Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer

Calculating GodCalculating God by Robert J. Sawyer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Mr. Sawyer made it difficult to enjoy this book by “poisoning the well” in his preface. He made it abundantly clear that he hoped to show that people who disregard theology in favor of a reasoned approach to the world based on scientific study were just as biased and closed minded as some theists. The “Science is just another religion” view. This position shows both a lack of understanding of the process of science and, apparently, religion.

He accomplished no such thing, of course. It was about as much a useful parable on the acceptance of theism by critical thinkers as Sherlock Holmes is a textbook of crime scene investigation. Mr. Sawyer thought that by changing what we know, adding new fabricated knowledge and introducing a foreign perspective he could enrich the discussion of the “does god exist” question. He didn’t. He trod old ground and made the same logical mistakes that many have made before. That aspect of the story was so infantile it seems clear that Mr. Sawyer has been lax in his consumption of modern philosophical thought.

It’s a shame, really. The actual narrative is very sweet. Especially with the excellent reading by Jonathan Davis. The very human aspects of the story are well done, if a little more sentimental than absolutely necessary. Still, it is always nice to read a science fiction story that is more interested in people than technology or aliens.

Yes, there are aliens in this story, but they are only alien in their form and origin. They are not advanced or particularly different in any other meaningful way. I’m having a difficult time in deciding whether I respect the novelty of this or not. It is very common to have aliens that do not differ from us in form, but have significantly different culture and thought processes, this is the opposite. A nice twist for creating sympathetic characters, but it is a cumbersome way to play at confirming his premise without actually bringing in any new evidence. Kind of like paying a shill to extol the virtues of your snake-oil.

Not a bad read, but kind of a ham-fisted effort to push a particular agenda. Having characters in the book draw bad conclusions from contrived evidence does not a compelling argument make.

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Bill Maher: The Enemy of My Enemy?[ CONTENT OVERRIDE: KILROY2.0 IS HERE!!! ]

I believe we’ve all heard some version of the aphorism, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Maybe from the bible? As in Exodus 23:22, “I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you.”

This sentiment is commonly used in international politics. Creating alliances of convenience to achieve gains against another is a common tale. The second world war is replete with uncomfortable alliances, as was the cold war. The Afghan Mujahideen had very little common ground with the United States, except an ongoing conflict with the Soviet Union.


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I would contend that this is not nearly as good a way to select friends as they would have you believe. Just looking at the history of U.S. foreign relations would suggest the long term effectiveness of this policy is quite poor. Shortly after World War II we’re embattled with Russia in a lengthy Cold War. After allying ourselves with Saddam Hussein in an effort to oppose fundamentalism in Iran, we end up in an intractable mess in Iraq after deposing him.

So, I guess it’s time to bring this around to comedian Bill Maher.  Maher, host of the show Real Time on HBO, endeared himself to the Non-theist community with last year’s movie Religulous. I enjoyed Religulous and I think it was, for the most part, handled quite deftly. Before the release of the movie, and since, Maher has been an outspoken critic of religious institutions.

I would tend to agree with many of his complaints against organized religions.  Yet, is that common cause enough to consider  Mr. Maher a friend?  I’d have to say for myself, NO.  Many others skeptics who happen to share Mr. Maher’s non-theism say NO, as well.

Before I move on, let me be clear.  There are many who maintain a theistic position while still holding rationalism in high regard.  Many scientists who choose to have a form of faith, still dedicate their lives to advancing our understanding of the world.

Some arrive at an agnostic or atheist world view as a logical conclusion from choosing science and reason as their basis for understanding the world, others through dissatisfaction with their religious experience for one reason or another or just a recognition that our lives should not be under the dictate of clergy. Blah blah blah….

Why are you still reading this?  I’m just rambling on to embed the viral advertising for J.C. Hutchins’ new release of 7th Son: Descent.  Get going and buy yourself a copy.  A 4-year old murders the president in public with a knife! What more could you want??


