Friday, December 30, 2011

Will 2012 Be the Year of the Atheist?

"Coming out" now may be a clich├ęd term, but as the "We Are Atheism" project has shown, it hasn't entirely lost its currency. The new organization encourages others to be open about their atheism, an act that is more than a confession; it holds the real risk of losing family and friends.

By affirming "it's OK to be an atheist" and encouraging video testimony from those who have already made the journey out into the open, "We Are Atheism" hopes to help others do the same. There are, however, serious hurdles for the no-longer-closeted to overcome.


Aee also...

Atheism: A New Strategy. Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, US

Common Brain Mechanisms Underlie Supernatural Perceptions

You may have never personally caught sight of Jesus Christ’s face in a potato chip, but you have likely succumbed to an equally improbable belief at some point in your life. Many people claim that ghosts exist or that their dreams can predict the future. Some individuals even think they have seen the face of the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich and Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun.

Although such beliefs may sound farfetched, they are surprisingly common. An opinion poll conducted in 2005 showed that three out of four Americans believe in the existence of paranormal phenomena. Other work has revealed that about one in three of us claim to have experienced the supernatural. The sheer ubiquity of these experiences has led many psychologists to wonder whether common mechanisms might underlie some of these widespread convictions.


Orangutans 'could video chat' between zoos via iPads

Mr Zimmerman said the idea was to provide a "bit of fun" for the animals, who only get to use the devices for two short periods every week.

"What we really want to do is to allow the orangutans to really play - to do paintings, to watch videos, to do almost as a human child would do with basic curiosity."

The animals have, Mr Zimmerman said, been captivated by watching television on the devices, particularly when it featured other orangutans, and even more so when they saw faces they recognised.


He said the most exciting aspect of all was watching how the animals reacted to seeing themselves, and other apes on screen.

"Orangutans love looking at each other," said Mr Zimmerman, adding that one of the apes, 31-year-old MJ, is a fan of David Attenborough programmes.

"The orangutans loved seeing videos of themselves - so there is a little vanity going on - and they like seeing videos of the orangutans who are in the other end of the enclosure.

"So if we incorporate cameras, they can watch each other."


See also...

Great Apes Make Sophisticated Decisions

Priests and monks fight with brooms at church

Palestinian police entered the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem after rival groups of Orthodox and Armenian clerics began fighting. The clergy members were initially arguing over their respective jurisdictions within the church, but afterwards over 100 Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic priests and monks armed themselves with broomsticks. The fight took place when the clergymen were cleaning the church in prepartion for Orthodox Christmas Celebrations (Old Christmas on January 7th). The Palestinian police broke up the fighting with batons and shields. Administration of the church is shared by Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic clerics.

A Clash of Cultures in the Holy Land

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups in Israel would like to see gender separation in public, and some have stooped to harassing women -- and even children -- to get their way. With thousands of Israelis protesting against the growing influence of the super-religious, the rift in Israeli society is getting deeper.


Darwin censored by the Turkish government's porn filter

Worrying news from Turkey, where a government body has moved to block sites that mention evolution or Charles Darwin.
The Council of Information Technology and Communications (BTK) released the "Secure Internet" filtering system on 22 November. Sites that includes the words "evolution" or "Darwin" are filtered if parents select the child-friendly settings on the filter, as though it's porn. Among the sites banned, according to Reporters Without Borders, is Richard Dawkins' website The homepage of Adnan Oktar, an Islamic creationist, is still accessible. The system has already attracted controversy: apparently it bans terms linked with the Kurdish separatist movement, and Reporters Without Borders has accused the Turkish government of "backdoor censorship".


Egypt's military: On alert for New Year's attack on Christians

The Egyptian military said Friday that it was increasing security at churches across the country before the anniversary of a deadly New Year's attack on Coptic Christians in Alexandria.


6 kids, 1 teacher hurt as bombers target Islamic school in Nigeria

Analysts say the attacks risk reviving sectarian violence between the mostly Muslim north and Christian south, which has claimed thousands of lives in the past decade.


