Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dennis Prager Fails the Test

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the first Muslim to be elected to Congress who will swear in with his hand on the Koran instead of the Bible. I said at the time it would be an interesting test to see how the religious right reacts.

Dennis Prager can always be counted on as a convenient Jewish tool for the Christian Right:

He should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization.

LOL. I should run a quiz: who said it, Stephen Colbert or an actual right-wing nut?

First, it is an act of hubris that perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism -- my culture trumps America's culture. What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book; all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.

Forgive me, but America should not give a hoot what Keith Ellison's favorite book is. Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress. In your personal life, we will fight for your right to prefer any other book. We will even fight for your right to publish cartoons mocking our Bible. But, Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath.

Devotees of multiculturalism and political correctness who do not see how damaging to the fabric of American civilization it is to allow Ellison to choose his own book need only imagine a racist elected to Congress. Would they allow him to choose Hitler's "Mein Kampf," the Nazis' bible, for his oath? And if not, why not? On what grounds will those defending Ellison's right to choose his favorite book deny that same right to a racist who is elected to public office?

I've written to Dennis Prager a few times in the past in response to some asinine columns, none as over-the-top as this one. Considering my emails have been flatly ignored, I'll simply quote him here so my readers can see how ridiculous he is.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Religious Conservatives More Generous than Secular Liberals?


SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks is about to become the darling of the religious right in America -- and it's making him nervous.

The child of academics, raised in a liberal household and educated in the liberal arts, Brooks has written a book that concludes religious conservatives donate far more money than secular liberals to all sorts of charitable activities, irrespective of income.

In the book, he cites extensive data analysis to demonstrate that values advocated by conservatives -- from church attendance and two-parent families to the Protestant work ethic and a distaste for government-funded social services -- make conservatives more generous than liberals.

The book, titled "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism" (Basic Books, $26), is due for release Nov. 24.

When it comes to helping the needy, Brooks writes: "For too long, liberals have been claiming they are the most virtuous members of American society. Although they usually give less to charity, they have nevertheless lambasted conservatives for their callousness in the face of social injustice."


The book's basic findings are that conservatives who practice religion, live in traditional nuclear families and reject the notion that the government should engage in income redistribution are the most generous Americans, by any measure.

Conversely, secular liberals who believe fervently in government entitlement programs give far less to charity. They want everyone's tax dollars to support charitable causes and are reluctant to write checks to those causes, even when governments don't provide them with enough money.


[L]iberals give less than conservatives in every way imaginable, including volunteer hours and donated blood.


To make his point forcefully, Brooks admits he cut out a lot of qualifying information.

That last line is pretty odd, but the rest of the article doesn't make us secular liberals look too good.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Free-for-All on Science and Religion

Interesting article in the NYT. Excerpt:

Maybe the pivotal moment came when Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, warned that "the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief," or when a Nobelist in chemistry, Sir Harold Kroto, called for the John Templeton Foundation to give its next $1.5 million prize for "progress in spiritual discoveries" to an atheist — Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose book "The God Delusion" is a national best-seller.

Or perhaps the turning point occurred at a more solemn moment, when Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects — testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.

Somewhere along the way, a forum this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., which might have been one more polite dialogue between science and religion, began to resemble the founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told.

Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., called, half in jest, for the establishment of an alternative church, with Dr. Tyson, whose powerful celebration of scientific discovery had the force and cadence of a good sermon, as its first minister.

She was not entirely kidding. "We should let the success of the religious formula guide us," Dr. Porco said. "Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know."

She displayed a picture taken by the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn and its glowing rings eclipsing the Sun, revealing in the shadow a barely noticeable speck called Earth.

There has been no shortage of conferences in recent years, commonly organized by the Templeton Foundation, seeking to smooth over the differences between science and religion and ending in a metaphysical draw. Sponsored instead by the Science Network, an educational organization based in California, and underwritten by a San Diego investor, Robert Zeps (who acknowledged his role as a kind of “anti-Templeton”), the La Jolla meeting, “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival,” rapidly escalated into an invigorating intellectual free-for-all. (Unedited video of the proceedings will be posted on the Web at tsntv.org.)

I think I might have to take back my claims that scientists aren't engaged in an atheistic conspiracy:
Dr. Weinberg, who famously wrote toward the end of his 1977 book on cosmology, "The First Three Minutes," that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless," went a step further: "Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization."

