Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween

Yeah, I know it's late already. I was hoping to make my first video, but I just did not have the time to shoot one, open up a Youtube account, and upload it. That will have to wait until sometime in the near future.

Anyway, tonight is going to be a lazy blogging night here at Exercise in Futility. For your viewing pleasure, below is a short video by Max Blumenthal, who attended the Value Voters Summit 2007. I wonder how Rudy Giuliani feels about being referred to as evil, albeit a lesser evil, by James Dobson.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Questions from Jason

Jason, a Christian and former visitor to this blog, has asked me if I would be willing to answer some questions for atheists for a class project. Having reviewed his questions, I am happy to answer them. Below his questions will appear in bold text while my answers will appear in italics.

Here goes:

1) Have you always been skeptical towards religious beliefs? If not, would you mind describing the definitive moment or gradual process that led you to an atheistic worldview?

No, I have not always been skeptical towards religious beliefs. Having been raised Catholic, I grew up with the assumption that the Bible was the word of God. During the middle of 9th grade, I became deeply religious. I went to church freely and willingly every Sunday, I read the Bible from start to finish three times in a row, and I even slept with the Bible in my bed.

My skepticism and erosion of faith set in about twenty years ago, and so many precise details are obscured by the mists of time and the cob webs in my head. I don't believe it was any one thing. Part of it was that I didn't see my religious faith improving my life. But a major factor in the erosion and loss of my faith was that I began to read the Bible with a critical eye rather than just assuming it was true. I also read the texts of other religious faiths and was particularly impressed with the Buddhist Dhammapadda and portions of the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita. I saw similar moral teachings in all of them, and I drew the conclusion that certain morals were universal and spanned all of the religions. With that, I no longer believed that Christianity represented the one and only truth.

But, rather than abandoning belief in God, I posited a god that transcended human attempts to categorize such a being of immense power into a single religion. I reasoned that a universal creator wanted us to be good in our actions and that churches and rituals were just empty trappings. If two people behaved the same, but one went to church and the other did not, then what really made the church-goer better than the one who did not go to church? However, as time went by, I became further disillusioned. Rather than feeling empowered, I was still the same flawed and unhappy person I was before. I began to realize that there was nobody there. Letting go of my belief in a creator was more difficult than abandoning Christianity. I made the leap from believing that I was god's special servant on Earth to just being an ordinary person whose happiness or sadness was of his own making.

2) What do you find to be the greatest obstacle to religious belief? Please feel free to write more than one.

For me, the greatest obstacle is that religious belief clashes with my sense of reason. It just seems bizarre that I should be expected to believe that the universe is created by a being of immense power and that the most important thing for this creator is that you believe it caused a virgin in the Middle East some 2,000 years ago to become pregnant and that her son performed miracles and rose from the dead. For me, it belongs in the same category as the belief that who I am as a person is determined by my zodiac sign.

3) Do you believe there is any intellectual merit to a theistic worldview?

A qualified yes. While I am an unabashed atheist, I do not consider myself to be anti-religious. It is my impression that for many religious people, their religious beliefs serve as a guidepost for how to conduct themselves. Churches definitely have a positive role to play in reaching and directing large numbers of people to further the cause of social justice. The black churches, for example, were vital to the Civil Rights movement of the 50's and 60's. I have no problem with acknowledging that. If religious beliefs encourage people to be better human beings and to want to effect positive change in society, then yes, I believe that is a good thing.

4) Although you may not find them to be ultimately convincing, what arguments/assertions, if any, are most compelling for belief in a deity? How has this argument for theism ultimately been inadequate for you?

I would say that the most compelling argument for belief in a deity is how did the universe come about? And the reason for that is that since we are dealing with an event that happened so many billions of years ago, science does not possess enough information at present to adequately answer the question, at least that I have seen. That being the case, what makes the argument inadequate for me is that when you consider how vast the universe is, then a creator would have to be even greater than that. And that raises questions such as where did the creator come from, or even more, why should anything exist at all, including a creator? Furthermore, the increase of scientific knowledge over the last few centuries has pushed back the veil of ignorance about the universe in which we live. We have gone from believing in a geocentric universe in which everything revolved around the Earth up to a nearly infinite universe in which ours is just one solar system in a galaxy comprised of billions of stars in a universe comprised of millions of galaxies.

5) Is the worldview you possess today the result of an inconsistency in religious belief alone? If not, what do you find most compelling about atheism?

In his book "The God Delusion", Richard Dawkins humorously mentions a self-described atheist in Northern Ireland being asked, "Yes, but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?"

It should come as no surprise that atheists who were once religious can still have a worldview that is influenced at least to some degree by their religious upbringing. If I were an atheist in India I imagine I would be quite different culturally from the atheist in suburban New York that I am.

Atheism is simply the absence of belief in a deity. What becoming an atheist did for me was that it made me think about why certain things should be good or bad or beneficial or harmful on their own merits rather than just letting the Bible do my thinking for me. Take the issue of homosexuality. When I was a religious person, I had a rather bigoted attitude towards gays. Growing up in the 1980's, with the advent of AIDS, I shared the cultural attitude common at the time that gays were getting what they deserved. After I became an atheist and I actually met and became friends with openly gay people when I volunteered at a crisis hotline in the early 1990's, my bigotry towards gays evaporated. The Christian belief regarding gays was that intimate contact between two people of the same gender was a terrible sin in the eyes of god. But as an atheist, it struck me as absurd that Adam kissing Steve instead of Eve would cause a creator to throw a temper tantrum. As far as I was concerned, there was no comparison between two men in a loving, long-term monogamous relationship and a man who engages in risky unprotected sex with multiple partners in a bathhouse. Acts should be judged by the harm they do to the individual and/or society, rather than just being the subject of blanket condemnation based on what some ancient religious text says.

6) Please describe your experience with theists who attempt to persuade you towards religious beliefs.

There has not been much in the way of face to face attempts to persuade me. The one time I clearly recall, it ended when I told the person that I no longer wanted to discuss it as he was not going to change me mind and vice versa.

7) Is there any advice you would give to theists who seek to convince the world of their beliefs?

Yes. First off, I believe in being an exemplar instead of a crusader. I believe in being a living affirmation of my values. While I am happy to offer advice if asked, I know I do not have all the answers and that my time is better spent trying to better myself rather than trying to get other people to be like me. Theists should spend more time making sure their own lives are in order instead of worrying that their atheist friend, neighbor or co-worker is going to burn in hell for all eternity if we don't accept Jesus Christ as our lord and savior.

Second, while theists labor under the mistaken belief that atheists are not moral, we do in fact have coherent and well thought out value systems. Being the father of two small children, I want a world where they have the opportunity to be safe from violence, disease, and hunger just as much as Christian parents desire the same things for their children. Theists should not assume that atheists do not share the same apprehension and loathing of aspects of our culture that promote vulgarity and materialism.

Third, theists, no matter what their religion, are just going to have to accept that they will never convert 100% of the human race to their particular religion. If one values a pluralistic and free society, than one must learn that tolerance is crucial to the maintenance of such a society. The problem with more fundamentalist followers of religions is that they come into conflict with others in society who openly do not abide by the religious beliefs of the fundamentalists. For example, take a Muslim man in America who believes that all women should be veiled. The fact that he must exist in a population where the overwhelming majority of women are not veiled is a daily rebuke to him whenever he ventures outdoors. Won't his wife's piety be weakened by living in a society where the veil is scorned.

And with that I shall have to call it a night as it is getting late and I can barely keep my eyes open. I hope my answers to your questions have been adequate, Jason.



Saturday, October 27, 2007

Pet Peeve of the Day - October 27, 2007

Charities that provide you with postage paid envelopes in the solicitations they send you in the mail, but on the postage paid envelope they put that message "Your stamp will help save us needed funds!"

Gimme a break! I'm mailing them a check for $200! They can cover the damned postage!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Flame-Haired Neanderthals

By way of an article on the BBC website, researchers studying DNA extracted from the remains of two Neanderthals retrieved part of an important gene called MC1R. The article quotes Carles Lalueza-Fox, assistant genetics professor at the University of Barcelona as saying, "We found a variant of MC1R in Neanderthals which is not present in modern humans, but which causes an effect on the hair similiar to that seen in modern redheads."

Julianne Moore, Neanderthal goddess?

Adds Dr. Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, "It suggests there may be a propensity towards the reduction of melanin in populations away from the tropics. If the Neanderthal and modern variants are different, it may be a good example of parallel, or convergent evolution - a similar evolutionary response to the same situation."

