Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Speaking up against the lunatics

It hasn't been a good week for reasonable, moderate Christians.

Which, allow me to point out, the majority of them are.  Even the ones who consider themselves very devout do, by and large, follow the most important of Jesus's dictums, namely, "Love thy neighbor" and "Treat others as you would be treated."  There are Christians whom I count amongst my very dear friends, and although we may differ regarding what we think the ultimate answers are to Life, the Universe, and Everything, we all get along pretty well by following the general rule of Don't Be An Asshole.

I can't help but think that the reasonable Christians, though, might oughta have a word with some of their leaders.  Because let me tell you, those folks need either to stick a sock in it or else get professional help, because lately the lot of them sound like they've lost their minds.

Let's start with our dear old friend Pat Robertson, who you'd think by now would have also lost most of his audience, given the way he blathers on.  He has variously claimed that Katrina was god's punishment on New Orleans, the 2010 earthquake was god's punishment on Haiti, and god was going to punish little kids for indulging in Halloween because the candy they were being given had been cursed by witches.  So old Pat has had a screw loose for some time, but for reasons that are beyond me that hasn't stopped people from watching his television show, The 700 Club.

And this week, Pat told his listeners something horrific; that what we saw with Katrina and the Haitian earthquake was peanuts.  God had something even worse in his arsenal, and it was going to happen soon.  God has had it with us.  No weaseling out of it this time.

An earth-destroying asteroid.

[image courtesy of artist Don Davis and the Wikimedia Commons]

Yes, based on Pat's extensive knowledge of science, he has concluded that wacky apocalyptic stuff in the Book of Revelation is all about an asteroid hitting the Earth.  I dunno how that accounts for the Mark of the Beast and the Scarlet Whore of Babylon and so on, but I guess his mind was made up (actually, he said he knew because god told him personally) -- sufficiently that Pat has written a book about it, called The End of the Age.

"I wrote a book!" Pat told his viewers.  "It deals with an asteroid hitting the Earth.  I don’t see anything else that fulfills the prophetic words of Jesus Christ other than an asteroid strike.  There isn’t anything that will cause the seas to roil, that will, you know, cause the skies to darken, the moon and the sun not to give their light, the nations terrified on Earth of what’s happening.  There isn’t anything that’s going to do that."

Well, alrighty, then.

Now, lest you say to yourself, "Well, that's just Pat Robertson, and we all know he's a loon," what about Franklin Graham, the pastor son of Billy Graham?

The elder Graham, however fundamentalist he is, always struck me as a compassionate and honest man.  His son, however, appears to be more cast from the "rant and rave while making random shit up" mold.  On Newsmax's "America's Forum," the younger Graham went on record as saying that Christians are being persecuted and attacked, especially by the media.

"Are we at a point now that is maybe unparalleled in history, about the amount of anti-Christian behavior and sentiment... rising around the globe?" the interviewer asked him, and Graham responded, "We do see it rising around the globe, no question about it, and it's frightening.  We see the anti-Christian position in this country, so much of it coming out of the entertainment industry, especially in certain segments of the news media.  Christians are being attacked...  We are living in a world that is changing, and it's frightening to see how quickly it's changing.  And I think we're going to see real persecution of Christians and Jews in the years to come."

Really?  Persecution?  Here in the United States?  Maybe you're confusing "no longer having carte blanche" with "being attacked," Reverend Graham.  And regarding the entertainment industry -- can I remind you that there have been two, count 'em, two movies so far this year that were biblical epics -- Noah and Son of God -- not to mention the rather defensively-titled God's Not Dead?

But the winner in the lunatic rant contest this week has to be Ray Moore, president of Frontline Ministries and candidate for lieutenant governor of South Carolina, who is trying to get Christian parents to take their kids out of public schools because he thinks that 40% of children are turned into atheists by the evil public school system -- by the end of elementary school.

"It’s our hope and prayer that a fresh obedience by Christian families and educating their children according to biblical commands will prove to be a key for the revival of our families, our churches, and our nation,” said Moore told a gathering of Tea Party activists on April 12.

