Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What the Hell is a “Values Voter” Anyway?

Seriously, I see the terms “Values Voter,” “Moral Values,” “Family Values” and “Traditional Values” tossed around, but I’m having trouble understanding what these things are at their core.

By “their core” I don’t mean stands on particular issues. I know where so-called “Values Voters” stand on things such as Abortion Access (Opposed!), Embryonic Stem Cell Research (Opposed!), Gay Marriage (Opposed!) and letting little Georgie play War President (In Favor!?), but these don’t define the core, it’s the core that defines WHY they take the stands they do.

That’s what I’m having a hard time understanding. This is especially true when I look at the history of what we now call “Values Voters.”

People with the same so-called “Traditional Values” supported slavery, opposed women’s suffrage, supported segregation, opposed feminism, opposed rock & roll, opposed males with long hair and opposed, and still oppose to this day, the teaching of evolution.

If we had listened to these morons in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, newspapers would still differentiate between people and “Negroes,” females would still dress like Donna Reed and be stuck in the kitchen all day and most of the technical innovations we take for granted would never have gotten beyond the back of the napkin stage. We’d also be wearing white shirts, ties, sports jackets and still be reading National Geographic for the “hot spots.” In other words we’d be a nation of what we would now consider hopeless nerds.

I remember the 1950’s. They sucked big time. The idea of a simpler, more moral time before the country went to hell is pure fiction. The difference today is that rather than keeping it swept under the rug, the dirty linen is fully exposed for all to see.

Learn this young Padawan, you cannot solve a problem or redress an injustice until you are willing to admit that it exists. What the mid to late 1960’s did for this country, both culturally and in terms of technology, was to force it to face up to the problems endemic in American society.

Television made it impossible not to understand the injustices of segregation, impossible not to understand that women were effectively second class citizens, impossible not to acknowledge that homosexuality existed whether we wanted it to or not and impossible not to understand, at least a little, the horrors of war. I say “a little” because no one that hasn’t been there can really understand the horrors of war.

Being exposed to the dark side basically gave the zeitgeist a swift kick in the butt and propelled it farther forward more quickly than anytime previously in the history of civilization. I tell my daughters and their friends that if they were to be transported back to 1962, they would think they had been stranded on the far side of the moon. The culture shock would probably kill them.

There is no way in hell I want to go back to the American cultural environment of 1961 and neither should anyone else with half a brain and any conception of historical reality.

I suppose, inevitably, there would be a backlash. The funny part about it is the backlash is taking advantage of the same technology that spurred the progressive leap to begin with and has sustained its momentum.

Now, what I’d like to know is what the hell are these people called “Values Voters” thinking? Often they’re voting against their own interests in supporting right wing candidates that cater to “Values Issues.”

Is it they’re afraid the culture of the country is going to change? That’s just a fact of life. It’s going to change, get used to the idea and live with it. I’m sure if I were transported 50 years into the future, I’d think I was on the far side of the moon as well and I probably wouldn’t like all the changes I would see.

Is it they’re afraid Sky Daddy is going to incinerate the country in his wrath? Good grief, if he didn’t incinerate the place over slavery and segregation he sure as hell isn’t going to over a woman controlling her own body or over what two queers do in the privacy of their own bedroom. If he didn’t want us to capitalize on the potential of Embryonic Stem Cells, why did he make them so useful?

So I really just don’t understand. What do these people think is the benefit, to themselves, to others and to society as a whole, of their so-called voting based upon “Moral Values,” “Family Values,” “Traditional Values” or whatever else they would like to call it? I just don’t understand.

Isn’t providing adequate health care for children a “Family Value?” Yet their “Family Values” president vetoed the bill which would have extended health benefits to more children including, I’m certain, a fairly large number of the children of “Values Voters.”

Isn’t providing a stable home situation, with commitments by both partners, a “Family Value?” Yet they force Gay Partners to not have the same legal protections as heterosexual couples by opposing Gay Marriage and often even an equivalent legal state such as Civil Unions.

Isn’t allowing an individual the freedom to make the choices associated with their own health and well being a “Family Value?” Yet they try to dictate the rules for pregnant women.

Isn’t eradicating disease a “Family Value?” Yet they oppose the single most promising new area of medical research since Alexander Fleming tripped over penicillin.

Like I said, what are these people thinking?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dumbledore was Gay?

J.K. Rowling stunned the world the other day when she revealed at Carnegie Hall in New York City that she always thought of the character Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series as being Gay.

According to the AP, the announcement was initially greeted with gasps and then applause. Remember, this is New York we’re talking about, quite possibly the world’s most cosmopolitan city.

All I can say is oh my goodness, who would have thunk it? Hey, what about old Snape, he didn’t have a feminine romantic interest and sort of always hung around Dumbledore. Do you suppose Snape and Dumbledore were chummier than we were led to believe?

And then what about McGonnagall and that divination professor Sybill Trelawney, there’s a match made in heaven if ever I saw one. I mean, after all, we’ve all heard about English boarding schools.

Ok, ok, enough with the joking around. It’s just that in a world going bat crazy something as silly as this brightens up the day. Dumbledore was Gay. Imagine that.

Boy, if the Right Wing Christian fruitcakes had problems with Harry Potter before they’re really going to go ape now. Oh wait a minute, can they go ape if they don’t believe we’re descended from apes? Oh yeah, that’s right, reality exists regardless of whether or not you believe in it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Some Thoughts on National Health Insurance

This is not a simple topic and I’m more than a little concerned about the electorate coming to a rationale conclusion about it due to the tendency of the American Public to want everything explained in sound bytes of 30 seconds or less.

This lack of patience or the unwillingness to invest the time and effort necessary to understand complex subjects makes it relatively easy for people with an axe to grind masquerading as pundits to pitch nonsense.

