Monday, April 30, 2007

Sometimes, Atheists Try to be Polite...

Other times, we just like to laugh.

Religion 101 Final Exam

Sample questions:
Which of the following is the most compelling evidence for the existence of an intelligent and loving Designer?

1. A Caribbean sunset
2. The screams of a baby seal as it is torn apart by a shark
3. The first time your perfect new baby smiles at you
4. The speed of the Ebola virus converting an African child's organs into liquid

You are a product tester and frequently bring your work home. Yesterday, while dressed in a flame resistant suit (up to 3,000 degrees) and carrying the latest model fire extinguisher, you discover your neighbor's house is on fire. As the flames quickly spread, you stand and watch your neighbor's new baby burn to death. Which of the following best describes your behavior?

1. All-powerful
2. All-knowing
3. All-loving
4. Mysterious

Which of the following is most likely to be true, and why?

1. Romulus was the son of God, born to a mortal human virgin
2. Dionysus turned water into wine
3. Apollonius of Tyana raised a girl from the dead
4. Jesus Christ was the son of God, born to a mortal virgin, turned water into wine, and raised a man from the dead

You are eating lunch at a crowded fast food restaurant, occupied mostly by children, when suddenly a gunman bursts in, screams "Do not question or test me," and sprays the room with bullets. Ten people are killed instantly, many more grievously wounded, but somehow you escape unharmed. His ammunition expended, the gunman collapses to the floor. What should you do?

1. Call the police and wait for them to arrive
2. Call the police and leave
3. Risk death by asking the gunman why he did it, even though he told you not to
4. Fall on your knees and give thanks and praise to the gunman for sparing your life

A great sadness has come into your life which you feel you cannot bear. A friend informs you of a free counseling service which has never failed to aid and comfort many others. You call the counselor; the phone rings and rings with no answer; you finally hang up. What is the most likely explanation?

1. The counselor is sitting by the phone but not answering in order to test your faith in him
2. The counselor always stands ready to hear your pleas for help, but sometimes the answer is "no"
3. The counselor will not answer because he wants you to profit by the spiritual strength that only comes through suffering
4. The counselor is not home

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Okay, Now They're Just Messing With Us

Senior Official Linked to Escort Service Resigns, via Andrew Sullivan.

Deputy Secretary of State Randall L. Tobias submitted his resignation Friday, one day after confirming to ABC News that he had been a customer of a Washington, D.C. escort service whose owner has been charged by federal prosecutors with running a prostitution operation.

Tobias, 65, director of U.S. Foreign Assistance and administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), had previously served as the ambassador for the President's Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief.

A State Department press release late Friday afternoon said only he was leaving for "personal reasons."

On Thursday, Tobias told ABC News he had several times called the "Pamela Martin and Associates" escort service "to have gals come over to the condo to give me a massage." Tobias, who is married, said there had been "no sex," and that recently he had been using another service "with Central Americans" to provide massages...

As a top official overseeing global AIDS funding to other countries, Tobias was responsible for enforcing a U.S. policy, enacted during the Bush administration, that requires recipients to swear they oppose prostitution and sex trafficking. USAID adopted a similar policy in 2004.

And a snippet from wikipedia:
In his capacity as Director of Foreign Assistance, Tobias encouraged sexual abstinence, and discounted the use of condoms, in preventing HIV/AIDS. "Statistics show that condoms really have not been very effective," Tobias told a news conference in Berlin on April 21, 2004.[2]

So to sum up, Bush put someone who worked for chemical companies in charge of the EPA, an anti-OSHA activist at the head of OSHA, the guy who wants the UN destroyed as ambassador to the UN, a horce racing expert as the head of FEMA, and the dude who (allegedly) is a regular customer of prostitutes as the head of his abstinence campaign. Sometimes I think Bush and his friends are just having fun seeing how far they can go. ("Come on Dick, ten bucks says you can't shoot your friend in the face and then have him apologize to you on national t.v.")

(Full disclosure: my last two sentences were inspired by a comment on MetaFilter a while back.)

Friday, April 27, 2007

Divorced Parents Fight About Circumcising Their 12 Year Old

Via PZ Myers: Divorced parents clash over 12-year-old son's circumcision

A former Medford man who converted to Judaism wants his 12-year-old son to do the same. That requires circumcision -- something the mother adamantly opposes.

The divorced couple has been battling over the issue for three years, including whether the boy wants to undergo the procedure. So far, Oregon courts have squarely sided with the father, who has custody.

That doesn't surprise Kathy T. Graham, associate dean for academic affairs at Willamette University College of Law.

"The primary custodial parent is the one that makes the decisions about religion and education and about matters of child-rearing," Graham said.

Other family law experts agree, but say the courts should at least look into the situation to make sure the surgery is in the best interests of the child.

"You're talking about not just religious instruction or whether you're going to send the child to parochial school or public school," commented Lawrence D. Gorin, a Portland attorney. "This is a matter of permanent change of bodily structure. And it's irreversible."

The mother is running out of legal options.

The Oregon Supreme Court has been briefed, but has not decided whether to take the case.

Mark Johnson, a Portland lawyer commenting on the case, said the court shouldn't let the case be decided based only on the legal papers filed on behalf of the mother and father.

"Frankly, the child should have a lawyer," Johnson said...

The man started studying Judaism in 1999 and eventually converted. He now lives near Olympia . The child initially lived with his mother, but the father later gained custody.

In court papers, the father claims the boy gradually concluded that he also wanted to convert to Judaism and understood that this required circumcision.

