Saturday, April 22, 2006

Republicans, Dildos

Leave it to the "small government" Republicans to focus on what's important.
The South Carolina bill, proposed by Republican Rep. Ralph Davenport, would make it a felony to sell devices used primarily for sexual stimulation and allow law enforcement to seize sex toys from raided businesses.

A felony. For selling vibrators. A felony. In a state where selling Uzis and AK-47s is just fine, Republican Rep. Ralph Davenport wants to make selling vibrators a felony.
People convicted under obscenity laws face up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Five years. $10,000 fine.
Other states that ban the sell of sex toys include Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas, said Mark Lopez, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

You can tell that these states are big on "family values" since all four are in the top 20 states for most divorces per capita. Apparently South Carolina (#32) is jealous.

(Article via Boing Boing)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Jewish Atheist's Top Ten Non-Kosher Foods

Time for a more light-hearted post. One of the more fun aspects of making the Orthodox->atheist transition is getting to experience a whole new universe of foods for the first time, as an adult.

If you are offended by descriptions of non-kosher foods, please stop reading now. You've been warned.

10. Calamari (squid.) These little guys, lightly breaded and fried, are a delicious appetizer. They taste more-or-less like any other fried thing, but chewier.

9. Wine. Of course, there is good kosher wine, which is why this isn't closer to the top of my list. But good non-kosher wine is so much more plentiful that it had to make the list. Virtually any non-kosher restaurant you go to has decent wine, which can add a lot to the enjoyment of a meal.

8. Lobster. I suspect these giant bugs would be higher on my list if I'd had them more, but so far I've only had them in a bisque or inside pasta or something. Very rich and tasty.

7. Crab cakes. They're just great. Often offered as an appetizer, but I like two as an entree.

6. New England Clam Chowder. One of my favorite soups. Salty, chewy, creamy. Stay away from the Manhattan kind, as it's made by sadists who think clams go in a tomato base.

5. Cheeseburgers. The combination of two basic kosher foods, the cheeseburger has somehow become the stereotype of non-kosher. (Mixing dairy and meat is a no-no in kosher foods.) Yet once you've had one, you realize that cheese belongs on top of a hamburger and that's all there is to it. (In fact, cheese goes on pretty much everything: chicken, spaghetti with meat sauce, deli sandwiches, etc.) The cheeseburger can be made deliciously low-brow, as at Burger King, or classed up by using fine beef and a good cheddar, mozzarella, or feta.

4. Shrimp. Versatile, delicious, and even healthy! Fried southern style or in tempura, grilled, broiled in a butter sauce, stir-fried, split over sushi rice, cooked pretty much any way, one of my favorite foods.

3. Eel. "Eel??" say the Orthodox Jews. Yes, eel. Specifically, unagi, the freshwater eel that's grilled and brushed with sauce, served over sushi rice. I always save it for last when I have sushi.

2. Bouillabaisse. Holy crap is this good. A fish stew with saffron, fennel, and all kinds of fish and shellfish. It's just frickin' unbelievable.

And the number one non-kosher food is..........


1. BACON! Bacon may be the single best non-chocolate food in the world. It's crispy, it's salty, it's greasy, it's simply amazing. Great with eggs. It can also transforms a boring turkey sandwich into a divine experience. (If you add avacado, too... you'll find God.)

Income Growth: Republicans vs. Democrats

Look carefully at that graph. It makes two things very clear.

1) Income growth is overall much better under Democratic presidents than Republicans.

2) While the super-rich did about the same under Democrats and Republicans, the Democrats raised everybody else at the same rate while the Republicans failed everybody in the bottom 80 or 90%.

So not only do the Republicans only help the richest of the rich, but they can't even do that better than the Democrats!

The graph is from a paper (.pdf) by Princeton professor Larry Bartels. Here are some excerpts:

Census Bureau data reveal large, consistent differences in patterns of real pre-tax income growth under Democratic and Republican presidents in the post-war U.S. Democratic presidents have produced slightly more income growth for poor families than for rich families, resulting in a modest decrease in overall inequality. Republican presidents have produced a great deal more income growth for rich families than for poor families, resulting in a substantial increase in inequality. On average, families at the 95th percentile of the income distribution have experienced identical income growth under Democratic and Republican presidents, while those at the 20th percentile have experienced more than four times as much income growth under Democrats as they have under Republicans. These differences are attributable to partisan differences in unemployment (which has been 30 percent lower under Democratic presidents, on average) and GDP growth (which has been 30 percent higher under Democratic presidents, on average); both unemployment and GDP growth have much stronger effects on income growth at the bottom of the income distribution than at the top.


