January 27, 2008

Book Review: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

I chose this book from my Jesus books to read next because Daniel Dennet is a philosopher, and I thought that if anyone could be straight-forward and clear about religion in America, then he is, at least, qualified for the job.

The book is interesting because it's about religion, shockingly, as a natural phenomenon, something people invented. While written by an atheist, it doesn't really bother with whether or not the claims made by religion are true. It really just explores the development and progression of religion as an aspect of human development.

At the same time, that makes it very, very dull. It took me a very long to read it.

The numerous and lengthy speculations in the book were interesting, thought-provoking, and frustrating.

Even more frustrating than that is the way the book carefully skirts around making any sort clear moral evaluations about religion. I believe there are a couple of reasons for this.

First, it's a book that assumes atheism is correct (I found this a particularly refreshing aspect of the book) and seeks to encourage a dispassionate analysis of religion.

Second, Dennet states clearly that it is his hope that supporters of religion will read his book and think about what he argues, so he has to walk a thin line and be careful not to turn them away straight away.

This is one of those books that paints in very broad strokes the arguments and evidence for what is clearly a large body of study and research exists on a topic for which a vast amount of study and research remains. If you're interested in that sort of thing.

Overall, I probably wouldn't recommend this book to casual readers about atheism or religion. It's not as titillating as Sam Harris's books or Richard Dawkins books, no, it's considerably more dull. But if you're impressed by a studied thesis and a carefully measured discussion of the question, it might be a book for you.

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January 17, 2008

Dis Naturalism? You Can Has It

One of the funny things about some Christians is their view that God is both separate from "imperfect" existence but has also infused "his" creation with aspects of his divinity.  The exact meaning of what is meant by all that is not readily available, but it I think I have as tight a grasp on the notion as any right-thinking person can have. 

See, it's like this: God is all perfect and stuff, but reality clearly is not what with all the dirt and hurricanes and chimpanzees other such unpleasant things around.  God is also without physical constraints or characteristics like size, shape, duration or even change.  God also doesn't change.  But things that we see all around us do change and they do have size and shape and duration.

At the same time, reality is very complex and also very elegant and that is supposed to be a reflection of how smart God is.  (I maintain that if God really were as clever as the tabloids would have him be, then I would have magical powers, a jet pack, and a pet T-Rex already.)  In this way, nature provides us with a focus for meditation and a concrete manifestation of his uber-goodness.

Moreover, and this view is slightly more rarefied among Christians, nature also functions as a mechanism or medium for the manifestation of God's will.  For example, when Katrina destroyed a huge chunk of the southern US, New Orleans in particular, that was God telling us again how much he hates fags like me.  (God's aim is notoriously bad in this world of global media.  A while back he tried to get me with a tsunami and I was on the other side of the globe at the time.  Though it tuckered out by the time it reached north Georgia, Katrina was a much better effort that that giant wave that killed a bazillion innocent, non-faggy people.)

Granted, the view that natural disasters are a manifestation of God's displeasure with any person or country is regarded as extreme among the majority of Christians.  An arguably more common view, however, is that AIDS is a gay disease and God's punishment for homosexuals.  (I don't have any real numbers to support this; it's just my perception of the Christian milieu)

And, no, I do not know why God is more preoccupied with gay sex than even I am, but I think that being timeless, omniscient, and omnipotent grants one certain luxuries like having the leeway to spend one's day surfing porn and peeping into people's bedrooms.

I bring all of this up because it seems that some Christians have found even more evidence of God's deep, all-consuming hatred for hot, sweaty, muscle-pumping man-on-man sodomy in the form of MRSA.

MRSA is the new disease du jour.  Remember Avian Flu?  Remember West Nile Virus?  Remember SARS?  Remember e Coli?  Remember e Coli coming back?  Remember e Bola Zaire?  MRSA is the new all of that.

MRSA stands for Methicillan Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus and it's a bacteria that has developed a strong resistance to various antibiotics. 

Basic Staph is a fairly common little bug occurring in about 30% of the general population and causes a wide range of problems.  It's particularly prevalent in hospitals.

MRSA was discovered back in 1961 and, as I understand it, was named because methicillin was the first antibiotic to which it developed resistance.  Today, there is a new breed, called USA300 of the bacteria that is resistant to 6 different major antibiotics and it is very, very readily spread through skin-to-skin contact.

Recent studies such as the one conducted at San Francisco General have shown that the prevalence of the USA300 strain is higher in gay communities and some are referring to it at the new HIV.

