Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year (Give or Take)

Just in time for the new year, the Bad Astronomy Blog has posted a discussion of the intricacies of defining a year. It's fascinating stuff, and a really good illustration of the principle that the more you learn, the less you know. Quote:

So there you go. As usual, astronomers have taken a simple concept like "years" and turned it into a horrifying nightmare of nerdy details. But really, it’s not like we made all this stuff up. The fault literally lies in the stars, and not ourselves.

Skeptical Humanities

Bing over at Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes poses a question I've been kicking around my own noodle for a while:

What do you think that a skeptical humanities journal would look like? I am curious what the scope and content would be, what criteria it would have to meet and how it should be refereed. I have been thinking about this for some time and have some ideas, but I suspect that participants in the Skeptics' Circle might have some ideas (or peeves) that they think should be addressed. There is certainly a need for at least the barest skepticism in the humanities--especially in cultural studies. As it stands, it seems that almost anything goes.
I agree the humanities could use a good strong dose of skepticism and rigor, which would start with a no-nonsense housecleaning in which the excesses of Freud, Jung, Lacan, Kristeva, Piaget, Derrida, Foucault, Bordieu, and assorted continental po-mo thinkers are tossed out. That's not to say the writings of these thinkers must be discarded wholesale, but that humanistic studies would benefit from updating its canonical texts from the psychology, sociology, and philosophy departments.

One possible outline of this update already exists, and it's one I consider very promising. In Consilience, E.O. Wilson proposes bringing current scientific understandings of human nature (including origins, psychology, cognition, aesthetics, morals, etc.) to bear on the humanities, and provides some tantalizing (though general) examples along the way. He appears to have put his program for literary studies into effect in The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Rethinking Theory), although I have not read it so I can't speak to the execution. I have read David Barash's Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature, and have the same basic criticism: it suggests that this is a fruitful direction for literary studies, but the execution is rather general.

In my amazon browsing, I notice Joseph Carroll's Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature, which appears to be another attempt to put the idea of consilience into effect.

I would love to see something that pulls literary and humanistic studies out of the muck of embarrassment, confusion, and meaningless twaddle into which po-mo has frequently dragged it. Were I an academic myself, this is the direction I would try to take, but I know it's far from easy to shove an academic discipline beyond its received boundaries. I might start by forcing the undergraduate victims within my teaching ken to read Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. Sigh. How easily idealism comes to the outsider.

Godspeed (so to speak), Bing. And I know this note will be of interest to you too, Obscene Desserts -- or I hope so. I'll be the change if you will, although I'll be so in my own small ways, outside the high walls of academia.

P.S. I would be delighted to be shown that despite my upwards-of-ten-minutes of web searching, I've overlooked already-existing efforts in this area -- ongoing journals, additional books, promising directions.

Giving and Brain Chemistry

Norm at normblog quotes a piece in the New York Sun about giving:

the surprising conclusion is that giving affects our brain chemistry. For example, people who give often report feelings of euphoria, which psychologists have referred to as the "Helper's High." They believe that charitable activity induces endorphins that produce a very mild version of the sensations people get from drugs like morphine and heroin.
Norm offers a thought experiment: if a pill reproduced exactly the same brain effects, wouldn't people still give? I agree this suggests there's more to it.

Adding to that, and reflecting on my own thought processes related to giving, I think this is a good case illustrating the interactions between levels of causes in human behavior. Proximately, I often go through with a charitable act despite fretting that it will be boring, too much trouble, too costly, or otherwise unpleasant. But upon doing it, or soon afterwards, I feel a sort of euphoria I would associate with the endorphin effect described in the NY Sun article.

I will suppose that the euphoria and the associated brain chemistry register somehow in my mind -- in behaviorist terms, an association is reinforced between the feeling and the act of giving -- and this assocation comes into play the next time a choice for giving arises. But even if so, the assocation is barely liminal, and I don't reflect along the lines of 'I'll get a nice endorphin rush if I go through with this.' Rather, I think along the lines of 'good people do things like this, and I want to be a good person despite the short-term fuss I will have to endure' -- and I think the euphoric brain chemistry is a bonus (and should be seen as a second-order cause) that keeps acts of giving on the list of thinkable, possible alternatives. The next time I am faced with a choice to give or not to, I will have inarticulate impulses pushing for it, and these impulses will be rooted in brain chemistry.

This is indeed very different from the mental calculus that goes into taking or not taking a pill that would trigger the same effect in the brain. Even if I knew the pill could exactly replicate the brain effect of giving, I'd still have the association telling me, even if subliminally, that giving will produce the effect. The effect will still count in my thinking.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Time and Distance in Perspective

If this doesn't blow your mind, you might want to double check and make sure you have a mind.

Substantially the same material is covered in two superb children's books by Robert E. Wells, What's Smaller Than a Pygmy Shrew? and Is a Blue Whale the Biggest Thing There Is?

Spoiler Alert: Lots of things are smaller than pygmy shrews, and no, a blue whale is not the biggest thing there is.

(H/T Greg Laden's blog on the video)

All The Rage

He had not done anything. He was twenty-eight now and, so far as she could see, nothing occupied him but trivia. He had the air of a person who is waiting for some big event and can't start any work because it would only be interrupted. Since he was always idle, she had thought that perhaps he wanted to be an artist or a philosopher or something, but this was not the case. He did not want to write anything with a name. He amused himself writing letters to people he did not know and to the newspapers. Under different names and using different personalities, he wrote to strangers. It was a peculiar, small, contemptible vice. Her father and her grandfather had been moral men but they would have scorned small vices more than great ones. They knew who they were and what they owed to themselves. It was impossible to tell what Walter knew or what his views were on anything. He read books that had nothing to do with anything that mattered now. Often she came behind him and found some strange underlined passage in a book he had left lying somewhere and she would puzzle over it for days.

-from Why Do the Heathen Rage? by Flannery O'Connor

Accountability One

The New York Times has decided to add serially-wrong chickenhawk neoconservative legacy case Bill Kristol to its stable of columnists.

When it comes to analyzing national and international affairs, I don't know what you have to do or say to prove your incompetence to the New York Times, but I suspect it's similar to what it would take to prove your incompetence to George W. Bush.


Batman v. Hawkeye

We are in the operating room in M*A*S*H, with the usual pan shot across a myriad of operating tables filled with surgical teams at work. The leads are sweating away at their work, and at the same time engaged in banter with the head nurse. Suddenly, the doors fly open and Batman appears! Now the scene cannot go on. The M*A*S*H characters, dealing with their own level of quasi-comic reality, having subtext pertinent to the scene, cannot accept as real in their own terms this other character. Oh yes, they could make fast adjustments. He is a deranged member of some battle-fatigued platoon and somehow came upon a Batman suit. But the Batman character cannot then play his intended character true to his own series. Even if it were possible to mix both styles, it would have to be dealt with by the characters, not just abruptly accepted. Meanwhile, the audience will stick with that level of reality to which they have been introduced, and unless the added character quickly adjusts, will reject him.
This is from a long-winded memo written by Robert "Mike Brady" Reed to producer Sherwood Schwartz concerning the literary and theatrical shortcomings of The Brady Bunch. Apparently Robert Reed wrote many such memos; the mind reels at the thought of what Mr. Reed had to say about the sudden and dramatically untenable insertion of Cousin Oliver in those last episodes of the series.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

One Film, Two Explanations

This film explains at least two things: (1) why I am glad I'm a vegetarian and (2) why people don't crowd theaters to watch animal rights expose films.

The Pope Plays Too!

