Friday, December 29, 2006

Intelligent Design vs. Evolution: The Board Game!!!

This is not a parody.

Evangelistic, educational, entertaining.

At last, a board game that reveals the insanity of perhaps the greatest hoax of our times -- the unscientific "theory of evolution."

"Intelligent Design vs Evolution" is unique in that the playing pieces are small rubber brains and each team plays for "brain" cards. Each player uses his or her brains to get more brains, and the team with the most brains wins. It has been designed to make people think . . . and that's exactly what it does.

"Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron are doing much more than revealing the bankruptcy of molecules-to-man evolution. They have a greater purpose: proclaiming biblical authority and reaching the lost with the precious gospel message. Enjoy this wonderful family game as you also become better equipped to defend our precious Christian faith." -- Ken Ham, President, Answers in Genesis.

Emphasis original. Via Friendly Atheist.

Why Religious Morality Sucks

Traditional religions are hamstrung by their allegiance to dogma, and too scared to be flexible when necessary. They end up elevating dogma over people.

I posted recently about George W. Bush's kind words about Mary Cheney's pregnancy despite his previous anti-gay-parent statements and policies. I suspect he knows in his heart that Mary and her partner's decision to have a baby is a beautiful, moral thing. Yet he can't admit that gay marriage or gay adoption is a good thing because of dogma. (Whether it's his personal dogma or simply his base's I don't know.)

Most modern Orthodox Jews have sympathy towards gay people. Yet their dogma insists that male homosexual sex is sinful. Because they follow their dogma rather than their hearts, they cause so much pain.

The Catholic Church does so much to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. Their hearts are clearly in the right place. Yet, because they are slaves to dogma, they can't take the easy and necessary step of advocating widespread condom usage. Yesterday, I posted about the Church's denial of a funeral to a man because he was a euthanasia advocate who asked to be removed from a ventilator he'd been on for years. He had advanced muscular dystrophy and was paralyzed. I have no doubt that in the absence of dogma, they would have felt no compulsion to punish this man and his family and loved ones.

For all their moaning about relative morality, orthodox religionists miss the fact that traditional religion's backwards, inflexible "objective" morality causes so much unnecessary pain and suffering. Time for them to take a look at that beam in their eye.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Catholic Church Denies Funeral to Euthanasia Advocate

ROME --Several thousand people, some chanting "shame, shame, shame," attended a lay funeral in a Rome square yesterday for a paralyzed man who was denied a Catholic service because he had asked to die.

Pope Benedict entered the debate over the death of Piergiorgio Welby by condemning euthanasia and saying life was sacred until its "natural sunset."

Welby died on Wednesday after a doctor gave him sedatives and detached a respirator that had kept the victim of advanced muscular dystrophy alive for years.

The lay service for the 60-year-old, an eloquent advocate of euthanasia, was held outside the parish where his family, particularly his devoutly religious mother, had wanted a religious funeral.


The local parish priest had favored a religious service but he was overruled by Rome's Vicariate, or bishop's office, which said Welby had repeatedly affirmed his desire to end his own life, which is against Catholic doctrine.


"I was shocked by the decision not to give him a religious funeral," Father Gianfranco Formenton, told Radio Radicale, the organ of the party that defended Welby's right to die.

"We [the Church] have allowed funerals for [former Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet, [former Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco and for mafiosi, but we refuse a funeral for a man just because he asked to die," the priest said.

Speaking at the Vatican on Christmas Eve, just as the lay funeral was ending on the other side of Rome, Pope Benedict underlined the Church's position on euthanasia.

"The birth of Christ helps us to understand how much value human life has, the life of every human being, from its first instant to its natural sunset," he told pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter's Square for his weekly blessing.

Welby was confined to his bed and communicated mostly via computer that interpreted his eye movements. He had been asking to die for months.

The crowd at the funeral applauded during speeches by those who supported his right to die, including his wife, Mina, and former European Commissioner Emma Bonino. His coffin was then driven away for a cremation.

"The Vatican's position appears incomprehensible and devoid of human pity," said Gavino Angius, a senator from the largest party in the ruling center-left coalition.

Mourners protest, via Religious Freaks.

"Natural sunset." There's nothing "natural" about keeping someone on a respirator against his will.

Religion's just fine when it agrees with modern morality: don't murder, don't steal, great. Any idiot knows that. It's when moral questions become difficult -- i.e. when people actually crave guidance -- that it utterly fails. Slow to change, the world's religions have not kept up with changing technologies and scientific understanding. Euthanasia, stem-cell research, organ donation, condoms -- traditional religious leaders are stuck in the past.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

How Can I Be Jewish and an Atheist?