Under Democratic administrations income growth has been more vigorous among the poor than among the rich; under Republican administrations the reverse has been true. The cumulative effect of these differences has been enormous.


Using data from 1948 through 1978 (that is, before most of the recent substantial increase in income inequality) Hibbs (1987, 232-243) found that the ratio of the share of post-tax income received by the top 20 percent of the income distribution to the share received by the bottom 40 percent declined by about .037 during each year of Democratic control while increasing by about .008 during each year of Republican control. Applying these estimates to his entire period, Hibbs concluded that inequality declined markedly (by a total of about 25 percent) during the 14 years of Democratic control while remaining essentially unchanged during the 17 years of Republican control.

And lest you think this is just some strange coincidence:

[D]istinguishing between Democratic and Republican administrations (the black diamonds and white circles in the figure, respectively) reveals the regularity with which Democratic presidents reduced and Republican presidents increased the prevailing level of economic inequality, irrespective of the long-term trend. Indeed, the effect of presidential partisanship on income inequality turns out to be remarkably consistent throughout the second half of the 20th century. The 80/20 income ratio increased under each of the five Republican presidents in this period – Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the elder Bush. On the other hand, four of five Democratic presidents – all except Jimmy Carter – presided over declines in income inequality.

(via 3quarksdaily)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Richard Feyman

The late Nobel Laureate, brilliant, and always inspirational physicist Richard Feynman on The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. (video)

He talks about the joy, awe, and beauty of science among other things.

via metafilter.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

What Are the Republicans Up To?

How do you tell if a politician is lying? His lips are moving.

I'd like to look at what the Republicans are really up to, in a broad sense. Every election cycle they bring up emotional issues like abortion, flag burning, religion, and lately gay rights (replacing the no-longer-tenable Black rights.) But have they accomplished anything on those issues? Abortion is still legal nationally (albeit less available in many states), no significant "progress" has been made installing the ten commandments in courthouses or legalizing school prayer, the flag-burning amendment is a non-starter, and they have no chance of holding back the tide of gay rights.

It's not like they can blame the Democrats. They control the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. It's true that some of their wants have been stymied by the Court, but that was hardly unforseeable.

So why waste all this energy on issues they have no prayer of winning on?

Because it gets votes. And they don't care about these issues.

What have the Republicans actually accomplished over the last half-century?

They have made the income tax much less progressive, or in other words, they have shifted much of the tax burden away from the rich and towards the poor. Reagan cut the top tax-bracket from 50% to 28%, the lowest it had been since 1916. They have supported big corporations over the rights of the people by consistently voting against environmental regulations, by skyrocketing the deficit (a method of shifting wealth to today's rich at the expense of tomorrow's poor), by changing bankruptcy law to favor lenders, by attempting to kill or weaken social security, by limiting access to health care, and even by going to war with Iraq. (Compare what Big Oil got out of the deal -- record profits -- with what the poor got out of it -- dead and injured.)

I think the "Red State"ers are waking up to the idea that the Republicans are not their party. The Repubs talk a good game about social conservatism, but their actions are all about making the rich richer at the expense of everyone else, present and future. If you've voted Republican in the past due to their empty talk about values, I beg of you, wake up and realize that they don't represent you. The only value they have is money. And not money for you or yours. Unless you're a CEO, of course.

Monday, April 17, 2006

This Atheist's Moral Grounding, or Why I'm a Liberal

Empathy and sympathy are the foundation of my personal code of morality. Although many are uncomfortable without even the ideal of an objective morality, empathy and sympathy are all I can come up with. Beginning with those as axiomatic, all of my moral beliefs follow more or less logically. (I'm not prepared to defend them against a professional philosopher, but I've given it enough thought to be confident enough to act.)

Let's look at some issues which are paramount in the USA.

Health Care

I empathize with those who need health care for themselves and their loved ones. While there are of course tradeoffs involved (health care for more people == less money for other things) there is no question in my mind that the richest country in the world has an obligation to at least provide health care for every citizen.


I believe in progressive taxation because I have more sympathy for those in lower income brackets than those in higher ones. I believe Americans who have gotten wealthy in America (or have accepted the benefits of residency/citizenship) have an obligation to give back to those less fortunate, through taxes and through other means. I have less sympathy for millionaires who have to pay a higher percentage of their income simply because they have more than enough.

Gay Marriage

I empathize with people who want to marry the one they love. I have no sympathy for those who wish to deprive other people of rights they themselves hold. I don't believe that there is a significant downside to gay marriage in the form of harm to children or society so for me it's an easy decision.

