Sunday, December 27, 2009

Belize Trip Day 3 - August 3, 2009 - Underwater Math and The Deep Blue Sea

I had decided that while I was going to be in an environment where I would be diving up to five times a day, I might as well use the opportunity to get certified as a PADI Advanced Open Water Diver, which would allow me to dive recreationally to a depth of 130 feet.

The course consisted of five specialty courses. One of them was the
Deep Diver course. As part of the course, I had to do a math problem on the boat. It was an addition problem involving adding two numbers that were in the hundreds of thousands. Aaron, one of the divemasters and crew members of the boat, timed me while I added the numbers. One of the other members of our group, Jeff, who was the father of Josh, was also taking the Advanced Open Water class and would also be participating in the deep dive. Aaron told us that on our deep dive, we would descend to 100 feet and then he would give us diving slates with a similar addition problem written on them. He would then time us again as we did the math. The point of it all was to test our abilities at deep depth. Aaron informed us that some people took longer to solve the problems underwater while others were able to do it even faster.

As so much time has passed, my memory is hazy as to what dive this was, but I think it might have been the second dive of the day at Half Moon Caye Wall. Aaron, Jeff, and I did our giant strides into the water, swam to the reef wall, and then descended to about 100 feet. Aaron handed Jeff and I the diving slates with the math problems. With the pencils provided to us, Jeff and I each took turns adding the numbers Aaron had written on the slates while Aaron timed us. After we had finished, we made our way back to the Sundancer II. Later on, Aaron came up to me and informed me that I had did my math problem faster at 100 feet than I did on the boat. Given that math was never my strongest subject, I joked that I should spend more time at deep depth.

Later in the day, we had moved to a new dive site called Uno Coco. I had decided to skip the first of the three dives there. For the late afternoon dive, I told one of our group, Tara, that I would accompany her on the dive. Tara was a nice, pretty lady about my age who worked as an elementary school teacher. Though she was a certified diver, it had been some time since she had last dived and she lacked confidence in herself. Her anxiety about diving was further exacerbated by the fact she had problems on previous dives with her mask flooding. I remember on one of the dives, I had swam up alongside her and saw her struggling to clear her mask. I could see that she was starting to panic and I reached out to try to calm her down when suddenly she started to make a rapid ascent to the surface. I know that she had did the same thing on a previous dive, and the rest of us were worried that she would end up spending the rest of the trip on the boat without going in the water again. Larry suggested to her that her problem might be that she had her mask on too tightly. If I recall, she did not have further problems after that.

Anyway, back to the dive in question. I told Tara that I would go in first and meet her at the hang bar. I did my giant stride into the water, gave the "OK" signal by placing my hand on top of my head, gave a wave to Tara, then started my descent. And then, like my first dive on the previous day, I found myself surfacing again. So, I started over, giving a long, steady exhale and began my descent. As I finally started sinking lower, I looked ahead of me so that I could begin swimming towards the hang bar, when to my utter shock and surprise, I saw no sign of the Sundancer II at all. Even worse, I looked down, and instead of seeing coral reefs and sand, I saw nothing but blue. Somehow, I had ended up way past the reef wall.

As I did with my first dive, I decided the best thing to do was to surface and look for the Sundancer II. Breaking the surface, I looked ahead and saw her far off in the distance. I was utterly baffled, as it seemed like only a few seconds had passed between when I had left the boat and when I had started to descend. I found myself all alone above the deep blue sea, and no one had any idea where I was. Now, being as this is an atheist themed blog, I have to find some way of getting an atheist angle into this story.

I felt a wave of fear come over me. But I didn't turn into the cliched atheist in a foxhole begging god to save me. As inexperienced as I was, I had my training. While the Sundancer II was further away from me than it was when I had to be rescued from my first dive, this time it was the beginning of the dive and I still had nearly a full tank of air at my disposal. I took a compass reading, descended to about 15 feet, and then started swimming as rapidly as I could in the direction of the boat. I was worried not only about me, but about Tara as well. She was expecting to find me waiting for her at the hang bar and I did not want her thinking I had ditched her.

After a few minutes had passed by, I started to see white patches below me and felt a tremendous sense of relief as I realized I had passed back over the reef wall again. A few seconds later I could see the bubbles emitted by other divers below me and knew I was back in the right neighborhood. Then I found the Sundancer II and made my way to the hang bar. The bar was empty, and I figured that Tara must have gotten tired of waiting for me and went back on the boat. Nevertheless, I decided to remain on the hang bar in the event that she would show up again. Meanwhile, since I would be participating in the night dive at this same site later on, I started to look around at the coral formations below me for recognizable features to help me on the night dive. I then found myself watching a school of Horse-eye Jacks that had taken shelter underneath the boat. They stayed in formation and matched their movement to the boat as it swung from side to side. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed another diver had joined me on the hang bar. It was Tara.

Since I still had ample air left in my tank, I decided to do a little exploring. I signaled to Tara that I was going down to the coral formation below. There was a cul-de-sac with the entrance marked by a barrel sponge that I had taken notice of while I was waiting on the hang bar. I passed through the entrance and swam to the end. Then I turned around and settled down, resting my knees on the sand, calmly surveying the scene about me. I was going to keep an eye out for this spot on the night dive, because I knew that the Sundancer II would be passing over it.

Having had my fill of freelancing, I returned to the hang bar for my safety stop and then surfaced to board the boat. Once on board, I explained to Tara what had happened to me and apologized for not being where she expected me to be. She was quite understanding.

After dinner, I joined Marnie, Jeff and several other divers for the night dive. In terms of marine life, the dive was not as successful as the previous night's dive. Pretty much all I saw were more sturgeons and tarpons gliding by, completely unfazed by our presence. At one point during the dive, I was about ten feet above the rest of the divers. One of my hands must have came to my chest, because I realized that I had forgotten to fasten the clips on my bcd. Nonchalantly, I went about clipping them. Unfortunately, in doing so, I accidentally lost my grip on the disposable underwater camera I had bought at Seascapes. Helplessly, I watched as it floated rapidly up to the surface. I felt bad, because there are probably fewer people in the world who hate littering as much as I do. But it would be my last mistake of the trip.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Belize Trip Day 2: August 2, 2009 - Cluster[bleep] In The Water

But before I get into that, a few words are in order for the reader who has never been on a liveaboard before.

As I wrote in my previous post, after breakfast each morning, the day's diving activities would begin with the dive briefing. On the Sundancer II, each of the crew members who was a dive master, namely, Captain James, First Mate Marnie, Aaron and John, would take turns describing a dive site. The dive master would draw, with varying degrees of artistic ability, a rough map of the dive site on an erasable marker board as seen in the picture above. He or she would inform us of the kinds of marine life we could expect to see, the terrain, and the depths, among other things. An important piece of information that was shared with us in the first dive briefing that would apply to nearly all our dives was that as a consequence of the ship being tethered to a mooring block, the ship would swing back and forth in a wide arc, so if the ship wasn't where we expected it to be on our return, we should wait a few minutes and eventually it would swing back to us. The other important thing that they stressed at every dive briefing was that we should try to come back from each dive with no less than 500 psi of air left in our tanks.

The picture above is the dive platform at the back of the Sundancer II. The ladders, which are retracted in the picture, are lowered when the divers are in the water and are used by the divers to climb back aboard after first taking off their fins and handing them to one of the crew members. You can see tethered behind the ship a small boat for use in the event that a diver needed to be rescued. Hint: In a story, this is what is called foreshadowing.

Each of us had our own dive station, where we would keep our buoyancy control device (bcd) strapped to the air tank. Below was storage space for our fins, mask and other gear. After each dive, our tanks would be refilled in place. Below is the port side of the dive deck. The rest of the passengers had their stations on the starboard side.

Okay, and now that that's out of the way, on to the day's events.
Our first dive was at a site called Long Caye Ridge. Before my trip to Belize, I expected, based on my lack of experience, that my first day's diving would see a lot of mistakes on my part. And sure enough, I did not fail to live up (or down) to my expectations.

Marnie, the first mate, was the dive master for this dive, and it was my intention to join her and the other passengers that were accompanying her. Below the dive deck, about 15 feet down, was the ship's hang bar, where the divers would congregate after doing their giant stride into the water and submerging.

After I had donned by gear, John, one of the divemasters on the ship, asked me how many pounds of weights I needed. I had consulted my dive log for the open water dives I had done in Fort Lauderdale the previous year and it said I used eighteen pounds. When I told John this, he was absolutely astounded and told me that was too much. He sized me up with his eyes and declared that ten pounds should be enough. "Well, he's the expert," I thought to myself and I accepted his assessment.

