Thursday, December 27, 2007

Rodney Stark's Discovering God - Part 8 - Send In The Christians

After addressing the arguments over the historical reliability of the Gospels in the first half of Chapter 7, Rodney Stark examines the spread of Christianity as a religion. Personally, I would have to say that this is the part of the book where Stark is at his best and strongest.

Stark begins with the apostle Paul. He lists "five major components to Paul's identity." First, Paul was raised as a highly commited Jew, to the point that he persecuted early Christians. Second, Paul spoke Greek and was immersed in Hellenic culture. Third, he likely came from a privileged background. Fourth, he was a Roman citizen. Lastly, he became a Christian.

While Paul is traditionally portrayed as focusing his missionary efforts on the Gentiles, Stark puts forth a convincing case that Paul's missionizing was really directed towards Diasporan Jews. As Stark puts it, "it is worthwhile to look more closely at where he went and with whom he associated with when he got there."

Stark proceeds to explain in a very convincing manner how Paul would have gone about trying to spread the Christian faith. "You have decided to lead a band of missionaries west from Jerusalem to spread the word. But where in the West? Who will receive you? The answer would have seemed obvious: you should go to your relatives, the Diasporan Jewish communities, for these are people to whom you can gain introductions and who are accustomed to visits by religious teachers from Jerusalem."

Furthermore, contrary to the stereotype of the lone street corner preacher bearing a sign reading "Repent! The End of the World is Near!", "Paul did not travel alone, but often took a retinue of as many as forty or fifty followers with him, sufficient to constitute an initial 'congregation' which made it possible to hold credible worship services immediately and to welcome and form bonds with newcomers." It was indeed a very clever strategy, which likely served to make the number of early Christians seem larger than they actually were. I am reminded of a tale from the Civil War about the Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, who obtained the surrender of a Union commander who had a numerically superior force. While Forrest was parlaying with the Union commander, Forrest's smaller force was partially obscured by some trees. Forrest had instructed his men, who had with them only one artillery piece, to march in a circle behind the trees, which created the illusion that he commanded a much larger force.

As discussed previously in Part 6, the Diasporan Jews "were ripe for conversion to a faith that allowed them to retain most of their religious capital...The only major innovation was to cease strict observance of the Law. It has often been noted how that eased conversion for Gentiles who could enter the new faith without being subject to such things as adult circumcision or encountering barriers against dining with their friends and relatives. But much too little has been made of the immense appeal this would have had for Hellenized Jews who were chafing under the Law's social limitations."

Even more interesting, Stark's analyses of quantitative data "found that [Paul's] missionizing had no independent effect on whether or not a city had a Christian congregation by the year 100." He continues, "Thus, it appears that Paul's missionizing role may have been considerably overplayed." Stark concludes that "Paul may have been far more important as a trainer, organizer, and motivator of missionaries than as an actual founder of congregations." Below is an example of what Paul's motivational speeches must have been like:

And remember, ABC, "Always Be Converting!"

Having established how early Christians went about spreading their faith, Stark next examines the growth of the new religion within the Roman Empire.

Again in revisionist mode, Stark challenges the assumption that Christianity grew rapidly. Popular convention has it that crowds of people would convert en masse after hearing a stirring sermon. But Stark makes the astute observation that "one sermon, no matter how dynamic, does not prompt the fundamental shift of identity essential to a religious conversion; even after being baptized there would have been a great deal of educating and socializing still to be done before any...could have been claimed as a Christian." He goes on to add "that sociological studies have found that doctrine plays a very secondary role in conversion, that people convert when their social ties to members of a religious group outweigh their ties to nonmembers."

Having made his case that religious founders spread their faith by first converting friends and family members, Stark presents a scenario in which the number of Christians in the year 40 CE numbers 1,000 people. With a growth rate of 3.4% each year, Stark shows that as late as the year 200 CE, the number of Christians would total not much more than 210,000 people, still less than 1% of the population of the Roman Empire. However, as someone once said, the most powerful force in the universe is the power of compound interest. Assuming the number of Christians continues to steadily increase by 3.4% per year, a mere 50 years later there would have been over 1,120,000 Christians in the empire. By the year 300 CE, the Christian population of the empire would have shot up to 6 million people, or approximately 10% of the imperial population. Following the official recognition of Christianity by Constantine, the Christian population grew to over 31 million people, over half of the population of the empire.

While these figures are approximations, Stark points to a number of findings to support his argument. Among them are studies showing the number of Christian names appearing in Egyptian documents and the increasing frequency of Christian epigraphs found on Roman gravestones. Inevitably, Stark notes, the growth rate "must have decelerated as the number of potential converts declined. Furthermore, not only is it impossible to convert more than 100 percent of a population, in this instance significant numbers of residents of the Empire never converted to Christianity. Many Jews did not; organized paganism lingered for centuries; and many people in rural areas never seem to have gone beyond merely adding Jesus to their pantheon of Gods."

And this leads to Stark's next interesting argument. In the present-day United States, fervent Christianity is generally seen as a phenomenon of the South or rural areas, whereas American cities tend to be more pluralistic and secular. However, in the Roman Empire, Christianity was an urban religion, and as time went on, paganism became equated with the rural hicks of the era. Indeed, the word pagan meant someone who was a peasant or rustic fellow.

It is a sensible argument, because when you think about it, if you want to grow a new religion, you have to seek converts in the cities. To paraphrase the famous remark of Willie Sutton, cities are where the people are. Stark estimates that by the year 250 CE, of the 450,000 residents of Rome, some 84,000 of them were Christians. Furthermore, writes Stark, "unlike pagans, Christians were well organized. They belonged to relatively small, intense congregations, and they may have had their own neighborhoods. They could easily be mobilized vis-a-vis local affairs, which greatly amplified their numbers. Thus the size and effectiveness of the Christian communities may well have been a factor in the persecution that fell upon them in the year 250 at the hands of Emperor Decius."