Religious Freedom

I empathize with people who hold strong beliefs. I am therefore for total freedom OF and FROM religion for all. (However, your right to freedom ends when it curtails other people's freedom. Forbidding other people to marry because of your own religious beliefs is not acceptable but wearing a burqa, yarmulka, cross, or whatever should always be allowed.)


I sympathize with the teen girls, the rape victims, and the single women without sufficient income or health care more than I can sympathize with a fetus which has no self-awareness and can't even feel pain. Therefore I am strongly for legal early- and mid-term abortions. (Probably late-term ones, too, but that's touchy. I'm not totally convinced either way.)

Gun Control

I sympathize strongly with victims of gun violence. However, I also sympathize with those who need to defend themselves and I sympathize with the American people for whom the Second Amendment may ultimately provide the last defense against tyranny. I remain ambivalent.

Illegal Immigrants

I sympathize strongly both with people trying to make a better life for themselves and for people who may be hurt by illegal immigration. My belief, however, is that, on the whole, more good than harm would be done by granting illegal immigrants work visas and a path to citizenship.

Flag Burning

Almost every election cycle, the Republicans bring out the Flag Burning Amendment. I have little sympathy for people offended by the burning of a flag (just as I have little sympathy for people offended by drawings of Mohammed) and I have a lot of sympathy for people in general, who require free speech, especially free political speech, in order to ensure the most just government possible. I therefore strongly oppose this ridiculous amendment.

Ten Commandments Monuments, etc.

I have no sympathy for people who want to make it look like their religious beliefs are the beliefs of all Americans. I have a lot of sympathy for the people who history and current events alike show are much better off when church and state are separate.


For whatever reason, on the overwhelming majority of issues, the liberal position fits better with a morality based on empathy and sympathy for all. This is not to say that all conservatives are lacking in those traits -- there is certainly a subset of conservatives who honestly believe that conservative policies are better for all and that therefore being a conservative is the empathetic and sympathetic choice. However, I believe that most conservatives believe either that (1) what God wants, as they understand it, trumps sympathy or empathy, (2) that it's a dog-eat-dog world and economic freedom trumps helping the less fortunate, or (3) that some people are less deserving of empathy and sympathy than others.

My Reform Seder

This year I was unable to get home to my family's seder as is my tradition even as an atheist. Instead, though, I was able to attend a Reform seder, which was a new experience for me.

Other than the live piano music immediately preceding the seder, I was struck by how similar the service was to the Orthodox ones I grew up with. Yes, there was much more English and no obsessive-compulsive uncle trying to cram an entire shemurah matzo into his mouth in under 3 minutes several times as well as eating enough maror and drinking enough sickly-sweet kosher wine to make himself sick, but in general, both the feeling and the service were more-or-less the same. We went around the table reading from the maggid (basically, the Exodus story) portion, albeit skipping some parts and reading from other parts which aren't in the Orthodox haggadah. There was discussion and analysis of parts of the story just as in the sedarim I remember, with the kids telling the adults what they'd learned. Also, people were much more willing to flat-out say, "I don't agree with that" about certain parts as I always wanted to but didn't have the nerve. Oh, and did I mention the service was led by a woman?

There were also a couple of additions. There were mentions of the Holocaust (the leader dedicated a fifth cup to it over objections from her mother) and the Sudan and also of other peoples still in slavery today. And when we got to Elijah's cup and the kids were sent to open the door, I was surprised to see the leader of the seder siphon off some of Elijah's wine with a straw in order to trick the kids into thinking he'd come! When I was a kid, they would have maybe shaken the table and tried to convince this young skeptic that Elijah was sipping, but not the outright deception I found here. I guess it's no worse than Santa or the Tooth Fairy, but at least there you get a present or money with your lies. I was happy to see that the 7-year old wasn't buying it.

The night ended, as usual, with singing, although due to the lack of obsessing over drinking so many fluid oz for each cup, people were sadly less intoxicated than my family usually are at that point. And, the night was over well before midnight instead of at 1 or 2 in the morning, although a lot of that was being able to start before it was pitch black outside.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Science Questions Every High School Graduate Should Be Able To Answer

Think you know you know your science? Recently, several science gurus -- Nobel Prize winners, institute heads, teachers and others who spend most of their time thinking about science -- were asked, "What is one science question every high school graduate should be able to answer?"

Take their quiz and see how you do.

1. What percentage of the earth is covered by water?

2. What sorts of signals does the brain use to communicate sensations, thoughts and actions?

3. Did dinosaurs and humans ever exist at the same time?

4. What is Darwin's theory of the origin of species?

5. Why does a year consist of 365 days, and a day of 24 hours?

6. Why is the sky blue?

7. What causes a rainbow?

8. What is it that makes diseases caused by viruses and bacteria hard to treat?

9. How old are the oldest fossils on earth?

10. Why do we put salt on sidewalks when it snows?

Extra credit: What makes the seasons change?

