Do animals have a religion? I ask, how would that help them?

August 26, 2014

I was poking around online for post ideas and came by a page at News 24. This particular part of their site is open to users to pose questions and other users to comment on them. The user writing this particular article/letter posed the question, do animals have a religion?

People wondered where the first human came from. The best anwser would be a mighty HUMAN like GOD figure who created the first human on earth ADAM. And created all the animals as well.

So the best explenation for early man would be that there was the great BIG HUMAN CHIEF in the begenning.

People have brains, the brain is inquisitive and and curious. Early mans curiosity of how things began led to this idea.

Wait a minute, Animals have brains too!!

Therefore, by whatever logic this writer uses, animals also have to have religion. Author is willing to ponder the possibility of atheist animals at the end, though. Whatever. Let’s pretend this author asked a serious question. (Perhaps he or she meant to.) There are a lot of options for direction to take this kind of thought experiment. Add your own ideas in the comments.

Dolphins name themselves and refer to others by their own specially selected whistles. Elephants appear to mourn the dead. A lot of research over the years has shown that many animals beyond orangutans, chimps and gorillas have their own clever thought processes. Dogs may feel something akin to jealousy in certain situations. Crows are very adept at utilizing tools, including this one, who figured out how to toboggan and rides it down a steep roof for no apparent reason beyond enjoyment. Presumably.

It’s hard enough to determine if animals really feel emotions the way humans do. Is there too much anthropomorphizing going on in certain situations? The jury’s still out.

Belief in higher powers, though? I think it’s unlikely. Even if they did, we as humans lack the ability to understand most animals as it is.

There’s a video making the rounds featuring an orangutan, sign language, and a plea to stop cutting down their forests for palm oil production. If it turned out they believed in a god of some sort, would we stop wrecking their habitat for our own delicious gains? Would Christians hike out in droves to teach them all sign language so they could know Jesus and thus be saved from a hell they never heard of until Christians turned up and told them about it?

We automatically credit animal behaviours (even the seemingly compassionate, merciful or empathic ones) as an evolutionary advantage rather than as evidence that their god wants them to be nice to others once in a while.

What if our ability to believe is also some kind of evolutionary advantage, one that gives us an edge over other animal species? We already know we can make pigeons superstitious if the chance of getting food becomes enough of a gamble. What if some human parts of religion just derived from our own superstitious natures?


Ebola is not a “curse from god”

August 12, 2014

We should really be thankful that more diseases don’t transfer between species, frankly. Many plagues and disease outbreaks had an animal origin. Horrible though it is, it’s just one of those viruses people get because we live around animals and viruses mutate as time goes on. Basic biology, isn’t it?

Christian leaders in afflicted African countries speak of Ebola as a curse from God.

In Liberia, more than 100 Christian leaders meeting in early August declared that God was angry and Ebola a plague. They called for prayers to seek God’s forgiveness for sins including corruption and immoral acts such as homosexuality.

Liberia’s Wilmot Kotati Bobbroh, head of the Living Water Pentecostal Church, later described the outbreak as a national curse brought by God to force repentance. Bobbroh said chlorine and soap were not working, but God’s mercy was saving people.

The article lists more examples of this same thought process but ends not with requests for prayer to save these people but for better medical treatment to be made available.

Initially those infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone had relied on treatment from traditional healers, but this was shown to be ineffective, she said.

“Virtually all churches are relying on medical professional for treatment,” she added.

Harris said the virus spread quickly because little was known about it and the government had not mounted a robust response.

“The people had started taking relatives to prayer houses, while others administered herbal treatment,” Harris said. “By the time we realized this was an epidemic, it had grown out of proportion. We are now overwhelmed,” said Harris, while citing an urgent need for medical personnel and services.

So technically speaking, God curses and Science saves?

Something called Zmapp has been tried as a potential solution to the problem.

At present, treatment for the disease is limited to intensive supportive care. However, the missionaries were offered the opportunity to be given ZMapp – an experimental drug that had previously only been tested on monkeys – and it looks as though the treatment may have saved their lives.

Dr. Scott Podolsky, associate professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, has written in the Annals of Internal Medicine that ZMapp has much in common with methods of treating illness that were being developed toward the end of the 19th century.

That’s not the only treatment considered hopeful but it’s in the same kind of situation as ZMapp in terms of lacking human trials for safe use and efficacy. It all takes time.. and money. There’s a Forbes article that runs through the potential costs involved and what the options are for funding the search for a cure.

