Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dear Erick Erickson, Please Forgive Me For Existing

Erick "Supreme Court Justice David Souter is a Goat Fucking Child Molester" Erickson of had this to say in response to the Tucson shooting spree that seriously wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, among others, and killed six people, including a Federal judge:

"Through it all though, well meaning people on both sides of the ideological and partisan divide are not talking about the one thing that should be talked about — a saving faith in Jesus Christ."

I guess Rep. Giffords, who is Jewish, should count herself twice lucky. Not only was she not killed, she still has time to be "saved." I am sure that she will no doubt be grateful for Erickson's concern.

"In all the discussions we’re having, let’s not forget that bad things have happened throughout history, but we are seeing more and more a pattern of violence from those who reject Christ and we are seeing the most extreme rhetoric from those who reject the only real truth while embracing every other historic fad and nonsense as variations of truth."

Yeah, he's right. Militant Muslims reject Christ (though if I am not mistaken, they do recognize Jesus as a prophet of God) and they are increasingly resorting to extreme rhetoric and violence. Oh, wait:

"For a taste of what I’m talking about, look at Timothy McVeigh. Raised a Catholic, McVeigh self-admitted that there was a god of some sorts, but that he was agnostic, had no belief in hell, and had drifted far from anything having to do with Jesus Christ."

So much for that militant Muslim thingy.

"The topic of faith in Christ makes people cringe."

For me, it's not so much cringeworthy as eyerolling.

"But whether you believe it or not, here is the reality: beyond us is a world we cannot see with our eyes. It impacts us on a daily basis."

Like Dark Matter and Dark Energy? How about solar radio bursts? The magnetic field?

"It is a world of very real angels and very real demons. It is a world of a very real God and a very real Satan, a very real Heaven and a very real Hell."

Oh. Boy, was I way off. So, not only are angels, demons, God, Satan, Heaven and Hell real, they are "very" real. So, when bonobos engage in promiscuity, they're just behaving like the animals that they are. But when members of homo sapiens engage in promiscuity, it is because they are possessed by demons and/or are tempted by Satan (sorry, couldn't find the English version!). Acts of altruism by chimpanzees are again just animal behavior, but altruism by humans is special, as long as the person doing the altruistic act has a deep, abiding faith in Jesus Christ. Thus, Agnostic Adam, who volunteers at a food bank a few hours a week, gets killed in a car accident after spending a night with and getting a blow job from Steve, is going straight to the ovens because that blow job and Adam's agnosticism made the Creator of the Universe very upset.

"The back and forth and accusations and lies surrounding Jared Loughner should be a constant reminder to us that there is more at play in our world than what we see. And, frankly, at times like this I am more and more mindful of the great chasm in this world between the saved and damned."

Of course, Erick Erickson has that smug assurance that he is among the elite few who are "saved." However, the great chasm I see in the world is between the haves and the have-nots. The chasm between people who live in safe neighborhoods and those who live in places where the simple act of going to the market or to a well two hours away on foot is to risk being raped or murdered. The chasm between people who have access to basic health care and those who do not. The chasm between people who have shelter and those who do not.

There are good people in the world, both secular and religious, who devote their lives to trying to bridge these chasms. For example, some of my wife's family members, who are devout Catholics, will go back home to the Philippines once a year on medical missions to provide medical care to the poor. Is it my place to tell them "Great work on those medical missions, but you can jettison that Catholic crap, you know"?

"Political rhetoric did not make Jared Loughner do what he did. His embrace of evil led him down a road down which we should be in constant prayer no others dare travel."

Hold on there fella'! While I am not one to jump on the "blame Sarah Palin's target map" bandwagon with regard to this incident, the simple fact is that we won't know for sure what led Loughner to go on his shooting rampage at the supermarket unless and until he tells us. What does seem clear is that Loughner did not exactly have a firm grip on what we call reality. In the coming weeks and months, we may get a clearer picture of what drove him to commit murder. But what certainly did not cause him to do what he did was Satan whispering in his ear "Go on Jared, pull the trigger."

