Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Blasphemy Challenge: Dumb, but Endearing

The Blasphemy Challenge is, in essence, a sophomoric stunt, that has no more rationality to it than any other attention-grabbing ploy of the Internet Age.

However, it’s astounding how threatened the goddies feel. By targeting, to a certain extent, the world’s computer-savvy youth, the Rational Response Squad has gotten the priestly caste and their minions screaming holy hell. In a January 30 “Nightline” segment of its “Faith Matters”—get it?—series, the news program interviewed the Squad’s Brian “Sapient” and Kelly NoLastName, who presented themselves as martyrs for the godless. They revealed that they’ve received death e-threats and other faith-inducing messages. They were even menaced on camera by Paul de Vries, a divinity scholar (an oxymoron, if there ever was one), and president of the evangelical New York Divinity School, who wondered if they were not setting themselves up for “eternal trouble.” Sounds like a great name for an atheist rock band.

John Berman, the idiot who interviewed Brian and Kelly, asked no penetrating questions, and deservedly received no better than glib answers. Unfortunately, the quality of the give-and-take made the whole project look like nothing other than high-tech collegiate antics, only slightly more sophisticated than the toga party in “Animal House.” Still, in a brief summary of the piece, Cynthia McFadden, the host of “Nightline,” did mention that 9% of Americans openly identify themselves as atheists. She made no estimate of the numbers who are closeted unbelievers, but, as we all suspect, there must be plenty of them out there. Perhaps even someone associated with—gasp!—“Nightline.”

Last night, I spent about two hours watching YouTube videos of people denying god, and, while I still think the challenge seems like a fraternity prank, I did find myself chuckling in irreligious glee at the inventiveness of the “damned.” People sang, danced, created cartoons, and did little comedy routines while denouncing the ridiculous. In the course of my YouTubing, I stumbled across two satiric Netcoms, “God, Inc.” and "Mr. Deity,” both of which also brought joy to my non-soul.

In the unholy spirit of fun, I feel I must take part in the RRS’s endeavor. Although my world views are evolved far out of the stone age, my computer, alas, is not. So since I have access neither to video nor audio equipment, I’m limited to this blog in which to state:


But you knew that about me already, didn't you?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Happy Birthday, Sanity

Monday is the 34th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, in which a Texas law banning abortions was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Opponents of choice have always had to argue that the fetus is a person. You may find it instructive and/or fun to read the transcript of the original argument of the case, which took place on December 13, 1971. You can read even more discussion of the fetus’s personhood in the transcript of the reargument, which occurred on October 11, 1972. (The reargument was scheduled to allow Justices Rehnquist and Powell to hear what the lawyers had to say; it's clear that most of the other justices had already made up their minds.) If you have time, you might enjoy listening to Texas’s nonsensical claims by clicking the appropriate audio button on the Oyez web site.

Whether or not the fetus is a “person” could not then, and still cannot now, be considered a scientific question. It is a lexico-theological issue, over which hovers the religious concept of “soul.” In the first argument, lawyer Jay Floyd, appearing for Texas Assistant Attorney General Wade, slipped in that very word near the end of his allotted time. To their discredit, none of the justices challenged him.

In the second argument, Robert C. Flowers replaced Floyd. Early on, Flowers said “... it is the position of the state of Texas that, upon conception, we have a human being; a person within the concept of the Constitution of the United States, and that of Texas, also.”

Justice Potter Stewart jumped on this statement: “Now how should that question be decided? Is it a legal question? A constitutional question? A medical question? A philosophical question? Or a religious question? Or what is it?”

Flowers waffled by placing that decision on the shoulders of first, “the legislature,” and, ultimately, the Court. The justices let Stewart’s pointed query die a-borning. He raised it again later, but Flowers continued to pass the buck. The Court cravenly ignored the religious implications; there was not even a pregnant pause. No one on the bench pointed out that none of the framers was a fetus.

If you don’t believe in a soul, you’ll have trouble accepting the personhood of a bundle of microscopic goo. Yes, it contains human cells, the building blocks of a person. But a Lego set isn’t the Taj Mahal.