And therein lay the irony. By the time that Diocletian got around to vigorously persecuting Christians in the late 3rd century, the Christian population of the empire had achieved a critical mass that made it an exercise in futility to stamp the faith out. And for Stark, "what is perhaps more surprising is that it is not until Constantine that anyone recognized what powerful political support the Christians could supply." But the hour is late and that will be a topic for another post.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Rodney Stark's Discovering God - Part 7 - Desperately Seeking Jesus

Following Chapter 4, titled The "Rebirth" of Monotheism, Stark devotes the next two chapters to Indian and Chinese religious thoughts. I am going to skip those chapters and jump right into Chapter 7, The Rise of Christianity.

When last we left off at the end of Part 6 of my commentary on Discovering God, the Jews of the Diaspora were assimilating to Hellenism even as they were converting pagans to Judaism. Meanwhile, back in Judaea, the Jews who remained there were anticipating the coming of a Messiah who would send the Romans packing.

Having refrained from addressing the historicity of Jesus in his prior writings on Christianity, Stark makes what he derisively refers to as "the controversial and often bizarre search" for the historical Jesus his opening salvo in Chapter 7.

The quest to find the historic Jesus, complains Stark, "has been carried to obsessive and absurd lengths as soaring scholarly imaginations." He is dismissive of the Jesus Seminar, "whose members...have been meeting annually to winnow the Gospels", and believes that the search for the historic Jesus "is in many ways a fool's errand." I can only imagine that Rodney Stark is not a particularly big fan of this site.

I have to confess that I am personally agnostic as to whether there was a real Jesus, though I lean towards giving the benefit of the doubt that the Jesus of the Gospels is based at least in part on a real person. Since, as Stark points out, the Scriptures tell us very little about the life of Jesus, "it is his death and resurrection that dominate Christian thought."

Stark goes on to criticize the assumption that "no intelligent modern person could credit tales involving healing, exorcism, or changing water into wine, let alonge such an absolute impossibility as the claim that Jesus rose from the dead!" He considers it narrow minded and ignorant to use the miracles reported in the Bible to discredit the Bible. He vehemently objects to both "militant atheists" who dismiss the miracles described in the Bible as fairy tales and "those seeking to defend their faith by trying to show how miracles could have had natural causes." As Stark sees it, "to make miracles plausible, all that is needed is to postulate the existence of a God who created the universe, nothing more."

And here is where Stark goes off the rails. The parting of the Red Sea. Joshua making the sun stand still. The Virgin Birth. Raising Lazarus from the dead. Stark writes "Some believe these things happened, some believe they didn't-and both positions are based on faith!" (Bold text mine). All that is needed is for someone to believe that these things could have happened. There are some people who believe that the United States government recovered a crashed alien space craft. Most people don't believe in such a bizarre story. But, using Stark's reasoning, both positions are equally based on faith, when in fact they are not. Rather than boiling such controversial claims down to an "either it happened or it didn't", the question that needs to be asked is "How plausible is this story?"

Take the story in Joshua 10 where the sun is alleged to have stood still in the sky. That means the Earth stopped spinning on its axis, unless anyone reading this still subscribes to the geocentric model of the solar system. According to Rodney Stark, if a god exists that created the universe and intervenes in human history, then it is perfectly reasonable to believe that this god can cause the Earth to stop spinning, which would cause the sun to appear to stand still in the sky, so that the Israelites would have extra daylight to slaughter a retreating enemy army. To disbelieve this story requires just as much faith as it does to believe it. Oh really? Consider the context of the story in Joshua. A coalition of kings attacked the Gibeonites, who had allied themselves to the Israelites. The Gibeonites called on the Israelites for help, and Joshua answered their pleas. Not only did the Israelites defeat the coalition, God Himself saw fit to hurl "large hailstones down on them from the sky." If the story is to be believed, more of the enemy died from the hailstones than from Joshua's warriors.

When one considers the vast extent of the universe, and how our planet is an infinitesimal speck within all of it, how plausible is it that a deity that created all of that is going to take such an active interest in the affairs of a particular group of humans in a small sliver of land in the Middle East? Joshua 10 makes it clear that the battle was already won and was a rout, and yet on this day only, we are expected to believe that the creator of the universe stopped the sun in the sky for almost a full day so that a confederation of Hebrew tribesmen could have more daylight in order to slay more of their enemies in a battle that was already won. One wonders why it would be even necessary, since god supposedly killed the majority of them with hailstones. And why hailstones? Why not cause the Canaanites to spontaneously combust on the battlefield? That would have been really damaging to their morale! Considering all this, it is perfectly reasonable to dismiss this story from Joshua as being fictional while it requires a tremendous leap of faith to believe that it is literally true.

Stark then proceeds to concentrate on what we can know about Jesus, if indeed he was an actual historical figure. He makes an interesting argument against the belief that Jesus and his disciples were a bunch of homeless vagabonds. In the Gospels, Jesus spends most of his ministry in Galilee. This region "is so tiny that it is an easy two-day walk from north to south and only a day's walk from east to west at the widest point." Therefore, Stark considers it to be perfectly reasonable that Jesus and his apostles had homes in Galilee and that therefore his journeys were rarely more than a day's travel from where he lived. In this I can find no disagreement with Stark.

Next, Stark addresses the purpose of the crucifixion of Christ. He notes that the "objection to the entire Christ story has been that it seems so fundamentally pagan." But, as before, Stark trots out the divine accomodation argument. "God's revelations are always geared to the current capacity of humans to comprehend," Stark reminds us, "Hence, the message to Greco-Roman pagans: Christ died for your sins! Forget offerings of a hundred or even a thousand cattle! The Christian God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. That message spoke powerfully and eloquently to a culture that took sacrifice, especially blood sacrifice, as fundamental to pleasing the Gods." So there you have it, Christianity paved the way for the animal rights movement.

Therefore, rather than discrediting Christianity, its similarities to pagan beliefs were seen as a verification of its truth. Consequently, what are considered to be the pagan elements of the Christ story, "maximized the cultural continuity between Greco-Roman paganism and Christianity." On the other hand, it is also possible that the Christian message was deliberately tailored by early Christian missionaries to appeal to pagans.