"Christians must leave the Pharaoh’s school system, and seek out religious schools or home schools," he said, to wild applause.

"We cannot win this war we’re in as long as we keep handing our children over to the enemy to educate.  All of the symptoms, the things that we’re fighting and complaining about today has [sic] been caused because the culture has changed.  The culture has turned against God, against the Constitution, and against traditional values.  It’s fundamentally and largely responsible because of the public school system we’ve had (for) six or seven generations, when most of us have put our children in the godless, pagan school system.  It cannot be fixed, the socialistic model, and we need to abandon that.  As conservatives and Christians, if you think you’re going to win this war you’re in, and leave your children in those schools, it will not happen."

Right.  Because that's what I spend my time doing, along with teaching kids the parts of the cell and how the digestive tract works, in the hopes that they'll learn it well enough that they'll pass the state exams so I'll get a passing grade and actually have a job next year.  In all my spare time, I'm indoctrinating my students into godless paganism.

Whatever the hell that is.

You know, I think part of the problem here is that we're taught, in church, to listen to the leaders and mostly accept what they say.  I was raised Roman Catholic, and that was certainly my parents' approach; unless the priest did something to indicate that he really had gone off his rocker, you were supposed to just kind of sit there and listen and nod.  But I think the time has come that good, sensible Christians need to say to some of these leaders, "You are talking complete rubbish."  Better still, stop sending them money, and allowing these wingnuts to live a lavish lifestyle.  Because however they yammer on about what Jesus said and what Jesus wants people to do, evidently Jesus's comment about "give everything you have to the poor and follow me" never really sunk in.  Take John Hagee, the Texas pastor I wrote about a few days ago who claimed that the lunar eclipse was a sign of the End Times; his salary last year is estimated at $840,000, and he lives on a "$2.1 million 7,969-acre ranch outside Brackettville, with five lodges, including a 'main lodge' and a gun locker.  It also includes a manager's house, a smokehouse, a skeet range and three barns."

Not exactly emulating the Poverty of Christ, there, are you, Reverend Hagee?

Anyhow.  I know I'm to be expected to be critical, being an atheist and all, but what really galls me is that most of the Christians I know are as disgusted by these crazy pronouncements and royal lifestyles as I am, and so few of them seem motivated to do anything about it.  The problem is, I can't do much to fight this myself; as I said in a recent post, being an atheist is a one-way ticket to being completely powerless politically (despite what Franklin Graham would say to the contrary).  But if these nutjobs' constituencies and congregations stood up and said, "Look, knock it off, or we're cutting the purse strings," maybe they'd listen.

Well, most of them.  I doubt Pat Robertson would.  Anyone who thinks that Hershey's Inc. hires witches to curse Halloween candy is probably beyond help no matter what.

Monday, April 21, 2014

There were giants in those days

My students, as a final projects, are required to perform an experiment of their choice, and report back the results of their research.  And one of the directions I give them is, "Beware of over-concluding."

It's an easy enough error to slip into.  If you test the effects of increasing concentration of nitrogen-based fertilizers on the growth of marigold plants, and you find that increasing amounts of soluble nitrogen make marigold seedlings grow faster, you cannot extrapolate that and assume that all plants will respond in the same fashion.  It is a difficulty that plagues medical researchers; a drug that has beneficial effects in test animals may not behave the same way in humans.

The woo-woos, however, raise over-conclusion to an art form.  They will take some anomalous observation, and run right off the cliff with it -- coming to some pronouncement that is so ridiculous that the word "unwarranted" doesn't even do it justice.  Take, for example, the conclusion the woo-woos are drawing from the announcement that Italian "anomalist" researcher Matteo Ianneo has discovered the ruins of an ancient city in the Saudi Arabian desert:
If you look carefully, you can see the ancient ruins next to it, even an old profile.  This is a sensational discovery that no one had noticed. In photographs from 2004, one can observe that there was nothing in this place, it was definitely covered by sand...  The strong winds and desert storms have brought to light this discovery that I think is very sensational.  Now archaeologists are to affirm this archaeological area.  Perhaps it is certainly ancient ruins belonging to an ancient and magnificent city, which dates back to a long time ago.  I hope I have given a contribution to science, in order to find a small piece that the story is all redone, and it’s hard to tell.
Well, so far, so good.  And so far, nothing too surprising.  The Saudi Arabian desert is full of ruins, many of them dating to a time when the climate there was far more congenial for human habitation:

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

First, though, it bears mention that Ianneo isn't the most credible witness himself.  He is, after all, the guy who announced last year that he'd found an alien base on Mars.  But even leaving that aside for a moment, take a look at what noted wingnut and Skeptophilia frequent flyer Alfred Lambremont Webre had to say about Ianneo's discovery:
Many who know of Matteo Ianneo's fantastic discoveries on the surface of Mars, other planets and earth, know how remarkable his findings are.  As a researcher and investigative journalist myself, I personally believe Matteo has surpassed all others involved with extraterrestrial geophysics... 
The lost cities that are spoken about in our earthly legends may be truth.  Gigantic monuments populate our Earth and it is my belief that they were created by actual giants who were moving in to leave a clear trace of their coming to our planet.  These giants were produced by continuous changes and an evolution in DNA.  It is also quite possible Giants were the very gods narrated in our remote history. The legends are from millions or perhaps billions of years ago.  Most of earth has suffered many cataclysms since then, and it is a misfortune that much of this history was destroyed. 
The gods of these legends existed long ago and at one time, they were very real to our ancestors, these beings of great intelligence and height were to be envied.  They were most likely our actual creators.  They built gigantic monuments so wondrous, many of the ruins still defy logic to this day.  Majestic pyramids and gigantic monuments were created for us, for our humanity.  Their technologies were able to model and mold the rock, to do with it whatever they wanted. 
Their technology had to have been very advanced.  Many of them were been able to save people to help them escape from their dying worlds, by bringing them here to our Earth.  The stories have all been redone and retold over and over throughout the years.  Many men of the earth chose to hide the truth a very long time ago, out of fear.  This history has already taught us.  The truth can have other implications, some truth that most humans cannot accept.
We have an observation: ruins of a city in Saudi Arabia.  Webre's conclusion: there used to be technologically advanced alien giants on the Earth, who created the human race, and whose existence is being systematically covered up by the powers-that-be.

It reminds me of the wonderful quote from Carl Sagan's Cosmos episode called "Heaven and Hell," wherein he describes the wild speculation people indulged in when it became obvious that the planet Venus was covered with a thick layer of clouds:
I can't see a thing on the surface of Venus.  Why not?   Because it's covered with a dense layer of clouds.  Well, what are clouds made of?  Water, of course.   Therefore, Venus must have an awful lot of water on it.  Therefore, the surface must be wet.   Well, if the surface is wet, it's probably a swamp.   If there's a swamp, there's ferns.   If there's ferns, maybe there's even dinosaurs.  Observation: I can't see anything.  Conclusion: dinosaurs.
But Webre has apparently one-upped even the "anomalists" that Sagan was parodying, with his wild talk of giant aliens and directed evolution and ancient gods.  He even goes on to tell us what the giant aliens felt like when humans turned out to be so difficult:
Atlantis and other cities have existed in the distant past, most of these great civilizations fell and these Gods probably view us with a great sadness.  Ancient peoples in the past were always power hungry, war crazed and violent in nature, some possibly even dealt with nuclear war. 
The possession of the planet was the only important thing to carry on.  But something went wrong. The suspicious and greedy nature of these peoples caused them to rebel and destroy all their knowledge. 
Today, I present my discovery that I’ve kept for a long time. I have made a very complex study of our Earth.  I have gathered images to prove the existence of gods in our past.  Beings who left their prints and pieces of their once great kingdoms behind here on our earth. 
I assure you that the legends are true.
Sure they are.

And there are probably alien bases on Mars, too, and NASA has decided that we naive humans couldn't deal with it if they came clean and told us about it.  Because Matteo Ianneo says so.

And accepting anything Webre and Ianneo say as correct can't be an over-conclusion, right?

