Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Protesting the Jewish Taliban

I was very pleased to read that thousands of Israelis rallied in response to Haredi extremists in the neighborhood of Beit Shemesh.

One of the catalysts of the rally was "television coverage last week showing ultra-Orthodox extremists harassing Na'ama Margolese, 8, the daughter of immigrants from North America."  They also assaulted a television camera crew and tried to prevent the removal of a sign in the neighborhood that called for men and women to use separate sidewalks. 

These Haredim are no better than the Islamic fundamentalists who harass women for not being sufficiently modest.  I hope that the Israeli public will remain galvanized in standing up to them and that the countermovement will have the support of all three of Israel's main political parties.   Such misogyny has no place in the modern world, and if it can't be stopped in Israel, then how can we expect it to be stopped in Saudi Arabia?

Oh, and one more thing.  Orthodox Judaism is a mental disorder.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hey Fox News! This Is What A War On Christmas Looks Like!

The way right wingers describe it, Christmas is on the verge of becoming declared illegal in the United States and inadvertently saying "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays" to a Jew or a Wiccan will get you thrown in prison.

Maybe it is precisely because they are not being persecuted that the Faux News crowd has to sensationalize relatively trivial incidents and blow it up into an all out assault on the celebration of Christmas.  Contrast that to what happened in Nigeria, as shown in the picture above, where Muslim militants bombed three churches and killed at least 7 people.

I would say to Fox News personalities like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly that they should be ashamed of themselves, but they do not appear capable of feeling ashamed.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Quote of the Day

The following is from a letter by a Boomer Pinches of Northampton, Massachusetts, printed in today's edition of The New York Times in response to this column by Ross Douthat about the death of Christopher Hitchens:

One need not believe in God to believe that life has meaning. Indeed, when one considers the abundance of meaning and fulfillment to be had in art, literature, friendship, love, family, and respect and compassion for one’s fellow human beings, the whole concept of God starts to look superfluous.

Congrats to Boomer for getting the letter published in the Times.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

God's Quarterback

He had his detractors.  Some people said he just didn't have it in him to be a good NFL quarterback.  But then a miracle happened.  He took over as starting quarterback for a hapless team and led them to victory.  That's right, Kyle Orton and the Kansas City Chiefs won against the hitherto undefeated Green Bay Packers today in Orton's debut as the Chiefs quarterback. 

And then there's Tim Tebow.  Alas, after an impressive six consecutive victories, Tim and the Baby Jesus were powerless against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.  To be honest, with the Patriots ahead by 11 points with about eight minutes left to go in the 4th Quarter, I envisioned Tebow running the ball into the end zone for a touchdown, followed by a 2 point conversion to put the Broncos within 3 points of the Patriots.  Then Matt Prater would kick for a field goal to tie it up with under a minute to go to bring the game into overtime.   We would then see another field goal by Prater to win the game, just like the Broncos managed to do in their previous two games.  But this time it was not to be, as the Patriots scored another touchdown to give themselves an insurmountable 18 point lead.

This year has probably been the first in a long time where I really paid any attention to NFL football and watched the Jets and the Giants on a regular basis.  I had heard of Tim Tebow last year.  I knew that he was an openly evangelical Christian who liked to brandish Bible verses on his eye blacks when he was the quarterback for the Florida Gators college football team.  While he won the Heisman Trophy, he also had his share of doubters and detractors who claimed he wasn't quite NFL material.

So, when Tim Tebow took over as quarterback for the Denver Broncos after achieving a dismal 1-4 during Kyle Orton's tenure, the time had come for him to prove if he had the goods.  His first game against the winless Miami Dolphins set the pattern for many of the Broncos victories to come, a come from behind effort in the 4th quarter to tie the game followed by a field goal winning kick in overtime. 

As an atheist, I was somewhat conflicted about Tim Tebow.  I would be less than honest if I didn't admit that part of me (as well as quite a few other atheists) wanted Tebow to lose more than he won because a lot of Bible thumpers would claim his winning streak was the power of God at work.  Indeed, I remember reading the comments thread to an article in Yahoo News (and curses for my not preserving the link!) and one commenter even went so far as to compare Tebow to the scientist Stephen Hawking.  I don't remember the exact words, but it was something to the effect that Tim Tebow was in such great physical shape because of his belief in Jesus Christ, whereas Hawking, an atheist, had a shriveled body that was confined to a wheel chair.

Then I read this article about Tebow's pastor.

Tim Tebow’s pastor, Wayne Hanson, says he knows why the Denver Broncos are 7-1 since installing Tebow as quarterback – it’s the player’s faith.

“It’s not luck,” Hanson said according to TMZ. “Luck isn’t winning six games in a row. It’s favor. God’s favor.”

Hanson, who runs the Summit Church in suburban Denver, said the Broncos wouldn’t be winning games if God hadn’t decided to reward Tebow’s religious beliefs.

I guess God liked Aaron Rodgers better, with the Packers having won 19 games in a row.   And God's favor was apparently absent when Tebow and the Broncos faced off against the Detroit Lions and the New England Patriots. 

That being said, a part of me couldn't help but root for Tebow as well, seeing him as something of an underdog.  As I mentioned above, he had his share of critics who claimed he wasn't quite ready for prime time because his passing stats were mediocre.   Regardless of his skills as a quarterback, what is undeniable is that the Broncos are 7-2 since he became their starter and the Broncos managed to salvage what had been a horrible season.  

Many of the Broncos games would be broadcast here in New York (though oddly, today's game wasn't), and to watch them come from behind time after time was a fascinating spectacle.  Unfortunately, one of those victories was against the New York Jets.   Even my wife found herself getting caught up in the Tebowmania.  Last week, we were watching the Broncos play the Chicago Bears.  Without Jay Cutler, I fully expected the Bears to lose.  With the Bears ahead 10-0 in the 4th quarter, my wife was fretting that Timmy wouldn't be able to pull off a win.  I told her, "Honey, this is what's going to happen.  The Broncos will score a touchdown and then tie it with a field goal.  Then they'll win it in overtime with another field goal."  And sure enough, they did.

Personally, I really don't care how much Tim Tebow parades his religiosity on and off the field.  It's his right to do it, regardless of how I feel about it.  I wonder though if he ever prays to Jesus to cause an opposing player to miss a field goal or fail to complete a pass.  Seriously though, when the Broncos win a game, it does not validate that Christianity is true, just as their losses do not invalidate it. 

That being said, I'll make this wager.  If Tebow can lead the Denver Broncos to three consecutive Super Bowl wins (one Super Bowl victory for each part of the Trinity!), I will become a born again Christian.   Sorry, one Super Bowl is just not enough for me.   I can't just make such a major change in my life on a whim!  So I can enjoy the atheist life at least until February of 2014.

There are two more games left in the regular season for the Denver Broncos.  Next week, they play the Buffalo Bills, who appear to be caught in free fall, having lost their last five seven games.  I don't think Tim Tebow will require any divine intervention to defeat them.***

The last game of the regular season, however, should be quite interesting, as the Broncos will find themselves facing the Kansas City Chiefs once again.   When they last played each other on November 13, the Broncos easily dispatched the Chiefs 17-10, having never lost their lead throughout the entire game.  But on New Years Day, Tebow will be matched against his former teammate Kyle Orton.  If Orton and the Chiefs can pull off a win against the Raiders next week, he will be going up against the Broncos with something he hasn't had all season, a two game winning streak.  That should definitely give Orton the confidence he needs to take on God's quarterback.