NASA probes may find remnants of moon's lost sibling

According to a recently published paper, scientists suspect a second moon once circled Earth in the same orbit and at roughly the same speed as our moon. It eventually bumped into its companion, but instead of causing an impact crater, the second moon stuck and made a mountain. That feature today would be the lunar highlands located on the side of the moon that permanently faces away from Earth.


See also:

NASA Hopes to Answer Questions About the Moon (video)


Must-see science videos of 2011

Physics World reveals its top 10 breakthroughs for 2011

2011's biggest science stories, and why they'll be back in 2012

11 scientific twists from 2011

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Can a molecule make us moral?

Morality has traditionally been the domain of theologians and philosophers, often providing prescriptions of what we must do. But in the past decade, neuroscientists have started analyzing brain activity while people think about, and engage in, moral or immoral acts. These findings have changed the inquiry into morals from prescriptive to descriptive. As I discuss in my talk, I have even done studies that have manipulated brain chemistry in human beings to show that oxytocin directly causes people to be moral.


Has religion made the world less safe?

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. The world of the New Testament is little better: kings carry out mass infanticide; thieves and activists are punished by being nailed to a cross.

Though most of the events narrated in the Bible almost certainly never happened, historians agree that they reflect the norms and practices of the era. We live in a world that is indisputably less violent than that of our ancestors. Savage practices such as human sacrifice, chattel slavery, blood sports, debtors’ prisons, frivolous executions, religious persecution, and punitive torture and mutilation have been eliminated from most of the world. Less obviously, homicide rates have plummeted over the centuries, and during the past sixty-five years that the rate of death from war has fallen to historically unprecedented lows.

Having documented these declines of violence, I am often asked what role religion has played in this historical progress. Overall it has not been a good one. Many humanitarian reforms, such as the elimination of cruel punishment, the dissemination of empathy-inducing novels, and the abolition of slavery, were met with fierce opposition in their time by church authorities. The conviction that one’s own values are sacred and those of everyone else heretical inflamed the combatants in the European Wars of Religion, the second-bloodiest period in modern Western history, and it continues to inflame partisans in the Middle East and parts of the Islamic world today.


See also:

Violence and Evolution: Where Do We Stand?

Steven Pinker's new book:

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Who's Still in the Closet? The Future of Prejudice

How would news stories and the general discourse change if the group being targeted was black? Jewish? Female? Or the wheelchair bound? Would we be outraged? If so, why aren't we outraged when the targeted group is the "nones"?


American Atheists must define themselves, not be defined by the religious

The large audience for the writings of atheists, most notably Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, has led many American pundits, preachers and politicians to exaggerate the influence of secular thought in the culture as a whole. I only wish they were right. For the warriors of the Christian right, in particular, this exaggeration serves the purpose of presenting themselves as victims in a nation where they in fact wield a power that they do not enjoy anywhere else in the developed world.


To Children (but Not Adults) a Rose by Any Other Name Is Still a Rose

ScienceDaily -- Two vital parts of mentally organizing the world are classification, or the understanding that similar things belong in the same category; and induction, an educated guess about a thing's properties if it's in a certain category. There are reasons to believe that language greatly assists adults in both kinds of tasks. But how do young children use language to make sense of the things around them? It's a longstanding debate among psychologists.


See also:

Children Don't Give Words Special Power to Categorize Their World


Elderly Can Be as Fast as Young in Some Brain Tasks, Study Shows

People Don't Just Think With Their Guts: Logic Plays a Role Too


Before Sounding an Alarm, Chimps Consider Information Available to Their Audience

Quadrantids Meteor Shower Will Create Brief, Beautiful Show On Jan. 4

ScienceDaily -- The 2012 Quadrantids, a little-known meteor shower named after an extinct constellation, will present an excellent chance for hardy souls to start the year off with some late-night meteor watching.

Peaking in the wee morning hours of Jan. 4, the Quadrantids have a maximum rate of about 100 per hour, varying between 60-200. The waxing gibbous moon will set around 3 a.m. local time, leaving about two hours of excellent meteor observing before dawn. It's a good thing, too, because unlike the more famous Perseid and Geminid meteor showers, the Quadrantids only last a few hours -- it's the morning of Jan. 4, or nothing.


