Sunday, October 30, 2005

How Evolution Works

Evolution has become the major topic on this blog during the last couple of months. However, it seems that my readers who criticise it do not have a good understanding of the theory. Some of my creationist readers have the following misconceptions:

1) The theory of evolution requires that organisms must be able to predict the future in order to evolve.
2) Evolution has never been observed.
3) Evolution means that an animal of one species must give birth to an animal of a new one.
4) All mutations are harmful.
5) Evolution cannot explain bilateral symmetry.

I found the following simple introduction to evolution online and I would suggest that my creationist readers take a few minutes to read it.

How Evolution Works

Is an Imprecise View of Words the Foundation of Biblical Literalism?

(In this post, I directly take on a couple of my blog-friends. I mean no disrespect.)

In the comments of a recent post, we got into a discussion about words. Sadie Lou claimed that I was "splitting hairs" when I insisted that the distinction between "choosing" a belief and "being compelled to accept a belief" was important. I think this is possibly the most important debate we'll have on this blog since if we can't agree on what we mean by the words we're using, we'll never be able to understand each other.

Especially when debating in abstractions like God, belief, meaning, morality, the use and understanding of words must be as precise as possible or we'll become quickly lost.

I got to thinking more about this and I realized that this disagreement is a metaphor for our larger disagreement about whether the "Bible is literally true." I've had a very hard time understanding how one could believe such a claim since it seems to me so self-evidently false. In our earlier discussion about the firmament, Sadie Lou made a comment which is to me clearly not literal: that the "waters" mentioned in Genesis which are "above" the firmament might actually refer to the Universe itself, since we often refer to the Universe as "a sea of stars."

I believe that Sadie Lou, and probably most other biblical literalists, can believe that the Bible is "literally" true because they aren't interested in drilling down to the exact meaning of the very words they claim to believe in -- or to the meaning of the word "literal." Otherwise, a biblical literalist must believe -- literally -- that there exists a "firmament" above the Earth, which the sun, moon, and stars are inside, and which has "waters... above" it, something which is so clearly at odds with the respective positions of the Earth, atmosphere, sun, moon, and stars that nobody in modern times could believe it true.

I don't want Sadie Lou to think I'm picking on her, so I'll give another example. JC Masterpiece when posed with the same dilemma made the following argument, among others:

"If you are looking from the ground through the firmament it would appear that the sun and the stars were in the firmament."

This is obviously not a literal interpretation of the text, which says "Let there be lights in the firmament," not "Let there be lights which appear from beneath to be in the firmament."

Also, he argued that I was putting too much emphasis on the word "in" in the phrase "Let there be lights in the firmament," since the Hebrew word might have some nuances that we're missing. My understanding of Hebrew notwithstanding ("in" means "in") this is a patently non-literal argument since it asks you to believe that "in" means something which is completely the opposite of "in" (i.e. "not in.")

I now believe that at least these two biblical literalists continue to consider themselves literalists only because they choose not to take the actual words of the bible seriously. They criticize others who don't believe that the Bible is literally true but ignore the fact that even they don't, ultimately, believe it.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Nikon's Small World Contest

This isn't directly related to Judaism or atheism, but it is really cool science. The Nikon Small World contest has 30 winning photographs through a microscope. The Universe is just as cool on the small scale as it is on a big one.

Bacteria growth in petri dish (30x through a stereoscope)



Muscoid fly (house fly) (6.25x)



I'll throw in one point about evolution -- look how cool and different the house fly's eyes are from ours.

via Boing Boing.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Evolution of the Eye

Someone I'm corresponding with via email claimed that there is a huge missing link between primitive eye-spots and the advanced eye. In researching the history of the eye, I found the following picture from the late Stephen Jay Gould's website. I thought my readers might find it interesting as well. (You'll have to click on it to read the text -- for some reason I can't get Blogger to show the full-size version.)