Continuing on the topic of religious believers who subtly and not-so-subtly edit the words they attribute to god: his funny-hatness, Pope John Paul II, took an opportunity in 1981 to address cosmology, fundamental physics, the origins of life, and above all, what the book of Genesis really means:

Cosmogony and cosmology have always aroused great interest among peoples and religions. The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.
I am fascinated with these confident declarations about the meaning behind the words on the page -- in order to, not in order to, to tell men thus and so, alien to the intentions of, does not wish.

I realize that a certain theological bravado is de rigeur for the Pope, but I still have to ask the question: who says this reading of Genesis squares with god's intentions? What's the basis for that claim?

As a non-believer, I don't think there is a god with intentions to retrieve or faithfully represent. The obvious explanation for the lack of detail in the Genesis text takes full account of the realities the Pope rather bashfully raises here: the writers of Genesis didn't know much about cosmology, the state of science and literacy being extremely limited in their day, so they wrote a story that fit with their limited understanding and ideological biases.

Ron Paul: Just Another Anti-Reality Crank

Ron Paul on evolution: "It's a theory, and I don't accept it."

I hope this will help to quell some of the undeserved favor this nut has received from people who should know better. All things considered, he's just another Wide Stancer. And he doesn't bark about Jesus frequently or loudly enough to win the Wide Stance nomination anyway. He won't be president, and that's a good thing.

Calling All Humanists

Humanist Symposium #13 is just around the corner, and will be hosted right here on my precious, precious blog. Look for that on January 6, 2008.

There's still time and space for your thoughtful submission. Here is the Humanist Symposium Submission Form, and here is the Humanist Symposium home page and guidelines.

Step up and make yourself quasi-semi-famous!

How To Edit The [Insert Holy Text Here] -- and How Not To

MAS (Muslims Against Sharia) has chipped in some new comments, and seems preoccupied with the tone of my remarks rather than the substance of my criticisms (here and here). Because I think I agree with the spirit of MAS's project -- stripping the Koran of all the passages that promote divisiveness, bigotry and violence, and thus bringing the Islamic world to a more peaceful, humane, and sensible vision of how things ought to be -- I am going to try again, and this time I will abstain from all those distracting snarks and japes.

This message can apply to all similar efforts to delineate, highlight, preserve, and promulgate a religion's core message as distinct from its traditional content. As I have mentioned before, this is a very common practice of religious believers, though some approach it more subtly than others. In my experience, most religious believers engage in some form of this wishful hermeneutics, albeit often without acknowledging that they are doing so, by emphasizing parts of the texts while downplaying other parts. Christians in America, for example, embrace the so-called "Golden Rule" as the quintessence of Christian goodness, but ignore Jesus's unambiguous and strict teachings about divorce and remarriage.

Below I outline what I consider to be the minimal requirements for redacting holy texts. Please note I am outlining what is necessary to convince fellow believers; atheists and people of different faiths are unlikely to be convinced even if these requirements are met. To anyone who rejects the authority of the text, the many places where the text defies common sense, contradicts scientific findings, and prescribes backward morals constitute reasons to discard the text altogether, or to consider it, at best, just another contribution to the world's literary heritage.

+ The texts as they exist today rest on authority, which includes a theory of the text's origins. It isn't just another book, but a text expressing god's own truth as revealed to one or more of his hand-picked lieutenants. Believers are defined as people who take the authority of the texts seriously; therefore, the redaction of the text must rest on similarly strong authority. It must be shown, in other words, that the edits are authorized by the same god who authorized the original.

+ The edits need to come with an explanation of how and why the original was wrong. For example, did god change his mind between the original revelation and this one? Has god been overthrown by a new god with a different view of things? Was it an error of transcription -- perhaps the original prophet was a poor listener, inattentive to detail, too inclined to interject his own pet ideas into the revelation? If so, why did god allow the poorly-transcribed text to instruct his followers for so many centuries? Why did he only bother to issue corrections at so late a date?

+ The edits need to come with some assurance that god really means it this time. This isn't just another draft placed in the hands of another flawed scribe, but the final and complete body of truths by which god hopes to guide mankind.

Here are some lines of argument that I consider doomed to failure.

- Appeals to common sense: Much in the world's holy texts defies common sense; I needn't list the countless examples. Believers have been taught from day one that when common sense conflicts with the teachings of god, the teachings of god must prevail. Indeed, the teachings of god are said to be necessary in the first place, in part, because human common sense is so fickle and deficient, whereas god's wisdom is complete and perfect.

- Suggestions that the text as it currently exists promotes disharmony, injustice, violence, and other bad things: All the most widely-followed holy texts address this matter directly by noting the existence of people who deny the teachings of the one true god, and make it the duty of god's followers to exhort, convert, and even kill them. The best-loved holy texts also address this matter by noting that obeying god is inherently difficult -- faithful followers wouldn't deserve such a merry afterlife if following god's demands came easily. Strife, in other words, is part and parcel of the created order.

- Mere assertions about the true nature of god: the nature, meanings, intentions, and authentic teachings of god are in dispute, and therefore something more than assertions are needed here. This conversation would not be happening if there did not exist a body of evidence that god is something other than you believe him to be -- namely, the holy texts you wish to edit, which portray a god and a set of teachings you find in need of editing.

As for what you might produce as evidence toward fulfilling these requirements, I leave that to you. The standard of evidence among believers is, ultimately, for believers to determine. On the other hand, if you wish to widen the conversation in such a way as to convince non-believers of the validity of your edits, I can suggest following the scientific method. Following the scientific method has a tremendously successful track record of changing the minds of skeptics.

I have read and re-read the above and believe I have insulted no one. That said, if you take offense to what I've written above, I don't give a shit. You're free to click over to any of a trillion more inviting, less condescending destinations on these internets, or create your own.

Good day and best of luck!

Friday, December 28, 2007

First Rule of Priest Fight Club: You Do Not Talk About Priest Fight Club

Priests from differing Christian sects were caught brawling over the birthplace of Jesus.

I witnessed a similar effect many times in my adolescence, upon capturing various spiders, centipedes, mantises, small reptiles, and other beasties, combining them in the same jar, and shaking.

I'm not proud of it. It never resolved anything -- all their stinging and biting didn't bring them any closer to god. And as I observed their strivings from on high, on the safe side of the jar's glass, I felt ... contempt.

What God Really, Really Meant

Muslims Against Sharia comments to a previous post as follows:

If it's any consolation, we prefer intolerant asswipes who are arrogant enough to know that God does not exist to intolerant asswipes who blow people up in God's name.
I won't deny the charge of "asswipe." However, "know" is one of those scare-words that makes anyone with any background in philosophy start hedging and dropping names. I don't "know" that the Abrahamic god doesn't exist, I just have no good reason to think he does. Likewise I don't "know" that Zeus, Zoroaster and Thor don't exist. But the rarefied form of doubt I hold about these propositions isn't enough to make me change the way I live, sort out competing truth claims, or think about the nature of authority. I don't drift off to sleep wondering if I should offer a propitiatory prayer to the gods of the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians or Aztecs. I dismiss these gods and a thousand more without much thought, as I'm sure you do, and I similarly dismiss one god that you, for some reason, apparently continue to fret about, despite the state of evidence that places his existence on no better footing than that of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Krishna.

Since I have encountered no good reason to believe the god of the Koran exists in the first place, I have no basis for distinguishing the "real" Koran from the one we have. Short of unearthing a DVD with video of the angel dictating the text to Mohammed -- the combination of omniscience and omnipotence could hook this up with ease, and find clever ways to leave no doubt as to the authenticity, don't you think? -- and noting the discrepancies between the dictation and the text we have today, I don't know how you would go about "correcting" the Koran while still maintaining the myth of its divine origins. On the other hand, if you're dismissing the dictated-by-an-angel tale, why stop there? It sounds like special pleading to debunk only a fraction of the extraordinary claims in and surrounding the Koran.

