Tuesday, July 31, 2007

File This Under "Tell Us Something We Didn't Already Know"

Just in case you were wondering, it's been confirmed in a new study.

A Little Change of Pace

There has been a lot of heated debate here the last couple of days. And while we all feel passionate about our opinions and beliefs, the things we argue about here only represent just one facet of ourselves.

So in the spirit of peace and harmony, I offer this.


Monday, July 30, 2007

What Church Do You Go To?

Vjack of Atheist Revolution has a good post up today. As an atheist who lives in the South, his experiences are very different than mine. Here in suburban Long Island, it is rare for anyone to ask you about your religious beliefs and affiliations. But in that region of the country known as "the Bible Belt," apparently being asked by strangers what church you go to is as much an ice breaker as "did you see the game yesterday?" is up here.

If I were to find myself living in a community where neighbors or parents at the Little League game asked me point blank almost from the outset what church I went to, I am not sure how I would respond to that knowing what ramifications my answer could potentially have. For those of us who are atheists, we reflexively find such questions annoying and intrusive, though the person who asks the question likely does not intend to be rude.

Maybe the best way to respond in a polite and measured fashion would be to turn the question back on the asker. "I am new here, thank you. What church do you go to?" Ask the person to describe the services there, what the pastor is like et cetera. With any luck, the person will get so caught up in singing the praises of his or her church, that person might forget that you never said which church you go to.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

I'm an Atheist and I'm Proud of it! - Updated

Below is a comment posted by one Bedrocktruth (or Bedrock as I call him for short, others go with Brt), who I frequently sparred with over issues like the war in Iraq over at Liberal Avenger, where he functioned as the resident right wing troll. Recently, over at Gordo's blog Appletree, Bedrock complained that his comments over at Liberal Avenger were being held up in the moderation queue and that he wasn't getting a fair shake. I told him he could feel free to visit here sometimes, and I can see not only from the comments he has posted here, but from the number of hits recorded from him on my sitemeter that he has taken up the offer with gusto.

The comment below was posted by Bedrock in the comments thread for the post that linked to Max Blumenthal's video of his visit to the Christians United for Israel conference. Since Bedrock's comments were off thread and I didn't want the thread to be filled with posts responding to him, I though I would use the challenge he lays down as the basis for this post. To all my fellow atheists who frequent here, I invite you submit your comments in response to the points and questions that Bedrock raises. Tell him why we have our atheist blogs, our books and our videos.

And now, for the Bedrock challenge:

"OK, Tommy, just say it loud:"I'm an atheist and I'm proud"!!

It looks like you've created quite a haven here for atheists who want to escape the nasty old Christian world where 90% of the people in this country believe in a higher power.Fine by me, as we've discussed several times I'm a pseudo agnostic, poor excuse for a Christian-if I ever made any pretenses at all about it. But what gets me is why atheists seem to feel the need to apologize for, constantly reinforce and defend their non beliefs by spending their time devouring books, films and other paraphenalia that pound on the "evils" of Christianity and trying to nit pick the Bible and the Christian religion apart piece by piece. It's like some kind of obsessive "Malkin Watch".

All the futile falderal however misses the basic point for most Christians I know , which is a matter of simple faith that no amount of atheist nit picking is going to undermine. Not so much faith in this passage or that passage of the Bible-which is why pointing out contradictions or historical inaccuracies is a waste of perfectly good atheist Bible bashing time-but faith in a higher power unfettered by the constrictions of general human ineptitude in matters of the heart and spirit.

And why do you folks want to do something like that in the first place? After all your friends at the ACLU have just about stripped every vestige of this country's religious heritage from the public arena. What's left, leveling churches or burning Christians in the square as witches?

If you'll allow me to post something that's been on my website for quite awhile I'd at least like to put up another side to the question."Pascal's wager....." Pascal argues that since reason cannot decide the matter we should look at the trade offs. Christianity (specifically Catholicism) offers eternal happiness for believers and eternal misery for non-believers, while atheism offers only the satisfaction of being rational and free time on Sunday mornings.

Since Christ promises a better payout, we should play His game.

"Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is," Pascal instructs us. "If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is...."

jack*'s post brought to mind my encounter with a person who had essentially based his entire life on Pascal's wager although I didn't know what to call it at the time. It's really not very pleasant to recall the incident since I was definitely committed to my questioning, probing, challenging "smartass" position concerning religion at the time.

One of the people I admired and respected greatly in my home town was a gentleman named Bob Herlong, a highly successful businessman and, as I learned that day, a committed Christian. Everyone in our little luncheon group knew that Bob was dying of leukemia and only had a year or so to live.

Everyone, that is, but me. I'd never thought of Bob as sickly. He was energetic, almost effervescent, with a permanent smile and a quick grin. He was also highly intelligent and I guess this fact this had something to do with my little smart assed statement to him that day as he spoke quietly to me of his commitment to Christ.

I said something like, "Bob, you're an intelligent man, a lot smarter than me-how can you possibly believe some of the things you read in the Bible"?

I had no idea that I might be undermining the faith of a dying man and it bothers me every time I think about it. But I needn't have worried. Bob smiled and said "John we all have choices to make in life. And one of them is whether or not to believe in God and the personal redemption of Christ. Whether I'm right or wrong, my belief has given me peace of mind and my life and my family's life have been the better for it. It's going to be leukemia that kills me, John-not ulcers."