I don’t know if Hillary Clinton’s plan is good or bad. I think it’s a start and something that should be studied by knowledgeable individuals. I do have some personal points for consideration however.

If everyone doesn’t have Health Insurance, people aren’t simply denied care, because that’s illegal. What will happen is that a sudden serious illness of someone without insurance will either (a) wipe out the life savings of that individual’s family, (b) drive the hospital at which the care was provided into dept or (c) be paid for by the rest of us through our taxes.

Health Insurance, like Automobile Insurance, is there to head off disaster not only for yourself, but for others as well.

Don’t expect it to be cheap either. Health Insurance is expensive. My wife and I enjoy Health Insurance where we work as part of our employment benefits packages. Her plan is better than mine. I’ve seen mine deteriorate over time due to rising costs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still in very good shape compared to most people, but things have deteriorated.

I’ve also had the pleasure of paying for COBRA, the extension of Health Insurance to a dependent who’s no longer covered and that’s really not cheap. You could go broke paying for that.

Everyone needs access to a minimum level of Health Insurance and yes, it should be mandatory to protect the Health Care System and the rest of us.

That doesn’t mean I’m not skeptical of government health care, I am. I’ve read the articles about a lack of dentists in the U.K. so some people are pulling their own teeth and two week wait times in Canada for angioplasty. I don’t know how true these stories are, but it’s easy to imagine a health bureaucracy emerging that is so bogged down in red tape that people can’t get the attention they need when they need it.

If I wake up with a toothache, I call my dentist and I’ll be in his office within a few hours and the pain will be gone a half hour or so after that. When I had my heart incident two years ago, I went to the hospital in the early afternoon; was diagnosed by a cardiac specialist; the necessary doctors and nurses were called in, because it was their day off, and the offending artery cleared out all before 5 PM. This despite the fact that the condition didn’t appear to be life threatening because my body was already generating new blood veins to get around the blockage. I’m not sure I would have made as quick a recovery if I had to wait two weeks.

On the downside, the hospital I received that care at has declared bankruptcy due to an unmanageable dept and will be closing within a month. Granted, this was due to bad management rather than treating large numbers of patients without insurance, because in my neck of the woods there aren’t all that many folks without insurance, but its still unconscionable that Bush can ask for $46 billion for the war in Iraq yet a major hospital closes, because of a relatively measly $100 million, without either the state or federal government lifting a finger to prevent it

I’d much rather see some of my tax dollars go toward subsidizing health care and health care facilities than going to Black Water or Halliburton. While I’m not sure Hillary has all the answers, I think she’s right that the answers need to be found.

Friday, October 19, 2007

How Historical is the Hebrew Bible?

I keep running into people that are either convinced that the Hebrew Bible has been demonstrated to be 100% historically accurate or has been proven to be all pure mythology.

Actually the truth probably lies somewhere in between and there is a whole lot of disagreement over exactly where to put the boundary, or even if there is a boundary.

The True Believers accept every word as God’s own truth. I think we can ignore that position and contemporary scholarship pretty much does ignore it. Still, like any other endeavor that requires interpretation, there are wildly varying positions. After reading a considerable amount on the topic, including books and essays from so-called “minimalist” scholars as well as some espousing more traditional views, I have come to some soft conclusions. I say “soft” because I don’t find the evidence on the table as conclusive as some would like to have me believe.

Obviously I don’t accept the Bible as 100% historically accurate. That being the case one has to divide the Bible into timeframes. I choose the following timeframes: Genesis, Exodus and the Story of Moses, Joshua and the Conquest of Canaan, Judges, The Combined Kingdom, The Kings of Israel and Judah as told about in Kings I & II and Chronicles I & II and The Post Kings Exile.

Genesis I consider to be purely mythological and more moral allegory than history. This doesn’t mean that some of the stories aren’t based upon real people, or the composites of real people, or that some of the stories aren’t based upon real events. It’s just unlikely that what we have here is anything more than the folklore of a Canaanite tribe. I think it’s pretty safe to say that there was no universal flood and Noah didn’t get two each of the several million animal species on the ark. I’m less certain about some of the other stories being completely mythological.

I sort of lean toward Exodus and the Story of Moses being myth rather than history as well. I say this primarily because I have been convinced by the scholarship of minimalist archaeologists such as Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. I accept the fact that I may have been convinced because of my anti-religious bias, but there’s not much I can do about that other than acknowledge it.

I say I lean because I have a basic problem with the figure of Moses. I find the personality of Moses a little too flawed for me to believe that it’s pure fiction. The Story of Moses does have elements of Lord Raglan’s Hero Scale and, at least according to one compilation, scores 20 on the scale of 22. But it’s not unusual for historical personages to take on the attributes of “The Hero” as time passes, especially in an oral culture.

So if the figure of Moses isn’t pure fiction, how can the story of the Exodus be pure fiction?

That brings us to Joshua and the Conquest of Canaan. On this topic the Documentary Hypotheses and the scholarship of folks like Richard E. Friedman kick in and add to the weight of evidence presented by Finkelstein and Silberman. As a result, I feel fairly confident that this is pure fiction and no, I don’t think it’s a contradiction to have doubts about Moses and the Exodus being fiction while accepting Joshua to be pure myth.

I put Judges in the same category as Genesis. Possibly based upon real or composite people and real events but so distorted over time as to be more folklore than history. There may have been a real Gideon but his story is most likely a consolidation of many men and events. I doubt there was ever a real Jephthah. I think that story is pure moral allegory.

That brings us to The Combined Kingdom of David and Solomon. Finkelstein speculates that the Omride dynasty of the Northern Kingdom might be the basis of the supposed opulence of David’s Kingdom as it seems unlikely that the sparse Southern Kingdom of Judah could have been the source of such riches.

