7 things @ 11 o’clock (7.18)

1. Let me echo Rob TsinaiJim Burroway and many others in offering my hopes, prayers and best wishes for Thomas Peters, and in soliciting yours for him as well. Peters, the communications director of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, sustained a major neck injury in a swimming accident. As Burroway wrote:

We all hope and pray for Peters’s epiphany on the central questions surrounding our families. More so, we hope and pray for his speedy recovery so that epiphany can occur. But in any case, whether that epiphany will ever occur or not, we hope and pray for his speedy recovery.

2.Same-sex marriage becomes law in England and Wales.” This seems appropriate.

3. After the dismal experience of watching Doc Gooden struggling through his appearance on Celebrity Rehab, I’m happy to learn that Darryl Strawberry is doing well. Make that the Rev. Darryl Strawberry. The 12 steps, I think, are excellent preparation for pastoral ministry and an education in the theology of grace. Here’s hoping he abides in that grace. I’d hate to see him wind up on Dr. Drew’s couch.

4. My initial reaction to Russell D. Moore replacing Richard Land as the Southern Baptist Convention’s new “ethics” spokesperson was that we were in for just more of the same, but with a younger, smiling face and bit more media savvy. But it’s impossible to imagine Richard Land ever saying something like this. Granted, a measure of skepticism is reasonable here, and Moore’s comments may in part be a savvy response to Land’s earlier, awful comments on the slaying of Trayvon Martin. Yet for all that, it’s a surprisingly apt response from an unexpected source. (I was also pleasantly surprised by the empathy expressed by Moore’s mentor, Al Mohler.) The SBC has a long way to go, but these are small steps in a better direction.

5. Rep. Michele Bachmann continues to astonish. Earlier this week there was her interview with the right-wing website WorldNetDaily in which she said, of President Obama, “He has a perpetual magic wand and no one’s given him a spanking yet and taken it out of his hand.” That’s the sort of thing one can only say if one is too innocent to realize one is not innocent at all. Marcus Bachmann is a clinical psychologist. He’s studied Freud, so he knows that sometimes a magic wand is just a magic wand — but sometimes it isn’t.

Which brings us to the second Michele Bachmann story this week, courtesy of Buzzfeed: “Documents Detail Implosion at Leading Conservative Christian Political Firm.” That’s not the fun part. The fun part is in the subhed: “Strategy Group for Media CEO Rex Elsass lost the faith of his employees and the control of his office. Also, he may have accidentally mailed a vibrator to Michele Bachmann.”

An email thread from May 29 … featured Strategy Group’s former voter-contact consultant P.J. Wenzel making reference to Elsass sending “female pleasure machines” to Bachmann. … One person familiar with the story told BuzzFeed that Elsass had intended to give Bachmann a vibrating head massager to help alleviate her migraines, and that the employee he sent to buy the gift accidentally purchased something that more closely resembled a sex toy — and sent it to her office.

Now go back and re-read Bachmann’s comment on Obama. OK, then.

(Oh, and speaking of politicians and their wands — Bob Filner, the Democratic mayor of San Diego, needs to step down. I don’t think every politician who gets caught having an affair necessarily needs to resign, but affairs are consensual. This isn’t. He should go away now.)

6. In an odd coincidence, shortly after I posted this yesterday, MaryAnn McKibben Dana posted her own musings about religion, improv, and a magician. She tussles with a quote from Penn Jillette — one that I think means both more and less than he thinks. Wholly apart from the tired theist/atheist sparring, though, I think there’s something in that quote that could be fruitfully mined by all kinds of storytellers, Here’s what Jillette said:

If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

There, I think, we have the set-up for at least two — but probably many more — speculative novels. His point about science is narrowly true, but there’s no reason to assume that scientific discovery must always follow the same precise path at the same pace. There’s all manner of world-building fun to be had by toying with that history and making it unspool in a different order — accelerating some discoveries or postponing others. And set aside the silliness of thinking that because religion is rooted in the context of human experience and human history it must be nonsense and instead just focus on the delightful storytelling possibilities of the hypothetical scenario Jillette provides.

