Friday, December 30, 2005

Over Three Hundred Proofs of God's Existence

A funny take on theistic argumentation.

Some highlights:

(1) If evolution is false, then creationism is true, and therefore God exists.
(2) Evolution can't be true, since I lack the mental capacity to understand it; moreover, to accept its truth would cause me to be uncomfortable
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) If I say something must have a cause, it has a cause.
(2) I say the universe must have a cause.
(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

(1) I can conceive of a perfect God.
(2) One of the qualities of perfection is existence.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) Check out the world/universe/giraffe. Isn't it complex?
(2) Only God could have made them so complex.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) Isn't that baby/sunset/flower/tree beautiful?
(2) Only God could have made them so beautiful.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) My aunt had cancer.
(2) The doctors gave her all these horrible treatments.
(3) My aunt prayed to God and now she doesn't have cancer.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

(1) In my younger days I was a cursing, drinking, smoking, gambling, child-molesting, thieving, murdering, bed-wetting bastard.
(2) That all changed once I became religious.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) Okay, I don't pretend to be as intelligent as you guys -- you're obviously very well read. But I read the Bible, and nothing you say can convince me that God does not exist. I feel him in my heart, and you can feel him too, if you'll just ask him into your life. "For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son into the world, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish from the earth." John 3:16.
(2) Therefore, God exists.

(1) See this bonfire?
(2) Therefore, God exists.

(1) Flabble glurk zoom boink blubba snurgleschnortz ping!
(2) No one has ever refuted (1).
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) Telling people that God exists makes me filthy rich.
(2) Therefore, God exists.

(1) Human reasoning is inherently flawed.
(2) Therefore, there is no reasonable way to challenge a proposition.
(3) I propose that God exists.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

(1) If you turn your head sideways and squint a little, you can see an image of a bearded face in that tortilla.
(2) Therefore, God exists.

(1) A plane crashed killing 143 passengers and crew.
(2) But one child survived with only third-degree burns.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(1) If things had been different, then things would be different.
(2) That would be bad.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

(2) Therefore, God exists.

(1) Ask Atheists what caused the Big Bang.
(2) Regardless of their answer, ask how they know this.
(3) Continue process until the Atheist admits he doesn't know the answer to one of your questions.
(4) You win!
(5) Therefore, God exists.

(1) God is:
(a) The feeling you have when you look at a newborn baby.
(b) The love of a mother for her child.
(c) That little still voice in your heart.
(d) Humankind's potential to overcome their difficulties.
(e) How I feel when I look at a sunset.
(f) The taste of ice cream on a hot day.
(2) Therefore, God exists.

(1) If there are absolute moral standards, then God exists.
(2) Atheists say that there are no absolute moral standards.
(3) But that's because they don't want to admit to being sinners.
(4) Therefore, there are absolute moral standards.
(5) Therefore, God exists.

(1) I'm going to prove to you that God exists.
(2) [Insert any of the other arguments on this page in here.]
(3) [Atheist refutes argument.]
(4) I cannot prove there is a God anymore than anyone of us can prove we really exist in a tangible world.
(5) Therefore, God exists.

(1) If the Exodus story has any basis in historical fact, then God exists.
(2) Some guy found some chariot wheels at the bottom of the Red Sea.
(3) There is absolutely no other way that chariots could get to the bottom of the Red Sea.
(4) This means the Exodus story is true.
(5) Therefore, God exists.

(1) You can't prove God doesn't exist!
(2) Therefore, God exists.

(1) I have a large number of arguments for God.
(2) One of them is probably true.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Ushpizin: A Review

I recently saw Ushpizin, a movie about a Hasidic couple in Jerusalem. I thought it was outstanding. The actors who play the couple are married in real life, and their on-screen relationship has a sense of reality to it that you rarely see in movies. (It's also refreshing to see a movie with an overweight, female romantic lead.) Ushpizin gives you a feeling of what it must be like to really believe in the Breslov tradition of Judaism. The protagonists see God's hand in every event in their lives and, since it's a fictional world, even us atheists can perhaps see God's hand in their lives. (Indeed works of fiction often take place in worlds with much more evidence for Divine Intervention than I believe we see in our own -- fiction wouldn't be compelling without some order and meaning to things, while reality simply is what it is. However, that's a topic for another post.)