See the article for the answers.

Sadly, I got numbers 6, 9, and 10 wrong (plus #1 if they're picky about a few % points) but I did get the extra credit. I guess I need to head back to high school!

(Via digg.)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Happy Passover!

To all who celebrate, have a good one!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I've Been Missing Out on Ben Avuyah's Stuff!

I recently discovered that I've been cheating myself by not reading Ben Avuyah's longer posts. I've had him blogrolled basically forever, but I'd been skipping the long ones. Big mistake. It's really great stuff.

Although his upbringing was much more "ultra-Orthodox" than mine, I recognize much of my own past in his writing.

My non-Jewish readers might find it an interesting window into the life of an ultra-Orthodox teenaged boy.

Be sure to check out Memoirs of a Yeshiva Misfit: Part One, Two, and Three.

New Evidence Explains Near-Death Experiences

Only one of my readers has ever used NDEs as evidence for God's existence, but I thought this was interesting anyway.

Today, new evidence is published that backs the idea that the near-death experience is a biological experience, rather than anything to do with a larger, spiritual dimension, a glimpse of heaven, or the existence of the soul.

People who have had near-death experiences are able to slip into dream sleep more easily than those who have not had one, according to a study published in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

"I see it as an activation of certain brain regions that are also active during the dream state," said Prof Kevin Nelson, a neurologist and lead study author, from the University of Kentucky, Lexington.


The study compared 55 people with near-death experiences with 55 people of the same age and gender who had not had them.

It found that people with near-death experiences were more likely to have a sleep-wake system in which the boundaries between sleep and wakefulness were not as clearly regulated, and the dream sleep state - when there is rapid eye movement - can intrude into normal wakeful consciousness.

Examples of "REM intrusion" include waking up and feeling that you cannot move - sleep paralysis - having sudden muscle weakness in your legs, and hearing sounds just before falling asleep or just after waking up that other people cannot hear.

Of the people with near- death experiences, 60 per cent reported REM intrusion, compared with 24 per cent of people who had not had near-death experiences.

"These findings suggest that REM-state intrusion contributes to near-death experiences," said Prof Nelson.

Prof Nelson said other factors supported this. Several features of near-death experiences are also associated with the dream state, for example, the feeling of being outside of one's body and being surrounded by light.

Because the brain turns off the body's ability to move during dreaming, muscles can lose their tone, or tension.

"During a crisis that occurs with REM-state intrusion, this lack of muscle tone could reinforce a person's sense of being dead and convey the impression of death to other people," Prof Nelson said.

Link. Via digg.

Monday, April 10, 2006

A-Z Meme

From Chana.

Accent: No particular accent, but I sometimes get pegged as Jewish when I talk. Someone once said I sound like Jon Stewart, which I took as an enormous compliment. :-)

Booze: Yes, please. Beer: Sam Adams, Anchor Steam, anything fancy, micro-, or foreign except for Guinness. (Yes, I'm a liberal elitist. I don't drink Pabst Blue Ribbon or Bud Lite. Not that I'd turn them down, but if I have a choice. And a few bucks.) Wine: I like a good (i.e. > $5) cabernet sauvignon. Sauvignon blanc if I'm looking for a white. Hard stuff: scotch, rocks. Girly drink: Cape cod.

Chore I hate: Clothes shopping. I try to do as much as I can online now.

Dogs/cats: Cats.

Essential Electronics: Computer. Air conditioner. Ipod. Access to movie theater or tv/dvd.

Favorite Perfume/Cologne: eh.

Gold and silver: eh.


Insomnia: If I'm really upset. Then I decide I'll think about it the next day at a certain time and it often gets better.

Job Title: Computer programmer/software engineer/codemonkey.

Kids: 0. THAT I KNOW OF. HAHAHAHAHAH. No, actually, 0.

Living Arrangements: Apt.

Most Admired Trait: Easygoing.

Number of Sexual Partners: Define "sexual." (Yes, I'm a Democrat. But when you grow up religious, there are all sorts of rules and rationalizations for sexual behavior.) Let's say half a dozen.

Overnight Hospital Stays: Luckily, none.

Phobia: I cannot handle that puff-of-air test at the eye doctor.

Religion: See blog.

Siblings: XXXXXXXXX (Not a roman numeral.)

Time I usually wake up: As late as I can.

Unusual Talent: I'm very good at ordering from menus. People are always jealous when the food comes.

Vegetable I refuse to eat: I'll eat pretty much anything as long as it's not a brain or tongue or something.

Worst Habit: Procrastination.

