Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What Really Caused the Civil War?

Civil War SoldiersI remember being taught in my history classes back in my school days that the primary cause of the Civil War was slavery. But as I got older, I saw a lot more contrarian views that said it was about other issues, like states rights, tariffs, or other economic issues. This topic has come up a lot more recently with the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and I even had a conversation with a friend who thinks the Civil War was mainly caused by tariffs. Looking at the survey results in a Pew article, Civil War at 150: Still Relevant, Still Divisive, nearly 48% of people think the war was primarily about states's rights, with only 38% thinking it was primarily about slavery.

Had I been misled all those years in history class? It wouldn't be the first time school had gotten something wrong. I decided to look into it, and what better source is there than the secession documents the states themselves wrote listing their justifications for seceding from the U.S. ? Below is a link to the full text of the secession documents from Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. These are the official reasons those states themselves gave for seceding.

Civil War Trust - The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States

If you go through and read those documents, there's one primary issue that jumps out as being repeated over and over - slavery. Even when the documents discuss states' rights, it's in the context of slave-holding vs. non-slave-holding states, or as a rationale of why the states should be allowed to secede. But if the seceding southerners themselves are to be believed, slavery was the primary reason for their secession.

Here are a few highlights from the various documents. First, here are the first two sentences from Georgia:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

Here're the first two paragraphs from the Mississippi document:

In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

South Carolina mentioned 'slaveholding States' in the first paragraph, but most of its introduction was about the states rights justification for being allowed to secede. But after that, all their reasons for wanting to leave are slavery related. Here's one of those paragraphs (note the way it callously refers to owning slaves as 'rights of property'):

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

The Texas document started off with a little background on Texas's admission into the U.S., and had a couple paragraphs about the federal government not providing sufficient security, but the bulk is about slavery. Here's an especially bad paragraph:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

The Virginia document was very short, without much justification given for why they were seceding. The first paragraph was about the extent of their justification. Note that it does specifically mention 'Southern Slaveholding States'.

The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.

Now, it's true that the full causes of the war are a little more complicated than that. While the north (i.e. the United States) was generally opposed to slavery, I'm not sure most people were so opposed that there was majority support to go to war over it. Many in the north supported the war to maintain the country. But it's rather clear that the primary cause for secession in the south was slavery.

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As an aside, I'll mention how I personally feel about this shameful aspect of our nation's history. Although I grew up in 'Yankee' states, I have ancestors from southern states, so I have heritage from both sides of the war. And while there are lots of aspects of my heritage I'm proud of, this certainly isn't one of them. When I see the Confederate flag, the feeling I get is what I'd imagine a German has when they see the Nazi flag. Slavery was a horrible, disgraceful institution, responsible for untold suffering through this country's history, culminating in a population of 4 million slaves at its peak. That slavery was ever practiced here is bad enough, but that it took a war to bring it to an end, that there were people willing to fight to the death to defend their right to own other human beings, is simply shameful.

We shouldn't necessarily demonize the people of the past, recognizing the Zeitgeist that permeated the culture ("no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit"). But we definitely shouldn't celebrate that part of our history, with monuments and memorials to the leaders of that shameful period, nor by proudly displaying any symbols of the Confederacy. That's not to say those symbols should be hidden and forgotten about. They should be maintained in museums. Slavery and the Civil War are a part of our history, and like the concentration camps in Germany, they must be remembered to remind ourselves of what normal people are capable of in the wrong circumstances, guarding against similar atrocities in the future.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Eben Alexander Follow-Up, Part II

Eben AlexanderLast year, I wrote two blog entries about Eben Alexander, Eben Alexander Misrepresenting Carl Sagan, where I described how Alexander had completely misrepresented one of Sagan's positions from his book, The Demon Haunted World, and Eben Alexander Follow-Up, where I described how he had doubled down on this misrepresentation when confronted with it. Like I wrote then, it's not so much the fact that he made a mistake that was troubling, but that he did it with such supreme confidence, even citing the page number, and then refused to back down once his mistake had been pointed out, even going on to misrepresent the person who had pointed out his mistake. These were not the signs of an honest person.

