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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Abstinence Only Sex Ed

If you attended a religious school like mine (or a public school with "abstinence only" sex ed) and had religious, shy, or ignorant parents, chances are you weren't given all the information you need to remain STD-free and prevent unwanted pregnancy. Please fill the gaps in your education yourself. Parents, please teach your children even if you don't want them to have sex.

I know from first-hand experience that a significant number of Orthodox Jewish teens are sexually active. And not just the "bad kids," either. Don't let denial of this fact lead children to unnecessary disease and unwanted pregnancy.

Most young people begin having sex in their mid-to-late teens, about 8 years before they marry.

By age 18, about 71% of U.S. youth have had sexual intercourse.

A recent New York Times article found that 88% of teenagers who had taken abstinence pledges reported having sexual intercourse before marriage. Of these teenagers, many are less likely to know that they have contracted a sexually transmitted disease, and are therefore more likely to transmit STDs to others...

Three out of ten teenage men become sexually active before they have received any school instruction on AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, birth control, and the correct use of the condom, or how to say no to intercourse. (source)

Some Facts You Might Not Know

  • Emergency Contraception works. If, for whatever reason, you had unprotected sex, you forgot to take your pill, or your condom breaks, you can get your doctor to prescribe emergency contraception pills for up to 72 hours. "ECPs reduce the risk of pregnancy by 75-89 percent when the first dose is taken within 72 hours... The sooner you start it, the more effective." ECPs act before implantation occurs, so they are not the same as "the abortion pill," Mifepristone or RU-486. For up to 5 days afterwards, your doctor can insert an Intra-Uterine Device (IUD.)

  • How to use condoms properly. "Of 100 women whose partners use condoms, about 15 will become pregnant during the first year of typical use. Only two women will become pregnant with perfect use." More protection against pregnancy is possible if condoms are used with a spermicide foam, cream, jelly, suppository, or film.

  • HIV and other Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) can be transmitted through cunnilingus (oral-vaginal), fellatio (oral-penile), and analingus (oral-anal.) HIV transmission is very rare, but possible, through cunnilingus. HIV transmission can occur through fellatio even if there is no ejaculation.

  • Certain STDs like Herpes and Warts can be transmitted even when using a condom.

Be safe, teach your kids, and encourage schools to teach all the kids.

Evidence of Common Descent between Man and Chimp

(H=human, C=chimp, G=Gorilla, O=orangutan)

Long long ago, in a laboratory far far away, scientists figured out that chimpanzees have 24 chromosomes in their sperms and eggs, whereas humans only have 23. Therefore, these great scientists theorized that two of our chromosomes might have fused together sometime in the recent past (aka million years ago.). Their theory made 3 predictions:

1) One of our chromosomes would look like two of the chimp chromosomes stuck together.
2) This same chromosome would have an extra sequence in it that looked like a centromere. Centromeres are the things in the middle that microtubules grab onto to divide a pair of chromosomes during mitosis.
3) It would also have telomeres (ends) but in the middle - and they would be in reverse order. Sort of like this:


See the "DNEEND" in the middle? That's what two telomeres would look like if two chromosomes were stuck together.

--From an excellent post by scigirl on IIDB.

As you might have guessed, all three predictions have been verified. While, as always, it's impossible to prove that an all-powerful being didn't create the evidence to trick us, the reasonable explanation is that humans and chimps share a common ancestor.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Wacky Bible Quote of the Day: Deu 25:11-12

Deu 25:11 When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets:

Deu 25:12 Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity [her].

(images from The Brick Testament, previously mentioned here.)

Sunday, November 27, 2005

No Easy Answers

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. --H. L. Mencken
Good questions outrank easy answers. --Paul Samuelson

I was having a conversation with a friend recently and we were discussing why so many Americans possess so many simplistic religious beliefs. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that people just want easy answers. I think it's understandable -- life can be bewildering and overwhelming in the best of circumstances -- but it's leading to a very ignorant populace, which rejects, almost 200 years after Darwin, evolution.

Atheism and the more sophisticated theologies are hard.

When a dear friend dies, the simple theist can believe that his friend's in Heaven, surrounded by angels and loved ones. The skeptic must reconcile himself to the sad reality that his friend is just gone.