Deep-sea creatures at volcanic vent

Remarkable images of life from one of the most inhospitable spots in the ocean have been captured by scientists.


Bishops Say Rules on Gay Parents Limit Freedom of Religion

Roman Catholic bishops in Illinois have shuttered most of the Catholic Charities affiliates in the state rather than comply with a new requirement that says they must consider same-sex couples as potential foster-care and adoptive parents if they want to receive state money. The charities have served for more than 40 years as a major link in the state’s social service network for poor and neglected children.

The bishops have followed colleagues in Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts who had jettisoned their adoption services rather than comply with nondiscrimination laws.

For the nation’s Catholic bishops, the Illinois requirement is a prime example of what they see as an escalating campaign by the government to trample on their religious freedom while expanding the rights of gay people. The idea that religious Americans are the victims of government-backed persecution is now a frequent theme not just for Catholic bishops, but also for Republican presidential candidates and conservative evangelicals.


See also:

Gays Sorry For Causing Straight MN GOP Senator To Cheat on Her Husband

Monitoring antievolution bills in New Hampshire

The two antievolution bills in the New Hampshire legislature attracted the attention of the Concord Monitor (December 29, 2011). As NCSE previously reported, House Bill 1148, introduced by Jerry Bergevin (R-District 17), would charge the state board of education to "[r]equire evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists' political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism," while House Bill 1457, introduced by Gary Hopper (R-District 7) and John Burt (R-District 7), would charge the state board of education to "[r]equire science teachers to instruct pupils that proper scientific inquire [sic] results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established, and that scientific and technological innovations based on new evidence can challenge accepted scientific theories or modes."

Bergevin told the Monitor, "I want the full portrait of evolution and the people who came up with the ideas to be presented. It's a worldview and it's godless." He reportedly blamed the acceptance of evolution for the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the 1999 Columbine shooting.


Dutchman Helps to Liquidate Dying Churches

A drastic exodus from the church is underway in the Netherlands. With two churches shuttered each week, one man has become the country's top advisor on how to repurpose the once holy buildings. Some are demolished, while others find new life as mosques, stores and even recreation centers.


For years the number of faithful has been declining. The trend has swept across all of Western Europe, with churches forced to close in France and Belgium too. But in the Netherlands, Christianity's retreat from society has been particularly drastic. The Protestant Church alone loses some 60,000 members each year. At this rate, it will cease to exist there by 2050, church officials say.


Gender Segregation Row Splitting Town

A battle over gender segregation is pitting moderates in Israel against ultra-Orthodox Jews.


See also...

Jewish girl harassed by ultra-religious

Al Qaeda leader sends veteran jihadists to establish presence in Libya

(CNN) -- Al Qaeda's leadership has sent experienced jihadists to Libya in an effort to build a fighting force there, according to a Libyan source briefed by Western counter-terrorism officials.


See also...
Terror attacks highlight Nigeria's divisions

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Atheists, Marines debate Camp Pendleton crosses

San Diego County - A Marine Corps ruling on the future of a pair of crosses at the top of a steep Camp Pendleton hill isn't expected until next year.

An atheist group wants the crosses to come down. Many Marines and their families want the crosses to stay in honor of comrades killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Base officials have sent a recommendation to Washington, but won't say what it is.

Jason Torpy of the Association of Atheists and Freethinkers told the North County Times he has been bombarded with hate mail, threats and phone calls from people angry at his group for demanding removal of the crosses.

See also...

Crosses at Marine base protested

Decision on Camp Pendleton crosses due in new year

Monday, December 26, 2011

Suicide bomber strikes fortified Iraqi compound

Baghdad (CNN) -- A suicide car bomber passed through six security checkpoints before detonating at the main entrance to Iraq's heavily fortified Interior Ministry compound in central Baghdad Monday.

The bombing killed at least five people and wounded 39 others, police said.

The attack follows a weekend meeting between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and senior security officials to review last week's string of deadly bombings that killed almost 70 people and wounded more than 200.