At least a cure looks likely in this case. We’re reaching a point with other viruses and bacteria where not even the strongest anti- drugs do much good. Other solutions present themselves in terms of creating innovative methods of attack but again, take time, money and testing to know if they’ll deliver all they promise.

I, for one, do not welcome our new viral overlords… we must continually seek to overthrow them.


First off, don’t equate gay marriage with tsunamis

August 11, 2014

I’ve never heard of John Stonestreet but he has an article up on Christianheadlines.com to advertise his new book titled Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage.

Like a tsunami, so-called gay marriage has swept aside just about every obstacle in its path, creating a very different cultural landscape than even seemed possible a few decades ago—or even a few years ago! According to David Von Drehle in Time magazine, the swift embrace of same-sex marriage is nothing short of a “seismic shift” of American culture, one “as rapid and unpredictable as any turn in public opinion.”

And that, folks, might still be an understatement.

No, no… I think what that is is hyperbole: “the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device or figure of speech.” (via)

The Bolton Council of Mosques quoted some statistics from the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition for the tsunami that swept over the Indian ocean on Boxing day, 2004. I’ll pick out a few.

275,000 people were killed in fourteen countries across two continents, with the last two fatalities being swept out to sea in South Africa, more than twelve hours after the earthquake.

40,000 to 45,000 more women than men were killed in the tsunami.

141,000 houses were destroyed, which accounts for 47.9 percent of the total damage (BRR & World Bank, 2005)

A 1,200km section of the earth’s crust shifted beneath the Indian ocean and the earthquake released stored energy equivalent to over more than 23,000 Hiroshima bombs.

Until thousands of people lose their lives and the planet itself is irrevocably altered by the sheer power of two men or two women in love, you can’t really equate gay marriage with tsunamis or earthquakes.

Back to Stonestreet:

It was the eminent sociologist David Popenoe who said that no civilization ever survived after its family life deteriorated. But if you don’t believe him, listen to G.K. Chesterton, and I quote: “This triangle of truisms, of father, mother and child, cannot be destroyed; it can only destroy those civilizations which disregard it.”

Popenoe wrote a piece called “The Decline of Fatherhood” which appeared in the Wilson Quarterly. The Sept/Oct 1996 issue of Utne Reader picked it up, which is where I found it. He makes some good points about parenting and stability for children. There are stats galore around to illustrate how single mothers fare financially and how that affects everything in terms of the well being, education and futures of kids who are most likely living in poverty and aren’t expected to get out from under that in any easy way. It’s really long but worth the read.

In terms of G. K. Chesterton,

this was the man who wrote a book called The Everlasting Man, which led a young atheist named C.S. Lewis to become a Christian. This was the man who wrote a novel called The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which inspired Michael Collins to lead a movement for Irish Independence. This was the man who wrote an essay in the Illustrated London News that inspired Mohandas Gandhi to lead a movement to end British colonial rule in India.

Suffice it to say, he was instrumental in a lot of major changes in society as we know it. His quoted opinion doesn’t prove our civilization will definitely fall just because homosexuals want to marry each other, though. There are so many factors that keep a civilization prospering and so many factors with the potential to wipe it out. It’s very unlike that roadside bombs or Ebola, for example, give a damn who’s married with kids.

Back to Stonestreet:

Sean and I also look at the issue culturally. Same-sex marriage isn’t the start of the problem; it’s the fruit of a long-going sexual revolution.

The ground that has shifted is not just moral ground; it’s worldview ground. We’re not just seeing a moral slide toward more and more sexual immorality; we’ve undergone a complete shift in the way we understand the human person.

Gay marriage is a major change. No doubt about that. But watch out for the notion of moral and immoral behaviour. The more we learn about ourselves and other species on this planet, we soon learn that life-long monogamy is very rare everywhere. Morality is on a sliding scale depending on the culture and the practices of a society at any particular time. Slavery often gets brought up at this point; it’s been considered a moral right of people to own other people in America’s past and there are still places in the world thinking this way. It’s morally right in Uganda to kill gays. It’s morally right to stone and rape women in some countries. It all comes down to culture and all comes down to how people are willing to judge certain behaviours, often based on whatever holy writ or charasmatic leader currently holds sway.

Same-sex relationships can be found in parts of the animal kingdom as well. A National Geographic article goes into some detail about that and how same-sex bonding can be very beneficial within a group anyway, even though the pairing isn’t leading directly to offspring. Scientific American has also explored the issue.

So long as enough babies are born to offset the effects of same-sex pairs, it’s a non-issue, frankly. And many same sex couples want to and are willing to raise children. These children would be getting all the benefits of double income and home stability. They’d be getting the positive attention, love and education that will make them profitable members of society down the road.

