Saturday, October 25, 2008
Well, the October 23, 2008 edition of the Press features a letter to the editor from a reader named Sandra Plate, who writes:
"I find it very disheartening every Sunday morning while on my way to church to see entire families out on the soccer field instead of worshipping the Lord. If only they knew what they were truly giving up. If your church observes on a Sunday, you should be there. The Bible specifically states that man is to congregate together for worship. It's a commitment to God. The sad truth is that people have gotten so far away from the Lord that they make sports the idol they worship."
Oh, the horror! Families together on a soccer field! And after soccer is over, they probably go to Friendly's for lunch and ice cream. Why we're on the verge of witnessing the complete moral collapse of society!
So, because Sandra Plate chooses to believe that she needs to go to church every Sunday, therefore it becomes incumbent on all of us to be right there in the pews with her. And note how she refers to sports as an "idol they worship." Utterly lost on her are the positive benefits that children can derive from participation in sports. Below are some excerpts from this web page.
Fortunately for parents, as research can attest, exercise and sports are rare institutions that offer tremendous social relationships, physical challenges, and honest competition. There is even evidence that sports can increase a child's self-esteem and academic performance while decreasing the likelihood of disease and drug use.
According to researchers at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, kids that play sports actually do better in school and have enhanced social skills. Sports also help prevent drug and alcohol abuse, and children that participate in sports are less likely to smart smoking and, if they do smoke, are more likely to quit.
The Women's Sports Foundation has also found that females participating in sports are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers and they suffer less depression. Furthermore, there is evidence that athletic activity can decrease the likelihood of developing breast cancer and osteoporosis.
The social benefits are almost too many to count. How can you possibly measure the value and satisfaction derived from working hard and mastering a skill? We've all done it, and the feeling is exhilarating, regardless of age. With sports and exercise, a child has the opportunity to experience this on almost a daily basis. On the same note, proficient skill acquisition allows children to value the accomplishments of their body and mind, making further challenges all the less daunting. These are attributes that simply can't be measured. Neither can developing a sense of community through sports, bonding with new friends and teammates, and improving relationships with adults. Sports also allow children to take on leadership roles, handle adversity, and improve their time management.
But for the Sandra Plates of America, it is more important for people to be cloistered in a building on Sunday mornings to pay homage to her invisible sky daddy. Sorry m'am, but some of us have better things to do with our time.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
In a depressing but eye opening article in Rolling Stone magazine, journalist Nir Rosen writes about the war in Afghanistan and his encounters with the Taliban. Below are some excepts, though I recommend you read the entire article.
Until recently, Ghazni, like much of central Afghanistan, was considered reasonably safe. But now the province, located 100 miles south of the capital, has fallen to the Taliban. Foreigners who venture to Ghazni often wind up kidnapped or killed. In defiance of the central government, the Taliban governor in the province issues separate ID cards and passports for the Taliban regime, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Farmers increasingly turn to the Taliban, not the American-backed authorities, for adjudication of land disputes.
By the time we reach the town of Salar, only 50 miles south of Kabul, we have already passed five tractor-trailers from military convoys that have been destroyed by the Taliban. The highway, newly rebuilt courtesy of $250 million, most of it from U.S. taxpayers, is pocked by immense craters, most of them caused by roadside bombs planted by Taliban fighters. As in Iraq, these improvised explosive devices are a key to the battle against the American invaders and their allies in the Afghan security forces, part of a haphazard but lethal campaign against coalition troops and the long, snaking convoys that provide logistical support.
The numbers tell the story. Attacks on coalition and Afghan forces are up 44 percent since last year, the highest level since the war began. By October, 135 American troops had been killed in Afghanistan this year — already surpassing the total of 117 fatalities for all of 2007. The Taliban are also intensifying their attacks on aid workers: In a particularly brazen assault in August, a group of Taliban fighters opened fire on the car of a U.S. aid group, the International Rescue Committee, killing three Western women and their Afghan driver on the main road to Kabul.