Judaism is not only a religion, as even the most religious Orthodox Jews recognize a non-practicing child of a Jewish mother as a Jew. It is not only a race, because Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Ethiopian, and Yemenite Jews, for example, can not reasonably be included in the same racial category. It is not only a culture, because it both includes many cultures and includes many people who share cultures with non-Jews. To say that the Jews are a nation or a people only transfers the question to the definition of "nation" or "people."

By almost all definitions of Judaism, I am therefore Jewish. I see myself as Jewish and am often seen by others as Jewish.

Atheism, on the other hand, reflects simply a lack of belief -- or, in some cases, a disbelief -- in deities.

"Jewish Atheist" is therefore only a contradiction for those few (almost exclusively non-Jews) who would limit the definition of "Judaism" to a question of religious belief or practice.

In fact, there are a lot of Jewish atheists. According to a 2003 Harris interactive poll, 19% of American Jews believe there is no God. (Compare to 4% of those who affiliate with Protestantism, 8% of those who affiliate as Catholics, and only 52% of those who affiliate as "Atheist/Agnostic.") Another 33% are "not sure whether or not there is a God."In other words, a majority of American Jews are either atheistic or agnostic. In Israel, according to a YNET poll, 28% of Jews are atheistic. (N.b. Polls seem to vary substantially on the question of belief in God.)

Other atheist Jews include the (in?)famous thinkers Marx, Freud, and Chomsky as well as the comedians Woody Allen, David Cross, Lewis Black, and probably Sarah Silverman.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-Thon Post

In honor of the tenth anniversary of astronomer and skeptical luminary Carl Sagan's death, Joel Schlosberg is hosting a Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-Thon. (Follow that link for dozens of other posts, including some by Sagan's wife and son.) Searching back through my posts, I found that I've already mentioned Sagan in nine posts. I think the best way to honor him is simply to point out how often I've already referred to him:

The Danger of Religious Thinking: American "Treatment" of Addiction
Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy... Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science?

Beautiful Science
Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.
[T]he Bible describes a God who watches over one tiny world a few thousand years old. I look out there and see a universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars... I mean burn me for a heretic, but your God seems awfully small. --Ellie Arroway, in Sagan's Contact

Baloney Detection Kit

Quote of the Day - Orthodoxy and the Suppression of Ideas
The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas.

Quote of the Day: Science Vs. Religion
In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

What Kind of Atheist am I?
  • In which I mention Sagan's role in my becoming an atheist.

Somehow I've never mentioned my favorite Sagan quote, which actually comes from his wife. When asked, "Didn't he want to believe?" she answered, "He didn't want to believe. He wanted to know."

Friday, December 15, 2006

George W. Bush, Hypocrite

In a 2005 interview with The New York Times, Bush said: "I believe children can receive love from gay couples but the ideal is -- and studies have shown that the ideal is where a child is raised in a married family with a man and a woman."

He sidestepped the issue when questioned by People magazine about whether he still held that belief.

"Mary Cheney is going to make a fine mom and she's going to love this child a lot," he said, according to an excerpt from the interview.
(Reuters, via Andrew Sullivan

Of course they aren't anti-gay when it's one of their own who's gay. And Mary Cheney can afford great lawyers so she won't be too adversely affected by a lack of gay marriage, civil unions, or anti-discrimination law.

I'm reminded of a racist I knew in yeshiva who used to go on about n*****s. When I asked him, what about [a certain African-American mensch], he said, "Oh, I'm not talking about people like that!"

George Bush happily throws millions of gay Americans under the bus to win votes, but is nothing but supportive when it's someone close to him.

To his credit, he's better than Alan Keyes who kicked his daughter out and cut off her tuition money when she came out of the closet. Better hypocrite than 100% evil, I guess.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Our Cowardly Media

Glen Greenwald bemoans the total lack of adversarial press in America. He points to yesterday's New York Times article about the Holocaust denial conference in Iran as an example of what they should do on domestic stories as well. The Times bravely takes a stand against Holocaust denial:

The two-day meeting included no attempt to come to terms with the nature of the well-documented Nazi slaughter, offering only a platform to those pursuing the fantasy that it never happened.

Here's Greenwald:

The media abdicates its function, and becomes a propaganda arm of the government, when it simply repeats verifiably false Government claims without pointing out, as the Times did with respect to holocaust denial arguments, that the statements are false and objectively contradicted by clear evidence. And our media does that all the time.