Just recently, an old article about Alexander that had been hidden behind a paywall has once again been made public. It's an article investigating Alexander's main claim to fame, his supposed near death experience where he spent a week in heaven, and which was the subject of his best-selling book, Proof of Heaven. It's a bit of a long article, but well worth the read. Not only does it reveal some of Alexander's troubled past before his near death experience, it also shows the inconsistencies between Alexander's recollection of events and the recollection of the medical staff caring for him. One could be charitable and suggest that perhaps Alexander's memory of the events had changed (after all, as illustrated in The Challenger Study, memory is rather plastic), but at the very least it calls into question the central premise of his book, and makes it seem like hallucinations and misremembered events at best (or outright lying at worst).

Anyway, here's the link to the article:

Esquire - The Prophet

I highly recommend this story to anyone who's heard about Alexander's claims.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? And a Discussion of the Fuzziness of Species

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?It's a perennial philosophical question, 'Which came first, the chicken or the egg?' Now, thanks to our understanding of evolution, we can give a better answer. But even with science, I've seen many attempts to answer this question that get details wrong. I've written my own answer before in the entry, Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?, but after running across this question again on the site, Quora, I've had a few more thoughts on how to better explain it. For this entry, I'll pull from both my Quora answer and my previous blog entry, to try to provide a better answer to this age old question.

Just because you can phrase a question a certain way doesn't mean the answer has to follow that form. As an example, think of another question - when does dusk become night? There's no exact answer, because it's a subtle process that changes continuously from light to dark. You can't pinpoint the exact time when it becomes night.

That's how it is with evolution. There are gradually changing populations. If you used a time machine to follow the population that evolved from proto-chickens into true chickens, there's no single individual you could pick out as sufficiently different from its ancestors to call it the first chicken. Even if you tried to set up some arbitrary qualification of requiring certain specific genetic mutations, remember that all of the animals in that population are reproducing sexually. So even if one animal pops up with the genome that fits your criteria of 'chicken', it's going to mate with another animal in that population and scramble up that genome for the next generation. Since that mate didn't fit your criteria for chicken, it's lacking at least one of your required mutations, so at least around half of that pair's offspring is going to revert back to not being chickens. If the mate was lacking several of your 'first' chicken's mutations, then potentially none of their offspring will fit your criteria as being chickens. Does it make sense to define an individual as the first chicken if all of its offspring revert back to not being chickens? Does it make any sense at all to call an animal essentially indistinguishable from its parents as a different type of animal from them? The problem is in trying to apply a precise label to a process that isn't precise.

In reality, species is a very fuzzy concept. The biological species concept is the one most used for sexually reproducing animals. Wikipedia gives a definition for it as follows.

A biological species is a group of individuals which can breed together (panmixia). However, they cannot breed with other groups. In other words, the group is reproductively isolated from other groups.

This idea of reproductive isolation is where the fuzziness comes in -- how much reproductive isolation is necessary to classify two populations as distinct species? For example, horses and donkeys can breed and produce offspring, but those offspring are sterile, so they still get classified as two species. Polar bears and grizzly bears can breed, and their offspring are fertile. But because they don't breed very often, there's very little genetic mixing between their populations, so they do get classified as different species. Dogs and wolves can breed and produce fertile offspring, and there's more mixing than with polar bears and grizzly bears, but little enough that they're still referred to as separate species.

There's a trend here. Reproductive isolation isn't a black and white property. It comes in varying degrees, and that degree depends an awful lot on how long two populations have been separated. It's not like there's a single mutation and Bam! -- no more breeding. The longer two populations are separated, the more unique changes build up in each population, and the more dissimilar their genomes become. If they've only been separated for a very short while and then come back in contact, there won't be any trouble at all with interbreeding. If it's been a bit longer, maybe breeding will result in a few more miscarriages, or a few more infertile offspring, but only a small fraction of all offspring. Longer still, and maybe fertile offspring become the minority. A bit longer, and maybe even infertile offspring would be rare. Even longer still, and maybe all the matings result in miscarriages. And after enough time, mating might not even allow the sperm to fertilize the egg.