To return to Kabul from a feudal province like Ghazni is to experience a form of time travel. The city is thoroughly modern, for those who can afford it: five-star hotels, shiny new shopping malls and well-guarded restaurants where foreigners eat meals that cost as much as most Afghans make in a month, cooked with ingredients imported from abroad. If you can avoid falling into the sewage canals at every crosswalk, and evade the suicide bombers who occasionally rock the city, you can enjoy the safety of Afghanistan's version of the Green Zone.
But the barbarians are at the gate, and major attacks are getting closer and closer to the city each day. Upon my return to Kabul, I discover that the Taliban have fired rockets at the airport and at the NATO base; the United Nations has been on a four-day curfew; and President Karzai has canceled his public appearances. The city is being slowly but systematically severed from the rest of the country.
Officials on the ground in Afghanistan say it is foolhardy to believe that the Americans can prevail where the Russians failed. At the height of the occupation, the Soviets had 120,000 of their own troops in Afghanistan, buttressed by roughly 300,000 Afghan troops. The Americans and their allies, by contrast, have 65,000 troops on the ground, backed up by only 137,000 Afghan security forces — and they face a Taliban who enjoy the support of a well-funded and highly organized network of Islamic extremists. "The end for the Americans will be just like for the Russians," says a former commander who served in the Taliban government. "The Americans will never succeed in containing the conflict. There will be more bleeding. It's coming to the same situation as it did for the communist forces, who found themselves confined to the provincial capitals."
But if you don't want to take Nir Rosen's word for it, the U.S. State Department's travel advisory page for Afghanistan tells a similarly bleak story:
Kabul, in particular has seen a rise in militant attacks, including rocket attacks, vehicle borne IEDs, and suicide bombings. The number of attacks in the south and southwestern areas of the country continues to be high as a result of insurgent and drug-related activity, but no part of the country is immune from attacks. Over 100 attacks were reported in Kabul over the past year, although many additional attacks were thwarted by Afghan and coalition forces. An additional 4,400 attacks occurred nationwide during the same timeframe.
Foreigners throughout the country continue to be targeted for violent attacks and kidnappings, whether motivated by terrorism or criminal activity. In January, gunmen attacked the Serena Hotel and killed eight people, including an American contractor and a Norwegian journalist. In April, an assassination attempt against Afghan President Karzai showed the continued desire of the insurgency to destabilize the Afghan government. The July 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in downtown Kabul, near many western embassies and Afghan Government institutions, demonstrated the ability of the insurgents to undertake assaults within Kabul itself. Rocket fire and rocket propelled grenade (RPG) attacks have occurred with increasing frequency. In August, three female western non-governmental organization (NGO) employees, along with their male Afghan driver, were gunned down as they traveled south of Kabul. An American NGO worker and her driver were kidnapped in Kandahar in January. Other Americans were kidnapped in Afghanistan in February and August 2008.
In the wake of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, the rationale for invading Afghanistan was clear to the American people. Osama bin Laden and his organization had established themselves there and were sheltered by the Taliban regime. We could not continue to allow them to use the country as a place to train their adherents to launch future attacks against us.
For secular minded people such as myself, the war in Afghanistan had an added rationale. We were appalled at the theocratic intolerance of the Taliban, which included among other things, forcing women to wear burqas and denying them the right to go to school or to work, and the destruction of the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan. This was a war not just against terrorism, but against a regime that to atheists was the very embodiment of the worst excesses of a state ruled by religious fundamentalists. Destroying the Taliban would strike a blow for secularism, pluralism and tolerance, whereas in Iraq, the overthrow of the brutal but secular Baathist regime created a vacuum exploited by Islamic fundamentalists.
Therefore, the deteriorating state of affairs in Afghanistan is doubly troubling to me. Not only have we failed to catch or kill Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, our failure in Afghanistan is providing renewed inspiration for the forces of militant Islamic fundamentalists. It is like the return of a cancer that was in remission and now threatens to metastasize even further.