A recent political crisis has raised fears of a return of the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq that ripped the country apart at the height of the war a few years back.


See also: 

Christmas Bombings Strike Churches in Five Nigerian Cities

For many, 'Losing My Religion' isn't just a song: It's life

•44% told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking "eternal wisdom," and 19% said "it's useless to search for meaning."

•46% told a 2011 survey by Nashville-based evangelical research agency, LifeWay Research, they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.

•28% told LifeWay "it's not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose." And 18% scoffed that God has a purpose or plan for everyone.

•6.3% of Americans turned up on Pew Forum's 2007 Religious Landscape Survey as totally secular — unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.

Hemant Mehta, who blogs as The Friendly Atheist, calls them the "apatheists"


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Holiday goodies from deep space

Space scientists have dropped off some last-minute presents for Christmas: stunning pictures from deep space, many of which have a holiday theme.


See also...

WISE Presents a Cosmic Wreath


NASA's Cassini Delivers Holiday Treats from Saturn

Christmas Comet Lovejoy Captured at Paranal Observatory in Chile

Secular Opponents Of Holiday Displays Get Creative

Joseph, Mary, and ... the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

Nativity scenes have long been a part of holiday displays at city halls and small-town courthouses across the country. This year, some proponents of secularism are finding new ways to protest the time-honored tradition. They're putting up their own versions of the creche -- and causing quite a commotion in places like Leesburg, Va.


Friday, December 23, 2011

LHC reports discovery of its first new particle

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the Franco-Swiss border has made its first clear observation of a new particle since opening in 2009.

It is called Chi_b (3P) and will help scientists understand better the forces that hold matter together.


The Chi_b (3P) is a more excited state of Chi particles already seen in previous collision experiments, explained Prof Roger Jones, who works on the Atlas detector at the LHC.

"The new particle is made up of a 'beauty quark' and a 'beauty anti-quark', which are then bound together," he told BBC News.

"People have thought this more excited state should exist for years but nobody has managed to see it until now.

"It's also interesting for what it tells us about the forces that hold the quark and the anti-quark together - the strong nuclear force. And that's the same force that holds, for instance, the atomic nucleus together with its protons and the neutrons."

The LHC is designed to fill in gaps in the Standard Model - the current framework devised to explain the interactions of sub-atomic particles - and also to look for any new physics beyond it.

In particular, it is using the collisions to try to pin down the famous Higgs particle, which physicists hypothesize can explain why matter has mass.


See also...

Paint-On Solar Cells Developed

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Nonbelievers Organize to Boost Charity Profile

Large nonbeliever groups such as the American Humanist Association and the Richard Dawkins Foundation have formed aid charities in recent years. This year atheists active on the social Web site have raised $207,000 for Doctors Without Borders, more than four times the 2010 total, and an atheist group raised the most last month on the microfinance site Kiva.


See also...

Atheist Charity Giving Has Gone Up Greatly In Recent Years

Finding Reason in the Season

Most Christians who are willing to accept the evidence for the Earth revolving around a stationary sun are also willing to acknowledge that a savior born on December 25 is a made-up story. Christmas has its origins in the winter solstice festivals that most ancient civilizations observed. Mithras, a Persian savior-god, had a sizable following in the Roman world and his birth was celebrated on December 25. By appropriating this day for the alleged birth of Jesus, Christians could more easily convert pagans. Because of this pagan origin, some early American colonies prohibited the celebration of Christmas. That might have been the original war on Christmas.


See also...

A Very Atheist Christmas

Tim Minchin song mocking Christ pulled from Jonathan Ross' Christmas special

A song by comedian Tim Minchin that describes Jesus Christ as a "zombie" and compares the Virgin Mary to a "lizard" has been cut from Jonathan Ross' Christmas broadcast by ITV executives for fear of offending Christians.


Chinese Fossils Shed Light On Evolutionary Origin of Animals from Single-Cell Ancestors

ScienceDaily -- Evidence of the single-celled ancestors of animals, dating from the interval in Earth's history just before multicellular animals appeared, has been discovered in 570 million-year-old rocks from South China by researchers from the University of Bristol, the Swedish Museum of Natural History, the Paul Scherrer Institut and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.