Stark proceeds to make a revisionist case not only for the historical reliability of the New Testmant, but also for the early authorship of the Gospels. He derides Biblical scholars such as those affiliated with the Jesus Seminar as being "motivated by angry atheism." Stark disagrees with the Biblical critics who "take the position that unless something reported in scripture can be completely verified by nonbiblical sources, it must be rejected as mythical."

The veracity of the New Testament is sound, argues Stark, because it "provides a very accurate geography, not only of Israel, but of the Roman Empire. Places are where they are supposed to be. Reported travel times are consistent with the distances involved. The topography is accurately described and extends to tiny details such as the location of wells, streams, springs, gorges, cliffs, city gates, and the like."

Contrary to the consensus that the Gospel of John was written much later than the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Stark is impressed by the argument of the late Biblical scholar John A. T. Robinson that John actually predates them. Among the pieces of evidence in support of Robinson's contention is that John "is infused with fear and antagonism toward the Jews at a time when the Roman authorities had long since become the primary persecutors." Perhaps it is ignorance on my part, but I would have thought that the antagonism towards the Jews would be evidence for a later authorship of John, as well as Matthew, precisely because of the references to "the Jews" as some other entity, considering that Christianity started out as a reform movement within Judaism. Would not early Christians, who believed that Jesus was a fulfillment of Jewish prophecies, still see themselves as Jews?

Among other factors Stark gives for the historical reliability of John is that the author "displays far more detailed and accurate information about the city of Jerusalem than do the other Gospels, which suggests he lived there (and before 70 CE)." There is also an "apparent lack of knowledge that Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE-John seems to assume that many places were currently existing that were razed by the Romans."

Stark also argues in favor of earlier dates for the Synoptic Gospels. Stark cites Gerd Theissen and Richard Bauckham, who note the frequent use of "protective anonymity" in many passages of the Gospels, including John. There are the references to "the disciple that Jesus loved" for example, which Theissen and Bauckham believe were necessary to shield them from prosecution should their identities be exposed. Writes Stark, "This frequent resort to anonymity suggests that the Gospels were written at a sufficiently early date that these people were alive and still at risk."

Well, if the Gospels were written so close to the events depicted in them and the environment was still so fraught with risk, the authors seem to have been privy to information that they should not have in such dangerous times. For example, Matthew 28:11-13, where the tomb guards and the priests are discussing amongs themselves what to say about the disappearance of Jesus. Where would the author of Matthew have gotten this information? In fact, one thing that struck me upon reading the Gospels again last year was that they read like novels with an omniscient third person narrator. Conversations and events are portrayed to which none of the authors of the Gospels could have been witness to. And to have actually located these people, again in a time supposedly close to the events reported in the Gospels, and in a climate that was dangerous for early Christians, does not strike me as plausible. However, what cannot be denied is that the authors of the Gospels clearly do set the story of Jesus in a real time and place.

Stark concludes that "at the very least, the New Testament provides a truthful and reliable account of what the first generation of Christians believed to have taken place." Or, I would add, at the very least, the Gospels provide an account of what early Christian missionaries wanted potential converts among the Jews of the Diaspora to believe to have taken place.

Birds of Long Island - The Northern Cardinal

Female Cardinal

Male Cardinal

Another local favorite bird of mine is the Northern Cardinal. The male Cardinal has a distinctive red plumage that sets him apart from all of the other birds in my neighborhood which makes him quite a "pretty boy"..

From my personal observations, I note that Cardinal couples appear to be very monogamous and close-knit. There is a Cardinal couple that frequents my backyard, and whenever I see one of them, the other one is sure to be seen nearby.

Exercise in Futility Revamped

Regular and semi-regular readers to my blog may notice that there have been some changes here at Exercise in Futility.

I have been meaning for some time to revamp my sidebar by adding links to news, government and other sites of interest for myself and for my readers. For myself in particular, this site now serves as a convenient launchpad to other web sites of interest to me. However, in order for this to happen, I decided I needed to replace the full Atheist Blogroll with the rolling list of the 25 most recently updated blogs on the roll in order to free up space for the new links.

While atheist topics will continue to be an important part of this blog, atheism is not all I am about, and I would like this blog to reflect that.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Friday Funnies - Fear of a Black Hat

One of my favorite comedies from the Nineties was Fear of a Black Hat, which was a hip-hop adaptation of the cult classic "This Is Spinal Tap", with a sociology student played by Kasi Lemmons interviewing and filming the members of a rap group called NWH, or Niggaz With Hats. The movie is a profanity laced but hysterically funny take on the hip hop world. And just as "Spinal Tap" had as one of its running gags the deaths of the band's drummers in bizarre accidents, the always white managers of NWH end up getting murdered. But as the NWH rappers insist, they were nowhere in the neighborhood "when that shit went down."

Following are four clips from the movie. The first clip features NWH and a rival rap group trying to give an inner-city elementary school class a talk about the evils of gang violence that does not end up going as planned. The second clip has the NWH rappers addressing accusations that their music promotes violence against white people. Third in the lineup is NWH member Tone-Def in a solo music imploring the world to see him for what he is, just another human being. The last clip is NWH front man Ice Cold trying to explain how PUSSY is just an "analagram" for political change.

If you like the clips, then I definitely recommend you rent "Fear of a Black Hat".

A Gangsta's Life Ain't Fun

Don't Shoot Until You See The Whites

"I'm Just A Human Being"

Come and Pet the PUSSY

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Real Biggest Douches on Long Island

Yes, to be honest, it turns out that John Edward really is not the biggest douche on Long Island. At most, he comes in third place.

As a Long Islander, I have been remiss in even so much as mentioning the most notorious case on Long Island in the past year. And that has been the case of Mahender and Varsha Sabhnani of Muttontown.

To my readers who may be unfamiliar with the story, the Sabhnanis were accused of forcing their two Indonesian maids to live like slaves in their Muttontown mansion and subjecting them to torture and abuse. The plight of the maids was revealed when one of them fled the house early one morning this past May and was noticed by a Dunkin Donuts worker on Jericho Turnpike. This New York Post article provides a good summary of the events leading up to the arrest of the Sabhnanis. A blog called IndieQuill has a post on the case with some pictures, including one showing some nasty injury that was inflicted on one of the maids.