Watching the movie, I got to experience a different kind of Judaism from the modern Orthodoxy in which I was raised. Even when I was religious, I would never have thought that eating fish would make one likely to have a son, that God was purposely testing me with a difficult situation, or that if I prayed hard enough, God would intervene directly in my life. Mine was a more abstract monotheism, more suited to my world than to this movie's. I can barely imagine what it would be like to be constantly looking for signs from God. If I get in a car accident, should I worry that God's warning me? If I'm narrowly missed by a car, was it God looking out for me? When an escaped prisoner shows up at my door, has God sent him to me?

Such a life would be very interesting, and it has a kind of beauty. It also seems like it would be pretty exhausting, emotionally.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Rush Limbaugh Calls Intelligent Design Pushers 'Disingenous'

I know why they're doing it, but I still think that [Intelligent Design] is a little bit disingenuous. Let's make no mistake. The people pushing intelligent design believe in the biblical version of creation. Intelligent design is a way, I think, to sneak it into the curriculum and make it less offensive to the liberals because it ostensibly does not involve religious overtones, that there is just some intelligent being far greater than anything any of us can even imagine that's responsible for all this, and of course I don't have any doubt of that. But I think that they're sort of pussyfooting around when they call it intelligent design.

Call it what it is. You believe God created the world, and you think that it's warranted that this kind of theory for the explanation for all that is be taught.

Holy crap. Even Rush Limbaugh, who opposed the Dover decision, admits that ID is a fraud.

Incidentally, Judge John E. Jones III, who ruled against ID in the Dover case had this to say about ID:

It is our view that a reasonable, objective observer would, after reviewing both the voluminous record in this case, and our narrative, reach the inescapable conclusion that ID is an interesting theological argument, but that it is not science. (p. 89)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Quotes of the Day: James Baldwin

Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.

Everybody's journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality.

Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch.

It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.

It is very nearly impossible... to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.

The paradox of education is precisely this - that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.

James Baldwin. If you haven't read his novels, I recommend you do so. That man could write.

Abortion is All But Gone in South Dakota

Until I read this article in today's Washington Post, I had no idea how successful opponents to abortion have already been in some states.

South Dakota, those on both sides of the abortion debate agree, has become one of the hardest states in the country in which to obtain an abortion. One of three states in the country to have only one abortion provider -- North Dakota and Mississippi are the others -- South Dakota, largely because of a strong antiabortion lobby, is also becoming a leading national laboratory for testing the limits of state laws restricting abortion, both opponents and advocates of abortion rights say.

I understand people's opposition to abortion. I really do. I understand that they don't differentiate between a fetus and a baby and so, to them, abortion is murder. I disagree with them, but I understand. However, they're in the distinct minority when it comes to cases where the woman has been raped or is in mortal danger, yet they are succeeding in preventing abortions in those cases as well:

South Dakota is home to some of the poorest counties in the country, including the poorest, Buffalo County, seat of the Crow Creek Sioux reservation. State law forbids any public funding for the $450 procedure, even in the case of rape or incest. Beyond cost, there is the distance. It's a long slog here from places like Rapid City, about 350 miles away in the western part of the state. For some women, the only way to do it -- and not pay for a hotel room -- is to make the 700-mile trip in one day...

Even women in a medical or life-threatening emergency have only one hospital to go to that will perform an emergency abortion, she added. "One hospital. In the entire state, again in Sioux Falls."

In addition to have many laws limiting abortion in South Dakota, there is a tremendous stigma on doctors performing abortion:

Looby, whose father is an obstetrician-gynecologist, said she has talked to many doctors in South Dakota who say they have no personal objection to performing abortions but cannot risk their careers and community standing by offering the procedure.

If you oppose abortion, perhaps you can agree with me that it should be available in emergencies and for cases of rape. If you support a woman's right to choose, you should realize that opponents may not need to overturn Roe v. Wade to effectively eliminate almost all legal abortion.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels

During my week off, I finally got around to reading Hella Winston's Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels. It's a fascinating book and I recommend it to Orthodox Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, and anybody who's interested in the human tragedies and stories of survival and renewal that it contains.

As most of my formerly and currently Orthodox Jewish readers know, the book is about Hasidim who rebel against the lifestyle in which they were born and raised. Most of them continue to pretend to be "normal" Hasidim, out of fear of hurting their loved ones or losing their communities, their families, and/or their livelihoods. It's very moving and, whether you believe the Hasidic way of life is fundamentally right or wrong, you will recognize that the way the community treats those who don't fit desperately needs to be addressed.