On your page listing the Koranic passages you've edited out, you offer a basis for the removals:
The following verses promote divisiveness and religious hatred, bigotry and discrimination. They must be either removed from the Koran or declared outdated and invalid, and marked as such.
What is the basis of the assertion that divisiveness, bigotry, and discrimination are "invalid" teachings of Islam? If it's a matter of reconciling the hatred and bigotry with the mercy and justice, what makes you sure you've tossed out the correct side of the contradiction? What if the loving passages are the misstatements of god's will?

And what are we to make of "outdated"? Did the god of Islam attach an expiration date to the backwardness and hate? In what form? When did the teachings expire, and where can we find a credible list of expiration dates? Is anything slated to expire in the future? Will there be a time when every single passage is past its expiration date? If so, when?

As I mentioned, there are possible forms of evidence by which one might authoritatively edit the Koran qua historical document. I question how far such edits would change Islam. Were new manuscripts to appear, philologists would bicker over them and what they mean. We could be certain that large numbers of Koranic scholars would work hard to discount, deny or suppress any challenge posed by the new evidence. We have seen this pattern play out with discovery after discovery -- given a choice between new evidence and the old faith, people tend to cling to the old faith.

My snarkiness notwithstanding, I do appreciate the spirit of what you're doing. I think you're trying to rescue the good of your religious tradition, and doing so in an admirably straightforward way -- by openly declaring that some parts of the teachings deserve to be discarded, and giving specifics. But I would hope you see that the value judgments you bring to this exercise are, ipso facto, not based in the authority of the Koran, since the Koran does not authorize readers to make edits but demands their obedience. That your common sense and moral decency take offense at large swaths of the Koran is a good starting point from which to notice how the entire book is superfluous to the larger project of living well and promoting justice.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

RIP Benazir Bhutto

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan is an ugly, ugly thing, all the more for the fact that people across the US political spectrum are chiming in with what it means for them, and how it helps them grind their little axes. Each of the presidential candidates has turned this into a simplistic morality tale illustrating the perils of not electing him/her. Whatever.

In that spirit, I offer the predictable insight that this assassination demonstrates the dangers of faith. We know very little now about who killed Bhutto or why, but we know it was a suicide attack undertaken in a place and time roiled with religious fanaticism, up to and including previous attempts at suicide bombings, so the math is rather easy. People burdened with too much critical thinking and rather too severe in their demands for evidence don't do things like this; feats as cosmically monstrous as this require faith. There ends my crassly opportunistic homily.

The piece of garbage who killed her is not now enjoying virgins under the gaze of Allah, but dissolving in the digestive tracts of assorted scavengers. It's a pity he threw away his life for the false assurances and black aspirations of his ridiculous faith. Good riddance. May there be fewer like him.

Benazir Bhutto was an accomplished and courageous woman. May there be more like her. I don't claim to have answers for Pakistan beyond the hope that others of comparable quality will take strength from her example and step forward despite the manifest risks.

Sullivan v. Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan wonders about the fear and loathing that the idea of gay marriage inspires among conservatives:

... why is it "socially liberal" to encourage mutual responsibility, caring, fidelity, economic prudence, and an institution that fosters self-esteem, family integration and social responsibility? ... I know I've made this case a thousand times. But it never seems to penetrate. I understand why it makes no sense to Huckabee supporters, for whom gay relationships are anathema for purely Biblical reasons (however irrationally applied). But it still depresses me that allegedly tolerant figures in the intelligentsia still assume it, and almost never challenge it.
Sullivan has made two arguments here, one promising and the other a dead end. The first argument appeals to conservatives on grounds they constantly say they value (responsibility, fidelity, family, etc.); the second implicitly calls on the authority of the Bible.

If he wishes to change the Groundhog Day character of having to repeat anti-homophobia arguments over and over, he would do well to begin with interrogating his phrase "however irrationally applied." It's not irrational to read the Bible as anti-gay -- the Bible unambiguously condemns homosexuality.

I think we would have homophobia whether or not we had a Bible; I think homophobia is ultimately explainable in terms of evolutionary psychology, which is to say I think it is a natural and ineradicable feature of human nature. But I think the same thing can be said of sexism, racism, and xenophobia, and yet progress is still possible in these areas.

This progress requires vigilance, consciousness-raising, and moral exhortation along the lines that the prejudice conflicts with our most basic understanding of fairness. That sense of fairness -- also an endowment of our nature -- has to be nurtured, and by nurturing I mean calling attention to its conflict with bigotry. For people to overcome deeply ingrained bigotry, they must be made aware that they harbor it, and encouraged to embrace the countervailing part of their nature, the part that regards it as unfair. This is not easy, but it is possible.

Arguing on Biblical grounds is pointless. Pretending the Bible says other than it says will fail, since even the dimmest bulb will eventually stumble across the clear anti-gay passages. The Bible rests on its authority, not on the strength of its arguments (such as they are), and it says what it says.

We can have a thoughtful struggle against homophobia and other forms of bigotry, based on a common ground of shared values (many of them foreign to the Bible), or we can have the authority of the Bible. We cannot have both. Sullivan seems to want both, and so long as he continues affirming both, he will continue waking to a Groundhog Day in which people who hate who he is insist on reminding him of what "the good book" says about homosexuality. So long as he clings to Biblical authority, he will provide cover and sanction to those who revile and restrict gays on grounds "the Bible told me so."

Big Media Fun

Here, Norman Solomon throttles far-right CNN drooler Glen Beck on the nexus of big corporations and big media. He leads him down the primrose path by starting to follow Beck's whiny, self-serving criticisms of NBC, but the discussion soon turns to Beck's own corporate masters.

It was fun while it lasted, but don't expect Mr. Solomon to be invited back to CNN or Glen Beck's show any time soon.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Phrases That Sound Filthy (But Aren't)

"My shoulders are sore from doing the Wii!"

What God Really Meant

A visitor on behalf of the Muslims Against Sharia blog said

With the help of our readers we went through the Koran and removed every verse that we believe did not come from Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate.
Did you!? How nice! Various parties in so-called Christendom have performed similar feats of cherry-picking, some explicit and some covert. Thomas Jefferson famously took scissors to the New Testament and removed the parts he didn't like, resulting in what is called The Jefferson Bible. Confident declarations about what god really meant and how it departs from the text are a common preoccupation of religious believers. And who can blame them when god's alleged texts are batshit-crazy in so many cases?

Supposing, for the briefest of moments, that god exists, and that he left his very special instructions by revealing them to a human scribbler, or series of human scribblers; and further supposing the human scribblers got some of it wrong: I think if someone had a really solid purchase on god's preferred edits, and had good ways to authenticate the edits, it would already be a fait accompli. In fact, I think the alleged holy texts we have today represent exactly this -- they are the end result of a winnowing process by which various parties have produced a text and presented it as god's real revelation.

More commonly, claims of this kind -- "Dude! Seriously! Let me tell you what god really meant!" -- are as common as fruit flies in a genetics lab and half as precious. Such claims are almost always unverifiable, not to speak of unverified. What is asserted without evidence can be, and usually is, dismissed without evidence. (Note: wishful thinking does not count as evidence.)

Of course, in principle, it's always possible that amazing new evidence will emerge about the provenance and nature of the world's holy texts. Maybe an archaeological dig will turn something up, or a new text will be carried up from the dusty cellar of an ancient reliquary. Such are the highest dramas in philology, I gather.

Sigh. I would need a reason to care about god before caring about what he/she/it really meant, and that would need to start with a showing that god actually exists. Until and unless that happens, any effort to re-scramble, pare down, augment, re-word, or otherwise edit the alleged revelations will continue to strike most of the world, believers and unbelievers alike, as unconvincing, futile, and dull.