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A Question for my Creationist Friends

When responding to evidence that suggests the Universe is much (MUCH) older than the Bible says, my creationist friends have provided a couple of basic responses:

1) God created an already mature Universe approximately 6000 years ago.
2) The Flood caused many of the changes on Earth which make it appear older than it is.

Here's the question:

Assume that there is a smart, curious man who has never heard of the Christian God or the Bible. All he has to help him figure out how the Universe came about are the scientific data and theories.

Would it be reasonable for this man to believe the Universe and Earth are billions of years old?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

What's a Firmament?

(I brought up my questions about the firmament in passing on this post, but I thought it would make a good post of its own.)

(Gen 1:6) And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
(Gen 1:7) And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which {were} under the firmament from the waters which {were} above the firmament: and it was so.
(Gen 1:8) And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
...
(Gen 1:14) And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
(Gen 1:15) And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
(Gen 1:16) And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: {he made} the stars also.
(Gen 1:17) And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
(Gen 1:18) And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that {it was} good.
...
(Gen 7:11) In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.


To sum up:

1) There exists a physical barrier called a firmament.
2) There is water above and below the firmament.
3) The firmament keeps the water below separate from the water above.
4) God named the firmament "Heaven."
5) God placed the sun, moon, and stars inside the firmament.
6) God caused the great Flood in part by opening the windows of the firmament. ("Heaven.")

Discussion:

Where exactly is this firmament?

As we discussed in the previous post, most stars are billions of light-years away. So if both the moon and the stars are in the firmament, the firmament must extend from 240,000 miles, the distance of the moon, to... well, to more than 750,000,000,000,000 miles, the approximate distance of the farthest observed star. That's a big firmament.

What is the nature of the firmament?


It must be solid, in order to keep the water above it. Also, it must be hollow, or have tunnels, or be malleable, in order to allow the stars, moon, and sun to move about.

Where is the water above the firmament?


Well, it must be somewhere around 750,000,000,000,000 miles away.

So how did opening the gates of heaven allow the water to fall in?

Good question. The water above the firmament should be way outside the range of Earth's gravity. Also, it would take longer than the entire age of the Earth to get here since nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

It seems that there's no way a literal interpretation of the firmament can be true. So what gives?

I believe there are several possibilities:


1) If God indeed gave the Torah to Man, then he tailored it to suit the understanding of the people of that generation, who would have believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and that there was a dome (if they believed the world flat) or sphere (if they believed it was round) above it, in which the stars were embedded. They also probably believed that rain happened when the firmament opened, and perhaps that the sky was blue because there was water above the firmament.

2) If God indeed gave the Torah to Man, he was being allegorical. The firmament, and the Creation story, weren't meant to be taken literally.

3) The Torah was written by people, who believed it was literally true.

4) The Torah was written by people, who were being allegorical.

The only explanation which cannot be true is that the Creation story is both literal and true.


Note to commenters:


If you wish to dispute my claim that the firmament can not be literally true, please answer the questions posed:

1) Where exactly is this firmament?
2) How thick is it?
3) What is the nature of the firmament?
4) Where is the water that is above the firmament?
5) How did opening the gates of heaven allow the water to fall in?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Starlight and the Age of the Universe

"The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church" -- Ferdinand Magellan


Some of my readers believe that the Universe is only a few thousand years old. I've made the following argument informally on some of their blogs, but have never received a satisfactory answer. I would like to know the specific point at which they believe the argument fails.

This argument is not an attempt to refute the day in Genesis = era argument, just a literal, 6000 year-old Universe. Here goes:


Assumptions:

a) The speed of light hasn't changed drastically in the last 6000 years. By this I mean that it did not suddenly decelerate by a factor of 1000 or more in the last 6000 years. (The speed of light in a vacuum is actually a constant.)
b) The Universe was not created with photons placed exactly where they would have been had the Universe been way older.

(Assuming a drastically changing speed of light or a purposefully deceptive Creator would be an ad hoc hypothesis.)