Unchosen is not a systematic study of the Hasidic world as a whole and as such doesn't provide evidence for how widespread the problems her subjects face are. However, one of the people in the book, who himself remains frum, estimates that he personally knows 100 Hasidic rebels who lead hidden lives, and that he suspects there are many more, perhaps 500.

Almost all of the rebels in the book remain, to some extent, attached "to the religion and to certain elements of Hasidic culture, [but] also feel oppressed by their community's rigid rules, behavioral restrictions, and social scrutiny." Indeed, it's striking how many of the problems the rebels face stem from "rigid rules, behavioral restrictions, and social scrutiny" which is tangential at best to the actual religion. For example, although Hasidic clothing is mostly custom rather than religious rule, rebels who dressed a little bit differently were (verbally) abused by relatives and other Hasidim. All of the rebels in the book who remained in their communities lived in fear of being found out, not because they were embarrassed, but because they feared retribution in the form of rejection from family and livelihood, damaging their siblings' or children's chances at making good shidduchim*, or, in some cases, of beatings by so-called "enforcers."

The Hasidic community which appears in this book (and again, the book is not an attempt to study the community quantitatively but rather shows the community through the rebels' eyes) is one which seems to be preoccupied with what everybody else thinks and does. "[E]ven those who identified themselves as contented members of their communities nonetheless expressed a great preoccupation with what others in the community would think, and say, and do in the face of even hypothetical nonconformity... while I tried my best to remain open to all points of view, I couldn't help feeling angered by the treatment many had been subjected to, merely for asserting their individual desires, or daring to question."

Furthermore, many of the rebels who wanted to leave the community (as opposed to those who wished to remain but live more freely) were hindered by a lack of education. Many barely know English, and very few knew much math beyond basic arithmetic. Few have legitimate high school diplomas. The Hasidic rebels also lack social education. They don't know how to relate to non-Jews or even non-Hasidic Jews. They're not comfortable relating with the opposite sex. They don't understand mainstream American social norms or expectations. Some, who have great difficulty making the transition to the non-Hasidic world and aren't used to having so few rules, fall prey to drug problems or risky sexual behavior.

Malkie Schwartz, who is a prominent figure in Unchosen, was able to get herself into a college and successfully transition out of the Hasidic community. She credits her (late) secular grandmother for this achievement, for providing her with a place to stay and the necessary support. Malkie, following (but drastically changing) the lubavitcher tradition of serving others, opened an organization called Footsteps (previously discussed here) which provides "educational, vocational, and emotional support to those seeking to enter or explore a world beyond the insular, ultra-religious environments in which they were raised." Footsteps provides English tutoring, GED high school equivalency preparation, and help with college and job applications.

Many religious readers will find solace in making a distinction between the people and the religion. In the conclusion, Winston addresses this idea: "[M]any people I spoke with liked to claim, as a kind of defense, that it is not the religion itself, but religious people who are the problem. This may be a more intellectual than substantive distinction, however. Religion, of course, does not exist in a vacuum, and even those who believe that religious laws were handed down from God acknowledge that it has been up to human beings to interpret them and carry them out. The lives of those described in this book unfolded within actual Hasidic communities, after all, not in some theoretical space."

* "Shidduchim" are matches made by matchmakers. Typically, in the communities Winston writes about, matches are made by matchmakers. The couple will meet each other two or three times and decide whether to get married. Although nobody can be forced to marry, it's uncommon to reject more than a couple potential spouses. Hasidim seem to live in fear of damaging their children's or sibling's potential shidduchim, since having a relative who leaves the community or doesn't quite fit in may seriously lower the quality of potential spouses. Similarly, the children of ba'alei tshuvah, or formerly non-Hasidic Jews who became Hasidic, will be matched with other children of ba'alei tshuvah or other people considered lower status.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Gone Til Saturday

Folks, I'm going to take the week off. Have a good one!

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Bat, the Bird, and the Flatfish

If animals were designed by God an "Intelligent Designer," why do bat skeletons look like the other mammals instead of like birds? And what's up with the fingers?