Personally I’m not at all that sure on this one. I think there is enough evidence to say that a Davidic line of kings existed in Judah. As to whether the riches of the Omride kings were assigned to these southern monarchs through historical revisionism based upon religious prejudice is open to question.

Once we move beyond The Combined Kingdom I think it’s safe to say that the Bible becomes more history than folklore or mythology. That doesn’t mean it’s 100% accurate, but I have little doubt that Ahab was King of Israel and that he married the Canaanite Jezebel. I think we can pretty much dismiss the confrontations with Elijah however as little more than wishful thinking on the part of the southern kingdom’s priesthood.

Similarly I have little doubt that Hezekiah and Josiah were real historical personages that carried out great religious reforms while being cheered on all the time by Isaiah and Jeremiah respectively. We may well owe the book of Deuteronomy to Josiah as well as, if you accept the Documentary Hypothesis as basically accurate, the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. The only question is whether Joshua was duped by Hilkiah and the priesthood, was instrumental in the generation of the books or whether the truth lies somewhere in between.

I tend to romanticize Josiah so I like to think he was the driving force. But, then again, marching out to confront an Egyptian army was a pretty dumb move, and he paid a fatal price for that mistake, so who knows?

Like I said before, with reasonable evidence I could be persuaded otherwise on a number of these positions. It might even be fairly easy since I’m not emotionally attached to any of them.

Clearly I could be wrong, but the very fact that there is a range of positions, each with its own interpretation of the known facts, makes it clear than the truth of the situation has not been definitively demonstrated by anyone and that’s the key point. No one really knows.

Executions on Hold

The Stays of Execution in Virginia, by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Georgia by the Georgia Supreme Court, added to the current holds in place in a host of other states including California, Florida and Texas, effectively bring executions through Lethal Injection to a halt until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on Baze v. Rees, a case from Kentucky which claims that Lethal Injection is cruel and unusual punishment.

This of course means that all executions in the U.S. are effectively brought to a halt as just about all executions (153 of the 155 in the last three years) in the U.S. are through Lethal Injection.

So what are the Supremes going to decide?

They could decide that Lethal Injection is not cruel and unusual punishment and is therefore perfectly constitutional. That would reopen the floodgates and effectively shut the door on further claims to this effect until new scientific evidence is found. A decision of this stripe would be a disaster and, as far as I can see, totally unjustified.

They could come to a very narrow decision that the Lethal Injection procedures in Kentucky have problems which need to be rectified but that Lethal Injection in general is allowed. This would trigger an explosion of law suits claiming issues in other states similar to the issues in Kentucky. This strikes me as a wildly impractical decision so I suspect that it’s rather unlikely.

They could decide that Lethal Injection, as currently practiced, is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore illegal, but that the Death Penalty is, in general, constitutional. This would effectively end the Death Penalty in most states until alternative methods could be defined. I suspect that most states outside the South, and even a few within the South, wouldn’t bother and would either leave the Death Penalty suspended indefinitely, such as is the current case in New York, or formally abolish it. Of course, every new method defined, or any of the old ones such as electrocution, hanging or the firing squad, reinstituted or brought into greater use, would be immediately challenged.

Or they could decide that the Death Penalty, given its failure as a deterrent, ineffectiveness and wildly varying application across the country, is itself cruel and unusual punishment. Yes this is possible even given the conservative nature of the current court because the conservative position on this question is a bit murky. Many Conservatives are against the Death Penalty and most religions condemn the Death Penalty as much as they condemn Abortion Access.

The Catholic Church in particular is anti-Death Penalty and, if I remember correctly, five of the Supremes are Catholics. Not that they would let their personal beliefs impact their decision (*cough, cough*).

So, what do I think is most likely? I haven’t got a clue. Predicting U.S. Supreme Court decisions is tricky even for those who understand the law and the process well and I’ll admit that I don’t.

Obviously I hope that they will strike down the Death Penalty completely but I would settle for declaring Lethal Injection cruel and unusual punishment.

The good news is, that whatever they decide, it won’t be until next year some time so at least for the moment executions should cease.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

FBI Crime Stats for 2006

The FBI has released its latest Unified Crime Report for 2006. Surely this report will demonstrate how religion has influenced society for the better. The report must show that the Bible Thumping South is a land of peace and tranquility while the atheistic, secular Northeast wallows in crime and depravity.

Let’s look at the numbers shall we? My, my, there must be something wrong here. This report says that the HIGHEST violent crime rate is in the Christian South at 547.5 incidents per 100,000 population while the lowest is in the secular Northeast at 391.9 incidents per 100,000 population. My, my, how can this be?

Actually, there’s no surprise here. These results are consistent with past FBI reports as well as consistent with other studies that indicate that the more religious a society is, the more dysfunctional it tends to be.

An article in the “Journal of Religion and Society” entitled “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look” published last year states:

“Abundant data is available on rates of societal dysfunction and health in the first world. Cross-national comparisons of highly differing rates of religiosity and societal conditions form a mass epidemiological experiment that can be used to test whether high rates of belief in and worship of a creator are necessary for high levels of social health. Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and anti-evolution America performs poorly.”

Now whether that’s a direct result of religion, an outgrowth of the fact that both religiosity and crime tend to be associated with less educated or lower intelligence populations or that the United States just tends to be more dysfunctional than other democracies for other reasons totally unrelated to religion is unclear. I mean, you have to be pretty damned dysfunctional to elect George W. Bush, not once, BUT TWICE!

Anyway, back to the crime report. As stated earlier the South had the highest violent crime rate at 547.5, the West was next at 473.5, followed by the Midwest at 419.1 and the Northeast had the lowest violent crime rate at 391.9.