There are a lot of criticisms of Dawkins here, too:
[His] take-no-prisoners approach (religious education is "brainwashing" and "child abuse") was condemned by the anthropologist Melvin J. Konner, who said he had "not a flicker" of religious faith, as simplistic and uninformed.
"There are six billion people in the world," said Francisco J. Ayala, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Roman Catholic priest. "If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like believing in the fairy godmother."

"People need to find meaning and purpose in life," he said. "I don’t think we want to take that away from them."

I've quoted most of it already, just read the rest yourself.

(Via Half Sigma.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

On Evil

In response to a previous post, Mark asked
How about a column on your take on an atheist (or jewish atheist) view on evil, its existence, cause, and cure.

First, I'm going to avoid any discussion of subjective vs. objective morality since, regardless of which may be preferable, I've seen no evidence that an objective form of morality exists, let alone whether any person knows what it is. I explained previously that my own sense of morality is founded on empathy and sympathy. You may object that these are emotions and hardly a basis for morality, but I can find no better place from which to start. Additionally, I cannot imagine the world would be worse off if everybody else also based their morality on empathy and sympathy (as opposed to basing it on, for example, religious texts, religious teachers, Marx, or voices from God.)

My definition of evil is therefore this:
Evil is overly selfish action.

This will of course not be precise enough for my absolutist readers, because of the word "overly." However, I see no non-arbitrary means of drawing a line between an action which is reasonably selfish and one which is "overly" selfish. I see that not as a flaw in my perspective on morality, but as a strength: I understand that reasonable people may disagree on what's moral in a borderline case. Moreover, it implies that evil is a continuum, not a binary proposition. Murder is worse than stealing a car and stealing a car is worse than stealing a sandwich.

The religious reader will no doubt have noticed that my understanding of evil is more or less the same as the Golden rule as attributed to Moses:

Love your neighbor as yourself.

The cause of evil is therefore obvious: selfishness. The most evil acts -- say, mass murder -- are evil because they place more value on one's own enjoyment or advancement than on other people's lives. The borderline cases -- for example, drinking the last canteen of water when lost in a desert with another person -- come about when reasonable people may disagree whether one is valuing himself or herself significantly more than another person. Again, I'd prefer not to debate borderline cases.

Why, then, are some people more selfish than others? Some answers are obvious. Evolutionarily speaking, of course, men who went around raping and pillaging would have had more surviving children than those who only had sex with women who were willing. Similarly, there are some evolutionary explanations for altruism. Having loving feelings towards one's own children is obviously beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint and the same goes for loyalty to kin, decreasing proportionately as the genetic relationship diminishes.

Then there are cultural reasons. The human brain has a remarkable capacity for learning social norms, and such norms are often enforced by the group. Speaking evolutionarily again, being ostracized from the group would have been deadly almost anywhere on Earth until very recently in the West, when one may join another group relatively easily. People who are raised to be selfless will likely be less selfish than those raised without such concerns. Someone growing up in a Taliban training camp, for example, will learn to hate Jews and Americans and glorify killing us. It's much easier to teach someone to hate people from a different group than to hate one's own group, for obvious reasons. Tribalism is just the selfishness of a group rather than an individual.

So what's the "cure" for evil? Ultimately, I don't think we can cure evil. It's as much a part of the human experience as love. However, we can work to reduce it. Ultimately, it comes down to culture. We can exploit people's natural tendencies towards in-group loyalty by enlarging the size of the group. Small groups can remain while becoming part of a larger group, just as America has Catholics and Jews who are both American. Nations are good tools for creating larger groups, although they can be much more dangerous to those not in the group than a bunch of small, divided groups can be, as the history of warfare, ethnic cleansing, and genocide shows.

I don't know if it's possible to get the entire human race (minus rebels, who will always exist) to identify as a single group. The ascendancy of Democracy and secularism (not atheism, per se) are surely steps in the right direction. Secular democracies do not go to war against each other. Most of the non-nation wars in the world today are warring religious sects, whether it's Sunnis and Shiites, Muslims and Hindus, or, well, mostly Muslims and anybody.

Within America, there are the "culture wars," which are a result of religious or idealogical groups clashing, usually orchestrated by powerful people with something to gain. Luckily, they rarely have resulted in violence, and aren't close to civil war. I think this is because our founders successfully created a system in which people of different ethnicities and religious could identify as Americans in addition to their smaller allegiances. The war in Iraq, for example, can only be won if Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds manage to identify themselves as Iraqis as well as members of their tribes.