I think I’ve gone on long enough. Any thoughts you wish to share?


Billy Graham takes on illness and prayer

August 5, 2014

And probably not for the first time, but here’s the question as posed.

DEAR BILLY GRAHAM: What good does it do to pray for someone who’s facing a serious health crisis? They’ll either get better or they won’t, depending on how they respond to their medications or surgery. Just because we pray for someone doesn’t mean they’ll get better, in my opinion. — E.W.

DEAR E.W: As I read your letter, I couldn’t help but wonder if you’ve ever faced a serious health crisis, either in your own life or in the life of someone you love. When people do, I find, they almost always turn to prayer, even if they haven’t had much to do with God.

That’s the atheist in the foxhole logical fallacy, if I’m not mistaken. I’m not mistaken. It might not be in the list of logical fallacies, admittedly, but it’s a very common assumption made by religious people. And totally fallacious.

Several years ago I had this weird body experience in the middle of the night, a strange fluttery sensation in my chest, under my rib cage that woke me up and kept me from falling asleep again. Instead, I drove my car to the hospital emergency and when describing the sensation to the doctor on call I literally said, “It vibrates my chest as if an alien installed a beeper in there and someone’s calling it.” They kept me attached to some kind of machine overnight and encouraged me to relax and for the next couple days I wore a monitor of sorts that recorded whatever my heart was doing, I guess, and sent a report somewhere, perhaps to the doctor in my home town, since hers was the name I’d given when I came in. It only happened for a few hours and I’ve never experienced the sensation again and never got a call back about anything amiss. The description I gave at the time is still apt for what it felt like. Bzzzzht. bzzzsht. Bzzzsht…. Weird. Totally weird. Not frightening, just weird.

I remember laying on the bed in Emergency that night with the electrodes attached and the oxygen piped in through my nose and the intern reminding me to relax and the notion of praying to any particular god at the time was completely absent from my brain. No sense at all that some deity had to be called upon to get me through the night and keep me from stressing out. I just trusted the doctors.

Why is this? One reason, I believe, is because we all know that even with the best medical care, things can go wrong, and healing is not assured. In addition, some situations are so serious that there seems to be little or no hope of recovery. We also know that our bodies and our minds are very closely connected, and if a person is very discouraged or doesn’t want to live, their recovery is doubtful. Why shouldn’t we pray for them?

Because study after study after double-blind study demonstrates the complete and total lack of proof that prayer works.

Positive thinking and the placebo effect though: scientifically proven to be useful and beneficial to mood, attitude and sense of pain improvement.

Your question, however, suggests to me that the real reason for your letter is that you simply don’t believe God answers prayer or that he cares for us. You may not even believe he exists, or at least you’re uncertain about it.

And then he resorts to the old “Take Jesus into your heart” canard that ends the majority of his advice columns.

People can bounce back from illnesses in amazing ways. Ways that’ll seem pretty damned miraculous, but are really just demonstrations for how awesome our immune system is, or the field of medicine itself that took a risk with a patient that paid off, like Jeanna Giese who actually survived a bout of rabies – a disease assumed to have no cure.

I’m not really sure how to end this one. People who don’t seem to have any major health issues can suddenly die, too. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I suspect religions exist to help people deal with that randomness. It’s soothing to tell a person that God chose them to die because of whatever ludicrous reason. Create meaning out of something meaningless. Shit happens. The universe doesn’t care and certainly evolution doesn’t really give a damn who lives long enough to pass genes along. There’s no intelligence in either one. That’s a frightening prospect for some.

I don’t have kids but Dad’s brother married Mom’s sister and they had three kids. Those cousins of mine are nearly siblings to me and they all have children. Evolutionarily speaking, our mutual genes are set for another go-around and my input into the collective gene pool would be kind of redundant. I share enough genes with them and their children anyway. We’re covered. Evolution doesn’t have a set plan for humanity. Mutations just happen and over time enough of them will benefit the human species and give us an edge. I’m satisfied with that. Or, we’ll mutate into something else before other genes cause our downfall. It’s all up in the air…


What part of the bible is worth following letter for letter?

July 30, 2014

Due to forest fires up north, the sky has been pretty smoky some days. My mother is a photographer who never misses a moment to snap a cool picture. I’ve nabbed this “red sun at night” photo from her Facebook feed.

red sun at night

She always gets a lot of likes for her stuff and supportive comments. This morning I noticed this comment from a friend of hers in New Brunswick.

