Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Meteor Explodes over Russia, Interpretations Vary

Just when I thought God didn’t advocate stoning anymore! Irrationality has followed in the wake of the meteor explosion above Russia last Friday. Instead of looking for an astronomical explanation, many believers are asking themselves what God meant by it all. Local clergyman Sexton Sergei thinks it was a sign from the divine, and that we should pray to God to thank him for averting disaster. I wouldn’t say any disaster was “averted”, but maybe Sergei is just looking on the bright side. Other believers aren’t as optimistic, though. Charles Honey of The Grand Rapids Press wondered if God would save us from a potentially devastating meteor in the future. Although God promised to never wipe out life on earth again, like he did with the great flood, he think it's possible that God may wipe out most life on Earth.

Honey's interpretation of the atheist perspective
In the end he takes a sort of middle ground, suggesting that Russia’s meteor was a divine sign to tell us we should increase funding for asteroid detection. In other words, God wouldn’t save us from a devastating asteroid, so he sent us this meteor as a wake-up call. If you’re going to interpret a meteor as God telling you something, I guess I’m just glad he’s not telling you to do something violent.

Okay, so obviously God wasn’t responsible for the meteor. But what if we were? A CNN news anchor asked Bill Nye if the DA14 asteroid that passed by Earth last week was due to global warming.

(Full video here)

Although global warming affects the world in a number of ways, that anchor is just spouting hot air. If Russia’s meteor can be interpreted as any kind of "sign", it’s that we have to be more rational. Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky doesn't think anything supernatural is at play. Instead, he says that the meteor explosion over his country was actually a U.S. weapons test.

The real insight this meteor brings is that no matter how big, flashy, or dangerous a rock is, it's still just a rock. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Atheist at a Christian College

A Stranger in a Strange Land: Tales of an Atheist in a Devout Family and Religious School

I've been reading the ISSA blog for more than a year now, so when Max offered me an opportunity to guest-write an article, I jumped at it… and into a pit of far too many possibilities to write a single, cohesive and satisfying article. The best I can do is share some of my experiences that might seem strange and new to atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers at UIUC.

So where to begin? I'm currently an atheist, and I’ve been going to church since I was seven years old. My mother recently told me why this began: in the wake of Columbine, my parents decided that taking my younger brother and I to church was a good idea. My kneejerk reaction was, “What, because Biblical morality will make sure that I don’t grow up to become a murderous psychopath?”

“No,” said my mother. “We heard about the two boys that stood up to the shooters [and were promptly gunned down, mind you]. I admired their bravery and faith, and your father and I agreed that this was something you should have in your life.” To reiterate, my mother sent me to church so that I could grow up to be Bible-thumping target practice. What. The. Fuck.

I've learned a lot of important lessons from my family over the years – sometimes kids don’t learn from timeouts, you don’t realize you’re poor if it’s the only thing you've known, and everyone is happier if they don’t know you’re an atheist.

That last one came into play when my parents pushed me to apply to a Lutheran college. Now, even if you're an atheist, you don’t say ‘no’ to attending a Lutheran college as an atheist when you’re getting a 75% scholarship and your parents are covering a nontrivial portion of the rest. So, here I am, “the most atheistic person you will ever meet,” according to my girlfriend, smack-dab in the middle of a Christian campus drier than a mummy’s asshole, and sporting a rack of pro-life pamphlets in the nurse’s office (“Keeping the Baby: Or, Why You Spent $43,000 to Get Knocked Up”) instead of a jar of condoms. Given my situation, you’d think I’d keep the idea that “everyone is happier if they don’t know you’re an atheist” in mind and try to keep my head down.

But you’d be wrong. After a bit of coercion, I started up my Lutheran college’s own Secular Student Alliance chapter. It was about as well-received by the Dean of Student’s Office as a bomb threat. It was an uphill battle of two semesters’ length just to be recognized as an official club by Student Government, with all manner of dumb excuses from every level of administration along the way. “We already have a philosophy club,” the student government president said during our hearing, “so why do we need a freethinkers society?”