*** Boy, was I wrong there.  That was probably the worse defeat they have suffered since Tebow took over as starting quarterback.   God must have been resting for the Sabbath.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Guess This Means I Can Never Visit Thailand

This is a rather disturbing story out of Thailand.  

"Thailand has jailed a US citizen for two and a half years after he admitted posting web links to a banned biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Joe Gordon, a used car salesman from Colorado who was born in Thailand, admitted lese-majeste, or insulting the king, at an earlier hearing.

Gordon, 55, reportedly translated parts of the widely available biography, The King Never Smiles by Paul Handley, several years ago and posted them on a blog while he was living in the US.

He was arrested in May when he visited Thailand for medical treatment."

Think of the ramifications of this.  The Thai government can throw you in jail, even if you are a citizen of another country, for what you say about the Thai monarchy outside of Thailand.  The person in question here didn't even write original content criticizing the Thai king, but merely linked to and translated portions of someone else's writings.

This means that if the Thai government reads this post of mine and discovers my true identity, they can arrest me and throw me in jail if I ever visit Thailand. 

To that, all I can say is that King Bhumibol is still a dick. 

"A Great Blemish Upon The Instrument"

My recent post "An Absurd Supersition", related how a motion by Benjamin Rush that the Pennsylvania convention on ratifying the Constitution appoint a minister to open the convention's business with prayer was shot down.

I am further along in Pauline Maier's Ratification, and have since read the section on the Massachusetts convention.  In a stark contrast from the opening of the Pennsylvania convention, in Massachusetts, the well-known American patriot and convention delegate Samuel Adams introduced a motion "that the Convention will attend morning prayers daily."  The motion passed.  All I can say is that I'm glad I wasn't attending that convention.

What was of interest to me in reading about the Massachusetts ratifying convention was whether there were objections raised to the portion of Article VI of the Constitution, which states "no religious Test shalled ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."  In a nutshell, yes, there were quite a few objections raised.

Maier touches on the dispute in her book, but the lack of a religious requirement in the Constitution was just one of many issues that opponents raised in their objections to ratifying the document. 

In terms of the debate over the language in Article VI of the Constitution, one of the biggest villains, at least from a secular perspective, is a man named Amos Singletary.  Maier describes him as "a man in his Sixties whose Protestant faith was influenced by the preaching of the revivalist Jonathan Edwards."  He would have been quite at home in today's Republican Party representing a district in the Bible Belt.  Maier quotes him several times fuming about "Infidels", "Mohammedans" and "Papists"  Even when the discussion was about giving Congress the power to tax, Singleton fretted that such power may end up in the hands of "an atheist, pagan, Mahommedan."

Reading such things, I can't help but wonder how many atheists, pagans or Muslims there could have been in the new nation that the Bible thumpers of the day displayed such concern about it.  Or perhaps Singletary and his ilk were just thinking ahead to some time in some future era that would see the likes of the ACLU and Madalyn Murray O'Hair. 

Clearly, the explicit lack of a religious in the Constitution was considered controversial at the time, particularly when many state constitutions contained religious requirements to hold office.   Therefore, it is interesting to read what supporters of ratification said in defense of the language in Article VI. 

The quotes I cite below come from this website, which features the debates from the Massachusetts convention.  Several of the defenders of the Article VI language were themselves pastors and ministers and some of their arguments were couched in Christian language, which may have assuaged the fears of some that the Constitution would open up the floodgates to having the country governed by atheists and pagans.

One of the defenders of the Article VI language was Daniel Shute, a Congregationalist minister.  Below are his remarks reproduced in full, with portions underlined and bolded by me for emphasis.

Mr. President, to object to the latter part of the paragraph under consideration, which excludes a religious test, is, I am sensible, very popular; for the most of men, somehow, are rigidly tenacious of their own sentiments in religion, and disposed to impose them upon others as the standard of truth. If, in my sentiments upon the point in view, I should differ from some in this honorable body, I only wish from them the exercise of that candor, with which true religion is adapted to inspire the honest and well-disposed mind.

To establish a religious test as a qualification for offices in the proposed federal Constitution, it appears to me, sir, would be attended with injurious consequences to some individuals, and with no advantage to the whole.

By the injurious consequences to individuals, I mean, that some, who, in every other respect, are qualified to fill some important post in government, will be excluded by their not being able to stand the religious test; which I take to be a privation of part of their civil rights.

Nor is there to me any conceivable advantage, sir, that would result to the whole from such a test. Unprincipled and dishonest men will not hesitate to subscribe to any thing that may open the way for their advancement, and put them into a situation the better to execute their base and iniquitous designs. Honest men alone, therefore, however well qualified to serve the public, would be excluded by it, and their country be deprived of the benefit of their abilities.

In this great and extensive empire, there is, and will be, a great variety of sentiments in religion among its inhabitants. Upon the plan of a religious test, the question, I think, must be, Who shall be excluded from national trusts? Whatever answer bigotry may suggest, the dictates of candor and equity, I conceive, will be, None.

Far from limiting my charity and confidence to men of my own denomination in religion, I suppose, and I believe, sir, that there are worthy characters among men of every denomination — among the Quakers, the Baptists, the Church of England, the Papists; and even among those who have no other guide, in the way to virtue and heaven, than the dictates of natural religion.

I must therefore think, sir, that the proposed plan of government, in this particular, is wisely constructed; that, as all have an equal claim to the blessings of the government under which they live, and which they support, so none should be excluded from them for being of any particular denomination in religion.

The presumption is, that the eyes of the people will be upon the faithful in the land; and, from a regard to their own safety, they will choose for their rulers men of known abilities, of known probity, of good moral characters. The apostle Peter tells us that God is no respecter of persons, but, in every nation, he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to him. And I know of no reason why men of such a character, in a community of whatever denomination in religion, caeteris paribus, with other suitable qualifications, should not be acceptable to the people, and why they may not be employed by them with safety and advantage in the important offices of government. The exclusion of a religious test in the proposed Constitution, therefore, clearly appears to me, sir, to be in favor of its adoption.

Another minister who spoke in defense of Article VI was Samuel Phillips Payson, who also couched his defense in religious terms, and who also provided me with the title for this post.

Mr. President, after what has been observed, relating to a religious test, by gentlemen of acknowledged abilities, I did not expect that it would again be mentioned, as an objection to the proposed Constitution, that such a test was not required as a qualification for office. Such were the abilities and integrity of the gentlemen who constructed the Constitution, as not to admit of the presumption, that they would have betrayed so much vanity as to attempt to erect bulwarks and barriers to the throne of God. Relying on the candor of this Convention, I shall take the liberty to express my sentiments on the nature of a religious test, and shall endeavor to do it in such propositions as will meet the approbation of every mind.

The great object of religion being God supreme, and the seat of religion in man being the heart or conscience, i. e., the reason God has given us, employed on our moral actions, in their most important consequences, as related to the tribunal of God, hence I infer that God alone is the God of the conscience, and, consequently, attempts to erect human tribunals for the consciences of men are impious encroachments upon the prerogatives of God. Upon these principles, had there been a religious test as a qualification for office, it would, in my opinion, have been a great blemish upon the instrument.

A third religious defender of the Article VI language in the debates was a Baptist preacher named Isaac Backus

Mr. President, I have said very little in this honorable Convention; but I now beg leave to offer a few thoughts upon some points in the Constitution proposed to us, and I shall begin with the exclusion of any religious test. Many appear to be much concerned about it; but nothing is more evident, both in reason and the Holy Scriptures, than that religion is ever a matter between God and individuals; and, therefore, no man or men can impose any religious test, without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ministers first assumed this power under the Christian name; and then Constantine approved of the practice, when he adopted the profession of Christianity, as an engine of state policy. And let the history of all nations be searched from that day to this, and it will appear that the imposing of religious tests hath been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world. And I rejoice to see so many gentlemen, who are now giving in their rights of conscience in this great and important matter. Some serious minds discover a concern lest, if all religious tests should be excluded, the Congress would hereafter establish Popery, or some other tyrannical way of worship. But it is most certain that no such way of worship can be established without any religious test.