However, it is not likely that the lovely Julianne Moore has any Neanderthal ancestors. According to Dr. Lalueza-Fox, the Neanderthal version of the gene is not found in modern humans, which suggests that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons did not breed with each other.

The BBC also has a couple of interesting articles here and here about prevailing theories as to why the Neanderthals were displaced by our Cro-Magnon ancestors and eventually perished in their last refuge in southern Spain. The main causes put forth thus far seem to be a combination of climate change and inferiority to Cro-Magnons either in terms of technology or intelligence. One idea that occurred to me that I did not see discussed is whether it was possible that the Neanderthals may have been susceptible to diseases to which the Cro-Magnons were immune. A stark example of this from recent recorded history is the tremendous devastation that smallpox inflicted on the native American population from the time of Hernando Cortez. I don't know if this possibility was already considered and discarded, but if it has not, maybe it is something worth exploring.

Friday Funnies - Diaper Robbery

This is a great clip from Raising Arizona.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Goodbye Kiki

Last night my mom's dog Kiki died. Above is a picture of her with my son when he was about fifteen months old. Kiki was a combination Shi Tzu and Maltese. She was a very cute and friendly dog who was greatly devoted to my mom.

As longtime readers of this blog may recall, at the beginning of this year my mom was hospitalized from pneumonia and injuries sustained from a fall. She spent most of the winter in a nursing home undergoing physical therapy so that she could walk unassisted again. During that time, Kiki stayed with us in our house and became the family dog. In fact, Kiki was with us up to mid-June, because my mom was also having problems with depression and was not up to the task of taking care of her.

But shortly before my family and I were to leave for a two week vacation in the Philippines and Hong Kong, my mom began to feel better again and told me she was ready to take Kiki back. You would think that living with us and being fed and taken care of by us for six months Kiki would have wanted to stay with us. But when I brought her back to my mom's apartment, Kiki went running in excitedly into the den where my mom was sitting on the couch watching tv. Kiki was clearly so happy to see my mom again, and she immediately made herself right at home by grabbing her toys out of her toy basket in the corner. It is really amazing how dogs remain so loyal to their masters even after being separated for so long.

We do not know why Kiki died. The last couple of weeks she had no appetite and would not eat her dinner or snacks, and Kiki was a dog who absolutely loved to eat. Still, despite her lack of appetite, she did not otherwise show any change in her behavior and did not appear lethargic. Then, over the last couple of days, Kiki noticeably deteriorated and my mom had planned to bring her to the vet today. But when my mom woke up this morning, she found Kiki lying motionless on the floor. It was too late.

My mom bought Kiki when she was only a couple of months old and had her for about eleven and a half years. After my father's death at the end of May of 2006, Kiki was the closest thing to a companion that my mom had, so my mom is understandably saddened by her loss. I am going to miss Kiki very much too. I knew I could never be more than #2 in Kiki's eyes, but that was good enough for me. Goodbye Kiki.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

UPDATED: A Hard On For Christ

Though it has been fifteen years since I graduated from college, I still have some of my college textbooks, including Volume One of "The American Tradition in Literature" (6th edition).

Some months ago, while perusing through the text for information on a post I was writing, I came across excerpts from Jonathan Edwards, a mid-18th century Puritan from New England, who was an important catalyst for the first "Great Awakening". He is perhaps best known for his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. It is a sermon replete with references to fire and brimstone. I can only imagine how the congregation that was on the receiving end of Edwards' fiery preaching must have felt at the tongue lashing he unleashed on them. If you want to suffer through it in its entirety, you can read it here.

But what really caught my interest was an excerpt from his Personal Narrative. As befits the title, it is an extremely personal meditation on Edwards' religious faith and what it meant to him. To a 21st century secular minded person such as myself, Edwards ecstatic language comes across as bizarre, and sometimes downright creepy.

Here are a few examples:

"It has often appeared to me delightful, to be united to Christ; to have him for my head, and to be a member of his body; also to have Christ for my teacher and prophet. I often think with sweetness, and longings, and pantings of soul, of being a little child, taking hold of Christ, to be led by him through the wilderness of this world." And don't forget to spend some time at the Neverland Ranch while you are at it!

"Sometimes, only mentioning a single word caused my heart to burn within me; or only seeing the name of Christ, or the name of some attribute of God. And God has appeared glorious to me, on account of the Trinity. It has made me have exalting thoughts of God, that he subsists in three persons; Father, Son and Holy Ghost." Did he shoot a load in his pants every time he recited the Lord's Prayer?

"Once as I rode out into the woods for my health... I had a view that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God, as Mediator between God and Man, and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception-which continued as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud." (Emphasis mine). Imagine encountering this guy while hunting in the woods! The mountain men from 'Deliverance' would have had a field day with him. "Take your pants off boy. I'll give you something to weep and moan about."

"I have greatly longed of late, for a broken heart, and to lie low before God; and when I ask for humility, I cannot bear the thoughts of being no more humble than other Christians. It seems to me, that though their degrees of humility may be suitable for them; yet it would be a vile self-exaltation to me, not to be the lowest in humility of all mankind." Spank me Jesus! Spank me!

UPDATE: I don't know how this one slipped past me when I first wrote this post:

"I was almost constantly in ejaculatory prayer, wherever I was." Shit, if I went to church, I definitely would not want this man sitting in the pew behind me.

Jonathan Edwards was a very strange fellow.

Stark Lunacy - Part 5 - Monotheism

After surveying the religious marketplace that was Rome, Stark devotes chapter 5 to an overview of monotheism in history.

The first known monotheist in recorded history was the 14th century B.C.E. Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep IV. For reasons not entirely clear, Amenhotep decided to proclaim that the sun god Aten was the one true god and changed his name to Akhenaten. A number of changes resulted from Akhenaten's pursuit of monotheism. One interesting development was in how Akhenaten allowed himself to be portrayed in bas-reliefs. Whereas his predecessors were depicted as remote and idealized figures, Akhenaten insisted that he be shown as an actual human being. A number of reliefs depict Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiri at play with their children. Why Akhenaten's monotheism went hand in hand with more naturalistic artistic representations and changes in architectural styles is a matter of speculation.

Alas, Akhenaten's new religion did not outlast his reign. Stark notes the reasons why. Akhenaten did not attempt to proselytize the common people of Egypt. His religion, in practice, was restricted to his inner circle, and even their level of commitment was highly in doubt. As Stark points out, "archaeologists have found many figurines in ruins of private homes at Amarna [Akhenaten's capital], revealing that during the time when all the old Gods and their images were banned, many of Akhenaten's officals continued to worship them in secret." Added to that, Akhenaten does not seem to have been a particularly effective ruler, and his neglect of foreign affairs resulted in the waning of Egyptian influence in Palestine.

There are some who have speculated that the Israelites got the idea for their monotheistic religion from Akhenaten, but Stark discounts that possibility. While not a Biblical literalist, Stark appears to believe that the Exodus did happen, but that "for many centuries after the Exodus... the religion that prevailed among the Israelites involved a number of Gods, and it is silly to compare the Jewish faith that took many centuries slowly to develop into a brilliant monotheism with the monotheism that had appeared so many centuries before and so briefly in Egypt, and then vanished." Or to borrow from one of the parables of Jesus, the monotheism of Akhenaten was like a seed that fell on stony ground and failed to take root.

Next, Stark looks at Zoroastrianism. Here, Stark introduces the reader to an important term that will reappear at various times later on in Discovering God, and that term is what he calls "religious capital", which he defines as "the degree of mastery and attachment to a particular body of religious culture." One's religious capital is a crucial factor in determining whether a person will convert from one religion to another. For example, Stark writes, "consider Christians deciding whether to become Mormons or Hindus. To become Mormons, Christians retain all (or nearly all) of their religious capital, needing merely to add to it: they already possess two of the three scriptures, needing only to add the Book of Mormon... [b]ut to become Hindus, Christians must discard their Bible and all their religious a copy of the Bhagavad-gita, and invest the time and energy needed to build a whole new cultural stake."

