Friday, December 29, 2006

Random Thoughts

Like many of my fellow Americans, I am saddened by the death of former president Gerald Ford. Perhaps the most important thing about President Ford for me was that he was the first president I remember as a child. Even though I was five years old when Nixon resigned in August of 1974, I do not think I was aware of him. It might be because I had not started kindergarten yet, and did not even know there was such a thing as a president. I do remember being sad when Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.

I was browsing the BBC website a moment ago and came across this interesting little tidbit. Who knew that the UK was still paying back debts it owed to the United States for World War Two?

Also in the news, it looks like we may ring in the New Year with Saddam Hussein's execution by hanging. While I am happy on the one hand that a brutal despot is departing this world, I feared four years ago that Bush's decision to invade Iraq would be one of the worst foreign policy blunders in American history, and I am sorry to see that ensuing events have only served to confirm my fears.

As of today, I have not had time to start on Part 1 of the Chosen People of the Supreme Being Test, which I have tentatively titled "A Whole Lotta Smitin' Goin' On". I hope to draft it over the weekend then post it next week on my lunch break at work when I can add links to various articles, maps and pictures in support.

I also wish to extend to all of you my best wishes for peace, happiness and prosperity in 2007. And for goodness sakes, please do not sign up for a membership at a gym! I look at this way: If you cannot dedicate yourself to regularly exercising and doing simple callisthenics in your own home for a month, then a gym membership will be a waste of time and money.

Have a great weekend and a happy new year!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Why I Turned Away From Christianity - Introduction to Part 1 - The Chosen People of the Supreme Being Test

In my last post, I explained in a general way why I lost my faith in Christianity and came to the conclusion that the God of the Bible does not exist. Beginning with this post, I will go into greater detail the reasons why I rejected Christianity and additional reasons that served to confirm that rejection afterwards.

Those who believe that the Bible represents the revealed truth of the Creator of the Universe believe that the Jewish people were the chosen people of the one true god. The difference between Jews and Christians is that religious Jews today still believe they are God’s chosen people, whereas Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah and that his coming into the world negated Jewish law. But before I proceed, I wish to point out that this post should not be interpreted in anyway as condoning anti-Semitism or rejecting the right of Israel to exist as a state in the Middle East. I simply reject the idea that the Creator of the Universe gave the land of Israel to the Jews.

Anyway, I would submit that if one is going to claim that a group of people represent the chosen people of the one and only Supreme Being who not only created the universe but is also omnipotent and omniscient, then there should be some criteria that these chosen people should be expected to meet. After all, it is not enough to say that the ancient Israelites are God’s chosen people simply because the Bible says so.

So what criteria can we reasonably expect from a nation that has the backing of the most powerful entity in the universe behind it? Let us start by looking at what the Bible itself say. In Genesis 12:2, God tells Abram (later Abraham) “I will make you into a great nation”. In Genesis 17:8, God tells the newly renamed Abraham “The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” Engaging in a brief soliloquy in Genesis 18:18, God says to himself (who was writing this down by the way?) “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.” In Isaiah 49:6, God tells the people of Israel “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” More boastfully in Isaiah 49:23, God tells the Israelites “Kings will be your foster fathers, and their queens will be your nursing mothers. They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground; they will lick the dust at your feet.”

Based on what the Bible tells us, as quoted above, it is an easy thing to examine the historical record to determine if what God tells to Abraham or says of Abraham came to pass. If so, we should reasonably expect the following:

1. The Israelites would be the strongest nation on Earth, unconquered by her neighbors and rarely, if ever, defeated in battle.

2. The Israelites would be more advanced than any other nation on Earth in terms of military technology, scientific and medical knowledge, engineering skills and so forth.

3. The Israelites would influence the culture of her neighbors in areas such as religion, literature, architecture and the arts.

If one’s knowledge of the history of the Middle East is based solely on reading the Bible, it might be understandable to think that everything that happened there several millennia ago revolved entirely around the Israelites. Israel’s neighbors, such as Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon, seem to exist only as external forces that God uses to punish the wayward Israelites rather than as complex and sophisticated civilizations that were superior to the Israelites by any measurable criteria. Christians who believe in every word of the Bible being the literal truth of God make the mistake of looking at ancient history through the lens of the Bible rather than looking at the Bible in its historical context. When one does this, it should become rather obvious that by just about any yardstick, Biblical Israel cannot be considered a great nation when compared with its neighbors. I will attempt to demonstrate this with one post for each of the three criteria in the next few days.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Fatima Candle - Part Two

Since August of 1914, the major powers of Europe had been at war with one another. In Western Europe, Germany had struck the first blow by overrunning Belgium and invading France. French and English troops halted the German advance and the conflict bogged down into trench warfare. In Eastern Europe, Germany and its ally Austria squared off against Tsarist Russia. The war extended against Italy, and in the Caucuses Mountains and the Middle East with the Ottoman Turks. But the scenes of the bloodiest fighting were on the Western Front.

In 1917, Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, conceived a plan for a massive offensive to break the German lines. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was wary of Haig’s plan and the casualties it would inevitable produce. By the spring of 1917, some 250,000 British soldiers had been killed in action. For the sake of comparison, consider how much the American public’s support for the war in Iraq has waned after some 2,900 dead. Adding to Lloyd George’s hesitation, the French army in 1917 had been crippled by mutinies and would be unable to provide much assistance to Haig’s proposed offensive. But while the Virgin Mary was busy speaking to children in the Portuguese countryside in order to further world peace, Lloyd George relented in the face of Haig’s obstinacy. And so the stage was set for one of the bloodiest battles of World War One.

The main objective of Haig’s offensive was to seize the high ground held by the German army in Flanders. In order to overcome the well fortified German positions, Haig relied on massive artillery barrages to smash the German forward positions. As military historian John Keegan describes it in his book “The First World War”, Haig’s “first objectives had been fixed six thousand yards away from the British start line, within supporting field-gun range. Once those had been taken, the artillery was to be moved forward and the process recommenced, until, bit by bit, the German defenses had been chewed through, the enemy’s reserves destroyed, and a way opened to the undefended rear area.”

After fifteen days of bombardment and the firing of FOUR MILLION shells, the Second and Fifth British armies attacked at 3:50 A.M. on July 31, 1917. Writes Keegan, “By late morning…the familiar breakdown of communication between infantry and guns had occurred; cables everywhere were cut, low cloud cover prevented aerial observation” and the only news of the assault “was by runners, who sometimes took hours to get back, if indeed they ever did.”

At two in the afternoon, the Germans counterattacked and beat back the British troops. To add to their misery, in addition to the rain of German artillery shells, the summer rains began to fall and turned the dry earth to mud. The British persisted in their offensive as the rain continued to fall. On August 4, a British artillery commander wrote “The ground is churned up to a depth of ten feet and is the consistency of porridge…the middle of the shell craters are so soft that one might sink out of sight.” In the aftermath of another attack on August 27, a British officer named Edwin Vaughan described how “dozens of men with serious wounds…crawled for safety into new shell holes, and now the water was rising about them, and powerless to move, they were slowly drowning.”

All throughout the summer of 1917, the attacks continued. In September, the British army inched forward bit by bit with their bite and hold strategy. But the Germans adapted to the British tactics. Knowing that massing their troops in the front lines would simply expose them to death from the British artillery, the German general Erich Ludendorff ordered that the forward positions should be thinly manned, with the bulk of the army kept to the rear to counter-attack. Thus a pattern would develop. The British artillery would shell the German forward positions. The British attackers would occupy the German forward positions. The German artillery would then shell the British attackers and the Germans would counter-attack and reoccupy the forward positions.

By mid-October, the British army had been fought-out, and Haig had to rely on the relatively unscathed Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or ANZAC. On October 12, 1917, the ANZAC troops were ordered to take the remains of the town of Passchendaele. Writes Keegan, “Caught in front and flank by machine gun fire, the ANZACs eventually retreated to the positions from which they had started their advance on that sodden day. So wet was the ground that shells from their supporting artillery buried themselves in the mud without exploding, and the New Zealanders alone suffered nearly three thousand casualties in attempting to pass through uncut wire.”

The next day, October 13, the “Miracle of the Sun”, was allegedly witnessed by approximately 70,000 people in Portugal. It would be the last of the Fatima visions. General Haig’s Flanders offensive would continue for another month, coming to an end on November 10, 1917. In considering the arguments pro and con over the offensive, called the Third Battle of Ypres, Keegan writes, “What is unarguable is that nearly seventy thousand of [Haig’s] soldiers had been killed in the muddy wastes of the Ypres battlefield and more than 170,000 wounded. The Germans may have suffered worse - statistical disputes make the argument pointless - but, while the British had given their all, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had another army in Russia with which to begin the war in the West all over again.”

In my two part series on Noah’s Ark, I described God’s unleashing of a destructive flood as punishing humanity the Rube Goldberg way. The Fatima visions could be described as God trying save humanity the Rube Goldberg way. It takes quite a feat of mental compartmentalization for ardent Catholics to believe that the Virgin Mary’s alleged appearance to children in rural Portugal was a beautiful and miraculous event while hundreds of thousands of young men were killed on the battlefield of Flanders. Why didn’t the Virgin Mary appear to General Haig and General Ludendorff, or Lloyd George and Kaiser Wilhelm? Why didn’t the Miracle of the Sun happen over Passchendaele on October 12, thereby potentially saving the lives of thousands of people, rather than dazzling tens of thousands of people a day later in a country far removed from the conflict? A Supreme Being who makes the sun dance around in the sky does not impress me. A Supreme Being who stops the pointless slaughter of tens of thousands of human beings? Now that would be a miracle that deserved remembering with a candle.