Another prominent defender of Article VI was Theophilus Parsons.  Parsons was a jurist, not a clergyman, though his father was, so Parsons' rhetoric was also couched in Christian terms.

It has been objected that the Constitution provides no religious test by oath, and we may have in power unprincipled men, atheists and pagans. No man can wish more ardently than I do that all our public offices may be filled by men who fear God and hate wickedness; but it must remain with the electors to give the government this security. An oath will not do it. Will an unprincipled man be entangled by an oath? Will an atheist or a pagan dread the vengeance of the Christian's God, a being, in his opinion, the creature of fancy and credulity? It is a solecism in expression. No man is so illiberal as to wish the confining places of honor or profit to any one sect of Christians; but what security is it to government, that every public officer shall swear that he is a Christian? For what will then be called Christianity? One man will declare that the Christian religion is only an illumination of natural religion, and that he is a Christian; another Christian will assert that all men must be happy hereafter in spite of themselves; a third Christian reverses the image, and declares that, let a man do all he can, he will certainly be punished in another world; and a fourth will tell us that, if a man use any force for the common defence, he violates every principle of Christianity. Sir, the only evidence we can have of the sincerity of a man's religion is a good life; and I trust that such evidence will be required of every candidate by every elector. That man who acts an honest part to his neighbor, will, most probably, conduct honorably towards the public.

It should be clear that the prohibition of a religious test in the Constitution was not put there because the drafters and the supporters of the document at the time specifically intended for atheists to be allowed to serve in public office.  Rather, as the defenders of Article VI spoke above, a religious test would not serve as an effective bar to dishonest men while potentially keeping out honest and capable ones, and that such a test would cause disputes about which was the proper form of Christianity in a country filled with diverse denominations and could turn the country on the path to tyranny.  Still, the explicit language in Article VI forbidding a religious test for public office, as well as the lack of any language that requires a candidate to profess any religion at all, does create a space for atheists to be eligible for public office in the United States.  And for that, those of us who are atheists are indebted to those religious supporters of ratification of the Constitution who played a vital part in creating that space.

The Bahamas Trip - July 26 and 28, 2011 - Drift Diving

In addition to getting to do a shark dive, I also got to do another kind of dive I had never done before, a drift dive.  Well, two of them, actually.

The first drift dive was on July 26 at a site called Wax Cut Drift between Normans Cay and Shroud Cay in the Exumas. 

As I listened to divemaster Ian's briefing about the dive, I felt my stomach getting knotted.   Having never participated in a drift dive before, his description of the dive seemed rather complex and intimidating to me.   We would all have to position ourselves on the dive deck so that all of us could enter the water within a matter of a few seconds.  It would be a negative entry, which meant that there could be no air in our bcd vests.   That means as soon as we dove into the water, we had to submerge instantly and follow Ian, who would be at the head of our column.  Andy would be at the rear of the column.  First Mate John would be in the Magick and meet us all when we gathered at the end of the dive.  One or two of the other crew members would be in a dinghy in case any of us required rescuing.  When we reached the end of the dive, Ian would be holding a rope that we all had to grab on to, which would then be attached to the Magick for towing us all back to the Aquacat.

Soaking all of this in, I started having serious reservations about doing the dive.  Remembering my bad experience with a strong current at Closemon Reef on the first day, I was leery of drifting away from the main group and not being able to get back to them.   Then again, I thought, I had come here for new experiences, and this would definitely be a new and exciting experience.

I was feeling a bit tense as I donned my gear in anticipation of the dive.   We all started to take up our positions so that we would be ready to jump into the water when the word was given.  Some of the divers walked down to the two dive platforms while the rest of us would jump off the dive deck on either side of the boat, which was the only way possible to accommodate the most number of divers at once. 

Then came the announcement for all divers to dive (I must confess, I don't remember the exact words) and in we went.   As I splashed into the water, I exhaled steadily so that my body would begin its descent.  Once I got about 15 or 20 feet down, I looked around me to see where everyone else was heading and started following, continuing my descent.   I didn't really have to worry about which way to go, because the current just pushed me along.  I ended up making my way close to the front of the group so that Ian the divemaster was in my sights.  Otherwise, it was just a matter of letting the current take you along for the ride.

I didn't take my camera for this dive, because I was worried the seal might break during entry.  In a normal dive, you enter the water and then a crewmember would hand your camera to you.  Too bad, because this dive presented some great photo opportunities.

At one point during the dive, I was looking to my right for marine life and just taking in the scenery.  Then I turned to my life, and nearly did a double-take.  Several feet to my left was Nick, the Filipino kid, riding on a plastic horse.  I almost shot my regulator out of my mouth from laughter.  I was like "Where did he get that from?"   I found out after the dive that one of the crew had found the plastic horse and they would bring it on the drift dives to let divers take turns riding it. 

Another interesting sight on the dive that would have made for a great picture was this huge brain coral about the size of an automobile.  It had these gashes and cuts in just the right places to give it the appearance of a giant jack-o-lantern.

The dive proceeded smoothly to plan, and when we got to the end point, we surfaced, holding on to Ian's line for the tow back to the Aquacat.  It was a really cool dive and I realized that my earlier nervousness about it was totally unfounded.

The drift dive for the Washing Machine on the 28th proceeded according to the same plan as Wax Cut Drift, with as many divers as possible making a simultaneous negative entry into the water, with the remainder following immediately afterwards.

I was really looking forward to this dive, which is one of the more famous dives in the Bahamas.   The site is located between Highborne Cay and Long Cay in the Exumas.  For those of you who have never heard of it, the Washing Machine is what they call an area where, to quote from the Aquacat website, "the strong incoming tide of up to 6 mph takes scuba divers thru a narrow cut where water drops off a ledge and then makes a sharp bend to the left. This causes the water to swirl like the water in a washing machine."  Divers who enter the Washing Machine can find themselves tossed and spun around.  I really wanted to experience that!

As the current pulled us along, I kept anticipating that over the next drop would be the Washing Machine and I would feel the tossing and the spinning.  And I waited and waited and waited.  Nothing.  I looked at Tara and Jeff and shrugged.  Where was this Washing Machine.  And then the dive was over.  It wasn't without its excitement though.  I had a collision with Martha that scared the bejesus out of her.  When we were back on the boat, I apologized profusely to her, but she was very understanding.   It turned out that a lot of the divers on the dive didn't get the Washing Machine experience.  In fact, I think Guy and Tony were the only ones who reported getting tossed around.  All in all, it was a disappointing dive, though from what I understand, the experience can be inconsistent.  It's one of those YMMV things.

To give you an idea of what the Washing Machine can be like, here's a video I found on Youtube for your viewing pleasure.

Friday, December 02, 2011

An Absurd Superstition

Okay, after a dearth of posting, it's time to get my groove back.

I'm currently reading Ratification: The People Debate The Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier.  It is a very dense, well researched book about the process of debating and ratifying the Constitution that runs over 470 pages, excluding the end notes.

While it is a very worthwhile story in its own right, the book caught my attention several months ago while trolling for bargains at Borders before it closed its doors because I wanted to see if it offered any revealing insights into what degree, if any, overt Christian or Biblical beliefs played in the debate over the Constitution. 