It fails in its function to report objectively when it simply conveys claims from the Government that we invaded Iraq once Saddam refused to allow inspectors, that Democrats oppose eavesdropping on terrorists (rather than oppose eavesdropping without warrants), that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda, that Denny Hastert forced Mark Foley to resign once he learned about his IMs with pages, that the President only decided to fire Rumsfeld after the midterm election, etc...

There were many times, in 2002 and 2003, when I read The New York Times in hard-copy form delivered to my door, where the entire front page would be nothing but articles which began with "The Bush administration yesterday said" or "A senior administration official told The New York Times yesterday that . . . " And the story wasn't just that "the Government said X." The story was "X" itself, reported as fact, with the only source being what the Government said (a classic case of such "reporting" is here, from the Post). That is when the media is indistinguishable, by definition, from Pravda.

The old joke is that if Bush said the Earth is flat, the Times would write, "Earth Flat? View Differ."

One of his commenters imagines what the Times or Washington Post would print if Bush denied the Holocaust:

The politically charged controversy over whether Nazi Germany engaged in the large-scale killing of European Jews during World War II, an alleged historical event referred to as the "Holocaust" by those who believe it occurred, became the subject of partisan bickering after a reporter asked President Bush for his view on the subject. Never afraid to take a stand, the president stated firmly that "If the Nazis were really killin' all them Jews, my granddaddy wouldn't have stood for it."

Democrats eagerly pounced on Bush's statement in an effort to score political points by claiming that the "Holocaust" did in fact occur and is well documented. But the president's press secretary countered that some people also believe evolution is well documented, even though the jury is still out. Senator Joseph Lieberman, who is Jewish, said that he personally believes that the "Holocaust" may have occurred, but warned Democrats not to "play politics" with the issue by criticizing the Commander in Chief in a time of war. Lieberman also pointed to Bush's support for Israel as evidence of the president's high regard for Jews, notwithstanding the "honest difference of opinion" regarding the fate of some Jews many years ago.

Also disagreeing with Bush was Sophie Wasserman, 89, who claimed to have personally witnessed the murder of her husband and children in a Nazi "concentration camp" in the German city of Dachau. However, conservative humorist Ann Coulter disputed Wasserman's account. Coulter, using her trademark tongue-in-cheek cleverness, described Wasserman as a "vicious, senile whore" whose husband and children "probably committed suicide to get away from her."

Big Bible Business

Tyler Cowen links to this New Yorker article:



The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: the Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year. Calculating how many Bibles are sold in the United States is a virtually impossible task, but a conservative estimate is that in 2005 Americans purchased some twenty-five million Bibles—twice as many as the most recent Harry Potter book. The amount spent annually on Bibles has been put at more than half a billion dollars.

In some ways, this should not be surprising. According to the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, forty-seven per cent of Americans read the Bible every week. But other research has found that ninety-one per cent of American households own at least one Bible—the average household owns four—which means that Bible publishers manage to sell twenty-five million copies a year of a book that almost everybody already has. Thomas Nelson’s Bible sales increased more than fifteen per cent last year, and such commercial possibilities have begun to attract mainstream publishers to an area dominated by a half-dozen Christian houses. Penguin published two new editions of the Bible this fall, and in July HarperSanFrancisco, part of HarperCollins, announced the creation of a Bible imprint. In June, Thomas Nelson, which last changed hands thirty-seven years ago, for $2.6 million, was purchased by a private investment firm for four hundred and seventy-three million dollars...

Every year, Nelson Bible executives analyze their product line for shortcomings, scrutinize the competition’s offerings, and talk with consumers, retailers, and pastors about their needs.

Nelson categorizes “Grace for the Moment” as an everyday-life Bible, whereas “Family Foundations” is a study Bible. The distinction points to one way in which publishers sell multiple copies of the Bible to the same customers. “They each have a different purpose,” Hatfield told me. “It’s kind of like a tool chest. All the tools are tools, but they’re designed for doing different things.” And there are distinctions within each category. There are study Bibles that focus on theology, on historical context, or on practical applications of Biblical teachings. There are devotional Bibles for new believers, couples, brides, and cowboys. On an air-plane recently, I saw a woman reading a surfers’ Bible very similar to the proposed skaters’ one. The variety is seemingly limitless. Nelson Bible Group’s 2006 catalogue lists more than a hundred titles...