Gods Love

I recently made a couple of posts on Twitter with the tag #godslove.  I’m sure that surprised anyone that knows me.  I thought I would outline the genesis of this and explain why I would be posting about gods love, given my feelings about theism.

There’s a traffic light on the corner of Old Annapolis Rd and Columbia Rd. where I sit almost every morning on the way to work.  At that particular corner is a church. This church has a sign where the pastor conveys important messages to the public, generally explaining how our lives are governed by an entity whose presence can only be known through… yes, the pastor’s teachings.

This past August I was confronted with the following message every morning for two weeks:


Every day I had to read that.  Every day thinking about all the pain, suffering and misery there is in the world.  All the times that random happenstance takes a life or, worse, leaves one in unending suffering.  Not just people, all the times animals are left by the side of the road to gasp their last.

Is this about anger with god?  Of course not. I don’t think there is such a thing.

So, why do I care?

Because this particular bit of hypocrisy smacks me in the face every time a plane crashes and some moron thanks god for their life, implicitly stating that those that perished were due their god’s wrath.

The people who did not go into the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001, the ones who moved away from New Orleans before Katrina and any number of others who feel that they were owed some particular grace from the universe while others suffered or perished.

Every day for two weeks.

I hatched a plan.  I would periodically tweet how gods love actually worked.

“God so loved the people of The New Orleans area that on this day in 2005 he sent them Katrina #godslove”

“God so loved America that he sent his faithful to destroy the WTC and Pentagon on this Day in 2001 #godslove”

The second one definitely sparked a little more, ahem, interest.   Some people were very passionate about their god not having anything to do with the terrorist attacks.   I have to give my friends who had a visceral response to this quite a bit of credit, not only did they respect me enough to reply but they listened to my explanation.

As much as my explanations satisfied my friends of my position (and my compassion without the benefit of their beliefs), I think the folks at Mr. Deity are much more eloquent and funny.

Since I didn’t accumulate any new enemies and the interactions with my friends ended positively, I will continue to point out the failings of gods love and mercy.


Look on the Bright Side

Chad Farnan, a high school student, successfully sued his European history teacher, James Corbett, for disparaging Chad’s religious beliefs.

In all fairness, he had a point. Mr. Corbett, was probably a little too free with his opinions given his position of authority in a public institution like a high school.

What was very interesting was the number statements about religion that the court failed to find afoul of the First Amendment. Statements like, “when you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth” and “conservatives don’t want women to avoid pregnancies — that’s interfering with God’s work”.

It took calling creationism, “superstitious nonsense” to cross the line. Now, I personally feel that stating a fact like that should be legal anytime and anywhere. It is unfortunate that the courts were unwilling to defend free speech in the one instance where the teacher was on VERY solid ground.

So, what is the bright side in this?

By saying that Mr. Corbett was “displaying hostility” towards religion with that statement, the court clearly equated Creationism with religion. That is useful precedent when they try to preach it in the science classroom.

“Every man has a right to his opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.”
— Bernard Baruch (American financier, stock-market speculator, statesman) via
The Skeptics Guide to the Universe


Vatican's measure of sin shows why they are no longer relevant

Apparently its big news to someone that the Vatican has a secret tribunal to deal with what they consider to be “the most heinous sins”.  Really?  Shocker.  I thought the Vatican was all about transparency.  You can read the Telegraph’s version here.

The Apostolic Penitentiary, or “tribunal of conscience”, has been shrouded in secrecy ever since it was established by Pope Alexander III in 1179 and until now has never provided details of the cases it scrutinises.

They are considered so heinous by the Catholic Church that only the Pope can grant absolution to those who perpetrate them.

So, what might you consider “the most heinous of crimes”? Use your sickest fantasy of offenses against humanity and I guarantee you are not even close.

While priests and bishops can deal with confessions of sins as grave as murder or even genocide, the tribunal is reserved for crimes which are viewed by the Church as even more serious.