So far, I haven't seen any reference in Maier's book to any of the Founders crediting God in crafting the Supreme Law of the Land.  On the other hand, I did find the following passage amusing.  It's on page 102, where Maier writes about the ratifying convention in Pennsylvania.

"In its opening days, the convention rejected a suggestion by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a somewhat quixotic Philadelphian and one of the country's best trained physicians, that it appoint a minister to open its business with prayer.  Several delegates objected: Considering the religious diversity of the state, they argued, any such appointment would offend some people.  Moreover, neither the Pennsylvania legislature nor the convention that had drafted the state constitution had begun with prayer.  When Rush suggested that was why the state had ever since been beset with divisions, [John] Smilie dismissed the doctor's theory as an 'absurd superstition.'   That ended that."

If one took pseudo-historians like David Barton at their word, one would labor under the impression that every public undertaking in early America was suffused with prayers and overt religiosity.  The bitch slap that Benjamin Rush received when he pushed to have the convention open with a prayer led by a minister shows that this was not necessarily the case.

And as I showed in this post, when the governor of South Carolina issued an overtly Christian Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1844, he provoked the ire of the Jewish community of Charleston.   This all took place decades, well over a century actually, before there were organizations like the ACLU and Americans United championing the separation of church and state.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Belated Obligatory Five Year Anniversary Post

The other day I realize that the five year anniversary of Exercise in Futility had passed about two months ago.  My blogging activities have lagged so much of late that I didn't even take notice of the milestone at the time.  Well, anyway, there it is.  It's been a busy November for me, but I had to do at least one post for the month.  See you all in December!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Just Like The Alamo, If All Of The Mexicans Were Homos Who Were Trying to Get Married

While most of the current crop of Republican presidential candidates are a sorry lot, if I had to pick the most pathetic of the bunch, it would have to be former Senator Rick Santorum.  Like a Ming loyalist general fighting on decades after the Manchus conquered China, he continues on with his quixotic campaign to keep gays from getting married or serving in the military.

In an interview with a Shane Vander Hart of Caffeinated Thoughts, Santorum was asked by Vander Hart what some of the hills are that he would die on.

"The battle we're engaged in right now is same sex marriage, ultimately that is the very foundation of our country, the family, what the family structure is going to look like," Santorum explained. "I'll die on that hill." (Underlined for emphasis)

While one could argue that Santorum's use of such dramatic language was due to the way Vander Hart framed the discussion, Santorum has a history of being a drama queen when it comes to the issue of gay marriage.  This post was inspired by a letter I received in the mail a couple of years ago from the National Organization for Marriage, either written by or for Santorum and signed by him.

Santorum also seems overly concerned with people who like to have sex, and (shudders!) use contraception so that the act does not result in pregnancy!

"One of the things that I will talk about that no president has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the sexual liberty idea and many in the Christian faith have said, you know contraception is OK. It's not OK because it's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."

Santorum continued: "They're supposed to be within marriage. They are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal but also procreative, and that's the perfect way a sexual union should happen. When we take any part of that out, we diminish the act. If we take one part out, it's not for the purposes of procreation, it's not one of the reasons, then you diminish this very special bond between men and women. So, why can't you take other parts of that out? And then all of the sudden it becomes deconstructed to the point where it's simply pleasure, and that's certainly a part of it, and it's an important part, don't get me wrong. But there is a lot of things we do for pleasure and this is special and it needs to be seen as special."

Oh?  And how are things "supposed to be" Ricky boy?  Is he seriously saying that my wife and I, who have two children and do not intend to have anymore (I'm 42 and she's 48), should never have sex again for the rest of our lives?   For us, sex is simply all about pleasure, and why should it be about anything else?  And that is what makes it "special" for us.

Ricky, to borrow a line from the Robin Williams movie 'Good Morning Vietnam', "you're in more dire need of a blowjob than any white man in history."

h/t: Crooks and Liars.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Quiet Voice on the Margins

In today's edition of The New York Times, there is an op-ed by two evangelical Christians, Karl W. Giberson, a former professor of physics, and Randall J. Stephens, an associate professor of history, titled "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason."

Giberson and Stephens rebuke the bulk of the crop of the Republican presidential candidates for being "a showcase of evangelical anti-intellectualism."

They make an important point that "evangelical Christianity need not be defined by the simplistic theology, cultural isolationism and stubborn anti-intellectualism that most of the Republican candidates have embraced."

The two professors also rightly add that "Scholars like Dr. Collins and Mr. Noll… recognize that the Bible does not condemn evolution and says next to nothing about gay marriage. They understand that Christian theology can incorporate Darwin’s insights and flourish in a pluralistic society."

Theirs are voices that definitely need to be heard more by fellow evangelicals.  But alas, Giberson and Stephens can't resist taking a backhanded swipe at atheists by declaring that "even today atheism is little more than a quiet voice on the margins."

I wish Christians would make up their minds about us.  We're either a tiny, insignificant minority to be ignored, or we are a threat to the American way of life.  Of course, the truth is, we're neither.  We should not be ignored, nor are we trying to destroy the United States.   We are for the most part patriotic Americans who simply believe that belief should not be elevated over nonbelief in public life. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

The End of the World Is Near

We atheist bloggers had a lot of fun last spring with the publicity surrounding Harold Camping's prediction that May 21, 2011 would be Judgment Day.  As I wrote in several posts on my blog, I personally witnessed a number of people in New York City handing out pamphlets or holding up signs proclaiming the imminent doom of those of us who refused to repent.

Of course, Camping's dire prognostications did not come true that day.  Mostly forgotten is that Camping also warned us that the actual end of the world would not occur until October 21, 2011, which is this Friday.  The God of the Bible, cruel bastard that he is, couldn't hold out until Monday the 24th so that we could all have one last weekend of fun and decadence.  I still have the pamphlet I found many months ago, which confidently declares that:

"On October 21, 2011, God will completely destroy this creation and all of the people who never experienced the salvation of Jesus Christ along with it.  The awful payment for their sinful rebellion against God will be completed by the loss of everlasting life.  On October 21, 2011, all of these poor people will cease to exist from that point forward."

Tellingly, I don't see any of the street corner doomsters in New York City warning us about the approaching end of the world.  I wonder how many of them still hold out hope that the world will indeed end this Friday, even if they dare not express it because they have retained a small sliver of awareness that tells them "I don't want to look like a fool in public."

As for Camping's Family Radio website, all references to Judgment Day and the End of the World appear to have been scrubbed.  On this page, there's even mention of a Special Promotion from October 17 through October 24

That being said, Camping himself is apparently still sticking to his guns.  According to this article,
"Camping recently said in a statement, 'We can be sure that the whole world, with the exception of those who are presently saved (the elect), are under the judgment of God, and will be annihilated together with the whole physical world on October 21, 2011.'"

Yeah, whatever.  See you all on the 22nd.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Two Decades of Atheism

A lot of atheists who were formerly religious can probably recall the moment when they came to that inescapable conclusion that "I guess I am an atheist."  Likewise, it also holds true for many people who embrace a particular religious faith that they remember when they made the decision to give their hearst and souls to their beliefs.

Perhaps I am atypical in that I really don't remember the day I realized that I no longer believed in any divine being that watched over us and took a personal notice or interest in our lives.  I don't know if it was due to a book or something else I may have read, or that I had been through a life changing experience.  Whatever it was is lost in the mists of time.  All I remember was that it was the final step in a journey that had seen me abandon Catholicism while still retaining belief in a personal god that I could communicate with, until I realized that there was nobody there and my religious beliefs had all along been just a way to provide myself with a sense of purpose and importance.