In other words, speciation isn't a specific event. It's a process. The longer two populations are separated, the more reproductively isolated they become, shading from a single species to breeds to subspecies to separate species.

There are a few more interesting examples to illustrate the fuzziness of defining species. The first is one I already brought up - mules. In fact, when I wrote up above that horses and donkeys can breed to produce sterile mules, the truth is a little more complicated than that. While there haven't been any known fertile male mules, there have been a few fertile female mules. So, where does that put them with the biological species definition? They're mating does create some, if not many, fertile offspring.

Another interesting case is what's known as a ring species (or perhaps a better term might be pseudo ring species**). These are animals that have a range that encircles some type of barrier. A classic example is the Larus gull, which lives in a band around the Arctic Ocean. If you start with the European Herring Gull which lives mainly in Great Britain, it can mate with the American Herring Gull to the west. And they do this often enough that their gene pools mix, which indicates that they're merely subspecies, not completely different species. And if you go west from there, the American Herring Gull can mate with the East Siberian Herring Gull. And you can keep going west, with the groups being able to interbreed, all the way until you get to Lesser Black-backed Gulls, which live mainly in Europe but which also stray into Great Britain. But guess what, the Lesser Black-backed Gulls in Great Britain don't mate with the European Herring Gulls on the same island. So how do these animals get classified as a species? There's one large interbreeding population right now, which would indicate one species. But what if all of the subspecies were to go extinct except for Lesser Black-backed Gulls and European Herring Gulls? Would they instantly become two new species?

Perhaps a more familiar example is dogs. Everybody knows that dogs can interbreed. That's where muts come from. But what if some super-villain were to come along and kill every breed of dog except for Chihuahuas and great Danes? Now, I know that technically you could probably give them a hand to do the deed and make puppies, and they might even be fertile. But, if left to their own devices, they'd be two pretty effectively isolated breeding populations. (I suspect this page is either a joke or an urban legend, but it still reveals the difficulties that would be involved). So, given the current dog population, chihuahuas and great Danes are part of the same species. But there's no way they would be considered the same species if they were the only dogs left in existence.

Given that species is such a fuzzy concept to begin with, it makes no sense to think of a 'first' of any species. There's no great big event mutating an entire genome that produces a 'hopeful monster'. Speciation is a process, the accumulation of countless small mutations in two separate populations until eventually those two populations have genomes that are incompatible. There's no point where you can pick one organism as being a different species from its parent.

So, the next time you hear someone ask, 'Which came first, the chicken or the egg?', you can explain why the answer is neither. Since you can't precisely define the first chicken, you can't precisely define the first chicken egg, and you certainly can't say which came first.


Image Source: Brain Pickings


*I'm assuming that the question implies it's a chicken egg. It doesn't make much sense to ask which came first, the chicken or the dinosaur egg, because then there's no conundrum at all.

**The example I described isn't exactly the definition of ring species, at least using the classic definition. Per the classic definition, a ring species is one that has gradually encircled some type of barrier, with individuals in different locations facing different selection pressures per their local environments. As the population expands its range around that barrier, it eventually meets back up with the original population, and in a ring species, the differences between the individuals at each end of the range are great enough that they don't interbreed. The classic definition also assumes that the population has remained unbroken throughout its entire history, and that the different genetics between each end occured without any geographic isolation to stop gene flow. However, pretty much every ring species that's been studied shows evidence that there have been periods of geographic isolation in the past, accounting for much of the divergence between populations. However, there are many of these pseudo ring species that still follow the pattern I described up above, where neighboring populations can all interbreed except for those at the start/end of the ring. (more info - Why Evolution Is True)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Why I Oppose Organic Food

Organics, Just Say NoOrganic food is becoming increasingly popular. The Market Analysis page of the Organic Trade Association describes how organic food sales were $39.1 billion in 2014, nearly 5% of total food sales in the U.S., and up 11.3% from the previous year. It seems that nearly every grocery store now carries organic foods. I can't even find non-organic fresh herbs in my local grocery store.