The Fatima Candle - Part One

Since I have started this blog, my greatest source of inspiration for topics to write about has been found in my mailbox. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am on the mailing list for lots of conservative and Religious Right organizations like Concerned Women for America and the American Family Association of New York.

But from an atheist perspective, some of the most interesting pieces of mail that comes to my house are addressed not to me, but to my late father, who was a Catholic. He would donate money occasionally to the Association of Marian Helpers, and from there his name and our address ended up on the mailing list for countless Catholic organizations. For about eight months my parents lived with my wife and kids in our house, as they had sold their house during the summer of 2002 and awaited the building of their new apartment in a senior citizen housing development in the Town of Oyster Bay. What we initially expected to be just a couple of months dragged on into the spring of 2003. As a result of their lengthy stay with us, to this day we still get Catholic groups mailing various solicitations to my father at our address.

A few days ago there arrived in our mail box a solicitation from an organization called America Needs Fatima. Inside was a letter from a Robert Ritchie with a small red candle sealed in the upper right corner of the first page. In the letter, Mr. Ritchie asks that the candle be sent back (along with a suitable donation) so that all of the candles that are returned can be melted into one large candle that will be sent to the exact spot in Portugal where three Portuguese children allegedly had visions of the Virgin Mary for some five months in the year 1917.

I had heard of the Fatima visions though did not know the details. So, like any curious person, I decided to read about it on the Internet. I will not recount the story here in detail. In a nutshell, the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to three young Portuguese shepherds once a month from May to October of 1917 and instructed them to do penance and pray the Rosary every day. The visions attracted outside attention and thousands of people began to flock to the Fatima, culminating in what is known as the Miracle of the Sun, in which the sun reportedly radiated various colors and danced around the sky. This fantastical event is said to have been witnessed by upwards of 70,000 people.

Catholics, such as the aforesaid Mr. Ritchie, believe that a miracle occurred at Fatima and he proclaims that “America urgently needs the prophetic messages of Our Lady at Fatima. And that’s why the goal of America Needs Fatima is to win the heart and soul of our nation for Mary by spreading Her glorious Fatima message. Our Lady’s admonitions, requests, and warnings - as witnessed at Fatima - can only serve to help America achieve a clear direction and a great purpose.”

In addition to lighting a great candle at Fatima, Mr. Ritchie hopes to use the proceeds from the money raised to send Mary’s picture to some 2,500,000 homes because “friends, neighbors, and loved ones will view the beautiful photograph of the Virgin Mary and their hearts will be softened.”

Ritchie provides the following as an example of the miracles that can happen from having a picture of the Virgin Mary in one’s home:

“It happened to a lady whose husband beat her, refused to go to confession, and lived openly in sin.

This good lady did everything to get her husband to go to confession. Yet one day, as she again entreated him to go to confession, she gave him a picture of Our Lady.”

The next day, Ritchie reports, the wife beater went to confession. Proof, he claims, of how important it is to have a picture of the Virgin Mary in everyone’s home. Of course, there is no mention of whether or not the remorseful husband reverted to his wife beating ways afterwards.

As a skeptic, I of course deny that the Virgin Mary ever appeared to three Portuguese children in 1917. With respect to the “Miracle of the Sun” allegedly witnessed by some 70,000 people, I do not have the background to explain what could cause such an event. But what I find strange about this so-called miraculous event is that Catholics who believe in the Fatima visions are apparently untroubled that the Virgin Mary would appear to three children in the Portuguese countryside in order to spread her message of peace instead of directly addressing the leaders of the Allied and Central powers that were engaged at the time in the bloody conflict known to us today as World War One.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Hajardous Pilgrimage

I was reading an article in this week's issue of The Economist on the train ride home this evening about the health risks and dangers that befall Muslims who make the pilgrimage, or haj, to Mecca, hence the lame title of this post.

The article notes that "in at least seven of the past 20 years, stampedes have claimed scores of lives." Of course, nothing is likely to top the nearly 1,500 pilgrims who died in a tunnel in 1990.

But getting stampeded to death in Mecca is not the only danger that Muslims face in visiting the holiest site in their religion. The article points out that "one in three pilgrims suffers respiratory symptoms during the pilgrimage, and overcrowding (in tents accomodating up to 100 people) provides ideal conditions for illness to spread. The risk to families of pilgrims was highlighted by a study in Malaysia, published in 2002: among people sharing a house with a returning pilgrim, about 8% were carrying traces of the bacteria associated with meningitis."

It is evidence such as this that has caused some to worry that a global flu epidemic could potentially be triggered by people returning from the haj.

Atheists rightfully decry the danger posed by religious fanatics who commit murder with righteous certainty, but as the article in The Economist reveals, simply fulfilling one's religious obligations could be potentially more dangerous to humanity than all of the suicide bombers in the world.

Frank Russo Gets Spanked

One of my first posts on this blog was about Frank Russo, President of the American Family Association of New York, dedicated homophobe and self appointed morality tsar of Long Island.

Mr. Russo had a letter to the editor published in Newsday last week in response to a small article Newsday ran about the announcement by Vice President Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter that she was pregnant. The article mentioned that "conservative activists consider homosexuality a sin." Russo wrote Newsday to clarify that conservative activists such as himself "do not view homosexuality (the homosexual orientation or inclination) as a sin, but rather as a disorder." How kind of him.

Russo went on to state that he viewed homosexuality the same way that he viewed alcoholism. According to Russo, "homosexual acts are objectively sinful, just as is drunkenness."

I was sufficiently incensed by what Russo wrote to e-mail my own letter to the editor of Newsday in response. Since Newsday considers letters sent to them as their property, I will not repeat it in its entirety here. The three main points I made were (1) "there is a vast difference between two people of the same gender in a relationship who spend some intimate moments together in the privacy of their home and a person who becomes inebriated from alcohol and gets behind the wheel of a car", (2) "what if an objective review of the evidence and the facts determines that the holy book that Mr. Russo and other religious conservatives use to base their judgment about gays does not actually represent the inerrant truth of some supreme being?", and (3) how does "the integrity of my marriage and family depend upon denying gays the same rights that I have?" I also made a jibe at Russo and other activists who set up organizations with words like "Family" and "Traditional Values" in their names and think it gives them the right to pontificate on matters or morality.

When I checked the Letters section on Newsday's web site today, my letter was not as yet published. However, I was pleased to see that Newsday ran no less than four letters from readers who took issue with Mr. Russo. Many of them echoed my points.
Below are my favorite quotes from the published letters.

Peter Miller of Westbury, in prose dripping with sarcasm, wrote "In every area of my house, I am disordered until I cross the magic threshold of my bedroom with a friend, then I'm a sinner. In my bathroom, kitchen, living room I am disordered. There's a sofa in my living room. On that sofa I'm a sinner. But, when I'm sitting on my recliner, watching a "Seinfeld" rerun, I'm just disordered. I'm disordered while driving my car in the front seat, but a sinner in the backseat."

But the slam dunk goes to Maurice Simon of Mastic Beach, who wrote "I am a decorated combat Vietnam veteran, retired health care professional, law-biding, tax-paying citizen of this great state and country and a gay man. The only sin or disorder that I see is the religious hate and segregation toward gay people in the name of God."

Of course, none of this is likely to change the way Frank Russo thinks about gays. But that is not the point. The readers of Newsday who are more likely to be open minded about such things need to see Russo's comments rebutted. While I wish that my letter had been one of the ones that was published (and there is a chance it still might), as long as the message gets put out there by people of good will, that is what matters the most.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Why I Turned Away From Christianity - The Walls Come Tumbling Down

Several months ago, I ordered a bumper sticker from that reads “I’ve read the Bible. That’s WHY I’m an ATHEIST.” Thus far I have not been brave enough to put the sticker on the bumper of my car, as I dread the prospect of having the sides of my car keyed or finding handwritten notes left underneath my windshield wipers admonishing me for rejecting God and corrupting the impressionable youth of suburban Long Island.

It is a bit of an oversimplification to say that reading the Bible turned me into an atheist, though it certainly was an important factor. As I mentioned in the introductory post to this series, I did read the Bible from Genesis 1 through Revelations 22 three times in a row, and I read different parts of the Bible numerous times apart from that.

I don’t recall the precise moment when I began to have my doubts about Christianity, though I believe it began some time during my first semester at Nassau Community College in the fall of 1987. And before any theists reading this roll their eyes and mutter about atheist liberal college professors turning another decent and God fearing young man away from the Lord, the change in my thinking about Christianity was not inspired by any of my professors. In fact, I don’t recall any of my instructors during my first semester of college being conspicuously liberal at all. Rather, I would say that I started to look at the Catholic Church and read the Bible with a critical eye instead of with blind faith and devotion.

If memory serves, it was my disillusionment with Catholicism that came first. I found it absurd that in the late 20th century the Church still did not allow women to be priests. “Why?”, I wondered. Isn’t the truth the truth whether it comes from the mouth of a woman as well as a man? I felt the same way about allowing priests to be married. Church masses became mechanistic exercises of stand, sit, kneel, stand, sit, stand, kneel, utterly devoid of any true spirituality to me. I began to see the Church for what it was, an institution created by men that set itself up as being a necessary intermediary between the human and the divine. Even worse, the Church acquired the means to enforce its religious monopoly by coercion and terror. I stopped attending mass on Sundays, which became difficult anyway, as my job as a stock clerk in Sears at the time often required me to work on Sunday.