Science fiction writers have been doing both of these things for a long time, of course, creating alien worlds with wholly different scientific and religious histories, but Jillette’s remark, it seems to me, neatly frames the challenge and the possibilities.

7. The photo for yesterday’s 7 things post was of former Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Rennie Stennett. He was holding up seven fingers because he had just set a new Major League record with seven hits in a nine-inning game (a 22-0 rout of the Cubs). Stennett’s record is one of several that I think will never be broken — the others are held by Cy Young, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Vander Meer, Fernando Tatis, and Chan Ho Park. Of all of those, Park’s is probably the most secure. No one would ever want to break Park’s record, but I doubt they’d ever get the chance, since if you’ve given up two grand slams to the same batter in one inning, there’s no way you’ll be allowed to pitch to him again if he comes up a third time with the bases loaded.

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  • Launcifer

    Y’know, I’m starting to suspect that there’s a correlation between the evolution of Nicholas Cage’s wigs in film and the general collapse of respect for America on the world stage.

  • Mark Z.

    I’m glad you’re not on the jury.

  • Jenny Islander

    Lee B. is correct. Note that I set the story 14,000 years ago, when the Aleutian Islands were the peaks of a mountain chain at the edge of Beringia and there were probably two species of horse in North America: the familiar Equus horse that came across the land bridge and the native form, which was more like a burro. (Nerd note: Genetic study of North American extinct equines here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1159167/ ) So really, the descendants of people who had acquired the ideas “We can control the breeding of our livestock,” “We can increase the ability of our livestock to haul and carry stuff,” and “People can sit on animals and be carried around” much earlier than in our timeline could greet the Norsemen while riding two distinct species of horse/y critter and for all I know mules as well. First domesticate the native species, which is much less wary of humans and therefore more liable to be captured alive; then go after the species that came over the land bridge with your ancestors and is therefore much more wary.

    Note that I am using the hypothesis about the Pleistocene/Holocene transition that suggests vast upheavals all over North America, maybe several decades of one weather disaster after another along with massive flooding caused by the patchy melting of the continental ice sheets, sea level and water table changes ditto, and huge dieoffs in local vegetation followed by new growth of some other type. This transition would have occurred many times in North America as glacial and interglacial periods alternated. In this model, the extinctions of so many species in North America within a relatively short time was caused by the arrival of humans, who had no way of knowing that (for example) the herd of mastodons they had trapped in this valley was the last one anywhere and after they were gone there would be no more mastodons for their children to live on. That kind of big-picture vision requires data storage and analysis capabilities and widespread communication networks that did not exist anywhere on Earth at that time. For all they knew, the mastodons were still there, over the horizon, and would migrate back in their direction before their stock of mastodon hides had worn out.

    So anyway, in my model, certain species are domesticated by the first people in North America and therefore conserved through the chaos at the end of the Pleistocene. The increase in material culture and the increased ability to save the very old/sick/weak enable the mostly nomadic North Americans to live more comfortable lives over much of the continent, and give the inventors among the tribes more leeway to fiddle with stuff. When farming begins, horses vastly increase the amount of muscle power available wherever horses can live; ditto with large-scale building projects. So the Indians who ride up to greet the Norse ships might be much closer to the Norsemen technologically and therefore more able to meet them as equals. If they ride around on horses and use other technology familiar to the Norsemen, they are more likely to be treated (cautiously) as funny-looking but fully human people with whom it would not be wise to mess, and thus technological exchange becomes more possible. Animal-powered farming plus Norse smithwork creates denser populations, and perhaps regular infusions of new folks from Scandinavia inoculate the North Americans against disease relatively gradually, forestalling the terrible plagues that came with the late European explorers in our timeline.