The argument:

1) The Andromeda Galaxy is 2.9 million light-years away.
2) We can see the Andromeda Galaxy.
3) Therefore, the light from Andromeda has been travelling for 2.9 million years minus a little bit for the amount Andromeda has moved away since the light left.
4) Therefore, Andromeda must have existed as it now appears to us at least 2 million years ago.
5) Therefore, the Universe must be older than 2 million years.
6) Therefore, the Universe must be WAY older than 6000 years.

Please note that Andromeda is a close galaxy. I picked it because it is the farthest galaxy visible to the naked eye. The Hubble telescope has seen galaxies believed to be up to 13 billion light-years away.

Andromeda:

Saturday, October 22, 2005

I've Been Tagged!

By my blog-pal Sadie Lou.

I'm supposed to list my quirky habits and strange hangups:

1) I'm a tapper. I'm always tapping my fingers, my toes, anything to make noise. This drives the people I love nuts.
2) I'm a clean freak. I have to shower every time I get a little sweaty. This often means twice a day in the summer.
3) Late to bed, late to rise.
4) I recently watched every episode from the first three seasons of Alias on DVD from NetFlix in a few weeks. I'm anxiously awaiting season four.
5) I hate shopping - if I find a shirt I like, I'll buy 3-5 more just like it so I don't have to try on anything else. I stick with the same brand of everything I like until they stop making it.
6) This goes for food, too. I've been known to eat the same thing for dinner every day for months straight. When I get sick of it, I'll switch to something else and stick to that.
7) I'm a man who likes Chick Lit. I'm currently reading The Undomestic Goddess. It's good.
8) I have to pee twice before movies. Otherwise I'm too nervous I'll miss something.

I'll pass this on to JC Masterpiece, Laura, and Orthoprax so they can embarrass themselves too.
:-)

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Brick Testament: An Illustrated Bible

The Brick Testament is a work of genius:

Eden:



The Flood:




The Tower of Babel:



Lashes:



Taking Canaan:



The crucifixion:

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Flood Stories from Around the World

Mark Isaak has collected hundreds of Flood stories from around the world. I found them really fascinating.

Here are some examples:

Hindu:

Manu, the first human, found a small fish in his washwater. The fish begged protection from the larger fishes, in return for which it would save Manu. Manu kept the fish safe, transferring it to larger and larger reservoirs as it grew, eventually taking it to the ocean. The fish warned Manu of a coming deluge and told him to build a ship. When the flood rose, the fish came, and Manu tied the craft to its horn. The fish led him to a northern mountain and told Manu to tie the ship's rope to a tree to prevent it from drifting. Manu, alone of all creatures, survived. He made offerings of clarified butter, sour milk, whey, and curds. From these, a woman arose, calling herself Manu's daughter. Whatever blessings he invoked through her were granted him. Through her, he generated this race.


Lushai (Assam):

The king of the water demons fell in love with the woman Ngai-ti (Loved One). She rejected him and ran away. He pursued and surrounded the whole human race with water on the hill Phun-lu-buk, said to be in the far northeast. Threatended by waters which continued to rise, the people threw Ngai-ti into the flood, which then receded. The receding water carved great valleys; until then, the earth had been level.


Palau Islands (Micronesia):

The stars are the shining eyes of the gods. A man once went into the sky and stole one of the eyes. (The Pelew Islanders' money is made from it.) The gods were angry at this and came to earth to punish the theft. They disguised themselves as ordinary men and went door-to-door begging for food and lodging. Only one old woman received them kindly. They told her to make a bamboo raft ready and, on the night of the next full moon, to lie down on it and sleep. This she did. A great storm came; the sea rose, flooded the islands, and destroyed everyone else. The woman, fast asleep, drifted until her hair caught on a tree on the top of Mount Armlimui. The gods came looking for her again after the flood ebbed, but they found her dead. So one of the women-folk from heaven entered the body and restored it to life. The gods begat five children by the old woman and then returned to heaven, as did the goddess who restored her to life. The present inhabitants of the islands are descendants of those five children.