As for the real Koran and the real Bible: as far as I'm concerned, picking the corn kernels out of a turd still leaves you with a piece of shit.

If it's any consolation, I'm totally against Sharia too.

Yuletide Zoo Hijinx

Going to the zoo sounds like a nice way to spend your Christmas afternoon, but not if so many zookeepers have the day off that the tiger cage is left unlocked.


Ah, Christmas at the San Francisco Zoo -- a few people mauled by tigers (one killed), the tiger gunned down by police.

Does anyone else find this unfair? I would consider it sporting if one of the attacked humans had killed the tiger in hand-to-hand combat. But to call the cops in with guns? Did the tigers get to call outsiders to their aid? Lions, leopards, orangutans, cobras? Doubtful.

When Rodents Sing

The Chipmunks don't sound any better slowed down.

God's Tribe: Not Just Any Tribalism

I recently revisited the debate between Sam Harris and Chris Hedges over the truth and usefulness of god belief, and I want to offer a straightforward answer to the question that so agitated both Hedges and the moderator, Robert Scheer, throughout that debate, namely, isn't it fruitless (possibly even racist) to focus on the evils of Islam? After all, suicide bombings and Al Qaida attacks are relatively recent, whereas Islam hasn't changed for centuries. Aren't there better explanations to consider? Isn't tribalism a better term than faith for the cluster of dangers Sam Harris is highlighting in The End of Faith?

No. For starters, Harris does note the dangers of fanatical Judaism and fanatical Christianity. More fundamentally, Koranic and Biblical literalism are indeed forms of tribalism, but they are especially dangerous because they include the insistence that they are transcendently true, true for all times, places, and peoples; and they include doctrines ("righteous war", "jihad") under which violence is held sacred. Death is no barrier to the devoted believer, and killing unbelievers can be the holiest of acts.

It's true that these doctrines have not changed for centuries -- the Koran and Bibles we read today are the same as they were. What's different now is the social, technological and political environment: radical belief systems need no longer stay local but can have a global reach. And they can potentially attain weapons of mass destruction. We no longer live in a world in which a fanatical sect will exhaust itself with zealous rhetoric and reckless swordplay within a small valley inside a few years.

The revealed religions merit special concern because of what they teach and avow as recorded in their texts. The texts matter.

If labels are important, label it tribalism. Tribalism is certainly a powerful and destructive force, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that all tribalisms are equivalent -- the swellings of small-town pride, sports team fandom, and vague nationalism don't measure up to the conviction that one does the will of an everlasting and omniscient god who prefers a world cleared of unbelievers.

And if racial/ethnic even-handedness is the concern, make a point of noticing the dangers of all revealed faiths as practiced by all races, ethnicities, and language groups.

Verschärfte Vernehmung

I think it is the duty of every American living today to read Andrew Sullivan's post on 'enhanced interrogation' from May 2007:

...the interrogation methods approved and defended by [the Bush-Cheney junta] are not new. Many have been used in the past. The very phrase used by the president to describe torture-that-isn't-somehow-torture - "enhanced interrogation techniques" - is a term originally coined by the Nazis. The techniques are indistinguishable. The methods were clearly understood in 1948 as war-crimes. The punishment for them was death.
A meaningful discussion of where the US stands today, morally and politically, begins with an unblinkered assessment of the facts Sullivan puts forward. At stake is what sort of nation we are and intend to be.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Gelukkig Nieuwjaar

Via Obscene Desserts, here is my favorite of the socialist-era holiday cards, this one produced by the Worker's Youth Movement of the Netherlands. Campy but lovely in its way!

And in that spirit, happy festivus to you. The houseguests are starting to arrive so I will be blogging even more unevenly for a while.


Actual Humility and True Reverence

Huckabee in Conversation

Mike Huckabee recently stated:

The Ten Commandments form the basis of most of our laws and therefore, you know if you look through them does anybody find anything there that would be all that objectionable? I don't think most people would if they actually read them ...
A statement like this makes me wonder whether Mike Huckabee has actually read the Ten Commandments.

No, the Ten Commandments don't form the basis of US law, and Ed Brayton walks through many of the outright contradictions between US law and the Ten Commandments. I would add that the first amendment means we can rank Jehovah below as many gods as we wish; we can fill our yards, homes, and cars with graven images (a great boon to the velvet portrait and concrete statuette industries); we can keep the sabbath as unholy as we like (how many million Americans spend the sabbaths half-drunk screaming at the TV over the fortunes of sports teams?); we can covet our neighbor's swimming pools, wood chippers, and fashion senses; and aside from a few formal legal settings, we can bear false witness about anything and everything (a great boon to the blogosphere). Adultery isn't illegal in most jurisdictions, and Wide Stancers appreciate this as much as anyone. As for stealing and killing, well, yes, there are many laws on the books concerning those, but there are also plenty of legally-sanctioned instances going around (a great boon to Blackwater USA and Halliburton, to name only two).

This is a perfect occasion for conversational intolerance. Mike Huckabee's statement is perversely wrong, and it comes as he seeks the presidency. That it falls under the rubric of "religious conviction" does not and should not shield it from vigorous questioning.

The alternative is to allow political discourse to continue to serve as a sort of affirmative action program for "sincere" dumbasses, the end product of which is, as we have seen all too clearly, presidents who live, think, and govern from inside protective bubbles of friendly opinion.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Scary, Merry Christmas

This is just one from a large gallery of photos of children terrified of Santa Claus.

Just think how kids would react to being told to sit on Jesus's lap! He'll cast you into a lake of fire for thinking the wrong thoughts, whereas the worst Santa Claus will do is outsource toy manufacturing to a Chinese subcontractor that uses lead paint.

I don't recall any drama with my own photo-ops with Santa -- I'm not even sure I had any -- but I know my son was wary from the start. We coaxed him into a mall Santa's lap once, maybe twice, but not without effort, and the resulting smile looked every bit as phony and contrived as the situation itself.

(H/T Reasonable Doubts)

Sunday Lizard Blogging

This is Pogo the bearded dragon, adopted from my son's school for the holidays, resting fat and happy on his log entertaining several of his new cricket friends.

The crickets are none too bright and don't realize the fun-loving lizard that gives them rides this morning will, in the fullness of time, draw them into his jaws with his adhesive tongue, then crunch away all their happy memories.

The other lizard, Pat the unsexable gecko, remains hidden away in his/her separate holding pen with his/her own supply of smaller crickets. Pat is camera-shy and nowhere near as popular with crickets as his/her distant cousin.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

When Cats Eat Ducks

Finding the house bereft of cat food, and finding Wilbur with only enough life-force to curl up on the chair and sleep (what he would have done no matter how well fed), I went to the pet store and found this:
At some place and time, it occurred to someone to grind all the spare ducks and peas into catfood-shaped morsels, bag them, print exaggerated health claims on the bag, and put it on sale.

And so I found myself in the pet specialty store, faced with several choices for what I might pour into Wilbur's food dish, only one of which was pelletized ducks and peas. Out of sheet peversity I had to buy it. Fate? Destiny? Kismet? No. Freethinker Adam Smith laid it out plainly:

Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.
The "invisible hand" is all well and good, but how does this all look from the ducks' perspective?


Here is Radiohead playing one of their newest songs, "Reckoner":

This is from the excellent album In Rainbows, which seems to be no longer downloadable for a price you choose from the official album site. A persistent web browsing person could, without great effort, find a place from which to download it. But that would be so very wrong.

It will be released in conventional CD jewelbox form on 1/1/08, and I plan to get it.