It was not long after that when I realized that the God of the Bible, or at least of the Old Testament, did not comport with my idea of a just, compassionate and fair deity. Rather, the God of the Israelites displayed characteristics that were typical of a cruel, capricious and oppressive monarch. This deity worshipped by so many people as the all powerful creator of the universe struck me as being rather small and mean.

As someone who was always fascinated at an early age by astronomy (as early as the third grade I devoured all of the books in my elementary school about the solar system), I was always consciously aware of our planet Earth being one planet in one solar system in a galaxy filled with millions of planets and stars that in itself is just one galaxy in an infinite universe filled with galaxies. I thought to myself, would a god create this vast and complex universe filled with planets, stars, galaxies, quasars, comets and other celestial bodies and then proceed to behave as the personal tribal deity to just one small group of people on Earth? The only answer I could come up with was “no.”

Around the same time I was reading the Bible from a critical thinking perspective, I was also reading “The Outline of History” by H.G. Wells. From elementary school onward, an even greater fascination for me than astronomy was history. And Wells’ “Outline” was and remains a great introduction to the grand sweep of history and the forces that shaped it from the dawn of time to the end of the second World War.

Wells devotes a chapter of his masterfully written work to “The Hebrew Scriptures and the Prophets.” In reading this chapter, a number of things had a profound impact on my thinking.

First off, Wells noted the similarity between the story of Moses and that of the Sumerian king Sargon I, whose mother by his account, placed him in “a basked of reeds, she shut up the mouth of it with bitumen, she abandoned me to the river, which did not overwhelm me.” Furthermore, Egypt had no records of a man called Moses, the Ten Plagues, and Pharaoh’s chariots being drowned in the Red Sea. I know that some apologists for the Bible will argue that the Egyptians simply chose to cover up an embarrassing moment in their history, but the truth is, such a monumental disaster cannot be covered up. If such calamities had really befallen the Egyptian kingdom, it would have been impossible to sweep under the rug, The archaeological record would show a sudden and rapid contraction of Egyptian power and influence in the region, because a kingdom that endured such disasters would be fatally crippled. But the historical record tells us that Egypt’s decline did not become evident until the 12th century B.C., after the reign of Rameses III.

Wells writes that David’s story, “with its constant assassinations and executions, reads rather like the history of some savage chief rather than of a civilized monarch.” His last words in the Bible have him telling his son Solomon to kill Shimei, because David’s oath to not harm Shimei did not apply to Solomon. As for Solomon’s reign, Wells observes that “for [Solomon‘s] wisdom and statecraft, one need not go farther than the Bible to see that Solomon was a mere helper in the wide-reaching schemes of the [Phoenician] trader-king Hiram, and his kingdom a pawn between Phoenicia and Egypt His importance was due largely to the temporary enfeeblement of Egypt.”

On the Babylonian Captivity, Wells writes “The plain fact of the Biblical narrative is that the Jews went to Babylon barbarians and came back civilized. They went a confused and divided multitude, with no national self-consciousness; they came back with an intense and exclusive national spirit.”

From all of this, I could only draw one conclusion, the Hebrews were not really the chosen people of a universal Supreme Being, but rather a collection of tribes whose priesthood propounded such a doctrine in order to give a fractious people a sense of cohesion and unity. After all, when you have been conquered repeatedly and dragged away from your homeland, what better way to make you feel better about yourself than to believe that there is only one True God who created the Universe and that this God will protect you when you are righteous and cause you misfortune when you stray from his laws?

Once this all sunk into my consciousness, the Old Testament became discredited in my eyes. And once it became clearly absurd to believe that the Hebrews were the chosen people of some Supreme Being, then the foundations were knocked out from underneath the New Testament. Jesus is presented as being a descendant of King David and being in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, but if the Hebrews were not some special chosen people of God, as clearly shown by the historical record, then Jesus was not the son of God. As an aside, with all of the debates and back and forth between skeptics and Christians over the existence and alleged divinity of Jesus, I have always been curious why skeptics did not focus on this aspect of the debate. We can argue until we are blue in the face about the empty tomb, or the Virgin Birth or the veracity of the Gospels. To me, this is like trying to knock down the castle gate with a battering ram, when all you need do is tunnel underneath the wall and cause it to collapse.

To be honest, I did still try to remain a Christian for a while. After all, when you have invested so much of yourself into believing a particular doctrine or faith, it is hard to accept right away that it was a all a waste. I attended Easter Mass in the spring of 1988 in one last attempt to try to overcome my doubts with a renewed sense of faith, but as I stood and sat amongst the other parishioners in the Church, I knew it was over. The Catholic Church, and Christianity in general, no longer held any meaning for me. I remember my father coming to my room one day, I can’t remember if it was that same year or the year afterwards, to give me a Palm Cross to hang on the wall in my room. I told him that I did not want it. He look baffled, and said, “It was blessed by a priest.” I do not remember the exact words of my reply, but it was delivered in the spirit of a “yeah, so what?”.

While I had ceased to consider myself a Christian by Easter of 1988, I was not yet ready to let go of a belief in the divine. In fact, for a time, my belief in a God was strengthened because I saw all religion, whether it be Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and all of their various sects and denominations as being barriers between the unity of the individual and the divine. But that is a story for another time.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Tell of Us All

Those of us who accept the evidence for evolution and an Earth that has existed for approximately 4.5 billion years find it frustrating when we debate Biblical Literalists who insist that the Book of Genesis is literally true and that the Bible authoritatively tells us that the Earth is at best no more than 6,000 years old. But the dogmatism that seeks to thwart the advancement of our understanding of the world is not limited to those who try to foist creationism in our schools.

The National Geographic Society, in partnership with IBM, geneticist Spencer Wells, and the Waitt Family Foundation, have launched the Genographic Project. The goal of the project is to collect genetic information from indigenous populations around the world in an attempt to determine where we came from and how we got to where we live today.

As the website for the Project explains:

“The fossil record fixes human origins in Africa, but little is known about the great journey that took Homo sapiens to the far reaches of the Earth. How did we, each of us, end up where we are? Why do we appear in such a wide array of different colors and features?

Such questions are even more amazing in light of genetic evidence that we are all related—descended from a common African ancestor who lived only 60,000 years ago.

Though eons have passed, the full story remains clearly written in our genes—if only we can read it. With your help, we can.

When DNA is passed from one generation to the next, most of it is recombined by the processes that give each of us our individuality.

But some parts of the DNA chain remain largely intact through the generations, altered only occasionally by mutations which become "genetic markers." These markers allow geneticists like Spencer Wells to trace our common evolutionary timeline back through the ages.

"The greatest history book ever written," Wells says, "is the one hidden in our DNA."
Different populations carry distinct markers. Following them through the generations reveals a genetic tree on which today's many diverse branches may be followed ever backward to their common African root.

Our genes allow us to chart the ancient human migrations from Africa across the continents. Through one path, we can see living evidence of an ancient African trek, through India, to populate even isolated Australia.”

Unfortunately, not all indigenous peoples are inclined to cooperate with the Genographic Project, as an article in The New York Times tells us, particularly Native American tribes.

And what is the objection given by members of these tribes?

“What the scientists are trying to prove is that we’re the same as the Pilgrims except we came over several thousand years before,” said Maurice Foxx, chairman of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs and a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag. “Why should we give them that openly?”

“Some American Indians trace their suspicions to the experience of the Havasupai Tribe, whose members gave DNA for a diabetes study that University of Arizona researchers later used to link the tribe’s ancestors to Asia. To tribe members raised to believe the Grand Canyon is humanity’s birthplace, the suggestion that their own DNA says otherwise was deeply disturbing.”

In other words, to paraphrase Colonel Nathan Jessup, “They can’t handle the truth!”

American Indians, as the Times article explains, “hold the answer to one of the more notable gaps in the prehistoric migration map. Although most scientists accept that the first Americans came across the Bering Strait land bridge that connected Siberia and Alaska some 20,000 years ago, there is no proof of precisely where those travelers came from, and the route they took south once they arrived.”

It is really sad that Native Americans are refusing to participate in a project that can shed so much light on our past because they place greater value in perpetuating their myths than in learning the truth of their origins.

After I read the Times article, I thought of the Mel Gibson movie Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. At the end of the movie, the character Savannah Nix is giving “the tell” to a group of human survivors who have returned to Sydney, Australia in the years after the nuclear war that devastated the world.

She says, “This you knows: the years travel fast and time after time I done the tell. But this ain't one body's tell; it's the tell of us all, and you've got to listen it and [re]'member, 'cause what you hears today you gotta tell the birthed tomorrow… Still, in all, every night we does the tell so that we 'member who we was and where we came from.”

I believe the Genographic Project is very important and valuable, because indeed it is “the tell of us all.”

Friday, December 08, 2006

One Big Reason I Am Glad to Live in the United States

I was doing some Internet surfing before getting ready to leave work for home, and came across this article on the BBC's web site about the Sharia police in Aceh on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.

My favorite was the quote from the leader of the Sharia patrol about the married couple they confronted, "We reminded them that you're not allowed to do this... even though they were actually husband and wife. This is a public place and it stirs up socially jealousy - people don't know they're husband and wife, so they're not allowed to do it."