X-Rays: I've got some nice ones of my teeth if you're interested.

Yummy Foods I Make: Various chicken/fish stuff. Eggs.

Zodiac Sign: Skeptic. Haha, Libra, if you want to know. But you'd be foolish if you did. ;-)

I tag Sadie Lou, cyberkitten, and dbackdad.

Intelligent Design for Atheists

With all the noise the "Intelligent Design" movement makes to pretend they aren't simply Biblical creationists, I'm sure they'll welcome the Raelians into their tent.

On the 13th of December 1973, French journalist Rael was contacted by a visitor from another planet, and asked to establish an Embassy to welcome these people back to Earth.

The extra-terrestrial human being was a little over four feet tall, had long dark hair, almond shaped eyes, olive skin, and exuded harmony and humor. Rael recently described him by saying quite simply, "If he were to walk down a street in Japan, he would not even be noticed." In other words, they look like us, and we look like them. In fact, we were created "in their image" as explained in the Bible.

He told Rael that:

"We were the ones who designed all life on earth"
"You mistook us for gods"
"We were at the origin of your main religions"
"Now that you are mature enough to understand this,we would like to enter official contact through an embassy"


The messages dictated to Rael explain that life on Earth is not the result of random evolution, nor the work of a supernatural 'God'. It is a deliberate creation, using DNA, by a scientifically advanced people who made human beings literally "in their image" -- what one can call "scientific creationism." References to these scientists and their work, as well as to their symbol of infinity, can be found in the ancient texts of many cultures. For example, in Genesis, the Biblical account of Creation, the word "Elohim" has been mistranslated as the singular word "God", but it is actually a plural word which means "those who came from the sky", and the singular is "Eloha" (also known as "Allah"). Indigenous cultures all over the world remember these "gods" who came from the sky, including natives of Africa (Dogon, Twa, etc.), America, Asia, Australia, and Europe.

Leaving our humanity to progress by itself, the Elohim nevertheless maintained contact with us via prophets including Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, etc., all specially chosen and educated by them. The role of the prophets was to progressively educate humanity through the Messages they taught, each adapted to the culture and level of understanding at the time. They were also to leave traces of the Elohim so that we would be able to recognize them as our Creators and fellow human beings when we had advanced enough scientifically to understand them. Jesus, whose father was an Eloha, was given the task of spreading these messages throughout the world in preparation for this crucial time in which we are now privileged to live: the predicted Age Of Revelation.

You may remember the Raelians from the human cloning hoax a couple of years ago.

(Via some blog that I can't for the life of me remember. Sorry!)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Christianity vs. "Christianism"

Andrew Sullivan wants to draw a distinction between Christianity and what he calls "Christianism." Although he is clear that he doesn't intend to impute to politicized Christians an endorsement of terror or violence, he believes that the analogy to Islamism is otherwise correct:

The distinction made is between those who sincerely hold to an ancient faith, and those who are deploying that faith as a political weapon, who see no distinction between state and mosque, and who aggressively foist their religious doctrines onto civil law.


People who believe in the Gospels of Jesus Christ are Christians. People who use the Gospels of Jesus Christ for political gain, and for a political program of right or left, are Christianists. And Christianism, like many "isms", is an ideology that will corrupt faith and poison politics. It has already done both, under the auspices of this president and his acolytes. It is long past time that real Christians took their faith back from these political charlatans. One first step is to deny them the name that they have so artfully coopted. It starts with language. It always does.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Crucial Missing Link Found

Arctic Fossils Mark Move to Land

Fossil animals found in Arctic Canada provide a snapshot of fish evolving into land animals, scientists say.

The finds are giving researchers a fascinating insight into this key stage in the evolution of life on Earth...

The 383 million-year-old specimens are described as crocodile-like animals with fins instead of limbs that probably lived in shallow water.

Before these finds, palaeontologists knew that lobe-finned fishes evolved into land-living creatures during the Devonian Period.

But fossil records showed a gap between Panderichthys, a fish that lived about 385 million years ago which shows early signs of evolving land-friendly features, and Acanthostega, the earliest known tetrapod (four-limbed land-living animals) dating from about 365 million years ago.

In 1999, palaeontologists Professor Neil Shubin, from the University of Chicago, and Professor Edward Daeschler, from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, set out to explore the Canadian Arctic in an attempt to find the "missing link" that would explain the transition from water to land.

After several years of searching with very little success, they hit the jackpot in 2004...

The team found three near-complete, well-preserved fossils of the new species, Tiktaalik roseae, in an area of the Arctic called the Nunavut Territory. The largest measures almost 3m (9 ft) in length...