Those of us who would reduce the amount of evil in the world should work to, to paraphrase our president, be uniters, not dividers. It won't be done on the battlefield, short of extreme genocide, which is so evil it wouldn't be worth it. Rather, if it is to be accomplished, it will be by winning the hearts and minds.

Maybe Lennon said it best:
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Except we don't need to get rid of countries and religions, just subsume them into something greater, so "the world will be as one." Osama bin Ladin would have gotten nowhere if middle-eastern Islam had merged with the rest of the world. Hitler would have been a nobody if he couldn't convince his countrymen that "Aryans" were a super-race and Jews, pygmies, and gays were vermin. There will always be crime and there will always be criminals. But maybe, we can cut back on war and genocide.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Interview with a Scientologist

In honor of Tom Cruise's wedding, ABC News has reprinted a 1992 interview with Cruise's best man David Miscavige, who is "Chairman of the Board of Religious Technology Center (RTC), a corporation that controls the trademarked names and symbols of Dianetics and Scientology, and controls the copyrighted teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard." (Wikipedia, via Metafilter.)

Before the interview, there are some reports on Scientology from Forrest Sawyer, including video of L. Ron Hubbard and testimony from former Scientologists.

Some excerpts:

Regarding L. Ron Hubbard:
ABC's Forrest Sawyer: Scientology's founder was a man with an imagination. L. Ron Hubbard wrote pulp science fiction for a penny a word and, critics claim, manufactured his own life history as well. He called himself an explorer and a war hero, the man who discovered the keys to the universe and used them to heal his own war injuries. Critics say Hubbard's claims were so fanciful that one California Superior Court judge declared Hubbard to be "…virtually a pathological liar."

Sawyer: Scientology's founder was a man with an imagination. L. Ron Hubbard wrote pulp science fiction for a penny a word and, critics claim, manufactured his own life history as well. He called himself an explorer and a war hero, the man who discovered the keys to the universe and used them to heal his own war injuries. Critics say Hubbard's claims were so fanciful that one California Superior Court judge declared Hubbard to be "…virtually a pathological liar."

Jentzsch: These are a bunch of people who never caused anything in their lives to begin with, and who I would say are jealous of a man who brought a technology of religion to this world the like of which has never been seen before, and it works.

Sawyer: In 1950, Hubbard turned away from pulp novels with a new book that would change everything. It was, Hubbard said, the "true science of the mind," and it sold millions. When psychiatrists challenged his claims that Dianetics could heal illnesses and increase intelligence, Scientologists fought back.

Jentzsch: Psychiatry is Russian and Nazi. Remember, it's an import. It's like bringing the bonic, the bubonic plague into America, as far as I'm concerned. They are not American, and we are. And they can go back to where they came from.

Sawyer: Hubbard said psychiatry was part of a vast conspiracy to destroy his newly formed church and control mankind. Recent Scientology films still attack psychiatrists as potential killers.

Regarding Hubbard's wild stories:
Sawyer: Hubbard also announced he had gone beyond psychiatry, by literally traveling in space to Venus and Mars, and to a distant radiation belt.

Hubbard: I was up in the Van Allen Belt. This is factual. And I don't know why they're scared of the Van Allen Belt, because it's simply hot. You'd be surprised how warm space is.

Sawyer: Hubbard said he had discovered secrets of the universe so powerful they could only be heard by Scientologists who had spent hundreds of hours studying his programs. Anyone else would be struck dead by the knowledge. He told stories of how, 75 million years ago, an evil tyrant collected beings on other planets to be stored in volcanoes on earth.

Hubbard: Boxed them up in boxes, threw them into space planes. DC-8 airplane is the exact copy of the space plane of that day. No difference, except the DC-8 had fans, propellers on it, and the space plane didn't.

Sawyer: As this film depicts, the spirits' bodies were destroyed by hydrogen bombs, and today their troubled spirits are attached to human bodies by the thousands. Called "body thetans," they cause endless problems. Only Scientology knows how to shake them loose.

On Psychiatry:
Koppel: During one of Forrest Sawyer's pieces a moment ago, we heard one of your colleagues talking about psychiatry, right?

Miscavige: Right.

Koppel: You guys are deaf on psychiatry. The criticism that was made was that this is foreign to the United States. He referred to its origin in Nazism and Communism. And that your religion, Scientology, is an "American" religion. Fair enough so far?

Miscavige: Well, American-of-the-mind. Yeah. That's right.