The popularization of the Bible entered a new phase in 2003, when Thomas Nelson created the BibleZine. Wayne Hastings described a meeting in which a young editor, who had conducted numerous focus groups and online surveys, presented the idea. “She brought in a variety of teen-girl magazines and threw them out on the table,” he recalled. “And then she threw a black bonded-leather Bible on the table and said, ‘Which would you rather read if you were sixteen years old?’” The result was “Revolve,” a New Testament that looked indistinguishable from a glossy girls’ magazine. The 2007 edition features cover lines like “Guys Speak Their Minds” and “Do U Rush to Crush?” Inside, the Gospels are surrounded by quizzes, photos of beaming teen-agers, and sidebars offering Bible-themed beauty secrets:

Have you ever had a white stain appear underneath the arms of your favorite dark blouse? Don’t freak out. You can quickly give deodorant spots the boot. Just grab a spare toothbrush, dampen with a little water and liquid soap, and gently scrub until the stain fades away. As you wash away the stain, praise God for cleansing us from all the wrong things we have done. (1 John 1:9)

“Revolve” was immediately popular with teen-agers. “They weren’t embarrassed anymore,” Hastings said. “They could carry it around school, and nobody was going to ask them what in the world it is.” Nelson quickly followed up with other titles, including “Refuel,” for boys; “Blossom,” for tweens; “Real,” for the “vibrant urban crowd” (it comes bundled with a CD of Christian rap); and “Divine Health,” which has notes by the author of the best-selling diet book “What Would Jesus Eat?” To date, Nelson has sold well over a million BibleZines...

It is easy to ascribe a cynical motive to publishers’ embrace of commercial trends. Tim Jordan, of B. & H., concedes, “You do get some folks that say you shouldn’t treat the Bible as a fashion accessory or a throwaway.” Nonetheless, he feels that, from the point of view of a serious religious publisher, fashion can’t be ignored as a way of reaching new audiences. The point, he says, is “to expose as many people as you can, because we believe that it’s God’s word, we believe that it’s life-changing, and we don’t take that lightly.”

Update: Don't miss the slideshow! Via Metafilter.

The slideshow includes this gem:

“Jesus Loves Porn Stars” (NavPress; $8.99). Created by XXXchurch, which ministers to the pornography industry. Another publisher rejected the title as inappropriate, if theologically sound.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

My Thoughts on Iraq

I think it's all over but the blame.

Virtually everybody who doesn't work in the White House -- and many who do -- agree that we are losing in Iraq. There are only bad options left. If the administration were responsible, they would admit this fact, delineate the possible options, and choose the least bad one.

Unfortunately, they have a long track record of dishonesty. They and their toadies smeared for a long time those who dared to speak the truth -- that we are losing. Finally, after getting pummeled in the recent election, they've allowed that perhaps we aren't winning quickly enough.

Tim P. (via Andrew Sullivan) makes this prediction:

My feeling is that Iraq will play out just like the “preparations” for insurgency did. For political reasons withdrawal will be treated as a naughty word, stifling discussion and heading off planning until it becomes absolutely unavoidable. Then when the light finally goes on we will have a chaotic bugout with huge, avoidable losses of men and materiel.

Unfortunately, I suspect he's dead-on. The administration will smear anyone who suggests we might have to cut our losses and leave. (The dreaded "cut and run.") They'll do so right until there is absolutely no other option. Then it will be an unplanned, "chaotic bugout with huge, avoidable losses of men and materiel." Then they'll blame the Democrats.

If they're responsible, we can minimize the damage we do by leaving. We can set a timetable and do our best to prepare the Iraqi army. We can take other diplomatic and military options to make our inevitable withdrawal less harmful. But they're not responsible. They're going to wait and wait and soldiers are going to keep dying until finally the truth is absolutely undeniable, and then they'll bug out in an awful mess and blame the Democrats.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

On my Future as a Jewish Atheist

When I was a child, it was easy to picture what my life would be like as an adult. My community was warm and vibrant and the rhythms of life were stable and comforting. It was so easy to picture living a life like that as an adult, stepping into my father's role in a similar family, living on a similar street, participating in a similar community. Marry a woman after college, have a few kids, go to a nice shul, have Shabbos lunch every week with one or two of the dozens of families we're friends with who live within ten minute's walk, gorge on food and nap away the Yom Tov afternoons...

Everything was so simple there. Life was waiting for you. You go to YU or one of the other schools with high Orthodox populations, and you find your wife. You move your family into a neighborhood and -- BAM -- instant community. You've got family, friends, community, a support system, forced downtime. Beautiful.