    And so, in my timeline, Dog Man’s flaming argument with his mother produces a culture living along the East Coast of North America which is able to (for example) meet the Pilgrims with crossbows cocked and a rental agreement written in a Native language with lots of loanwords from Old Norse.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’d love to read that novel.

  • Daniel

    Mwah ha ha ha ha! Technically Dildo is in Newfoundland and Labrador so there may be a dog involved too.

  • caryjamesbond

    I THINK this is the bottom of the actual atheist discussion, so I’ll post here.

    First- there is some evidence that a tendency towards religion is somewhat hardwired- I’ll just leave the link to Bruce Hood’s wikipedia page and let y’all do the clicking.


    Second, atheism as a religion is something I’ve thought a lot about as an atheist, and I do think that it is a religion. Primarily because atheists, as opposeed to agnostics, make definitive statements about the existence of god. Agnosticism is the properly scientific viewpoint, because, scientifically speaking, a god or gods is not unknown, it is UNKNOWABLE. We can at least try to test for certain supernatural entities, but given that practically any god is defined as immeasurably more powerful than a ghost, there is no way, in practice, to test for a god. Even your weaker pagan type gods would be able to confound my readings without difficulty.

    From a scientific perspective, we cannot know if there is a god. Therefore, to say that we know, with certainty, that there IS no god (the most basic tenant of any sort of atheistic belief) is a statement that goes beyond what is knowable through pure scientific inquiry. Therefore it is a statement of belief as opposed to something that can either be demonstrated from current knowledge or is potentially demonstrable from future knowledge.

    tl;dr: statements about god(s) are not scientifically testable. Therefore to make definitive statements about the existence of gods is an extra-scientific statement, therefore is a belief, therefore atheism classifies as a religion.

  • dpolicar

    Saying that we know with certainty that there is no god is not the most basic tenet of any atheistic belief.

  • Jenny Islander

    This may be instructive. It’s the mythology of the street children of Miami in the late ’90s.


  • Wednesday

    It’s not _quite_ the same thing; over-represented in this context means the proportion of Jewish people in academia
    is higher than the proportion of Jewish people in the general
    population. Over-represented doesn’t mean majority, or even plurality.

    My guess/hope is that Penn & Teller were arguing that _at present_ there is probably not systemic anti-semetism within US academia on the grounds that if there were, they would expect Jewish people to be under-represented in academic jobs, rather than over. That’s the closest to a rational argument I can reverse-engineer from what their fanboy told me. (This is still not conclusive, as illustrated by the fact that people of East Asian descent are definitely
    over-represented in some fields of study in college in the US, but also
    experience systemic discrimination in college.)

    It’s still a spectacularly bad piece of logic fail to go from “this
    piece of data does not necessarily suggest systemic discrimination at present” to
    “any and all claims of discrimination against Jewish people in US
    academia at any point in history are false.”

  • Consecutively, and no.

  • caryjamesbond

    I would disagree- what separates atheism from agnosticism or nontheism is the definitive statement- agnostics say that the question is unanswerable. Atheists say the question is answered- and the answer is no.

    Can you give an example of another basic tenet of atheism?

  • Daniel

    That’s not “atheism” that’s “antitheism” Atheism just means you don’t believe in God, not that you believe there isn’t one- it’s an absence of belief not a belief in an absence. I am atheist because I think there is insufficient evidence for me to believe there is a God of any kind- that doesn’t mean I actively believe one doesn’t exist just that no one has proved any of them do.

  • I’d say atheism, like any school of thought, comes in different forms per the exact beliefs of the people you ask. I picture kind of a sliding scale between being anti-theistic and being “technically agnostic” (where the answer is “in theory, gods could exist, but I don’t think they do”).

    I tend to think my own beliefs–pantheism–overlap with atheism as well, although I’ve contemplated that the primary difference is largely one of semantics.