“We already have a French club,” I responded, “so why do we need a Spanish club?” He shut his damn mouth, and a month later, the now-official club reserved a table outside the cafeteria on Ask an Atheist Day.

If starting an SSA chapter was as well-received as a bomb threat, Ask an Atheist Day was as well-received as a coordinated nuclear strike. It was pretty much this (average meeting attendance):

Against this:

InterVarsity was meeting in a conference room down the hallway, and when they heard what was going on, we were mobbed by angry evangelicals. In case you guys don’t have InterVarsity at UIUC, it’s a Jesus fan club with one of the highest memberships and highest budgets, enough to pay a big-name anti-LBGT speaker to give a lecture in ’09. I have never in my life personally seen so many self-proclaimed Christians act so un-Christlike. They spent two hours presenting the same tired arguments for the existence of God:

  • It makes me happy, so it must be true.
  • I can’t imagine God not existing, so He must exist.
  • Science hasn’t explained everything ever, so the Lutheran Missouri Synod must be exactly right.
  • Secular wars have claimed more lives than the Holy Wars + 30 Years War + 100 Years War, so atheists must be wrong.

They also prevented anyone passing by from asking any legitimate questions they may have had, and by an hour in were so vitriolic that security was called to monitor the table. Finally, most of them left in what appeared to be disgust after someone asked, “Why are so many atheists smug bastards?” I answered, “Imagine trying not to be smug when you go to your ten-year high school reunion and everyone is talking about what they hope Santa Claus is going to get them for Christmas.”

Even though I spent most of Ask an Atheist Day worried that I was going to be lynched, InterVarsity's antics did manage to attract the attention of every atheist, agnostic, skeptic, freethinker, deist, and person fed up with InterVarsity’s bullshit, and by the end of the day, we had a decent number of people on our mailing list. 

Unfortunately, mailing list size doesn’t reflect attendance size. Most people are just not interested in going to meetings to talk about things they don’t believe in (which was unilateral among all members, regardless of religious status; in order to reduce animosity and maintain interest, we kept the emphasis on general skepticism. Have a night where you grab a lecture hall and watch “Ancient Aliens” and give MST3K commentary, it’s a blast.)

It’s now two years later, and our SSA chapter doesn’t meet any more. A combination of lack of interest by the relatively small, mostly Christian student body and a feeling of inevitable failure among the club’s members gave us cause to not make an appearance at the most recent organization fair. You can only try to roll the boulder up the hill so many times before recognizing that you’re Sisyphus, except here the boulder was made of neutronium and the hill was Mount Everest if Mount Everest was a currently-erupting volcano.

One good thing I can say about not having a strong nonbeliever support group present on-campus is that I've been forced to consider what I believe and why I believe it a lot more carefully, and in all areas of my life. Three years of living at a Lutheran school has been like an atheist boot camp: I went in an edgy teenage atheist and have come out a champion of rationalism and the scientific method, capable of clearly articulating the what’s and why’s of observable reality. 

 So, to the Christian masses, thank you for making me a better person. It was worth the lost friends who couldn't handle their faith being examined, it was worth the lost hours of sleep I spent wondering if I was doing the right thing, and it was worth the money I lost from running a failed SSA chapter with a budget of zero dollars.

Anonymous Student

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Gays and Immoral Goo

In my experience, Christians seem to be frequently bothered by the “immoral” things that the people around them do, including homosexuality, blasphemy (which can be as simple as being an atheist), and the use of contraception. I bring this up is because I do not understand Christians’ reactions to these “immoral” people.

A recent example of such a reaction is Diana Medley, the Indiana teacher who supported a “straight people only” prom because homosexuality is immoral according to the Bible (which is actually a debatable topic, and
I don’t agree that the Bible condemns homosexuality for Christians).

From a theological standpoint, I really don’t understand why Christians get so uneasy and go to such great lengths to isolate themselves from these “immoral” people, and my confusion stems from what the Bible’s definition of “immoral” is.

In any conversation about morality, you always need to define what you mean by “immoral”, or “that which you ought not do”. When I say “X is immoral”, and that “you ought not do X”, I mean, roughly, that, “X causes unnecessary suffering”; it’s a fairly utilitarian principle. The Bible, however, does not define “immoral” as “that which causes unnecessary suffering”. Rather, going by example, “immoral”, according to the Bible, simply and ultimately means, “that which will land you in Hell.”