As much as atheists, including myself, decry the influence of the Religious Right here in America, I am thankful that I live in a country where I have the right to kiss my beautiful wife in public. If I lived in Indonesia though, I couldn't think of a better way to conduct an act of disobedience than to have a mass public smooch session. Just imagine thousands of couples gathering in a public square and locking lips for a good five minutes.

While I don't want to wish natural disasters on anybody, why couldn't that tsunami have washed away these Sharia police busybodies? How about this you fundamentalist assholes, the next time you see a couple holding hands and making out, assume they are married and go find something more valuable to do with your time.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Potty Trained At Last!

For parents, one of the most important milestones in their lives and the lives of their children is when their kids become potty trained.

It is a moment of supreme liberation. No more wiping buttcracks and crevices free of compressed and smeared kiddie poo. No more emptying the Diaper Genie® and filling up the garbage pail outside with a long string of diaper filled plastic resembling a python that swallowed a dozen or so softballs in a row. And the best part of it all is the money that is saved from no longer having to buy diapers.

That is why I am thrilled that my daughter Kelly, who will be four this coming February, has finally and officially become toilet trained. In the past, there have been false starts and disappointments, but it has been over a week now, and Kelly has been pretty consistent. Tonight was a true turning point though, as she made three bombing runs in the toilet.

My son Andrew fell into line when he was three years and three months old. My wife and I told him on Labor Day weekend of 2004 that from now on he would be wearing underpants instead of diapers during the daytime, so if he didn't go to the potty, he would get his underpants wet or soiled. After months of trying to get him to make the leap, he was actually pretty cooperative, and apart from the occasional accident, he made the transition rather seamlessly.

We expected that Kelly would become toilet trained even sooner than Andrew because she is in many ways more advanced than Andrew was when he was her age. She is very assertive and fiercely independent. She will have a major hissy fit when we try to do things for her, like open up a bag of snacks or putting her jacket on for her. Kelly takes tremendous pride in being able to do things by herself, which while an admirable trait, can also be very frustrating when I have to get her to daycare so I can catch the next train to work, and I have to wait for her to struggle with the zipper. It's not for nothing that I call her the Baby Diva. Therefore, my wife and I assumed that she would become toilet trained much earlier than Andrew. Alas, it did not turn out that way. Nothing we did seemed to work, whether we wielded the carrot or the stick. When Kelly was around the same age that Andrew became toilet trained, we tried the underwear trick with her, which only resulted in us going through almost her entire supply of underwear in a day as she proceeded to wet herself four times in the span of a single afternoon.

Based on my experience with my two children, I have learned that kids become toilet trained based on their own inner motivations, regardless of how much we cajole or prod them. At some point during their childhood, they decide that they are finally ready to take that next step.

I am especially glad because when we all flew to the Philippines in the summer of 2004 for my wife's sister's wedding, my wife and I had to suffer with changing the diapers of a 3 year old and a 14 month old in the cramped bathroom of a 747. It is not a pleasant task, and by the time we were on the flight back home a little over a week later, I got to the point where I would just stand my kids up, take the old diaper off and slap the new one on right there in their seats. Now, when we go on our next planned trip to the Philippines in late June of 2007, it will be a diaper free journey.

Over the course of some five years of diaper changing, I had become quite the connoiseur of kiddie-poo. I had seen it all and came up with my own classifications for the different kinds of poop I encountered. The best and easiest, I found, were what I called "asteroids." Those were the large, dry and generally round shaped poops that left the kids' butts relatively clean and required little wiping. Then there were the "Milk Duds", which were also dry, but came out in little bits resembling the aforementioned candy sold in most movie theaters in America. The worst thing about them was that sometimes some of them spilled out of the diaper as I tried to roll it up. Progressively worse were the "chocolate frosting" and the "Grey Poupon", both of which were soft and found there way into virtually every crevice and which required the use of many wipes to clean up. The last category, which was more common during infancy, was the dreaded "minestrone soup", which consisted of lots of undigested pieces of vegetables mixed in a clear liquid. I really hated having to clean that up.

But now, thankfully, it is all just a memory. Now I eagerly look forward to the halcyon days, where the kids can go to the bathroom by themselves and are low maintenance. From preschool through the early elementary school years is a time where children are not yet pressured by a conformist peer culture to embrace raunchy music, the latest trashy fashion rage, and the temptations of cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and sex. I believe it is these years that are a critical window for instilling in children positive values, in encouraging a love of learning and experiences to broaden their minds, and to establish a bond of trust and affection in preparation for the trials and tribulations of adolescence to come.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Why I Turned Away from Christianity - Introduction

It seems obligatory for every atheist blogger, at least everyone who was formerly religious, to do a post explaining why they came to reject religion and become an atheist. So it is only fitting that I describe my journey from belief to disbelief in a series of posts to come hopefully over the course of the next week or so. Fellow atheists who read these posts may recognize milestones or points of commonality in their own path to deconversion, while theists might at least gain some understanding as to why someone would turn away from believing in something that they believe is so vitally important and necessary.

Before I can discuss why I became an atheist, I must first start off with what I was before that. I was baptized and raised as a Catholic, which was the religion of my father. Like all good Irish Catholics, he dutifully attended mass every Sunday and he made me and my two brothers do the same. My dad would drop my brothers and I off at the church for the late morning mass at Holy Family Church, as he always went to one of the earlier services, and my brothers would hang out in the back of the church and not participate in the mass. Sometimes, they would even duck out of church for awhile to smoke cigarettes and maybe even make a run to the nearby 7-11 and come back before dad came by to pick us up.

In addition to mass every Sunday, I also had to attend catechism classes on Saturday mornings. I did not mind that as much as mass, as I got to be in a classroom with other kids my age and more often than not, the cathechism teachers were not all that serious. Like every child in a Catholic family, my life in the church was marked by events like first Holy Communion and Confirmation. But for my elementary school and most of my junior high school years, my religion was more of an obligation than an actual part of my daily life. And while my dad went to mass every Sunday, I don't recall him ever reading the Bible in his free time. Looking back, I get the sense that he went to church because it was drilled into him from childhood that it was just the way things were supposed to be. My mom, on the other hand, was not a Catholic or particularly religious, though I do recall she had some kind of born again phase when I was about five. I don't remember what kind of church it was, but I remember being there when she had one of those baptisms where you get completely dunked in a tank of water.

It was in the middle of 9th grade when I actually began to incorporate my religion into my life and try to model my life as a Christian. I was attending a mass around New Years Day of 1984, and the priest was talking about using the New Year to rededicating ourselves to our faith. I don't remember his exact words, but that was the gist of it, and I remember being moved by what he said. I resolved that I would dedicate myself to my faith. I still went to church every Sunday, just like I always had before, but from then on I went because I actually wanted to go. My dad didn't even have to drive me there anymore. Oftentimes I would walk or ride my bike there. I challenged myself to read the Bible in its entirety for the first time, and proceeded to do so. I ended up reading the Bible from start to finish three times in a row. I'm embarrassed to say that I even went so far as to take my Bible to bed with me at night, as if having it close to me would cloak me in divine benevolence while I slept. I was outspoken about my faith to my friends at the time, and much to their annoyance, when we played Risk, I would even refer to my army as God's army.

While the intensity of my faith nowhere reached the level of born again evangelicals, for a suburban teenager, I took my religion pretty seriously. And my faith remained rock solid throughout the remainder of my years in public school (so much for public schools promoting "godlessness" in children!). As far as I knew at the time, I took it for granted that I would believe in the Bible and be a Catholic for the rest of my life. But as the summer of 1987 drew to a close and my first year of college was about to start, little did I expect that what I believed to be a faith as solid as granite would soon begin to erode and crumble.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Dawkins on Nazism

This post is in response to the ruckus in the comments section of my "Give the Gift of Life" post regarding whether Richard Dawkins is arguing in favor of a Nazi style eugenics program.

For an interesting take on the controversy, please check out Orac's commentary at his blog Respectful Insolence.

As for what Dawkins believes about Hitler and Nazi eugenics, I have almost finished reading "The God Delusion" (I'm a very fast reader) and here is what he writes about it:

"Stalin and Hitler did extremely evil things, in the name of, respectively, dogmatic and doctrinaire Marxism, and an insane and unscientific eugenics theory tinged with sub-Wagnerian ravings."

It is quite clear then what Dawkins thinks about Nazi eugenics. "Insane" and "unscientific". It does not leave any room for ambiguity. What he meant quite clearly in his remarks that have caused this controversy is that the spectre of Nazism prevents meaningful discussion about eugenics itself. Therefore, anyone who argues that Dawkins is in favor or sympathetic to Nazi eugenics is either willfully ignorant or intellectually dishonest.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The 500 Year Old Virgin

As a corollary to the Punishing Humanity the Rube Goldberg Way series, I wanted to do a post about the central character of the Flood Story, old man Noah himself, so here we go.

The Book of Genesis tells us that Noah's father Lamech was 182 years old when Noah was born. But poor Noah didn't become a daddy himself until he hit the ripe age of 500. Given what we know about God's displeasure with premarital sex, there can only be one of two possibilities for Noah. Either he was trying to impregnate his wife for centuries without success, or he was a virgin until his 500th year. Given that Genesis tells us Noah fathered three sons between his 500th and 600th years, the latter possibility would be the more likely one.

When you think about the fact that most guys can't get past their teenage years without getting laid, even if they have to resort to desperate measures like getting the fattest girl in school passed out drunk at a keg party, Noah's 500 years of virginity is truly an astounding feat. One might ponder whether or not Noah availed himself of any farm animals to help him get by, but the Bible clearly tells us that God found favor with Noah, and we know how God feels about sex with animals, so Noah must be innocent on that account too.