There are a lot of hyped up claims about the health benefits of organic foods without a whole lot of data to back up those claims. There's also a lot of misunderstanding about what it actually takes to get classified as 'organic' from the USDA. For example, many organic farmers till use pesticides - they're just naturally occurring chemicals as opposed to synthetic ones. You can read about a lot of these issues in a Scientific American article, Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture.

But most of that is just hype, and if people are willing to pay extra money for a product that doesn't live up to all its claims, I believe P.T. Barnum may have had something to say about that*. My major problem with organic foods is where they actively cause harm to the environment. A good discussion on organic and conventional crop yields can be found in the entry on the Jayson Lusk blog, Organic vs Conventional Crop Yields. As Lusk points out, most large scale literature reviews find that organic crops on average give yields around 20-25% lower than conventional techniques (there's a lot of variability in that discrepancy depending on the particular crop). And as Lusk further went on to point out, conventional farming will always have an upper hand on organic, because even if some organic techniques are found to be beneficial, conventional farming can always adopt those particular techniques while still having other options that aren't available to organic**.

So, 20-25% lower yieds means that roughly 20-25% more cropland is required. Or to put that a different way, it means 20-25% more habitat destruction. And that's a big deal. Here's an excerpt from the World Wildlife Fund page on Impact of habitat loss on species.

Habitat loss is probably the greatest threat to the variety of life on this planet today.

It is identified as a main threat to 85% of all species described in the IUCN's Red List (those species officially classified as "Threatened" and "Endangered").

Increasing food production is a major agent for the conversion of natural habitat into agricultural land.

I know global warming gets most of the attention now as far as environmental disasters, but habitat loss is arguably worse. There are 7 billion people on this planet right now, and that's likely to increase to around 10 billion in the future, if not more. All those people need food, and most of that food has to be grown on farms. We should be doing everything we can to make those farms as productive as possible, minimizing habitat destruction as much as possible. We shouldn't be pushing for farming techniques that make that production 25% worse.

Most people buy organic foods because they want to eat healthy or because they are concerned about the environment and think organics reduce environmental problems. But they've been misled. The health claims aren't backed up, and the environmental impact is far more negative than most people realize.


*Actually, I still do have a problem with it, the same way I do with all false advertising. Organic proponents are pushing claims that aren't backed up by evidence, which is pretty misleading, though they probably believe the claims themselves so it's not exactly dishonest. And the saying about a sucker born every minute wasn't actually made by PT Barnum, but I'm sure he still had something to say about making money off of suckers.

**It reminds me of the passage from Tim Minchin's poem, Storm, "You know what they call “alternative medicine” / That's been proved to work? / Medicine.”"

Monday, August 10, 2015

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for July 2015

Top 10 ListWith July behind me, it's time again to look at the server logs to see what pages on this site were most popular last month. Every page that made it this time had made it some time before, and in fact, most of them made the previous month. So, no surprises.

Overall traffic is down a bit, but I suspect that might be because I haven't been very active here recently. About a month ago, I went on vacation and was out for about a week and a half (pictures coming when I get a chance to work on them). And since I got back, I've been working in the field as opposed to in the office, and lunches have been going out to eat rather than my normal microwaved lunch at my desk, so I just haven't had free lunch breaks to work on this blog. And believe me, with things like the Republican debate and the smear campaign against Planned Parenthood, there have been things I want to write about. But for the next few weeks, at least, it looks like I won't have any free lunch breaks to do so.

So, since I'm not writing anything new, you can still check out my past 'hits'. Here's the top 10 list for last month.