When the simple theist wonders how we got here, he can be satisfied with "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground." The skeptic must find an introductory text on evolution. If he really wants to understand, he can spend his whole life studying genetics, biology, and paleontology, and still, at the end, not fully know.

When the simple theist has a moral dilemma, she may simply consult her rabbi, or open the Good Book. The skeptic must agonize, pondering ramifications and trade-offs, never knowing if her choice was "correct."

The simple theist believes that he and all of us are here for a very specific purpose. The skeptic must create his own meaning, or accept that perhaps there is none.

It takes courage to look past the easy (and wrong) answers and accept life's inherent complexity and unknowableness. I think the road less traveled is well worth the difficulty, however. The simple theist's world is small and simplistic, while the skeptic's is majestic and full of wonderful avenues of exploration. There is much we will never know, but we skeptics get to spend our lives learning all we can.

Q&A with the Jewish Atheist

While I was on vacation, I missed several questions by commenters. I figured answering them would be a good way to get back into blogging.

Q: Esther asks, [H]ow many of your friends growing up have left Modern Orthodoxy and where did they go? How often do you think this occurs? Do you think that insular groups have a higher retention rate than others?

A: I would estimate that approximately 20% of my modern Orthodox high school class are no longer Orthodox. Some are completely secular while some have moved to more liberal forms of Judaism like Conservative Judaism and the new "egalitarian," which is essentially Orthodox without the gender segregation.

Q: Anonymous asks, regarding thanksgiving, "Who are you thanking???"

A: First, I am thankful towards all of the people who have helped me or others, directly or indirectly. Second, I am just thankful (without being thankful TO someone) for the people and things in my life.

Q: R10B says, "This idea of the gov't getting out of the marriage biz (and other such matters) would be a great topic on it's own rather than hiding under a Evolution/ID heading. Who want's to take the party to their house? Or are you interested JA?"

A: I'm not sure I want to get into it in detail, but I would answer that the ship has sailed. We can't undo the government's involvement in marriage. Marriage has become both a religious and a secular institution. I agree that many of the problems today stem from people's confusing of and conflating the two, but I think the solution is to allow gay marriage without forcing any religious institution to recognize or perform same-sex marriage. This type of distinction already exists. For example, the state recognizes a marriage between a Jew and a Christian, while Orthodox Judaism doesn't have to.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving!

I won't be posting much if any until next weekend, so a happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Conservative Columnists Turning Against the Christian Right

When conservatives George Will and Charles Krauthammer have op-eds in the same week critical of some Republicans, you know the tide is shifting. Both are dismayed by the hijacking of the Republican party by fundamentalists who want our public schools to teach "Intelligent Design" as part of the science curriculum. Here are their words:


Let's be clear. Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological "theory" whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge -- in this case, evolution -- they are to be filled by God. It is a "theory" that admits that evolution and natural selection explain such things as the development of drug resistance in bacteria and other such evolutionary changes within species but also says that every once in a while God steps into this world of constant and accumulating change and says, "I think I'll make me a lemur today." A "theory" that violates the most basic requirement of anything pretending to be science -- that it be empirically disprovable. How does one empirically disprove the proposition that God was behind the lemur, or evolution -- or behind the motion of the tides or the "strong force" that holds the atom together?

In order to justify the farce that intelligent design is science, Kansas had to corrupt the very definition of science, dropping the phrase " natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us," thus unmistakably implying -- by fiat of definition, no less -- that the supernatural is an integral part of science. This is an insult both to religion and science.

The school board thinks it is indicting evolution by branding it an "unguided process" with no "discernible direction or goal." This is as ridiculous as indicting Newtonian mechanics for positing an "unguided process" by which Earth is pulled around the sun every year without discernible purpose. What is chemistry if not an "unguided process" of molecular interactions without "purpose"? Or are we to teach children that God is behind every hydrogen atom in electrolysis?

He may be, of course. But that discussion is the province of religion, not science. The relentless attempt to confuse the two by teaching warmed-over creationism as science can only bring ridicule to religion, gratuitously discrediting a great human endeavor and our deepest source of wisdom precisely about those questions -- arguably, the most important questions in life -- that lie beyond the material.

