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.