Bonus question: Was God the "Intelligent Designer" drunk when He made the flatfish? (Note the twisted skull.) Or was it a practical joke?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Creationists Say, "Stop Calling Evolution 'Just a Theory'"

The primary authority for Answers in Genesis is the infallible Word of God, the Bible (see Q&A Bible). All theories of science are fallible, and new data often overturn previously held theories. Evolutionists continually revise their theories because of new data, so it should not be surprising or distressing that some creationist scientific theories need to be revised too.

The first article on this page sums up what the creationists’ attitude should be about various ideas and theories. The other articles provide examples of arguments that should no longer be used; some arguments are definitely fallacious, while others are merely doubtful or unsubstantiated. We provide brief explanations why, and/or hyperlinks to other articles on this Web site with more detailed explanations. We don’t claim that this list is exhaustive—it will be updated with additions and maybe deletions as new evidence is discovered. Many of these arguments have never been promoted by AiG, and some have not been promoted by any major creationist organization (so they were not directed at anyone in particular), but are instead straw men set up by anti-creationists. --Answers in Genesis [emphasis added]

I just stumbled across this fascinating page on the huge creationist organization Answers in Genesis's website. Although it is a strong advocate of young-Earth creationism (i.e. God created the Earth less than 10,000 years ago) it lists a number of arguments that creationists should not use since they are either untrue or "doubtful."

Interestingly, I've seen many of them used by creationists on my blog:

"Arguments we think creationists should NOT use"
‘No new species have been produced.’
‘Archaeopteryx is a fraud’
‘There are no beneficial mutations.’
‘Ron Wyatt has found Noah’s Ark’

"What arguments are doubtful, hence inadvisable to use?"
‘There was no rain before the Flood.’
‘Evolution is just a theory.’
‘The speed of light has decreased over time’
‘There are no transitional forms.’
‘Creationists believe in microevolution but not macroevolution.’

So, my creationist readers, if you won't believe me about these claims, perhaps you'll believe Answers in Genesis.

My non-creationist readers, I highly recommend checking the site out anyway -- it's fascinating. For example, I learned about Dr Russell Humphreys, a "creationist physicist" who "was inspired to develop a new creationist cosmology which appears to solve the problem of the apparent conflict [of being able to see millions of light-years away even though he doesn't believe that the speed of light has slowed significantly] with the Bible’s clear, authoritative teaching of a recent creation." I also learned that there is a International Conference on Creationism and that they claim to value the concept of peer review.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Diebold CEO Resigns!

The resignation of Diebold Inc. Chief Executive Walden W. O'Dell was cheered on by Wall Street Tuesday as a move seen giving the company a fresh start from leadership marred by controversy...

The company was thrust into the center of controversy during the 2004 presidential election campaign, after O'Dell wrote in a Republican Party fundraising letter that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." The Canton, Ohio-based company is among the nation's biggest suppliers of paperless, touch-screen voting machines. (Business Week)

That Diebold voting machines were allowed to be used without a paper trail is obscene. There is no way to verify that the vote you cast is counted for the candidate you voted for in these machines. You just have to trust Diebold, not only to be honest, but to create the perfect, bug-free system. Anybody who has ever used a computer knows that that's impossible. Even if the CEO of one of the "largest suppliers of paperless, touch-screen voting machines" hadn't promised to deliver the election to one of the candidates, there is simply no excuse for such stupidity. What's more important than the trustworthiness of our elections?

This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue; it's an American one. I say this as a citizen and as a professional software engineer: No paperless voting machines!

Remember what Stalin said: "The people who cast the votes don't decide an election, the people who count the votes do."

(via slashdot)

Sunday, December 11, 2005

How To Decide Between Sides on Difficult Issues

I recently stumbled across the Christian webpage How To Decide Between Sides on Difficult Issues. Although I don't agree with all of their points, the overriding idea of the webpage -- that we should have a method for deciding on issues that have arguments on both sides -- is a good one. You can read their version, but I'd like to create my own version which borrows heavily from theirs:

  1. 1. "Precisely define the question." Don't ask, "Does God exist?" but rather, "Does God as defined by [Augustine/the Pope/Maimonides] exist?" Or, "Is it the case that no God, by any definition, exists?"

  2. 2."Determine if you could accept either side if either was true. If you are not able, admit that you cannot evaluate the issue fairly and stop. There is no sense wasting your time on something you cannot do." Perfect. I have nothing to add, except to say that you're a coward if you're unwilling to evaluate an issue because you won't accept one of the conclusions.