Were those the words the result of some kind of battlefield conversion in the face of death? I found out later that Bob's father had been a Methodist minister and that Bob himself had been a leader in his own church for many years.

Almost as long as I'd been a smart ass..."

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Awakening of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I am very close to finishing "Infidel", with less than 50 pages out of 350 left to go.

In the wake of 9/11, Ayaan writes in "Infidel" about how the terrorist attack and bin Laden's call for Muslims to take up a jihad against the West forced her to confront her own feelings about the religion in which she was raised. Like most of us who are atheists, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was raised in a particular religious faith. And like her, my journey towards atheism began when I started to question the tenets of Catholicism. If we are all equal, then why were women not allowed to be priests? Isn't the truth no less the truth if it is spoken by a woman than a man? It is questions like these that represented the first hair thin cracks in my edifice of belief.

The following excerpt, which begins on page 271, represents a major turning point in Ayaan Hirsi Ali's path towards the rejection of Islam and her journey towards atheism:

"Osama Bin Laden said. 'Either you are with the Crusade, or you are with Islam,' and I felt that Islam all over the world was now truly in a terrible crisis. Surely, no Muslim could continue to ignore the clash between reason and religion? For centuries we had been behaving as though all knowledge was in the Quran, refusing to question anything, refusing to progress. We had been hiding from reason for so long because we were incapable of facing up to the need to integrate it into our beliefs. And this was not working; it was leading to hideous pain and monstrous behavior.

We Muslims had been taught to define life on earth as a passage, a test that precedes real life in the Hereafter. In that test, everyone should ideally live in a manner resembling, as closely as possible, the followers of the Prophet. Didn't this inhibit investment in improving daily life? Was innovation therefore forbidden to Muslims? Were human rights, progress, women's rights all foreign to Islam?

By declaring our Prophet infallible and not permitting ourselves to question him, we Muslims had set up a static tyranny. The Prophet Muhammed attempted to legislate every aspect of life. By adhering to his rules of what is permitted and what is forbidden, we Muslims suppressed the freedom to think for ourselves and to act as we chose. We froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mind-set of the Arab desert in the seventh century. We were not just servants of Allah, we were slaves.

The little shutter at the back of my mind, where I pushed all my dissonant thoughts, snapped open after the 9/11 attacks, and it refused to close again. I found myself thinking that the Quran is not a holy document. It is is a historical record, written by humans. It is one version of events, as perceived by the men who wrote it 150 years after the Prophet Muhammed died. And it is a very tribal and Arab version of events. It spreads a culture that is brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war."

Would that more people raised in the Islamic faith should have a similar awakening.

Galactica and Pegasus Kick Ass

Here are several scenes from Youtube featuring Exodus Parts 1 and 2 from Season 3 of the Battlestar Galactica. The pre-battle speech by Admiral Adama, like Henry V's St. Crispin speech, is really inspirational.

Until recently, Youtube had a video that featured the entire Battle of New Caprica, but it has since disappeared. The two videos above, while having about a minute of overlap, captures most of it.

Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica is not slated to begin until January of 2008, though there will be a Pegasus movie on the Sci-Fi Channel in November called "Razors". I am really looking forward to seeing that.

Given the pounding that Galactica received in the Battle of New Caprica (I tried to find a picture of it, but without success), the damage she sustained means that she probably at best has one more fight left in her. So, I am guessing that Season 4, which is going to be the last season, is going to be rather skimpy on space battles. I am not privy to any spoilers, but it wouldn't surprise me if the series ends with Galactica being destroyed holding off the Cylons one last time while the civilian fleet escapes. I am still not sure how I feel about the revelation that Tigh, Tyrol, Anders and Tori are Cylons. Ronald Moore's got some splainin' to do.

Sensual Song for a Saturday Night

This is one of my favorite songs by Enigma. But can anybody explain the meaning of the video?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Friday Funnies - Death By Viagra

Here's another funny scene from "Scary Movie 4". I think that about covers it.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Max Blumenthal at Christians United for Israel Conference

This is kind of spooky.

My question for Senator Joe Leiberman: So when are you announcing your conversion to Christianity?

UPDATE: Oh, I almost forgot, what really disturbed me was the one lady who said that the way to identify the anti-christ is that he will be a charismatic man who will be a peacemaker! See how demented these people are? It's built into their religious belief that any charismatic person who tries to work towards bringing about peaceful resolutions to world conflicts is really evil.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Some Observations on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "Infidel"

Several days ago I resumed reading my copy of "Infidel", autographed by the lovely Ms. Ali herself, after I had finished "Fiasco", Thomas Ricks' chronicle of how we got saddled with the mess in Mesopotamia.

So far I have gotten up to page 149, just shy of the halfway point.

It is a good read and I expect to finish it by next week. A couple of things thus far struck me in particular and I thought it worth commenting on.

During her family's stay in Nairobi, Kenya, Ayaan writes about a female Islamic school teacher she had when she was sixteen named Aziza. Sister Aziza was garbed in a black hijab, which covered her entire body except for her face. She was a true believer and made quite an impression on Ayaan, who at this point in her life was trying to embrace the Islamic faith.

"Sister Aziza believed in Hell," writes Ayaan on page 81, but "she didn't emphasize fear, as all the other preachers did. She told us it was our choice. We could choose to submit to God's pureness and light and earn a place in Heaven, or we could take the low road."

