky Anti-Discrimination Laws

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 29, 2014

As I have documented many times before, uber-creationist Ken Ham has been trying to get a new attraction built named Ark Encounter (which is Ham’s version of the mythical Noah’s Ark) that would boost lagging attendance at his Creation Museum.  And he’s been trying to get the state of Kentucky to fund this misadventure with public dollars and tax breaks, with varying degrees of success; though, sadly, up until this point the KY officials have appeared all-too-willing to accommodate Ham.  If you want to read the full background on this slow-motion train wreck – and the various scientific and church-state issues it raises – feel free to read here, here, and here.

What I want to focus upon in this latest post is a new and highly troublesome wrinkle in Ham’s plans to pull the wool over the eyes of Kentucky public officials.  It seems that Ham billed Ark Encounter as a for-profit venture while also simultaneously seeking tax breaks and other goodies from the public trough; however, because Ark Encounter is under the auspices of Ham’s Answers In Genesis creationist organization, he appears to want to force any potential Ark Encounter employees to sign on to the Answers In Genesis “Statement of Faith”.

According to this New Civil Rights Movement article, this statement would require of Ark Encounter employees:

Indeed, as The New Civil Rights Movement reported, Daniel Phelps, the president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society and vice president of Kentuckians for Science Education wrote an op-ed in which he details the issue. “On the day the tax incentives were recommended, the Answers in Genesis website had a help-wanted advertisement,” Phelps explained.

The job description included this statement: “Our work at Ark Encounter is not just a job, it is also a ministry. Our employees work together as a team to serve each other to produce the best solutions for our design requirements. Our purpose through the Ark Encounter is to serve and glorify the Lord with our God-given talents with the goal of edifying believers and evangelizing the lost.”

Ham claims that the Ark museum will be run separately and differently from the Creation Museum.

But job postings at Answers in Genesis include this statement: “All job applicants for the non-profit ministry of AiG/Creation Museum need to supply a written statement of their testimony, a statement of what they believe regarding creation, and a statement that they have read and can support the AiG Statement of Faith.”

The AiG Statement of Faith claims “it is imperative that all persons employed by the ministry in any capacity, or who serve as volunteers, should abide by and agree to our Statement of Faith, to include the statement on marriage and sexuality, and conduct themselves accordingly.”

It also requires all employees to believe and support “the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ as Sovereign, Creator, Redeemer, and Judge,” and the “66 books of the Bible are the written Word of God. The Bible is divinely inspired and inerrant throughout. Its assertions are factually true in all the original autographs. It is the supreme authority in everything it teaches. Its authority is not limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes but includes its assertions in such fields as history and science.”

And that’s just for starters.

Whoops – that’s a real legal no-no.  It’s so much of a legal no-no that now, finally, those public officials in Kentucky who have been so willing, up to this point, to give a wink and a nod to Ken Ham and his creationist nonsense can no longer turn a blind eye to his shenanigans.  This Courier-Journal article outlines some details:

“The Commonwealth doesn’t believe that Ark Encounter, LLC will be complying with state and Federal law in its hiring practices,” Bob Stewart, secretary of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, said in an Aug. 27 letter to an Ark Encounter attorney.

Stewart wrote that “serious concerns” were raised by a job posting for an Ark Encounter position that required applicants to provide salvation testimony, a creation belief statement, and agreement with the “Statement of Faith” of Ark Encounter’s parent organization, Answers in Genesis.

“Therefore, we are not prepared to move forward with consideration of the application for final approval without the assurance of Ark Encounter, LLC that it will not discriminate in any way on the basis of religion in hiring,” Stewart wrote.

James Parsons, a Covington attorney representing Ark Encounter, responded to Stewart saying that the job posting that triggered Stewart’s concern was not for Ark Encounter, but Answers in Genesis.

Parsons wrote that Ark Encounter stands by its longstanding commitment to “comply with all applicable federal and state laws” on hiring and said that Stewart was adding a new requirement to Ark Encounter’s application for tax incentives.

Not so, Stewart replied Sept. 4. “The Commonwealth does not provide incentives to any company that discriminates on the basis of religion and we will not make any exception for Ark Encounter, LLC…” Stewart wrote. “The Commonwealth must have the express written assurance from Ark Encounter, LLC that it will not discriminate in any way on the basis of religion in hiring.”

That last communication between KY officials and Ken Ham’s organization took place almost two months ago, and since that time there has been no written assurance from Ark Encounter that it won’t discriminate in hiring on the basis of religious beliefs.  Now why would that be?  Well, the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have an idea, and I think it’s a pretty good one, as to why Ken Ham has suddenly gone quiet on the question:

Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United, said in a phone interview, “We’re pleased with this development. It sounds like the state of Kentucky has a policy of not providing tax incentives to organizations that discriminate and that the state is sticking to its guns in this.”

Luchenitser said he believes there is a reason that Ark Encounter does not want to provide an express assurance it will not discriminate based on religion in its hiring practices yet insists it will comply with all federal and state hiring laws.

“I think what’s going on here is that Ark Encounter’s position is that federal and state law allows them to discriminate in hiring based on religion — that they are entitled to an exemption from the federal and state anti-discrimination statutes that is afforded certain religious organizations. We think they’re wrong on that,” Luchenitser said. “… And we believe Ark Encounter is not entitled to that exception because it is a for-profit organization.”

In other words, it seems that Ken Ham wants to have his cake and eat it, too.  He wants to be able to make money off of Ark Encounter, thus labeling it “for-profit”, yet he also wants to use it explicitly as a way of spreading his fundamentalist religious beliefs, even to the point of forcing those beliefs on potential employees.  Of course, none of this surprises me, because once you understand that true-believers like Ham really do think they have God on their side, then any kind of behavior, no matter how underhanded or hypocritical, is acceptable in their quest to “save souls”.

Posted in creationism, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »


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