Having put the weights into my bcd (as I have a weight integrated bcd), I walked to the dive platform, put on my fins, and when I had the all clear, did my giant stride into the water. Holding the inflation hose up in my left hand and pressing the release button and exhaling out of my regulator, I expected to begin my descent. But as the seconds went by, I failed to submerge. "Dammit, I knew it!" I said to myself, upset that I did not insist to John that I be given 18 pounds. I swam back to the boat and told Aaron that I had trouble submerging and asked to have my weights boosted to 18 pounds. I pulled out the weight packets from my bcd and handed them to him so that he could put more weight blocks into them. Once this was done, I swam a few feet away from the boat and then proceeded to submerge. As I did so, I looked down towards the hang bar and saw to my consternation that there was no one there. Marnie's group had already left.

I started swimming around, looking for the other divers. I first came across Ira and Leo the octogenarian. As I approached Leo, he paused and I had to take evasive action to avoid a collision. I ascended to go over him, and then breathed a sigh of relief that I avoided hitting him, and then felt what seemed like a tug on my right fin. I looked back and saw that I accidentally clipped him. "Way to go asshole!" I berated myself. I continued on ahead of Leo and Ira to see if I could find Sam, but I failed to locate him. A short while later, I encountered a couple of other divers who were not part of the Seascapes group. It was a man from Iowa and his college age daughter. I started to look around the coral formations and actually take in the scenery for once. The next thing I knew, the Iowans were gone. I looked at my air tank and saw that my air supply was about 1000 psi. I figured I had better start heading back to the Sundancer II. After trying to retrace my path, I realized that I really had no clue where I was going, so I decided that my best bet was to surface to get a visual on the ship and then start swimming towards it.

When I surfaced, I found the Sundancer II, but was disappointed to see how far it was. I submerged a few feet and started to swim in the direction of the ship, keeping a nervous eye on my air gauge. When I got to around 500 psi, I surfaced again and saw I was still a good distance from the ship, about several hundred yards. Weighing my options, and knowing my limitations as an inexperienced diver and not wanting to run the risk of using up all my air, I decided to swallow my pride and signal for help. I had a safety sausage clipped to my bcd, but I didn't want to deploy that yet, so I blew the whistle until I could see that Aaron, who was on the dive platform, heard it and could see me waving my arms. I watched as they drew in the rescue boat towards the dive platform, and then Aaron stepped in, started the motor, and made his way towards me. After he helped me on board, I apologized profusely for being such a burden. On the way back, we picked up two more divers, Rose and Renee, who were also not part of the Seascapes group. While they were not in distress, they decided to accept Aaron's offer for a ride back, as they had surfaced about a hundred yards from the ship.

The second dive of the morning was also at Long Caye Ridge. While the dive itself was largely uneventful, my return to the ship did not go so well. When I got to the ladder, Captain James was manning the dive platform. I took off my fins and handed them to him, but in doing so, I stupidly let go of the ladder and the current started pushing me away. I tried kicking my legs, but without the fins I could make no headway. James tossed me a line and I used it to make my way back to the ladder. I climbed up, feeling exhausted and eager to get my gear off. Problem was, I mistakenly thought that I was supposed to leave my gear on the dive platform. I unclipped my bcd with the tank still strapped to it and set it down on the platform and started stumbling towards the dive deck. I heard James call to me sharply and when I looked back, he reprimanded me (and rightfully so) for leaving my gear. I apologized and scurried back to retrieve my bcd and tank. Another mistake made and another lesson learned.

After the second dive, we had lunch and Captain James piloted the ship to the next dive site at Lighthouse Reef called Cathedral. The day's remaining three dives, including the night dive, would be at this site. On the third dive, I went along with Sam, who had a camera and spent his dives looking for interesting things to photograph. This is probably also a good time to mention that none of my posts about this trip will have underwater pictures taken by me as I did not have an underwater camera. I had made the decision that due to my inexperience as a diver, it would be better, as well as safer, if I focused on trying to improve my diving skills. Furthermore, I had also signed up to take the Advanced Open Water course during the trip, and would have to take a number of dives under the supervision of the ship's divemasters.

The third dive presented a problem for me that I would have to address as the trip progressed. I was still struggling with streamlining my body and kicking properly with my fins, which resulted in my using my air supply too fast. I saw that my air was getting low and signaled to Sam. He acknowledged and signaled to me that we would first ascend to 15 feet for the 3 minute safety stop. However, I found myself continuing to ascend until I reached the service, the alarm on my dive computer going off warning me that I was ascending too fast. But I just couldn't stop myself. I reached the surface and looked down. I knew that Sam still had to do his safety stop (which by the way is for avoiding decompression sickness that can result from too rapid an ascent) and so I waited for him to finish, whereupon he led me back to the ship. I felt bad that I cut short Sam's dive, but he was cool about it.

The fourth dive went extremely well. I had no problems submerging and I started to feel more confident in the water. It was the first dive where I felt I could finally start enjoying myself, though I still had problems with using my air up too fast. I ended up heading back to the ship on my own. Though I still could not see the Sundancer II, I knew it was close by because I could hear the hum of its generator underwater. As I swam towards the direction of the sound, the next thing I knew, from seemingly out of nowhere, the Sundancer II's hull was practically right up against my right side, and then it was up against my side. Remember the swinging arc I mentioned I earlier? I held out my hand to touch the hull as I continued making my way to the ladder. When I reached the ladder, happy with myself for having a successful dive, I looked at my air gauge and saw that it read 300 psi. Oh well, I thought to myself, I hadn't achieved perfection yet.

After an excellent dinner cooked by the Sundancer II's amazing chef, Jerry, it was time for the first night dive of the trip. Now, as scary as the idea of diving underwater at night might sound, it is important to understand that when you are diving off of a large ship like the Sundancer II, you are not diving into pitch blackness. The bottom of the ship is lit up like a sports arena, and unless you carelessly wander too far, it is impossible to miss it underwater. Furthermore, each diver is equipped with a flashlight, so the area immediately around you is illuminated well enough.

Nevertheless, diving at night can be quite an eerie experience. As the strobes of my flashlight pierced the dark waters, silvery sturgeons would glisten as they slowly swam by, their eyes white from reflecting the light. The one part of the night dives that were a bit scary for me was being at the edge of a reef wall that dropped down hundreds of feet that the beam of my flashlight could not penetrate. I could not help but think that somewhere down there were leviathans dwelling in the darkness that were best left undisturbed.

During the night dive at Cathedral that night, I had the pleasure of shining my light on a turtle swimming by before anyone else in the group saw it. The turtle then turned left towards us and settled down on the reef just a little bit in front of us. We swam towards it and then it suddenly darted away from us and settled down about 20 feet away. We also saw a group of about five or six small squid in a tightly packed formation. It was a fascinating experience and I finally had my first problem free dive of the trip.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

If You Want To Find Osama bin Laden, Stop Looking For Him

Did you ever find yourself frustrated trying to find something you lost somewhere in your house, and then a short while after you gave up looking for it, you suddenly stumble upon the thing you spent so much time looking for? It's happened to me often enough that I now make it a personal policy that if I can't find what I am looking for after five or ten minutes, I make a conscious decision to stop searching.

I'm starting to feel that way about Osama bin Laden. It has been over eight years since 9/11, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently admitted that we haven't had any meaningful intelligence as to bin Laden's whereabouts for years.

What's so important about finding him? From the same article from the BBC Online:

Testifying to US Congress, Gen Stanley McChrystal said Bin Laden had become an "iconic figure".

"I don't think that we can finally defeat al Qaeda until he's captured or killed," said Gen McChrystal of Bin Laden.

"I believe he is an iconic figure at this point, whose survival emboldens al-Qaeda as a franchising organization across the world," he said.

The general said that killing or capturing Bin Laden would not spell the end of al-Qaeda but that the movement could not be eradicated while Bin Laden remained at large

But is bin Laden really still an iconic figure? I could be wrong, but I get the impression that for Islamic militants, he is more like a faded rock star who hasn't had a hit song in years and is coasting on his past glories. After all, what has bin Laden done lately that he can remotely take credit for?

As someone who was in NYC when the Twin Towers fell and who lost a high school classmate on 9/11, I would like to see bin Laden brought to justice as much as anybody. But I think it is a mistake to personalize our anti-terror efforts with regard to bin Laden. If he had been bagged at say Tora Bora in December of 2001, that would have been a major coup. But now, given that he is apparently just a figurehead who does not seem to exercise any meaningful control over al Qaeda, capturing or killing him at this point would be anti-climactic.

It would certainly not have much impact on the situation in Afghanistan. In his blog post "Osama Bin Where?", Imran Khan of Aljazeera acknowledges that "[bin Laden] represents a totem for international jihadis everywhere." However, Khan adds:

"But will killing or capturing him make a difference to the crisis that Pakistan and Afghanistan face?