To circle back to Erickson's earlier about "a pattern of violence from those who reject Christ," if he is referring to those of us in America who are atheists, agnostics or members of other religious faiths, what does he base this on? How many vocal atheists have committed murder, rape or theft in this country and are there statistics that show an increase in such violence? Unless Erickson can produce this, I have to assume he just pulled that statement out of his ass. What is a fact though is that Erick Erickson did threaten to shoot U.S. census workers if they came to his house*. Then again, it's okay if Erick does it, because he's like "saved."

* My original version of this post was worded incorrectly in that I had wrote that Erickson threatened "to shoot U.S. census workers who came to his house."

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Taking Stock - The Financial Front

If there's one thing theists and nontheists have in common, it's the need to make a living and save enough for retirement.

I'm presently 41 and my wife is 47. We have two children aged 9 and 7. We are at an age where we can measure how far we have come towards reaching our financial goals and how far we still have to go.

While the news over the past year has been dominated by stories about the dismal state of the American economy and the high unemployment rate, I have been fortunate that my family's financial situation significantly improved by the end of 2010.

One development that greatly benefited us was the decline in mortgage rates. Going into the summer, my wife and I had about 11 and a half years left on our 20 year mortgage with a 6.88% rate. We took advantage of the lower rates to refinance to a 10 year mortgage at 4.125%. Thus, in one fell swoop we reduced the balance on our mortgage from about $205,000 to about $180,000. While our monthly payments were only reduced by a little less than eight dollars, we reduced the amount of time left to pay off the mortgage by a year and four months. It was, as the old saying goes, a "no brainer." At the time of the writing of this post, we have nine years and seven months left to go on our mortgage, though I anticipate paying it off a year early.

On the retirement savings front, my decision to boost my 401(k) contribution to 20% of my salary was well-timed to benefit from
the gains posted by the major stock indexes. My 401(k) balance increased by roughly $25,000 from the previous year and crossed the psychologically important milestone of $100,000. The gains might have been greater if I had a more aggressive portfolio. But I have no complaints.

The combined balance of all of the retirement funds held by my wife and I increased by nearly $50,000 to approximately a quarter of a million dollars. While I suppose that is not bad for a couple of forty somethings, it is still far short of what we will need to fund our retirement.

To get an idea of how we are doing, I tried out
a retirement calculator on the CNN Money web site. Based on the information I provided, if my wife and I continue to earn our current salaries and continue to contribute to our retirements savings as we have been doing, we are on track to amass over a million dollars. Of course, this assumes that the markets don't collapse in the next decade or so.

However, as important as it is to save for retirement, I strongly believe we must also not forget the here and the now. The job situation in this country is still cloudy, and in spite of signs of improvement in our economy in recent months, things can still take a turn for the worse. Furthermore, I don't want to wait until I am 65 before I retire. I want to be able to enjoy life while I am still relatively young and fit. In order to do that, one must also amass a nonretirement savings portfolio.

The financial experts will say that everyone should have a rainy day fund to cover anywhere from 6 to 12 months worth of expenses. I decided to take it even further and make it a goal of having at least $100,000 in nonretirement savings. There was a period of time a few years ago where I had actually achieved this goal, but for a variety of reasons, I ultimately was not able to hold the line. At one point in 2009, our nonretirement savings had declined to about $70,000.

Since late 2009, I have managed to sock away enough to claw our way back to $90,000. The last time I had amassed $100,000, stocks comprised a large portion of the porfolio. On the one hand, when they went up, it made it a lot easier to attain my goal. But the downside was that when the stocks went down, so did the balance. This time my nonretirement portfolio is much more conservative, so that while the gains are small, they are also irreversible in the absence of a need to tap the savings.

There are a number of reasons why it might become necessary to tap our nonretirement savings in the near future. Both my wife and I drive older model cars. While we have not had a lot of repair issues with them, I know that this will not last forever and eventually we will have to buy new vehicles. Our house is also going to require remodeling and repair work, including a problem we have with sagging floors. The money for this will have to come from somewhere. For now, I am deferring on much of this in order to build our savings.

The other dark cloud looming on the horizon is college expenses for my children, which will come rolling in conveniently as the mortgage is winding down. I have to confess that I have not set aside any money in any college savings vehicles, focusing instead on building a general nonretirement savings portfolio. One reason I have not done so is that I am reluctant to have a large portion of my nonretirement savings invested in funds that can only be withdrawn for educational purposes.