What I do remember is that I had become an atheist sometime in the year 1991.  That means I have been an atheist for approximately 20 years, or nearly half of my 42 years spent thus far on this Earth, and almost my entire adult life.  It has been long enough that I can look back on the past two decades with a long term perspective.

Intellectually, becoming an atheist was a very liberating experience for me.  I was no longer under the rule of a watchful deity that expected me to go to church once a week, refrain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent or cared if I masturbated once in a while.  I was no longer a slave to an overseer who existed only in my imagination, and I was overjoyed at the realization that I was in charge of my life.  I did not have a crisis of morals either.  Rejecting Christianity or my own personal religious beliefs that had succeeded it did not make me want to lie, cheat, steal or engage in other terrible things.  Instead, giving up religion was like taking the training wheels off of a bicycle. 

I would be mistaken though if I were to say that my life was all peaches and cream once I became an atheist.  The early 90's were pretty good to me, but during the mid-90's I went through a rough period in my life.  For a while, it seemed hard to believe that I would ever get out of the emotional ditch I had landed in.  But throughout it all, I never quite lost a dogged optimism that I had the power to make my life better.

By the late 90's, my life improved markedly.  I met and married the love of my life, I made a career move that would see me making a good salary, my wife and I purchased a house, and we had two beautiful, healthy children together.  I achieved things that only a few years early seemed unattainable. 

I did have a serious personal crisis for a few months about six years ago where I feared I would lose everything I cherished.  Some people in my place, in a time of extreme personal distress, might have returned to the refuge of religion, and when the crisis inevitably passed, would have seen it as proof that it was all due to them crawling back on their hands and knees to God and seeking divine aid.  I, on the other hand, did none of that.  From the moment I became an atheist, never at any time where I felt any personal despair did I consider turning to religion for aid and solace.  I realized that the only thing I had any control over was how I behaved and things would turn out either well or badly regardless of whether I prayed to a god or not.  I passed through my great crisis, never wavering in my atheism, and I emerged wiser and stronger than before.

Looking at my life now, I have to say that I think I have it pretty good and consider myself to be rather fortunate.  Of course, my life isn't perfect, and there are some things that I wish could be different or that there are some personal changes I could make.  Then again, don't most people feel that way about themselves?   Besides, while I may be 42, I still have many years left to look forward to and experiences to have.  In the last few years, I have taken up scuba diving and have taken part in a shark feeding dive, and even crazier still, I did a tandem sky dive.

I'm sure there are some theists, Christians in particular, who would say to me "Tommy, sure you may think you have a good life now, but you are missing out on so much by not seeking a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and you are turning your back on the chance for eternal life."

But when you live the life of a satisfied atheist, that's the only thing left up their sleeve, isn't it?  "You better believe or before you know it you'll be dead and then it will be too late!"

One of my favorite atheist bloggers, The Jolly Nihilist, in his most recent post, wrote:

"Even a staunch atheist such as me—one who, as an evidentialist, has tried to look at the evidence objectively and, in so doing, has had his non-belief repeatedly reaffirmed—is not immune to occasional frightful thoughts of being consigned to an eternity of agonizing punishment in hellfire."

Maybe it is because I have been an atheist for twice as long as Jolly, I never even consider the possibility that I will suffer for an eternity in the afterlife if I die without believing that the creator of a universe filled with billions of galaxies impregnated a virgin teenage girl in the Galilee a couple of thousand years ago.  To be honest, I don't know if everything contained in this universe is the product of some divine intelligence.  But if it is, then I have the feeling such a being won't be disappointed or upset that I did not believe in its existence or cringe in fear of it.  Any being powerful and intelligent to create so much is surely secure enough with itself that it won't be troubled by such trivial things.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

God's Got a Lot of Buffers

Fans of the movie The Godfather Part II will no doubt recall the scene that inspired the title above.

One of the things about really devout Catholics is that they don't just pray to God.  They are constantly calling on the Virgin Mary (also frequently referred to as Our Lady), or Saint This, That or The Other One to intercede with God on their behalf.  There are a lot of saints in Catholicism.  Heck, there's even a Patron Saint of Artillery.

One of my wife's cousins, who can hardly seem to write about anything on Facebook except religious nonsense (and who I suspect is not exactly playing with a full deck), is really into Padre Pio and promoted Pio as someone to whom directing intercessory prayers could really get some results.

So how does this intercessory prayer thing work?  According to the New Advent web site, "The Catholic doctrine of intercession and invocation is set forth by the Council of Trent."

Here is what the Council had to say about intercessory prayer:

"the saints who reign together with Christ offer up their own prayers to God for men. It is good and useful suppliantly to invoke them, and to have recourse to their prayers, aid, and help for obtaining benefits from God, through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, Who alone is our Redeemer and Saviour.

Prayer is offered to a person in two ways: one as though to be granted by himself, another as to be obtained through him. In the first way we pray to God alone, because all our prayers ought to be directed to obtaining grace and glory which God alone gives, according to those words of the Psalm (lxxxiii, 12): 'The Lord will give grace and glory.' But in the second way we pray to the holy angels and to men not that God may learn our petition through them, but that by their prayers and merits our prayers may be efficacious."

So, God is more likely to answer the prayers of Timmy's family to cure his cancer if the family pleads to scores of saints, who in turn will give the almighty their hearty recommendation?  That sounds exactly like some autocratic monarch who only answers the appeals of his subjects if some influential minister at court has the monarch's ear.

I also came across a lot of this intercessory prayer stuff while reading the Spiritual Diaries of Ignatius of Loyola, or Iggy for short. Take this entry from February 15, 1544:

"Next on preparing  to leave for mass, as I began to pray, I could feel, and was shown, our Lady, also how great had been my fault the previous day: I felt moved within and wept, for I seemed to be putting Our Lady to shame in having her intercede for me so often, because of my many failing.  So much so that Our Lady hid from me and I found no devotion in her or higher than her.  A little later, when I sought to go higher, as I could not find Our Lady (maybe she was hiding out in the Lady's Room?) a mighty impulse to weep and sob gripped me (Oh fuck!  There he goes again with the weeping!) and I seemed to see or feel that the Heavenly Father showed Himself propitious and kind - to the point of making clear to me that he would be pleased if Our Lady, whom I could not see, would intercede."

On February 18, it got even more convoluted:

"A little later I wondered where I should begin and it occurred to me that it might be with all the Saints, putting my cause in their hands, so that they might pray to Our Lady and Her Son to be intercessors on my half before the Blessed Trinity."

In other words, Iggy wanted the saints to convince the Virgin Mary and Jesus to plead his cause to the Trinity.  Talk about sending it up the chain of command.  But the part that gets me is that Jesus is supposed to be one third of the Trinity, so isn't that like asking Jesus to plead to himself?  Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.  I can see why some people would find Protestantism more appealing, because it cut out the middleman, in this case, the Catholic Church and its legions of saints hanging around that Versailles in the sky.

Way back when I was a believing Catholic more than two decades ago, I don't recall ever praying to saints or even the Virgin Mary. Though I knew about some of the different saints, I never really gave it much consideration. When I prayed, which was often, I prayed to God only.  Maybe that's why my prayers were never answered!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Repeal of DADT

On September 20, 2011, the United States military officially ended its policy of Don't Ask Don't Tell, aka DADT.  Secretary of Defense Leon Pannetta hailed the change, declaring "Thanks to this change, we move closer to achieving the goal that is at the foundation of American values -- equality and dignity for all.”