Not really. It's not al-Qaeda that is creating the biggest problem for both countries, it's the Taliban. In Afghanistan the Taliban are, according to some, moving away from supporting Al Qaeda, instead setting themselves up as a Pashtun fighting force.

If Osama is captured or killed, the Taliban will still be a force to be reckoned with. Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan will become secure. But if you are the US government right now and you need something that suggests your new AfPak strategy is working, then Bin Laden's head on a platter is looking like a good idea right about now.

Sadly, say many in Pakistan, Bin Laden's head will not make a difference for long term peace in the region

I think we need to publicly play down Bin Laden's importance and instead focus on the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One way of doing that is to gradually reduce the reward for information that aids in the capture and conviction of Osama bin Laden. As of now, as it has been for quite some time, the reward sum on bin Laden's page on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List has been $25 million dollars. That figure should be reduced by one million dollars every year. For one, it will send the message to anyone who might be contemplating dropping a dime on him that they better hurry up, because the reward will only get smaller with each passing year. Secondly, and perhaps paradoxically, it might provoke bin Laden into making more public pronouncements or feeling safe enough to be less careful in his movements that he will give himself away.

By the way, I got a chuckle out of bin Laden's FBI page where it reads "Occupation: Unknown." I guess terrorist leader doesn't qualify as an occupation.

I have a feeling that some people reading this will disagree with me vehemently, which I can understand. But from my reading of history, there are enemy armies or organizations that fall apart when their leaders are killed (just imagine how different the Civil War would have turned out had Robert E. Lee been killed by a stray bullet in late 1862) whereas other organizations or movements are not dependent on a single dynamic leader and can carry on in the absence of that leader. From what I have read of the commentary from anti-terror experts, al Qaeda falls in the latter category. I also believe, and have for some time, that the battle against Islamic terrorism will ultimately not be won or lost by the United States military, but by Muslims themselves.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Belize Trip - August 1, 2009: We're Not Gonna Need A Bigger Boat

Yes, I'm long overdue with posting about my scuba diving trip to Belize last August. And since I can't really think of anything else to write about lately, I might as well write about my big adventure.

The day got off to a real early start, as I drove to Seascapes in Syosset around 5:30 a.m. where those of us going on the trip were meeting for the bus ride that was chartered to take us to Newark Airport in New Jersey for the flight to Belize City. Apart from Larry, the owner of Seascapes, I did not know any of the other people going on the trip, which was fine, as it turned out quite of few of them did not know each other either.

On the drive to Newark, I chatted with some of my fellow travelers. We were a diverse group in terms of age range, from a couple of guys in their early twenties, Josh and Sam, to an octogenarian named Leo. Sam was a funny guy and turned out to be my roommate on the Sundancer II, the boat featured in the picture above.

The flight to Belize, which I believe arrived around noon local time, was a lot faster than I expected, about two and a half hours. The airport at Belize was not very big, around the size of Islip Airport on Long Island for those who are familiar with it. A couple of representatives from Peter Hughes picked us up at the airport and brought us to the Radisson Fort George in Belize City, which is right by the docks where the Sundancer II was moored. We couldn't board the boat until 3 p.m., because the crew was still tidying the ship up. This is normal, as the previous passengers disembarked earlier that morning. The wait at the Radisson though was the worst part of the trip, as that is where we truly began to feel the heat as we sat by the outdoor bar near the pool. Strangely, the music played over the speakers, rather than being Caribbean music, was from a station playing Eighties hard rock.

Finally, at 3 p.m., one of the crew members came over and told us we could begin boarding. In the passenger galley, a list was posted telling us which rooms we were in. Sam and I got the room on the port side that was closest to the dive deck. Not having been on a liveaboard boat before, I was pleasantly surprised at how spacious everything was.

Above is the bed I slept on with ample storage space below. We also had overhead cabinets that do not appear in this picture. And of course, we had a nice view from our cabin window.

In the early evening, we assembled in the dining and lounge room, where we were officially introduced to the captain and crew of the Sundancer II. The captain of the ship was a tall, strapping Englishman named James Cooke, who acknowledged in his opening remarks that unlike the famous 18th century English navigator, his last name ended with an "e". Captain Cooke and his First Mate, Marnie, described the daily routine that would prevail on the ship for the next five days. Each morning, after breakfast, we would have a briefing of the morning's diving site. For the first three days on the water, there would be five scheduled dives. The first at 8:30, the second at 10:30, the third at 2:00 p.m, the fourth at 4 p.m., and a night dive at 8 p.m., though I could be off a bit on the exact times, as some four months have elapsed. The morning dives would be at one dive site, and the afternoon and night dives would be at a second dive site. On the fourth day, we would dive the famous Blue Hole in the morning, make an excursion in the late morning to visit a bird sanctuary at Half Moon Caye, and then do two afternoon dives and a night dive. The last full day of diving, Thursday, would feature four dives, including a dusk dive, followed by two morning dives on Friday, with an option for a land excursion on Friday afternoon.

Captain Cooke informed us that the ship would be making its way towards the first dive site during the night and that the water might get choppy. I found out the hard way, as I woke up in the middle of the night to take a piss, and I was getting bounced around so hard that I didn't think I could keep my urine stream in the toilet, so I ended up peeing in the shower stall. Sorry, I just had to share that with you.

Tune in for my next post on Day 2, where the diving adventure really begins.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

NASA's Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter Beams Back Pictures of Faked Moon Landings

From NASA's web site:

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, has returned its first imagery of the Apollo moon landing sites. The pictures show the Apollo missions' lunar module descent stages sitting on the moon's surface, as long shadows from a low sun angle make the modules' locations evident.

I don't know why I didn't read about this when it happened this past July, having just noticed an article about it on the BBC web site today.

What's really cool is that as we and the other space faring nations of the Earth, such as China, Japan and the EU send more probes to orbit or land on the moon, we will get even better pictures of the Apollo landing sites.

I'm curious as to how the moon landing deniers are going to handle this. They have two options if they wish to maintain their disbelief, (1) to deny the veracity of the photos, which will be harder to do if probes launched by other countries also send back photos of the sites (like China is really going to be in on the conspiracy!), or (2) claim that NASA secretly dumped replicas of the Apollo lunar modules on the surface of the moon to provide bogus evidence to fool people about something that happened decades earlier.

What's really amazing, as you can see (barely) in the picture above from the Apollo 12, are the trails left by the astronauts themselves, which are indicated by the smaller arrows.

Who knows, maybe a hundred years from now the Apollo landing sites will become museums.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hooray! I Finally Got My Computer Back!

Though it might be another day or two before normal blogging activities resume.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

UPDATED: Temporary Hiatus

Unfortunately, my home computer developed a problem that has disabled my internet access there. Until the problem is resolved, which might have to wait for several more weeks, I will not be making any new posts on this blog, apart from perhaps one or two quickie posts while I am on my break at work.

UPDATE: It looks like the hiatus will be longer than I expected. I anticipate a resumption of activity in another week.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Weekend Funnies - The Best of Deadwood


I haven't seen a single episode of Deadwood yet, but a while back I stumbled on to this video on Youtube that someone put together which features a collection of profanities uttered by various characters on the show. I was laughing so hard I was practically in tears. If foul language doesn't bother you, then click on the video and enjoy!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pastor Anglin Replies

Yesterday, while checking in real quick on my blog here, I noticed that another comment had been added to my post titled "The Amityville Jackass", which was my response to the criticism of atheism by Pastor David Anglin of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Amityville. Lo and behold, to my surprise, the comment was from Pastor Anglin himself.

While he demonstrated a good sense of humor by signing off as "The Amityville Jackass" (which by the way, as my Long Island readers will surely recognize, was sort of a spoof of 'The Amityville Horror'), I felt that Pastor Anglin's response indicated that he did not quite grasp a lot of what I tried to say in my previous post. Let's see if we can clear things up a bit. In a slight change from before, I will put the pastor's remarks in bold and my replies in italics, lest I appear too prideful in always trying to have my words in bolder text! Okay, let's proceed:

The citation from "Going My Way" was meant as a light-hearted anecdote to get into the topic-not as a serious indictment of atheistic athletic ability.

I totally got that, pastor. My problem with the citation had nothing to do with depictions of athletic ability, but rather its representation of the typical atheist as being an angry jerk.

The article was a response to specific texts--the books by Dawkins and Harris (especially Dawkins). Their basic thesis was that religion leads to hatred and murder. As I pointed out, "two can play at that game"--which I did, giving examples of murderous atheist regimes. I didn't just wake up one morning and say, "I'm going to accuse atheists of being murderers today". I was replying to authors who basically were saying to me: "Your dearest and most deeply held beliefs tend toward murder and hatred."

