Near Earth Archive

A backup of Near Earth Object by Paul Fidalgo

Month: December, 2009

Illinois Gov. Candidates’ Answers on Evolution Lost in the Ooze

The Associated Press recently asked all the candidates for Illinois governor for their opinions concerning evolution. You won’t be surprised that from both parties, the overall theme is that yes, evolution in some form probably occurred (and I use the past tense intentionally), but that God was and is the “prime mover.”

Three of them also made a point of taking a defensive position concerning their feeling that science/evolution and religion are non-contradictory, and it makes me wonder if that question was even put to them. I suspect not, and that they felt they needed to cover their bases. But I’m guessing.

Anyway, there were certainly some standouts, mainly from the GOP candidates. Adam Andrzejewski, for example, tried being clever by answering the “do-you-believe-in-evolution” question by saying that “God created Darwin.” Zing.

Republican Bill Brady, oddly, answered by saying that he accepts “the theory of creation, as I was taught, and believe the world has continued to evolve since.” I must admit, I don’t quite understand what that means. Is he saying he subscribes to intelligent design? Did he mix up the terms “creation” and “evolution”? Is he a deist? And how has the world evolved? If we’re talking about biological evolution by means of natural selection, that’s what we usually mean by evolution in these contexts, but he says “the world.” Is the Planet Earth going to develop into a higher planet-form, by his thinking? Does he think that inanimate objects also evolve by natural selection? Brady’s response, as you can see, has exhausted me with its meaninglessness.

GOPer Jim Ryan takes the arrogance cake by brushing the question aside and condescending to science by calling evolution “a reasonable theory,” and asserts that humans have a Yahweh-bestowed soul “regardless of the extent” of evolutions veracity. Pish! Your funny little notions of evolution have amused me! How novel! I, in my theological superiority, choose not to relieve myself on your cute idea about biological development, and you should be happy about it! Now run along.

Democrat Dan Hynes, however, is the only one to answer the question correctly in two ways: By giving the right answer (evolution is true) and expressing it correctly: “I accept the theory of evolution.” Note how “belief” does not enter into it. When it comes to the unproved or the unprovable, we are talking about belief. When it comes to established facts, however, that’s when it’s time to choose whether or not to accept those facts. Thanks, Mr. Hynes, for getting that.

E.J. Dionne and a Little Wishful Thinking

E.J. Dionne’s column this week asserts that there is a positive, if overlooked change in the debate over policy and politics this year. He writes:

In this highly partisan year, we did not see a sharpening of the battles over religion and culture.

Oh no? Dionne elaborates:

The most striking transformation occurred on the right end of politics. For now, the loudest and most activist sections of the conservative cause are not its religious voices but the mostly secular, anti-government Tea Party activists.

For further evidence, Dionne cites Dick Armey’s apparent dislike of James Dobson.

I’m not sure what debate Dionne is watching. It seems to me that religion and “culture” is fully con-fused with the pseudo-debate over health care and the role of government. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s check in with that Pennsylvania guy who screamed at Arlen Specter at a town hall in August:

One day, God’s gonna stand before you, and he’s gonna judge you and the rest of your damn cronies up on the Hill — and the rest of your damn cronies up on the hill — and then you can get your just desserts.

That sounds to me like he’s saying that Congress is going to be damned by the Creator of the Universe for their work on health care legislation.

And of course, there are visual reminders that in the minds of the disgruntled mob, there is no difference between their distaste for what they think Obama’s policies are and their religion.

So Dionne may be even more incorrect than is immediately apparent. Not only has religion not left the debate, but it may have ensconced itself so firmly, enmeshed itself so completely, that it almost goes without saying.


Dionne is one of those liberal public intellectuals who goes to great lengths to defend religion against the forces of secularism, such as they are, trying to emphasize the social benefits of a soft, squishy, take-all-comers kind of faith as opposed to the zealotry and madness of the fundamentalists. But an opponent of right wing religion he has been, so it’s curious to me that he seems not to have noticed the religious underpinnings existing, if not at the heart, then alongside the other aspects of anti-progressive activism. Of course, that also includes racism, xenophobia, and a kind of willful vassalage to corporate power. So I don’t know if there’s really anything worth being impressed by.

Chicken, Don’t Hurt Me No More

I thought my star turn on CNN was cool. But this is the greatest thing ever.

CNN Recognizes My Lieber-Genius!

It was bound to happen. Mad with frustration over the snivelly obstructionism of Joe Lieberman, Miranda Hale and I made the only substantive contribution to the debate surrounding Joe-Mentum that we could. We did terrible impersonations of him.

“Gasp,” you say, “begone, you ruffian! No one,” you say, “will care for this childish behavior!”