See also...

Cultural Diversification Also Drives Human Evolution

Astronomers Discover Rare Galaxy at Dawn of Time

ScienceDaily -- Astronomers, including the University of California, Riverside's Bahram Mobasher and his graduate student Hooshang Nayyeri, have discovered that one of the most distant galaxies known is churning out stars at a shockingly high rate. The researchers made the discovery using NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes. The blob-shaped galaxy, called GN-108036, is the brightest galaxy found to date at such great distances.


See also...

First Ever Direct Measurement of Earth's Rotation

On California coast, atheists nudge out Nativity scenes

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Every Christmas for the past 60 years, Nativity scenes have dominated two blocks of a park on bluffs overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica, California.

The 14 scenes depicting Jesus Christ's birth have long been a popular attraction among area residents and tourists to the southern California city.

This year, however, atheists have taken over most of the two-block stretch, nearly shutting out and angering a group of churches who contend the atheists have organized against the Christians and gamed a city lottery process allocating the holiday exhibit space.

In response, a leader of the atheist group says he's just looking for evenhanded treatment to present his beliefs in a public space -- and goes so far as to say that the city shouldn't even be allowing any religious or even atheist expression in the park.

That's why he and his group have put nothing on half of the park exhibit spaces that they've secured from the city this year.


See also...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why Humans Are So Sociable These Days

ScienceDaily -- Humans have evolved to become the most flexible of the primates and being able to live in lots of different social settings sets us apart from non-human primates, suggests research by University of Oxford and the University of Auckland.


The researchers conclude that only humans have had the flexibility to live in a range of different, complicated social settings. Throughout history, humans have lived in monogamous and polygamous societies; in nuclear family and extended family groups. Beyond the home, they have socialised in different work settings, as well as being part of the complicated social structure of wider human society.

Lead author Dr Susanne Shultz, from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford, said: 'There is an amazing flexibility in the way humans have managed to socialise, network and live together, both in groups and wider society. We have a huge variety of social settings to cope with, according to the different cultural practices and customs. This flexibility in the human lineage has not evolved to anything like this level in other primates. Our findings support previous studies that suggest that more brain power is needed for groups that have a more complicated social life.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

First Earth-Size Planets Beyond Our Solar System: Smallest Exoplanets Ever Confirmed Around a Star Like Our Sun

ScienceDaily -- NASA's Kepler mission has discovered the first Earth-size planets orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system. The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are too close to their star to be in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface, but they are the smallest exoplanets ever confirmed around a star like our sun.


Chinese Atheists Lured to Find Jesus at U.S. Christian Schools

(Bloomberg) -- Haiying Wu’s family in Shandong Province wasn’t religious. After a born-again Texan teaching English in China advised her that Christian schools in the U.S. are safe and academically strong, she enrolled at Ben Lippen High School in Columbia, South Carolina.

Ben Lippen required her to attend church and chapel, take Bible class, and join a Bible study group. At first, she didn’t understand “why you need to believe in something you can’t view or touch,” she said. Gradually, it began to make sense. When the house parents in her dorm showed the 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ,” she wept. Shortly before her 2009 graduation, she was baptized.


Atheists disappointed by rejected billboards

MANSFIELD -- An atheist civil rights group is disappointed in the Mansfield-based Lind Media Company's decision to refuse a billboard depicting Poseidon, Jesus, Satan and Santa Claus as myths.

The downtown company waited until one business day before the billboards were scheduled to go up to inform the Mid Ohio Atheists, an affiliate of American Atheists, that the billboards were denied, the group said.


See also:

Atheist Group Wants to Place a Sign Next to a Nativity Scene in Warren

Warren atheist wants to place controversial sign next to nativity scene

North Koreans grief-stricken over Kim's death

(CNN) -- When the tearful broadcaster broke the news to North Koreans that their leader, Kim Jong Il, had died, the audience in the hall gasped.

Then the hysterics began, along with the bawling and sobbing.