They include attempting to assassinate the Pope, a priest abusing the confidentiality of the confessional by revealing the nature of the sin and the person who admitted to it, or a priest who has sex with someone and then offers forgiveness for the act.

Yes, the Vatican considers an “attempt” on the life of the pope a worse sin than genocide. A little self-serving, don’t you think?

Oh, and you know what else is a worse sin than genocide and, apparently, rogering defenseless young children by a member of the clergy? Defiling the Eucharist. Toss a cracker and its papal forgiveness or you’re out.

How can they not see how ridiculous this is? Why is time and breath wasted on this nonsense?

With followers in the millions they squander their influence on petty, stupid dogmatic bullshit like this. It’s just sad.

This is why we need separation of church and state.  Can you imagine if capricious nonsense like this was the lay of the land?


Is it a full moon or something?

Yeah, I know, nothing special really happens during a full moon other than bright nights but there seems to be something in the air.

Maybe it’s the Presidential transition, the holiday season or people just taking their minds off the recession but there seems to be more attention being paid to issues of god.  The crazies seem crazier and those defending reason and the real world seem to be pushing a little harder.

I’m not complaining, mind you. Let’s put our cards on the table and see where it takes us. It is so hard to make progress on something considered taboo.  So, here are a few samplings of the rumbling maybe they’re portentous maybe not.

Kentucky’s department of Homeland Security to look to god first BY LAW.

By law, god (which one??) is acknowledged as Kentucky’s first line of defense against terrorism and must be mentioned in all documents.  Crazy and embarrassing if you’re from Kentucky.  The law is a few years old and it really hasn’t been followed too closely by the people in the Homeland Security department of the state of Kentucky, but it is still on the books and there is a state senator pushing for compliance.

Freedom From Religion Foundation erects sign along side nativity scene in Olympia, Washington legislative building.

Actually an expansion of a tradition the foundation has been carrying out in Wisconsin for many years, the signs recognize the winter solstice and  bear quotes denying gods and religion.  (full disclosure: I’m always a little giddy when my donations cause a stir!)

Witch Doctor arrested after admitting to killing 110 children.

The Witch-Children of Akwa Ibon

In a horrific tale of scape-goating and superstitious ignorance,  self-styled Bishops merge christian and indigenous beliefs to sow hysteria for their own advancement.  It is most often defenseless children that are accused of possesion and witchcraft with the families paying for exorcisms to relieve what they believe is bad luck brought on by these children.  If the exorcism does not “succeed” the children are turned out from the family or killed outright.

Pedophile priest resigns

A horror that has become so common that it risks being considered trite and boring, a Catholic priest has sent pope Benedict his resignation after admitting to molesting boys in his parish.

As I said, just a sampling.


Priests are people too. Aren't they?

Added parishioner Viola Czajkowski: “I don’t see how a priest who took vows could possibly do something like this and have mass every day while this was going on.”

The “something like this” was seduce a vulnerable lady who was getting a divorce.

This kind of magical thinking always amazes me.  What did this person think?  That in a Harry Potter kind of way, priests taking vows had a hex on them to prevent them from acting human?  Where do they think all those priest jokes come from, anyway?

No question, Elvis Elano, deserves scorn.  Not for breaking some ridiculous vows (Do priests take vows for anything other than chastity?) but for abusing a position of authority and responsibility to take advantage of someone, potentially, vulnerable.

This is really no different than if it had been a doctor, teacher, counselor or relative.  People have an expectation that they can bring their problems to “professionals” without being preyed upon.  But don’t be shocked in particular  because the predator is a priest, he’s just a guy with strange job.

A woman takes a lover home during the day, while her husband is at work. Unbeknownst to her, her 9 year old son was hiding in the closet. Her husband comes home unexpectedly, so she puts the lover in the closet with the little boy.The little boy says, “Dark in here.”
The man says, “Yes it is.”
Boy- “I have a baseball.”
Man- “That’s nice.”
Boy- “Want to buy it?”
Man- “No, thanks.”
Boy- “My dad’s outside.”
Man- “OK, how much?”
Boy- “$250.”