Nationally the violent crime rate went up by about 1% from 469.0 in 2005 to 473.5 in 2006. The rate also increased in the South, the West and the Midwest with the West having the highest increase at about 1.5%. The violent crime rate in the Northeast actually went down by 0.5%.

The South, despite having by far the highest execution rate in the country, also had the highest murder rate at 6.8; the West was next at 5.6, followed by the Midwest at 5.0. The Northeast had the lowest murder rate at 4.5.

Nationally the murder rate went up by 0.8% from 5.6 to 5.7. It also went up in all regions of the country except the West where it went down 2.2% from 5.8 to 5.6. The South had the highest increase in murder rate. It increased by 2.1% in the South from 6.6 to 6.8.

As far as individual states are concerned, South Carolina had the highest violent crime rate at 765.5, followed by Tennessee at 760.2 and Nevada at 741.6. The state with the lowest violent crime rate was Maine at 115.5, followed by North Dakota at 127.9 and Vermont at 136.6.

Louisiana had the highest murder rate at a whopping 12.4. Maryland was next at 9.7 followed by Nevada at 9.0. The state with the lowest murder rate was New Hampshire at 1.0, followed by South Dakota at 1.2 and North Dakota at 1.3.

Don’t believe everything you see on TV or in the movies. New York was ranked 21st in violent crime with a rate of 441.6 and 26th in murder rate with a rate of 4.9. California was ranked 14th in violent crime with a rate of 532.5 and 12th in murder rate with a rate of 6.8. Texas, despite 405 executions since 1976, was still ranked 18th in murder rate with a rate of 5.9. New Jersey, home of the Sopranos, was ranked 26th in violent crime with a rate of 351.6 and 24th in murder rate with a rate of 4.9.

New York City, demonized from many a pulpit as a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah sunk in sin, crime and depravity, had a violent crime rate of 637.9 and a murder rate of 7.2. Nine states including South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana and Florida, had violent crime rates higher than New York City. Eight states, including Louisiana, Maryland, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas had higher murder rates than New York City.

Los Angeles, on the other hand, was a bit worse. Its violent crime rate was 786.9 and its murder rate was 12.3.

Of course both New York and Los Angeles are the Garden of Eden when compared to Detroit which had a violent crime rate of 2,420.1 and a murder rate of 47.2.

In terms of property crime, the South was again the worst region with a rate of 3,780.8 property crime incidents per 100,000 population. The West was next with a rate of 3,534.4, followed by the Midwest with a rate of 3,271.2. The Northeast had the least property crime with a rate of 2,268.6.

The worst state in property crime rate was Arizona with a rate of 4,627.9, followed by Washington with a rate of 4,480.0 and then South Carolina with a rate of 4,242.3. Remind me to stay FAR away from South Carolina.

The state with the least property crime was South Dakota with a rate of 1,619.6, followed by New Hampshire with a rate of 1,874.1 and then North Dakota with a rate of 2,000.3.

The state in which you were most likely to get your car ripped off was Nevada with a motor vehicle theft rate of 1,080.4, followed by Arizona with a rate of 889.5 and then Washington with a rate of 717.6. The state where your car was the safest was South Dakota with a rate of 91.8, followed by Vermont with a rate of 93.9 and then Maine with a rate of 101.4.

Oh well, another year and another round of crime stats from the bureau. The South, despite its supposed focus on “moral values” continues to lead the country in murder and violent crime as well as executions. Must be all that not believing in evolution that’s causing the trouble.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Immanuel Kant Revisited

Dinesh D’Souza, author of a book to be out this week called “What’s so Great About Christianity” has an opinion piece on Yahoo entitled “What Atheists Kant Refute.”

In it D’Souza summarizes Kant’s arguments in “Critique of Pure Reason” that it is impossible for humanity and science to unmask the whole of reality due to the unlimited magnitude of reality and man’s limited sensory apparatus.

This, D’Souza claims, demonstrates that “it is in no way unreasonable to believe things on faith that simply cannot be adjudicated by reason.”

D’Souza goes on to say that when atheists dismiss the teachings of religion based upon a lack of evidence “they are asking for experiential evidence in a domain that is entirely beyond the reach of the senses. In this domain, Kant argues, the absence of such evidence cannot be used as the evidence for absence.”

The fundamental consequence of Kant’s argument, which D’Souza doesn’t mention, is that since we can only have knowledge of things within our range of experience then we can have no knowledge of God because God is beyond experience.

If God is beyond experience, then he’s also beyond our ability to determine if he exists or not which is why I’m an agnostic rather than an atheist. In my opinion atheists have arrived at a conclusion just as theists have.

Now let’s be a little careful about God versus religion. Like all religious adherents, D’Souza tends to equate the two but they are in fact very different things. Kant’s argument also refutes religion because all religions claim knowledge of that which is beyond knowledge. They claim knowledge of the nature of God!

Be that as it may, was Kant right? Maybe, but then again, maybe not, first let’s be a little careful about our definitions of reality. Kant makes several assumptions which are not necessarily true.

The first assumption is that the magnitude of reality is unlimited. Says who? I’ll admit that reality is GODAWFUL BIG but I’m not quite ready to concede that it isn’t finite.

The second assumption is that humanity would be limited by the sensory apparatus that it was born with. Clearly this is no longer true. Using sensors and other devices we can now detect events at the subatomic and inter-galactic levels. In the future, using more advanced sensors and hyper-fast computers, humanity will be able to detect, and therefore experience via proxy, all sorts of stuff that we can’t experience now. Perhaps even stuff that we can't even conceive of now.

Let's not fall into a "God of the Gaps" kind of fallacy here. Simply because we haven't detected it yet, doesn't mean it's beyond detection.

The third assumption is that something exists in reality beyond the material plane and beyond the capacity of humanities senses or sensor devices to experience.