Koppel: What does that do for Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and all the other isms that also did not--

Miscavige: Oh, I think--

Koppel: …originate in this country?

Miscavige: Well, no, that isn't really the point. The point there is this -- that those people, the Fascists, the Communists, have used psychiatry to further their ends. That's just a fact. I mean, you want to look at the studies that brought about the Holocaust of the Jews, that the Nazis justified killing the Jews, they were done at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Leipzig, Germany, and that justified the killing of six million people. If you look at the report that even Forrest Sawyer did on mental institutions in Russia -- several months ago he did this -- you saw that that was a tool of the state. That's the point he's making there. But let me tell you what our real problem is. Number one, understand this. Psychiatry, psychology, that comes from the word psyche. Psyche means soul. These people have preempted the field of religion, not just Scientology, every other religion. They right now practice and preach the fact that man is an animal, and I guess that is where philosophically we're at odds with them. But to understand what this war is, this is not something that we started. In fact, 22 days after "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health" came out, the attacks from the American Psychiatric Association started. This was the first popular book on the mind ever in existence, it was running up the best-seller list, it was popular with the people. I have the letter sent out by the man who was in the American Psychiatric Association asking for ad hominum reviews on the subject of Dianetics. These people absolutely felt that we were cutting across their vested interests, and the lengths with which they have gone to destroy Scientology and Dianetics and L. Ron Hubbard is absolutely mind-boggling. They attempted to do so through the 1950s. First they tried to attack L. Ron Hubbard's credibility, then they recruited the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration, and they then proceeded to infiltrate our organization.

Koppel: May I stop you just for a moment? Because, you know, when you talk about undermining L. Ron Hubbard's credibility -- and again, I have no idea whether that video and the tape that we heard--

Miscavige: Yeah, but why don't touch on that?

Koppel: …that we heard was representative of L. Ron Hubbard. But when I hear about a man talking about having been taken out to the Van Allen space radiation belt of space ships that were essentially the same thing as the DC-8, I've got to tell you, I mean, if we're talking about this man's credibility, that certainly raises some questions in my mind about his credibility.

Miscavige: Okay. Well, let me ask you, have you read any books on Dianetics or Scientology?

Koppel: I've been reading little else over the last two days.

Miscavige: You see, here--

Koppel: I must confess, I'm not a student of--

Miscavige: But you haven't read "Dianetics" or any books on Scientology?

Koppel: You're absolutely right.

Miscavige: Okay, fine. Then that's why you would make a comment like that? I mean, let's not joke around here. That bit that Forrest did there pulled out of context items. And let's not forget something else, by the way. I told Forrest Sawyer -- and I was open about this the whole time, I have been in communication with "Nightline" numerous times -- I said, "Forrest, if something comes up, you want to bring me up an allegation, you confront me it before this so I can do away with this garbage and not have to do it on the program." "Dave, I promise you I'll do it." Numerous calls have been put in to him. I have never heard it from him. I never heard about these. To do that is take anything out of context. Ted, when I talk about--

Koppel: Can you--

Miscavige: No, but let me just give you an analogy.

Koppel: You know that there are going to be a lot of folks out there -- and I'm sure there are a lot of Scientologists, and I don't want to offend anyone who truly believes this -- but there are a lot of people out there who will look at that. You say it was taken out of context. Take a minute, if you would, and see if you can put it into context for us so that it does not sound ridiculous. Because, quite frankly, the way it sounded there, it sounded ridiculous.

Miscavige: Okay. Well, let me tell you-- Let me ask you to do this, then: I want you to take the Catholic Church and take right now and explain to me, to make sense that the Virgin Mary was a virgin, scientifically impossible, unless we're talking about something-- Okay, I'll be like you. I'll be the cynic. If we're talking about artificial insemination, how could that be? If you're talking about going out to heaven, xcept we have a space shuttle going out there, we have the Apollo going out there, you do that. I'm not here--

Koppel: I will--

Miscavige: Wait--

Koppel: I will--

Miscavige: I'm not here to talk--

Koppel: Let me do it, and you're-- You were a Catholic as a child, right?

Miscavige: Yeah.

Koppel: So you know full well that those issues are questions of faith. Are you telling me that what we have heard L. Ron Hubbard say on this broadcast this evening, that they, to Scientologists, are issues of faith? If that's what you tell me, then that's fine.

Miscavige: No, no. As a matter of fact--

Koppel: Then it doesn't have to be explained logically.


Miscavige: Talk about the Van Allen Belt or whatever is that, that forms no part of current Scientology, none whatsoever.