Ayaan wanted to be like Sister Aziza and describes how she felt inspired to be a more pious Muslim. "I began to pray five times a day, fighting to collect my thoughts through the whole long process. I wanted to understand better how to live the life that Allah, who was infinitely just, wanted for me." On a personal note, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I are very close in age, only about five months apart, at about the same time as her I was as a teenager trying to be a true believing Catholic and was going through my own struggle between the demands of my faith and what at the time I considered to be sinful thoughts.

Ayaan even went so far as to have Sister Aziza's tailor make a cloak for her. While we are used to looking at Islamic dress as being oppressive for women, a pious Muslim woman can have a radically different opinion. On page 85, Ayaan describes her new robe as having "a thrill to it, a sensuous feeling. It made me feel powerful: underneath this screen lay a previously unsuspected, but potentially lethal, femininity. I was unique: very few people walked about like that those days in Nairobi. Weirdly, it made me feel like an individual. It sent out a message of superiority: I was the one true Muslim. All those other girls with their little white headscarves were children, hypocrites. I was a star of God. When I spread out my hands I felt like I could fly."

Ms. Ali also confirms an observation that has been made elsewhere, that religious fervor spreads in conditions where the state fails to deliver basic social services to its people. She writes on page 87 how the state "in Kenya was crumbling from within, buckling under the larceny and nepotism of the men in control... The mayor, who was supposed to look after the streets of Nairobi, was barely literate. The government was only there to take your money; its services were minimal... The same thing was also happening in Somalia... It was happening, in fact, almost everywhere in Africa and throughout the Islamic world. The more corrupt and unreliable the apparatus of government-the more it persecuted its people-the more those people headed back into their tribe, traditions, their church or mosque, and hunkered down, like among like."

A parallel development has been noted here in the United States, with the Religious Right, via the Republican Party, offering services through faith based initiatives. Michelle Goldberg, in her must-read book "Kingdom Coming", writes that "the diversion of billions of taxpayer dollars from secular social service organizations to... sectarian religious outfits has been one of the most underreported stories of the Bush presidency." As a consequence, "while religious initiatives are being fattened with federal funding, secular social services are being starved."

I am all for religious organizations playing a role in the provision of charitable services in our country, but they should could complement secular government social services, not supplant them.

Malaysia Sucks Again

Readers of this blog will remember my post last May about the saga of Lina Joy, an ethnic Malay woman in Malaysia who was raised as a Muslim but converted to Christianity. The government rejected her request to change her identity from Muslim to Christian because only the Sharia Court had the authority to grant her request, and of course glaciers would form in the deserts of Saudi Arabia before that would happen.

I sent an e-mail to the Malaysian Embassy here in the United States on behalf of Lina Joy, but predictably did not receive a response.

Sadly, as this BBC article points out, Lina Joy is only of one of many Malaysians who are legally not permitted to convert from Islam to another faith. A woman named Revathi Massosai was raised as a Hindu by her grandmother though her parents were converts to Islam. She is also married to a Hindu man and has a child by him. But the government considers her by law to be a Muslim and does not recognize her marriage. When she attempted to have her religious designation changed at the court, she was forcibly seized and taken to an Islamic "rehabilitation" center. This reminds me of how in the post-Stalin Soviet Union dissidents were committed to psychiatric institutions. After all, since the Soviet Union was a worker's paradise, anyone who was dissatisfied and voiced their dissent had to be considered mentally unfit.

The BBC article ends on this sad note:

"A lawyer representing the Malacca state Islamic department responsible for Miss Revathi's arrest, rejected her allegations and said officials believe that she can still be persuaded to embrace Islam.

She is adamant that she will remain a Hindu. In the meantime, Miss Revathi and her daughter have been placed in the custody of her Muslim parents."

And in case I haven't already made it clear, Malaysia sucks!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Chosen People of the Supreme Being Test - Chapter 1: You Call This A Promised Land?

Back in December of last year, I did an introduction to a series I had planned called The Chosen People of the Supreme Being Test.

The idea behind the series was to test the Biblical claim (which many people still believe today) that the Jews are the chosen people of the Creator of the Universe. I proposed a set of criteria to measure whether or not this claim could be considered true based upon the evidence available to us. The first chapter in this series will examine the geographic evidence.

One of my favorite quotes from Sam Harris is when he quips that God, in his role as an omniscient real estate broker, gave the Jews a patch of desert in the Middle East. When you think about it though, if the God of the Bible really exists and is in fact the creator of the universe and the most powerful and intelligent being in existence, then this God should have been expected to have done a much better job assigning land to Abraham and his descendants.

In Genesis 17:8, God tells 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." But when Abraham (then called Abram) makes his first sojourn into Canaan, the land is afflicted with a famine, and he is forced to live in Egypt.

Further on, in Genesis 42, there is again a famine in the region, and the brothers of Joseph are instructed by their father Jacob to go to Egypt "and buy some [grain] for us, so that we may live and not die." The book of Genesis ends on a somewhat happy note, with Joseph and his family being reunited in Egypt. As the book of Exodus gets underway, we are informed that the Israelites "were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them." They multiply so rapidly, according to Exodus, that Hebrew babies must have been dropping out of wombs left and right as the women were toiling in the fields gathering straw for bricks.

As just about everybody knows, in summary, the Israelites are enslaved by the Egyptians. God chooses Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and in the course of the conflict, God inflicts numerous plagues and misfortunes upon the Egyptians, culminating in the death of every first born Egyptian son. Then Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, only to find themselves in the Desert of Shur, where they travel for three days without finding water (Exodus 15:22) and they end up having to wander for 40 years before being able to reenter Canaan, which is filled with people who are not inclined to favor them as neighbors.