Materialism claims this isn’t true and non-materialism, into which I will lump religion as well as those who believe in a wide range or paranormal or psychic phenomena, claim that reality does in fact extend beyond the material plane and therefore includes things that are non-detectable and non-measurable by human or artificial senses.

This gets us back to the question of can the absence of evidence be interpreted to mean evidence of absence? Well, in this particular case no it can’t. It fails the third prong of the Negative Evidence Principle test which asks whether evidence should have been found. If this part of “reality” is beyond human or sensor detection then the answer to this question has to be no.

But again, let’s be very careful. Kant’s argument simply opens the door for the postulation of things beyond the experiential senses. One still has to have a justification for the likelihood of the truth of the postulation. Otherwise one would have to accept the reasonableness of the postulation of the existence of everything from invisible pink unicorns to a plethora of non-measurable forces which randomly affect the material plane but which cannot be detected as the cause of that effect.

Obviously, that’s utterly ridiculous.

Kant’s justification for the postulation of the existence of God is that without God it isn’t possible to make sense out of science or morality.

Why the hell not?

Science is simply the process by which man applies his available sensory equipment to understanding those portions of reality that are within his immediate detection. Whether this portion represents a small or large percentage of the totality of reality is irrelevant. Science is simply the process by which man measures that which he can measure. The fact that there may be things beyond experience doesn’t imply that what is within experience can’t be consistent and discoverable.

This is all that science attempts to do. Detect and measure that which is within the experiential plane. WHY things are within the experiential plane may well fall into that area of reality that Kant claims is beyond human comprehension.

The idea that one needs God to make sense out morality has been addressed and refuted numerous times. Only under Divine Command Theory is God necessary for morality. Other moral systems, such as Ethical Relativism, Deontology and Utilitarianism, have no need of Him (Her? It?).

So I don’t think Kant’s argument is as friendly to religion as D’Souza would like it to be. Granted it spanks atheists a bit by rejecting the idea that the concept of God can be dismissed simply due to the lack of empirical evidence, but it also gives the lie to religions which claim to know the nature of God because, as a corollary of Kant’s argument, God is by definition beyond human experience.

Like I said before, that’s why I’m an agnostic.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

You Go Girl!

I just heard that Kathy Griffin, in accepting her Emmy Award for the show “My Life on the D-List” sort of dissed ol’ JC. What she said was:

“Now, look, a lot of people come up here and they thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. He didn't help me a bit. If it was up to him, Cesar Millan would be up here with that damn dog. So all I can say is suck it Jesus, this award is my God now.”

I love it. It’s important that those of us that aren’t religion bound are willing to make it known when it’s appropriate to do so. Was it appropriate here? Well, like Kathy points out, those who claim to be Christians don’t have a problem with thanking God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Archangels and assorted saints and apostles under similar circumstances so why not?

Apparently Tennessee’s Miracle Theater disagrees. They’re so upset with Griffin that they’re got a campaign to collect one million signatures on a petition which states:

"The name of Jesus Christ should not be mocked, nor should those who love Him be slandered for their beliefs. It is time for people of faith around the country to stand firm against religious slander, bias, and bigotry of all types including Christianity."

Sounds a lot like the Muslim extremists that wanted the guy that did the cartoons of Muhammad chastised doesn’t it?

Here we go with the whole respect thing again. Look folks, we think your ideas are silly. We’ll agree not to go out of our way to mock, ridicule or criticize them as long you agree to stop throwing them into our faces every chance you get. I don’t see you protesting the absurdity of a hip-hop singer thanking Jesus for his Grammy Award so why are you criticizing Griffin for pointing out that JC had nothing to do with her award?

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If you can publicly praise and thank Jesus then others can publicly disavow him. Griffin wasn’t mocking Jesus or Christianity as much as she was mocking Christians for thanking Jesus for everything from touchdowns to finding lost car keys.

I might also point out to you folks that “slander” means untrue. Labeling everything you don’t like as “slander” begs the question of whether it’s accurate or not.

I do have two questions though. Who the hell is Cesar Millan and what’s all this about a dog?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

More Lies and Deception

If I were asked to sum up what first led me to suspect that Christianity was more lie than truth it would have to be the fact that its adherents so readily use lies and deception in an attempt to achieve their goals.

The latest example comes in a N.Y. Times article from September 27th which reports the complaints of a number of scientists that they were misled when interviewed for an upcoming movie.

They were told that the movie was to be called “Crossroads” and was to deal with the intersection of religion and science. Instead, they have now discovered, the movie is to be entitled “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” to be released by a different producer and based upon the premises that (a) Intelligent Design is a viable alternative to evolution and (b) academics have been expelled, denied tenure, or suffered other penalties because they believe they see signs of intelligent design in living organisms.

According to the Times the film, in its trailer, claims that it presents “a startling revelation that freedom of thought and freedom of inquiry have been expelled from publicly-funded high schools, universities and research institutions.”

The Times also reports that the film’s website claims that this is due to a scientific conspiracy to keep God out of the nations laboratories and classrooms. The key here of course are the words “publicly-funded.” This particular choice of words is almost guaranteed to get the under 90 IQ, Trailer Park crowd in an uproar once it’s been explained to them what the phrase means.

Now, I think a debate as to whether or not scientists or university teachers are penalized for pushing ideas or hypotheses that don’t conform to accepted scientific positions is a perfectly valid topic for discussion. Making a movie which investigates this possibility is certainly within the scope of things a documentary film maker might want to explore.

However, what is not acceptable is lying to people about what you’re doing. The Times reported that some of the scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, said they would never have agreed to the interviews if they knew the true premise of the film. Others, such as P.Z. Myers of the University of Minnesota, said they would have agreed to the interview anyway but would have aggressively attacked the premise of the movie.

