The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘murder’

These are the dumbest Clinton conspiracy theories. Ever.

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 10, 2016

It wouldn’t be a true U.S. presidential election season without the obligatory failure of logical and skeptical thinking on the part of those arguing for or against this or that politician. And one of my favorites of failed reasoning is the conspiracy theory, that go-to argument that a die-hard fanatic (of any political leaning) can fall back on when all their other arguments get blown apart. This article from RationalWiki does a good job of outlining the flawed thinking among conspiracy theorists and how to counter their arguments. (Hint: don’t try converting a committed conspiracy theorist, because they’ll likely just dismiss you as being part of the conspiracy. But it’s worth knowing how to identify and counter their nonsense for the benefit of others watching the conversation.)

This year, it seems that politically-oriented conspiracy theories abound. In this post I’m not talking specifically about the rampant conspiracy-mongering espoused by Donald Trump, though there is ample evidence of it (if you’re interested, check out his birther views or his denial of global warming science) and, no doubt, “The Donald” will oblige by providing more such nonsense in the future.

Right now I’m talking about the conspiracy theories that seem to swirl around Bill and Hillary Clinton. There are a lot of them, but my two favorites include one of the oldest and also one of the newest: the first is the claim that Bill Clinton “did away with” a number of people who had evidence of his numerous crimes, while the second is the claim that Hillary Clinton’s current campaign is somehow in cahoots with Google to manipulate Internet searches (ostensibly to cover up her supposed crimes).

Clintons

[Full disclosure: I didn’t vote for Bill Clinton in either 1992 or 1996 (I voted for Ross Perot both years), and this election season I have been a supporter of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.]

If you come across either one of these conspiracies, here’s a couple of resources to reference in countering them. The first deals with the “Bill Clinton body count” claim (which I’ve seen morphing into a similar claim about Hillary Clinton), and it’s from our skeptical friends at Snopes.com:

FALSE: Clinton Body Bags

Decades-old political rumor claims Bill Clinton quietly did away with several dozen people who possessed incriminating evidence about him.

… We shouldn’t have to tell anyone not to believe this claptrap, but we will anyway. In a frenzied media climate where the Chief Executive couldn’t boff a White House intern without the whole world finding out every niggling detail of each encounter and demanding his removal from office, are we seriously to believe the same man had been having double handfuls of detractors and former friends murdered with impunity? …

The claim about Hillary Clinton working in conjunction with Google to manipulate Internet searches is even more silly, because it is so painfully easy to debunk. This article at Vox.com does an excellent job of quickly and easily dispatching this particular bit of nonsense:

There’s no evidence that Google is manipulating searches to help Hillary Clinton

There’s a video making the rounds purporting to show that Google is suppressing the phrase “Hillary Clinton crimes” from autocomplete results, thereby boosting Clinton’s candidacy.

The video points out that if you type the phrase “Donald Trump rac,” Google will suggest the word “racist” to complete the phrase. But if you type “Hillary Clinton cri,” Google will suggest words like “crime reform” and “crisis” but not “crimes.” This despite the fact that Google Trend results show that people search for “Hillary Clinton crimes” a lot more than “Hillary Clinton crime reform.”

So what’s going on here? The folks behind the video suggest that this reflects an unholy alliance between the Clinton campaign and Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO and current chair of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. But there’s a simpler explanation: Choose any famous American who has been accused of a serious crime and Google their name followed by the letters “cri,” and in no case does Google suggest the word “crimes.” That’s true even of people like Kaczynski and Madoff, who are famous only because they faced prosecution for serious crimes.

Apparently, Google has a policy of not suggesting that customers do searches on people’s crimes. I have no inside knowledge of why it runs its search engine this way. Maybe Google is just uncomfortable with having an algorithm suggesting that people search for other people’s crimes.

In any event, there’s no evidence that this is specific to Hillary Clinton, and therefore no reason to think this is a conspiracy by Google to help Clinton win the election.

