Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Legend of Hatuey: A Taino Pagan With Cojones

I am currently reading Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire from Columbus to Magellan by Hugh Thomas.

One brief story from the book that caught my interest was the capture of the Taino cacique (chief) Hatuey by the Spaniards on the island of Cuba. Having led a band of Tainos against the Spanish invaders, Hatuey faced execution.

According to the legend, before he was executed, Hatuey was told that if he converted to Christianity, all of his sins would be forgiven and he would go to heaven. Hatuey asked, if he accepted the religion of the Spaniards, would he encounter Spaniards in heaven? When told that he would, Hatuey allegedly spurned the offer and said that he would rather burn in hell then spend an eternity in heaven with the Spaniards. Having rejected their offer, the Spaniards proceeded to have Hatuey burned at the stake, as depicted in the picture above.

As horrible as Hatuey's fate was, if the story is true, one cannot help but admire his bravery. If it was me in his place, I probably would have opted for faking a conversion to Christianity in order to meet a quicker and less painful death.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Really Dumb Anti-Abortion Argument

Abortion is one of the biggest hot button issues in the United States and has been for many years. I personally come down on the pro-choice side of the debate, though my intention here is not to initiate a debate about abortion itself, but rather to address a particular argument I have seen put out by some in the anti-choice crowd.

The gist of this particular argument was expressed not too long ago in the Letters to the Editor section of the December 10, 2008 issue of The New York Times by one Elinor Hite of Carrolton, Texas:

"A nation that runs out of people cannot perform the activities of a sophisticated society.

We have a shortage of primary care doctors. There are other skilled-worker shortages. You cannot kill the future population of a nation and then wonder why that nation does not have the people it needs to do the jobs it requires to function.

Our nation needs to face up to the 48 million lives lost through abortion since 1973. I think at least some of that number would have become the skilled people we need now and will need even more as our population ages."

In a nutshell (with the emphasis on "nut"), Mrs. Hite is treating pregnancy as a form of national service, in which women dutifully crank out babies to provide the country with a future labor force.

But the implications of her assertions aside, Mrs. Hite is just plain wrong on the facts. First, let's look at the big picture. In 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade, the population of the United States was over 203,302,000. The population of the United States today, some 35 years after Roe v. Wade, according to the United States Census Bureau, is nearly 306,000,000. So while Hite is decrying some 48 million people who were never born, the population of the United States has increased by nearly 100 million since Roe!

Hite also portrays the 48 million number as a zero-sum game. In other words, she assumes that if all the women who have had abortions were instead forced to carry their pregnancies to term that we would then have had a net gain of 48 million people plus their descendants. But that is not necessarily the case. It is safe to assume that a significant percentage of women who have had abortions in the last 35 years have went on to have children later on in their lives. However, if these women were prevented from terminating their pregnancies earlier in their lives, they might have ended up having fewer children in the future. That means that some of the people alive today would not be alive if abortion were not legal. (Emphasis mine)

Regarding the shortage of primary care physicians that Hite decries, it can take seven to eight years to earn a medical degree. When you consider that Hite's phantom children who were aborted within a year of Roe would have only graduated high school in about 1992, the small fraction of them who would have gone on and earned a medical degree would have only entered the medical profession within the last 8 years. But that still does not address the problem of the shortage of primary care physicians.

The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that "[p]rimary care specialties have lost their appeal to U.S. medical school graduates, and specific primary care specialties are seeing young physicians look to more lucrative sub-specialization." According to Gail Baldwin, M.D., medical director of the Lake Superior Community Health Center in Duluth, Minn., public and private payment rates for primary care services lag behind those paid for services provided by many other specialties, discouraging physicians from pursuing a career in family medicine. So, the problem is not a shortage of doctors so much as a lack of incentive for medical school graduates to go into primary care practice.

Furthermore, Hite does not seem to realize that if her scenario of an extra 48 million children being born became reality, it would have exacerbated the labor shortage she bewails. These extra children, ironically, would have required an increase in the number of pediatric physicians, not to mention the building of more schools, and the hiring of more teachers and support staff. Where would they have come from?