The problem of course is that these people were purposely misled as to that premise. You can also be certain that the film, which won’t be “available for preview” until a month before its scheduled release, will be edited just right to make whatever point they want to make. You can also be certain they figure a month won’t be enough time to do anything when someone finds out that what they said has been grossly misrepresented.

If you are privy to God’s Truth, why do you need deception? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, let’s stack everybody’s “Truths” on the table of science and education, shine the light of reason upon them and see which “Truths” whither and which “Truths” flourish.

If we just had the courage to do that we could reduce religion to a minor sidebar in society. How do I know that? I know that because the adherents of religion constantly find it necessary to lie and deceive.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Jena Six, Michael Vick and the Plans for a New Lincoln Penny

The Urban Legends Reference Site, www.snopes.com, is a great web site. In addition to a catalogue of information on classic Urban Legends their “What’s New” page addresses things traveling the internet related to today’s headlines.

I swing by regularly and on this visit I was particularly struck by articles related to these three topics.

The Jena Six article was in response to an e-mail claiming that the American Red Cross provided bottles of water to the marchers protesting the severe charges brought against the six black defendants. The writer of the e-mail was clearly indignant that the Red Cross was expending supplies intended for disaster relief, and expressed the opinion that the protestors should have planned better, and brought their own supplies.

Snopes, verified that the Red Cross did in fact provide water and first aid, but then went on to explain that they did so at the request of the State of Louisiana, which had declared a state of emergency in the parish where Jena is located, and that the Red Cross has asked for reimbursement from Louisiana.

Let’s talk about the Jena Six, the Red Cross support in Jena and the Red Cross in general. I’m convinced that Jim Crow is alive and well in the American South and it’s going to take constant vigilance to prevent his revival. That being said, I think that folks could have chosen a better hook to hang their caps on than this one. Granted the original charges of attempted murder were ridiculous but we are talking aggravated assault, six against one, and a victim that appears to have been chosen by random and to have had nothing to do with the noose hanging incident several months previously.

As far as the Red Cross support at the march, I can understand the Red Cross wanting to help, but I question the wisdom of its decision to become involved with what amounted to a political demonstration. But, then again, I’ve come to question the wisdom of the Red Cross in a number of cases based upon multiple reports that during the Katrina crisis, help was refused because it wasn’t coming from religious organizations that the Red Cross had “agreements” with.

The e-mail writer says that based upon the Jena incident he will no longer contribute to the Red Cross. I no longer contribute either. I prefer to donate to more secular organizations.

The Michael Vick article centered around an “Open Letter to the Atlanta NAACP” which criticized its director, Dr. R.L. White, for supporting Michael Vick.

As reported by Snopes, White expressed an opinion to Newsweek that Vick was being more closely scrutinized because he was a celebrity and because he was black. In statements to the press, White urged the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons and Vick’s commercial sponsors not to drop him.

I partially agree with White. I don’t think Vick is catching more hell than the average dog torturing moron because he’s black, but I do think he is because he’s a high profile NFL athlete. Let’s face it, with fame and visibility comes some responsibility as well. Superstar athletes are viewed as role models and, like it or not, they need to consider that.

Could you ever imagine players like Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb or Brett Favre doing something as dumb as what Michael Vick did? But, if they did, do you seriously think that they wouldn’t catch just as much hell?

The NFL understand this, the Atlanta Falcons understand this and Dr. White of the NAACP needs to understand this as well. The commercial sponsors look at it a little differently. What they understand is that if they don’t dump Vick, lots and lots of their customers, both black and white, will probably dump them.

This brings us to the Lincoln Penny. In 2009 the U.S. Mint plans a series of pennies with scenes from Lincoln’s life on the reverse of the coin instead of the current Lincoln Memorial. Preliminary views of some of the scenes under consideration have gotten the under 90 IQ, trailer park living, religious fruitcakes in an uproar because none of them show the motto “In God We Trust.” That’s because the motto is on the FRONT of the Lincoln Penny which isn’t changing (DUH).

But what caught my particular attention is the text published by Snopes that was traveling around the internet complaining about the missing motto which said (all caps apparently part of the e-mail):


Let’s tip-toe through the ignorance shall we?

“THE WORDS "IN GOD WE TRUST" HAVE BEEN REMOVED” – As previously stated, this isn’t true. They’re simply on the other side of the coin.

“…STOP BOWING DOWN TO THOSE THAT TAKE OUR BELIEFS AND RIGHTS AWAY FROM US…” – Well, clearly, since you’re writing this e-mail, no one has managed to take away your “BELIEFS.” Actually, I’m not sure someone can forcibly take away your beliefs. Someone might convince you to change your beliefs, but it’s unlikely a court order or gun to your head could take them away. The fact is you can no more chose what you believe than you can choose whether you’re right handed or left handed.

As for the idea of rights, since when is it a right to have your opinion codified into laws, or coins or buildings? I might accept the argument that the overwhelming majority of Americans support the motto “In God we Trust,” and therefore it belongs on the coins, but it’s not your right to force what you believe upon the rest of us.

“…THEY WILL HAVE THE WORD "GOD" COMPLETELY ELIMINATED FROM OUR LANGUGE” – What an interesting concept, shades of 1984. Do you suppose the bozo that wrote the e-mail even knows what 1984 is? I suspect one couldn’t do this for the same reasons one couldn’t forcibly remove another’s beliefs. Human beings are just too downright ornery to allow stuff like that to happen.

“THEY'VE ALREADY STOPPED SCHOOL PRAYER…” – Actually, that’s not true. What they’ve stopped is prayer sanctioned or organized by the school because the school, as an agent of the government, must, according to the U.S. Constitution, be neutral when it comes to one religion with respect to another religion, one sect with respect to another sect and religion with respect to no religion. Students are free to pray whenever they want. There was always lots of prayer in my high school, especially just before physics tests.