  3. 3."List all the arguments, both pro and con. Remember though, the strength of each arguments is more important than just the number of arguments." Very important. Often people spend time listening only to those who agree with them.

  4. 4."Unfortunately, sometimes there are too many arguments to closely examine each one." Also, you might not be qualified to understand some of the arguments. "Have one person on each side prioritize the relative strength of both the pro and con arguments." Also, have them explain the arguments you can't understand and educate yourself sufficiently that you can understand, at least at a basic level, the arguments for both sides.

  5. 5."For each argument, examine the rebuttal. Every argument has a rebuttal. The rebuttal may be very good, extremely weak, or in-between, but every argument has some sort of answer." Yes. I'm often astonished at the weak arguments people will accept even for conclusions I agree with.

  6. 6."Likewise every rebuttal has a rebuttal."

  7. 7."After looking at all the arguments and rebuttals, determine which arguments 'stand' and which 'fall'." This is important. You must do this for two reasons: 1) that you aren't falsely convinced that there are x number of good arguments on one side and 2) so that you don't keep coming back to the same arguments over and over again. Of course, if you can't decide whether an argument is true or false, you should admit it.

  8. 8."If all the arguments for one position fall you are done." This is only true if the two positions are the only possible two. It's not true if there are other options, which is usually the case. For example, if evolution is false, it doesn't mean that Christian creationism is true. Likewise, if Christian creationism is false, it doesn't mean that evolution is true. If I say that apples are blue and you say that they're yellow, proving me wrong doesn't make you right.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

JA's Thought of the Day

Back when I was religious, I would go online and argue with other religious people, saying that atheism was correct. At the same time, I would argue online with atheists that religion was correct. Much to my surprise, I found my arguments against religion much more convincing.

How often do you put yourself in your ideological opponent's shoes?

Friday, December 09, 2005

An Index to Creationist Claims

I just stumbled across the amazingly comprehensive An Index to Creationist Claims:

Creationist claims are numerous and varied, so it is often difficult to track down information on any given claim. Plus, creationists constantly come up with new claims which need addressing. This site attempts, as much as possible, to make it easy to find rebuttals and references from the scientific community to any and all of the various creationist claims...

Since most creationism is folklore, the claims are organized in an outline format following that of Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. Sections CA through CG deal with claims against conventional science, and sections CH through CJ contain claims about creationism itself.

It has all the claims I've heard from creationists. Here are some of the claims that creationists have made to me personally:

Evolution is only a theory.

Evolution requires as much faith as creationism
If man comes from random causes, life has no purpose or meaning.
The odds of life forming are incredibly small.
Complex organs couldn't have evolved.
Evolution does not explain homosexuality.
The traditional peppered moth story is no longer supportable.
Macroevolution has never been observed.
No new species have been observed.
How do things know how to evolve?
All hominid fossils are fully human or fully ape.
The Cambrian explosion shows all kinds of life appearing suddenly.
Radiometric dating gives unreliable results.
The second law of thermodynamics prohibits evolution.
The universe is 6,000-10,000 years old.

Obligatory 10,000 Visits Post

Thanks for coming everybody. Couldn't do it without you.

I do have to believe that some of those visitors must have been pretty disappointed, though, considering they arrived after searching for things like "analingus" and "Jewish sex."

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Active vs. Passive Morality - A Plea for Action

respondingtojblogs has a post about a new Israeli bill which will permit Euthanasia if it is performed by a machine with a timer:

A special timer will be fitted to a patient's respirator which will sound an alarm 12 hours before turning it off.

Normally, carers would override the alarm and keep the respirator turned on but, if various stringent conditions are met, including the giving of consent by the patient or legal guardian, the alarm would not be overridden.

At first, the distinction seems ridiculous, regardless of whether you support or oppose euthanasia. Whether a carer turns off a respirator directly or doesn't stop the timer which will turn it off automatically is irrelevant to the result: the patient will die either way.

Yet we make this sort of moral distinction between activity and passivity every day.

Philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer, in his excellent article The Singer Solution to World Poverty, quotes NYU Philosopher Peter Unger's book Living High and Letting Die:

Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed —but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.