Thank you for your clarification there. For the record, I don't believe that religion automatically equates to murder and hatred. It has been a while since I have read either 'The God Delusion' by Dawkins or 'The End of Faith' by Harris from beginning to end, so I cannot say with complete assurance whether you or right or wrong. What my understanding is of what they are trying to say is that religious texts can be (and as I am sure you will agree, sometimes are) interpreted in such a way as to sanction intolerance, bigotry and murder.

With regard to "murderous atheist regimes," you will get no quarrel from me in condemning the atrocities that occurred under Stalin, Mao, or the Khmer Rouge. But as I pointed out in my initial response, which you appear to have glossed over, Russia and China have been ruled more or less by despotic regimes for centuries, or in the case of China, millennia. I am sure if you read the history of the autocratic rulers of these countries, you would see the same disregard for the lives of their subjects that you decry in the communist regimes of the 20th century. If the body count under Stalin and Mao is higher, it probably owes more to the technology that was available to them in terms of weapons and modes of transportation.

Dawkins does spend quite a bit of time on Westboro Baptist--so the "strawman" accusation applies to Dawkins, not to me!

Could you point out to me where Dawkins spends a lot of time on the Westboro Baptist Church? If you are referring to his book 'The God Delusion', I looked it up in the index. Dawkins devotes just a single paragraph in the book to Fred Phelps and Westboro.

However, you don't seem to understand my point. By harping on Dawkins alleged focus on the tiny and marginal Westboro Baptist Church as representing the worst of Christianity, you avoided the homophobia that is displayed by other subsets of the American Christian population that are far more numerous and who form an important part of the conservative base of the Republican Party. To show you what I mean, here is a link to a post by Pam Spaulding at Pandagon, who recently participated in a gay pride parade in North Carolina. Now, being that you are a Lutheran and a pastor to boot, I fully expect that you would believe that homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of the god you worship. But I would like to think that the vitriolic hatred displayed by the anti-gay demonstrators who were photographed at the event is an affront to your sense of decency.

The quote from Dostevsky was meant to illustrate a point--not to prove it.

Again, I understand that pastor. But is Dostoevsky right? You also did not respond to my objection to your reference to John Locke. Let me refresh your memory. You wrote "The philosopher John Locke–one of the intellectual forebears of American democracy–once said that atheists can’t ultimately be trusted in their promises and commitments, since they have no ultimate divine authority to whom they must answer."

That is probably the portion of your anti-atheist criticism I found particularly offensive. When I write my thoughts about things that interest me on this blog, I am just another guy with an opinion read by a handful of people. When you write your columns that are read by members of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Amityville, you are writing under the color of authority as a pastor to whom members of your flock look to for guidance on issues of spirituality and religion. So, in the sentence I quoted above, you are basically telling the members of your church in your capacity as their pastor that atheists are not trustworthy people.

Tell me, Pastor Anglin, should banks deny loans to atheists because we can't be trusted to repay them? (And by the way, I have been paying my mortgage faithfully for the last 9 years!) Should my neighbor refrain from loaning me his tools because I can't be trusted to return them? As I asked in response to your Locke reference, is there any evidence that Locke made his assertion out of personal experience with atheists? Did an atheist welch on a bet he had made with Locke?

In claiming that we are untrustworthy because we do not have some "divine authority" to whom we must answer, you forget that we have a very real and tangible authority to whom we do answer, each other. Regardless of whether or not there is a god that exists that judges us for our actions, we are accountable to the people with whom we share this world. Our actions have real consequences in this life that we cannot escape from unless we are among the priviliged few who have the wealth and power to do so.

In my previous post, I wrote that I got the impression that you do not personally know a single atheist. Do you know any? Have you ever asked any atheists how they formulate their moral beliefs? Do you have a history of atheists breaking promises to you?

I am going to offer a challenge to you, Pastor Anglin. Think of some promise or commitment that I can make to you. Bear in mind that you must take into account that I have a full-time job, family commitments (gosh, that one must shock you!) and a house I have to help take care of. Also, it cannot be a request that requires me to act contrary to my values, such as participating in an anti-abortion rally. Otherwise, you can ask of me just about anything, such as volunteering for a day or two at a soup kitchen or some other service that your church offers to the poor (assuming you offer such things) or even to sit through one of your sermons. And in return for fulfilling my promise to you, I ask one thing in return. I want you to publicly retract in one of your columns afterwards your claim that atheists cannot be trusted to fulfill their promises and commitments. What say you, Pastor Anglin?

And now to continue on with an to wrap up this post.

Who mentioned Sarah Palin and Barack Obama? I have no great love for the former, and I have never compared the latter to Hitler. (By the way--can you swear, cross-your-heart, that you've never compared George W. Bush to Hitler?)

My point in mentioning Sarah Palin and Barack Obama was to point out the delusional behavior that exists among a not insignificant portion of the Republican Party's evangelical base, which helps to elect the party's candidates and to whom the party must cater. I did not mean to imply that you personally thought that Sarah Palin would make a great president or that Barack Obama is a new Adolf Hitler. Rather, I was illustrating how right-wing Christians seemed to think that Sarah Palin is presidential timber simply by virtue of her giving birth to a boy with Down Syndrome and her daughter Bristol having a child out of wedlock and keeping the baby.

Because I am an atheist, I of course cannot swear, but I personally have never compared George W. Bush to Hitler. You're just going to have to take my word for it, if you can. By the way, you can read every mention of President Bush I have ever written on this blog here. While the comparison of Bush to Hitler was left-wing hyperbole, with his invasion of another country and his basically being appointed President of the United States by the Supreme Court in an election in which he lost the popular vote, Bush was certainly closer to Hitler by degrees than Barack Obama is thus far.

Do you think your case is really advanced by childish phrases like "sky daddy" or "kiss the a-- of a celestial dictator"? It kind of undermines the credibility of your arguments.

Tell me honestly, Pastor Anglin. Do you believe I am going to burn in hell for eternity in the after-life for being an atheist? If your answer is yes, then my "childish phrases" are quite the lesser offense in my eyes. An entity that really intends to inflict such suffering on me because of my thought crimes cannot be considered as anything but a celestial dictator.

Hey--since you enjoyed my article on Dawkins and Harris so much, check out my review of "Religulous", archived on the same website. There you'll learn why Bill Maher's Halloween costume is the most persuasive argument against atheism.

To be honest, I have not seen "Religulous" and really do not intend to. I have read a number of reviews of the film by other atheists, and they have been decidedly mixed.

That about wraps it up. Don't forget my challenge above. If you want to take me up on it, let me know in the comments how I should best contact you.

Have a nice day!

Your friend in humanity.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Amityville Jackass

A big hat tip to Ebon of Daylight Atheism, who provided a link in this post to this anti-atheist screed by Pastor David Anglin of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Amityville, which is about 10 miles from where I live. I decided to post a paragraph or two of the pastor's message at a time and then provide my responses. Apologies in advance for the anticipated length of the post, but I have been rather lax lately and need a new magnum opus to get back into the swing of things. So, here goes, with the pastor's remarks in italics and my responses in bold.

An early scene in the classic film “Going My Way” depicts Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley character playing baseball in the street with some neighborhood children. An errant ball smashes a window. The resident of the apartment with the broken window storms onto the porch with the ball in his hand and demands payment for the damage. Father O’Malley offers him a rosary as security for the damages. But the man rebuffs the offer by saying: “I’m an atheist.” Then, instead of handing the ball to Father O’Malley, he awkwardly tosses it into the street. O’Malley comments: “You even throw like an atheist.”

Gee, imagine that, a pastor using a scene from a pro-religious film depicting an atheist in a negative light. Isn't that like a racist referring to Gus from "Birth Of A Nation" to argue that black men love to rape white women?

In recent days, however, atheists have learned to throw with greater velocity. A couple of hard-hitting books attacking religion and promoting atheism have ended up on the best-seller lists: Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, and the celebrated biologist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Atheism, it seems, is somewhat in style.

It's got nothing to do with being in style, pastor. But I will get to that in a moment.

This should not be unexpected. There was a brief religious revival after the attacks of Sept. 11. It’s not surprising that, five years later, the pendulum should swing in the other direction, and some disillusionment set in–especially since the attacks on our nation all seem to stem from religious sources. When one is confronted every night on the news with people doing horrible things in the name of God, it’s easy to get a little cynical about religious faith. Dawkins declares that “religion can be a force for evil in the world”, and one can hardly disagree with him.

