Tuesday, May 26, 2009

This War Has Nothing To Do With Religion, Part II

Tony Blair believed God wanted him to go to war to fight evil, claims his mentor:
John Burton, Mr Blair's political agent in his Sedgefield constituency for 24 years, says that Labour's most successful ever leader – in terms of elections won – was driven by the belief that "good should triumph over evil".

"It's very simple to explain the idea of Blair the Warrior," he says. "It was part of Tony living out his faith."

Mr Blair has previously admitted that he was influenced by his Christian faith, but Mr Burton reveals for the first time the strength of his religious zeal...

"But Tony's Christian faith is part of him, down to his cotton socks. He believed strongly at the time, that intervention in Kosovo, Sierra Leone – Iraq too – was all part of the Christian battle; good should triumph over evil, making lives better."

Mr Burton, who was often described as Mr Blair's mentor, says that his religion gave him a "total belief in what's right and what's wrong", leading him to see the so-called War on Terror as "a moral cause".

Funny, that's exactly what Random said in response to my claim that religiosity and hawkishness are linked:
Well, if we're going to blunt about it, we could say that the real overlap is between religiosity and a clear and firm sense of right and wrong, and in particular the idea that evil should be fought and not relativised into something acceptable.

Yes, exactly.

And this is an interesting difference between the U.S. and Britain:

Mr Burton makes the comments in a book he has written, and which is published this week, called "We Don't Do God".

In it he portrays a prime minister determined to follow a Christian agenda despite attempts to silence him from talking about his faith.

"While he was at Number 10, Tony was virtually gagged on the whole question of religion," says Mr Burton.

"Alastair [Campbell] was convinced it would get him into trouble with the voters...

Tony Blair complained in 2007 that he had been unable to talk about his faith while in office as he would have been perceived as "a nutter".

"It's difficult if you talk about religious faith in our political system," he said. "If you are in the American political system or others then you can talk about religious faith and people say 'yes, that's fair enough' and it is something they respond to quite naturally. You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter."

In Britain being a religious nut is a liability while in America it's a requirement. Either way, we ended up with religious nuts in both countries at the same time and, as a result, over a hundred thousand people are dead. Yaaay God!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Republicans Continue to Elevate Level of Discourse

The Republican National Committee will conclude a special session with a much-anticipated vote on a resolution to re-brand the Democratic Party as the "Democrat Socialist Party."

ANP senior producer Harry Hanbury roamed the RNC meeting with a camera and spoke with committeemen and state chairs to hear their thoughts on the vote and their ideas about both parties.

Via Oliver Willis, via Crooks and Liars.

At this point, I might actually prefer them to call us the "Socialist Party" over the grammatically incorrect Democrat Party they've insisted on for the last century. It would still highlight their immaturity but without grating on the ear as much. I wonder if we can convince them to go with that.

I like Willis's take, too:
I should point out the equivalent of this would have been, in May of 2001, if the Democratic party convened and decided whether we would call the Republican party the Poophead Party or the Crappy Pants Party.

Funny, but it'd be more like if the Democrats got together and tried to pass a serious resolution "rebranding" the Republicans as the "Republican Nazi Party."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bias in Action: Ida the Fossil

I wasn't going to post about this amazing fossil find because I'm not in the mood to have another debate with creationists. But then I came across this wonderful example of scientific skepticism vs. creationist "skepticism." I'll post just the excerpts that are skeptical in some way.

The Washington Post, one of the most well-respected papers in the English language:

About the size of a small cat, the animal has four legs and a long tail. Nobody is claiming that it's a direct ancestor of monkeys and humans, but it provides a good indication of what a long-ago ancestor may have looked like, researchers said at a news conference.

In an evolutionary sense, the fossil is like an aunt from several generations ago, said Jens Franzen of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany.

The fossil is the best preserved ever found for a primate, said Jorn Hurum, of the University of Oslo Natural History Museum, one of the scientists introducing the specimen. It's about 95 percent complete, even including fingertips with nails, and lacks only the lower portion of one leg, Hurum said. It also includes gut contents, showing the creature ate leaves and fruit in its rainforest environment.

Experts not connected with the discovery said the finding was remarkably complete because of features like stomach contents. But they questioned the conclusions of Hurum and his colleagues about how closely it is related to ancestors of monkeys and humans.

"I actually don't think it's terribly close to the common ancestral line of monkeys, apes and people," said K. Christopher Beard of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. "I would say it's about as far away as you can get from that line and still be a primate."