The father also claims as the custodial parent he had a constitutional right to raise his son in his religion.

The father made an appointment for a circumcision in 2004.

The mother responded by going to court, saying her son told her that he was afraid to defy his father, but didn't want the procedure.

She asked for a hearing where she could present evidence that the circumcision would be dangerous. She also sought custody of her son.

But Jackson County Circuit Judge Rebecca G. Orf sided with the father.

"I am still of the opinion that the decision of whether or not a child has elective surgery, which this appears to be, is a call that should be made and is reserved to the custodial parent," Orf said in a hearing.

In court papers, the father claims the boy gradually concluded that he also wanted to convert to Judaism and understood that this required circumcision.

"Gradually concluded" indeed. I hope that if the courts don't prevent this, whatever Jewish figure is in charge of the conversion makes sure the boy isn't being unduly coerced. Although what does that even mean with regards to parents and religion? Weren't all of us coerced by our parents?

The Bible as Get Out of Jail Free Card

Ohio Judge Frees Man After Bible Quiz

(AP) CINCINNATI A man arrested on Wednesday for allegedly trying to use a stolen credit card at a drugstore got a break from a judge after passing a sort of Bible quiz.

When Eric Hine appeared in court this morning, his attorney described him as a church-goer, hoping the judge would set a low bond.

Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge John Burlew was skeptical and asked Hine to recite the 23rd Psalm.

He did: all six verses. Some in the courtroom applauded.

Burlew was satisfied and released Hine on a $10,0000 appearance bond, meaning he'll have to pay that amount if he doesn't show up for his next court date.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

NBA Playoffs

This is a public service announcement.

If you are at all a basketball fan, you must watch Steve Nash. He doesn't have the electrifying athleticism of a Steve Francis, but the things he can do will take your breath away. He is just great at: decision making, passing, shooting, free throws, post moves, and acrobatic layups. What I think is most unique though is his ability to create. Any idiot can throw alley-oops to Amare Stoudamire, it's true, but Nash can find the open man better than anyone in the league. As one of the commentators last night said, he plays behind the basket as Gretzky did behind the goal. Then he'll decide he needs to carry the scoring load for a while and he'll sink two or three shots in a row. He's Magic Johnson one minute and a high-percentage Allen Iverson the next. He's going to go down as one of the greatest of all time and we get to watch him in his prime.

As a bonus, if you watch the rest of their series against the Lakers you have a chance at seeing Kobe Bryant become Michael Jordan for a half or even a whole game. Kobe was spectacular -- at least as good as Jordan -- during the first half of game one, but without a supporting cast, he can't maintain it. Even Jordan wasn't Jordan without Scottie Pippen.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The "I Don't Recall" Defense

In several hours before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Gonzales said he had done nothing improper in firing the eight prosecutors, but conceded the case had been badly handled. At the same time, he said 71 times that he either could not recall or did not remember conversations or events surrounding the dismissals.

Republicans have used the "can't recall" defense to perfection ever since the Reagan administration. While it makes the witness look either dumb or dishonest, it's almost impossible to prove he or she is lying.

Imagine the trouble Clinton could have saved himself and all of us if he'd just said, "I cannot recall whether I had sex with that woman."

Those Who Think Gay Sex is Wrong More Likely to Oppose Intermarriage

When I wrote about the correlation between the former slave states and states with constitutional amendments against gay marriage, people were skeptical. Reading the Inductivist today, I realized that the trusty GSS might shed some light on the correlation between attitudes towards race and homosexuality.

I couldn't find a question specifically about gay marriage, but I did find one about gay sex, specifically
What about sexual relations between two adults of the same
sex--do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong
only sometimes, or not wrong at all?
Obviously, nobody around now was around during slavery, but there is a question about miscegenation:
Do you think there should be laws against marriages
between (Negroes/Blacks/African- Americans) and whites?
(Note that the survey has run from 1972-2004, so opinions have no doubt varied over time. However, in 1982, there was a question about whether the subject had opposed intermarriage in 1972 and the correlation with opposing gay sex is even stronger.)

On the one hand, the results aren't at all surprising. Of course people against miscegenation are more likely to be against gay sex and vice-versa. On the other hand, opponents of gay sex (and gay marriage) want us to believe the two have nothing to do with each other.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Beautiful, Haunting Post from an Atheist Professor at Virginia Tech

Dinesh D'Souza -- he who calls the cultural left The Enemy At Home -- penned an awful hit piece on atheists (!) in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre:
Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings? Atheists are nowhere to be found.
It only gets worse from there. Really.

As it turns out, there is at least one atheist to be found among the grieving, among the consoling:

It is hardly surprising that Dinesh D’Souza is once again not only profoundly mistaken but also deeply offensive. But I thought it worthwhile to say something in response, not because most people would put the point in the same morally reptilian manner as D’Souza, but because there is at least some vague sense amongst people that we atheists don’t quite grasp the enormity of Monday’s events, that we tend towards a cold-hearted manner of thinking, that we condescend to expressions of community, meaning, or bereavement.

So I will tell you, Mr D’Souza, what I grasp and where I am to be found.

I understand why my wife was frantic on Monday morning, trying to contact me through jammed phone lines. I can still feel the tenor of her voice resonating in my veins when she got through to me, how she shook with relief and tears. I remember how my mother looked the last time she thought she might have lost a son, so I have a vivid image of her and a thousand other mothers that hasn’t quite left my mind yet.

I am to be found in Lane Stadium, looking out over a sea of maroon and orange, trying not to break down when someone mentions the inviolability of the classroom and the bond between a teacher and his students. That is my classroom, Mr D’Souza, my students, my chosen responsibility in this godless life, my small office in the care of humanity and its youth.