Drunken Angel

Lucinda Williams performs "Drunken Angel" on Austin City Limits:

Where has she been all my life?

Ratz Nets Blair!

The Pope, a Jesus-made "fisher of men," has netted a big one: Tony Blair has converted to The One True Faith™ (Rome edition).

This changes everything! Well, maybe not everything. OK, fine, it changes almost nothing.

Since Blair has left the Church of England, it means he can no longer divorce any of Henry VIII's dead ex-wives, and that he no longer worships under the protection of Elizabeth II, who is the reigning Defender of the Faith. Henceforth, if she sees him being spiritually abused -- encircled by evil sprites calling him names, experiencing stomach troubles from ingesting the blood and flesh of Christ, being fleeced by an unscrupulous Catholic priest, making errors of Latin conjugation that render his prayers ambiguous or meaningless, etc. -- she's just going to stand there in her blue suit and matching umbrella looking awkwardly in the other direction as though none of it concerns her.

If the Spanish Armada makes another go at it, it will put Tony Blair in a tough spot.

Dismal Tide

The above are two of UNICEF's photos of the year for 2007: a child laborer in India and a 40-something groom with his pre-teen wife in Afghanistan.

India is one of those "free" economies that we're always told is developing so rapidly and wonderfully. Some day soon, a 9-year-old in India will be able to do your job for pennies on the dollar!

Afghanistan is now "free" in that its barbarities no longer answer to the whims of the Taliban ... mostly. American Christianists expect us to believe the pairing of a 40-something guy with a pre-teen girl and some cash is moral since it is one man and one woman (and some cash), but oh how angry the god of the Bible and the Koran would be if that were a pre-teen boy (with or without cash)!

The state of what's "free" in the world needs some work.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Note to Cons re: Them Dang Immigrants

This is a note to American "conservatives" of the family valoos / hotbutton social issues variety -- you do realize, do you not, that you'll never, ever get the anti-immigration policies you want from the Wide Stance party, right?

You never, ever will.

To put it in perspective, it's even less likely than the anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-women, anti-affirmative action stuff you've been hankering for since at least the 1960s. You've made precious few gains on that laundry list of retrogression, but as meager as it is, the gains there dwarf anything you'll ever get on immigration.

It won't happen. I'm not saying your chances are better with the Democrats. I don't have any tactical advice to offer, but rest assured staying married to the Wide Stance party won't do it.

In case you just fell off the turnip truck -- and boy, so many of you give that impression most distinctly -- Balloon Juice explains why.

I know you don't like reading anything besides the Bible verses you've cherry-picked over the years, so here's the short version: it's because the Chamber of Commerce wing of the Wide Stance coalition will never, ever, ever allow it. And they have all the money.

OK, this painfully long note is over. Here's something to cheer you up -- Jesus still hates the gays, and he still expects women to be subservient! Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

President Rick

I can't resist a closer reading of presidential candidate Rick Fleharty's campaign materials. His campaign has so much more to offer than homophone confusions -- it also offers gaffes and non-sequitors large enough to choke a wildebeest. As I imbibe the fruity goodness of his writings, I arrive more and more firmly at the position that if Ponca City, Oklahoma's style of slapdash thinking could be compressed into a man-sized wad and styled with a mullet and a mustache, the styled wad would be Rick Fleharty. The following walks through one of his writings line by line and adds my carefully considered ripostes, cavils, and bitch-slappings.

The old saying “You are what you eat” describes this country to the “T”.
Which "T"? The "T"!
All we do is consume and consume so much that we are getting fat and lazy. We look for the easiest and cheapest way to do something or we just sit on our butts and do nothing.
As with so much else on President Rick's site, this passage comes across in the same peevish tone that President Bush frequently uses, in which he sounds exasperated to have to be explaining such simple ideas. I suspect this peevish tone comes easily to people who have rarely attempted exotic things like reading books or encountering opinions with which they disagree. But let's be clear about President Rick's very important point: we should be looking for more difficult and more costly ways of doing things.
The State of Oklahoma state motto is “labor conquers all things”. When all of the foreigners and immigrants in this country take over the labor work force, they will have this country for their own because no one will get off there lazy butt and work. The foreigners and immigrants in this country are like a virus in your body. They have their own agenda and do not see their own destruction, but yours.
I can't be sure if President Rick likes or dislikes "The State of Oklahoma state motto." Americans won't get off "there" butts to work, and I take Rick as saying that's a bad thing, but on the other hand, those who do get off their butts to work, "all the foreigners and immigrants," strike President Rick as comparable to a lethal virus. I don't know why anyone would choose to get off his butt and work if by doing so he merited a comparison to a lethal virus.
As I look around and see people wanting more and more just to keep their status level, I wonder where is the line for having the bare necessity, living comfortable, keeping up with the Jones or just flat greed. When is enough, enough to live on and enjoy life? The more we take today for our self’s, the less the next generation will to work with and/or more problems to deal with.
Only a few sentences later, and so much has changed! Now it seems that Americans are guilty of the overzealous pursuit of worldly gain and the unbridled elevation of self's, which presumably they are undertaking by means of work. Work, work, work! When will they ever stop all this working, which is, after all, so very reminiscient of malaria, smallpox and HIV!?!
It seems that the more we have, the more we want with no concerns of the consequences of our.
Our ...? Our what? Dizzying varieties of cheeses and laundry detergents? Sweet-smelling fields of waving wheat? Properly spayed and neutered pets? White shirts with flared collars? Anti-viral medications? One pictures President Rick overcome with emotion, unable to utter the rest of the sentence, biting his fist to stay the tears, the top of his knuckle brushing the mustache and dislodging the crumb of a Sausage McMuffin eaten just hours before.
This country is the dumping grounds of the world. 80% of the stuff we import or make here in the United States will end up in a landfill or in our water system. We are the only species whose own waste has very little recyclable use. We just dump it in a hole or throw it out the window as we drive down the road. If people don’t change their ways, the freedom and country that they have now will be like living in an aquarium, not the open sea and if we don’t clean up our act, well “You know the rest”.
Do I know the rest or "know the rest" wink-wink? As it happens, neither. I actually find both the rest and "the rest" difficult to cobble together based on the leads given here. It almost sounds like a plea for better waste management practices, but there's absolutely no detail to give me confidence in that conclusion. As stated, President Rick appears to be warning that if we don't stop throwing trash out our car windows, we're going to suffer the fate of the countless free-ranging oceanic fish who have been pulled from the sea and held in aquariums as pets, exhibits, or test subjects. I will set aside the fact that I've seen some pretty nice aquariums in my time and grant that a free-ranging fish is better off than an aquarium-bound one. Therefore what? We must be wary of advanced extraterrestrials searching the galaxy for pets, exhibits, or test subjects who litter the roadsides of their home planets? Even if so, is there truly no hope that our virus-like labors will conquer them?

Anyhoo, vote Rick Fleharty for President if you're into that sort of thing. He's easily the Ponca City-est of all the candidates. I'm pretty sure he's against pollution and immigrants, but I cannot be sure he actually distinguishes the two. Above all, he can't be any worse than George W. Bush.

Voting Is Good

I didn't realize that Australia has compulsory voting. Citizens are legally required to vote, and if they don't, and if they don't have a good excuse (travel, sickness, etc.), they are fined.

Peter Singer, who is an Australian, likes compulsory voting and would like to see the idea spread. I agree.

Low voter turnout is chronic in the USA, and reducing overall voter turnout down has long been a positive electoral strategy for the Wide Stance party, since the demographics of voter turnout favor the Wide Stance (affluent people with lots of free time and impassioned fundamentalist wackos tend to make time to vote, while the working poor and moderates don't bother).