Since Biblical literalists believe that people who lived before the Flood really did have life spans many times longer than present day humans, I think we need to ponder the implications of that. The typical American lives to be about 75 years old, having entered the labor force in his or her late teens and retiring around the age of 65. Now take that same American and extend his or her life span to 900 years. If you have a job right now, whether it be a grocery store clerk, a plumber, a school teacher, a lawyer, a doctor, a postal carrier, or a farmer, just imagine being consigned to a life where you work that same job for century after century. Or how about being a housewife for 800 years! Imagine being married to the same person for 800 years and having to be badgered by your meddling parents for centuries on end. Even the most loving of couples and families are bound to get sick of each other eventually.

Noah, so we are told in Genesis 6:9, "was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God." The Bible does not give us any examples of what made Noah such a righteous brother, so we are expected to take the Bible at its word. What we also know about Noah from Genesis 5:30 is that he had brothers and sisters, though no number is provided.

Now many of us either have or know of people who have siblings that are, to put it delicately, not exactly the most shining examples of human decency. I myself have two older brothers whose character and conduct in life have left and continue to leave much to be desired. Nevertheless, they are our family and most of us try to love our siblings in spite of their flaws. Now if some disembodied voice from the heavens called down to me and told me that he was going to wipe out all of humanity except for me, my wife, my kids and their spouses, I would vehemently protest such a thing, and would demand that I be able to take the rest of my family with me if I could not convince this deity to cease his madness. And if this would be Supreme Being did not accomodate me, then I would absolutely refuse to build the ark and I would challenge this God to kill me and my family along with the rest of the human race.

But what does Noah do when God announces his intention to destroy all life on the Earth save Noah's immediate family and two of every animal? Does he try to speak out in defence of humanity? Does he make a plea on behalf of his brothers and sisters? After all, are we to believe that every single person on the planet, including all of Noah's brothers and sisters, were wicked and evil people who deserved to die? All that Genesis tells us is that "Noah did everything just as God commanded him."

One of the first things that Noah does after leaving the ark according to Genesis 9:20, was to plant a vineyard. He then proceeds to get drunk as a skunk and passes out naked. His son Ham happens to find him in this state, and evidently concerned (he by account being the youngest of the three sons) informed his older brothers Shem and Japheth. The two elder brothers proceed to cover their naked father. In a normal world, that would have been the end of the story. But not so with Righteous Noah. In a fit of rage, he curses Ham's youngest son Canaan, who was not even involved in the incident.

So let's do the tally here. Noah is described as being a righteous man, but he does not utter a word of protest when God tells him that his brothers and sisters will die in a flood, and he curses a child who caused him no offense because of his own poor judgment in getting drunk. And what is the big deal about being seen naked anyway? God gets mad at Adam and Eve because they had covered themselves instead of going about naked, yet seeing Noah naked is seen as legitimating the cursing of a blameless child and his descendants. Yep, that sounds fair to me. After cursing Canaan, all that we are told of Noah is that he lived for 350 years after the Flood and that he was 950 years young when he finally kicked the bucket. Well, you know what they say, once you've hit your 600th birthday, it's all downhill from there!

As an aside, the drunken Noah story, like the Tower of Babel story, seems like a later interpolation. If you take out the drunken Noah section, and make Genesis 9:28 immediately follow 9:17, the story has a smoother narrative flow. It is almost as if Hebrew priests felt they had to insert into Genesis a few lines of text to provide some sort of theological justification for their conquest of Canaanite lands. It wouldn't be the first time someone tried to alter the past to justify the actions of the present.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Punishing Humanity the Rube Goldberg Way - Part 2

When last we left Noah and the gang, they were shut in the ark as the rains began to fall for forty days and nights, and the ark found itself floating on the waters.

So here is the situation. A 600 year old man, his wife, his three sons and three daughters in-law are stuck in a huge wooden vessel with “every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind, everything with wings.”

Now for those who hew to a literal reading of the book of Genesis, it is important to grasp the implications of the above paragraph. Here is a partial list of animals alone, in no particular order: sheep, goats, camels, bears, cows, pigs, buffalo, horses, llamas, alpacas, lions, tigers, gazelles, dogs, moose, giraffes, leopards, pumas, gorillas, chimpanzees, lemurs, bonobos, monkeys, orangutans, tarsiers, bear cats, cats, wolves, foxes, elephants, squirrels, koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, wildebeests, Tasmanian devils, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, swans, rhinos, hippos, pandas, lemurs, baboons, hyenas, hartebeests, impalas, warthogs, waterbucks, zebras, walruses, seals, sea lions, otters, yaks, rabbits, hedgehogs, armadillos, ocelots, deer, chipmunks, skunks, gibbons, possums, raccoons, ibex, platypus, sloths, rats, hamsters, gerbils, weasels, mongooses, porcupines, chinchillas, guinea pigs, shrews, moles, bandicoots, coyotes, jaguars, turtles, penguins, alligators, crocodiles, monitors, komodo dragons, chameleons, pythons, anacondas, cobras, salamanders, toads, frogs, bats, emus, ostriches, peacocks, ducks, owls, vultures, seagulls, hawks, eagles, canaries, parrots, geese, flamingoes, beavers, macaws, toucans, condors, tapirs, caribou, lynx, voles, rams, antelope, anteaters, boa constrictors, cougars, caimans, panthers, javelinas, kinkajous, peccaries, pronghorns, woodpeckers, cheetahs, lemmings, falcons, wolverines, musk ox, aye-ayes, bongos, ferrets, gnus, groundhogs, okapi, oryxes, pangolins, numbats, quolls, sugar gliders, Tasmanian tigers, dinornis, cassowaries, moas, kiwis, tuataras, and so on and so on. I have not even touched on insects yet.

But just from this list alone, the skeptic draws the conclusion that it would have been impossible for a mere eight people to have fed all of these animals. We are talking about a logistical nightmare here. Even if Noah and his family did not eat or sleep during the entire time they spent in the ark, there were still not enough of them to attend to the animals. But even if they did by some miracle have the means to do so, they would have been utterly ignorant as to the special dietary needs of many of these animals. Some were carnivorous, such as the lions and the tigers. Others were herbivores and ate only certain kinds of leaves. For instance, as mentioned in Part 1, koalas only eat leaves from the eucalyptus tree which is native to Australia. And some animals eat only insects. Since the majority of these animals were surely unfamiliar to Noah, how would he have known what kind of food each animal ate?

Those who insist on adhering to a literal belief in the book of Genesis will try to find ways to get around such inconvenient facts. For instance, some argue that God caused the animals to go into a state of hibernation so that they did not need to eat during the time they were cooped up in the ark. But after God tells Noah in Genesis 6: 18-20 the people and animals he is to take with him on the ark, God commands him in Genesis 6:21 to “take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and them.” This strongly implies that the food to be stored on the ark is not only for the people, but for the animals as well. Furthermore, if God caused the animals to sleep during the flood, it is likely that it would have been mentioned in Genesis. For example, in Chapter 2 of Genesis, when God creates Eve, it clearly reads “God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep.” If the animals of the ark were in a state of hibernation, we can be pretty sure there would have been a line somewhere in the Noah’s Ark tale along the lines of “And God caused the animals and birds on the ark to fall into a sleep so that they would not go hungry.” Therefore, we must conclude that the animals were not in a state of hibernation during their time on the ark and that they would have required enormous amounts of food and fresh water to sustain them.

The second problem that skeptics of the tale will bring up naturally follows from the first. The sheer amount of excrement and urine on the ark would have been enormous. Noah and his family, in addition to struggling to feed all of the animals of the ark, would have been overwhelmed by the task of disposing of their bodily wastes, assuming they did not pass out from the stench. In addition to the smell, the ark would have been a breeding ground for disease and sickness that would have caused an epidemic of death and illness on the vessel. To get a sample of what it is like to be on an oceangoing vessel for an extended period of time, below is a description of what travel conditions were like for European immigrants making a Trans-Atlantic journey to the Americas.

“The cheapest passage was in steerage, below the deck of the ship. This area was particularly filthy due to the lack of water, toilets, and cleaning facilities. The stench was nearly impossible to tolerate. Reports of rodents and lice were commonplace.

Regardless of the accommodations one chose, it was impossible to live comfortably. Cleanliness was a major problem. Ships had toilet facilities, but they were few and far between, and all were inconveniently placed. There was no space or equipment for washing. The amount of fresh water onboard was based only upon drinking and cooking needs.

Once the ship was on its way, seasickness was seldom far behind. The close quarters and unsanitary conditions facilitated the rapid spread of infectious diseases. These factors, plus the already physically compromised condition of many of the passengers, resulted in severe health problems that included typhoid, tuberculosis, influenza, and all manner of infections–all of which were potentially life threatening.

When storms came, the ship would pitch and creak. With the hatches down, and without proper ventilation, the stench increased and there was no chance of getting meals even for those who had stomach enough to eat them.”

Genesis literalist will try to argue their way around this unpleasant fact as well. One of my blog readers posited that “a hole with walls might have been built into the center [of the ark] through the bottom. Water could rise and fall like a piston, bring fresh air into the ark. This also would be a good way for them to get water for the animals. Maybe they even had two of these piston well holes and dumped all the poop down the other.” But Genesis does not tell us that such pistons were built. In Genesis 6:14-16, God describes to Noah how the ark should be built. He tells Noah what kind of wood to use, how long, high and wide the ark should be, that it should be covered with pitch, how many decks there should be, and where to put the door. Surely, if so revolutionary device as a piston were to be built, Genesis would tell us something along the lines of “and build a piston in the center of the ark so that that which issueth from man and animal can be pass out of the ark” or something along those lines.