After providing the reader with the Cliff Notes version of the history of Zoroastrianism, Stark moves on to Judaism, which is described as a "religion of the book." The Jewish Bible, or Tanakh, is distinguished "from other scriptures of its time [in] that it includes a great deal of history." Having said that, Stark has set the stage for challenging those who would question the historical accuracy of the Old Testament. But rather than examining the findings of Biblical archaeologists such as Israel Finkelstein, Stark disparages "militant extremists from several minor universities [who] claim that none of it ever happened... that the whole Torah was made up sometime about 200 BCE as 'pious propaganda' by Hellenized Jews in the Diaspora wishing to impress their Greek and Roman neighbors." Stark goes on to lament that "these so-called minimalists are much quoted in the media." Personally, I do not recall being familiar with anyone claiming that the Jewish scriptures were all invented around 200 BCE, and I doubt hardly anyone believes such claims, including most atheists. This is an example that is characteristic of Stark throughout the book, in that he brings up and tears down the more absurd claims while completely dodging the more serious and realistic challenges to his viewpoint.

Though Stark does acknowledge some discrepancies in the Bible, he mostly chalks it up to, yep, you guessed it, divine accomodation. It is a theme he brings up repeatedly throughout the book. So, with respect to the Bible, Stark argues that any "discrepancies with earlier scriptures could reflect that by the sixth century, human recipients were better able to understand God's words. Keep in mind that all revelations are limited by the capacity of humans to comprehend... in order to penetrate the ignorance of Israel."

By the way Stark describes it, you would think that God's attempts to communicate his will to the Israelites must have went something like this:

Stark sets out what he believes happened regarding the story of Exodus and the Israelite settlement of Canaan. Again, not being a Biblical literalist, Stark concedes that the "best of the archaeologically informed historians now believe that the Jews did not conquer Israel...but settled peacefully. For example, Jericho... was destroyed in about 1500 BCE by the Egyptians and lay abandoned in ruins at the time Joshua was said to have brought down its walls."

Stark is inclined to believe that there was a real Moses. Among his reasons are that the name Moses is Egyptian rather than Semitic, and he quotes William Dever positing that it is possible that a charismatic Egyptian sheikh named Moses might have indeed guided the Israelites through the desert. Besides, Stark insists, "someone had revelations and founded the Israelite religion." Stark refers to his earlier description in the book about religious innovators and how quite often their families become their first converts and supporters. In Exodus, it "tells that the first to accept Moses's revelations were his immediate family, which has, from the standpoint of social science, the profound ring of truth."

In tracing the development of monotheism in Israel, Stark contrasts the relative weakness of Israelite kings with those of its neighbors which had god-king monarchs and state subsidized religious monopolies. This meant that "Israel enjoyed a relatively unregulated religious economy. There lay the key to unique contours of Jewish history: unregulated religious economies always abound in sect movements, and when they enjoy sufficient freedom, sects sometimes achieve dramatic religious changes." Stark defines sects in his book as religious groups that maintain high levels of religious commitment, which brings them into tension with their cultural environment. Stark notes that the Yahweh-Only or Deuteronomist sect existed throughout most of the history of the Israelite kingdom, and that contrary to what is generally assumed, this sect would have been drawn from the ranks of the privileged. This also clashes with the criticism that is popularly levelled at the authors of the Old Testament, particularly by many atheists, that they were ignorant goat herders.

The Deuteronomists seem to have had their first success during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, when the "Book of Law" was found hidden in the Temple. In addressing whether or not the Torah was a forgery whipped up by the Deuteronomists ("Hey guys! Guess what we found!"), Stark again errs on the side of religion. "Is is equally clear that [the Deuteronomists] began with far earlier documents. Where would such documents have been kept other than in the Temple? And in an age of oral culture, is it surprising that scrolls may have lain forgotten and unread for generations?" B-b-b-but Rodney! This is supposed to have been their religious law! By way of analogy, imagine after the United States Constitution was drafted, someone hid the only copy of it in Ben Franklin's attic. The drafters of the Constitution would tell people what they put into the document that formed the basis of the nation's government, but since no one could actually get their hands on the document itself, the framework of the government would not be established according to constitutional principles. That hardly seems likely.

Ironically, it appears that the Babylonian Conquest was the best thing to ever happen to the strict monotheist sect among the Israelites. For decades they had been warning the people of Israel what would happen if they did not obey the one true god, and now they were vindicated. Furthermore, Stark quotes one Morton Smith, who wrote that "Most of the leaders of the Yahweh-alone party were probably among the upper classes of Jerusalem whom Nebuchadnezzar carried off to Babylon." Stark believes that "the temptations to assimilate served as a very efficient selection mechanism that, over several generations, would have filtered out the less committed, with the result that the self-conscious Israelite exile community came to consist almost entirely of sect members with unwavering faith that Yahweh was the Only God."

Stark also examines what influence, if any, Zoroastrianism had on Judaism at this stage. He observes that "the Babylonian captivity provided a circumstance for long and very close contact between Israel and Zoroastrianism, during a very formative period of the former, and a very vigorous, early period in the history of the latter." The notions of heaven and hell in post-exilic Judaism bear a resemblance to that of Zoroastrianism. The Zorastrians did not bury their dead, but left them exposed in the air to become bare bones. The book of Ezekiel mentions a field of dry bones. Furthermore, Stark refers to an agreement among scholars that there are Zoroastrian influences in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

So, the next time you get upset over the latest escapades by the Religious Right, just remember that if you go back far enough, it is all Zoroaster's fault. Zoroaster, you're a goddamned Persian bastard!

Next up, here come the Christians!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

UPDATED: The Secular Society and Its Enemies

The Center for Inquiry is hosting its 2007 conference titled The Secular Society and Its Enemies from the evening of Friday, November 9 through Sunday, November 11, 2007. I am pleased to report that I have enrolled to attend the Saturday and Sunday sessions of the conference. If you are interested in attending, click on the link above.

The Center for Inquiry has a number of good speakers lined up for the conference, including Christopher Hitchens, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Michelle Goldberg, who I had the pleasure of meeting once before. There is also supposed to be a surprise unannounced guest. I have my suspicions as to who this mystery guest is, but I will not reveal it here out of respect for the wishes of the guest and the Center for Inquiry.

I am looking forward to meeting Neil Tyson, and I plan to purchase his most recent book "Death By Black Hole" and getting another important addition to my collection of autographed books.

Below are Youtube clips for Neil Tyson and Michelle Goldberg, in case any of my readers are not familiar with them.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Michelle Goldberg

Hat tip to Daylight Atheism.

UPDATE: It appears that Richard Dawkins will be attending this conference. This is great, not just for the opportunity to meet him, but also to repay a debt to one of my co-workers. Last year, my co-worker loaned me his copy of Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. I think I got about one third of the way through it, often finding time to read it on train rides back and forth to work. Then, one morning, in a fit of absent-mindedness, I left my shoulder bag on the roof of my car as I drove to the train station. A driver behind me caught my attention with his flashing of his headlights and arm waving. I pulled over and he told me that the bag had fallen off the roof of my car. I thanked him and drove back to find it, but I was unable to locate it. I felt really bad about it, because the Dawkins book was obviously given to my co-worker from someone as a gift, as there was a personalized message written in it. I told my co-worker what had happened and offered to buy him a replacement copy, but he waved it off and told me not to worry about it.

It occurred to me that it would be a great idea if I could get my co-worker another copy of The Selfish Gene to replace the one I had lost, only as an added bonus, it would be autographed by Richard Dawkins himself. Between that, and getting Neil de Grasse Tyson and Victor Stenger to autograph my copies of their books, it looks like I am going to be carrying quite a load around with me!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Brokeback Hogwarts

"Oooh. it feels soooo good when I rub against this pole!"

It seems that J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, brought Hogwarts head wizard Albus Dumbledore out of the closet. As if paranoid Christian activists didn't have enough reasons for railing against the Harry Potter books already!

Expect the "Family Values" crowd to add Professor Dumbledore to the swelling ranks of that notorious pantheon of gay children's characters such as Tinky Winky and Spongebob Squarepants. However, Albus Dumbledore is an even greater threat to the morals of our fragile youth, because unlike Tinky Winky and Spongebob, Dumbledore is a real person.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Stark Lunacy - Part 4 - The Market Theory of Religion

Chapter 2 of Rodney Stark's Discovering God is an overview of ancient temple religions in ancient societies such as Sumer, Egypt as well as the more recent Mayan and Aztec temple religions. From an atheist perspective, there is not much of interest in this chapter. Stark correctly points out that civilizations with subsidized, monopoly religious organizations tended to become static societies where innovation was frowned upon as a challenge and threat to the state religion. Temple religions did not exist to serve the common people, but rather a very small elite. At most, the people might be passive spectators to a publicly performed sacrifice or other ritual. In states that have subsidized religious monopolies, "the overall level of public religious involvement will be low."