It-s written in the Bible…that wewill see lhe moon red,,,,”

(Ignore the weird spelling and punctuation in this case; English is not the woman’s first language and she has no typing skills to speak of but she still wants to take part in the conversation.)

My first temptation was to retort with a comment of my own but I decided to put it here instead:

The bible also bans the eating of shellfish. Pick what part you want to follow, I guess…

(Seafood is big in New Brunswick.)

She’s confused the Mom’s Sun with the bible’s Moon in her comment but never mind that for now. What does the bible say about the Moon? First off, the anonymous storytellers were not astronomers. I take from the only version of the bible I’ll read, the Skeptic’s Annotated, starting at Genesis:

In an apparent endorsement of astrology, God places the sun, moon, and stars in the firmament so that they can be used “for signs”. This, of course, is exactly what astrologers do: read “the signs” in the Zodiac in an effort to predict what will happen on Earth. 1:14

God makes two lights: “the greater light [the sun] to rule the day, and the lesser light [the moon] to rule the night.” But the moon is not a light, but only reflects light from the sun. And why, if God made the moon to “rule the night”, does it spend half of its time moving through the daytime sky? 1:16

Ezekial 32:

(32:7-8) God “will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light.” To Ezekiel, the sun is just a little light that can be covered with a cloud, and the moon produces its own light.

Ezeikial 46:6 mentions the moon but only in terms of how to properly honour God on a New Moon night by sacrificing “a young bullock without blemish, and six lambs, and a ram.”

Why do people insist prayer in schools is what God wants? Maybe he really just misses the smell of blood and flesh burned in his name. Focus less on prayer in schools and more on holy BBQs! No wonder he sends floods and earthquakes! There’s always a flood or an earthquake within a couple weeks of a new moon! Haven’t you noticed that? It’s proof I tell you! Proof!

But I digress.

The winning entry in the possible moon verses comes out of – you probably guessed already – Revelations. In this case, chapter 6. To sum up,

Jesus (the 7-horned, 7-eyed, 7-holy spirited dead lamb from chapter 5) begins breaking seals and all kinds of bad shit happens. Before each seal is broken, a beast tells John to “come and see.”

Seals One through Five are supposed to unleash all manner of horror on the world, essentially the four horsemen of the apocalypse to rain death and destruction on everyone plus all the dead martyrs so they can see their killers get what’s coming to them, I suppose. Seal Six:

Sixth seal: A great earthquake, the sun becomes black, and the moon red, the stars fall from heaven, mountains and islands move around, and everyone on earth wishes they were dead (if they’re not already).

(6:12) “There was a great earthquake; and the sun became black … and the moon became as blood.”

(6:13) “The stars of heaven fell unto the earth.”

(6:14) “Heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.”

And 6:14 is there to once again illustrate the fact that these authors didn’t understand how the universe worked. Stars aren’t loosely hung on a black bed sheet and at risk of falling to the earth if someone shakes them a little. And falling stars aren’t even falling stars in the first place. Total misnomer. It’s always meteors.

Speaking of, we’re in the midst of the yearly Perseids show, running from July 13 to August 26 and supposed to peak around August 12/13 or so. If you like watching that sort of thing.


Book of the week: The Martian

July 27, 2014

Science fiction has appealed to me ever since childhood. One of my favourite authors ever is William Sleator. Interstellar Pig still holds a special place in my heart. I’d love to see a movie done for that one, but Jumanji has already been done. (The original book is beautifully illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. Look for it.) Creating something similar with space aliens and beach front property probably won’t tickle the bank accounts of any producers right now. Someone did go through the trouble of posting the game rules, though, should a game board ever find its way into this dimension from somewhere else. It would probably look something like Merchant of Venus.

But I digress.

The Martian by Andy Weir was a speed read and very engaging. (Wikipedia notes a film version of this has been optioned. Of course it has.)

An unfortunate accident befalls a crew on Mars and they have to evacuate. One astronaut, Mark Watney, gets hurled away from their space vehicle by debris. He’s presumed dead so his team leaves him behind. Turns out he’s fine and surprisingly not that pissed off at getting left behind. He’s a logical guy and knows it was the best call for his commander to make. “The needs of the many…” if I may borrow from a different sci-fi film.

Watney is an engineer and botanist. Most of the story is told through the log entries he makes each day, explaining what he’s decided to do, what he’s had to fix, and how many times he just about killed himself doing something risky, dangerous, or slightly stupid. And at the time he has no way to contact Earth and NASA due to what led to the evacuation so nobody knows he’s alive.