However, in attacking religion, Dawkins tends to draw his negative examples from the lunatic element of Christianity. For instance, Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas City (the church that organizes protests at the funerals of soldiers), a major peddler of hateful rhetoric against homosexuals and practically anyone else, basically consists of a single extended family–but Dawkins sees this tiny group as somehow characteristic of large numbers of Christians. He sees Christians who bomb abortion clinics and murder abortion providers as people who are truly and sincerely acting out their faith–thus, authentic representatives of Christianity. Genuine Christians repudiate hatred and murder. But, using these examples, Dawkins contends that religion leads people to delusional behavior.

Westboro Baptist Church? Sorry, but I call strawman! Yes, we atheists find the Phelps family repugnant. But we also recognize that they are a small, marginal group. The most harmful thing about the Westboro Baptist Church is not that they picket funerals, but that the brainwashing and indoctrination they inflict on their children is a form of child abuse that mentally warps them during their formative years.

No pastor, the problem is not the Westboro Baptist Church. After all, it was not the Phelps family that bankrolled Proposition 8 in California, along with efforts in other states and at the federal level to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry and adopt children. It is not the Phelps family that is leading the drive to promote the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in our public schools. It is not the Phelps family that is responsible for trying to roll back the rights of women to have access to abortion and contraception.

Let me say flat out that I do not argue that being religious makes one delusional. And I condemn lumping all self-professed Christians together and speaking of them negatively. After all, there are so many different varieties of Christianity and differing levels of commitment among members of each group that to speak of "Christians this" or "Christians that" is meaningless.

But sadly, there are a large number of Christians in this country who interpret the Bible literally in ways that the term "delusional" really does apply to them. To believe that the entire universe was created over the course of six 24 hour days approximately 6,000 years ago and that the Earth was made before the sun around which it revolves is delusional. To believe that Sarah Palin is qualified to be president of the United States is delusional. To believe that Barack Obama is the modern day equivalent of Adolf Hitler is delusional. To believe that natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes are not natural phenomena but rather God expressing His displeasure over gay marriage or legal abortion is delusional. To view current events in the world through the prism of the Book of Revelations in the New Testament is delusional. If you want to know why we atheists are being more vocal now, it has nothing to do with being in style, but rather a reaction to people who promote their delusions based upon their religious beliefs.

Two, however, can play the “your worldview leads to horrible things” game. One could argue that atheism leads to immorality. With no God-given commandments, the atheist pretty much has to make up moral standards as he or she goes along. Ivan Karamazov, the atheist character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, declares: “If there is no god, then anything is permissible.” The philosopher John Locke–one of the intellectual forebears of American democracy–once said that atheists can’t ultimately be trusted in their promises and commitments, since they have no ultimate divine authority to whom they must answer.

Yes, pastor, you can argue that "atheism leads to immorality." But becoming an atheist does not mean we suddenly have to make up our morals as we go along. Rather, what we challenge is that moral proclamations do not become inviolate because they have been wrapped up in the guise of divine command. The burden of proof is on you that there really is a god who gets angry if Adam kisses Steve instead of Eve.

But if you want to argue that atheism makes one immoral, then quoting a fictional atheist from a 19th century Russian novel does not count as evidence. All it demonstrates is Dostoevsky's personal opinion of atheism. As for your reference to John Locke, is there any evidence that Locke was speaking from personal experience, or, like Dostoevsky, did he merely assume that atheists cannot be trusted because he personally could not imagine being trustworthy or good because one did not believe in the existence of god?

Karl Marx, an atheist, laid the intellectual foundations for Communism–and thus for the mass murders of Stalin (who was an atheist even when he was attending a Russian Orthodox seminary!) and Mao Zedong. Friedrich Nietzsche, an atheist (who famously declared, “God is dead!”), laid the intellectual foundations for Nazism. The two boys who carried out the school massacre at Columbine were atheists. In the twentieth century, it was atheists who did most of the damage–perhaps because of a tendency to view individual human life as dispensable.

Pastor, do you even read history at all? Did you happen to notice that Russia and China had despotic governments for centuries before Stalin or Mao ever popped out of their mothers' wombs? One could make a good case that Stalin would not have been possible if Russia had not first had Ivan the Terrible, an Orthodox Christian with his own murderous secret police force, the Oprichnina.

Have you ever heard of Hong Xiuquan? After failing in his attempts to pass exams to obtain a scholarly degree in China in the 1830's, he came into contact with American Protestant missionaries and learned about Christianity. He eventually came to the conclusion that he was a second son of God and the brother of Jesus Christ. Preaching his vision to others, he amassed an army of followers called Taiping and embarked on a mission to overthrow the Manchu Qing Dynasty. In 1853, the Taiping captured the city of Nanjing. Here I quote from Jonathan Spence's The Search For Modern China, "All Manchus who did not die in the battle - men, women, and children - were rounded up and systematically killed by burning, stabbing, or drowning." In the course of the Taiping Rebellion, which was eventually put down by the Qing Dynasty at great cost, it is estimated that millions of people were killed.

As for Germany, if you want to credit Nietzsche for laying the intellectual foundations for Nazism, then you also have to credit Martin Luther and his "On The Jews And Their Lies" for laying the foundation for German anti-semitism and the Holocaust. And it goes without saying that the Lutheran Church to which you belong derives its name from Martin Luther.

And the Columbine Killers? Are you serious? Psychiatrists who have reviewed the case have determined that Eric Harris, believed to be the leader of the two, was a psychopath. Are you equating atheists with psychopaths, pastor?

Christianity believes that every human being is created in the image of God, is special to God. Christianity believes that Jesus Christ shed His precious blood for every human being. (By the way, Dawkins calls the idea of Christ dying for the sins of the world “barking mad” and “sado-masochism”). Thus, every person is unique and valuable. Atheists, building their view of life solely on Darwinian evolutionary theory, cannot ascribe the same value to the human person. Humans are, in the end, simply animals who got lucky in the evolutionary office pool.

You know, pastor, I have come to the conclusion that you do not personally know a single atheist. You honestly think we build our view of life "solely on Darwinian evolutionary theory"? Funny then that I became an atheist while barely knowing anything about evolutionary theory at all. You can believe that every human being is created in the image of God if you want to, but I believe that every human being is also a unique individual with the potential to be decent, kind and valuable. I don't need your invisible sky daddy to believe this.

In fact, it has been my experience from interacting with certain Christians on the Internet that it is they who view their fellow humans as horrible people and that they believe, in the absence of belief in God, that they personally see no reason not to engage in murder, rape and theft. I don't know about you, but I find that to be rather frightening.

I have always been fascinated by an exchange that took place between General Eisenhower (an American Christian) and Field Marshal Zhukov (a Soviet atheist) at the end of World War II. Zhukov asked Eisenhower what the American army did when they encountered a German minefield. Eisenhower explained that the army’s advance would stop; an engineer battalion would be brought forward and would work to clear the mines. Zhukov said that the Soviet army would simply advance through the minefield, figuring that the resulting casualties would be no greater than if the Germans had defended the area with troops.

That dialogue between two great generals captures, for me, the difference between a Christian and an atheistic view of life. For Eisenhower, every life was important; for Zhukov, soldiers could be liberally sacrificed for the good of Soviet society.

Uh, pastor, you do realize that the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany in June of 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, and did the lion's share of the fighting against the Germans, don't you? While we can rightly celebrate the feats of American and Allied servicemen and women in helping to liberate Europe from Nazism, the Soviets suffered the most casualties while also inflicting the most on the Germans. Had the Soviets not fought as hard as they did and advanced as fast as they did, Hitler would have had much more time to complete his Final Solution to the "Jewish problem". This is in no way meant to be an endorsement of Stalin's tyrannical rule. But no matter how you cut and slice it, it was the Red Army that broke the back of Hitler's Wehrmacht. Oh, and I almost forgot, during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980's, the Iranians used to use children to clear minefields. They would be given keys to heaven before they walked across the field to blow themselves up so that Iranian soldiers could advance against Iraqi positions. What was that about the "atheistic" view of life again?

This is not to say that all atheists are bad, horrible, immoral people. One of the great patriots of our time was Pat Tillman, who gave up his football career to join the army, and perished in Afghanistan. He was an atheist. I honor and cherish his devotion to our country–he died for my freedom to believe and his freedom to disbelieve, for which I am deeply grateful.

Not all atheists are bad, horrible, immoral people? How patronizing can you get? How about "most atheists are not bad, horrible, immoral people"? That's because most people are generally good people, but all people are basically flawed in one way or another. And that is really the key, pastor, to recognize our flaws and to strive to overcome them so that we can be better people.

While valuing people like Tillman, I strongly believe that it is Christianity, rather than atheism, that is better equipped to produce loving, devoted people who care for others.