Now, when one considers how often Canaan was afflicted by famine, and how the descendants of Abraham always found themselves taking refuge in Egypt, it does not seem unreasonable to ask WHY THE FUCK DIDN'T GOD GIVE THE JEWS EGYPT?!?

Unlike Canaan, Egypt was a very fertile country, owing to the annual flooding of the Nile River. It can be said with confidence that without the Nile River, there would have been no Egyptian civlization. But the benefits of Egypt's geography did not end there. East and west of the Nile Delta, harsh deserts acted as natural barriers to deter all but the most determined and best equipped invaders. Thus, Egypt was doubly blessed with a fertile river valley that provided a steady and abundant food supply, and deserts on its eastern and western frontiers that served as buffers against foreign invaders.

The result of these favorable conditions was that the Egyptians would possess one of the world's most enduring civilizations. Historians believe that a single unified Egyptian state emerged around approximately 3,000 BCE. While there were periods of foreign domination here and there, notably by the Hyksos, the Egypt of the pharaohs survived until about 525 BCE when the land was conquered by the Persians. To put this in context for you, the time from when Jesus was allegedly born up until the present day is shorter by 500 years than the time from the unification of Egypt up to its conquest by the Persians. And while native Egyptian rule, apart from a brief spell of independence from the Persians, came to an end in 525 BCE, Egyptian culture continued to exert tremendous influence upon her foreign rulers. After the death of Alexander III of Macedon, his empire was partitioned by several of his generals. Egypt fell to Ptolemy, who founded the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt as pharaohs up until the suicide of Cleopatra in 30 BCE. So Egyptian culture continued to have an influence on its foreign rulers for centuries after its independent existence had come to an end.

So, when one considers how beneficial the geography of Egypt was for the Egyptians, it would have proven equally so for the Israelites. As mentioned above, the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied in Egypt after having taken refuge there from the famine in Canaan. Since God had no qualms about murdering the first born son of every Egyptian, it should not have been much of a stretch for God to have exterminated the rest of the lot and left the land in possession of the Israelites. Just as Egypt's deserts protected its people from foreign invaders and allowed them ample peace and prosperity to develop their religion, so an Israelite kingdom in Egypt could have developed and practiced their worship of their God in solitude from their neighbors. And just as Egypt did, the Israelites could have formed a powerful state and served as a cultural and religious beacon for the entire Middle East.

Instead, the all powerful and omniscient God of the Bible gives his chosen people the land of Canaan, which was incapable of supporting the necessary level of agriculture to sustain a large population, and which lacked easily defensible borders to deter invaders. Its location, where Africa and Asia meet, put it smack in the path of the armies of its powerful neighbors as they marched back and forth against one another. As the historical record indeed shows, after several centuries of maintaining a precarious independence, the Israelites found themselves overrun alternately by the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians.

Maybe, one could argue, there were too many Egyptians in Egypt, and God had some qualms about exterminating all of them in order to give the land to his chosen people. Canaan was less populated and was therefore more manageable. But Egypt was not the only alternate option available to the Israelites that had favorable characteristics. God could also have told Abraham that he would give him and his descendants the island of Cyprus. The island was only sparsely populated while relatively aloof from the constant warfare raging in the Middle East during ancient times. Thus, as in Egypt, the Israelites could have led a peaceful existence devoted to the worship of their god in the absence of foreign interference.

Just think of it. If God had given the Israelites the island of Cyprus, there would be no Israeli-Palestinian dispute today. So, in this first chapter of the Chosen People of the Supreme Being Test, the God of the Bible gets a failing grade in geography. In the next chapter of this test, God and his chosen people will tackle military history.

Here's Some Good News

The Tripoli 6 have been freed from Libya!

I hope a movie is made about this ordeal, in which innocent people lose years of their lives in a Libyan prison because they are made the scapegoats for something that was not their fault.

However, Gordo at Appletree has informed me that he will not see the movie if John Travolta is in it. Personally, I think a cameo of Travolta as Moammar Qaddaffi would be a classic and comical miscast.

Oh Boy Did I Rile Somebody

The last few days I have been participating in online forums on the Topix web site, mostly for articles that appeared in my local paper, Newsday. Some of the topics have been religious based and others are for totally different issues.

I saw a link for a Topix forum about this article about a dog that saved a small child from being bitten by a snake. I clicked on the link for the discussion about the article, and as I pretty much expected, someone posted a comment proclaiming "Praise God for little dogs that are really a childs best friend. God put that little dog in the right place at the reght time" [Spelling errors left uncorrected].

Me, being who I am, couldn't help but respond to that. My response appears here. I wrote that the comment was dopey and linked to an article about a three year old boy who was mauled to death by several dogs and asked "Where was god?" When I checked back a short while later, I saw that I generated a hostile response from a poster by the name of Trin Trigula, who has taken a liking to calling me a dork, and telling me that my question was stupid. I just posted another response educating this Trin Trigula about the concept of confirmation bias and asking why it should be off limits to question when some people always praise God for when little children are saved from death but why God is not blamed for when innocent children are killed.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Jesus Project Part 3 - Gentle Jesus

It's been a while since I did my last Jesus post. I had an idea about doing this post for some time but never seemed to get around to it.