I consider voting a duty of citizenship. I would support compulsory voting, but I would want it to accompany other changes, such as moving election day to the weekend, and more widely adopting voting by mail, which has been very successful in Oregon.

Constitutional Covetousness

If my neighbor happens to hire Jennifer Connelly as his maidservant, I will not hesitate to envy him, notwithstanding the famous Biblical injunction against doing so. I will do so, moreover, under the protections of the US Constitution and US common law, which are emphatically not based on the Ten Commandments. Specifically (for those of you insisting on chapter and verse), the ninth amendment protects my right to envy neighbors who have contrived to hire really hot actresses who undertake unlikely career changes: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." While the Constitution grants no specific right to envy neighbors their maidservant hires, it doesn't have to. My right to covet is one of countless unenumerated rights protected under US law.

The sad reality is, my neighbor is a bit of a drunkard who seems to rely on his wife for maidservant duties. And suffice to say she's no Jennifer Connelly. For that matter, Jennifer Connelly seems to be doing fine with her acting career, and would only enter the maidservant field to prepare for a role, if at all, and then only briefly.

For My International Reader(s)

Martin R. notes in a comment to my previous post that the current leader of Britain's Liberal-Democrat party, Nick Clegg, has frankly and publicly admitted he does not believe in god and that he

doesn’t get denounced for his atheism nor is it suggested that being an atheist in anyway undermines his ability to be a credible politician (as well as a leader of a party and aspirant to the highest political office in the country). Do you have any atheists or agnostics running for president?
Oh Martin, you dear precious innocent. I so envy your blameless lack of awareness about the realities of American politics. How I wish, so much more often than not, that they were as remote from me as they seem to be from you. (I am not being sarcastic. I do envy people who don't know, and who don't need to know, the seedy realities of American politics. Oh, to be British or even Canadian.)

Sigh. One of the reasons I so frequently rant about atheism and its intersection with American politics on this precious, precious blog is that it is a very live and lively issue in this country. At least forty years of opinion polls consistently show that atheists are among the most reviled minorities in America, ranking below familiar 'others' such as racial minorities, jews, women, Mormons, Catholics, and even gays and Muslims.

We certainly do not have any atheists or agnostics running for president. That is to say, none of the several candidates currently running would ever admit to doubts about god that may haunt their innermost selves, as they know this concession would be politically suicidal in the USA.

Martin R. further comments:
Of course you could argue that the Archbishop [by declining to condemn Clegg's atheism] falls into the same logical trap that you outline in the King-Huckabee interview – that just sticking to a belief has no merit, in itself, unless the belief is well founded.
I don't necessarily insist on well-founded beliefs from politicians. I think people can come to humane and sensible conclusions based on faulty reasons or no reasons, and I don't want to commit to saying that's necessarily a bad thing. Misinformed people can, for a variety of reasons, stumble into worthwhile conclusions and pursue worthy goals. When I assert that Mike Huckabee (and everyone else) actually does care about the quality of beliefs, I don't mean 'quality' exclusively as 'cogent' or 'well-founded' or 'well-reasoned' but rather as 'advancing what is good and just' in some fashion. Of course I prefer that people come to good conclusions based on sound reasoning, if only for the pragmatic reason that it increases the likelihood they'll arrive at good conclusions when presented with new circumstances, but especially in politics, I resist making the perfect the enemy of the good. Politicians are spokesmodels more than philosophers.

My point was simply that it's silly to speak of non-hypocrisy as though it validates the underlying idea. Being non-hypocritical in the advocacy of, say, "abstinence-only sex education" still makes one a backward and counterproductive fool. Sincerity is not a virtue.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

King Huckabee

Wide Stance presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently subjected himself to the lion's den of the CNN Larry King interview and came off slightly less wacko than he might have.

KING: We're back with Governor Mike Huckabee. What part, if any, should religion play in a presidential race? Why would it matter if someone is Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, atheist? What does it matter?

HUCKABEE: It really doesn't matter, other than as long as you're consistent with your own faith. If I said to people, I'm a Christian, and then lived anything but that, then it would matter because people would know that I was basically disingenuous.

KING: But what you are is immaterial.

HUCKABEE: It's immaterial. I want to make clear -- a lot of people have thought that I tried to make that you needed to be a certain faith. I think what a person is is immaterial to whether they should be elected president as long as what they claim to be is consistent with the rest of their life. That's the only thing that ought to matter.
I wish someone would tell political candidates to put a stop to this particular chunk of insipid cant. Mike Huckabee doesn't think that the substance of an office seeker's beliefs count less than the office seeker's consistency with those beliefs. He doesn't believe that, neither do I, nor does anyone, and I wish people would stop saying it.

Tip to Larry King to file away for the next hard-hitting interview: raving racists are not OK if they "walk the talk" in their hiring practices; homicidally dedicated Mohammed fans aren't OK so long as they really do yodel passages from the Koran in the privacy of their tents; Pat Robertson is batshit-crazy whether or not he utters prayers to Jesus when he's alone on the toilet fondling piles of cash. Hypocrisy is a bad thing, all things equal, but all things are not equal -- some beliefs are unhinged, backwards, and dangerous, while others are reasonable, respectable, and constructive. Sane people care to distinguish the former from the latter.

Since Larry King let the empty vapor fly by unchallenged, and given that I don't believe for a moment that Mike Huckabee is indifferent as to others' beliefs, I am not ready to heap praise on Huckabee for turning down the opportunity to rouse the Christianist lunkheads in this answer. I reserve final judgment until and unless he handles the question in the presence of a questioner who is awake, aware, and listening, not just medically alive. That said, I do note that Huckabee declined the opportunity to take a cheap swipe at non-believers, and did so in the heat of a contest to win Wide Stance base voters. We have seen much worse.
KING: Do you think this is a Christian nation?

HUCKABEE: It's really a secular nation that has Christian underpinnings and Judeo-Christian roots. Our laws are based on the Ten Commandments. Our founding fathers clearly had spiritual guidance. They believed this nation was founded on the notion that our rights come from God, that those are inalienable rights -- which means nobody can take them from us. They even define what they are -- life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. They said they were rights that were endowed by our creator. So they had that understanding. But what they never wanted to do was to dictate how that had to play out.

KING: Right. They didn't put...

HUCKABEE: That was the difference.

KING: They didn't put God in the Constitution.

HUCKABEE: They didn't. It was implicit within the Constitution that they relied back on the Declaration of Independence. But the basic concept of the First Amendment is that you neither prefer one religion over another or prohibit one.
Again, Huckabee scores points by acknowledging that the Consititution invokes no gods, and by using the word "secular" without spitting it out as he would cobra venom, even using it to modify "nation."

But the qualifiers, hedges, and backtracks come quickly: he is playing a bit of a game here with the claim that the Declaration's "creator" is implied in the god-free Constitution. It's fair to say the authors of the Declaration and the authors of the Constitution knew and admired each other's work -- they were the same men in quite a few cases -- but this commonality can only go so far, and he takes it over the line in the equation of "God" with the Declaration's "creator." In his bizarre claim that "our laws are based on the Ten Commandments," he leaves no doubts as to which "God" he means to place in the equation. And the tendentious appending of "judeo" to "christian" -- far right revisionist cant of the first order -- would have made most of the founding fathers spit out their wooden dentures.

To correct the record plainly: the Constitution could have, but did not, mention "God" or the Declaration's "creator," much less did it equate them. And it certainly didn't mention anything like "spiritual guidance," nor did it refer to the Ten Commandments, directly or indirectly. The Constitution takes no stand on whether thou shalt put any gods before Jehovah, on whether thou shalt covet thy neighbor's asses, nor on whether thou shalt honor thy parents or make graven images. It doesn't even address the more straightforward commandments against stealing, adultery, killing, and bearing false witness.