Rather than a long-ago aunt, "I would say it's more like a third cousin twice removed," he said. So it probably resembles ancestral creatures "only in a very peripheral way," he said.

Beard said scientists already have a fossil from China of about the same age that is widely accepted as coming from monkey-ape-human ancestral line, and it's much smaller than the new-found fossil and ate a different diet. "They are radically different animals," he said.

John Fleagle of the State University of New York at Stony Brook said the scientists' analysis provides only "a pretty weak link" between the new creature and higher primates, called anthropoids, that includes monkeys and man.

"It doesn't really tell us much about anthropoid origins, quite frankly," Fleagle said.

The Washington Times, favored by Republicans (Reagan endorsed it early on) and owned by cult leader (seriously) Sun Myung Moon:
But not everyone shares in the Ida adulation.

"This is an incredible piece of hype to popularize a movie and a book. It's hard to believe that this story took off, but the media picked up on very emotional claims about the 'missing link.' It's created good publicity," said Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and founder of the Creation Museum.

"What was wrong with all the other fossils over the years? Why get so excited with this one?" he asked.

"This is a noteworthy fossil find because it's so complete. But comparing it to the Rosetta Stone is quite an exaggeration," said David DeWitt, director of Creation Studies at Liberty University.

"They say 'we have proof' of the missing link. A few years later, they'll claim they have proof all over again. The important question is this: Where did the genetic information come from that produced that skeleton in the first place? It's not random chance," Mr. DeWitt said.

A 2006 Gallup poll found that eight out of 10 Americans believe God guided creation in "some capacity" - with 46 percent thinking God created man in his present form sometime in the past 10,000 years, while 36 percent say man developed over millions of years from lesser life forms, but God guided the process.

Thirteen percent of Americans think mankind evolved with no divine intervention. [Emphasis added.]

LOL. Now that's "fair and balanced."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

This War Has Nothing To Do With Religion!

Right-wing bloggers mocked me and everybody else who threw around words like "theocons" and "religious nuts" with regard to the Bush administration. They roundly dismissed claims that Bush said that God told him to invade Iraq. They said we were overreacing when Bush referred to the war as a "crusade." They scoffed at the notion that there's any connection between religiosity and hawkishness in America. (I guess the immense overlap between Iraq War supporters and the religious right is a coincidence. And the only reason Orthodox Jews are the only Jews who vote Republican is that they are the most rational. Uh-huh.)

And yet: Donald Rumsfeld put insane Bible verses (and chickenhawk war-porn) on the cover sheets of his top-secret intelligence briefings in the days surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq:

These are not powerpoint presentations put together by bored 12 year olds at Bible camp. These were the covers of intelligence briefings by the Secretary of Defense given to the President of the United States of America.

This country is so topsy-turvy. Americans say they'd never vote for an atheist, and being a religious fanatic is a plus. Gays in the military are required by law to hide their orientation (and consequently their families and loved ones) because homosexuality is something shameful and dangerous, but being a religious wacko will help you get promoted. Supposed followers of Jesus -- the Prince of Peace who was tortured to death in a "stress position" -- mindlessly support torture and atheists are called immoral or worse.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Torture: The Media, Obama, and the Establishment

Glenn Greenwald:
Jesse Ventura was on CNN with Larry King on Monday night and this exchange occurred, illustrating how simple, clear and definitively non-partisan is the case for investigations and prosecutions for those who ordered torture (video below):

VENTURA: I don't watch much TV. This year's reading, I covered Bush's life. I covered Guantanamo and a few other subjects.

And I'm very disturbed about it.

I'm bothered over Guantanamo because it seems we've created our own Hanoi Hilton. We can live with that? I have a problem.

I will criticize President Obama on this level; it's a good thing I'm not president because I would prosecute every person that was involved in that torture. I would prosecute the people that did it. I would prosecute the people that ordered it. Because torture is against the law.

KING: You were a Navy SEAL.

VENTURA: That's right. I was water boarded, so I know -- at SERE School, Survival Escape Resistance Evasion. It was a required school you had to go to prior to going into the combat zone, which in my era was Vietnam. All of us had to go there. We were all, in essence -- every one of us was waterboarded. It is torture.

KING: What was it like?

VENTURA: It's drowning. It gives you the complete sensation that you are drowning. It is no good, because you -- I'll put it to you this way, you give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.