I know that brutal death can come unannounced into any life, but that we should aspire to look at our approaching death with equanimity, with a sense that it completes a well-walked trail, that it is a privilege to have our stories run through to their proper end. I don’t need to live forever to live once and to live completely. It is precisely because I don’t believe there is an afterlife that I am so horrified by the stabbing and slashing and tattering of so many lives around me this week, the despoliation and ruination of the only thing each of us will ever have.

We atheists do not believe in gods, or angels, or demons, or souls that endure, or a meeting place after all is said and done where more can be said and done and the point of it all revealed. We don’t believe in the possibility of redemption after our lives, but the necessity of compassion in our lives. We believe in people, in their joys and pains, in their good ideas and their wit and wisdom. We believe in human rights and dignity, and we know what it is for those to be trampled on by brutes and vandals. We may believe that the universe is pitilessly indifferent but we know that friends and strangers alike most certainly are not. We despise atrocity, not because a god tells us that it is wrong, but because if not massacre then nothing could be wrong.

I am to be found on the drillfield with a candle in my hand. “Amazing Grace” is a beautiful song, and I can sing it for its beauty and its peacefulness. I don’t believe in any god, but I do believe in those people who have struggled through pain and found beauty and peace in their religion. I am not at odds with them any more than I am at odds with Americans when we sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” just because I am not American. I can sing “Lean on Me” and chant for the Hokies in just the same way and for just the same reason.


You think we atheists have difficulty with the concept of evil. Quite the contrary. We can accept a description of this man as evil. We just don’t think that is an explanation. That is why we are exasperated at your mindless demonology.

I feel humbled by the sense of composure of a family who lost someone on Monday. I will not insult that dignity by pretending there is sense to be made of this senselessness, or that there is some greater consolation to be found in the loss of a husband and son.

I know my students are now more than students.

You can find us next week in the bloodied classrooms of a violated campus, trying to piece our thoughts and lives and studies back together.

With or without a belief in a god, with or without your asinine bigotry, we will make progress, we will breathe life back into our university, I will succeed in explaining this or that point, slowly, eventually, in a ham-handed way, at risk of tears half-way through, my students will come to feel comfortable again in a classroom with no windows or escape route, and hell yes we will prevail.

You see Mr D’Souza, I am an atheist professor at Virginia Tech and a man of great faith. Not faith in your god. Faith in my people.

D'Souza, apparently surprised that atheists were upset by his defamation, wrote another article, which is worse:
My point was that atheism has nothing to offer in the face of tragedy except C'est la vie. Deal with it. Get over it. This is why the ceremonies were suffused with religious rhetoric. Only the language of religion seems appropriate to the magnitude of tragedy. Only God seems to have the power to heal hearts in such circumstances...

Okay, pal, here's the Virginia Tech situation. Go create some meaning and share it with the rest of us. Give us that atheist sermon with you in the pulpit of the campus chapel. I'm not being facetious here. I really want to hear what the atheist would tell the grieving mothers.

The professor responds:

We think the pain is complete and absolute. We know it is.

We think that nothing can heal these hearts, that time can only take the sharpness off the agony, that only in time can beauty be wholeheartedly seen again or laughter felt deep inside.

We insist there is no sense or meaning to be made of this massacre. There was only sense and meaning to be created within the lives of each person gunned down. That is why we are horrified by it. That is precisely why it is so horrific.

We don't believe these people have died for anything: God's plan, as a beacon to the rest of us, to be a vivid memento mori for all. We just believe they have died, brutally and without mercy. We refuse to lie to grieving mothers out of some patronising sense that a pleasant myth is more respectful than a terrible truth.

Those of us with the slightest shred of deceny do not tell widows to deal with it, to get over it. That the world can be callous is no reason to be so myself. I know that no family could ever get over this loss, that no family should ever be expected to get over this loss -- either by themselves, by religious rhetoricians bearing false platitudes, or by inane political pundits -- but that not getting over the loss does not preclude some other kind of happiness, some other source of joy, at some other time. Not now, not in this moment, not when they have moved on, but only when it comes to them one day, like light dawning slowly.

We know the world is cold, and that only people can make it warmer. We believe we can live in this imperfection, like a child can live without fulfilling her desperate wish for wings. We rail against injustice and tragedy, not the absence of deeper guarantees.

Some of us are those grieving mothers and wives and friends and colleagues. Some of us are inconsolable, but dignified for all that.

There is no language appropriate to the magnitude of the tragedy. Not stories about a poor man nailed to a cross, not fine words about a time for healing and a time for dying, not even the lines of the poet who, in the midst of his own horror, struggles to ask:

How can I embellish this carnival of slaughter,
How decorate the massacre?

But it is that same poet who also writes of death:

I have certainly
no faith in miracles, yet I long
that when death come to take me
from this great song
of a world, it permits me to return
to your door and knock
and knock
and call out: "If you need someone
to share your anguish, your simplest pain,
then let me be the one.
If not, let me again
embark, this time never
to return, in that final direction,

Spring has come to Virginia. Monday morning was the last snow we will have this season. All those who have come to Blacksburg this week have told us how beautiful our countryside is. They're right, of course, there is all this terrible, unforgiving beauty here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Gay Marriage and the Slave States

Opponents of gay marriage want us to believe that the fight for gay rights is completely different than the fight for black rights was. Even many blacks make this argument. Looking for some data on firearms today, though I came across the above maps.