This sets the stage for Chapter 3, which looks at religion in the Roman Empire. In contrast to the state subsidized monopoly religions that Stark discusses in Chapter 2, "the most unusual aspect of Roman religion is that it was relatively unregulated and little subsidized. The Roman Republic did not impose a system of state temples and allowed the evolution of a remarkably free and crowded religious marketplace wherein an amazing array of faiths jostled for popular support." Stark calls this the "market theory of religion", which states that religious competition increases the overall religiousness of the population. So far, so good.

However, having made a number of valid observations, Stark proceeds to unleash a broadside against those who claim "that religion stems from ignorance or irrationality." According to Stark, "people are as rational in making religious choices as in making secular decisions." He spends a sizeable paragraph attacking the criticisms levelled against religion by intellectual figures such as Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud. That some of the claims by these religious critics are themselves absurd, such as one Michael P. Carroll, who Stark quotes as describing the Rosary as "a disguised gratification of repressed anal-erotic desires", does not make religious belief inherently rational.

Stark retorts that a "mountain of trustworthy studies reveal that religion is positively associated with good mental health - religious people are substantially less prone to neuroses, anxiety, depression, and other forms of psychological problems." (Bold text mine).

Andrea Yates, a fervent Christian who was not prone to psychological problems.

Yeah, I know, one crazy religious person does not disprove that, but I just couldn't help myself!

Stark goes on though, stating that "the more educated they are, the more likely people are to attend church, and among university faculty, those in the physical and natural sciences are more religious than are their colleagues in other fields." Yet in a recent Harris Poll, it was found that those "with no college education (82%) are more likely to believe in God than those with postgraduate education (73%)." And a Nature survey of the members of the National Academy of Scientists in 1998, found that only 7% believed in a personal god! Maybe the polls that Stark looked at were taken from the faculty of Liberty and Regent Universities!

His bitch session ended, Professor Stark recovers his moorings and gets on with his survey of religious pluralism in the Roman Empire. In examining why new faiths, including Christianity, succeeded in spreading within the empire, Stark offers five reasons for their success. First, these religions appealed to the senses because their ceremonies had a high emotional content. Second, the new religions appealed to the individual rather than the group. Third, "they satisfied the intellect" because they possessed written scriptures. The holy texts of Judaism and Christianity in particular contained descriptions of real places and were grounded, at least in part, in history. Fourth, many of the new faiths were more inclusive towards women. Fifth, the churches and temples of these religions were not just places where people went to worship at set times, they also provided their adherents with a sense of community. In contrast to Greco-Roman religions, "the new faiths stressed celebration, joy, ecstasy and passion. Music played a leading role in their services - not only flutes and horns, but an abundance of group singing and dancing."

And here is where Rodney Stark is right in a way that can be uncomfortable for atheists to admit, Christianity succeeded in the Roman Empire because its message was attractive! This will be examined more when I get to Chapter 7, which looks more in depth at the rise and spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire, resulting in the faith becoming the state religion of the empire in the 4th century C.E.

Ironically though, when Stark describes the shortcomings of the Greco-Roman gods, he points to their lack of morals and manners, and describes them as being "afflicted with jealousy, greed, pride, and lust." Evidently Stark forgets that in Exodus, the god of the Bible tells Moses that he is "a jealous god", and throughout the Old Testament, the god of the Bible at best is psychopathic, genocidal, and controlling. Of course, the story of the birth, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is meant to humanize the god of the Bible and make him, well, less of a dick.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Friday Funnies Double Shot

This week's Friday Funnies is a twofer. The first clip is a spoof of a commercial for the erectile dysfunction tablet Cialis®. Gordo had this clip on his blog Appletree several months ago and I thought it was one of the funniest things I have ever seen.

Keeping in the theme of men's sexuality issues, the second clip is a scene from the television series Rescue Me, wherein the guys at the firehouse list the ladies they keep in their "spank bank", which means the women they fantasize about when they are masturbating. (Oh my god, he used the "M" word!) The conversation goes well until Sean Garritty makes an unforfunate slip.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Pet Peeve of the Day - October 18, 2007

Lurch. No, not the character from the Addams Family.

No, Lurch is the nickname I give to this man I often see on the subway on the way to work in the morning. If I catch the 8:33 train from Hicksville to Penn Station, I usually arrive around 9:15 a.m. and make my way to the platform for the 1 Line.

It is usually only a short wait, a matter of a couple of minutes at most, before the 1 Line subway train rolls into the station. Now, when you commute on the same trains on a frequent basis, you start to notice some of the other regulars. What I end up doing for the commuters I recognize is to give them my own private nicknames. For example, there used to be this one woman around my age who was always smoking cigarettes while waiting for the train at the Long Island Rail Road station in Hicksville, and she wore this fringed leather jacket, sort of like this one, which made her look like a cowgirl. So I named her the Marlboro Girl. The Marlboro Girl really was addicted to her cigarettes. There was one time I remember where she emerged onto the platform at Hicksville just as the train was coming into the station and slowing to stop. To my utter astonishment, I watched as she whipped out a cigarette, lit it, and got at most three puffs out of it before she had to flick it away and board the non-smoking train. All I could think was "Was it really worth it?"

But anyway, back to Lurch. I first noticed him one morning this past summer. I was on the platform when the 1 Train came in. The doors to the subway car where I was waiting opened up, and there was Lurch, standing inside the doorway facing outwards as the door opened. I beheld a tall, rail thin Caucasian man with a bald head, a combined mustache and goatee, reddish patches on his cheeks, and big flaming blue eyes. He wore a sky blue suit jacket that highlighted his slender frame, accompanied by a bright colored tie. But it was those intense, slightly maniacal looking eyes that got to me. This guy was fucking scary looking!

His appearance so disturbed me that I entered the car through one of the other doors further down so I would not have to stand near him. I thought maybe I would never have to see him again, as I had not noticed him before. But as fate would have it, whenever I would take the 8:33 train into Manhattan and catch the 1 Line to my office, Lurch would almost always be there when the door opened. Lurch had become a regular. And sure enough, when I caught the 1 Line this morning, Lurch was there again. Thanks a lot Lurch! You're my pet peeve of the day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Stark Lunacy - Part 3 - Divine Revelations

Wrapping up chapter 1 of Rodney Stark's latest book, Discovering God, the next noteworthy part of this chapter deals with religious innovators who have revelations. Stark defines a revelation as "a communication believed to come from a supernatural source, usually from a God, or to be divinely inspired knowledge."

Contrary to the popular belief that people who claim to have received revelations from god are crazy or dishonest, Stark tells us that these assumptions are "incompatible with the biographies of many prominent cases: most showed no indications whatsoever of mental illness, and most made personal sacrifices utterly incompatible with fraud. This led me to formulate a model whereby entirely normal people can, through entirely normal means, believe that they communicate with the divine."

David Koresh, a normal man with no indications of mental illness whatsoever, who believed that he received revelations from God and whose personal sacrifice of his own life at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas was utterly incompatible with fraud.

An example that Stark provides is when "Spencer W. Kimball, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced the revelation that persons of African ancestry should be admitted to the Mormon priesthood, he described the process by which he gained this revelation as the result of many hours of prayer that ended in the sudden, absolute certainty that this was God's will."

Gee, ya think so Professor Stark? Or was it more of a case of "Holy shit, we better come up with a face saving way of allowing blacks to become Mormon priests because in a post-Civil Rights America, we're starting to look awfully raycist!" Why Stark does not consider this possibility is beyond me. I wonder if Stark believes it is plausible that God really told President McKinley that he should "Christianize" the mostly Catholic Filipinos after the end of the Spanish-American War.

Stark compares the religious innovator's receipt of divine revelations to composers such as Gershwin or Mozart, who claimed that they did not compose tunes, they simply played the complete melodies that came to them in their heads from "out there." Stark suggests that while it is possible these allegedly divine revelations "are purely human creations", we should also be "free to assume that the revelation was sent... that God does reveal himself to humans - even if it is only within the limits of their capacity to understand."

In discussing the credibility of religious innovators, Professor Stark does get one thing right. He points out that in many cases, converts are family members, close friends, and members of the community, or to put it in his words, "It follows that successful religious innovators will tend to be well-respected members of an intense primary group." He points to examples such as Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, as well as Jesus, Muhammed and a host of other religious founders.