How ridiculous to make evolution the enemy of God. What could be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical, more creative, indeed more divine than a planet with millions of life forms, distinct and yet interactive, all ultimately derived from accumulated variations in a single double-stranded molecule, pliable and fecund enough to give us mollusks and mice, Newton and Einstein? Even if it did give us the Kansas State Board of Education, too.

(Source. Hat tip: respondingtojblogs.)


The storm-tossed and rudderless Republican Party should particularly ponder the vote last week in Dover, Pa., where all eight members of the school board seeking reelection were defeated. This expressed the community's wholesome exasperation with the board's campaign to insinuate religion, in the guise of "intelligent design" theory, into high school biology classes, beginning with a required proclamation that evolution "is not a fact."

But it is. And President Bush's straddle on that subject -- "both sides" should be taught -- although intended to be anodyne*, probably was inflammatory, emboldening social conservatives. Dover's insurrection occurred as Kansas's Board of Education, which is controlled by the kind of conservatives who make conservatism repulsive to temperate people, voted 6 to 4 to redefine science. The board, opening the way for teaching the supernatural, deleted from the definition of science these words: "a search for natural explanations of observable phenomena."

"It does me no injury," said Thomas Jefferson, "for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." But it is injurious, and unneighborly, when zealots try to compel public education to infuse theism into scientific education. The conservative coalition, which is coming unglued for many reasons, will rapidly disintegrate if limited-government conservatives become convinced that social conservatives are unwilling to concentrate their character-building and soul-saving energies on the private institutions that mediate between individuals and government, and instead try to conscript government into sectarian crusades.

* "anodyne," a word I'd never heard before, means "serving to assuage pain."

(It appears that I will continue to debate, although I'll try to remain as civil as possible. :) )

Thursday, November 17, 2005

This Needs to Change

Be the change that you want to see in the world. --Gandhi
Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. --Tolstoy

The situation described in my last post (and an unrelated, rather heated email exchange which ended with somebody threatening me) has made me do some thinking. Why is it that so many of us (including myself, of course) spend our energy blaming everybody but ourselves? We spend so much time criticizing instead of seeking common ground and figuring out a way to work together. It's just like politics on the national scale. The two sides get so worked up about a few emotional issues that they ignore almost everything else. Hardly anybody tries to put themselves in their opponent's shoes, but instead assumes that their opponents are not just wrong, but stupid and/or evil.

We confuse the means with the ends. I say I argue about religion because I value science and progressive values, but there must be more effective ways to advance those ends than all this arguing.

I'm not sure I want to continue arguing about religion. In the best case, I'll convince a few people that religion isn't true and causes some problems, but even then I'm also contributing to the hatred on both sides.

I think that some people (like politicians) divide us on purpose, knowing that if they can keep us arguing about gay marriage and abortion, we won't notice when they're fleecing the public and passing measures that the majority of Americans wouldn't support if they had all the information. I want to say that because I think it's true, but then I think maybe I'm just criticizing again instead of seeking to improve things myself.

So I'm going to change. I'm just not sure how.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Why Doesn't the Religious Right Support Universal Health Care?

A friend of mine recently met a retired nurse in her sixties. She has diabetes along with a host of other medical problems. She's one of the ones that Democrats talk about when they tell us stories of people having to choose between buying medicine and buying food. She can't get all the medicine her doctor believes she needs because Medicare doesn't cover it, and she can only eat vegetables for the first week or two of the month, because she simply can't afford more. This is not a lazy woman. She worked for decades as a nurse and can no longer work due to her health problems.

We're the richest country in the world.

Democrats have been pushing for universal health care for decades, but have been stymied by Republicans who think the money would be better spent with more tax cuts for multi-millionaires. If not universal health care, how about just more health care? Why do we let children go uninsured?

Which side of this debate would Jesus have been on?

Quote of the Day - Religion and Heredity

Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happen to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity. --Richard Dawkins

Almost every religious person will tell you that their religion is the most logical, the most accurate, and has the best moral code. And yet the great majority of them were born into their religion and hardly considered any of the others. And a majority of the ones who picked a religion other than their parents', picked the one belonging to most people who live near them. It's as rare to find someone in Alabama who decided that Zoroastrianism is correct as it is to find a Bantu tribesman who decided that Judaism is true.