Lisu (northwest Yunnan, China, and neighboring areas):

After death came into the world as a result of a macaque's curse, sky and earth longed for human souls and bones. That is how the flood began. An orphaned brother and sister lived in squalor in a village. A pair of golden birds flew down to them one day, warned them that a huge wave would flood the earth, and told them to take shelter in a gourd and not to come out until they heard the birds again. The two children warned their neighbors, but the people didn't believe them. The children sawed off the top of a gourd and went inside. For ninety-nine days, there was no wind or rain, and the earth became parched. Then torrents of rain fell, and the resulting flood washed everything away. The brother and sister occasionally could hear the gourd bump against the bottom of heaven. After long waiting, they heard the birds calling, left the gourd, and found they had landed atop a mountain, and the flood had receded. But now there were nine suns and seven moons in the sky, and they scorched the earth during the day. The two golden birds returned with a golden hammer and silver tongs and instructed the children how to use them to get the dragon king's bow and arrows. Brother and sister went to the dragon pond and struck the reef-home of the dragon king with the hammer. This raised such a racket that the dragon king sent his servants (various fish) to investigate. The children grabbed the fish with the tongs and threw them on the bank. At last, the dragon king himself came to investigate and had to give his bow and arrows when he was likewise caught. With these, brother and sister shot down all but the brightest sun and moon. Brother and sister then went in search of other people, exploring north and south respectively. They found nobody else, and the golden birds appeared again and urged them to marry. They refused, but the birds told them it was the will of heaven. After divinations in the form of several improbable events (tortoise shells landing a certain way, a broken millstone came together, and the brother shooting an arrow through a needle's eye--all happening three times), they consented. They had six sons and six daughters which traveled different directions and became the ancestors of different races.


Altaic (central Asia):

Tengys (Sea) was once lord over the earth. Nama, a good man, lived during his rule with three sons, Sozun-uul, Sar-uul, and Balyks. √úlgen commanded Nama to build an ark (kerep), but Nama's sight was failing, so he left the building to his sons. The ark was built on a mountain, and from it were hung eight 80-fathom cables with which to gauge water depth. Nama entered the ark with his family and the various animals and birds which had been driven there by the rising waters. Seven days later, the cables gave way from the earth, showing that the flood had risen 80 fathoms. Seven days later, Nama told his eldest son to open the window and look around, and the son saw only the summits of mountains. His father ordered him to look again later, and he saw only water and sky. At last the ark stopped in a group of eight mountains. On successive days, Nama released a raven, a crow, and a rook, none of which returned. On the fourth day, he sent out a dove, which returned with a birch twig and told why the other birds hadn't returned; they had found carcasses of a deer, dog, and horse respectively, and had stayed to feed on them. In anger, Nama cursed them to behave thus to the end of the world. When Nama became very old, his wife exhorted him to kill all the men and animals he had saved so that they, transferred to the other world, would be under his power. Nama didn't know what to do. Sozun-uul, who didn't dare to oppose his mother openly, told his father a story about seeing a blue-black cow devouring a human so only the legs were visible. Nama understood the fable and cleft his wife in two with his sword. Finally, Nama went to heaven, taking with him Sozun-uul and changing him into a constellation of five stars.


Wiranggu (South Australia):

Djunban, a rain-maker, was hunting kangaroo rat with his magic boomerang, but he hit his "sister" Mandjia instead and wounded her leg. She hid the boomerang in the sand so he couldn't find it. The people were on the move, so he carried Mandjia. Later, he gave her to a woman to carry so he could search for his boomerang, and eventually he found it. Some time later he taught his people how to make rain. The next day they all traveled further. Mandjia died from her injury and metamorphosed into a rock. After traveling the next day, Djunban performed the rain-making ceremony again, but he was grieving his sister and not concentrating on his task, and the rain came too heavily. He tried to warn his people, but the flood came and washed away all the people and their possessions, forming a hill of silt. Gold and bones found in that hill came from those people.