The wife, Varsha, featured in the enlarged picture below, was very quickly dubbed Cruella Deville.

Yesterday, a jury found the Sabhnanis guily on 12 counts. They could each face up to 40 years in prison. Furthermore, as I have just read on Newsday, the jury also voted in favor of forfeiting the Sabhnani's Muttontown mansion, out of which they ran their perfume business, because the house was used in the commission of their crimes. Hmmmm...maybe this will be my big chance to trade up to a larger house.

Newsday also has an article on what the two former maids, Enung and Samirah, are up to now. Newsday quotes a source that "They are temporarily being financially supported by Catholic Charities, which has the contract from the Justice Department to assist victims of human trafficking, and being cared for by an order of nuns in Amityville."

As an atheist and former Catholic, regular readers of this blog know I love to criticize religious nuttiness. However, religious groups and individuals also deserve kudos for the good works that they perform. Catholic Charities is one of those groups. While the Catholic Church is rightly criticized for its stance on birth control and for its handling of its pedophile priest problem, among other things, the Church also has a strong social justice tradition, and Catholic Charities is representative of that noble impulse. Here is a link to the web site for Catholic Charities of Long Island if you would like to find out more about the services they offer and maybe even send them a donation this holiday season.

The subject of human trafficking, whether it be forced labor such as the Indonesian maids endured, or trafficking in sex, is a topic I have been meaning to focus on with this blog, but which time constraints have prevented me from thus far. It is a problem that knows no borders, and, as the Sabhnani case reveals, it is a problem that lurks even in our own neighborhoods behind closed doors.

Here is a link to the U.S. State Department's 2007 report on human trafficking. I have only read a few pages of it thus far, but hope to get to read more of it in the coming days ahead.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Back in the Saddle Soon....I Hope

It's been a rough week. As reported in an earlier post, my mom was in the hospital. She has been back home since this past Thursday and it was never anything particularly serious, but it added greatly to the burdens I already have to shoulder. With my wife working, I had to bring my kids with me when visiting my mom in the hospital and dropping by her place to pick some things for her or attend to her affairs. To add to the misery, I caught a cold, which conveniently peaked this weekend, and again I was on my own with the kids. Consequently, my blogging has suffered.

I also realized that I could not get through all of this without finally admitting that I need to accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. I am not strong enough to do this on my own, and I finally understand that I had been deluding myself these past two decades. I shut God out of my life and wanted to believe that I could live without Him. And these preceding three sentences have been nothing but a bunch of baloney. I was just yanking your chains!

Seriously, I do hope to get back to blogging regularly again soon. I have bunch of ideas for posts I want to do but no time to do them. I feel bad, because last month was the best month I had thus far since I started using a sitemeter in May, and my traffic has dropped off this month. I hope I to recover my momentum going into the new year.

Battlestar Galactica: Razor - DVD Review

Being the Galactica geek that I am, I had to go out and buy the DVD release of Razor last week.

For openers, the DVD has tons of footage that was not in the version that was televised on the Sci-Fi Channel. Fans of the show who frequent the web site for the series may have seen some of the webisodes featuring a young William Adama as a viper pilot in the first Cylon War. Some of that footage has been incorporated into the DVD of Razor, including this scene:

There are extra scenes that flesh out some of the characters, including the new character of Kendra Shaw. There is also a flashback scene that shows Admiral Cain as a young girl during the First Cylon War. But disappointingly, there are no hot lesbian sex scenes between Cain and Number 6, played by the stunning hottie Tricia Helfer.

In an homage to the original Battlestar Galactica from the 1970's, the original Cylon centurions and fighter craft make several appearances in Razor, and they are incorporated into the present day Galactica universe in a really interesting way.

Much of the plot of Razor hangs on Kendra Shaw, played by newcomer Stephanie Jacobsen, who appears into two story threads, one past and one present. Joining the Pegasus crew on the day of the Cylon attack, she becames Admiral Cain's surrogate in the wake of the attack, and in the present day plot thread, she becomes Lee Adama's XO on the Pegasus after having been demoted by Adama's deceased predecessor. (As an aside, for a while there it seemed as if the post of commander of the Pegasus was becoming the Battlestar Galactica equivalent of the drummer in "This Is Spinal Tap"*). To be honest, I did not find the Kendra Shaw character to be particularly likeable, but I don't think she was meant to be. More importantly though, her character is seamlessly integrated into the movie, considering that this is a character who we have never seen before even though she has always been a member of the Pegasus crew.

Most of the story that takes place on Pegasus before it finds the Galactica is a rehash of what we are told what happened in the "Pegasus" and "Resurrection Ship Part 1" episodes. Cain shoots her friend and XO in the head for refusing to obey an order. Cylon Gina is discovered and brutalized. A civilian fleet is found and a number of civilians are executed because Cain is only interested in getting parts and skilled personnel from the civilian ships. Given the number of Pegasus crew members that were killed, I find it a little odd why the Pegasus did not take on all of the civilians, as there should have been sufficient bunkspace.

In terms of its relevance towards the anticipated fourth and final season of Battlestar Galactica, Razor has little to offer until near the end, when the prototype Cylon hybrid warns Kendra Shaw about Starbuck. The thing is, is the hybrid's warning about Starbuck legitimate, or is he being deliberately deceptive? Time will tell. As for how Season 4 will end, given Ronald Moore's penchant for cliffhanger shockers, my gut instinct tells me it will be something along the lines of Taylor's discovery at the end of the original "Planet of the Apes." Remember, "All of this has happened before, all of it will happen again."

Here are a couple of more cool clips from Razor to whet your appetite:

* Fans of "This Is Spinal Tap" may recall that the band's drummers kept dying, including one from spontaneous human combustion!

I've Been Tagged - Seven Weird and Random Things About Me

Only seven?

Brian, who lives in the Arctic tundra of Canada*, and has polar bears and caribou as his neighbors, has tagged me on his Primordial Blog with the latest meme currently making the rounds of the atheist blogosphere. I am happy to oblige. I have to confess though that I am too lazy to look around to see who else I know hasn't already been tagged.