Top 10 for July 2015

  1. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  2. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam
  4. Review of Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God, Part I
  5. Slowed Rotor/Compound Technology- Why Isn't There More Research?
  6. 22 Responses to 22 Creationist Misconceptions
  7. Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  8. The 2014 Texas Republican Platform
  9. Response to an Editorial by Ken Huber
  10. Friday Bible Blogging - 2 Chronicles 31 to 2 Chronicles 36

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Does Evolution Imply the Meaning of Life Is to Reproduce

The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and EverythingI've seen quite a few people who seem to think that evolution implies that the meaning or purpose of life is to reproduce. Just Google the phrase, the purpose of life is to reproduce, and you'll find plenty of examples of people proposing or debating this interpretation. Even Scientific American has a blog entry, Is the Meaning of Your Life to Make Babies?, which partially supports this view. While that article does recognize that we can have other meanings besides evolutionary ones, it still implies that this evolutionary meaning is real:

So is making babies -- and having genes survive through the generations -- the meaning of life? The answer is yes -- from an evolutionary gene's eye view. Making babies, and also other actions and social structures that result in the survival and reproduction of one's gene, such as protecting one's relatives. Differential reproduction is a process which, in conjunction with environmental interactions, has led to all life as we know it, with all its diversity and grandeur, including conscious experience itself. This is modern knowledge that is not to be taken lightly, and has impact on how we view our own meaning.

But from almost every other perspective -- individual, group, moral, environmental, or concern for life as a whole -- the answer to the question is no. Meaning from these perspectives -- from life as it is actually experienced -- is up to us. Reproduction and genetic survival may be the meaning of Life, but it is not inescapably the meaning of your life.

However, I think any interpretation that says the meaning of life is to reproduce is misguided, since it's an answer to a misguided question. Other than meanings we ascribe to ourselves, life has no meaning. Reproducing and leaving copies of our genetics isn't meaning, it's just a description of what happens. When a boulder falls off a cliff, gravity means it will fall. Does that mean the meaning of the boulder was to fall, or is it just that the act of falling is what happens due to gravity?

Or consider a river. Do rivers have a meaning? Do they have a purpose? Sure, they return water to oceans, but that's simply what happens due to water flowing downhill and collecting in the lowest regions. There's no meaning to it. It's just the result of physics.

That's how it is with evolution. Organisms that are more 'fit' in whatever sense that means for their environment have more offspring, which means their genes become more prevalent. But that's no more a meaning or purpose than a river flowing downhill. It's just a description of what happens.

Meaning and purpose only make sense in relation to a conscious entity. Genes are not conscious entities. Nature is not a conscious entity. Evolution is not a conscious entity. So it makes no sense to describe the results of evolutionary processes as having any meaning or purpose. They're simply results.

Image Source: I made it myself. And if you don't get the reference - 42.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for June 2015

Top 10 ListNow that June's over, it's time to look at the server logs to see what pages were most popular on this site. There was a bit of shuffling this time around. Two entries made the list for the first time, Slowed Rotor/Compound Technology- Why Isn't There More Research? and Follow Up: Leaving Comments on Other Sites - Birds as Dinosaurs and Fossil Evidence for Evolution, the latter of which is related to an entry that has made the list a few times, Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries. Speaking of which, I wonder if I'll see any uptick in traffic to this page, Response to Kent Hovind Video - Bird Evolution, now that Kent Hovind is scheduled to be released from prison?

There were also two entries that hadn't made the list in a little while, Friday Bible Blogging - 2 Chronicles 31 to 2 Chronicles 36 and The 2014 Texas Republican Platform.

Overall traffic is up a bit compared to what it's been for a while. In fact, by 'Unique Visitors', June was the busiest month ever for the site, but by other measures, such as Pages and Hits, it was a bit up, but not the highest it's ever been.

Anyway, here's the list for last month.

Top 10 for June 2015

  1. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  2. Slowed Rotor/Compound Technology- Why Isn't There More Research?
  3. Follow Up: Leaving Comments on Other Sites - Birds as Dinosaurs and Fossil Evidence for Evolution
  4. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  5. Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam
  6. Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries
  7. Review of Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God, Part I
  8. 22 Responses to 22 Creationist Misconceptions
  9. Friday Bible Blogging - 2 Chronicles 31 to 2 Chronicles 36
  10. The 2014 Texas Republican Platform

Friday, June 26, 2015

Supreme Court Clears the Way to Marriage Equality

Marriage Equality Logo from Human Rights CampaignThis is going to be posted all over every news site and many, many other blogs besides this one, but I just can't help but share in the good news. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of marriage equality. Here's a link to the article from MSNBC, Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality.