But you’d be wrong. CNN’s Jeanne Moos saw just how powerful our political statement really was, and featured my video (for all of about 3 seconds) in her report on the national rage over Lieberman.

Check it out. I come in at about 24 seconds.

Rejoice, for my influence is being felt. Sort of. Sort of!!

Who is really coming after the North Carolina atheist city councilman?

Cecil Bothwell on the campaign trail.
Cecil Bothwell on the campaign trail.

In Asheville, North Carolina, Cecil Bothwell was elected to the city council in spite of the fact that he is a non-theist. I’ve been to Asheville, and it’s a pretty liberal town, but the significance of the election of an avowed nonbeliever to public office in a southern state should not be overlooked. (I have overlooked it thus far because I have been busy with my new baby boy.)

But there are always those lodged firmly in the Bronze Age who cannot countenance an atheist being given authority or civic responsibility. So it should have been no surprise when Bothwell’s election spurred local activists to threaten legal challenges to Bothwell’s fitness for office. According to North Carolina’s state constitution, a person must acknowledge the existence of “Almighty God” in order to be eligible for public office. The same is true in other states, and in each case it’s a travesty that these shameful laws have not yet been scrubbed from the pages they stain. But as we have been reminded since this “controversy” erupted, the U.S. Constitution, which forbids religious tests for office, trumps state constitutions every time. Just ask Herb Silverman.

But something’s amiss beyond the obvious. I get that the suit to keep Bothwell from his rightful elected office is being threatened by H.K. Edgerton (“I have problems with people who don’t believe in God”), a local nutjob who tries to sell people on how great the Confederacy was for African Americans (and who, sadly, was once president of the local NAACP chapter). I get that the editor of the local right wing rag has come out against Bothwell. But here’s what I can’t figure out: Is that it? Two provincial wingnuts, clearly divorced from reality, oppose Bothwell taking office, and presumably plenty of other folks oppose him, too (just look at the ugly hubbub over atheism in the North Carolina Senate race in 2008). But is there any real, serious movement to eject him from office? Air America’s Dorsey Shaw says in his headline on this story that “Republicans” are trying to remove Bothwell from office, but provides nothing more than has already been reported by the AP and Asheville Citizen-Times. Even Bothwell dismisses the potential litigants as disappointed opponents from the election, but Edgerton did not run against Bothwell. So who else is in on this? The state GOP? Local clergy and religious organizations? I don’t know.

So far as I have been able to figure out, there is no one else active in this as-yet-nonexistent suit. That’s the good news; that this seems to be a dust storm raised by one or two angry wackos.

Here’s the bad news. While I’m glad that an atheist elected official gets some notice, and I’m glad that it gets the country talking about religious and nonreligious freedom, the fact that the ban on atheists is in the North Carolina constitution has, I fear, lent legitimacy to bigotry, given those already predisposed to discriminate against atheists a version of the states’ rights argument and a twisting of notions of rule of law to justify their hate. The media, unable or unwilling to distinguish between real and manufactured controversy, behaves as though the two sides to this story (equal rights versus enshrined bigotry) are possessed of equal validity at the outset. Edgerton, an obvious lunatic, is given the same chance to present his “case” as Bothwell or his defenders.

At the eventual dying down of all the noise, I don’t know that the national dialogue about atheism in America has been helped by this story. Perhaps in some ways it has. I was gratified to see Ed Morrissey of the right wing Hot Air blog come out against discrimination against Bothwell. And it gave Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America, a chance to add some of his own pixels to the Washington Post On Faith blog, as he has first hand experience with just this kind of struggle. Silverman writes:

. . . Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) became the first in the history of Congress to publicly acknowledge he doesn’t believe in God. Does anyone think there aren’t scores more who feel the political need to remain in their atheist and agnostic closets? It is my hope that one day politicians like Cecil Bothwell and others will be judged on the content of their character and the issues they find important, rather than on their professed religious beliefs. That would be my idea of true religious freedom.

Despite the apparent fecklessness and impotency of the legal pseudo-opposition to Bothwell, I fear that this story has not helped us get closer to Silverman’s ideal, but has only shown that when atheists are concerned, it’s more titillating to construct a controversy when none need exist.

Update: Dorsey Shaw has since changed the title of his post, renaming “Republicans” to “conservatives.” Well done, say I!

Impatience with Frank Schaeffer

 In my role as an atheist blogger and columnist, I don’t think it’s enough to simply exist in the poles. That is, I can’t limit myself to reaction to and analysis of a) those I agree with and b) those to whom I am diametrically opposed. There is a lot of mushy room in the middle, and sometimes the most difficult thing for me to do is to delve into the works of those for whom I may have a great deal of respect, or those who have taken a serious approach to their position and, despite my disagreement with it, warrant serious attention. This has been my intention with reading and reviewing Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. It is my intention in reading (however slowly) Karen Armstrong’s A History of God and The Case for God. It was also my intention with Frank Schaeffer’s Patience with God. But as Toad says, it’s hard to rely on my good intentions.