For a Stone Age religious innovator, converting ones family and neighbors was tantamount to converting the world, and the religion would eventually spread to other tribes through cultural diffusion. And the reason why religion tended to be everywhere is "because the needs it fulfills are everywhere... Alternatively, many religions come from God according to the ability of humans at a particular time and place to understand, and, of course, all revelations are subject to misunderstanding, exaggeration, and faulty transmission." (bold emphasis mine)

Then again, a God could solve that problem by revealing the same message to a number of people in a particular group simultaneously. After all, if two people approach you within the same time period, both claiming to have received different revelations from God, how are you to know which one to believe?

Coming soon, Rodney Stark looks at ancient state-sponsored temple religions, followed by an examination of that great religious marketplace called the Roman Empire, where Christianity would end up becoming the Walmart of the 4th century C.E.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tip of the Day: How to Become a Millionaire

Easy! Get one million people to each give you a dollar!

Too many people to ask? Okay. Try getting 100,000 people to give you ten dollars.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Updated - The Jellyfish in my Ice Tea Bottle

(Note to readers: This post originally appeared on June 11, 2007. The Update section at the bottom is new content for this post.)

Well, at least that's what it looked like to me.

On my lunch break today, I bought myself a bottle of Honest Tea's Heavenly Honey Green Tea to drink with my sandwich. I drink it sometimes because it is has less sugar than some of the other green tea drinks out there.

It is not uncommon when drinking it to see swirls of dark material floating around in the bottle, which dissipate when you shake the bottle. But today, after I had drank about 90% of the contents of the bottle, I picked it up from my desk for another swig and noticed something floating at the bottom. I shook the bottle a little but I did not see any dispersal going on. I held the bottle close to my eyes and peered up at it. What I saw resembled a jelly fish about the size of a Kennedy half dollar.

After showing it to my co-worker, which grossed her out a bit, I called the phone number listed on the bottle and was transferred to a man named Mike. I described to him what was in my bottle. He explained to me that sometimes the bottle loses its air tight seal and mold gets into the bottle. Basically, Mike said, what I had in my bottle was a non-pathogenic gelatinous mold that posed no harm to me. He apologized for it and asked for my address so that he could send me some coupons. I complied, but thought to myself, "Do I really want coupons to buy more of their products after what I saw floating around in my bottle?"

At any rate, if you ever buy any Honest Tea products, always look for any strange things floating around inside the bottle before you bring it to the cash register.

UPDATE: This must be a common occurrence, because a number of hits to this blog are generated from people searching "ice tea mold" or some other variation. I even managed to find a video on Youtube from some intrepid individual who recorded on video the moldy mass that formed in his bottle of Arizona Ice Tea.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Progressive Rock Medley

This week's medley is a collection of progressive rock songs that I like.

First up is Coldplay's "Talk".

"Show, Don't Tell" by Rush. This song especially resonates with those of us like myself who are atheists and skeptics. Listen closely to the lyrics.

"Shout" by Tears for Fears.

And for my blogging buddy Andrea, because I know she loves this band, Keane's "Everybody's Changing".


Pet Peeve of the Day - October 14, 2007

People who feel the need to videotape everything they do. This past Monday, which was Columbus Day, I took my son to a nearby "farm" to pick some pumpkins for Halloween. They had hay trucks there which shuttled the customers to the pumpkin field and back. While I was sitting with my son on one of the trucks, I was watching as some of the other parents were filming their children and each other as the truck plodded along. Maybe it is just me, but it seems so pointless to videotape such trivial moments. I mean really, how many times are these people going to watch video of themselves riding on the back of a hay truck? Once? Maybe twice?

If I'm going to videotape something, it would have to be something out of the ordinary or extremely special. For example, an extraterrestrial spacecraft landing on the street in front of my house would definitely be something worth capturing on video.

I put "farm" in quotes because the place was not a real farm where crops are grown. It was more like a large field where they had one area with pumpkins laying on the ground, another area featuring a corn maze, pony rides, and stuff like that.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Stark Lunacy - Part 2

Okay, time to continue on with my running commentary of Rodney Stark's new book Discovering God.

In tracing the evolution of religious beliefs, Stark tackles the task of trying to determine the religious beliefs of primitive peoples. Most of this chapter is of little interest to me until Stark examines the various explanations given for why belief in god or gods seems universal throughout all human cultures worldwide. Stark breaks the possible explanations down into three categories: biological, cultural, and theological.

In the area of biology, Stark mentions and critiques a number of well-known works. Among them are:

Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I had heard of this book but was not familiar with its subject matter. Jaynes theorized that until fairly recently in human history, the left and right sides of the human brain were not synthesized, so that "voices" from one side of the brain were believed to be external communications. Humans had no sense of an "I" and their natural state was not unlike that of a schizophrenic. Stark dismisses the evidence that Jaynes offered in support of his argument, which rested on his interpretation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Jaynes noted that in the Iliad, many of the characters engage in a dialogue with the gods, whereas in the Odyssey, which was written about a century or so later, the gods are absent. Stark chalks this up to a literary convention and by way of analogy retorts that one could claim that early humans were only two dimensional beings because they appear two dimensional in the earliest depictions by human artists. With the caveat of not having read Jaynes book, I am inclined to agree with Rodney Stark on this one.

Next up is Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Again, as with Jaynes book above, I have not read this work, so I am largely at the mercy of viewing it through Rodney Stark's subjective interpretation. As explained by Stark, Boyer's argument proposes that for purposes of survival, human brains evolved to detect purpose or agency in our environment. For example, seeing the potential for danger in a deadly predator animal that happens to be sitting motionless. According to Boyer, this detection system is biased to overdetection, which causes humans to perceive what they interpret as purpose in the their environment, and that the source of this purpose is some supernatural entity or god.

Stark serves up Boyer's definition of religion, which reads "Religion is about the existence and causal powers of nonobservable entities and agencies." Stark then responds to this by arguing that "real science embraces many unobservables - no one has ever seen gravity. Of course, Boyer would respond that gravity's effects are observable. But proponents of Intelligent Design would answer, so are the effects of a Creator!" I can't help but feel that Stark is acting like a smart ass with such a quip. Not only are gravity's effects observable, they are also measurable. To give an example, astronomers expected to find the planet we know as Neptune because of perturbations detected in the orbit of Uranus. On the other hand, an Intelligent Design proponent can argue that the complexity of life on Earth is valid evidence in support of the existence of a Creator, but the ID proponent cannot offer any measurable evidence for the existence of such a Creator. Where does it live? What does it look like? How does it create matter?

On the heels of Pascal Boyer, Stark proceeds to the eminence grise of the present day atheist movement, Richard Dawkins. In particular, Stark focuses on Dawkins popularizing the concept of memes. Stark's condescension towards Dawkins seeps through like baby's piss coming through a urine soaked diaper. As with Boyer above, the gist of Stark's criticism of Dawkins is that if religion can be reduced to memes, so to can scientific ideas. Stark concludes his brief discussion of Dawkins by noting that one of the positive blurbs that appear on the back cover of The God Delusion (which I have read btw!) are from the magicians Penn and Teller. Stark also devotes a mere paragraph to Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which I also have not read, though I have seen Dennett speak on C-Span. Stark dismisses Dennett's book as just a rehash of Boyers and Dawkins.

In discussing the cultural origins of religion, Stark gives a favorable cite to a man named Paul Radin, who wrote Primitive Man as Philosopher. Stark sets forth, rightfully I would argue, that early humans should be viewed as rational and intelligent creatures, and not as dumb brutes as they are popularly depicted.

Stark posits, again correctly in my opinion, that religion originates with "unusual individuals" whom Radin calls "religious formulators" but whom Stark prefers to call "religious innovators." Stark defines them as "very gifted individuals who appear from time to time and introduce new religious culture." He goes on to observe that "even though innovators are scattered across time and space, their new formulations are remarkably similar." To this, Stark offers two possible conclusions, either these innovators were responding to universal human predicaments, or "perhaps they are similar because each is responding to a revelation from the same divine source." Of course, we already have a pretty good idea by this point which explanation Stark is leaning towards.

While correct in his statement that primitive peoples had very practical fears, he adds that by calling on the supernatural, "they acknowledge the fundamental principle that the supernatural is the only plausible source of many things that human beings greatly desire." (Bold mine). On what does Stark base his claim that the supernatural, or god, represents the only plausible source for the things that we desire? He does not say.

Due to the late hour I am going to pick this up again, wrapping up the rest of chapter 2 and all of chapter 3.