Obviously, this does not prove anything. Nobody now alive was alive then. But those maps can't simply be coincidental.

Let's take another example -- women's right to vote.

Was that still too long ago?

Let's take a look at segregation:

And one last look at gay marriage:

Pardon me if I don't think gay marriage is totally different.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

More on the Duke Debacle

Via Radley Balco, Defense Needs DNA, Too.

But these Duke athletes aren't the first people to be wrongly accused, nor are they the first victims of a politically motivated prosecutor. Their ordeal demonstrates that we need to make forensic-science services, including DNA testing, available to defense and prosecution teams equally.

In March 2006, Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong charged three members of the Duke lacrosse team with rape. Then, Nifong and Brian Meehan, director of the private DNA lab Nifong used, agreed to withhold the potentially exculpatory evidence in the alleged victim's rape kit; it contained DNA from more than one unidentified man, but not from any of the Duke students.

The life-altering injustices suffered by the affluent white defendants in this case are precisely the sort of injustices suffered regularly by many of America's less privileged citizens.

DNA is no magic bullet of truth when the testers are aligned unambiguously with the prosecution. During the testimony in which it was revealed that Nifong and Meehan had agreed to hide the DNA evidence, Meehan referred to Nifong as "my client." Instead of serving the truth, Meehan's forensics lab was helping its "client," the prosecutor.

When forensic scientists work exclusively for the prosecution, we should expect errors and abuse. Using post-conviction DNA evidence, the Innocence Project has helped exonerate nearly 200 people wrongly convicted of crimes. A study of the first 86 such cases, published in the journal Science, found faulty forensics played a role in almost two-thirds of those convictions.

The time has come to free forensic science from the pressures of prosecutorial bias. To that end, crime labs should become independent of police and prosecutors, and public defenders should be given greater access to forensic advice and testing. Crime labs should be independent, operating under the supervision of an officer of the court, who would be responsible for assigning forensic evidence to laboratories and ensuring that all crime labs in the system are following proper scientific procedures.

We should react to the Duke case by ensuring it will never happen again, to white people or to minorities, to the rich or the poor. I'm sure Sean Hannity and company will get right on that.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Today's Shooting and Gun Control

Would today's tragedy have been prevented or lessened if students and teachers were allowed to carry guns?

The right-wing blogs think so. And maybe they're right. Or maybe fifteen other students would have pulled guns and started mistaking each other for the first shooter and escalated the problem.

And maybe there would be a lot more suicides the 99.9999% of the time there is not a crazed gunman on campus. And more single and double homicides. And accidents.

Would today's tragedy have been prevented if guns were banned?

The left-wing blogs think so. And maybe they're right. Or maybe a war on guns would be as ineffective as the war on drugs, only less Constitutional. From some reports, at least one of the guns used today has already been banned.

Making policies based on exceptional circumstances is foolish.

There are about 400,000 crimes, more than 10,000 homicides, and more than 15,000 suicides committed with firearms every year in the United States. Almost none of them are school shootings in the manner of Virginia Tech or Columbine.

olicies must be targetted sensibly.

Our country seems particularly bad at this. We've banned knitting needles from planes but allow 16-year-olds to drive cars. Growing medical marijuana can land you in jail, but cigarettes are available at every 7-11.

How about we start basing some decisions on data? Focusing on mental health from a public policy perspective could probably save thousands of lives a year while debating the gun control issue will just waste a bunch of time and money. I can't tell you how many people I've known with clinical depression or anxiety that couldn't get (or at least thought they couldn't get) treatment because they didn't have sufficient insurance. How many veterans and ex-police officers are out there with untreated mental issues and the training to kill efficiently?

I don't know how we can get public debate to become more reasonable in the age of cable news and vacuous politics. I guess we can at least start with ourselves. Quit shouting slogans and start using reason. Stop focusing on anecdotes and start working with data.

JIB Nominations are Open!

The Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards are accepting nominations until Thursday. Please go nominate blogs and posts you think worthy. I've already nominated a few blogs, including my own. :-) If you think of any specific posts of mine that deserve to be nominated, though, I'd be honored.

Velveteen Rabbi
links to Richard at Tikun Olam who thinks the JIBs will be less slanted to the right this year thanks to better leadership and the creation of separate categories for things like "left-wing political" and "Jewish skepticism." It's kind of an embarrassment to the Jewish people when Little Green Footballs runs away with the JIBs, in my opinion.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Shocking News: Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Has No Effect

Via Oliver Willis, a new study:
WASHINGTON - Students who took part in sexual abstinence programs were just as likely to have sex as those who did not, according to a study ordered by Congress.

Also, those who attended one of the four abstinence classes that were reviewed reported having similar numbers of sexual partners as those who did not attend the classes. And they first had sex at about the same age as other students — 14.9 years, according to Mathematica Policy Research Inc.

The federal government now spends about $176 million annually on abstinence-until-marriage education. Critics have repeatedly said they don't believe the programs are working, and the study will give them reinforcement.

However, Bush administration officials cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions from the study. They said the four programs reviewed — among several hundred across the nation — were some of the very first established after Congress overhauled the nation's welfare laws in 1996.

Officials said one lesson they learned from the study is that the abstinence message should be reinforced in subsequent years to truly affect behavior.

"This report confirms that these interventions are not like vaccines. You can't expect one dose in middle school, or a small dose, to be protective all throughout the youth's high school career," said Harry Wilson, the commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau at the Administration for Children and Families.

Doesn't that just sum up the Bush administration? "What we're doing isn't working? Let's do more of it!"