See also:

Kim Jong-il was a Lefty atheist in the same way that Hitler was a conservative Catholic

Why young evangelicals are leaving church

(CNN) -- Republican conservatives should be worried. Evangelical churches that frequently support conservative candidates are finally admitting something the rest of us have known for some time: Their young adult members are abandoning church in significant numbers and taking their voting power with them.


Consider the following facts about millennials in general:

• Seven in 10 millennials say sex between an unmarried man and woman is morally acceptable (PDF). (According to Kinnaman, young Christians are as sexually active as non-Christians.)

• Most women in their early 20s who give birth are unmarried.

• More than six in 10 millennials (including 49% of Republican millennials) support same-sex marriages.

• Six in 10 millennials say abortion should be legal (PDF), a higher proportion than found in the general population. A higher percentage say abortion services should be available in local communities.

Millennials also part ways with conservative orthodoxy on wealth distribution and caring for the environment. According to a report in The Christian Science Monitor, three out of four say that wealthy corporations and financiers have too much power and that taxes should be raised on the very wealthy, and two out of three say financial institutions should be regulated more closely. In addition, most say that creationists' view on evolution is outdated.


Happy Holidays

It's 1942 and Bing Crosby fires the first shot in the "War On Christmas."  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

To XMAS And Beyond!

Jon Stewart declares War on Christmas....

This is a link to the full episode, but he declares the war right at the top of the show:

Atheists Trade in Traditional Christian Symbols, Create Meaningful Icons of their Own

It’s that time of year again. The Holiday season is upon us, and with it comes classic Yuletide traditions such as eggnog, carols, the lighting of menorahs and decorating a Christmas tree. Ah yes, the Christmas tree, bedecked in lights, garnished with care and topped with…a flying spaghetti monster?

Instead of a star or an angel on top of ye ole Christmas tree this year, many atheists might surprise their family and friends with a proudly placed personified representation of a mound of spaghetti and meatballs atop their tree.

Why you might ask?

Katie Aston, a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths University in London researching atheist aesthetics and material cultures, suggests that such non-religious symbols, taken at face value as a joke, may serve similar purposes to explicitly religious images.

“The visual in a non-religious worldview, is of great importance,” Aston said, “it forms a vehicle for a number of ideas which either express or support the practice of a non-religious life and on occasion outwardly reject the religious images offered.”

The latter might very well be the case with the Flying Spaghetti Monster tree decoration or a number of other well-known atheist symbols and visual aids.

Take for example the “Darwin Fish.” Often found on the back of cars in mock comparison to the ICTHYS fish found on the bumpers of Christians, the Darwinian alternative is intended to promote evolution and to show unequivocally that the owner of the vehicle is not Christian, not a creationist and most definitely does not believe in a deity.

It might be said that the symbol’s strength is found in its resemblance to a common Christian sign.

Similarly, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a parodic deity meant to challenge Christian beliefs in God, is placed on top of the tree instead of an angel or a “Bethlehem star” pointing to Jesus’ nativity.

These atheist symbols use Christian images or icons and replace them with their own to establish a contra-identity. At times this re-branding, as it were, can prove provocative.


Holiday displays fire up debate in Loudoun County

Baby Jesus is keeping strange company.

For the better part of 50 years, a creche and a Christmas tree were the only holiday displays on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds.

Then came the atheists. And the Jedis. And the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster - each with its own decorations. A skeleton Santa Claus was mounted on a cross, intended by its creator to portray society's obsession with consumerism. Nearby, a pine tree stood adorned with atheist testimonials. ("I can be moral without religion," declared one laminated ornament.)

Flying Spaghetti Monster devotees are scheduled to put up their contribution this weekend. It's a banner portraying a Nativity-style scene, but Jesus is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Virgin Mary cradles a stalk-eyed noodle-and-meatball creature, its manger surrounded by an army of pirates, a solemn gnome and barnyard animals. The message proclaims: "Touched by an Angelhair."

With the new displays, a new tradition was born: a charged seasonal debate.