Anyway, here goes:

1. Whenever I see an uncapped pen or marker, I feel compelled to put the cap back on. As a spoof of myself, I thought it would be funny if a character in a movie or television show was in a race against time to save a friend or loved one's life, but he then comes across a room filled with uncapped pens, and he has to resist the impulse to stop and put the caps on.

2. Even though I am an atheist and do not believe in the supernatural, I sometimes have this feeling that some kind of force protects me from serious harm. Of course, I am not willing to go so far as to jump from the roof of a really tall building to put this "force" to the test.

3. If I had to choose another name for this blog, it would be Uncontrollable Flatulence.

4. I procrastinate about doing various tasks around the house, but when I finally get around to doing them, more often than not the task is completed quickly and easily, and I ask myself why I waited so long.

5. I have high cholesterol, but can't stop myself from eating foods I like with melted cheese on them.

6. The previous owners of the house I currently live in were Jewish, and I still have their mezuzah on my doorway. Even though I am an atheist, I feel as if the mezuzah is part of the house's history, so I am inclined to let it stay there.

7. I believe Michael Corleone should not have had his brother Fredo killed at the end of "The Godfather Part 2". I got the sense that Fredo was a broken man by then and he would have been perfectly content to spend the rest of his days being the kindly uncle and fishing companion to Michael's son Anthony.

* Yeah, I exaggerate a little. I know Brian does live way up there and he recently had to navigate his way through a herd of caribou on the road one night. Anyway, he has a very good blog and I recommend it to those of my readers who haven't yet. Stop by and say hello to Brian!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Biggest Douche on Long Island

Well, that's what soi-disant psychic medium John Edward was before he became "The Biggest Douche in the Universe".

Glen Cove native John Edward, as reported by Newsday, will be giving a series of live performances at the North Fork Theatre at Westbury here on Long Island from Wednesday through Sunday.

The far too credulous entertainment reporter for Newsday, Denise Flaim, recounts a telephone conversation she had with ten years ago:

"But just before I sat down with Edward for our first formal interview, I got a phone call at the office. It was Edward, fresh from the StairMaster. Three entities kept "coming through" while he was at the gym, he said. And they were not taking no for an answer.

Then, rapid fire, came my late grandparents, if you want to believe it was them. Edward gave me their names, clear as day. He knew plenty of things that you couldn't check on the database at Ellis Island: The still in my maternal grandfather's basement. The great-uncle buried in the family plot, and what he died of. The fact that I had my grandmother's rosary beads - even if I didn't know I did, until, at Edward's insistence, I went home and looked."

Call me a dogmatic skeptic, but I can't help but feel that Edward hired someone to get information about Flaim's family members and then called her up to catch her off guard. I mean, this is a guy who in front of an audience is stammering out "Does the name Mike mean anything?" and he suddenly calls Flaim out of the blue to tell her where her grandmother's rosary beads are?

Flaim does make an obligatory nod towards the skeptical viewpoint, mentioning Joe Nickell of the Center for Skeptical Inquiry. She quotes:

"The average person watching John Edward is not better suited to understand what he is doing than the average person watching a magician perform an illusion and trying to figure out how he does that," says Nickell, who has never met Edward but who has studied tapes of his appearances and written about him. "If you are a willing participant, if you've already bought into what he is doing, you will start helping clarify what he is saying."

But Flaim goes on to write:

"Not surprisingly, Edward is dismissive of his critics, noting that everything they accuse him of they turn out to be guilty of themselves, such as manipulating tapes of his readings to make the validating information land on the cutting-room floor."

Nickell has much more to say about Edward in this article he did for CSICOP.

And here is a clib from Youtube featuring Australian magician Mark Mayer on an Australian talk show discussing how John Edward plies his trade:

You can e-mail Ms. Flaim at to tell her what an ignorant fool she is.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Things That Really Matter - Part 2

As my regular readers might recall from the original post The Things That Really Matter, I have had to set aside extra time with my son to help him catch up with his classmates and do better in school. This has cut into how much free time I have to blog, but I have no regrets. My son's education comes first.

However, this week things are even harder. My mom was admitted to the hospital yesterday complaining of dizziness and feelings of pressure on her chest, among other things. I was actually planning on going to work yesterday to make up for time but had to call it off. To add to the burden even more, I now have to take care of my mom's new dog (she bought a Pomeranian last month, though if you ask me, it looks a fucking rodent!). Tonight, after getting home with my kids around 6 p.m., I had to feed my kids, feed the dog, go to my mom's place and pick up some things that she asked for, go to the hospital, come back home, give my kids their baths, feed them their snacks, and work with my son on his homework.

Fortunately, my mom is feeling better, though the idiot doctors at North Shore Plainview still don't have any clear idea what is wrong with her. Early conjectures were congestive heart failure or a piece of food that got into her lungs when she coughed, but now they are leaning towards bronchitis, plus a urinary tract infection thrown in for good measure. To add to the misery, the hospital does not have any beds available and she is still in the emergency room wing. When I got there tonight, she was on a gurney in the hallway. And this was more than 30 hours after being admitted!

By the time they get around to getting her a room it will probably be time to discharge her. Sheesh! The good news is that she is not in the terrible situation that she was in last year and her hospital stay will be much briefer.

At any rate, things are going to be a little slow around here this week, as they have been for most of this month.

Friday, December 07, 2007

That Mitt Romney Speech

Like just about everyone else in the atheist and secular blogosphere, I did not care for Mitt Romney's much heralded speech on religion, though I wasn't surprise by it either. I think I did a pretty good job fisking Romney in this post back in May.

The full text of Romney's speech can be read here, among many other places.

Now to be fair, I understand and accept the fact that I live in a country where the majority of my fellow citizens believe in a god and that candidates for elected office feel obliged to acknowledge that fact in their campaigns. Sure, I wish everyone in America would become an atheist in the same sense that Christians want everyone in the country to become Christian and Muslims want everyone to become Muslim and so on, but an atheist America is not particularly high on my list of priorities. A pluralistic and tolerant America that respects religious freedom and maintains a separation of church and state is just fine with me.