Stark Lunacy - Part 1

A couple of nights ago I happened upon Rodney Stark's book Discovering God while in the Borders book store near Penn Station. I first became familiar with him earlier this year when I noticed a couple of his books at my local library. Just from reading the jacket covers alone, I knew that Rodney Stark was someone with whom I would find much to disagree, but at the same time I relished the challenge of reading an academic apologia for Christianity instead of plowing through another pro-atheist book. I apologize for the flippant title of this post, but I just could not resist it! :-)

I had planned to do a review of one of the Stark books I read, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, but I had to return the book to the library and was not able to finish my review. I do plan to revisit it in the near future. This post will be the first of a series of running commentary posts I plan to do as I read Discovering God.

For those unfamiliar with Rodney Stark, he is a professor of Social Sciences at Baylor University who writes frequently on the history and sociology of religion. You can visit his website at

In his latest book, Discovering God, Stark comes across as a sort of anti-Dawkins. However, while Stark does devote several paragraphs to criticism of Richard Dawkins, Discovering God was not written specifically as a rebuke to The God Delusion. Rather, I suspect that due to the release and subsequent popularity of The God Delusion, Stark incorporated his criticism of Dawkins into Discovering God as he was writing it.

The introductory chapter opens on a personal note for the author, with Stark revealing to the reader that since he was very young, he "often wondered about God. Does he really exist? If so, where was he before he revealed himself to Abraham? Were many generations of humans condemned to live and die in ignorance, followed by many generations during which only the Chosen Few knew God? Or could it be that from earliest times God has revealed himself often and in various places so that many different religions possess at least fragmentary knowledge of divine will? If so, why do even some very major religions seem to lack any trace of divine inspiration?"

Only a few sentences later, Stark reveals his distate for what he calls the "militant atheism" of scholars of religion who openly presume "that Gods exist only in the human imagination, that religion arises mainly from fear, and that faith is sustained only by ignorance and credulity", followed by a jibe at Dawkins.

It is the thesis of Stark's book that God does exist and that the history of the evolution of religion is the story of how humans perceive God's revelations in bits and pieces. Stark suggests that at one point he might have been an atheist or agnostic. In describing the scholarly perspective, Stark writes "that the answer to where God was prior to Abraham's generation is that Yahweh hadn't been invented yet. That certainly was my view early in the 1980's... Today my answer is quite different..."

It is Stark's contention that God was always there, "revealing himself within the very limited capacities of humans to understand." This line of argument is what Stark calls Divine Accomodation. An analogy to this would be how we teach our children. We don't teach algebra and calculus to five year old children. First, they need to be taught numbers, followed by basic addition and subtraction, and then multiplication and division, fractions and onward. Stark goes on to cite references to this line of reasoning in the Bible, Origen's On First Principles, and Thomas Aquinas to support his argument and goes on to write "The principle of divine accomodation provides a truly remarkable key for completely reappraising the origins and history of religions."

In noting that many important religious founders throughout Eurasia were contemporaneous, such as Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster, some of the Biblical prophets, among others, in what has been called the Axial or Axis Age, Stark asks rhetorically "Was this pure coincidence? An example of diffusion? Evidence of repeated revelations? Or what? On this, the social-scientific literature has had very little to say, and most of what has been said uniformly ignores or specifically denies any spiritual aspects."

Being someone who Stark would likely consider to be a "militant atheist" (though personally I consider myself to be a rather moderate atheist), I of course find myself in complete disagreement with Stark. If one posits the possibility of a god that is so powerful and intelligent that it can create this vast universe in which we live, then it should not be a substantial leap to posit a god that can create humans with a far greater capacity to comprehend it. (As an aside, unlike Stark, I refuse to refer to god as a male. Unless one is going to argue that god has a penis, how can a being with no shape or form have a gender?)

In other words, if there is a god that can do just about anything, then it should be possible that god could create humans with the capacity to achieve 21st century technology within the first generation, especially if that first generation really did have a 900 year lifespan!

Stark lays out the case that over time, "human images of God will tend to progress from those having smaller to those having greater scope." A god who creates and controls the universe is much more worthy of veneration than a god who controls the weather. In this, I find myself in agreement with Stark.

Furthermore, writes Stark, "humans will prefer an image of God[s] as rational and loving." Again, this is likely true. However, in debates I have had online with theists where I argued that the god of the Bible, if it really did exist, was not a being worthy of love and veneration because of its cruel behavior in the Bible, those theists would retort that I wanted a god that suited my preferences. Well, according to Rodney Stark, religions grow in popularity precisely because the god or gods worshipped by those religions are preferred by the people who convert to those religions.

It is getting late, so I will end this first part here for now and pick up on other parts of the book later this weekend.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Really Deep Questions

Tonight was one of those nights where I ended up having to work late. One of the downsides to having to take the train out to Long Island from Penn Station is that like tonight, the train is filled with loud, beer soaked sports fans.

This evening, the train was filled with New York Rangers hockey fans on their way home from a Rangers game at the nearby Madison Square Garden. It was quite obvious because many of them were wearing their New York Rangers jerseys.

While I was sitting in an aisle seat with a solitary Rangers fan occupying the window seat to my left, trying to read a book I had purchased a couple of nights earlier (more on that in another post), I couldn't help but overhear two men standing near the open area near car doors the front of the car who were having one of those alcohol fueled arguments about sports trivia.

The question one posed to the other was "Who is the greatest baseball player of all time?" The one man, whose voice was slightly slurred, declared "The greatest player of all time, and you will never convince me otherwise, was Babe Ruth." He started to list "the Babe's" accomplishments in support of his assertion. I will call this man Bud. The other man, who I discovered upon turning around was an African-American man with a sort of spiked afro and with big, bulging brown eyes, who I will call for no particular reason Leon, pitched his case for his choice, Willie Mays.

The two men went back and forth at each other, pausing for brief moments to enlist anyone who happened to be sitting or standing near them to offer their opinions as to which one of them was right. When I looked back at one point, I made eye contact with Leon as he called out "Does anybody else want to contribute to this discussion?"

Now, I have to confess that unusual for most guys, I care very little about professional sports. Throughout my childhood and into my late teens I was a big baseball fan, rooting for the Mets during my younger years, and then becoming a Yankees fan later on. I was also big into collecting baseball cards. But by the time I reached college, my interest in sports started to fade. To be quite honest, it all started to seem so silly for me. I asked myself, "why should I care which team won the World Series or the Stanley Cup or the Super Bowl? The world was not made a better place depending on which team won." I no longer read the sports sections of the newspapers and I stopped watching games. After a while, so much time had elapsed that many players that I had admired while growing up were either past their prime or retired and I knew little about the new crop of players, unless they were well known athletes like Derek Jeter.

But while Bud and Leon were arguing over whether Babe Ruth or Willie Mays were better baseball players, I recalled something I had read several years earlier in a column by Newsday's resident angry black man columnist, Les Payne. My memory is a bit hazy, but I think it was about Mark McGuire, who had set the record for the time for the most home runs in a single season. Apparently, some critics were arguing that McGuire should get an asterisk next to his home run total for the year, either because of the steroid controversy or because it took him more games to reach the record than Ruth had played. Payne argued that it was Babe Ruth who should have the asterisk next to his name because the Major Leagues that Ruth played in was a segregated institution. Babe Ruth never had to go to bat against African-American pitchers from the Negro Leagues. Though I often found myself in disagreement with Les Payne's opinions, I felt he did make a very valid point. If the Major Leagues were integrated during Babe Ruth's time, would Babe Ruth have hit as many home runs as he did if he had to take the plate facing the best pitchers that the Negro Leagues had to offer?

So, when Leon asked his question, I raised my head to get his attention and said "Babe Ruth never had to bat against black pitchers!"

Leon said "That's right. Thank you. I was thinking about that too but I didn't want to raise it," clearly inferring that because he was black, it would have been seen as playing the race card, whereas a white man such as myself raising the issue could be seen as being more objective.

Bud, who was standing in the aisle a couple of rows ahead of me, turned around to face me. He started to say to me about how many games Babe Ruth won as a pitcher for the Red Sox and that Willie Mays never pitched a game. But I repeated my point that Babe Ruth played during an era when major league baseball was segregated. I also added, as did several other passengers, that it was silly to compare Willie Mays to Babe Ruth because they played in different times against different people.