I can see why even people with serious theological questions stay. I couldn't. I couldn't sit in shul and pretend or keep quiet when I felt Orthodoxy was wrong. Seems kind of like a dumb reason to give up all that, but I needed to be somewhere were I could be proud of who I am instead of pretending to be someone else. I felt like a hypocrite wearing a kippah to work already believing most of the things I now write on this blog. Christian Morganstern wrote, "Home is not where you live, but where they understand you," and the frum community did not understand me.

So I left, and now I'm out here, figuring things out on my own. I'm not trying to act like I'm some kind of hero -- this is probably how most middle/upper-middle class Americans live their lives. But compared to how I grew up, it's a lot harder. I still want to get married someday, but I couldn't have done it right after college. I'm pretty sure I want to have kids, but how can I provide them the community I grew up in? I had probably 20 friends whose houses I could walk to on Shabbos afternoon without even an invitation. I went to school with most of them practically from the time I could walk.

It seems that people "out here" form much smaller communities with extended families, a couple of neighbors, and a few random friends picked up here and there. These communities are not just small but loose, often dispersed geographically across a region or even the country. In some important ways, it's not a community at all.

So it's hard to picture my future. I'm trying to figure it out as I go, but I don't know if I'll ever find something like where I grew up. I think I understand now why so many of my real-life friends who slacked in their practice in their early twenties went back to Orthodoxy when they married. I'm not them, though. I don't fit there.

The Gadol Hador and Me

The venerable Gadol/XGH:

Jewish Atheist was originally a commenter here, but then went off and started his own blog. Of course back then, he and I didn’t agree on anything much. Maybe he even started his own blog just to counter all the nasty anti-skeptic things I used to write Nowadays though, at least intellectually, there’s not a huge difference between us.

However, having said that, we still choose to lead our lives very differently. I’m still frum, while he is out eating lobster and enjoying other fine aveiros. What gives? You might say, he has the courage of his convictions, whereas I’m a wus. He’s still single, whereas I’m married and tied to all the commitments that marriage and community brings. But I don’t think that’s it, or at least it’s not the whole story.

Here is how I responded:

I think the difference between you and me is that you're willing to act as if Orthodox Judaism is true in order to get what it offers and I'm not. I'm pretty sure I've always been incapable of doing what you do, but maybe if I'd gotten married and settled into a community as an adult before I reached my intellectual conclusions, I'd have made the same decisions you have.

Anyway, here's to hoping both our paths work out. :-)

Two completely unrelated thoughts:

1) There's a difference between theory and practice. In theory, Gadol/XGH and I sort of have similar beliefs. He makes all the same arguments against Orthodox Judaism that I do, although he stops short of making the obvious (to me) conclusion. In practice, we're at opposite ends of the religious spectrum. I think the gulf between theory and practice is something we bloggers should keep in mind when debating online. It's sometimes hard to picture the disembodied debaters as people.

2) I'm tempted to believe that Orthodox Judaism encourages its members to marry so early partly to increase retention. (It also works the other angle by encouraging high birthrates.)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

What if America Tortured During WWII?

Andrew Sullivan has the quote from Scott Horton:

Now I'd like you to use your imagination for a second. Let's assume the unthinkable: that America had embraced Mr. Bush's "Program" in the Second World War; that German, Italian and Japanese fighters had been waterboarded, subjected to the cold cell and techniques like "long time standing." Do any of you think for even a second that these nations would have been our allies and friends in the following generations? Think of how much darker, colder and more hate-filled our world would be than it is today...

A short time ago, in Germany, I spoke with one of the senior advisors of Chancellor Angela Merkel. I noted that a criminal complaint had been filed against Donald Rumsfeld and a number of others invoking universal jurisdiction for war crimes offenses. How would the chancellor see this, I asked? There was a long pause, and I fully expected to get a brush-off response. But what came was very surprising. "You must remember," said the advisor, "that my chancellor was born and raised in a totalitarian state. She cannot be indifferent to questions of this sort. In fact, she views them as matters of the utmost gravity and they will be treated that way. The Nuremberg process happened in my country. It was painful for us. But we absorbed it. It became a part of our legacy. An important part of our legacy. We will not forget it. But I have to ask you: why has your country forgotten?"

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Deeply Disturbing Case in the "War on Drugs"

Today, Richard Paey sits in a wheelchair behind high walls and razor wire in a high-security prison near Daytona Beach. Paey is a 46-year-old father of three, and a paraplegic. His condition is the result of a car accident, a botched back surgery, and a case of multiple sclerosis — three setbacks that have left him in a chronic, debilitating state of pain. After moving to Florida from New Jersey, Paey found it increasingly difficult to get prescriptions for the pain medication he needed to function normally — to support his family, and to be a parent to his children.

