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.