A toenail clipping, a stray hair, an invisible droplet of saliva—all of these contain human DNA. Are they persons? Not to anyone who’s sane.

Soldiers, on the other hand, are clearly persons. But again, only to those who are sane.

Unfortunately, sanity may no longer be a desideratum, as it was when Roe v. Wade was correctly decided. Today, a son of Texas, having attained high office, has honed irrationality to an art. He opposes the aborting of cell clusters, as his state’s governmental forebears did, but asks the American public to extol the aborting of young people in uniform.

If Justice Stewart were still alive, he might wonder: "Now how should that question be decided? Is it a philosophical question? Or a religious question? Or what is it?”

Friday, January 05, 2007

I've Just Seen a Face

On January 1, I spotted the head of a triceratops in a cloud. Immediately, of course, I called my local news media to alert them to the fact that dinosaurs had not really gone extinct.

Unfortunately, the press had no time for my story because they were all drooling over another fantastic sighting. It seems that Jesus’s face was seen on the bark of a tree—the specific kind was apparently not important enough to be mentioned—in the Arlington section of Jacksonville, Florida.

While my dinosaur attracted absolutely no attention, TV camera crews and reporters flocked into Daryl Brown’s yard to catch a glimpse of the Christ. Pictures of the holy plant presence were posted on the “News4Jax” and “Local6” web sites, so viewers could decide for themselves if they agreed with Brown: "Jesus don't just pop up like that. If you know the word of Jesus and you believe in Jesus, then there you go. He does exist." An unnamed neighbor was a bit more circumspect: “I can’t say what I feel, I just feel it.”

According to the story (which was earth-shaking enough to be repeated in a number of non-Jacksonville markets, like mine), a dog-walker was the first to spot the sacred timber. She said she’s comforted knowing that the Messiah is watching over her as she strolls with her pet through the neighborhood. The news report did not mention what, if any, images she sees in her pooch’s poop.

People who spy the paraclete’s puss in a tree – or a tortilla (1978 in Lake Arthur, New Mexico), rock (2005 in Hallettsville, Texas and 2006 in Long Island, New York), paint splotch on a wall (2005 in Detroit, Michigan), dental x-ray (2004 in Phoenix, Arizona), or Pizza Hut billboard (1991 in Atlanta, Georgia) – are experiencing pareidolia. Pareidolia is the illusory perception of a recognizable pattern in a random, vague stimulus. In other words, it’s the vision of god peeking out from the trunk of a tree.

A medical name for this phenomenon, coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, an internationally renowned neuropsychologist and psychopatholigist, is apophenia. According to Wikipedia, Conrad called apophenia "unmotivated seeing of connections" accompanied by a "specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness." Interestingly, Conrad’s original description of apophenia applied to the kinds of distortions of reality experienced by psychotics. The word is now used more often to describe the mirages of so-called normal persons, like those of us who see prehistoric animals in clouds or genitalia in seashells.

Usually, we enjoy our sessions of apophenia alone, or perhaps share them with a loved one: “Honey, this is amazing. My wine spill looks like Mickey Mouse.” It’s only when some religious kook sees Jesus or Mary in the spaghetti sauce that the vision becomes newsworthy. Whereas no one but a nut would believe for a second that the world’s most famous rodent had appeared magically in the merlot to deliver a message of hope, allegedly sane people do become stubbornly convinced that god has embossed his picture on their belongings to show how much he loves them.

It’s nice to begin the new year with a story about religious silliness that didn’t hurt anybody, except perhaps for the birds and squirrels who will be shooed away from the savior’s woody mug. But the truly delusional Jesus-tree-huggers are not going to evanesce the way my sky-dwelling dinosaur did. We must remember that the nation’s deranged god-worshipers are constantly experiencing apophenia, seeing and hearing imaginary dangers to their nonexistent deity. They deal with their hallucinations by trying to influence our kids’ education, our neighbors’ sexual behavior, the progress of science, and the direction of our government.

Johnny Jesusseed is coming soon to a yard near you.