Bob's conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely wrong. Unger agrees. But then he reminds us that we, too, have opportunities to save the lives of children. We can give to organizations like UNICEF or Oxfam America. How much would we have to give one of these organizations to have a high probability of saving the life of a child threatened by easily preventable diseases? ... Unger called up some experts and used the information they provided to offer some plausible estimates that include the cost of raising money, administrative expenses and the cost of delivering aid where it is most needed. By his calculation, $200 in donations would help a sickly 2-year-old transform into a healthy 6-year-old —offering safe passage through childhood's most dangerous years. To show how practical philosophical argument can be, Unger even tells his readers that they can easily donate funds by using their credit card and calling one of these toll-free numbers: (800) 367-5437 for Unicef; (800) 693-2687 for Oxfam America. [ for Unicef and for Oxfam --Singer]

How far does our responsibility go?

Now that you have distinguished yourself morally from people who put their vintage cars ahead of a child's life, how about treating yourself and your partner to dinner at your favorite restaurant? But wait. The money you will spend at the restaurant could also help save the lives of children overseas! True, you weren't planning to blow $200 tonight, but if you were to give up dining out just for one month, you would easily save that amount. And what is one month's dining out, compared to a child's life? There's the rub. Since there are a lot of desperately needy children in the world, there will always be another child whose life you could save for another $200. Are you therefore obliged to keep giving until you have nothing left? At what point can you stop?

Hypothetical examples can easily become farcical. Consider Bob. How far past losing the Bugatti should he go? Imagine that Bob had got his foot stuck in the track of the siding, and if he diverted the train, then before it rammed the car it would also amputate his big toe. Should he still throw the switch? What if it would amputate his foot? His entire leg?

As absurd as the Bugatti scenario gets when pushed to extremes, the point it raises is a serious one: only when the sacrifices become very significant indeed would most people be prepared to say that Bob does nothing wrong when he decides not to throw the switch. Of course, most people could be wrong; we can't decide moral issues by taking opinion polls. But consider for yourself the level of sacrifice that you would demand of Bob, and then think about how much money you would have to give away in order to make a sacrifice that is roughly equal to that. It's almost certainly much, much more than $200. For most middle-class Americans, it could easily be more like $200,000.

So by what basis do we allow ourselves to buy televisions, ipods, or even the newspaper? How can we justify going out to lunch when we could eat at home and donate $5-10 to the homeless? How can we own houses or rent apartments when much of the world lives on a dollar a day?

The moral question of passivity isn't only about money, either. How can we sit back and do nothing about Darfur? How did we Jews and Americans inaugurate the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, saying "Never Again," while "an average of 10,000 people were being butchered each and every day" (source) in Rwanda? For those who opposed the Iraq war, can you say you did everything you possibly could to prevent it?

I think most of us -- and I'm definitely including myself -- prefer to live in denial. Starvation and atrocities are other people's responsibilities. We tell ourselves that the dictators of Africa are corrupt, that it was Clinton's fault we didn't do anything about Rwanda, that Bush isn't doing enough for Darfur, that it's Bush's fault we've killed tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq while losing thousands of American lives.

There is of course some truth to the claim that others bear responsibility, maybe even the lion's share of the responsibility, but it doesn't absolve us of our responsibilities. Maybe we can't single-handedly stop the Darfur genocide, but we might be able to save a couple of lives. How can we not try?

If we can't get ourselves to drop everything and devote ourselves 100% to our fellow human beings, perhaps we can get ourselves to do just a little bit better. After all, "$200 in donations would help a sickly 2-year-old transform into a healthy 6-year-old —offering safe passage through childhood's most dangerous years."

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Secular Daf Yomi?

One of my favorite parts of Orthodox Judaism is its emphasis on learning. (Mind you, I think that they define "learning" far too narrowly: you frequently find people who devote a third of their waking lives to study without ever cracking a non-Judaic book.) One of the most impressive phenomena that I know of is Daf Yomi, the practice of thousands of Jews all over the world studying the entire Talmud in unison, a page a day, which takes 7 years.

I find Daf Yomi inspiring and would love to do it except that, being an atheist, I have only a slight academic interest in Talmud at this point. If I were going to devote an hour or more a day for seven years to study, I wouldn't choose the Talmud as my object.

One of the advantages (and disadvantages -- see the "America Family Association") which religion offers is its ability to organize its followers. Organizing atheists, on the other hand, is said to be like herding cats. Sometimes I wish there were a secular version of Daf Yomi, one where I could tackle a difficult subject over a long period of time, knowing that I have brothers and sisters in study all across the world.