In the next few weeks, it happens again that the boy and the mom’s lover are in the closet together.

Boy- “Dark in here.”
Man- “Yes, it is.”
Boy- “I have a baseball glove.”
The lover, remembering the last time, asks the boy, “How much?”
Boy- “$750.”
Man- “Fine.”

A few days later, the father says to the boy, “Grab your glove. Let’s go outside and toss the baseball back and forth.”
The boy says, “I can’t. I sold them.”
The father asks, “How much did you sell them for?”
The son says “$1,000.”
The father says, “That’s terrible to overcharge your friends like that. That is way more than those two things cost. I’m going to take you to church and make you confess.”

They go to church and the father makes the little boy sit in the confession booth and he closes the door.

The boy says, “Dark in here.”
The priest says, “Don’t start that sh*t again.”


Movie Review: Religulous

Bill Maher knows he’s right about religion.  He does.  He knows that the world would have a net improvement if we scraped off the superstition-based philosophies that hold sway in society.  It’s just that he sometimes becomes less effective at selling it when he shows that and this movie is, above all else, about marketing that idea.

Truth be told, I agree with him in principle.  The question is not whether he’s right, though, it is whether he created an effective and entertaining vehicle to market the fact.

My wife, and I, went to see Bill Maher’s new movie Religulous on opening day.  This is particularly interesting because it was her idea and she’s Catholic.  It was an early show, so we didn’t expect the attendence to be high, it wasn’t.  There were about a dozen people in the most popular multiplex in town.  That was OK.   My disappointment?  No protesters.  I really wanted them.  Maybe when they make a movie called “All Religions are Stupid and Should be Abolished”  I’ll get my protesters.

So, you know what you’re going to get, right?   Bill Maher making faith and people of faith look silly.  Yes and no.

The movie is a mix of interviews and ruminations.  All of it is peppered with movie clips that are, at best, hilarious.  Sometimes the clips are a little too biting, too denigrating.  Enough to make an avowed rationalist cringe a bit.

Where did Maher go to ask questions about religion?  Where didn’t he go?  Israel, Rome, England, The Netherlands, The South and Washington D.C.   He visited a trucker church, a mosque, the Vatican and a Jesus theme park.  He spoke to priests, ministers, lay people, Jesus impersonators and Jesus (well, he thought he was Jesus).

We was definitely most effective when he was questioning sincerely and listening to the answers.  I think he found the men at the trucker church earnest and endearing. He treated them well and got great stuff in return.   His interview with Senator Mark Pryor from Arkansas was excellent, he let Senator Pryor express his own views.  (He seemed like an decent guy, who just bought the wrong bill of goods.)

Not so effective was his time with an anti-zionist Jew who met with Ahmedinijad and was in clips hugging the nutty Iranian President.  I was left feeling there was a great deal to the interview we didn’t see.  Certainly, there wasn’t enough to justify Maher’s curt reaction to him.  This was one of the segments where, even if you agress with Maher, you’re left feeling like he was acting a bit dick-ish.

There were some very funny subtitles during other interviews which reminded me of “The Word” segment from The Colbert Report.  Those were funny and informative.  Very effective.

Surprisingly, other than not allowing him an official interview in the Vatican, the Catholics came of pretty well.  This might be due to Maher’s Catholic upbringing which was discussed in personal reminiscences with his mother and sister.  Father Coyne, former head of the Vatican observatory, was typically eloquent, knowlegable and reasonable.  Also, there was a very amusing and liberal priest who was interviewed outside the Vatican.  Clearly, he didn’t represent the Vatican’s policies, but he was funny.

Maher closing argument was well thought out and delivered poignantly.  Punctuated with imagery of violence, it was effective and moving.  I thought it was perfect.