Needless to say, not everyone in the United States shared Pannetta's positive viewpoint.

The "Family" Research Council  (yes, the quotes are deliberate on my part) decried the policy change, concluding that President Obama "is more interested in appeasing sexual revolutionaries than in fighting America's enemies." Yes, the same President Obama who ordered the raid on the compound in Pakistan that ended the life of Osama bin Laden and who has overseen a policy of increased drone strikes in the mountains of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that has killed so many Taliban is really not interested in fighting America's enemies.  Right.

Hopeless Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, in a recent Republican candidates debate that saw several audience members boo a gay soldier serving in Iraq, stated in response to the soldier's question that he would reinstate DADT if elected.  Santorum affirmed his belief that "Any type of sexual activity has no place in the military."

I wonder if Ricky boy ever read Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down, which is about the raid carried out in Mogadishu, Somalia that saw two Black Hawk helicopters shot down and the US Army Rangers and members of Delta Force who found themselves surrounded and under fire for the better part of a day.  Bowden describes what life was like for the servicemen stationed in Somalia prior to the raid. 

"The worst thing about hangar life, of course, was the lack of women...There was plenty of porn around, of course, and many of the Rangers were humorously casual about masturbation.  Most were discreet about it, but some had adopted a sort of crude defiance, standing up next to their cot to announce 'I'm going to the port-o-pot to fuckin' jack off!'  Specialist John Collett, a SAW gunner with absolutely no shame about such matters...claimed to have gotten a 'harness jack,' that is, to have masturbated hanging from a parachute harness."

Given the Catholic Church's position on masturbation, and Ricky being a good Catholic boy and all, I'm sure he would be mortified to know that some of our elite soldiers engaged in a form of sexual activity in a combat area.  Maybe the mission in Somalia went awry because God was punishing our soldiers for jacking off.

My favorite over-the-top wailing about the repeal of DADT comes from Washington state's resident Christian wingnut Ron Boehme, who I've mentioned before in this blog here and here.

Boehme rants:

"December 18, 2010 was a sad day for the cause of liberty. The United States Senate voted 65-31 to rescind the seventeen-year "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) policy in the American forces. On the heels of a 250-175 vote in the House of Representatives, largely along party lines, homosexuality is now "free" to openly flourish in the barracks or foxhole.

By this infamous vote, The United States government now openly condones and encourages homosexual behavior among our fighting men and women. The last bastion of discipline and moral order in the United States has been breached, not by an invading army, but by a destructive Lame Duck Congress."

He adds, with typical hyperbole, "This is a sad day for real liberty--which is freedom from sin." (Italics in the original).

The reason why I used the picture of Corporal Klinger from M*A*S*H at the top of this post is because when it comes to gays serving in the military, I think that is exactly what the homophobe opponents of DADT repeal picture when they claim that homosexuality will "flourish in the barracks."  It seems beyond their realm of comprehension that a gay man can serve in the military without walking around with a boner and grabbing the asses of the manly heterosexual and devout Christian men in his barracks. 

Boehme, Santorum and their ilk are full of shit because it was not what gay soldiers were doing in the barracks or in combat or other service that caused them to be discharged from the military but because of what they did or were thought to do in their private life.

And it is disingenous of Boehme to invoke "freedom from sin" in opposing the repeal of DADT, because the last time I checked, one of the tenets of Christianity is that everyone is a sinner.  That includes every heterosexual man or woman serving in the military.  Yes, for some reason, sexual orientation, not behavior, mind you, but orientation, is the one sin that should disqualify a person from serving in the United States armed forces, regardless of that person's talents or abilities.

While the supposedly Gawd fearin' people like Santorum and Boehme are all hot and bothered about the sin of gayness being inserted into the military, there is some actual sinning going on being perpetrated by heterosexuals in the military.

While searching the Department of Defense web site for the press release I linked to above about the repeal of DADT, I came across this interesting press release about addressing domestic violence in the military. 

The restricted reporting option has been in place since 2006, and is intended to offer domestic violence victims a chance to seek help despite fears they might feel based on their situation, Robertson said.

“A lot of times, victims don’t want to come forward -- they’re afraid to come forward,” she added.

Often in such cases, Robertson said, abuse has escalated over time, and victims –- especially military spouses -- may fear loss of finances, housing and family security. Restricted reporting offers them a safe avenue to help, she added.

This article from the July/August 2005 issue of Mother Jones shines a spotlight on the military's domestic violence problem up to that time.

The article begins with the story of John Corcoran, who "arrived at his wife’s house and went after 30-year-old Michele with a gun, firing at her as she fled to a neighbor’s. (She was wounded but survived.) He shot and wounded another Fort Bragg soldier who was in the house and then shot and killed himself—all while his seven-month-old daughter lay in another room."

"He joins a band of brothers. Corcoran’s is the 10th fatality in a slew of domestic violence homicides involving Fort Bragg soldiers since 2002; in one six-week spree four Army wives were murdered by their husbands or ex-husbands. Including nonfatal incidents, there were 832 victims of domestic violence between 2002 and 2004 at Fort Bragg alone, according to Army figures."

Maybe Boehme doesn't consider domestic violence to be a sin, because the wife is supposed to submit to the husband, right?  How does he feel about sexual assault then?  From the CBS article in the foregoing link:

"Wendy’s experience is not unusual. Since 2002, the Miles Foundation, a private non-profit that tracks sexual assault within the armed forces, has received nearly 1,200 confidential reports of sexual assaults in the Central Command Area of Responsibility, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan. Those reports have increased as much as 30 percent a year.

Part of the problem for the increase, critics say, is the quality of today's recruit.

The military is increasingly issuing something called "moral waivers," so they can enlist military personnel with felony convictions for crimes like rape and sexual assault.

“We don’t enlist convicted rapists in the armed forces of the United States,” said Michael Dominguez, the principal under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. “If there’s a consensus 'that kid needs a second chance, I think he’s got it in him to be a solider,’ then they’ll let him into the armed forces.”

In fact, CBS News has learned that both the Army and Marine Corps did issue a number of "moral waivers" to enlistees with felony convictions for rape and sexual assault - something not acknowledged in a follow-up letter from Dominguez."

The Religious Right likes to bellow about the immorality of allowing gays to serve in the military, while being eerily quiet about the problems of domestic violence, sexual harrassment of female service members and the issuing of "moral waivers" to enlistees and recruits.  It seems plainly apparent that for these Christian culture warriors, some sins are more equal than others.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Ignatius the Weeper

For about six months now I have been reading many written works from the 16th century, including Praise of Folly by Erasmus, Utopia by Thomas More, The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, and The Discourses by Machiavelli. 

I have also made it a point to read explicitly religious works written during the period and at present I am reading the Penguin Classics edition of the Personal Writings of Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius founded The Society of Jesus, better known to us today as The Jesuits.  The Jesuits played an important role in the Catholic Church's Counter-Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century.

But back to Ignatius himself.  At present, I have only read about 84 pages in a book that is some 360 pages.  Even so, from what I have read so far, Ignatius cried a lot.  He cried more than Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner.  He may have cried more than any other person in history.  The tears of Ignatius could have filled buckets.

To get an idea of the frequency of Ignatius' weeping, one need only read his Spiritual Diary.  To provide some context, the Spiritual Diary was written during a period when Ignatius was agonizing over whether or not The Society of Jesus should have a fixed income for its churches.  The issue must have caused him a tremendous amount of grief and turmoil, because his eyes became a veritable Niagara Falls of tears.  Let the crying begin:

February 5, 1544: "Great devotion before, during and after mass, with tears so abundant that my eyes ached."