Well, it just so happens that a good chunk of our labor force within the last two decades has come from abroad. From the report Rise, Peak and Decline: Trends in U.S. Immigration 1992-2004, the Pew Hispanic Center notes that "the foreign-born population grew from 9.6 million in 1970 to 19.8 million in 1990. In the last decade of the 20th century the numbers jumped dramatically by 57% to 31.1 million in Census 2000." From 2001 through 2007, according to the 2007 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, annual levels of immigration have for the most part exceeded one million. So immigration alone has virtually cancelled out Hite's missing 48 million, not even counting the American born descendants of post-1973 immigrants. Furthermore, unlike those missing 48 million, most immigrants have had the costs of their education borne from their countries of origin rather than by the American tax payer. My own wife is an example of this. She was able to immigrate to the United States in 1990 owing to a temporary nursing visa program, which enabled her to immediately participate in our labor force and contribute to our tax base. Of course, my opinion in this regard is highly biased, but it is clear that my wife and other immigrants like her represent a net gain for the United States.

One can of course object to abortion on moral grounds, and it is not my intention to get into that topic with this particular post, but I submit that Hite's argument, which is that we have a labor shortage in this country because of the selfishness of women who have had abortions, is either ignorant or dishonest.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Open Thread: Caption This Edition

The first atheist to retrieve the cross wins a date with Salma Hayek.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Philippines and the Curse of Catholicism

By way of Al Jazeera, of all places, comes this report, with accompanying video below, about the influence of conservative Catholicism in preventing poor families from access to birth control in the Philippines. This one is sure to set your blood to boiling.

The chief villain in this report is Lito Atienza, the current environmental minister and former mayor of Manila who "issued an order eight years ago that effectively banned city-funded health centres from providing modern contraceptives such as condoms, birth control pills and sterilisation."

"The central government has been more intent on promoting natural methods of family planning then modern contraceptives, for which services are left largely to the whim of local councils."

It baffles me, this Catholic insistence on "natural" methods of family planning, like the "rhythm method." If these whackaloons like Lito Atienza are against artificial methods of birth control, like condoms and pills, then why not extend such consideration to all aspects of their lives? Maybe they should refrain from riding in cars or airplanes. After all, automobiles and airplanes are not a "natural" way of getting around. Try walking instead. And you might want to get rid of those telephones and cell phones too. Those are artificial means of communicating with people. Oh, and don't even get me started on e-mail and text messages! But seriously, why should matters of contraception and sexuality be the only realm where human invention may not be applied?

In defense of the high rate of population growth in the Philippines, Atienza cites the booming economies of China and India. Is this clown seriously suggesting that the Philippines needs a billion people to become an economic success story? And to think he is the country's minister for the environment! Evidently, Atienza has never heard of China's "One Child Policy" or of India's efforts to control its population growth (though I wish to point out that I personally do not condone the coercive aspects of China and India's population control programs.)

Then there is this amusing nugget from Atienza:

"So it's not within the powers of man to prevent the birth of a child simply because of material reasons. Who knows – the life you are preventing could be the saviour of not only the Philippines, but the whole of mankind."

This is stupid on so many levels. By simply abstaining from sex, one is preventing the birth of a child.

Besides, the last so-called savior of mankind was supposedly conceived when the creator of the universe impregnated a virgin Jewish teenage girl in the Galilee a couple of thousand years ago. If some Filipina woman is designated by God to be the happy recipient of the next savior, is Atienza seriously suggesting that a birth control pill can thwart the will of this all-powerful deity?

Muslims for Sanity

Those of us here in the atheist blogosphere, like my friend the Spanish Inquisitor, often find the Islamic world to be a veritable gold mine of stories that make us sigh and roll our eyes, such as the recent fatwas in Malaysia against yoga classes and women dressing like "tomboys".

But as batshit crazy as these edicts seem to us, it is easy for us to forget that it is the many moderate Muslims who are the ones who actually have to live under these religious rulings. I recently read a humorous take on the impact these fatwas have on Muslim women in Indonesia by a Julia Suryakusuma in the English language Indonesian daily The Jakarta Post. Below are some excerpts, but I recommend reading the entire column, which you can read here.

Yesterday morning I woke up early as usual and got ready for my early morning meditational yoga. It's something I've been doing since 1981, clearing my mind and reinvigorating myself for the day ahead. It's like getting your cell phone recharged, as simple as that. But then I remembered reading that the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) is thinking of issuing a fatwa declaring yoga haram (forbidden), inspired by the Malaysian National Fatwa Council which has declared yoga haram because it "goes against the teachings of Islam".