  • Jenny Islander

    The implications are extremely complex. For example, historically the Plains Indians were among the poorest groups materially and risked starvation often, because they were traveling between widely scattered/rapidly moving resources with only dogs pulling travoises for cargo hauling. When they got horses from the Europeans, their material well-being went up dramatically. They could travel rapidly between resource areas and carry much more food, tools, etc. Combined with guns, horses made them among the wealthiest of the Native peoples–so well off that neighboring farming tribes sometimes quit farming and moved out onto the plains!

    Now, imagine horse-riders moving onto the Great Plains while they are still coming out from under the ice (in the north) or transitioning from mammoth steppe (further south). Prey species are in trouble. Killed back due to droughts, etc., the buffalo number, not millions, but perhaps only a few thousands. Could the addition of horses bring people into their post-glacial refuges before they had managed to build their numbers back up to a level at which hunting was sustainable? Could horse-riding Paleo-Indians actually drive the buffalo into extinction on the brink of the Holocene, leaving the Plains to the elk and the pronghorn?

    Conversely, if they could always ride off and find more buffalo, might the first people of the Plains have decided to quit hunting mammoths, or hunted them at a low enough rate that they were able to breed back and establish themselves in postglacial habitats? Might the alternate timeline have herds of Columbian mammoths migrating seasonally to and from the foothills of the Rockies in search of nutritious plants?

    As for Lee B.’s question about mastodons, domestication of elephants in our timeline had to wait on establishment of largish, richish civilizations that could afford to devote the manpower, pen space, etc., to elephant control. So mastodons probably would be doomed anyway. However, Santa Rosa Island mammoths were very small as elephants go. In our timeline, they were eaten up by humans as best we can tell. But in a timeline in which people had already learned to ride horses before they found these draft-horse-sized animals on the Channel Islands of California, perhaps somebody on the first boat would look at them and go, “Dude, if we can move the jerky from 1 buffalo on 2 horses, what if we had one of these things instead?” Maybe they would be shipped to the mainland as calves and raised as draft and wool animals. Milk animals, even? Who knows?

    Other possible North American candidates for domestication (besides, of course, the turkey) include the two species of North American horse as I said above, plus the American camel (Camelops hesternus), bush pronghorns (Capromeryx minor et al., possibly driven extinct by combined hunting and destruction of their habitat to allow for more oaks to grow), and perhaps the shrub-ox (Euceratherium). All of these appear to have gone extinct on the brink of the Holocene.

  • dpolicar

    Can you give an example of another basic tenet of atheism?

    That our confidence that there exist any gods is properly extremely low.

  • The Greeks had a form of Integral calculus. The story goes that it was called the method of exhaustions.

    Given that calculating the limit of a continuous sum by creating clever mathematical frameworks to compute sums arbitrarily close to what you want is pretty damn exhausting… :P

  • caryjamesbond

    Then thats, essentially, agnosticism. If you’re saying “We’re pretty sure there aren’t any deities” then you’re saying “there is a slight chance there may be deities” in which case you’re functionally saying that you don’t KNOW the answer, which is agnosticism.

    Atheism, like theism, is a positive statement about the nature of reality. Theism is stating “There is at least one god” atheism is saying “There is no god.” You can argue whether or not its a religion, but to be an atheist requires the definitive statement “There are no gods” “a-theos” to get all greek about it- “not god”. That’s what the “a-” prefix.

    I’m not trying to be exclusionary, but words mean something, and all beliefs have boundary lines. You can’t say you’re a Christian and then worship Kali on Sundays, you can’t be a Hindu and say there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet, and you can’t be an atheist without saying “There are no gods.”

  • caryjamesbond

    ” Atheism just means you don’t believe in God, not that you believe there isn’t one”

    I cannot parse that sentence in any way so that the first half does not mean exactly the same thing as the second half.

    If you don’t believe in gods, you believe there are no gods. The only way I can separate those two clauses if is the first clauses uses “don’t believe in” as meaning “have no trust in”- sort of a Malcolm Reynolds thing.

    The wikipedia article has a nice rundown of things:

    “Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist.”