Paey's difficulties finding treatment were in large part due to federal- and state-government efforts to prevent the illegal use — or "diversion," as the feds call it — of prescription pain medicine. Doctors today face fines, suspension, the loss of license or practice, the seizure of property, or even prison time in the event that drug cops (most of whom have no medical training) decide they are prescribing too many painkillers. As a result, physicians are understandably apprehensive about aggressively treating pain.

Like many pain patients, Paey found himself on the blunt end of such policies. He went from doctor to doctor, looking for someone to give him the medication he needed. By the time he eventually turned to his old New Jersey doctor for help, he had already attracted the attention of Florida drug-control authorities. What happened next is disputed, but it ended with Paey getting arrested, getting his home raided, and eventually getting convicted of drug distribution.

Paey insists his old doctor wrote him the prescriptions he needed. The Florida pharmacists who testified at his trial back him up. But the doctor says he forged the prescriptions. For his part, Paey holds no animus against his former doctor. Cops gave the doctor a devil's bargain — give Paey up, or face 25-years-to-life imprisonment for the excessive proscribing [sic, I assume --JA] of painkillers. Paey still maintains the prescriptions were legitimate, but understands why his doctor turned against him...

State prosecutors concede there's no evidence Paey ever sold or gave his medication away. Nevertheless, under draconian drug-war statutes, these prosecutors could pursue distribution charges against him based solely on the amount of medication he possessed (the unauthorized possession of as few as 60 tablets of some pain medications can qualify a person as a "drug trafficker").

After three trials, Richard Paey was convicted and put in prison for 25 years, effectively a life sentence for someone in his condition. Ironically, the state of Florida now pays for a morphine pump connected to Paey's spine which delivers the same class of medication at the same doses the state of Florida told him wasn't necessary, and put him in prison for trying to obtain.

(The National Review, via TheAgitator)

There's much more, including the admission that he was given a harsher sentence for turning down a plea bargain and alleged severe retaliation by the state of Florida for talking to reporters.

I'll let the National Review do my editorializing:

The Paey case has already cast a good deal of shame on the state of Florida. Just how much more shame his story brings to the state depends on whether political leaders move to rectify his plight, or rather choose simply to ignore him, and continue to intimidate him into spending the rest of his 25-year prison term in silence.

Governor Bush should free Richard Paey. And Florida lawmakers should pass reforms to ensure that drug-war fanaticism no longer prevents sick people from getting the medication they need.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

What's Theology Got to do with Religion?

There's a great discussion over at Mixing Memory about the common claim that critics of religion are bashing a strawman rather than the sophisticated theology that intelligent theists believe in. Mixing Memory's Chris takes issue with PZ Myers, who wrote elsewhere:

"Nuance"? Sweet jebus, where is the nuance in religion and superstition and piety that we're supposed to defend?

I keep hearing these claims that religion is really far more nuanced and sophisticated and clever than we give it credit for, but seriously, every time I turn around and look at the actual practice of the silly business, I'm gobsmacked.

Chris argues that it would just take some reading of this list to learn about religious nuance. And then the comments arrive. Some excerpts:

coturnix: What is there to understand about theology except that it is a great excercise in twisted logic wrapped in a taco-shell of pretty rhetorics? Trying to save face by using big words. If that is nuance...

Richard: Well, I checked out the list that you linked to above, hoping that I would see something new, some writer that was unknown to the average university graduate. Are you trying to suggest that Dawkins, and Myers, are unfamiliar with those philosophers? Come on. You just revealed that there's nothing that they're missing.

Adam Huan: While I don't like Myers' attitude, his statement is fair -- religious practice is often shallow and overly fervent. How many American Christians have read Thomas Aquinas? I'd wager not many. Myers' crime isn't in calling out the believers, it's in feeling as strongly about their beliefs as they do.

Joshua: Honestly, you'd be hard-pressed to find a believer who's had exposure to the apologia on that "Top Twenty" list. Most Christians don't even known about Pascal's Wager (though they probably at some point came to it independently anyway), much less St. Anselm's ontological argument or the works of Augustine or Aquinas. Most of them haven't even read C.S. Lewis' apologia, though they might be familiar with his fiction. Hell, most Christians haven't even read the Bible, aside from maybe hearing a few selected quotations in church.