There were two questions before the court, whether states had to license same-sex marriages, and whether states had to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Happily, the court ruled yes to both questions.

The vote was closer than I would have liked to have seen. I'm not really surprised at Alito, Scalia, or Thomas, but I was hoping Roberts would have been on the right side. I know it might not have been the original intention of the 14th Amendment, but I don't see how someone from today could read that amendment and not think it mandates marriage equality. And to the people arguing that this decision overturns the will of the people - that's the whole point of this amendment and the Bill or Rights, to ensure that people's rights aren't trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Oh well, I'll leave it to other sites to analyze and discuss the decision in more detail. I'm just happy to share the good news.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons (Human Rights Campaign Marriage Equality Logo)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Update - New Third Edition!

Book Cover to God? Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff Lewis
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

I've published* a new update to my book, God? Leaving Christianity - only $4.99 from LuLu (also available for free online - but that doesn't make nearly as nice of a gift...) The book is a collection of some of my best essays on religion, both chronicling my thought process in abandoning belief and explaining some of my more recent thoughts on the subject. I've kept the book relatively short, just over 100 pages, to keep it as a reasonable introduction to non-belief that won't be overwhelming to readers.

I know it's hard to be impartial about a book I've written myself, but from the reactions of friends who have read the book, I feel comfortable recommending it. One of my friends, after reading the book, went and bought ten copies so that he could give them away to other people to read. The most recent friend I gave a copy to sent multiple text messages while reading the book to say how much he liked certain passages.

I usually order a small batch of books at a time to have some on hand to give to people who want a copy (I never push it on people, and only give it to people who actually ask for it). However, that most recent friend also received the last copy from the most recent batch, so I figured I'd read through and make a few revisions before ordering another batch, creating a new third edition.

If you're one of the select few who already owns the first edition, there are two new essays in this book. You can either read those essays online, or download a pdf copy with the link below. The pdf is formatted to print out as a booklet on 8 1/2" x 11" paper. Even if your printer doesn't have auto duplexing, Adobe Reader has options to print out a booklet.
Religious Essays.Supplement - Two More Essays.2015-06-23.pdf Religious Essays.Supplement - Two More Essays.2015-06-23.pdf

For that matter, if you want to download a pdf of the entire book, you can do that, too, with this link:
Religious Essays.booklet.2015-06-23.pdf Religious Essays.booklet.2015-06-23.pdf

However, I really do recommend the LuLu paperback version for people who want a hard copy. With the glossy cover and perfect binding, it's a much nicer form factor than anything most people can print out on home equipment. And at only $4.99, it's not that expensive.

If you just want to read the essays, you can do that online for free. But if you want a nice physical copy that you can hold in your hands or give to someone as a present, then go buy the book from LuLu**. Just in case you missed the multiple links in this post or the ad in the sidebar, here's the link to buy the book one last time:

Buy the book: God? Leaving Christianity


* I'm using 'published' in a loose sense, as it's really self-published from a print on demand company. As I've written before, this is the modern version of a vanity press, but without the expense of paying for a print run.

** Another option if you want the book is to befriend me and just ask for a copy, but then you'd have to know me in person.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Wichita Falls Flood Wrap-Up: The Jesus Pandering

The big flood scare I blogged about a few weeks ago (Wichita Falls' Historic Drought Ended by Historic Flood and Wichita Falls Flood Information Resources) is over, and despite a minor scare this past week, it looks like we're in the clear for now. But, there were a few things about the reaction to the drought and flood that I still wanted to comment on.