The creature shares some characteristics with a fish; it has fins with webbing, and scales on its back.

But it also has many features in common with land animals. It has a flat crocodile-like head with eyes positioned on top and the beginnings of a neck - something not seen in fish.

"When we look inside the fin, we see a shoulder, we see an elbow, and we see an early version of a wrist, which is very similar to that of all animals that also walk on land," said Professor Shubin.

"Essentially we have an animal that is built to support itself on the ground."


Professor Jennifer Clack, from the University of Cambridge, said that the find could prove to be as much of an "evolutionary icon" as Archaeopteryx - an animal believed to mark the transition from reptiles to birds. [Link added -JA]

Of course, now the creationists ID proponents can argue that there are TWO missing links -- one between Panderichthys and Tiktaalik and one between Tiktaalik and Acanthogesta! Sneaky bastards.

(Via Bacon Eating Atheist Jew.)

Evolution: The Disguised Friend of Faith?

I stumbled upon this and thought some of my theistic readers might be interested.

Arthur Peacocke is a priest in the Church of England and perhaps the most well-known theological advocate of theistic evolution. His views are summarized on his wikipedia page, but you can read his whole essay Evolution: The Disguised Friend of Faith? (pdf) online as well.

Although I obviously don't agree with his religious beliefs, I admire his advocacy of critical religious thinking.

An excerpt:

My conviction has long been that critical religious thinking is most vital and creative when it faces the challenge of new ideas and new cultural settings. This has been especially true of Christian theology. One has only to think of
  • the opening out of the Gospel from its Jewish setting into the
    wider Gentile world, as recounted and exemplified in the New Testament (the Acts of the Apostles and the various epistles, especially of St. Paul);

  • the Patristic period when the Greek fathers met and overcame the challenge of neo-Platonic philosophy;

  • and St. Thomas Aquinas reshaping theology when Aristotle’s comprehensive scientific and philosophical works came to Europe via Islam.

Today, the pervading of all our thinking and action by the sciences constitutes the sharpest challenge to the beliefs of traditional Christianity and of other religions. This has been a preoccupation of mine since my schooldays when my incipient and ill-informed faith encountered the evidence for evolution and initiated my own long trail of integrating evolution with a transformed articulation of Christian belief. The working out of these issues has been a leitmotif underlying not only my own personal quest but also expressed in my published books on the wider interactions of science and Christian theology.


The word “evolution” evokes a negative reaction in only some Christian quarters—but mercifully and certainly, globally, not in most. For, not very long after Darwin produced his evidence of a plausible mechanism (natural selection) for that transformation of species which the fossil record and his researches then indicated, leading Christian thinkers in his own country were welcoming his concept of the evolution of the living world and integrating it with their understanding both of divine creation and incarnation. It is the remark, quoted* after the title page, of one of these, Aubrey Moore, that is referred to in the title of this book—the question mark indicating that there is indeed a proper question needing honestly to be pursued with intellectual integrity.

The essays collected here in part 1 represent my thinking about the theological issues raised by the now completely and scientifically well-established evolution of living organisms in the natural world; and, in part 2, about how human beings should now begin to regard themselves and their own presence in the world in relation to the God creating in and through evolution. As a kind of reflection in the mirror of awareness of the created, natural processes of evolution, our thinking about God has itself “evolved” (in the sense of “unfolded”) concomitantly with the reconsideration of nature and humanity stimulated by this awareness, and the essays in part 3 are concerned with this reshaping of belief. An epilogue recalls an earlier, medieval figure in English theology, Robert Grosseteste, from whose wisdom concerning education about the relation of nature, humanity, and God we can still learn much.

This book, along with all my other writings, is based on the presupposition that what the sciences tell us is true about nature cannot, in the long run, falsify what is true about human relationships to God. Indeed, because the world is created by God, knowledge through science of the world must enhance and clarify and, if need be, correct our understanding of God and of God’s relation to the creation, including humanity.

*He's referring to the remark quoted on the title page of the essay:

Science had pushed the deist’s God farther and farther away, and at the moment when it seemed as if He would be thrust out altogether, Darwinism appeared, and, under the disguise of a foe, did the work of a friend. It has conferred upon philosophy and religion an inestimable benefit, by showing us that we must choose between two alternatives. Either God is everywhere present in nature, or He is nowhere. —Aubrey Moore, "The Christian Doctrine of God."