This year, the dispute struck a particularly raw nerve. Skeleton Santa was ripped down - twice. Kenneth Reid, Loudoun County supervisor-elect for the Leesburg district, sent a news release opposing "outrageous anti religious displays." In a letter to a local newspaper, one resident decried the "mean-spirited attack by the faithless on the faithful."

See Also...

Air Force Base denies atheist display, allows Menorah and Nativity Scene

Mayor refuses to include atheist banner in holiday display

Atheists Demand Texas Town Take Christmas from Square

Atheist Group Targets Holiday Displays

Pennsylvania town won't include atheist banner in holiday display

Atheist Display Space Puts Squeeze on Santa Monica Nativity Scenes

Atheists Seek OK For Banner For Christmas Display

Atheist group criticizes Nativity scene on East Texas courthouse square, plans its own display

Nativity's potential removal sparks outcry

Friday, December 16, 2011

In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens, 1949–2011

In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens, 1949–2011

Christopher Hitchens obituaries

Humanists Mourn Christopher Hitchens: Stalwart for Atheism

Charles Lewis: Christopher Hitchens, an enemy of religion, a true inspiration to atheists

Unarguably the end of the line for Hitchens, atheist, intellectual and 'charmer'

Polemical journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens dead at 62

Atheist intellectual Christopher Hitchens dead at 62

A Conversation With the Late Christopher Hitchens

When an Atheist Dies: Religious Reflections on Christopher Hitchens' Death

Controversial author, atheist, Christopher Hitchens dies at 62

Christopher Hitchens against God

God is not great: Remembering Christopher Hitchens, Atheist hero

Famed atheist Christopher Hitchens dead at 62

Christopher Hitchens: 'Atheist Intellectual,' 'Noble Contrarian'

Outspoken atheist felt duty to attack sacred cows

Atheist intellectual Christopher Hitchens dead at 62

Christopher Hitchens, atheist to the very end

Remembering Christopher Hitchens

Secular Guidelines to Moral Living: A Tribute to Christopher Hitchens

God Sent Christopher Hitchens to Hell Because He Loved Him

Close Family Ties Keep Microbial Cheaters in Check, Study Finds

ScienceDaily -- Any multicellular animal, from a blue whale to a human being, poses a special challenge for evolution.

Most of the cells in its body will die without reproducing; only a privileged few will pass their genes to the next generation.

How could the extreme degree of cooperation required by multicellular existence actually evolve? Why aren't all creatures unicellular individualists determined to pass on their own genes?

Joan Strassmann and David Queller, evolutionary biologists at Washington University in St. Louis, provide an answer in this week's issue of the journal Science.

Experiments with amoebae that usually live as individuals, but must also join with others to form multicellular bodies to complete their life cycles, show that cooperation depends on kinship.

If amoebae occur in well-mixed cosmopolitan groups, cheaters will always be able to thrive by free-loading on their cooperative neighbors.

But if groups derive from a single cell, cheaters will usually occur in all-cheater groups and will have no cooperators to exploit.

The only exceptions are brand new cheater mutants in all-cooperator groups, and these could pose a problem if the mutation rate is high enough and there are many cells in the group to mutate.

The scientists calculated just how many times amoebae that arose from a single cell can safely divide before cooperation degenerates into a free-for-all.

The answer turns out to be 100 generations or more.

Population bottlenecks that kill off diversity and restart the population from a single cell are powerful stabilizers of cellular cooperation, the scientists conclude.

"The leap from single-celled organisms to multicelled ones was a critical step in the history of life that paved the way for the world's plants and animals, including humans," says Sam Scheiner, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research. "This study provides important clues that about the conditions necessary for that leap."


Rats to the Rescue in Cage Experiment

NYT -- A new study in the journal Science has found that rats can be helpful -- the first instance that such behavior has been documented in rodents.

The researchers placed a free-roaming rat in an arena with a caged rat. Over the course of several days, the free rats realized they could nudge open a door and release the caged rat.

After figuring this out, they did so repeatedly, day after day.
"They then did what we refer to as a celebration," said an author of the study, Peggy Mason, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. "The trapped rat runs around the arena, and the free rat appears excited and runs after the trapped rat."