Jesus is probably one of the most famous and influential people in history (unless of course you believe that he never actually existed and is just a fictional character). He has been frequently depicted in paintings and sculptures and other works of art since at least the second or third centuries C.E. With the advent of motion pictures and television, Jesus has also been portrayed in movies and television series. When I was growing up, a perennial favorite for me was the miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth" with Robert Powell as the long haired and bearded messiah. My image of Jesus in appearance and personality was defined by Powell's performance and it is probably true for many other Christians who watched it.

The image that many people get of Jesus, whether from works of art or film performances like Robert Powell, Max von Sydow, and Jeffrey Hunter, to name a few, is that of a serene and very gentle man. One common theme one sees in paintings is Jesus with children, which is likely inspired by passages such as Matthew 19:13, where Jesus is quoted as saying "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." Here is one such image I found while searching on Google:

While the face of Jesus can only be seen from the side, he clearly looks happy, as are the children walking beside him. The image of Jesus conveyed by the artist, unintentionally I would think, is the Christian savior as the Michael Jackson of the early 1st century Palestine!

Another common theme in Christian works of art is the representation of Jesus as a shepherd. In the picture below, Jesus is shown bathed in a beam of light from the heavens as he cradles a little lamb in his arms, his face a mask of serenity and benevolence:

Other popular depictions of Jesus in art, such as the one below, show us a Jesus as a divine radiant being, with a halo around his head. Quite often, as with this picture, we see a Jesus with big, soft blue eyes, staring directly at the viewer but otherwise appearing rather passive.

What I began to notice after reading the Gospels after a while was that the depictions of Jesus in the paintings above did not seem to square with the Jesus we find in the Gospels. The Jesus of the Gospels, if you read them with your blinders off, is actually a rather hot tempered and impatient man, particularly with his apostles.

"Are you still so dull?" he says to them in Matthew 15:16 when they ask Jesus to explain one of his parables to them. A little bit further on, in Matthew 16:8, Jesus berates them, "You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand?... How is it that you don't understand that I was not talking to you about bread?"

In Matthew 17:17, after being told by a man that the apostles could not heal his epileptic son, Jesus says in a fit of anger, "O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you. How long shall I put up with you?" I can almost picture Jesus going about his ministry wearing a t-shirt that reads "I'm surrounded by idiots!"

But where we really see the temper of Jesus on full display is in Matthew 23, where we are treated to a litany of "Woe to you" to this group and that group, and "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?" This is not the kind of man I want my children to hang around with and this Jesus certainly is not the same man as the Michael Jackson-like figure in the picture at the top of this post.

Perhaps though I am being a little unfair to Jesus. Maybe it's not easy when you think you have been sent to Earth to redeem mankind and your closest followers turn out to be a bunch of half wits. I think this clip from the late Sam Kinison helps us to understand the pressures that Mr. Jesus labored under, and maybe from that we can feel a little more sympathy for our would be savior:

Friday, July 20, 2007

Friday Funnies - My Name is Frankenstein!

I was hoping Youtube would have the Abby Normal scene, but this clip is also one of my favorites from "Young Frankenstein".

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Fine Tuned for Life, But Not Necessarily Ours

A common argument used by theists for the existence a God is that the Universe is "fine tuned" for life. And of course since the God most of them worship is the the God of the Bible, that means they agree with the passage in Genesis 1:26 "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the Earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'" (NIV Edition).

In other words, God created the entire universe just for us. Now of course, the people who passed down the creation myth of Genesis by word of mouth and then put it into writing had no idea of the almost infinite extent of the universe. All they knew of the universe was what they could see with their own naked eyes while peering at the night sky, which constituted just an infinitesimal amount of the tremendous expanse of outer space. They believed that God had given them dominion over the Earth, but their knowledge of the expanse of the Earth was but a fraction of the total as well.

But if God really created the Earth so that man would reign supreme over it, then why does the Earth contain so many organisms that are hostile to human life? A popular argument that atheists like to use against theists is the existence of evil in the world. For example, if God really loves us, why did he allow the Holocaust to happen? I tend to shy away from this line of argument because if one presupposes a God that creates a Heaven to reward the good and a Hell to punish the evil, then in the afterlife justice will be served. I believe a stronger argument against the existence of the God of the Bible is the fact that not only are there organisms that are lethal to humanity, but that the victims of these organisms are frequently innocent of any wrongdoing.

I was thinking about this recently when I was reading the July 2007 issue of National Geographic magazine. I was deeply affected by an article about how malaria is devastating the developing world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. The following excerpt is quite telling:

"One of these spotlighted countries—perhaps the place most closely watched by malaria experts—is Zambia, a sprawling, landlocked nation carved out of the fertile bushland of southern Africa. It's difficult to comprehend how thoroughly Zambia has been devastated by malaria. In some provinces, at any given moment, more than a third of all children under age five are sick with the disease.

Worse than the sheer numbers is the type of malaria found in Zambia. Four species of malaria parasites routinely infect humans; the most virulent, by far, is Plasmodium falciparum. About half of all malaria cases worldwide are caused by falciparum, and 95 percent of the deaths. It's the only form of malaria that can attack the brain. And it can do so with extreme speed—few infectious agents can overwhelm the body as swiftly as falciparum. An African youth can be happily playing soccer in the morning and dead of falciparum malaria that night.