Fortunately, someone monitoring the satellites around Mars notices some action and gets the ball rolling in terms of rescue options. (Some are better than others.) They notice that Watley’s driven one of his rovers in the direction of the old Pathfinder mission site and soon realize his intention: to get the radio pieces functioning again. With that, they make plans for his pickup at the site where the next mission was supposed to land. Part of that project is already there: the launch vehicle, slowly harvesting atmosphere to make enough fuel to reach orbit. If Watley can get to it in time, his old crew on the Hermes can do a fly-by and collect him. Of course, it wouldn’t be as entertaining a story if it all went off without a hitch…

From what I heard about the book before starting it, Weir made a point of sticking as close to the real science behind potential Mars missions as he could for plotting out Watney’s chances of survival with supplies on hand.

Also, from the Wikipedia page about the book:

Having been rebuffed by literary agents, Weir put the book online for free at his website. At the request of fans he made a Amazon Kindle version available through Amazon.com at 99 cents (the minimum he could set the price). The Kindle edition rose to the top of Amazon’s list of best-selling science-fiction titles where it sold 35,000 copies in three months. This garnered the attention of publishers: Podium Publishing, an audiobook publisher, signed for the audiobook rights in January, 2013, and Weir sold the print rights to Crown in March 2013 for six figures.

The book debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list on March 2, 2014 in the hardcover fiction category at twelfth position.

I wonder if this method is becoming a standard in the publishing industry these days. Don’t risk money on a new author until it’s established that his/her writing appeals to a big enough digital audience to justify selling to the paper lovers. I’m a paper lover. I don’t know if I’ll ever own a tablet and can’t see the point of trying to read a whole book on my iPod. I’m not much for audio book versions either, although I’ve listened to several entertaining ones that are like listening to plays with musical scores and sound effects and everything fun. I’m happy with the hard copy generally.

Another book I quite enjoyed and now own (a withdrawn library copy) is Wool by Hugh Howey.

Howey first began the series in 2011, initially writing Wool as a stand-alone short story. He published the work through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing system, choosing to do so due to the freedom of self-publishing. After the series grew in popularity, he began to write more entries for it. Howey began soliciting international rights in 2012, and has since signed with Brazil. Film rights to the series were sold to 20th Century Fox; Lionsgate also expressed interest.

Howey signed a print-only deal for around $500,000 with Simon & Schuster to distribute Wool to book retailers across the US and Canada.[when?] Howey retains full rights to continue distributing Wool online himself.

The book copy I have was available for sale by March 2013 and the rest of the trilogy has been published and released. I’d recommend that set, too. Look at that, six book recommendations for the price of one. Lucky reader or what?


How can anyone back Ken Ham?

July 22, 2014

Back away from him, yes. Back him? His brain baffles me with its illogical pronouncements.

Creationist Ken Ham, who recently debated Bill Nye the Science Guy over the origins of the universe, is calling for an end to the search for extraterrestrial life because aliens probably don’t exist — and if they do, they’re going to Hell anyway.

“You see, the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe,” Ham wrote on his blog on Sunday. “This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation.”.

And

Jesus did not become the “GodKlingon” or the “GodMartian”! Only descendants of Adam can be saved. God’s Son remains the “Godman” as our Savior. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that we see the Father through the Son (and we see the Son through His Word). To suggest that aliens could respond to the gospel is just totally wrong.

And

The search for extraterrestrial life is really driven by man’s rebellion against God in a desperate attempt to supposedly prove evolution!

The rest of his screed is here but it’s not worth the clicks.

I don’t think there’s any desperate attempt to prove evolution, either. It happens. Ken Ham and his ilk are wasting their time, energy and money promoting their very silly alternative.

It’d be interesting to find out if life happened on other worlds, or is happening on other bodies in this solar system.

And it’s good that humans have the drive to discover. Speaking biblically, it turned out to be the wrong move for Adam and Eve because apparently God really wanted them to stay obedient and stupid. In the real world, that ambition to know is what moves us forward and keeps us fed, watered and housed. That drive to know is why we also have so many gods and religions — for some of the bigger questions, our ancestors had no way to find the answers so put gods in as placeholders. And people like Ken Ham want to keep them there rather than find any real solid answers. It’s a shame, really. The world, the universe, and our place in both is far more fascinating when taking the science into account than it is just blowing it off with “God did it!”

My mind is blown by the very idea that we’re all star stuff. I trust those who say it’s so. I’m just blown by what that means.. it’s so big and fantastic and wild. No god invented by man can beat that, in my mind.


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