Sorry, but I disagree. Yes, there are plenty of loving people who are Christians. But are they loving and good because they are Christians, or would they still be that way regardless of their religion? After all, there was a Chinese philosopher named Mo Tzi who spoke of "universal love" centuries before Jesus is said to have preached in the Galilee. Truth is truth regardless of the label you affix to it.

And better equipped to give meaning and purpose to life. Dawkins quotes a very famousNobel-prize winning scientist who acknowledges that human life ultimately has no purpose. “But,” the scientist said, “I intend to have a good lunch.” But frankly, if the meaning of life comes down to random pleasures like a good lunch, it’s pretty depressing. Real joy comes from knowing that God has created us in His own image, with a wonderful purpose–to glorify Him and to live in His light forever.

Sorry pastor, but I don't see the joy in kissing the ass of a celestial dictator. To be honest, though I consider myself to be an atheist, I know that I cannot rule out 100% the possibility of a higher intelligence that created our universe. But when I consider that our planet is a minute speck in a vast galaxy filled with billions of stars and planets, and that this galaxy is one of billions that are each filled with their own billions of stars and planets, I find it hard to believe that any being intelligent and powerful enough to create all that needs to get his rocks off by insisting that we keep telling him how awesome we think he is.

I intend to have a good lunch, too. And I also intend to thank the God who gives me that lunch! He loves you and so do I! (And I hope He gives you a good lunch, too!)

Bon appetit, pastor. And don't forget to thank the farm laborers and meat packing plant employees, many of them Latino immigrants, who bust their asses picking the fruits and vegetables or cutting up the meat that's on your plate.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Expectation of Someone Wanting to Seek the Lord

Apologies again for the lack of posting here. I have been working a lot of extra hours at my job and do not have the free time to write as much as I would like. But I do want to chime in about a tragedy I read about a couple of weeks ago.

On August 23rd, a Pentecostal pastor named Carol Daniels was found murdered in a church in the town of Anadarko, Oklahoma. The gruesome details of her death have since emerged. I won't go into it here, but suffice it to say, according to the CNN article I linked to, "[Pastor Daniels] died from 'multiple sharp-force injuries,' according to a preliminary autopsy report obtained by CNN. Sharp-force injuries mean cuts or stab wounds."

From what I have read, Daniels frequently drove some 50 miles to her small church in Anadarko, where according to those in the area who knew her, she would be the only person in the building for the entire time she spent there. Daniels' mother is quoted as saying that she went to the church, which was far from her home in a run-down neighborhood, “with the expectation of someone wanting to seek the Lord.”

It is terrible that Pastor Daniels died, particularly in the horrifically violent manner in which it occurred. I can't imagine the terror she must have felt in those last moments as she tried to fend off her savage attacker. Whoever the bastard is (I don't think it's a stretch to expect that the murderer is an extremely troubled male), I hope he is caught and given the maximum allowable sentence under the law.

At the same time, I cannot help but feel a tremendous sense of sadness and frustration over the fact that Daniels belief system was a contributing factor in her death. Imbued with her religious faith, she would travel far out of her way and spend hours by herself in a church anticipating that she would be some kind of catalyst in miraculously transforming someone's life for the better. After all, isn't the Bible filled with tales of miracles? Don't we hear about stories all the time about supposedly miraculous events or see movies and television programs wherein God or angels intervene in the lives of people and set things right? As an atheist, I can't see Daniels efforts as anything more than a pointless exercise in futility. The accumulated hours of time wasted that could have been put to more productive use, not to mention the gasoline expended travelling back and forth to the church. However, I understand that for Daniels, as well as for many others, if what she was doing provided her with a sense of purpose, then who am I to argue otherwise? Granted. And yet I can't avoid what for me is an inescapable conclusion: Carol Daniels died for a figment of her imagination. In other words, she died for nothing.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Nicholas Kristof On The Origin of Stars

Apologies again for my lack of posting lately. However, I wanted to respond to this column (registration required) by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times.

While I agree with the overall point of the column, about revitalizing oneself by getting back to nature, the following item from his list of ten tips made me roll my eyes:

4. Skip a tent. To keep off rain, carry an ultralight tarp that you tie between two trees and stake to the ground, like a pup tent. But if there’s no rain, sleep under the stars. God made stars so that humans could fall asleep admiring them. (Emphasis mine)

Kristof's remark manifests the egocentrism that one finds in much of religious expression. The stars in the sky are not the product of a process that began billions of years ago, if one takes Kristof literally, but rather they are just part of some grand cosmic tapestry weaved by God specifically for our viewing pleasure. This is an echo from Genesis 1:16-17, wherein the stars are described as being set in the sky to provide us with light in the sky during the night. As I wrote in another post on this blog, if there are intelligent beings living on a planet circling one of those stars in our night sky, they would probably be amused to learn that the sun that provides them with heat and light exists primarily for our aesthetic benefit.

I ran across this same kind of thinking in a letter to the editor in an issue of National Geographic last year. In responding to an article from an earlier issue about the loss of dark skies to manmade light, the letter writer saw fit to remind readers that after all, God created the night for us. Silly me, I thought we had darkness because the Earth rotates on its axis, which means that half of the planet's surface at any given moment is facing away from the light of the sun.

In fairness to Kristof though, his remark could be taken as some form of poetic license. But it does reflect an all too common mode of thought by religious believers that anything beautiful or beneficial in nature is somehow proof that there is a God who cares about us. In the comments to one of my earlier posts, a Christian commenter mentioned reading about how Jupiter's gravitational pull sucks in a lot of meteors that might otherwise have impacted on Earth, thereby sparing us destruction. Wasn't this proof of intelligent design? My response was two-fold. First, why would a loving god need to introduce into the universe planet killing asteroids at all? Alternatively, God could have programmed such asteroids to miss the Earth anyway. Second, in a vast universe filled with billions of galaxies each filled with billions of stars of their own, shouldn't we expect to find some solar systems where gas giants like Jupiter play the part of some kind of celestial vacuum cleaner? To me, at least, there is no need for an egocentrical explanation that it is all there simply because of us.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I'm Back

But I haven't had the time yet to write about it. Suffice it to say that I had a really great time. Hopefully by this weekend I will be able to share my experiences with all of you.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Taking The Plunge - Part 2

Last February, I wrote a post titled Taking The Plunge, wherein I described my plans to go on a scuba diving trip to Belize. Well, in a few hours from now, I will be on the plane headed for Belize City, and a few hours after touching down there, I will be on board the Sundancer II for five and a half days of intensive diving.

I'm both excited and nervous. I'm excited about the prospect of seeing so many amazing places and things underneath the surface of the Caribbean. I'm nervous for a number of reasons. First, I will be far away from and possibly out of touch with my family. I am not sure if my cell phone will work down there. Secondly, because I have very little diving experience, I can't help but feel a little intimidated being around a lot of divers who have done this many times before and who can don and doff their scuba gear with their eyes closed. At the same time, depending on the personalities of the people I will be living with on the boat, I am sure I can learn a lot from them to improve my own skills and confidence. I expect though that for my first dive or two I will stumble a bit, but I hope to get my bearings after that.

Posting here will likely not resume until Sunday, August 9, the day after I return from Belize. During my time there, I plan to keep a journal where I will write down my observations and experiences (what can I say, I don't have a lap top!) and then convert them into blog posts so that you all can get an informative eyewitness account to give you a feel for what it is like. I hope to have some pictures too, but very few will be underwater. Because of my inexperience, it is better if I focus on working on an improving my dive experiences. I did get a disposable underwater camera from the dive shop that can be taken as deep as sixty feet so I can at least get a few shots, plus I would like to have some pictures of me underwater as well. The bulk of my pictures though will be taken with my digital camera on board the boat and any interesting things that can be seen from land. If I get the chance to snorkel, I am also bringing a dry bag for my digital camera so that I can use it to take some shallow underwater pictures.

Okay, I have rambled enough for now. Best wishes to all of you in my absence, and I hope to have some good stuff for you 10 days from now.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Some Values

By way of Pandagon, I have learned that Rush Limbaugh has been invited to be one of the speakers at the 2009 Values Voters Summit, one of those get-togethers of right-wing cultural conservatives to complain about how liberals, feminists and atheists are undermining the country's moral foundation.

Personally, I find it rather interesting that such a gathering would seek to include a thrice divorced Viagra® fuelled tourist to the Dominican Republic to pontificate on matters of traditional family values. Of course, what matters to these people is not Rush's morals, or lack thereof, but of his ability to promote their ideological agenda. After all, everyone has values. But it is these right wing conservatives who seek to make matters of morality their personal monopoly.