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Fareed Zakaria on Illegal Immigrants

I love reading and listening to Fareed Zakaria, although I don't always agree with him. He has an excellent column about illegal immigration in today's Washington Post. He (a legal immigrant, btw) begins by referring to the failure of Germany's guest worker program and then brings it back home:

Many Americans have become enamored of the European approach to immigration -- perhaps without realizing it. Guest workers, penalties, sanctions and deportation are all a part of Europe's mode of dealing with immigrants. The results of this approach have been on display recently in France, where rioting migrant youths again burned cars last week. Across Europe one sees disaffected, alienated immigrants, ripe for radicalism. The immigrant communities deserve their fair share of blame for this, but there's a cycle at work. European societies exclude the immigrants, who become alienated and reject their societies.

One puzzle about post-Sept. 11 America is that it has not had a subsequent terror attack -- not even a small backpack bomb in a movie theater -- while there have been dozens in Europe. My own explanation is that American immigrant communities, even Arab and Muslim ones, are not very radicalized. (Even if such an attack does take place, the fact that 4 1/2 years have gone by without one provides some proof of this contention.) Compared with every other country in the world, America does immigration superbly. Do we really want to junk that for the French approach?

The United States has a real problem with flows of illegal immigrants, largely from Mexico (70 percent of illegal immigrants are from that one country). But let us understand the forces at work here. "The income gap between the United States and Mexico is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world," writes Stanford historian David Kennedy. That huge disparity is producing massive demand in the United States and massive supply from Mexico and Central America. Whenever governments try to come between these two forces -- think of drugs -- simply increasing enforcement does not work. Tighter border control is an excellent idea, but to work, it will have to be coupled with some recognition of the laws of supply and demand -- that is, it will have to include expansion of the legal immigrant pool.

Beyond the purely economic issue, however, there is the much deeper one that defines America -- to itself, to its immigrants and to the world. How do we want to treat those who are already in this country, working and living with us? How do we want to treat those who come in on visas or guest permits? These people must have some hope, some reasonable path to becoming Americans. Otherwise we are sending a signal that there are groups of people who are somehow unfit to be Americans, that these newcomers are not really welcome and that what we want are workers, not potential citizens. And we will end up with immigrants who have similarly cold feelings about America.

I have a theory that certain conservatives are terrified that someone, somewhere is getting away with something. For example, they're much more willing than progressives to err on the side of more torture of suspected terrorists, stricter prison sentences for petty criminals, the death penalty for murderers, etc. When discussing welfare, they'll focus on the few "welfare queens" who cheat the system rather than on the millions who utterly depend on it. They usually have a punitive view of God as well, looking gleefully forward to Judgement Day when the evildoers will have their comeuppance. (I think this also partly explains the intensity of the anti-gay marriage movement -- they can't stand to see other people "getting away" with breaking rules that they believe in. But that's for another discussion.)

Those with this worldview are outraged at the illegal immigrants. They see a bunch of cheaters, law-breakers, and freeloaders who are unfairly taking from our country. They don't think about what drives people to leave their families, their loved ones, and their countries to seek a better life. They don't think about how illegal immigrants work their asses off (for American employers!) for less than minimum wage. They're simply blinded by rage, and they want illegal immigration to stop. Even if their fury were justified, as Zakaria points out, we could't end illegal immigration simply through tougher enforcement. We can't (practically) deport the eleven million people who are already here and we can only slow the tide of new illegal immigrants.

We need to come up with a practical solution that is focused more on results than on punishing the already desperate and needy. If we could show some basic human empathy and compassion as well, so much the better.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Why Douglas Adams Was an Atheist

In the years I’d spent learning History, Physics, Latin, Math, I’d learnt (the hard way) something about standards of argument, standards of proof, standards of logic, etc. In fact we had just been learning how to spot the different types of logical fallacy, and it suddenly became apparent to me that these standards simply didn’t seem to apply in religious matters. In religious education we were asked to listen respectfully to arguments which, if they had been put forward in support of a view of, say, why the Corn Laws came to be abolished when they were, would have been laughed at as silly and childish and - in terms of logic and proof -just plain wrong. Why was this?

Well, in history, even though the understanding of events, of cause and effect, is a matter of interpretation, and even though interpretation is in many ways a matter of opinion, nevertheless those opinions and interpretations are honed to within an inch of their lives in the withering crossfire of argument and counterargument, and those that are still standing are then subjected to a whole new round of challenges of fact and logic from the next generation of historians - and so on. All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.

So, I was already familiar with and (I’m afraid) accepting of, the view that you couldn’t apply the logic of physics to religion, that they were dealing with different types of ‘truth’. (I now think this is baloney, but to continue...) What astonished me, however, was the realization that the arguments in favor of religious ideas were so feeble and silly next to the robust arguments of something as interpretative and opinionated as history. In fact they were embarrassingly childish. They were never subject to the kind of outright challenge which was the normal stock in trade of any other area of intellectual endeavor whatsoever. Why not? Because they wouldn’t stand up to it. So I became an Agnostic. And I thought and thought and thought. But I just did not have enough to go on, so I didn’t really come to any resolution. I was extremely doubtful about the idea of god, but I just didn’t know enough about anything to have a good working model of any other explanation for, well, life, the universe and everything to put in its place. But I kept at it, and I kept reading and I kept thinking. Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins’s books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day. --interview, The American Atheist

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Kissing Hank's Ass: The Video!