Of course, right.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

How to piss off an ecologist

There's a fundamental disconnect in the American brain.  I suspect that it's also true in most other "First World" countries, but that's only supposition.  I can say with some assuredness, however, that it's true here in the United States, because I've witnessed its results over and over.

This disconnect has to do with where stuff comes from, and where it goes after it's out of our sight.  If you asked people, for example, what the most common pigment in ordinary white paint is, most folks wouldn't know, despite its ubiquity.  (It's titanium oxide, zinc oxide, or a combination, if you're curious.)  Likewise, once something hits the trash can, it most people's minds, it's gone -- very few have any knowledge of, or interest in, what happens to garbage once it gets to a landfill.

This is an even stronger tendency when it comes to our own bodies, especially the "where stuff goes" part, because there's the added icky-poo factor when it comes to dealing with our own bodily wastes.  The concept of "materials cycling" is sadly lacking in our consciousness, most of the time.  When I tell students, "Every molecule of water in your body has been in many forms -- it's been glacial ice, it's been in the ocean, it's been in rivers, it's been water vapor in clouds, it's been groundwater, it's been tree sap, it's been in dinosaur piss," it usually elicits a few disgusted exclamations and a good many looks of disbelief.  When I further tell them that the molecules of water in them today aren't going to be the same ones that will be in their bodies in five years, mostly what I pick up from them is complete incomprehension.

It's true, though; this collection of atoms I call "me" is only going to be in association temporarily, and I'll be made up of a whole different collection of atoms, albeit in more or less the same configuration, many times before I die.  Earth is the great recycler, and unless the mechanism is pressed too hard, it moves stuff around with great efficiency, into, through, and out of organisms and ecosystems.

Which is why I thought it was somewhere between funny and horrifying that Portland, Oregon water management officials chose to drain 38 million gallons of water from the Mount Tabor Reservoir after security cameras caught footage of a teenager peeing into the reservoir.

Mount Tabor Reservoir [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

First off, don't they realize that other animals live around the reservoir?  Deer, raccoons, and bunnies don't pee in tidy little Non-Human-Mammal Port-a-Potties in the woods, for cryin' out loud.  Every drop of water you drink has been processed many times through another animal's digestive and excretory system -- and once the solutes are removed, either by natural or artificial processes, what's left is pure, drinkable water.

Second, we have an issue of the water officials not understanding the concept of "dilution" here.  The officials said that the urine poses "little to no risk" to the public -- which is true if you put emphasis on the "no" part -- but Portland Water Bureau official David Shaff told the Associated Press, "The basic commandment of the Water Bureau is to provide clean, cold and constant water to its customers, and the premise behind that is we don't have pee in it."

Sure you don't.  No animals pee near the reservoir, because, you know... they have signs up forbidding it.  ("No pissing allowed.  That means YOU, Bambi.")  But if the real concern is the human pee -- because humans, after all, are somehow different than other animals -- let's see how much pee there is in the reservoir from the one "incident" they caught on the security camera.

A webpage on kidney health from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services says that an average person's bladder capacity is about 1.5 to 2 cups.  According to Wikipedia, urine is 95% water and 5% solutes (the one usually in the highest concentration is urea, a biodegradable nitrogenous waste; the next three, in order, are chloride, sodium, and potassium).

But never mind that.  Let's lump the 5% solutes together as the "icky" part.  So we have two cups of urine (assuming the guy really had to go bad), of which 5% is something other than water.  That's 0.1 cups of solute...

... mixed in 608 million cups of water in the reservoir (38 million gallons times 16 cups per gallon).  That is a ratio of 0.00000000016 : 1.  And that doesn't even account for the fact that microorganisms take up and degrade the urea and most of the other organic molecules, so within days, even that would be gone.

These are concentrations that only a homeopath would be concerned about.