It is also a given that elected officials who are deeply religious people are going to be influenced by the values of their religion when it comes voting on legislation or making decisions. A politician who accepts the teaching of his church that abortion is murder and should be outlawed is obviously going to vote to curb abortion rights whenever the opportunity arises. He won't get my vote, but he certainly has the right to run for office and vote based on his conscience should he win.

As I wrote in another post I did on Mitt Romney, I could care less if he is a believing Mormon. I am looking for a president who is competent and gets results. I initially believed that Mitt Romney could be such a president, but as the post I linked to above recounts, I grew disenchanted with Romney when I scrutinized him further.

The speech that Mitt Romney should have given could have been very brief and simple. Point out that yes, religious freedom is one of the foundations of our greatness, including the freedom not to believe in any religion or god. Mention that the Founders, in their wisdom, bequeathed to us a Constitution that declared that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Tell the audience that while he is a devout follower of his Mormon faith, they should base their opinion of Mormonism on his character rather than forming their opinion of him based on any prejudices they might harbor towards Mormons. Lastly, conclude by stating that he seeks to be president to make the country a better place for people of all faiths and of no faith at all, and that is the standard he should be judged by.

Instead, the message I got from the speech that Romney gave was that he was basically telling evangelicals "I'm one of you guys. And screw those other guys." Thanks for nothing, Mitt!

Friday Funnies - Sex Edition

I stumbled on the first scene while searching for possible clips for this post. I don't know the name of the movie the scene is from, but recognize the actress, Rachel Leigh Cooke. It is rather explicit, so don't watch it if you are prude or easily offended. The second clip is a hilarious scene from an obscure cult classic called "Delicatessen". Last up is a scene from the movie "Hot Shots", with Charlie Sheen and Valeria Golino doing a spoof of a famous scene between Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger in "9 1/2 Weeks".

Music Medley - More Alternative Rock Classics

This week's music medley is another collection of alternative rock classics from the late Eighties/early Nineties. Transport yourself back to your high school and college years and enjoy!

Sisters of Mercy - "More"

Flock of Seagulls - "Space Age Love Song"

Alphaville - "Forever Young"

The Cure - "In Between Days"

Siouxsie and the Banshees - "Cities In Dust"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Dennett v. D'Souza - The Finnish Mafia

I listened to the debate between Dan Dennett and Dinesh D'Souza at work today (I have my own office, so I have the luxury of being able to listen to such things while working). has a link to all of the segments of the debate here.

I am not going to comment on the entire debate, but rather focus on a couple of things D'Souza said that cut to the heart of the problem that I have with religious faith. Conveniently enough, D'Souza's troubling comments appear at the beginning of both of the clips below, the first during D'Souza's formal debate with Dennett, and the second in response to a question from one of the audience during the Q&A segment.

D'Souza's argument is one that I have heard before. When disbelievers such as myself ask for concrete evidence of the existence of God, we are told that God is something that lies outside of the realm of our ability to comprehend. Our understanding of the cosmos is limited by our five senses. D'Souza basically is saying that we can't expect to see God, smell God, touch God, taste God, or hear God (at least in the sense that we hear sounds with our ears) because God is greater than the power of these senses to detect him.

But here is my problem with that. Fervent believers feel they can make claims on the rest of us based on their religious faith. A Bible thumping Christian or a Quran waving Muslim can tell me with 100% confidence that I will burn in hell in the afterlife if I do not submit to a belief in their particular religion, but when I ask for tangible evidence, I am told that God doesn't work that way. As the young man questioning D'Souza at the beginning of the second segment provided above says, that is just way too easy and convenient.

I am perfectly willing to admit that given my limited human powers of perception, it is possible that there might be some intelligence that created the universe. I don't think it is likely, but it would be arrogant of me to claim with 100% certainty that there is no greater power than us in the universe. I don't know if that makes me a weak atheist or even an agnostic. But just as it is arrogant to claim with 100% certainty that there is no possibility of a creator, it is equally arrogant in my opinion for a true religious believer to claim with 100% certainty that there not only is a creator, but that they know what this creator expects from us, and that there will be penalties for not complying, while simultaneously arguing that the existence of this creator is something "that is beyond the sphere of human experience."

I'm sorry, but if a religious believer expects me to accept on faith that the creator of the universe impregnated a virgin in the Middle East some 2,000 years ago and that I will suffer for an eternity in the afterlife for the crime of not believing it happened, then I can't take that seriously without some really strong evidence to back it up.

Let me put it this way. If you got into a scuffle with someone and then was told from a third party that the other person was in the Italian Mafia, you would be justified in being at least a little worried that either your life or the life of your family was in jeopardy. If you did some investigating, you might even find out the wiseguy's name, what family he works for, what crimes they have committed and so forth. But if instead you were told that the person you tussled with was a bigshot in the Finnish Mafia, would you take it seriously? You could do some searching for the Finnish Mafia and not find any records of any ethnic Finn mobsters or any articles or reports about any ethnic Finnish crime families operating in the United States. Granted, it wouldn't definitively prove that there was not a Finnish Mafia, but it would make its existence highly unlikely. Therefore, it would be reasonable to conclude that the person who told you the information was either seriously mistaken or he was playing a joke on you.

As far as I am concerned at present, the God of the Bible and the Quran is about as real and scary to me as a Finnish mobster. However, if I wake up one morning and find a bloody horse's head in my bed with a Nokia phone shoved up one of its nostrils, I guarantee you I will be afraid of the Finnish mob!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Pet Peeve of the Day - December 3, 2007

In an update on my post Xbox 360 vs. Playstation 3, I ended up buying the Xbox, along with its flagship game Halo 3. It is a very addicting game. Every time you think you are finished, a mini-movie plays and then you find yourself in another adventure. The next thing I know, it's 1 a.m.!

This weekend, I came up against a terrible new foe in Halo 3, the Scarab Tank. These bastards are very tough and hard to kill. I HATE Scarab Tanks!

Here is a clip someone put up on Youtube showing a battle with a Scarab Tank.