Febrary 6: "Devotion, not without tears, before and during mass, and more inclined toward complete poverty."

February 7: "Very great devotion and tears before mass."

February 8: "After experiencing remarkable devotion and tears while I prayed, from preparing for mass and during mass very great devotion, also tears; only at times could I retain the power of speech."

February 10: "On reconsidering the choices, and on making the offering of complete poverty, I felt great devotion, not without tears."  Apparently Ignatius didn't cry on February 9, because he makes no mention of it in his entry for that day.  Or maybe he had just exhausted his supply of tears.

February 11: Lots of crying on this day, of which I quote only a portion: "Then receiving greater devotion and losing all desire to consider the question any longer, with tears and sobs I made, on my knees, the offering of complete poverty to the Father; and so many were the tears running down my face, and such the sobs that I could hardly get up, so great was the devotion and grace that I was receiving.  Finally I did rise though even then the devotion and the sobs continued."

February 13: "Then I experienced very great devotion, and many most intense tears, not only during prayer but while I vested; I sobbed and as I could feel the Mother and Son to be interceding for me, I felt a complete security that the Eternal Father would restore me to my former state.  Later, before, during and after mass, greatly increased devotion and a great abundance of tears."

February 14: "When I prepared to leave the room, not without tears and interior impulses.  Then before, during and after mass, very copious tears, devotion, great sobs - so great that I often could not keep the power of speech for long before losing it again."

And on it goes, day after day after day.  I can only imagine some of the people in the pews during his masses rolling their eyes and muttering "Oh for fuck's sake, there he goes again!"

There's a great line from the television series House, "Isn't it interesting that religious behavior is so close to being crazy we can't tell it apart?"  Outside of the context of intense religious devotion, profuse crying on an almost daily basis would be considered crazy or bizarre by most people.  So, why should intense religious devotion get a pass?

From the Reminisces, I offer this last excerpt:

"He used to have great devotion to the Most Holy Trinity, and so used to pray each day to the three persons separately.  And as he was also praying to the Most Holy Trinity as such, a thought used to occur to him: how was he making four prayers to the Trinity?  But this thought troubled him little or not at all, as something of little importance.  And, one day, while praying the office of Our Lady on the steps of the above-mentioned monastery, his understanding began to be raised up, in that he was seeing the Most Holy Trinity in the form of three keys on a keyboard, and this with so many tears and so many sobs that he could not control himself.  And on walking that morning in a procession which was leaving from there, at no point could he restrain his tears until the mealtime, nor after the meal could he stop talking, only about the Most Holty Trinity, and this with many comparisons, a great variety of them, as well as much relish and consolation, in such a way that the impression remained with him for the whole of his life, and he feels great devotion when praying to the Most Holy Trinity."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Bahamas Trip - Day 4 - July 27, 2011 - An Atheist In Shark Infested Waters

Wednesday started off on a rather frustrating note.  We were diving at a site called Shroud Wall located off of Shroud Cay at the northern end of the Exumas Land and Sea Park.  As usual, I buddied up with Craig.

After making our entry, we proceeded along the port side of the Aqua Cat to make for the mooring line.  I was ahead of Craig, keeping a look out for the mooring line.  The visibility at this site was very poor, so I ascended close to the surface so that I would have a better chance of spotting the mooring line.  At one point, I looked behind me and saw Craig about 20 feet below and behind me.  Moments later I could see the mooring line and headed towards it to guide my way down to the mooring block.  When I reached the line, I looked behind and below me but did not see Craig, who was usually easy to spot with his yellow shirt.

As I began my descent, I looked down in the direction of where the mooring block was and in the cloudy water could make out several divers nearing the block, though I could not determine who they were.  I thought one of them might be Craig and figured he would wait for me.  But as I descended towards the block, there were no divers there. 

"No problem," I thought to myself.  "I'll just wait here for a couple of minutes and I'm sure he'll show up."  So I waited.  And waited.  And waited, wondering what I should do next.

Since the reef wall was just a few feet further away, I thought maybe Craig had gone ahead to the wall.  So I decided to make my way over to the reef wall and take a peek.  When I got there, I could make out a couple of divers headed away from me along the wall.  While I couldn't tell who they were, I knew Craig wouldn't have just gone off without me, so I decided to head back to the mooring block.  But when I got there, there was still no sign of him.  For a moment, I considered aborting the dive and surfacing to see if anything might have happened to him.  I decided against it and thought I would head back to the wall and do some sightseeing.

Because I was alone, I didn't venture far along the wall.  I tried to make a careful note of useful landmarks so that I could find my way back to the mooring block.  Before I got there, to my surprise and relief I encountered Craig, along with another diver, Tagi.  Tagi seemed to be making gestures towards me that I interpreted as "What the hell happened to you?"  I didn't reply, but if I could talk, I would have said "You know how long I waited at the mooring block by myself!"  I signalled to Craig and Tagi that I was returning to the boat.  I was still puzzled at that point what had happened to Craig, but was glad that at least he was not alone. 

They headed for the reef wall while I continued on to look for the mooring block.  Seconds turned into minutes, and to my growing concern, I could not find it, hampered as I was by the poor visibility.  Still, I took comfort in knowing that I could not be far away from it and decided to make a slow ascent to the surface.  If I couldn't find the line, I figured I would break the water not far from the Aqua Cat.  Then, to my relief, I saw the mooring line at about 30' and headed straight towards it.

After Craig came back on board, he explained to me that he must have missed both me and the mooring line and that he had ended up surfacing at one point before finally finding the line and meeting up with Tagi.  With the water as cloudy as it was, I could completely understand.
Rather than participating in the next dive, I decided to take my kids on a beach excursion.  We landed near a quiet lagoon and I decided that it was a perfect place for them to try out their snorkel gear.  The sand sloped gently into the water, enabling them to sit and put their gear on and then slowly ease into it by leaning forward and sticking their masked faces into the water.  Andrew had some trouble at first getting water into his mask and snorkel, but I helped him adjust and then the next thing I know, he was off swimming around on his own.  My daughter Kellyanne, on the other hand, was scared to go in and thought she saw urchins, so she stayed at the edge for the most part.  I told her not to worry and to take her time getting used to breathing with her snorkel in the water.  She started to gain some confidence and swam along the shallow edge when it was time to return to the Aqua Cat.

The next site, further south in the Exumas, was Amberjack Reef.  Andy, the dive master for this dive, told us that this was the site where they used to do their shark feeding dives.  And sure enough, as I was putting on my dive gear, I spotted a reef shark break the water alongside the boat.  I teamed up with Craig again and as before, the plan was to head for the mooring block and do some exploring.

When we began our ascent, I saw that there was plenty of life to observe right under the boat.  There were several reef sharks as well as a few Nassau Groupers lurking around.  The water, in contrast to the Shroud Wall, was very clear.

After Craig and I reached the mooring block, we started making our way through the grooves between the coral formations, heading generally away from the bow of the Aqua Cat.  As usual, I took point and would bang my tank or make hand gestures if I saw something that I thought Craig would want to take a picture of with his camera.  With each formation, I tried to make note of some landmark that would help distinguish it from the others.  For instance, the coral patch where the mooring block was had a barrel sponge on top of it.

In our previous dives, there would come a point where I felt Craig and I would go no further and I would gradually lead us back to our starting point.  After one dive, Craig proclaimed that I was "an awesome navigator!"  With this dive, after making a few twists and turns, crossing over an area of mostly sand and then hitting another coral formation, I got that feeling again that we should begin to head back to the mooring line.  I looked at my gauge, which read around 1700 psi.