You may argue that this is not correct, and that “immoral” actually means, “that which violates God’s commands”, but the two are one in the same: violating God’s commands will land you in Hell. And I don’t know about you, but my concern is not about breaking rules, it’s about the consequences of my actions.

So if we take this Biblical definition of “immoral” (doing X will land you in Hell) back to the case of Diana Medley, what she is essentially saying is, “We should isolate gay people because they are unintentionally making bad investments in their future.” I’m sorry, but what the Hell? That’s like if I refused to speak to my dad because he kept buying stock in a company that he thought would prosper, and which I thought would fail.

Christians like Diana Medley act as if people who act immorally have some kind of “evil goo” floating around them, and if they get too close, that goo will stick to them, and then they’ll go to Hell along with the “immoral” person whose goo it is. Now I’m sure they don’t actually believe this, but they act as if they think this is what’s going on.

The key question is, "Okay, the Bible has labeled being gay as "wrong". So what? What are the consequences of this? Does it affect you in any way? No? Well then what's your problem?" If I could, I'd ask this girl that very same question.

It's also interesting to note that Jews in this country almost never have this kind of aversion toward people who don't follow their morality. E.g. they don't try to avoid uncircumcised men or people who don't keep Kosher. This seems to be a uniquely Christian phenomenon. 

An immoral “aura”, if you will.

And many Christians don’t leave it at that: many Christians go one step further in their irrational reactions to immorality. Rather than simply avoiding people who they think are Hell bound, they actively ridicule and demonize these people. They ridicule gays and marriage equality, they demonize blasphemers, and they protest the legality of contraception, but why?

As an analogy, think about this: If you see a man walking toward a patch of land that you think is a sinkhole, but which he sees as harmless (Christians see homosexual activity as a ticket to Hell, whereas sexually active gays do not), what would you do? Would you…

A. Run away from the man.
B. Insult him, tell him that he deserves it, or get offended by his actions.
C. Ignore his actions.
D. Do everything you could to keep him from falling into the pit, even if it means tackling him.

Option A makes absolutely no sense unless the “immoral goo” scenario is correct.

Option B also makes no sense, but it seems to be fairly ubiquitous, depending on where you live, of course.

Option C seems to be the most common choice of Christians where I live, which seems to indicate a lack of conviction in the reality of the sinkhole (Hell).

Option D is, of course, the rational one, and it seems to be out of favor with many Christians where I live.

Now this situation is not fully analogous with Christianity and Hell because the sinkhole is an immediate threat that has little chance of being mitigated, whereas Hell is a long term threat that may well disappear for a person as time goes on and as they change. So it should not be said that Christians should “tackle” immoral people off the road to Hell, but that they should strongly and frequently try to convince people their behavior is unsafe. Unfortunately, even this milder course of action is sorely lacking in my experience.

Ultimately, I don’t understand Christians’ behavior with regard to Hell and morality: some act as if there is this “immoral goo” floating around, others ridicule people uselessly, and others simply ignore the danger that their friends are in. The only course of action that makes sense to me (actively and passionately trying to save people) seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Personal Interpretation of Impending Non-Existence

One afternoon, when I was 10 years old, I decided to take a nap on my couch.  I woke a few hours later pretty disoriented.  The house was empty and it was newly dark outside.  As I lay on the couch trying to figure out the time or at least what part of the day I was in, I was hit with a thought that had absolutely nothing to do with the situation I was in.  The thought: I will die one day and never be conscious again.  The thought shortened my breath and I began dry heaving.  I went outside on my back patio to get some fresh air and instead I vomited.  I have not been the same since.