Buryat (eastern Siberia):

The god Burkhan advised a man to build a great ship, and the man worked on it in the forest for many long days, keeping his intention secret from his wife by telling her he was chopping wood. The devil, Shitkur, told the wife that her husband was building a boat and that it would be ready soon. He further told her to refuse to board and, when her husband strikes her in anger, to say, "Why do you strike me, Shitkur?" Because the woman followed this advise, the devil was able to accompany her when she boarded the boat. With the help of Burkhan, the man gathered specimens of all animals except Argalan-Zan, the Prince of animals (some say it was a mammoth), which considered itself too large to drown. The flood destroyed all animals left on earth, including the Prince of animals, whose bones can still be found. Once on the boat, the devil changed himself into a mouse and began gnawing holes in the hull, until Burkhan created a cat to catch it.


And, of course,
Hebrew:

God, upset at mankind's wickedness, resolved to destroy it, but Noah was righteous and found favor with Him. God told Noah to build an ark, 450 x 75 x 45 feet, with three decks. Noah did so, and took aboard his family (8 people in all) and pairs of all kinds of animals (7 of the clean ones). For 40 days and nights, floodwaters came from the heavens and from the deeps, until the highest mountains were covered. The waters flooded the earth for 150 days; then God sent a wind and the waters receded, and the ark came to rest in Ararat. After 40 days, Noah sent out a raven, which kept flying until the waters had dried up. He next sent out a dove, which returned without finding a perch. A week later he set out the dove again, and it returned with an olive leaf. The next week, the dove didn't return. After a year and 10 days from the start of the flood, everyone and everything emerged from the ark. Noah sacrificed some clean animals and birds to God, and God, pleased with this, promised never again to destroy all living creatures with a flood, giving the rainbow as a sign of this covenant. Animals became wild and became suitable food, and Noah and his family were told to repopulate the earth. Noah planted a vineyard and one day got drunk. His son Ham saw him lying naked in his tent and told his brothers Shem and Japheth, who came and covered Noah with their faces turned. When Noah awoke, he cursed Ham and his descendants and blessed his other sons. [Genesis 6-9]

Quote of the Day: Atheism and Freedom

When I became convinced that the universe is natural, that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell. The dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space. I was free--free to think, to express my thoughts--free to live my own ideal, free to live for myself and those I loved, free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination's wings, free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope, free to judge and determine for myself . . . I was free! I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously faced all worlds. -- Robert G. Ingersoll


With atheism comes tremendous freedom. Not just the shallow freedom of being able to eat pork or sleep in on Sunday but the deep freedom of being able to think without restraint. I also find the Universe more wondrous now that I don't believe in God. Growing up, I thought I knew in a basic sense how everything worked. Yes, God was theoretically unknowable, but there was God and his Creation and maybe Heaven and that was it. Now I can look at the Universe and wonder. Who knows what we'll find out there?



Those are galaxies in that picture.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Letter to Dad

Letter to Dad
By Michelle

Dear Dad,

I know that you don't want to hear this, but it's something I have to get off my chest. I think about you a lot, and every time I do, I am reduced to tears.

We live on separate coasts, living lives that make us both happy. Every week that I call you, I hesitate to pick up the phone. It kills me to have to talk to you about the weather and the news when there are so many other things going on in my life. I want to tell you that it's my partner's and my anniversary in a few weeks. I want to tell you that I just joined an anti-hate campaign. I want to tell the reason that I have to cut the conversation short is because I am headed out to my lesbian reading group. I can never tell you any of those things. You know I am a lesbian. You know that I consider myself married to Julie. But we can't talk about it without you saying mean things and me hanging up the phone and crying. I often wonder why we talk at all. It seems that the only reason we talk is because I am your daughter and you are my father.