Now, I know that there have been studies that have found human sewage contaminants in river water -- most famously, a study of the Thames River in which there were measurable (albeit small) amounts of the breakdown products of cocaine, diazepam, caffeine, acetaminophen, nortriptyline, and other legal and illegal drugs in river water.  Keep in mind that we're talking about a huge population -- the water that comes out of the London sewage treatment system, and into the Thames, has been filtered through a great many kidneys before it ends up in the treatment plant -- and still the amounts were tiny, averaging below one part per million.  (It's still being researched if these chemicals remain biologically active at those concentrations.)

But one kid taking a piss in the reservoir?  Not an issue.  Not even close to an issue.  Okay, ticket him and fine him for public urination, if you want to make a deal out of it.  But draining the reservoir, at the taxpayers' expense, because the water monitoring board of Portland (and/or their constituency) has no understanding of materials cycles or dilution, and an exaggerated "this-is-gross" reaction to human waste?


Friday, April 18, 2014

Fear, the amygdala, and "Whistle"

I find fear fascinating.

Fear is an eminently useful evolved characteristic; the ability to recognize and avoid threats has an obvious survival benefit.  Fears can be learned, but as the famous "Little Albert experiment" showed, the object of our fear can result in overgeneralization, which is probably the origin of phobias and other irrational fears.  (For those of you unfamiliar with this interesting, but dubiously ethical, experiment, researchers back in 1920 showed a toddler a variety of objects, including a white rat -- and when the baby reached for the rat, they made a loud noise.  Soon, "Little Albert" would cry when shown the rat, but also when shown other white objects, including a rabbit, a stuffed bear, and a Santa mask.)

All of this comes up because of some recently-published research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where neuroscientist Bo Li and his colleagues have discovered how we encode fear in the brain -- and how those memories result in behavior.

It has been known for some time that the fear response results from activation of neurons in the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure deep inside the brain.  In 1998, K. S. LaBar et al. used fMRI studies to demonstrate the role of the amygdala in responding to fear stimuli, but it was still unknown how that structure actuated the behaviors associated with the fear response -- sweating, increased pulse, freezing in place, and the fight-or-flight reaction.

Now Li and his colleagues at Cold Spring Harbor have found that there are neurons that connect the amygdala to the brainstem, and that activation of a fear response causes a feedback between the amygdala and brainstem via those neurons -- thus turning an emotional response into a behavior.

"This study not only establishes a novel pathway for fear learning, but also identifies neurons that actively participate in fear conditioning," says Li.  "This new pathway can mediate the effect of the central amygdala directly, rather than signaling through other neurons, as traditionally thought."  Li hopes that his study will be useful in understanding, and perhaps remediating, cases of severe phobias and post-traumatic stress syndrome.

I find myself wondering, however, how this evolved system, with its elaborate architecture and neurochemistry, can explain why some people seek out fear-inducing experiences.  I've been drawn to horror stories since I can remember, and have written more than one myself.  The cachet that writers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz have is hard to explain evolutionarily -- given the fact that fear is unpleasant, intended to drive us to avoid whatever the evokes the response, and is supposed to communicate to our brains the message, "Danger!  Danger!  Run!"

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Take, for example, one of my favorite scary stories -- one I remember well from my youth.  My grandma, who was an avid book collector, had a little paperback copy of a book by C. B. Colby called Strangely Enough.  This book had dozens of odd little one-to-two page stories, most of which fell into the "urban legend" or "folk tale" categories and were entertaining but not particularly memorable.  But one of them, a story called "The Whistle," has stuck with me -- and evidently not only me.  When researching this post, I looked up Colby, and found his little book had been mentioned more than once in websites about scary stories -- and damn near everyone mentioned "The Whistle" as being the scariest of the lot.

I don't have to tell you the story, though, because two film directors, Eric Walter and Jon Parke, thought it was good enough to make a short film based on the story.  It's only seven minutes long, but it captures the essence of what is chilling about Colby's story -- without a single word of dialogue.  It's not gory (for those of you who dislike such things), just viscerally terrifying.  And all of you should right now take seven minutes and watch "Whistle."

There.  Did I tell you?  What I find the scariest about this film is that... almost nothing happens.  You never see the monster, if monster it was.  All there is is a whistling noise.  But it's got all the elements; a widowed woman living alone; a dog who tries to warn her that something is amiss; an old house; a radio that mysteriously malfunctions.