In summary, we have made a lot of progress and I suppose for our age, my wife and I are in decent shape, but we still have a long way to go to get to that promised land of financial security.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Desperate Times, Desperate Beliefs

A prophet had appeared among the Paiutes of Nevada. He preached a new religion. It was a religion that offered hope for the Indian race - hope not dependent on promises of the white men. He held forth a vision of paradise in which all Indians would at last be free of the white burden and reside in a blissful land, a land without white people, a land inhabited by all the generations of Indians that had gone before...and it could be simply attained by practicing the tenets of his faith and dancing a prescribed "Ghost Dance."1

The closing years of the 19th and into the early 20th century witnessed the last stand of many indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa and Asia against the invasion of their lands and the destruction of their cultures and way of life by Europeans and Americans. Just as many individual people in the depths of crisis turn to religion to offer them hope and salvation, movements arose in these indigenous societies that were embraced by many as a means of destroying the foreign invaders and ushering in a time of paradise. Tragically, for all of them, the promises offered by these indigenous spiritual movements led to death and disaster.

Many of my fellow Americans are probably familiar with the Ghost Dance movement that spread among the Great Plains Indians in 1890. From Robert Utley's The Indian Frontier of the American West, "All over Pine Ridge Reservation, and on others as well, the people abandoned their cabins and pitched their tipis in the cottonwood groves. Hypnotically, in slow shuffling cadence, they danced around sacred prayer trees. As the intensity and the excitement mounted, some fell to the ground, to die and go to heaven and there talk with the Indian Messiah and see the beautiful new world foretold. They came back to describe their experiences and to urge others to dance with a passion that would reveal to them, too, a vision of the promised land."

As the movement grew, some of its proponents began to preach confrontation and sought to bolster the courage of the Ghost Dancers by telling them that the white man's bullets could not harm them if they wore their "Ghost Shirts."

A decade later on the other side of the world, a similar movement arose in China. Ever since its defeat at the hands of the British in the Opium War in 1842, the Qing Dynasty that had ruled China since 1644 suffered humiliating defeats and the carving up of its territory into spheres of influence at the hands of foreign, mostly European, powers. In this climate of increasing foreign encroachment, Chinese nationalist fervor increased, leading in some cases to extreme xenophobia.

The Boxers United in Righteousness, as they called themselves, began to emerge as a force in northwest Shandong during 1898. They drew their name and the martial rites they practiced from a variety of secret-society and self-defense units that had spread in southern Shandong during the previous years, mainly in response to the provocations of Western missionaries and their Chinese converts. Some Boxers believed they were invulnerable to swords and bullets in combat, and they drew on an eclectic pantheon of spirits and protectors from folk religion, popular novels, and street plays. Although they lacked a unified leadership, Boxers recruited local farmers and other workers made desperate by the distastrous floods that had been followed by droughts in Shandong; they began to call for the ending of the special privileges enjoyed by Chinese Christian converts and to attack both converts and Christian missionaries.2

In the summer of 1905, in German East Africa, now Tanzania, African villagers who labored in work gangs to pick cotton for export to Europe, began to listen to a spirit medium named Kinjikitle Ngwale, who called on them to unite and drive out the Germans.

The news spread like a fever. All they needed was maji ('water' in Swahili), with some castor oil and millet seeds. This was a 'war medicine' strong enough to turn German bullets into water. The leaders of each clan flocked to Ngarambe to obtain the magic water and the magic seeds... By the summer of 1905 the movement had spread more than a hundred miles west and south. But none of these men had modern rifles, only cap guns, spears and arrows.3

So here we have three completely different cultures in three different parts of the world where indigenous spiritual movements arose in a climate of anger and despair in the face of foreign encroachment. While they had their own unique characteristics, they shared many similiarities. They all promised a world cleansed of the hated foreigners. And they promised their followers that the foreigners bullets could not kill them.