Now whether or not you plan to vote for Clinton this year is not the point of this post. The point is that you don’t have to make up stupid conspiracy theories to justify your political beliefs. Argue your political point of view, but don’t buy into or spread lies and deceit to justify it.

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Religious Extremism, the ISIS Attacks on Paris, and the Need for Honest Dialogue About Religion

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 14, 2015

**UPDATE (11-21-15): For those wishing to get informed about the way ISIS thinks (as in “know your enemy”), take a serious look at this article; it provides solid evidence that, yes, they really are an apocalyptic, fundamentalist religious cult. And you might want to pay particular attention to point #3 regarding what ISIS *really* fears (hint: it isn’t death).**

Like many, it was with both great sorrow and frustration that I read this morning about the attacks in Paris, France by members of ISIS. As I’ve argued many times before on this blog and elsewhere, such as on my post about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and Draw Muhammad Day and my numerous posts regarding creationism plus the one about the religiously-motivated attacks on Planned Parenthood, I think it is absolutely critical for us to openly and honestly examine religion and religious belief and their roles in our modern society in a critical manner.

Let me begin by stating that I am not inherently anti-religion, though I openly declare myself to be an atheist. I can and do see how religious belief can serve to give many people a feeling of purpose or hope where they might otherwise have none, and I understand how it can help motivate many others to do works of great good. That said, too often I hear people speak of religion in terms that are only positive, as if things like religious belief and faith can only be good. For example, how many times have we all heard some believers state that one cannot be moral without a belief in God? I view this argument as detrimental for two reasons:

  1. It argues that people who either don’t believe in God (or who believe in the wrong god, whatever that may be) are inherently immoral. The counter to this argument is that there are many forms of useful and functional secular morality, so one can be moral without religion. This is, I think, especially relevant given the fact that secularism and non-religiosity is on the rise here in the United States (up to ~25% by some recent surveys).
  2. It seems to implicitly assume that religion necessarily promotes morality. Given the recent events in Paris, I think this assumption is highly questionable, not to mention the fact that recent studies have shown that the religious are no more moral in their daily behavior than are the non-religious.

I think we should stop placing religion and religious belief on a pedestal, and we should take a reasoned and critical look at religion just as we do with any other human endeavor. We need to understand that there is nothing inherently special or moral about religion, and it can be used for good or ill regardless of the beliefs espoused by the faithful; yes, the reality is that religion doesn’t lead to any kind of objective morality. Some people think this critical analysis of religion is not only not necessary, but they say they are offended by it. To that I respond the same way I did in my post titled “The Dangers of NOT Offending Religious Sensibilities” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year:

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. …

… 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.

In closing, allow me one more criticism of religion and religious believers; but this criticism is not directed at the fundamentalists, it is directed at the moderate religious believers who, either knowingly or not, provide cover for the fundamentalists and their dangerous ideologies. As author Sam Harris argued so eloquently in his essay “The Problem with Religious Moderates”:

… While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.

Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question-i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us-religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness. …

… Religious moderates seem to believe that what we need is not radical insight and innovation in these areas but a mere dilution of Iron Age philosophy. Rather than bring the full force of our creativity and rationality to bear on the problems of ethics, social cohesion, and even spiritual experience, moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world. In what other sphere of life is such subservience to tradition acceptable? Medicine? Engineering? Not even politics suffers the anachronism that still dominates our thinking about ethical values and spiritual experience. …

… With each passing year, do our religious beliefs conserve more and more of the data of human experience? If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields, would have to be a matter of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrine. Whatever is true now should be discoverable now, and describable in terms that are not an outright affront to the rest of what we know about the world. By this measure, the entire project of religion seems perfectly backward. It cannot survive the changes that have come over us-culturally, technologically, and even ethically. Otherwise, there are few reasons to believe that we will survive it.

Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word “God” as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world-to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish-is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.