But why is it scary?  It is, I think, precisely because we fear the unknown.  What is known is (usually) harmless; what is unknown is (possibly) deadly.  We've undergone millions of years of evolutionary selection to create brain wiring that keeps us from making stupid decisions, such as confronting a predator while weaponless, trusting a stranger without caution... or staying outside when there's a strange, unearthly noise.

Perhaps that explains why we're drawn to horror fiction.  The character trapped in the story is in danger, perhaps mortal danger, from which (s)he may not be able to escape.  We, on the other hand, can experience the character's fear on a visceral level, but then we can turn the movie off, close the book, go back to our safe, normal lives, secure in the fact that we're not going to die, or at least not yet.  We can get the rush of terror, but then when the scary story is over, the pleasure-and-reward circuits that our brain also evolved can turn on and reassure us that the monsters didn't get us, that we've survived for another day.

And now Bo Li and his colleagues have discovered how the brain helps us to do that.  As for me, I'm going to go have some coffee, and wait until my amygdala calms down, because while I was doing this post, I had to watch "Whistle" again, and now I'm all creeped out.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The king's name is a tower of strength...

As regular readers know, I'm not particularly impressed at this point by the evidence that's been brought to bear in cases of alleged hauntings.  It's not that I'm saying it's impossible, mind you; it's just that we lack the two things that a skeptic would require: (1) hard evidence, for which a ghostly presence is the best explanation; or failing that, (2) a plausible mechanism by which spirit survival could occur.

Neither of these has yet been demonstrated.

Take, for example, the claim earlier this week that some spiritualists in England were contacted by a spirit who may have been King Richard III.  (The spiritualists were careful to say that it may not have been the Hunchback King himself, but someone else named Richard.  There are, after all, lots of Richards out there.)

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Medium Gill Hibbert was with a group in Donington le Heath Manor House, the place where King Richard spent his last night before riding out to his death in Bosworth Field in 1485, and they were using a "ghost box" that allegedly "allows spirits to speak through white noise."

So if you listen to the clip on the link provided above -- which I would prefer you do with your eyes closed, for reasons I'll describe in a moment -- you first hear nothing but crackles and static, and then you allegedly hear the ghost speaking a single word.

Now, here's the difficulty.  On the recording, there is captioning that tells you what the ghost is supposedly saying.  And therein lies the problem.  Because if someone tells you what you're hearing, it becomes almost impossible not to hear it.  Take, for example, this wonderful "Misheard Lyrics" version of the classic Orff choral piece "O Fortuna," from Carmina Burana:

I know a good bit of Latin, and when I watch this video, I find myself unable to hear anything but the rather twisted English version (I still guffaw at "Salsa cookies!  Windmill cookies!  They give you gonorrhea!").  So once the ghost hunters tell you what you're listening for in the white noise, they've biased you to hear it.

Still, they heard it when they first recorded it, right?  But remember, they already had an idea about what they were hoping the ghost would say.  And given that, is it any surprise that they picked out that particular word?  It's what they expected to hear -- which is the exact definition of confirmation bias.

So, okay, maybe it was King Richard III, hanging around the premises 530-odd years after his death, for some reason.  Seems like an odd thing to do -- if I was a spirit, I'd probably head off to Maui or Belize or somewhere, rather than haunting the place where I was hunted down by hostile knights and then gutted like a fish and left to die on the battlefield.  But to each his own, I suppose.  And I need more evidence than this to come to that conclusion.

Because this recording isn't doing much for me, honestly.  Hibbert et al. say they're going to turn the recording over to professionals to have it analyzed further, which is a good idea, but even if it turns out that it was a human voice, it very much remains to be seen that it was a ghost's.

So at the moment, I'm putting this into the "Interesting but unconvincing" category.  Once we have a ghost show up, in full view, preferably in broad daylight, and tell us some verifiable piece of information that no one in the room had any way to know ahead of time, then I'll be convinced.  Until then, I'm going with the "Suck juice from moose" explanation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Blood moons and End Times

I would have thought that most of us knew enough science, and had discarded enough superstition, to be past the "Look For Portents In The Sky" approach to knowledge.