Falciparum is a major reason nearly 20 percent of all Zambian babies do not live to see their fifth birthday. Older children and adults, too, catch the disease—pregnant women are especially prone—but most have developed just enough immunity to fight the parasites to a stalemate, though untreated malaria can persist for years, the fevers fading in and out. There are times when it seems that everyone in Zambia is debilitated to some degree by malaria; many have had it a dozen or more times. No surprise that the nation remains one of the poorest in the world: A country's economic health has little chance of improving until its physical health is revitalized. Zambia's goal is to reduce malaria deaths by 75 percent over the next four years."

If theists could demonstrate that the presence of disease in the world was their God's way of punishing the wicked, they might have a point. But when "20 percent of all Zambian babies do not live to see their fifth birthday," I fail to see what justification they could possibly offer. Often, the best argument they are able to summon is that it is not possible for us to comprehend everything that God does though everything that God does is right and just. Such a response serves the purpose of absolving them of having to offer any reasoned argument at all.

I submit that a loving and caring God, if it really existed, could easily have created a planet for us without diseases that kill us and there would still be people who would commit evil acts. It would still be possible to judge between the righteous and the wicked and sentence each accordingly. It would not be necessary for innocent children in remote tropical regions to suffer and die from malaria. But the fact that diseases transmitted by insects allegedly created by God causes the death of so many children can only lead to one of two possible conclusions. Either the God of the Bible exists and it is in fact a cruel and callous being or the God of the Bible does not exist.

When Fatimites Call

Long time readers of this blog will be familiar with past posts I have done about an organization called America Needs Fatima.

In recent months, I have received several solicitations in the mail from them. I mailed back one of their solicitation forms with a handwritten message telling them to take me off their mailing list and that they were a bunch of weirdos.

Now these deluded folks are calling my house and leaving recorded messages. The messages informed me that America Needs Fatima is looking to hold 1,000 public square rosary sessions across the United States on October 17, 2007 in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the "Miracle of the Sun". Due to the organization's limited manpower and resources, the message from the group's head, Robert Ritchie, asks if I would be interested in helping to organize a Rosary Prayer group in my neighborhood for the event.

Perhaps as a result of being the youngest of three brothers, I have a smart ass streak in me. I briefly considered calling America Needs Fatima and telling them I would be happy to assist them... and then do absolutely nothing. But I just don't have it in my heart to be that mean.

Instead, after listening to the second message they left on my answering machine this week, I called the organization's phone number and left a message for them telling them I did not support them and to stop calling my number. Hopefully these blockheads will finally get the message, but something tells me I have not heard the last from them.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Day of the Shemales

One of the more popular tourist attractions on the island of Bohol in the Philippines is the Loboc River cruise. It's a short trip, taking no more than an hour on a "floating" restaurant wherein you can choose from about a dozen local foods on a buffet table while you travel up a section of river that makes you feel like you are in a scene from "Apocalypse Now". Here is a picture of the inside of the boat from a Bohol tourist web site. I took some pictures of my own, but not with the digital camera, as I did not realize until we had already left for the day that the memory card that came with the camera only held a measly seven pictures!

My wife and I had gone on the trip the last time we were in Bohol three years ago along with friends and family of my sister-in-law Mia's husband Stuart. This time it was me, the wife and our two kids, and my wife's sister Bebet and her step-mom. There were also a couple of other small groups on the boat.

I started to regret it immediately, because while the food was okay, hordes of flies immediately started to descend on us because the boat had not even embarked yet and we were a stationary target. Some people have a greater tolerance for flies than others, but I have zero. If a fly so much as lands for a fleeting moment anywhere on my plate, I cannot bring myself to eat anything on it. So, I ate as fast as I could before they could spoil my appetite. I was bitching to my wife though that they should not serve the food until the boat starts to go so that it would help keep the flies off.

Before the flies started to home in on the food, I realized that what looked like a young lady behind the food table was in fact a he dressed as a she. I'm a fairly liberal guy, so I was fine with that. But again, as with the Muslim woman, my daughter, unschooled in the ways of tactful expression, asked me out loud, "Daddy, is that a man or a woman?" Not wanting to cause any embarrassment, as the person was in earshot, I simply told my daughter, "I'll explain it to you later."

After the Loboc River Cruise, our next destination was Alburquerque, to see the world's largest python in captivity. Now, it is not often that one encounters men dressed as women. So, it was quite a surprise to me that our hostess at the python exhibit was also a man in drag. It was like hitting the shemale jackpot.

I considered whether or not to take a picture of our flamboyant host, but I felt awkward making such a request. But after doing a little research on the Internet, it turns out he/she is a minor legend on Youtube. This clip of six and a half minutes is a quick tour of the sights of Bohol. The drag queen pops up at 4:10. Then there is another shorter clip in which the drag queen performs a lip synching show for the audience. And here is a clip where you can watch the giant python eat a chicken.

When we were there, the rain was pouring down and the python was dormant, having eaten a pig or a goat a couple of days earlier. You could still see the bulge in its mid-section. And we definitely did not have a chance to do this with it.

The Muslim Woman at the Beach Club

A Muslim woman staying at a beachside resort is sort of like drinking non-alcoholic beer. What's the point of it?

While my family and I were staying a couple of days at the Bohol Beach Club on Panglao Island in the Philippines, there was also a Muslim family there consisting of the parents and a young boy. Despite the fact that the location was a resort with a beach a short walk from the rooms and several pools, and the temperature was easily in the upper nineties, the Muslim wife walked around wearing a head scarf and baggy clothing, while the husband wore shorts and a t-shirt. Would it really be such a tragedy to let the lady loosen up a bit and wear a swim suit, take a dip in the ocean or relax in the pool a bit? Besides, it was not like she was attractive enough to have any guys leering at her if she wore a swim suit anyway.