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The Assault on Planned Parenthood is an Anti-Science Attack by Religious Fundamentalists

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 17, 2015

For the last month a manufactured controversy has raged about the health-care provider Planned Parenthood. Extremists within the supposed “pro-life”/anti-choice (PLAC) movement (you’ll see why I put “pro-life” in quotes soon enough) have waged a thoroughly discredited campaign to deny Planned Parenthood funding because they claim that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts for profit. Yes, you read that right… and that isn’t the only bone-headed and debunked conspiracy theory from the “pro-life”/anti-choice movement. In this post I will argue that not only is the majority of this movement anti-choice and anti-woman, but it is also driven by religious fundamentalism and is anti-scientific as it attempts to impose a narrow, religiously-based worldview on all of us.

The heart of this manufactured controversy is a series of deceptively edited sting videos from a group misleadingly named the Center for Medical Progress purported to show Planned Parenthood doctors/employees selling baby parts for money. Of course, these videos have been thoroughly analyzed and debunked, and numerous investigations into the matter have provided no evidence of wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood. But in addition, the so-called Center for Medical Progress isn’t what they seem; on this last point, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State reveals who is really behind the videos:

…The group behind the manufactured outrage, CMP, is really a front for Live Action, an anti-abortion outfit long associated with the more extreme fringes of the Religious Right. It’s headed by David Daleiden, an associate of Live Action founder Lila Rose; Live Action is responsible for a number of other deceptively edited “stings” that attempted to catch Planned Parenthood staffers engaged in illegal activities.

And Troy Newman, the current president of Operation Rescue, is a CMP board member. Newman once defended Paul Jennings Hill, executed in 2003 for murdering a Pensacola, Fla., abortion provider. Another current Operation Rescue staffer, Cheryl Sullenger, served time in prison for scheming to bomb an abortion clinic in San Diego, Calif. According to watchdog site Media Matters for America (MMFA), Sullenger also corresponded regularly with Scott Roeder, who later murdered Dr. George Tiller for providing abortions. …

So there’s the connection to religious fundamentalism. Of course, one of the more embarrassing things about the religious nature of the PLAC movement is that it’s supposed “pro-life” stance isn’t consistent with the Bible; for example, take a look at numerous sections of the Bible where God apparently condones abortion or how the PLAC movement has attempted to edit the Bible to make it more in line with their ideology.

As for the anti-science side of things, there is evidence aplenty to show how the PLAC ignores and distorts science in an attempt to push its religious dogma. For example, they conveniently ignore the fact that the family planning and birth control services that Planned Parenthood offers significantly reduce the need for abortion in the first place

PP birth control

Not only that, most of the PLAC movement is fervently opposed to the use of birth control; in fact they’ll make crazy and thoroughly false claims that birth control actually increases the need for abortion. But don’t take it from me, take it from a former insider with the PLAC movement who left when she realized they were more about controlling women’s sexuality than anything else:

The Real Solution: Birth Control

But if banning abortion does not decrease abortion rates, what does? Why do some countries have low abortion rates while others have much higher rates? The answer, I found, was simple.

“Both the lowest and highest subregional abortion rates are in Europe, where abortion is generally legal under broad grounds. In Western Europe, the rate is 12 per 1,000 women, while in Eastern Europe it is 43. The discrepancy in rates between the two regions reflects relatively low contraceptive use in Eastern Europe, as well as a high degree of reliance on methods with relatively high user failure rates, such as the condom, withdrawal and the rhythm method.”

As I sat there in the student union reading over my lunch, I found that making birth control widespread and easily accessible is actually the most effective way to decrease the abortion rate. Even as I processed this fact, I knew that the pro-life movement as a whole generally opposes things like comprehensive sex education and making birth control available to teenagers. I knew this because I had lived it, had heard it in pro-life banquet after pro-life banquet, had read it in the literature. The pro-life movement is anti-birth-control. And opposing birth control is pretty much the most ineffective way to decrease abortion rates imaginable. In fact, opposing birth control actually drives the abortion rates up.