I've posted before about Kissing Hank's Ass, a parody of fundamentalist religion. But, thanks to Neural Gourmet, I've discovered someone made a movie short!

Disclaimer: If you're a religious fundamentalist, you'll almost definitely be offended.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Atheist's Dayenu

(Note: Dayenu is a Hebrew song from the Passover Hagaddah. The word means "it would have been enough for us." This is my parody. If you're at all religious, you'll probably be offended. Sorry in advance.)

If the Torah described a flat Earth covered by a dome,
But didn't say Man was formed of dirt,

If it said Man was formed of dirt,
But didn't imply the Earth was only 6000 years old,

If it implied the Earth was only 6000 years old,
But didn't forbid the eating of Knowledge,

If it forbade the eating of Knowledge,
But didn't blame Woman for Original Sin,

If it blamed Woman for Original Sin,
But didn't speak of giants,

If it spoke of giants,
but not of novocentenarians,

If there were novocentenarians,
But but not the Tower of Babel myth,

If it contained the Tower of Babel myth,
But didn't claim a global Flood,

If it claimed a global Flood,
But didn't ask us to cut our weewees,

If it asked us to cut our weewees,
But didn't make up the Exodus story,

If it made up the Exodus story,
But didn't condone slavery in the ten commandments,

If it condoned slavery in the ten commandments,
But didn't allow selling your daughter,

If it allowed selling your daughter,
But didn't encourage animal sacrifices,

If it encouraged animal sacrifices,
But didn't ask us to kill Sabbath-breakers,

If it said to kill Sabbath-breakers,
But demanded understanding of homosexuals,

If it told us to kill homosexuals,
But taught us germ theory,

If it neglected to teach us germ theory,
But didn't blame the lepers for their illness,

If it blamed the lepers for their illness,
But didn't write of talking donkeys,

If it wrote of talking donkeys,
But didn't glorify wars of conquest,

If it glorified wars of conquest,
But we weren't taught Moses wrote the Five Books,

Beautiful Science

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. --Carl Sagan
[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

The thing that gets lost in the Evolution/CreationismID debate is the beauty of science. Sure, religion's given us some good poetry and great art, but its view of the world is so narrow. Believers fear that if they lose God, they lose meaning and, to an extent, that may be true. But the meaning they give up is so small and the universe is so vast.

What spiritual inclination I have is much better sated by science than by religion. Evolution, rather than some atheist plot to destroy belief in God, is a wondrous, beautiful theory. People scoff at the idea that we're related to monkeys, but isn't evolution a better story than some God forming us from dirt? Have you tried to wrap your head around the idea that we're descended from single-celled organisms? Have you learned about the creatures which have evolved to live in the deep sea, in volcanoes, in the air, in our stomachs? If you're a computer person, have you marvelled at the genius of evolutionary algorithms?

Aren't the images Hubble has shown us more inspiring than the Genesis account of creation? The sun is but one of 400,000,000,000 stars in our galaxy and there are probably at least as many galaxies in the universe as there are stars in our own. There could easily be billions of other intelligent species out there.

I found floating therein divers earthy particles and some green streaks, spirally wound serpent wise and orderly arranged... Other particles had but the beginning of the foresaid streak; but all consisted of very small green globules joined together; and there were very many small green globules as well.... These animacules had divers colours, some being whitish and transparent, others with green and very glittering little scales...And the motion of most of these animacules in the water was so swift, and so various upwards. Downwards and roundabout, that 'twas wonderful to see: and I judge that some of these little creatures were above a thousand times smaller than the smallest ones I have ever yet seen... --Leeuwenhoek, discovering spyrogyra and other microorganisms. Via Ian McEwan, Edge.

Religion teaches of gods, angels, demons, and spirits, but science has shown us millions of miraculous creatures in every drop of water. Any child can, with a 15 dollar telescope, see bacteria and other cells for himself.

What of relativity? Quantum physics? Studying either will teach you that everything you thought you knew about the universe was wrong and open your mind to a whole new world of possibility.

Religion, at its best, can expand your mind. More often, it narrows it or limits its growth. Science... science will just blow your mind.

Recommended Reading:
A Brief History of Time
The Elegant Universe
The Selfish Gene