Let's just repeat that: "I would prosecute the people that ordered it. Because torture is against the law." That is the crux of the case for investigations and prosecutions. That's it. Can anyone find a "liberal" or ideological argument anywhere in what Ventura said? It's about as far from a partisan or "leftist" idea as one can get. Yet our establishment media has succeeded (as Digby recently argued) in converting this view into a "Hard Left," "liberal" or "partisan" argument because that's the only prism through which they can understand anything, and that's their time-honored instrument for demonizing any idea that threatens their institutional prerogatives and orthodoxies (only the Hard Left favors this).

This is not a partisan argument. It's not an ideological one. It's not a question of values or of opinions. Those who ordered torture and those who tortured broke the law.

That this has become a partisan argument shows the complete fecklessness of the media and the total cynicism of the Republican party. And it doesn't speak too well of Obama, Pelosi, or the other Democrats who've decided this isn't that big a deal, either.

If Obama doesn't want these people to go to jail, he should be forced to issue pardons. None of this "I want to look forwards, not backwards" garbage. The government is not a human being with a neck injury. It *can* look forwards and backwards. I understand that he'd rather focus on other priorities, but what does that say to the world? Everybody's going to think -- perhaps correctly -- that we're just like dictatorships all over the world that claim to oppose torture while giving their interrogators a nod and a wink? We can't just pretend it never happened. We need to find out exactly what did happen, and we need to punish those who made it happen. And then we need to make sure it never happens again.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Great Example of Intellectual Honesty

Da'as Hedyot has a new "Better Know a Kofer" interview up, this time with blogger littlefoxling. Littlefoxling goes into much more depth about his intellectual journey out of Orthodoxy than previous interviewees, and I highly recommend it.

I'll add a glossary at the end for those unfamiliar with Orthodox jargon and Hebrew and Aramaic and Yiddish. :-)

Some excerpts (okay a lot of excerpts. It's a long interview:)
One day, Sorah brought up the issue of the Documentary Hypothesis. I had heard of DH before in chumash class. I knew all about it. DH was when you went through the Torah and you took every passuk with YHWH and said "This is J" and every passuk with Elohim and said "This is E" and then when you were done you looked back and said "Poof! All the YHWH’s are in J." my chumash teachers had made fun of it incessantly. Also, it was humanities, not sciences. And, I knew from college that the humanities were crap. I was very glad to have the discussion switch to an area I was on firmer ground in and so I started to make fun of the DH.

So many Orthodox people stop there. They've heard rabbis make fun of something and claim that it's untrue, so they make fun of it and claim it's untrue. But fortunately (or unfortunately, if you're Orthodox) littlefoxling was not that kind of Orthodox Jew:
As the conversation continued though, I realized that whether DH was true or not, I knew pathetically little about what it actually said and was really not in a position to talk about it. This bothered me and so I went to the library and got a few books out on DH.

What?! Where's the blind trust in the authority of the Rabbis? Once you start investigating for yourself, who knows where that might lead?

If littlefoxling wasn't one of those Jews who just accepts everything blindly, he also wasn't one to throw away his religion the first time he encountered opposing arguments. He brought a healthy skepticism to them as well:
The first one I read was Richard Elliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?. It confirmed everything my rebbeim had said about DH. The book was basically a migdal poreach baavir. He had maybe 5 or 6 good contradictions and this YHWH/Elohim thing and from that he concocted this complex conspiracy theory of how the Torah was written. It was complete crap and I knew better. I got a few other books out of the library and they were all the same...

I continued along this path. I took book after book out of the library but found each one to be worst than the last. Each just asserted DH was true but none actually proved it.

Did he breathe a sigh of relief at this point and give up his research? He could have, if he didn't have that nasty habit of thinking too much:
One day, a thought occurred to me. REF and all the other authors I was reading generally had some kind of line about how the DH was already established and they weren’t going to spend time proving it since it was already unanimously accepted. I wondered if perhaps the problem was that these books just took it for granted and didn’t bother to present the evidence.

I had this idea. Maybe if I looked at some older books I would get more of the evidence. I stumbled upon S. R. Driver’s "Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament," which was published in 1913.

Oops, good point. I wonder what will happen:
I was mortified. The book was absolutely chock full of completely irrefutable proof for the DH. For weeks and weeks I struggled with him, Driver and I locked in epic battle. But I could not defeat him. Everything I threw at him, my best apologetics and sevorahs were no match for him.

Ah, that's a moment most of us OTDers recognize. The first time we realize that what we've been taught is really, really not true.