As I mulled this over, I realized how very obvious it was. The cause of abortions is unwanted pregnancies. If you get rid of unwanted pregnancies the number of people who seek abortions will drop like a rock. Simply banning abortion leaves women stuck with unwanted pregnancies. Banning abortion doesn’t make those pregnancies wanted. Many women in a situation like that will be willing to do anything to end that pregnancy, even if it means trying to induce their own abortions (say, with a coat hanger or by drinking chemicals) or seeking out illegal abortions. I realized that the real way to reduce abortion rates, then, was to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. And the way to do that is with birth control, which reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies by allowing women to control when and if they become pregnant. …

Beyond opposing birth control, the PLAC movement is also anti-scientific in the sense of their opposition to Planned Parenthood having any relation to fetal tissue research. Despite the noise and gross rhetoric coming from the PLAC, what is happening is that sometimes, with the consent of the patient, Planned Parenthood will donate fetal tissue to research organizations for the purposes of finding medical cures. Fortunately, while some in the PLAC movement are calling for such research to be outlawed, the record is clear that even many of their political allies support such research, and the scientific community is rallying around protecting the vital, life-saving work.

Last, but not least, is the inherent hypocrisy of the supposed “pro-life” side of the PLAC movement (hence the quotes). If the PLAC were really about “saving the unborn”, the following facts show how empty and vacuous are their real intentions. First, they do not care to advocate for any research into saving zygotes from miscarriages (what can arguably be called a “natural abortion”); again, from a former PLAC insider:

… A few months after reading Sarah’s article I came upon one by Fred Clark. In it, he argues that if those who oppose abortion really believe that every fertilized egg is a person we ought to see 5K fundraisers to save these zygotes. This is very much like what I said above, except that the focus here is whether the 50% of all zygotes – 50% of all fertilized eggs – that die before pregnancy even begins could be saved. Fred suggests that if the pro-life movement really is about saving unborn babies, and if those in the pro-life movement really do believe that life begins at fertilization, then pro-lifers really ought to be extremely concerned about finding a way to save all of these lives. But they’re not. …

… Reading Fred’s article compounded what I had felt reading Sarah’s article. The pro-life movement is not about “saving unborn babies.” It can’t be. As someone who as a child and teen really did believe that life – personhood – began at fertilization, and who really was in it to “save unborn babies,” this is baffling. If I had known all this, I would have been all for this sort of research. I would have been all for sexually active women using the pill to cut down on “deaths.” But I didn’t know any of this. The adults of the anti-abortion movement, though, and certainly the leaders, they surely must know these things. This isn’t rocket science, after all. They must know these things, and yet they are doing nothing.

And if that isn’t enough, there’s this another, utterly damning fact: if “human life begins at conception” and “all [human] life is sacred”, then why isn’t the PLAC doing anything to save all the frozen embryos left over after in-vitro fertilization sessions? I would argue that the answer is disturbingly simple: the PLAC movement isn’t truly “pro-life” as it proclaims, it’s about controlling women’s sexuality…

… The disparity between how the law treats abortion patients and IVF patients reveals an ugly truth about abortion restrictions: that they are often less about protecting life than about controlling women’s bodies. Both IVF and abortion involve the destruction of fertilized eggs that could potentially develop into people. But only abortion concerns women who have had sex that they don’t want to lead to childbirth. Abortion restrictions use unwanted pregnancy as a punishment for “irresponsible sex” and remind women of the consequences of being unchaste: If you didn’t want to endure a mandatory vaginal ultrasound , you shouldn’t have had sex in the first place. …

Fortunately, despite the manufactured outrage on the part of the PLAC movement and its political allies, there is reason to hope. As I’ve stated, upon closer analysis the arguments and the methods of the PLAC movement are utterly falling apart. In addition, contributions to Planned Parenthood have skyrocketed and poll after poll show that far more Americans approve of the work done by Planned Parenthood than those who oppose it. Last, but not least, political support for a government shutdown over this issue is losing steam in Congress, and the Obama administration is investigating potentially illegal denial of funds to Planned Parenthood.

So, apparently the forces of reason, rationality, and science are fighting back vigorously. Whether you personally support or oppose abortion, I think one thing we can agree on is that distorting science, sensationalizing, and lying is a poor substitute for reasoned discourse.