Honestly, I don't know now if we can win in Afghanistan now. I generally tend to be an optimist, but my optimism is tempered by realism. If we can win in Afghanistan, then we must. I never supported the war in Iraq and look forward to the day we withdraw our forces from there. But I just cannot stomach the prospect of returning Afghanistan to the rule of a group of people inspired by Islamic zealotry. Civilization and enlightenment cannot be allowed to be in retreat.
Addendum: Of course, civilization and enlightenment needs to be advanced here in the United States as well.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
The advertisement is for a conference sponsored by the Forever Family Foundation that is being held in nearby Woodbury on November 8, 2008. The conference purports to be an "extraordinary opportunity to learn about and experience a world beyond this physical experience."
And what exactly does the Forever Family Foundation do? According to the organization's mission statement, its purpose is:
- To establish the existence of the continuity of the family, even though a member has left the physical world
- To stimulate thought among the curious, those questioning their relationship to the universe, and people who are looking for explanations of certain phenomena
- To financially support the continued research into survival of consciousness and Afterlife Science
- To provide a forum where individuals and families who have suffered the loss of a loved one can turn for support, information, and hope through state-of-the-art information and services provided by ongoing research into the survival of consciousness and Afterlife Science
And what is "Afterlife Science"? It is defined as "the study of phenomena associated with survival of consciousness after death; including near death experiences, after death communications, life after life (death), and reincarnation."
First up on the roster of speakers is Dr. Claude Swanson, a physicist and author of the book The Synchronized Universe. Below are some excerpts from the Introduction:
A closer examination of the world’s religions reveals that, beneath the conflict and cacophony of dogma, there are certain universal truths. It is these universal truths which make religion powerful and satisfying to people. They may have different names for these truths, but in each religion, there is prayer and meditation, and these are powerful and healing. In each religion, an afterlife of some form exists, and a soul which survives the death of the body is an article of belief. In every religion there is a belief in superior beings, invisible, but very wise, to whom one can communicate.
There is no place in modern science for a view such as this. Modern science does not allow for the possibility of the soul, or invisible beings, or have any laws of force which can account for the power of prayer. But what if modern science still has a few things to learn? What if present-day physics is leaving out a few important truths about the universe, as well?
Even more dramatic conflicts are seen in the areas of consciousness studies and paranormal effects. "Paranormal" is often viewed as a pejorative term, but it usefully categorizes a broad class of phenomena which defy the present scientific paradigm, and for which there is good scientific evidence.
One of these is "remote viewing". This is a process by which a person goes into a light trance and can describe distant objects or events. It has been demonstrated to be successful in a two-decade program conducted by the U.S. military. Despite public disclaimers that it did not work, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, as we will see in Chapter 1. How it works is a mystery which defies our present understanding of space and time, and of physical laws.
Part of the power of remote viewing is its ability to examine targets which are truly "remote" in space and time. One of the great anomalies of this new science is that time and distance do not seem to matter. The target can be ten feet away or ten thousand miles away. And even more surprising, a target event in the past or in the future can be examined just as easily and accurately as one in the present. The consciousness of the viewer seems able to "go" there with equal ease.
One of my first reactions to Dr. Swanson's claims that the U.S. military has had success in a two decade program with remote viewing was to ask rhetorically "Why haven't they found Osama bin Laden yet?" A surefire way to set off my personal bullshit detector is when someone says that the U.S. government or the U.S. military has these special powers or technologies (e.g., acquired from crashed alien spacecraft) that somehow never seem to translate into any beneficial real world applications.
Next up are Tom and Lisa Butler of The American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena. From their website:
Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) concerns unexpected voices found in recording media. It is a form of after death communication. ITC is a newer term that includes all of the ways these unexpected voices and images are collected through technology, including EVP. Of the many hypotheses designed to explain these phenomena, the Survival Hypothesis has been found to be most effective in answering the evidence.