Apparently I'm wrong.

The next couple of years are going to be unusual in having four total lunar eclipses, the first of which happened two days ago.  (Subsequent ones will occur in October 2014, April 2015, and September 2015.)  Which is quite spectacular and cool, although I must protest to the Weather Gods (speaking of indulging in superstition) for sending upstate New York cloudy weather a couple of nights ago, obscuring our view of the first in the "tetrad."

[image courtesy of photographer Alfredo Garcia and the Wikimedia Commons]

So far, only something of interest to astronomy buffs.  But then someone nicknamed them "blood moons," because of the deep red color the Moon assumes during a total lunar eclipse, and that was enough to get the loons going full-force.

First, we had Pastor John Hagee, of Texas's Cornerstone Church, who claims that the "four blood moons" are signs of the End Times:
In Acts 2:19-20, it is written, “And I will show wonders in Heaven above and signs in the Earth beneath, the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord...”  Just as in biblical times, God is controlling the sun, the moon, and the stars to send our generation a signal that something big is about to happen.  The question is: Are we watching and listening to His message?
No, Pastor Hagee, actually the question is, do you understand how eclipses work?  There's nothing supernatural about them, so there's nothing supernatural about four in a row, either.  There was one such "tetrad" in 1949, and another in 1967, and the world didn't end.

Oh, but Hagee says, stuff happened both times!  Big stuff!  1967 was the year of the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, and 1949 was... um... soon after the state of Israel was founded.  Okay, two years after, but maybe god was busy elsewhere and didn't get to that event's Four Blood Moons until later.  He's got a lot to manage, okay?

Not to be outdone, Pastor Mark Biltz said that not only were the Four Blood Moons a portent of evil, it was President Obama's fault:
Barack Obama quite recently, expressing his frustration that Republican members of Congress won’t give him what he wants, threatened arbitrary executive action, promising that he has a “pen and phone.” 
But there are “flashing red warning lights” in the heavens that should command peoples’ attention right now, because the one behind those warnings, God, had “more than a pen and a phone in his hand,” according to the author of “Blood Moons: Decoding the Imminent Heavenly Signs.” 
Pastor Mark Biltz, whose book is creating a tidal wave of interest right now with the first of four lunar eclipses expected to become visible early Tuesday, was speaking to Breaking Israel News... 
“I believe the moons are like flashing red warning lights at a heavenly intersection saying to Israel as well as the nations they will be crossing heavenly red lines and if they do, they will understand as Pharaoh did on Passover night 3,500 years ago that the Creator backs up what He says. 
“Like Pharaoh the leaders and pundits of today will realize when it comes to crossing the red lines of the Creator of the universe he has more than a pen and a phone in his hand.” 
Whooo-weee, that's one persuasive argument.  "The Moon looks funny tonight" + "I don't like Obama" + "I don't understand science at all" = "God agrees with my political beliefs and is trying to send the Democrats a sign by coloring the Moon red."

Well, can't argue with that.

What's funniest about Biltz's argument, though, is that he's acting as if somehow god could have stopped the lunar eclipses from happening, if only President Obama had been a good boy.  It's not like we haven't known for years that this "tetrad" was going to occur; it would have happened even if Mitt Romney had been elected.  So how the hell can this be a portent of anything if it would have happened no matter what?

And the scary thing is, Biltz and Hagee are only two of hundreds.  If you Google "blood moons end times" you will get thousands of hits on sites all owned by people who apparently don't know a single thing about planetary astronomy.

I shouldn't let this kind of thing frustrate me, I suppose, but I keep hoping that humanity will one day choose science over superstition.  People like Hagee and Biltz, however, don't make it easy, with their appeal to people's primal fears and political biases.