So, okay, I thought, I'd best skip my meditation. I donned shorts, T-shirt and sneakers and stepped out of the house for my morning walk instead. Then I remembered I was wearing a bra. Another fatwa, yikes!

The growing conservatism among hardline Muslims in Malaysia, Indonesia and other parts of the world suggests some Muslim leaders want to halt modernity, even turn it back. And if they can't make the world get in line with their regressive fantasies, then they want to destroy it. They share this with their more extreme terrorist brothers (and a few suicidal sisters), as we have seen again and again in recent years, most recently in Mumbai.

It starts with a few ridiculous fatwas. Do we want it to end in more mindless, tragic massacres? Surely it is past time for all Indonesians who believe Islam can be a religion of the modern world to start saying no to this nonsense while it is still a laughing matter.

And while I have an entire series of posts bashing Islamic fundamentalism (with an emphasis on mental) in Malaysia, that southeast Asian country is not without its own voices of sanity. One such organization, which I believe I have mentioned in a previous post, is Sisters in Islam.

Sisters in Islam "is a group of Muslim women committed to promoting the rights of women within the framework of Islam." They have, among other things, publicly condemned the fatwas banning yoga and "tomboys," and they can reliably be counted on to speak out against the forces of misogyny and intolerance in Malaysia.

As we say here in America, "You go, girls!"

Sunday, December 07, 2008

UPDATED: How About Those Gasoline Prices? - The Dream Has Almost Come True!

Since my last post on this topic on November 2, the price of gasoline has continued to drop. If you recall, in the dream I had this past August, the price of regular unleaded had fallen to $1.75. At the time, and until quite recently, I thought there was absolutely no chance of my dream coming true.

Well, I am happy to report that as of yesterday morning, the price of regular unleaded gasoline at the BP station at the corner of Woodbury Road and South Oyster Bay Road has dropped to 1.99 per gallon. The price need only drop another 24 cents per gallon for the dream to be realized. We shall see.

UPDATE: As of December 12, the price of regular unleaded has fallen to $1.89 per gallon. Just 14 more cents to go for the dream to come true!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Sanitizing A Tale of Genocide for Children

As you all know, we're in the middle of another holiday shopping season.

Last week, when I was shopping for gifts for my children in a local toy store, I saw on one of the shelves a Noah's Ark toy set. I had seen them before, not only for sale in toy stores and toy catalogs, but in businesses that would have toys set aside to offer a diversion for children while their parents were trying on clothes or something.

Since young children tend to be interested in animals, I suppose it is only natural that a toy boat filled with little animals would be popular with them. But I have to admit that I feel a measure of, shall we say, discomfort at the thought of marketing Noah's Ark toys to children. As I expressed in the title for this post, what is happening here is that a story about an angry god committing mass murder is turned into a harmless children's toy featuring a boat, cute animals, and a kindly looking old man. That just strikes me as fundamentally dishonest.

The Ultimate Absurdity of Islam

In case you don't know, the annual pilgrimate, or hajj, to Mecca is currently underway. And according to this article from Al Jazeera, it looks like Saudi Arabia is going to experience a record turnout.

"More than 100,000 security guards have been deployed to cope with the three million people expected in the city of Mecca, when the Islamic pilgrimage gets under way on Saturday."

The article notes that "It is a religious duty for every able-bodied Muslim with the necessary financial resources to make the pilgrimage at least once during their lifetime to cleanse their sins."

Reading this article reminded me of a thought I have had a number of times before. The annual hajj is a logistical nightmare as it is already. Millions attend annually, and it is not uncommon for people to die in stampedes, in some cases in the hundreds, and once well over a thousand.

As with any other proselytizing religion, it is no secret that the followers of Islam want the entire world to convert to their religion. As it currently stands,
there are somewhere between one to one and a half billion Muslims in a world with an estimated global population of 6.7 billion people.

Even more sobering,
world population in 2050 is expected to reach a peak of approximately 9.2 billion.