Monday, November 14, 2005

More Demographic Fun, or Red State "Values" Don't Work

Did you know that the Red States have:

A higher divorce rate?
Liberal, secular Massachusetts, with its scary gay marriage, has the lowest. Texas has almost twice as many divorces per capita. More fun facts: Bob Barr, the Republican who wrote the "Defense of Marriage Act", has been married three times. Baptists have the highest divorce rate. Tell me, whom does marriage really need defending from?

Higher teen pregnancy rates?
Massachusetts has a rate of 7.4, while Texas's is 16.1. I wonder why the Blue States aren't rushing out to copy abstinence-only sex-ed.

Less education? At least Kansas is taking decisive action by inserting intelligent design into the curriculum.

More money coming in than going out with taxes? Why do they keep complaining about taxes then?

We need to move away from "faith-based" values and towards "evidence-based" values. Maybe if the Red States started paying more attention to the data and less to simplistic ideology, they'd start to close the gap.

(Some of these data are from this article.)

Religions of the World

Isn't it weird how people in different parts of the country can be so wrong about what God wants?

People in other countries are REALLY far off.

There are a lot of misinformed people out there.


Saturday, November 12, 2005

Is God an Accident?

This is the religion-as-accident theory that emerges from my work and the work of cognitive scientists such as Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Justin Barrett, and Deborah Kelemen. One version of this theory begins with the notion that a distinction between the physical and the psychological is fundamental to human thought. Purely physical things, such as rocks and trees, are subject to the pitiless laws of Newton. Throw a rock, and it will fly through space on a certain path; if you put a branch on the ground, it will not disappear, scamper away, or fly into space. Psychological things, such as people, possess minds, intentions, beliefs, goals, and desires.

Paul Bloom, a Yale professor of psychology and linguistics, has a fascinating article in this month's The Atlantic Monthly: "Is God an Accident? (Subscribers only, unfortunately.) Bloom hypothesizes that belief in the supernatural arises from the fact that we have essentially two cognitive systems which work together. When we think about inanimate objects like stones or baseballs, we use one cognitive system; when we think about people or dogs, we use another.

Bodies and Souls

Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a [person]'s brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks...

For those of us who are not autistic, the separateness of these two mechanisms, one for understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world, gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity—a mind or soul—are genuinely distinct. We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them...

This belief system opens the possibility that we ourselves can survive the death of our bodies. Most people believe that when the body is destroyed, the soul lives on. It might ascend to heaven, descend to hell, go off into some sort of parallel world, or occupy some other body, human or animal. Indeed, the belief that the world teems with ancestor spirits—the souls of people who have been liberated from their bodies through death—is common across cultures. We can imagine our bodies being destroyed, our brains ceasing to function, our bones turning to dust, but it is harder—some would say impossible—to imagine the end of our very existence. The notion of a soul without a body makes sense to us.

Bloom refers to a study in which scientists showed children a story about a mouse which was eaten by an alligator:

As predicted, when asked about biological properties, the children appreciated the effects of death: no need for bathroom breaks; the ears don't work, and neither does the brain. The mouse's body is gone. But when asked about the psychological properties, more than half the children said that these would continue: the dead mouse can feel hunger, think thoughts, and have desires. The soul survives. And children believe this more than adults do, suggesting that although we have to learn which specific afterlife people in our culture believe in (heaven, reincarnation, a spirit world, and so on), the notion that life after death is possible is not learned at all. It is a by-product of how we naturally think about the world.

We've Evolved to be Creationists

Then Bloom gets to the good stuff:

This is just half the story. Our dualism makes it possible for us to think of supernatural entities and events; it is why such things make sense. But there is another factor that makes the perception of them compelling, often irresistible. We have what the anthropologist Pascal Boyer has called a hypertrophy of social cognition. We see purpose, intention, design, even when it is not there.

In 1944 the social psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel made a simple movie in which geometric figures—circles, squares, triangles—moved in certain systematic ways, designed to tell a tale. When shown this movie, people instinctively describe the figures as if they were specific types of people (bullies, victims, heroes) with goals and desires, and repeat pretty much the same story that the psychologists intended to tell.