I am losing my mind reading Schaeffer’s book. A former member of the radical Christian Right, Schaeffer has emerged in recent years as one of its most vocal opponents, as he takes to liberal outlets like the Rachel Maddow Show and the Huffington Post to level heavy, unapologetic attacks on his former allies. His honesty and bluntness in showing the hate and willful ignorance of the fundamentalist right has been a breath of fresh air and red meat for secularists who might feel they have found a new ally and convert.

But these secularists should not get their hopes up. Patience with God is not anything so lofty or studious as Wright’s or Armstrong’s works. It is instead a personal expression of frustration not just with the right, but with the New Atheists. And here I face a dilemma.

The dilemma is not that Schaeffer is attacking those on my side of the fence, but that he is doing so in such a ham-fisted, uninformed fashion. I am only three chapters into this short book, and it has already made me wish I had never picked it up. Is it because it espouses ideas with which I disagree? No. It’s because it espouses these ideas (so far) so poorly. Chapter 3, for example, is devoted to attacking Richard Dawkins personally for a) promoting his website (run by volunteers), b) selling merchandise on said website (see point “a”) and c) thinking that scientists are really smart. I suppose one could, in theory, find a way to legitimately come after Dawkins on these points (I have no idea how), but Schaeffer’s attempt reads like a 14-year-old’s blog post on why one Jonas brother is way cooler than another. For substantive criticism, Schaeffer substitutes snark and line after line of sarcastic use of italics. He goes to enormous lengths to imply that Dawkins is some kind of atheistic version of a televangelist without actually having the guts to say so. One is forced to infer from Schaeffer’s clumsy and juvenile writing that Dawkins is a money-grubbing, attention whore charlatan, but one can also only infer, because Schaeffer refuses to make any plain statements unbuffeted by layers of ill-executed snideness.

This doesn’t even cover the other nonsense in this lone chapter, in which Schaeffer also takes the tired canard about ‘atheistic atrocities’ committed by the likes of Stalin, et. al., and runs deep afield with it, but only embarrassing himself with his mangling of history and the motivations of madmen. He accuses science of being responsible for technological misfires and humans’ abuse of new discoveries, as though “science” was some alternate theology, or some interest group that can’t control its wacky members, rather than what it is: a method of understanding reality through observation and experiment.

So I find myself hard pressed to continue. I have in the past cited Schaeffer in a positive light, but his drivel in Patience with God (thus far) makes me question whether I simply liked what I was hearing when he was attacking my enemies, and not considering the strength of his arguments on their merits. His childish attacks on the New Atheists have, at the least, helped me to remember that it’s not enough to take whatever red meat that’s tossed your way, lest one ingest some salmonella.

Life is short. There are many books waiting to be read; books of import, of substance, of beauty. Ought I to continue to wade through Schaeffer’s blather in the spirit of hearing all sides, of giving the opposition a fair shake? I honestly don’t know. I’d be curious to read what you think.

Maybe It’s Not Alright

At some point over the past month or so, my credulity reached its breaking point. A confluence of disparate events has saturated me with a feeling of hopelessness about the state of our democracy, our media, our ability to address real crises — not just problems, crises — with our politics and government. I have found it nearly impossible to avoid concluding that change is not coming to America.

A couple of catalysts for this awakening are probably fairly obvious. One, on the national scale, is the debate over things like health care and climate change taking place in Washington and elsewhere, a debate so removed from reality, so distorted and absurd that it could have been a piece of bad protest theatre. On health care and the economy, tens of millions of Americans struggle and suffer, and we don’t debate solutions, but the debate is between piecemeal, ineffective legislative tweaks versus screwing people further. On global warming, our species truly is threatened, but the discussion is not about which ways are best to avert the disaster, but instead we gnash our teeth over whether Sarah Palin might be more informed about the science than Al Gore.

Sarah Palin is treated as a serious person. Joe Lieberman pretends to be principled. John Boehner pretends to have ideas. Democrats pretend to have a political party.

The media is no help at all. The major papers give us tired, insipid analysis and tunnel-vision focus. The “next generation” outlets frolic in the trivial and sensationalistic. Truth, as Susan Jacoby has put it, is too often considered equidistant between two points. But I think that it is more frequently becoming the case that truth is not of interest at all.

That’s all one thing, really. The second big, obvious reason for my shift in thinking is the birth of my beautiful son. I suppose most parents-to-be toy with the question of whether it is “wise” to bring a new person into a world so troubled as ours, but I never gave those considerations much thought. He’s a gift to this undeserving world, say I. But now that he’s here, I can’t help but despair a bit about how things will only be getting worse as he comes of age and takes his place in society. I know he will be a force for good, for progress, for decency, but he may not be enough, and it shouldn’t be his responsibility to make up for all we have ruined.