There was some good news, though:
"I really do think it's a two-part story. First, there is no evidence that the programs increased the rate of sexual abstinence," said Chris Trenholm, a senior researcher at Mathematica who oversaw the study. "However, the second part of the story that I think is equally important is that we find no evidence that the programs increased the rate of unprotected sex."

Trenholm said his second point of emphasis was important because some critics of abstinence programs have contended that they lead to less frequent use of condoms.

Maybe sex ed isn't really that important. I mean, what is there to teach, from a health standpoint, besides, "Use a freaking condom!"

I still think purity balls are the creepiest thing ever.

The Duke Rape Case

(For those living in a cave. Or in other countries, I guess.)

The prosecutor's behavior was outrageous. He and the accuser should be prosecuted. The people in the press and at Duke who jumped on the bandwagon against the boys were in the wrong.

But spare me your faux-outrage, conservatives.

Radley Balco (a libertarian blogger and contributor) has a great response to this idiotic statement by Glenn Reynolds:
In the conventional imagination, it used to be -- see To Kill a Mockingbird or reports of the Scottsboro rape trial -- that it was the noble fairness-obsessed lefties who supported due process against the ignorant right-wing hicks who tried to lynch people out of a mixture of racism, political opportunism borne of racism, journalistic sensationalism, and sheer meanness. Now the hats have switched. That's worth noting.

Balco's response:
I'm not left-wing or right-wing (though I've been accused of both).

But the reason why the narrative for most of the last century has been that of noble, left-wing ACLU and NAACP lawyers coming to the aid of black people wrongly accused by racist white people is because for most of the last century, that's the way it has actually happened. Over and over and over. And I'm not just talking about the Jim Crow era. See Tulia. Or Hearne. Or the dozens of people freed by the liberal lawyers at the Innocence Project.

And let's not go overboard in heaping praise on the Duke players' more conservative defenders. Reynolds is an honest-to-goodness civil libertarian. So I don't include him in this. But to hear law-and-order right-wingers like Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, or the Powerline crew scream about prosecutoral excess, the rights of the accused, and political opportunism on the part of a prosecutor these past few months really strained all credulity. Yes. I'd love to think their interest in this case was motivated solely by their sense of justice. But come on. Does anyone not think the race and class of the accused, the race and class of the accuser, and the politics of feminism and anti-feminism had something to do with their sudden embrace of and familiarity with NACDL talking points?

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe these conservatives have gotten religion. Maybe in the future, O'Reilly, Hannity, & Co. will actually make a cause celebre about cases where the accused aren't rich white kids with high-paid attorneys accused of raping a poor black woman. I'm skeptical.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Do Orthodox Jews Avoid Investigating Biblical Authorship?

Chana, in her review of the movie Trembling Before God, responds to the tension between compassion for gay people and loyalty to the laws of the Torah:
The Rabbis who were interviewed came across as compassionate but in a halakhic bind, as they truly are; the Torah says what it says and one cannot, as Rabbi Steven Greenberg suggests, simply reinterpret the verses in question. The Rabbis on a whole explained that they felt compassion toward those who were suffering and realized that these people were in pain, but they were not at liberty to change Torah law. I believe this to be a fair approach.

In the comments section, erachat summed up the problem as follows:
The problem lies in the fact that Orthodox Jews don't believe the Torah was written by man.

Here was my response:
I agree. They also, by overwhelming majority, refuse to investigate whether this belief is reasonable in the light of the text itself, even when they admit it's a struggle to reconcile themselves to some of its moral instruction.

If nobody were harmed by the notion that the Torah was written by God, this would be merely a personal choice. However, because there are hundreds or thousands of actual, existing human beings who are being marginalized because of some of the words contained in that book, I'd argue that people have the moral responsibility to investigate whether the book is indeed divine, or whether said divinity falls apart under scrutiny.

If, upon honest investigation, they continue to believe the Torah is the word of God, so be it. But few have the courage to try, and even fewer of those remain convinced that it's God's word.

Chana wrote that the rabbis are in a bind and that is true, but what she is leaving out is that they have the ability to unbind themselves but choose not to exercise it.

How can I be so sure that the rabbis have chosen not to investigate the Torah's origins?

First of all, I grew up Orthodox. I know that certain topics are off-limits, and authorship of the Torah is one of them. Yeshiva students don't go through the process of studying Biblical criticism before coming to a conclusion about the Torah's origins -- they don't even spend an hour with a friend debating both sides of the issue.

Second, I don't believe that a fair-minded perusal of the facts can possibly support the notion that God dictated the Torah word-for-word to Moses. Even without the multiple authors idea behind the Documentary Hypothesis, a plain reading of the text shows that it was written well after Moses's lifetime. (For example, in Gen 14:14, it refers to the city Dan. Dan was named Dan much after Moses's time, though, as recounted in Judges 18. There are many other examples.)

Can anyone tell me I'm wrong? What percentage of rabbis who think they are "in a bind" have honestly investigated whether the binding is of their own making? How many of you, Orthodox readers, can tell me you've honestly considered the question and decided that the Torah was written by God as dictated to Moses?

Kurt Vonnegut is in Heaven Now

I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, "Isaac is up in heaven now." It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, "Kurt is up in heaven now." That's my favorite joke.

The wise old humanist has died. He wrote in a way that could break your heart because, I think, humanity had broken his. His writing had as much impact on me in my teens and twenties as probably anybody's. Maybe it had more impact on me than most of the people in my life.

Some quotes:
Still and all, why bother? Here's my answer. Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.