SF Gate.com: S.F. General researchers follow strain of drug-resistant bacteria

San Francisco General Hospital researchers have been chasing the rogue strain of drug-resistant staph called USA300 since they first isolated it from a patient specimen seven years ago.

With every turn, the aggressive and persistent bug keeps getting worse.

Now, a new variant of that strain, resistant to six major kinds of antibiotics, is spreading among gay men in San Francisco, Boston, New York and Los Angeles.

City doctors first spotted the original USA300 during tests for patients treated at a walk-in clinic for skin infections in 2001. Since then, they have watched it morph from laboratory curiosity into the dominant form of staph infection in much of the United States.

MRSA Watch: New USA300 strain the New HIV
Professor Mark Enright, from Imperial College and St Mary's Hospital, London, Britain's leading authority on MRSA, said: "It's quite surprising that the figures are so high. "We do know that the USA300 strain is extremely good at spreading between people through skin-to-skin contact. "The main reservoir for this infection is gay men, drug users, and those involved in contact sports, like wrestling. Having lots of sexual partners and making skin contact with a large number of different people helps the infection to spread. "In the US it is already moving into the wider community." Roger Pebody, of the Terrence Higgins Trust, said: "This is not the new HIV. "What we are seeing is the emergence of an infection that can be passed on through close skin to skin contact, including sex. "It is worrying that one in ten of the American cases are resistant to antibiotics, but most cases are treatable."

Emphasis added
It seems likely that this Mr. Pebody was responding directly to the idea that MRSA USA300 is the new HIV with his comment and I have no idea what his qualifications are to make that declaration, but I would like to submit a few basic facts to support that case:
  • It's not an STD per se
  • It's a bacteria, not a virus
  • It's a bacteria whose resistance to antibiotics has been tracked and documented.
  • Its recent dominance in the gay community is actually a recent trend that has distantly followed the advent of the bug itself.
The simple reality is that MRSA has not followed the pattern of development and communication in the same way HIV has and you'd think that would lead people away from saying things like, "It's the new HIV," but apparently if gay people start spreading a disease among themselves, it's the new HIV.

I heard that syphilis infections were on the rise last year.  I guess I missed when that became the new HIV and it's already out of style now.

But never fear!  Christians are here to rescue us from our misapprehensions about MRSA and God's previously mentioned view of gay sex, which, if we believe is reflected by the fixation his followers have on the matter, can only be described non-ironically as pornographic.

Earned Media: Epidemic Feared - 'Gays' May Spread Deadly Staph Infection to General Population
According to the study, at this point, homosexual men are 13 times more likely to contract the potentially deadly, drug-resistant strain of staph infection, but the fear is that, because the infection is spread via skin-to-skin contact, homosexual men may soon spread it to the general population.

Matt Barber, Policy Director for Cultural issues with Concerned Women for America (CWA), said, "The medical community has known for years that homosexual conduct, especially among males, creates a breeding ground for often deadly disease.  In recent years we have seen a profound resurgence in cases of HIV/AIDS, syphilis, rectal gonorrhea and many other STDs among those who call themselves 'gay.'

"The human body is quite callous in how it handles mistreatment and the perversion of its natural functions.  When two men mimic the act of heterosexual intercourse with one another, they create an environment, a biological counterfeit, wherein disease can thrive.  Unnatural behaviors beget natural consequences.   

"In recent years our culture has adopted a laissez faire attitude toward sexual deviancy.  Television shows like Will and Grace glorify the homosexual lifestyle while our children are taught in schools that homosexuality is a perfectly healthy, alternative sexual 'orientation.'  'Stay out of our bedrooms!' we're often commanded by militant 'gay' activists.

"Well, now the dangerous and possibly deadly consequence of what occurs in those bedrooms is spilling over into the general population.  It's not only frightening, it's infuriating.

"Citizens, especially parents, need to stand up and say, 'No More!  We will no longer sit idly by while politically correct cultural elites endanger our children and larger communities through propagandist promotion of this demonstrably deadly lifestyle.'

"Why does it take a potentially deadly staph epidemic for people to acknowledge reality?  Will that even do it?  Enough is enough!" concluded Barber.
I found that link on Joe.My.God. and there are so many things wrong with it that I have a hard time remembering where I was going with all of this, so you're just going to have to bear with me as I go on a rant.

Suddenly, this does remind me of the early years of HIV, just like Chip says. He and I were discussing this yesterday via email and it sounds a lot like there are going to be Christians, fueled by this stupidity, who will come to think MRSA is a "gay" disease.  Here's what Chip says

It’s like the early years of AIDS all over again.