The outcome of the Ghost Dancers is well known to many Americans. At a place called Wounded Knee, on December 29, 1890, the US Seventh Cavalry attempted to disarm the Native Americans encamped there. Utley describes the encounter:

As the search progressed, powerful tensions arose on both sides. A medicine man pranced about inciting men to fight; their Ghost Shirts would protect them, he said. Nervous troopers fingered their carbine triggers. One seized a deaf man and grasped his rifle. It went off. The chanting priest threw a handful of dirt into the air. A knot of Indians dropped their blankets and leveled Winchester repeaters at a rank of soldiers. Both sides fired at once, and the fight that neither side intended or expected burst on them.

When the shooting finally stopped, some 150 Native Americans lay dead or dying. In a spasm of brief violence, the Ghost Dance movement came to an end. Wounded Knee came to symbolize the end of armed resistance to the United States by the Native Americans, just as 1890 is cited as the year that the American frontier in the West vanished.

Ten years later, the Boxers in China had increased their attacks against Chinese Christian converts and foreigners, climaxing with the siege of the foreign diplomatic compounds in Beijing. This event is depicted in the Charlton Heston film 55 Days In Peking. The seige was broken on August 14, 1900 by a multinational expeditionary force of 20,000 soldiers. The Qing Dynasty, which had thrown in its lot with the Boxers after initially wavering, capitulated and signed a peace treaty known as the Boxer Protocol.

From Jonathan Spence's The Search for Modern China:

In this protocol, the Qing agreed to erect monuments to the memory of the more than two hundred Western dead, to ban all examinations for five years in cities where antiforeign atrocities had taken place, to forbid all imports of arms into China for two years, to allow permanent foreign guards and emplacements of defensive weapons to protect the legation quarter in perpetuity...and to execute the leading Boxer supporters including the Shanxi governor Yuxian.* They also agreed to pay an indemnity for damages to foreign life and property of 450 million taels (around £67 million or $333 million at the then current exchange rates), a staggering sum at a time when the entire annual Qing income was estimated at around 250 million taels. The Chinese were to pay the indemnity in gold, on an ascending scale, with 4 percent interest charges, until the debt was amortized on December 31, 1940.

But by far the worst outcome in terms of human life lost was the Maji Maji revolt in German East Africa in 1905-1906. There, the rebels experienced initial success, as the German military presence in the country was small and the German colonial government was slow to take the rebellion seriously.

The turning point came on August 30, 1905, when the maji attacked the German garrison at Mahenge. Thomas Pakenham quotes a mission worker who witnessed the battle in The Scramble For Africa:

Since they came to make an end of all of us, we had to defend ourselves and take part in the firing, which opened on the attackers at about 1,000 metres. Two machine guns, Europeans, and soldiers, rained death and destruction among the ranks of the advancing enemy. Although we saw the ranks thin, the survivors maintained order for about a quarter of an hour, marching closer amidst a hail of bullets. But then the ranks broke, and the men took cover behind numerous small rocks.... Then suddenly the cry broke out; 'New enemy on the Gambira [eastern] side!' Everybody looked in that direction, and there thick clouds of smoke were rising from our three schools and a second column of at least 1,200 men were advancing towards us... As soon as they [appeared] within range they were met by deafening fire. The first attackers were only three paces from the firing line when they sank to the ground... When no more enemy could be seen, the station commander climbed down from the top of the boma tower... and distributed champagne.

Then the Germans went on the offensive, incorporating forced famine into their strategy. According to Pakenham, historians of the revolt estimate that 250,000 to 300,000 Africans died as a result of the famine, some ten times more than had taken up arms in revolt. Maize and cotton fields in depopulated regions reverted to forest.

Pakenham also notes that African natives who did not join the revolt were skeptical of the claims that the maji water would protect them from the German bullets. He mentions one tribal chief who said he would drink the maji if some of the rebels survived a firing squad. "They did not survive."

As noted in the title of this post, in desperate times, people will believe desperate things. They will listen to the exhortations of priests or shamans to embrace beliefs in things that they should know are untrue, such as magic water or shirts making someone invincible to bullets. When religious beliefs come up against the laws of physics, the latter will win every time. Paying heed to this is not only smart, it could save your life.

1 The Indian Frontier of the American West: 1846-1890 by Robert Utley.

2 The Search For Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence.

3. The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham

* Yuxian promised the missionaries in Shanxi province that he would protect them from the Boxers and then proceeded to have all of forty-four of them, men, women, and children, murdered when they arrived.