And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

Where is home? I've wondered where home is, and I realized, it's not Mars or someplace like that, it's Indianapolis when I was nine years old. I had a brother and a sister, a cat and a dog, and a mother and a father and uncles and aunts. And there's no way I can get there again.

Human beings will be happier - not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That's my utopia.

(talking about when he tells his wife he's going out to buy an envelope) Oh, she says well, you're not a poor man. You know, why don't you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don't know. The moral of the story is, is we're here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don't realize, or they don't care, is we're dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we're not supposed to dance at all anymore.

Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.

I really wonder what gives us the right to wreck this poor planet of ours.

"Drawn crudely in the dust of three window-panes were a swastika, a hammer and sickle, and the Stars and Stripes. I had drawn the three symbols weeks before, at the conclusion of an argument about patriotism with Kraft. I had given a hearty cheer for each symbol, demonstrating to Kraft the meaning of patriotism to, respectively, a Nazi, a Communist, and an American. 'Hooray, hooray, hooray,' I'd said."

…I have wanted to give Iraq a lesson in democracy—because we’re experienced with it, you know. And, in democracy, after a hundred years, you have to let your slaves go. And, after a hundred and fifty years, you have to let your women vote. And, at the beginning of democracy, is that quite a bit of genocide and ethnic cleansing is quite okay. And that’s what’s going on now.

Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter could be said to remedy anything.

True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.

We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap.

I am of course notoriously hooked on cigarettes. I keep hoping the things will kill me. A fire at one end and a fool at the other.

If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have nerve enough to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.

If there is a god, he sure hates people. That’s all I can say.

During the Vietnam War, Abbie Hoffman announced that the new high was banana peels taken rectally. So then FBI scientists stuffed banana peels up their asses to find out if this was true or not.

All male writers, incidentally, no matter how broke or otherwise objectionable, have pretty wives. Somebody should look into this.

I think William Shakespeare was the wisest human being I ever heard of. To be perfectly frank, though, that's not saying much. We are impossibly conceited animals, and actually dumb as heck. Ask any teacher. You don't even have to ask a teacher. Ask anybody. Dogs and cats are smarter than we are.

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

Many more.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

An Atheist Comes Out to His Parents

Via Ed Brayton, an atheist comes out to his parents.

Is Morality Selfishness by Another Name?

Morality keeps popping up in my thinking and reading lately. There are of course the religious discussions of atheistic morality, morality and free will, and theodicy. Then I have also participated in a lot of discussions recently about charity and whether, for example, Oprah is to be commended for her philanthropy or criticized for not doing more. Finally, I've been seeing a lot of the perennial complaints, common for some reason among internet users, that women always go for the jerks and nice guys finish last.

Economist Tyler Cowen links to a couple of posts including Cads vs. Dads II which is based on a comment from a reader:
Why is a Cad a Cad? I think it is because: He can be. His genes are so good, so much in demand, that women are willing to mate with him knowing that he might not stick around. Same reason why a Dad is a Dad. He knows if based solely on looks (proxy for gene competition), he will lose to the Cad every time. So, he must compensate for his lower quality genes by investing more resources in the female and offspring.

Now obviously there are some "Dads" who are attractive enough (or rich or powerful enough) that they could get away with being Cads if they wanted to. But consider an unattractive person. Being a "Dad" might be the only attractive thing about him, so being a "nice" guy instead of a jerk is simply his best bet at maximizing his chances at landing a woman. Or friends, or even maybe a job. Tabarrok goes on to identify a scientific study of birds which indicates that this hypothesis is indeed true... at least for birds.

So combining the Cad vs. Dad hypothesis with my readings and discussions about morality, I got to wondering: are people moral simply because they can't get away with being immoral? If so, morality is a strategy as selfish as any Machiavellian tyrant's.

So what of those who hold forms of morality against their own self-interest? Are they merely tools of a successful meme-complex? Is a powerful person who devotes his life to helping the less fortunate just a sucker? What of powerless people who believe the powerful are powerful because they are worthy?

(See also Nietzsche's idea of slave vs. master morality.)

Were Jewish and Christian* (and Communist**, etc.) morality simply a defense against the powerful, as Nietzsche believed? And am I, ironically, a slave to an arbitrary and predominantly religious morality? Should I adopt the morality of the powerful instead and use my talents merely to maximize my own power and prestige at the expense of others?

(Note: I'm being mostly facetious. I actually believe my sense of morality is based on empathy.)

* Today, of course, Christianity is most often used in the service of the powerful, at least in America. Because Christianity has been the religion of the powerful for so long, its God has changed from the Jesus of the Beatitudes to, e.g., Supply Side Jesus.) Jews, on the other hand, have been quite powerless until very recently.

** Is that why so many Jews were Communists?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Media: Liberal, Conservative, or Just Plain Stupid?

Via Eliezer Yudkowsky at Overcoming Bias, I discovered the hilarious and disturbing notion of the Friedman Unit:

One Friedman Unit, also known as "one Friedman" or "one F.U.", equals six months in the future.[1]

The term is a tongue-in-cheek neologism coined by blogger Atrios (Duncan Black) on May 21, 2006,[2] in reference to the discovery by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) of journalist Thomas Friedman's repeated use[3][4] of "the next six months" as the time period in which, according to Friedman, "we're going to find out...whether a decent outcome is possible" in the Iraq War. As documented by FAIR, Friedman had been making these six-month predictions since November 2003.