I tried so many times to talk to you about my life. Remember the time I told you that Julie was considering getting pregnant? You said to me, "A pregnant lesbian? That's an oxymoron! There's no such thing as a pregnant lesbian. It's against God!" I hung up the phone and cried for hours. Do you remember all of the times you reduced me to tears with your lectures about being gay? After years and years of insults, I decided it was best not to mention the words "gay" and "lesbian" around you. Now we talk once a week and we talk about the weather and the news. I only allow myself to mention Julie casually. I can tell you that Julie and I are going grocery shopping, but I can't tell you that we are renewing our wedding vows.

This pretending has driven me further away from you than you could ever imagine. I love you tremendously for who you are yet you cannot offer the same to me. Sometimes I lie in bed at night and think about the good old days. I remember all of the fun we used to have together. I think about the walks through Metcalf Park [in Providence, R.I.], the trips to Rocky Point and the joy of simply having you as my father. You really did your best to be a great father. I looked forward to my weekends with you after you and Mom divorced. Then, in high school I came to live with you, and that's when things went sour. Things went downhill when I became an individual. If you ever wonder why I ran away from home, it wasn't because I was a hormonal teen-ager.

You didn't like it that I was a lesbian. I bet you can't even count how many times I felt so hopeless because of your words. You never laid a hand on me, but your words were enough to put me in the hospital. I am proud to say that I have since grown into the person who I wanted to be. I grew from teen-ager to adult very fast, and I suppose I have you to thank for that. If it wasn't for you I wouldn't have run away from home and followed the path to my destiny. I am 26 years old. I live in a beautiful house in California with Julie, with whom I intend to spend the rest of my life. I can be my own person, which you never wanted me to be.

Do you know what hurts me the most? I may not see you for years. It is a 7.5-hour flight, and Christmas would be the time that I would usually visit. I know that it is not an option for me to show up for Christmas dinner with Julie, and I refuse to have her sit in a hotel while I visit my family. As much as it hurts that I might not see you for a long time, I will never again compromise who I am. Do you know that we plan to have a baby next year? I will never ever put my child in a position to be shamed, and if that means not seeing you for 20 years, then that is what I have to do.

I love you more than I can explain, and it hurts me so deeply that you probably will go to your grave without ever knowing who I am. All I ever wanted was for you to know who I am and love me for it. I only asked for unconditional love, nothing else. I would like nothing so much in the world as to have you love both Julie and me as much as I, your daughter, love you. What tears me apart is the fact that I don't ever see this happening.

If I have learned anything from this, I have learned to love someone regardless of how he has hurt me. I will never stop loving you and not a week will go by that I don't think about the good old days between us. If you could only open up your mind and heart, we could return to those good old days again.

I understand that you were raised in a different generation. I understand that you probably listen to what bigots say about homosexuality. I understand that you are the way you are because of the way that you were raised, the social circle you have and your own personal beliefs. I also understand the true meaning of unconditional love, which is something you don't have for me. I promise that I will raise my own child with unconditional love so that she or he will never have to suffer this awful feeling that I have.

Love, Michelle

[Author's note: This letter was never sent. It has been sitting in my desk drawer for two years.]


I think that too often when we debate about abstractions we lose track of why we're fighting. This is a story I found on the website of the Human Rights Campaign.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

British Catholic Bishops Warning Worshippers Not to Take Bible Literally

I recently clashed with JC Masterpiece over at his place after he wrote: "Thus evolution undermines almost every major religion in the world. The theory of evolution was formed and is at it's very core anti-religious as it's founder was." I pointed out that many religious people, including the last Pope, believed in evolution, but JC thought the late Pope didn't maintain that belief later in life.

Although the Bishops don't explicitly address evolution, I thought JC and my other Christian readers might find this article illuminating about the beliefs of other Christians, even if they be Catholics.

Catholic Church no longer swears by truth of the Bible

The Catholic bishops of England, Wales and Scotland are warning their five million worshippers, as well as any others drawn to the study of scripture, that they should not expect “total accuracy” from the Bible...