The “they” in this case, by the way, just happens to be the Supreme Court of the United States and not the ACLU or some other nefarious organization.

“(THEY'VE ALREADY STOPPED) PRAYER AT SPORTING EVENTS.” – Again, not true. At public school sporting events what has been stopped is, again, prayer sanctioned or organized by the school for the same reasons as noted above. I’m not aware of any law or rule that prevents prayer at say, NFL Games or private College Games. As a matter of fact, most players pray before the game or at least make the sign of the cross. Hey, haven’t you heard of a “Hail Mary Pass?”

Again the “they” was the U.S. Supreme court and the plaintiffs the Catholic and Mormon parents of students attending school sporting events and not some clandestine atheist alliance.

“WILL THEY OUTLAW PRAYER IN CHURCH? WILL THEY OUTLAW THE SELL OF BIBLES?” – I think that should have been “SALE” rather than “SELL” and I have to say I doubt we’re heading down this fallacious slippery slope. I assume the author is using this as an appeal to exaggeration as either would be a direct violation of the 1st Amendment. Although, given the level of intelligence demonstrated by people that continually send money to television evangelists, some people, including the author, might actually believe these are possibilities.

It never ceases to amaze me that preventing religion from inundating those of us who believe its dogma and rituals are absurd is viewed by the religious as a curtailment of THEIR RIGHTS! I guess they figure they have the right to practice their religion anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances and the rest of us have to, if not participate, then at least stand by patiently, and respectfully, until they’re done.

You will excuse me, but not on my time and not with my tax dollars.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Mitt Romney’s Mormonism

As the campaign proceeds folks are beginning to wonder when Romney is going to give his “Yes, I’m a Mormon, but its ok” speech like John Kennedy gave a “Yes, I’m a Catholic, but its ok” speech in 1960.

However I think the situation here is a little different. The primary concern back in 1960 was that somehow Kennedy’s faith would force him to follow direction from the Vatican. I don’t think anyone seriously believes that Romney is going to take orders from Salt Lake City.

I honestly believe that in this particular case we’re talking about a more fundamental issue. Can someone consider a candidate’s personal beliefs when choosing whether or not he should vote for that candidate?

Conservative author and radio host Hugh Hewitt claims that this would amount to unashamed bigotry and warns Evangelicals uncomfortable with Romney that if purely theological challenges become acceptable, then their theology could be challenged next.

I have to disagree with Hewitt. As much as I find Christian concepts such as the Virgin Birth, the Trinity and miracles absurd, I’m forced to admit that there is no empirical evidence that says they’re wrong. We can argue all day about it, but in the end it’s simply my opinion against yours.

The Mormon beliefs associated with the history of North America and the claim that a tribe of Israel colonized the continent is another matter all together. Apologists are fond of saying that “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence” but, as an engineer, I can tell you that’s simply not true.

The Negative Evidence Principle (NEP) guides conclusions based upon lack of evidence and consists of three points.

Point #1 – Have you diligently searched for evidence?
Point #2 – Have you found any?
Point #3 – Should you have found any?

If the answers to the three points are Yes, No and Yes, then concluding that a proposition is FALSE is quite rational. This is the logic that has been used by archaeologists to conclude that the Hebrews Exodus from Egypt, as described in the Bible, is a myth.

So let’s consider the three points. The New World Archaeological Foundation, under the auspices of Brigham Young University, was established to do the archaeology and demonstrate once and for all the accuracy of the Book of Mormon. Despite initial high hopes, and significant scientific success in general, they never found one shred of evidence to back Joseph Smith’s tale. Neither has any other New World archaeological dig found any evidence that there were pre-Columbian peoples in North America that had knowledge of Old World languages, ore smelting technologies and Old World domesticated animals such as horses and cattle as claimed in the Book of Mormon.

Granted that some people, usually Mormons, claim that evidence has been found but it just hasn’t been accepted by mainstream scientists. Precisely, as far as I’m concern evidence that isn’t accepted by objective evaluation is no evidence at all. It’s wishful thinking.

That brings us to Point #3, should evidence have been found? This is usually the hottest point of debate when you use the NEP. In this particular case, as expected, there is again some disagreement. The Book of Mormon asserts that in the final battle at the hill Cumorah, 250,000 Nephite soldiers fell. Such a catastrophic conflict would dwarf the greatest battles of Ancient History and require a civilization comparable in size to such archaeologically prominent civilizations as Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and even Ancient Rome!

Hell, people should be literally tripping over Nephite, Jaredite and Lamanite stuff. So where is all the prominent archaeology? Where are the ruins such as can be found in the Mediterranean? Where are the metal artifacts? Where are the remains of the domesticated animals?

They ain’t nowhere that’s where because the story is pure fiction. Note That I’m saying this not out of prejudice but purely based upon my interpretation of the evidence (or rather the lack of evidence). Then there’s the DNA testing that’s been done that indicates NO relationship between any North American peoples and the Semitic peoples of the Middle East.

Mormon apologists spin this stuff like Christian apologists spin issues with Bible absurdities and contradictions. Is it possible that they’re right and either evidence has in fact been found, even though it’s not accepted, or tomorrow someone might discover a Nephite city in the jungles of Guatemala? Of course it’s possible. It’s also possible that tomorrow someone might discover a Jurassic bunny rabbit. But is it probably? I think the answer to that question has to be a resounding no.

So, what to do about a man who believes something is true in the face of seemingly, in my opinion, overwhelming evidence that it is false? Do I want such a man as president of the United States? Do I simply shrug and say, well, it’s only my opinion that the evidence demonstrates the Book of Mormon is fiction, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion? I have to answer both those questions absolutely not. If I can’t make decisions based upon my rational interpretation of the facts, what do I make them based upon?