On the weekend when the situation seemed most dire, and the National Weather Service was predicting a flood 3 ft higher than the previous record flood for the city, the city council held a special emergency meeting to inform the public. Being close to the area affected, I went to that meeting. For the most part, it was very informative, and I'm grateful to the city for all their efforts in this situation. Despite a few minor missteps, it was certainly handled better than the flood in 2007. However, there was one part of the meeting that rubbed me the wrong way. This isn't a major complaint on my part (I'm not going to contact the Freedom from Religion Foundation or anything), but it is a gripe.

You can watch a video of the meeting below. There's a half hour of just the news channel's logo before the video actually begins (it's from a live recording). The meeting starts at about 35:30, but the part that irritates me starts at 1:22:03.

The pastor of First Baptist Church, Dr. Robert McCartney, was in attendance (the doctorate is from a seminary). I don't know much about McCartney himself, but his church is the one that unleashed Robert Jeffress on the world, so he's already tainted a bit by association. Anyway, the mayor called him up to lead everyone in a prayer. I'm not visible in the video, but if they'd have panned to the back of the room, you'd have noticed a rather grumpy looking person who wasn't bowing their head like almost everyone else in attendance. This was a public meeting, run by the city government. On top of that, there was a real emergency going on, and the mayor decided to waste everyone's time listening to a minster. Actually, that's what bothered me the most when this happened. I normally say 'to each their own' and don't get that bothered by people praying. But this wasn't a token prayer before a meal. This was a real emergency, and people were turning to their super powerful imaginary friend for help. The mayor might was well have called up a witch doctor and had us all sit through a chicken sacrifice to appease the rain gods.

I understand that religious people will want to turn to their god(s) in times like these for comfort, and they have every right to do so. But do it on your own time. If you want to hear from the pastor, go to church. Don't bring the pastor in to a public meeting (not to mention the violation of the establishment clause).

McCartney's prayer was mostly what you'd expect - praising God, thanking him for ending the drought, and asking him not to flood the city. One part did stand out to me, though.

And God I pray, first of all, that you would stop this rain, from happening. Lord, we don't need any more, and we're asking you not to send this huge amount of rain that's being forecast.

Man, what arrogance. First of all, he's informing God that we don't need the rain, as if an omnipotent deity needed informing. Then, he's asking God to change his plans. I left a comment in a previous entry, What's the Point of Intercessory Prayer?, that sums up my opinion on this attitude:

I was a Christian for many years before I became an atheist, and long before I began questioning my faith I'd given up on intercessory prayers. It just seemed so conceited. There's a pretty famous line in the Lord's prayer about 'thy will be done.' There was also the story of Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives - "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." And that was Jesus, God himself, praying (I'll admit, the trinity makes no sense). If even God the Son wouldn't ask God the Father to change his plans, how vain is it for a mere mortal to ask it?

The closing of McCartney's prayer also bothered me - not because it was anything out of the ordinary or unexpected from a Christian, but just because it was another reminder of a sectarian prayer taking place in a public meeting.

God, we pray now for our city. You have rescued us, as we said, from one crisis. Rescue us again Father, and we will give you glory forth. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.

And it wasn't a particularly short prayer, either. It was just over 2 ½ minutes long.

There was actually one funny part to the meeting that got a chuckle out of everyone there, and it was even related to religion. At around 1:21:15, one of the area residents commented:

Can you ask people to pull those Pray for Rain signs out of their yards?

If you read my previous entry, Wichita Falls - Pray for Rain, you might remember these signs:

Pray for Rain Sign

They popped up all over the city during the drought. Well, now that the drought's over, a new sign has been popping up:

Thank Jesus Sign

Actually, I don't have anything much to say about these signs. Sure, they bug me a little bit, mainly because they seem to be more of a command to others than thanksgiving themselves. But they're nowhwere near as bad as that prayer at a city meeting, and at least these signs are on private property. I'll note that there don't seem to be near as many of these signs as there were Pray for Rain signs, though.

Anyway, I'm glad the flood danger is over, and that the flood didn't turn out to be anywhere near as bad as it could have been. And I'm grateful to the city for all they did and for being on top of the situation this time around. I just wish that Jesus didn't infect everything in this city.

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