My daughter caused us a bit of discomfort while we were in the pool. The Muslim family was walking alongside the pool and my daughter said, "That woman looks funny Daddy." I had to explain to her as best as I could that the woman believes there is an invisible man in the sky who wants her to dress that way. At the same time, maybe ridicule from children is exactly what these people need to hear to realize how absurd they are.

Anecdotes on Hong Kong

This trip was our second time staying in Hong Kong, but our first real opportunity to spend any meaningful time there. Our last trip out, we stayed only one night at the Regal Airport Hotel well outside of the city.

I must say I like Hong Kong very much. Owing largely to its century and a half existence as a British colony, Hong Kong is an Asian city with a Western vibe that makes it a comfortable destination for Europeans or Americans such as myself. It is a culturally and commercially vibrant metropolis that is safe, orderly, and clean (except for the air and water pollution!) If I were an expat, Hong Kong is definitely a city that I would like to live in for a long stretch of time.

That being said, our stay there was not completely without an element of danger to it. Wherever I go for vacation, I like to read the local papers, not only to get the news from a different perspective, but also to get a feel for the local scene. On the morning of Friday, July 6, I was reading the day's edition of The Standard, a local business newspaper, which was provided to us complementary by our hotel, the Renaissance Harbour View. I was disturbed to read some unknown persons were attacking hotels and other properties owned by a company called New World Properties. And the reason why I was disturbed is that one of the hotels that was attacked was the Renaissance Kowloon Hotel, which is a sister hotel of the Renaissance Harbour View. What had happened was that one or more person's had slammed a car into the front entrance of the Renaissance Kowloon at 5 a.m. on July 4. On the morning of July 5, another car was driven into the front entrance of the JW Marriott Hotel in nearby Central.

Fortunately, no such attack happened against our hotel. Either the attackers just did not get around to it, or they determined that it was too difficult. I don't know what the entrances to the other two hotels looked like, but the entrance to the Renaissance Harbour View can only be reached by driving around a short curve, which does not allow for approaching the entrance with speed. As of our departure from Hong Kong, it was still not clear who was behind the attacks and why. However, the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau was investigating organized crime links to the attack. A recent article on Yahoo's Hong Kong news board reports that suspects have been arrested.

On a more amusing note, that same morning on July 6 when I was reading about the hotel attacks, the police had to be called in to restore order after several thousand Hong Kongers had lined up outside The Landmark in Central to purchase an environmentally friendly designer bag titled "I'm Not A Plastic Bag" by Anya Hindmarch. In the end, no one ended up getting the bags because the five outlets selling them closed because of the crowds. The South China Morning Post noted the irony of a large crowd of people gathering to get "an environmentally friendly" bag leaving "the area around The Landmark looking like a rubbish dump after the crowd discarded plastic water bottles and other refuse."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Joy of Jet Lag

As wonderful as a vacation on the other side of the world can be, there is no getting around the agonizing transition of readjusting to the time zone here on the Eastern coast of the United States. What makes it particularly difficult for my wife and I is that our two little kids are completely out of sync with our sleep schedule. This morning the little ones awoke and came thundering down the stairs to our bedroom at 3 a.m.! And the evening before, my son fell asleep at the table around 7 p.m. at the Cheeburger Cheeburger hamburger shop in Plainview.

Hopefully the situation will change for the better by the weekend. But for the remainder of the week I will not be exactly firing on all cylinders and blogging will be light. However, once I recover, I anticipate returning to doing more weightier posts instead of the shallower fare I have offered in the last couple of months.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The View from The Peak

For visitors to Hong Kong, it is practically obligatory to take the Tram up to the top of Victoria Peak, which offers a commanding view of the city. This shot takes in the Kowloon section of the city on the other side of Victoria Harbor, and beyond that the hilly region of Hong Kong known as the New Territories. In an historical side note, the Qing dynasty of China leased the New Territories to the British in 1898 for a term of 99 years, ending in 1997. A major factor in Britain deciding to return Hong Kong to the Peoples' Republic of China in 1997 was that China was not going to renew the lease on the New Territories, making Hong Kong basically indefensible.

"Holy Leapin' Dolphin, Batman!"

I caught this dolphin in mid-air during the dolphin and seal show at Ocean Park in Hong Kong. The dolphin almost looks fake, like it is hanging suspended from wires, but you can see the water droplets falling off of it.

Send in the Pandas

These are the pandas Le Le and Ying Ying at Ocean Park, which are a gift from the Peoples' Republic of China to the people of Hong Kong in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong becoming a Special Autonomous Region (or SAR) of China under the "one country two systems" law.

Carnival of Sharks

These beauties can be found at the Shark Aquarium in Hong Kong's premier amusement park Ocean Park. The really spooky looking ones are gray nurse sharks, which despite their scary appearance, do not eat people.

Riding to Pamilacan Island

Here are pictures of the family en route to our dolphin watching and Pamilacan Island expedition. The top picture is all of us. I am the one in the middle who looks like Lawrence of Arabia. Because of the intensity of the Philippine sun, it was necessary to take extreme precautions to protect myself from sun burn. On our last trip there three years ago, I got burned really bad on my back. The rest of the pictures, in order, feature, (1) my wife's sister Mia with her baby daughter Zoe, (2) my wife's tatay (father) Jose and her sister Bebet, (3) Mia's husband Stuart and our trip guide, (4) Mr. and Mrs. Exercise in Futility and my wife's step-mom, and last but definitely not least, (5), the Missus herself looking like a good Muslim wife.