In reading Genesis, a reasonable person can only conclude that the story of Noah and Ark was written by someone completely ignorant of oceanic vessels, not to mention the true extent of the Earth and the incredible diversity of life on the planet that makes a literal reading of the story ridiculous. The leaps of logic that literal believers in the story make to justify their belief only serves to reinforce the absurdity of a Supreme Being resolving to destroy all life by flooding the surface of the planet for months, killing all life save that which was packed aboard the ark.

Interestingly, before the rains began to fall, God tells Noah (Genesis 7:4) when the flooding will begin so that Noah knows when to have all of his family and the animals safely aboard the ark, but when the rain stops, Noah has to release birds to find out if the rainwater had receded. Why doesn’t God just say “Fourteen days from now, the ground will be dry enough for you and all on the ark with you to step out onto the dry land”? Instead, God waits until after Noah has already discovered that the land is dry before commanding him to leave.

The flood story ends with Noah sacrificing some clean animals to God (Genesis 8:20-21) and God being pleased by the aroma of the burnt offerings. For a being that is supposed to have created an infinite universe filled with galaxies, stars, planets, comets, nebulae and other celestial bodies, it seems awfully provincial for such a Supreme Being to get a rush out of the odor arising from the burning of sacrificed animals. And thus, God’s Rube Goldberg punishment of humanity had come to an end.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Give the Gift of Life

And now for an important announcement from the New York Blood Center:

NEW YORK, NY, OCTOBER 24, 2006 - With the busy, year-end holiday season fast approaching, New York Blood Center (NYBC) is urging everyone eligible to consider giving the best gift of all this holiday season - the gift of life - with a blood or platelet donation.
"A safe and adequate blood supply is essential to the health of any community," reports Dr. Robert Jones, NYBC President & CEO. "That's especially true in the holiday season as travel and the potential for accidents increases. Yet the holiday season also historically sees fewer donations and severe blood shortages. Therefore, we are asking all eligible residents of the greater New York/New Jersey community to help prevent a year-end blood shortage by giving a 'one size fits all' gift with no shopping required."
Who Can & Should Donate?
Eligible donors include those people at least age 16 (in NY) or 17 (in NJ) who weigh a minimum of 110 pounds, are in good health and meet all Food & Drug Administration and NY and NJ State Department of Health donor criteria. "The reality is less than 2% of people in our local community donates, which is far behind the nationwide blood donor participation rate of 5%," pointed out Dr. Jones. "We also need greater diversity within our donor base here in New York and New Jersey so we can better match the very precise transfusion needs of chronically transfused patients and those with uniquely inherited blood antigen patterns," added Dr. Jones.

I try to donate blood about three or four times per year and made a donation this morning. I strongly encourage anyone who is eligible to donate blood but has not done so to make an effort to donate this holiday season. It generally takes about an hour to an hour and a half, starting with the completion of the screening form, meeting with a medical screener, and then the actual donation of the blood itself, which itself takes no more than fifteen minutes.

Some of the questions on the questionnaire are very personal, and for me, the most irksome is the one that asks if you have ever had sex with someone who lives in, or was born in Africa. Being the honest person that I am, I have to explain to the screener that more than ten years ago I had a girlfriend who was born in Ivory Coast but grew up in France. Ivory Coast is not on the list of problem countries, but most of the screeners have to consult their manual to verify this. It’s not really that big a deal, it just delays the screening interview and examination (they do take your blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and prick your finger to get a drop of blood to test your iron levels) for a minute or so.

I imagine that most people shy away from donating blood because they do not like to have such a big needle inserted into their arm. Personally, I am not phased by the needle, and in fact I use reverse psychology on myself by eagerly anticipating the needle penetrating my skin. Yeah, I know, it's crazy, but it works for me. And for those who might need something more tangible than just the feeling that you are doing something good for the community, sometimes the Blood Center will offer small materialistic benefits like gift cards. For my donation today, I will be getting a $10.00 gift card for Barnes & Noble. When I receive it in the mail, maybe I will use it towards Richard Dawkins’ new book “The God Delusion”.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Punishing Humanity the Rube Goldberg Way - Part 1

Rube Goldberg, as many people may know, was a well-known cartoonist who was best known for his cartoons featuring absurdly complicated devices for accomplishing the most simple of tasks, hence the phrase “a Rube Goldberg contraption.”

In one of the most well-known stories from the Bible, the tale of Noah’s Ark, God takes a Rube Goldberg approach in punishing humanity for the wickedness of men. God is so angry with mankind that he decides to wipe out every person on the face of the Earth, except for a man named Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives. You see, Noah was a righteous man who “found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” Apparently, Noah’s righteousness did not rub off on his brothers and sisters, because Noah does not utter a peep of protest when God informs Noah of his plans. We are also informed that Noah was 500 years old before he had his first child. In other words, Noah was the 500 year old virgin. How’s that for a movie title? His father Lamech, on the other hand, only had to wait 182 years before he impregnated his wife and fathered baby Noah.

Now, we are told to believe that the God of the Bible is the creator of everything in the universe and is omniscient and omnipotent. Therefore, when it comes to punishing mankind, God surely had a lot of options available to him for striking down the wicked. For starters, God could have cause every evil person on the Earth to spontaneously combust. Poof! Everybody is dead and vanished except for Noah and his family. The human race can start over again. Alternatively, God can make all of the wicked people sterile (after all, if he can make a virgin pregnant, surely he can cause men to have low sperm counts) and after a few hundred years, all of the wicked people die out and there is just Noah and his family still standing. Again, the problem of bad people is solved.

But no, we’re talking the God of the Bible here, which means nothing is ever simple and efficient. You see, God has decided that he will punish mankind by flooding the Earth so that it resembles Kevin Costner’s ‘Waterworld’. Unfortunately, this means that not only are all of the bad people going to be killed, but just about everything else as well. For some strange reason, in his anger, God is resolved to destroy not only all of the wicked people, but the “animals and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air.” Why animals have to suffer because of God’s anger with the human race is unexplained.

However, since God has decided to spare Noah and his family, along with two (or seven) of each living thing in order that life can start anew after the flood waters have receded, he has a number of options available to him as he is omniscient and omnipotent. As the flood waters arise, he could form a protective bubble around those he intends to save so that they do not drown, sort of like Jean Gray in X-Men II holding back the waters of Alkali Lake to protect her comrades on the jet. Nope, fat chance there. God could also send Noah and pairs of every living thing to dwell at the top of the highest mountains and cause the flood waters to stop rising just shy of those mountains. Tibet comes to mind as an ideal place. Sorry, can’t do that either.

God’s solution to save Noah and the fortunate few is for Noah to construct a vessel called an ark. God gives Noah very specific instructions as to how the ark should be built, from the type of wood to be used, the height, width, and length of the ark, even where to place the doors. You know right away though that there is going to be trouble on the ark, because there is no mention of God consulting with Noah’s wife about where to put the curtains. After all, you can’t expect a woman to be holed up in a stinking putrid wooden vessel for a year without trying to lighten the place up a bit.

God then commands Noah “to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.” (Genesis 6:19). But God must have altered his plans slightly, because in Genesis 7:2-3, he tells Noah to “take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate (seven being an odd number, some animals are going to be stuck on the ark without a date), and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.” Noah has seven days to perform this task, whereupon God informs him that he will cause it to rain for forty days and nights.

According to Genesis 7:15, “pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark.” How these creatures got to the ark is left unexplained. Did Noah and his sons go off and capture them when they weren’t busy building the ark, or did the lucky creatures embark on a mass migration across the Earth? This is a very important question. After all, many creatures subsist on a diet that is particular to the geographic location where they live. Koalas, for instance, eat the leaves of the eucalyptus tree. Did the koalas on the ark bring their own stash of eucalyptus leaves with them, or did Noah make a trip to Australia in his spare time? And then there are some animals and insects that live only in the canopy of a tropical rain forest. How could they be expected to survive the journey to the ark?

Regardless, the seven days passed and when Noah was a sprightly man of 600 years, “all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth for forty days and forty nights.” The ark, we are told “floated on the surface of the water”, and so began the odyssey of Noah and his family, as they realized to their consternation that in all of their planning for the flood, they forgot to bring with them a deck of cards and Monopoly®.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Why Can't February Have Thirty Days?

It might seem like a silly question, buy why can't February have thirty days instead of 28? It wouldn't be that hard to do. All that would be required is to shave off a day each from January and March, still leaving them with 30 days each. Of course, every leap year, February would then have 31 days.

The next question then is who gets to make the official decision to change the calendar so that February gets two days and January and March each lose one? Is there some International Calendar association that has some authority in these matters?

Undoubtedly, there are more pressing problems in the world than giving February thirty days. But it is annoying, especially when you have to calculate deadlines that extend through February and into March, and you have to take into account that February has only 28 days. If it had 30 days, such calculations would be greatly simplified.

Extending the month of February to 30 days might also be popular with African-Americans. I am sure more than a few of them are not happy that Black History Month falls on the shortest month of the year. Maybe it can become Jesse Jackson's new pet cause.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Meaningless Babel

For religious skeptics, the Bible is full of stories that make it absolutely impossible to accept the Bible as literal truth. For me, one of the stories that tops the list is the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9.

