Monday, October 31, 2016

SPLC's extremist intolerance of criticism of Islam

Now and then, instead of writing too much on topics that maybe I shouldn't, I will reference an article by someone else that in my judgement is worth reading.

Atheist (and ex-Muslim) Kavah Mousavi (pseudonym) accurately characterizes the Southern Poverty Law Center's unconscionable placement of Maajid Nawaz on its list of 15 anti-Muslim extremists as "atrocious" for "misusing the tragic fact of anti-Muslim bigotry in the West to silence honest criticisms of Islam by mixing internal dissidents with bigots."  He also criticizes their placing the anti-Muslim extremist label on Ayaan Hirsi Ali for some statements she made years ago that are quoted by SPLC out of context.  Read his "Shame on you SPLC" article on his blog titled On the Margin of Error.

Now I will add my own voice here.  One of the SPLC's arguments for labeling Ayaan Hirsi Ali an anti-Muslim extremist is that a film she co-produced, Submission, provoked threats against her and the murder of the other film producer, Theo Van Gogh.  By citing the murder of the film's other producer as evidence that she is an extremist the SPLC is openly and shamelessly siding with violent Islamic fascists against liberalism.  This is probably a double standard, as the SPLC does not cite being targeted for murder when dissenting from popular opinion within any other religion as evidence for the targeted individual being an extremist. 

The SPLC cited as evidence for Maajid Nawaz being an extremist that he endorsed one of the Jesus and Mo cartoons. They are wonderful cartoons, reading those cartoons is better than reading the Quran, Bible, or Tanakh.  What the SPLC is doing here is not only anti-intellectual and anti-fun, it is also crazy sick, like labeling someone an anti-Jewish extremist because they eat pork.  There is nothing ethical about requiring everyone to obey the restrictions that other people claim their version of their religion imposes.  The Jesus and Mo cartoon lampoons Judaism and Christianity together with Islam.  Therefore it cannot be the actual contents of that cartoon that is at issue here unless everyone who likes those cartoons is also an anti-Christian and anti-Jewish extremist.  But SPLC doesn't associate those equivalent labels with that cartoon, apparently because Jews and Christians have the good sense not to riot in the streets over cartoons.

SPLC's illogic appears to be a product of an unprincipled and unhinged post-modernist relativism where being extremist is misdefined as contradicting whatever the most vocal and intolerant segment of a population demands, particular if their demands are sometimes backed by threats of, or acts of, murder, regardless of whether their demands are reasonable or fair on the merits.  The SPLC actually cites the prevalence of a belief, as if that renders it unassailable in the sense that criticizing that belief becomes evidence for being an extremist.  Has it ever occurred to the SPLC that some of the ideas favored by a large number of Muslims (dare I say it, maybe even a majority of today's Muslims world wide!) could themselves sometimes be extreme and unethical and therefore openly disagreeing with that majority over that idea will be the more moderate, ethical, stance?  Can anyone who has read any history honestly think that the majority held view is always ethical?  That opposing a majority view is ipso facto evidence of extremism?

Oops, now I am an anti-Muslim extremist because I offended millions of Muslims by linking to the critical Submission film and to the Jesus and Mo cartoons.  Kavah Mousavi is correct, the SPLC has turned being designated an anti-Muslim extremist by them into an honor.  The SPLC is totally fucking up here, big time.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The unicellular origin of animals

Cell aggregation and differentiation are requisite for organisms such as animals to be multicelled.  Various biological regulatory mechanisms producing the modifications to proteins responsible for tissue differentiation have been identified and studied.  It has been known for some years now, outside of places of religious worship and "education" where knowledge inconvenient to the religious beliefs tends to be ignored or dismissed, that the same cellular mechanisms utilized for animal tissue differentiation are also present in choanoflagellates.  But it has been unclear why choanoflagellates, flagellate eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus and mitochondria) whose full life cycle remains uncertain, posses these gene expression regulatory tools.

Choanoflagellates are not the only unicellular flagellate eukaryotes.  Capsaspora is the genus of another single celled flagellate eukaryote species with a known life cycle that is closely related to choanoflagellates.  A single Capsaspora changes its cell type over time, transitioning from a lone amoeba to an aggregated colony of cells to a hardy cystic form.  A new study explored whether Capsaspora uses the same mechanisms to control cell differentiation over time as animals use to control differentiation of tissues during embryo development.

The answer is yes according to researchers at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, Spain who collaborated with researchers from the Proteomics Unit of the Centre for Genomic Regulation and Universitat Pompeu Fabra. A press release published by Science Daily stated that the "researchers discovered that from one stage to another, Capsaspora's suite of proteins undergoes extensive changes, and the organism uses many of the same tools as multicellular animals to regulate these cellular processes."  

Without logic anything goes because the facts provide no constraints on our conclusions.  Logically, if a god created the many species of life then that god must have been willing to deceive us by leaving us with evidence that multicellular animals evolved from unicellular flagellate eukaryotes similar to choanoflagellates and that humans are primates.  But what is mere human logic as compared to a mighty god?  Gods are supernatural so they can be said to do anything.  Therefore logic no longer applies wherever a god is said to operate.  Theism thus undermines human reason and that is a big price to pay.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Blocking immigration?

Donald Trump's signature proposal on stopping or restricting Islamic immigrants is, like his other proposals, unclear because it changes and is not fully described.  Is it possible to reliably identify who is Islamic?  I am skeptical.  What is the most effective way to the vet immigrants?  Do we have good reason to think that fewer immigrants would be effective in preventing homeland attacks?  How do we measure the additional risk of threat of attacks from accepting more immigrants?   What level of risk should be required to justify an immigration shutdown?  What are the repercussions?  I do not know and it is because I am an ignoramus that I am inclined to refrain from discussing complicated issues like this.  