Koppel: But what did he mean when he was talking about it?

Miscavige: Well, you know, quite frankly, this tape here, he's talking about the origins of the universe, and I think you're going to find that in any, any, any religion, and I think you can make the same mockery of it. I think it's offensive that you're doing it here, because I don't think you'd do it somewhere else.

Koppel: I'm not mocking it. I'm asking you a question, and you know, you turn it around and ask me about Catholicism. I say we're talking about areas of faith.

Miscavige: Well, it's not even a matter of faith, because Scientology is about you, yourself and what you do. You're bringing up something that isn't part of current Scientology, that isn't something that Scientologists study, that is part of some tape taken from, I have no idea, and asking me about it and asking me to put it in context. That I can't do.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Bush Puts Anti-Contraception Nut in Charge of Family Planning at HHS

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has appointed a new chief of family-planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services who worked at a Christian pregnancy-counseling organization that regards the distribution of contraceptives as "demeaning to women."


Keroack, an obstetrician-gynecologist, will advise Secretary Mike Leavitt on matters such as reproductive health and adolescent pregnancy. He will oversee $283 million in annual family-planning grants that, according to HHS, are "designed to provide access to contraceptive supplies and information to all who want and need them with priority given to low-income persons."


The Keroack appointment angered many family-planning advocates, who noted that A Woman's Concern supports sexual abstinence until marriage, opposes contraception and does not distribute information promoting birth control at its six centers in eastern Massachusetts.

"A Woman's Concern is persuaded that the crass commercialization and distribution of birth control is demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality and adverse to human health and happiness," the group's Web site says. MSNBC, via Aetiology.

Tara C. Smith of Aetiology sums it up nicely:
The Republican War on Science strikes again.

Interesting Test for the Christian (and Jewish) Right

Apparently, Keith Ellison, the first Muslim U.S. Congressperson, will take his oath of office with his hand on a Koran instead of a Bible. We'll see how the Christian Right likes it when it's not their holy book.

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, points out a column with a telling quote:

Ellison will be sworn in on a Koran. So now the Bible is equivalent to the Koran in the halls of Congress? Doesn't this then mean he is pledging allegiance to Islamic Law (Sharia) rather than our Constitution? Where is the outrage here?

Brayton comments:

Stunning, isn't it? If one of us secular humanist types suggested that a Christian, by swearing an oath on the Bible, was pledging allegiance to the Mosaic law rather than our Constitution, she would likely accuse us of religious bigotry... On the other hand, it's entirely possible that for someone like Markell, swearing an oath on the Bible does mean pledging allegiance to Biblical law over the Constitution.

Personally, I'd prefer if religious books were left out altogether. Also, I'd like to win the lottery.

Introducing: Ask a Jewish Atheist

So I was joking around with a friend that it would be fun to have an advice column called "Ask a Jewish Atheist." It occurs to me that this is my blog and I can do whatever I want with it, so why not? :-) E-mail me any questions and I'll be happy to answer them in a future post. If you want to remain anonymous, please provide a nickname and I won't reveal your identity.

To be clear, I'm looking for people who want advice about their personal lives, not questions about atheism or Judaism per se. Also, I have no qualifications whatsoever.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Fear is at the Root of Fundamentalism

Fear of uncertainty.
Fear of ambiguity.
Fear of meaninglessness.
Fear of insignificance.
Fear of death.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Letting Your Opponents Save Face

The other day, I was driving on the highway and I witnessed what was almost a very bad accident. The car ahead of me was driving normally when suddenly, a large pickup truck to his right turned right at it, apparently shifting lanes without looking. The car swerved evasively to the left, rocking back and forth, almost spinning out and just barely maintaining control. It was clear to me, an unbiased observer, that the truck driver was entirely at fault.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the truck driver screaming and gesturing furiously at the other driver. The car driver, with his great reaction, saved them both from a terrible accident at 70 mph, but the truck driver instantly convinced himself the other guy was at fault.

The fact is, people don't want to be wrong. They'll lie to you and even to themselves to maintain the illusion that they're right, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Early on in my blogging career, I tried to get people to admit that they were wrong. This was almost always counterproductive as people will often do everything in their power to avoid admitting that. They'll spin, bend, contort, and outright lie in order to save face.

Now I just make my points and move on. I know that people aren't going to admit I've changed their minds, but that maybe in the future, they'll accept my argument. They might maintain, of course, that they've always believed my argument, in order to preserve the illusion that they were never wrong while bringing their beliefs more in tune with reality.