Drops of Water In A Water Jar - Part 2 - How About Drops of Water In A Water Barrel?

A couple of of months ago, I purchased a rain water collection barrel made by Fiskars. However, because I lacked a special kind of drill bit needed for drilling a one inch hole in the side of the barrel, and I never seemed to find the time to get to the store to by it, it was only today that I finally got it set up.

While Long Island has thus far had more than its fair share of rain this summer, there have been a few years here and there where we have had lack of rainfall. So, the rain barrel will certainly come in handy for situations like that. However, my primary intention is to use it as my first source for water when I water my vegetable garden, which by the way, is coming along nicely. I hope to be able to start harvesting the lettuce, carrots and broccoli in August.

In order for the rain barrel to be useful though, I need it to start raining so that enough water accumulates inside to rise above the level of the spout. If the weather forecast is anything to go by, the storm we are supposed to get tonight should help make this a reality.

The only downside is that I had to place the barrel so that it stands several feet away from the house rather than standing alongside the wall. The barrel is connected to a gutter at the northeast corner in the back of the house, which, from an aesthetic standpoint, is not exactly ideal. Nevertheless, if all goes well, it should help to reduce somewhat our household's water use.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Conformity - The Foundation That Props Up The System

As I have mentioned before on this blog, my wife believes in god in the Christian sense of the word. She also knows that I am an atheist. Apart from having our children baptized (I was raised Catholic and she is still at least nominally one), I have been successful at keeping religion out of their lives. My kids know that I don't believe in god either. However, I also stress to them that they should never tell any of their friends or classmates who mention god to say things like "My daddy says there is no god" or to otherwise talk about the issue.

Yesterday morning though, for reasons I cannot recall, the subject of god came up as I was making ready to leave for work. My wife suddenly came over and started saying things to the kids like "It's better to believe in god then not to believe in god," to which I replied "Which one, honey?" She sort of dodged the question, but kept insisting to the kids "If someone asks you if you believe in god, you have to say yes. You have to conform or else everyone will make fun of you." And she repeated a number of times about the necessity of conformity.

Of course, it is no secret that an important factor in the staying power of religious belief, or at least organized religious belief such as Roman Catholicism, is the power of conformity. To not believe is considered strange, so one should profess belief, whatever one's doubts may be, for fear of being ostracized by the community at large.

I also suspect my wife's cultural background plays a part in her concerns. In her native Philippines, the vast majority of the people are Roman Catholic, except for the Muslim majority in the southern part of the country. And many Filipinos are staunchly Catholic, as I have seen not only from visiting the country on two occasions, but in visiting the homes of Filipino immigrants here in the United States. Most Filipino-Americans have at least one area in their homes set aside for displaying all sorts of Catholic paraphernalia, including images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus on the cross, candles with crosses or other religious imagery on them, and so forth. Coming from that cultural environment, my wife probably projects the pervasiveness of god belief onto American society as well. Of course, there are many parts of the United States where this holds true, but at least in my corner of suburban Long Island, I don't feel any personal pressure to conform to religious belief. I don't advertise my atheism, and nobody really seems to care what my beliefs are.

But back to my children, my goal is not so much to raise them to be atheists but rather to be religiously neutral. Rather than having a particular religious doctrine drilled into them, I would prefer that they be taught about different religious beliefs along with my own secular humanist outlook and make their own informed choices when they get older.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Of course I'm still going to burn in hell when I die!

This afternoon, I had another one of those moments where circumstance put me in the position of going out of my way to help a complete stranger. And of course, I couldn't help but go through with it.

Around 2:30, feeling a little sleepy-headed at my desk, I decided to go across the street to Cosi and get my usual iced mocha with soy. As I normally do, I went down to the concourse below street level and emerged on the other side, at 48th and 6th. As I was ascending the stairs to street level, I saw a woman on the sidewalk above look down and then call out to a group of people who had just walked by, "Excuse me, did one of you drop an ATM card!"

I emerged onto the sidewalk at that moment. One young African-American woman came over to take a look just as I reached down for it. I read off the name, which was clearly a Korean name, though I could not determine the gender, and the woman turned around and went back the way she was going, knowing that it was not hers.

It was a Citibank debit card with a toll free number on the back. I decided I would get my iced mocha and then call the number when I got back to my desk. Naturally, I botched the number at first, because Citibank, like so many other companies, uses letters instead of numbers (which is something that really fucking annoys me!), and I wrote down one of the numbers wrong. After realizing my error upon encountering numerous busy signals, I dialed the correct number and spoke to a customer service representative. I gave her my work and telephone number so that the cardholder could call me.

To my surprise, the cardholder must have gotten the message rather swiftly, as I received a call from an outside line around 4 p.m., with the voice of a heavily accented Korean lady on the other line. In addition to her accent, she must have been in a rather cavernous room, as there was a tremendous echo that made it difficult to understand her. She acknowledged the echo and told me that she would call me back. Several minutes later she called again, and we made arrangements to meet at the corner of 6th and 47th.

To wrap this story up, I met her at the appointed location and returned her ATM debit card to her. After the exchange of the usual pleasantries in situations like this, we went our separate ways.

So what are the lessons to be learned from this? First, ducking away from your desk to grab an iced coffee drink can become the catalyst for doing a good deed. Second, for religious people reading this who like to diss' on atheists, someday a total stranger will go out of his or her way to help you, and that stranger might turn out to be an atheist.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hiking The Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Trail

This morning I finally had the opportunity to do something I have been meaning to do for quite some time, to hike a portion of Trail View State Park, which is itself part of the Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Trail, which extends from Massapequa Lake near the South Shore, up to Cold Spring Harbor on the North Shore. (No jokes about Argentine mistresses, please!)

I accessed the trail from the parking lot on Jericho Turnpike and headed north. To my surprise, and pleasure, I had the hiking portion of the trail virtually to myself. To the left, about 50 feet, is a trail for bikers, and every now and then I would see one of them heading south on the trail. Early on in my walk, I encountered an elderly couple coming from the opposite direction, and then afterwards a younger guy jogging, also heading southwards.

The trail itself starts off deceptively easy. For about the first third to half a mile, the ground is mostly flat, with occasional rises and dips. But after half a mile or so, the terrain becomes noticeably more hilly. The trail itself is quite narrow, and at times, looking to either side, you can see houses or other buildings through breaks in the tree cover. In spite of it, the trail was rather quiet, broken only by the calls of the various birds who inhabit the park. A number of times I paused to listen to and watch the birds, including one very noisy gray catbird. I also spotted a couple of
Eastern Chipmunks, which are distinguishable from field mice by the stripes on their backs.

But by far, the most unusual thing I encountered on the trail was the remains of an automobile. The chassis was gone, and all that was left was the interior. Given that the part of the trail where it sits is rather secluded and hilly, I must confess I am baffled as to how it got there. The next time I hike the trail I will bring my camera with me and take a picture of it.

Being that this is suburban Long Island, it is impossible to completely avoid civilization while hiking the trail. After about three quarters of a mile, I emerged at the intersection of Syosset and Woodbury Road. You have to cross the road, looking both ways of course, and pick up the trail again on the other side. The beginning part of this section of the trail winds up a rise in the ground before becoming straight again. It was here that I stopped again, as this section of the trail seemed to be a gathering place for a multitude of birds of different species emitting their calls as they flitted about from one tree branch to another. There were cardinals, gray catbirds (who were rather ubiquitous in the park), robins, blue jays, and one or two others that I did not recognize.

After another quarter mile, I finally saw what had been the goal I set for myself, a section of the Long Island Rail Road's Huntington line. I was on a hill overlooking the tracks, and it was here that the trail became confusing, as it wasn't clear to me whether the bike trail and the foot trail came together. As I wound my way down the hill towards the track, I found myself walking on trails that had visible tire tracks. Fortunately though, no bikers came by at the moment, and I gradually descended down to a private gravel road called Whitney Lane. A section of the road continued underneath the rail road track, and led to the driveways of two houses that were themselves out of view. I thought to myself, "Now these are people who must really cherish their seclusion."

I crossed to the other side of Whitney Lane and followed a path that led right up to the rail road tracks. It was quiet and the tree cover mostly blocked out the backyards of the houses on either side. Standing there, I couldn't help but think of the movie Stand By Me.

Having reached my objective, I still found myself wanting to press on a little further. I walked back down to Whitney Road and went underneath the elevated portion of the track and turned left to where the trail picks up again. Almost immediately upon entering this part of the trail I found to my surprise a stand of bamboo. For a brief moment, I felt as though I was in some bamboo forest in China.

Passing through the bamboo stand, the trail then zigzagged its way up another steep hill. I decided I would make my way to the top of the hill and call it a day. Not only did I have a family obligation in the afternoon that I had to get back home and get ready for, my water supply was running low and I was beginning to feel fatigued.