Before I would consider Romney an acceptable candidate someone would have to convince me that the evidence against the Book of Mormon is not as overwhelming as I think it is.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

John McCann and a Christian Nation

Oh John. The latest fiasco comes during an interview with Beliefnet where John actually said that the Constitution established the United States as a Christian Nation.

I’d like to ask John what Constitution he’s reading? From that statement he clearly hasn’t read the right one or his reading comprehension is so dismal he shouldn’t be planning anything more intellectual than story time at the zoo. You would think that a man who has, on numerous occasions, pledged to defend something would at least take the trouble to comprehend what he's protecting.

Of course, then again, John is just going along with the crowd. In a recent poll conducted by the First Amendment Center 55% of Americans agreed with McCann that the Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation.

Even worse, 58% said that teachers should be able to lead prayers and, even worse, only 56% agree that freedom of religion applies to all groups regardless of how “extreme” their views might be.

Does it bother you that American soldiers are dying in Iraq trying to help establish a secular democracy but many of the folks at home don't understand what that means? If it doesn't, it should.

I think I’d like to ask these folks a few questions.

Question #1 - What in the Constitution leads you to believe it establishes a Christian Nation?

Religion is mentioned only once in the body of the Constitution and Christianity not at all. It's mentioned in Article 6 which PROHIBITS any religious test as a qualification for holding office. Religion is also mentioned in the First Amendment which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Question #2 – Who would decide which prayers were ok?

Suppose your little darling’s teacher was a Muslim or a Wiccan? Would you be happy having junior praying to Mecca or chanting praise to the Lord and the Lady? Then of course Catholics might choose to lead the class in a Hail Mary or two and no, I'm not talking about football.

Question #3 – Who gets to decide what’s “extreme?”

Allow me to remind everyone what James Madison said “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

Get it? Don’t assume that your brand of Christianity wouldn’t be declared “extreme” by another more dominant brand.

I keep tripping over evidence that education in this country is in an absolutely horrible state. I guess we can add to the problems of Science Illiteracy and Biblical Illiteracy the problem of Constitutional Illiteracy. Maybe there should be a required class somewhere along the line called "Stuff you REALLY should know?" We could include finding the country on a globe too. Hey, by using a globe we could also teach aspiring hosts of "The View" that the world isn't flat.

By the way, when I say required I mean you keep taking it until you can pass a test which demonstrates that you have acquired enough knowledge not to make people who are actually educated nauseous over your ignorance.

Monday, October 01, 2007

On the Supremes Docket

The Supreme Court has announced the cases that it will review and, sometimes more illuminating, those it won’t review. To make things even more interesting, there are a few cases that have neither been rejected nor accepted. They’re sort of sitting on the fence I guess and may, or may not, be decided this session.

The interesting cases that have been accepted include:

Boumediene v. Bush – This is one of two Gitmo detainee cases that the Supremes will address together. Basically the question is whether the Gitmo detainees are under the protection of the U.S. Constitution. The Bush administration says that because they’re foreign enemy combatants held outside the U.S., they aren’t.

I say if we’re not prepared to extend the same legal protections to our enemies that we reserve for ourselves, then how are we better than they are?

Baze v. Rees – This case challenges the lethal injection procedures in the state of Kentucky claiming that they are cruel and unusual punishment.

We know that the death penalty is arbitrary as hell and anything that arbitrary is by definition cruel and unusual.

Indiana Democratic Party v. Rokita – This case challenges laws that require voters to present a valid photo ID in order to be able to cast a ballot.

So, if you don’t have a valid driver’s license or a passport you can’t vote? Where’d that rule come from?

Medellin v. Texas – This case revolves around a Mexican national on death row, but the question here is really whether or not the President can set aside a state law that conflicts with an international treaty. Bush says yes and Texas is telling its prodigal village idiot to go pound salt.

I’m not all that sure on this one, but I’m suspicious of anything that expands the power of the presidency.

Snyder v. Louisiana – Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. A black man on death row for killing his wife in Louisiana is claiming he didn’t get a fair trial because the prosecution dismissed all of the potential black jurors and compared him to O.J. Simpson.

It sounds to me like the guy got railroaded by a typical case of southern justice. Who says Jim Crow is dead?

On the fence and which may be decided are:

District of Columbia v. Heller – Washington D.C. used to have a ban on hand guns but that ban was declared in violation of the 2nd Amendment. This case asks the Supremes to review that decision.

Hmmmm, 2nd Amendment cases confuse me. I think we need to keep guns off the street but I also understand why the 2nd Amendment was written. (Note: The phrase "off the street" was a bad choice of words as this case is about having guns for home defense.)

Kennedy v. Louisiana – The question is whether someone can be executed for child rape. A Louisiana man is on death row for raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter.

Hell, go ahead and stick him in the general population of the prison. The bastard won’t last 8 hours.

Two cases which the court declined to hear and therefore essentially ratified the lower court rulings were:

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany v. Dinallo – The state of New York has a law requiring religious based social service agencies that offer prescription benefits to its employees, to include birth control prescriptions as part of that benefit.

By declining the case the Supremes have essentially declared the New York law, as well as similar laws in 22 other states, to not be a violation of freedom of religion as claimed.

Faith Center Church v. Glover – The library system in the San Francisco Bay area makes its meeting rooms available for educational or community services however they felt that allowing an Evangelical Christian group to worship there was a bit over the line. The lower court agreed that allowing religious services at the library would amount to having taxpayers subsidize religion.

Of course the Christian group can’t understand why everyone doesn’t recognize the virtue of allowing Christian religious services in the public buildings of a “Christian Nation” (*cough, cough*). As for me, I'm happy whenever religion gets reminded that this is a secular democracy.

I wonder what the framers of the Constitution would think of some of these cases?