More broadly, many political observers measure any date-specific statement by a public figure regarding the future of Iraq or the Iraq War in Friedman Units, thus suggesting that the speaker's predictions of a near-term resolution of the Iraq War amount to that speaker's de facto defense of the status quo. Examples may involve troop withdrawals, the formation of government in parliament, the pacification of Baghdad, or merely an upcoming "critical time" in Iraq.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Regent University and the Bush Administration: Loyalty Over Competence

Did you know that tiny Regent University ("the nation's academic center for Christian thought and action") claims to have one hundred and fifty alumni serving in the Bush Administration? Or that twenty of their professors are elected judges?

Their most famous political alum [edit: oops, he's a professor, not an alum] is no doubt the very nutty John Ashcroft, who was anointed with cooking oil each time he has been elected to public office, "'in the manner of King David,' as he points out in his memoirs Lessons from a Father to His Son." (Ashcroft is now a professor at Regent.)

More recently in the news is Monica Goodling:
One of those graduates is Monica Goodling, the former top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who is at the center of the storm over the firing of US attorneys. Goodling, who resigned on Friday, has become the face of Regent overnight -- and drawn a harsh spotlight to the administration's hiring of officials educated at smaller, conservative schools with sometimes marginal academic reputations.

Documents show that Goodling, who has asserted her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid testifying before Congress, was one of a handful of officials overseeing the firings. She helped install Timothy Griffin , the Karl Rove aide and her former boss at the Republican National Committee, as a replacement US attorney in Arkansas.

Because Goodling graduated from Regent in 1999 and has scant prosecutorial experience, her qualifications to evaluate the performance of US attorneys have come under fire. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, asked at a hearing: "Should we be concerned with the experience level of the people who are making these highly significant decisions?"


The Regent law school was founded in 1986, when Oral Roberts University shut down its ailing law school and sent its library to Robertson's Bible-based college in Virginia. It was initially called "CBN University School of Law" after the televangelist's Christian Broadcasting Network, whose studios share the campus and which provided much of the funding for the law school. (The Coors Foundation is also a donor to the university.) The American Bar Association accredited Regent 's law school in 1996.

Not long ago, it was rare for Regent graduates to join the federal government. But in 2001, the Bush administration picked the dean of Regent's government school, Kay Coles James , to be the director of the Office of Personnel Management -- essentially the head of human resources for the executive branch. The doors of opportunity for government jobs were thrown open to Regent alumni.

"We've had great placement," said Jay Sekulow , who heads a non profit law firm based at Regent that files lawsuits aimed at lowering barriers between church and state. "We've had a lot of people in key positions."

Many of those who have Regent law degrees, including Goodling, joined the Department of Justice. Their path to employment was further eased in late 2002, when John Ashcroft, then attorney general, changed longstanding rules for hiring lawyers to fill vacancies in the career ranks.

Previously, veteran civil servants screened applicants and recommended whom to hire, usually picking top students from elite schools.

In a recent Regent law school newsletter, a 2004 graduate described being interviewed for a job as a trial attorney at the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in October 2003. Asked to name the Supreme Court decision from the past 20 years with which he most disagreed, he cited Lawrence v. Texas, the ruling striking down a law against sodomy because it violated gay people's civil rights.

"When one of the interviewers agreed and said that decision in Lawrence was 'maddening,' I knew I correctly answered the question," wrote the Regent graduate . The administration hired him for the Civil Rights Division's housing section -- the only employment offer he received after graduation, he said.

The graduate from Regent -- which is ranked a "tier four" school by US News & World Report, the lowest score and essentially a tie for 136th place -- was not the only lawyer with modest credentials to be hired by the Civil Rights Division after the administration imposed greater political control over career hiring.

The changes resulted in a sometimes dramatic alteration to the profile of new hires beginning in 2003, as the Globe reported last year after obtaining resumes from 2001-2006 to three sections in the civil rights division. Conservative credentials rose, while prior experience in civil rights law and the average ranking of the law school attended by the applicant dropped.

As the dean of a lower-ranked law school that benefited from the Bush administration's hiring practices, Jeffrey Brauch of Regent made no apologies in a recent interview for training students to understand what the law is today, and also to understand how legal rules should be changed to better reflect "eternal principles of justice," from divorce laws to abortion rights.

Loyalty over competence. Simple-minded Christianity over reason.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Einstein on Religion, the Afterlife, Free Will, and Atheists

This is interesting:

Do you believe in God? "I'm not an atheist. I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws."

Is this a Jewish concept of God? "I am a determinist. I do not believe in free will. Jews believe in free will. They believe that man shapes his own life. I reject that doctrine. In that respect I am not a Jew."

Is this Spinoza's God? "I am fascinated by Spinoza's pantheism, but I admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things."

Do you believe in immortality? "No. And one life is enough for me."

Einstein tried to express these feelings clearly, both for himself and all of those who wanted a simple answer from him about his faith. So in the summer of 1930, amid his sailing and ruminations in Caputh, he composed a credo, "What I Believe," that he recorded for a human-rights group and later published. It concluded with an explanation of what he meant when he called himself religious: "The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man."


But throughout his life, Einstein was consistent in rejecting the charge that he was an atheist. "There are people who say there is no God," he told a friend. "But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views." And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. "What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos," he explained.

In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. "The fanatical atheists," he wrote in a letter, "are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who--in their grudge against traditional religion as the 'opium of the masses'-- cannot hear the music of the spheres."