Nice try, Huckabee, but not quite.

Wi Fi 2007

Upwards of three years after the last person thought it was 'cool,' my house is now a wi-fi hotspot. People can congregate nearby and use their wireless networking cards to connect and explore the wonders of the internets on my dime.

I said 'can,' not 'may.' The password is un-freaking-breakable, a study in the un-freaking-crackable.

No one will guess the p@ssw0rd, will they?

Haughty About Haught

Both Pharyngula and Black Sun Journal have thoroughly debunked the tripe and hogwash passing for insights in a Salon magazine interview with theologian John Haught, but I want to zero in on two of Haught's more telling claims:

... the conviction of the Abrahamic religions is that if ultimate reality were not at least personal -- at least capable of everything that humans are capable of -- then we could not surrender ourselves fully to it. It would be an "it" rather than a "thou" and therefore would not reach us in the depth of our being.
To restate that: if reality were not ultimately personal -- it reality were merely an 'it' rather than a 'thou' -- then it would not "reach us in the depth of our being."

And this is reality's problem because ...? Reality -- what's the proper verb here -- must be? ought to be? is? cannot help being? is so constituted by inalterable physical laws as to be? -- capable of reaching John Haught and everyone else in "the depth of our being." Who says? Why? According to what mechanism? What if reality is, either ultimately or in a great many cases, repellent, alien, and inhospitable to "the depth of our being"? Who can we sue for damages? How can we prove our case either way in court? If we do get standing somewhere, and win our case, and collect damages, I would like to be awarded compensation in the form of better hair, the power of flight, and six-hour orgasms.

Which is to say, this is at best a wish about reality, not a description of it that Haught has given a solid reason to believe. I think this is a clear example of what I take to be the cognitive basis for belief in god (cribbing from Daniel Dennett here), namely, a hard-wired tendency to locate intentionality and agency in everything that passes through our senses. The wind shaking a bush, the lightning and thunder, the rising and setting of the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, birth and dying, etc., are irresistably glossed as being or directly evincing a 'thou' rather than a mere 'it' -- there must be a guy with a plan behind such things, lest they fail to make sense, because 'make sense' and 'evince purpose, agency, intention, planning, scheming' are all but indistinguishable to our minds.

It requires a conscious effort not to imagine agency in every 'it.' The tendency serves us well when we're interacting with other humans, which is so much of what we humans are doing, directly or indirectly, at any given time or place -- it makes us constantly alert to the agendas of others and how our own agendas either agree or disagree, fit or fail to fit. The tendency works extremely poorly when it comes to understanding things like weather, chemical interactions, and planetary motions -- or even more mundane objects of human manufacture like microwave ovens, hair styles, computers, and cars. The ocassional desire to curse, crush, or defenestrate such things stems from this same tendency. It is difficult to understand an 'it' on its own terms as an 'it,' but that's what actually understanding it means.

Haught closes the interview with this bit of absurdity:
[Salon]: So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?

[Haught]: If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I'm not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that. Faith means taking the risk of being vulnerable and opening your heart to that which is most important. We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable? Science is simply not equipped to deal with the dimensions of purposefulness, love, compassion, forgiveness -- all the feelings and experiences that accompanied the early community's belief that Jesus is still alive. Science is simply not equipped to deal with that. We have to learn to read the universe at different levels. That means we have to overcome literalism not just in the Christian or Jewish or Islamic interpretations of scripture but also in the scientific exploration of the universe. There are levels of depth in the cosmos that science simply cannot reach by itself.
Speaking as an atheist, nothing would make me happier than for religious believers to "overcome literalism." Haught wants to believe he has done so, and bully for that, but he is deluded twice over if he thinks his rarefied, abstracted conception of god-belief is widely shared. There are alarmingly large numbers of Muslims who believe they'll be given a thick stack of comely virgins if only they'll die for the faith. And the Christian believers who made, for example, the James Ossuary such a mass phenomenon were thinking in quite literal terms about what the relic suggested about the historical veracity of the gospels.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Run, Rick, Run

Ponca City native Rick Fleharty is running for president on a platform of mullets, mustaches, populist nativism, and half-chewed ideas whose expression on his campaign web site illustrate the tragedy that today's software can detect spelling errors but miss elementary blunders of syntax, grammar, and usage. This is verbatim from his musings on 'Collapse of USA':

It is very hard to find a starting place to describe how this country got to where it is at today. It would seem that out fore fathers inadvertently wrote our own self destruction by protecting there own self interest when they wrote our constitution to the United States of America. In the past few decades this country has been missed guided and abused by it own people from the top to the bottom and on both sides. I have noticed over the past decades, every time our leaders try to fix a problem that they started or induced three things always happens. One: they gain more control over you, two: it will cost you more and you get less for your dollar, three: you loose more freedom and have more restrictions on you. History has always said that this country will fall from the inside.
Yes. History has always said exactly that.

In a narrow sense, I don't know Rick Fleharty; in a broader sense, Rick is as familiar as can be, as familiar as a sibling's armpit. He sounds just like any of a thousand hockey-haired adults holding forth in bars, restaurants, drive-throughs, and other public places in Ponca City over the last three decades. I'm pretty sure his piece on 'American Made, intentionally or not, borrows heavily from an argument I overheard between two angry men in the JC Penney men's sportswear department circa 1985: it began as an argument over chili fries but strayed far beyond in both subject matter and intensity.

Don't spare yourself the pleasures of Rick's 'Hear Radio Ads' section, if only to hear how people from Ponca City sound when they're trying to sound sober.

Human Rights & Conservatism

Philosoraptor has posted some musings accusing [American] conservatives of "merely instrumental use of appeals to human rights" and I am unable to think of any counterexamples. Maybe I should count their reasonably consistent record of defending the rights of presumptively Christian blastocysts, or maybe not.

'Tis the Season

The denialism blog calls to mind that it's the season for assorted delusions, a bundle of which can be observed in the tradition of giving precious stones to secure exclusive access to a mate's genitals, or to propitiate for prior transgressions against a genitals-exclusivity agreement.

Human brains are neat! Dolphins have big ones too.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Whatever Works

It seems the Saudi king is going to pardon the woman who was sentenced to jail time and lashings for the "crime" of having been gang-raped. Good. But -- there always seems to be a 'but' in the rare instance when common decency wins out over god-drunk absurdities:

Commenting on the pardon, the Saudi justice minister, Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Sheik, told Al Jazirah that the king fully supported the verdicts against the woman but had decided to pardon her because it was in the “interests of the people.”
Oh, I see. Yes, he certainly wouldn't want to speak ill of the holy justness of the verdict; it's just that a bit of a public relations spat has ensued, you see, and it would be better, in this narrow case, to show some clemency and let the despicable harlot go free ... at least until someone "honor kills" her.

Lesson learned: the next time a woman is gang-raped in Saudi Arabia, make sure the newspapers don't hear about her legal punishment. Lash and imprison her, per the timeless teachings of the Religion of Peace™, but do so on the down-low.

Parenthetically, why do justice ministers get to be named "Mohammed," but not teddy bears? Shouldn't someone be gathering up the stoning stones and sharpening the decapitation sabers? Is there, perhaps, a process through which a person, stuffed animal, pet, automobile, body part, heirloom, turnpike, or everyday object can be "cleared" or "sanctified" or "elevated" or granted a special honor badge whereby it can be made worthy of the name "Mohammed"? I ask because I'm looking to name some rolls of toilet paper.