The Survival Hypothesis holds that we are nonphysical entities who are able to exist in the physical aspect of reality because of our physical body, but that when our physical body dies, we as Self, change our point of view to nonphysical reality. In effect, we exist before and after our current lifetime. The working hypothesis supported by AA-EVP is that these messages are, indeed, nonphysical in origin and that the Survival Hypothesis is essentially correct. It is the goal of AA-EVP and its membership to find ways to improve the reception of these messages and to better understand their origin.
I must confess I have not really read much about EVP, though I understand that the Michael Keaton film "White Noise" is based on this alleged phenomenon. In fact, the ad for the conference mentions that Tom and Lisa Butler served as consultants for the film. Regarding the above-mentioned "Survival Hypothesis," I would have to ask that if we are in fact nonphysical entities, then why do we have physical bodies at all? Since human beings result from a male sperm cell joining with a female egg, from whence does this nonphysicality arise? Is it a product of the union of the sperm cell and the egg? Or, are there nonphysical beings out there waiting to swoop in and take residence whenever a newly formed zygote is created? And are people who are assholes in their physical bodies still assholes in the afterlife?***
Rounding out the morning portion of the conference is a "Research Medium" named Janet Mayer. On her website, she addresses the question how mediums can speak with the dead:
The truth is that each medium has their own unique way of receiving information. Although often they may be similar or seem the same you have to keep in mind each person is unique and so each reading will follow in its own personal pattern. As for me, I am blessed with a visual ability as my strongest connection, which is called Clairvoyance. It is like watching a silent movie or seeing lightning flash in the sky that leaves an imprint in my mind of a loved one's message. I also hear words that sound androgynous every once in a while, which is referred to as clairaudience. And lastly, sometimes I feel pressure that comes into my body or I just feel spirit around me, this is known as Clairsentience.
According to the ad for the conference, Ms. Mayer "will deliver a channeled message from the Yanomami." The Yanomami, for those who may not know, are a tribe that lives in the rainforests of South America. The tribe numbers approximately 32,000 people.
So, will Ms. Mayer be channeling a message from the entire tribe collectively, or one particular individual from the tribe? I mean, it's not like there is going to be a live webcam set up in a Yanomami village so the audience can see which member or members of the tribe she is supposedly channeling. Otherwise, it's not really much more credible than if I were to claim that I was receiving messages from an extraterrestrial living on a planet orbiting a star in the constellation of Orion.
After the morning's enlightening discussions there follows a "Gourmet Luncheon" wherein you can "call upon your deceased loved ones to join you for an afternoon of Spirit Communication conducted by nine Certified Mediums." (Italics mine)
If I had $200 to burn (the cost of the full day package for non-members of the Forever Family Foundation) and enough vacation days left for the remainder of the year (I'm saving them for the week of New Years, because my kids schools will be closed) I might actually consider attending this conference and posing my aforementioned questions to the speakers. Heck, maybe I could have even written an article for Skeptical Inquirer magazine about it. But alas, I will have to pass on this one. However, I would be interested to hear from any of you who might have challenged some of these people and what their responses were.
*** I would like to point out that these questions would be equally applicable to the claims of Christians, Muslims and members of other religions about the concept of the soul.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
First off, from the Gaza Strip:
The black flag of Islamic Jihad was pinned on the wall behind her and two Kalashnikovs were carefully placed in camera shot. Her husband, an Islamic Jihad fighter himself, tied on her "martyr's" headband.
Umm Anas - not her real name - had just graduated from a programme to train female suicide bombers in Gaza.
When she spoke of becoming a suicide bomber, Umm Anas's voice was strong and steady: "This is a gift from God.
"We were created to become martyrs for God," she continued, her eyes burning behind the full face veil.
The use of Palestinian women as suicide bombers was once thought of as immodest - and therefore un-Islamic - but that changed, the militant groups say, because of shortage of male candidates and because women were better able to get close to their targets.