Things seemed to be progressing rather smoothly.  We passed one formation that moments earlier I had dubbed "The Cactus" because it reminded me a little of a cactus.  Duh!  We crossed the sandy field again and started hitting the higher coral patches cut by grooves.  Then I saw a coral formation with a mooring line rising from it.  Then I saw Tagi, who was by himself avidly taking pictures with his camera.  What a relief, I thought. 

That feeling soon dissipated as I looked at the mooring line and saw that it came to an end about 15 or 20 feet above us.  Also, I did not see the barrel sponge on top of the coral formation that I had remembered earlier.  Something was wrong.  I gestured to Craig to indicate my confusion.  I remembered that Andy told us during his dive briefing that there was an old mooring block at the site.  I took my best guess as to which direction I thought the boat was and motioned for Craig to follow me.

I kept a nervous eye on my gauge, which was now nearing 1,000 psi.  We continued on for a few minutes and when the gauge was below 1,000 psi, I started to become very concerned.  I motioned to Craig that I was going to surface and take a look for the Aqua Cat.  When I surfaced, I saw it quite a distance away from us and wondered if my air supply would be sufficient to make it back.  I descended again and motioned to Craig the direction of the boat and then I started kicking my legs as hard as I could.  When my gauge got down to about 750 psi, I surfaced again.  While we were a bit closer to the Aqua Cat, we had been heading in a direction that would have put us well behind it. 

Again, I motioned to Craig, who was a few feet below the surface.  This time, I didn't descend but decided upon a surface swim so that I could maintain eye contact with the Aqua Cat.   Slowly, inexorably, I got closer to the boat, but the going was made difficult by the current.  I decided that our best bet was to head for the Magick and grab on to the yellow rope that tied it to the back of the Aqua Cat.  

I knew Craig was still behind me, but after a point, survival mode took over me, and I was more focused on myself.  My air supply was continuing to deplete rapidly as I struggled against the current.  My air had dropped to about 500 psi when I could finally see the yellow rope in the water.  I kicked furiously, grunting loudly with each kick as I inched my way towards the rope.  It started to feel like, in spite of my exertions, that I was stationary.  Then when it was just several feet from my grasp, I looked down and to my right and saw a Caribbean Reef Shark slowly heading in my direction.  While the picture at the top of this post was from a different dive, the angle of approach was about the same, only I was at the surface and the shark was about maybe at a depth of ten to twelve feet.

I didn't panic from the sight of the shark, because it appeared rather indifferent to my presence, but I remembered thinking, "It would really suck if he attacked me now, when I'm so close to the safety of the rope."  My real concern was my air supply, which was approaching the 400 psi point.  With a final effort, I reached out with my hands and grabbed the rope, which had seemed to tantalizingly beyond my grasp.

It was at that point that I thought about Craig again.  He was a few years older than me and I knew if I was struggling, then he must be too.  "What do I do know?" I asked myself.  Part of me wanted to let go of the rope and swim back to him to guide him to the rope.  Then I considered my own situation, exhausted and low on air.  One of things that is taught in the Rescue Diver course is that when considering whether to assist another diver, make sure that you don't end up needing to be rescued yourself.   Again, my desire for self-preservation kicked in, and I decided to get back to the Aqua Cat, where I could direct the crew to where Craig was.  So, like my first dive at Closemon Reef, hand over hand I pulled myself along the rope until I got to the ladder and climbed up to the dive platform.  I gasped to the crew member, can't remember which one it was, that we had gone to the wrong mooring line.  I looked back in the direction where Craig was and saw that two crew members were already in a dinghy and on there way to pick him up.  I felt doubly relieved, for Craig and for myself.

When I ascended the steps to the dive deck, I was greeted by my son Andrew, who told me excitedly, "Dad, I was snorkelling with the sharks!"  While I was off on the dive, Andrew had asked if he could go snorkelling and Stacey, the only female crewmember on the boat, went in with him.  I was very proud as well as very surprised at what my son had done.  Generally, he tends to be timid and afraid to try new things.  But for some reason he took to snorkelling in a big way.  Stacey told me that when a shark swam near him, Andrew even extended his arm out in the direction of the shark, only to retract it as the shark drew closer.

However, even the news of my son's snorkelling feat failed to lift my spirits for long.  After greeting Craig upon his safe return to the boat, I went back to my dive station and sat down with my head in my hands.  I felt upset with myself for putting another diver, in addition to myself, in danger due to my failure to navigate properly back to the mooring line.  Perhaps my earlier successes had me feeling a little cocky and I had overestimated my abilities.  I sat there sulking for a few minutes and then went up to the sun deck, where Craig and his wife Sherri had gone to grab some refreshments.  I told him that I was sorry that I had gotten us lost and had put us in a potentially dangerous situation, but he brushed it off and told me not to worry about it.

Following the surface interval, the next dive was going to be at the same site.  Craig asked me if I would go back in with him again, and I decided that it would be best if I did.  We agreed this time that we would stay within site of the boat and in we went.   We spent the dive exploring the coral formations underneath the Aqua Cat.  As we swam beneath the stern of the boat, I looked up to the surface and saw that Andrew was snorkelling with Stacey again.   Then we came upon Nick and Bailey, the two teenagers on the boat, along with Bailey's dad, standing on the sand and taking turns doing backflips in their scuba gear.  I had never tried a backflip while scuba diving before and decided to give it a shot.  It was both easy and fun and I repeated it several times.  A short while earlier, I had experienced one of the worst dives of my life, and now I had learned from a couple of teenagers how to cut loose and have a good time underwater.  It was exactly the kind of dive I needed to have.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Bahamas Trip - Day 3 - July 26, 2011 - Underwater Photography

Though I brought an underwater camera with me on this trip, I only took it with me on three dives.  The pictures below are from the third dive.  If memory serves, they were taken at a dive site called Fire Coral Reef.  Below are among the better shots I managed to get of the marine life in the area.

First up is a Yellowtail Snapper.  There were a lot of these guys swimming around.

Next up is a French Angelfish.  These fish were a pain in the ass to photograph.  Every time I would focus on it, it would turn into the coral facing away from me.  Finally, after numerous attempts, this was the best side view I could get.  French Angelfish are very beautiful, and this photograph hardly does it justice.

I was the only one in our group to spot this small Nurse Shark.  It was swimming over a bed of coral a few feet away from me, so I had to swim really fast to get above it to get this shot.

The Bahamas contains a diverse population of angelfishes.  This next one is a Queen Angelfish.  It was much more cooperative than the French Angelfish. 

And yet another species of angelfish, the Gray Angelfish.

Here is a pair of Spotfin Butterflyfish.  My bad for not getting closer before I took the picture.

Next up is the dreaded Lionfish.  This is an invasive species that is indigenous to the Pacific.  When I dove in Belize in 2009, the only Lionfish I remember seeing was one caught by John, one of the crewmembers of the Sundancer II.  However, in the Bahamas, there were a lot of them.  You have to be careful with these guys, because they have poisonous spines.  It was really annoying for me, because some of the dive sites had very narrow grooves between the corals, and in some cases, small coral caves, that I liked to venture into and explore.  There were several occasions where I started to go into a narrow passage and then up ahead I would see a Lionfish just hovering there. 

I'm not quite sure what this last one is.  My copy of the National Audobon Society Field Guide to Tropical Marine Fishes does not show this specific fish.  However, the guide does contain about a half dozen fish with the same shape but different colors.  I am guessing this is some kind of Trunkfish or Cowfish.

Clearly, there's much room for improvement in my underwater photography skills, though it will probably have to wait until next summer when I go to the Caymans.