Well Done, Senator Dodd

Senator Christopher Dodd has stood up, stood against, and stopped (for now) the FISA bill that would have granted immunity to telecommunications companies that participated in the Bush-Cheney junta's illegal wiretapping.

Thank you, Senator Dodd! Keep it up! Democrats should act like Democrats!

Cultural Influence and Truth

The following observations on Christmas and Christian cultural influences are, apparently, controversial in some circles:

For better or worse, ours is historically a Christian culture, and children who grow up ignorant of biblical literature are diminished, unable to take literary allusions, actually impoverished. I am no lover of Christianity, and I loathe the annual orgy of waste and reckless reciprocal spending, but I must say I'd rather wish you "Happy Christmas" than "Happy Holiday Season".
I gather these observations are supposed to be shocking since they came from the pen of world-renowned atheist Richard Dawkins. "It seems that Dawkins now wants to call himself a 'cultural Christian'", sniffs one Christian detractor. I think Dawkins' point is that he is a cultural Christian; whether he would want to call himself one, and whether he would want to be one are separate matters. (I would add: not very interesting matters, and I think Dawkins would agree.)

I don't see the controversy. Christianity has been integral to western culture -- remove Christianity, and countless works of literature, music, and visual arts either vanish or become meaningless. This is simply a fact, and it means that someone ignorant of Christianity cannot be culturally literate. The same can be said of classical mythology -- try making sense of, say, Dante or Milton without any awareness of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, or numerous other classical thinkers. You won't get far.

It does not follow that the tenets and historical claims of Christianity are true, just as Homer's enduring significance does not imply that a warrior named Odysseus really angered a sea god named Poseidon by tricking his one-eyed sons. Baseless myths can and often do reverberate through the centuries.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Bending and Breaking

I will begin by saying I appreciate that the New York Archdiocese is distributing comics that warn kids to be wary of adults and dispense practical advice for avoiding abusive situations. It certainly beats the bad old days when the Catholic Church paired kids with child rapists, turned its back, pretended nothing had happened, and actively blocked efforts to find the truth and hold child rapists accountable (I trust we'll all find out together when those bad old days actually come to a close). Given the world in which we live, I am loath to cavil with anyone or any institution that raises kids' consciousness about sex abuse and how to avoid it.

But cavil I must here. The floating angel's advice -- "a child and an adult shouldn't be alone in a closed room together" -- is valid but incomplete, especially given the source. The Catholic Church has earned the objection that its warnings to children need to explicitly reference priests and other church officials in addition to, over, and above garden-variety adults. It is not obvious to me, and more importantly it would it not be obvious to a child raised with the trappings of the Catholic Church, that adults includes priests. Priests are special. Priests are said to be earthly representatives of Christ himself, endowed with magical powers and penetrating insights not available to ordinary adults. One of the unforgettable lessons of the film Deliver Us From Evil is the profound fracture of trust associated with having been abused by the very individuals whose authority was held sacred (sacred as opposed to merely extraordinary, special, above-average, or the like).

And there lies the dilemma that the Catholic Church has made for itself. The Catholic Church can't promote the idea that priests are, on the one hand, divinely empanelled eminences and, on the other, people who might rape you. You're supposed to be able to enter a closed room with one of Jesus's hand-picked lieutenants without fear that he'll sexually assault you, else the entire Catholic enterprise is a sham.

Since the stakes are awfully high -- child rape is really, really far from trivial -- the Catholic Church should swallow its medicine and revise these comics to warn kids that even priests and other church authorities are capable of abuse. Even the privacy of the confessional should be exposed to the rule of keeping a trusted adult in the line of sight at all times. Even priests -- yes, even they -- must be subjected to doubt.

If such a revision amounts to an implicit admission by the Church that its moral and institutional authority isn't quite as advertised, then so much the worse for the Church. If it can't bend to meet reality-based standards for protecting kids from sexually-abusive adults, then let it break, and if it comes to that, good riddance.

Humanists Galore!

Humanist Symposium #12 is now up at Evanescent -- some great reading to be found there.

If you missed the submissions deadline, no worries -- Humanist Symposium #13 is just around the corner, and will be hosted right here on my precious, precious blog. Look for that on January 6, 2008.

I will abide by the carnival guidelines as I consider posts for the next symposium, but I will be favorably inclined to writings on the theme of conversion -- how you came to be a humanist, conversion or de-conversion experiences you've witnessed or help bring about, what works and what doesn't in the realm of changing minds, etc.

Here is the Humanist Symposium Submission Form, and here is the Humanist Symposium home page and guidelines.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Poem of the Day: "Church Going"

This is a splendid meditation on the places we go, what it means, and what it can no longer mean.

Philip Larkin, "Church Going"

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation -- marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these -- for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

What Is This?

Is this the remains of a real giant or the millings around of two tiny archaeologists?

The answer is here.

Tribalism's Wretched Ideological Spawn

I have long been a student of "conservative" thinking, even if a frequently flummoxed one. The Bush-Cheney junta's embrace of torture provides a fresh example of a "conservative" mode of thought that I've formerly noted in relation to contentious church-state separation cases. Those cases typically feature the aspirations of a conservative majority (actual or perceived) that seeks to use the state to advance, uphold, or privilege its religion's symbols and practices -- e.g., erect a cross in a municipal park, post the ten commandments in the courthouse lobby, recite prayers to Jesus during school assemblies.

While I disagree, I can understand the impulse behind this: it is the desire for the collective form of what Isiah Berlin labeled "positive liberty," the majority's wish to make a society that reflects its priorities and values. But I lose track of the "conservative" thinking that can't (won't?) appreciate the pragmatic counterpoint that they might not always be in the majority.

What if Muslims move in en masse and, asserting their own positive liberty on precisely the same principles, democratically seize the school board and thereafter demand that every school kid pray toward Mecca several times per day, memorize passages from the Koran, wear Muslim garb, etc.? Would that not be fair game under the terms of the assertion of positive liberty?

I know what my reaction to such a development would be -- it would precisely the same as my reaction when Christians make similar demands: No! There is and should be an unimpeachable firewall between religious authority and state power, majorities be damned. Government must be neutral vis-a-vis the religious wishes and claims of the citizens. Period.

I don't know how Christianists would respond to such a development in legal and constitutional terms. I find it amazing that this possibility can be so blithely dismissed. (Have they never heard of Antelope, Oregon and Rajneeshees? Are they not, in other contexts, wringing their hands over Muslim encroachments in Europe?)

I note a blind spot here -- an easy dismissal, an unfounded insistence, a mental lapse, a cognitive lacuna -- preventing them from imagining that they might, in the fullness of time, find themselves on the sharp end of such disputes. I find it hard to relate to this failure of imagination, empathy, and clarity.

Likewise with torture. The Bush-Cheney junta embraces torture, and cheerleaders from across the far-right applaud. The applause suffers no pause even in the face of the possibility that the abandonment of longstanding international law entails -- no, positively invites -- the abuse of US soldiers when, in the fullness of time and varieties of wartime circumstance, they fall into the hands of enemies.

The assumption seems to be that it will never happen, that the USA will avoid that by maintaining military supremacy. It will make damn sure that it deploys such awesome jets, bombs, and Humvees that US soldiers will never find themselves at the mercy of hostile regimes.

Until and unless I receive a better explanation, I can only conclude that such thinking represents nothing deeper than tribalism: "we" are good, and "they" are bad. It tends to be conjoined with magical thinking along the lines that god -- there always seems to be a god attached, tick-like, to these thoughts -- favors "us" and will always do so, because god has already defined "us" and "them" in the very bylaws of his kick-ass cosmic order. End of discussion, end of thought.

This form of thinking is barbaric, cavalier, short-sighted, shallow, cynical, and dangerous. Other than that I have no problem with it.