As I got older, the futility of living and the idea of nonexistence grew.  They permeated my regular modes of thought.  Although I began basing my system of morality on generally utilitarian principles, I could not justify acting upon these principles as a means to reach some kind of intrinsic value; I opposed utilitarianism's principles of happiness because I did not believe happiness had value in and of itself.  Instead, I acted on utilitarian ethics because I attached a negative value to human suffering.  I had accepted the idea that nothing, by our own definition of the term, has intrinsic value because anything that would have intrinsic value is temporary; our happiness ends and it becomes as if happiness never happened in the first place.  The utilitarian definition of intrinsic value, then, becomes whatever supplies permanent happiness.  Because nothing supplies this, we are plagued with knowing our happiness and lives are limited.  This knowledge hinders how happy we can feel, especially when compared to those who either tend not to think about death or believe they will not die at all.

As I grew even older and went to college, I began to gradually appreciate my experience of living, and I believe it is likely I appreciate life much more than the average person.  Appreciation is not the same as happiness, however, and the thought process usually goes something like this: 1. Spurt of happiness 2. Recognition of temporariness of happiness 3. Loss of happiness after realizing it is temporary 4. Appreciation for the ability to experience happiness. 

Essentially, appreciation is knowing happiness will end, and number two and four in the thought process go hand in hand.  Logically, those who are happiest should dislike the idea of no longer existing the most, as they lose the most upon dying.  Whether one loses a positive, happy experience or the potential to obtain such experience, we are undoubtedly afraid of losing everything should we value anything even in the slightest.

And so to the atheists who claim they are comfortable with the idea of dying, or that the idea of dying does not hinder their ability to feel happiness to the fullest extent or feel both happiness and appreciation at the same time, I call BS.  We like the idea of eternal life—we just cannot bring ourselves to believe in it.

Here are a few Wikipedia pages with information on the references in this post:

Doomsday Comes Early This Year

These last few years have been pretty tough for skeptics. Back in 2011, we had to deal with the persistent drumbeat of imminent rapture from Harold Camping's fundamentalist followers. Then, last year, we faced the building hype surrounding the alleged end of the Mayan calendar. Mere weeks later, yet another end-of-the-world prediction has risen from the ashes. Better hold on tight, 'cause this time we're facing Judgement Day.

What? I said I'd be back...

As you well know, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation this past Monday. But what you may not know is that in doing so, he set into motion the fulfillment of a prophecy nearly nine hundred years in the making. The apocalyptic prediction, known as the Prophecy of the Popes, and is apparently the result of a vivid hallucination experienced by an eccentric Irish bishop known as Malachy while visiting the Vatican in 1139.
"Whoa...I think that stuff is kicking in."
While tripping his face off, Malachy allegedly received  a list of all future popes. Rather than just writing down their names, Malachy instead wrote down a number of ambiguous descriptions for these future popes. As a result, his predictions are therefore inherently untestable (something quite common amongst fortune tellers). However, some of them have been just close enough to convince a disturbingly large number of people. Here is one example from, well, exactly the kind of website you would expect to have this kind of information:

"...the first John-Paul, born in the diocese of Belluno (beautiful moon) is described on the list as 'Half Moon.' This pope served but one month, beginning with a half moon, then dying under mysterious circumstances a month later, with the next half moon. The titles of Pius IX, Leo XIII and Pius X have also struck observers as being remarkably appropo."

But what about the final pope? Malachy makes the following prediction for Benedict's successor:

"In extreme persecution, the seat of the Holy Roman Church will be occupied by Peter the Roman, who will feed the sheep through many tribulations, at the term of which the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the formidable Judge will judge his people. "

Considering the scandals surrounding the Catholic Church at this moment - which now include everything from child abuse to money laundering - this last bit of the prophecy seems to resonate with many people. The early retirement of Pope Benedict has only just rejuvinated interest in the Prophecy of the Popes, so no opinion poll data exists on the subject at the moment. But based on the amount of attention I've seen this topic get on social media, I'm already convinced that this is going to be another one of those things that we skeptics just have to deal with.