Stewart Guthrie, an anthropologist at Fordham University, was the first modern scholar to notice the importance of this tendency as an explanation for religious thought. In his book Faces in the Clouds, Guthrie presents anecdotes and experiments showing that people attribute human characteristics to a striking range of real-world entities, including bicycles, bottles, clouds, fire, leaves, rain, volcanoes, and wind. We are hypersensitive to signs of agency—so much so that we see intention where only artifice or accident exists. As Guthrie puts it, the clothes have no emperor.

Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness. If you show them a string of heads and tails that was produced by a random-number generator, they tend to think it is rigged—it looks orderly to them, too orderly. After 9/11 people claimed to see Satan in the billowing smoke from the World Trade Center. Before that some people were stirred by the Nun Bun, a baked good that bore an eerie resemblance to Mother Teresa. In November of 2004 someone posted on eBay a ten-year-old grilled cheese sandwich that looked remarkably like the Virgin Mary; it sold for $28,000. (In response pranksters posted a grilled cheese sandwich bearing images of the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley.) There are those who listen to the static from radios and other electronic devices and hear messages from dead people—a phenomenon presented with great seriousness in the Michael Keaton movie White Noise. Older readers who lived their formative years before CDs and MPEGs might remember listening intently for the significant and sometimes scatological messages that were said to come from records played backward.

Bloom admits that "We are not being unreasonable when we observe that the eye seems to be crafted for seeing, or that the leaf insect seems colored with the goal of looking very much like a leaf," but goes on to say, "Darwin changed everything. His great insight was that one could explain complex and adaptive design without positing a divine designer. Natural selection can be simulated on a computer; in fact, genetic algorithms, which mimic natural selection, are used to solve otherwise intractable computational problems. And we can see natural selection at work in case studies across the world, from the evolution of beak size in Galápagos finches to the arms race we engage in with many viruses, which have an unfortunate capacity to respond adaptively to vaccines."

What's the Problem with Darwin?

What's the problem with Darwin? His theory of evolution does clash with the religious beliefs that some people already hold. For Jews and Christians, God willed the world into being in six days, calling different things into existence. Other religions posit more physical processes on the part of the creator or creators, such as vomiting, procreation, masturbation, or the molding of clay. Not much room here for random variation and differential reproductive success.

But the real problem with natural selection is that it makes no intuitive sense. It is like quantum physics; we may intellectually grasp it, but it will never feel right to us. When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer—a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin.

It's not surprising, then, that nascent creationist views are found in young children. Four-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining"). When asked to explain why a bunch of rocks are pointy, adults prefer a physical explanation, while children choose a functional one, such as "so that animals could scratch on them when they get itchy." And when asked about the origin of animals and people, children tend to prefer explanations that involve an intentional creator, even if the adults raising them do not. Creationism—and belief in God—is bred in the bone.

Bloom's Conclusion

Religious teachings certainly shape many of the specific beliefs we hold; nobody is born with the idea that the birthplace of humanity was the Garden of Eden, or that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception, or that martyrs will be rewarded with sexual access to scores of virgins. These ideas are learned. But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles

I'm not yet a member of the Council for Secular Humanism, but I seem to agree with most of their principles. That's a rare and precious thing when you're a skeptic and an atheist.
  • We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.

  • We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.

  • We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life.

  • We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.

  • We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.

  • We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.

  • We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.

  • We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.

  • We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.

  • We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.

  • We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.

  • We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.

  • We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.

  • We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.

  • We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.

  • We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.

  • We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos.

  • We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.

  • We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.

  • We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.

  • We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Goodbye Not The Gadol Hador

The man with maybe the best frum skeptic's blog out there, Not The Gadol Hador, is closing up shop. (Again.) As I mentioned in my first post ever, his blog was a large part of the reason I started my blog. Although I haven't been spending too much time over there lately, I always read his posts. I will miss him.

Republicans and Factual Relativism


Republicans like to accuse the left of "moral relativism."

Well, I'm here to accuse them of "factual relativism." By this I mean that they don't care about facts. You may provide facts, but they will ignore, twist, and deny. They will never provide facts of their own, simply providing ever-retreating statements until they find something that isn't falsifiable (but has no basis in fact) or else repeating the lie over and over again.