MRSA is the result of attacking bacteria with antibiotics. Through the natural process of evolution and natural selection, the bacteria mutates into new antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. But since Christians for the most part reject evolution, even when evidence for it is happening right in front of their eyes, they blame gays.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria are the price we pay for antibiotics which are an exceptionally valuable tool in fighting disease, just as drug-resistant HIV is the price we pay for drug cocktails.

Christians held up AIDS research for years by claiming that it was God’s punishment for homosexuality even though the vast majority of cases have always been in the heterosexual population.

Let me be blunt about this: Millions of people, including millions of children, have died because of the ignorance and anti-science views of Christians in the arena of HIV/AIDS, not to mention other diseases at other times in history. Must we new endure the same nonsense when it comes to MRSA?

How many millions will they kill this time?

The headline on the article is a joke in itself.  First, gay people are among the general population.  We are not segregated away from straight people.  I promise that there are already straight people infected with the USA300 strain of MRSA.  Second, gay people didn't invent this disease. MRSA existed and there are several strains of the disease which have evolved independently of gay people.  It is utterly ridiculous to even suggest that this is a gay disease, and yet there they go!

Further, I have yet to hear any mention from Christians about how this affects their view of evolution.  MRSA evolved from regular Staph and developed stronger and stronger resistance.

The abandonment of reason and abuse of language in that man's statement is mind-boggling.  This part really gets me:

"The human body is quite callous in how it handles mistreatment and the perversion of its natural functions.  ...  Unnatural behaviors beget natural consequences."

It's clear here that he knows there are at least two different meanings for the word "natural" because he's using at least two meanings, but he doesn't seem to be aware of how nonsensical it is to do so.  On one hand, "natural" seems to mean "biological" in which case homosexuality is acceptable; an individual's biology is agnostic to homosexual activity.  On the other hand, "natural" seems to mean "statistically prevalent."  So, I take his remarks to mean that he believes that unless you submit to the morality of his particular mob, then your body will revolt against you and even kill you.

I should not have to point out that his particular interpretation of a link between biology and morality is not based on anything remotely like rational thought.

There's also an implication that disease is the result of sin.  I suppose if he means it in the sense that it refers to the curse God put on Adam and Eve, then it is at least consistent with the broader Christian doctrine, but by any perspective the idea that sin causes disease is utter nonsense.

What I wanted to highlight for you, though, is this strange intersection of the holy and the mundane in this Christian view of the world.  While God is so perfect as to be utterly unlike (ineffable) anything we've ever seen or experienced, God is also infused in the whole of existence. 

It surprises me a little bit that more Christians aren't raving paranoiacs at this thought, but I know that most Christians probably don't stop to think about these things.

The strangest part about this view, though, is less the notion of God infusing the whole of nature is that oddball exclusion they place on people, the idea that God is in everything, but not people.  If God were a part of everything and everything is a conduit for exacting his will, then the existence of free will is a completely illusion played on us by a deceiver or God's "omni" qualities don't extend to the parts of God that we can actually interact with.  That's particularly troublesome, I'd think, because it would mean that either God doesn't exist  or God is the one who is having all this gay sex after all and MRSA is sort of self-flagellation.

I know, I'm being silly.  Christians don't actually think God is a part of reality in that way, but if God -- now fully natural and fully super -- is punishing gays with MRSA, we find ourselves completely at a loss to understand what they mean by that.

I re-iterate that what I've described does not seem to be a dominant view among Christians, if only because of the problems I've cited here.  But my point is that in order for God to interfere with our lives through natural processes such as a bodily response to perversion in the form of HIV or MRSA, Christians are obliged to face these challenges.

Let me put it a little more clearly: the notion that God punishes people in non-miraculous, through utterly natural means challenges the existence of God in itself.  There just isn't a way for the supernatural to meet the natural without becoming natural itself.

Perhaps this is why so many Christians eschew the notion of "naturalism" even though comments like those from Mr.Barber clearly indicate the opposite.

Posted by: Flibbertigibbet at 05:54 PM | Comments (4) | Add Comment
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January 15, 2008

Get Thee to this Website!

Gawker has this amazing video of Tom Cruise discussing Scientology up right now.  It's rambly.  It's wacky.  It's scary.

And, of course, The Church of Scientology is trying to get it removed, but Gawker is currently staunch in maintaining it.

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