We see this transition often in theists who begin to think for themselves. Their views change radically, but they find ways to pretend they've been consistent throughout. Maybe it's a good thing that someone can go from worshiping Pat Robertson's Big Daddy in the Sky to Bishop Spong's atheism-with-a-different-name or from young-Earth creationism to barely-theistic evolution while thinking themselves consistent.

For a long time, I was frustrated with the slipperiness of the word "God." Now I'm thinking maybe it's a good thing. Better reasonable people who believe in "God" than a nation of fundamentalists who believe in "God." If defining words so loosely they barely mean anything is the price we pay for such improvement, it might be worth it.

The Torah, Pedophilia, and Subjective Morality

Here is a list of sexual acts banned explicitly by the Torah in Leviticus 18:
  1. Uncovering the nakedness of one's close kin, which includes your father, mother, step-mother, sister, half-sister, granddaughter, step-sister, aunt, daughter-in-law, or any woman and her daughter.

  2. Marrying two sisters.

  3. Uncovering the nakedness of a woman "as long as she is put apart for her uncleanness." (KJV.)

  4. Lying with your neighbor's wife.

  5. Ejaculating into a fire for Moloch.

  6. Lying with a man as with a woman.

  7. Bestiality.

Have you noticed that pedophilia isn't among them? The Torah spends 14 verses spelling out whose nakedness one may not uncover, and even a whole verse forbidding ejaculation for Moloch, but not one word against pedophilia. Nor is premarital sex explicitly prohibited. Finally, it offers no age of consent for either sex or marriage.

The Talmud later corrects some of these omissions, of course. A girl can't be married until age 3 or 12, depending on what page you're reading. Still, it's interesting to note that the document Jews point to as the source of objective morality contains not a single word against pedophilia.

It's obvious to me that pedophilia is worse than every sexual offense mentioned explicitly in the Torah, as I think it's obvious to most Orthodox Jews as well. I believe this is evidence that despite claims of objective morality stemming from the Torah, people turn to subjective morality in cases where the "objective" version is lacking or incorrect.

Edit: It doesn't mention rape, either! In other words, although the Torah bans sex during a woman's period and male homosexual sex, it does not explicitly forbid what any reasonable person would say are clearly the worst two sexual offenses: pedophilia and rape.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Why We Can't Win in Iraq and Why Israel Can't Defeat the Palestinians or Lebanese

I've realized over the last few years that Americans have some misguided notions of how war works these days and this is the cause of some of our bad decisions regarding war. The War Nerd has an excellent piece about asymmetric warfare which is applicable to Iraq as well as most of the conflicts in the world, including Israel's struggle with the Palestinians and its neighbors.

Too many Americans and right-wing Israelis are still under the impression that you can win asymmetric wars by killing your opponents. (I'm looking at you, Ezzie.) The reality is that they only need a "few hundred urban guerrillas" if they have civilian support. You'll never kill enough of the enemy that they can't muster a few hundred bloodthirsty young men. Asymmetric wars are un-winnable. We should have learned that in Vietnam. We could -- and did -- easily take out Saddam and his conventional military. We're just wasting our time, lives, treasure, and goodwill trying to defeat the insurgency.

His summary:

1. Most wars are asymmetrical / irregular.

2. In these wars, the guerrillas / irregulars / insurgents do NOT aim for military victory.

3. You can NOT defeat these groups by killing lots of their members.

In fact, they want you to do that.

4. Hi-tech weaponry is mostly useless in these wars.

5. "Hearts and Minds," meaning propaganda and morale, are more important than military superiority.

6. Most people are not rational, they are TRIBAL: "my gang yay, your gang boo!" It really is that simple. The rest is cosmetics.

Some excerpts:

[Old-fashioned] wars are rare, and going to get rarer. Because there's a much cheaper, easier way to make war. This way doesn't require any of the building blocks of conventional war: you don't need industry, aircraft, armor or massive armies. In fact, this kind of war can be played by any group of wackos that can round up a dozen or so bushwhackers. All you need is small arms and a grudge -- and those are the only two commodities most of the world has a surplus of...

Most of the "armies" in the world right now avoid battle and focus on killing civilians. This is the hardest thing for Americans to understand: armies that don't aim at victory and actually avoid battle...

[You cannot win by killing the enemy.] In this kind of war the enemy wants you to kill a lot of people. A lot of irregular warfare groups start their campaigns with a suicide raid, where they expect to be slaughtered...