Minor Example

I just had a dispute with Sadie Lou over at her place when she claimed that yesterday's California election came down, among other things, to "Christians vs. non-Christians." You can read it yourself, or you can enjoy this reenactment:

Me: But a majority of Democrats are Christians, too. Here's proof.
Her: Maybe for the rest of the country, but not for California.
Me: But a majority of Californian Democrats are also Christian. Here's proof.
Her: They aren't real Christians. They probably don't go to church, believe that Jesus died on the cross, or read their Bibles, and think that bombing abortion clinics and beating up gays is okay.
Me: They do go to church (here's proof) but I don't have data on the rest of it.
Her: Aha! I was right.

Political Examples

Kansas just decided to change the definition of the word "science" because Intelligent Design doesn't fit into the actual definition of science.

The Bush administration distorts scientific research. For example, they "sought changes in an Environmental Protection Agency climate study, including deletion of a 1,000-year temperature record and removal of reference to a study that attributed some of global warming to human activity" when the facts didn't agree with them on global warming.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

My Experience with Buddhism

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. -- Buddha


When I left Orthodoxy, I spent some time reading up on other religions. Buddhism, coming from an entirely different tradition, taught me a lot of stuff I hadn't really thought about before. It's particularly appealing to me as a skeptic and an atheist because, although there are many dogmatic Buddhists, there has been an anti-dogmatic aspect to Buddhism since the beginning. Buddhism, or at least the kind of Buddhism I'm attracted to, is empirical, albeit not as formally as science. Additionally, as a Western Jew, I am under no societal or familial pressure to accept Eastern claims which conflict with science, so I may comfortably pick and choose among Buddhism's ideas. Interestingly, so many American Jews are drawn to Buddhism that a term, "Ju-Bu," has been coined to describe them. I suspect that this happens because Buddhism contains values -- like iconoclasm, liberalism, and a reluctance towards violence -- that many American Jews share and find lacking in the stricter forms of Judaism in America.

A Note on Buddhism and Skepticism

Being a skeptic, an atheist, and an empiricist, I cannot simply believe in far-out claims like reincarnation, chi, and spiritual karma without evidence. However, I have found that many Eastern ideas, when viewed metaphorically, make enough sense to be useful.


I am not a Buddhist. This post is about my experience of Buddhism and Yoga and probably does not accurately represent the views of actual Buddhists and Yogis.

The Practice is the Philosophy

Buddhism has its sacred texts, which I have so far ignored, but it also has a number of practices with which you can learn simply by doing. The fundamental practice of Zen, a kind of Buddhism, is meditation.

How to Meditate

Here's what I do. Sit or lie comfortably. Be aware of your breath. Watch as thoughts arise in your brain. Don't get lost in them. Realize that "you" are not your thoughts. Your thoughts arise by themselves. Watch as emotions arise. Realize that "you" are not your emotions. This is more or less mindfulness meditation. There are many other kinds of meditation.

No Self

One of the most important ideas of Buddhism is that the self is an illusion, that we are all part of the Divine. I am you is the rock are God. It is from our false belief that we are individuals that arises all of our suffering. Because we think we are separate, we grasp. Because we grasp, we are always unsatisfied. We want a bigger house, a beautiful object, or a smile from a loved one. When we sit in meditation, we come to realize that "we" are not our wants.

This idea of "no-self" meshes interestingly with science. Empirically, it appears that what we consider "I" is an emergent phenomenon of the complexity of neural interactions in the brain. Fundamentally, we are made of the same stuff as a rock or a star. Furthermore, experiments show that decisions are made in our brains before we are conscious of making a decision, casting doubt on the very existence of free will. The Buddhist idea of "no-self," at this point, cannot be said to be definitively true, but it also cannot be disproved. You might think that I would object to the notion of the Divine, as an atheist, but I believe that the Divine in Buddhism is more-or-less equivalent to "the universe" or "existence" in Western thought. It's commonly believed that many Buddhists can be reasonably called atheists as well.