But there’s more. I have just completed Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family, about the secret influence wielded by powerful fundamentalists throughout modern American history, and how it is continuing to grow in strength, totally under the radar. Without going into too much detail, the book chronicles the aiding and abetting of not just policies intended to screw the poor, screw workers, screw unions, and curtail the civil rights of minorities of all sorts, but also of murderers, criminals, oppressors, and genocidaires around the world. The worst of all possible combinations: radicalized, reasonless religious devotion coupled with an unbridled lust for power, topped with a complete lack of concern for those crushed underfoot.

It’s enough to make one take a breath and wonder at the point of struggling. It’s one thing to, say, beat John McCain in the presidential election. It’s one thing to defeat a bad bit of legislation. It’s also good to, say, win marriage rights for gays and lesbians…but of course, we can’t seem to do that, can we? But all these things happen in the public, democratic arena, so it’s something else entirely when one finds that regardless of elections, regardless of law, constitutions, ideals, or simple decency, an enormous shadow organization of religious elitist zealots is making policy without accountability to anyone. How do you fight what hardly acknowledges its own existence?

It’s all too much, isn’t it?

I feel like I am losing a political home. I don’t quite trust that the Obama administration, even if well intentioned, is really committed to solving impending crises and mitigating certain catastrophes. I don’t feel I have many trustworthy sources in the media to which I can turn for anything useful. Anything that does tell me the truth only makes me sadder. I don’t even feel like liberals and progressives are really ready to look at the world as it is. Just read what people like the liberal hero Nick Kristof writes about atheists (citing the New Atheists’ alleged “irreligious intolerance” — gag!), and you can see why I increasingly feel like there is no party, no movement, no politics for me.

But I left theatre for politics. I took my then-fiancée and dragged her to DC so I could earn a master’s degree in professional politics. I believed to my core that it was the best way for me to make a positive difference on Earth. I no longer feel that way. In fact, at times I feel like it might be the least meaningful thing I could do.

I hadn’t listened to it in a while, but a song from one of my favorite albums came up on the iTunes shuffle the other day, and it seemed to express how I have been feeling.

The New Pornographers in “Testament to Youth in Verse” sing:

Should you go lookin’

For a testament to youth in verse

Variations on the age old curse

You blame the stations

When they play you like a fool

And like a fool you get played with

Baby, think twice

Maybe it’s not all, maybe it’s not alright

I don’t pretend to have any skill with interpreting this band’s lyrics. But from what I hear in this song, this is how I feel. Played like a fool by the “stations,” and yeah, maybe it’s really not alright. Maybe things are as bad as they feel, and there’s nothing existing in our institutions or our politics to address them.

The song concludes, as if to really rip the hope right out of your heart:

The bells ring

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no

And it repeats and repeats and repeats.

We Made a Toby

And on the 25th of November a star did shine over Alexandria (or, if you prefer Shakespeare as I do, a star danced), and at 1:52pm Tobias Chandler Fidalgo was born. And the angels did sing, and the unicorns did prance, and the Klingons did drink blood wine, and the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal did tremble in between gulps of a Vogon grandmother. (I think we should now refer to November 25th as Tobesmas.)

Toby is an amazing boy. He is easily the cutest baby I’ve ever seen, but you’d expect me to say that. More interestingly, he immediately seemed wise beyond his years. He was a big kid at birth, 9 lbs in fact. But beyond just being a little on the large size — unexpected, considering his daddy’s genes — he looks a little older. Strangers have mistaken him for a 2-month-old.

His face is extremely expressive, and not just when he has gas, but when he stares intently at a face or even just a space somewhere out in front of him. . .we often have no idea what it is that’s caught his interest. But when he does gaze, his eyes light up, his mouth opens, his eyebrows raise, as though he’s deciphering some impossible yet irresistible code. I sense great things for his great big mind.

Yes, we’re exhausted. Yes, he cries for no reason sometimes. Yes, caring for him throws into disarray many of our ideas of what balancing parenthood, work, and the other parts of life would be like. But he’s a dream, and we love him more than anything we’ve ever known. I can’t imagine life without him.

I’ve been extremely gratified and moved by all the well-wishes from folks all over the godless tweetosphere and blogosphere, so let me say thank you. #fetusfidalgo followers on Twitter should be resetting their sites to #babyfidalgo for the tweeted adventures of me and my new best bud.

There’ll be a lot more to talk about with the arrival of Toby, but for now, this is just the official Bloc Raisonneur welcome for Bloc Jr. He’s crying again, so I better run and help Jess, who is trying to get some sleep.