Monday, December 05, 2005

On Marriage

My sweetheart and I got married two summers ago. In many ways, it was a traditional ceremony. Our families and friends joined us from all over the world to celebrate. We took a vow to love, honor, and cherish each other till death do us part, and our mothers wept with joy. With a minister presiding, we made an exchange of gold rings, followed by dinner for over 100 people at a beautiful restaurant, with a cake, dancing, and champagne toasts.

But in one obvious way our wedding was a non-traditional event: My beloved is a bright, softspoken, handsome science teacher named Keith...

Keith and I didn't get married to commit a pioneering act of civil disobedience, to "redefine marriage" as President Bush claimed during his campaign, or to outrage the religious right. We took our vows because getting hitched seemed like the sane next step of our commitment. We figured the best way to defend the sanctity of marriage was to have one and live up to the promises we made to one another.

--Steve Silberman, Our Traditional Non-Traditional Wedding

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Wacky Bible Verse of the Day

1 Timothy, Chapter 2

2:9 In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;
2:10 But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.
2:11 Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.
2:12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
2:13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve.

I have two thoughts:

1) You know, Paul sounds like a real jerk.
2) Why do I see women dressed up for Church every Sunday?

More on Charity from the New York Times

The New York Times has a special section (free registration required) about charity. The lead article, What is Charity?, explains that "[n]onprofits are richer than ever, but the share going to the poor continues to dwindle*." There are stories about Katrina, of course, but they also ask why the world hasn't done more after the South Asian earthquake. There's an interesting article about the increase of Christian-run companies around the globe. Finally, they ask why people donate in the first place. (Edited to add: For the conservatives in the house, the Times also asks, Did the New Deal Kill Old Giving? The ultimate answer seems to be: not really. A recent study found that there was a "reduction of three cents in church spending for every new dollar of government money.")

* Interestingly, the Salvation Army, which I advised against donating to in my previous post, was the only "human services organization" to receive a gift last year of over $100 million. (There were 14 gifts over $100 million last year.) Please allow me to say that you should definitely donate to them instead of donating nowhere or to somewhere that needs the money less (for example "charities" that are simply for building bigger churches or supporting people in kollel**.)

** "A Kollel usually refers to an institute for advanced studies of Talmud and of rabbinic literature for post-graduate Jewish adults, essentially a yeshiva which pays married men a regular monthly stipend or annual salary to study Judaism's classic texts in depth." (wikipedia)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Don't Give to The Salvation Army

Do you know the difference between a faith-based charity and a secular one? Secular charities (which may be entirely composed of religious people) are devoted only to their stated cause. "Faith-based" ones can discriminate and take positions completely unrelated to their stated cause.

DovBear points out an article from the Jewish Week:

Anne Lown, a Jewish woman from Boston, had worked nearly 25 years for the Salvation Army’s children’s services arm in New York when she was thrust into the world of faith-based initiatives.

Lown, associate director of the local Salvation Army’s government-funded Social Services for Children, was one of 18 employees to leave or be dismissed in 2003-04 for allegedly refusing to sign forms swearing loyalty to the group’s Christian principles.


The White House’s director for faith-based initiatives exulted publicly over the ruling.

“I think this is going to send a resounding signal out there in America,” Jim Towey told National Public Radio soon afterward, “because here you have an organization ... that got 95 percent of its money from government to do its social service work and the court held that they were allowed to hire on a religious basis.”

They also discriminate against gay people.

Religious organizations have enough of your money:
Religious organizations received the most support [in America]--$88.3 billion. Much of these contributions can be attributed to people giving to their local place of worship. The next largest sector was education ($33.8 billion.) [source]

The Catholic Church, for example, "owns more land globally than any other organization on the planet," received $8 billion in parish-level contributions in 2003, and has opulent basilicas, a museum-quality art collection and jewelry. (From an article bemoaning the fact that these assets aren't liquid.)

Please make sure that you donate to charities who will spend your money responsibly and not discriminate based on religion or sexual orientation. The online Charity Navigator, although it won't tell you who's spending your money to discriminate, will at least help you by rating charities based on how efficiently they spend your money.

And GOP-Jews, please wake up and realize that tearing down the wall between church and state is not good for the Jews or anyone else who doesn't belong to the majority religion in America.