As for me, I'm just going to enjoy the photographs people have posted of the event, and hope for better weather in October.  And I'll be willing to bet that we'll make it through all four lunar eclipses unscathed, with no sign of the Antichrist -- just as we've done countless times in the past.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hallmark, censorship, and the culture of persecution

So apparently, someone over at the Hallmark Channel thought it'd be a good idea to censor out the word "god" in their broadcast of the movie It Could Happen to You.

The backlash was immediate and vitriolic.  The Facebook page for Hallmark Channel USA erupted in comments like the following:
I watch you [sic] channel all the time. WHY DID YOU BLEEP OUT THE WORK [sic] GOD IN THE MOVIE IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU.  Same [sic] on you.....Without GOD you would have no network. 
We are very disappointed in Hallmark's decision to delete the word GOD from their presentation of "IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU"...  We will wait for Hallmark to issue a public apology before resuming our support of the Hallmark Channel etc... 
Why did you bleep out the word God from the movie "It Can Happen To You" broadcast today? I think it is time to block your channel. You make a lot of money off the rising of God's only son who died and rose again day of rising [sic], yet you bleep his Name.  I am beyond disgusted. 
Some freak High on pot says it was ok for them to do this.  I bet he collects a check on our dime.  This is exactly what is wrong.  When you are high~~you think you are god! 
I am so furious and upset. I am sick and tired of "god" offending people.  Hallmark has some explaining to do!  I have written Glenn Beck, Bill O' and Hannity.  This country is so far gone!
Marvelous.  Go ahead and tell Hannity, Beck, et al., and they'll make a capital case out of it, giving the pathological persecution-culture that is becoming more and more common amongst American Christians further fertilizer to grow on.

And fertilizer it is, friends, as in the bovine variety.  Because the reason that Hallmark censored the word "god" in It Could Happen to You wasn't because they were trying to eliminate the mention of a deity from the movie; it was because it occurred in the phrases "oh my god" and "I swear to god," and therefore constituted biblically-forbidden instances of taking the Lord's Name In Vain.  Yup -- that's right; they didn't bleep out "god" because it was holy, but because it wasn't holy enough.

[image courtesy of photographer Kevin Probst and the Wikimedia Commons]

And it's not the first time this sort of thing has happened.  Back in 2002, a mention of "Jesus" by the co-host of The View (in the context of saying "Thank you, Jesus," for her losing weight) was censored out on similar grounds, leading to a petition by outraged Christians who thought that this constituted suppression of religion.  In 2007, an ABC censor mistakenly bleeped out all mentions of the word "god" in the in-flight version of the movie The Queen, because he thought it contravened the rules against blasphemous use of religious language.

Each time, censors erred not because they were trying to offend, but because they evidently knew that these people have the sensibilities of petulant children.  For all the good it did.  If there's nothing to be angry about, they'll find something.  The phrase "damned if you do, damned if you don't," comes to mind.

Okay, I know that Hollywood is a pretty liberal place, and that much of what's on the air these days is there because of its capacity to shock (Family Guy, I'm looking at you).  But picking on The Hallmark Channel?  Really?  The network that was created from the merger of the American Christian Television System and the Vision Interfaith Satellite Network?  You'd think that someone watching a movie on Hallmark would take for granted that whatever was being done was somehow motivated by an attempt to honor Christian values.  I mean, I can see assuming the worst of Syfy or Comedy Central, but Hallmark?

I found out about this from a Facebook post, where I saw yet another comment by an outraged Christian, to wit: "14% atheists in the US, and 71% Christians, and for some reason we're letting the atheists run the show!"  Which might qualify as the single most moronic statement I've seen in months.  "Run the show?"  Being an atheist in the United States pretty much automatically dumps you into the category of "politically powerless."  If we were running the show, do you seriously think that there would be a bill that looks likely to pass in Louisiana declaring the bible to be "the official state book?"  Would there be a bill still in conference in South Carolina declaring that the mammoth is the official state fossil -- and that it was created on the Sixth Day?  Would the governor of Iowa have just signed a proclamation stating that July 14, 2014, be set aside as a "day of thoughtful prayer and humble repentance according to II Chronicles 7:14?"

Running the show, my ass.

Censor that, Hallmark.