With that, I had nothing more to add to the conversation and returned to reading my book. The Babe Ruth/Willie Mays debate tapered off and Bud and Leon changed the subject to some obscure trivia question. Still, I couldn't help but be amused at how some people can become so passionate and animated in debating trivial questions such as whether one baseball player was better than another. Part of me thinks that with all of the truly important things going on in the world that people should be paying to, talking about, reading about, and watching professional sports is an unhealthy distraction. Then again, maybe it is precisely because the world is full of so many problems that a lot of people follow sports so passionately. The problems will always be there regardless, so why not shut it all out and take pleasure in rooting for the home team?

Pet Peeve of the Day - October 12, 2007

People who think that being on an escalator absolves them of the responsibility of walking! Especially, when the escalator, like in most New York City subway stations, is only wide enough to accomodate one person. Walk! Walk! Walk! Keep the flow of pedestrian traffic moving!

Friday Funnies - Archie Bunker and the Jewish TV Repairman

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Those Other Crusades

When one hears or reads of a reference to the Crusades, one generally thinks of the efforts by medieval Christian knights to conquer the "Holy Land" from the Muslims during the 11th through the 13th centuries. What most Americans do not realize is that during the 13th century there was also a series of crusades against the pagan tribes of the Baltic lands in northern Europe. These campaigns are known as the Northern or Baltic Crusades.

The Baltic lands at the time were seemingly an unattractive place to conquer. The region consisted of primeval forests, numerous lakes and bogs inhabited by hostile natives. It was truly Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness transported to northeastern Europe.

Though inhospitable, the Baltic region had much to offer in resources that were attractive to traders from the West, such as fur, fish, timber, honey, beeswax, and amber.

The Baltic Crusades got their start through the efforts of one Albert of Buxtehude, a German cleric invested as bishop of Livonia. Mindful of the death of his predecessor at the hands of the pagan Livonians, he was able to get a papal bull which declared that any Christian who took up arms to fight in Livonia would get the same automatic remission of sins as those who fought the Saracens in the Holy Land. (As an aside, I always found it appalling that leaders of a supposedly moral institution as the Catholic Church would tell their followers that going to faraway lands to murder strangers would guarantee their entry into a paradise in the afterlife.)

Touring northern Germany, Bishop Albert recruited a sufficient force with which to undertake his submission of the Livonians, including the creation of a new military order that came to be known as the Sword Brothers. Like other religious military orders, the Sword Brothers were bound by monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Over the course of the first decade of the 13th century, Bishop Albert and his Sword Brothers brutally subdued the Livonians. Next they set their sights on the Estonians. Allying with the Danes, another series of bloody campaigns ensued that spanned the better part of two decades. In a foretaste of things to come, the Crusaders also came into armed conflict with the Russians, who were also trying to gain control of Estonia. To the Catholics, the Russians were just as bad, if not worse than the pagans, because the Russians were followers of the Eastern Orthodox church and they did not recognize the supremacy of the papacy.

Skipping ahead a few years to 1236, the fortunes of the Sword Brothers took a turn for the worst when they suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the still pagan Lithuanians. The remaining Sword Brothers merged into another crusading military order, the Teutonic Knights. Established in 1198, the Teutonic Knights were originally based in Acre in the Levant. As time went by, they would be invited to serve in turn the Hungarians and the Poles. The latter employed the Teutonic Knights against their hostile pagan neighbors, the Prussians.

The Teutonic Knights had especially strict disciplinary requirements. A Teutonic Knight could not own property. He had to remain silent at meals. All forms of vanity were forbidden and the knights had to sleep in their shirts, breeches, and boots. On Fridays, the knights would flagellate themselves until they drew blood. Some knights, in order to suppress their carnal desires, would wear their chain mail underneath their clothing.

After conquering the Prussians, the Teutonic Knights set their sights on the principalities of northern Russia. This conflict would become immortalized by the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in his 1938 masterpiece "Alexander Nevsky". Below is a clip from the film, which portrays the Teutonic Knights as a sinister force bent on the cruel subjugation of the Russian people. With the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany in the 1930's, "Alexander Nevsky" was more than just a historical epic, it was a piece of Soviet propaganda meant to rouse the Soviet people against the anti-Bolshevik Hitler.

The Teutonic Knights suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of Alexander Nevsky in what is popularly known as the "Battle of the Ice" at Lake Peipus in 1242. This defeat effectively ended any serious attempts by the Baltic crusaders to subjugate the Russians. The Teutonic Knights continued on with their campaigns against the pagan Lithuanians. But in 1386, the Grand Duke of Lithuania converted to Catholicism, and by marriage to the Queen of Poland, he became ruler of a united Poland-Lithuania. With the last pagan state joining the Catholic fold, the Teutonic Knights had outlived their usefulness, and in 1410, a combined Polish and Lithuanian army inflicted a devastating defeat on the Teutonic Knights, and the era of the Baltic Crusades was at an end.

On another note, in the clip above from "Alexander Nevsky", the scene where some of the Teutonic Knights remove their ostentatious helmets reminded me of the scene below from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "Conan the Barbarian". I wonder if director John Milius had seen "Alexander Nevsky" and if the Pskov sequence had an influence on this scene. Check it out and let me know if you agree.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Pet Peeve of the Day - October 10, 2007

If, like me, you live in a house in the suburbs with green lawns of grass, you probably have neighbors just like the one I have in the house behind us. The neighbors who obsessively water their lawn no matter what the weather.

Last night and all through this morning, it was raining off and on in my neighborhood. And yet this morning, with the ground still damp and the clouds still hovering threateningly in the sky above us, I could hear the sound of my neighbors' sprinkler in their backyward, the kind that shoots out a single pulsating stream of water as it spins around with that "tche tche tche tche tche tche tche tche t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t" sound.

I don't understand it. Why the fuck do they do it? We experienced rather copious amounts of rainfall during the night and it continued to rain this morning. Don't these people want to keep their water bills low?

I don't know how it is in other communities across America, but here in Nassau County, because we get our water from underground aquifers, we have to abide by what is known as the odd/even day rule. If your address is an even number, then you may water your lawn on an even numbered day, and if your address is an odd number, then you can water the lawn on odd numbered days. Of course, the law is biased towards odd numbered homes, because there are months where the last day is the 31st, so they get to water their lawns two days in a row. And as you probably guessed, my house has an even number.

Maybe my neighbors think "Well, today is our day to water the lawn, so by golly we're going to water it come rain or sunshine!" I don't know. It just does not strike me as rational to water one's lawn when it is raining. It makes about as much sense as putting on sun tan lotion when you are going to swim in an indoor pool.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Were the Crusades a Defensive Conflict?

When critics of Christianity list the sins committed by Christians throughout history, invariably they will mention the Crusades to the recover Jerusalem from the Muslims and the conquest of Muslim lands in the Levant from the 11th through the 13th centuries.

Some Christian apologists will counter that the Crusades to retake the "Holy Land", such as Robert Spencer in his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), were in actuality defensive conflicts. The reasoning employed by Spencer and others is that the Crusades were a counter-offensive to recover land that was taken by the Muslims from the Christians during the 7th century.

This reasoning fails on a number of levels. If one wants to be technical about it, the lands of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt were provinces of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire before they were conquered by the Arab Muslims. The reason why the Muslims were able to take Jerusalem and the "Holy Land" is because the Byzantines and the Persians had beat each other to a bloody pulp like two heavyweight boxers only a few years earlier and were too weakened to resist. Their treasuries depleted, neither of the two regional superpowers of the day were able to continue paying their respective Arab client states, so they threw in their lots with their kindred Arabs. Thus, the Byzantines and the Persians lost their valuable buffer states. For the Byzantines, the situation was further aggravated due to the fact that their attempts to impose their brand of orthodoxy on their fellow Christians in the Near East were not welcomed by the latter. The Muslims, on the other hand, did not care what kind of Christianity their subjects practiced, as long as they paid their taxes.

If the Crusades were really a counter-offensive, then ideally the lands recovered by the Crusaders should have been returned to their previous Christian rulers, the Byzantines. Problem was, the Byzantines were Eastern Orthodox, whereas the Crusaders were Catholics whose religious allegiance was to the pope in Rome. And the two churches had formally split in the Great Schism of 1054.

The truth is, the Crusades to recover and hold Jerusalem were not about fighting a Muslim threat. Instead, they were carried out for entirely different purposes. For the popes, the Crusades were a great way to get the Christian powers of Western Europe to stop fighting each other and to instead channel their aggression to fight a far off enemy that posed no threat to them. The popes also had in mind to expand their hold over Christendom by forcing the militarily weakened Byzantines to accept the supremacy of the Catholic Church.