The Birds of Long Island - The Northern Mockingbird

This is the first in a series of posts I will be doing about the birds of Long Island, or at least the ones I see in my neighborhood. I am not a big-time bird watcher, but in the last several years I have taken an interest in trying to identify the birds I see and trying to learn a little bit about them.

The bird pictured above is the Northern Mockingbird, which is one my personal favorites. I learned up and close and personal some years ago one of the quirky characteristics of the Northern Mockingbird. When my son was about a year and a half or so, there were a couple of nights where he would have a major crying fit. It was impossible to get to sleep while he was screaming (his room was next to our bedroom at the time) and my efforts to get him to stop were not working. So, I bundled him up and put him in the stroller for a late night walk through the neighborhood, which served to calm him down and put him to sleep.

The streets where I live are very quiet around 2 a.m. and as expected, there is very little traffic. Thus it was that while I was pushing my son's stroller around at such a late hour, I was surprised to hear the sound of a bird singing. I was intrigued, because I had never heard a bird call during the night. Because there were no other sounds to interfere with my listening, I was able to get closer and closer to the sound of the bird's call until I found myself underneath a small tree that stood on the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the curb. I whistled my imitation of the bird's calls as best as I could, and it seemed as if the bird was whistling back to me in response. Because it was dark though, I was unable to see the bird and did not know what species it was.

A couple of years later, I bought a field guide to North American birds and read the descriptions of the different birds I recognized seeing in my neighborhood. When I read the description of the Northern Mockingbird, it mentioned that this species of bird is known for being one of the few birds that issues its mating calls during nocturnal hours as well as during the daytime. "Aha!" I exclaimed, "that was the bird I heard that night!"

Sunday, December 02, 2007

When Alan Keyes Comes Calling

The other day I received in the mail an appeal from arch-conservative and perennially failed Republican candidate Alan Keyes, better known lately by his full name Batshit Crazy Alan Keyes.

Before I continue, I have a confession to make. In the runup to the 2000 election, I did give some support to Alan Keyes in his quixotic quest for the Republican nomination. I was in my second and final libertarian phase at the time, and while I blanched at his God talk, he struck me as the most libertarian of the Republican candidates on issues like the income tax and school choice. I even attended one of his speaking engagements at a Republican Party meeting in Ozone Park when I was living in Queens. But we all make mistakes, right?

When I saw the envelope from Keyes in my mail, I anticipated that its contents would make for a good blog post, and sure enough it did not disappoint. I opened the envelope and pulled out the letter within. After the opening salutation, Mister Keyes got right to the point: "I have decided to enter the presidential fray as the candidate who publicly pledges to lead our people in an American Revival, supporting and defending the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States..."

Keyes continues, "In these troubled times, America must elect a person of faith who above all will honor God, and by so doing "Honor the Oath" of public office." A "person of faith"? For a man who purports to be upholding the Constitution of the United States, Keyes must have somehow overlooked paragraph 3 of Article 6 of the Constitution, which states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." And what about the oath of office, what does the Constitution have to say about that? "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

So, let us pause a moment and tally the score. Godless Constitution - 2. Alan Keyes - 0. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Further on down the first page of Keyes' letter, he goes on to declare that "our rights as American citizens rest upon the existence and Authority of God. This is explicitly stated in our Declaration, the philosophical well-spring of the Constitution." The Declaration of Independence, writes Alan Dershowitz in his book Blasphemy: How The Religious Right iIs Hijacking Our Declaration of Independence, has been called "the birth certificate of America." However, says Dershowitz, "partisans of the Religious Right have tried to transmogrify this document of liberty into a baptismal certificate for a Christianized America."

Dershowitz goes on to make the case in Chapter One of Blasphemy that while the Declaration of Independence contains references such as "Nature's God", "Creator", and "Divine Providence", the "omission of any reference to Jesus Christ, or to the specific God of Christianity or of the Bible is far more significant than the inclusion of generic words that were consistent with non-Christian deistic beliefs." The Declaration of Independence was primarily drafted by Thomas Jefferson, who Dershowitz describes as "an Enlightenment rationalist who believed that 'the alliance between church and state' produces only evil, and that a wall of separation must be maintained. His God was most certainly not the intervening Judeo-Christian God of the Bible." Dershowitz quotes Jefferson scholar Allen Jayne, who describes Jefferson's god as the "watchmaker God of deism... who established the laws of nature at the time of creation and then left it alone."

Keyes goes on to rail against abortion, which he claims is in violation of the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims, according to Keyes, "every person is equal and shall be protected not by the choice of the mother, nor by distinctions of age or condition...but by the Will of God." When Alan Keyes makes such claims, it is clear that he is either ignorant or dishonest about what exactly the Declaration of Independence was. The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to announce to the world the reasons why the colonists were seeking to sever their connection to Great Britain. It was a work of propaganda, not a body of statutory law. Therefore, Alan Keyes can couch his anti-abortion rhetoric in the language of the Declaration of Independence all that he wants to, but no court of law in this country will take him seriously. The Constitution is the highest law in the land.

With regard to the already mentioned fact that the Oath of Office of the President does not mention God, Keyes says in his letter that America's presidents have traditionally concluded their oath of office with the words "So help me God". Problem is, the first president to have done this was the obscure Chester Arthur in 1881. Somehow the Republic managed to survive nearly a century without presidents making such an invocation at their inaugural addresses. Godless Constitution - 3. Alan Keyes - 0.

Keyes laments that "the nation has become increasingly unfriendly to the free expression of Christian faith and piety, and Judeo-Christian ethics and morality, especially regarding sexuality and the family." According to Keyes, the "leftist elites in America want to de-legitimate, even criminalize the Christian moral understanding of the natural family -ordained by God - where one man and one woman in covenant accept responsibility before the Creator for the well-being of their children."