It seems rather paradoxical that Palestinians like Umm Anas are increasingly embracing religious fervor as their plight worsens. These people worship a god that they believe to be all powerful, and yet they have to resort to brainwashing teenage girls to become suicide bombers. If Allah is so powerful, why doesn't he just cause all of the Israeli Jews to spontaneously combust? Face it Palestinian people, Allah is a loser! Want to end your suffering? Embrace Buddhism and non-violence and all of your problems will go away.
For the sake of balance though, I turn to Acre, Israel, where "Jewish youths attacked [an Arab man] after he drove into a conservative area in the east of the town" during Yom Kippur.
Religious Jews fast and refrain from driving on Yom Kippur, regarded the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
An Israeli-Arab mob subsequently rampaged through the streets after the rumour spread that Mr Jamal had been killed.
In the days that followed, crowds of Jews and Israeli Arabs tried to attack each other, and each other's property. At least three Israeli-Arab homes were torched, police said.
I have to confess that I am getting sick and tired of this shit and the negative reverberations that it has worldwide. Sometimes I feel that Israel and the Palestinian territories should just be walled in for ten years. Let the Israelis and Palestinians have one long cage match until either one side or the other is wiped out, with the understanding that the rest of the world has to accept the winner.
Either that, or come to accept the obvious. The Palestinians will never get 100% of all of the land and the Israelis will never get 100% of the land. The only solution where everybody wins is to share 100% of it. And that's all I have to say about that.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
Below are some excerpts, though I recommend you read the entire article.
A study concerning church attendance released by Southern California research company The Barna Group shows that across denominational lines, the percentage of families attending worship once each week has declined from 49 percent in 1991 to 43 percent in 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available.
"Our situation reflects the general trend [regarding the attendance decline]," says Ruth Dunn Widmann, pastor at the Bayport United Methodist Church in Bayport. "There are many reasons, and organized sports is a large one." Widmann makes it clear that she has nothing against sports, saying that they help to promote social connections and a healthy sense of competition. But she is eager to find a balance between the two.
But maybe LI parents are just as happy as their kids are to have a reason to skip services.
"Quite frankly, I'm a parent and I should put my foot down," says Cavallo. "But if there is a call between church and the game, the game comes first." The 44-year-old accountant is not alone in that school of thought. Many of the parents the Press spoke with at weekend games said that between homework, school clubs and sports, there's really no time for church.
"It seems that Mass is frequently losing out to sporting events," says Sean Dolan, spokesperson for the Diocese of Rockville Centre. "People have a priority and it is sports first, Mass second."
"[The Diocese] is not out of touch, we're not suggesting people stay home all day on Sunday, but there has to be a balance, and the Eucharist has to be a central part of Sunday," says Dolan, who adds that after Mass, families should bond, not just run off to a game or a practice.
Everyone from the pastor to the rabbi to the Diocese spokesman seems to agree that Saturday and Sunday mornings should be spent forging relationships with family, in worship. But many parents feel that soccer and football can be just as uplifting as religious services.
"People might look down on me for spending my Sundays on the field, but at least I'm spending time with my kids. You don't need to show up at church or temple to be a good person. It's how you live your life that matters," says Centereach mom Carol Sanchez.
Carol Sanchez is exactly right. You can sense the desperation in the religious figures quoted in the article. "The Eucharist has to be a central part of Sunday." "Saturday and Sunday mornings should be spent forging relationships with family, in worship." (Emphasis mine.) Because these people have deluded themselves into thinking that they have dedicated their lives to serving their sky daddy, they quite naturally need you to need them. Otherwise, their lives are quite wasted, aren't they? They are afraid of ending up like a troupe of actors getting all dressed up to perform a play on stage without an audience.
Sunday, October 05, 2008
There are varying estimates as to how many Christians there are in a country of over one billion people. The Chinese government puts the number at 21 million, whereas unofficial estimates fall between 70 million to 130 million. While the Chinese government's figures are probably far too low, I also have a hard time believing that 1 out of every 10 people in the country is a Christian. It is not inconceivable though for Christians to eventually comprise 10% of the population at some date in the not too distant future.