As the tale relates, all of humanity spoke a common language and settled in a single place called the plain of Shinar. These industrious people resolved to build a tower of bricks that would reach to the heavens.

God is described in the story as coming "down to see the city and the tower that the men were building." Now whomever wrote this story reveals some interesting things. First off, the author (or plagiarist, more on that in a moment) of this tale had some idea that God dwelled somewhere up, up, up in the skies. Secondly, by describing God as coming down to see the tower, the author is clearly implying that God occupies a physical space and must actually come down to the Earth in order to see what humanity was building. After all, if God is all knowing, all seeing, and everywhere at once, he would not come down to the Earth. Now one might make the argument that the author of the story was describing God based upon his own limited understanding. But Bible believers constantly remind us that the Bible was revealed by God himself, and many believe that it was Moses himself who wrote down what God told him. Thus, God is describing himself as having to "come down" to the city.

Now where the story gets really interesting is where God decides that he must stop the people from building the tower, because "nothing they do will be impossible for them", which clearly suggests that God was afraid that the humans would actually succeed in building their tower high enough to reach heaven. Again, the teller of the tale is revealing his ignorance. He is obviously unaware of the fact that the Earth is surrounded by an atmosphere, and that at some point, if one goes high enough, there is simply no air to breath. Assuming the technology was even known to build the tower as high as the tallest mountain, the workers at the top would begin passing out from altitude sickness. Work would have to cease because it would simply not be possible to advance any further. But of course the technology did not exist back then to build a tower as high as Mount Everest. In fact, the Great Pyramid of Khufu (aka Cheops) in Egypt remained the tallest man made structure on the Earth until the advent of the skyscrapers in the first half of the 20th century. So God did not have to worry.

But God clearly was worried, so he decides to divide humanity by confusing their language so that they would not understand each other, and from there, God "scattered them over the face of the whole Earth." Now, what the Bible means by scattered is unclear. Did different groups of people migrate to different parts of the planet, or did God teleport them to sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, Siberia, China, Australia, and the Americas?

Now what really makes a literal belief in the story of the Tower of Babel ridiculous to me, in short, is that humanity has long surpassed in achievement and ability the things that God feared humanity was capable of thousands of years ago. Not only do we have skyscrapers that are higher than any structure that ever existed before, but we have sent men to the moon and landed space probes as far away as Saturn's moon Titan, not to mention the Voyager probes that have travelled to the outermost edges of our solar system. Furthermore, in spite of the multitude of languages that are spoken by different ethnicities and nationalities, we all have the ability to communicate with one another. The English language is the language of global commerce and educated people from all over the world speak it. It is possible, with sufficient exposure and study, to learn to speak and understand the languages of others. We have the capability to pool the knowledge and resources of all humanity to accomplish almost anything we set our minds to.

This begs the question, if God stopped humanity from building the Tower of Babel some 4,000 years ago, then why hasn't God stopped us from landing on the Moon and landing probes as far as Titan? The Russians had the MIR space station orbiting the Earth for over a decade, and currently the International Space Station circles the planet. In a few decades, it is not inconceivable that we will have opened up space to commerce. Hotels and convention centers will offer visitors the ultimate panoramic view. Intrepid miners will venture to near Earth asteroids to mine for metals and minerals. There may even be budding colonies on the Moon.

But back to the plagiarism issue I hinted at earlier. When one reads chapters 10 and 11 of Genesis, the Tower of Babel story does not make any sense, and in fact, it looks like it was conspicuously inserted between Genesis 10:32 and Genesis 11:10. Genesis 10 covers the three sons of Noah and their descendants in the aftermath of the Flood. The descendants of the three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, are said to have occupied specific territories and having their own languages The last section of Genesis 10, from verses 21 through 32, cover the descendants of Shem.

Now, just to reiterate, Genesis 10 clearly tells us that the descendants of each of Noah's three sons occupied specific geographic areas and had their own languages. And then we go write into Genesis 11:1, in which "the whole world had one language and one common speech" and that they all moved "eastward", though from where we are not told, to the plain of Shinar. And then in Genesis 11:10, the story picks up again with Shem two years after the flood. The Tower of Babel totally interrupts the flow of the story. This clearly shows that what we know as the Book of Genesis is not a single book, but in fact a collection of stories cut and pasted together from various sources. I get the impression that some Hebrew priest overseeing the assembling of their holy texts came across the Tower of Babel story from some Mesopotamian sources and thought "I better put that in here to explain why different nations speak different languages." The Tower of Babel story is a cut and paste job, and a poor one at that.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Ban Celebrity Marriage

We hear constantly from religious fundamentalists and cultural conservatives that gay marriage is a threat to the traditional family and demeans the true meaning of marriage. As a happily married heterosexual, I fail to see how allowing two people of the same gender who love each other to marry threatens my marriage, so I must emphatically disagree.

Rather, I would submit that what really demeans the institution of marriage in this country is celebrity marriage. Just in the last couple of weeks we have read about the separation of Reese Witherspoon from Ryan Philippe. And now we have Britney Spears filing for divorce from Kevin Federline. Keep in mind that both of these separations involve children.

But to this day, my favorite example of bizarre Hollywood relationships was when Jeff Goldblum split from Geena Davis to hook up with Laura Dern, who had been with crappy filmaker Renny Harlin, who ended up hooking up with Geena Davis. Now if only we could get Harlin to direct a movie starring Goldblum, Dern and Davis.

Anyway, I hereby propose that the United States Congress pass, and President Bush sign into law, a bill that would ban celebrity marriages. No more would the sacred institution of marriage be profaned by these self absorbed celebrities who change spouses like they change their wardrobes. It is time to put a stop to it! Write your congressional representatives now and let's begin to make marriage in America mean something again.

(No Shoprite customers were harmed while writing this post.)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Hell on Earth

Okay, maybe that is exaggerating it a bit. But if there is one place on Earth that truly brings out the curmudgeon in me, it is a crowded supermarket. For me, that particular supermarket is Greenfield's Shoprite in Plainview.

It could just be my own biased perspective, but I cannot think of any place with such a concentration of self absorbed blockheads as Shoprite. You get one fat old lady who parks her shopping cart one one side of the aisle and then proceeds to place herself in the space between her cart and the row of shelves on the other side, while she spends an eternity trying to figure out which brand of pancake syrup she wants to buy. Then there is the clod who stops his cart in the space next to where another customer has parked her cart. Another customer blocks the entrance to the frozen aisle with her cart while she examines the ice cream freezer. Then there are the two housewives who haven't spoken in the last three weeks who decide that they are going to block the shampoo and toothpaste aisle so that they can swap neighborhood gossip for the next ten minutes. What is it with these people? Why doesn't it enter their thick skulls that there are other customers in the store who need to get their shopping done and don't have all day in which to do it? Any why do they have to constantly cling to their shopping carts as if they were personal appendages?

I must confess that sometimes I daydream about mowing these people down with an AK-47. Then reality sets in when I realize that if I did massacre these annoying customers, their bullet ridden corpses would just end up being obstacles that I could not get around with my own shopping cart. So, I usually deal with these idiots with passive-aggressive methods. My most common ploy is to stomp my feet loudly as I get closer and closer to the customer in front of me. That usually gets their attention and they pull out of my way or go faster than their previous snail's pace. Another tactic I use is to hum the theme to Jeopardy.

One of my biggest pet peeves in life, as you can probably tell from the paragraphs above, is when my freedom of movement is curtailed. For me, it is very important to be able to move about with speed and efficiency, and I try to extend the same courtesy to others. When I am at the supermarket, I often park my shopping cart in a spot where it does not get in the way of other customers, and then I go up and down nearby aisles to find the items on my list. I do not feel the need to constantly have my cart with me wherever I go. When I do have the cart with me and I pause to peruse the shelves, I make sure that I am leaving a sufficient enough space so that other customers can pass by me. I even bring my own bags with me and have them ready so that I can pack my groceries as soon as the register girl scans them.

Yeah, I know, there are worse things that one has to deal with in life than clueless morons at the supermarket. But I just felt the need to vent. Besides, it has been a while since my last post and I thought I needed to post at least something to demonstrate that I am still alive and kicking. I also wanted to at last do a post that was not about atheism or religion.

In a way, my supermarket experience is a metaphor for my philosophy of life. There are so many things in the world that anger or annoy us that we feel powerless to do anything about. I can't snap my fingers and cause the roughly 50% of the customers at Shoprite who are clueless assholes to suddenly change their annoying behavior. All I can do is be thoughtful and try not to get in the way of other customers when I am at the supermarket. As my motto goes, "If you want to make the world a better place, then don't add to its problems."

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Heart of Catholicism - Part 2

The CurĂ© of Ars church in Merrick, which recently was host to the heart of a French priest who died more than a century ago, is in the news once again. Newsday reports that the church received complaints regarding a pamphlet displayed in its literature racks titled “Homosexuality & Hope”. According to the brochure, homosexuality is a disorder that is preventable with psychotherapy and lists possible causes of homosexuality in at-risk children.

Father Charles Mangano, the same priest who was so thrilled to have the heart of Father Vianney in his bedroom as he slept, said he had ordered the pamphlet from the Catholic Medical Association in response to “a parishioner seeking guidance during a sexual identity crisis.”