The Dolphins of Pamilacan

En route to a day's jaunt on Pamilacan Island, we went dolphin watching. There were literally dozens of dolphins to be seen, and some got quite close to our boat. Unfortunately, I can't take credit for either of these pictures, as I did not succeed in getting a single decent shot. Credit is due to Stuart Green, the husband of my wife's sister Mia. Stuart is from the UK and currently works for Reefcheck. He works with local government officials, fishermen, and others to educate them about sustainable fishing practices to protect the coral reefs and the undersea life that depend on them.

Cockfighting on Pamilacan Island

On a day trip that the family took to Pamilacan Island, we were treated to this spectacle shortly after we arrived. While to my knowledge cockfighting is illegal in the Philippines, it is still very popular, at least for the men, and is still quite prevalent as long as it is kept out of sight of the authorities.

Hong Kong's Symphony of Lights

This year was the first time I was outside of the United States for July 4th, so I missed out on watching the fireworks go off in my neighborhood. But when I decided to take a stroll with my camera to the waterfront by the Exhibition Center in Wanchai to take pictures of the Hong Kong city skyline at night, little did I realize what a treat I was in for when the loudspeakers announced that another session of Hong Kong's ongoing Symphony of Lights was about to begin. Due to my novice photography skills, I did a poor job of capturing the the beauty of the display, but I think I did myself proud with the final shot. The first two pictures are of Kowloon on the north side of the Harbor, while the last two are of Central.

Totally Awesome Views

These are pictures I took at twilight on July 4 of the Hong Kong city skyline while standing at the waterfront by the Hong Kong Exhibition Center in Wanchai. The top picture is of Kowloon, on the north side of Victoria Harbor, while the second is of Central, which like Wanchai is on Hong Kong Island on the south side of Victoria Harbor. The really tall building in Central is the IFC 2 tower, and above it in the night sky you can make out the planet Jupiter.

Horned Seastar

I took this picture of a horned seastar while snorkeling off of Pamilacan Island, one of the small satellite islands off of Bohol. This was my best underwater photograph, as the current was very strong and it was very difficult to hover over anything of interest long enough to get a good shot.
Though I was not able to arrange for open water dives for completing my PADI Open Water Diver certification, I was able to take an introductory scuba dive at the Bohol Beach Club resort, where we stayed for two nights. It was my first time diving in open waters and it was a very interesting experience. It is a little scary at first when the surface underneath you suddenly takes a steep vertical drop that extends beyond your line of sight. I was able to behold a diverse array of colorful species of fish and some fascinating coral formations. It was not possible to take pictures, because the Aquapack I bought for taking underwater pictures was only designed for depths no greater than ten or fifteen feet, and on my dive I descended as deep as 60 feet.

Surrounded By Christ

For an atheist, one of the things that one observes almost immediately, aside from the tremendous poverty, is the pervasiveness of religious expression in the Philippines. And while I have seen only a small part of the country, nowhere have I seen the Catholicism of the Philippine people expressed more fervently than in Tagbilaran City, capital of the island province of Bohol.

This expression of religious belief extends to the tricycles pictured above, virtually all of which contain some sort of religious message in Tagbilaran City. These tricycles, which consist of a small motorcycle or scooter attached to a metal cab, function as a common form of transportation for the city's poor and lower income people. During a day trip to the interior of Bohol, I did notice that the frequency of religious messages on the tricycles diminished the further one traveled from Tagbilaran.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Dueling Books

For my reading pleasure, I purchased and brought with me on the trip Victor Stenger's new book "God The Failed Hypothesis". As with most hotels and resorts in Christendom, our room in the Bohol Tropics resort contained a Bible in one of the dresser drawers. I was suddenly seized with the idea one morning of photographing Stenger's book and the Bible side by side. As an atheist visitor to a heavily Catholic country, I couldn't help but engage in a little blasphemy!

Uninvited Guest

Waking up on our first morning in the Bohol Tropics Resort in Tagbilaran City, my daughter spotted the lovely insect above crawling on the floor of our room. I told my daughter to put the glass over it to trap it, and I thought it would make for a great picture. My wife, who is from Tagbilaran, told me that it is a large beetle called a bakukan.
After snapping the picture, I used one of my kids' coloring books to fling our uninvited guest off of the balcony.
There was a noticeable sag in the floor of our room, which resulted in there being a gap of up to one inch beneath the door to our room. I am guessing that the beetle crawled through the gap sometime during the night. The next two nights there I covered up the gap using one of the bathroom towels. Fortunately, we did not have anymore such uninvited guests.
My other complaint about Bohol Tropics was that in a rather novel but annoying way of economizing on space, they placed the bathroom sink inside the shower stall. That being said, the resort staff was always helpful and exceedingly polite.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Exercise in Futility is Back

The family arrived safely home about 45 minutes ago. I am pleased to report that I was able to get some really good pictures on my new digital camera, and hope to have some new posts up in the next couple of days.

Like any lengthy vacation in a far away land, there were inevitably some setbacks, glitches, and frustrations, but all in all we had a wonderful time and many memorable moments. I look forward to sharing some of those moments and my observations with you soon. Good night!