I don't know where Alan Keyes is getting the idea that there is a movement in this country to criminalize the institution of marriage between a man and a woman. If any of my readers can enlighten me on this, I would appreciate it. But what I can say in response to Keyes is that there is a movement in this country to expand the concept of marriage beyond the Christian idea of the "natural family." The issue of gay marriage is a topic for a post in and of itself, and I will not get into detail on it here. Others with a greater stake in this issue than me have written and will continue to write eloquently and passionately on the subject. What I will say from my own point of view as a married man and atheist is that I cannot think of a meaningful reason to object to same-sex marriage. I don't see how I can be harmed by it. Furthermore, not only are gays such a small percentage of our population (I doubt it tops 5%), but the number of gays who would take advantage of the right to marry if it were granted to them would likely be much smaller than that.

As for Alan Keyes and his family values, we all know how he handled the coming out of the closet of his daughter Maya Keyes.

I got a mild chuckle near the end of the appeal where it reads "I am sending you this letter because I know you care; I know you are a God-fearing person who believes as I do." (Emphasis mine). Wrong again Alan! Try again. Even if I did believe in a god or a creator, I would reject the idea that such a being would need to be feared. It always amazes me how some really religious people can hold such conflicting ideas in their head. On the one hand, they will rail against "the guvmint" encroaching on their personal liberties, and yet the god they worship is a Stalinist dictator who must be simultaneously loved and feared. I would like to think that any being capable of creating this vast and complex universe in which we live would be above such nonsense.

In conclusion, if you would like to contribute to Alan Keyes presidential campaign, the address is Keyes 2008, P.O. Box 2008, Houston, Texas 77219-2008. You can legally give up to $2,300 if you're feeling generous.

Rodney Stark's "Discovering God" - Part 6 - From Jews to Christians

I have long believed that the best thing to ever happen to the Jews in ancient times was the Persian Empire. As I discussed in my post The Chosen People of the Supreme Being Test - Chapter 1 - You Call This A Promised Land?, the Israelites were hard pressed to maintain their kingdom due to the geographic misfortune of finding themselves sandwiched between their more powerful neighbors. But now, being allowed to resettle in the land of Israel, the Jews no longer had to worry about foreign invasion because the Persian Empire also encompassed all of the lands of their former enemies. The Jews now had something vital that their ancestors had always lacked, security. One must look at a map showing the extent of the Persian Empire to truly appreciate how vast it was.

The Jewish exiles who returned to Israel, writes Stark, "were primarily those deeply committed to the Yahweh-Only Sect," and "they launched vigorous efforts to impose true monotheism on the entire society." And their vision of god had changed as well. No longer was Yahweh simply their national god, he was the god of all.

What happened next was that Judaism became centered on the Temple in Jerusalem. "The Judaism put in place by the Yahweh-Only Sect... required strict observance of the Law and absolute intolerance of polytheism. But authority over this new orthodoxy was centered in Jerusalem amd placed in the hands of a professional, hereditary priesthood." With the imposition of a mandatory tithe on the Jewish people, the Temple and its subsidized priesthood became "the dominant financial institution, acting as the state treasury as well as an investment bank."

Repeating an earlier observation, Stark argues that "pluralism is the natural state of any religious economy... It follows that religious monopolies can exist only to the extent that coercion is able to keep dissenting groups tiny and circumspect, and that whenever coercion falters, competing religious groups will arise. Because erstwhile monopoly religions inevitably are relatively lax, lazy, and worldly, most of their opposition will come from groups promoting a far more intense faith - from sects." While the present-day United States does not have nor ever did have a monopoly religious faith, Stark's theory seems validated by shifting religious demographics in the United States today, with the more liberal mainline Protestant denominations in decline while more hardline and conservative denominations like the Southern Baptists have increased in strength.

As for the Jews in post-Exile Israel, though the Temple priesthood was initially founded by those Jews from the Yahweh-Only Sect who had an intense commitment to their faith, "that religious intensity is never transmitted very efficiently from one generation to the next." Consequently, "Israel soon abounded in disputatious sects." Stark provides an overview of the three main Jewish religious groups that coalesced in the years leading up to the Roman era: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes.

In brief, the Sadducees were the Temple priests. The Pharisees were more numerous than the Sadducees. Stark writes that "[p]erhaps the most significant single contribution of the Pharisees was the establishment of synagogues in Israel." Synagogues were buildings used for local worship and the Pharisees held that a synagogue could be set up wherever there were at least ten Jewish men. Though the Sadducees were opposed to the practice of synagogues, the synagogues "became the primary institution of Jewish religious life" following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The Essenes were an extremely ascetic group who are believed to have had a community at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

From there, Stark expounds upon a little-known fact, that contrary to popular belief, that ancient Judaism was a proselytizing faith. This is contrary to the present day, where orthodox Jews tend to be rather insular. I once had an Orthodox Jewish co-worker who told me that his sect, the Lubavitchers, discouraged converts because of the strict requirements of the faith. However, Isaiah 49:6 has God telling the Israelites "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the Earth." Given that the Earth is a sphere, one might be tempted to ask exactly where the end of the Earth is located.

During the Roman Era, it is estimated that anywhere from 10 to 15% of the population of the Empire was Jewish. Stark quotes an Adolf von Harnack's claim that "It is utterly impossible to explain the large total of Jews in the Diaspora by the mere fact of the fertility of Jewish families. We must assume... that a very large number of pagans... trooped over to Yahweh." From a practical standpoint, given the frequent conquests and occupations of the land of Israel since the time of the Assyrians, expanding a national religion by acquiring foreign converts could have the potential of providing a greater supply of manpower for an army of liberation.

But as Stark notes, there was in fact a two-way process going on. Just as Diasporan Jews were seeking converts among their Gentile neighbors, so were they too assimilating to the Gentile, particularly Hellenistic, culture of their neighbors. "All but a very few had so entirely lost their Hebrew that they worshipped in Greek and their scriptures had to be translated into Greek. Many Diasporan Jews, probably the majority of them, had abandoned some provisions of the Law. For example, the rules that made it very difficult to eat with non-Jews probably were widely ignored."

The Diasporan Jews then were ripe for a reform movement in their religion that would jettison the strict requirements of Torah law while retaining their belief in what they believed was the one true god. And as luck or fate would have it, such a reform movement was just over the horizon.