"The content of this pamphlet was intended to offer direction to those who are struggling with their sexual identity and those seeking guidance and conformity with the teaching of the church," Mangano told Newsday. In response to the complaints received, Mangano pulled the pamphlets from the church’s literature racks.

As a former Catholic and current atheist, I am of two minds on this issue. I believe the church was wrong for displaying the “Homosexuality & Hope” pamphlets. Yet at the same time, the Catholic Church is what it is. Those who belong to the Catholic Church believe that it embodies the teachings of Jesus and the will of God, and that God’s truth is contained in that collection of books known as the Bible. The teachings and commandments of the church are not like a cafeteria menu where you can pick and choose which ones you will accept and obey and ignore the ones that go against your values. The same holds true for any other Christian church, as well as religions such as Judaism and Islam.

Face it, if you are gay and consider yourself to be a Catholic, then you have a problem. The Catholic Church considers homosexual conduct to be a sin and an abomination, and that homosexuality is a disorder that is treatable with psychotherapy. Either you choose to be a Catholic and not engage in homosexual conduct, or you really need to reconsider if the Catholic Church is for you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Jesus Project - Part Two

During the course of my readings of the Gospels to find teachings of Jesus that had some validity for me, I also could not help but make certain observations about the Gospels themselves.

One thing that struck me in particular when reading about Jesus’ peregrinations throughout Judea and Galilee was the numbers of demons that he is reported to have encountered. In Matthew 8:14, Jesus is staying at the house of Peter and “many who were demon possessed were brought to him.” A little further on, in Matthew 8:28-32, Jesus encounters two demon possessed men in the region of the Gaderenes. In Matthew 9:32-33, a demon possessed man is brought to Jesus and another demon-possessed man is brought to him in Matthew 12:22, though it seems to be a repeat of Matthew 9:32-33. Another demon encounter is described in Luke 4:33-34. There are other examples, but I think you get the point.

For a land that is supposed to be God’s Holy Land, it seems that there were an awful lot of demons roaming the countryside. In Mark 3:14, Jesus even gives his disciples “authority to drive out demons.” Apparently, there were more demons than even HE could handle! Heck, the Galilee must have been the demon capital of the world, if the Gospels are really to be believed.

Of course, this begs the question, if Christians believe that the Gospels are true stories and the Holy Land was infested with demon possessed people, then why isn’t the land filled with demon possessed people today? Or are we to believe that Palestinian suicide bombers are really possessed by demons rather than by a cold blooded and callous certainty that they are striking a blow for their cause regardless of how many innocent Israeli civilian lives they destroy?

Other Christians will probably say that the people described in the Gospels as being possessed by demons really suffered from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and that Jesus was really healing these mental illnesses. The people who suffered from these mental disorders were believed by their contemporaries to be possessed by demons because these disorders were not medically diagnosed during the time of Jesus. This then begs the question as to why Jesus is not quoted in the Gospels as telling his followers that people reportedly suffering from demon possession in fact had psychiatric problems. After all, if Jesus was really the son of the all-knowing and all-powerful Creator of the Universe, surely he must have known this to be the case. Imagine how many skeptics today could have been convinced that Jesus really was divine if Jesus was quoted in the Gospels educating his disciples about schizophrenia. Instead, we are treated to parables about how the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Jesus Project - Part One

This is the first in a series of posts I will be writing regarding my thoughts about the Jesus of the Gospels, covering such topics as the things he is alleged to have said, the deeds he is alleged to have done, how his personality in the Gospels is different from how he is represented in movies, art, and so forth.

For the first installment of my Jesus project, I read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and highlighted in green the sayings of Jesus that I consider to be meaningful moral teachings. As an atheist, I wanted to re-examine the teachings of Jesus and see whether I could find anything in his teachings that was relevant to me. Specifically, what I was looking for were things that Jesus said that if practiced in real life made one a better person and/or promoted decency and justice in society.

To my surprise, I did not find very much that I considered worth highlighting. And much of what I did deem worthy is repeated in at least one other Gospel. The version of the Bible I relied upon is the New International Version. Here is what did make the cut:

1. “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them” and “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets to be honored by men.” (portions of Matthew 6:1-2). Of course, I do not believe that one’s charitable works or good deeds should always be kept a secret, because by making good deeds known, the doer can serve as an example to inspire others. But we all know where Jesus is coming from here. He is talking about people who publicize their good deeds because they are really just trying to draw attention to themselves. For example, if Paris Hilton publicly donated $100,000 to an AIDS charity and then proceeded to go on a spending binge, buying a new Ferrari, expensive jewelry and other pricey and useless baubles, she would be a hypocrite.

2. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you will judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2). Former Congressman Mark Foley is probably a good current example of the wisdom of this teaching.

3. “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.” (Matthew 12:25). Now the context of this quotation is Jesus responding to the accusation that he is casting out demons because Satan, or Beelzebub, is giving him the authority to do so. But from a practical real life perspective, this quote is valid when people who should be united in a single purpose undermine or turn on each other. There are many examples from history wherein a person who aspires to rule a particular kingdom starts a civil war that ends up weakening the kingdom and making it vulnerable to invasion from outside powers.

4. “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean” (Matthew 15:11) and “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man unclean; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him unclean.” (Matthew 15:17-20).

5. In response to a man’s question about what he must do to lead a good life and get into heaven, Jesus answers “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 19:19). Now of course, I do not believe in the existence of heaven, but if everyone did as was spoken above, the world would indeed be a better place. Jesus also says in Luke 6:31 “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:20-37 is an example of putting this teaching into action.

6. “Watch out! Be on your guard against al kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15). Pretty much speaks for itself.

But I would also add that these teachings are not original to Jesus. In an upcoming post, I will compare the teachings of Jesus that have validity for me and compare them to the teachings of other religious leaders or philosophers who said the same things either before Jesus or afterwards by those who lived in cultures that were not aware of Christianity at the time. The purpose of the comparison is to emphasize that there are certain universal moral truths that existed in many disparate cultures and that it is these truths that are important in and of themselves, regardless of whether they were spoken by Jesus, Buddha or Confucius. At the same time, as an atheist, I should not discount the teachings of Jesus that have validity for me that also appear in the texts of other religions simply because I do not accept Jesus as some divine savior.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

One Nation Under Zeus

Last month my son started Kindergarten. As an atheist parent, I anticipated that the Pledge of Allegiance issue would come up. This was confirmed the second week of class, when the parents were invited to the Kindergarten Center to meet the principal and the teachers. In my son's class, the teacher explained to us the daily routine that was followed in the classroom, and that each morning the class would recite the Pledge, with a different student leading the Pledge each day. I knew this meant that my son would end up leading the recital of the Pledge at least once a month.

I had given some thought as to how I would handle this matter and decided that the best way was to simply have my son skip the "under God" portion when reciting the Pledge. Not wishing to bring attention to myself in front of the other parents, I waited until after the meeting was over and asked the teacher to speak to me in private. I explained the situation to her and told her that if my son skipped "under God" when reciting the Pledge, that it was deliberate. She thanked me for letting her know and did not seem phased by it.

Those of us who are atheists, agnostics, or even members of religious minorities, inevitably find ourselves in situations where we are confronted with the reality of living in a nation where the overwhelming majority of the population profess to being God believing Christians. In each situation, we have to decide based on our own principles and beliefs whether or not to be confrontational or accommodating. With respect to the Pledge of Allegiance, we all know that a parent named Michael Newdow filed a lawsuit to have "under God" removed from the Pledge and that he lost. While I agree with Newdow that "under God" should be removed, having only been added in the mid-1950's during a time of Cold War hysteria, I also personally believe that at least at this time it is not a battle worth fighting. I believe that there are far more important battles for atheists and agnostics to fight, such as the attempts to replace or complement the teaching of evolution with intelligent design, placing restrictions on birth control and reproductive freedom, and discrimination against gays because "the Babble" says that God doesn't like such things. Substance is more important to me than symbols.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Heart of Catholicism

Below are excerpts from an article that appeared in the October 8, 2006 edition of Newsday, which is Long Island’s local daily newspaper.

“In the late 1800s, parishioners who had committed the most egregious sins would come to the hidden back door of the church of the French priest Jean-Marie Baptiste Vianney to confess.

Yesterday, hundreds of the faithful lined up outside the front door of Curé of Ars church in Merrick to bow their heads at the altar and venerate the heart of that same priest, who is now a French saint.

They stood in a line that stretched out the church's door to the sidewalk along Merrick Avenue for much of the morning. A sobbing young priest and a teenager who took a quick photo of Vianney's heart with his cell phone camera were among those who gathered to glimpse a relic that is in the United States for the first time.

Margo Almeida, 45, knelt at the altar, her eyes welling with tears. She said she wanted to be close to a saint revered for hearing confessions for up to 16 hours a day. "I could feel that love," Almeida said of her reaction to the relic.

Three priests were on hand to take confession, including one in a trailer in the church parking lot. Many who came said they experienced a spiritual connection to the saint. Vianney's body was exhumed as the church was preparing to beatify him in 1905. His heart was found to be intact and has been stored in a glass box since.”

“Beatrice Cameron, 75, came from Amityville to see it. She said she was moved by the experience and amazed at the heart's condition. "It awesome to think that the heart is just incorrupt," she said. "It's almost like a miracle. Why would that happen?"

The Rev. Charles Mangano described feeling overwhelmed and said he slept with it in his bedroom Friday night. "It was surreal," he said.”

Yeah, I’m just glad Father Vianney’s penis wasn’t still perfectly preserved.