As examples of passages not to be taken literally, the bishops cite the early chapters of Genesis, comparing them with early creation legends from other cultures, especially from the ancient East. The bishops say it is clear that the primary purpose of these chapters was to provide religious teaching and that they could not be described as historical writing.

Similarly, they refute the apocalyptic prophecies of Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible, in which the writer describes the work of the risen Jesus, the death of the Beast and the wedding feast of Christ the Lamb.


via Metafilter

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Quote of the Day: Belief and Denial

I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives." -Tolstoy


What's at stake when we consider religious ideas? Why is it that people change their religions at most once or twice per lifetime when really there is more religious thought out there than an expert could learn in twenty? Why don't members of doomsday cults leave when the doomsday date comes and goes without so much as a thunderstorm?

As they say, denial ain't just a river in Egypt. Even in science, whose praises I sing from this blog, people who should know better often refuse to accept new realities. Einstein, who himself revolutionized our understanding of the world more than anyone since Darwin, refused to accept quantum theory, saying famously "God does not play dice with the Universe." The great scientist Max Planck said, "A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it," and, more colorfully, "science advances funeral by funeral."

Maybe we have to want to change before we can accept truths which contradict our worldview. In Alcoholics Anonymous, there's the concept of "hitting rock bottom," before which people are unwilling to accept what AA offers. Maybe we all need to hit some sort of bottom before we're able to consider other views.

However, I think there are people who are seekers. I was one of them, and my quest led me to atheism. I did not know where I was going, only that I wanted to find out what was true more than I wanted to be comfortable. I know Orthodox Jews who became Orthodox Jews because that is where their quests took them, so I can't claim that atheism is special in that regard. Lots of Western intellectuals seem to find their way to Buddhism as well. I think that in the case of the seeker, he's born into a situation which does not fit and is driven to find the place he belongs.

So maybe there are two ways we change: we can be in such misery that we want to trade in our worldview for another, or we can have inherited a worldview we don't fit into. Or, maybe, we simply change so much that our old worldview no longer fits us and we must find another.

Anyway, none of this offers much hope for changing people's minds by debating on the internet. :-)

Monday, October 10, 2005

Quote of the Day - Other Religions

The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also. - Mark Twain


Most people, raised in a religious tradition, spend no time wondering if they're in perhaps the wrong one -- it's obvious to them that all the others are silly. It's amazing that everybody is so lucky to be born into the correct one!

Monday, October 03, 2005

Happy Rosh Hashanah

I wish all my readers a happy Jewish New Year.

However, I must say that of all the things I can do now that I couldn't do when I was frum, not attending High Holiday services is my favorite.

The worst is of course Yom Kippur, in which they bring out every trick in the book to make you as uncomfortable as possible. You have to:

1) Fast. This includes not drinking water for some reason.
2) Wear a suit. This is usually combined with an overcrowded room in order to maximize sweating and therefore dehydration. The truly devout wear a white coat over their suit. Hats, too, of course.
3) Wake up early. To maximize fatigue.
4) Do a lot of standing. Get up and sit down like a puppet. The ark is open, the ark is shut, the ark is open, the ark is shut.
5) Wear uncomfortable shoes. Back in the day, forbidding you to wear leather was sufficient, however since comfortable non-leather shoes were invented, most Orthodox shuls have created the tradition of wearing bright white, uncomfortable Pay-less shoes despite the utter lack of real leather in many normal sneakers.
6) Keep you in shul all freaking day.
7) Intersperse prayer with the most boring speeches ever delivered.
8) SPEND THE LAST THREE HOURS OF YOUR FAST ON YOUR FEET.
9) Keep you late so that your fast is longer than it has to be.

I'm sure that some people find Yom Kippur meaningful. I was never one of them. Every year, sometime when it's still summer, it occurs to me that I don't have to attend this year and it hasn't yet failed to bring a smile to my face.