If by some bizarre miracle (or rather, nightmare) every person on the planet became a convert to Islam within the next 50 years, it would literally be impossible for every able-bodied Muslim to make the pilgrimage, which is one of the five pillars of the faith. To reiterate, expand the number of Muslims beyond a certain point and there will be no way of accommodating all of them in order to fulfill one of the most important requirements of their faith. It would be interesting to hear what the Muslim faithful have to say in response to this potential conundrum.

Then again, as I pointed out in
this post two years ago, Mecca during the hajj could become a disease incubator that sets off a pandemic in the Muslim world. The Economist article I linked to noted that "one in three pilgrims suffers respiratory symptoms during the pilgrimage, and overcrowding (in tents accomodating up to 100 people) provides ideal conditions for illness to spread. The risk to families of pilgrims was highlighted by a study in Malaysia, published in 2002: among people sharing a house with a returning pilgrim, about 8% were carrying traces of the bacteria associated with meningitis."

And therein lies the ultimate absurdity of Islam: carrying out one of its most important requirements is quite literally dangerous to Muslims.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Is Bill Clinton Out of His Mind?

Former President Bill Clinton visited Malaysia recently. According to The Star Online, "Clinton has expressed admiration for Malaysians, saying that their ability to respect other people’s faiths should be emulated by all."

Apparently, Exercise in Futility is not on Clinton's reading list. If he had, he would have learned about the "respect" shown by Malaysian Muslim authorities towards Lina Joy and Revathi Massosai.

Or how does Clinton feel about the recent fatwa against "tomboys"?

While the "Tomboy" fatwa is not legally binding, it should not be surprising if self annointed gangs of brainwashed Muslim Malay youth start assaulting Malay women who are deemed to be in violation of the fatwa. Because that is what public pronouncements like that do, they contribute to a climate of intolerance and oppression that encourages and empowers fanatics.

Bill Clinton had a chance to speak out against this kind of religiously sanctioned bigotry and passed.

Nobody Expects the Byzantine Empire

Who knew there was still nostalgia for the Byzantine Empire?

I came across the video below last night while searching for a clip from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

The profile of the person who put up this video, who goes by the name of Orthodox Dog, reads thusly:

I'm: Serb and Russian, Ultra Orthodox Christian, Slavic nationalist, White patriot, not fucking nazi!!!

Orthodox Dog evidently looks forward to a revived Byzantine Empire via a union of the Orthodox Christian countries of Russia, Greece and Serbia that will recover Istanbul, if the end of the video is any indication.

A number of commenters to the video also write of their lament for the fall of Constantinople as if May 29, 1453 was only yesterday. One of them bitterly decries the Hungarian engineer who designed the cannon used by the Ottomans to batter Constantinople's walls, asserting that if the "traitor" Hungarian had not done so, then the Turks never would have taken the city.

These people really need to chill out. Like all empires, the Eastern Romans, or Byzantines as they are more popularly known, had their time and then faded away. The Byzantines were living on borrowed time for the last five decades or so of their existence, and would have fallen fifty years earlier if the Ottomans did not have to end their siege of Constantinople to deal with Tamerlane. The Byzantines owe their decline and fall as much to their own internal disputes as they do to the sack of 1204 by Latin Crusaders sidelined from their journey to retake Jerusalem or to a Hungarian cannoneer offering his skills to the highest bidder.

But I couldn't help but overlook one really delicious piece of irony. Does Orthodox Dog realize that his beloved Serbs themselves, particularly during the reign of their mid-14th century ruler Stefan Dušan, played an important role in the decline of the Byzantine Empire and the ability of the Ottoman Turks to get a foothold in Europe? A few choice excerpts from the Wikipedia article linked to above:

In the first years of his reign, Dušan started to fight against the Byzantine Empire (1334), and warfare continued with interruptions of various duration until his death in 1355.

Dušan exploited the civil war in the Byzantine Empire between regent Anna of Savoy for the minor Emperor John V Palaiologos and his father's general John Kantakouzenos.

There has been speculation that Dušan's ultimate goal was no less than to conquer Constantinople and replace the declining Byzantine Empire with a united Orthodox Greco-Serbian Empire under his control.

Faced with Dušan's aggression, the Byzantines sought allies in the Turks whom they brought into Europe for the first time.

Yeah, what this world really needs is the revival of a Greek Orthodox theocratic empire. Heck, let's restore the Carthaginian Empire too while we're at it!