LF didn't go down without a fight, though:
I began to read the apologists. Cassuto, Hoffman, David Gottlieb, Breuer. I was mortified once again. They were all complete crap. Me, a freakin finance guy who was doing this all on the subway to and from work could see how stupid everything they wrote was.

As we all find out sooner or later, apologists are for believers who want to continue believing, and are willing to suspend their disbelief to do so. They're total crap to anyone with a halfway objective eye.

LH then threw himself into the real scholars who don't agree exactly with the DH, with similar results. Yeah, maybe they disagree with some of the details, but it's not exactly like they've determined that Moses wrote the thing.

Then he had the epiphany. This is the epiphany that I think all Orthodox Jews who go OTD for intellectual reasons must have at some point:
So, I started to think about what my options were. Of course, I was holding out to find the scholars that underminded DH. But, what if I couldn’t find them? What did that mean? I started to wonder if maybe I could reconcile DH with Yahadus. DH wasn’t too far off from Halivni’s continual revelation. Maybe I could believe in DH and still be a frum yid.

I had a number of options I was considering. This Halivni option was one. Breur's methodology seemed to be to adopt the DH but argue that it was one author writing from two point of views. Cassuto basically said that the whole DH was deceptive and faulty reasoning. And then there was Hoffman. Hoffman argued that one could use the DH's reasoning and come up with authors and divisions even the DH didn't hold of which showed even scholars didn't hold of the reasoning really.

But then something occurred to me. On my list of possibilities, the possibility of "The Torah is not divine" didn't even appear. But that seemed strange given that that possibility was winning soundly in my research.

And, then, it hit me. It hit me like a bag of bricks. The moment that would forever change my life. There was a realization. It wasn’t about it the DH, the mabul, or the Kuzari proof. It was about me. I looked in the mirror and said to myself "What am I doing?" I realized that I was not trying to find the truth. I wasn’t looking for the answers. I was looking to prove that OJ was true. I realized that in all my inquires, if it was DH, KP, mabul, Enuma Elish, I was always trying to figure out how to answer for OJ, not how to find the truth.

That's it. That's really all it takes. The instant you realize that you haven't been looking for the truth at all, but looking for a way to rationalize your prior beliefs, it's all over. Because if you really look for the truth, there's no way in hell you end up with Orthodox Judaism.


Passuk: verse, especially a verse from the Torah.
Chumash: Pentateuch
Rebbeim: Rabbis
Migdal poreach baavir: Building floating on air (i.e. an edifice built on top of nothing)
sevorahs: opinion? conjecture? tentative argument?
Yahadus: Judaism
Frum yid: Religious Jew
mabul: Flood
Kuzari proof: The common apologetic argument that the story of mass revelation at Sinai is so amazing and unusual that it must be true.
OTD: Off the derech = Off the way = a term for those of us who left Orthodox Judaism.

Pat Robertson Advises A Christian About Atheist Boyfriend

Monday, May 11, 2009

Another Military Arabic Linguist Fired For Being Gay

Another rarely talented military Arabic linguist we desperately need is about to be fired because he's gay:
Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and officer in the Army National Guard who is fluent in Arabic and who returned recently from Iraq, received notice today that the military is about to fire him. Why? Because he came out of the closet as a gay man on national television.


I spent a day with Dan Choi last month, and he is not someone we want to fire from the military. He loves the armed forces. He served bravely under tough combat conditions in Iraq. His Arabic is excellent, and he used his language skills to defuse many tough situations and to save lives, both Iraqi and American. All of his unit mates know he is gay, and they have been very supportive of him. But he doesn't want to live a lie.

How stupid are we as a society?

Aaron Belkin blames Obama:
Obama has been praised for delaying efforts to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell," and some major gay rights groups are actively lobbying to delay consideration of the issue. They seem to believe that Obama should focus on other gay-rights issues first, and that he shouldn't spend his precious political capital trying to ram a repeal bill through Congress.

This misses the point. Obama could sign an executive order today. With roughly three-quarters of the public, including a majority of republicans, in favor of open gay service, a meaningful public backlash is unlikely. A slight majority of service members prefer that the policy be left in place, but polls also show that only a tiny minority of them care strongly about the issue, and that the vast majority of service members are comfortable interacting with gays.

Obama may believe he has nothing to lose by waiting. But what about Dan Choi's career? Is this really the right time to fire military officers who are fluent in Arabic?

I have to agree. I know Obama's got to pick his battles, but this one's a no-brainer. How often do you get to do the thing that is right, popular, AND will make our country safer?