When I made it back down to Whitney Road, I saw a man up ahead walking his dog, a large white poodle. The man was ahead of the dog, which had stopped to look at me and would not move. The man turned back to see why his dog wasn't moving and saw me. The dog became rather animated as I approached, so I let it sniff and lick my hand for a moment.

I then began the arduous journey back the way I had came. As this section was rather hilly, every walk uphill felt physically draining. I encountered another couple, probably in their fifties, heading in the direction from which I had come. I declared to them, "The trip back really knocks the wind out of you" or something like that, to which they chuckled in reply.

The walk back was like playing back the hike in reverse, only faster, as this time I was not pausing to listen to or observe my surroundings. I began to notice familiar landmarks from earlier, the derelict automobile, a fallen tree, an open area where there was little tree cover and one could feel the hot rays of the sun. Rather than drinking what was left of the water in my bottle, I instead liberally pressed the button to spray my face with mist. The ground eventually became level again and I could see the parking lot. All in all, I hiked about two and a half miles round trip in a little more than an hour and a half. It was an invigorating walk and I look forward to my next outing.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Dragonfly

While I was watering the garden the other day, I saw land on one of the plants the dragonfly you see above. Unless my memory fails me, I do believe it is the largest one I have ever seen. When it had settled down on the branch, I just knew I had to take a picture of it, so I ran inside and retrieved my camera to snap this shot. I then went around to the front of the house to try and get a picture of the dragonfly from behind, but as I got into position to take the picture, it suddenly took off.

Why Does Jesus Need a Military Jet Flyover?

Plenty has already been written in the atheist blogosphere (like here, for example) about the Pentagon's recent decision to break with a 42 year tradition and refuse a request by the God and Country festival in Idaho for a flyover by military jets.

However, reading about it reminded me of this scene from the generally abysmal Star Trek V.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Something From Nothing

Physicist Lawrence Krauss recently had an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) inspired by his participation in a panel discussion at the recent World Science Festival in New York City (and as an aside, I so wanted to be able to attend but was not able to) titled "Science, Faith and Religion."

Krauss refers to "J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, [who] understood that science is by necessity an atheistic discipline. As Haldane so aptly described it, one cannot proceed with the process of scientific discovery if one assumes a "god, angel, or devil" will interfere with one's experiments. God is, of necessity, irrelevant in science."

Krauss goes on to conclude "while scientific rationality does not require atheism, it is by no means irrational to use it as the basis for arguing against the existence of God, and thus to conclude that claimed miracles like the virgin birth are incompatible with our scientific understanding of nature."

As can be expected, Krauss's op-ed provoked a number of spirited responses in the Letters to the Editor page in the July 3rd edition of the Journal. Again, a subscription to the online edition of the Journal is needed to see the letters in their entirety.

First up is Catholic bishop William Lori, who maintains that science cannot "without ethical limits and respectful conversation with other disciplines, including the humanities and theology, can eventually explain all there is to know about human life and the universe in which we live."

Maybe so, but how can theology explain anything about the universe in which we live? And whose theology? This conceit rests on the assumption that certain people have had insights about our universe personally communicated to them by its creator. For example, before Galileo first peered into the night sky with his telescope, in what way were his observations informed by Catholic theology? Galileo in no way expected to see moons orbiting Jupiter, rings around Saturn, or sun spots on our sun.

What I would concede, though I don't expect my fellow atheists to agree with me, is that theology can provide a framework by which we can choose to see ourselves in relation to the universe, as well as to each other and our environment. But such a framework would be necessarily subjective.

Next in the firing line is one David Cartwright of Lake Zurich, Illinois. Cartwright evidently was too obtuse to understand Krauss's reference to Haldane when he asks "Atheism provides no foundation whatsoever for science. On what basis can an atheist assume there should or will be order in the universe? And when he sees order, where does he think it came from? And on what basis can he even trust his reason?"

On what basis? How about observation or experimentation? I would ask, in a universe with an interventionist god, how can we trust anything? After all, if the god of the Bible exists, I can't rule out the possibility that when I wake up tomorrow, the moon will orbit the Earth in the opposite direction or that a volcano will emerge here on Long Island, where there is no history of vulcanism.

Next, Cartwright burps out "Further, the atheist has no explanation for where the world came from, yet science indicates it had a beginning." I am going to be charitable and assume that Cartwright meant the "universe" instead of the "world," because science does have an explanation for where our world came from. In short, small particles orbiting the sun billions of years ago collided with one another to form protoplanets which continued to grow as they accreted more materials. Contrast that with the Biblical account in Genesis, which claims that the Earth was created by God and plants grew upon it before the creation of the sun around which the Earth orbits.

As for the universe, I am constantly amazed that a theist thinks that an atheist's inability to explain the origin of the universe means that the theist wins by default. Rather, to me, the two sides can be summed up as "God did it" versus "We can't be certain at the moment, but it is a fascinating and important subject and we expect that continued study will reveal more and more clues to how it happened."

Cartwright then goes on to roll out the popular canard that "atheists, if honest, will admit they have no basis for objective morals, or the dignity and freedom of man." And as I keep saying in response to this allegation, religious believers have no objective basis for morality either. What they subscribe to is a set of subjective beliefs that have been wrapped up in the guise of divine command to give them the appearance of objectivity. After all, if atheism is to be blamed for the Holocaust, then Christianity must be to blame for the vicious pogroms against the Jews during the Crusades and at various regions and time periods in Europe. When you believe that someone who does not share your religious beliefs is an enemy of god and deserves to suffer for an eternity in the afterlife, then I fail to see how you can believe in that other person's right to dignity and freedom.

Following Cartwright is Martin Bednar of North Stonington, Connecticut. Like Carwright, Bednar asks "If the universe was not ultimately created by an almighty God, then where did it come from? Without an eternal omnipotent being, Mr. Krauss must conclude that the universe, ultimately, came from nothing." But why limit ourselves to one omnipotent being? Maybe there is an entire race of higher beings who collectively created our universe. However, even if one eternal and omnipotent being created everything, it does not necessarily follow that this being picked our little speck of a planet in the vast cosmos to promise a patch of land in the Middle East to a man named Abraham, and then a couple of thousand years later this deity decides to impregnant a virgin Jewish teenage girl in the Galilee.

Bednar laments that under atheism, "the truth would always be a moving target and always relative, defined only by the individual or by the society the individual lives in." Well, I already addressed that above in response to Cartwright. That is always going to happen, no matter what moral system one lives under, because humanity will never reach a state where everyone agrees on everything which will last in perpetuity from then on. There will always be conflict between those who feel the system does not give them a fair shake and those who want to deny others a fair shake, or deny that inequity even exists, because they feel it would violate their own privileged position. And while the Catholic Church's requirement for celibacy for priests is viewed as a matter of immutable doctrine, if the number of Catholic priests continued to shrink until it threatened the very existence of the Church itself, does anyone really doubt that a future pope would not find some theological hook upon which to hang the newly conferred right of priests to marry in order to increase the number or priests? If this does occur at some point in the future, would it be fair to say that doctrinal truth was adjusting to a change in social conditions?

Now we turn to Brett Alder of San Diego, California. Alder claims that "It is a religious notion that 'all men are created equal.'" No, Mr. Alder. It is a secular notion that we are all to be equal under the law. It is a religious notion that we are created equal in the eyes of a loving god, though of course that equality seems subject to modification. What one believes about whether god exists or what god wants seems to make some people more equal than others according to the doctrines of various religions. Evangelical Christians believe that I as an atheist deserve to burn in hell. Muslims believe that I as an atheist deserve to burn in hell. Evangelical Christians believe that Muslims deserve to burn in hell, and Muslims feel likewise about the Christians. All I can say is that they are both equally deluded.

Lastly, there is Professor Thomas Woolley of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Woolley claims that it "is this Western religious belief in a reasoned creator that laid the foundation and became the catalyst for the scientific revolution, ultimately leading to the crowning of the modern priesthood of scientists." I have seen this argument before, that Christianity was necessary for bringing about the scientific revolution. To be honest, I have not devoted a lot of time to trying to come up with a response to this argument. But let's pretend it's true. It still does not prove that the creator of the universe impregnated a virgin Jewish teenage girl in the Galilee who gave birth to a man who would perform miracles and rise from the dead. What it would suggest is that the intellectual climate in late medieval Christian Europe served as a scaffolding for erecting the edifice of scientific inquiry and advance. As with any building or structure that is constructed though, the scaffolding is eventually torn down and the structure still remains in place.

In parting, I wish to thank the gentlemen I quote above for giving me something to blog about.