What I Have Learned from Buddhism

I have learned about the importance of being present. Once you get a taste for meditation, it can affect how you relate to the world. When I am present, I experience heightened sensation, a deep calm, and positive emotions towards all Beings. (It's difficult to talk about spirituality without being cheesy or using cliches. However, anybody may try meditation and see for themselves. No God and no faith are required.) When I am present, I am less likely to engage in hurtful behavior like overeating, arguing too much online, procrastinating, or otherwise distracting myself from life. I enjoy having things not going my way more while being mindful than I do having things go my way when I'm not being mindful. As an example, waiting in line while being mindful is more enjoyable than eating great food while not paying attention.

I have also learned to see that people who do great destruction often do so because they fall to this grasping that Buddhism teaches about. I always wondered why millionaires like Ken Lay, the CEO of Enron, would engage in illegal and unethical behavior simply to make more money he couldn't possibly need. The answer is that people who think of themselves as totally separate always think they need more and that they can take it at the expense of other people. He probably thinks that if he can just make another $100 million, he'll be happy. I can see him as a lost, sad human being rather than just as a caricature of evil. People numb themselves (which is the opposite of being mindfully present) to the damage they are doing to themselves and others.


Buddhism, Taoism, and Yoga touch on many of the same ideas. I recommend learning about any of them.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance was my introduction to Zen Buddhism, as it is for so many young Westerners. It's not really about Buddhism, but it's very readable and is likely to whet your appetite, particularly if you tend to intellectualize.

Wherever You Go, There You Are : Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who runs the very well-respected Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Guided Mindfulness Meditation is a great 4-CD secular introduction to meditation also from Jon Kabat-Zinn.

A.M. and P.M. Yoga for Beginners is a great introduction to the practice of yoga, which is another form of meditation. I also recommend Crunch: The Perfect Yoga Workout.

Mindfulness In Plain English is a free, online book.

Tara Brach has some very interesting speeches available online for free. I also recommend her book, Radical Acceptance : Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.

Infinite Smile is an intellectual Buddhist podcast.

Meditations from the Mat is a deep book by a former college football player, Army Ranger, and recovered addict. My Christian readers might want to start with this, since the author is a devout Christian. I think it's great and I've read it at least twice, a couple of pages a day.

The Book : On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are is an amazing blow-your-mind experience from the British scholar Alan Watts. Many of Watts's speeches are available online if you look around.

Go Vote! Bring your friends! Your parents! Your neighbors!

Don't let the extremists (who are much more likely to vote) have all the power.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Baloney Detection Kit

How can we tell the difference between rational claims and baloney claims? In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark the late Carl Sagan writes:

The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

* Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts
* Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
* Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities").
* Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
* Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.
* Quantify, wherever possible.
* If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
* "Occam's razor" - if there are two hypothesis that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
* Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

Additional issues are

* Conduct control experiments - especially "double blind" experiments where the person taking measurements is not aware of the test and control subjects.
* Check for confounding factors - separate the variables.

Common fallacies of logic and rhetoric

* Ad hominem - attacking the arguer and not the argument.
* Argument from "authority".
* Argument from adverse consequences (putting pressure on the decision maker by pointing out dire consequences of an "unfavourable" decision).
* Appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).
* Special pleading (typically referring to god's will).
* Begging the question (assuming an answer in the way the question is phrased).
* Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the misses).
* Statistics of small numbers (such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes).
* Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (President Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence!)
* Inconsistency (e.g. military expenditures based on worst case scenarios but scientific projections on environmental dangers thriftily ignored because they are not "proved").
* Non sequitur - "it does not follow" - the logic falls down.
* Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - "it happened after so it was caused by" - confusion of cause and effect.
* Meaningless question ("what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?).
* Excluded middle - considering only the two extremes in a range of possibilities (making the "other side" look worse than it really is).
* Short-term v. long-term - a subset of excluded middle ("why pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?").
* Slippery slope - a subset of excluded middle - unwarranted extrapolation of the effects (give an inch and they will take a mile).
* Confusion of correlation and causation.
* Straw man - caricaturing (or stereotyping) a position to make it easier to attack..
* Suppressed evidence or half-truths.
* Weasel words - for example, use of euphemisms for war such as "police action" to get around limitations on Presidential powers. "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public"

(I copied the text from this website, but it's a pull from the book.)