That behavior alone is not enough to show that rats are empathetic, she said. The rats could be releasing their caged cohorts simply for companionship.

So the researchers changed the setup: when the free rat released the caged rat, the caged rat went into a second arena, and the two were unable to interact.

Still, the free rats released the caged rats, day after day.

Then the researchers placed a free rat in an arena with a caged rat and locked-away chocolate.

The free rats were just as likely to free the caged rat as they were to liberate the chocolate and eat it. Moreover, when they got the chocolate they almost always shared it; on average, they would leave about one and a half out of five pieces for the caged rats, Dr. Mason said.

There was also a difference in the behavior of male rats and female rats.
"The females, once they open the door, they open the door every day, and within a few minutes," Dr. Mason said. "But the male rats would occasionally take off a day."


Babies Picky About Who They Imitate

Live Science -- Babies are famous for copying adults, but a new study shows that little ones carefully choose whether to imitate an adult's actions based on how credible they think the adult is.

For example, if an adult has previously displayed unreliable or dishonest behavior, the baby is less likely to mimic them, according to the study.


The findings are consistent with previous studies from the same laboratory that suggest babies are adept at detecting an adult's reliability based on their previous behavior. In 2007 Yale University researchers found that 10-month-olds and 6-month-olds are capable of judging a person's character and using that information to decide whom they'd prefer to hang out with.

"Like older children, infants keep track of an individual's history of being accurate or inaccurate and use this information to guide their subsequent learning," said study researcher Diane Poulin-Dubois, a professor in the Concordia Department of Psychology and member of the university's Centre for Research in Human Development. "Specifically, infants choose not to learn from someone who they perceive as unreliable."


Woman convicted of 'sorcery' is beheaded in Saudi Arabia

Daily Mail -- A woman convicted of practising magic and sorcery has been executed by Saudi authorities.


Let's Talk About Evolution

Ask the average person what the word evolution means, and few will say something like "the change in the genetic frequency of a population over time". This lack of understanding is underscored by figures showing that fewer than half of Americans accept that human beings developed from earlier species of animals.

A study published in Science found that public acceptance of evolution was highest in Iceland, Denmark and Sweden (over 80% of the population). But astonishingly, this study also found that acceptance of evolution is lower in the United States than in Japan or in any of the 32 European countries included in the study except Turkey (25%). Even though this study was published in 2006 (doi:10.1126/science.1126746), subsequent surveys and polls indicate that little has changed since then.

Americans' peculiarly stubborn refusal to recognise the validity of evolution almost seems de rigueur these days. But after watching the 2011 Miss USA contestants' pathetic and (mostly) poorly-(in)formed comments about evolution, something clicked into place amongst a few of my science blog colleagues. After the giggles and guffaws died down on twitter and other social media, they decided to create a video about evolution for the general public.

The goals of this video project were to provide a platform for scientists to explain, in their own words, the importance of evolution to science, medicine and society -- and to address the importance of teaching evolution in schools. Prominent female scientists and science communicators were specifically invited to participate because the video was a response, in part, to the Miss USA fiasco. 



Why Are You Atheists So Angry?

Believers deem atheists as untrustworthy as rapists

VANCOUVER -- Religious believers distrust atheists more than members of other religious groups, gays and feminists, according to a new study by University of B.C. researchers.

The only group the study's participants distrusted as much as atheists was rapists, said doctoral student Will Gervais, lead author of the study published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

That prejudice had a significant impact on what kinds of jobs people said they would hire atheists to do.

"People are willing to hire an atheist for a job that is perceived as low-trust, for instance as a waitress," said Gervais. "But when hiring for a high-trust job like daycare worker, they were like, nope, not going to hire an atheist for that job."

The antipathy does not seem to run both ways, though. Atheists are indifferent to religious belief when it comes to deciding who is trustworthy.

"Atheists don't necessarily favour other atheists over Christians or anyone else," he said. "They seem to think that religion is not an important signal for who you can trust."

The researchers found that religious believers thought that descriptions of untrustworthy people — people who steal or cheat -- were more likely to be atheists than Christians, Muslims, Jews, gays or feminists.


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