So, how was Religulous?  It was good.  It could have been great.  Bill Maher is funny and he has a clear message to deliver.  It is mostly well delivered.  Unfortunately, it isn’t the unbiased, graceful delivery that would be most effective at getting people of faith to listen.  He’ll be preaching to the faithful.  They’ll enjoy it, as I did.

My wife enjoyed it as well.  We talked about the movie afterwards.  I think it is definitely a conversation starter.  She commented that it was amazing that this movie was made and in pretty wide distribution.  We thought that was a pretty hopeful sign.

“We need more people speaking out. This country is not overrun with rebels and free thinkers. It’s overrun with sheep and conformists.” – Bill Maher


If I lived among the Cherokee…

Angie Gambill, editor of The Tomahawk paper in Mountain City, Tennessee, is offended by people taking offense at the prominent display of religious doctrine in her local courthouse.*

“A complaint has been lodged by Washington-based Americans for Separation for Church and State on behalf of a county resident in opposition to the 10 Commandments display at the courthouse,” said [County Mayor] Grayson at last week’s Johnson County Board of Commissioners meeting.

The foundation of the complaint is Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a wall of separation between church and state.  An ideal that has been upheld repeatedly by the United States Supreme Court.

This carries little weight in Ms. Gambill’s world.  A world where it makes more sense to separate people:

“If I decided to live among the Cherokee, I would expect to see symbols of their culture, religion and history everywhere.”

“I would never question the right of an African American community to display reminders of their heritage and uniqueness as a people.”

Well, Ms. Gambill, you do not have the luxury of excluding African American’s or Cherokee from your society. Because, it is not yours.  It is theirs.  It is theirs and ours, and there is even room in it for you.  All that is required is you follow the laws that have evolved over many societies, many years and many battles.  These laws exist expressly to allow us to live together in one community.

That is what you don’t understand.  While you are doggedly fighting for the primacy of your faith against all others in what you suppose is your little corner of the globe, you ignorantly dismiss the history of this country.  That is why you are being opposed by an organization called Americans UNITED for the Separation of Church and State.

In her crowning rhetorical achievement, Ms. Gambill looks to the children to lead:

In last week’s Tomahawk, little Sam Allen spoke volumes in his honest and obviously heartfelt letter. “We all need to read and know Jesus’ ten commandments because Jesus didn’t make them for nothing.” I can’t pretend to improve on those words of simple childlike faith and wisdom.

Really Angie?  You can’t improve on ignorance?  I feel sorry for little Sam Allen.  To have grow up in a community which cares so little for you that they cannot even correct your mistakes.  Worse, they celebrate them as wise.

“Just think of the tragedy of teaching children not to doubt”, Clarence Darrow.

* Link found through Pharyngula, PZ Myers exceptional blog.


Damning to Hell == Love

OK, so we’re all familiar with Christian churches taking issue with suggestive pop-culture.  It’s so old, most people don’t take much notice.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone when this sign popped up in front of the Havens Corners Church in Backlick, Ohio.

Sign in front of Havens Corners Church

I was even ready to pass on this bit of foolishness, until I read the article.   David Allison,  the pastor of the church and the man responsible for the sign, says he was concerned about the implications of the song and video.  Sure, all kinds of craziness will ensue if girls start kissing girls and liking it.  I don’t know, maybe they’ll be too busy to fall victim to predator pastors.

Anyway, that’s not the point, according to the article “He thought the message would be a loving way to remind teenagers that the Bible denounces homosexuality”.  A “loving” way?

Maybe this is more of that “small town values” thing I’ve been hearing so much about, but I don’t get it.  How are threats of eternal torture loving?

Let’s see, kissing another girl vs. threatening kids via a public display.   Which seems to be the greater offense?

Us guys have known how nice kissing girls is for a long time, I guess we’ve always feared girls would find out and give us more competition. Eh, pastor Allison?

“Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo” — H. G. Wells