With that in mind, I want to leave you with the single best argument that could be used to debunk a doomsday prepper: St. Malachy's document is very likely a complete forgery. In Tony Allan's book Prophecies: 4,000 Years of Prophets, Visionaries, and Predictions, he notes a discrepancy in the way the popes are identified. It so happens that Malachy's predictions were "lost" after he made them in 1139, only to be "found" in the late 16th century. And wouldn't you know it? The popes that had already served their time were described far more accurately than those yet to rule. In Chapter 11, Allan writes:
"Some of the prophecies certainly have an appropriateness that smacks of hindsight. For example, the fifth pope on the list, Adrian IV, is given the motto De rure albo, 'From the Albian country.' He was the Englishman Nicholas Breakspear, who came from St. Albans. Alexander IV, Signium Ostiense, was cardinal of Ostia before his election... 
...It is, of course, easy to exaggerate the list's accuracy by simply citing its successes. Other tags do not fit so neatly. John Paul II, the Pole who in 1978 became the first non-Italian pope for 450 years, is apostrophized as De labore solis, 'From the labor of the sun.' Attempts to find a connection by pointing out that he came from Krakow, the birthplace of Copernicus, who first expounded the Earth's solar orbit, seem forced."
Now I don't have any sort of capability to predict the future, so I can't say exactly who will replace Pope Benedict on top of that outrageous golden throne - nor can I say for how long this man will reign. But one thing is for sure: perpetuating the attitude that we live in the end times is obviously dangerous and self destructive. Next time you see someone on facebook or reddit bloviating about the Prophecy of the Popes, make it your personal responsibility to guide them in the right direction. Maybe, just maybe, we can blow this one over before it reaches critical mass.

Good luck. We're all counting on you.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sex, Love, and Banana Slugs

I love the second week of February. Darwin Day and Valentine’s Day? If you’re anything like me, you've had a serious case of sex on the brain. More specifically, the biological costs and benefits of sex. Sex seems like the most natural thing in the world; how else are we supposed to pass on our genes? But it turns out sex is only one reproductive option. Guys, count your lucky stars, because most species have very few males, and some have none at all.

Why are there so few males in, say, the insect world? Why are their roles minimalized in so many organisms? Well guys, I hate to say it, but you’re a cost of sex. The point of reproducing is to pass on genes. Daughters will not only have your genetic material, but will raise children with your genetic material. A son has your genes, but the only contribution he makes is to give sperm to a girl, and then he’s done. From an evolutionary standpoint, all that is needed from the male is testicles. He doesn’t need a body to create new babies, so why would he need one? Creation of and raising a male is a biological hardship. “But wait!” most of the people reading this post will cry, “We have benefits! We wouldn’t have evolved if we were just a cost!” Very true! Males add genetic recombination into the mix. If females just cloned themselves all the time, everyone would be exactly the same, barring random mutations. And if everyone is the same, we as a species would have a hard time adapting to change.

I matter, dammit! 

So everyone knows how humans reproduce (I hope), but how do other animals do it? Other mammals, birds, reptiles—we’re pretty familiar with those, and they’re all similar to us in that they all have sex with independent males and females. But when we go smaller, we find some seriously weird sex rituals.

Fully asexual species clone themselves. Some species lay eggs, some “bud,” which is when the offspring grows out of the side of the adult (Coral is a good example of this). Just take a minute to imagine how weird that would be if humans grew babies off of their shoulders. So anyway, asexual creatures don’t have to deal with producing males, and except for random genetic mutations, they don’t change.

The next step from fully asexual to fully sexual would be the hermaphrodites. A quick side note: humans cannot be true hermaphrodites because we can’t fertilize ourselves and have our own baby. True hermaphrodites can, but it is better for them to have sex (genetic recombination again!). We’ll use slugs as a good example of hermaphrodites. They seem to have it all in terms of benefits: they get to have genetic recombination, but can still carry offspring themselves. Why aren’t we all hermaphrodites? For one, we’d all have to maintain two reproductive systems. Second, accidental self-fertilization brings us back to the problems associated with cloning. Lastly, and most horrifying, hermaphrodites fight over who gets to wear the pants. Because being a male takes so much less energy, when slugs mate they try to impregnate the other slug without themselves becoming impregnated. In banana slugs, they will go so far as to try and chew off the other slug’s penis, to force them to become the female. Yes, you can find video links of this. No, I don’t want to have to look at one to post it.