The Judgment Day Virus

I swear, this crap is really starting to annoy me.

As I was about to head into Penn Station this evening to catch my train home, I pass by this lady, an African-American woman in her late forties or early fifties, handing out pamphlets. Out of curiosity, I stopped, took one, and glanced at it briefly to confirm my suspicions.

Yes, it was one of those pamphlets proclaiming that Judgment Day will take place on May 21, 2011, barely more than four months from now.

I thrust it back towards her and as she took it back from me, she asked me, "What's the matter?"

"That's not true!" I shot back, pointing at the pamphlet.

She insists that it is and declares "It says so in the Bible!"

"Yeah, so?" I reply.

"Because the Bible is the word of God," she says.

"How do you know?" I ask.

I don't recall her exact words, but it was along the lines of "Because the Bible says so."

I respond that it's just circular reasoning. Then she drops the bomb on me.

"Who made you?"

"Uh, my parents."

"Who made your parents?"

"My grandparents."

"Well, who made them?"

"I don't see what that has to do with your pamphlet."

And so it went like that for a few more seconds, but I had to go because I had a train to catch. In retrospect, I should have asked her "If Judgment Day doesn't happen on May 21, do you promise to come back here holding a big sign that reads 'I was wrong!'"

Monday, January 03, 2011

Charles Darwin and The Perimeter of Ignorance

Neil deGrasse Tyson uses the phrase "The Perimeter of Ignorance" to describe when people "appeal to a higher power only when staring into the ocean of their own ignorance."

Recently, I finally finished reading The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. As most people know, Darwin served as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle during its journey of some five years, most of which was spent in South America and the South Pacific.

It was while he was in northern Chile that Darwin writes of an encounter with people who set the bar really low for invoking their own perimeter of ignorance:

"My geological examination of the country generally created a good deal of surprise amongst the Chilenos: it was long before they could be convinced that I was not hunting for mines. This was sometimes troublesome: I found the most ready way of explaining my employment, was to ask them how it was that they themselves were not curious concerning earthquakes and volcanos? - why some springs were hot and others cold? - why there were mountains in Chile, and not a hill in La Plata? These bare questions at once satisfied and silenced the greater number; some, however (like a few in England who are a century behindhand), thought that all such inquiries were useless and impious; and that it was quite sufficient that God had thus made the mountains."

Of course, religious belief in and of itself need not act as a barrier to exploration and scientific inquiry. The numbers of religious believers who have participated in such endeavors should leave no doubt about that.

That being said, for a subset of religious believers, it would probably be accurate to say that scientific inquiries really are "useless." After all, if you believe that a collection of texts such as the Bible or the Quran contain God's commandments and that one's primary concern in life is abiding by those commandments, then there really is no point in sending probes to Mars or Saturn's moon Titan, or studying the Earth's ocean floors, to name a few. Anything that doesn't comport with one's literal interpretation of a religious text will either be twisted to fit one's Young Earth Creationist timeline or explained away as a misinterpretation of the data.

It Better Not Ruin My Summer Vacation Plans

Four months ago, I wrote a post about a tract I found at the Hicksville Train Station proclaiming that Judgment Day will arrive on May 21, 2011, with the end of the world to follow six months later on October 21, 2011.

Sadly, it seems quite a few people are taking this nonsense seriously. A few of them are profiled in this Associated Press article. One of them is Marie Exley, 32, a veteran of the war in Iraq.

Exley "is organizing traveling columns of RVs carrying the message from city to city, a logistics challenge that her military experience has helped solve."

If Exley wants to believe that the world will end this year, then fine. But it's quite another thing when she and her band of traveling fools waste gasoline spreading their deluded message across the country. We need to reduce our dependence on imported fossil fuels, and these religious nuts are only making the problem worse. Then again, I suppose I can't expect them to care since they think the world will end in October anyway.

But for people like Exley, such misguided beliefs sadly have real life consequences.

"...Exley...said her beliefs have alienated her from most of her friends and family." And for what, so that she can engage in Rapture Porn?

To any such people who read this, let me make this as clear as I can. I will even use all capital letters.


Happy 2011!