Einstein later explained his view of the relationship between science and religion at a conference at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. The realm of science, he said, was to ascertain what was the case, but not evaluate human thoughts and actions about what should be the case. Religion had the reverse mandate. Yet the endeavors worked together at times. "Science can be created only by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding," he said. "This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion." The talk got front-page news coverage, and his pithy conclusion became famous. "The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

But there was one religious concept, Einstein went on to say, that science could not accept: a deity who could meddle at whim in the events of his creation. "The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God," he argued. Scientists aim to uncover the immutable laws that govern reality, and in doing so they must reject the notion that divine will, or for that matter human will, plays a role that would violate this cosmic causality.

His belief in causal determinism was incompatible with the concept of human free will. Jewish as well as Christian theologians have generally believed that people are responsible for their actions. They are even free to choose, as happens in the Bible, to disobey God's commandments, despite the fact that this seems to conflict with a belief that God is all knowing and all powerful.

Einstein, on the other hand, believed--as did Spinoza--that a person's actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet or star. "Human beings in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free but are as causally bound as the stars in their motions," Einstein declared in a statement to a Spinoza Society in 1932. It was a concept he drew also from his reading of Schopenhauer. "Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity," he wrote in his famous credo. "Schopenhauer's saying, 'A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills,' has been a real inspiration to me since my youth; it has been a continual consolation in the face of life's hardships, my own and others', and an unfailing wellspring of tolerance."

Interesting stuff. I didn't know about his disdain for atheists or his disbelief in free will.

I don't think there's a lot of difference between his deism and my atheism, though. When I say I don't believe in God, I'm talking about the Jewish God, the Christian God, the personal God that Einstein emphatically disbelieved in as well.

Can Einstein's God even be considered "God?" How can an entity who cannot "meddle at whim" with our universe, who created us without free will, be called "God?"

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Thinking Blogger Awards

The great ex-Mormon blogger C. L. Hanson has given me a Thinking Blogger award! (For that, she merits another plug for her book!) Thanks, C.L.!

According to the original, I'm supposed to pass the award onto five bloggers who make me think. The trouble with that idea is that it's mostly bloggers I disagree with who make me think, so I'll have to fight the urge to just give the award to those I like. But fight it I shall!

In no particular order:
  • Steve Sailer is a courageous writer and original thinker. Many consider him a racist and, in a sense, he is. I do not believe he dislikes members of any race nor wishes them mistreated, but he does argue that differences exist, and that they matter. Be warned that many of the people who comment on his blog, however, are hateful bigots of the worst kind. His take-down of Malcolm Gladwell, an author and speaker I love, is particularly noteworthy. I especially hope that Mr. Gladwell will take Sailer's criticisms and make even better use of his prodigious talents in the future.
  • Half Sigma originally turned me on to Mr. Sailer, I believe. He's basically a fiscally conservative amateur sociologist. He writes a lot about education, class, and economics. Despite thinking that all liberals are exactly like the rich, white Manhattanites he knows, all employers are just like his own, and the upper-class Manhattan lifestyle is the only way to go, he always makes me think.
  • Half the time I can't even figure out what Mark from Pseudo-Polymath is talking about because of his theological and philosophical background. When I can decipher him, though, I find he argues positions I oppose better than most people do. So far, I haven't found a single issue we agree on, but I'm sure that one day we'll see ourselves on the same side of something.
  • Stephen at Outside the Box is a liberal Christian who probably makes me think more about my positions regarding religion than anyone else out there.
  • Finally, I'm going to link to someone I generally agree with: Glenn Greenwald. He writes some of the most intelligent posts I've seen from a liberal Democratic perspective. He consistently articulates positions I believe in much better than I could and he's a great liberal critic of the mainstream media as well.

Holocaust Denial: The New Creationism?

Ezzie links to Mevaseretzion who posts about a disturbing story out of Britain:

Schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils, a Government backed study has revealed.

It found some teachers are reluctant to cover the atrocity for fear of upsetting students whose beliefs include Holocaust denial.

At first it sounds like political correctness gone mad. But that's not what's really going on:

It found some teachers are dropping courses covering the Holocaust at the earliest opportunity over fears Muslim pupils might express anti-Semitic and anti-Israel reactions in class.

The researchers gave the example of a secondary school in an unnamed northern city, which dropped the Holocaust as a subject for GCSE coursework.

The report said teachers feared confronting 'anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils'.

It added: "In another department, the Holocaust was taught despite anti-Semitic sentiment among some pupils.

"But the same department deliberately avoided teaching the Crusades at Key Stage 3 (11- to 14-year-olds) because their balanced treatment of the topic would have challenged what was taught in some local mosques."

A third school found itself 'strongly challenged by some Christian parents for their treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict-and the history of the state of Israel that did not accord with the teachings of their denomination'.

The report concluded: "In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship."

So there are really two things going on here. One is that teachers want to avoid antisemitic statements (or worse?) by their students. The other is that teachers are scared or reluctant to challenge what students have been taught by their parents or religious leaders.

The former is basically a discipline problem. Any reasonable teacher should be able to best a student in a debate about whether the holocaust happened. The way to defeat a bad argument is with a better argument, not with censorship. And any student who cannot refrain from hate speech (e.g. making anti-semitic slurs) should be disciplined or expelled.

The latter is similar, at first glance, to what's been going on in the U.S. regarding the teaching of evolution. Evolution has as much evidence for it as do the Crusades, but many schools do not teach it because of religious nuts. But it's not really the same thing. In America, the anti-evolution nuts are in the majority in many (if not most) school districts, while (presumably) holocaust deniers are still a small minority in Britain. It's bad enough to drop a subject when you have the truth on one side and a majority of people -- including many educators -- on the other. But when both the truth and the majority are on the same side, it's crazy to give in to the nuts.