[Lo-tech beats high-tech.] If we take Iraq 2003 as a familiar and painful example, you saw a classic outcome: our hi-tech beat their wanna-be hi-tech in the conventional battles. Then we started getting picked off by low-tech ambushes where the insurgents used homemade IEDs in combination with old, rugged Soviet weapons like the RPG-7 and Kalashnikov. After two years, those simple weapons are still effective -- and they're actually getting lower- and lower-tech...

Americans are pretty well anti-death, but lots of other tribes are in love with the idea of the martyrdom thing...

We have a problem with the Iraqi Sunnis. There are about seven million of them. All you need for an effective insurgency is a few hundred urban guerrillas (with a much bigger base of civilian supporters). So they're never going to run out of young men. And no overwhelming force short of neutron bombs will solve the problem...

[People don't care about democracy.] Look around the world and you'll see that people are divided into ethnic gangs, like the planet's one big San Quentin. All they want is for their gang to win. If they have any ideology beyond that, it's more of the God stuff, and you need Thorazine to cure that. Godfearing gangbangers, that's exactly what we ran into in Somalia, 1993. Half the population of Mogadishu turned on our guys who were trying to provide aid for the starving. They didn't want peace, democracy or any of that shit. They wanted their clan to win and the other clans to lose. And if stopping the aid convoys from getting food to those enemy clans was the only way to win, they were ready to make it happen, ready to die fighting our best troops backed by attack helicopters and APCs. We killed maybe a thousand of these "civilians" and lost 18 Rangers and Delta operators. And the Somalis made the anniversary of that fight a national holiday. It's worth giving a moment to let that sink in: these people fought to the death against overwhelmingly superior US forces, because they wanted their clan to win by starving rival clans to death.

Yes, Grasshopper, you must meditate on the fact that People are superstitious tribalists. Democracy comes about 37th, if that. Nobody wants to face that fact: we're tribal critters. We'll die for the tribe. More to the point, we'll kill for it. We don't care about democracy. And I'm not just talking here about people in tropical hellholes like Somalia, I mean your town, your street. Most Americans are just like me: old-school nationalists. We want America to be Roman, to kick ass. The rest is for Quakers.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Who Causes More Jews to Leave Orthodoxy? Me, or Cross-Currents?

Assuming blogs have any significant impact at all, I wonder sometimes which blogs do the most to cause people to leave Orthodoxy. Is it skeptical blogs like mine or religious ones like Cross-Currents?

They've been on a roll the last couple days.

Shira Schmidt, not content to merely juxtapose homosexuality with bestiality, goes one further:

With deep psychological insight the Midrash points out that God did not regret his Creation even when, in the era of Noah, homosexuality and bestiality took place. He did not bring the Flood upon the world because homosexual couples conducted parades. Rather, the last straw was when they drew up contracts conferring the veneer of normality on aberrant behavior.

The Midrash rabba observes: "The generation of the Flood was not blotted out from the world until they wrote marriage deeds for males and males, and males and beasts, thus fully legalizing such practices."

That's right. With "deep psychological insight," the Midrash "observes" that God destroyed the world because of gay marriage (and, of course, man-beast marriage, which I'm sure was all the rage back then.)

Next, Yitzchok Adlerstein argues that Ted Haggard was less of a sinner than an openly gay person:

As long as we are uncomfortable with our sin even while committing it, we are better off than those who welcome it into their homes as a welcome guest.

Finally, Yaakov Menken implies that God Himself caused the parade to be canceled:

This is the third time that the parade has been canceled due to other demands on police resources, the latter two having been entirely unforeseeable. Mere coincidence? You decide.

Wow. If I were still an Orthodox Jew, I'd tell them to pipe down for fear of scaring off the others.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Democrats Win House, Lead Key Senate Races

We've got the House. Looks like we'll get the Senate. Santorum is out. Allen is losing.

The lunatics may still be running the asylum, but there's finally some sanity around to keep them in check.

No longer is my country represented solely by the representatives of Big Business and the Christian Right. No longer can our bumbling president ram through whatever idiotic measures he sees fit. We've got people in power who will fight for all people instead of the top 1 percent. We're going to be pushing things like health care, stem cell research, and the minimum wage instead of tax cuts for the rich, emasculating the Bill of Rights, and the gay marriage amendment. We've got subpoena power to fight the lying, secretive torturer-in-chief. We may force Bush to finally dump Rumsfeld. We're going to have less corruption.