Some excerpts from the article:
China’s new house churches have the zeal of converts: many members bring their families and co-workers. One Confucian Chinese says with a rueful smile that most of the pretty girls at university were Christians–and would date only other Christians.
Christianity also follows Chinese migration. Many Christians studied in America, converted there and brought their new faith home. Several of the congregation of the Shanghai house church studied abroad, as did Mr Zhao. In 2000, says one Beijing writer and convert, most believers were in the countryside. After 2000 they brought their faith into the cities, spreading Christianity among intellectuals.
All this amounts to something that Europeans, at least, may find surprising. In much of Christianity’s former heartland, religion is associated with tradition and ritual. In China, it is associated with modernity, business and science. “We are first-generation Christians and first-generation businessmen,” says one house-church pastor. In a widely debated article in 2006, Mr Zhao wrote that “the market economy discourages idleness. [But] it cannot discourage people from lying or causing harm. A strong faith discourages dishonesty and injury.” Christianity and the market economy, in his view, go hand in hand.
Is it possible that China will become a Christian nation? Perhaps, though I suspect that if China's long history is any guide, Christianity in China will be sinicized while China is simultaneously Christianized. A variety of self-proclaimed Christian cults might arise that would be just as bizarre to most American Christians as they would be to atheists, not unlike the messianic Hong Xiuquan, whose quest to spread his brand of Christianity led to the Taiping Rebellion and the death of millions of people in the mid-19th century.
I suspect that many atheists in the West would bristle at the thought of a Christian China, especially if its Christianity turned out to be of the Biblical literalist stripe. But does it necessarily have to be a bad thing? After all, the ideals of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries arose in Christian Europe. Or to put it another way, if you were a closet atheist living in Spain during the height of the Inquisition, could you even conceive of the possibility of a country like the United States ever coming into being? What if the spread of Christianity serves as a catalyst to improve China's human rights?
Of course, it is all just speculation for now, though I expect to find out the answers to my questions if I live another 30 or 40 years.
Saturday, October 04, 2008
McCain's appeal warns that "if [Obama wins and] Democrats also retain control of Congress, they would control the entire federal government and would be unstoppable." Yeah, and like you Republicans did such a bang up job during the six years you were running the show. And how exactly would the Democrats be "unstoppable"? Let's pretend that Obama wins the election next month and the Democrats retain control of their majorities in the House and the Senate. There's nothing to stop the American people from voting out the Democrats in the 2010 elections. That's exactly what happened in 1994. And it's not like Bill Clinton got much done when he had a Democratic majority in Congress during his first two years in office. He couldn't even get his wife's health care plan approved.
Well, I'm sorry Senator McCain, but I cannot support your campaign, and my reasons can best be summed up in two words: Sarah Palin. That you would pick as your running mate someone who is woefully unqualified and unprepared to lead this country in the unfortunate event that you would be unable to complete your term of office if elected makes me seriously question your judgment and your commitment to putting the country first. Good luck in your campaign Senator McCain, but you shall have neither my financial support nor my vote on Election Day.
Thursday, October 02, 2008
Sarah Palin intentionally botched her debate with Katie Couric to make everyone underestimate her. But tonight, the Warrior Queen of Alaska will show her true self and make moose meat out of Joe Biden. I'm afraid to watch!
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has detected snow falling from Martian clouds. Spacecraft soil experiments also have provided evidence of past interaction between minerals and liquid water, processes that occur on Earth.
A laser instrument designed to gather knowledge of how the atmosphere and surface interact on Mars has detected snow from clouds about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) above the spacecraft's landing site. Data show the snow vaporizing before reaching the ground.
Sadly, the Phoenix mission will be coming to an end shortly. You can see from the short video at the link above that the sun barely rises above the horizon at the Phoenix landing site near the north pole of Mars.