Okay, fine. Here's a picture. You can use your imagination from here.
Many animals have females and males, but have basically reduced the males to a pair of testes (remember when I said all that was really needed from guys was the testicles? Well, these species have taken that to an extreme). Take the anglerfish. The male is much smaller than the female and is born with what in humans would be a very good sense of smell. He needs it, because if he doesn’t find a female almost immediately, he’ll die. If he does find a female, he latches on and dissolves the skin of his mouth and her side, fusing them together. Think of it as a less gross version of the “Human Centipede." Females can have several males attached this way. Other species have variations on this theme. Female Black Widow spiders eat their mates and male bees live for a week then die by forcible castration after mating with a queen. Finally, male mites only live long enough to impregnate their sisters inside their mother

So guys, as we come to Valentine’s Day, get her something nice and feel lucky that you’re not about to get eaten, attached to her by fusion, and that you even exist at all.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sex, Drugs, and Money: The Resignation of Pope Benedict

On Monday, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, and the internet went crazy. He cited ill health and fatigue as his reasons for stepping down. While understandable, it also makes for a very boring resignation story.

This move wasn't without precedent, however, and what an interesting precedent it was. So instead of focusing on Benedict XVI, let’s take a look at one one of his predecessors, the dashing Pope Benedict IX. At the tender age of 20, Benedict (who shall be referred to as Benny from here on, because I think he would have liked that) inherited the papacy from his uncles, both of whom had been popes as well. Sure, the papacy isn't supposed to be passed down like the monarchy, but it was the 11th century—there was really no difference between church and state.

Look at that roguish face

After he was appointed pope, his peers had nothing but glowing reviews of him:

 “His life as a pope so vile, so foul, so execrable  that  I shudder to think of it!” wrote Bishop Benno of Piancenza.

“[Young Benny is] a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest! [He is] feasting on immorality!” wrote St. Peter Damian, purported expert on demons and immorality.

Feasting on immorality! If only Benny had been around now, I feel like he would be a fun guy to go grab a beer with (as long as we were in a crowded, well-lit place… he doesn't seem like the kind of guy you want to be alone with).

Four years after his term began, he was forced out of Rome; unfortunately, however, he was a persistent little man, and he quickly returned to his former glory. Nobody was happy about this, however, and in 1044 he was again driven out; this time they elected a new pope. This Pope was dethroned once Benny got some forces together the next year.

A few months later, Benny decided to resign. The months of being free to roam about had probably left their mark, as he claimed he wanted to pursue marriage. It also didn't hurt that his godfather offered him a considerable sum of money in exchange for the office (that’s right: along with resigning, Benny also holds the honor of being the only known pope to sell the papacy).

He then changed his mind about resigning, and kept trying to get his crown back until the church excommunicated him. No one is sure of what became of poor Benny, but I like to imagine he spent the rest of his days in a brothel, drowning his sorrows with wine and women.  

So no matter how scandalous it seems that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning, Catholics can take solace in the fact that he didn't make a complete* ass of himself in the process.

*this is referring only to the resignation process, not previous ass-like behavior

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Atheists and Depression

A few days ago, I was spending some quality time with some of my (Christian) friends. One of them, who's requested to remain nameless, asked me what he probably thought was a very insightful question: "Max, being an atheist as well as somebody who tries to keep abreast of current events, how is it that you're not depressed? I mean, look at the world around you, and at all the wrongs you see being perpetuated by organized religion. Doesn't that get you down?", not really. I don't get depressed, I get mad.

This mad.

     I could go on for a while about all the things that get me mad (have you read Greta Christina's book yet? Seriously, go read it), but despite the reasons for my anger, I have to wonder--how do other atheists deal with the reality of the world around them? Almost all atheists, after all, are realist enough to realize the world around them is far from perfect, and we realize that pulling the wool over our eyes isn't going to make the world a better place. However, and very unfortunately, my friend's question about depression is a disturbingly valid one for many atheists. Some studies have shown that religious affiliation is correlated with decreased risk of suicide attempts. This isn't surprising. Religious people have the security and comfort of religion to make their moral decisions for them, and religious people are more likely to have a morality system that views suicide as inherently immoral. Atheists, on the other hand, have a lot to be depressed about, and are more likely to have a subjective view of morality.