    If you have an absence of belief in things, it means you don’t think there are any of them. I have an absence of belief in Gods- which by definition, means I think there aren’t any.

  • When someone says “God”, I substitute that for “the god of the Abrahamic religions.” That would allow it to make sense, although I don’t really get “atheism = disbelieves Christianity but agnostic toward, say, Shintoism.”

  • Daniel

    “If you don’t believe in gods, you believe there are no gods.”
    No you don’t. The first can be completely neutral- I don’t believe in uyiuoip. That could be because I don’t understand what that is, I don;t have any reason to think it’s there, no one has ever explained to me what uyiuoip means or is, I have never seen it etc.

    To believe there are no Gods means you know and understand the definitions of all of those possible deities and you actively think they do not exist.
    In my case I have never seen anything that could only be explained by God, and not by anything else. I don’t have an active belief in God’s non-existence, but I don’t have an active belief that there is a God either, because everything works perfectly well without there being one.

    I don’t know the details of all the Gods in every pantheon in every religion that has ever existed, therefore I cannot say that I believe none of those Gods exist. However, in not being aware of them or having only a very sketchy knowledge of them I also cannot say I believe in them. Atheism is literally “without God” so any position that does not require God or A God to explain things is atheist, even bullshit that makes no sense at all. If it has no god in it, it is atheist.

    Therefore, atheism is the absence of a belief rather than the presence of a negative one. It entails nothing else- you don’t have to believe evolution, the big bang, or relativity to not believe in God. Therefore as it entails no actual belief at all it is not religious.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Atheism is a religion like zero is a number.

  • dpolicar

    On this model, I am agnostic about whether the sun will rise tomorrow, agnostic about whether the guy currently sleeping in my bed is really my husband, agnostic about whether my name is really David, agnostic about whether I have two legs.

    I mean, I’m about as certain of all these things as it’s reasonably possible to be, but, hey, I’m a human being with a human brain. The chance that I suffer from some weird neurological glitch that causes that certainty even when they aren’t true is small, but non-zero.

    So if saying I don’t KNOW the answer, rather than that my confidence in the alternatives is properly extremely low, means I’m agnostic on these questions (as you suggest) then I’m agnostic on these questions.

    But this is just not the way people use the word! Nobody I know would say on this basis that I’m agnostic about my name, my husband, or how many legs I have.

    As you say, words mean things, and that simply isn’t what “agnostic” means.

    So I reject your model on that basis, and go on comfortably identifying as atheists people whose confidence in the existence of gods is sufficiently low.

  • So, “It just is, absolutely, and only the mathematically illiterate think otherwise?”

  • Ack. Riemann sums flashback!

  • Agreed 100%.

  • Carstonio

    A juror’s job is to look beyond appearance and weigh the evidence. If I were on the Tsarnaev jury, I would strive to do the same.

  • Carstonio

    I don’t remember any such accusations when the magazine had Manson on the cover. I’m assuming for the moment that the article itself doesn’t glorify Tsarnaev but instead examines how he became a murderer. Are you suggesting that RS shouldn’t attempt this type of journalism at all because of its reputation? Or if the article itself is good, then what image should the magazine have used?

    To me, Tsarnaev looks like a stoner version of Jim Morrison with the same undertone of menace. Hardly dreamy or attractive. More like he would scare off any rational woman.

  • hf

    If you’re saying “We’re pretty sure there aren’t any deities” then
    you’re saying “there is a slight chance there may be deities” in which case you’re functionally saying that you don’t KNOW the answer

    No, you’re not. I don’t know what you’re trying to say. You can’t simultaneously argue that “science” is the only rational way to examine the question, and that “science” excludes the only known way of extending logic to deal with uncertainty (ie, with any question outside of pure math).

    If you mean to say, ‘The evidence, together with some absurdly basic assumptions, demands that we assign theism a vanishingly small but nonzero probability,’ then we agree.