Lastly, I would argue that to be pro-active against this sort of nonsense we should all be more politically active, and we should demand that our elected leaders are held to account for their non-scientific views; a good resource for this is the Science Debate initiative. Then, vote. Then, pay attention to whether or not those leaders are sticking with good science or pushing a non-scientific, religiously-driven agenda. And hold them accountable.

Now get out there and fight.

Posted in conspiracy theories, medical woo, politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

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 »

The “Kony2012” Meme and the Need for Cautious Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 9, 2012

So this week the Internet basically exploded with a massively-popular viral video titled “Kony2012” by the non-governmental organization Invisible Children.  Apparently, it is about a brutal Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony, who leads the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Africa and has perpetrated horrendous crimes (think mass rape, kidnapping children and forcing them to be soldiers, and that sort of monstrous stuff) in the name of doing the sort of nasty crap that warlords do in their pursuit of power.  The purpose of the video is, according to Invisible Children, to aim “to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.”

Here’s the video in question; it’s long (~30 minutes), but a visit to the Invisible Children website will fill you in on the basic idea behind the video.

However, while bringing scumbags like Joseph Kony to justice is no doubt a laudable goal, the fact that this video and related message seemed to spread so quickly (and uncritically, it seems) across the Internet and Twittersphere made me express some cautious skepticism about the whole thing.  And it seems that my skepticism was not without some validity – check out this interesting article from Time.com on the whole “Kony2012” meme because I think it provides a bit of perspective that should be appreciated…

Why You Should Feel Awkward About the ‘Kony2012′ Video

Stuart Price / AFP / Getty Images
Leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony, answers journalists’ questions in Ri-Kwamba, southern Sudan, Nov. 12, 2006.

Most Americans began this week not knowing who Joseph Kony was. That’s not surprising: most Americans begin every week not knowing a lot of things, especially about a part of the world as obscured from their vision as Uganda, the country where Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commenced a brutal insurgency in the 1980s that lingers to this day.

A viral video that took social media by storm over the past two days has seemingly changed all that. Produced by Invisible Children, a San Diego-based NGO, “Kony2012″ is a half-hour plea for Americans and global netizens to pay attention to Kony’s crimes — which include abducting over 60,000 children over two decades of conflict, brutalizing them and transforming many into child soldiers — and to pressure the Obama Administration to find and capture him. Within hours of the slick production surfacing on social media, it led to #StopKony trending on Twitter, populated Facebook timelines, was publicized by Hollywood celebrities and has been viewed some 10 million times on YouTube. Suddenly, a man on virtually no Westerner’s radar became the international bogeyman of the moment. …

… Yet for the video’s demonstrable zeal and passion, there are some obvious problems. Others more expert in this arena have already done a bit of fact-checking: the LRA is no longer thought to be actually operating in northern Uganda, which “Kony2012″ seems to portray still as a war-ravaged flashpoint — instead, its presence has been felt mostly in disparate attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation with its own terrible history of rogue militias committing monstrous atrocities. Moreover, analysts agree that after concerted campaigns against the LRA, its numbers at this point have diminished, perhaps amounting to 250 to 300 fighters at most. Kony, shadowy and illusive, is a faded warlord on the run, with no allies or foreign friends (save perhaps, in one embarrassing moment of blustering sophistry, for American radio shock jock Rush Limbaugh.) The U.S. military’s African command (AFRICOM) has deployed its assets against Kony since at least 2008— a fact that goes conveniently unmentioned in Invisible Children’s video. …

… Not once in the half-hour film do we hear the name of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, whose quasi-authoritarian rule has lasted over 25 years. Arab Spring-inspired protests last year were ruthlessly suppressed and the country’s opposition complains bitterly about the entrenched corruption of the Museveni state. The U.S. State Department voiced its concern over Uganda’s rights record last November. Speaking to the Washington Post, Jedediah Jenkins, a member of Invisible Children, shrugs off charges that the NGO is too much in bed with the status quo in Kampala:

“There is a huge problem with political corruption in Africa. If we had the purity to say we will not partner with anyone corrupt, we couldn’t partner with anyone.”