The fact is, apologia has absolutely no connection with the real practice of religion and belief. It exists in its own world, disconnected from the real world -- both the world of science and logic as well as the lives of the believers. I've never heard a good argument for why anybody should take it seriously. If somebody has one, I'd love to hear it.

And lest you think I don't have experience, I was raised a fundamentalist Baptist. Later in life, I attended a Foursquare church with my dad. I went to Baptist grade school and an Episcopal high school. In high school, I took a required class on Biblical scholarship.

In short, I was surrounded by theists for most of my life. None of them ever mentioned Aquinas.

PZ Myers again: So I think we're still all waiting...where is the nuanced and sophisticated religion?

Whenever I ask this question, all I get is indignation, and maybe some handwaving at some convoluted bit of sophistry, like Anselm's ontological argument, but nothing at all persuasive, and nothing that deals with the reality. Theology has nothing to do with religion, near as I can tell -- it's a collection of post hoc rationalizations for the superstitions that people are brought up with.
Reality is the assembly of ancient, ossified rituals and traditions (the Catholic church) or the codification and celebration of ignorance (just about every evangelical church in the country) or sheer soul-purging emotionalism (charismatics of various stripes)...

There are great theists out there, but I think what happens when you look at them closely is that you discover that their religion is the framework through which they express humanist ideals...and it's the humanism, not the religion, that makes them appealing.

MarkP: One can also point out just how horrible the bulk of apologetics are. If you think Pascal's wager and the assertion-laden babbling of CS Lewis are challenging arguments, you need to find another hobby. That these otherwise very intelligent men had to twist themselves into irrational pretzels trying to defend religion is one of the strongest points against it...

The most honest comment about religion I ever heard from a believer came from Martin Gardner, who said something along the lines of, and I paraphase from memory, "I, by a completely illogical leap of faith, believe there is a supreme being with whom my consciousness will spend eternity." To that I cannot argue, believe what you will, and hell, you might just be right. Frankly, I hope you are. Just don't try to tell me you got there logically, and for the sake of all the gods, large and small, keep it out of the science classes.

Mark: I would venture a guess that the more people read of and about religion, the more likely they are to question the validity and reasonableness of religious belief - any religious belief. I suspect that in this case, familiarity will breed contempt. That's one reason I would wholeheartedly endorse the teaching of an unbiased comparative religion course in all public schools. You can bet the fundamentalist christians would blow their fuses at that one.

It's been my experience as well that for all the talk of sophisticated theology, most religious people in practice have simple, ritualistic religions and fall back on pat answers to difficult questions. Joshua's comment is worth repeating: The fact is, apologia has absolutely no connection with the real practice of religion and belief.

Theologians, from what I can tell, fall into two camps: those who dress up tired old arguments with big words and loose analogies (C.S. Lewis or worse) and those who are deists, agnostics, or atheists in Christian or Jewish clothing (Spong.)

How cool is the internet, by the way? In real life I've only once been in a room with as many smart atheists as were commenting in that thread, and that was at a Dawkins speech. I wonder how long religion can last once everybody's online and the rabbis, priests, and imams no longer get to keep their followers from seeing the competition's arguments.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dennis Prager Fails the Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Religious Conservatives More Generous than Secular Liberals?


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Free-for-All on Science and Religion

Interesting article in the NYT. Excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Via Half Sigma.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

On Evil

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

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

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

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

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

Love your neighbor as yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Interview with a Scientologist

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

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

Some excerpts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscavige: Right.

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

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

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

Miscavige: Oh, I think--

Koppel: …originate in this country?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscavige: You see, here--

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

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

Koppel: You're absolutely right.

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

Koppel: Can you--

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

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

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

Koppel: I will--

Miscavige: Wait--

Koppel: I will--

Miscavige: I'm not here to talk--

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

Miscavige: Yeah.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 17, 2006

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

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


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


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

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

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

Interesting Test for the Christian (and Jewish) Right

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

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

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

Brayton comments:

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

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

Introducing: Ask a Jewish Atheist

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Fear is at the Root of Fundamentalism

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Letting Your Opponents Save Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Torah, Pedophilia, and Subjective Morality

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

  2. Marrying two sisters.

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

  4. Lying with your neighbor's wife.

  5. Ejaculating into a fire for Moloch.

  6. Lying with a man as with a woman.

  7. Bestiality.

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 13, 2006

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

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

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

His summary:

1. Most wars are asymmetrical / irregular.

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

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

In fact, they want you to do that.

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

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

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

Some excerpts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 09, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Democrats Win House, Lead Key Senate Races

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Ted Haggard Post

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

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

How creepy is that?