Nevertheless, I can say, based on what I have read, that there is solid evidence of ongoing efforts to carry out attacks in Europe, and to encourage lone wolf attacks, that rely on religious belief based appeals.  Therefore, a review of immigration policies that includes considering options to take into account religious beliefs when vetting immigrants is not automatically an example of racism, or a violation the Establishment Clause, or Islamophobia, or siding with the religious right, or whatever the hell the latest knee jerk invective is favored by those who seek to try to shut down discussion.  When we set our immigration policies we should do our best to take into account the needs of refugees in addition to the risks and try to strike a sensible balance.  If more people die in car accidents every week than are killed by immigrants every year then restricting immigration is probably not justified.  Otherwise, in the long term, if reduced immigration succeeded in preventing attacks then we could end up accepting more immigrants than we would have if we had instead experienced major attacks and reacted by shutting down immigration.

Trump is terribly wrong in so many ways about so much, which appears to tragically be an unavoidable result for any Republican presidential nominee in 2016 given how that demographic votes.  The bombastic Trump, given his populist track record, and his divisive rhetoric, taints any proposals he makes while engaging in election year posturing in front of the electorate.  A partial immigration slowdown that tries to reduce risks from accepting immigrants is not inherently crazy or irresponsible, although a policy that rejects everyone who is Islamic, as suggested by Trump, is difficult to justify.  Being Islamic says too little about the person.  But if there is a strong enough positive correlation between criminal violence and being Islamic among immigrants, or good evidence of ongoing dangerous plots and capabilities, then it may be justified to make that one of the considerations.

While Clinton currently expresses opposition to restricting immigration, if the context changed so that risks from immigration became larger in the future then I would not be surprised if she reversed course.  I would prefer that she would say now, as a candidate, that reviewing immigration policy would be one option she would consider in the event that violence by immigrants became a substantial problem. I think Clinton has a track record of being pragmatic and thoughtful with respect to policy advocacy, more so than any other candidate, including the third party candidates.  Regardless of what anyone thinks about the other candidates, this election is between Clinton and Trump.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The old Atheism of Madalyn O'Hair

Maryland is the home state of William O'Hair, a religious Baptist who is an author of an autobiography that is critical of his more famous mother (I have not read it). He is also a political activist and I watched him testify, along with clergy, at a 2016 Maryland General Assembly committee meeting in favor of a bill that proposed that the government support religion, arguing that doing so would be good for the state and country (reducing crime) and labeling secular humanism a religion while also criticizing his murdered mother and shilling for his book.  Families with some members being religious and others not religious are common.  I had a religious grand uncle (he was similar to a grandfather to me).  I also have an opinion about William O'Hair's mother.

I requested literature and an application form to join her organization.  After browsing the literature I decided not to join.  She insisted that atheism was defined as having a set of specific beliefs that went well beyond not believing in gods, or believing that there are no gods, or believing that the universe is strictly naturalistic, or believing in a set of general ethical principles.  She claimed that sharing her own conclusions on various political questions were part of the definition of atheism.  She said if you don't profess those same conclusions then you are not an atheist.  For her, atheism was a proper noun so it was capitalized.  Everyone who was an atheist was an Atheist.  Her Atheism was thus a political ideology, and it was so according to the definition of Atheism as dictated by the Madalyn O'Hair.

My reaction at the time was that if I was looking for an ideology I could join a church.  Her concept of Atheism was incompatible with my concept of atheism.  My concept of atheism was (and still is) that it is a result of abandoning ideology, it is a conclusion derived from a refusal to be ideological, it is built upon a rejection of ideology. There can be no fixed answer to most public policy questions derived only from atheism because every issue must be evaluated independently, on its own merits, to find the best fit with available evidence, and all the relevant evidence is rarely confined to recognized that the universe is strictly naturalistic.
I became an AA member years later after the organization had mostly shed its ideological narrowness, although I got the impression that some of its membership remained O'Hair Atheists and my membership did not last long. 

Nevertheless, she was smart, articulate, sharp, and she left behind some good commentary.  Reading what she wrote, I cannot help but identify with her thinking more than with that of her disaffected son.  So here is a sample from her writing from 1989:

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Street Epistemology:Slaying Dragons and Spotting Cons

This video Street Epistemology: Slaying Dragons and Spotting Cons from the "Skeptrack" of the 2016 Dragoncon conference features Atheist Alliance International president Robert Penczak, also a member of Richmond Humanists who sometimes appears on the Fairfax Virginia podcast Road to Reason: A Skeptic's Guide to the 21st Century, and WASH member David Tomayo who is president of Hispanic American Freethinkers.  It also features John Loftus, an author of ten books, whose blog Debunking Christianity is very good.   I always find myself agreeing with John Loftus when his topic is atheism versus competing beliefs.  Despite the title of his blog he tends to target theism and religion generally.

The aforementioned Dragoncon video advocates for practicing the street epistemology that is promoted in Peter Boghassian's book A Manual for Creating Atheists.  We are told that the partisan book title originated with the publisher as a marketing ploy.  I have read the book and I will say that title has some merit as a description of the book's content.  Nevertheless, epistemology is about the quality of belief justification and learning to recognize and avoid common pitfalls such as confirmation bias. Atheists are prone to employing bad epistemology.  So this topic is more general than atheism versus theism.  It is addressed to, targets, and challenges, all of us.  Atheism is merely a conclusion.  How we go about reaching our conclusions is a skill that can be honed which affects the conclusions we reach across the wider range of decisions we confront.  The web site for volunteer participants is