So I guess the take-away from this one is pretty simple: just like with those chain emails that everyone used to get (and no doubt still does, in all likelihood), when you get a Tweet from someone about ‘an amazing new video’ or whatnot, perhaps it might be worthwhile to spend some time to investigate the issue before you re-Tweet.  Food for thought, folks.
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Posted in internet | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Another Spectacular Example of Psychic Fail in Texas “Murder” Mystery

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 12, 2011

It seems that in Texas an anonymous “psychic detective” tipped off the police to the fact that there was a gruesome scene in a farmhouse which contained the remains of about 30 people, including the dismembered bodies of multiple children.  Unfortunately, the police of the Liberty County’s Sheriff’s Office actually took these tips seriously, because after they mobilized a massive amount of resources, they found absolutely nothing at the site…

A false tip from a psychic prompted Texas authorities to swarm a rural home searching for a nonexistent mass grave and up to 30 bodies, including those of dismembered children.

A few hours later it was clear the tip was nothing more than a gruesome wild goose chase.

“There’s no crime scene,” Liberty County Judge Craig McNair told reporters as deputies, Texas Rangers and FBI agents wrapped up a fruitless search that gained national media attention. [emphasis added]

Yup, you read that right.  Not only did the local Sheriff’s Office get into the mix, but the Texas Rangers and FBI were also involved in this fiasco!  I think these agencies have opened themselves up to some much deserved derision, because it has been shown conclusively in great detail that, despite numerous claims to the contrary, psychics do not do anything to help with police investigations.  In fact, most police and detectives do not use psychics because they know the track record of such “help” (i.e. it doesn’t work), and they know that chasing down false leads provided by these morons would just be a waste of time and resources (as it was in the spectacular failure of the case in question).

So why is it that these alleged “psychic detectives” keep on cropping up?  Because they are very good self-promoters, and they are playing off people’s desire to have closure on certain topics – it is, after all, very difficult when dealing with certain crimes (especially child abductions) to be patient and follow established and well-tested investigatory procedures.  These psychics play on this sense of unease on the part of the family in question (or perhaps the community) to swoop in and offer a measure of hope (however empty it is) while  also garnering some fame for themselves.

In his article in Skeptical Inquirer magazine titled “The Case of the ‘Psychic Detectives'”, I really like how skeptical investigator Joe Nickell puts it…

Although mainstream science has never validated any psychic ability, self-styled clairvoyants, diviners, spirit mediums, and soothsayers continue to sell their fantasies—and in some cases to shrewdly purvey their cons—to a credulous public. Particularly disturbing is a resurgence of alleged psychic crime-solving.

In fact, the media—especially Court TV’s Psychic Detectives, NBC’s Medium, and various programs of Larry King Live—have shamelessly touted several self-claimed psychic shamuses as if they could actually identify murderers and kidnappers, or locate missing persons. Here is an investigative look at five such claimants. (Another, Phil Jordan, was featured in an earlier SI [Nickell 2004].) …

… psychics do not solve crimes or locate missing persons—unless they employ the same non-mystical techniques as real detectives: obtaining and assessing factual information, receiving tips, and so on, even sometimes getting lucky. In addition to the technique of “retrofitting,” psychics may shrewdly study local newspaper files and area maps, glean information from family members or others associated with a tragedy, and even impersonate police and reportedly attempt to bribe detectives (Nickell 1994). It is bad enough that they are often able to fool members of the media; detectives, if they do not know better, as most do, should learn better. They should, well, investigate their alleged psychic counterparts.

Well, in the Texas case, there is a silver lining.  It seems the agencies in question disliked being deceived by the supposed psychic tipster, and they have decided to try charging them with filing a false police report – perhaps if more of these charlatans were actually held to account, then there would be fewer of the psychic glory-hounds clamoring for their 15 minutes of fame.  We can only hope.

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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