So what can we do about this? Well I, even as an atheist, don't get depressed; I get mad, and I think one of the reasons that I (and other members of ISSA) get mad about the misdeeds of religions is that we have a wonderful group of peers to support us when we try to confront reality. I know that in high school, when I didn't have an atheist group to draw strength from, I often felt powerless to change the reality of the religious world around me, and it wasn't pleasant. But ISSA is not powerless. We give our members outlets for their frustration, from poking fun at religious blowhards on campus to doing good deeds around town. I think this sense of community (the very same sense of community that keeps agnostics and otherwise reasonable people attending church) is what allows ISSA's members to be productive with their frustration where an atheist alone would only be despondent. In addition to our meetings, we reach out to the community through activism--whether it's raising thousands of dollars through our Light the Night walk, selling hot dogs to drunkards and donating the profits toward secular adoption agencies, or volunteering right here in Champaign at the Orpheum Children's Museum. Besides giving its members a place to get mad, ISSA provides a much more important service: we let our members make a difference. That feeling of empowerment is what lets me turn my anger into something productive, and it's the most essential part of our group.

Happy Darwin Day! It's hISSA 204th birthday!

The weekly email of the Illini Secular Student Alliance!
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Illini Secular 
Student Alliance

Salutations, Sassy Secularists!
After celebrating the life of Charles Darwin with some delicious cake on the quad, we've got a busy week ahead of us! In addition to our regular weekly meeting, we've got two other very special events planned.

Weekly Meeting
The weekly meeting will take place Thursday, Feb. 14th at 7:00pm in 1090 Lincoln Hall. Click here for a map. At the meeting, one of our members will give a fascinating presentation on the evolution of altruism in bees. Also, more cake.

ISSA at Murphy's
After our official agenda, we will adjourn to Murphy's around 8:00pm - as is our tradition. We welcome anyone and everyone who can make it, regardless of whether or not you plan to drink. It's a great chance to get to know your godless cohorts better!

Oh yes, it's Ladies' Night!
Listen, ladies! Come to Katie's place on Saturday, Feb. 16th at 8:00pm for a night to hang out with just the gals. There'll be snacks, games, movies, and girlish malarkey! See the Facebook event page for more info and be sure to RSVP!

Biannual Bar Crawl
Join us for a night of devil-may-care debauchery on our spring semester bar crawl! We'll meet at Murphy's at 8:00pm on Tuesday, Feb. 19th and go from there. T-shirts will be available for purchase at this week's meeting, and don't forget to RSVP via the Facebook event page!

If you have not yet paid gas money owed from the trip, please bring $35 to this week's meeting.
The Heretic's Guide to Mormonism with David Fitzgerald
(Thursday, Feb. 21st)

You will not want to miss this talk from the author of "The Heretic's Guide to Western Religion" highlighting the faith that introduced the world to magical underwear.

We had a great time with this game last semester so we're going to do it again, but even better the second time around! More details are coming.
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Monday, February 11, 2013

Ovulation Superpowers!

Every now and then, I’ll stumble across an article citing bogus research, or a bogus article citing legitimate research, and one theme that keeps coming up is ovulation. The mysteries of the female body are being revealed one after another. When a woman reaches her most fertile time of the month, she apparently gains a number of super-human powers. Normally I’d shrug off this type of journalism, but when a Behavioral Psychology professor cited a number of them in a lecture, I knew it had gone too far. Here’s some of the most popular - and most ridiculous - ovulation research I've seen in the last couple of years.

Humans have no estrus period. In other words, females don’t display when they are fertile. However, one extremely popular lap dancer study suggests that men can unconsciously recognize a woman’s peak fertility. The study claims that lap dancers get higher tips according to how fertile they are (based on their menstrual cycle). The study also claims that using hormonal contraception decreased the dollar amount of tips a dancer receives. It sounds like a reasonable claim, until you see how the study was conducted. The study only looked at the self-reported data of 18 women over 2 months, who all worked in Albuquerque gentlemen’s clubs. This is clearly too small of a sample size, and from just one location at that. Furthermore, 2 months is much too short for a study looking at menstrual cycles. Simply thinking logically about the situation reveals how absurd the claims are. In a dark, sweaty, loud environment, can tipsy men really pick up on slight changes in hormones or behavior in these women, and then unknowingly pay them more because of it? I doubt it.