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

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

(Video clip via Andrew Sullivan.)

Friday, November 03, 2006

Haredi Jews Riot In Jerusalem

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Life Has No Meaning if God Exists

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

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

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

But what is the meaning of life if God exists?

To serve God.

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

To go to Heaven.

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

To become one with God.

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

To be a living expression of God's greatness.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 28, 2006

How Religious Are America's College and University Professors?

Razib at Gene Expression points out an interesting working paper by a couple of sociology professors called How Religious Are America's College and University Professors? (.pdf)

Here is what professors believe:

I don’t believe in God. 10%
I don’t know whether there is a God, and I don’t
believe there is any way to find out.
I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe
in a Higher Power of some kind.
I find myself believing in God some of the time,
but not at others.
While I have my doubts, I feel that I do believe
in God.
I know God really exists and I have no doubts
about it.

To sum up, 23.4% are atheists or agnostics, 19% are Deists, 16.9% are theists with doubts, and 35.7% are theists with no doubts. Professors are significantly less religious than the general population, but more than half are traditional theists and almost another fifth are Deists.

Some other interesting tidbits:

Professors at elite doctoral universities are much less religious than professors teaching in other kinds of institutions. 36.6 percent of respondents with appointments in elite doctoral schools are either atheists or agnostics, as compared to 15.2 percent of respondents teaching in community colleges, 22.7 percent of those teaching at BA granting institutions, and 23.5 percent of those teaching in non-elite doctoral granting universities. And whereas about 40 percent of community college professors and professors at four year schools say they have no doubt God exists, this is true for only about 20.4 percent of professors at elite doctoral institutions. Contrary to popular opinion, atheists and agnostics do not comprise a majority of professors even at elite schools, but they are present in much larger numbers there than in other types of institutions.

There is also significant variation on this question by disciplinary field. Looking at the top 20 BA granting fields, we find that atheists and agnostics are more common in some disciplines than others. Psychology and biology have the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics, at about 61 percent. Not far behind is mechanical engineering, 50 percent of whose professors are atheists or agnostics. Behind that is economics, political science, and computer science, with about 40 percent of professors falling into this category each. At the other end of the spectrum, 63 percent of accounting professors, 56.8 percent of elementary education professors, 48.6 percent of professors of finance, 46.5 percent of marketing professors, 46.2 percent of art professors and professors of criminal justice, and 44.4 percent of professors of nursing say they have no doubt that God exists. We caution, however, that some of these differences may be a function of the differential distribution of these fields across types of institutions.

Only 6.1 percent of respondents to our survey said the Bible is the "actual word of God," with 51.6 percent describing it as "an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts." About 42 percent of respondents are of the view that the Bible is "the inspired word of God." Here again differences are evident by type of institution, with community college professors three times as likely to subscribe to the "actual word of God" position, and 72.9 percent of professors at elite doctoral universities taking the "ancient book of fables" view.

We also asked respondents to weigh in on the controversy over intelligent design. Our question asked respondents how much they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: "The theory of intelligent design IS a serious scientific alternative to the Darwinian theory of evolution." Overall, 84.1 percent of professors surveyed disagreed with the statement, with 75.3 percent registering strong disagreement. Agreement was strongest at community colleges, where 30.6 percent of professors see intelligent design as a serious scientific alternative, and weakest at elite doctoral universities, where just 5.6 percent of professors do.

Finally, although our research suggests that professorial religiosity has been previously underestimated, it is clear that on the whole, and measured various ways, professors are less religious than the general U.S. population. Insofar as this is so, and in the context of growing pressures on young people to go to college and the ongoing political mobilization of conservative Christians, we should expect continued conflict in the years to come between the forces of religious conservatism and the institution of the American university, with some such conflict taking place within the university itself as conservative professors, some emboldened by their religious views, mount a campaign for institutional change. 80 percent of Americans think colleges and universities welcome students of faith – but 20 percent do not, and there is evidence that this is a mobilized 20 percent. Theoretical frameworks must be developed to help us make sense of this situation, and to identify the steps that can be taken, if any, to keep the conflict from derailing the vital educational and research missions served by America’s colleges and universities.

Not too many surprises. Professors at elite schools are much less religious while those at community colleges are much more religious, those in more scientific fields are less religious, hardly any believe the Bible is the "actual word of God," and most believe "Intelligent Design" is not scientific.

I was surprised by how religious professors of accounting are as compared to other fields. 63% say they have no doubt God exists -- what's up with that?