If the Crusaders were really serious about engaging in a counter-offensive against the Muslims, the logical first step would have been to assist the Byzantines in expelling the Muslims from Asia Minor. In fact, it was the Byzantine request for aid to recover territory in Asia Minor from the Seljuk Turks that served as the catalyst for the Crusades. As long as the Anatolian heartland remained in Muslim hands, the security of the Crusaders states in the Levant could not be maintained for long. While relations between the Byzantines and the Crusaders were frosty at best, the humiliating Byzantine defeat at Myriokephalon in 1176 confirmed the permanent presence of Islam in Asia Minor and deepened the isolation of the Crusader states. So much then for the Crusades being a counter-offensive against Muslim aggression.

Richard Dawkins and "the Jewish Lobby"

Bacon Eating Atheist Jew (or BEAJ for short!) has a post up reacting to a quote from Richard Dawkins in an article in The Guardian. In talking about the kind of influence he would like atheists to achieve, Dawkins said as follows:

"When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby has been, though, in fact, they are less numerous I am told - religious Jews anyway - than atheists and [yet they] more or less monopolise American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world would be a better place."

It was clearly meant to be a compliment, but in suggesting that Jews "monopolize" American foreign policy, Dawkins sounds like Bill O'Reilly expressing amazement that Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem is no different than any restaurant in suburban white America. The compliment itself reveals a prejudicial mindset. The image conveyed is that of the United States being little more than a puppet with its strings being pulled by the Jews.

It is of course no secret that politically active Jewish-American voters do help to influence how some elected officials vote on issues pertaining to Israel and the Middle East. However, they are certainly not the only group in America that has some measure of influence on our government's foreign policy. Cuban emigres, particularly in Florida, are probably much more influential in promoting a hardline policy towards Castro's Cuba than American Jews in promoting a unified policy towards Israel. No candidate for statewide office in Florida can hope to win if he or she campaigns on a platform to end the embargo on Cuba or to loosen travel restrictions to the island nation. I have read though that the Cuban-American community is showing signs of becoming less monolithic, particularly with the younger generations who were born in the last two or three decades. On the other hand, I remember how much flack Hillary Clinton received when she first declared public support for a Palestinian state, and yet she still managed to win a Senate seat in New York where the Jewish-American vote is strong.

However pro-Israel American foreign policy may tilt, as BEAJ notes, our government is constrained by geopolitical realities vis-a-vis the Arab Muslim states and the oil that many of them sit atop.

But back to Richard Dawkins, BEAJ does not believe that Dawkins is an anti-semite, though he does consider Dawkins' remarks to be anti-semitic. I don't know if I would go quite that far, though his remarks clearly were biased, albeit unintentionally.

Dawkins himself is clearly aware of the Jewish conspiracy mindset that afflicts so many. On page 311 of his book The God Delusion, Dawkins writes about the plight of Edgardo Mortara. Mortara was a six year old child of Jewish parents in Bologna, Italy, who was seized from them in 1858 by the Inquisition. The reason for this was because the Catholic nursemaid hired by the Mortaras secretly baptized Edgardo when he had become ill and she feared he might die and his soul doomed to an eternity in hell. Upon hearing of the baptism, the Catholic Church considered Edgardo Mortara to be legally a Christian, and that it was unthinkable for a Christian child to be raised by Jewish parents.

The worldwide outrage that arose from this incident, notes Dawkins, "was dismissed by the Catholic newspaper Civilta Cattolica as due to the international power of rich Jews - sounds familiar, doesn't it?" (Bold type mine). From that line, I take it that Dawkins, as any other right thinking person, has no use for anti-semitic conspiracy theories. What is likely the case with respect to his remarks in The Guardian, is that he views the Israeli/Palestinian dispute through a prism which leads him to conclude that the Jewish vote prevents the United States from acting as what he believes should be a fair broker in the dispute. I certainly doubt Dawkins believes that the "Jewish lobby" monopolizes America's foreign policy towards China, India or Myanmar. Here's to hoping that Dawkins learns to choose his words a little better in the future.

Pet Peeve of the Day

I hate it when I am sharpening a pencil in the pencil sharpener and there's that one side of the pencil where the wood just will not cut away to reveal the lead of the pencil.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Continuing Evolution of Exercise in Futility

In another milestone for this blog, I finally got around to joining the Atheist Blogroll. I went with the Full Monty option and all current members of the blog appear in the sidebar below and to the right.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Creation Science for the Adult Ed Set

A minor controversy is stirring here on Long Island in the community of Northport on Suffolk County's north shore.

As reported by Newsday, Northport resident Robert Harrison wants to teach an adult education course entitled "What is Creation Science?". Someone brought the contents of the course to the attention of Seth Muraskin, Executive Director of the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Muraskin is concerned that the course, which purports to present scientific evidence for creationism, would violate the separation of church and state.

The Newsday article also notes that while thirteen people enrolled in the course last year, so far only one person has signed up for the current session.

While NYCLU might be correct from a legal standpoint, I am not so sure that complaining to the school district is the best way to handle the situation. Personally, I would prefer that local residents with the background to intelligently and persuasively argue against creationism hijack the class by demolishing Harrison's arguments. His enthusiasm for teaching the course would certainly be dampened if he knew that his arguments would be vigorously contested in front of his other students. I think this would be much more effective than trying to suppress the course and playing into the "they want to silence us because we are speaking the truth" mindset.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Talk About An Exercise in Futility Part 2

In a nod towards helping the environment, I recently purchased some compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) to replace the incandescent indoor floodlight bulbs that burned out in my kitchen and basement ceilings.

From what I read, not only do CFLs last far longer than regular incandescent bulbs, they also are more energy efficient and give off less heat, which means a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Sounds like a real win/win, right?

I installed the first one in my kitchen ceiling, which operates on a dimmer switch. I turned up the dimmer switch to maximum and the bulb shone very brightly. I slid the dimmer switch down to reduce the brightness and the bulb starting flickering wildly. I unscrewed the bulb and noticed the small print near the grooved part of the bulb with the words "Not for use with dimmers." I looked on the packaging for the bulbs and saw the same language there, but it was not particularly conspicuous, being in small print at the bottom of the package.

"That's just great!" I thought to myself. I spent a lot of money for the batch of CFLs and they were practically useless to me, as my basement floods are on dimmer switches too.

And I couldn't just throw them in the trash either. As I read in the October 2007 issue of Scientific American, CFLs contain mercury and cannot be thrown out with ordinary trash. While the amount of mercury in each CFL is small, "about equal to the amount of ink on the tip of a ballpoint pen", as Scientific American describes it, when you toss them all into a landfill, the mercury combined from all of them can leach out into the water supply and become a health hazard.

On the positive side, I will be able to use the CFLs to replace the incandescents in our bathroom. The lights in there operate on a dimmer switch too, but a couple of months after we got our bathroom remodelled, the dimmer stopped working and the bulbs shine at maximum brightness no matter what the setting on the switch.

Still, I will have to check to see where I can drop my CFLs off locally for recycling when the time comes to replace them.

Importing Ignorance

In the United States, the movement to promote the teaching of creationism and intelligent design is a home-grown phenomenon, but for our English cousins across the pond, it appears to be driven in part by Muslim immigration.

The BBC article quotes one science professor as saying "The number of Muslim students has grown considerably in the last 10 to 20 years and a higher proportion of Muslim families do not accept evolutionary theory compared with Christian families." And that is because of the lamentable state of science education in the countries where these Muslim families originate.

The September 2007 issue of National Geographic features a cover story on Pakistan. The article introduces the reader to Pervez Hoodbhoy, an MIT-trained professor of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Lahore. A few days after the devastating earthquake that struck the Pakistani controlled section of Kashmir in 2005, Professor Hoodbhoy described to his graduate-level physics class the geophysical forces that caused the earthquake.

"When I finished, hands shot up all over the room," he recalls. "'Professor, you are wrong,' my students said. 'That earthquake was the wrath of God.'"

Again, to repeat, this was a grad school physics class. If this is what some of the brightest minds in Pakistan believe, then what hope is there for the rest of the students there?

According to Professor Hoodbhoy, this ignorance stems from former Pakistani dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, whose education ministry issued guidelines on bringing an Islamic perspective to science and other subjects in the public schools.

Says Professor Hoodbhoy, "The Zia generation has come of age. It isn't Islamic to teach that earthquakes are caused by the movement of tectonic plates. Instead, you are supposed to say, by the will of Allah, an earthquake happens."