Another study concerning ovulation, by Kristina Durante at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and featured on CNN, claims that, “When women are ovulating, they “feel sexier,” and therefore lean more toward liberal attitudes on abortion and marriage equality,” – and would therefore prefer Obama over Romney in the past election. For my own sanity and yours, I won’t digress on this study, but if you want definite proof that this is bogus, check out 
Katie Clancy’s analysis at Scientific American.

An equally bizarre study, by the University of Toronto and Tufts University claims that when looking at pictures of men’s faces while ovulating, women have better “Gaydar”.  Although there's evidence that sexuality can somewhat be determined from a face, the mechanisms behind it still aren't understood. And even if the proposed correlation exists, what was the point of the study? It’s hard to imagine a good reason other than cheap publicity.

Although this next study doesn’t directly involve ovulation, I had to mention it. Published on BBC News, the researchers claim that semen makes women happy. Yes, apparently the trace amounts of hormones contained in semen makes women happy – and using condoms stops the semen from being “absorbed” and altering the woman’s mood. Not only do these hormones make women happier, but apparently, they make women so happy that their happiness is still higher than normal when they filled out the survey days later. This has led to some headlines reading, “Giving blowjobs makes women happier”. It’s science, folks. 

I’m not sure how to classify these studies, because their shock value makes it difficult to identify valid research among the racy nonsense. Regardless, they’ve clearly made an impact if they’re being mentioned by a professor at U of I. Some have slight statistical significance, but most are just ridiculous, and all of them are purely correlational. So next time you hear someone mention a bogus claim about the menstrual cycle, tell them to check their facts. And if one of your female friends gets depressed about this type of questionable journalism, don’t worry, she probably just hasn’t had enough semen lately.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Atheism ISSA non-prophet organization."

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Illini Secular 
Student Alliance

Howdy, Happening Heathens!
This week, we'll learn about mistakes people make when they leave their thinking caps at home and then eat some scrumptious cake in honor of Charles Darwin! 

Catholicism in the Classroom
Join us at the Newman Catholic Center at 7pm on Wednesday, Feb. 6th for a lecture by controversial UIUC professor Keith Howell. In 2010, Howell came under fire for supporting the Catholic doctrine on same-sex marriage in the classroom. This is a great opportunity to learn about the limits of secularism at your very own university!

Weekly Meeting
The weekly meeting will take place Thursday, Feb. 7th at 7:00pm in 1090 Lincoln Hall. Click here for a map. Alex will be giving a presentation on common fallacies in logical thinking. It's sure to be helpful and enlightening!

ISSA at Murphy's
After our official agenda, we will adjourn to Murphy's around 8pm - as is our tradition. We welcome anyone and everyone who can make it, regardless of whether or not you plan to drink. It's a great chance to get to know your godless cohorts better!

Darwin Day on the Quad
It's that time of year to celebrate the life and times of our main man Charlie! Find us Tuesday, Feb. 12th on the quad - It wouldn't be a birthday party without delicious, nerdy cake! You won't want to miss it.

If you have not yet paid gas money owed from the trip, please bring $35 to this week's meeting.
Ladies' Night
(Saturday, Feb. 16th)

Us godless girls gotta stick together -- that's why we've planned a sleepover just for the ladies! Stick around -- there are more details to come. 
The Heretic's Guide to Mormonism with David Fitzgerald
(Thursday, Feb. 21st)

You will not want to miss this talk from the author of "The Heretic's Guide to Western Religion" highlighting the faith that introduced the world to magical underwear.

We had a great time with this game last semester so we're going to do it again, but even better the second time around! More details are coming.
Spring Bar Crawl
(Tuesday, Feb. 19th)

It happens every semester, and it's always a night full of devil-may-care debauchery! Be sure to RSVP via the Facebook event page.

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Illini Secular Student Alliance · 1401 West Green Street · Urbana, IL 61801
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