Bush is still president, but with a sub-40% approval rating and a Democratic House and (hopefully!) Senate, his potential for damage may finally be limited.

To use a trite phrase, it's morning in America. Or at least dawn.

Edit: Now Rumsfeld is quitting! Can this day get better for America?

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Ted Haggard Post

Although I didn't know who he was at the time, Ted Haggard has appeared on this blog before. He was in the trailer for the terrifying documentary Jesus Camp.

Here he is preaching to his congregation (not in the trailer):

How creepy is that?

His hypocrisy pretty much speaks for itself, but I'd like you to imagine what his life would have been like if (many) Christians didn't consider homosexuality a sin. Haggard could have been open about his sexual orientation from the beginning. He could have found himself a nice Christian boy instead of ensnaring an innocent woman in a fraudulent marriage. He could have had a meaningful relationship instead of paying for sex from a meth-dealing prostitute. He and his partner could have adopted orphans in need of parents and raised them honestly instead of fathering five children who must now feel humiliated and betrayed beyond measure. He could have preached for love instead of against homosexuality.

Homosexuality isn't a sin. Treating it like a sin is a sin.

(Video clip via Andrew Sullivan.)

Friday, November 03, 2006

Haredi Jews Riot In Jerusalem

A police officer and a Haaretz photographer were wounded in a confrontation between ultra-Orthodox protesters and police forces in the capital, as demonstrations against the city's upcoming gay pride parade raged for the third consecutive day.


Some 1,000 ultra-Orthodox protesters took part in Thursday's demonstration against the parade, which is scheduled for next Friday. At the end of the demonstration, the participants marched Jerusalem's Bar-Ilan Street in an attempt to block traffic. The police deployed officers on horseback to prevent the roads from being blocked.

The crowd threw stones and firecrackers at police officers, who attempted to disperse them by firing a water cannon. At least five protesters were arrested.

Prior to the clashes, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, head of the ultra-Orthodox legal authority, addressed opponents of the parade.

Wearing a sackcloth to signify mourning, Sternbuch addressed the assembled crowd of several hundred in Yiddish, telling them "complete devotion" should be given to preventing the parade from taking place.

"By fighting with all our strength, we will be rewarded with the coming of the messiah," he said. (Ha'Aretz)

Wow. Total lack of perspective anybody? Sackcloth? "Fighting with all our strength?" "Rewarded with the coming of the messiah?" This must be the most important event in the history of Judaism! It's a modern-day Megillat Esther.

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars links to another article describing the same events. My favorite part:
Twenty-five protestors were arrested but leaders of the sect vowed that after a break for the Jewish Sabbath they will continue to demonstrate.

They're so pious they refrain from hurling stones and firecrackers at their fellow Jews on the holy Sabbath.

See also J-blogger Robbie's Why I'll Be Marching in the Jerusalem Pride Parade.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Life Has No Meaning if God Exists

Drill Sergeant: Gump! What's your sole purpose in this army?
Forrest Gump: To do whatever you tell me, drill sergeant!
Drill Sergeant: God damn it, Gump! You're a goddamn genius! That is the most outstanding answer I have ever heard. You must have a goddamn I.Q. of 160. You are goddamn gifted, Private Gump.

If we're here as a result of a series of improbable events with no divine hand behind it all, then life has no meaning.

That's what theists like to tell me, anyway.

But what is the meaning of life if God exists?

To serve God.

No thanks. God doesn't need service and I'd rather fly a kite.

To go to Heaven.

Heaven seems awfully boring, unless we're talking about the Muslim Heaven. But I don't see how that would be more meaningful than, for example, trying to have sex with 70 virgins here on Earth. (Why virgins, though? I think I'd get sick of newbies.)

To become one with God.

Sophisticated theists have redefined the whole Heaven thing because the original version was too silly. Now it's all about becoming one with God or something. Eh. That doesn't seem so meaningful either. Why don't I just become one with my couch?

To be a living expression of God's greatness.

Okay, God's going through His angsty adolescence and wants to express Himself all of the sudden. If I wanted to play a part for some frustrated megalomaniac, I'd join the local theater.

Tikkun Olam. To bring the world to a state of peace and harmony where the world can live as one, with much singing and frolicking.

That would be just as meaningful without God. Besides, He's the one who kicked us out of the goddamn garden in the first place.

Edit: Apparently I totally stole this post from Bacon Eating Atheist Jew!